1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/La Fontaine, Jean de
LA FONTAINE, JEAN DE (1621-1695), French poet, was born at Château Thierry in Champagne, probably on the 8th of July 1621. His father was Charles de La Fontaine, “maître des eaux et forets” — a kind of deputy-ranger — of the duchy of Château Thierry; his mother was Françoise Pidoux. On both sides his family was of the highest provincial middle class, but was not noble; his father was also fairly wealthy. Jean, the eldest child, was educated at the collège (grammar-school) of Reims, and at the end of his school days he entered the Oratory in May 1641, and the seminary of Saint-Magloire in October of the same year; but a very short sojourn proved to him that he had mistaken his vocation. He then apparently studied law, and is said to have been admitted as avocat, though there does not seem to be actual proof of this. He was, however, settled in life, or at least might have been so, somewhat early. In 1647 his father resigned his rangership in his favour, and arranged a marriage for him with Marie Héricart, a girl of sixteen, who brought him twenty thousand livres, and expectations. She seems to have been both handsome and intelligent, but the two did not get on well together. There appears to be absolutely no ground for the vague scandal as to her conduct, which was, for the most part long afterwards, raised by gossips or personal enemies of La Fontaine. All that is positively said against her is that she was a negligent housewife and an inveterate novel reader; La Fontaine himself was constantly away from home, was certainly not strict in point of conjugal fidelity, and was so bad a man of business that his affairs became involved in hopeless difficulty, and a séparation de biens had to take place in 1658. This was a perfectly amicable transaction for the benefit of the family; by degrees, however, the pair, still without any actual quarrel, ceased to live together, and for the greater part of the last forty years of La Fontaine's life he lived in Paris while his wife dwelt at Château Thierry, which, however, he frequently visited. One son was born to them in 1653, and was educated and taken care of wholly by his mother.
Even in the earlier years of his marriage La Fontaine seems to have been much at Paris, but it was not till about 1656 that he became a regular visitor to the capital. The duties of his office, which were only occasional, were compatible with this non-residence. It was not till he was past thirty that his literary career began. The reading of Malherbe, it is said, first awoke poetical fancies in him, but for some time he attempted nothing but trifles in the fashion of the time — epigrams, ballades, rondeaux, &c. His first serious work was a translation or adaptation of the Eunuchus of Terence (1654). At this time the Maecenas of French letters was the Superintendant Fouquet, to whom La Fontaine was introduced by Jacques Jannart, a connexion of his wife's. Few people who paid their court to Fouquet went away empty-handed, and La Fontaine soon received a pension of 1000 livres (1659), on the easy terms of a copy of verses for each quarter's receipt. He began too a medley of prose and poetry, entitled Le Songe de Vaux, on Fouquet's famous country house. It was about this time that his wife's property had to be separately secured to her, and he seems by degrees to have had to sell everything of his own; but, as he never lacked powerful and generous patrons, this was of small importance to him. In the same year he wrote a ballad, Les Rieurs du Beau-Richard, and this was followed by many small pieces of occasional poetry addressed to various personages from the king downwards. Fouquet soon incurred the royal displeasure, but La Fontaine, like most of his literary protégés, was not unfaithful to him, the well-known elegy Pleurez, nymphes de Vaux, being by no means the only proof of his devotion. Indeed it is thought not improbable that a journey to Limoges in 1663 in company with Jannart, and of which we have an account written to his wife, was not wholly spontaneous, as it certainly was not on Jannart's part. Just at this time his affairs did not look promising. His father and himself had assumed the title of esquire, to which they were not strictly entitled, and, some old edicts on the subject having been put in force, an informer procured a sentence against the poet fining him 2000 livres. He found, however, a new protector in the duke and still more in the duchess of Bouillon, his feudal superiors at Château Thierry, and nothing more is heard of the fine. Some of La Fontaine's liveliest verses are addressed to the duchess, Anne Mancini, the youngest of Mazarin's nieces, and it is even probable that the taste of the duke and duchess for Ariosto had something to do with the writing of his first work of real importance, the first book of the Contes, which appeared in 1664. He was then forty-three years old, and his previous printed productions had been comparatively trivial, though much of his work was handed about in manuscript long before it was regularly published. It was about this time that the quartette of the Rue du Vieux Colombier, so famous in French literary history, was formed. It consisted of La Fontaine, Racine, Boileau and Molière, the last of whom was almost of the same age as La Fontaine, the other two considerably younger. Chapelle was also a kind of outsider in the coterie. There are many anecdotes, some pretty obviously apocryphal, about these meetings. The most characteristic is perhaps that which asserts that a copy of Chapelain's unlucky Pucelle always lay on the table, a certain number of lines of which was the appointed punishment for offences against the company. The