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
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…

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