La Fontaine: Fables

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Mourgues, Odette de
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This is a short and helpful little work, perhaps too taken with literary history, but it certainly helps us to hear something about that in assessing La Fontaine. Unfortunately, frequent French passages are not translated. De Mourgues wants to situate La Fontaine in history: that is a hard task because he stands out. There seems to be little around him. He wrote at the time when French poetry offered the maximum advantages from the point of view of technique and of poetic traditions and the maximum difficulties from the point of view of subject-matter, themes, imagery and vocabulary (8-9). La Fontaine's particular quality is maturity. Precieux poetry was the one kind of poetry alive when La Fontaine was writing: poetry written for a group of sophisticated people in order to give them a delicate intellectual pleasure, without any danger of upsetting the peaceful civilized atmosphere of the group (14). The study of man is the basic subject of the Fables (17). La Fontaine accepted the limitations which his age set on subject-matter. Plaire et instruire is not as easy as it may seem! In real life men behave like animals (20). There is no pity, no security anywhere (22). The image of man which emerges from the general picture is that of a deceitful, greedy and cruel being (23). The moralist is not primarily concerned with practical teaching, but his purpose is to see men and society as they are. He is not a reformer but he need not be a cynic. A moralist is necessarily a pessimist. The picture of politics and society in La F remains a general one, going far beyond his age. He shows no indignation, no bitterness. We watch the tragedy of the world from the point of view of the gods. But to this La Fontaine adds a rich blend of sympathy, tenderness, and irony. One last value enters this mix: solitude. Plaire: The fables are stories and most critics of La F have viewed him primarily as a story-teller. A first obvious characteristic of his poetry and story-telling is its naturalness. A second is wit. And for him wit is associated with serious and important subjects. There is a long section on poetic sacrifice. La Fontaine leaves out a lot that he knows that the reader needs to supply. Something classic about saying more with less. Critical analysis then of OR and The Rat and the Oyster. There is a lot here in 63 pages.
Edward Arnold
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