La Fontaine (1621 - 1695 / Champagne / France)
Biography of La Fontaine
Jean de La Fontaine was born in Chateau-Thierry, Champagne, in central France, the son of a government official. He went to Paris to study medicine and theology, but was drawn to the whirls of social life.
La Fontaine qualified as a lawyer but he returned home in 1647 and assisted his father, a superintendent of forests. He held a number of government posts, but they did not pay much money. In 1647 he married Marie Héricart, an heiress, but the marriage was unhappy and they separated in 1658.
La Fontaine had decided to become a famous writer. In 1658 he left his family and moved to Paris, where he lived his most productive years, devoting himself to writing.
He found many patrons. One of his patrons Nicolas Fouquet, was arrested for embezzlement and treason and sentenced to death. La Fontaine wrote one of his most beautiful poems as an impassioned plea for mercy. He left Paris to avoid arrest and spent soem time in Limousin.
From 1664 to 1672 La Fontaine served as a gentleman-in-waiting to the dowager duchess d'Orleans in Luxemburg, and from 1673 he was a member of the household of Mme de La Sabliere. In 1683 he was elected to the Academie Francaise in recognition of his contribution to French literature.
Among La Fontaine's major works are Contes et Nouvelle en Vers (1664), a collection of tales borrowed from Italian sources, tales of Boccaccio, Rabelais, and other medieval and renaissance masters, these were stories dealt with marital misdemeanors and love affairs and were not written for readers who blushed easily. They went through four editions during La Fontaine's lifetime, but the last edition was banned by the authorities because it was considered too obscene. Later La Fontaine regretted ever having written them.
Another major work is Les Amours de Psyche et de Cupidon(1669).
His Fables Choisies Mises en Vers, usually called La Fontaine Fables, were published over the last 25 years of his life. The first volume appeared when the author was 47. The book includes some 240 poems and timeless stories of countryfolk, heroes from Greek mythology, and familiar beasts from the fables of Aesop, from which La Fontaine unhesitatingly borrowed his material. The last of his tales were published posthumously. Each tale has a moral - an instruction how to behave correctly or how life should be lived. In the second volume La Fontaine based his tales on stories from Asia and other places. They were widely translated and imitated during the 17th and 18th centuries all over Europe, and beyond.
At the age of 71 La Fontaine became ill, and he started to think seriously about his life. He translated the Psalms, wore a hair shirt, and again embraced Catholicism.
La Fontaine died in Paris on April 13, 1695. Before his death La Fontaine was encouraged by his abbé to condemn publicly his indecent stories. La Fontaine obeyed the advice and also burned a comedy he had just composed.
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- St. Julian's Prayer
IF truth give pleasure, surely we should try;
To found our tales on what we can rely;
Th' experiment repeatedly I've made,
And seen how much realities persuade:
They draw attention: confidence awake;
Fictitious names however we should take,
And then the rest detail without disguise:
'Tis thus I mean to manage my supplies.