Jean de la Fontaine’s poetic output mirrors the two major styles of seventeenth century French literature—that is to say, it lies between artistic exuberance, on one hand, and classical restraint, on the other. This has not always been apparent, however, since the fame of his Fables was such as to put his other poetic works in partial eclipse for a long period. Later scholarship has attempted to redress this imbalance. Such works as Adonis, Le Songe de Vaux, and The Loves of Cupid and Psyche reflect the grandiose splendor and fantasy characteristic of the Baroque style of the period. Conversely, the brevity, clarity, and logic of the Fables are more typical of the classical style associated with the authors of France’s “grand siècle.”
La Fontaine presented his first major poetic endeavor, Adonis, to his new patron, Fouquet, in June, 1658. It was a fine example of calligraphy by Nicolas Jarvey, with the title page illustrated by François Chauveau. The poem was a long pastoral work whose subject was borrowed from Ovid. It relates the legend of the goddess Venus’s love for a youth, Adonis, and of his untimely death. La Fontaine’s work is only half the length of Shakespeare’s better-known version, Venus and Adonis. Furthermore, La Fontaine’s Adonis is not a cold and reluctant character, as is Shakespeare’s. Instead, La Fontaine chose to emphasize the theme...
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