The Poet and the King: Jean de La Fontaine and His Century

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The Poet and the King, described by the New York Review of Books as "the finest and most perceptive of all the innumerable accounts of La Fontaine," is being offered for the first time in an English translation. La Fontaine, whose works are still memorized by French schoolchildren, is regarded by Fumaroli, and countless others, as the greatest French lyric poet of the seventeenth century. La Fontaine is best known, however, for his fables and Contes.

Marc Fumaroli's grand study is almost as much about Louis XIV as it is about La Fontaine. He provides a detailed analysis of the absolutist politics and attempts by the king and his ministers to enforce an official cultural style. Fumaroli's work is a meditation on the plight of the artist under such a ruler during the imposition of a tyrannical, centralized political regime.

Of particular interest to Fumaroli is Nicolas Foucquet, whose fall from power is the central event of the book. Foucquet, La Fontaine's patron, was arrested and imprisoned by order of Louis XIV on false charges of embezzlement and treason. For La Fontaine, the arrest was a disaster. Foucquet had generously supported and protected La Fontaine, who remained loyal to him for decades, helping in his defense and writing pleas for pardon. Many of Foucquet's associates were arrested. Others, including La Fontaine, prudently left town.

During the reign of Louis XIV, the basic role of literature in the eyes of the court was that of an official propaganda machine. The royal cultural policy supported only tragedy and the heroic ode, and demanded works that praised the king. In the years that followed Foucquet's arrest, La Fontaine had to rely on support from groups unconnected with the government, including Jansenists, Protestants, and the libertine, homosexual circle of the Duc de Vendôme.

Fumaroli reads history with an eye on the modern world. His La Fontaine and his Foucquet, his world of free culture in opposition to state power, are models for the liberal vision of the possible role of culture in modern society. The Poet and the King offers not only a captivating history of one of France's greatest poets, but also carries the message that great literature and art can be created in spite of repressive cultural and political regimes.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Fumaroli (rhetoric & society in Europe, Coll ge de France) lucidly and thoroughly studies the role of the poet in speaking to the sycophants of power and fashion. But rather than Virgil to Caesar or Horace and Ovid to Augustus, the interplay studied here is of Jean de la Fontaine (1621-95) to Louis XIV in 17th-century France. Fumaroli traces La Fontaine from the provinces to Paris and through years of obscurity and crisis, placing special emphasis on the fall from power of La Fontaine's patron, Nicolas Foquet. La Fontaine is shown to be a poet oddly prone to silence and concealment, a poet finding his way, translating himself around a royalty in attire inspired by Venetian opera costumes. In the process, we see that "great poetry is political, it is so by definition, since it seeks a foundation for the commonwealth in the truth of the heart." Neither a biography nor a literary critique but a study of power, this work is highly recommended for anyone interested in the bridge between aesthetics before and after the French Revolution and particularly in how the 17th century remains intensely alive in contemporary thought. Scott Hightower, Fordham Univ., New York City Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780268038779
  • Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2002
  • Pages: 542
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Table of Contents

Preamble 1
Ch. 1 Olympus and Parnassus 31
Ch. 2 The Years of Obscurity: From Arcadia to the Academy 99
Ch. 3 Friendship and Fear 155
Ch. 4 Nicolas Foucquet, or How Not to Become Louis XIV's Favorite 200
Ch. 5 Rest and Movement 234
Ch. 6 Sublimity and Smiles 288
Ch. 7 The Living versus the Mechanical 357
Ch. 8 Death of the Poet 407
Notes 471
Index 513
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