Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction by George McLean Harper (1863–1947)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by George McLean Harper (1863–1947)

By Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695)

AT the court of Louis XIV. there once appeared a figure which clashed with the regularity and harmony of the scene. A tall, spare man, with a long nose, thin satirical lips, and kindly eyes, which could be sharp enough but were for the most part veiled by revery, wandered through the palace of Versailles and lingered half amused in the stately and unnatural gardens. Jean de La Fontaine, then in discredit as the author of certain licentious tales and the associate of malcontents, had come, rather sheepishly, at the instance of his friends, to present a volume of his fables to the King, of whose disfavor he was well aware. Though not quite clear as to the nature of his offense nor over-anxious for royal patronage, he was willing to purchase protection by an act of homage. He felt uncomfortable in his rôle of suitor, but played it with what grace and countenance he could. While conforming, with an odd mingling of ease and childish awkwardness, to the requirements of the situation, there was a fine, incredulous smile about the corners of his mouth as he bent the knee to the monarch whom under his breath he called Sire Lion,—feeling himself to be neither more nor less of a courtier than that handsome rascal, the Fox. The glitter of ceremony failed to dazzle him; and although he manifestly tried to be interested in the regal pageant, he was not much impressed. When he had finished his harangue, he found he had forgotten to bring the book which was to have been its excuse, and he absent-mindedly left in the carriage that bore him away, the purse of gold with which his solicitations had been rewarded.

To the King and his elegant retinue he must have seemed a naughty, undisciplined child,—rustic, old-fashioned, irreverent, out of keeping with the world and the times. Yet he was in some ways the most real man there; certainly the most natural. He understood his world and his time profoundly, after his fashion, and was destined to interpret them to future generations. For if he never succeeded in pleasing the King or obtaining a royal pension, he was only too popular with many great lords and ladies, and knew most of the celebrities of Paris; and though his acquaintances would have been amused to hear that he possessed any moral superiority over them, he at least enjoyed a certain advantage of birth and breeding which enabled him to see things with clearer eyes than they.

No one can see clearly and judge with broad fairness in a society which represents to him the whole of life. One must come from another world to do this. And a large part of La Fontaine’s past had been spent in a world as different as could be imagined from the artificial circumstances of a court, and his experience was well calculated to reduce them to a natural perspective. Other men, of remarkable penetration and unusual honesty, were aware of the evils of that reign,—so difficult to judge then, because so grand in outward seeming. La Rochefoucauld was letting fall, here and there, a maxim of concentrated bitterness; and Saint-Simon was rushing home from court every night to pour out, on endless paper, his righteous indignation against the crawling hypocrisy of bishops, the slander and place-hunting of lords, and the tainted ambition of ladies. But to neither of these observers did it all seem abnormal and ridiculous, as it did to La Fontaine. To him there was matter for eternal laughter in that perversion of nature which was called a court. Like Jupiter’s monkey in his own fable, who replied to the elephant, astonished at the indifference of the gods to his size and importance, the complacent dreamer said, “Both small and great in their eyes are the same.” For him the gods were elsewhere,—divinities of groves and rivers, shaking the leaves of woodland birch and roadside poplar in the sunny Champagne country, and splashing, serenely unconcerned with mortal business, through the meandering Marne. And he laughed silently at the formal ugliness of Versailles horticulture, as the “vision of trees,” “the mist and the river, the hill and the shade,” rose before his mind. No less ludicrous must the King of France and his brilliant company of flatterers have sometimes appeared to him, when he reflected how exactly they and all their movements matched the life of village boors and gossips, or the more antique and undeviating ways of forest creatures, in bush and stream. For it was by intimacy with country scenes, peasant nature, and the primitive and changeless character of animals, that La Fontaine differed from the high society into which he had been allured, and was enabled to judge it. Like Benjamin Franklin a century later at the court of Louis XVI., he brought into an artificial circle the clear perceptions and the common-sense which are bred of familiarity with simple forms of life.

