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La Fontaine

"The shortest . . . the best." - Jean de La Fontaine, abridged.

Born Young

"Who is born to be always young, is born a poet."
jean de la fontaine
La Fontaine

Someone who is born, is born to be a child - first. Jean de La Fontaine (1621-95) was born on 8 July, 1621, at Chateau-Thierry. He was a backward boy, but under a dull exterior, the mental machinery was working. His father laboured to make his son a poet. However, Jean showed not the least spark till his twenty-second year. And all that is artificial in poetry came late and with difficulty to him. His writing abilities did not ripen till long after he had reached twenty-two, and he took the world quietly.

La Fontaine found himself married at the age of twenty-six, while yet as immature as most men are at sixteen. He lived many years with his wife, and had a son, and at last he forgot that he had been married.

He was always the special favourite of the Aspasias who ruled France and her kings.

It was not till his twenty-second year, that the frank, open-hearted La Fontaine showed any taste for poetry. His favourites, besides some ancient classics and Malherbe, were Corneille, Rabelais, and Marot. In Italian, he read Ariosto, Boccaccio, and Machiavelli. He also admired Rabelais.


His first work, a translation of the Eunuch of Terence, met with no success, but he set off and cultivated verse-making, and soon his verses began to be admired in the circle of his friends.

He was introduced to Fouquet, the minister of finance, a man of great power who settled on him a pension of one thousand francs a year, on condition that he should produce a piece in verse each quarter.

It does not seem ever to have occurred to Jean that kindness, gratitude, and truth could have any other than good consequences. He was good-humoured with the whole world, and his absent-mindedness often created amusement.

In 1668 La Fontaine published his first collection of fables. One of the fables of the first book is addressed to the Duke de la Rochefoucauld as a result of a friendship between the two of them. Connected with the duke was Madame La Fayette, one of the most learned and ingenious women of her age. She, in turn, became the admirer and friend of the fabulist.

Loved and Helped

Gifted by nature with frankness in the extremes, it was in his stories that La Fontaine excelled, but the fable verses of La Fontaine did more for his reputation than for his purse. His paternal estate wasted away much as he states in his Epitaph of La Fontaine, written by Himself

John went as he came – ate his farm with its fruits,
Held treasure to be but the cause of disputes;
And, as to his time, be it frankly confessed,
Divided it daily as suited him best, –
Gave a part to his sleep, and to nothing the rest.

Someone who provided so little for himself needed good friends to do it. He was invited by Madame de la Sabliere to make her house his home; and there he had his new home for twenty years. "I have sent away all my domestics," said that lady one day; "I have kept only my dog, my cat, and La Fontaine." She was a very well educated French woman, and it was her will that her favourite poet should have no further care for his worldly wants.

La Fontaine, in turn, published nothing which was not first submitted to her.

By her death in 1693, La Fontaine was left without a home. He had just left the house of his deceased benefactress, when he met M. d'Hervart in the street, and who eagerly said to him, "My dear La Fontaine, I was looking for you, to beg you to come and take lodgings in my house."

"I was going there," replied La Fontaine.

His second collection of fables contained five books. They were published in 1678-9, with a dedication to Madame de Montespan; the previous six books were republished at the same time, revised, and enlarged. The twelfth book - the song of the dying swan (La Fontaine) - was not added till many years after.

A Royal Visit

The king said: "The youth have received great advantage in their education from the fables selected and put in verse, which he has published up till now."

The absent-minded poet was permitted to present his book in person to the king. For this purpose he went to Versailles, and noted there that he had forgotten to bring the book. He was all the same favourably received and loaded with presents. But on his return he also lost the purse full of gold which the king had given him. It was happily found under a cushion of the carriage that he rode in.


La Fontaine was elected a member of the French Academy in 1684, and received with the honour of a public session.

Voltaire said of the Fables, "I hardly know a book which more abounds with charms adapted to the people, and at the same time to persons of refined taste. I believe that, of all authors, La Fontaine . . . is for all minds and all ages."

When Fenelon heard of his death in 1695, he wrote "With him have gone the playful jokes, the merry laugh . . ."



The American Translation

The first edition of this translation of La Fontaine's Fables appeared in Boston in 1841.

The translator, Elizur Wright junior, was born in 1804 and became Professor of Mathematics in Hudson College. Then he went to New York in 1833, and later settled in Boston. His "La Fontaine" is held to be his most considerable work. The complete work was published in 1841. Later editions brought some changes. What is presented on these pages, are founded in the sixth edition from 1882, as edited by J. W. M. Gibbs, who supplied so many notes.

This Remaking of It

There is an old Greek story about the highwayman Procrustres. He used to take travellers prisoners and torture them on his iron bed. Those who were too big for the bed, had their limbs cut off to fit the bed. Those who were too small, were stretched to suit the bed too.

