In 1682 he was, at more than sixty years of age, recognized as one of the foremost men of letters of France. Madame de Sévigné, one of the soundest literary critics of the time, and by no means given to praise mere novelties, had spoken of his second collection of Fables published in the winter of 1678 as divine; and it is pretty certain that this was the general opinion. It was not unreasonable, therefore, that he should present himself to the Académie française, and, though the subjects of his Contes were scarcely calculated to propitiate that decorous assembly, while his attachment to Fouquet and to more than one representative of the old Frondeur party made him suspect to Colbert and the king, most of the members were his personal friends.
He was first proposed in 1682, but was rejected for Marquis de Dangeau. The next year Colbert died and La Fontaine was again nominated. Boileau was also a candidate, but the first ballot gave the fabulist sixteen votes against seven only for the critic. The king, whose assent was necessary, not merely for election but for a second ballot in case of the failure of an absolute majority, was ill-pleased, and the election was left pending. Another vacancy occurred, however, some months later, and to this Boileau was elected. The king hastened to approve the choice effusively, adding, Vous pouvez incessamment recevoir La Fontaine, il a promis d'etre sage.
His admission was indirectly the cause of the only serious literary quarrel of his life. A dispute took place between the Academy and one of its members, Antoine Furetière, on the subject of the latter's French dictionary, which was decided to be a breach of the Academy's corporate privileges. Furetière, a man of no small ability, bitterly assailed those whom he considered to be his enemies, and among them La Fontaine, whose unlucky Contes made him peculiarly vulnerable, his second collection of these tales having been the subject of a police condemnation. The death of the author of the Roman Bourgeois, however, put an end to this quarrel.
Shortly afterwards La Fontaine had a share in a still more famous affair, the celebrated Ancient-and-Modern squabble in which Boileau and Charles Perrault were the chiefs, and in which La Fontaine (though he had been specially singled out by Perrault for better comparison with Aesop and Phaedrus) took the Ancient side. About the same time (1685–1687) he made the acquaintance of the last of his many hosts and protectors, Monsieur and Madame d'Hervart, and fell in love with a certain Madame Ulrich, a lady of some position but of doubtful character. This acquaintance was accompanied by a great familiarity with Vendôme, Chaulieu and the rest of the libertine coterie of the Temple; but, though Madame de la Sablière had long given herself up almost entirely to good works and religious exercises, La Fontaine continued an inmate of her house until her death in 1693.
What followed is told in one of the best known of the many stories bearing on his childlike nature. Hervart on hearing of the death, had set out at once to find La Fontaine. He met him in the street in great sorrow, and begged him to make his home at his house. J'y allais was La Fontaine's answer.
Another then we’ll have, which three will make:— Three did I say?-‘tis four, or I mistake; Let’s count them well:-The GARD’NER first, we’ll name; Then comes the ABBESS, whose declining frame Required a youth, her malady to cure A story thought, perhaps, not over pure; And, as to SISTER JANE, who’d got a brat, I cannot fancy we should alter that.
These are the whole, and four’s a number round; You’ll probably remark, ‘tis strange I’ve found Such pleasure in detailing convent scenes:— ‘Tis not my whim, but TASTE, that thither leans: And, if you’d kept your breviary in view, ‘Tis clear, you’d nothing had with this to do; We know, howe’er, ‘tis not your fondest care; So, quickly to our hist’ry let’s repair. A CHARMING youth would frequent visits pay, To nuns, whose convent near his dwelling lay; And, ‘mong the sisters, one his person saw, Who, by her eyes, would fain attention draw; Smiles she bestowed, and other complaisance, But not a single step would he advance; By old and young he greatly was admired; Sighs burst around, but none his bosom fired.