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Born in Paris, 1394; died at Amboise, 1465
Charles de Valois was already addicted to poetry when, at fourteen, he became Duke of Orleans after the murder of his father (Louis d'Orléans, brother of the French king Charles VI) by assassins in the pay of the Duke of Burgundy. It was several years before Charles could patch up a truce with Burgundy and restore the wavering reputation of his household. In 1408 he married Isabelle of France, widow of the English king Richard II; she died the next year. The continued enmity of the Burgundians (inflamed by Charles's second political marriage, 1410, to Bonne d'Armagnac, who died about 1435) brought the English into France and led to Charles's capture at Agincourt in 1415. He spent the next twenty-five years as a political prisoner in various parts of England.
During his seldom rigorous captivity, Charles learned English thoroughly and celebrated, with great felicity in two languages, his love for two English noblewomen. It was during this period that he composed not only all his English poetry but also most of his French ballades and chansons. Hardly any of the feverish political and military agitation of these years, which saw the entire public career of Joan of Arc, is reflected in the poems.
Returning to France in 1440, Charles spent nearly a decade in a flurry of diplomatic activity leading to a truce with England, and in a hapless invasion of Piedmont, then retired to his château at Blois, where he held a poetic court that extended hospitality to all men of talent, from royal scions like René of Anjou to starveling criminals like Villon. In this period he wrote most of his rondeaux, traditional short fixed-form lyrics with recurring lines. One example (number 31) is presented here.
One of the three children of Charles's declining years born to his third wife, Marie of Clèves, became Louis XII of France.
The poetry of Charles d'Orléans is unmatched in French for its combination of ease, grace and musicality with a glittering perfection of form that recalls the "goldsmith's work" he speaks of in his famous springrondeau. The personified allegorical figures (Youth, Hope, Melancholy and many others) which he inherited
"Le temps a laissié son manteau"
Le temps a laissié son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye,
Et s'est vestu de brouderie,
De soleil luyant, cler et beau.
Il n'y a beste, ne oyseau,
Qu'en son jargon ne chante ou crie:
Le temps a laissié son manteau !
Riviere, fontaine et ruisseau
Portent, en livree jolie,
Gouttes d'argent d'orfaverie,
Chascun s'abille de nouveau:
Le temps a laissié son manteau.
Born in Paris, c. 1431
Villon is the first French writer who reveals himself to us as a complete and unique human being, with all his faults upon his head. Displaying thorough mastery of traditional poetic techniques, he enlivens the medieval forms and fancies with vivid personal observation drawn from his unsavory but intense existence.
Born François de Montcorbier (or des Loges), the poet adopted the surname of the pious Guillaume Villon, who cared for him in childhood. Francois's exuberant university life (he became a Master of Arts in 1452) was interrupted temporarily in 1455 after he killed a rowdy priest in a brawl, and permanently at the end of 1456, when he fled Paris after stealing a large sum from the treasury of the Faculty of Theology. Just about this time Villon wrote a brief mock will in verse, the lighthearted Lais (Legacies, also called Le petit Testament).
There followed years of footloose wandering throughout France, during which Villon briefly visited the poetic courts of Charles d'Orléans at Blois and Jean II, Duke of Bourbon, at Moulins. Villon's poems in thieves' jargon and several other short pieces date from this period. In 1461 he was imprisoned at Meungsur-Loire and was released only when the new king, Louis XI, passed through the town dispensing amnesties.
Returning to the outskirts of Paris, Villon composed his longest work, probably early in 1462. This was Le Testament (also called Le grand Testament), another humorous will, but one filled with more serious overtones and haunted by the specter of death. In this Testament Villon inserted several lyric poems that rank among his best work, especially the "Ballade des dames du temps jadis" (Ballad of the Ladies of the Past), with its refrain, "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" (But where are the snows of yesteryear?).
At the end of 1462 Villon was again in prison, this time sentenced to be hanged. It was then that he wrote his "Épitaphe" or "Ballade des pendus" (Ballad of the Hanged Men), included here; the poet sees himself as already executed and begs the indulgence of his fellow men. In January 1463 his sentence was commuted to exile far from Paris; after this point the course of his life is completely unknown.