coterie furnished under feigned names the personages of La Fontaine's version of the Cupid and Psyche story, which, however, with Adonis, was not printed till 1669. Meanwhile the poet continued to find friends. In 1664 he was regularly commissioned and sworn in as gentleman to the duchess dowager of Orleans, and was installed in the Luxembourg. He still retained his rangership, and in 1666 we have something like a reprimand from Colbert suggesting that he should look into some malpractices at Château Thierry. In the same year appeared the second book of the Contes, and in 1668 the first six books of the Fables, with more of both kinds in 1671. In this latter year a curious instance of the docility with which the poet lent himself to any influence was afforded by his officiating, at the instance of the Port-Royalists, as editor of a volume of sacred poetry dedicated to the prince de Conti. A year afterwards his situation, which had for some time been decidedly flourishing, showed signs of changing very much for the worse. The duchess of Orleans died, and he apparently had to give up his rangership, probably selling it to pay debts. But there was always a providence for La Fontaine. Madame de la Sablière, a woman of great beauty, of considerable intellectual power and of high character, invited him to make his home in her house, where he lived for some twenty years. He seems to have had no trouble whatever about his affairs thenceforward; and could devote himself to his two different lines of poetry, as well as to that of theatrical composition.
In 1682 he was, at more than sixty years of age, recognized as one of the first men of letters of France. Madame de Sévigné, one of the soundest literary critics of the time, and by no means given to praise mere novelties, had spoken of his second collection of Fables published in the winter of 1678 as divine; and it is pretty certain that this was the general opinion. It was not unreasonable, therefore, that he should present himself to the Academy, and, though the subjects of his Contes were scarcely calculated to propitiate that decorous assembly, while his attachment to Fouquet and to more than one representative of the old Frondeur party made him suspect to Colbert and the king, most of the members were his personal friends. He was first proposed in 1682, but was rejected for Dangeau. The next year Colbert died and La Fontaine was again nominated. Boileau was also a candidate, but the first ballot gave the fabulist sixteen votes against seven only for the critic. The king, whose assent was necessary, not merely for election but for a second ballot in case of the failure of an absolute majority, was ill-pleased, and the election was left pending. Another vacancy occurred, however, some months later, and to this Boileau was elected. The king hastened to approve the choice effusively, adding, “Vous pouvez incessamment recevoir La Fontaine, il a promis d'être sage.” His admission was indirectly the cause of the only serious literary quarrel of his life. A dispute took place between the Academy and one of its members, Antoine Furetière, on the subject of the latter's French dictionary, which was decided to be a breach of the Academy's corporate privileges. Furetière, a man of no small ability, bitterly assailed those whom he considered to be his enemies, and among them La Fontaine, whose unlucky Contes made him peculiarly vulnerable, his second collection of these tales having been the subject of a police condemnation. The death of the author of the Roman Bourgeois, however, put an end to this quarrel. Shortly afterwards La Fontaine had a share in a still more famous affair, the celebrated Ancient-and-Modern squabble in which Boileau and Perrault were the chiefs, and in which La Fontaine (though he had been specially singled out by Perrault for favourable comparison with Aesop and Phaedrus) took the Ancient side. About the same time (1685-1687) he made the acquaintance of the last of his many hosts and protectors, Monsieur and Madame d'Hervart, and fell in love with a certain Madame Ulrich, a lady of some position but of doubtful character. This acquaintance was accompanied by a great familiarity with Vendôme, Chaulieu and the rest of the libertine coterie of the Temple; but, though Madame de la Sablière had long given herself up almost entirely to good works and religious exercises, La Fontaine continued an inmate of her house until her death in 1693. What followed is told in one of the best known of the many stories bearing on his childlike nature. Hervart on hearing of the death, had set out at once to find La Fontaine. He met him in the street in great sorrow, and begged him to make his home at his house. “J'y allais” was La Fontaine's answer. He had already undergone the process of conversion during a severe illness the year before. An energetic young priest, M. Poucet, had brought him, not indeed to understand, but to acknowledge the impropriety of the Contes, and it is said that the destruction of a new play of some merit was demanded and submitted to as a proof of repentance. A pleasant story is told of the young duke of Burgundy, Fenelon's pupil, who was then only eleven years old, sending 50 louis to La Fontaine as a present of his own motion. But, though La Fontaine recovered for the time, he was broken by age and infirmity, and his new hosts had to nurse rather than to entertain him, which they did very carefully and kindly. He did a little more work, completing his Fables among other things; but he did not survive Madame de la Sablière much more than two years, dying on the 13th of April 1695, at the age of seventy-three. He was buried in the cemetery of the Holy Innocents. His wife survived him nearly fifteen years.
