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The Fabulous La Fontaine

The Orlando Furioso of Ariosto was, for more than two centuries, considered the most civilized and urbane of all European poems. Most educated people in France, England, and Germany had even read it in the original Italian. An epic of the adventures of the knights of Charlemagne with all its mythical elements, the sorcerers, magic rings, hippogriffs, and travels to the moon, it gives the most revealing picture of Renaissance society and its ideals. The greatness lies in Ariosto’s supple and melodious prosody, an unbelievably varied and malleable syntax, and a continuous and ambiguous irony. The reader is never sure how seriously or how playfully one is meant to take the story, but it never falls into parody or satire. When Angelica, the heroine, assures the Saracen who loves her, Sacripante, that she is still a virgin even though she has already been kidnapped by other knights half a dozen times, Ariosto does not deny it, but he finds the opportunity to draw a commonplace moral with delicacy and tact, and observes:

Perhaps this was true, but nevertheless not credible
To one who was master of his senses;
But it seemed easily possible to him
Who was lost in a much graver error.
That which man sees, Love makes it invisible to him,
And he is made to see the invisible by Love.
This was believed; and misery can habitually
Give easy credence to that which is desired.

Ariosto’s cynical detachment treats his characters with tact and sympathy. La Fontaine pictures his animals in his fables, as well as the humans and the gods, with the same ironic distance. He draws his morals with similar grace and detachment, if often more brutally:

The loss of a husband does not go without sighs.
One makes a lot of noise, and then one consoles oneself.
Sadness flies away on the wings of time.

(In French that last line has an exquisite equilibrium:

Sur les ailes du Temps la Tristesse s’envole

as the sound and meaning of “sur les ailes” is echoed by “s’envole,” and the dentals—the consonants pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the teeth—of “du Temps” reappear in “Tristesse“; a trite cynical comment is transformed into a delicate lyric moment.)

It is in his treatment of the traditional morals of the fables that La Fontaine’s kinship with Montaigne is most obvious. Montaigne, too, is indebted to the banalities of classical philosophy and literature, to the Latin and Greek authors that he loved to cite. Much of his own thought has so little originality that his right to the title of philosopher is sometimes contested. In the passage I quoted, the belief that crimes are sometimes necessary for the good of the state was commonplace enough after Machiavelli, and even before. What is original in Montaigne is the strange path he takes to arrive at the idea. In his work, the movement of concepts is the center of interest, and his presentation of that movement is unique in philosophical literature.

The morals of Aesop are not in themselves interesting today, and they were almost equally unimpressive in the seventeenth century, although people still had a taste for serious epigrams. What holds our attention in La Fontaine is how he arrives at the final banal significance. Often enough, the traditional moral tag is partially contradicted or undercut by La Fontaine’s sophisticated recasting of the story, its significance radically altered, just as Montaigne warns us that his quotations from classical authors do not have direct relevance to what he appears to be talking about, “but they often carry, beyond the subject in question [hors de mon propos], the seeds of a richer and more daring substance, and they ring obliquely [à gauche] with a more delicate tone both for myself who have no desire to express anything further and for those who understand my tune.” Montaigne invites us to read between the lines (and that is why respectable scholarly efforts today to turn him into a more conservative thinker are so unconvincing). The informally civilized tone of La Fontaine’s rewriting of the old moral tales, the details from contemporary life in which he dresses them, allow him to present a critical view of his society that rivals Ariosto. His real model was much grander, however: the poet to whom he most often alludes, circumspectly and with apparent modesty, is Homer.

The epic poem is the traditional vehicle of the sublime: in its mythical adventures it represents the ideals of the society from which it comes. From the Renaissance to the French Revolution, French poets aspired to write a great epic. Almost no one succeeded, not even Ronsard in the sixteenth century: many poets in the seventeenth made fools of themselves by their attempts. The most powerful man in the French Academy for many decades of the seventeenth century, Jean Chapelain, found himself a laughingstock when he published his pitiful effort. Only by the poet’s standing outside the traditional sublime could something like the grand epic be reached at that time. There are only two triumphs of this kind in France: Agrippa d’Aubigné’s Les Tragiques, a virulent Protestant polemic against the persecution of the Huguenots, and La Fontaine’s Fables.

Starting with miniature poems in a genre without pretensions at the greatest distance from the standard noble style, La Fontaine made his ambitions clear:

Sometimes I oppose, by a double image
Vice and virtue, foolishness and good sense, The Lambs to the violent wolves,
The Fly to the Ant: making of this work
An ample comedy in a hundred different acts Of which the scene is the universe.
Men, Gods, Animals, all play some role here,
Jupiter like anyone else….

This is from the opening of the fifth book of fables. In the epilogue to the eleventh book (the end of the second collection he published) his claims are even grander:

It is thus that my Muse, on the banks of a pure stream,
Translated into the language of Gods
Everything that is said under the heavens
By so many beings borrowing the voice of nature.
Interpreter of different peoples,
I made them serve as actors in my work;
For everything speaks in the universe
There is nothing that does not have its language
More eloquent in their place than in my verse.

