Human nature, when fresh from the hand of God, was full of poetry. Its sociality could not be pent within the bounds of the actual. To the lower inhabitants of air, earth, and water, — and even to those elements themselves, in all their parts and forms, — it gave speech and reason. The skies it peopled with beings, on the noblest model of which it could have any conception — to wit, its own. The intercourse of these beings, thus created and endowed, — from the deity kindled into immortality by the imagination, to the clod personified for the moment, — gratified one of its strongest propensities; for man may well enough be defined as the historical animal. The faculty which, in after ages, was to chronicle the realities developed by time, had at first no employment but to place on record the productions of the imagination. Hence, fable blossomed and ripened in the remotest antiquity. We see it mingling itself with the primeval history of all nations. It is not improbable that many of the narratives which have been preserved for us, by the bark or parchment of the first rude histories, as serious matters of fact, were originally apologues, or parables, invented to give power and wings to moral lessons, and afterwards modified, in their passage from mouth to mouth, by the well-known magic of credulity. The most ancient poets graced their productions with apologues. Hesiod’s fable of the Hawk and the Nightingale is an instance. The fable or parable was anciently, as it is even now, a favourite weapon of the most successful orators. When Jotham would show the Shechemites the folly of their ingratitude, he uttered the fable of the Fig-Tree, the Olive, the Vine, and the Bramble. When the prophet Nathan would oblige David to pass a sentence of condemnation upon himself in the matter of Uriah, he brought before him the apologue of the rich man who, having many sheep, took away that of the poor man who had but one. When Joash, the king of Israel, would rebuke the vanity of Amaziah, the king of Judah, he referred him to the fable of the Thistle and the Cedar. Our blessed Saviour, the best of all teachers, was remarkable for his constant use of parables, which are but fables — we speak it with reverence — adapted to the gravity of the subjects on which he discoursed. And, in profane history, we read that Stesichorus put the Himerians on their guard against the tyranny of Phalaris by the fable of the Horse and the Stag. Cyrus, for the instruction of kings, told the story of the fisher obliged to use his nets to take the fish that turned a deaf ear to the sound of his flute. Menenius Agrippa, wishing to bring back the mutinous Roman people from Mount Sacer, ended his harangue with the fable of the Belly and the Members. A Ligurian, in order to dissuade King Comanus from yielding to the Phocians a portion of his territory as the site of Marseilles, introduced into his discourse the story of the bitch that borrowed a kennel in which to bring forth her young, but, when they were sufficiently grown, refused to give it up.
In all these instances, we see that fable was a mere auxiliary of discourse — an implement of the orator. Such, probably, was the origin of the apologues which now form the bulk of the most popular collections. Aesop, who lived about six hundred years before Christ, so far as we can reach the reality of his life, was an orator who wielded the apologue with remarkable skill. From a servile condition, he rose, by the force of his genius, to be the counsellor of kings and states. His wisdom was in demand far and wide, and on the most important occasions. The pithy apologues which fell from his lips, which, like the rules of arithmetic, solved the difficult problems of human conduct constantly presented to him, were remembered when the speeches that contained them were forgotten. He seems to have written nothing himself; but it was not long before the gems which he scattered began to be gathered up in collections, as a distinct species of literature. The great and good Socrates employed himself, while in prison, in turning the fables of Aesop into verse. Though but a few fragments of his composition have come down to us, he may, perhaps, be regarded as the father of fable, considered as a distinct art. Induced by his example, many Greek poets and philosophers tried their hands in it. Archilocus, Alcaeus, Aristotle, Plato, Diodorus, Plutarch, and Lucian, have left us specimens. Collections of fables bearing the name of Aesop became current in the Greek language. It was not, however, till the year 1447 that the large collection which now bears his name was put forth in Greek prose by Planudes, a monk of Constantinople. This man turned the life of Aesop itself into a fable; and La Fontaine did it the honour to translate it as a preface to his own collection. Though burdened with insufferable puerilities, it is not without the moral that a rude and deformed exterior may conceal both wit and worth.
The collection of fables in Greek verse by Babrias was exceedingly popular among the Romans. It was the favourite book of the Emperor Julian. Only six of these fables, and a few fragments, remain; but they are sufficient to show that their author possessed all the graces of style which befit the apologue. Some critics place him in the Augustan age; others make him contemporary with Moschus. His work was versified in Latin, at the instance of Seneca; and Quinctilian refers to it as a reading-book for boys. Thus, at all times, these playful fictions have been considered fit lessons for children, as well as for men, who are often but grown-up children. So popular were the fables of Babrias and their Latin translation, during the Roman empire, that the work of Phaedrus was hardly noticed. The latter was a freedman of Augustus, and wrote in the reign of Tiberius. His verse stands almost unrivalled for its exquisite elegance and compactness; and posterity has abundantly avenged him for the neglect of contemporaries. La Fontaine is perhaps more indebted to Phaedrus than to any other of his predecessors; and, especially in the first six books, his style has much of the same curious condensation. When the seat of the empire was transferred to Byzantium, the Greek language took precedence of the Latin; and the rhetorician Aphthonius wrote forty fables in Greek prose, which became popular. Besides these collections among the Romans, we find apologues scattered through the writings of their best poets and historians, and embalmed in those specimens of their oratory which have come down to us.
