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by Bamber Gascoigne

Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695)


French poet, whose Fables rank among the masterpieces of world literature, but on his death bed La Fontaine regretted ever having written his tales. In his own time La Fontaine was considered a vagabond, dreamer, and lover of pleasure. A rustic character, he never was a real courtier and drifted happily from one patron to another. Because of the universal nature of his fables, La Fontaine's poems about industrious ants, brave lions, and carefree grasshoppers are still widely read. The first collection of the Fables La Fontaine dedicated to the Dauphin, the grandson of Louis XIV, for his instruction.

Never sell the bear's skin before one has killed the beast. (Fables 'L'Ours et les deux Compagnos')

Jean de La Fontaine was born in Château-Thierry, Champagne, in central France. Little is known of his early childhood. Françoise Pidoux, his mother,  came from a respected middleclass family from Poitiers. His father, Charles de La Fontaine, was "maître des eaux et forêts" (warden of the region's waters and forests); he often took his son with him on his walks. When he died, La Fontaine inherited, besides considerable dets, his post, which he sold after gaining success as a fabulist.

In his youth La Fontaine read such writers as François Rabelais (c.1494-1553), François de Malherbe (1555-1628), and Honoré d'Urfé (1568-1625). At school La Fontaine was considered "a well-disposed but hopeless dunce". ('La Fontaine 1621-1695,' in Lives of the Most Eminent French Writers, Vol. 1, by Mrs. Shelley and Others, 1840, p. 165)

After being educated at the grammar school in Reims, La Fontaine went to Paris to study medicine and theology, but was soon drawn to the whirls of social life. It was not until the end of his life that La Fontaine became interested in religion: religious rituals he dismissed as a waste of time. According to a story told by Jean Racine's son, his father took La Fontaine to church one day and soon noticed that his friend was becoming bored. To prevent him from falling asleep, Racine gave him a small Bible to read. It contained the prayer of the Jews in the Book of Baruch. La Fontaine was so deeply impressed by the prophet that he began to ask his acquaintainces whom he meet on the street, "Have you read Baruch? He was a real genius." (On the Happiness of the Philosophic Life: Reflections on Rousseau's Rêveries by Heinrich Meier, 2016 p. 107)

In 1647 La Fontaine married Marie Héricart, an heiress, fourteen years old at that time. It is said that she was amiable and beautiful, but the marriage was unhappy and they separated in 1658. Inspired by the odes of François de Malherb and Greek and Roman classics, La Fontaine decided to become a writer, and began to spent his time in literary circles with Molière (1622-1673) and others.

La Fontaine was cited as a lawyer in 1649 but he never practiced. He held a number of government posts, which did not pay much money, nor was he very efficient in his duties. Terribly absent-minded, La Fontaine once attended the burial of one of his friends, and sometime afterwards went to visit him. On hearing about his death, he said, "It is true enough! For now I recollect I went to his funeral."  As an attempt to improve his economical situation,  La Fontaine purchased in 1652 a forestry commission in  Château-Thierry, similar to that of his father. 

After leaving his family and moving to Paris, La Fontaine lived there his most creative years. His first published work, L'Eunuque (1654), was an adaptation of Terence's play Eunuchus. It went unnoticed. La Fontaine's letters to his wife remained in his family and were unpublished during his lifetime. A selection appeared in Oeuvres diverses de M. de la Fontaine de l'Acadèmie françoise (1729).

La Fontaine had several patrons, among them Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680), an influential statesman and the superintendent of finance, who was later arrested in 1661, accused of embezzlement and treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment – the young King, Louis XIV, was in favor of a death sentence. With the help of Fouquet, Fontaine received a small pension with easy terms: he had to write only four poems in a year. When Fouquet was imprisoned, La Fontaine composed one of his most beautiful poems, 'Ode au Roi' (1663), asking mercy for his disgraced patron, deserted by all others.

Accused of "usurpation de noblesse" and to avoid arrest, La Fontaine left Paris and resided some time in Limoges with his uncle, Jacques Jannart, who was connected to the Fouquet affair. From his journey from Paris to Limoges, La Fontaine wrote six letters to his wife, and knowing her literary tastes, he stated in the beginning of the first letter: "You have never wanted to read about travels other than those of the Knights of the Round Table, but ours well deserve your reading." (Journey from Paris to the Limousin: Letters to Madame de La Fontaine (1663), translated and edited by Robert W. Berger, 2008, p. 28) 

From 1664 to 1672 La Fontaine served as a gentleman-in-waiting to the dowager duchess d'Orléans in Luxemburg, and from 1673 he was a member of the household of Madame de La Sabliere, who gave him an apartment in her house. Lacking an interest in scholarly pursuits, he never accumulated a sizable personal library. Some of his pieces, among them 'Joconde' (1665), La Fontaine dedicated to his benefatress. His final years La Fontaine spent as the guest of d'Hervart family.

