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But we will first, in few words, despatch the worst--for there is a very bad part-of his life. It was not specially his life ; it was the life of the age in which he lived. The man of strong amorous propensities, in that age and country, who
was, nevertheless, faithful to vows of either marriage or celibacy,--the latter vows then proved sadly dangerous to the former,-may be regarded as a miracle. La Fontaine, without any agency of his own affections, found himself married at the age of twenty-six, while yet as immature as most men are at sixteen. The upshot was, that his patrimony dwindled ; and, though he lived many years with his wife, and had a son, he neglected her more and more, till at last he forgot that he had been married, though he unfortunately did not forget that there were other women in the world besides his wife. His genius and benevolence gained him friends everywhere with both sexes, who never suffered him to want, and who had never cause to complain of his ingratitude. But he was always the special favourite of the Aspasias who ruled France and her kings. To please them, he wrote a great deal of fine poetry, much of which deserves to be everlastingly forgotten. It must be said for him, that his vice became conspicuous only in the light of one of his virtues. His frankness would never allow concealment. He scandalized his friends Boileau and Racine; still, it is matter of doubt whether they did not excel him rather in prudence than in purity. But, whatever may be said in palliation, it is lamentable to think that a heaven-lighted genius should have been made, in any way, to minister to a hell-envenomed vice, which has caused unutterable woes to France and the world. Some time before he died, he repented bitterly of this part of his course, and laboured, no doubt sincerely, to repair the mischiefs he had done.
orator is made. The truth is, without exception, that every poet is born
and many are born such of whose poetry the world knows nothing. Every known poet is also somewhat an orator; and as to this part of his character, he is made. And many are known as poets who are altogether made ; they are mere second-hand, or orator poets, and are quite intolerable unless exceedingly well made, which is, unfortunately, seldom the case. It would be wise in them to busy themselves as mere translators. Every one who is burn with propensities to love and wonder 200 strong and deep to be worn off by repetition or continuance,- in other words, who is born to be always young,—is born a poet. The other requisites he has of course. Upon him the making will never be lost. The richest gems do most honour to their polishing. But they are gems without any. So there are men who pass through the world with their souls full of poetry, who would not believe you if you were to tell them 80. Hapry for them is their ignorance, perhaps. La Fontaine came near being one of them. All that is artificial in poetry to him came late and with difficulty. Yet it resulted from his keen relish of nature, that he was never sutisfied with his art of verse till he had brought it to the confines of perfection. He did not philosophize over the animals; he sympathized with them. A philosopher would not have lost a fashionable dinner in his admiration of a common ant-hill. La Fontaine did so once, because the well-known little community was engaged in what he took to be a funeral. He could not in decency leave them till it was over. Verse-making out of the question, this was to be a genuine poet, though, with commonplace mortals, it was also to be a fool.”
As we have already said, Jean was a backward boy. But, under a dull exterior, the mental machinery was working splendidly within. He lacked all that outside care and prudence,--that constant looking out for breakers,—which obstruct the growth and ripening of the reflective faculties. The vulgar, by a queer mistake, call a man absent-minded, when his mind shuts the door, pulls in the latch-string, and is wholly at home. La Fontaine's mind was exceedingly domestic. It was nowhere but at home when, riding from Paris to Château-Thierry, a bundle of papers fell from his saddle-bow without his perceiving it. The mail-carrier, coming behind him, picked it up, and overtaking La Fontaine, asked him if he had lost anything. “Certainly not," he replied, looking about him with great surprise. “Well, I have just picked up these papers,” rejoined the other. “Ah ! they are mine," cried La Fontaine ;
they involve my whole estate."
And he eagerly reached to take them.
On another occasion he was equally at home. Stopping on a journey, he ordered dinner at an hotel, and then took a ramble about the town. On his return, he entered another hotel, and, passing through into the garden, took from his pocket a copy of Livy, in which he quietly set himself to read till his dinner should be ready. The book made him forget his appetite, till a servant informed him of his mistake, and he returned to his hotel just in time to pay his bill and proceed on his journey.