The apologues of the Greeks and Romans were brief, pithy, and epigrammatic, and their collections were without any principle of connection. But, at the same time, though probably unknown to them, the same species of literature was flourishing elsewhere under a somewhat different form. It is made a question, whether Aesop, through the Assyrians, with whom the Phrygians had commercial relations, did not either borrow his art from the Orientals, or lend it to them. This disputed subject must be left to those who have a taste for such inquiries. Certain it is, however, that fable flourished very anciently with the people whose faith embraces the doctrine of metempsychosis. Among the Hindoos, there are two very ancient collections of fables, which differ from those which we have already mentioned, in having a principle of connection throughout. They are, in fact, extended romances, or dramas, in which all sorts of creatures are introduced as actors, and in which there is a development of sentiment and passion as well as of moral truth, the whole being wrought into a system of morals particularly adapted to the use of those called to govern. One of these works is called the Pantcha Tantra, which signifies “Five Books,” or Pentateuch. It is written in prose. The other is called the Hitopadesa, or “Friendly Instruction,” and is written in verse. Both are in the ancient Sanscrit language, and bear the name of a Brahmin, Vishnoo Sarmah,1 as the author. Sir William Jones, who is inclined to make this author the true Aesop of the world, and to doubt the existence of the Phrygian, gives him the preference to all other fabulists, both in regard to matter and manner. He has left a prose translation of the Hitopadesa, which, though it may not fully sustain his enthusiastic preference, shows it not to be entirely groundless. We give a sample of it, and select a fable which La Fontaine has served up as the twenty-seventh of his eighth book. It should be understood that the fable, with the moral reflections which accompany it, is taken from the speech of one animal to another.
1] Vishnoo Sarmah. — Sir William Jones has the name Vishnu-sarman. He says, further, that the word Hitopadesa comes from hita, signifying fortune, prosperity, utility, and upadesa, signifying advice, the entire word meaning “salutary or amicable instruction." — Ed.
“Frugality should ever be practised, but not excessive parsimony; for see how a miser was killed by a bow drawn by himself!”
“How was that?” said Hiranyaca.
“In the country of Calyanacataca,” said Menthara, “lived a mighty hunter, named Bhairaza, or Terrible. One day he went, in search of game, into a forest on the mountains Vindhya; when, having slain a fawn, and taken it up, he perceived a boar of tremendous size; he therefore threw the fawn on the ground, and wounded the boar with an arrow; the beast, horribly roaring, rushed upon him, and wounded him desperately, so that he fell, like a tree stricken with an axe.
“In the meanwhile, a jackal, named Lougery, was roving in search of food; and, having perceived the fawn, the hunter, and the boar, all three dead, he said to himself, ‘What a noble provision is here made for me!’
“As the pains of men assail them unexpectedly, so their pleasures come in the same manner; a divine power strongly operates in both.
“‘Be it so; the flesh of these three animals will sustain me a whole month, or longer.
“‘A man suffices for one month; a fawn and a boar, for two; a snake, for a whole day; and then I will devour the bowstring.’ When the first impulse of his hunger was allayed, he said, ‘This flesh is not yet tender; let me taste the twisted string with which the horns of this bow are joined.’ So saying, he began to gnaw it; but, in the instant when he had cut the string, the severed bow leaped forcibly up, and wounded him in the breast, so that he departed in the agonies of death. This I meant, when I cited the verse, Frugality should ever be practised, &c.
“What thou givest to distinguished men, and what thou eatest every day — that, in my opinion, is thine own wealth: whose is the remainder which thou hoardest?”
Works of Sir William Jones, vol. vi. pp. 35-37.2
2] Edition 1799, 6 vols., 4to. — Ed.
It was one of these books which Chosroës, the king of Persia, caused to be translated from the Sanscrit into the ancient language of his country, in the sixth century of the Christian era, sending an embassy into Hindostan expressly for that purpose. Of the Persian book a translation was made in the time of the Calif Mansour, in the eighth century, into Arabic. This Arabic translation it is which became famous under the title of “The Book of Calila and Dimna, or the Fables of Bidpaï."3
3] An English translation from the Arabic appeared in 1819, done by the Rev. Wyndham Knatchbull. Sir William Jones says that the word Bidpaii signifies beloved, or favourite, physician. And he adds that the word Pilpay, which has taken the place of Bidpaii in some editions of these fables, is the result simply of a blunder in copying the word Bidpaii from the original. La Fontaine himself uses the word Pilpay twice in his Fables, viz., in Fables XII. and XV., Book XII. — Ed.
Calila and Dimna are the names of two jackals that figure in the history, and Bidpaï is one of the principal human interlocutors, who came to be mistaken for the author. This remarkable book was turned into verse by several of the Arabic poets, was translated into Greek, Hebrew, Latin, modern Persian, and, in the course of a few centuries, either directly or indirectly, into most of the languages of modern Europe.
Forty-one of the unadorned and disconnected fables of Aesop were also translated into Arabic at a period somewhat more recent than the Hegira, and passed by the name of the “Fables of Lokman.” Their want of poetical ornament prevented them from acquiring much popularity with the Arabians; but they became well known in Europe, as furnishing a convenient text-book in the study of Arabic.
The Hitopadesa, the fountain of poetic fables, with its innumerable translations and modifications, seems to have had the greatest charms for the Orientals. As it passed down the stream of time, version after version, the ornament and machinery outgrew the moral instruction, till it gave birth, at last, to such works of mere amusement as the “Thousand and One Nights.”