The curious personal character of La Fontaine, like that of some other men of letters, has been enshrined in a kind of legend by literary tradition. At an early age his absence of mind and indifference to business gave a subject to Tallemant des Réaux. His later contemporaries helped to swell the tale, and the 18th century finally accepted it, including the anecdotes of his meeting his son, being told who he was, and remarking, “Ah, yes, I thought I had seen him somewhere!” of his insisting on fighting a duel with a supposed admirer of his wife, and then imploring him to visit at his house just as before; of his going into company with his stockings wrong side out, &c., with, for a contrast, those of his awkwardness and silence, if not positive rudeness, in company. It ought to be remembered, as a comment on the unfavourable description by La Bruyère, that La Fontaine was a special friend and ally of Benserade, La Bruyère's chief literary enemy. But after all deductions much will remain, especially when it is remembered that one of the chief authorities for these anecdotes is Louis Racine, a man who possessed intelligence and moral worth, and who received them from his father, La Fontaine's attached friend for more than thirty years. Perhaps the best worth recording of all these stories is one of the Vieux Colombier quartette, which tells how Molière, while Racine and Boileau were exercising their wits upon “le bonhomme” or “le bon” (by both which titles La Fontaine was familiarly known), remarked to a bystander, “Nos beaux esprits ont beau faire, ils n'effaceront pas le bonhomme.” They have not.
The works of La Fontaine, the total bulk of which is considerable, fall no less naturally than traditionally into three divisions, the Fables, the Contes and the miscellaneous works. Of these the first may be said to be known universally, the second to be known to all lovers of French literature, the third to be with a few exceptions practically forgotten. This distribution of the judgment of posterity is as usual just in the main, but not wholly. There are excellent things in the Œuvres Diverses, but their excellence is only occasional, and it is not at the best equal to that of the Fables or the Contes. It was thought by contemporary judges who were both competent and friendly that La Fontaine attempted too many styles, and there is something in the criticism. His dramatic efforts are especially weak. The best pieces usually published under his name — Ragotin, Le Florentin, La Coupe enchantée, were originally fathered not by him but by Champmeslé, the husband of the famous actress who captivated Racine and Charles de Sévigné. His avowed work was chiefly in the form of opera, a form of no great value, at its best. Psyche has all the advantages of its charming story and of La Fontaine's style, but it is perhaps principally interesting nowadays because of the framework of personal conversation already alluded to. The mingled prose and verse of the Songe de Vaux is not uninteresting, but its best things, such as the description of night —
“Laissant tomber les flours et ne les semant pas,”
which has enchanted French critics, are little more than conceits, though as in this case sometimes very beautiful conceits. The elegies, the epistles, the epigrams, the ballades, contain many things which would be very creditable to a minor poet or a writer of vers de société, but even if they be taken according to the wise rule of modern criticism, each in its kind, and judged simply according to their rank in that kind, they fall far below the merits of the two great collections of verse narratives which have assured La Fontaine's immortality.