It will be perceived that he took the world quietly, and his doing so undoubtedly had important bearings on his style. We give another anecdote, which illustrates this peculiarity of his mind as well as the superlative folly of duelling. Not long after his marriage, with all his indif. ference to his wife, he was persuaded into a fit of singular jealousy. He was intimate with an ex-captain of dragoods, by name Poignant, who had retired to ChâteauThierry ; a frank, open-hearted man, but of extremely little gallantry. Whenever Poignant was not at his inn, he was at La Fontaine's, and consequently with his wife, when he himself was not at home. Some person took it in his head to ask La Fontaine why he suffered these constant visits. “And why,” said La Fontaine," should I not? He is my best friend." “The public think otherwise," was the reply; "they say that he comes for the sake of Madame La Fontaine." “The public is mistaken ; but what must I do in the case ? " said the poet. “You must demand satisfaction, sword in hand, of one who has dishonoured you.” "Very well,” said La Fontaine, “I will demand it.” The next day he called on Poignant, at four o'clock in the morning, and found him in bed. “Rise,” said he, “and come out with me!” His friend asked him what was the matter, and what pressing business had brought him so early in the morning. “I shall let you know," replied La Fontaine, “when we get abroad.” Poignant, in great
astonishment, rose, followed him out, and asked whither he was leading. “You shall know by-and-by," replied La Fontaine ; and at last, when they had reached a retired place, he said, “My friend, we must fight." Poignant, still more surprised, sought to know in what he had offended him, and moreover represented to him that they were not on equal terms. “I am a man of war," said he, “ while, you, you have never drawn a sword.”'
“No matter," said La Fontaine ; " the public requires that I should fight you.” Poignant, after having resisted in vain, at last drew his sword, and, having easily made himself master of La Fontaine's, demanded the cause of the quarrel. “The public maintains," said La Fontaine, " that you come to my house daily, not for my sake, but my wife's." "Ah! my friend,” replied the other, “I should never have suspected that was the cause of your displeasure, and I protest I will never again put a foot within your
« On the contrary,” replied La Fontaine, seizing him by the hand, “I have satisfied the public, and now you must come to my house, every day, or I will fight you again." The two antagonists returned, and breakfasted together in good-humour.
It was not, as we have said, till his twenty-second year, that La Fontaine showed any taste for poetry. The occasion was this :--An officer, in winter-quarters at ChâteauThierry, one day read to him, with great spirit, an ode of Malherbe, beginning thus
Que direz-vous, races futures,
Si quelquefois un vrai discours
De nos abominables jours ?
What will ye say, ye future days,
If I, for once, in honest rhymes,
Of our abominable times ?
La Fontaine listened with involuntary transports of joy, admiration, and astonishment, as if a man born with a genius for music, but brought up in a desert, had for the first time heard a well-played instrument. He set himself immediately to reading Malherbe, passed his nights in learning his verses by heart, and his days in declaiming them in solitary places. He also read Voiture, and began to write verses in imitation. Happily, at this period, a relative named Pintrel, directed his attention to ancient literature, and advised him to make himself familiar with Horace, Homer, Virgil, Terence, and Quinctilian. He accepted this counsel. M. de Maucroix, another of his friends, who cultivated poetry with success, also contributed to confirm his taste for the ancient models. His great delight, however, was to read Plato and Plutarch, which he did only through translations. The copies which he used are said to bear his manuscript notes on almost every page, and these notes are the maxims which are to be found in his fables. Returning from this study of the ancients, he read the moderns with more discrimination. His favourites, besides Malherbe, were Corneille, Rabelais, and Marot. In Italian, he read Ariosto, Boccaccio, and Machiavel. In 1654 he published his first work, a translation of the Eunuch of Terence. It met with no success. But this does not seem at all to have disturbed its author. He cultivated verse-making with as much ardour and good
and his verses soon began to be admired in the circle of his friends. No man had ever more devoted friends. Verses that have cost thought are not relished without thought. When a genius appears, it takes some little time for the world to educate itself to a knowledge of the fact. By one of his friends, La Fontaine was introduced to Fouquet, the minister of finance, a man of great power, and who rivalled his sovereign in wealth and luxury. It was his pride to be the patron of literary men, and he was
humour as ever ;