Authors: Jean de La Fontaine

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French fablist and poet

Author Works

Poetry:

Adonis, 1658

Le Songe de Vaux, 1659

Contes et nouvelles en vers, 1665 (Tales and Short Stories in Verse, 1735)

Deuxième partie des “Contes et nouvelles en vers,” 1666 (Part Two of “Tales and Short Stories in Verse,” 1735)

Fables choisies, mises en vers, 1668-1694 (Fables Written in Verse, 1735)

Troisième partie des “Contes et nouvelles en vers,” 1671 (Part Three of “Tales and Short Stories in Verse,” 1735)

Nouveaux Contes, 1674 (New Tales, 1735)

Poèmes et poésies diverses, 1697

Long Fiction:

Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, 1669 (The Loves of Cupid and Psyche, 1744)

Drama:

L’Eunuque, pb. 1654

Clymène, pb. 1671

Daphné, pb. 1682 (libretto)

Galatée, pb. 1682 (libretto)

L’Astrée, pb. 1692 (libretto)

Nonfiction:

Relation d’un voyage en Limousin, 1663

Discours à Mme de La Sablière, 1679

Épître à Huet, 1687

Miscellaneous:

Œuvres complètes, 1933 (2 volumes)

Œuvres diverses, 1942

Œuvres, sources, et postérité d’Ésope à l’Oulipo, 1995

Biography

Jean de La Fontaine (lah fohn-tehn) was one of the world’s greatest writers of fables. His father earned his living as a forest ranger in the duchy of Château Thierry, where La Fontaine was born and raised. He studied at Rheims and at the age of twenty entered the seminary to prepare for a church career; however, his interest in law led to a change of vocation. In 1647, through family pressure, he married the well-to-do Marie Héricart, ten years younger than he. They lived together for eleven years and had one son before their separation in 1658.{$I[AN]9810000498}{$I[A]La Fontaine, Jean de[LaFontaine, Jean de]}{$I[geo]FRANCE;La Fontaine, Jean de[LaFontaine, Jean de]}{$I[tim]1621;La Fontaine, Jean de[LaFontaine, Jean de]}

Jean de La Fontaine

(Library of Congress)

La Fontaine was thirty when he began his literary career. A friend of the dramatists Jean Racine and Molière, he was encouraged in 1651 to adapt Terence’s Eunuchus for the Paris stage. La Fontaine’s version, L’Eunuque, was performed with fair success. He soon realized, however, that his true talent was as a poet and not as a dramatist. He began versifying fables, some suggested by Aesop, some original, and their popularity increased his literary reputation.

In 1656 Nicholas Fouquet, superintendent of finances and the confidential agent of Prime Minister Cardinal Mazarin, bestowed an annual pension of one thousand livres on La Fontaine in return for four poems a year. Fouquet’s arrest for embezzlement in 1661 ended that pension, but the duchess of Château Thierry then granted La Fontaine a living. The fondness of the duke for the poetry of Lodovico Ariosto probably prompted La Fontaine to write his Contes et nouvelles en vers, spicy retellings of Giovanni Boccaccio’s works, published in 1665. In that same year he received an appointment as gentleman to the dowager duchess of Orléans, who provided him with a home in Luxembourg. When she died, Madame de la Sablière allowed him to live at her house so that he could pursue his writing without having to worry about financial problems. He remained with her for the next twenty years. At her death, another admirer, Hervart, became his protector and adviser.

In Paris, with his needs provided for, La Fontaine thought only of his writing. Friendship with Champmeslé (Charles de Chevillet) interested him in writing operetta librettos and plays to be performed by his friend’s actress wife. Poetry, however, always held his greatest interest. By 1668 he had collected enough of his Fables Written in Verse to publish them in six books, dedicated to the dauphin of France. Ten years later five more volumes appeared with a prefatory eulogy to Madame de Montespan, but this indirect appeal for royal favor failed because she was already being supplanted as the king’s favorite. The final book of Fables choisies, mises en vers, the twelfth, was dedicated to the young duke of Burgundy.