Fable slept, with other things, in the dark ages of Europe. Abridgments took the place of the large collections, and probably occasioned the entire loss of some of them. As literature revived, fable was resuscitated. The crusades had brought European mind in contact with the Indian works which we have already described, in their Arabic dress. Translations and imitations in the European tongues were speedily multiplied. The “Romance of the Fox,” the work of Perrot de Saint Cloud, one of the most successful of these imitations, dates back to the thirteenth century. It found its way into most of the northern languages, and became a household book. It undoubtedly had great influence over the taste of succeeding ages, shedding upon the severe and satirical wit of the Greek and Roman literature the rich, mellow light of Asiatic poetry. The poets of that age were not confined, however, to fables from the Hindoo source. Marie de France, also, in the thirteenth century, versified one hundred of the fables of Aesop, translating from an English collection, which does not now appear to be extant. Her work is entitled the Ysopet, or “Little Aesop.” Other versions, with the same title, were subsequently written. It was in 1447 that Planudes, already referred to, wrote in Greek prose a collection of fables, prefacing it with a life of Aesop, which, for a long time, passed for the veritable work of that ancient. In the next century, Abstemius wrote two hundred fables in Latin prose, partly of modern, but chiefly of ancient invention. At this time, the vulgar languages had undergone so great changes, that works in them of two or three centuries old could not be understood, and, consequently, the Latin became the favourite language of authors. Many collections of fables were written in it, both in prose and verse. By the art of printing these works were greatly multiplied; and again the poets undertook the task of translating them into the language of the people. The French led the way in this species of literature, their language seeming to present some great advantages for it. One hundred years before La Fontaine, Corrozet, Guillaume Gueroult, and Philibert Hegemon, had written beautiful fables in verse, which it is supposed La Fontaine must have read and profited by, although they had become nearly obsolete in his time. It is a remarkable fact, that these poetical fables should so soon have been forgotten. It was soon after their appearance that the languages of Europe attained their full development; and, at this epoch, prose seems to have been universally preferred to poetry. So strong was this preference, that Ogilby, the Scotch fabulist, who had written a collection of fables in English verse, reduced them to prose on the occasion of publishing a more splendid edition in 1668. It seems to have been the settled opinion of the critics of that age, as it has, indeed, been stoutly maintained since, that the ornaments of poetry only impair the force of the fable — that the Muses, by becoming the handmaids of old Aesop, part with their own dignity without conferring any on him. La Fontaine has made such an opinion almost heretical. In his manner there is a perfect originality, and an immortality every way equal to that of the matter which he gathered up from all parts of the great storehouse of human experience. His fables are like pure gold enveloped in solid rock-crystal. In English, a few of the fables of Gay, of Moore, and of Cowper, may be compared with them in some respects, but we have nothing resembling them as a whole. Gay, who has done more than any other, though he has displayed great power of invention, and has given his verse a flow worthy of his master, Pope, has yet fallen far behind La Fontaine in the general management of his materials. His fables are all beautiful poems, but few of them are beautiful fables. His animal speakers do not sufficiently preserve their animal characters. It is quite otherwise with La Fontaine. His beasts are made most nicely to observe all the proprieties not only of the scene in which they are called to speak, but of the great drama into which they are from time to time introduced. His work constitutes an harmonious whole. To those who read it in the original, it is one of the few which never cloy the appetite. As in the poetry of Burns, you are apt to think the last verse you read of him the best.
But the main object of this Preface was to give a few traces of the life and literary career of our poet. A remarkable poet cannot but have been a remarkable man. Suppose we take a man with native benevolence amounting almost to folly; but little cunning, caution, or veneration; good perceptive, but better reflective faculties; and a dominant love of the beautiful; — and toss him into the focus of civilization in the age of Louis XIV. It is an interesting problem to find out what will become of him. Such is the problem worked out in the life of JEAN DE LA FONTAINE, born on the eighth of July, 1621, at Chateau-Thierry. His father, a man of some substance and station, committed two blunders in disposing of his son. First, he encouraged him to seek an education for ecclesiastical life, which was evidently unsuited to his disposition. Second, he brought about his marriage with a woman who was unfitted to secure his affections, or to manage his domestic affairs. In one other point he was not so much mistaken: he laboured unremittingly to make his son a poet. Jean was a backward boy, and showed not the least spark of poetical genius till his twenty-second year. His poetical genius did not ripen till long after that time. But his father lived to see him all, and more than all, that he had ever hoped.4
4] The Translator in his sixth edition replaced the next paragraph by the following remarks:— “The case is apparently, and only apparently, an exception to the old rule Poeta nascitur, orator fit — the poet is born, the orator is made. The truth is, without exception, that every poet is born such; and many are born such of whose poetry the world knows nothing. Every known poet is also somewhat an orator; and as to this part of his character, he is made. And many are known as poets who are altogether made; they are mere second-hand, or orator poets, and are quite intolerable unless exceedingly well made, which is, unfortunately, seldom the case. It would be wise in them to busy themselves as mere translators. Every one who is born with propensities to love and wonder too strong and deep to be worn off by repetition or continuance, — in other words, who is born to be always young, — is born a poet. The other requisites he has of course. Upon him the making will never be lost. The richest gems do most honour to their polishing. But they are gems without any. So there are men who pass through the world with their souls full of poetry, who would not believe you if you were to tell them so. Happy for them is their ignorance, perhaps. La Fontaine came near being one of them. All that is artificial in poetry to him came late and with difficulty. Yet it resulted from his keen relish of nature, that he was never satisfied with his art of verse till he had brought it to the confines of perfection. He did not philosophize over the animals; he sympathized with them. A philosopher would not have lost a fashionable dinner in his admiration of a common ant-hill. La Fontaine did so once, because the well-known little community was engaged in what he took to be a funeral. He could not in decency leave them till it was over. Verse-making out of the question, this was to be a genuine poet, though, with commonplace mortals, it was also to be a fool.”