And what can we learn from that? And why do I render that old tale here?

Simple. I dislike rhyming that tailors good content to fit metre and rhyming schemes on and on. That sort of "poetry" transgresses against fluent or better forms of retelling, so I state again, "I don't like it, after all. Nor do I like the doings of Procrustres." I don't dislike cosy rhymes, though, it is the artificial ways of presenting good content that bugs me over and over.

As for the fables from old Greek and Latin sources, prose versions allow higher faculties than being stupefied by artificial rhyming, obsolete words and stilted ways of wording. Have a look at prose fables here: [LINK]

I have gone to some lengths to "weed out" things ("artificialities" and outdated terms and phrasing) I tend to dislike in the translation of Mr. Wright. Because I have replaced such as 'ere' with 'before' and so on, many of Wright's rhymes and metres are broken. I tend to appreciate just that.

As for the meticulous work of La Fontaine, it is in French, in another language, and as St. Jerome (Hieronymus) once said, "to be a translator is to be a traitor." He translated the Bible into Latin. However that may be, one may enjoy the combined rhyming efforts of La Fontaine and Mr. Wright as you please.

From the History of Fables

Fable blossomed and ripened in the remotest antiquity. At all times, these fictions have been considered fit lessons for both children and adults.

Aesop's wisdom was in demand - he seems to have written nothing. Gems which he scattered began to be gathered up in collections:

SOCRATES. While in prison, Socrates devoted himself to turning the fables of Aesop into verse. Though but a few fragments of his composition have come down to us, he may, perhaps, be regarded as one more father of fable.

Socratic moral: A rude and deformed exterior may conceal both wit and worth. (Socrates was spoken of as ugly to look at.)

OTHER GREEK THINKERS WHO WROTE FABLE. Induced by the example of Socrates, many Greek philosophers tried their hands in fable-writing. Archilocus, Alcaeus, Aristotle, Plato, Diodorus, Plutarch, and Lucian were some of them.

Collections of fables bearing the name of Aesop became current in the Greek language. It was not, however, until AD 1447 that the large collection which now bears his name was put forth in Greek prose by Planudes, a monk of Constantinople.

The collection of fables in Greek verse by Babrias was exceedingly popular among the Romans. A few fragments remain.

PHAEDRUS was a freedman of Augustus, and wrote in the reign of Tiberius. His verse stands almost unrivalled for its exquisite elegance and compactness.

La Fontaine is perhaps more indebted to Phaedrus than to any other of his predecessors; and, especially in the first six books, his style has much of the same curious condensation.

FABLES IN GREEK AND ROMAN. When the seat of the Roman empire was transferred to Byzantium by Konstantin in the early 300s AD, the Greek language took precedence of the Latin; and the rhetorician Aphthonius wrote forty fables in Greek prose; they became popular.

Besides these collections among the Romans, we find apologues scattered through the writings of their best poets and historians,

The apologues of the Greeks and Romans were brief, pithy, and epigrammatic, and their collections were without any principle of connection.

Fables Elsewhere

Fable flourished very anciently with the Hindus, but such fables are stringed, extended romances, or dramas. They have a development of sentiment and passion as well as of moral truth. They were particularly designed to teach those who were to govern. One of these works is called the Pantcha-Tantra, or "Five Books". It is written in prose.

The other is called the Hitopadesa*, or "Friendly Instruction". It is written in verse. Both are in Sanskrit, and the author is considered to be Vishnu Sarmah [or Vishnu-sarman]. A Sir William Jones preferred him to all other fabulists, both in regard to matter and manner. The fable that follows is much condensed by me (TK), though, but may give a suggestion.

* Hitopadesa comes from hita, signifying fortune, prosperity, utility, and upadesa, signifying advice, the entire word meaning "salutary or amicable instruction".

The Jackal

"Frugality should ever be practised, but not excessive parsimony; for see how a miser was killed by a bow drawn by himself!"

A jackal was roving in search of food when he found a fawn, a hunter, and a boar, all three lying dead. He said to himself, "What a noble provision is here made for me! The flesh of these three animals will sustain me for a whole month, or longer. A man will do for a month; a fawn and a boar for two; a snake for a day; and then I will devour the bowstring."

When the first impulse of his hunger was allayed, he said, "This flesh is not yet tender; let me taste the twisted string with which the horns of this bow are joined."

So saying, he began to gnaw it; but, in the instant when he had cut the string, the severed bow leaped forcibly up, and wounded him in the breast so severely that he died from it in agonies.

What you give to worthy men, and what you eat every day – that, in my opinion, forms part of your own wealth..

Adapted from Works of Sir William Jones, edition of 1977, Vol. 6. p. 35-37.