Villon is not only the poet par excellence of the storms of young blood, but also the first of many great chroniclers of Parisian life,
Frères humains, qui après nous vivez,
N'ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis,
Car, se pitié de nous povres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous mercis.
Vous nous voiez cy attachez cinq, six:
Quant de la chair, que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est pieça devorée et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et pouldre.
De nostre mal personne ne s'en rie,
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre!
Se freres vous clamons, pas n'en devez
Avoir desdaing, quoy que fusmes occis
Par justice. Toutesfois, vous sçavez
Que tous hommes n'ont pas bon sens assis;
Excusez nous—puis que sommes transsis—
Born in Cahors, 1496; died in Turin, 1544
Clément Marot, born in the Southwest of France, inherited from his father Jean not only the post of secretary to François I, but also the playful techniques and late Gothic stereotypes of the poetic generation of the "Grands Rhétoriqueurs." Nevertheless, Clément has multiple claims to fame as an innovator: as the first French sonneteer (he became acquainted with the form, and with Italian humanism in general, during his first exile), as the winner of the first publicized satiric debate in France (in which Marot defended the new "natural" style against the poetaster Sagon), and as an experimenter with numerous forms and themes that clearly influenced the Pléiade poets, La Fontaine and many others. Yet Marot is best known and loved for his distinctly personal contributions to French poetry: abounding wit, coupled with that delight in spicy entertainments known to the French as gauloherie (this trait, together with an artificial archaism of language not typical of Marot, was to characterize the so-called style marotique of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). No less genuine a component of Marot's complex nature was his strong leaning toward the religious ideals of the Reformation, a loyalty which caused him much suffering in that era of vicious persecutions.
Jailed for a short period in 1526 and again in 1532 for eating bacon publicly during Lent, Marot finally decided in 1534 that France was temporarily too dangerous for him. After spending about a year in Ferrara, from which city he launched the notorious poetic competition of the Blasons du corps féminin (glorifications of all parts of the female anatomy), and some time in Venice, he returned home in 1536, making a solemn recantation of his "errors." But the publication of his translations of thirty Psalms (in short strophes meant to be set to music), and of an earlier work, L'Enfer (Hell), denouncing magistrates, led to a new, final exile. In Calvin's Geneva he brought the number of his Psalm translations up to fifty; this work quickly became the standard Huguenot songbook. But his libertine attitudes soon made him persona non grata in Geneva, and he kept moving on until he died in Turin in September 1544.
De la jeune Dame qui a vieil mary
En languissant, et en grefve tristesse
Vit mon las cueur, jadis plein de liesse,
Puis que Ion m'a donné Mary vieillard.
Helas pourquoy? rien ne sçait du vieil art
Qu'apprend Venus, l'amoureuse Deesse.
Par un désir de monstrer ma prouesse
Souvent l'assaulx: mais il demande: où est ce?
Ou dort, peult estre, et mon cueur veille à part
Puis quand je veulx luy jouer de finesse,
Honte me diet: Cesse, ma fille, Cesse!
Garde t'en bien, à honneur prens esgard!
Lors je respons: Honte, allez à l'escart:
Je ne veulx pas perdre ainsi ma jeunesse En languissant.
Born in Lyons, c. 1500; died there, c. 1560
The first half of the sixteenth century was the most creative period in the history of Lyons. As wealthy, lively and cultured as Paris itself, Lyons sheltered a unique group of self-supporting bourgeois literati, in close personal touch with the latest Italian trends, who form a link in time between the subsidized courtier-poets of Marot's school and those of the Plèiade.
The unchallenged dean of these Lyons writers was Maurice Scève, son of a well-to-do judge and councillor, and its undisputed masterpiece, published in 1544, was Scève's Delie, Object de plus haulte vertu (Delia, Object of Highest Virtue), a cycle of 449 dizains (traditional ten-line strophes) introduced by one huitain (eight-line strophe). Enough Italian Platonism permeates the work to justify interpreting the loved one's pseudonym partially as an anagram of l'idée, but basically she is identified with the Greco-Roman Delia, a fusion of the huntress Diana (whose weapons the poet readily transforms into Love's arrows), the distant and chaste moon (who illuminates the night of the poet's learned ignorance) and funereal Hecate.