Following the death of the Prime Minister Jean-Babtiste Colbert (1619-1683), who had a dislike of La Fontaine, he was elected to the Academie Française in recognition of his contribution to French literature. In the welcome speech the director of the Académie told that he should now glory in the King and have "no other purpose than the eternity of his name." Thus in 1687 La Fontaine praised the King in a poem: "He wishes to conquer Error: the / work advances, / It is done; and the fruit of his / many successes / Is that the Truth reigns through / out France, / And France throughout the / universe."

La Fontaine's other major books include Contes et nouvelles en vers (1664), a collection of tales borrowed from Italian sources, tales of Boccaccio, Rabelais, and other medieval and renaissance masters, and Les Amours de Psyché et Cupidon(1669). The "Contes" often threatened to get La Fontaine in trouble with both Church and the Academie because of its daring content. During La Fontaine's life, the work went through four editions; the 1695 Amsterdam edition, published in 1703, was placed on the Index auctorum et librorum prohibitorum because it was considered too obscene. The stories dealt with marital misdemeanors and love affairs and were not written for people who get easily embarrassed. As a playwright La Fontaine never gained a success.

Les Fables choisies, mises en vers (Selected Fables, Set in Verse, 1668; 1678-1679; 1694), first illustrated by François Chauveau, were published in twelve books over the last 25 years of La Fontaine's literary career. Many of his fables were dedicated to the literary élite of the period, such as Madame de Montespan (second collection of fables, VII-XI), Duke de La Rochefoucauld ('The Man and His Image'), and  Mademoiselle de Sévigné ('The Lion in Love'). The first six books came out in 1668 when the author was 47. The first volume included poems and timeless stories of countryfolk, heroes from Greek mythology, and familiar beasts from the fables Aesop and Phaedrus, whom La Fontaine greatly admired. Each tale has a moral – an instruction how to behave correctly or how life should be lived. In the second volume La Fontaine based his tales on stories from Asia and other places. He also borrowed material from the ancient Indian philosopher Bidpai (or Pilpay), and from contemporary sources (including Erasmus, Michel Montaigne, Rabelais). A twelfth  volume appeared in 1694, the year before he died.

Many of La Fontaine's fables are marked by his love of rural life and belief in ethical hedonism. Noteworthy, the author had no clearly defined philosophy, but his favorite philosopher was Plato and he was an opponent of the Cartesian view of animals as machines.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, the tales were widely translated and imitated all over Europe, and beyond. Bernard de Mandeville's translation, which contained 29 fables and was published in 1703, was the first attempt to make La Fontaine's work available to English readers. The complete Fables by Robert Thomson came out in 1806. It was followed by Elizur Wrigh's rendering of the fables (1841) and Walter Thornbury's translation (1867-70), published by Cassell in 37 parts with the illustrations of Gustave Doré. In Russia, La Fontaine had the major influence on the fables of Ivan Krylov (1769-1844), whose first collection appeared in 1809. Krylov was widely called the "Russian La Fontaine".  A French edition of his fables, with an introduction by the writer Pierre-Édouard Lémontey, was published in Paris in 1825. In America, the tradition of the verse fable continued in Joel Chadler Harris' Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880). 

Read nowadays mainly by children – or by teachers for their classes – the original amoral attitude of the fables has been forgotten. This side was  noticed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who considered them unfit for pedagogy. Citing 'La Grenouille qui veut se faire aussi grosse que le Boeuf ' (The Frog That Wanted to Become as Big as an Ox) in Émile, ou de l'éducation (1762), he stated: "If your pupil understands the fable only with the help of the explanation, be sure that he will not understand it even in that way." Neither Charles Perrault (1628-1703), writer of folk tales like 'Cinderella' and 'Little Red Riding Hood,' nor La Fontaine wrote only for the young. However, La Fontaine knew well that for centuries fables had been used to educate the children in diverse ways, and dedicated in 1668 the first six books to the seven-year-old dauphin Louis, son of MarieThérése and Louis XIV. Some fables feature children, including 'The Child and the Schoolmaster' and 'The Schoolboy, the Pedant, and the Owner of a Garden'.