He was born July 8th, 1621, in the small town of Château-Thierry, which sits quietly beside the river Marne, in the heart of Champagne. The soil of that famous wine-growing country is light, and the sun shines fair, but without excessive heat. The beauty of the landscape is in the ordered green of its little vineyards, the bright red and blue of poppy and corn-flower in its winding meadows, which low chalk hills warmly enfold, treeless but gently outlined,—all these features perfect in detail, and the common charm their gracious harmony. There is no grandeur to uplift, no mystery to deepen the human spirit; neither is there fat abundance to make men dull. The native race is shrewd, witty, parsimonious, sober. They see clearly in the small concerns of their very limited lives, and are devoid of illusions and exciting fancies. The moral current is shallow, but sparkling and quick. The deep imaginings and awful pleasures of northern peoples are to them unknown. Mystery does not charm, but only irritates them. They have a weak sense for the supernatural or the abstract. Ridicule, rather than priest or Bible, is the guardian of their behavior; and the principles which regulate their conduct have long ago been coined into maxims and anecdotes and significant bywords, which pass down from generation to generation with accumulating force.

In this region La Fontaine’s father and grandfather held the office of “master of streams and forests,” a government position in the proper filling of which a man would naturally become familiar with the country and its inhabitants. The family enjoyed consideration and some wealth. Jean, who must have been but a willful and indifferent scholar, received an education of which the principal traces in his works are a loving familiarity with the Latin poets, and a wide acquaintance with the racy and somewhat recondite narratives which constituted the undercurrent of French literature,—irregular, licentious, but undeniably congenial to the French spirit. He became deeply read in the popular tales of the Middle Ages,—satires, animal stories, and “moralities.” From these sources, and from several writers of the sixteenth century, particularly Rabelais and Marot, he obtained a fund of witty and sensual incidents; while his poetical imagery and much of his tenderer and purer sentiment were derived from Virgil and Ovid.

The son of an old family comfortably settled in a small country town is strongly tempted to idleness; because there come to him by birth that consideration and respect, and that freedom from financial concern, which are the usual objects of men’s activity. La Fontaine was never very successful in resisting temptation of any kind, and it suited his nature to float indolently on the current of wealth and social regard which his more strenuous ancestors had accumulated. Nor was there lack of entertainment to enliven the smooth voyage; for he had neighbors to his liking,—not averse to playing for high stakes or drinking up to the limit of sobriety, and withal of a very ready wit. Unambitious, fond of easy company, absent-minded, given to receiving hospitality, which was offered freely in those days in French provincial towns, he drifted into middle age; allowing himself to be married by family arrangement and without love, and quietly accepting his father’s office, which was resigned in his favor.

His life of hunting, reading, and convivial pleasure at Château-Thierry was diversified by frequent visits to Paris, where his compositions were a passport to the acquaintance not only of literary people, but of many rich and frivolous nobles. In 1654 he published an adaptation of the ‘Eunuchus’ of Terence, and at about this time his tales and epistles in verse began to circulate from hand to hand. He lived to deplore the harm the tales may have done, though he professed for his part to see no evil in them. They were based largely on Boccaccio and Rabelais; and represented woman’s character especially in a way not creditable to their author, either as poet or as mere observer. It is true, however, that so far as the material of the tales is concerned, he accepted the disgusting inventions of his coarse masters without much change. Between 1657 and 1663 he was a frequent guest, and indeed a pensioner, of the rich and corrupt Fouquet, superintendent of finance. Several other poets also enjoyed the bounty of Fouquet at his magnificent country-seat, the palace of Vaux; but none on such strict terms of service as La Fontaine. He was at work for three years, with what frequent intervals of repose we can imagine, on a long eulogistic composition, ‘The Dream of Vaux’; and wrote besides many occasional pieces, in return for lavish hospitality. On Fouquet’s fall in 1663, he sang with sincere regret the departed glories of the place, in his ‘Elegy of the Nymphs of Vaux.’

He would seem to have been now, for a moment, in helpless plight,—his private fortune well-nigh exhausted, and himself in disgrace with the government as a friend of the guilty superintendent. But he found no lack of patronage. One of Mazarin’s nieces, the Duchess of Bouillon, then living in forced retirement at Château-Thierry, attracted him back to his birthplace; and through her connections at Paris he subsequently received a fresh start in town society. He had already become a friend of Molière, Racine, and Boileau. Spurred into action by their raillery,—for he was the eldest of the group, and the others, who were winning fame, called him a laggard,—he published in 1664 the first series of his versified tales. Like many of his steps, this was an innocent blunder, and led him to no honorable advantage. His reputation as the author of such compositions brought him into close relations with several notorious sets of libertines; and his life, which had never been consistent, now became a very complex tangle of good and bad. He neglected his wife, his son, his public duties. He lived in ease and self-indulgence. He seemed occupied solely with the art of satisfying his own caprice and the depraved taste of a corrupt society.