Fable Migrations

It was one of these books which Chosroes, the king of Persia, had translated from the Sanskrit into the ancient language of his country in the 500s of the Christian era. He sent an embassy into Hindustan expressly for that purpose. Of the Persian book a translation was made into Arabic in the time of the Calif Mansour in the 700s. This Arabic translation became famous under the title of "The Book of Calila and Dimna, or the Fables of Bidpai."

An English translation from the Arabic appeared in 1819, done by the Rev. Wyndham Knatchbull.

Calila and Dimna are the names of two jackals that figure in the history, and Bidpai is one of the principal human interlocutors. This book was turned into verse by several of the Arabic poets, was translated into Greek, Hebrew, Latin, modern Persian, and, in the course of a few centuries, either directly or indirectly, into most of the languages of modern Europe.

The Hitopadesa with its many translations and modifications, seems to have had the greatest charms for the Orientals. It gave birth, at last, to such works of amusement as the "Thousand and One Nights."

Fable slept . . . in the dark ages of Europe, and abridgments took the place of the large collections.

Fable Reawakenings

The "Romance of the Fox," the work of Perrot de Saint Cloud, dates back to the 1200s. It found its way into most of the northern languages, and became a household book. It had great influence over the taste of succeeding generations.

The poets of that age were not confined, however, to fables from the Hindu source. Marie de France, also, in the 1200s, versified one hundred of the fables of Aesop, translating from an English collection. Her work is called the Ysopet, or "Little Aesop."

In 1447 the monk Planudes wrote in Greek prose a collection of fables. In the next century, Abstemius wrote two hundred fables in Latin prose, partly of modern, but chiefly of ancient invention.

Many collections of fables were written in Latin, both in prose and verse. By the art of printing these works were greatly multiplied; and poets undertook the task of translating them into the language of the people. The French led the way in this species of literature, their language had many advantages for it. One hundred years before La Fontaine, Corrozet, Guillaume Gueroult, and Philibert Hegemon, wrote some fables in verse, and it is supposed that La Fontaine read and profited by them. It is, by the way, remarkable how fast these poetical fables were forgotten.

This leads us up to the very absent-minded La Fontaine, who was gifted with frankness among Franks, and who published nothing without first submitting it to a lady friend.

Quite few new fables appear today. I have tried to adapt some stories to this pithy, very old genre. They are one the site, if you want to have a look.

As for E. Wright, he expurgated some of La Fontaine's fables and replaced them with some of his own making, for the sake of American school children (!). The replacement fables are given below as curiosia. They are in the 1882 edition with all the rhymes intact too.


Six Fables by Elizur Wright Jr.

The Fly and the Game

A knight of powder-horn and shot
Once filled his bag – as I would not,
Unless the feelings of my breast
By poverty were sorely pressed –
With birds and squirrels for the spits
Of certain gourmandizing cits.
With merry heart the fellow went
Direct to Mr. Centpercent,
Who loved, as well was understood,
Whatever game was nice and good.
This gentleman, with knowing air,
Surveyed the dainty lot with care,
Pronounced it racy, rich, and rare,
And called his wife, to know her wishes
About its purchase for their dishes.
The lady thought the creatures prime,
And for their dinner just in time;
So sweet they were, and delicate,
For dinner she could hardly wait.
But now there came – could luck be worse? –
Just as the buyer drew his purse,
A bulky fly, with solemn buzz,
And smelt, as an inspector does,
This bird and that, and said the meat –
But here his words I won't repeat –
Was anything but fit to eat.
"Ah!" cried the lady, "there's a fly
I never knew to tell a lie;
His coat, you see, is bottle-green;
He knows a thing or two I believe;
My dear, I beg you, do not buy:
Such game as this may suit the dogs."
So on our peddling sportsman jogs,
His soul possessed of this surmise,
About some men, as well as flies:
A filthy taint they soonest find
Who are to relish filth inclined.

The Dog And Cat

A dog and cat, messmates for life,
Were often falling into strife,
Which came to scratching, growls, and snaps,
And spitting in the face, perhaps.
A neighbour dog once chanced to call
Just at the outset of their brawl,
And, thinking Tray was cross and cruel,
To snarl so sharp at Mrs. Mew-well,
Growled rather roughly in his ear.
"And who are you to interfere?"
Exclaimed the cat, while in his face she flew;
And, as was wise, he suddenly withdrew.
  It seems, in spite of all his snarling,
  And hers, that Tray was still her darling.

