Translated by Jane Marie Todd
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.
Of the University of Notre Dame Press translation:
“. . . a fascinating account. . . . The Poet and the King, written by a brilliant scholar who can see the grand designs behind the events he describes, should prove rewarding both for readers interested in life under Louis XIV, and for lovers of French culture in general.” — The Times Literary Supplement
“Fumaroli’s readings of La Fontaine’s poetry are both probing and brilliant. For those accustomed to the idea of La Fontaine as a schoolboy’s poet, these fresh readings will come as nothing less than a revelation.” — Journal of Modern History
“_The Poet and the King_ not only offers a 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.” — Translation Review
“Fumaroli . . . is a gifted writer who deftly weaves La Fontaine’s personal history with the broader cultural and political events in France. Readers . . . will appreciate this engrossing account of the struggles of a creative man against a smothering tyranny.” — Booklist
“Fumaroli lucidly and thoroughly studies the role of the poet in speaking to the sycophants of power and fashion . . . 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 how the 17th century remains intensely alive in contemporary thought.” — Library Journal
“One comes away from a reading of The Poet and the King with a new appreciation of the meaning and value of La Fontaine’s poetry and of its place in the cultural history of his times.” — H-France Reviews
“Even for readers uninterested in La Fontaine and his career, this book is invaluable as a fully researched and masterfully constructed case study of literary politics and survival in an increasingly authoritarian state. Should that not be enough, there are the undeniable pleasures of Fumaroli’s dense, resonant, and allusive prose, which alone would justify his eminence on the French literary (as well as academic) scene.” — Virginia Quarterly Review
“. . . an original and largely persuasive presentation of the reign of Louis XIV as the end of the Renaissance, and as the inauguration of the modern insistence on mobilization of the intellectual resources of the state for its political ends.” — Renaissance Quarterly
Of the French edition:
“Fumaroli has written the finest and most perceptive of all the innumerable accounts of La Fontaine.” — The New York Review of Books
Finalist for the 2002 French-American Foundation Translation Prize