But somehow the precious jewel which was in his head remained untarnished, and shone through at last; for after all he had not been idle, and was never worse than a willful child. He possessed the poet’s eye, and it had been busy when his hands were folded. No such “master of streams and forests” ever lived. Not even Izaak Walton so well deserves the name. The trees of Champagne had small need to mourn the incompetence of their guardian, who has given them “a green and golden immortality” in his appeal to the woodman:—

  • “Leave axes, books, and picks,
  • Instruments of woe.
  • The scythe of Time, with deadlier tricks,
  • To line the borders of the Styx
  • Too soon will bring them low.”
  • In simplicity of heart, and profiting by his unbounded leisure, this wayward but still unspoiled man had followed a native instinct of observation, which had led him after many years into rare sympathy with the non-human denizens of the earth. His peculiar appreciation—half poetic feeling, half naturalist’s instinct—of this underlying world, being put to the service of his very considerable philosophic bent, gave him that air which people remarked, of having come from another planet. As old age approached, there grew upon him the habit of judging men according to the large standard of comparison which his fellowship with animals and plants provided. And it came to be recognized as his unique distinction that he would be at all times collecting and applying these novel ideas. He was known to sit for half a day, missing his dinner and breaking all appointments, to watch a family of ants bury a dead fly. The ways of the wolf, the fears of the mouse, the ruminations of the ox, the ambitions of the bear, were more open to his understanding than men’s politics. He loved the bright, smiling land of his birth; its limpid waters, its sunny vineyards, its frugal farms, where every egg was counted—sometimes, as he tells us, before it was laid. Waiting by green-mantled pools, peering to the brook’s gray bottom, and wandering with bowed head on forest paths, where for a moment the fallow-deer stood in the flickering light and were gone,—he mused for months and years in happy indolence; and if by chance he undertook, of a winter’s night, to turn into French verse a fable of Æsop or Phædrus, and unconsciously excelled his models, it was still all love-in-idleness to him, and in no wise work.

    But there had to be labor enough in the end, for the task was complicated,—being the turning of old Greek and Latin fables, not only into the French language, but into the French spirit. Moreover, he exercised in this the most painstaking and thoughtful originality, by setting forth in them the results of his own observation and making a witty commentary on his own times. By his forty-eighth year there were enough of these little poems for a volume of one hundred and twenty-four fables, arranged in six books. Ten years later he published another collection, of five books. The fables excited such interest, and went so far to make amends for past license, that their author was elected a member of the Academy; but the King for a time opposed his admission, finally permitting it in 1684, with the remark, “You may receive La Fontaine at once: he has promised to behave.” There were more tales, however, and much loose conduct to atone for, when, during a serious illness in 1693, the old poet made a public and no doubt sincere confession of his sins. It is worthy of remark, as illustrating the peculiarly expansive and social character of the period, and perhaps also the racial conception of religion as a public exercise rather than an inward state, that a committee of literary men were deputed by the French Academy to witness this tardy profession of faith. The twelfth and last book of fables appeared shortly afterwards; and two years later he died, still young in heart. For nearly a generation he had been living on the hospitality of his friends at Paris—not basely, but with noble frankness, acknowledging his inability to provide for himself.

    La Fontaine, it must be admitted, lacked some very essential qualities, while possessing other and unusual ones in notable abundance. Marriage was not sacred to him, though friendship was. He disliked children, though he loved dumb beasts. Throughout the latter half of his life he was dependent on others for a home; but in his soul he was free, and seldom praised his patrons except where self-interest fell in with affection. His tales are an unclean spot upon the century when French literature as a whole was most pure and dignified; but his fables, which far surpass them in artistic finish, in interest, in variety, are sound and clear and sweet. The truth is, this great man was always a child, with a child’s fair purposes and untrained will. Instinct ruled him. Until almost the end of his life he was an irresponsible pagan.