The Golden Pitcher

A father once, whose sons were two,
For each a gift had much ado.
At last on this course he fell:
"My sons," said he, "within our well
Two treasures lodge, as I am told;
The one a sunken piece of gold, –
A bowl it may be, or a pitcher, –
The other is a thing far richer.
These treasures if you can but find,
Each may be suited to his mind;
For both are precious in their kind.
To gain the one you'll need a hook;
The other will but cost a look.
But O, of this, I pray, beware! –
You who may choose the tempting share, –
Too eager fishing for the pitcher
May ruin that which is far richer."

Out ran the boys, their gifts to draw:
But eagerness was checked with awe,
How could there be a richer prize
Than solid gold beneath the skies?
Or, if there could, how could it dwell
Within their own old, mossy well?
Were questions which excited wonder,
And kept their headlong avarice under.
The golden cup each feared to choose,
Lest he the better gift should lose;
And so resolved our prudent pair,
The gifts in common they would share.
The well was open to the sky.
As over its curb they keenly pry,
It seems a tunnel piercing through,
From sky to sky, from blue to blue;
And, at its nether mouth, each sees
A brace of their antipodes,
With earnest faces peering up,
As if themselves might seek the cup.
"Ha!" said the elder, with a laugh,
"We need not share it by the half.
The mystery is clear to me;
That richer gift to all is free.
  Be only as that water true,
  And then the whole belongs to you."

That truth itself was worth so much,
It cannot be supposed that such.
A pair of lads were satisfied;
And yet they were before they died.
But whether they fished up the gold
I'm sure I never have been told.
Thus much they learned, I take for granted, –
And that was what their father wanted:
If truth for wealth we sacrifice,
We throw away the richer prize.

Party Strife

Among the beasts a feud arose.
  The lion, as the story goes,
  Once on a time laid down
  His sceptre and his crown;
And in his stead the beasts elected,
  As often as it suited them,
  A sort of king pro tem, –
Some animal they much respected.
  At first they all concurred.
  The horse, the stag, the unicorn,
  Were chosen each in turn;
  And then the noble bird
That looks undazzled at the sun.
But party strife began to run
  Through burrow, den, and herd.
Some beasts proposed the patient ox,
And others named the cunning fox.
The quarrel came to bites and knocks;
    Nor was it duly settled
    Till many a beast high-mettled
    Had bought an aching head,
    Or, possibly, had bled.
The fox, as one might well suppose,
At last above his rival rose,
But, truth to say, his reign was bootless,
Of honour being rather fruitless.
    All prudent beasts began to see
  The throne a certain charm had lost,
    And, won by strife, as it must be,
  Was hardly worth the pains it cost.
    So when his majesty retired,
    Few worthy beasts his seat desired.
    Especially now stood aloof
    The wise of head, the swift of hoof,
    The beasts whose breasts were battle-proof.
  It consequently came to pass,
    Not first, but, as we say, in fine,
  For king the creatures chose the ass –
  He, for prime minister the swine.

It's thus that party spirit
  Is prone to banish merit.

The Cat and the Thrush

A thrush that sang one rustic ode
Once made a garden his abode,
And gave the owner such delight,
He grew a special favourite.
Indeed, his landlord did his best
  To make him safe from every foe;
The ground about his lowly nest
  Was undisturbed by spade or hoe.
And yet his song was still the same;
It even grew somewhat more tame.
At length Grimalkin spied the pet,
Resolved that he should suffer yet,
And laid his plan of devastation
So as to save his reputation;
For, in the house, from looks demure,
He passed for honest, kind, and pure.
Professing search of mice and moles,
He through the garden daily strolls,
And never seeks our thrush to catch;
But when his consort comes to hatch,
Just eats the young ones in a batch.
The sadness of the pair bereaved
Their generous guardian sorely grieved.
But yet it could not be believed
His faithful cat was in the wrong,
Though so the thrush said in his song.
The cat was therefore favoured still
To walk the garden at his will;
And hence the birds, to shun the pest,
On a pear-tree built their nest.
Though there it cost them vastly more,
It was vastly better than before.
And Gaffer Thrush directly found
His throat, when raised above the ground,
Gave forth a softer, sweeter sound.
New tunes, moreover, he had caught,
By perils and afflictions taught,
And found new things to sing about:
New scenes had brought new talents out.
So, while, improved beyond a doubt,
His own old song more clearly rang,
Far better than themselves he sang
The chants and trills of other birds;
He even mocked Grimalkin's words
With such delightful humour that
He gained the Christian name of Cat.

Let Genius tell in verse and prose.
How much to praise and friends it owes.
Good sense may be, as I suppose,
As much indebted to its foes.


de La Fontaine fables, Literature  

TV5Monde. 2014. Les Fables de la Fontaine. Paris: TV5Monde Europe.

Wright Jr, Elizur, tr. 1882. Fables of La Fontaine. Ed. J. W. M. Gibbs. 6th ed. London: G. Bell.

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