Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

approaching, and on the roth February, 1695, he thus writes to his old friend, de Maucroix :- -“I assure you that I have scarcely a fortnight to live. I have hardly been out for the last two months, except to go to the Academy. Yesterday, when returning from there, I was seized with such an attack of prostration that I thought my last hour was come. Oh! my friend, to die is nothing, but do you consider that I shall shortly appear in the presence of God! Before you receive this note perhaps the gates of eternity will have been opened to me.” M. de Maucroix answers, “If you have not strength to write to me, beg M. Racine to do so.

Farewell, my good old friend, may God in His infinite mercy Death of La take care of your bodily and soul's health.”

On the 13th Fontaine, April of April, 1695, La Fontaine died in the house of his friend

D'Hervart, at the age of seventy-three, and we cannot conclude this memoir better than by the following tribute paid to his memory by his constant friend Maucroix :- -“ We have been friends for more than fifty years, and I thank God for having allowed the extreme friendship I bore him to continue up to a pretty good old age without interruption or coolness, as I can say that I have ever loved him with affection as much the last ray as the first. May God, in His mercy, take his soul into His holy rest ! His was the sincerest and most candid heart I ever knew. Never any disguise. I do not know if he ever told a lie in his life. His was, moreover, a great genins, capable of everything that he undertook. His Fables, in the opinion of the best judges, will never die, and will do him honour to all posterity."

A A FEW WORDS

ON THE

SUBJECT MATTER OF THE FABLES

A NYONE who has taken the trouble to read the foregoing sketch of the life of La Fontaine will be easily convinced that if ever a poet's productions were the mirror of his life and character this may be more truly predicated of La Fontaine than of almost any other poet, especially as far as his Fables are concerned ; and as this volume is a collection of the Fables only, our remarks will be simply confined to considering I a Fontaine's character, and the influence of the age and society in which he lived as bearing upon this portion of his works.

We have seen what an easygoing, simple, childlike nature wis his—how addicted to fits of absence—and how utterly incapable he was of coping with the usual difficulties that beset most men through life, even so far as providing himself with the common necessaries of la vie matérielle, for which he was dependent now upon this, now upon that, protector. Here was surely just the sort of man to take pleasure in solitary rural walks, and in contemplating and noting the ways and manners of dumb animals—a study which must have inspired him with the idea of giving to his countrymen and to the world at large a better collection than any yet existing of fables in verse, in which the principal actors should be dumb animals, and whose object should be to instruct and amuse whilst in a good-natured manner satirising the vices and follies of mankind.

As a proof of how he would at times be totally absorbed in his observation of the habits of his favourite objects of study, it is related that he one day entirely forgot the dinner-hour at a friend's house, and, upon being asked what he had been doing, replied that he had been attending the funeral of an ant, which he had accompanied to the grave, and then returned home with the disconsolate family. We must not, however, suppose that La Fontaine studid animals from a scientific point of view—this would have demanded more labour and patienco

2

a

[ocr errors]

a

one.

a

on

than he was capable of ; and we much doubt whether a purely scientific description of their habits would be as amusing or even as instructive as the vulgarly received notions with which all the world are acquainted, and which are, therefore, better calculated to bring the lesson home which it is intended to inculcate.

We find, indeed, some glaring errors of this kind in the Fables. For instance, in Fable 10 of Book iv. he speaks of the camel and dromedary as one and the same animal ; whereas any tyro in natural history knows that they belong to two distinct species—the camel having two humps, and the dromedary but

He constantly mixes up rats and mice (Book iii., Fable 18), as if they were synonymous terms. But perhaps the most glaring mistake of all, and the one that has been most commented on, occurs in the eighth Fable of Book ii., where a rabbit is represented as taking refuge in the hole of a beetle!

M. Henri Taine, a writer well known to English readers as well by his Essays on English Literature as by his contributions of articles on English social life to the columns of the Daily News, has published a most interesting volume “ La Fontaine et ses Fables,"* in which he shows what a complete picture they are of the different classes of society in the age in which La Fontaine lived, from the king down to the labourer ; and he very ably contrasts each member of this social ladder with the animal supposed to represent him.

First he draws a parallel between the Lion and the King (not Louis XIV. especially-La Fontaine was too good a courtier for that--but kings in general). “Sa majesté lionne" is always dignified, and with a proper notion of what is due to his majesty and that of his consort. See how he speaks of his own claws as too sacred to punish the stag who dared not to weep at the death of the lioness ; how he calls on the wolves to come and immolate the wretch to her “augustes mânes” (viii., 14). He is generally, if not always, magnanimous, in Book ii., when the rat

out of the ground between his paws, he

Montra ce qu'il était, et lui donna la vie.
Sometimes he is rather plausible, as in the famous Fable i of Book

ii., “Les Animaux malades de la Peste,” when he offers to
sacrifice himself, if necessary, for the common good-

Car il faut souhaiter selon toute justice que le plus coupable périsse, knowing perfectly well that such an act would be deprecated

La Fontaine et ses Fables." Par H. Taine. Paris : Hachette.

