JEAN DE LA FONTAINE
(Château-Thierry July 8th 1621 - Paris April 13th 1695)
Jean de la Fontaine was christened on July 8th 1621 in Château-Thierry at the church of Saint Crispin.
At this time due to the high infant mortality rate, children were baptised the day they were born or the next day.
His father Charles, Master of the National Forestry Commission in the duchy of Château-Thierry and advisor to the king, had married Françoise Pidoux in 1617.
Born in 1582, the latter, widow of Louis de Jouy, a merchant from Coulommiers, was 12 years senior to Charles.
Jean was their first child. Their second son, Claude, was born in 1623. Jean de la Fontaine had a half-sister, Anne de Jouy, from his mother's first marriage.
Jean attends school in Château-Thierry until 3rd form.
Here he meets François de Maucroix, who becomes his life-long friend.
He doubtless completes his secondary schooling in Paris where Nicolas Furetière is his fellow-pupil.
Jean enters the Oratory in rue St Honoré in Paris to study theology. He is followed by his younger brother Claude.
Not having a religious calling, La Fontaine leaves the Oratory.
He goes back to Château-Thierry to lead the easy life of a wealthy young man. The odes written by Malherbe make a deep impression on him and he begins to go to his beloved woods to recite poetry. This literary vocation meets with an enthusiastic response from his father.
He is back in Paris with his friends Maucroix and Furetière and has begun to study law. He becomes a barrister in 1649.
Meanwhile, leading the free and easy life of a wealthy student, he joins the society of young 'Palatine' poets at the Round Table Academy which includes his friends François Maucroix, Paul Pellisson, Antoine Furetière, Tallemant des Réaux, as well as the dashing Antoine Rambouillet de La Sablière.
November 10th 1647
At his father's behest, Jean signs a contract of marriage with Marie Héricart, a well-to-do young lady from Ferté Milon.
La Fontaine purchases the title of Master of the National Forestry Commission.
His son, Charles de La Fontaine, is christened.
The child is brought up, it seems, by his godfather, Maucroix.
He is later to enter the world of finance and seems to have led a minor role in his father's life.
La Fontaine publishes his first work, L'Eunuque, a verse-comedy in six acts, after Eunuchus by Terence, the Latin comic poet whom La Fontaine greatly admires.
The play was never performed. The work is unsigned, and the name of La Fontaine only appears in the publishing rights.
La Fontaine's father dies. Jean inherits his public office, but the estate is complicated. La Fontaine presents Fouquet with Adonis, a poem after Ovid, calligraphed by Nicolas Jarry and illustrated by François Chauveau.
In the anecdotes (Historiettes) published by Tallemant des Réaux, La Fontaine is described as a young man of letters, a rhymer, and dreamer.
Jean and Marie's marriage is not a happy one.
Due to financial problems, the couple agrees to separate. La Fontaine 'contracts' to deliver poems regularly to superintendant Fouquet and, at the latter's request, embarks on a verse story entitled Le Songe de Vaux (The Dream of Vaux-le-Vicomte)..
At the carnival in Chateau-Thierry, La Fontaine has friends perform a 'farce-ballet' he has written calledLes Rieurs du Beau-Richard.
That summer in the Sainte-Geneviève district of Paris, La Fontaine becomes friendly with Racine, who is the cousin of Marie Héricart and sixteen years La Fontaine's junior.
1On August 17th, Fouquet invites the young king Louis XIV to a somptuous party in the gardens of Vaux-le-Vicomte. La Fontaine is present. Molière and his troupe give the opening performance of Les Fâcheux.
On September 5th, mortified by Fouquet's display of magnificence, and envious of his public splendour, Louis XIV has the latter arrested and put in prison (where he is to finish his life). La Fontaine is shocked by this arrest and remains faithful to his friend and protector.
L'Elégie aux nymphes de Vaux is published without its author's name. La Fontaine meets 'his' pretty young duchess,
Marie-Anne Mancini, niece of Cardinal Mazarin, wife of the Duke of Boulbon, a lord of Château-Thierry.
The disgraced Fouquet has been exhiled to Limoges. La Fontaine goes with him, whether by choice or not, but he is in any case back in Paris a month later.
The trip is recounted in the letters to his wife Marie.
La Fontaine becomes 'gentleman-in-waiting' to Marguerite de Lorraine, the widow of Gaston d'Orléans.
The first volume of the Tales and Verse Stories is published. A Jansenist translation of Saint Augustin's City of God is put to press to which La Fontaine contributed verse adaptations of the poetry.
Publication of the Selected Fables, dedicated to the Dauphin.
124 fables in two 'parts', each comprising three books. These first six books of the modern edition enjoy immediate and major success.
The novel, Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon (The Loves of Cupid and Psyche), is published - to no great success.
Publication (dated 1671) at Port Royal abbey of an anthology of mainly Christian poems. La Fontaine plays a major role in the composition of the three volumes.
