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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