Fontaine, John De La

, a celebrated French poet, was born at Chatteau-Thierry, July 8, 1621, a year after the birth of Moltere. He was liberally educated, and at nineteen admitted among the fathers of the oratory, but left them in a little time. His father, who was supervisor of the water-courses and forests in this dutchy, put his sou into the place as soon as he appeared capable of managing it: but Fontaine had no taste for business, his talents being formed altogether for poetry. It is very remarkable, however, that he did not make this discovery in himself till he had commenced his 22d year; when, hearing accidentally the famous ode of Malherbe, on the assassination of Henry IV. he found himself affected with surprise and transport; and the poetic fire, which had lain concealed in him, was kindled into ablaze. He immediately applied to the study of this poet, and at length imitated him. The first froits of his pen he usually communicated to a near relation, who encouraged him, and frequently read with him the best Latin poets and critics, as Horace, Virgil, Terence, Quintilian, &c. He passed from thence to such French and Italian writers as excelled in the manner and style to which his genius led him particularly Rabelais, Marot, Ariosto, Boccace, &,c. Rabelais was uniformly his favourite and idol. He had recourse also to the Greek authors, and especially to Plato and Plutarch; from whom he drew those fine moral maxims with which he has enriched his fables.

Though his disposition was exceedingly averse to confinement, or restraint of any kind, yet, to oblige his parents, he consented to marry; and, though the most unfeeling and insensible of mortals, was yet so far captivated by the wit and beauty of his \\ne, that he entertained a high opinion of her judgment, and never undertook any | considerable work without consulting her. The dutchess of Bouillon, however, niece to cardinal Mazarine, being banished to Chateau-Thierry, Fontaine was presented to her, and had the happiness to please her; and this, added to a desire of conversing with the wits, tempted him to follow her when she was recalled to Paris. Here the intendant Fouquet soon procured him a pension, which he enjoyed in great comfort without troubling himself at all about his wife, or, perhaps, even reflecting that he had one. Upon the disgrace of this minister, he was admitted as gentleman to Henrietta of England; but the death of this princess put an end to all his court hopes, if, indeed, he was susceptible of hope. After this, among other favours from the most illustrious persons in the kingdom, the generous and witty madam de la Sabliere furnished him with an apartment and all necessaries in her house; who, one day, having hastily turned away all her servants, declared that she had kept but three animals in her house, which were her dog, her cat, and La Fontaine. In this situation he continued twenty years, during which time he became perfectly acquainted with all the wits of his time, with Moliere, Racine, Boileau, Chapelle, &c.

The delights of Paris, and the conversation of thess friends, did not hinder him from paying a visit to his wife every September; but that these visits might be of some use, he never failed to sell a house, or piece of land, so that, with his wife’s expences and his own, a handsome family estate was nearly consumed. His Parisian friends urged him frequently to go and live with his wife, saying, that it was a shame to separate himself from a woman of her merit and accomplishments and, accordingly, he set out with a purpose of reconciling himself to her and, arriving at the town, inquired at his house for her. The servant, not knowing him, said, “She was gone to church;” upon which he immediately returned to Paris; and, when his friends inquired about his reconciliation, answered, that “he had been to see his wife, but was told she was at church.” Upon the death of madam de la Sabliere, he was invited to England by the dutchess of Mazarine, and the celebrated St. Evremond, who promised him all the comforts and sweets of life: but the difficulty of learning the English language, together with the liberality of some great persons at home, made him lay aside all thoughts of this journey. | In 1692 he was seized with a dangerous illness: and when the priest came to talk to him about religion, concerning which he had lived in an extreme carelessness, though without being actually an infidel or a libertine, Fontaine told him that ’ he had lately bestowed some hours in reading the New Testament, which he thought a very good book.“Being brought to a clearer knowledge of ivligions truths, the priest represented to him, that he lia.l intelligence of a certain dramatic piece of his, which was soon to be acted; but that Ik-could not be admitted to the sacraments of the church i.nless he suppressed it. This appeared too rigid, and Font.iinc appealed to the Soi bonne; who confirming what the priest had said, Fontaine threw the piece into the fire, without keeping even a copy. The priest then laid before him the evil tendency of his Tales, which are written in a loose and wanton manner; told him, that while the French language subsisted, they would be a most dangerous sedueement to vice; and further added, that he could not administer the sacraments tu him unless he would promise to make a public acknowledgment of his fault at the time of receiving, a public acknowledgment before the academy, of which he was a member, in case he recovered, and to suppress the book to the utmost of his power. Fontaine thought these terms very hard, but at length yielded to them all. On these accounts some have compared him to Peter Aretin, who, though the most libertine of all writers, became at last a very saint, and wrote nothing but books of piety. But it is certain that Fontaine did not resemble Aretin in writing pious books; and many, among whom is Baillet in particular, doubt the truth of those stories which are related concerning his repentance. He affected, indeed, some degree of repentance, and vowed to renounce his libertine manner in a dedication to his patroness, madam de la Sabliere but, notwithstanding this, he relapsed again, writing tales with his usual gaiety and the excuse he makes” for this inconstancy, when he calls himself “Tho Butterfly of Parn-.issus,” savours more of the poet than the Christian. He did not die till April 13, 1695; when, if we believe some, he was found with that implement of superstitious mortification, an hair-shirt on.

Beside “Tales,” he was the author of “Fables;” and in both he has merited the title of an original writer, who is, and probably will ever be, single in his kind. In his | subjects indeed, he has made great use of the Greek, and Larin, and French, and Italian authors; but he is truly original in his manner, which is so easy, so natural, so simple, so delicate, that it does not seem possible to exceed it. His compositions have much nature, entirely devoid of affectation: his wit seems unstudied, and so much pleasantry is hardly to be met with. He never grows languid or heavy, but is always new and surprising*. His Tales are said to have been a great while the cause of his exclusion from the French academy; but at last, upon his writing a letter to a prelate of that society, wherein he declared his dissatisfaction for the liberties he had taken, and his resolution that his pen should never relapse, he was received into that body with marks of esteem. His first Fables are more valued than his last he seems to have thrown the best of his fire and force into them and both the one and the other have more sobriety and correctness than his Tales.

His life had as little of affectation in it as his writings: he was all nature, approaching to the extreme of simplicity or even stupidity, without a grain of art. He had a son, whom, after keeping a short time at. home, he recommended to the patronage of the president Harlay. Fontaine, being one day at a house where this son was come, did not know him again, but observed to the company, that he thought him a boy of parts and spirit. Being told that this promising youth was no other than his own son, he answered very unconcernedly, “Ha truly I am glad on’t.” This apathy, which so many philosophers have vainly affected, was perfectly natural to Fontaine; it ran through every part of his behaviour, and seemed to render him insensible to every thing without. As he had a wonderful facility in composing, so he had no particular apartment for that purpose, but went to work wherever the humour came upon him. One morning, madam de Bouillon going to Versailles, spied him deep in thought under a tree; and, when she returned in the evening, there was Fontaine in the same place and attitude, though the day had been cold, and much rain fallen. Whether from the same simplicity, or rather, we think, absolute stupidity, we are told that he did not perceive the evil tendency of his writings, not even of his Tales; for being once exhorted by his confessor in a severe illness to prayer and almsgiving, he replied, “I can give no alms for I have | nothing to give: but there is a new edition of my Tales in the press, of which the bookseller is to let me have a hundred copies; I will give them to you, that you may sell them for the benefit of the poor.” Another time having written a Tale, in which he made a very profane application of these words of the gospel “Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents” he addressed it to the celebrated M. Arnauld, in a very ingenious prologue, “wishing,.” he said, “to show posterity his great esteem for this learned doctor;” nor did he perceive the indecency of the application of scripture, or of his dedication, till Boileau and Kacine made him sensible of it. Notwithstanding their advice, the same is said to have been his design agairr, with respect to another Tale, which he was going to dedicate to M. Harlai, archbishop of Paris.

It has been observed, that the finest writers, and the deepest thinkers, have frequently been but indifferent companions. This was Fontaine’s case: for, having once been invited to dine at the house of a person of distinction, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests, though he ate very heartily, yet not a word could be got from him; and when, rising soon after from the table, on pretence of going to the Academy, he was told he would be too soon, “Oh then,” said he, “I’ll take the longest way.” Kacine once carried him to the Tenebrae, which is a service in the church of Rome, in representation of our Saviour’s agony in the garden; and, perceiving it too long for him, put a Bible into his hands. Fontaine, happening to open it at the prayer of the Jews in Baruch, read it over and over with such admiration, that he could net forbear whispering to Racine, “This Baruch is a fine writer do you know any thing of him” and for some days after, if he chanced to meet with any person of letters, when the usual compliments were over, his question was, “Have you ever read Barnch there’s a lirst-rate genius” and this so loud, that every body might hear him. This is of a piece with another anecdote. Being one day with Boileau, Racine, and other eminent men, among whom were some ecclesiastics, St. Austin was talked of for a long time, and with the highest commendations. Fontaine listened with his natural air; and at last, after a profound silence, asked one of the ecclesiastics with the most unaffected seriousness, “Whether he thought St. Austin had more wit than Rabelais?” The doctor, eyeing Fontaine | from head to foot, answered only by observing, that “he had put on one of his stockings the wrong side outward;” which happened to be the case.

The nurse who attended him in his illness, observing the fervor of the priest in his exhortations, said to him, “Ah, good sir, don’t disturb him so; he is rather stupid than wicked.” These, and many other stories are told of him, which either are, or might have been true. One thing, however, must be mentioned as an honour shewn to him; his widow being molested about the payment of some public money, the intendant gaveorders, that no tax or impost should be. levied upon his family nor was this distinguishing favour ever revoked by any succeeding intendants while any of the family remained.

His principal works are, I. “Tales,Amsterdam, 1G85, 2 vols. 8vo, with plates by Remain de Hooge. To distinguish the original of this edition from the counterfeits, it is necessary to observe that the word Kalverstraat on the title pagre is put with a little s; in the other the S is a capital; but this edition has been eclipsed by one with engravings from Eisen’s designs, and vignettes by Choffort, 1762, 2 vols. 8vo. This also has been counterfeited in Holland, in. 1764, but the plates are so much inferior, that the genuine edition may be easily distinguished. In the copies which have the best proofs of the plates, the criterion is, there should be no drapery on the woman’s thigh who is speaking to the devil of Papefiguiere; nor any branch of a tree on the young man in the “Cas de Conscienca.” 2. “Fables,” of which a very elegant edition was published, 1757, with short notes by M. Coste there are editions with plates in 5 and in 2 vols. 12mo; but nothing equals the magnificent one of 1755, 4 vols. fol. It is 'a masterpiece of typography, and the borders are in a new style of engraving in wood. A moderate edition has since appeared, the whole of it engraved, the subject and the figures, 6 vols. 8vo. 3. “CEuvres diverses,” reprinted at Paris, 1758, 4 vols. 12mo. All La Fontaine’s works were collected, 1726, 3 vols. 4to; an elegant edition, bordered. The principal of them, besides the Fables and Tales, are, “Les Amours de Pysche et de Cupidon,” in verse and in prose; “L’Eunuque,” a comedy; the poem “Du Quinquina,” and other poetical pieces. 1


Moreri. —Chaufepie,Niceron, vol. XVIII. Perrault’s Hommes lllustres. —Dict. Hist.