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Jean de La Fontaine

Jean de La Fontaine Jean de La Fontaine[2†]

Jean de La Fontaine (July 8?, 1621 - April 13, 1695) was a renowned French poet, best known for his “Fables” which are considered among the greatest masterpieces of French literature[1†][2†]. Born in Château-Thierry, France, La Fontaine’s work has had a profound influence on French literature[1†][2†].

Early Years and Education

Jean de La Fontaine was born on July 8, 1621, in Château-Thierry, a town in the Champagne region of France[1†][2†]. His father, Charles de La Fontaine, was a deputy-ranger of the Duchy of Château-Thierry, a position that Jean would later inherit[1†][2†]. His mother was Françoise Pidoux[1†][2†]. Both sides of his family were of the highest provincial middle class[1†][2†].

La Fontaine’s education began in the collège (grammar school) of Château-Thierry[1†][3†]. In May 1641, he entered the Oratory of Saint-Magloire in Paris, intending to become a priest[1†][3†][4†]. However, he soon realized that he had mistaken his vocation[1†][2†]. He then studied law and is said to have been admitted as a lawyer[1†][2†][4†].

In 1647, his father resigned his rangership in Jean’s favor and arranged a marriage for him with Marie Héricart, a 14-year-old girl who brought him a considerable dowry[1†][2†]. Despite their separation in 1658, this marriage marked the beginning of La Fontaine’s journey into adulthood and his eventual literary career[1†][2†].

Career Development and Achievements

Jean de La Fontaine’s career was marked by a series of significant milestones and achievements. After his education, he held office as an inspector of forests and waterways from 1652 to 1671, a position he inherited from his father[1†][2†]. However, it was in Paris that he made his most important contacts and spent his most productive years as a writer[1†][2†].

In 1657, he became one of the protégés of Nicolas Fouquet, the wealthy superintendent of finance[1†]. From 1664 to 1672, he served as gentleman-in-waiting to the dowager duchess of Orléans in Luxembourg[1†]. For 20 years, from 1673, he was a member of the household of Mme de La Sablière, whose salon was a celebrated meeting place of scholars, philosophers, and writers[1†].

La Fontaine’s most significant contribution to literature was his “Fables”, published in 12 books from 1668 to 1694[1†]. He did not invent the basic material of his Fables; he took it chiefly from the Aesopic tradition and, in the case of the second collection, from East Asian sources[1†]. He enriched immeasurably the simple stories that earlier fabulists had in general been content to tell perfunctorily[1†].

In 1683, despite some opposition by the king to his unconventional and irreligious character, he was elected to the French Academy[1†]. His Fables provided a model for subsequent fabulists across Europe and numerous alternative versions in France, as well as in French regional languages[1†][2†].

La Fontaine is considered by the literary circles to be the best French fabulist that have ever lived[1†][5†]. His Fables rank among the greatest masterpieces of French literature[1†][2†].

First Publication of His Main Works

Jean de La Fontaine’s most significant works are his “Fables”, which were published in 12 books from 1668 to 1694[2†][1†]. The first six books, known as the premier recueil (“first collection”), were published in 1668[2†][1†]. The next five books, known as the second recueil (“second collection”), were published in 1678-79[2†][1†]. The twelfth and final book was published in 1694[2†][1†].

Here are some of his main works:

La Fontaine did not invent the basic material of his Fables; he took it chiefly from the Aesopic tradition and, in the case of the second collection, from East Asian[2†][1†]. He enriched immeasurably the simple stories that earlier fabulists had in general been content to tell perfunctorily[2†][1†].

In addition to his Fables, La Fontaine’s many miscellaneous writings include much occasional verse in a great variety of poetic forms and dramatic or pseudodramatic pieces[2†][7†]. His first published work was “L’Eunuque” in 1654[2†][7†], and “Climène” in 1671[2†][7†], as well as poems on subjects as different as “Adonis” (1658, revised 1669), “La Captivité de saint Malc” (1673), and “Le Quinquina” (1682)[2†][7†].

Analysis and Evaluation

Jean de La Fontaine is unquestionably one of France’s most beloved poets[8†][9†]. He is a “classical” writer in the true meaning of the word[8†][9†]. For centuries, French schoolchildren have learned his fables by heart[8†][9†]. He is so important in France that he has often been compared with Dante and William Shakespeare as a national literary monument[8†][9†].

