Avril - Being Essays on the Poetry of the French Renaissance
by H. Belloc
Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse

This, also, was pure Renaissance in him, that the fields in which he wandered, and which he loved to sing—a man of elegies—were dominated by the awful ruins of Rome. These it was that lent him his gravity, and perhaps oppressed him. He sang them also with a comprehension of the superb.

He was second to Ronsard. Though he was the sharp voice of the Pleiade, though it was he who published their famous manifesto, though his scholarship was harder, though his energy could run more fiercely to one point and shine there more brilliantly in one small climax; yet he was second. He himself thought it of himself, and called himself a disciple. All up and down his works you find an astonished admiration directed towards his greater friend—

... Un amy que les Dieux Guydent si hault au sentier des plus vieux.

Or again—

Divin Ronsard qui de l'arc a sept cordes Tiras premier au but de la memoire Les traicts ailez de la Francoise gloire.

Everywhere it is his friend rather than he that has touched the mark of the gods and called up from the tomb the ghost of Rome which all that company worshipped.

I say he saw himself that he was second. Old Durat saw it clearly in that little college of poets where he taught the unteachable thing: De Baif, Belleau—all the comrades would have taken it for granted. Ronsard led and was chief, because he had the firm largeness, the laughter and the permanence which are the marks of those who determine the fortunes of the French in letters or in arms. Ronsard made. His verses, in their great mass and unfailing level, were but one example of the power that could produce a school, call up a general enthusiasm, and for forty years govern the taste of his country. There was in him something public, in Du Bellay something domestic and attached, as in the relations of a king and of a herald. Or again, the one was like an ordered wood with a rich open plain about it, the other was like a garden. Ronsard was the Beauce; Du Bellay was Anjou. It might be said of the first that he stood a symbol for the wheat and corn-land of the Vendomois, and of the second, that he recalled that subtle wine of the southern Loire to which Chinon gives the most famous label.

Du Bellay was second: nevertheless, when he is well known in this country it will be difficult to convince Englishmen of that truth. There is in his mind a facet which exactly corresponds to a facet of our own, and that is a quality so rare in the French classics that it will necessarily attract English readers to him: for, of all people, we nowadays criticise most in letters by the standard of our immediate emotions, and least by what was once called "reason." He was capable of that which will always be called "poignancy," and what for the moment we call "depth." He was less careful than are the majority of his countrymen to make letters an art, and so to treat his own personality as a thing apart. On the contrary, he allowed that personality to pierce through continually, so that simplicity, directness, a certain individual note as of a human being complaining—a note we know very well in our own literature—is perpetually discovered.

Thus, in a spirit which all Englishmen will understand, a lightness almost sardonic lay above the depths of his grief, and the tenderness which attached to his home played around the things that go with quietude—his books and animals. I shall quote hereafter the epitaphs he wrote for his dog and for his cat, this singer of sublime and ruined things.

Of the dog who—

... allait tousjours suivant Quelquefois allait devant. Faisant ne scay quelle feste D'un gai branslement de teste.

and of whom he says, in a pretty imitation of Catullus, that he—

... maintenant pourmeine Parmy cette ombreuse plaine Dont nul ne revient vers nous.

Or of the cat who was—

... par aventure Le plus bel oeuvre que nature Fit onc en matiere de chats.

All that delicate side of him we understand very well.

Nor is it to modern Englishmen alone that he will appeal. He powerfully affected, it may be presumed, the English Renaissance which succeeded him. Spenser—thirty years after his death—was moved to the translation of his famous lament for Rome, and no one can read the sonnets to which he gave their final form without catching the same note in the great English cycle of the generation after him—the close of the sixteenth and the opening of the seventeenth centuries.

But his verse read will prove all this and suggest much more.


Of the high series which Rome called forth from Du Bellay during that bitter diplomatic exile of his, I have chosen these three sonnets, because they seem best to express the majesty and gloom which haunted him. It is difficult to choose in a chain of cadences so equal and so exalted, but perhaps the last, "Telle que dans son char la Berecynthienne" is the most marvellous. The vision alone of Rome like the mother of the Gods in her car would have made the sonnet immortal. He adds to the mere picture a noise of words that is like thunder in the hills far off on summer afternoons: the words roll and crest themselves and follow rumbling to the end: he could not have known as he wrote it how great a thing he was writing. It has all the character of verse that increases with time and seems superior to its own author's intention.



Nouveau venu qui cherches Rome en Rome, Et rien de Rome en Rome n'appercois, Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcz que tu vois Et ces vieux Murs, c'est ce que Rome on nomme. Voy quel orgueil, quelle ruine, et comme Celle que mist le monde sous ses loix Pour donter tout, se donta quelquefois, Et devint proye au temps, qui tout consomme.