The moral tags are no longer the center of gravity in La Fontaine’s fables, as they are in Aesop’s; that has shifted to the eloquence of the universe from which he can distill these banal little moral phrases, and when they leave his hands, they have been transformed by his experience of the society and the culture he was representing.

The Oak and the Reed,” the traditional fable of the tree that stood fast against the storm and was uprooted and the reed that bent and survived, is often called La Fontaine’s most perfect achievement. He placed it significantly at the end of his first book. The moral does not survive his treatment intact, and in this fable he does not even draw it; he ends the poem without comment. In the classical version, the oak is stiff and is destroyed by his refusal to be as supple as the reed. In the Middle Ages, the apologue was given a Christian turn: the oak is sinfully proud, and the reed acts with humility. Neither of these moral lessons keeps its integrity in La Fontaine. In his version the oak is proud, but the reed is far from properly humble.

The fable begins in mock-epic style. The oak is comic in his grand bluster, a parody of eloquence:

While my head, similar to the Caucasus,
Not content with stopping the rays of the sun, Defies the effort of the storm.

(This is funnier in French, as the pile-up of oversonorous vowels makes the oak sound like a brass band: Cependant que mon front, au Caucase pareil,/Non content d’arrêter les rayons du soleil/Brave l’effort de la tempête.) The lines are both a blasphemy and a crime of state: the oak stops the sun’s rays, a divine power and also the power of Louis the Sun King, as he liked to be known.

The reed is obviously from a lower social class than the aristocratic oak, and he has a different style, conversational and impertinent:

Your compassion, responded the shrub,
Springs from a good nature, but do not worry.
The winds are less fearsome to me than to you.
I bend and do not break.

[—Vostre compassion, luy répondit l’Arbuste,
Part d’un bon naturel; mais quittez ce soucy.
Les vents me sont moins qu’à vous redoutables.
Je plie, et ne romps pas….]

Even the sound of the reed lacks the power of the oak’s boasting. The vowels are less sonorous, the rhythm much more short-winded. There is, however, no opposition between the two styles. The last line of the oak is neutral enough to mediate between the mock-heroic and the informal:

Nature seems to me to have been very unjust to you.

The little scene between persons of two classes is presented as a unity, and the dialogue in turn is fused with the narrative that follows as the wind rises:

I bend and do not break. You, until now,
Against their terrifying blows
Have resisted without bowing.
But wait for the end. As he was saying these words,
From the edge of the horizon rises with fury
The most terrible of the children
That the North had borne until then in its loins.

The narrative is in a new style, genuine epic and no longer mock-epic. There is also no opposition, as the new manner moves without any break from the reed’s impudent warning.

The end is famous, one of the great tragic effects in French classical verse:

The wind redoubles its efforts
And did so well that it uproots
The one whose head was neighbor to the sky
And whose feet touched the empire of the dead.

The shift of style is unprecedented. No one had ever used the modest genre of the fable for such grand effects (the last two lines are, in fact, from Virgil’s Aeneid, but their grandeur is magnified in the fable—Virgil does not write that the feet of the oak touched the empire of the dead, but only that its roots reached toward Tartarus).

There is no moral stated. Nor could there be, since the oak has astonishingly become the hero of the poem. It should be noted here that La Fontaine’s experience of the tragic fall of Fouquet has made the effect possible. We must not take too literal a reading, since La Fontaine would never have made Fouquet ridiculously vainglorious as he does the oak at the opening; he retained his affection for him over the years. But the oak presents himself as a possible patron to the reed. It is perhaps this that justifies the impertinence of the reed. Far from protecting the artists he supported, Fouquet ended by putting all of them in danger:

Encore si vous naissiez à l’abri du feuillage
Dont je couvre le voisinage
Vous n’auriez pas tant à souffrir:
Je vous défendrais de l’orage;
Mais vous naissez le plus souvent
Sur les humides bords des Royaumes du vent.

[Still if you were born in the
   shelter of the leaves
With which I cover the vicinity,
You would not have so much to suffer:
I would defend you from the storm;
But you are born most often
On the humid borders of the
   Kingdoms of the wind.]

The destruction of the oak is due to his foolish pride, but he is still the superior figure who has earned the right to the true epic style. Like Fouquet, the oak challenges royalty: he blocks the rays of the sun, and even the winds that he defies have their kingdoms. In this poem, the downfall of his patron gave the work of La Fontaine a power that the lyric poets patronized by Fouquet had never been able to achieve. It is because the lyricism is intermittent, as elsewhere in La Fontaine, appearing suddenly in the context of simple narrative and satirical comedy, that it has a force that always takes the reader by surprise.

