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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