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The Fabulous La Fontaine


With La Fontaine’s Fables, we do not have to burrow far under the surface to recognize a discreet opposition to the grandeur of style and the servile obedience wanted by the court, an opposition never openly expressed but manifest on every page. It is an opposition all the more striking in view of the moments of the Fables which realize the ideal of the sublime so essential to seventeenth-century aesthetics. In any case, the opposition is already inherent in La Fontaine’s choice of genre. The fable was always considered a minor form without pretensions. It has an important classical history starting with Aesop, but it never had the prestige of the ode or the epic forms. Fumaroli remarks on the contempt for the genre of the fable in the period following the accession of Louis XIV to power, and he deploys a formidable erudition in an attempt to demonstrate that its earlier prestige, particularly among humanists of the Italian Renaissance, was greater than is sometimes thought, but the evidence he brings actually tends to prove the contrary.1 However, he decisively proves that La Fontaine was heavily indebted to Italian sources as well as to the classical and the Renaissance French versions of Aesop and the Latin fables of Phaedrus.

The superiority of La Fontaine as a fabulist to all of his predecessors—and successors, for that matter—is impossible to demonstrate in translation. It is often said about poetry that it cannot be appreciated in translation, but this applies much more to some poets than to others. Baudelaire and even Racine, for example, come through in English much better than La Fontaine. The most famous translation of the Fables into English is by one of the greatest poets of this century, Marianne Moore, and it is a disaster both for La Fontaine and for Moore. Her translation is, in a way, a tour de force: she rendered every one of La Fontaine’s lines of irregular length with all the rhymes in the same place and exactly the same number of syllables. She was inspired to undertake this extraordinary project by W.H. Auden, who observed that Moore’s prosody was based, not on accent as in standard English verse, but idiosyncratically on counting the number of syllables per line, as in French; she also wrote wonderful animal poems, like “The Frigate Pelican” and “The Pangolin,” and she had a profound feeling for moral observation.

She was apparently the ideal translator of La Fontaine. What was missing was one part of the poet’s craft, which no one regrets when reading Moore’s original poems (its lack may even be part of her charm), but was essential for La Fontaine. In a famous essay, “Lord Tennyson’s Scissors,” R.P. Blackmur recalled Tennyson’s boast that he knew the “quantity” of every word in the English language except “scissors.” No twentieth-century poet could make this claim, wrote Blackmur, except for W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden. This suggests that the genius of the greatest poets is less intellectual than physical, like being good at throwing a forward pass or playing a violin strictly in tune.

English verse is regulated ostensibly by accent or emphasis, and not by quantity—that is, not by the weight of the vowel sounds, which make a syllable long or short; in English, quantity is regulated only by the ear of the poet. Eliot’s sensibility for quantity gives his weak poems a melodious balance that is missing in even the finest poems of, for example, William Carlos Williams. (Perhaps only John Ashbery today possesses this sense of quantity.)

In French verse, the line is principally ordered by the number of syllables, but vowel sounds have greater impact than in English poetry. That is because all syllables in French have, at least theoretically (and most of the time in practice as well), equal emphasis until the last syllable, which receives an accent. All French words are invariably accented on the last syllable unless the last syllable is an unaccented “e,” which is not pronounced except by speakers from the south of France; when words are grouped together in phrases, only the final syllable of the last word is accented. (For example, in the case of “Louis XIV,” the word “Louis” used alone would be accented on the second syllable; but when the words are pronounced together, the only accent is on the last syllable of “quatorze.”) In addition, most consonants are not pronounced with English force. When I was taught French in high school, our class was told to light a candle: if one pronounced a “p” (as in “petit“) in front of the candle, the flame was not supposed to flicker as it did when we pronounced an English “p” (I should think that a German “p” would blow out the candle).

This makes vowels play a role in French poetry which might seem wildly extravagant even to foreigners who speak French well. Most American and English students have a hard time understanding why Alfred de Musset literally fainted with ecstasy at the Comédie Française when he heard the line in Racine’s Phèdre:

La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé.

No doubt, the idea that Phaedra’s parents were a man who now rules over Hell and a woman who had an amorous passion for a bull and gave birth to a monster has something to do with the dramatic force of the line, but its power for Musset came from the sonority, the way the tight vowels of “fille” and “Minos” move into the open double sound at the end, along with the symmetrical echo of “a-i” at the beginning by “a-i-a-é” in the last word.

La Fontaine was the greatest master of this kind of aural patterning in French before Victor Hugo, and he is subtler and more elegant than Hugo. Paul Valéry handled it almost as well, but he was a much less interesting poet in almost every other way. Marianne Moore’s translation finds no equivalent and no substitute for this play of sound. It is, however, precisely by this play that La Fontaine became the greatest lyric poet of his time. It was essential to his achievement that the lyricism was never constant, but intermittent. In the middle of the narrative, the virtuoso patterns of sound suddenly set into relief a sentiment, a detail of landscape, or a simple action. In English, the following observation about a rabbit has nothing special:

After having grazed, trotted, done all his turns,
Jack Rabbit returns to his subterranean dwelling.