La Fontaine’s success in the genre of fable surpassed them all[8†]. Though 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[8†]. His works have been printed and reprinted in magnificent editions[8†]. They have been translated into many languages and have been illustrated by great artists down through the centuries[8†].

La Fontaine unites the two major contrasting aesthetics found in the literature of seventeenth-century France: artistic exuberance and classical restraint[8†]. Of the two, the former is best represented in poetry by the libertine poets, the so-called free spirits[8†]. Temperamentally and in his general approach to life, La Fontaine belonged to this group of poets[8†]. 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[8†]. Unlike other poets of his day, however, he was able to temper this natural tendency[8†].

One of La Fontaine’s cardinal rules was that poetry should first of all give pleasure[8†]. He understood that pleasure is not an end in itself, that it must be deep and rich rather than facile or superficial[8†]. Wishing to please his readers, he hoped and believed that they would like what he himself liked[8†]. Accordingly, he accepted the tenets of a classical doctrine that was very influential during this period[8†]. The influence of classical restraint is apparent in his mature works, especially the Fables[8†].

La Fontaine’s great theme was the folly of human vanity[8†][10†]. He was a skeptic, not unkind but full of the sense of human frailty and ambition[8†][10†]. His satiric themes permitted him an enlargement of poetic diction; he could be eloquent in mocking eloquence or in contrast use a severely simple style[8†][10†].

Personal Life

Jean de La Fontaine was born into a bourgeois family and married Marie Héricart, an heiress, in 1647[1†][2†]. However, the couple did not get along well together[1†][2†]. There is no concrete evidence to support any scandalous behavior on her part, which was mostly raised by gossip or personal enemies of La Fontaine[1†][2†]. The couple separated amicably in 1658 due to financial difficulties[1†][2†].

La Fontaine was known for his brilliant social life and regularly interacted with the most famous writers of his time, including Perrault, Mme de Sévigné, Boileau, Molière, Racine, and La Rochefoucauld[1†][11†][12†]. However, during the last two years of his life, he withdrew from social life, denied some of his work, and devoted himself to meditation[1†][11†][12†].

Despite his separation from his wife, La Fontaine frequently visited his hometown of Chateau Thierry[1†][2†]. His personal life, though marked by its ups and downs, greatly influenced his work and contributed to the depth and complexity of his fables[1†][2†].

Conclusion and Legacy

Jean de La Fontaine’s legacy is unquestionably significant. He is one of France’s most beloved poets and is considered a “classical” writer in the true sense of the word[8†]. For centuries, French schoolchildren have learned his fables by heart[8†]. His importance in France is such that he has often been compared with Dante and William Shakespeare as a national literary monument[8†].

La Fontaine’s great theme was the folly of human vanity[8†][10†]. He was a skeptic, not unkind but full of the sense of human frailty and ambition[8†][10†]. His satiric themes permitted him an enlargement of poetic diction; he could be eloquent in mocking eloquence or in contrast use a severely simple style[8†][10†].

His Fables provided a model for subsequent fabulists across Europe and numerous alternative versions in France, and in French regional languages[8†][13†]. His work continues to be widely read and influential, and his impact on French literature and the genre of fables cannot be overstated[8†][1†][2†].

La Fontaine passed away on April 13, 1695, in Paris[8†][1†][2†]. Despite his death, his work continues to be celebrated today, and his fables remain a staple in French literature[8†][1†][2†].

Key Information

References and Citations:

  1. Britannica - Jean de La Fontaine: French poet [website] - link
  2. Wikipedia (English) - Jean de La Fontaine [website] - link
  3. Britannica Kids - Jean de La Fontaine [website] - link
  4. SciHi Blog - Jean de La Fontaine and the Moral of the Story [website] - link
  5. Prabook - Jean de La Fontaine (July 8, 1621 — April 13, 1695), France fabulist, poet [website] [archive] - link
  6. Wikisource (English) - Jean de La Fontaine [website] - link
  7. Britannica - Jean de La Fontaine - Fables, Poems, Contes [website] - link
  8. eNotes - Jean de La Fontaine Analysis [website] - link
  9. eNotes - Jean de La Fontaine World Literature Analysis [website] - link
  10. Britannica - Fable, parable, and allegory - La Fontaine, Morals, Animals [website] - link
  11. IMDb - Jean de La Fontaine [website] - link
  12. IMDb - Jean de La Fontaine - Biography [website] - link
  13. Fables of Aesop - Jean de La Fontaine [website] - link
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