La Fontaine, Jean De (1621–1695)

views updated May 29 2018


LA FONTAINE, JEAN DE (16211695), French poet and fable writer. Jean de La Fontaine grew up in a bourgeois family in rural France, where his grandfather, father, and finally he himself held the local charge of master of waters and forests. In his youth he quit the study of theology to pursue and obtain a law degree. He married and had a son, but cared little for his family and soon lived separately, in Paris. The poems "Adonis" (1658) and "Elegie aux nymphes de Vaux" (1661; The dream of Vaux) impressed Nicolas Fouquet (16151680), Louis XIV's superintendent of finances and a patron of the arts, who granted the poet a pension in 1659. The disgrace and imprisonment of Fouquet (1662) disrupted La Fontaine's life and finances and caused the king to be suspicious of the poet for many years. He entered into the service of the king's widowed aunt, where he again had access, albeit limited, to the rich bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. He began to frequent literary salons and published Contes et nouvelles en vers (1665; Tales and stories in verse), which were shockingly indecorous to precious ladies and followers of classicism because of their bawdy topics, and which were closer in subject and style to medieval fabliaux or the works of François Rabelais (c. 14831553).

In 1668 La Fontaine published the first of a collection of Fables choisies mises en vers (Selected fables set in verse; books 16), dedicated to the dauphin, which became extremely popular. Fables and other short poetic forms had been practiced in the literary salons for a while by a number of noted writers, but not with the style, wit, or power that La Fontaine displayed. As the guest and protégéof Mme Marguerite de la Sablière (c. 16401693) he enjoyed modest personal and financial comfort. He continued to write and publish new Tales, but with less success, and eventually incurred a police ban. He wrote the libretto for an opera (Daphné) by Jean-Baptiste Lully (16321687), but the two fought and parted. Although actively writing, he only found approbation with a second set of Fables (books 711) in 16781679. When he was elected to the French Academy in 1683, the king complicated matters for the former client of Fouquet and withheld royal approval until after Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (16361711) had been admitted several months later. Leading a libertine life well into his sixties, La Fontaine did not change his life or renounce his more scandalous works until after he fell gravely ill in 1693. The next year saw a final book of Fables, a year before his death in Paris.

La Fontaine had the nickname of the "butterfly of Parnassus," as he was often considered to be flighty and disorganized. Anecdotes abound related to his naïveté, lack of seriousness, and inability to hold a decent conversation. But more recently this view has been challenged, and he has been seen as a capable courtier possessed of more skills than previously thought. Meanwhile, his superb mastery of poetic technique has never been doubted.

The two hundred and forty or so fables that he wrote can be considered as various overlapping scenes in the drama of human life. This is presented generally by a brief story of animal conflicts, making the poems allegorical. They need to be applied to human behavior (the wolf represents a certain kind of individual, or even a particular person) before instruction can be drawn. The morals, which are often (but not always) stated, can seem contradictory, or at least tied to a certain situation, when the entire body of fables are read, but the didactic purpose frequently lies in citing one fable for a unique real-life case. The fables are appealing to both children and adults and are linked to the seventeenth century by numerous specific details, but they attain universal pertinence by the general character traits and morals revealed.

The first set of Fables was inspired mainly by the Greek writer Aesop and the Roman Phaedrus, while later works were modeled after Bilpay and other non-Western sources. The conflicts between the grasshopper and the ant, the wolf and the lamb, and the tortoise and the hare, among many others, were part of both an oral tradition and a literary one. La Fontaine did not alter the basic stories or outcomes from these sources, but elaborated both the narrative and poetic aspects. A bit of conversation or some detail of clothing or place makes them more dramatic, picturesque, and plausible. As for poetic technique, at a time that valued the alexandrine couplet, La Fontaine displayed great irregularity, as he varied his line lengths and rhyme schemes within each fable, making them less artificial and predictable.

Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) and Alphonse Marie Louis de Prat de Lamartine (17901869) criticized the Fables as being too violent for children or even for adults, who also might mistakenly follow the vices, rather than the virtues, depicted. It is true that the poems often teach by negative example, but their charm has captivated most critics, teachers, and parents for more than three hundred years.

See also Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas ; Folk Tales and Fairy Tales ; French Literature and Language ; Lully, Jean-Baptiste.


Calder, Andrew. The Fables of La Fontaine. Geneva, 2001.

Danner, Richard G. Patterns of Irony in the Fables of La Fontaine. Athens, Ohio, 1985.

Lapp, John C. The Esthetics of Negligence: La Fontaine's Contes. Cambridge, U.K., 1971.

Rubin, David Lee. A Pact with Silence: Art and Thought in the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Columbus, Ohio, 1991.

Runyon, Randolph Paul. In La Fontaine's Labyrinth: A Thread through the Fables. Charlottesville, Va., 2000.

Slater, Maya. The Craft of La Fontaine. London, 2001.

Sweetser, Marie-Odile. La Fontaine. New York, 1987.

Vincent, Michael. Figures of the Text. Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 1992.

Allen G. Wood

Jean de La Fontaine

views updated Jun 08 2018

Jean de La Fontaine

The French poet and man of letters Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) was one of the great French classical authors. He preferred to work in relatively minor and unexploited genres, such as the fable and the verse tale.

While he did not hesitate to borrow freely from other writers, both ancient and modern, Jean de La Fontaine nevertheless created a style and a poetic universe at once personal and universal, peculiarly his own and thus inimitable, but also accessible to all. He is perhaps the greatest lyric poet of the 17th century in France. Though he is best known for the Fables, they are but a small part of his writings. He also wrote a number of licentious tales in verse, many occasional pieces, and a long romance; he tried his hand at elegy and fantasy, at epigram and comedy. Almost everything he wrote is shot through with personal reflections and graceful ironies.

La Fontaine was baptized (and probably born) on July 8, 1621, the first child of Charles de La Fontaine and Françoise Pidoux. Little is known about his youth in Château-Thierry (Aisne); he went to Paris in 1635, was associated briefly with the Oratorians, and then studied law. In 1647 he married Marie Héricart, whose family was related to Jean Racine's. He purchased a post (or sinecure) as master of waters and forests in 1652; his son Charles was born a year later. In 1654 appeared his first publication, an imitation of Terence's Eunuch. An amusing portrait of him was composed about this time by Tallemant des Réaux: "A man of belles lettres and who writes verse. … His wife says that he's such a dreamer he sometimes goes for three weeks without remembering that he's married."

Early Works

In 1658 La Fontaine offered his poem Adonisto Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's superintendent of finances. Fouquet, known for his support of the arts and of artists, soon became La Fontaine's admirer and protector. La Fontaine wrote numerous poems for his patron; among the more interesting are the fragments of Le Songe de Vaux, a dream in verse written to celebrate the many marvels of Fouquet's estate, Vaux-le-Vicomte. During the years of the "poetic pension" at Vaux, La Fontaine met Charles Perrault, Racine, and many other writers and artists. The arrest of Fouquet in September 1661 put an end to the Vaux dream, but La Fontaine remained loyal to his friend. In 1663 the poet—who may have been in trouble because of his obvious sympathy for Fouquet—accompanied his uncle to Limoges; the voyage is recounted in six interesting letters to his wife.

La Fontaine became a gentilhomme servant to the Duchesse d'Orléans in 1664. The post was rather badly paid, but it made few claims on the poet's time. In 1665 he published the collection Contes et Nouvelles en vers; these tales were followed by a second collection a year later. Both volumes were enthusiastically received despite (or perhaps because of) their licentious tone and matter.

His "Fables"

In 1668 La Fontaine published six books of Fables, in verse. Dedicated to the Dauphin, these poems were extraordinarily successful, and La Fontaine's fame was secure at last. The fables cover a vast range of human experience; formally they are remarkably varied and free. In an age of linguistic constraint and purification, he uses all manner of archaic words, colloquialisms, outmoded constructions; in an age of overwhelming concern with the great serious genres (epic and tragedy, for instance), he deliberately chooses to exploit the considerable resources of a minor genre. And if the fables seem at first to be children's literature, a careful examination reveals their sophisticated satire of conventional wisdom and morality.

