1902 Encyclopedia > France > 16th Century French Poetry

(Part 41)


16th Century Poetry

The first few years of the 16th century were naturally occupied rather with the last developments of the mediaeval forms than with the production of the new model. The clerks of the Bazoche and the Confraternity of the Passion still produced and acted mysteries, moralities, and farces. Crétin, Le Maire, and Meschinot wrote elaborate allegorical and rhetorical poetry. Chansons de gestes, rhymed romances, and fabliaux had long ceased to be written. But the press was multiplying the contents of the former in the prose form when they had finally assumed, and in the cent Nouvelles Nouvelles there already existed admirable specimens of the short prose tale. The first note of the new literature was sounded by Clément Marot (1497-1544). The son of an elder poet, Jehan des Mares called Marot, Clément at first wrote, like his father’s contemporaries, allegorical and mythological poetry, afterwards collected in a volume with a charming title, L’Adolescene Clémentine. Born in 1497, it was not till he was nearly thirty years old that his work became really remarkable. From that time forward till his death, about twenty years afterwards, he was much involved in the troubles and persecutions of the Huguenot party to which he belonged; nor was the protection of Marguerite d’Angoulême, the chief patroness of Huguenots and men of letters, always efficient. But his troubles, so far from harming, helped his literary faculties; and his epistles, epigrams, blazons (descendants of the mediaeval dits), and coq-á-_âne became remarkable for their easy and polished style, their light and grateful wit, and a certain elegance which had not as yet been even attempted in any modern tongue, though the Italian humanists had not been far from it in some of their Latin compositions. Around Marot arose a whole school of disciples and imitators, such as Roger de Collerye, Brodeau (died 1540), the great authoryt on rondeaux, Scéve, a fertile author of blazons, Salel, Marguerite herself (1492-1549) of whom more hereafter , and Melin de St Gelais (1486-1558), of whom the first and the last are the most remarkable. Collerye is a poet of poverty, like so many other French bards from Ruteboeuf downwards; St Gelais, son of a poetic bishop of the same name (Octavien de St Gelais, 1465-1502), is a courtly writer of occasional pieces, who sustained as well as he could the style Marotique against Ronsard, and who has the credit of introducing the regular sonnet into Frech. But the inventive vigour of the age was so great that one school had hardly become popular before another pushed it from its stool. Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) was the chief of this latter. At first a courtier and a diplomatist, physical disqualification made him change his career. He began to study the classics under Daurat, and with his master and five other writers, Jodelle, Belleau, Dubellay, Baif, and Pontus de Tyard, composed the famous "Pléiade." The object of this bad was to bring the French language, in vocabulary, constructions, and application, on a level with the classical tongues by unlimited barrowings from the latter. They were not far from turning the whole Latin dictionary into the French tongue. They would have imported the Greek licence of compound words, though the genius of the French language is but little adapted thereto; and they wished to reproduce in French the regular tragedy, the Pindaric and Horatian ode, the Virgilian epic, &c. Being all men of the highest talent, and not a few of them men of great genius, they achieved much that they designated, and even where they failed exactly t achieve it, they very often indirectly produced results as important and more beneficial than those which they intended. Their ideal of a separate poetical language distinct from that intended for prose use was indeed a doubtful if not a dangerous one, and the wholesome Latinizing and Hellenizing of their mother tongue, by which they aimed at it, was still more dangerous and doubtful. But it is certain that Marot, while setting an example of elegance and grace not easily to be imitated, set also an example of trivial and, so to speak, pedestrian language which was only too imitable. If France was ever to possess a literature containing something besides fabliaux and farces, the tongue must be enriched and strengthened. This accession of wealth and vigour it received from Ronsard and the Ronsardists. Doubtless they went too far, and provoked to some extent the reaction which Malherbe led. Their importations were indiscriminate, the sometimes unnecessary. It is almost impossible to read the Franciade of Ronsard, and not too easy to read the tragedies of Jodelle and Garnier, fine as the latter are in parts. But the best of Ronsard’s sonnets and odes, the finest of Dubellay’s Antiquities de Rome (translated into English by Spenser), the exquisite Vanneur of the same author, and the Avril of Belleau, even the finer passages of D’Aubigné and Du Bartas, are not only admirable in themselves, and of a kind not previously found in French literature, but are also such thing as could not have been previously found, for the simple reason that the medium of expression was wanting. They constructed that medium for themselves, and no force of the reaction which they provoked was able to undo their work. Adverse criticism and the natural course of time rejected much that they had added. The charming diminutives they loved so much went out of fashion; their compounds (for the most part, it must be confessed, justly) had their letters of naturalization promptly cancelled; many a gorgeous adjective, including some which could trace their pedigree to the earliest ages of French literature, but which bore an unfortunate likeness to the new comers, was proscribed. But for all that no language has ever had its destiny influenced more powerfully and more beneficially by a small literary clique than the language of France was influenced by the example and disciples of that Ronsard whom for two centuries it was the fashion for the Malherbes and the Boileaux, and those who took their cue from them, to decide and decry.