The third part of the Tales, New Fables and Other Poems appears.
This collection comprises eight new fables which will be re-edited in the 1678-79 collection.
The dowager duchess of Orleans dies.
La Fontaine joins the household of Madame de la Sablière, whose guest he remains for twenty years. Madame de la Sablière, separated from her husband and children, becomes the protector of the poet (who refers to her in his writings as 'Iris', while in the chronicles of Mme. de Sévigné, she appears as 'La Tourterelle').
Madame de la Sablière's mansion on the rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs is one of the centres of cultural life in Paris; there La Fontaine is to meet some of the most brilliant minds of his day.
Poème de la captivité de Saint Malc, dedicated to Cardinal de Bouillon.
Like Racine and Boileau, La Fontaine is protected by Madame de Montespan, the official favourite of the king, and by her sister Madame de Thiange. He collaborates with (court-musician) Lulli, on the libretto of Daphné.
A quarrel divides them.
This year also sees the unauthorized publication of the licentious volume, New Tales by Monsieur de la Fontaine, whose sale is forbidden by the police
La Fontaine parts with his house in Château-Thierry, making it over to his cousin Antoine Pintel, Gentleman of the Royal Hunt. Two hundred years later, in 1876, the house in which he was born will become the Jean de la Fontaine Museum.
Second collection of Selected Fables (Books 7 to 11 of the modern edition) dedicated to Madame de Montespan.
La Fontaine devotes several poems to the Peace Treaty of Nimègue and to the beauty of the new favourite, Mademoiselle de Fontange
Following her separation from the Marquis de la Fare, Madame de la Sablière undergoes a religious conversion and devotes herself henceforth to caring for the ill. She abandons her mansion in the rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs and takes a house in the rue Saint Honoré, finding dwellings nearby for La Fontaine.
Publication by La Fontaine's cousin, Pierre Pintrel, of a translation of Seneca's Epistles to Luciliusfor which La Fontaine has translated the verse.
Publication of the Quinquina Poem dedicated to the Duchess of Bouillon.
The Comédie Française gives the opening performance of a comedy, Le Rendez-vous (now lost). La Fontaine's five extant comedies (Ragotin, Le Florentin, La Coupe enchantée, Le Veau perdu) will not be performed until the 18th century.
On November 15th, La Fontaine is elected to the Académie Française. But Louis XIV, who wants his historian Boileau to have the seat, does not allow the election to be registered.
Boileau is 'unanimously' elected.
La Fontaine's election can now be celebrated. This takes place at the Academie on May 2nd. Ironically, La Fointaine inherits Chair 24 which belonged to Colbert, Fouquet's great enemy.
A two-volume publication brings together prose and verse by Maucroix and La Fontaine. The latter contributes a variety of poems, five new tales and eleven fables which will appear in the 1694 anthology.
The ageing poet spends his time in the company of the Prince de Conti, the Duke de Vendôme and other libertines.
The Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns erupts after Charles Perrault's poem Le siècle de Louis Le Grand (The Century of Louis The Great) is read at the Academy on January 27th.
On February 5th, La Fontaine prints a small number of copies of his Epistle to Huet. The latter, a classical scholar, is a personal friend of Charles Perrault and an enemy of Boileau. While avoiding taking sides, La Fontaine pleads the cause of the Ancients.
Astrée,a lyrical tragedy, libretto by La Fontaine, music by Colasse, a pupil of Lulli. The piece is not a success.
On January 6th, Madame de la Sablière dies.
La Fontaine, ageing and ill, repudiates his licentious Tales; in front of a delegation from the Academy, he promises to henceforth only compose works of a devout nature.
Recovering in the spring, he goes to stay rue Platrière in the household of his new protectors, the banker and parliamentary advisor Anne d'Hervart and his wife.
The last book of Fables (Book 12 of the modern edition) appears in September (dated 1694) — fourteen new fables, to be added to those of 1685, dedicated to Louis XIV's grandson, the Duke of Burgundy.
La Fontaine dies at the Hervart's home.
The death is entered on the Saint Eustache parish register.
The poet is buried at the Saints Innocents cemetry.
In his epitaph,
Jean de la Fontaine presents himself as the life-long dreamer he was
EPITAPH OF AN IDLER
John left this life as he had entered it,
Consuming the capital along with the interest.
Slight regard had he for storing or saving.
His fund of time, though, he administered wisely :
In two equal parts dividing it nicely
One spent sleeping, the other doing nothing.
Jean de La Fontaine
It was in the shade of the forests of Chaury, the old name for Château-Thierry, where he could observe John Rabbit and Goody Weasel talk about an Ant's funeral that Jean de la Fontaine slowly brought his work to fruition ...
Chateau-Thierry and its surrounding countryside was for La Fontaine a veritable stage which he was able to reconstruct in writing. Let's try to imagine this birthplace, the cocoon where the delightful Tales and the marvellous Fables slowly incubated. Thus...
