Jean de La Fontaine
Jean de La Fontaine; drawing by David Levine


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.


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.

It is true, as Fumaroli points out, that after a century of devastating religious conflict and the decades of political turmoil of the Fronde, the French public was exhausted and the legitimacy of Louis XIV’s reign appeared to be the only guarantee of peace. The return of absolutist policy may have been a hard price to pay, but open resistance was no longer practical. The fundamental distinction that Fumaroli wants us to accept is between the “politics of the politicians” and the “politics of poetry”: the latter preserves the integrity of language and the truths that it embodies against a politics that distorts language and truth in the interests of power. He writes:

Poetry has no need to be politically engaged in order to be political. On the contrary, when it is politically engaged it ceases to be at the same time politics and poetry, the politics of poetry. If all great poetry is political, we can say precisely that it is so by definition, since it seeks for the City a foundation in the truth of the heart, wagered and rewon by the integrity of language.

We ought not to dismiss this statement merely because the large generalities and oversimple grandeur of style suggest the empty formulas of so much French philosophical writing that derives from Alain, whose influence on the writers of the 1930s is still unfortunately discernible today. Fumaroli is raising a legitimate and difficult point.

There is, indeed, a process by which a totalitarian regime—and even a dishonest democratic government as well—corrupts language, and making a stand against the corruption of language is an aspect of the literary profession that cannot be dismissed. In addition, expecting a poet to make a public protest against every injustice is a waste of his, and our, time. Yet Fumaroli still leaves us with a sense that he is at least partially evading the issue. He has every right to do this, since there is no way that the general questions he raises can be directly faced with success, but the position of La Fontaine in the society of his time brings out aspects that Fumaroli prefers to leave at least partially in the shadow. What he has written is cogent, but not quite adequate.

The greatest political crime of the reign of Louis XIV is often acknowledged to be the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This edict, proclaimed under Henri IV at the end of the sixteenth century, granted religious toleration to the large Protestant minority. Louis XIV’s intent to destroy any form of opposition led to the persecution of the Jansenist sect, resolutely Catholic but opposed to that part of the Church hierarchy subservient to Rome; and he consistently tried to reduce the Protestant force in his kingdom. Protestants were paid to convert, and at first it looked easy, but the resistance of a large number irritated the King.

The terms of the Revocation provide a perfect example of corruption of language: the Edict of Nantes was no longer valid, the government proclaimed, because there were no Protestants left in France. Of course, those who were still around had a choice: they could convert or they could leave the kingdom. Many of them chose to leave, and they improved the textile industry in England with their skills, managerial abilities, and investment in much the same way that German refugees from Hitler created American musicology and inspired American research in physics. La Fontaine’s patron, Mme. de la Sablière, had been Protestant (she converted to Catholicism in 1680 when she shut herself despairingly in a convent after being abandoned by her lover); some of her children refused to convert and left the country.

La Fontaine’s attitude to religion had always been one of benign detachment. He received a religious education at the Oratory, but it is admitted that he spent the time reading a novel while his teacher studied Saint Augustine. Religious controversy excites him only to mockery. Nor is he much impressed by religious ritual. Describing his voyage to Limousin with his uncle he writes:

We had to wait for three hours, and to keep from being bored, or to be even more bored (I don’t really know which one I should say), heard the parish mass. Procession, holy water, instruction, nothing was missing. By good fortune, the curate was ignorant and there was no sermon.

He does not seem to have taken religion very seriously until the end of his life, although Pascal’s superbly comic attacks on the Jesuits inspired him to transform some of Pacal’s prose into witty verse.

What was La Fontaine’s reaction to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, a political crime which touched many of the people closest to him? In public, he had a poem printed in 1687 in which he praised the King for the Revocation:

He wishes to conquer Error: the work advances,
It is done; and the fruit of his many successe
Is that the Truth reigns through out France,
And France throughout the universe.

In private, at the same time, his reaction was somewhat different from this extravagantly groveling panegyric: in a poem that remained in manuscript (but we must remember that what he wrote was widely circulated among a large circle), he set down enthusiastic praise of Pierre Bayle, a Protestant whose brilliant journalism provided the most controversial and influential plea for religious tolerance at that time.3 “He wishes to please men of wit, and he pleases them,” observed La Fontaine, and praised his literary style and his honest language. “If he can find the occasion for a stinging and satirical remark, he seizes it, God knows, like a clever and adroit man. As a child of Calvin, he would decide about everything if he dared, since he has the taste for it along with the learning.”