But we will first, in few words, despatch the worst — for there is a very bad part — of his life. It was not specially his life; it was the life of the age in which he lived. The man of strong amorous propensities, in that age and country, who was, nevertheless, faithful to vows of either marriage or celibacy, — the latter vows then proved sadly dangerous to the former, — may be regarded as a miracle. La Fontaine, without any agency of his own affections, found himself married at the age of twenty-six, while yet as immature as most men are at sixteen. The upshot was, that his patrimony dwindled; and, though he lived many years with his wife, and had a son, he neglected her more and more, till at last he forgot that he had been married, though he unfortunately did not forget that there were other women in the world besides his wife. His genius and benevolence gained him friends everywhere with both sexes, who never suffered him to want, and who had never cause to complain of his ingratitude. But he was always the special favourite of the Aspasias who ruled France and her kings. To please them, he wrote a great deal of fine poetry, much of which deserves to be everlastingly forgotten. It must be said for him, that his vice became conspicuous only in the light of one of his virtues. His frankness would never allow concealment. He scandalized his friends Boileau and Racine; still, it is matter of doubt whether they did not excel him rather in prudence than in purity. But, whatever may be said in palliation, it is lamentable to think that a heaven-lighted genius should have been made, in any way, to minister to a hell-envenomed vice, which has caused unutterable woes to France and the world. Some time before he died, he repented bitterly of this part of his course, and laboured, no doubt sincerely, to repair the mischiefs he had done.
As we have already said, Jean was a backward boy. But, under a dull exterior, the mental machinery was working splendidly within. He lacked all that outside care and prudence, — that constant looking out for breakers, — which obstruct the growth and ripening of the reflective faculties. The vulgar, by a queer mistake, call a man absent-minded, when his mind shuts the door, pulls in the latch-string, and is wholly at home. La Fontaine’s mind was exceedingly domestic. It was nowhere but at home when, riding from Paris to Chateau-Thierry, a bundle of papers fell from his saddle-bow without his perceiving it. The mail-carrier, coming behind him, picked it up, and overtaking La Fontaine, asked him if he had lost anything. “Certainly not,” he replied, looking about him with great surprise. “Well, I have just picked up these papers,” rejoined the other. “Ah! they are mine,” cried La Fontaine; “they involve my whole estate.” And he eagerly reached to take them. On another occasion he was equally at home. Stopping on a journey, he ordered dinner at an hotel, and then took a ramble about the town. On his return, he entered another hotel, and, passing through into the garden, took from his pocket a copy of Livy, in which he quietly set himself to read till his dinner should be ready. The book made him forget his appetite, till a servant informed him of his mistake, and he returned to his hotel just in time to pay his bill and proceed on his journey.
It will be perceived that he took the world quietly, and his doing so undoubtedly had important bearings on his style. We give another anecdote, which illustrates this peculiarity of his mind as well as the superlative folly of duelling. Not long after his marriage, with all his indifference to his wife, he was persuaded into a fit of singular jealousy. He was intimate with an ex-captain of dragoons, by name Poignant, who had retired to Chateau-Thierry; a frank, open-hearted man, but of extremely little gallantry. Whenever Poignant was not at his inn, he was at La Fontaine’s, and consequently with his wife, when he himself was not at home. Some person took it in his head to ask La Fontaine why he suffered these constant visits. “And why,” said La Fontaine, “should I not? He is my best friend.” “The public think otherwise,” was the reply; “they say that he comes for the sake of Madame La Fontaine.” “The public is mistaken; but what must I do in the case?” said the poet. “You must demand satisfaction, sword in hand, of one who has dishonoured you.” “Very well,” said La Fontaine, “I will demand it.” The next day he called on Poignant, at four o’clock in the morning, and found him in bed. “Rise,” said he, “and come out with me!” His friend asked him what was the matter, and what pressing business had brought him so early in the morning. “I shall let you know,” replied La Fontaine, “when we get abroad.” Poignant, in great astonishment, rose, followed him out, and asked whither he was leading. “You shall know by-and-by,” replied La Fontaine; and at last, when they had reached a retired place, he said, “My friend, we must fight.” Poignant, still more surprised, sought to know in what he had offended him, and moreover represented to him that they were not on equal terms. “I am a man of war,” said he, “while, as for you, you have never drawn a sword.” “No matter,” said La Fontaine; “the public requires that I should fight you.” Poignant, after having resisted in vain, at last drew his sword, and, having easily made himself master of La Fontaine’s, demanded the cause of the quarrel. “The public maintains,” said La Fontaine, “that you come to my house daily, not for my sake, but my wife’s .” “Ah! my friend,” replied the other, “I should never have suspected that was the cause of your displeasure, and I protest I will never again put a foot within your doors.” “On the contrary,” replied La Fontaine, seizing him by the hand, “I have satisfied the public, and now you must come to my house, every day, or I will fight you again.” The two antagonists returned, and breakfasted together in good-humour.
It was not, as we have said, till his twenty-second year, that La Fontaine showed any taste for poetry. The occasion was this:— An officer, in winter-quarters at Chateau-Thierry, one day read to him, with great spirit, an ode of Malherbe, beginning thus —
Que direz-vous, races futures,
Si quelquefois un vrai discours
Vous récite les aventures
De nos abominables jours?
Or, as we might paraphrase it, —
What will ye say, ye future days,
If I, for once, in honest rhymes,
Recount to you the deeds and ways
Of our abominable times?
La Fontaine listened with involuntary transports of joy, admiration, and astonishment, as if a man born with a genius for music, but brought up in a desert, had for the first time heard a well-played instrument. He set himself immediately to reading Malherbe, passed his nights in learning his verses by heart, and his days in declaiming them in solitary places. He also read Voiture, and began to write verses in imitation. Happily, at this period, a relative named Pintrel directed his attention to ancient literature, and advised him to make himself familiar with Horace, Homer, Virgil, Terence, and Quinctilian. He accepted this counsel. M. de Maucroix, another of his friends, who cultivated poetry with success, also contributed to confirm his taste for the ancient models. His great delight, however, was to read Plato and Plutarch, which he did only through translations. The copies which he used are said to bear his manuscript notes on almost every page, and these notes are the maxims which are to be found in his fables. Returning from this study of the ancients, he read the moderns with more discrimination. His favourites, besides Malherbe, were Corneille, Rabelais, and Marot. In Italian, he read Ariosto, Boccaccio, and Machiavel. In 1654 he published his first work, a translation of the Eunuch of Terence. It met with no success. But this does not seem at all to have disturbed its author. He cultivated verse-making with as much ardour and good-humour as ever; and his verses soon began to be admired in the circle of his friends. No man had ever more devoted friends. Verses that have cost thought are not relished without thought. When a genius appears, it takes some little time for the world to educate itself to a knowledge of the fact. By one of his friends, La Fontaine was introduced to Fouquet, the minister of finance, a man of great power, and who rivalled his sovereign in wealth and luxury. It was his pride to be the patron of literary men, and he was pleased to make La Fontaine his poet, settling on him a pension of one thousand francs per annum, on condition that he should produce a piece in verse each quarter, — a condition which was exactly complied with till the fall of the minister.
