Jean De La Fontaine, a French fabulist, born in Chateau-Thierry, July 8, 1621, died in Paris, April 13,1695. He received an irregular education, partly at home, partly at the college of Rheiins, and in 1641 entered the seminary of the Oratorians with the design of becoming a priest; but at the end of 18 months he returned home, and led an idle and dissipated life, which gave little promise of his future celebrity. He showed however considerable poetical talent, and this was fully awakened on his hearing the recitation of one of Malherbe's odes. He began eagerly to read the ancient and modern poets and prose writers. In order to reclaim him from his loose habits and apparent idleness, his father induced him to marry in 1647, and resigned to him his own office of master of waters and forests; but Jean was ill fitted for either a husband or a functionary, and was equally neglectful of his matrimonial and official duties. In 1654 he published at Rheims a translation in verse, or rather an adaptation, of Terence's "Eunuch," which gave no indication of his future powers. He soon went to Paris, and was introduced to Fouquet, the great patron of literature and art at that time, who appointed him his poet, and bestowed upon him a yearly income of 1,000 livres.
La Fontaine was thus enabled to live at his ease for seven years, during which he produced only occasional poems of no great merit. On the fall of his protector he wrote in 1661 his admirable Elegie aux nymphes de Vavx, an eloquent but fruitless appeal to the magnanimity of Louis XIV. in behalf of the superintendent. Two years later he renewed his entreaties in his Ode au roi, but with no better success. He would now have been at a loss for means of livelihood, had it not been for the generosity of two noble ladies, the duchess of Bouillon, Cardinal Mazarin's youngest niece, who welcomed him at her chateau, and the duchess dowager of Orleans, from whom he received a pension as her gentleman servant; but he was always neglected by the king, who could not overlook his irregular mode of life, the character of some of his writings, and above all his fidelity to Fouquet. In 1665 he brought out the first series of his Contes; a second part appeared in 1666, and they were completed in 1671 and 1675. Notwithstanding their licentious turn, they were eagerly read even by the most respectable ladies.
Meanwhile he had already published part of the work upon which his fame especially rests; the first six books of his Fables had appeared in 1668 with a dedication to the dauphin, the son of Louis XIV. and pupil of Bossuet. The following five books were published in 1678 and 1679, with a dedicatory epistle to Mine, de Montespan; the 12th and last, written under encouragement from the young duke of Burgundy, grandson of the king, through his preceptor Fenelon, was printed 15 years later, when the poet had reached the age of 73. His life had undergone several changes during that period of increasing fame; the death of the duchess of Orleans and the exile of the duchess of Bouillon left him unprovided for, but he received the most generous hospitality from Mme, de la Sabliere, a lady celebrated for her literary taste, who for 20 years secured him all the comforts of a home. When she died, he was fortunate enough to find at M. d'Hervart's another home, where he was cared for with equal kindness, and where he died.
During the last two years of his life the religious sentiments of his youth revived; he performed severe penances for such of his works as strict morality could not approve of, and it may be said that his end was the sage's death as depicted by himself: Rien ne trouble sa fin; c'cst le soir d'un beau jour. He had been elected to the French academy in 1683, but was not admitted till 1684 in conjunction with Boileau the satirist. His character presented a strange mixture of childish simplicity and finesse, which is perceptible in his poems. His freedom from all restraint and his dreamy disposition have given birth to innumerable anecdotes of his absence of mind. Besides the works mentioned above, he left Psyche, a mythological novel, and Adonis, a charming narrative poem, both of which were published in 1669 under the patronage of the duchess of Bouillon; Philemon et Baucis and Lesfilles de Minee, which, although intended as mere imitations of Ovid, are stamped with true originality; four or five light comedies, and two operas. There are several recent editions of La Fontaine's complete works; and his select works, his fables in particular, are constantly reprinted in every form.
Many translations into English have been made, including the "Fables" in verse by Robert Thompson (4 vols. 8vo, Paris, 1806), and by Elizur Wright (French and English, illustrated, 2 vols. 8vo, Boston, 1841; 2 vols, in 1, 12mo, 1856). There is an excellent Histoire de la vie et des outrages de La Fontaine, by Walckenaer (4th ed., Paris, 1858).