“The movement of concepts is the center of interest”

Looking for an annotated text of La Fontaine’s The Wolf and the Lamb for my previous post, I found this 1997 NYRB article by the pianist and polymath Charles Rosen (1927-2012) and could not put it down. I’ve since been coming back to it.

What many French children like about the Fables is exactly what Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought made them unfit for pedagogy: their frequent cruelty, their heartlessness. Unlike any other fabulist, La Fontaine was too clearsighted to be moral. The Fables are not immoral… they are amoral, realistic… The realistic brutality he cultivated opens the first book, although with a certain gaiety, when the grasshopper, who spent the summer singing, begs the ant, who worked all those months, for a little food:

You sang: I’m happy to hear that.
Well, you can dance now.

[- Vous chantiez ? j’en suis fort aise.
Eh bien : dansez maintenant.]

It was obvious enough to Rousseau that this did not teach children the virtues of frugality but the bitterness of experience.

I suppose the children Rosen had in mind are big enough to appreciate black humor in old verse. The most famous fables impress themselves upon small children’s memory like a senseless incantation or a nursery rhyme. To appreciate these works in a grown-up fashion, one has to forget these abracadabras and re-learn them as sensible poems. Then comes the realization that one has known some great poetry by heart since before one’s age of reason.

Rosen’s article is actually a review of Le Poète et le Roi: Jean de La Fontaine en son siècle by Marc Fumaroli:

In one of his most brilliant comments, Fumaroli writes that La Fontaine made a synthesis of Montaigne and Ariosto. He does not expand on this at any length, but the suggestion comes close to describing the essential achievement of La Fontaine.

One of the most satisfying book reviews, or articles more generally, that I’ve read in the past year or two. I’ll admit it could be partly because of my ignorance of French literature, but only partly.


  1. By an odd coincidence, I found that Rosen article myself a couple of months back. I think it’s one of the best pieces of literary criticism I’ve come across on the Net (not that that’s a crowded market).

    There’s no English equivalent of La Fontaine or Krylov.There isn’t even a classic version of Aesop’s fables in prose, although the stories are certainly a major feature of our children’s literature and thus part of the average anglophone’s mental furniture (“cry wolf”, “dog in the manger”). The only English writer I can think of offhand who wrote verse fables is John Gay, a very underrated poet. There are also Swift’s parodies, including the brilliant “Baucis and Philemon” (La Fontaine included a version of this tale from Ovid in his Book XII).

    In the notes to my Flammarion edition of La Fontaine’s fables, Alain-Marie Bassy compares the “Wolf and the Lamb” to “The Heifer, the She-Goat and the Ewe in Company with the Lion” (the origin of the phrase “the lion’s share”), which appears a little earlier in Book 1. Bassy writes that, in contrast to the Lion, the Wolf demands that his victim confesses he is right to do him harm (a little reminiscent of the “confessions” at Stalin’s show trials?). However, the lamb refuses and thus “prevents the Wolf from enjoying a clean conscience and obliges him to hide […] in the ‘depths of the forest'”.

    There’s plenty more to say but I’ll leave you with the modern poet Francis Ponge’s tribute to La Fontaine:

    “Si je préfère La Fontaine – la moindre fable – à Schopenhauer ou Hegel, je sais bien pourquoi.
    Ça me paraît : 1° moins fatigant, plus plaisant ; 2° plus propre, moins dégoûtant ; 3° pas inférieur intellectuellement et supérieur esthétiquement.”

    • Damn. I forgot the Scottish Chaucerian Robert Henryson, who wrote “The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian” in the 15th century. An excellent poet. On the other hand, his influence was limited as he (a) wrote in Medieval Scots and (b) only produced 13 fables. Seamus Heaney “translated” seven of them along with Henryson’s “Testament of Cresseid” in 2009, just a few years before he died.

      • He is not that hard to understand (with a glossary) once you get used to the old spelling. Thank you for the recommendation.

    • John Gay, the author of The Beggar’s Opera? The kind of poet you’d expect to be a good fabulist (although he’s probably better known second-hand, thanks to Brecht and Kurt Weill). Thank you for the recommendation.

      • Yes, that’s the man..If you like Augustan poetry, he’s worth reading. Obviously, he’s not as great as Pope or La Fontaine. As the introduction to my copy of Gay’s “Selected Poems” says: “Gay is an ironist rather than a satirist; he has suffered unfairly in reputation for his lack of the distinctively satiric qualities of his great contemporaries.” His best poem is the mock-didactic “Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London” (1716), which gives a vivid picture of the city in the early Georgian era. There are quite a few sly jokes in that, including a glazier enthusiastically joining in a game of football in a city square in the hope of smashing windows and drumming up trade.

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