Rome de Rome est le seul monument, Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement. Le Tybre seul, qui vers la mer s'enfuit, Reste de Rome. O mondaine inconstance! Ce qui est ferme, est par le temps destruit, Et se qui fuit, au temps fait resistance.


Celle qui de son chef les estoilles passoit, Et d'un pied sur Thetis, l'autre dessous l'Aurore D'une main sur le Scythe, et l'autre sur le More, De la terre, et du Ciel, la rondeur compassoit, Juppiter ayant peur, si plus elle croissoit Que l'orgueil des Geans se relevast encore, L'accabla sous ces monts, ces sept monts qui font ore Tumbeaux de la grandeur qui le ciel menassoit.

Il luy meist sur le chef la croppe Saturnale Puis dessus l'estomac assist le quirinale Sur le ventre il planta l'antique Palatin, Mist sur la dextre main la hauteur Celienne, Sur la senestre assist l'eschine Exquilienne Viminal sur un pied: sur l'autre L'Aventin.


Telle que dans son Char la Berecynthienne Couronnee de tours, et joyeuse d'avoir Enfante tant de Dieux, telle se faisoit voir En ses jours plus heureux ceste ville ancienne: Ceste ville qui fust plus que la Phrygienne Foisonnante en enfants et de qui le pouvoir Fust le pouvoir du Monde, et ne se peult revoir Pareille a sa grandeur, grandeur si non la sienne.

Rome seule pouvoit a Rome ressembler, Rome seule pouvoit Rome faire trembler: Aussi n'avoit permis l'ordonnance fatale, Qu'autre pouvoir humain, tant fust audacieux, Se vantast d'egaler celle qui fust egale Sa puissance a la terre, et son courage au cieux.


This sonnet dates from the same period at Rome, or possibly from his return. It has a different note. It is the most personal and passionate of all his writings, in which so much was inspired by personal regret. On this account it has a special literary interest as the most modern thing of the Renaissance. It would be far less surprising to find this written by one of the young republicans under the Second Empire (for instance) than to find a couplet of Malherbe's straying into our time.


France, Mere des arts, des armes, et des loix, Tu m'as nourry long temps du laict de ta mamelle: Ores, comme un aigneau qui sa nourisse appelle, Je remplis de ton nom les antres et les bois, Si tu m'as pour enfant advoue quelquefois Que ne me respons-tu maintenant, o cruelle? France, France, respons a ma triste querelle: Mais nul, sinon Echo, ne respond a ma voix.

Entre les loups cruels j'erre parmy la plaine Je sens venir l'hyver, de qui la froide haleine D'une tremblante horreur fait herisser ma peau. Las! tes autres agneaux n'ont faute de pasture, Ils ne craignent le loup, le vent, ny la froidure; Si ne suis-je pourtant le pire du troppeau.

THE SONNET "HEUREUX QUI COMME ULYSSE." (The 31st of the "Regrets").

It was of a large gray house, moated, a town beside it, yet not far from woods and standing in rough fields, pure Angevin, Tourmeliere, the Manor house of Lire, his home, that Du Bellay wrote this, the most dignified and perhaps the last of his sonnets. The sadness which is the permanent, though sometimes the unrecognized, moderator of his race, which had pierced through in his latter misfortunes, and which had tortured him to the cry that has been printed on the preceding page, here reached a final and a most noble form: something much higher than melancholy, and more majestic than regret. He turned to his estate, the mould of his family, a roof, the inheritance of which had formed his original burden and had at last crushed him; but he turned to it with affection. If one may use so small a word in connection with a great poet, the gentleman in him remembered an ancestral repose.

There is very much in the Sonnet to mark that development of French verse in which Du Bellay played so great a part. The inversion of the sentence, a trick which gives a special character to all the later formal drama is prominent: the convention of contrast, the purely classical allusion, are mixed with a spirit that is still spontaneous and even naif. But every word is chosen, and it is especially noteworthy to discover so early that restraint in epithet which is the charm but also the danger of what French style has since become. Of this there are two examples here: the eleventh line and the last, which rhymes with it. To contrast slate with marble would be impossible prose save for the exact adjective "fine," which puts you at once into Anjou. The last line, in spite of its exquisite murmur, would be grotesque if the "air marin" were meant for the sea-shore. Coming as it does after the suggestions of the Octave it gives you suddenly sea-faring: Ulysses, Jason, his own voyages, the long way to Rome, which he knew; and in the "douceur Angevine" you have for a final foil to such wanderings, not only in the meaning of the words, but in their very sound, the hearth and the return.


