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humour of the old esprit gaulois, satisfying the national craving for laughter ( besoin de rire).
And his Fables give a new and more graceful form to the old popular subject of “animal epics,” those fabliaux of which“ Reynard the Fox” is the best-known instance.
But more than all this he was a true poet, perhaps of all French authors the truest poet ; one who lived in his own ideal world, and was more at home with fictitious than with real scenes and personages.
He loved all that was bright and kindly and pleasurable, and from the reverse would turn away with a goodhumoured laugh. His fables so disguise, under the caricature of animal drama, scenes which in real life would be painful and cruel, that the needful lesson can be gathered, while the amusement is in no way checked.
For those who in after ages and in many lands have found delight and profit in the works of La Fontaine's poetic genius, it would be thankless and unjust to condemn him for having in his day and in his country neglected the ordinary work and duties of life.
Those who would know more of La Fontaine, should consult Walkenäer's Life; La Harpe, Eloge; Voltaire, Siècle de Louis XIV; and especially M. H. Taine's brilliant Essay on La Fontaine and his Fables.
A LEARNED writer in the Philological Museum defines Fable as “an analogical narrative, intended to convey some moral lesson, in which irrational animals and objects are introduced as speaking.”
A more lively if not so exact a definition of Fable, La Fontaine himself gives us in the first Fable of Book V., of which the first half is rather a prologue.
"Je tâche d'y tourner le vice en ridicule,
Tantôt je peins en un récit
J'oppose quelquefois, par une double image,
faisant de cet ouvrage
Et dont la scène est l'univers.
And again in the Dedication to Madame de Montespan,
Ou, si c'est un présent des hommes,
Nous devons, tous tant que nous sommes,
Eriger en divinité
Ou plutôt il la tient captive,
Nous attachant à des récits
And in his Preface he says that whereas many of the ancients attributed Fable to the highest wisdom that they knew—that of Socrates-he wonders they did not go further, and assign to Fable a divine authorship, as to Poetry and to Eloquence. For the teaching of the heathen world by Fable may be compared without irreverence to the teaching of the Christian world by Parable. In each wisdom and truth are practically taught through the
* The French borrowed the word apologue, for Fable, from Cicero's apologus, which he adopted to express the Æsopic Fable. The original sense of απόλογος was a long story,” like that of Ulysses.
channel of striking examples. No child but is impressed by the story, no man too wise to learn something from its spirit.
But especially on the young are Fables most useful in impressing moral axioms; and in Morals, as in Geometry, you must start from simple axioms, if you are to work out higher truths.
And incidentally Fables teach useful knowledge, above all natural history; while the study of animal nature leads up again to that of human ethics. Just as Prometheus, when he would construct his microcosm (man), combined in him the leading characteristics of the several animals.
“No wonder then,” concludes our author, " that Plato assigned a definite place to Fable in his ideal Republic, while he would banish from it the unsettling, unedifying poems of Homer.”
The truth is that Fable has always been at once popular and edifying, because it disguises home truths in a foreign garb, and gilds wise maxims with pleasant stories. The moral
goes down with the story, when it would have else no chance of being swallowed and digested at all. The situation and the action seem quite alien to us, but still the lesson silently, unconsciously comes home. Men cannot be directly taught to be shrewd and practical, and certainly resent all personal imputation of folly. But the mass are made more wary and wise by the indirect, impersonal counsels of well-pointed, popular Fables.
And undoubtedly La Fontaine, though he modestly styles himself a translator and humble imitator of his predecessors, did bring the art of Fable-writing to its highest perfection. In no style of writing has perfection been more nearly reached. He knew how to point these counsels of wisdom with the keenest wit and the most playful humour; to dress them out with lively dramatic action, with endless variety of illustration ; to express in them his simple, truthful love of nature; to enliven them with perpetual mirth; to stamp them with his own uncynical good-humour. The single-minded kindheartedness of “le bon homme,” as he was aptly called, breathes in what he writes. His Fables are as far removed from the dreary earnestness of the mere moralist as from the ungenial cynicism of the satirist. In all his many merry Fables, professing to inculcate nothing higher than worldly wisdom, no single moral can mislead, no single expression need offend.
He is most severe on monks and women; but we must remember that to affect this tone was the standing order in all lighter French literature, and La Fontaine always keeps within the bounds of good-nature and fair play.
As to arrangement, La Fontaine tells us in his Preface that Æsop always tells his story first and states his moral afterwards; whereas Phædrus sometimes begins with his moral axiom, and then tells his story in illustration. Our author often does the same, and sometimes likes to let his actors themselves enforce the moral, without his stating it at all, as in I. i. 4, &c. He also explains that he omits to state the moral of a Fable, when it is already sufficiently obvious; and occasionally, if when stated in plain terms, the moral would prove too unpalatable to go down.
The question has been asked, why, as a rule, the actors in Fable are animals. It cannot be merely to arrest an audience by the element of the wonderful. The Æsopic Fables at once and naturally introduce animal actors, referring the story to the good old times, ότε φωνήεντα ην Tà Śwa. And had the object been merely to excite wonder, this object could not have been attained for long ; for by repetition the wonderful would soon have become commonplace.
Lessing gives the true reason. Animals are chosen as the dramatis persona in Fable, because they have such distinctive characters, and their characteristics are so universally known.
Few readers are sufficiently familiar with History to recognize readily the individual traits and mutual relation of a Nero and a Britannicus; but tell the Fable of the Wolf and the Lamb, and all alike instantly catch and enjoy the point.
Plants and stones, &c., seldom play a part in Fable, not because their speaking and acting would be too improbable, but because they have less clearly defined characteristics.
Again with human actors, human sympathies would necessarily be roused; whereas for a calm and clear appreciation of the moral, the judgment should be unbiassed by commiseration, or resentment, or any passion.
In introducing animals the fabulist must be true to nature; but Fable has the right to use received traditions of animal characteristics, as of the swan singing before its death, the pelican feeding its young on its own lifeblood, though not literally true to Natural History.