La Fontaine, Jean de (zhäN də) [key], 1621–95, French poet, whose celebrated fables place him among the masters of world literature. He was born at Château-Thierry to a bourgeois family. A restless dilettante as a youth, he settled at last in Paris. His marriage (1647) terminated in 1658, and from 1673 to 1693 he lived in the household of Mme de La Sablière, one of his several patrons. La Fontaine's masterpiece is the collection of Fables choisies, mises en vers [selected fables versified] (1668–94), comprising 12 books of some 230 fables drawn largely from Aesop. Each fable is a short tale of beasts behaving like men; each serves as a comment on human behavior. Although their charm and simple facade have made them popular with children, many are sophisticated satires and serious commentaries on French society. Their wit, acumen, and brilliance of verse and narrative have assured their worldwide success; they ran into 37 editions before La Fontaine's death. Among his other works are Contes et nouvelles en vers (4 vol., 1664–74, tr. Tales and Novels in Verse, 1934), humorous and often ribald verse tales drawn from Boccaccio, Ariosto, and others. He also wrote comedies and librettos for opera, poems on classical themes, and long original poems, notably the Élégie aux nymphes de Vaux (1671), a complaint on the disgrace (1661) of his patron Fouquet.
See English translations of the fables by J. Auslander and J. Le Clercq (1930), E. Marsh (1933), M. Moore (1954), and J. Mitchie (1982); biography by A. E. Mackay (1973); study by P. A. Wadsworth (1952, repr. 1970).
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