The Lion The King

as

Fable II,

comes

unanimously. He certainly never neglects his own advantage, and always has the lion's share of the booty. He shows, perhaps, in the worst colours in Fable 12, Book iv., “Le Tribut envoyé par les Animaux à Alexandre,” where he certainly does not behave honourably to his fellow deputies. Ile is consistent to the end, and dies in a manner worthy of his high station (Book iii., Fable not deigning to utter any complaint till the insult offered him by the ass proves more than he can bear.

The Tiger and the Bear (les autres puissances, as La Fontaine The Tiger. calls them) come next on the social scale, and represent the great The Bear. ones of the earth. The bear, as M. Taine tells us, is a sort of rough country gentleman, hobereau solitaire et rustre, of whom the monkey says (Book i., Fable 7).

Jamais, s'il me veut croire, il ne se fera peindre. When courteously invited (viii., 10) by the old gardener, the bear, who is described as “ très mauvais complimenteur," answers gruffly

Viens t'en me voh, and then afterwards smashes his friend's skull with a pavingstone in his awkward endeavours to keep off the flies from him when asleep. He shows his ill-breeding by addressing the lioness as ma commère," and when (xii., 1), Ulysses tries to get him to express discontent with his personal appearance, replies—

Comme me voilà fait ! comme doit être un ours. Ilis bad manners, however, meet with condign punishment when (vii., 7) he presumes to turn up his nose at the bad odour of the lion's den

Sa grimace déplut : le monarque irrité

L'envoya chez Pluton faire le dégoûté. There is not much mention of the Elephant in the Fables, The Elephant though a good parallel is drawn (xii., 21) between him and those kings and princes of little dominions who imagine that the whole world is occupied with their affairs, thus recalling the story of the Khan of Tartary who, after his own dinner is over, causes a proclamation to be made that now all the other kings and potentates of the earth may have their dinners if they please.

La Fontaine must certainly have frequently intended to satirise The Court. the ridiculous obsequiousness of the courtiers of his day. As an The Ape. instance of this we have (vii., 7) the ape declaring that the lion's den smells sweeter than amber and flowers. This flattery met with no better reward than that of the Abbé de Polignac, who,

The Wolf.

a

The Fox

when walking with the king at Marly, during a heavy shower, declared that the rain of Marly did not even wet you !

The Wolf is a bad courtier. See (viii., 3) how his awkward attempt to calumniate his absent friend, the fox, recoils upon his own head. He is always a knave, and generally a fool. The Fable of the wolf and the lamb (i., 10) has become proverbial. La Fontaine delights in making him suffer, and be “taken in ” on all occasions ; and we are delighted when (xi., 6) the fox leaves him at the bottom of the well, after having persuaded him that the reflection of the moon there is a delicious cheese ; when the young goat (iv., 15) is too clever for him ; when the horse breaks his jaw (v., 8); and, lastly, when (iv., 16) he is fool enough to believe the mother who threatens to throw her child out to the wolf if he is naughty, and is despatched by the farm servants; or when (viii , 3) the old lion makes a dressing-gown of his skin at the instigation of the fox.

The Fox is a better coartier, and generally contrives to save his own skin, though at the expense of his veracity. He is the hero of the fables of the Middle Ages, and of course plays the principal pari in those of La Fontaine. The well-known Fable (i., 2) of the fox and the crow has become proverbial, and may serve as a type of what he is throughout; so that we are absolutely relieved when we find him sometimes “too clever by half,” and meet the due reward of his villany, as when in (i., 18) the stork is "too many" for him, (v., 5) he loses his brush, (iii., 11) he cannot reach the grapes, (ix., 14) the cat escapes up a tree, and he, after boasting of his bagful of dodges, falls a victim to the pursuing pack. M. Taine thus sums up his character as the perfect type of a courtier :-“Avide, impudent, dur, railleur, perfide, sans pitié, mais spirituel, prompt, inventif, persévérant, maître de soi, éloquent.”

The Dog is a good specimen of the lord-in-waiting, “aussi puissant que beau, gras, poli” (i., 5), whose trade is to please his employers, drive away beggars, and ill-clad persons; as M. Taine calls him, “premier gentilhomme de la chambre, huissier des entrées." He receives in return, “Os de poulets et de pigeons, sans parler de mainte caresse "—that is to say, court favours crosses, and pensions. For all that, he cannot hide from the wolf the mark of the collar round his neck, which shows that he is not free to go where he pleases.

Sometimes we have men themselves introduced into the Fables. “Le Seigneur du village" (iv., 4), who eats his tenant's Cood, drinks his wine, caresses his daughter, and whose hounds

The Dog.

Le Seigneur.

« PreviousContinue »