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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

His ill constructed and unfinished Songe de Vaux


Lutrin_ (completed in 1683) is not a burlesque which degrades a noble theme, but, like Pope's far more admirable _Rape of the Lock_, a heroi-comic poem humorously exalting humble matter of the day. It tells of the combats of ecclesiastics respecting the position of a lectern, combats in which the books of a neighbouring publisher serve as formidable projectiles. The scene is in the Sainte-Chapelle and the Palais de Justice. Boileau's gift for the vivid presentation of visible detail, and his skill in versification, served him here better than did his choice of a subject. On the whole, we think of him less as a poet than as the classical guardian and legislator of poetry. He was an emancipator by directing art towards reason and truth; when larger interpretations of truth and reason than his became possible, his influence acted unfavourably as a constraint.

All that Boileau lacked as a poet was possessed by the most easy and natural of the singers of his time--one whose art is like nature in its freedom, while yet it never wrongs the delicate bounds of art. JEAN DE LA FONTAINE was born in 1621 at Chateau-Thierry, in Champagne, son of the "maitre des eaux et forets." His education was less of a scholastic kind than an education derived from books read for his own pleasure, and especially from observation or reverie among the woods and fields, with their population of bird, beast, and insect, so dear to his heart and his imagination. Slipping away

from theology and law, he passed ten years, from twenty-three to thirty-three, in seeming indolence, a "bon garcon," irreclaimably wayward as regards worldly affairs, but already drawing in to himself all that fed his genius, all sights and sounds of nature, all the lore of old poets, story-tellers, translators, and already practising his art of verse. Nothing that was not natural to him, and wholly to his liking, would he or could he do; but happily he was born to write perfect verses, and the labour of the artist was with him an instinct and a delight. He allowed himself to be married to a pretty girl of fifteen, and presently forgot that he had a wife and child, drifted away, and agreed in 1659 to a division of goods; but his carelessness and egoism were without a touch of malignity, those of an overgrown child rather than of a man.

In 1654 he published a translation of the _Eunuch_ of Terence of small worth, and not long after was favoured with the patronage of Fouquet, the superintendant of finance. To him La Fontaine presented his _Adonis_, a narrative poem, graceful, picturesque, harmonious, expressing a delicate feeling for external nature rarely to be found in poetry of the time, and reviving some of the bright Renaissance sense of antiquity. The genius of France is united in La Fontaine's writings with the genius of Greece. But the verses written by command for Fouquet are laboured and ineffective. His ill-constructed and unfinished _Songe de Vaux_, partly in prose, partly in verse, was designed to celebrate his patron's Chateau de Vaux.

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