IV. LA FONTAINE: 1621–95

In that age of flamboyant literary enmities it is a pleasure to hear of the famous, half-legendary friendship of Boileau, Molière, Racine, and La Fontaine—la société des Quatre Amis.

Jean de La Fontaine was the black sheep of the group. Like the others, he came from the middle class; the aristocracy is too interested in the art of life to spare time for the life of art. Born at Château-Thierry in Champagne, son of the local Master of the Waters and Forests, he grew up as an eager part of surrounding nature, became a lover of fields, woods, trees, streams, and all their denizens; he learned the habits, and divined with sympathy the aims, worries, and thoughts of a hundred species of animals; all he had to do, when he wrote, was to make these multipede philosophers speak, and he became another Aesop, fused by his fables into the memory of millions.

His parents thought they would make a priest of him, but he had no flair for the supernatural. He tried to practice law, but he found poetry much more intelligible. He married a rich girl (1647), gave her a son, arranged a separation from his wife (1658), went to Paris, pleased Fouquet, and received from that amiable embezzler a pension of a thousand livres, on condition of quarterly payments in verses. When Fouquet fell La Fontaine addressed to the King a courageous petition for the financier’s pardon; consequently he never basked in the royal sun. Shorn of his pension, La Fontaine, who had no notion of making a living, was housed and fed by the Duchesse de Bouillon, whom we have met as a Frondeuse. While under her wing he published (1664) the first book of hisContes, a collection of novelettes in verse, Boccaccianly risqué, but told with such disarming simplicity that soon half of France, even blushing maidens, read them.*

Shortly thereafter Marguerite of Lorraine, dowager Duchess of Orléans, installed him in the Luxembourg Palace as gentleman in waiting. There he wrote more Contes, and thence he sent to the printer the first six books of his fabulous Fables (1668). He pretended that they were paraphrases of Aesop or Phaedrus; some were; some were taken from the legendary Bidpai of India, some from the fabliaux of France; but most of them were re-created in the bubbling rivulet of La Fontaine’s mind and verse. The very first one was an unwitting summary of his careless, singing life:

La cigale, ayant chanté

The grasshopper, having sung

Tout l’été, se trouve fort dépourvue

All summer, found himself quite destitute

Quant la bise fut venue;

When the frost came;

Pas un seul petit morceau

Not a single tiny piece

De mouche ou de vermisseau;

Of fly or little worm;

Elle alla crier famine

She went to plead her hunger

Chez la fourmi, sa voisine,

To the ant her neighbor,

La priant de lui prêter

Begging her to lend her

Quelque grain pour subsister

Some grain to live on

Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle;

Until the new season.

Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,

“I will pay you,” she said,

Avant l’août, foi d’animal,

“Before harvest, on the faith of

Interêt et principal.

An animal, interest and principal.”

La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse;

The ant is not a lender;

C’est là son moindre défaut;

This is his least fault;

Que faisiez vous au temps chaud?

“What were you doing in summer?”

Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.

He asked this borrower.

Nuit et jour à tout venant

“Night and day to every comer

Je chantois, ne vous déplaisez.

I sang; do not be displeased.”

Vous chantiez! j’en suis fort aisé.

“You sang! I am happy to hear it.

Hé bien, dansez maintenant.

Well, then, dance now.”

La Fontaine was wiser than Descartes, who thought all animals to be thoughtless automata; the poet loved them, sensed their reasoning, and found in them all the livable lessens of philosophy. France was charmed to receive wisdom in such digestible doses. The fabulist became the most widely read author in the land. The critics for once agreed with the people, and joined in his praise; for though simplicity was his soul, he knew the French language in its peasant color and earthy tang, and gave his verses such supple grace, delectable turns, vivid pictures in a line, that all the bourgeois gentilshommes in France rejoiced to find that their animals, even their insects, had been talking poetry all the time. “I use animals,” La Fontaine said, “to instruct men.” 35

In 1673 Marguerite of Lorraine died, and the poet, who had been singing improvidently and had not managed well the modest fees allowed him for his books, found himself rich in debts. He had better luck than his grasshopper, for the learned and kindly Mme. de La Sablière gave him lodging, food, and motherly care in her home on the Rue St.-Honoré, and there he lived in quiet content till her death in 1693. He divided his time (he tells us) into two parts: one part for sleep, the other for doing nothing. 36 La Bruyère described him as a man who could make animals, trees, and stones speak elegantly, but was himself dull, “heavy; and stupid” in conversation; 37 however, there are contrary reports that he could be a lively causeur when he found congenial ears. 38 A hundred anecdotes, largely legendary, celebrated his absent-mindedness. Being late for dinner, he excused himself: “I have just come from the funeral of an ant; I followed the procession to the cemetery, and I escorted the family home.” 39

Louis XIV opposed his election to the French Academy, on the ground that the poet’s life and Contes were hardly exemplary; finally he relented (1684), saying that La Fontaine had promised to behave. But the old poet knew no distinction between virtue and sin, only between natural and unnatural; he had learned his ethics in the woods. Like Molière, he felt no attraction toward Port-Royal, those bons disputeurs (he called them) whose “lessons seem to me a bit depressing.” 40 For a time he joined the coterie of freethinkers at the Temple, but when a stroke nearly felled him in the street, he thought it time to make his peace with the Church; still, he wondered, “was St. Augustine as wise as Rabelais?” 41 He died in 1695, aged seventy-four. His nurse was confident of his eternal salvation, for, she said, “he was so simple that God would not have the courage to damn him.” 42

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