1902 Encyclopedia > France > Early Lyric Poetry

France
(Part 33)




FRENCH LITERATURE (cont.)

Early Lyric Poetry


Side by side with these two forms of literature, the epics and romances of the higher classes, and the fabliau, which, at least in its original, represented rather the feelings of the lower, there grew up a third kind, consisting of purely lyrical poetry. The song literature of mediaeval France is extremely abundant and beautiful. From the 12th to the 15th century it received constant accession, some signed, some anonymous, some purely popular in their character, some the work of more learned writers, others again produced by members of the aristocracy. Of the latter class it may fairly be said that the catalogue of royal and noble authors boasts few if any names superior to those of Thibaut de Champagne, king of Navarre, and Charles d’Orléans, the father of Louis XII. Although much of this lyric poetry is anonymous, the more popular part of it almost entirely so, yet M. Paulin Paris has been able to enumerate some hundreds of French chansonniers between the 11th and the 13th century. The earliest song literature, chiefly known in the delightful collection of Bartsch (Alt-Französische Romanzen und Pastourellen), is mainly sentimental in character. The collector divides it under the two heads of romances and pastourelles, the former being usually the celebration of the loves of a noble knight and maiden, and recounting how Belle Doette or Eglantine or Oriour sat at her windows or in the tourney gallery, or embroidering silk and samite in her chamber, with her thoughts on Gerard or Guy or Henry,-- the latter somewhat monotonous but naïve recitals, very often in the first persons, of the meeting of an errant knight or minstrel with a shepherdess, and his cavalier but not always successful wooing. With these, some of which date from the 12th century, may be contrasted, at the other end of the mediaeval period, the more varied and popular collection dating in their present form from the 15th century and published recently by M. Gaston Paris. In both alike, making allowance for the difference of their age and the state of the language, may be noticed a charming lyrical faculty and great skill in the elaboration of light and suitable metres, skill to which the hitherto usual preference of the Provençal poets as metrists has done but scant justice. Especially remarkable is the abundance of refrains of an admirably melodious kind. It is said that more than 500 of these exist. Among the lyric writers of these four centuries whose names are known may be mentioned Audefroi le Bastard, the author of the charming song of Belle Idoine, and others no way inferior, Quesnes de Bethune, the ancestor of Sully, whose song-writing inclines to a satirical cast in many instances, the Vidame de Chartres, Charles d’Anjou, King John of Brienne, &c., But none of them, except perhaps Audefroi, can compare with Thibault IV., who united by his possessions and ancestry a connexion with the north and the south, and who employed the methods of both districts but used the language of the north only. Thibaut was supposed to be the lover of Blanche of Castile, the mother of St. Louis, and a great deal of his verse is concerned with his love for her. But while knights and nobles were thus employing lyric poetry in courtly and sentimental verse, lyric forms were being freely employed by others, both of high and low birth, for more general purposes. Blanche and Thibaut themselves came in for contemporary lampoons, and both at this time and in the times immediately following, a cloud of writers composed light verse, sometime of a lyric sometimes of a narrative kind, and sometimes in a mixture of both. By far the most remarkable of these is Ruteboeuf (born in 1230), the first of a long series of French poets to whom in recent days the title Bohemian has been applied, who passed their lives between gaiety and misery, and celebrated their lot in both conditions with copious verse. Ruteboeuf is among the earliest French writers who tell us their personal history and make personal appeals. But he does not confine himself to these. He discusses the history of his times, upbraids the nobles for their desertion of the Latin empire of Constantinople, considers the expediency of crusading, inveighs against the religious orders, and takes part in the disputed between the pope and the king. He composes pious poetry too, and in at least one poem takes care to distinguish between the church which he venerates and the corrupt churchmen whom he lampoons. Besides Ruteboeuf the most characteristic figure of his class and time is Adam de la Halle (cir. 1240-1286), commonly called the Hunchback of Arras. The earlier poems of Adam are of a sentimental character, the later ones satirical and somewhat ill-tempered. Such, for instance, is his invective against his native city. But his chief importance consists in his jeux, the Jeu de la Feuillie, the Jeu de Robin et Marion, dramatic compositions which led the way to the regular dramatic form. Indeed the general tendency of the 13th century is to satire, fable, and farce, even more than to serious or sentimental poetry. We should perhaps except the lais, the chief of which are known under the name of Marie de France. These lays are exclusively Breton in origin, though not in application, and the term seems originally to have had reference rather to the music to which they were sung than to the manner or matter of the pieces. Some resemblance to these lays may perhaps be traced in the Breton songs (perfectly, which cannot be said of some more famous one) published by M. Luzel. The subjects of the lais are indifferently taken from the Arthurian cycle, from ancient story, and from popular tradition. The most famous of all is the Lay of the Honeysuckle, traditionally assigned to Sir Tristram.






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