Fouquet was a most splendid villain, and positively, though perhaps not comparatively, deserved to fall. But it was enough for La Fontaine that Fouquet had done him a kindness. He took the part of the disgraced minister, without counting the cost. His “Elegy to the nymphs of Vaux” was a shield to the fallen man, and turned popular hatred into sympathy. The good-hearted poet rejoiced exceedingly in its success. Bon-homme was the appellation which his friends pleasantly gave him, and by which he became known everywhere; — and never did a man better deserve it in its best sense. He was good by nature — not by the calculation of consequences. Indeed it does not seem ever to have occurred to him that kindness, gratitude, and truth, could have any other than good consequences. He was truly a Frenchman without guile, and possessed to perfection that comfortable trait, — in which French character is commonly allowed to excel the English, — good-humour with the whole world.
La Fontaine was the intimate friend of Molière, Boileau, and Racine. Molière had already established a reputation; but the others became known to the world at the same time. Boileau hired a small chamber in the Faubourg Saint Germain, where they all met several times a week; for La Fontaine, at the age of forty-four, had left Chateau-Thierry, and become a citizen of Paris. Here they discussed all sorts of topics, admitting to their society Chapelle, a man of less genius, but of greater conversational powers, than either of them — a sort of connecting link between them and the world. Four poets, or four men, could hardly have been more unlike. Boileau was blustering, blunt, peremptory, but honest and frank; Racine, of a pleasant and tranquil gaiety, but mischievous and sarcastic; Molière was naturally considerate, pensive, and melancholy; La Fontaine was often absent-minded, but sometimes exceedingly jovial, delighting with his sallies, his witty naïvetés, and his arch simplicity. These meetings, which no doubt had a great influence upon French literature, La Fontaine, in one of his prefaces, thus describes:— “Four friends, whose acquaintance had begun at the foot of Parnassus, held a sort of society, which I should call an Academy, if their number had been sufficiently great, and if they had had as much regard for the Muses as for pleasure. The first thing which they did was to banish from among them all rules of conversation, and everything which savours of the academic conference. When they met, and had sufficiently discussed their amusements, if chance threw them upon any point of science or belles-lettres, they profited by the occasion; it was, however, without dwelling too long on the same subject, flitting from one thing to another like the bees that meet divers sorts of flowers on their way. Neither envy, malice, nor cabal, had any voice among them. They adored the works of the ancients, never refused due praise to those of the moderns, spoke modestly of their own, and gave each other sincere counsel, when any one of them — which rarely happened — fell into the malady of the age, and published a book.”
The absent-mindedness of our fabulist not unfrequently created much amusement on these occasions, and made him the object of mirthful conspiracies. So keenly was the game pursued by Boileau and Racine, that the more considerate Molière felt obliged sometimes to expose and rebuke them. Once, after having done so, he privately told a stranger, who was present with them, the wits would have worried themselves in vain; they could not have obliterated the bon-homme.
La Fontaine, as we have said, was an admirer of Rabelais; — to what a pitch, the following anecdote may show. At one of the meetings at Boileau’s were present Racine, Valincourt, and a brother of Boileau’s, a doctor of the Sorbonne. The latter took it upon him to set forth the merits of St. Augustin in a pompous eulogium. La Fontaine, plunged in one of his habitual reveries, listened without hearing. At last, rousing himself as if from a profound sleep, to prove that the conversation had not been lost upon him, he asked the doctor, with a very serious air, whether he thought St. Augustin had as much wit as Rabelais. The divine, surprised, looked at him from head to foot, and only replied, “Take care, Monsieur La Fontaine; — you have put one of your stockings on wrong side outwards” — which was the fact.
It was in 1668 that La Fontaine published his first collection of fables, under the modest title Fables Choisies, mises en Vers, in a quarto volume, with figures designed and engraved by Chauveau. It contained six books, and was dedicated to the Dauphin. Many of the fables had already been published in a separate form. The success of this collection was so great, that it was reprinted the same year in a smaller size. Fables had come to be regarded as beneath poetry; La Fontaine established them at once on the top of Parnassus. The ablest poets of his age did not think it beneath them to enter the lists with him; and it is needless to say they came off second best.
One of the fables of the first book is addressed to the Duke de la Rochefoucauld, and was the consequence of a friendship between La Fontaine and the author of the celebrated “Maxims.” Connected with the duke was Madame La Fayette, one of the most learned and ingenious women of her age, who consequently became the admirer and friend of the fabulist. To her he wrote verses abundantly, as he did to all who made him the object of their kind regard. Indeed, notwithstanding his avowed indolence, or rather passion for quiet and sleep, his pen was very productive. In 1669, he published “Psyché,” a romance in prose and verse, which he dedicated to the Duchess de Bouillon, in gratitude for many kindnesses. The prose is said to be better than the verse; but this can hardly be true in respect to the following lines, in which the poet under the apt name of Polyphile, in a hymn addressed to Pleasure, undoubtedly sketches himself:—
Volupté, Volupté, qui fus jadis maîtresse
Du plus bel esprit de la Grèce,
Ne me dédaigne pas; viens-t’en loger chez moi:
Tu n’y seras pas sans emploi:
J’aime le jeu, l’amour, les livres, la musique,
La ville et la campagne, enfin tout; il n’est rien
Qui ne me soit souverain bien,
Jusqu’au sombre plaisir d’un coeur mélancolique.