Between the actual literary merits of the two there is not much to choose, but the change of manners and the altered standard of literary decency have thrown the Contes into the shade. These tales are identical in general character with those which amused Europe from the days of the early fabliau writers. Light love, the misfortunes of husbands, the cunning of wives, the breach of their vows by ecclesiastics, constitute the staple of their subject. In some respects La Fontaine is the best of such tale-tellers, while he is certainly the latest who deserves such excuse as may be claimed by a writer who does not choose indecent subjects from a deliberate knowledge that they are considered indecent, and with a deliberate desire to pander to a vicious taste. No one who followed him in the style can claim this excuse; he can, and the way in which contemporaries of stainless virtue such as Madame de Sévigné speak of his work shows that, though the new public opinion was growing up, it was not finally accepted. In the Contes La Fontaine for the most part attempts little originality of theme. He takes his stories (varying them, it is true, in detail not a little) from Boccaccio, from Marguerite, from the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, &c. He applies to them his marvellous power of easy sparkling narration, and his hardly less marvellous faculty of saying more or less outrageous things in the most polite and gentlemanly manner. These Contes have indeed certain drawbacks. They are not penetrated by the half pagan ardour for physical beauty and the delights of sense which animates and excuses the early Italian Renaissance. They have not the subtle mixture of passion and sensuality, of poetry and appetite, which distinguishes the work of Marguerite and of the Pléiade. They are emphatically contes pour rire, a genuine expression of the esprit gaulois of the fabliau writers and of Rabelais, destitute of the grossness of envelope which had formerly covered that spirit. A comparison of “La Fiancée du roi de Garbe” with its original in Boccaccio (especially if the reader takes M. Émile Montégut's admirable essay as a commentary) will illustrate better than anything else what they have and what they have not. Some writers have pleaded hard for the admission of actual passion of the poetical sort in such pieces as “La Courtisane amoureuse,” but as a whole it must be admitted to be absent.
The Fables, with hardly less animation and narrative art than the Contes, are free from disadvantages (according to modern notions) of subject, and exhibit the versatility and fecundity of the author's talent perhaps even more fully. La Fontaine had many predecessors in the fable and especially in the beast fable. In his first issue, comprising what are now called the first six books, he adhered to the path of these predecessors with some closeness; but in the later collections he allowed himself far more liberty, and it is in these parts that his genius is most fully manifested. The boldness of the politics is as much to be considered as the ingenuity of the moralizing, as the intimate knowledge of human nature displayed in the substance of the narratives, or as the artistic mastery shown in their form. It has sometimes been objected that the view of human character which La Fontaine expresses is unduly dark, and resembles too much that of La Rochefoucauld, for whom the poet certainly had a profound admiration. The discussion of this point would lead us too far here. It may only be said that satire (and La Fontaine is eminently a satirist) necessarily concerns itself with the darker rather than with the lighter shades. Indeed the objection has become pretty nearly obsolete with the obsolescence of what may be called the sentimental-ethical school of criticism. Its last overt expression was made by Lamartine, excellently answered by Sainte-Beuve. Exception has also been taken to the Fables on more purely literary, but hardly less purely arbitrary grounds by Lessing. Perhaps the best criticism ever passed upon La Fontaine's Fables is that of Silvestre de Sacy, to the effect that they supply three several delights to three several ages: the child rejoices in the freshness and vividness of the story, the eager student of literature in the consummate art with which it is told, the experienced man of the world in the subtle reflections on character and life which it conveys. Nor has any one, with the exception of a few paradoxers like Rousseau and a few sentimentalists like Lamartine, denied that the moral tone of the whole is as fresh and healthy as its literary interest is vivid. The book has therefore naturally become the standard reading book of French both at home and abroad, a position which it shares in verse with the Télémaque of Fénelon in prose. It is no small testimony to its merit that not even this use or misuse has interfered with its popularity.
