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illuminating the margins of his manuscripts with the images of birds and beasts. In the nineteenth century, one can imagine him drifting among Paris cafés, pouring out his soul in a random lyric or two, and dying before his time. The age of Louis XIV took this dreamer, this idler, this feckless, fugitive, spiritual creature, kept him alive by means of patrons in high society, and eventually turned him-not simply into a poet, for he was a poet by nature, but into one of the most subtle, deliberate, patient, and exquisite craftsmen who have ever written in verse. The process was a long one; La Fontaine was in his fifties when he wrote the greater number of his Fables—where his genius found its true expression for the first time. But the process was also complete. Among all the wonderful and beautiful examples of masterly craftsmanship in the poetry of France, the Fables of La Fontaine stand out as the models of what perfect art should be.
The main conception of the Fables was based upon the combination of two ideasthat of the stiff dry moral apologue of Æsop, and that of the short story. By far the most important of these two elements was the latter. With the old fabulists the moral was the excuse for the fable; with La Fontaine
it was the other way round. His moral, added in a conventional tag, or even, sometimes, omitted altogether, was simply of use as the point of departure for the telling of a charming little tale. Besides this, the traditional employment of animals as the personages in a fable served La Fontaine's turn in another way. It gave him the opportunity of creating a new and delightful atmosphere, in which his wit, his fancy, his humour, and his observation could play at their ease. His animalswhatever injudicious enthusiasts may have said-are not real animals; we are no wiser as to the true nature of cats and mice, foxes and lions, after we have read the Fables than before. Nor, on the other hand, are they the mere pegs for human attributes which they were in the hands of Æsop. La Fontaine's creatures partake both of the nature of real animals and of human beings, and it is precisely in this dual character of theirs that their fascination lies. In their outward appearance they are deliciously true to life. With the fewest of rapid strokes, La Fontaine can raise up an unmistakable vision or bird, fish or reptile, that he has a mind to“Un jour sur ses long pieds allait je ne sais où Le Héron au long bec emmanché d'un Could there be a better description? And his fables are crowded with these life-like little vignettes. But the moment one goes below the surface one finds the frailties, the follies, the virtues, and the vices of humanity. And yet it is not quite that. The creatures of La Fontaine's fantasy are not simply animals with the minds of human beings: they are something more complicated and amusing; they are animals with the minds which human beings would certainly have, if one could suppose them transformed into animals. When the young and foolish rat sees a cat for the first time and observes to his mother
“Je le crois fort sympathisant Avec messieurs les rats: car il a des oreilles
En figure aux nôtres pareilles;'
this excellent reason is obviously not a rat's reason; nor is it a human being's reason; the fun lies in its being just the reason which, no doubt, a silly young creature of the human species would give in the circumstances if, somehow or other, he were metamorphosed into a rat.
It is this world of shifting lights, of queer, elusive, delightful absurdities, that La Fontaine has made the scene of the greater number of his stories. The stories themselves are for the most part exceedingly slight; what gives them immortality is the way they are told. Under the guise of an ingenuous, oldworld manner, La Fontaine makes use of an immense range of technical powers. He was an absolute master of the resources of metre; and his rhythms, far looser and more varied than those of his contemporaries, are marvellously expressive, while yet they never depart from a secret and controlling sense of form. His vocabulary is very rich-stocked chiefly with old-fashioned words, racy, colloquial, smacking of the soil, and put together with the light elliptical constructions of the common people. Nicknames he is particularly fond of: the cat is Raminagrobis, or Grippeminaud, or Rodilard, or Maître Mitis; the mice are “la gent trotte-menu”; the stomach is Messer Gaster; Jupiter is Jupin; La Fontaine himself is Gros-Jean. The charming tales, one feels, might almost have been told by some old country crony by the fire, while the wind was whistling in the chimney and the winter night drew on. The smile, the gesture, the singular naïveté—one can watch it all. But only for a moment. One must be childish indeed (and, by an odd irony, this exquisitely sophisticated author falls into
the hands of most of his readers when they are children) to believe, for more than a moment, that the ingenuousness of the Fables was anything but assumed. In fact, to do so would be to miss the real taste of the work. There is a kind of art, as every one knows, that conceals itself; but there is anotherand this is less often recognised—that displays itself, that just shows, charmingly but unmistakably, how beautifully contrived it is. And La Fontaine's art is of the latter sort. He is like one of those accomplished cooks in whose dishes, though the actual secret of their making remains a mystery, one can trace the ingredients which have gone to the concoction of the delicious whole. As one swallows the rare morsel, one can just perceive how, behind the scenes, the oil, the vinegar, the olive, the sprinkling of salt, the drop of lemon were successively added, and, at the critical moment, the simmering delicacy served up, done to a turn.
It is indeed by an infinity of small touches that La Fontaine produces his effects. And his effects are very various. With equal ease, apparently, he can be playful, tender, serious, preposterous, eloquent, meditative, and absurd. But one quality is always present in his work; whatever tune he may be playing,