Jean de La Fontaine

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Other Literary Forms

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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.

Achievements

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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 life, La Fontaine belonged to this group of poets. His early works reveal a strain of playful sensuality and outspoken humor that are more representative of a hedonistic school of thought than one would normally expect from a renowned classical poet. Unlike other poets of his day, however, he was able to temper this natural tendency. One of La Fontaine’s cardinal rules was that poetry should first of all give pleasure. He understood that pleasure is not an end in itself, that it must be deep and rich rather than facile or superficial. Wishing to please his readers, he hoped and believed that they would like what he himself liked.

Accordingly, he accepted the tenets of a classical doctrine that was very influential during this period. The influence of classical restraint is apparent in his mature works, especially the Fables. In matters of style (he strove for simplicity, clarity, brevity), choice of language (a restrained vocabulary), versification, and the insertion of old materials among new, La Fontaine showed himself to be a genuine classical author. Moreover, the meter of classical French poetry, with the ubiquitous Alexandrine, was at times threatened with monotony and stiffness. Through his writings, La Fontaine managed to infuse new life in French versification. He achieved a melodic depth unsurpassed by his contemporaries and proved to be a superb craftsman. The quick movement of his verse, with those sudden short lines and that frequent suddenness of feminine rhyme which can create surprise, fun, or intimacy, has been emulated by generations of French poets. Above all, he had the gift of being sincere, personal, and completely natural in his finest poetry, at a time when it was not at all fashionable to be so.

Narrative Technique and Poetic Expression

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The fact that La Fontaine...

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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.

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 particular Aesop and Phaedrus; the later ones find their inspiration in Oriental stories.

These fables are the work of a man who had an intimate acquaintance with nature and an instinctive understanding of animals and country things. La Fontaine’s Fables has always appealed to three distinct audiences: to children, because of the vividness and freshness of the stories; to literary students, because of their accomplished artistry; and to people of the world, because of their penetrating psychological observation of human behavior. Of these three disparate audiences, La Fontaine sought in particular the third category of readers, for he himself often said that his fables would be fully appreciated only by those who had had a long experience of life and people.

A comparison of La Fontaine’s fables to others in the genre reveals the importance of his achievement. Traditional materials are handled with shades of feelings not to be found in earlier fables. In particular, his approach to the depiction of animals in the Fables is at variance with that of practically all the previous writers of fables who had found favor with the public. Like all fabulists, La Fontaine treats animals in anthropomorphic terms: They are used to depict certain human foibles. Moving beyond his predecessors artistically, La Fontaine’s portrayals of the human as well as the animal aspects of his characters have not been surpassed by his followers and imitators. Strange, clumsy little creatures wander about, fiercely acting their parts to what is, at times, a merciless finish. These animals show the desires, appetites, and fears that are humankind’s brutish inheritance. The dominant ones among them are forceful, secretive, cunning, and sharp-witted, and their ends are as elemental as their means are ingenious. Their victims are like those in the human world: muddleheaded, cringing before their masters, into whose maws they are ever ready to drop. The weak countenances of these victims remain plaintive, frightened, and pitiful—revealing the essential cruelty of existence.

What the Fables reveals, above all, is La Fontaine’s conception of power (the first edition was dedicated to the future king of France). Animal hierarchies provided him with an opportunity to examine certain types of formal relations among control, resistance, and violence so that he could uncover, by implication, the same relationships in human society. In fact, the Fables constitute a survey of the struggle for power among men. La Fontaine views the political world as an arena in which the strong seek to defend and extend their powers and privileges. He posits a view of man that sees conflict as the only mode of action and insists that no moral considerations should be taken into account, the political aims justifying any means.

