The New International Encyclopædia/La Fontaine, Jean de

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LA FONTAINE, Jean de (1621-95). A French poet, noted for his tales (Contes) and fables. He was born at Château-Thierry, in Champagne, July 8, 1621, of good though not noble family, for his father was a superintendent of streams and forests. Jean began to study for the priesthood, but, with the dreamy irresponsibility that characterized his life, he forsook this career after eighteen months, and, though the father resigned in Jean's favor (1643) and even provided him with a wife, the fifteen year-old Marie Héricart (1647), his life was still that of a happy-go-lucky idler. La Fontaine's poetic talent was awakened by the reading of Malherbe and Racan. For his amusement he adapted unsuccessfully the Eunuchus of Terence (1654), and by dedicating a narrative poem, Adonis, to Fouquet (1658), he won the patronage of the then powerful Minister, who received him into his household. On Fouquet's fall he had as successive patronesses the Duchess of Bouillon (1662), the Duchess of Orleans (1667), Madame de la Sablière (1671), and Madame d'Hervart (1693). To please the first of these, he began to write Contes et nouvelles en vers (1665). To these he added at interials until his election to the Academy (1683), which the King had sanctioned only on his promise to be ‘proper’ (sage); for the Contes as a rule were not. The Fables, whose humor was quite without such Gallic spice. La Fontaine had begun to write in 1668, and in 1671 had given further illustration of his versatile talent as editor of a volume of mystically religious verse. He wrote also in this, his most productive period, Les amours de Cupid et Psyché (1669), an epic La captivité de Saint Malo (1673), and the Poème du Quinquina (1682), with several slight if not weak comedies collected in 1702. In his last year (1695) he seems to have become sincerely religious. La Fontaine was a spoiled child of nature, simply guileless and carelessly absent-minded, exasperating the friends who tolerated and could not but love him. Racine, Boileau, and Molière were his closest intimates, but Molière alone realized the permanent value of his work in the development of French literature, through the Contes, and especially through the Fables. The former are essentially fabliaux (q.v.), most skillfully told and with a delicate feeling for style and prosody that conceals the highest art under its apparent spontaneity. Here La Fontaine is the follower of La Salle, Des Périers, and the Heptameron, the imitator of Boccaccio and the Italian story-tellers, none of whom recognized what are now regarded as fundamental conventions of decency. The poet was assailed by contemporary adversaries on the score of impropriety. The Fables, on the other hand, could shock no reader's modesty, though they reveal a total incapacity for moral indignation, and a boundless tolerance of the ‘natural.’ The graceful liveliness of their narration, the restrained naturalism of their description, the homely wisdom of their unobtruded moral, the boldness of their covert political teaching, especially in later years, the shrewd analysis and observation of human motive, has been a perennial delight to generations. The fact that every French schoolboy knew the Fables influenced and aided the emancipation of poetry by the Romantic School of 1830. In mind La Fontaine is akin to Molière. None of his imitators has approached him, and with Molière he is the most widely liked French writer of the seventeenth century. La Fontaine's works are in many editions. The most elaborate is by Regnier (9 vols., Paris, 1888-92). Useful also are those of Moland (7 vols., Paris, 1872-76) and Marty-Laveaux (5 vols., Paris, 1857-77). Regnier's edition has a good biography by Mesnard. Consult, also: Lafenestre, La Fontaine (Paris, 1885); Taine, La Fontaine et ses fables (15th ed., ib., 1901); and for further biblioggraphy, Brunetière, Manuel de l'histoire de la littérature française (ib., 1897) translated by Derechef (London, 1898).