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The Fabulous La Fontaine

Le Poète et le Roi: Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle

by Marc Fumaroli
Paris: Editions de Fallois, 511 pp., 145 FF


On the second of May, 1684, La Fontaine, now aged sixty-two, was admitted to the Académie Française, taking the seat of the prime minister Colbert, who had died the year before. Colbert had been ill-disposed toward the poet for a long time, and was the principal agent many years before in the arrest and imprisonment of La Fontaine’s patron, Nicolas Fouquet. For more than six months, Louis XIV refused to ratify La Fontaine’s election. When the ceremony of admission finally took place, the speech of welcome was made by the abbé de La Chambre, director of the Académie, who remarked that his own profession as a priest made it impossible for him to read La Fontaine’s fables properly in order to give him the praise that was his due. “To tell you the truth, Monsieur,” he added,

we needed a good subject to soften the bitterness of a separation as painful for us as that of M. Colbert, whom you succeed…. You should, Monsieur, forget this less than anyone, as I have the right to tell you with all the authority that my task gives me (a task that Fate, never more blind than now, has imposed on me, far from my wishes, and which would better suit anyone else in a reception like this one), you should, I say, Monsieur, remember without cease the one whose place you occupy, in order perfectly to fulfill your duties and to satisfy the obligations that you indispensably contract by taking your part in this assembly, on this day that you enter into our society.

La Chambre further informed the new member that his unique function would now be to work for the glory of the King, to have “no other purpose than the eternity of his name.” In his answer of acceptance, La Fontaine skated very rapidly over his predecessor’s virtues. The famous architect and writer of fairy tales, Charles Perrault, reported that La Fontaine’s speech was witty and pleasing, but that “he read it badly and with a rapidity absolutely unsuited to an oration.” La Chambre’s harangue was printed by the Académie, but the abbé took the unprecedented step of refusing to reprint the speech of the poet that followed his.

Marc Fumaroli has written the finest and most perceptive of all the innumerable accounts of La Fontaine. He remarks on the difficulty for a modern reader of appreciating a poet who was neither persecuted as a poète maudit (which would satisfy the leftist critic) nor given genuine official status (and so gratify the right wing). Official recognition, when it came, was only grudging. In Fumaroli’s judgment, La Fontaine was the greatest French lyric poet of the seventeenth century, the grand century of French classicism. While this estimate would not be contested by most readers of La Fontaine, it might appear at first sight an odd one. La Fontaine worked principally in genres that are not in the least lyric: he is famous only for his fables and his contes, a didactic genre and a burlesque versifying of off-color stories. Very few of his poems are specifically lyrical in character, and those few are not among his most typical. It is clear, however, that the power of La Fontaine’s lyricism depends on its displacement into the most surprising contexts.

The Poet and the King is the title of Fumaroli’s study, and it is almost as much about Louis XIV as about La Fontaine: the absolutist politics and the consequent attempt to enforce an official style by the King and his ministers are continuously present throughout the book. Fumaroli’s distaste for the King is as evident as his remarkable admiration of the poet, and he treats Louis XIV with unmitigated ferocity. He repeats Saint-Simon’s anecdote of the King’s reaction to the possibility that the young Duchess of Burgundy (the wife of his grandson) might not be able to conceive again after a miscarriage caused by the King’s forcing her to travel:

What of it?…What do I care? Doesn’t she have a son already? Thank God, she’s hurt, since she was going to be, and I will no longer be constrained in my travels and in everything I want to do by the ideas of doctors and the reasoning of matrons.

And he quotes the extraordinary letter to Louis written by Fénelon, archbishop of Cambrai and author of the novel Telemachus:

You were born, Sire, with an honest and equitable heart, but those by whom you were educated gave you for a science of ruling nothing but suspicion, jealousy, an avoidance of virtue, the fear of all exceptional merit, a taste for men who are supple and servile, disdainful pride and an attention to your own interests alone. For about thirty years your principal ministers have weakened and reversed all the ancient maxims of state in order to strengthen your authority to the limit…. They have made your name odious and the whole French nation insupportable to all your neighbors.

Fumaroli’s study is a meditation on the plight of the artist under such a ruler during the imposition of an absolutist, centralized political regime.

The fall of Fouquet is the central event of Fumaroli’s book. At the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV was twenty-two years old, and anxious to take power into his own hands. The superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, who hoped to become the new prime minister, had recently built for him-self a magnificent chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris. On the seventeenth of August, 1661, he gave a party there for the entire court of such sumptuous splendor that it was talked about for decades. Nineteen days later, he was arrested and accused of embezzlement and treason.