At the age of 71 La Fontaine became ill, and he started to think seriously about his life. He translated the Psalms, wore a hair shirt, and again embraced Catholicism. This new role did not convince his friends, whom he had once said that pleasure is one's "primal and congenital good." La Fontaine died in Paris on April 13, 1695. Before his death La Fontaine was encouraged by his abbé to condemn publicly his indecent stories. "Stop tormenting him; he's much more stupid than wicked," said the writer's housekeeper, but La Fontaine obeyed the advice and also threw into the fire  a theatrical piece he had just composed. However, when a friend asked he could burn it he said, "Hush, hush, monseigneur; I knew what I did; I have another copy." ('La Fontaine 1621-1695,' in Lives of the Most Eminent French Writers, Vol. 1, by Mrs. Shelley and Others, 1840, p. 189) La Fontaine's remains were moved from the graveyard of Saint-Joseph to  the Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1817. 

Help yourself, and heaven will help you. (Fables 'Le Chartier Embourbe')
The reason of the strongest is always the best. (Fables 'Le Loup et l'Agneau')
A hungry stomach has no ears. (Fables 'Le Milan et le Rossignol)
In all matters one must consider the end. (Fables 'Le Renard et le Bouc')

In Fables choisier, mises en vers La Fontaine viewed life and society ironically. By means of animal symbols and witty dialogues, written in colloquial turns of speech, he examined different social types, ambitions, vices and virtues. "Sometimes I oppose, by a double image / Vice and virtue, foolishness and good sense, / The Lambs to the violent / wolves, / The Fly to the Ant: making of this work / An ample comedy in a hundred different acts / Of which the scene is the / universe." However, La Fontaine's fables are not only meant for moral lessons, but also show the pleasure of telling and mastery of a great variety of tones. Animal figures gave La Fontaine enough freedom to distance himself from contemporary, inflammable issues. Several of the fables were based on the Decameron, Cent nouvelles nouvelles, and the Middle Ages and renaissance tales. Since their appearance, the Fables have been illustrated by a number of artists from different countries, including Gustave Doré, Marc Chagall, and Salvador Dalí. 

For further reading: La vie de La Fontaine by L. Roche (1913); L'Art de La Fontaine by F. Gohin (1929); Les fables de La Fontaine by R. Bray (1929); Les cinq tentations de La Fontaine by J. Giraudoux (1938); Her Poems and Fables from La Fontaine by Marianne Moore (1940); The Style of La Fontaine's Fables by J.D. Biard (1966); Concordance to the Fables and Tales of Jean De La Fontaine by J. Tyler (1974); La Fontaine and His Friends; A Biography by Agnes Ethel MacKay (1976); The Fable as Literature by H.P. Blackham (1985); Figures of the Text: Reading and Writing in La Fontaine by Michael Vincent (1992); Lectures De La Fontaine by Jules Brody (1994); Refiguring La Fontaine: Tercentenary Essays, ed. by Anne L. Birberick (1996); Fables in Frames: La Fontaine and Visual Culture in Nineteenth-Century France by Kirsten H. Powell (1997); 'Krylov, La Fontaine, and Aesop' by Leslie O'Bell, in Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, edited Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally (1998); Le Poète et le Roi: Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle by Marc Fumaroli (1997); Jean de La Fontaine de A à Z: dictionnaire historique, artistique et littéraire by Paul Fontimpe (2001); La Fontaine et les artistes by Gérard Gréverand (2002); 'Introduction' by John Hollander, in The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, translated by Norman R. Shapiro (2007); 'Fables and Fairy Tales,' in A Critical History of French Children's Literature: Volume One: 1600–1830 by Penny Brown (2008) 

Selected works:

