Page images
PDF
EPUB
[blocks in formation]

LIFE AND WRITINGS

OF

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 1621. 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. Mag'uire,

1641. 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

1643 showed any signs of a taste for poetry. His hearing an ode of

* La Fontaine thus speaks of Rheims in his " Contes,” iï., 4:

Il n'est cité que je préfère à Reims;
C'est l'ornement et l'honneur de la France ;
Car sans compter l'ampoule et les bons vins,
Charmants objets y sont en abondance.

are

Marriage, 1646

Malherbe read aloud first awakened the fire dormant within
him, and he set to work to learn the works of Malher be by heart,
and used to declaim his verses aloud when alone. This led
to a study of Voiture, and to some attempts of his uwn in imi-
tation 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 admirati
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, Machia.
velli. The first work he ever published was a translation of the
“ Eunuchus" of Terence in verse, in 1654.

But we
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 ard 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 pro. tector, 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 pos. sessor 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 rece ing the king and his court—how from this height of pros-. perity 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

Intimacy with
Fouquet.

vii

Vaux, thus free from all care of providing for his daily wants. In return for these benefits, La Fontaine composed a poem, half “Le Songe de prose, half verse, entitled, “ Le Songe de Vaux.” Fouquet gave

Vaux." him an annual pension, and in return La Fontaine composed sonnets, madrigals, and odes for his patron. And when after Fouquet's Dishis patron's fall the courtiers whom he had enriched one and grace, 1661. all abandoned him, his literary friends alone stood manfully by him, especially La Fontaine, who by his “Elégie aux Nymphes "Elégie aux de Vaux,” contributed more than any to allay the storm of in- Vaux."

Nymphes de dignation raised on all sides against the unfortunate fallen Minister.

In 1658 La Fontaine's father died, and left him his small Death of La Fonfortune much incumbered. About this time he became in- taine's father, timately acquainted with Racine, who was himself studying for Intimacy with holy orders, with about as much inclination and taste for the Racine. ecclesiastical profession as La Fontaine had exhibited before him. We now hear of a certain journey that he made to Limoges Journey to

Limoges, 1663 in the company of Jannart, exiled thither by Colbert's order. This journey is only remarkable in that La Fontaine makes it the subject of a series of letters to his wife, with whom he does not seem to have had much other communication, and in these he mentions their son, now aged ten, of whom he seldom, if ever, speaks, being, as we shall see from several passages in his Fables, * particularly averse to children. He also relates how, after ordering his dinner at a village inn near Orléans, he went out, and getting absorbed in his favourite author, Livy, he entirely forgot the dinner-hour. He then made a pious pilgrimage to Amboise to visit the room in which Fouquet had been first confined.

On his return from Limoges to Château-Thierry he found the 1664. Duchesse Duchesse de Bouillon established there. This lady took such pleasure in his society, that she carried him off to Paris with her, and introduced him to her circle, and in the same year he La Fontaine accepted the post of gentilhomme servant to Marguerite de of Marguerite

enters the service Lorraine, Duchess Dowager of Orléans. He published at this de Lorraine, time the poem of " Joconde," and in the following year his first Dowager of collection of “Contes et Nouvelles en Vers," the subjects of Orleans. which are mostly licentious, and for which an excuse can only - Loconde” and. be found in the writings and morals of the age in which La Fontaine velles en Vers," lived. In them he imitated Ariosto, the “Decamerone ” of

de Bouillon.

1665.

Cf. Book i., Fable 19, page 18, lines 12 et seqq.; and Book ix., Fable 2

page 188, lize 6.

Boccaccio, and the “Heptameron” of Marguerite de Navarre. Society was so far from being scandalised by such productions, that the “ Contes" were eagerly read, and La Fontaine received

the appellation of Le Conteur par excellence. Intimacy with

It was about this time that there was formed a close inti. Racine, Molière, macy between La Fontaine, Racine, Boileau, Molière, and Boileau, and Chapelle, 1666.

Chapelle, who used to meet two or three times a week to sup together at Boileau's lodging in the Rue du Vieux Colombier, where La Fontaine's “absent” fits were among the chief sources of amusement to the company, and where Molière seems first to have given him the sobriquet of “Le Bon Homme,” by which he will always be distinguished. These friends, anxious to bring about a reconciliation between him and his wife, who had retired to Château Thierry, at last prevailed upon him to go and meet her there. He did go, but not finding her at home on his arrival, he went to a friend's house, where he stayed two or three days, entirely forgetting the object of his journey, and he returned to Paris without even having seen his wife.

For some time now La Fontaine seems to have devoted him.

self to writing odes and sonnets on the principal events and per1667. Second

sonages of the reign and Court of Louis XIV. In 1667 a new Collection of

collection of “Contes " appears, prefaced by a promise (destined

to be broken), that this should be the last production of such a 1668. First nature. In 1668 appeared the first collection of “Fables Choisies RECUEIL DE

Mises en Vers,” dedicated to the Dauphin, consisting of the first FABLESCHOISIES MISES EN VERS." six Books of the Fables. It may not be out of place here to

enumerate the different authors of Fables from the earliest times

that La Fontaine has taken for his models. Early Fabulists. The idea of imparting instruction by means of allegory seems Æsop.

to have originated with Æsop, who lived 620 years B.C., at the Court of Croesus, King of Lydia, and who, through the inter.

course of the Lydians with the Assyrians, may have been indebted Pilpay. to the East for the idea, as the Fables of Bidpaï (or Pilpay) and Lokman. of Lokman (considered by some persons to have been identical

with Æsop) are certainly of Eastern origin. Babrias.

The collections of Fables best known to the Romans were those

composed by Babrias, about the time of Alexander Severus, and Phaedrus. Phædrus, in the reign of Tiberius, wrote an edition of the Fables

of Æsop turned into Latin verse.

In the ninth century one Ignatius Magister, afterwards Bishop of Nicæa, abridged the Fables of Babrias, reducing each to four iambic verses. This abridgment has come down to us under the name of “ Fables of Gabrias,” which is a corruption of Babrias.

"Contes.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »