Who is Jean de La Fontaine?
Jean de La Fontaine (UK: /ˌlæ fɒnˈtɛn, -ˈteɪn/, US: /ˌlɑː fɒnˈteɪn, lə -, ˌlɑː foʊnˈtɛn/, French: [ʒɑ̃ d(ə) la fɔ̃tɛn]; 8 July 1621 – 13 April 1695) was a French fabulist and one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century. He is known above all for his Fables, which provided a model for subsequent fabulists across Europe and numerous alternative versions in France, as well as in French regional languages.
After a long period of royal suspicion, he was admitted to the French Academy and his reputation in France has never faded since. Evidence of this is found in the many pictures and statues of the writer, later depictions on medals, coins and postage stamps.
The curious personality of La Fontaine, like that of some other men of letters, has been enshrined in a kind of legend by literary tradition. At an early age his absence of mind and indifference to business gave a subject to Gédéon Tallemant des Réaux. His later contemporaries helped to swell the tale, and the 18th century finally accepted it, including the anecdotes of his meeting his son, being told who he was, and remarking, Ah, yes, I thought I had seen him somewhere!, of his insisting on fighting a duel with a supposed admirer of his wife, and then imploring him to visit at his house just as before; of his going into company with his stockings wrong side out, &c., with, for a contrast, those of his awkwardness and silence, if not positive rudeness in company.
It ought to be remembered, as a comment on the unfavourable description by Jean de La Bruyère, that La Fontaine was a special friend and ally of Benserade, La Bruyere’s chief literary enemy. But after all deductions much will remain, especially when it is remembered that one of the chief authorities for these anecdotes is Louis Racine, a man who possessed intelligence and moral worth, and who received them from his father, La Fontaine’s attached friend for more than thirty years. Perhaps the best worth recording of all these stories is one of the Vieux Colombier quartet, which tells how Molière, while Racine and Boileau were exercising their wits upon le bonhomme or le bon (by both which titles La Fontaine was familiarly known), remarked to a bystander, Nos beaux esprits ont beau faire, ils n’effaceront pas le bonhomme. They have not.