    But his failings were of the most amiable order; and they saved him from too great conformity to the artificial society of his time, which would have been the most deplorable failing of all. He never grew old nor worldly-wise; he never lost his sweet simplicity, nor succeeded, no matter how much he tried, in making those surrenders of the ideal by which we purchase what is termed success. To blame La Fontaine for being different from other men, even the best, would be to overlook the quality wherewith his very true and enduring success was achieved. The ordered life of civilized communities had come to be taken for granted as necessarily the best possible condition, and of vastly more scope and meaning than the life of nature. Both in the conduct of his own affairs,—his childlike following of pleasure, his unsophisticated relish for what was natural,—and also by precept and illustration in his fables, La Fontaine suggested the broader basis and more complicated frame of things. If we are careful to exclude any idea of his entertaining a conscious intention to influence politics, it may safely be said that La Fontaine, by criticizing the monarch, the churchman, the noble, under the guise of lion, wolf, fox, bear, or cat, opened a little crack, which La Bruyère was to widen and Montesquieu to whistle through, until at last it gaped broad and let in the howling blasts of revolutionary eloquence.

    To the same fondness for being his genuine self is due the high lyric quality of the fables,—an excellence which they alone, of all French poetry from Ronsard to André Chénier, possess in anything like abundance. We shall see the value of this distinction if we reflect that in the same interval England was graced with the songs and sonnets of Spenser, Raleigh, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Campion, Milton, Collins, Gray, and Burns,—to mention no more, and to draw somewhere a line that must perforce be arbitrary. The main effort of the seventeenth century in France being to enforce conformity to certain standards,—in other words, to produce typical rather than individual excellence,—there could be in her literature of that period no such outburst of lyric poetry; for it is of the essence of lyric poetry to express personal charm. When we have read the fables of La Fontaine we have learned his heart and mind, and are no better than prigs or pedants if we do not love him. Considering his awkwardness of speech and his frequent fits of silence, men found him in actual life singularly attractive. The secret may have nestled in his smile or hid in the wrinkles about his eyes; we cannot tell. But in the fables, objective though they are, we do not have to wait long to catch the elf at play. It is his childlike self-surrender, which comes at once with engaging frankness or after much coy hesitation and a playful chase. All that he is and thinks, he sweetly confides to us, at least more fully than was common among French poets in his day. He does not skulk behind convention or pose upon a pedestal of approved usage. Here—though he knew it not, and his friends Boileau and Racine would have denied it—here is what makes him a great lyric poet. No school could claim him, yet he was liberal of himself to every reader. Like the attractive heroine of his first fable, he might say:—

  • “Day and night to every comer
  • I was singing, I’m afraid.”
  • And strange to say, while being so truly himself that he became the greatest lyric poet his country produced in a stretch of two hundred years, La Fontaine is also the epitome and type of whatever is most French. He is the national poet par excellence. He represents not so much his age as his race. Indeed, he is not so fairly representative of his age as are the dramatists, and particularly Racine. But we recognize in La Fontaine the French intelligence, as it is common to all centuries and specialized in every individual. It is not enough to say that he abounds in wit: the striking thing is that French wit and the wit of La Fontaine are one—aerified, dry, diffused, of the manner rather than the substance, not intrusive, not insistent, but circumambient and touch-and-go. There is no forced emphasis, no zeal to convert; but only a genial willingness to suggest amendment, provided always it can be done with a laughing avoidance of proffering one’s own example. Moreover, La Fontaine, like all his countrymen, clings to the concrete. The mystery of an unrealized abstraction has for him and for them the horror of the blackness of darkness to a child. A writer of fables is tempted to be abstract and to moralize. Some of La Fontaine’s fables have no moral, either expressed or discoverable. In others the lesson is added perfunctorily, as if in obedience to the tradition of the art, and for the sake of good form. But whether or not they are all deserving strictly of the name, they give perennial delight; for as Thoreau says, “All fables indeed have their morals, but the innocent enjoy the story.”

    Any man who has personal charm, and who will but express himself naturally in words, may hope to interest us; but unless he have also style we shall not esteem him a great writer. Whether we call it a miracle or only an acquisition, style is something divine; perhaps never more divine than when acquired by patient toil. La Fontaine possessed the most exquisite literary gift; and what it behooves us to perceive is that this too came as a reward for his supreme virtue of naturalness. He wrote with easy indifference to the rigorous precepts of rhetoricians, who were trying to unify and modernize French literature. He deftly eluded the rules of seventeenth-century diction, and would not belong exclusively to the “grand age.” He was not above using the marrowy, forcible, homely language of an earlier time, or its strong short forms of verse. The modest man did not know it, but he had struck root in a richer soil than his contemporaries, and his branches will flourish in immortal green when most of theirs have withered.