Jean de La Fontaine (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.
The verse fable has attracted numerous writers over the centuries extending as far back as Aesop. Jean de La Fontaine’s success in the genre, however, surpassed them all. Though his verse novel Les Amours de Psyché et Cupidon (1669; The Loves of Cupid and Psyche, 1744) may be considered a major work and he wrote plays, librettos, translations, and letters, La Fontaine’s name has become, for young and old, inseparably linked with the fable, a genre that he brought to its ultimate fruition.
Jean de la Fontaine is unquestionably one of France’s most beloved poets. He is a “classical” writer in the true meaning of the word. For centuries, French schoolchildren have learned his fables by heart. He is so important in France that he has often been compared with Dante and William Shakespeare as a national literary monument. The poet’s universal fame derives primarily from his Fables Written in Verse; La Fontaine developed this literary genre to perfection, and there have been no great fabulists after him (with the possible exception of the Russian writer Ivan Krylov). The Fables of La Fontaine culminated a long tradition in Western literature that began in antiquity with Aesop and Phaedrus. His works have been printed and reprinted in magnificent editions. They have been translated into many languages and have been illustrated by great artists down through the centuries: the Fables by Alphonse Oudry, Gustave Doré, and Marc Chagall; Tales and Short Stories in Verse illustrated by Charles-Dominique Joseph Eisen, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, and others.
La Fontaine unites the two major contrasting aesthetics found in the literature of seventeenth century France: artistic exuberance and classical restraint. Of the two, the former is best represented in poetry by the libertine poets, the so-called free spirits, such as Théophile de Viau and Marc-Antoine Saint-Amant. Temperamentally and in his general approach to...
The fact that La Fontaine did not invent his plots—he borrowed freely from his precursors—enabled him to focus all his talents on details of narrative technique and poetic expression. It is in these two areas that he made his greatest contribution as a writer of tales. La Fontaine always had a flair for the dramatic, and in his tales he shows himself to be a master storyteller. His skill at creating action without impeding the progress of the plot (effected primarily by means of alteration in the rhythm of the poetry), his penchant for producing situations that shock or surprise, his ability to vary and freshen the treatment of old, banal themes—in brief, his talent for adroit handling of the strictly narrative aspects of the art—is his major appeal. Whatever plots he chose, his own special genius gave them new life.
In his tales, La Fontaine adopted a free-flowing conversational style. In fact, he seems to have gone to great lengths to ensure that the graceful, chatty style of these stories would appear as natural as possible to the reader. Toward that end, he employed an irregular and loose sort of verse, known as vers libre (not to be confused with modern free verse), consisting of lines in two or more meters without a fixed rhyme scheme. La Fontaine’s two favorite verse forms were the eight-syllable line of the old French fabliaux and the ten-syllable line. These two verse lines, along with the lack of any clear-cut rhyme scheme, gave the tales a colloquial tone that one would normally expect to find only in prose. Such verse had greater flexibility than anything previously written in French. It allowed the poet to tell his stories in a familiar, relaxed style, addressing himself directly to the reader. Curiously enough, he frequently felt a need to justify his use of this form, declaring that it was the most suitable and that it had given him as much trouble as the writing of regular verse or prose. In truth, it must be said that La Fontaine employed vers libre with great restraint. He introduced other rhythmic patterns as well, but only on rare occasions. His poetic expertise was to be found elsewhere: in the subtle interplay of rhymes, in evocative combinations of sounds, in complex rhythmic gradations and contrasts, in the joining of heterogeneous stanza forms, in the interplay of thought patterns with metrical patterns—all the stylistic characteristics that became associated with his masterpiece, the Fables.
In the Fables, as in his tales, La Fontaine was reviving a genre which had been popular throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Fables is a work of maturity, nourished by wide reading and a long apprenticeship in poetic technique. They were published in three cycles spanning twenty-five years. The first cycle, containing 125 fables, appeared in 1668. Ten years later, La Fontaine added nearly one hundred more, and the 1694 edition—the last edition published during his lifetime—included two dozen new fables. Thus, he wrote nearly 250 fables in all. The early fables owe a great deal to classical sources, in...
Compare one of Jean de La Fontaine’s poems with a different version of the same fable, such as an English translation of Aesop. What differences are there in the story? What differences are there in the moral of the fables, whether it be implicitly or explicitly expressed? How do you account for these differences?
Many of La Fontaine’s fables satirize French society under the reign of the absolute monarch Louis XIV. By doing research on courtly life at the palace of Versailles, or on the political and social life of France at the time, find examples of the behavior and attitudes that La Fontaine is satirizing.
How does La Fontaine mimic the conversational style in his poems? What aspects of this conversational style are you not likely to find in an actual conversation, and why?
Eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was one of many people who noted that there is an amoral, and even immoral, aspect to many of La Fontaine’s fables. Find evidence of this paradoxical aspect in his fables. Why do you think La Fontaine emphasized the amoral potential inherent in these stories?
Birberick, Anne L. Reading Undercover: Audience and Authority in Jean de La Fontaine. London: Associated University Presses, 1998. In her readings of La Fontaine’s major poetic works, Birberick proposes the possibility of a “circular writing” resulting from the multiplicity of author/audience relationships in the poet’s works, which allows La Fontaine room to criticize court patronage and tyranny, while nonetheless winning the necessary approbation of the Sun King.
Birberick, Anne L. Refiguring La Fontaine: Tercentenary Essays. Charlottesville, Va.: Bookwood Press, 1996. In addition to Birberick’s introductory summary of La Fontaine’s critical reception since his death, this volume contains...