In French, however, the play of echoes and the symmetry of the sound arrangements are enchanting for the ear:

Après qu’il eut brouté, trotté, fait tous ses tours,
Janot Lapin retourne aux souterrains séjours

where “Janot” and “séjour” balance each other as a kind of mirror symmetry, “souterrains” mirrors the phonemes of “retourne,” and the “ou” of “brouté” keeps echoing through the two lines as “tours” finds itself again in “retourne.” There are other aspects to the pattern, but the most essential is the way the staccato rhythm of the first line, imitating the movement of the rabbit, opens out into the long sonority of the second.

This sense of almost pure sound is not a modern critic’s anachronistic aberration. Starting earlier in the seventeenth century with François de Malherbe, who more or less established many of the principles of high classical French prosody, some writers became abnormally sensitive to effects of pure sound. This has been famously documented: Malherbe’s copy of the works of a contemporary poet, Philippe Desportes, was annotated with disagreeable comments about unpleasant sound effects, as well as other faults. Desportes had written “Comparable à ma flamme” (comparable to my flame), and Malherbe maliciously set down in the margin “PARABLAMAFLA.” The most often quoted lines by Malherbe, from an elegy on the death of a young girl, reveal the pure balance of sound in a mirror image:

Et Rose, elle a vécu ce que vivent les Roses,
L’espace d’un matin

[And rose, she lived the lifetime
   of a rose,
The space of one morning]

where the end echoes the beginning, and the consonants of “vécu” mirror those of “que vivent.” La Fontaine’s virtuosity, however, was even more varied and more supple than Malherbe’s.

Fumaroli does not discuss La Fontaine’s prosody or technique in any detail, but he calls attention frequently to the mastery of a great variety of tones that one finds in La Fontaine, and correctly ascribes this to the profound influence of the Latin poet Horace. The observation needs to be carried further. Other poets have mastered a variety of tones, styles, and genres: in John Donne and Victor Hugo, to give only two examples, we find the amorous lyric, satire, invective, conversational verse, philosophical meditation, and classical eloquence. What sets La Fontaine and Horace apart from almost all other poets is that the different tones are not in separate poems, and they are in no way contrasted or opposed within the single poem; both poets glide from one tone or style to another, and the transitions are almost imperceptible. The Fables mingle comedy and eloquence, mock epic and satire, personal lyric and witty conversation; and all these tones belong to the same world and coexist happily without the slightest sense of incongruity.2 In a period when the separation of high and low genres was consistently affirmed, this was a major stylistic triumph that was also a challenge to classical principles.


It was seen very early on that the Fables presented an image of contemporary society. La Fontaine transformed the little moral apologues that were the basis of the genre into a critical view of his world. Fumaroli treats this aspect with great elegance and more good sense than most critics. In the late nineteenth century, Hippolyte Adolphe Taine published a brilliant essay on La Fontaine in which he dogmatically ascribed a single social and political meaning to almost every detail, as if there were a hidden code to be broken: the lion, for example, with all his cruelty and his arbitrary will, and with his dependence on servile flatterers, was always to be understood as Louis XIV. Fumaroli steers a course between this rigid extreme and a purely aesthetic interpretation of the kind best found in Paul Valéry’s essay on La Fontaine’s poem Adonis. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Fumaroli’s book depends on an interpretation, supple and tactful, of the social criticism evident enough in the Fables, as he raises the problem of the awkward position of a poet faced with political acts of obvious injustice.

The question of what political engagement is to be expected of a poet is discussed with great intelligence by Fumaroli, and if his answer is not completely satisfying, it is unlikely that any answer will be. He treats with disdain Jean-Paul Sartre’s absurd condemnation of Baudelaire’s refusal after his early youth to take a political position. Other critics have interpreted the fables as a disguised attempt to attack the prime minister, Colbert, in order to avenge Fouquet, and Fumaroli remarks acidly that this would make La Fontaine “not an amiable madman, but an idiot.” Most of the important writers in the last half of the seventeenth century made no public protest against the most outrageous acts of the King and his ministers, although private dismay was widespread.

  1. 1

    He writes that Leonardo Abstemio in 1495 “combats the prejudice of the ignorant, for whom the animal fable is a poor genre,” and he cites Le Maistre de Sacy’s preface to his fables of 1647 which says “that this sort of fable has little cause to pass for a low and puerile form since people believed in the past that Aesop was inspired by God.” These quotations are largely defensive, and demonstrate that only a small minority respected the animal fable as a grand genre.

  2. 2

    The only important essay on La Fontaine that Fumaroli seems not to know is Leo Spitzer’s brilliant “The Art of Transition in La Fontaine.” Spitzer, however, deals only with the transitions from one subject to another and does not discuss the transitions from one style or genre to another that are even more remarkable, and which give La Fontaine his unique position in French poetry.

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