Jean de la Fontaine was born in Château-Thierry, the son of Charles de la Fontaine, Master of the National Forestry Commission, whose public office Jean will inherit, and of Françoise Pidoux from the region of Poitiers... whose nose he will inherit. We know he was christened on July 8th 1621 in the church of Saint Crispin, but we have little documentation on his childhood and schooling. His classmate in Chaury, Louis Maucroix, gives us the first portrait : La Fontaine, a nice boy, well-behaved and unassuming During these early years, Jean lived with his parents and his brother Claude in the house which is now his museum in the rue des Cordeliers which is now rue Jean de la Fontaine.
One can imagine the calm, cosy life of this wealthy family, whose lands provide the food for its table all year round and logs for its fireside as soon as summer ends.
La Fontaine was born into a good home with good parents. The children probably did not undergo the harsh discipline that was the order of the day in matters of education. His father's authority was tempered by affection. But Jean was in any case an easy child to bring up, his health being as good as his character! The day's quiet rhythm of religious service and mealtimes was heightened by the fireside stories his father would bring back from his outings as inspector, stories of farmers' squabbles, village tales.
At the time, Chaury was one of those little provincial towns where everyone knew everyone else, where people saluted each other, except on those days when they deliberately chose not to ...
The tradesman respected the man of property who in turn solemnly saluted the man of law. This of course did not stop the commoners from sniggering at the Pretty Haberdasher proudly leaving her shop, while behind her back a joker makes the sign of the cuckold. Her good husband the haberdasher comes out and now the laughter increases — a scene is in the offing.
The Pretty Haberdasher, the husband, the apothicary in whose shop she spends too much time ... this comic vision of the world is to be found in the farce Les Rieurs du Beau-Richard named after a district of the town famous for its gossip.
The town has no theatre or newspaper but is rife with stories of cuckoldry and of unpaid debts. When the coach arrives and the square is full, the news travels fast. Young Jean, “well-behaved and unassuming”, does not say anything, but is all ears and eyes as he accompanies his father on his business around town, to the alderman's office or on visit to neighbouring farms.
Indeed it is not so much in the town but in the countryside that La Fontaine spends his time, in the farms owned by his family. Their melodic place names still exist : Les Aulnes Bouillants, la Tueterie.
La Tuterie was quite a big farm, with buildings forming three sides of a square. Was this where the Two love-struck Doves had their nest?
Here can be found the place where the young poet and a sheperdess flirted, and it was here that Jean had an epiphany after reading Honoré d'Urfé's Astrée.
With Virgil, the Astrée and his first sheperdess, at the age of fifteen, La Fontaine simultaneously discovers the wondrous joys of poetry and of sensual love.
After which, he has to to leave Chaury to complete his studies in Paris. There he meets up again with Maucroix who will remain his lifelong friend. He will also make the acquantance of Furetiere.
Then we find him at the Oratory.
This is what we can glean from the records : Although the eldest in the family, a movement of religious fervour inspires him to adopt the ecclesiastic life. Thus he comes here at the age of twenty-one and is made welcome among the congregation in the Paris chapter on April 27, 1641. His brother Claude is soon to follow. Whether this is really fervour or just an easy way out of a difficult choice, his vocation does not last very long. He spends his days at L'Oratoire reading the Astrée.
There follows a long period of what seems like inactivity during which Jean has gone back home, where his fathers still lives. Jean's time is divided between a comfortable life in Château-Thierry, visits to his friend Maucroix in Reims, and pleasure trips to Paris.
He leads the careless life of a bachelor, with late nights and compromising company, which drives his father to encourage him to marry Marie Héricart from Ferté-Milon. This marriage would bring a son and many a quarrel. But La Fontaine was already a poet: when his son is born, he is busy translating L'Eunuque published in 1654.
Henceforth nothing will get in the way of his vocation — neither the financial worries attendant on his father's succession, nor domestic troubles — and nothing will stop La Fontaine from going to Nicolas Fouquet's castle, to the Luxembourg Palace or to the literary salon of Madame de la Sablière. He is headed for glory as a poet.
In Château-Thierry and in Paris, he remains very close to the extravagant and ravishing duchess, Marie Anne Mancini, Mazarin's niece. In the spring of 1664, she had married the Duc de Bouillon and as the latter didn't fully trust her to be faithful, he sent her to Chaury where she was to remain under watch while he went to war with the Turks.
Bored by this small town, she asked its Lieutenant General to find entertainment for her. And that is how Jean de la Fontaine meets 'his' duchess. She is to be his first audience, to open for him the doors of the French court, of the Parisian salons and the way to literary glory. Is she the inspiration for his Tales?
In any case, she not only appreciates his poems but also leads others from her brilliant social sphere to appreciate them. Above all, she succeeds in convincing La Fontaine that his work can appeal to readers!
Click on the pictures or the letters in order to trace the poet's presence in Château-Thierry