1902 Encyclopedia > Clément Marot

Clément Marot
French poet

CLEMENT MAROT (1496-1544), one of the most agreeable if not one of the greatest poets of France, and a figure of all but the first importance in her literary history, was born at Cahors, the capital of the province of Quercy, some time during the winter of the year 1496-97. He was, however, not a southern by blood, at least by his father’s side. That father, Jean Marot, whose more correct name appears to have been Mares, Marais, or Marets, was a Norman of the neighbourhood of Caen. He was himself a poet of considerable merit, and held the post of escripvain (apparently uniting the duties of poet laureate and historiographer) to Anne’s of Britanny. He had however, on what business or in what capacity is not known, resided in Chaors for a considerable time, and was twice married there, his second wife, whose name is not known, being the mother of Clément. The boy was "brought into France"—it is his own expression, and is not unnoteworthy as showing the strict sense in which that term was still used at the beginning of the 16th century—in 1506, and he appears to have been educated at the university of Paris, and to have then begun the study of the law. But, whereas most other poets have had to cultivate poetry against their father’s will, Jean Marot took great pains to instruct his son in the fashionable forms of versemaking, which indeed required not a little instruction. It was the palmy time of the rhétoriqueurs, poets who combined stilted and pedantic language with an obstinate adherence to the allegorical manner of the 15th century and to the most complicated and artificial forms of the Ballade and the Rondeau. Clément himself practiced with diligence this poetry (which he was to do more than other man to overthrow), and he has left panegyrics of its coryphaeus Guillaume Crétin, the unfortunate suggester of the Raminagrobis of Rabelais. Nor did he long continue even a nominal devotion to law. He became page to a certain Messire de Neuville, and this opened to him the record of court life. Besides this, his father’s interest must have been not inconsiderable, and the house of Valois, which was about to hold the throne of France for the greater part of a century, was devoted ot letters. As early as 1514, before the accession of Francis I., Clément presented to him his Judgment of Minos, and shortly afterwards he was either styled or styled himself facteur (poet) de la reine to Queen Claude. In 1519 he was attached to the suite of Marguerite d’Angoulême, the king’s sister, who was for many years to be the mainstay not only of him but of almost all French men of letters. In 1524 he drew 95 livres annually from her as a pension, and he had a post in the household of her husband the Duc d’Alençon. It is certain that Marot, like most of Marguerite’s literary court, and perhaps more than most of them, was greatly attracted by her gracious ways, her unfailing kindness, and her admirable intellectual accomplishments, but there is not the slightest ground for thinking that his attachment was other than platonic. Indeed the most famous passage of his poems which relates to the future queen, in which he described her "sweet refusal with a smile," is tolerably decisive on the point. It is, however, evident that at this time either sentiment or matured critical judgment effected a great change in his style, a change which was wholly for the better. At the same time he celebrates a certain Diane, whom it has been sought to identify with Diane de Poitiers. There is nothing to suppor this idea and much against it, for it was an almost invariable habit of the poets of the 16th century, when the mistresses whom they celebrated were flesh and blood at all (which was not always the case), to celebrate them under pseudonyms. In the same year 1524, Marot accompanied Francis on his disastrous Italian campaign. He was wounded and taken at Pavia, but soon released, and he was back again at Paris by the beginning of 1525.