The general literary character of La Fontaine is, with allowance made for the difference of subject, visible equally in the Fables and in the Contes. Perhaps one of the hardest sayings in French literature for an English student is the dictum of Joubert to the effect that “Il y a dans La Fontaine une plenitude de poesie qu'on ne trouve nulle part dans les autres auteurs français.” The difficulty arises from the ambiguity of the terms. For inventiveness of fancy and for diligent observation of the rules of art La Fontaine deserves, if not the first, almost the first place among French poets. In his hands the oldest story becomes novel, the most hackneyed moral piquant, the most commonplace details fresh and appropriate. As to the second point there has not been such unanimous agreement. It used to be considered that La Fontaine's ceaseless diversity of metre, his archaisms, his licences in rhyme and orthography, were merely ingenious devices for the sake of easy writing, intended to evade the trammels of the stately couplet and rimes difficiles enjoined by Boileau. Lamartine in the attack already mentioned affects contempt of the “vers boiteux, disloqués, inégaux, sans symmêtrie ni dans l'oreille ni sur la page.” This opinion may be said to have been finally exploded by the most accurate metrical critic and one of the most skilful metrical practitioners that France has ever had, Théodore de Banville; and it is only surprising that it should ever have been entertained by any professional maker of verse. La Fontaine's irregularities are strictly regulated, his cadences carefully arranged, and the whole effect may be said to be (though, of course, in a light and tripping measure instead of a stately one) similar to that of the stanzas of the English pindaric ode in the hands of Dryden or Collins. There is therefore nothing against La Fontaine on the score of invention and nothing on the score of art. But something more, at least according to English standards, is wanted to make up a “plenitude of poesy,” and this something more La Fontaine seldom or never exhibits. In words used by Joubert himself elsewhere, he never “transports.” The faculty of transporting is possessed and used in very different manners by different poets. In some it takes the form of passion, in some of half mystical enthusiasm for nature, in some of commanding eloquence, in some of moral fervour. La Fontaine has none of these things: he is always amusing, always sensible, always clever, sometimes even affecting, but at the same time always more or less prosaic, were it not for his admirable versification. He is not a great poet, perhaps not even a great humorist; but he is the most admirable teller of light tales in verse that has ever existed in any time or country; and he has established in his verse-tale a model which is never likely to be surpassed.
La Fontaine did not during his life issue any complete edition of his works, nor even of the two greatest and most important divisions of them. The most remarkable of his separate publications have already been noticed. Others were the Poëme de la captivité de St Malc (1673), one of the pieces inspired by the Port-Royalists, the Poëme du Quinquina (1692), a piece of task work also, though of a very different kind, and a number of pieces published either in small pamphlets or with the works of other men. Among the latter may be singled out the pieces published by the poet with the works of his friend Maucroix (1685). The year after his death some posthumous works appeared, and some years after his son's death the scattered poems, letters, &c., with the addition of some unpublished work bought from the family in manuscript, were carefully edited and published as Œuvres diverses (1729). During the 18th century two of the most magnificent illustrated editions ever published of any poet reproduced the two chief works of La Fontaine. The Fables were illustrated by Oudry (1755-1759), the Contes by Eisen (1762). This latter under the title of “Edition des Fermiers-Généraux” fetches a high price. During the first thirty years of the 19th century Walckenaer, a great student of French 17th-century classics, published for the house of Didot three successive editions of La Fontaine, the last (1826-1827) being perhaps entitled to the rank of the standard edition, as his Histoire de la vie et des ouvrages de La Fontaine is the standard biography and bibliography. The later editions of M. Marty-Laveaux in the Bibliothèque elzévirienne, A. Pauly in the Collection des classiques françaises of M. Lemerre and L. Moland in that of M. Garnier supply in different forms all that can be wished. The second is the handsomest, the third, which is complete, perhaps the most generally useful. Editions, selections, translations, &c., of the Fables, especially for school use, are innumerable; but an illustrated edition published by the Librairie des Bibliophiles (1874) deserves to be mentioned as not unworthy of its 18th-century predecessors. The works of M. Grouchy, Documents inédits sur La Fontaine (1893); of G. Lafenestre, Jean de La Fontaine (1895); and of Émile Faguet, Jean de La Fontaine (1900), should be mentioned.