Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry)
Jean de La Fontaine was born in the province of Champagne at Château-Thierry in 1621. In spite of his name, he was not of noble birth. His father held a government post as an administrator of forest and water resources. It was in the lush, green countryside of Château-Thierry that the poet spent his first twenty years. He loved the surrounding neighborhood with its familiar woods, waters, and meadows. He admired the natural world during a century when it went mostly unappreciated; indeed, to most of his contemporaries the term “nature” meant primarily human nature. Thus, his early upbringing set him apart from the other great classical writers of France’s Golden Age, and the influence of nature and of country people is apparent in many of his tales and fables.
It is well documented that as a boy, La Fontaine was dreamy and absent-minded. He was also cheerful and lively, possessing an amiable disposition which remained with him throughout his life. In 1641, at the age of twenty, La Fontaine decided to study for the priesthood at the Oratoire in Paris, but he abandoned this pursuit after eighteen months and turned to the study of law. In 1647, his father transferred his official post to La Fontaine and married him off to a girl from an affluent family. The match proved to be a disaster, and the couple formally separated after eleven years of marriage. During this period, La Fontaine lived the life of a dilettante. He showed a disinclination for...
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Early Life (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
Jean de La Fontaine was born in Château-Thierry, a small farming town in Champagne located about fifty miles east of Paris. His father, Charles de La Fontaine, was a local administrator of forests and waters. His mother, Françoise Pidoux, belonged to a respected middle-class family from Poitiers. The widow of a wealthy merchant, she had one daughter when she married Charles in 1617.
Although little is known about La Fontaine’s early years, most scholars believe he attended school in Château-Thierry before going to college in Paris. During his school years, he learned Latin rhetoric and grammar and was introduced to ancient works that would provide subjects for his later creative endeavors. He was most likely a sensitive student who liked to daydream and who perhaps found his teachers boring and authoritative. Several uncomplimentary references to schoolboys and schoolmasters in his fables suggest that his school years were not entirely pleasant.
On April 27, 1641, La Fontaine entered the Oratory, a religious seminary in Paris. By October, his teachers had discovered his preference for popular love stories and wrote that he should be strongly urged to study theology. After eighteen months, La Fontaine withdrew from the seminary and returned to Château-Thierry to read and daydream. Although...
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Life’s Work (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
During the classical period, which flourished in France from 1660 to about 1685, writers were expected to imitate and to adapt works of ancient authors, not by radically changing the originals but by presenting them in new styles to please contemporary audiences. As his first major work, La Fontaine tried to adapt a racy Latin comedy by Terence to the refined tastes of Parisian high society, but the necessary changes destroyed the flavor and unity of the original. Although L’Eunuque (1654; the eunuch) was never produced, its lively dialogue demonstrates his narrative skills.
For the next few years, La Fontaine was occupied by family affairs. The income from his administrative position and similar positions inherited from his father in 1658 was insufficient to pay family debts, forcing La Fontaine to annul his marriage in order to sell property held jointly with his wife. From this time on, he lived mostly apart from his family, relying on wealthy patrons to support his life’s work.
His first patron was Nicolas Fouquet, a wealthy and ambitious minister of finance, whose estate at Vaux-le-Vicomte was being built as a showplace of the arts, and whose eighteen thousand employees included the leading artists, architects, gardeners, musicians, and writers. In addition to occasional verse to entertain the society at Vaux, La Fontaine wrote Adonis (1658), a six-hundred-line love story in rhymed couplets, which merges three...
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Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 17th and 18th Centuries)
Although he tried his hand at many literary forms, Jean de La Fontaine is remembered for his fables, which have survived translation into many languages. Except for Tales and Short Stories in Verse, his other works are relatively unknown outside his own country, even to students of French literature. One exception, his poem Adonis, has received much scholarly attention since its brilliant analysis by the French poet Paul Valéry in 1921.
A careful writer even when trying to appear casual, La Fontaine was totally dedicated to his craft, despite a reputation for idleness and an eagerness to please the audience of his day. Forced to seek patrons to support his work, he firmly but diplomatically maintained his independence as a writer, rejecting suggestions to write the fables in prose or to follow his sources more closely. His fables are a synthesis of his extensive reading, keen observation, and years of poetic experimentation. With his unerring ear for dialogue, his insight into human nature, and his skill as a poet and storyteller, La Fontaine carried the classic art of imitation to its highest extreme by molding the fable into a new poetic genre. More than three centuries later, his accomplishment remains unsurpassed.
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Jean de La Fontaine (lah fohn-TEHN) was born on July 8, 1621, in the town of Château-Thierry northeast of Paris, the son of the supervisor of local domains belonging to the king of France. This solid, middle-class background allowed him to become well educated and aspire to a life of some leisure. It is also said that the long hours spent in the forests that were under his father’s supervision made La Fontaine especially familiar with and fond of animals, but this may well be part of the myth that later developed around him of someone who preferred nature and quiet contemplation to human society.
His family sent him to a Paris seminary to study theology at the age of twenty, in the hope he might become a priest, but he left after one year. From 1645 to 1647, he studied law in Paris, although academic work was a much lower priority than his growing enthusiasm for literature and his friendships in literary, artistic, and aristocratic circles. Some of these friends were members of the entourage of King Louis XIV’s superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, who would later become the first important patron in La Fontaine’s career.
In 1647, La Fontaine married the daughter of a respectable family, Marie Héricart, who was fourteen at the time. Like many upper-class weddings in this historical period, its purpose was to consolidate...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Jean de La Fontaine wrote in a wide variety of genres and styles, but he is known today primarily as the author of the Fables, his greatest work. Written for an educated and wealthy audience, the fables are full of stylistic subtlety and of satirical, as well as philosophical, content. Because fables traditionally are intended for educating children, and because La Fontaine’s poems have been recited by heart by generations of schoolchildren, the ambiguity and complexity of his work are often ignored. While scholars have always considered him one of France’s greatest poets, people who know him less well still think of him as a clever, witty, but superficial and frivolous writer. It is only necessary to read the texts themselves—there are many good English translations, including one by the great American poet Marianne Moore—to understand that there is far more depth in his beautifully constructed verse than many people are aware.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Jean de La Fontaine (lah fohn-tehn) was one of the world’s greatest writers of fables. His father earned his living as a forest ranger in the duchy of Château Thierry, where La Fontaine was born and raised. He studied at Rheims and at the age of twenty entered the seminary to prepare for a church career; however, his interest in law led to a change of vocation. In 1647, through family pressure, he married the well-to-do Marie Héricart, ten years younger than he. They lived together for eleven years and had one son before their separation in 1658.
La Fontaine was thirty when he began his literary career. A friend of the dramatists Jean Racine and Molière, he was encouraged in 1651 to adapt Terence’s Eunuchus for the Paris stage. La Fontaine’s version, L’Eunuque, was performed with fair success. He soon realized, however, that his true talent was as a poet and not as a dramatist. He began versifying fables, some suggested by Aesop, some original, and their popularity increased his literary reputation.
In 1656 Nicholas Fouquet, superintendent of finances and the confidential agent of Prime Minister Cardinal Mazarin, bestowed an annual pension of one thousand livres on La Fontaine in return for four poems a year. Fouquet’s arrest for embezzlement in 1661 ended that pension, but the duchess of Château Thierry...
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