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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, the son of a government official. In his youth he read such writers as François Rabelais (1494?-1553), François de Malherbe (1555-1628), and Honoré d'Urfé (1568-1625). He went to Paris to study medicine and theology, but was drawn to the whirls of social life. It was not until the end of his life that he became interested in religion: religious rituals bored him.

La Fontaine was qualified as a lawyer but he returned home in 1647 and assisted his father, a superintendent of forests. He held a number of government posts, which did not pay much money. Terribly absent-minded, he 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."

In 1647 La Fontaine married Marie Héricart, an heiress; the marriage was unhappy and they separated in 1658. Deciding to become a famous writer, La Fontaine began to spent his time in literary circles with Molière (1622-1673) and others. After leaving his family and moving to Paris, he spent there his most creative years. Letters to his wife remained in his family and were unpublished durin his lifetime. After the death of Madame de La Fontaine, a selection of letters 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, asking mercy for his disgraced patron, deserted by all others. To avoid arrest, La Fontaine left Paris and resided some time in Limousin, from where he wrote letters to his wife.

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 Mme de La Sabliere. In 1683 he was elected to the Academie Française in recognition of his contribution to French literature. In his welcome speech the director of the Académie told La Fontaine 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."

ALa Fontaine's other major works 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. The stories dealt with marital misdemeanors and love affairs and were not written for readers who blushed easily. They went through four editions during La Fontaine's lifetime, but the last edition, published posthumously, was banned by the authorities because it was considered too obscene.

Les Fables choisies, mises en vers, usually called 'La Fontaine Fables,' were published over the last 25 years of his life. The first volume, which came out when the author was 47, includes some 240 poems and timeless stories of countryfolk, heroes from Greek mythology, and familiar beasts from the fables of Aesop, from which La Fontaine unhesitatingly borrowed his material. 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. 

La Fontaine's fables were marked by his love of rural life and belief in ethical hedonism. They were widely translated and imitated during the 17th and 18th centuries 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 appeared 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.

Read nowadays mainly by children – or by teachers for their classes – the original amoral attitude of the fables has been forgotten. This realistic side was still noticed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who considered them unfit for pedagogy. In America, the tradition of the verse fable continued in Joel Chadler Harris' Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880). 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 burned a comedy he had just composed.

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 (Selected Fables, Set in Verse, 1668, 1678-16679, 1694) 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); Le Poète et le Roi: Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle by Marc Fumaroli (1997) - See also: Ivan Krylov

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)

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