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 of youth cut off in the flower of strength and beauty. For La Fontaine, Adonis symbolizes the agony of helpless strength, a paradoxical antithesis characteristic of the Baroque. The poet’s vivid and enjoyable descriptions of nature create a self-contained poetic world. It is not the real world, yet La Fontaine, a true lover of nature, has managed to make the setting of his poem so directly appealing to the senses and simple instincts of his readers that the illusion is all but complete.
On the other hand, his amorous poetry is too artificial and conventional. He composed his idyll in the Alexandrines typical of French poetry lines of twelve syllables, with four stresses to the line and rhyming in couplets. The stately Alexandrine was not well adapted to the subject matter of the poem. Even in the most tender passages, there is some monotony of cadence. A shorter verse line with its rapid movement would have smoothed the transitions between episodes in the narrative. Nevertheless, this first major poetic undertaking taught La Fontaine much about the writing of Alexandrines. For a long period unfairly neglected, Adonis deserves the recognition it has received during the past few decades. The poem contains verse worthy of La Fontaine at his best, and one can discern in it many of the traits which find fuller expression in his subsequent writings: skillful assimilation of source material, a refined musical style, close observation of human or animal life in a mythological setting, and, above all, an ability to infuse humor without compromising the decorous mood of the poem.
Le Songe de Vaux
Fouquet was pleased with Adonis and asked La Fontaine to undertake a new work in praise of Vaux, the magnificent white stone palace which the finance minister was engaged in creating for himself with the help of the best architects, garden designers, and artists in France. La Fontaine accommodated his patron with Le Songe de Vaux, a work which, as a result of...
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