The oak may be the tragic hero, but his fate is presented without pity and without sentimentality. La Fontaine reflects the difficult realities of his society uncompromisingly. What many French children like about the Fables is exactly what Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought made them unfit for pedagogy: their frequent cruelty, their heartlessness. Unlike any other fabulist, La Fontaine was too clearsighted to be moral. The Fables are not immoral like the Contes (which are charmingly so and with only a rare touch of pornography); they are amoral, realistic. It is the harshness of so many of his miniature scenes that helps to give the whole work its seriousness and depth and vindicates the ambitious claims, which lend it an epic dimension. The realistic brutality he cultivated opens the first book, although with a certain gaiety, when the grasshopper, who spent the summer singing, begs the ant, who worked all those months, for a little food:

You sang: I’m happy to hear that.
Well, you can dance now.

It was obvious enough to Rousseau that this did not teach children the virtues of frugality but the bitterness of experience.


On only one matter should I like to take strong issue with Fumaroli’s biography: the so-called “conversion” of La Fontaine in his last years. At the age of seventy-one, the poet repented his past libertinism and became devout. Fumaroli ascribes this radical change to the influence of Fénelon, archbishop of Cambrai, and an elegant writer inclined to mysticism. There is no question about La Fontaine’s contacts with Fénelon but no evidence of any influence, and I do not think we need an intellectual inspiration for the conversion.

In December 1692, the young abbé Poujet went to see the old poet intending to reform his dissolute way of life. La Fontaine had been ill and was extremely receptive. “I have just been reading the Bible,” he said, “and it is really a very good book.” What he could not understand about religion, he added, was the eternal damnation, particularly of infants. You don’t have to understand it, the abbé told him, just accept it. After several visits, the abbé determined that he was properly reformed (or converted), but first he had to condemn publicly the indecent stories in verse he had written and that were so popular. The old man appeared not to understand, and the abbé insisted that they corrupted the readers. With what the abbé took to be genuine naiveté, La Fontaine protested that they had done him no harm when he wrote them.

Fumaroli thinks the twenty-five year-old abbé Pouget intelligent, but he seems to me to have been a very ordinary ecclesiastical official of limited understanding. The appearance of naiveté and absent-minded simplicity in the seventy-year-old La Fontaine was a kind of mythical persona or mask that he had both created and allowed to be imposed on him over the years—not without a certain malice, as Fumaroli himself remarks early in his book. The young abbé took it seriously, and so did La Fontaine’s housekeeper: “God would never have the courage to damn him,” she told the abbé when he was too insistent. She also said, “Stop tormenting him; he’s much more stupid than wicked.”

This personality was useful to La Fontaine; it not only kept him out of trouble, but it also gave him the detachment from society necessary for his unsystematic critical outlook. (In 1778, Lichtenberg wrote in one of the notebooks where he jotted down anything that came into his head: “Just as the vilest and most vicious actions demand intelligence and talent, the accomplishment of the greatest acts demands a certain apathy that one calls, at other times, stupidity.”) In the end, the abbé won out: the poet made a public and humiliating condemnation of his stories, and he burned a comedy he had just written. He spent the last two years of his life translating the Psalms. After his death, it was discovered that he wore a hairshirt and had been flagellating himself.

A conversion or reform of this sort in old age was commonplace during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and even eighteenth centuries. (When it did not take place, relatives and friends sometimes claimed that it had in order to save the reputation of the loved one.) There was considerable doubt among the educated classes about the truth of revelation—but then, one could never be sure. Perhaps there was a hell and even a purgatory, after all. If the church was right, and one reformed in time, preferably not too near the end, one had a chance of making at least purgatory. We do not know exactly what La Fontaine’s religious convictions were before his reform, or how strongly they were held, and it is possible that he did not know himself, but he was obviously intent on carrying out his conversion as well and as sincerely as possible. Pascal had observed that if an unbeliever went through all the motions and behaved as if he had faith, he might end up with true belief: it is likely that the hairshirt and the flagellation were not simply penance for La Fontaine but a way of life that would enforce belief, and allow his faith to become deeply rooted in the habits of the body and the daily routine.

Pascal’s wager—if you bet on religion, you might gain eternal and infinite bliss, but if you bet on the truth of atheism and win, the reward would be only a limited amount of pleasure in this world and then nothingness, so the huge eventual compensation makes religion the more rational side on which to lay one’s stakes—is often taken as an original, eccentric, and somewhat discreditable invention of a mathematician. In fact, it was the average educated attitude to life in this world and the next. The usual approach was to get as much material pleasure as one could from the particular sins which interested one most, and then reform before it was too late. It was understood as a matter of course that the conversion had to be sincere, wholehearted, and passionate. La Fontaine did what was expected of him and what was necessary for him to receive the blessing of his church. Whether he was ever convinced by the arguments that his erotic tales were harmful is not clear, but the Church demanded obedience without understanding and he complied.

About a year after his conversion, and shortly before the end of his life, he wrote in a letter to his closest friend: “I would die of boredom if I had to stop writing verse.”


The Other Perrault February 19, 1998

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