Study Guide

Jean de La Fontaine

Jean de La Fontaine Biography

Biography (Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

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 steady work and was content to spend much of his time in idleness; he was a voracious reader. He eventually sold his father’s post and took up permanent residence in Paris.

La Fontaine began writing comparatively late in life, in his middle thirties. Throughout his career as a man of letters, he relied upon generous patrons for his support and well-being. His first patron was also his most important—the wealthy finance minister Nicolas Fouquet. La Fontaine became a pensioner of Fouquet in 1656 and wrote for...

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Jean de La Fontaine Early Life (17th- and 18th-Century Biographies)

0111206549-Lafontaine.jpgJean de La Fontaine (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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 many writers refer disparagingly to this idle period, La Fontaine was becoming familiar with ancient and modern authors, especially the poets François Malherbe and Vincent Voiture, François Rabelais, and the Latin writers Horace, Vergil, and Terence.

From 1645 to 1647, La Fontaine studied law in Paris, spending much of his time, however, with aspiring young writers (François Maucroix, Paul Pellisson, and Antoine Furetière) who would influence and support him throughout his career. In this formative period, La Fontaine continued to increase his knowledge of ancient and modern literature.

In 1647, at the age of twenty-six, La Fontaine was married to Marie Héricart, who was fourteen and a half years of age, and who brought him a dowry of thirty thousand livres, a considerable sum. Although amiable at first, the couple drifted apart. Absorbed for weeks in his reading, La Fontaine ignored both his family and his duties as forest warden, a position he obtained in 1652. Although he appeared idle and absentminded, the extent of his voracious reading and keen observation would become evident in his later works.

Jean de La Fontaine Life’s Work (17th- and 18th-Century Biographies)

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 distinct genres (heroic, idyllic, and elegiac) in a creative synthesis of earlier sources. La Fontaine was also working on Le Songe de Vaux (1659; the dream of Vaux), a mixture of poetry and prose in which the muses of painting, gardening, architecture, and poetry describe the wonders of Fouquet’s magnificent estate, then under construction. The work reveals La Fontaine’s remarkable ability to communicate visual imagery in verse.

When the young Louis XIV had Fouquet imprisoned for plundering the treasury, La Fontaine demonstrated his uncompromising loyalty to the finance minister in a short poem circulated anonymously among Fouquet’s supporters, deploring the minister’s downfall and asking the nymphs of Vaux to make the king merciful. A year later, in “Ode au Roi” (1663; ode to the king), La Fontaine urged Louis XIV to pardon his disgraced minister.

Forty years of age, without a patron and in disfavor with the young monarch who had taken Fouquet’s role as patron of the arts, La Fontaine traveled to Limoges with his wife’s uncle, Jacques Jannart, who had been exiled for supporting Fouquet. La...

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Jean de La Fontaine Biography (17th- and 18th-Century Biographies)

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.

Jean de La Fontaine Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111206549-Lafontaine.jpgJean de La Fontaine Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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,...

(The entire section is 809 words.)

Jean de La Fontaine Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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...

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Jean de La Fontaine Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111206549-Lafontaine.jpgJean de La Fontaine Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 639 words.)