This was still a period of religious agitation: James II was about to be thrown out of England for his adherence to the Catholic faith. The Revocation was by no means universally welcome to all Catholics: the Pope, in particular, astonishingly refused to approve it, which outraged the French government. In a verse letter to his English friends, La Fontaine reported a joke making the rounds (“and it’s a good joke,” he added) that it would promote peace if the Pope became a Catholic and James II became a Huguenot. His praise of Bayle was written in the year following Bayle’s publication of a virulent and sardonic attack on the Revocation. Not even privately does La Fontaine condemn the Revocation (that would certainly have been imprudent, even if he had wanted to) but he made it clear enough that he himself was not governed by the spirit of intolerance that had produced it.

This discrepancy between public and private statement is not one that is easy for us to assess, and we may think, in fact, that we are not called upon to pass judgement. Some kind of estimate is hard to avoid, however, just as it is difficult to remain neutral about the attitude of the German artists to the Third Reich. Nevertheless, no simple criterion exists to help us distinguish clearly among Furtwängler, who accepted an official post under Hitler but used his prestige to try to mitigate the Nazi racial policy, von Karajan, who joined the Nazi party twice, the second time to make sure that his adherence would be noticed, and Gieseking, who was ideologically a perfectly satisfied, if stupid, Nazi. As we go centuries back in time, the difficulties of assessment are compounded.

If we feel, and with some justice, that La Fontaine’s compromises are at least mildly deplorable, Montaigne may help us clarify the matter, and Fumaroli has called attention to the importance of Montaigne for La Fontaine, as for almost every other writer of the seventeenth century in France. The relation of the individual citizen to public crimes was a subject for Montaigne’s meditation, and he gives an answer to the dilemma that naturally arises which not only has the merit of being as subtle and ambiguous as the problem demands, but also confronts its own ambiguity:

Our structure, both public and private, is full of imperfection. But there is nothing useless in Nature; not even uselessness itself; nothing enters into the universe which does not find a relevant place. Our being is cemented by sickening qualities: ambition, jealousy, envy, vengeance, superstition, despair lodge inside us with so natural a possession that the image can be also be recognized in animals—indeed, even cruelty, so unnatural a vice: since in the middle of compassion we feel within ourselves some kind of bitter-sweet prick of malignant physical pleasure at seeing someone else suffer; and children feel it. (It is sweet during a tempest, when the winds stir up the waves, to stand on the shore and watch the sufferings of others—Lucretius.) If we took away the seeds of these qualities from man, we should destroy the fundamental conditions of our life. Similarly, in every state, there are necessary tasks which are not only degraded but vicious: vices find their place there, and are employed in the knitting together of our community the way poisons can contribute to the conservation of our health. If they become excusable because we need them and their necessity obscures their real nature, we must leave these affairs to citizens more vigorous and less timid who sacrifice their honor and their conscience the way others in the past sacrificed their lives for the good of their country; as for the rest of us, who are weaker, let us choose roles that are easier and less risky. The public good requires betrayals, lies, and massacres; let us leave that to people who are more obedient and more supple.

Montaigne may seem almost passively to accept crimes of state. Leave it to others—that is his personal solution. Behind this acquiescence, however, there is a protest: his ironic and corrosive contempt for those who carry out the vicious crimes demanded by the government, those useful citizens who “sacrifice honor and conscience” the way heroes of the past sacrificed their lives. The ironic contempt is both a private response and at the same time a public act—a published act; indeed, one of the few acts that a single and helpless person could have carried out in a period of civil war and religious conflict.

Montaigne wrote that he was willing to stand by his principles up to the point where his opponents would burn down his house, but no further. La Fontaine was equally circumspect, but his witty praise of the most important Protestant journalist of his time, even if circulated only in manuscript, exceeded a simple preservation of the values of language: it was a political action.


La Fontaine’s favorite philosopher was Plato, and one of his friends reported that the margins of his copy of Plato were filled with comments that went directly into the Fables. Since we have lost this volume, we cannot know just how Plato inspired him, and he rarely mentions Plato. The debt to Montaigne was certainly equally great. In one of his most brilliant comments, Fumaroli writes that La Fontaine made a synthesis of Montaigne and Ariosto. He does not expand on this at any length, but the suggestion comes close to describing the essential achievement of La Fontaine.4

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.”

This Issue

December 18, 1997