Heureux qui comme Ulysse a fait un beau voyage Ou comme cestuy la qui conquit la Toison Et puis est retourne, plein d'usage et raison, Vivre entre ses parents le reste de son age! Quand revoirai-je, helas, de mon petit village Fumer la cheminee: et en quelle saison Revoirai-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m'est une province, et beaucoup d'avantage?

Plus me plaist le sejour qu'ont basty mes aieux Que des palais Romains le front audacieux: Plus que le mabre dur me plaist l'ardoise fine, Plus mon Loyre gaulois que le Tybre Latin, Plus mon petit Lyre que le Mont Palatin, Et plus que l'air marin la doulceur Angevine.


This delicate air of summer, this reminiscence and comfort for men who no longer see the Eure or the Bievre or any of their northern rivers, this very mirror of Du Bellay's own exiled mind—was written for an "exercise." It is a translation—a translation from the Latin of a forgotten Venetian scholar.

When a man finds in reading such a startling truth, it convinces him that letters have a power of their own and are greater of themselves than the things which inspired them: for when, to show his skill in rendering Latin into French verse, Du Bellay had written this down, he created and fixed for everybody who was to read him from then onwards the permanent picture of a field by the side of a small, full river, with a band of trees far off, and, above, the poplar leaves that are never still. It runs to a kind of happy croon, and has for a few moments restored very many who have read it to their own place; and Corot should have painted it.


A vous troppe legere Qui d'aele passagere Par le monde volez, Et d'un sifflant murmure L'ombrageuse verdure Doulcement esbranlez, J'offre ces violettes, Ces lis et ces fleurettes Et ces roses ici, Ces vermeillettes roses Tout freschement escloses, Et ces oeilletz aussi. De vostre doulce haleine Eventez ceste plaine Eventez ce sejour, Ce pendant que j'ahanne A mon ble que je vanne A la chaleur du jour.


Here are extracts from those two delightful and tender things to which allusion has already been made. The epitaphs upon his little dog and his little cat.

It was a character in this sad man to make little, humble, grotesque, pleasing images of grief; as it were, little idols of his goddess; and he fashioned them with an exquisite humour and affection. What animal of the sixteenth century lives so clearly as these two? None, I think, except some few in the pictures of the painters of the low countries.

I wish I had space to print both these threnodies in full, but they are somewhat long, and I must beg my reader to find them in the printed works of Du Bellay. It is well worth the pains of looking.


Dessous ceste motte verte De lis et roses couverte Gist le petit Peloton De qui le poil foleton Frisoit d'une toyson blanche Le doz, le ventre, et la hanche.

_Son exercice ordinaire Estoit de japper et braire, Courir en hault et en bas, Et faire cent mille esbas, Tous estranges et farouches, Et n'avoit guerre qu'aux mousches, Qui luy faisoient maint torment. Mais Peloton dextrement

Leur rendoit bien la pareille: Car se couchant sur l'oreille, Finement il aguignoit Quand quelqu'une le poingnoit: Lors d'une habile soupplesse Happant la mouche traistresse, La serroit bien fort dedans, Faisant accorder ses dens_

Peloton ne caressoit, Sinon ceulx qu'il cognoissoit, Et n'eust pas voulu repaistre D'autre main que de son maistre, Qu'il alloit tousjours suyvant: Quelquefois marchoit devant, Faisant ne scay quelle feste D'un gay branlement de teste.

Mon Dieu, quel plaisir c'estoit, Quand Peloton se grattoit, Faisant tinter sa sonnette Avec sa teste folette! Quel plaisir, quand Peloton Cheminoit sur un baston, Ou coife d'un petit linge, Assis comme un petit singe, Se tenoit mignardelet, D'un maintien damoiselet!

Las, mais ce doulx passetemps Ne nous dura pas long temps: Car la mort ayant anvie Sur l'ayse de nostre vie, Envoya devers Pluton Nostre petit Peloton, Qui maintenant se pourmeine Parmi ceste umbreuse plaine, Dont nul ne revient vers nous.


Pourquoy je suis tant esperdu Ce n'est pas pour avoir perdu Mes anneaux, mon argent, ma bource: Et pourquoy est ce donc? pource Que j'ay perdu depuis trois jours Mon bien, mon plaisir, mes amours: Et quoy? o Souvenance greve A peu que le cueur ne me creve Quand j'en parle ou quand j'en ecris: C'est Belaud, mon petit chat gris: Belaud qui fust, paraventure Le plus bel oeuvre que nature Feit onc en matiere de chats: C'etoit Belaud, la mort au rats Belaud dont la beaute fut telle Qu'elle est digne d'estre immortelle.

