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OF Phædrus also little is known. He, too, was a slave, of Thracian origin, brought to Rome in the time of Augustus, and later manumitted by him. After mastering the language, he set to work, as he tells us in his prologues, to render Æsop's matter more or less freely into Latin Iambic verse. But many of his Fables cannot be Æsopic, referring as they do to later events. His best seem those which are most Æsopic.
There are bearing his name ninety-seven Fables in five books, with the addition of an epitome of thirty-two Roman Fables, found in a MS. of Archbishop Perotti in the fifteenth century, which are probably not the work of Phædrus at all.
JEAN DE LA FONTAINE was born on the 8th July, 1621, at Château Thierry, on the river Marne, a thorough Frenchman, bred in the heart of France, where the soil is rich, and the air soft. His father, of an old middleclass (bourgeois) family, was resident surveyor of woods and forests (maître des eaux et forêts). A very ordinary education taught him enough Latin to enjoy, when the taste came later, poring over Horace and Virgil. Of Greek he knew little or nothing. Later on we find him and Racine studying Homer together in a Latin translation.
For the happy abundance of classic illustration, which adds so much to the charm and humour of his fables, he was mainly indebted to Plutarch's Lives, that treasury of historical anecdote familiar, through translations, to all literary Frenchmen.
At nineteen he had a fancy for taking orders ; but after eighteen months' trial of L'Oratoire, he found so regular a life intolerable.
Upon this his father, anxious to make a good provision for him, vacated his own office in his favour, and married him to Marie Héricart, an officer's daughter, gifted both with wit and beauty. Both these arrangements ended in failure. La Fontaine had as little interest or sense of obligation in fulfilling these engagements as he had had active share in undertaking them. The same indolent mood induced consent to them beforehand, neglect of them afterwards. Business habits and domestic responsibilities were alike uncongenial; and he never could see why he should train or control himself to do what went against the grain of his nature.
Till the age of thirty-five he nominally filled his office, leading a merry life in the country with the choice spirits of his neighbourhood.
Of the duties involved in marriage he always made light, most of all of his own. He liked his wife, and respected her, and often consulted her judgment; but her temper gave him excuse, without any open breach, for becoming more and more estranged from home.
After many years of absence, some friends suggested he ought to go and see his wife. So he travelled all the way from Paris on purpose. But hearing when he reached the house that his wife was at church, he said it did not matter, and came back again without having seen her.
Of his own son, adopted by M. de Harlay, he knew so little, that having once met him in society, and being told it was his son, he remarked that he thought he had seen him somewhere before !
His peculiar talent was long in revealing itself. His father, passionately fond of poetry himself, was anxious to impart the taste to his son, but apparently all in vain, till at the age of twenty-two La Fontaine was suddenly impressed by the recital of an ode of Malherbe. He instantly made Malherbe his study and his model. But happily the advice of friends and his own true taste soon led him to more worthy models; and now he set eagerly to work to familiarize himself by turns with Horace, Virgil, Terence, with Rabelais and Marot, with Ariosto and Boccacio, with Plato and Plutarch, combining from these varied sources the wisdom of the moralist with the humour of the satirist, the natural playfulness of the story-teller with the polished grace of the poet.
He was first introduced to Paris through the Duchesse de Bouillon, niece of Cardinal Mazarin, who during her temporary exile at Château Thierry was delighted with the genius of La Fontaine, and took him with her on her return to Paris. Thenceforward he more and more forgot his home for the attractions of Paris ; and as his patrimony soon became exhausted, he was reduced to a perpetual state of dependence on pensions and patronage. He was pensioned by Fouqué till the time of that minister's disgrace; and he found for twenty years a home with Madame de la Sablière, who took care of him as of a child. She once said, laughingly, that she had just parted with all her household, except her dog, her cat, and her La Fontaine !
But this dependence involved in his case no sense of degradation ; it left him intellectually free; he could muse, observe, imagine, talk, and write, as his fancy led him. He had, as Taine says, the knack of wearing the livery without having the soul of servitude. Patronage he received as his natural due, and requited with affectionate gratitude ; but he was no ordinary adulatory courtier ; and it is remarkable that to him alone of all the men of mark of that “grand age” the liberality of the great monarch Louis XIV. was never extended.
Helpless, thriftless, heedless as he was for himself, he
felt for the troubles and difficulties of others, was consulted by them, and actually gave them good advice.
He grew with age more and more absent and absorbed in his own poetic musings, yet with occasional bursts of that original, humorous, imaginative talk which attracted round him and delighted the great people of his day. At times, again, he would disappoint his entertainers by persistent silence. On one such occasion, rising from table needlessly early to go to the Academy, and being reminded that it was but a little way, he simply answered, “ I shall take the longest !”
He neither possessed nor needed “study” or “library” in which to imagine or compose; the drawing-room, the street, the field, served his purpose equally well, since wherever he found himself he could be insensible to all distracting objects, close observer though he was of character and nature. He was seen, one cold, rainy day, musing under the same tree from morning to night.
He was justly beloved for his childlike innocence, his perfect temper, and his simple modesty. If ever he gave offence, it was done unintentionally, and he was genuinely sorry like a penitent child. He himself was incapable of taking offence, or being betrayed into any
misunderstanding or quarrel ; and he always heard with unaffected surprise of the success of his writings, which cost him so little conscious effort.
In 1684, at the age of 63, he was elected a member of L'Académie Française, the highest literary distinction. This learned body had been for some time anxious to recognize so original a genius; but his actual reception into it was delayed, through court intrigue, until there
a second chair vacant for the court favourite, Despréaux.
At the death of Mdme. de la Sablière, he was left for a while homeless and unprotected, and was much tempted
by his first patroness, Mdme. de Bouillon, and other friends, to migrate to England. It is said that he even began to study English with this prospect.
About the same time (1692–3), he had a long and dangerous illness, which led him to read and think more of religious subjects, and on his recovery he became formally reconciled with the Church. This was the occasion of the generous present of all his pocket money, sent him by the young prince, the Duc de Bourgogne, then only ten years old.
But a new home was very soon provided for his old age by Mdme. d'Hervart, and to the childlike old man the arrangement seemed so natural, that when Mdme. d'Hervart came to offer him a home he simply answered, “I was coming” (F'y allais)!
He died on the 13th March, 1695, in his 74th year, and was buried in the cemetery of St. Joseph, near his old friend Molière, who had been laid there 22 years before. The hair shirt (cilice) found on his body bore witness to the sincerity of the seriousness of his last years. He had written for himself this characteristic epitaph :
“Jean s'en alla comme il était venu,
Et crut les biens chose peu nécessaire.
L'une à dormir, et l'autre à ne rien faire.”
Everything La Fontaine wrote gives proof of facility, independence, originality. He wrote, as the bird sings, from natural impulse, and without effort. And when casual expressions seem incorrect, it is rather the result of true artistic negligence, than of indolent carelessness. His genius is essentially French, embodying the merry
* Lat. 'solebat.'