Viens donc. . . .
The characteristic grace and playfulness of this seem to defy translation. To the mere English reader, the sense may be roughly given thus:—
Delight, Delight, who didst as mistress hold
The finest wit of Grecian mould,
Disdain not me; but come,
And make my house thy home.
Thou shalt not be without employ:
In play, love, music, books, I joy,
In town and country; and, indeed, there’s nought,
E’en to the luxury of sober thought, —
The sombre, melancholy mood, —
But brings to me the sovereign good.
Come, then, &c.
The same Polyphile, in recounting his adventures on a visit to the infernal regions, tells us that he saw, in the hands of the cruel Eumenides,
——— Les auteurs de maint hymen forcé
L’amant chiche, et la dame au coeur intéressé;
La troupe des censeurs, peuple à l’Amour rebelle;
Ceux enfin dont les vers ont noirci quelque belle.
——— Artificers of many a loveless match,
And lovers who but sought the pence to catch;
The crew censorious, rebels against Love;
And those whose verses soiled the fair above.
To be “rebels against Love” was quite unpardonable with La Fontaine; and to bring about a ”hymen forcé“ was a crime, of which he probably spoke with some personal feeling. The great popularity of “Psyché” encouraged the author to publish two volumes of poems and tales in 1671, in which were contained several new fables. The celebrated Madame de Sévigné thus speaks of these fables, in one of her letters to her daughter:— “But have you not admired the beauty of the five or six fables of La Fontaine contained in one of the volumes which I sent you? We were charmed with them the other day at M. de la Rochefoucauld’s: we got by art that of the Monkey and the Cat.” Then, quoting some lines, she adds, — “This is painting! And the Pumpkin — and the Nightingale — they are worthy of the first volume!” It was in his stories that La Fontaine excelled; and Madame de Sévigné expresses a wish to invent a fable which would impress upon him the folly of leaving his peculiar province. He seemed himself not insensible where his strength lay, and seldom ventured upon any other ground, except at the instance of his friends. With all his lightness, he felt a deep veneration for religion — the most spiritual and rigid which came within the circle of his immediate acquaintance. He admired Jansenius and the Port Royalists, and heartily loved Racine, who was of their faith. Count Henri-Louis de Loménie, of Brienne, — who, after being secretary of state, had retired to the Oratoire, — was engaged in bringing out a better collection of Christian lyrics. To this work he pressed La Fontaine, whom he called his particular friend, to lend his name and contributions. Thus the author of “Psyché,” “Adonis,” and “Joconde,” was led to the composition of pious hymns, and versifications of the Psalms of David. Gifted by nature with the utmost frankness of disposition, he sympathized fully with Arnauld and Pascal in the war against the Jesuits; and it would seem, from his Ballade sur Escobar, that he had read and relished the “Provincial Letters.” This ballad, as it may be a curiosity to many, shall be given entire:—
C’est à bon droit que l’on condamne à Rome
L’évêque d’Ypré 5, auteur de vains débats;
Ses sectateurs nous défendent en somme
Tous les plaisirs que l’on goûte ici-bas.
En paradis allant au petit pas,
On y parvient, quoi qu’ARNAULD 6 nous en die:
La volupté sans cause il a bannie.
Veut-on monter sur les célestes tours,
Chemin pierreux est grande rêverie,
ESCOBAR 7 sait un chemin de velours.
Il ne dit pas qu’on peut tuer un homme
Qui sans raison nous tient en altercas
Pour un fêtu ou bien pour une pomme;
Mais qu’on le peut pour quatre ou cinq ducats.
Même il soutient qu’on peut en certains cas
Faire un serment plein de supercherie,
S’abandonner aux douceurs de la vie,
S’il est besoin conserver ses amours.
Ne faut-il pas après cela qu’on crie:
ESCOBAR sait un chemin de velours?
Au nom de Dieu, lisez-moi quelque somme
De ces écrits don’t chez lui l’on fait cas.
Qu’est-il besoin qu’à present je les nomme?
II en est tant qu’on ne les connoît pas.
De leurs avis servez-vous pour compas;
N’admettez qu’eux en votre librairie;
Brûlez ARNAULD avec sa côterie,
Près d’ESCOBAR ce ne sont qu’esprits lourds.
Je vous le dis: ce n’est point raillerie,
ESCOBAR sait un chemin de velours.
Toi, que l’orgueil poussa dans la voirie,
Qui tiens là-bas noire concièrgerie,
Lucifer, chef des infernales cours,
Pour éviter les traits de ta furie,
ESCOBAR sait un chemin de velours.
5] Corneille Jansenius, — the originator of the sect called Jansenists. Though he was bishop of Ypres, his chief work, “Augustinus,” and his doctrines generally, were condemned by Popes Urban VIII. and Innocent X., as heretical (1641 and 1653). — Ed.
6] Arnauld. — This was Antoine Arnauld, doctor of the Sorbonne, and one of the Arnaulds famous among the Port Royalists, who were Jansenists in opposition to the Jesuits. He was born in 1612, and died a voluntary exile in Belgium, 1694. Boileau wrote his epitaph. — Ed.