Mon-dieu, quel passetemps c'estoit Quand ce Belaud vire-voltoit Follastre autour d'une pelote! Quel plaisir, quand sa teste sotte Suyvant sa queue en mille tours, D'un rouet imitoit le cours! Ou quand assis sur le derriere Il s'en faisoit une jartiere, Et monstrant l'estomac velu De panne blanche crespelu,

Sembloit, tant sa trogne estoit bonne, Quelque docteur de la Sorbonne! Ou quand alors qu'on l'animoit, A coups de patte il escrimoit, Et puis appasoit sa cholere Tout soudain qu'on luy faisoit chere.

Belaud estoit mon cher mignon, Belaud estoit mon compagnon A la chambre, au lict, a la table, Belaud estoit plus accointable Que n'est un petit chien friand, Et de nuict n'alloit point criand Comme ces gros marcoux terribles, En longs miaudemens horribles: Aussi le petit mitouard N'entra jamais en matouard: Et en Belaud, quelle disgrace! De Belaud s'est perdue la race. Que pleust a Dieu, petit Belon, Qui j'eusse l'esprit assez bon, De pouvoir en quelque beau style Blasonner ta grace gentile, D'un vers aussi mignard que toy: Belaud, je te promets ma foy, Que tu vivrois, tant que sur terre Les chats aux rats feront la guerre.


The French Renaissance ended in the Classic. The fate of all that exuberance was to find order, and that chaos of generation settled down to the obedience of unchanging laws. This transition, which fixed, perhaps for ever, the nature of the French tongue, is bound up with the name of Malherbe.

When what the French have entitled "the great time," when the generation of Louis XIV looked back to find an origin for its majestic security in letters, it was in Malherbe that such an origin was discovered; he had tamed the wildness of the Renaissance, he had bent its vigour to an arrangement and a frame; by him first were explicitly declared those rules within which all his successors were content to be narrowed. The devotion to his memory is nowhere more exalted or more typically presented than in the famous cry—enfin Malherbe vint. His name carried with it a note of completion and of an end.

When the romantic revival of our own time sought for one mind on which to lay the burden of its anger, one hard master or pedant who could be made responsible for the drying up of the wells, Malherbe again was found. He became the butt of Hugo's splendid ridicule. He was the god of plaster that could not hear or speak or feel, but which fools had worshipped; a god easy to break to pieces. His austerity—for them without fullness—his meagre output, his solemn reiterated code of "perfect taste," moved them to a facile but intense aggression. He it was that had turned to fossil stone the living matter of the sixteenth century: He that had stifled and killed the spirit they attempted to recall.

This man so praised, so blamed, for such a quality, was yet exactly, year for year, the contemporary of Shakespeare, born earlier and dying later. No better example could be discovered of the contrast between the French and English tempers.

The Romantics, I say, believed that they had destroyed Malherbe and left the Classic a ruined, antiquated thing. They were in error. Victor Hugo himself, the leader, who most believed the classic to have become isolated and past, was yet, in spite of himself, constrained by it. Lamartine lived in it. After all the fantastic vagaries of mystics and realists and the rest, it is ruling to-day with increasing power, returning as indeed the permanent religion, the permanent policy, of the nation are also returning after a century of astounding adventures: for the Classic has in it something necessary to the character of the French people.

Consider what the Classic is and why all mighty civilisations have demanded and obtained some such hard, permanent and, as it were, sacred vehicle for the expression of their maturity.

Nations that have a long continuous memory of their own past, nations especially whose gods have suffered transformation, but never death, develop the somewhat unelastic wisdom of men in old age. They mistrust the taste of the moment. They know that things quite fresh and violent seem at first greater than they are: that such enthusiasm forms no lasting legacy for posterity. Their very ancient tradition gives them a thirst for whatever shall certainly remain. The rigid Classic satisfies that need.

Again, you will discover that those whose energy is too abundant seek for themselves by an instinct the necessary confines without which such energy is wasted—and wasted the more from its excess. They canalise for their own security a torrent which, undisciplined, would serve but to destroy. Such an instinct is apparent in every department of French life. To their jurisprudence the French have ever attempted to attach a code, to their politics the stone walls of a Constitution, or, at the least, of a fundamental theory. Their theology from Athanasius through St. Germanus to the modern strict defence against all "liberals" has glorified the unchanging. Every outburst of the interior fires in the history of Gaul has been followed by a rapid, plastic action which reduced to human use what might otherwise have crystallised into an amorphous lava. So the wild freedom of the twelfth century was captured to form the Monarchy, the University, the full Gothic of the thirteenth: so the Revolution permitted Napoleon and produced, not the visionary unstable grandeur of the Gironde, but the schools and laws and roads and set government we see to-day. So the spring storms of the Renaissance settled, I say, into that steady summer of stable form which has now for three hundred years dominated the literature of the country.

