Tales and novels of Jean de La Fontaine

The Author’s Preface to His Second Book of These Tales

These are the last works of this style that will come from the pen of the Author, and consequently this is the last opportunity he has of vindicating the boldness and privilege which he has assumed. We make no mention of villainous rhymes, of lines that run into the next, of two vowels without elision, nor, in general, of such kinds of carelessness as he would not allow himself in another style of poetry, but which are part and parcel, so to say, of this style. Too anxious a care in avoiding such would force a tale-writer into a labyrinth of shifts, into narratives as dull as they are grand, into straits that are utterly useless, and would make him disregard the pleasure of the heart in order to labour for the gratification of the ear. We must leave studied narrative for lofty subjects, and not compose an epic poem of the Adventures of Renaud d’Ast. Suppose the Author, who has put these tales into rhyme, had brought to bear on them all the care and preciseness required of him; not only would this care be observed, especially as it is unnecessary, but it would also transgress the precept lain down by Ouintilian, still the Author would not have attained the main object, which is to interest the reader, to charm him, to rivet his attention in spite of himself — in a word, to please him. As everybody knows, the secret of pleasing the reader is not always based on regulation, nor even on symmetry; there is need of smartness and tastefulness, if we would strike home. How many of those perfect types of beauty do we see which never strike home, and of which nobody feels enamoured! We do not wish to rob Modern Authors of the praise that is due to them. Nicely turned lines, fine language, accuracy, elegance of rhyme are accomplishments in a poet. However that may be, let us consider of our own epigrams wherein all these qualities are combined, perhaps we shall find in them far less point, nay, I would venture to add, far less charm than in those of Marot or Saint-Gelais, although almost all the works of the latter poets are full of the same faults as are attributed to us. We will be told that these were not faults in their day, whereas they are very great faults in ours. To this we answer by a similar kind of argument, by saying, as we have already said, that these would undoubtedly be faults in another style of poetry, but not in this. The late M. de Voiture is a proof in point. We need only read the works in which he brings to life again the character of Marot. For our Author does not lay claim to praise for himself, nor to rounds of applause from the public for having put a few tales into rhyme. Without doubt he has entered on quite a new path, and has pursued it to the utmost of his power, choosing now one road, now another, and always treading with surer step when he has followed the manner of our old poets “quorum in hae re imitari negligentiam exoptat potius quam istorum diligentiam.”

But while saying that we wished to waive this question, we have unconsciously involved ourselves in its discussion. Perhaps this has not been without advantage; for there is nothing that resembles faults more than these licenses. Let us now consider the liberty which the Author has assumed in cutting into the property of others as well as his own, without making exception even to the best known stories, none of which he scruples to tamper with. He curtails, enlarges, and alters incidents and details, at times the main issue and the sequel; in short, the story is no longer the same; it is, in point of fact, quite a new tale; its original author would find it no small difficulty to recognise in it his own work. “Non sic decet contaminari fabulas,” Critics will say. Why should they not? They twitted Terence in just the same way; but Terence sneered at them, and claimed a right to treat the matter as he did. He has mingled his own ideas with the subjects he drew from Menander, just as Sophocles and Euripides mingled theirs with the subjects they drew from former writers, sparing neither history nor romance, where “decorum” and the rules of the Drama were at issue. Shall this privilege cease with respect to fictitious stories? Must we in future have more scrupulous or religious regard, if we may be allowed the expression, for falsehood than the Ancients had for truth? What people call a good tale never passes from hand to hand without receiving some fresh touch of embellishment. How comes it then, we may be asked, that in many passages the Author curtails instead of enlarging on the original? On that point we are agreed: the Author does so in order to avoid lengthiness and ambiguity — two faults which are inadmissible in such matters, especially the latter. For if lucidity is to be commended in all literary works, we may say that it is especially necessary in narratives, where one thing is, as a rule, the sequel and the result of another; where the less important sometimes lays the basis of the more important; so that, once the thread becomes broken, the reader cannot gather it up again. Besides, as narratives in verse are very awkward, the author must clog himself with details as little as possible; by means of this you relieve not only yourself, but also the reader, for whom an author should not fail to prepare pleasure unalloyed. Whenever the Author has altered a few particulars and even a few catastrophes, he has been forced to do so by the cause of that catastrophe and the urgency of giving it a happy termination. He has fancied that in tales of this kind everyone ought to be satisfied with the end: it pleases the reader at any rate, if the author has not given the characters too distasteful a rendering. But he must not go so far as that, if possible, nor make the reader laugh and cry in the same tale. This medley shocks Horace above all things; his wish is not that our works should border on the grotesque, and that we should draw a picture half woman half fish. These are the general motives the Author has had in view. We might still quote special motives and vindicate each point; but we must needs leave something to the capacity and leniency of our readers. They will be satisfied, then, with the motives we have mentioned. We would have stated them more clearly and have set more by them, had the general compass of a Preface so allowed.


Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38