7] Escobar. — A Spanish Jesuit, who flourished mostly in France, and wrote against the Jansenists. Pascal, as well as La Fontaine, ridiculed his convenient principles of morality, he “chemin de velours,” as La Fontaine puts it. His chief work in moral theology was published in seven vols., folio, at Lyons, 1652-1663. He died in 1669. — Ed.
Thus does the Bon-homme treat the subtle Escobar, the prince and prototype of the moralists of expediency. To translate his artless and delicate irony is hardly possible. The writer of this hasty Preface offers the following only as an attempted imitation:—
Good cause has Rome to reprobate
The bishop who disputes her so;
His followers reject and hate
All pleasures that we taste below.
To heaven an easy pace may go,
Whatever crazy ARNAULD saith,
Who aims at pleasure causeless wrath.
Seek we the better world afar?
We’re fools to choose the rugged path:
A velvet road hath ESCOBAR.
Although he does not say you can,
Should one with you for nothing strive,
Or for a trifle, kill the man —
You can for ducats four or five.
Indeed, if circumstances drive,
Defraud, or take false oaths you may,
Or to the charms of life give way,
When Love must needs the door unbar.
Henceforth must not the pilgrim say,
A velvet road hath ESCOBAR?
Now, would to God that one would state
The pith of all his works to me.
What boots it to enumerate?
As well attempt to drain the sea! —
Your chart and compass let them be;
All other books put under ban;
Burn ARNAULD and his rigid clan —
They’re blockheads if we but compare; —
It is no joke, — I tell you, man,
A velvet road hath ESCOBAR.
Thou warden of the prison black,
Who didst on heaven turn thy back,
The chieftain of th’ infernal war!
To shun thy arrows and thy rack,
A velvet road hath ESCOBAR.
The verses of La Fontaine did more for his reputation than for his purse. His paternal estate wasted away under his carelessness; for, when the ends of the year refused to meet, he sold a piece of land sufficient to make them do so. His wife, no better qualified to manage worldly gear than himself, probably lived on her family friends, who were able to support her, and who seem to have done so without blaming him. She had lived with him in Paris for some time after that city became his abode; but, tiring at length of the city life, she had returned at Château-Thierry, and occupied the family mansion. At the earnest expostulation of Boileau and Racine, who wished to make him a better husband, he returned to Château-Thierry himself, in 1666, for the purpose of becoming reconciled to his wife. But his purpose strangely vanished. He called at his own house, learned from the domestic, who did not know him, that Madame La Fontaine was in good health, and passed on to the house of a friend, where he tarried two days, and then returned to Paris without having seen his wife. When his friends inquired of him his success, with some confusion he replied, “I have been to see her, but I did not find her: she was well.” Twenty years after that, Racine prevailed on him to visit his patrimonial estate, to take some care of what remained. Racine, not hearing from him, sent to know what he was about, when La Fontaine wrote as follows:— “Poignant, on his return from Paris, told me that you took my silence in very bad part; the worse, because you had been told that I have been incessantly at work since my arrival at Château-Thierry, and that, instead of applying myself to my affairs, I have had nothing in my head but verses. All this is no more than half true: my affairs occupy me as much as they deserve to — that is to say not at all; but the leisure which they leave me — it is not poetry, but idleness, which makes away with it.” On a certain occasion, in the earlier part of his life, when pressed in regard to his improvidence, he gaily produced the following epigram, which has commonly been appended to his fables as “The Epitaph of La Fontaine, written by Himself”:—
Jean s’en alla comme il était venu,
Mangea le fonds avec le revenu,
Tint les trésors chose peu nécessaire.
Quant à son temps, bien sut le dispenser:
Deux parts en fit, don’t il soûloit passer
L’urie à dormir, et l’autre à ne rien faire.
This confession, the immortality of which was so little foreseen by its author, liberally rendered, amounts to the following:—
John went as he came — ate his farm with its fruits,
Held treasure to be but the cause of disputes;
And, as to his time, be it frankly confessed,
Divided it daily as suited him best, —
Gave a part to his sleep, and to nothing the rest.
It is clear that a man who provided so little for himself needed good friends to do it; and Heaven kindly furnished them. When his affairs began to be straitened, he was invited by the celebrated Madame de la Sablière to make her house his home; and there, in fact, he was thoroughly domiciliated for twenty years. “I have sent away all my domestics,” said that lady, one day; “I have kept only my dog, my cat, and La Fontaine.” She was, perhaps, the best-educated woman in France, was the mistress of several languages, knew Horace and Virgil by heart, and had been thoroughly indoctrinated in all the sciences by the ablest masters. Her husband, M. Rambouillet de la Sablière, was secretary to the king, and register of domains, and to immense wealth united considerable poetical talents, with a thorough knowledge of the world. It was the will of Madame de la Sablière, that her favourite poet should have no further care for his external wants; and never was a mortal more perfectly resigned. He did all honour to the sincerity of his amiable hostess; and, if he ever showed a want of independence, he certainly did not of gratitude. Compliments of more touching tenderness we nowhere meet than those which La Fontaine has paid to his benefactress. He published nothing which was not first submitted to her eye, and entered into her affairs and friendships with all his heart. Her unbounded confidence in his integrity she expressed by saying, “La Fontaine never lies in prose.” By her death, in 1693, our fabulist was left without a home; but his many friends vied with each other which should next furnish one. He was then seventy-two years of age, had turned his attention to personal religion, and received the seal of conversion at the hands of the Roman Catholic church. In his conversion, as in the rest of his life, his frankness left no room to doubt his sincerity. The writings which had justly given offence to the good were made the subject of a public confession, and everything in his power was done to prevent their circulation. The death of one who had done so much for him, and whose last days, devoted with the most self-denying benevolence to the welfare of her species, had taught him a most salutary lesson, could not but be deeply felt. He had just left the house of his deceased benefactress, never again to enter it, when he met M. d’Hervart in the street, who eagerly said to him, “My dear La Fontaine, I was looking for you, to beg you to come and take lodgings in my house.” “I was going thither,” replied La Fontaine. A reply could not have more characteristic. The fabulist had not in him sufficient hypocrisy of which to manufacture the commonplace politeness of society. His was the politeness of a warm and unsuspecting heart. He never concealed his confidence in the fear that it might turn out to be misplaced.
