1902 Encyclopedia > France > Roman de la Rose

(Part 35)


Roman de la Rose

A work of very different importance from all of these, though with seeming touches of the same spirit, a work which deserved to take rank among the most important of the Middle Ages, is the Roman de la Rose, -- one of the few really remarkable books which is the work of two authors, and that not in collaboration but in continuation one of the other. The author of the earlier part was Guillaume de Lorris, who lived in the first half of the 13th century; the author of the later part was Jean de Meung, who did not die until 1320, and whose part in the Roman dates at least from the extreme end of the preceding century. This great poem, while it has perforce attracted much attention, has suffered from the disrespect with which all nations, and the French perhaps more than any, are wont to treat literature that is out of date. Yet the Roman de la Rose is a great deal more interesting merely as literature, and without any antiquarian considerations, than a very large number of so-called classics. It exhibits in its two parts very different characteristics, which yet go to make up a not inharmonious whole. It is a love poem, and yet it is satire. But both gallantry and raillery are treated in an entirely allegorical spirit; and this allegory, while it makes the poem tedious to hasty appetites of to-day, was exactly what gave it its charm in the eyes of the Middle Ages. It might be described as an Ars Amoris crossed with a Quodlibeta. This mixture exactly hit the taste of the time, and continued to hit it for two centuries and a half. When its obvious and gallant meaning was attacked by moralists and theologians, it was easy to quote the example of the Canticles, and to furnish esoteric explanations of the allegory. The writers of the 16th century were never tired of quoting and explaining it. Antoine de Baif, indeed, gave the simple and obvious meaning, and declared that "La rose c’est d’amours le guerdon gracieux;" but Marot, on the other hand, gives us the choice of four mystical interpretations, -- the rose being either the state of wisdom, the state of grace, the state of eternal happiness, or the Virgin herself. We cannot here analyze this celebrated poem. It is sufficient to say that the lover meets all sorts of obstacles in his pursuit of the rose, though he has for a guide the metaphorical personage Bel-Accueil. The early part, which belongs to William of Lorris, is remarkable for its gracious and fanciful descriptions. Forty years after Lorris’s death, Jean de Meung completed it in an entirely different spirit. He keeps the allegorical form, and, indeed introduces two new personages of importance, Nature and Faux-semblant. In the mouths of these personages and of another, raison, he puts the most extraordinary mixture of erudition and satire. At one time we have the history of classical heroes, at another theories against the hoarding of money, about astronomy, about the duty of mankind to increase and multiply. Accounts of the origin of loyalty, which would have cost the poet his head at some periods of history, and even communistic ideas, are also to be found here. In Faux-semblant we have a real creation of the theatrical hypocrite. All this miscellaneous and apparently incongruous material really explains the success of the poem. It has the one characteristic which has at all times secured the popularity of great works of literature. It holds the mirror up firmly and fully to its age. As we find in Rabelais the characteristics of the Renaissance, in Montaigne those of the skeptical reaction from Renaissance and reform alike, in Moliére those of the society of France after Richelieu had tamed and leveled it, in Voltaire and Rousseau respectively the two aspects of the great revolt, -- so there are to be found in the Roman de la Rose the characteristics of the later Middle Age, its gallantry, its mysticism, its economical and social troubles and problems, its scholastic methods of thought, its naïve acceptance as science of everything that is written, and at the same time its shrewd and indiscriminate criticism of much that the age of criticism has accepted without doubt or question. The Roman de la Rose, as might be supposed, set the example of an immense literature of allegorical poetry, which flourished more and more until the Renaissance. Some of these poems we have already mentioned, some will have to be considered under the head of the 15th century. But, as usually happens in such cases and was certain to happen in this case, the allegory which has seems tedious to many, even in the original, became almost intolerable in the majority of the imitations. To a great extent, however, it held its ground in forms more or less disguised. The tradition of allegorizing and personifying found refuge especially in the French classical tragedy, where the heroes of the school of Racine talk about their passions and their flames in a style by no means alien from that of William of Lorris.

