In Book XI of his Fables, Jean de La Fontaine introduces a curious tale, at once exotic and intimate. It tells of a Mughal who has a dream in which he sees a powerful vizier basking in the bliss of paradise while below him a seemingly pious hermit is roasting in the flames of hell. He consults a dream interpreter, who explains that the vizier, though worldly, had all his life sought out solitude and seclusion, presumably for spiritual meditation; the hermit, by contrast, had constantly sought out the company of royal courtiers and fawned on them. La Fontaine moves from this parable to an encomium on the virtues of solitude, in which he himself has always discovered ‘une douceur secrète’. His tribute to seclusion is quite personal; it is in fact one of the rare confidences about himself that La Fontaine imparts to the reader in the course of the Fables.
As it happens, La Fontaine took the tale of the devout vizier and the hypocritical hermit from the French translation of the 13th-century Persian poet Sa’di’s Golestan (‘Rose Garden’), one of the best-loved works of classical Persian literature, which had been translated into French by André du Ryer and published