The prevalence of such motifs clearly indicates a substratum of belief which La Fontaine could not have derived from his learned sources alone. Themes such as these illustrate the extent to which he appropriated the idiom of the fable for his own wholly different ends. To study La Fontaine’s fables is to investigate power in extremis. In the Fables, power must be exercised rather than merely possessed. It must be seized and maintained even at the cost of a progressive enslavement to its instinctive violence. The traditional concept of power as a societal mechanism which lays down the law for everyone alike no longer applies. Animals, men, and institutions are treated and studied mainly as objects of domination. There is no reason to doubt that La Fontaine’s contemporaries understood perfectly the “message” of this important work—one that has become obfuscated down through the centuries by the rote memorizations of schoolchildren and the musty compilations of scholars. One can also understand better why Jean-Jacques Rousseau denounced the use of such texts to shape young sensibilities.

Each generation takes a different approach to La Fontaine’s individual vision. Certain past generations saw him as a detached observer of the human comedy, while others have seen him as a dissatisfied man with a gift for caricature, as a poet of the picturesque in nature and in rural life, as a dilettante with dregs of smug morality, or merely as a pleasant storyteller. No subsequent writer of fables has sustained such an intense emotional vision of man and of the forces that dominate and shape the world in which he lives as did La Fontaine. Above all, his fables repay study because of their poetic beauty and simplicity; they are a deeply felt artistic manifestation of the human condition, derived mostly from the bitter truth of experience.

Discussion Topics

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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?

Bibliography

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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 nine essays (three in French, six in English) that explore La Fontaine’s adaptations of and challenges to literary structure, questions of discourse in the Fables choisies, mises en vers, and new treatments of other, more neglected works by the poet. Of particular interest to an audience obliged to rely on translations from French is the last essay by David Lee Rubin, which examines three English translations of one fable in order to discuss how each translator’s different approach informs, or distorts, the image of La Fontaine and his poetry.

Calder, Andrew. TheFables of La Fontaine: Wisdom Brought Down to Earth. Geneva: Droz, 2001. Arguing that it is essential to consider La Fontaine’s Fables from a perspective both of utility and pleasure in some sixteen, self-contained chapters that look to the fables as lessons in life, Calder’s book is also of interest in that it explores La Fontaine’s philosophical similarities with schools of thought in antiquity and with his Renaissance predecessors, such as Erasmus, François Rabelais, and Michel Eyquem de Montaigne.

Collinet, Jean-Pierre. “La Fontaine et ses illustrateurs.” In Œuvres complètes. Paris: Gallimard, 1991. Included in the Pléiade edition of La Fontaine’s work, the most authoritative and extensively annotated French edition, this essay is a critical history of famous French illustrations of La Fontaine’s poems, especially the Fables, from La Fontaine’s lifetime through the famous illustrations by Gustave Doré in the nineteenth century.

Guiton, Margaret. La Fontaine: Poet and Counterpoet. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961. Examines La Fontaine’s competing visions of comedy and imaginative poetry. French passages translated. Contains chronological table of La Fontaine’s life and works.

La Fontaine, Jean de. The Complete Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. Edited and translated by Norman B. Spector. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988. A bilingual edition in clear, crisp rhymed verse. Closer to the original language and imagery than many other versions.

La Fontaine, Jean de. The Fables of La Fontaine. Translated by Marianne Moore. New York: Viking Press, 1954. A verse translation by the famed poet. Captures the flavor of the original fables but exercises more poetic license than other versions.

Lapp, John C. The Esthetics of Negligence: La Fontaine’s “Contes.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971. Refutes previous disparaging studies by demonstrating how La Fontaine’s wit, eroticism, lyricism, and charm make the Tales and Short Stories in Verse superior to their sources.

Mackay, Agnes Ethel. La Fontaine and His Friends: A Biography. London: Garnstone Press, 1972. Examination of La Fontaine’s relationship with intimate friends and influential patrons. French passages translated in chapter endnotes.

Sweetser, Marie-Odile. La Fontaine. Boston: Twayne, 1987. In this very approachable critical biography of La Fontaine, Sweetser organizes her chapters by the chronological appearance of each of the poet’s major works. Her volume is also useful in that it makes available to a non-francophone readership a concise, well-documented synthesis of continental scholarship concerning La Fontaine.

Wadsworth, Philip A. Young La Fontaine. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1952. A detailed study of La Fontaine’s growth as a poet up to publication of his first fables in 1668. Good discussion of influences that shaped his early works.

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