We have observed that, at least in the later section of the Roman de la Rose, there is observable a tendency to import into the poem indiscriminate erudition. This tendency is now remote from our poetical habits; but in its own day it was only the natural result of the use of poetry for all literary purposes. It was many centuries before prose became recognized as the proper vehicle for instruction, and at a very early date verse was used as well for educational and moral as for recreative and artistic purposes. French verse was the first born of all literary mediums in modern European speech, and the resources of ancient learning were certainly not less accessible in France than in any other country. Dante, in his De Vulgari Eloquio, acknowledges the excellence of the didactic writers of the Langue d’Oil. We have already alluded to the Bestiary of Philippe de Thaun, a Norman trouvére who lived and wrote in England during the reign of Henry Beauclerc. Besides the Bestiary which from its dedication to Queen Adela has been conjectured to belong to the third decade of the 12th century, Philippe wrote also in French a Liber de Creaturis, both works being translated from the Latin. These works of mystical and apocryphal physics and zoology became extremely popular in the succeeding centuries, and were frequently imitated. A moralizing turn was also given to them, which was much helped by the importation of several miscellanies of Oriental origin, partly tales, partly didactic in character, the most celebrated of which is the Roman des Sept Sages, which, under that title and the variant of Dolopathos, received repeated treatment from French writers both in prose and verse. The Aesopic fable, a similar mixture of instruction and amusement, had many cultivators, of whom Marie de France is the most remarkable. Art, too, soon demanded exposition in verse, as well as science. The favourite pastime of the chase was repeatedly dealt with notably in the Roi Modus, 1325, mixed prose and verse; the Deduits de la Chasse of Gaston de Foix, 1387, prose; and the Tresor de Venerie of Hardouin, 1394, verse. Very soon didactic verse extended itself to all the arts and sciences. Vegetius and his military precepts had found a home in French octosyllables as early as the 12th century; the end of the same age saw the ceremonies of knighthood solemnly versified, and napes (maps) du monte also soon appeared. Finally, in 1245, Gautier of Metz translated from various Latin works into French verse a sort of encyclopaedia. Profane knowledge was not the only subject which exercised didactic poets at this time. Religious handbooks and commentaries on the scriptures were common in the 13th and following centuries, and, under the title of Castoiements, Enseignements, and Doctrinaux, moral treatises became common. In the 14th century the influence of the Roman de la Rose helped to render moral verse frequent and popular. The same century, moreover, which witnessed these developments of well-intentioned if not always judicious erudition witnesses also a considerable change in lyrical poetry. Hitherto such poetry had chiefly been composed in the melodious but unconstrained forms of the romance and the pastourelle. Advancing taste, and possibly some echo of the refinements of the troubadours, induced the writers of northern France in the 14th century to subject themselves to severer rules, however, present no trace of being directly borrowed from the south. In this age arose the forms which for so long a time were to occupy French singers, the ballade, the rondeau, the rondel, the triolet, the chant royal, and others. These received considerable alternations as time went on. We possess not a few Artes Poeticae, such as those of Eustache Deschamps at the end of the 14th century, of Henri de Croy at the end of the 15th and of Thomas Sibilet in the 16th, giving particulars of them, and these particulars show considerable changes. Thus the term rondeau, which since Villon has been chiefly limited to a poem of 15 lines, in which the 9th and 15th repeat the first words of the first, was originally applied both to the rondel, a poem of 13 or 14 lines, where the first two are twice repeated integrally, and to the triolet, one of 8 only, where the first line occurs three times and the second twice. The last is an especially popular metre, and is found where we should least expect it, in the dialogue of the early farces, the speakers making up triolets between them. As these three forms are closely connected, so are the ballade and the chant royal, the latter being an extended and more stately and difficult version of the former, and the characteristic of both being the identity of rhyme and refrain in the several stanzas. It is quite uncertain at what time these fashions were first cultivated, but the earliest poets who appear to have practised them extensively were born at the close of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century. Of these Guillaume Machaut (1282 or 1295-1380) is the oldest. He has left us 80,000 verses, few of which have ever been printed. Eustache Deschamps (1328-1415) was nearly as prolific, but more fortunate and more meritorious, though a complete edition of him is only now promised. Froissart the historian (1333-1410) was also an agreeable poet. Deschamps, the most famous as a poet of the three, has left us nearly 1200 ballades and nearly 200 rondeaux, besides much other verse all manifesting very considerable poetical powers. Less known but not less noteworthy is Jehannot de Lescurel, most of whose works are lost, but whose fragments are full of grace. Frossart appears to have had many countrymen in Hainault and Brabant who devoted themselves to the art of versification; and the Livre des cent Ballades of the Marshal Boucicault and his friends – cir. 1390 – shows that the French gentleman of the 14th century was as apt at the ballade as his Elizabeth peer in England was at the sonnet.

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