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Grammatical, Explanatory, and Etymological Notes
FRANCIS TARVER, M.A., Oxon.
FRENCH MASTER AT ETON COLLEGE
LIBRAIRIE HACHETTE & Cie
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LIFE AND WRITINGS
JEAN DE LA FONTAINE.
JEAN DE LA FONTAINE was born July 8, 1621, at Château- Birth, July 8, Thierry. His father, Charles de la Fontaine, was Commissioner of Waters and Forests, and his mother's maiden name was Françoise Pidoux. The poet's family was an ancient one, and had some pretensions to nobility. His early education was conducted at a village school, and afterwards at Rheims,* a town for which he always entertained a great affection.
A certain Canon of Soissons, by name Héricart, fancying that he saw in the young man an inclination for the clerical profession, endeavoured to develope this inclination, and young Jean de la Fontaine was sent to the seminary of St. Magloire in 1641, Enters Seminary where, however, he only remained for one year, not having (as at St. Magloire we learn from a subsequent letter to his wife) been either able or willing to master sufficient theology to render him fit for holy orders. The indolent life of pleasure which La Fontaine led after leaving the seminary proved how little fitted he would have been for the Church. Several anecdotes are related at this period of his life of the carelessness and forgetfulness which characterised him throughout. One will be sufficient to paint the man. Returning one day from Paris to Château-Thierry on horseback with some family papers of great importance attached to his saddle, he let them fall. They were picked up soon after by the driver of the mails, and upon his overtaking and asking La Fontaine if he had not lost anything, he replied that he was perfectly sure that he had not; but on seeing the packet exclaimed that his whole property depended upon it. La Fon- Taste for Poetry taine seems to have reached his twenty-second year before he first developed in showed any signs of a taste for poetry. His hearing an ode of
* La Fontaine thus speaks of Rheims in his " Contes,” iii., 4 :—
Il n'est cité que je préfère à Reims;
C'est l'ornement et l'honneur de la France;
Malherbe read aloud first awakened the fire dormant within him, and he set to work to learn the works of Malherbe by heart, and used to declaim his verses aloud when alone. This led to a study of Voiture, and to some attempts of his own in imitation of this poet. Fortunately one of his relatives, by name Pintrel, induced him to study better models, Horace, Virgil, Homer; and M. de Maucroix confirmed him in his admiration of the ancient classics, and especially of Plato and Plutarch. His new friends, however, did not make him forget his old ones, and Rabelais, Marot, Voiture, were still his favourite authors; and amongst the Italians Ariosto, Boccaccio, Machiavelli. The first work he ever published was a translation of the "Eunuchus" of Terence in verse, in 1654. But we are anticipating.
At the age of twenty-six our poet's father, wishing to settle him in life, handed over his business to him, and found him a wife in the person of Marie Héricart, who was only fifteen years old at the time of their marriage; and as their married life was none of the happiest (indeed they were separated by mutual consent not long after), it would not be out of place here to remark on the diversity of character which made their union so ill-assorted. We learn that his wife, though beautiful and clever, wanted exactly the only thing requisite to fix the easygoing, careless character of La Fontaine. She had none of those solid qualities, love of order and serious occupation, necessary for this purpose. Whilst she was reading novels at home he was seeking distraction abroad, or rapt in his verses and the study of his favourite poets. Their joint income soon got embarrassed, and in 1659 we find that there was a séparation de biens between La Fontaine and his wife.
We now come to speak of the best trait in the whole life of our poet-namely, his devoted attachment to his friend and protector, Fouquet, in his disgrace. It is not our province to enlarge upon that Minister's career, nor to describe how from a state of more than regal magnificence, and from being the possessor of a palace (Vaux) on which more treasures of art were lavished than on any that his countrymen had yet seen (Versailles was not yet built), and where he had the honour of receiving the king and his court-how from this height of prosperity he was suddenly plunged to the lowest depths of disgrace, and imprisoned for life in the fortress of Pignerol. Fouquet had early taken up La Fontaine and afforded him the means of leading an easy, indolent life in the midst of the luxuries of