The French poet and man of letters Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) was one of the great French classical authors. He preferred to work in relatively minor and unexploited genres, such as the fable and the verse tale.
While he did not hesitate to borrow freely from other writers, both ancient and modern, Jean de La Fontaine nevertheless created a style and a poetic universe at once personal and universal, peculiarly his own and thus inimitable, but also accessible to all. He is perhaps the greatest lyric poet of the 17th century in France. Though he is best known for the Fables, they are but a small part of his writings. He also wrote a number of licentious tales in verse, many occasional pieces, and a long romance; he tried his hand at elegy and fantasy, at epigram and comedy. Almost everything he wrote is shot through with personal reflections and graceful ironies.
La Fontaine was baptized (and probably born) on July 8, 1621, the first child of Charles de La Fontaine and Françoise Pidoux. Little is known about his youth in Château-Thierry (Aisne); he went to Paris in 1635, was associated briefly with the Oratorians, and then studied law. In 1647 he married Marie Héricart, whose family was related to Jean Racine's. He purchased a post (or sinecure) as master of waters and forests in 1652; his son Charles was born a year later. In 1654 appeared his first publication, an imitation of Terence's Eunuch. An amusing portrait of him was composed about this time by Tallemant des Réaux: "A man of belles lettres and who writes verse. … His wife says that he's such a dreamer he sometimes goes for three weeks without remembering that he's married."
In 1658 La Fontaine offered his poem Adonisto Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV's superintendent of finances. Fouquet, known for his support of the arts and of artists, soon became La Fontaine's admirer and protector. La Fontaine wrote numerous poems for his patron; among the more interesting are the fragments of Le Songe de Vaux, a dream in verse written to celebrate the many marvels of Fouquet's estate, Vaux-le-Vicomte. During the years of the "poetic pension" at Vaux, La Fontaine met Charles Perrault, Racine, and many other writers and artists. The arrest of Fouquet in September 1661 put an end to the Vaux dream, but La Fontaine remained loyal to his friend. In 1663 the poet—who may have been in trouble because of his obvious sympathy for Fouquet—accompanied his uncle to Limoges; the voyage is recounted in six interesting letters to his wife.
La Fontaine became a gentilhomme servant to the Duchesse d'Orléans in 1664. The post was rather badly paid, but it made few claims on the poet's time. In 1665 he published the collection Contes et Nouvelles en vers; these tales were followed by a second collection a year later. Both volumes were enthusiastically received despite (or perhaps because of) their licentious tone and matter.
In 1668 La Fontaine published six books of Fables, in verse. Dedicated to the Dauphin, these poems were extraordinarily successful, and La Fontaine's fame was secure at last. The fables cover a vast range of human experience; formally they are remarkably varied and free. In an age of linguistic constraint and purification, he uses all manner of archaic words, colloquialisms, outmoded constructions; in an age of overwhelming concern with the great serious genres (epic and tragedy, for instance), he deliberately chooses to exploit the considerable resources of a minor genre. And if the fables seem at first to be children's literature, a careful examination reveals their sophisticated satire of conventional wisdom and morality.
In 1669 La Fontaine published Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, a long romance in verse and prose, ostensibly a simple version of the Psyche story in The Golden Ass of Apuleius. But La Fontaine's work, despite its bantering tone and its contemporary allusions, is an intensely personal meditation on love and beauty and art—things which, as the work suggests, escape definition and so must be felt if they are to be known at all.
A third collection of Contes appeared in 1671, along with eight new fables. In the same year La Fontaine had to give up his post as master of waters and forests, and the death of the Duchesse d'Orléans in 1672 left him without employment. In 1673, however, he found a new protectress, Madame de La Sablière, at whose salons the poet met many scholars, philosophers, artists, and free-thinkers. In the years 1673-1682 he published a variety of works: a long religious poem for Port-Royal, an epitaph for his friend Molière, some new contes (the most licentious of all, they were promptly banned by the police), five new books of fables, and various other pieces. In 1682 he wrote a long poem in praise of the powers of quinine. As he said, "Diversity is my motto."
After many maneuvers La Fontaine was finally elected to the French Academy in 1684. He continued to write and to publish: a volume of miscellaneous writings (1685); the important poem Epistle to Huet (1687), in which he avoided taking sides in the "quarrel of the ancients and the moderns"; the "lyric tragedy" Astrée, which was produced in 1691 but closed after six performances.
Madame de La Sablière died in 1693, and La Fontaine's thoughts turned to the Church. He renounced the Contes and promised to devote the rest of his days to the composition of pious works. The last collection of fables appeared in 1694, and in that year the aging and weary poet wrote to his dearest friend, François de Maucroix, "I would die of boredom if I couldn't keep on writing." Remaining lucid and active almost to the end, La Fontaine died on April 13, 1695.
The best general biography of La Fontaine in English is Monica Sutherland, La Fontaine (1953). An excellent account of La Fontaine before the publication of the first collection of fables is in Philip A. Wadsworth, Young La Fontaine: A study of His Artistic Growth in His Early Poetry and First Fables (1952). Useful chapters on La Fontaine are in Elbert Benton O. Borgerhoff, The Freedom of French Classicism (1950), and Will Grayburn Moore, French Classical Literature (1961). Recommended for general historical background are Albert Guérard, The Life and Death of an Ideal (1928; repr. 1956); Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century background (1934; repr. 1967); and Warren H. Lewis, The Splendid Century (1953).