La Fontaine was first proposed for membership in the Royal Academy in 1682, but Louis XIV and Minister of Finance Jean Baptiste Colbert remembered that La Fontaine had continued to defend Superintendent of Finances Fouquet even after his arrest. (La Fontaine believed that Fouquet was no more corrupt than other high-ranking officials in the government of King Louis XIV.) The next year, after Colbert’s death, La Fontaine and his friend Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux were nominated at the same time. The Academicians, to the king’s disgust, voted for La Fontaine. Louis neglected to sanction his admission until there was another vacancy, when La Fontaine and Boileau-Despréaux were both seated.

After a severe illness La Fontaine adapted some Psalms and engaged in moral meditation. He died at Hervart’s house and was buried in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents. La Fontaine’s Contes et nouvelles en vers and especially his Fables choisies, mises en vers established his reputation as a very refined and psychologically profound poet whose works can be appreciated at many different levels by both children and adults.

BibliographyBirberick, Anne L. Reading Undercover: Audience and Authority in Jean de La Fontaine. London: Associated University Presses, 1998. In her readings of La Fontaine’s major poetic works, Birberick proposes the possibility of a “circular writing” resulting from the multiplicity of author/audience relationships in the poet’s works, which allows La Fontaine room to criticize court patronage and tyranny, while nonetheless winning the necessary approbation of the Sun King.Birberick, Anne L. Refiguring La Fontaine: Tercentenary Essays. Charlottesville, Va.: Bookwood Press, 1996. In addition to Birberick’s introductory summary of La Fontaine’s critical reception since his death, this volume contains nine essays (three in French, six in English) that explore La Fontaine’s adaptations of and challenges to literary structure, questions of discourse in the Fables choisies, mises en vers, and new treatments of other, more neglected works by the poet. Of particular interest to an audience obliged to rely on translations from French is the last essay by David Lee Rubin, which examines three English translations of one fable in order to discuss how each translator’s different approach informs, or distorts, the image of La Fontaine and his poetry.Calder, Andrew. The Fables of La Fontaine: Wisdom Brought Down to Earth. Geneva: Droz, 2001. Arguing that it is essential to consider La Fontaine’s Fables from a perspective both of utility and pleasure in some sixteen, self-contained chapters that look to the fables as lessons in life, Calder’s book is also of interest in that it explores La Fontaine’s philosophical similarities with schools of thought in antiquity and with his Renaissance predecessors, such as Erasmus, François Rabelais, and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.Collinet, Jean-Pierre. “La Fontaine et ses illustrateurs.” In Œuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1991. Included in the Pléiade edition of La Fontaine’s work, the most authoritative and extensively annotated French edition, this essay is a critical history of famous French illustrations of La Fontaine’s poems, especially the Fables, from La Fontaine’s lifetime through the famous illustrations by Gustave Doré in the nineteenth century.Guiton, Margaret. La Fontaine: Poet and Counterpoet. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961. Examines La Fontaine’s competing visions of comedy and imaginative poetry. French passages translated. Contains chronological table of La Fontaine’s life and works.La Fontaine, Jean de. The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Edited and translated by Norman B. Spector. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988. A bilingual edition in clear, crisp rhymed verse. Closer to the original language and imagery than many other versions.La Fontaine, Jean de. The Fables of La Fontaine. Translated by Marianne Moore. New York: Viking Press, 1954. A verse translation by the famed poet. Captures the flavor of the original fables but exercises more poetic license than other versions.Lapp, John C. The Esthetics of Negligence: La Fontaine’s “Contes.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971. Refutes previous disparaging studies by demonstrating how La Fontaine’s wit, eroticism, lyricism, and charm make the Tales and Short Stories in Verse superior to their sources.Mackay, Agnes Ethel. La Fontaine and His Friends: A Biography. London: Garnstone Press, 1972. Examination of La Fontaine’s relationship with intimate friends and influential patrons. French passages translated in chapter endnotes.Sweetser, Marie-Odile. La Fontaine. Boston: Twayne, 1987. In this very approachable critical biography of La Fontaine, Sweetser organizes her chapters by the chronological appearance of each of the poet’s major works. Her volume is also useful in that it makes available to a non-francophone readership a concise, well-documented synthesis of continental scholarship concerning La Fontaine.Wadsworth, Philip A. Young La Fontaine. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1952. A detailed study of La Fontaine’s growth as a poet up to publication of his first fables in 1668. Good discussion of influences that shaped his early works.
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