Jean de La Fontaine


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La Fontaine, Jean de

(zhäN də), 1621–95, French poet, whose celebrated fables place him among the masters of world literature. He was born at Château-Thierry to a bourgeois family. A restless dilettante as a youth, he settled at last in Paris. His marriage (1647) terminated in 1658, and from 1673 to 1693 he lived in the household of Mme de La Sablière, one of his several patrons. La Fontaine's masterpiece is the collection of Fables choisies, mises en vers [selected fables versified] (1668–94), comprising 12 books of some 230 fables drawn largely from Aesop. Each fable is a short tale of beasts behaving like men; each serves as a comment on human behavior. Although their charm and simple facade have made them popular with children, many are sophisticated satires and serious commentaries on French society. Their wit, acumen, and brilliance of verse and narrative have assured their worldwide success; they ran into 37 editions before La Fontaine's death. Among his other works are Contes et nouvelles en vers (4 vol., 1664–74, tr. Tales and Novels in Verse, 1934), humorous and often ribald verse tales drawn from Boccaccio, Ariosto, and others. He also wrote comedies and librettos for opera, poems on classical themes, and long original poems, notably the Élégie aux nymphes de Vaux (1671), a complaint on the disgrace (1661) of his patron Fouquet.

Bibliography

See English translations of the fables by J. Auslander and J. Le Clercq (1930), E. Marsh (1933), M. Moore (1954), and J. Mitchie (1982); biography by A. E. Mackay (1973); study by P. A. Wadsworth (1952, repr. 1970).

La Fontaine, Jean de

 

Born July 8, 1621, in Château-Thierry, Champagne, present-day department of Aisne; died Apr. 13, 1695, in Paris. French poet. Elected to the Académie Française in 1684.

La Fontaine’s family belonged to the bureaucratic bourgeoisie. His first literary work was an adaptation of Terence’s comedy The Eunuch (1654). La Fontaine composed the narrative poem Adonis (1658), the dramatic eclogue Climène (c. 1658), the poetic fragments Dream in Vaux (1658–61), madrigals, epistles, and ballads in the précieux style. When the royal favorite, Fouquet, was arrested, La Fontaine expressed sympathy for him in the elegy “To the Nymphs in Vaux” (1662) and in the “Ode to the King . . .” (1663). As a result, the poet was sent away to Limoges.

Concessions to the précieux school are interspersed with pages of inspired poetry in the chivalrous novella The Love of Psyche and Cupid (1669; Russian translation, 1964). Of particular importance are the racy Tales and Stories in Verse (books 1–5, 1665–85) and the famous Fables (books 1–6, 1668; books 7–11, 1678–79). In these works, La Fontaine emerged as an outstanding satirist, freethinker (close to the materialist doctrines of P. Gassendi), and heir to Renaissance traditions in literature.

A new surge of creativity is evident in the narrative poem Philemon and Baucis (1685) and even more so in the Epistle to Huet, Bishop of Soissons (1687), in which La Fontaine actively entered into the dispute between “the ancients and the moderns” upholding the superiority of ancient over contemporary writers.

In 1694, La Fontaine published the last book of the Fables, to which he owes his fame as one of the greatest popular poets of France. The distinguishing features of his works, which won him a unique place among classicists, are revealed most clearly in the Fables: an interest in the “lower” genres, a reliance on popular wisdom and folklore, a profoundly national inspiration, and a proclivity for allegory and irony. Although he used classical models (Aesop and Phaedrus), the works of Indian fabulists, and folk traditions of the animal epos, La Fontaine overcame the didacticism of his predecessors. Displaying a splendid mastery of laconic composition and a virtuosity in free verse, La Fontaine dramatized the fable and, especially in the collections written in the 1670’s, greatly broadened its possibilities as a realistic descriptive form. Russian fabulists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly I. A. Krylov, took advantage of the fable’s potential as a realistic literary form.

WORKS

Oeuvres, vols. 1–11. Paris, 1883–92.
Fables, contes, et nouvelles [2nd ed.]. Paris, 1954. (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.)
Oeuvres choisis. [Compiled and with an article by N. P. Kozlova.] Moscow [1964].
In Russian translation:
Basni. St. Petersburg, 1897.
Basni (Poln. sobr.), vols. 1–2. Edited by A. Vvedenskii. St. Petersburg, 1901.

REFERENCES

Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946. (Article by S. S. Mokul’skii.)
Vipper, Iu. B., and R. M. Samarin. Kurs lektsii po istorii zarubezhnykh literatur XVII v. Moscow, 1954.
Tomashevskii, B. V. “Pushkin i Lafonten.” In his book Pushkin i Frantsiia. Leningrad, 1960.
Taine, H. La Fontaine et ses fables, 3rd ed. Paris, 1860.
Clarac, P. La Fontaine: L’homme et l’œuvre, new ed. Paris, 1959.
Kohn, R. Le Goût de La Fontaine. Paris, 1962.
Collinet, J.-P. Le Monde littéraire de La Fontaine. Paris, 1970.
Bibliographie des oeuvres de La Fontaine, par le comte de Rochambeau. Paris, 1911.

IU. B. VIPPER

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