These introspective examinations of the fleshly and spiritual pains of an impossible love reflect Petrarch's influence (in 1533 at Avignon Scève had discovered a tomb that was supposedly "Laura's"). Scève's ardor is genuine, however: although reminiscences of a former love (the "lyesse premiere" of dizain XXIV) are present in the cycle, his true Delia was undoubtedly the talented—and married—poetess Pernette du Guillet, who died, at about twenty-five, the year after Delie was published. Scève's style is a highly personal decoction of the many literary elements he laid under contribution.
Admired, if not understood, when it first appeared, and recognized by the members of the nascent Pléiade as a living example of their own newly expressed ideals (Scève was invited to join the group but declined), Delie was branded for centuries as obscure, mystical, cabbalistic or simply "unreadable." It has come into its own, however, within our time; its bold images, its psychological dichotomies and its "dark" beauties strike responsive chords in our twentieth-century sensibilities.
Scève's other important works include the Saulsaye, églogue de la Vie Solitaire (The Willow Grove, Eclogue of the Solitary Life; 1547), in praise of the healing charms of nature, and the Microcosme (published posthumously in 1562), a poem in 3,003 alexandrines honoring the scientific and artistic achievements of man.
Quand l'il aux champs est d'esclairs esblouy,
Luy semble nuict quelque part qu'il regarde:
Puis peu à peu de clarté resjouy,
Des soubdains feuz du Ciel se contregarde.
Mais moy conduict dessoubs la sauvegarde
De ceste tienne, et unique lumière,
Qui m'offusca ma lyesse premiere
Par tes doulx rayz aiguement suyviz,
Ne me pers plus en veue coustumiere.
Car seulement pour t'adorer je vis.
Born in Lyons, c. 1522; died there, 1566
Afêted beauty, an accomplished scholar and linguist, a spirited horsewoman, a champion of women's rights and a gifted literary hostess, as well as a touching poet, Louise Labé was one of the chief attractions of Lyons in its brightest days. There is no conclusive evidence that she carried her emulation of famous contemporary Italian poetesses so far as to become herself, though married, a cortigiana onesta (courtesan to the élite) in her own city, but her works reveal beyond a doubt that she was consumed by at least one non-conjugal flame (the poet Olivier de Magny?).
Louise Labé (or Labbé, Charly, Charlin—there are even more variants) was born some time between 1520 and 1524, very possibly in 1522. Her father, Pierre Labé, was a prosperous ropemaker, and so was Ennemond Perrin, the man (much older than herself) she married some time before 1542—hence her famous nickname "la Belle Cordière" (the beautiful ropemaker's wife).
Her literary opus, published in one volume, prefaced by a collection of poems in her honor, in 1555, is not large but it is rich. It consists of a proseDébat de Folie et d'Amour (Debate of Folly and Love), which pleads learnedly but gaily for a more than merely cerebral celebration of the ruling passion; three elegies; and twenty-four sonnets (one in Italian). Her poems touch on her dissatisfaction with women's ordinary domestic duties, her adoration of one or more perfect men and her anguish at his/their wanton and cruel absence. The final sonnet, "Ne reprenez, Dames" (Do not blame me, ladies), addressed to the correct and proper women of Lyons, is a heartfelt and unhypocritical answer to the real and exceedingly caustic charges leveled against her.
The poetess lost her husband some time after 1559. Lyons, afflicted by economic troubles and religious hatreds, was no longer the luminous place of her youth when Louise, lonelier now, died in 1566.
Ne reprenez, Dames, si j'ay aymé,
Si j'ay senti mile torches ardentes,
Miles travaus, mile douleurs mordentes.
Si, en pleurant, j'ay mon tems consumé,
Las! que mon nom ne soit par vous blamé.
Si j'ay failli, les peines sont presentes,
N'aigrissez point leurs pointes violentes:
Mais estimez qu'amour, à point nommé,
Sans votre ardeur d'un Vulcan excuser,
Sans la beauté d'Adonis acuser,
Pourra, s'il veut, plus vous rendre amoureuses,
En ayant moins que moy d'ocasion,
Et plus d'estrange et forte passion.
Et gardez vous d'estre plus malheure
Excerpted from Introduction to French Poetry by STANLEY APPELBAUM. Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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