In 1669 La Fontaine published Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, a long romance in verse and prose, ostensibly a simple version of the Psyche story in The Golden Ass of Apuleius. But La Fontaine's work, despite its bantering tone and its contemporary allusions, is an intensely personal meditation on love and beauty and art—things which, as the work suggests, escape definition and so must be felt if they are to be known at all.

A third collection of Contes appeared in 1671, along with eight new fables. In the same year La Fontaine had to give up his post as master of waters and forests, and the death of the Duchesse d'Orléans in 1672 left him without employment. In 1673, however, he found a new protectress, Madame de La Sablière, at whose salons the poet met many scholars, philosophers, artists, and free-thinkers. In the years 1673-1682 he published a variety of works: a long religious poem for Port-Royal, an epitaph for his friend Molière, some new contes (the most licentious of all, they were promptly banned by the police), five new books of fables, and various other pieces. In 1682 he wrote a long poem in praise of the powers of quinine. As he said, "Diversity is my motto."

Later Years

After many maneuvers La Fontaine was finally elected to the French Academy in 1684. He continued to write and to publish: a volume of miscellaneous writings (1685); the important poem Epistle to Huet (1687), in which he avoided taking sides in the "quarrel of the ancients and the moderns"; the "lyric tragedy" Astrée, which was produced in 1691 but closed after six performances.

Madame de La Sablière died in 1693, and La Fontaine's thoughts turned to the Church. He renounced the Contes and promised to devote the rest of his days to the composition of pious works. The last collection of fables appeared in 1694, and in that year the aging and weary poet wrote to his dearest friend, François de Maucroix, "I would die of boredom if I couldn't keep on writing." Remaining lucid and active almost to the end, La Fontaine died on April 13, 1695.

Further Reading

The best general biography of La Fontaine in English is Monica Sutherland, La Fontaine (1953). An excellent account of La Fontaine before the publication of the first collection of fables is in Philip A. Wadsworth, Young La Fontaine: A study of His Artistic Growth in His Early Poetry and First Fables (1952). Useful chapters on La Fontaine are in Elbert Benton O. Borgerhoff, The Freedom of French Classicism (1950), and Will Grayburn Moore, French Classical Literature (1961). Recommended for general historical background are Albert Guérard, The Life and Death of an Ideal (1928; repr. 1956); Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century background (1934; repr. 1967); and Warren H. Lewis, The Splendid Century (1953). □

Fontaine, Jean de la (or John Fontaine) (ca. 1413)

views updated May 23 2018

Fontaine, Jean de la (or John Fontaine) (ca. 1413)

Flemish alchemist and poet who lived at Valenciennes toward the close of the thirteenth century. Two books are ascribed to him, La Fontaine des Amoureux de Science and La Fontaine Perilleuse, both of which were written in French and published in Paris, the first in 1561 and the second in 1572.

Fontaine's claims to the authorship of the latter work have frequently been disputed, but the former is almost certainly his, and is a curious production. At the outset the author professes himself an expert in hermetic philosophy, and thereafter he proceeds, in poetry of an allegorical style that recalls The Roman of the Rose, to describe the different processes involved in achieving a transmutation. There is little in this metrical treatise that indicates that the writer was an alchemist of any great ability, but he certainly possessed a distinct gift for writing pleasant verse.


Fontaine, Jean de la. La Fontaine des Amoureux de Science. Paris, 1561.

. La Fontaine Perilleuse. Paris, 1572.

La Fontaine, Jean de

views updated May 18 2018

La Fontaine, Jean de (1621–95) French poet noted for his fables, which are considered among the masterpieces of French literature. La Fontaine's Fables choisies, mises en vers (1668–94) consists of 12 books featuring some 240 fables. In 1683, he was elected to the Académie Française.