His trial aroused no little indignation. Fouquet was a popular and impressive figure: after a period under Mazarin of considerable unrest and rebellion called the Fronde (a reaction to the unprecedentedly ruthless absolutist policies of Cardinal Richelieu, the previous minister), Fouquet had succeeded in negotiating peace with the different factions, showing a tolerance and a generosity that was not always to the taste of other members of the central government. He was a patron of the arts on a scale that had perhaps not been seen since the death of Francis I. After his arrest, Louis XIV immediately employed all the artists who had constructed and decorated Vaux-le-Vicomte to build Versailles for him.

There is no question that Fouquet’s wealth had been acquired by methods that were strictly criminal: these methods were also widespread, commonplace, and expected. The prime minister, Mazarin, had himself built up a vast fortune by pillaging the state, and he encouraged those who worked for him to do the same. The problem for the young King was to reform the finances and, at the same time, salvage the reputation of Mazarin, to whom he had been deeply attached. Fouquet made an excellent scapegoat.

The King ordered Colbert to seize all the documents at Fouquet’s residence in order to prevent the accused from demonstrating the implication of Mazarin in the corrupt financial dealings of the state. The trial was universally considered a mockery. Judges thought too favorable to Fouquet were quickly replaced. Even so, the court still refused to pronounce the death sentence desired by Louis, and decreed only permanent exile. Brutally, Louis changed the sentence to perpetual imprisonment.

The disappearance of Fouquet from the political scene meant a return to the universally hated absolutist policies of Richelieu: this time, however, the King wished to exercise the power himself rather than through a prime minister. It is probable that Louis could not abide a popular figure like Fouquet, considerably more cultured than himself, but in any case the former superintendent of finances would have been a dangerous figure. He had connections in all parts of French society, many of his advisers were Protestant, and he had a marked tolerance for all varieties of philosophical thought. He stood clearly for a liberalism that Louis wished to destroy.

For La Fontaine, the arrest of Fouquet was a disaster. He had been protected and generously supported by the superintendent, and he remained loyal to him for decades, helping in his defense, and writing with considerable eloquence a plea for a pardon or more generous treatment. Many of Fouquet’s friends were arrested; others hastily and prudently left town, among them La Fontaine. His uncle had been closely connected to Fouquet, and La Fontaine accompanied him on a trip to the Limousin. The Letters from the Limousin, written by the poet to his wife, are a masterpiece of conversational charm and wit. For the years that followed, La Fontaine had to rely upon support from groups unconnected with the central government’s administration of grants for writers and artists. He found his friends among Jansenists, who were largely in opposition to the religious policies of the court, among Protestants, and even among the libertine and homosexual circle of the Duc de Vendôme—although in both religion and sexual character, he himself was perfectly conventional: an unenthusiastic and untroubled Catholic and a heterosexual philanderer, without ostentation in either respect.

The royal cultural policy supported only the noblest literary genres—tragedy and the heroic ode—and even Louis’s weakness for the comedy of Molière shifted to an interest in the more prestigious and costly operas of Lully with librettos by Quinault. Panegyrics of the King were preferred and even demanded. The basic role of literature in the eyes of the court was that of an official propaganda machine. Fumaroli emphasizes the contrast with the much greater variety of literature favored by Fouquet, who encouraged satire and lyric poetry as well as the grander genres, and he looks with regret upon the destruction of this liberal policy by the more rigid official line taken by Louis’s ministers upon his accession to power.

One must agree with Fumaroli that the generous freedom of Fouquet’s support of the arts was preferable to the persistent attempt under Louis to direct all artistic work insofar as possible into unqualified glorification of the royal person. Nevertheless, if the variety of artistic style was admirable before Fouquet’s arrest, and was considerably narrower afterward, most of the literature favored by Fouquet does not bear comparison with the great achievements by which the century of Louis is still remembered today. The finest works came later: the tragedies of Racine, the satires of Boileau, the fables of La Fontaine. For all French schoolchildren, these works are still the basis of French classicism. In recognizing this, Fumaroli is forced to claim that the principal achievements of the time, even the tragedies of Racine, were created against the ideals of the King’s cultural policy, although this opposition is hidden under the surface of the works. This is close to a statement, curious in a writer as conservative as Fumaroli, that great art is subversive of official values, a cliché dear to left-wing critics, although no less true for being a cliché.

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