His luck had, however, turned. Marguerite for intellectual reasons, and her brother for political, had hitherto favoured the double movement of Aufklärung, patly humanist, partly, Reforming which distinguished the beginning of the century. Formidable opposition to both forms innovation, however, now began to be manifested, and Marot, who was at no time particularly prudent, was arrested on a charge of heresy an lodged in the Chatelet, February 1526. But this was only a foretaste of the coming trouble, and a friendly prelate, acting for Marguerite, extricated him from his durance before Easter. The imprisonment gave him occasion to write a vigorous poem on it entitled Enfer, which was afterwards imitated by his luckless friend Dolet. His father died about this time, and Marot seems to have been appointed to the place which Jean had latterly enjoyed, that of valet de chamber to the king. He was certainly a member of the royal household in 1528, with a stipend of 250 livres, besides which he had inherited property in Quercy. In 1530, probably, he married. Next year he was again in trouble for heresy, and was again rescued ; this time the king and queen of Navarre seem to have bailed him themselves. In 1532 he published, under the title of Adolescence Clémentine, a title the characteristic grace of which excuses its slight savour of affection, the first printed collection of his works, which was very popular, and was frequently reprinted with additions. Dolet’s edition of 1538 is believed to be the most authoritative. Unfortunately, however, the poet’s enemies were by no means discouraged by their previous ill success, and the political situation was very unfavourable to the Reforming partly. In 1535 Marot was again summoned to appear on the charge of heresy, and this time he was advised or thought it best to fly. He passed through Béarn, and then made his way to Renée of Ferrara, a supporter of the French Reformers as steadfast as her aunt Marguerite, and even more efficacious, because her dominions were out of France. At Ferrara he wrote a good deal, his work there including his celebrated Blasons (a descriptive poem, improved upon mediaeval models), which set all the verse of France imitating them. But the duchess Renée was not able to persuade her husband, Ercole d’Este, to share her views, and Marot had to quit the city. He then went to Venice, but before very long obtained permission to return to France. Francis himself, though a fickle and unsafe patron, was attached to him, and in 1539 gave him a house and grounds in the suburbs. It was at this time that his famous translations of the Psalms appeared. The merit of these has been sometimes denied, owing apparently to the absurd partially which seems in the case of some critics to make it impossible for the reader to appreciate the manner of a workt to the matter of which he is opposed on political or religious grounds. It is, however, considerable, and the powerful influence which the book exercised on contemporaries is not denied by any one. The great persons of the court chose different pieces, each as his or her favourite. They were sung in court and city, and they are said, with exaggeration doubtless, but still with a basis of truth, to have done more than anything else to advance the cause of the Reformation in France. Indeed the vernacular prose translation of the Scriptures were in that country of little merit or power, and the form of poetry was still preferred to prose, even for the most incongruous subject. At the same time Marot engaged in a curious literary quarrel characteristic of the time, with a bad poet named Sagon. Half the verse of France ranged themselves among the Marotiques or the Sagontiques, and a great deal of versified abuse was exchanged. The victory, as far as wit concerned, naturally rested with Marot, but his biographers are probably not fanciful in supposing that a certain amount of odium was created against him by the squabble, and that, as in Dolet’s case, his subsequent misfortunes were not altogether unconnected with a too little governed tongue and pen. Although on his last return into France he had formally abjured his errors, the publication of the Psalms gave the Sorbonne a handle, and the book was condemned by that body. In 1543 it was evident that he could not rely on the protection of Francis, who was probably too selfish in any case to have given him inconvenient help, and who, like many of his family, was disposed to compound with the church for a libertine life by ceremonial devotion and by sacrificing heretics liberally. Marot accordingly fled to Geneva; but the stars were now decidedly against him. He had, like most of his friends, been at least as much of a freethinker as of a Protestant, and notwithstanding the immense service he had done to the cause by the publication of his Psalms, this was fatal to his reputation in the austere city of Calvin. He had again to fly, and made his way into Piedmont, where he seems to have enjoyed a sort of left-handed protection from Francis, who then held it. But the harassing effect of these constant persecutions, assisted very likely by the careless living which was but too common at the time, proved too much for him, and he died at Turin in the autumn of 1544, aged barely forty-eight.

In character Marot seems to have been a typical Frenchman of the old stamp, cheerful, good humoured, and amiable enough, but probably not very much disposed to elaborately moral life and conversation of to serious reflexion. He has sometimes been charged, through on no very definite grounds, with a want of independence of character, and his attitude towards his patrons was certainly not that of almost haughty equality Ronsand brought in; but it is fair to resemember that Marot almost as much to the Middle Ages as to the Renaissance, and that in the Middle Ages men of letters naturally attached themselves as dependants to the great. Such scanty knowledge as we have his relations with his equals is favourable to him. He certainly at one time quarreled with Dolet, or at least wrote a violent epigram against him, for which there is no known cause. But, as Dolet quarreled with almost every friend he ever had, and in two or three cases played them the shabbiest of tricks, the presumption is not against Marot in this matter. Whatever may have been Marot’s personal weaknesses, his importance in the history of French literature is very great, and it is wont nowadays to be rather under-than over-valued. Coming immediately before a great literary reform—that of the Pléiade—Marot suffered the drawbacks of his position; he was both eclipsed and decried by the partakes in that reform. In the reaction against the Pléiade he recovered honour; but its restoration to virtual favour, a perfectly just restoration, has again unjustly depressed him. Yet Marot is in no sense one of those writers of transition who are rightly obscured by those who come after them. He himself was a reformer, and a reformer on perfectly independent lines, besides which it may be said that he carried his own reform as far as it would go. It has been said that his early work was couched in the rhétoriqueur style, the distinguishing characteristics of which are elaborate metre and rhyme, allegoric matter, and pedantic language. In his second stage he entirely emancipated himself from this, and became one of the easiest, least affected, and most vernacular poets of France. In these points indeed he has, with the exception of La Fontaine, no rival, and the lighter verse writers ever since have taken one or the other or both as model. In this third period he lost little of this flowing grace and ease, but acquired something in stateliness, while he certainly lost nothing in wit. It is beyond question that Marot is the first poet who strikes readers of French as being distinctively modern. He has not so great a poet as Villon nor as some of his successor of his Pléiade, but he is much less antiquated than the first (those works, as well as the Roman de la Rose, it may be well to mention that he edited) and not so elaborately artificial as the second. Indeed, if there be a fault to find with Marot, it is undoubtedly that in his gallant and successful effort to break up, supple, and liquefy the stiff forms and stiffer language of the 15th century, he made his poetry almost too vernacular and pedestrian. In his hands, and while the style Marotique was supreme, French poetry ran some risk of finding itself unequal to anything but graceful vers de société. But it is only fair to remember that for a century and more its best achievements, with rare exceptions, had been vers de société which were not graceful.

There is a very cheap, handsome, and useful edition of Marot by Jannet and Héricault, 4 vols., Paris, 1873; but M. Georges Guiffrey is slowly producing a costly and splendid work, containing a vast quantity of unpublished matter, which will undoubtedly be the standard. This work contains much biographical detail, which, however, as being still incomplete, is not available to modify former accounts. (G. SA.)

The above article was written by: George Edward Bateman Saintsbury, M.A.; Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, Edinburgh University, from 1895; author of A Short History of French Literature, The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory, A Short History of English Literature, etc.

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