The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/La Fontaine, Jean de

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LA FONTAINE, lạ fŏṅ-tĕn, Jean de, French poet: b. Chateau-Thierry, Champagne, 8 July 1621; d. Paris, 13 April 1695. He was the son of Charles de la Fontaine, a forest ranger of the highest middle class. Jean was the eldest child and was sent to school at Rheims. After finishing at the grammar school he studied for a time without much seriousness for the priesthood, but abandoned it because of lack of interest. At the age of 26 his father resigned his position in Jean's favor, and married him to Marie Héricart, a girl of 16, with considerable fortune. The marriage was not altogether satisfactory, for La Fontaine was absent most of the time, squandered his wife's fortune, in 1658 consented to a “separation des biens.” For the greater part of his life he lived at Paris, while his wife remained at Chateau-Thierry.

It was not until he was 30 that La Fontaine began to devote himself to literature. Content at first with the lighter forms of poetical composition, he wrote his first serious work, ‘L'Eunuque,’ an adaptation of the ‘Eunuchus’ of Terence in 1654. This was addressed to Fouquet, and won for the author his first patron. A number of minor poems and ballads were also written for the superintendent. When the displeasure of the sovereign was incurred by Fouquet, La Fontaine found new patrons in the Duke and Duchess of Bouillon, who settled some of his legal difficulties and made him welcome at their home. In 1664 his first book of the ‘Contes’ appeared. They are stories with old themes based on Boccaccio, the ‘Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles,’ and other collections of legends, reanimated by his swift and easy power of narration and his keen analysis of the characters. Among his best friends of this period were Racine, Boileau and Molière, with whom he formed the famous quartet of the Rue du Vieux Colombier, which made the literary history of the time. The Duchess Dowager of Orleans was his next powerful friend. He lived for a few years under her protection, and at her death was invited to the home of Madame de la Sablière, where he remained for the next 20 years.

His ‘Les Amours de Psyche’ and ‘Adonis,’ romantic novels, were printed tn 1669. His second volume of ‘Contes’ had appeared in 1666, and two years later six books of the ‘Fables’ were published. Contemporary critics gave high estimates of his works, and public recognition came in 1683, when despite considerable opposition he was elected to the Academy. His health began to fail, and it was during a severe illness (abotu 1692) that he was converted and repented of the improprieties of many of his stories. The death of Madame de Sablière in 1693 affected him profoundly, and, broken in health and old, he accepted the patronage of Monsieur and Madame Hervait who cared for him in his last days.

The curious personality of La Fontaine has given rise to many stories concerning his life and habits. The candor and simplicity of his character acquired for him the title of “le bon homme.” He was proverbially absent-minded, awkward and rude in society. The best of his works are the ‘Contes’ and the ‘Fables,’ which mark him as the master of narrators of short stories and tales. The latter have received more favorable comment, since their tone has pleased more exacting critics; while the improprieties of the former have blinded some to the high artistic value of the composition itself. The ‘Fables’ abound in keen analysis, cleverly hidden political teaching, natural and homely morals and delightful descriptive passages. His rhyme is of artful irregularity and is the art medium for his deft and skilful power of narration. Of his plays, which are considerably weaker than his other works, the most noteworthy are ‘Le Florentin’; ‘Ragotin’ and ‘La Coupe enchantée.’ His separate poetical works are represented by ‘La captivité de Saint Malo’ (1673) and the ‘Poëme du Quinquina’ (1682). A volume of mystically religious verse was published by him in 1671, and several unimportant comedies (collected in 1702). His letters, scattered poems, etc., were edited as ‘Œuvres diverses’ in 1729. Both the ‘Contes’ and the ‘Fables’ have been superbly printed. The latter were illustrated by Oudry (1755-59), and the former by Eisen 1762. Gustave Doré also did illustrations for the ‘Fables.’ The best scholarly edition is that by Walcknenaer (1826-27), who has also written an excellent biography and critical estimate of La Fontaine. Most well known is the edition by Regnier in the ‘Grand Ecrivains’ series (9 vols., 1888-92). Other good editions are by Moland (7 vols., 1872-76) amd Marty-Laveaux (5 vols., 1857-77). Consult Lafenestre, G., ‘Jean de la Fontaine’ (1885); Faguet, E., ‘Jean de la Fontaine’ (1900); Taine, ‘La Fontaine et ses fables’ (15th ed., 1901); Hookum, P., ‘The Masterpieces of La Fontaine’ (New York 1916). See La Fontaine Fables.