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 kwn, 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 Vendome. The Poet and the King offers t 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.
MARC FUMAROLI is professor of Rhetoric and Society in Europe at the College de France and a former visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He is the editor of Histoire de la rhetorique dans L'Europe moderne, 1450-1950 and a member of the Academie Francaise.