  • L'Eunuque, 1654 (from the play by Terence)
  • Adonis, 1658
    - Adonis (translated from the French by David M. Glixon, 1957)
  • Les Rieurs du Beau-Richard, 1659-60? (ballet, in Oeuvres, 1827)
  • Élégie aux nymphes de Vaux, 1661
  • Ode au roi, 1663
  • Relation d'un voyage de Paris en Limousin, 1663
    - Journey from Paris to the Limousin: Letters to Madame de La Fontaine (translated and edited by Robert W. Berger, 2008) 
  • Contes et nouvelles en vers, 1664 (4 vols., 1665-74: augmented edition, 1686; edited by Jacqueline Zeugschmitt, 2 vols., 1972)
    - Tales and Novels in Verse (2 vols., 1883) / La Fontaine's Bawdy: Of Libertines, Louts, and Lechers: Translations from the Contes Et Nouvelles En Vers (translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1992)
    - Tarinoita (suom. Yrjö Jylhä, 1935)
  • Le songe de Vaux, 1665
  • Fables choisies mises en vers, 1668-94 (12 vols., augmented edition, 1686)
    - Some Fables after the Easie and Familiar Method of M. de la Fontaine (translated by Bernard de Mandeville, 1703) / La Fontaine's Fables (Robert Thomson, 1806) / Fables from La Fontaine (tr. anon., 1820) / The Fables of La Fontaine (translated by  Elizur Wright, Jr., 1841; Walter Thornbury, 1867-70; Marianne Moore, 1954 [Moore was encouraged to undertake the project by W.H. Auden]) / The Fables of La Jean de la Fontaine (2 vols., translated by Joseph Auslander and Jacques Le Clerq, 1930; Edward Marsh, 1931) / Selected Fables (translated by Marianne Moore, 1955; James Michie, 1979; Christopher Wood, 1995) / 100 Fables (translated by Francis Scarfe, 1985) / Fifty Tales of La Fontainen (translated by Norman R. Shapiro, 1985-1988) / The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontain (translated by Norman Shapiro, 2007) - See also illustrators: Richard Scarry
    - Eläintarinoita (suom. Mirja Rutanen, 1969) / Opettavaisia eläinsatuja (suom. Ritva-Liisa Pilhjerta, 1995) / Faabeleita (suom. Aarno Saleva, 2005)
  • Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, 1669
    - The Loves of Cupid and Psyche; in Verse and Prose (translated by John Lockman, 1744)
  • Fables nouvelles, et autres poésie, 1671
  • Recueil de poësies chrestiennes et diverses. Dedié à monseigneur le prince de Conty, 1671-1679 (3 vols.)
  • Poème de la captivité de saint Malc, 1673
  • Poème du Quinquina et autres ouvrages en vers, 1682
  • Discours en vers, 1684
  • Ouvrages de prose et de poésie, 1685 (2 vols., with Abbé François de Maucroix)
  • Astrée, 1691 (play, prod 1691, music by Pascal Colasse)
  • Œuvres posthumes, 1696
  • Oeuvres diverses de M. de la Fontaine de l'Acadèmie françoise, 1729
  • Œuvres complettes, précédées d’une nouvelle notice sur sa vie, 1814 (6 vols.)
  • Opuscules inédits de La Fontaine, 1820
  • Œuvres inédites de J. de La Fontaine avec diverses pièces en vers et en prose qui lui ont été attribuées recuillies pour la première fois, 1863
  • Œuvres de J. de La Fontaine, 1883-92 (11 vols., edited by H. de Regnier)
  • Œuvres, 1927-29 (10 vols., ed. Jean Longnon) 
  • Œuvres: fables, contes, et nouvelles; Œuvres diverses, 1942-54 (2 vols., edited by René Groos, Jacques Schiffrin, and Pierre Clarac)
  • Lettres de la Fontaine à sa femme ou Relation d'un voyage de Paris en Limousin, 1966 (ed. Ange-Marie Claudel)
  • Lettres à sa femme. Voyage de Paris en Limousin, 1995 (preface by Michel Mourlet)
  • Œuvres: sources et postérité d’Esope à l’Oulipo, 1995 (édition établie et présentée par André Versaille; préface de Marc Fumarol)
  • Contes et nouvelles érotiques, 1995 (suivi d’un petit glossaire du langage érotique utilisé par Monsieur de La Fontaine par Jean-Paul Morel)
  • Cent fables de La Fontaine, 2004 (textes réunis et présentés par Albine Novarino; photographies de Michel Maïofiss)
  • The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, 2007 (translated by Norman R. Shapiro; introduction by John Hollander; illustrations by David Schorr)
  • Journey from Paris to the Limousin: Letters to Madame de La Fontaine (1663), 2008 (translated and edited by Robert W. Berger)
  • La Fontaine's Complete Tales in Verse: an Illustrated and Annotated Translation, 2009 (edited and translated by Randolph Paul Runyon) 

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