Jean de La Fontaine Additional Biography

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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(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.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

0111206549-Lafontaine.jpg Jean de La Fontaine (Library of Congress) 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,...

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(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 themselves—there are many good English translations, including one by the great American poet Marianne Moore—to understand that there is far more depth in his beautifully constructed verse than many people are aware.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.)