In a sketch such as the present it is impossible to give a separate account of individual writers, the more important of whom will be found treated under their own names. The effort of the Pléiade proper was continued and partaken by a considerable number of minor poets. Olivier de Magny (d. 1560) and Louise Labé (b. 1526) were poets and lovers, the lady deserving far the higher rank in literature. There is more depth of passion in the writings of "La Belle Cordière," as this Lyonnese poetess was called, than in almost any of her contemporaries. Jacques Tahureau (1527-1555) scarcely deserves to be called a minor poet. There is less than the usual hyperbole in the contemporary comparison of him to Catullus, and he reminds an Englishman of the school represented nearly a century later by Carew, Randoplh, and Suckling, though he possesses a sincerity and truth superior to anything to be found in those poets. The title of a part of his poems – Mignardises de l’Admirée – is a characteristic both of the style and of the time. Doublet, Jamyn (1540-1605), and Delataille (1528-1590) deserve mention at least as poets, but two other writers require a longer allusion. Du Bartas (1544-1590) whom Sylvester’s translation, Milton’s imitation, and the copious citations of Southey’s Doctor, have made known if not familiar in England was partly a disciple and partly a rival of Ronsard. His poem of Judith was eclipsed by his better known La Divine Sepmaine or epic of the Creation. Du Bartas was a great user and abuser of the double compounds alluded to above, but his style possesses much stateliness, and has a peculiar solemn eloquence which he shared with the other French Calvinists, and which was derived from the study partly of Calvin and partly of the Bible. D’Aubigné (1550-1630), like Du Bartas, was a Calvinist. His genius was of a more varied character. He wrote sonnets and odes as became a Ronsardist, but his chief poetical work is the satirical poem of Les Tragiques, in which the author brands the factions, corruptions, and persecutions of the time, and in which there are to be found Alexandrines of a strength, vigour, and original cadence hardly to be discovered elsewhere, save in Corneille and Victor Hugo. Towards the end of the century Desportes (1546-1606) and Bertaut (1552-1611), with much enfeebled strength, but with a certain grace, continue the Ronsardizing tradition. Among their contemporaries must be noticed Passerat (1534-1602), a writer of much wit and vigour and rather resembling Marot than Ronsard, and Vauquelin de la Fresnaye (1536-1606), the author of a valuable Ars Poetica and of the first French satires which actually bear that title. Jean le Houx (fl. cir. 1600) continued, re-wrote, or invested the vaux de vire, commonly known as the work of Olivier Basselin, and already alluded to. A curious poetical trio is also formed at this time by Guy du Faur de Pibrac (1529-1584), Antoine Faure (1557-1624), and Pierre Mathieu (b. 1563), all authors of moral quatrains, which were learnt by heart in the schools of the time, replacing the distichs of the grammarian Cato, which, translated into French, had served the same purpose in the Middle Ages.

The nephew of Desporte, Mathurin Regnier, marks the end, and at the same time perhaps the climax, of the poetry of the century. A descendant at once of the older Gallic spirit of Villon and Marot, in virtue of his consummate acuteness, terseness, and wit, of the school of Ronsard by his erudition, his command of language, and his scholarship, Regnier is perhaps the best representative of French poetry at the critical time when it had got together all its materials, had lost none of its native vigour and force, and had not yet submitted to the cramping and numbing rules and restrictions which the next century introduced. The satirical poems of Regnier, and especially the admirable epistle to Rapin, in which he denounces and rebuts the critical dogmas of Malherbe, are models of nervous strength, while some of the elegies and odes contain expression not easily to be surpassed of the softer feelings of affection and regret. No poet has had more influence on the revival of French poetry in the last half-century than Regnier.

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