His second collection of fables, containing five books, La Fontaine published in 1678-9, with a dedication to Madame de Montespan; the previous six books were republished at the same time, revised, and enlarged. The twelfth book was not added till many years after, and proved, in fact, the song of the dying swan. It was written for the special use of the young Duke de Bourgogne, the royal pupil of Fénélon, to whom it contains frequent allusions. The eleven books now published sealed the reputation of La Fontaine, and were received with distinguished regard by the king, who appended to the ordinary protocol or imprimatur for publication the following reasons: “in order to testify to the author the esteem we have for his person and his merit, and because youth have received great advantage in their education from the fables selected and put in verse, which he has heretofore published.” The author was, moreover, permitted to present his book in person to the sovereign. For this purpose he repaired to Versailles, and after having well delivered himself of his compliment to royalty, perceived that he had forgotten to bring the book which he was to present; he was, nevertheless, favourably received, and loaded with presents. But it is added, that, on his return, he also lost, by his absence of mind, the purse full of gold which the king had given him, which was happily found under a cushion of the carriage in which he rode.
In his advertisement to the second part of his Fables, La Fontaine informs the reader that he had treated his subjects in a somewhat different style. In fact, in his first collection, he had timidly confined himself to the brevity of Aesop and Phaedrus; but, having observed that those fables were most popular in which he had given most scope to his own genius, he threw off the trammels in the second collection, and, in the opinion of the writer, much for the better. His subjects, too, in the second part, are frequently derived from the Indian fabulists, and bring with them the richness and dramatic interest of the Hitopadesa.
Of all his fables, the Oak and the Reed is said to have been the favourite of La Fontaine. But his critics have almost unanimously given the palm of excellence to the Animals sick of the Plague, the first of the seventh book. Its exquisite poetry, the perfection of its dialogue, and the weight of its moral, well entitle it to the place. That must have been a soul replete with honesty, which could read such a lesson in the ears of a proud and oppressive court. Indeed, we may look in vain through this encyclopaedia of fable for a sentiment which goes to justify the strong in their oppression of the weak. Even in the midst of the fulsome compliments which it was the fashion of his age to pay to royalty, La Fontaine maintains a reserve and decency peculiar to himself. By an examination of his fables, we think, we might fairly establish for him the character of an honest and disinterested lover and respecter of his species. In his fable entitled Death and the Dying, he unites the genius of Pascal and Molière; in that of the Two Doves is a tenderness quite peculiar to himself, and an insight into the heart worthy of Shakspeare. In his Mogul’s Dream are sentiments worthy of the very high-priest of nature, and expressed in his own native tongue with a felicity which makes the translator feel that all his labours are but vanity and vexation of spirit. But it is not the purpose of this brief Preface to criticize the Fables. It is sufficient to say, that the work occupies a position in French literature, which, after all has been said that can be for Gay, Moore, and other English versifiers of fables, is left quite vacant in ours.
Our author was elected a member of the French Academy in 1684, and received with the honour of a public session. He read on this occasion a poem of exquisite beauty, addressed to his benefactress, Madame de la Sablière. In that distinguished body of men he was a universal favourite, and none, perhaps, did more to promote its prime object — the improvement of the French language. We have already seen how he was regarded by some of the greatest minds of his age. Voltaire, who never did more than justice to merit other than his own, said of the Fables, “I hardly know a book which more abounds with charms adapted to the people, and at the same time to persons of refined taste. I believe that, of all authors, La Fontaine is the most universally read. He is for all minds and all ages.” La Bruyère, when admitted to the Academy, in 1693, was warmly applauded for his éloge upon La Fontaine, which contained the following words:— “More equal than Marot, and more poetical than Voiture, La Fontaine has the playfulness, felicity, and artlessness of both. He instructs while he sports, persuades men to virtue by means of beasts, and exalts trifling subjects to the sublime; a man unique in his species of composition, always original, whether he invents or translates, — who has gone beyond his models, himself a model hard to imitate.”
La Fontaine, as we have said, devoted his latter days to religion. In this he was sustained and cheered by his old friends Racine and De Maucroix. Death overtook him while applying his poetical powers to the hymns of the church. To De Maucroix he wrote, a little before his death, — “I assure you that the best of your friends cannot count upon more than fifteen days of life. For these two months I have not gone abroad, except occasionally to attend the Academy, for a little amusement. Yesterday, as I was returning from it, in the middle of the Rue du Chantre, I was taken with such a faintness that I really thought myself dying. O, my friend, to die is nothing: but think you how I am going to appear before God! You know how I have lived. Before you receive this billet, the gates of eternity will perhaps have been opened upon me!” To this, a few days after, his friend replied, — “If God, in his kindness, restores you to health, I hope you will come and spend the rest of your life with me, and we shall often talk together of the mercies of God. If, however, you have not strength to write, beg M. Racine to do me that kindness, the greatest he can ever do for me. Adieu, my good, my old, and my true friend. May God, in his infinite, goodness, take care of the health of your body, and that of your soul.” He died the 13th of April, 1695, at the age of seventy-three, and was buried in the cemetery of the Saints-Innocents.
When Fénélon heard of his death, he wrote a Latin eulogium, which he gave to his royal pupil to translate. “La Fontaine is no more!” said Fénélon, in this composition; “he is no more! and with him have gone the playful jokes, the merry laugh, the artless graces, and the sweet Muses.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52