Caught on with this aspect of energy producing the Classic is the truth that energy alone can dare to be classical. Where the great currents of the soul run feebly a perpetual acceleration, whether by novelty or by extravagance, will be demanded; where they run full and heavy, then, under the restraint of form, they will but run more proudly and more strong. It is the flickering of life that fears hard rules in verse and may not feel the level classics of our Europe. Their rigidity is not that of marble; they are not dead. A human acquaintance with their sobriety soon fills us as we read. If we lie in the way of the giants who conceived them (let me say Corneille or the great Dryden), re-reading and further knowledge—especially a deeper experience of common life about us—reveal to us the steadfast life of these images; the eyes open, the lips might almost move; the statue descends and lives.

The man who imposed design and authority and unity upon the letters of his country, and who so closed the epoch with which I have been dealing, was singularly suited to his task. Observant, something of a stoic, uninspired; courageous, witty, a soldier; lucid, critical of method only, he corresponded to the movement which, all around him, was ushering in the Bourbons: the hardening of Goujon's and de l'Orme's luxuriance into the conventions of the great colonnades and the sombre immensity of the new palaces; the return of one national faith to a people weary of so many random quarrels; the mistrust of an ill-ordered squirearchy; the firm founding of a central government.

He was Norman. Right of that north whence the vigour, though not the inspiration, of the Renaissance had proceeded, and into which it returned. Caen gave him birth, and still remembers him. Normans still edit his works—and dedicate these books to the town which also bred Corneille. Norman, learned with that restrained but vigorous learning of the province, he was also of the province in his blood, for he came of one of those fixed families whose heads held great estates all round Falaise, and whose cadets branched off into chances abroad: one of the Boughtons, in Kent, is still "Boughton Malherbe[1]."

[Footnote 1: Not from the Conquest. It is near Charing, originally de Braose land, but an heiress married a Malherbe in the early twelfth century.]

He was poor. His father, who held one of those magistracies which the smaller nobility bought or inherited, had not known where to turn in the turmoil of the central century. In a moment of distress he called himself Huguenot when that party seemed to triumph, and Malherbe in anger against the apostasy went down south, a boy of nineteen, and fought as a soldier—but chiefly duels; for he loved that sport. He lay under a kind of protection from the great Catholic houses, though still poor, till in 1601—he was a man of forty-six—Henri IV heard of him. In all these years he had worked at the rule of poetry like an artisan, thinking of nothing else, not even of fame. Those who surrounded him took it for granted that he was a master critic—a sort of judge without appeal, but it was a very little provincial circle surrounding a very unimportant house in Provence. Thus, careless it seems of everything except that "form of language" which was with him a passion, like the academic or theological passions, he was astonished on coming to Paris in 1605 to discover how suited such a pre-occupation was to such a time, and how rapidly he became the first name in contemporary letters. Of men who poured out verse the age was satiated; of men who could seize the language at this turn in its fortune, fix it and give it rules, the age had no knowledge till he came: the age fastened upon him, and insisted upon making him a master.

A full twenty years from 1607 he governed the transformation, not of thought, for that he little changed, but of method and of expression. He decided what should be called the typical metres, the alternative of feminine and masculine in verse, the order of emphasis, the proportion of inversion tolerable, the propriety, the modernity, the archaism of words. It is a function to our time meaningless and futile: to such a period as that, indispensable and even noble. He interpreted and published the national sentiment upon this major thing, the architecture of letters. The power of his mind, tortured and insufficient in actual production, was supreme in putting forth clearly and finally that criticism which ran as an unspoken and obscure current of opinion in the mind of his age. This was his glory, and it was true.

His dryness was extraordinary. In a life of seventy-two years, during which he wrote and erased incessantly, he, the poet, wrote just so much verse as will fill in large type a little pocket volume of 250 pages; to be accurate, forty-three lines a year. Of this scraping and pumice stone in the mind a better example than his verse is to be found in his letters. A number remain. They might seem to be written by two different men! Half a dozen are models of that language he adored—they cost him, to our knowledge, many days—the rest are slipshod notes that any man might write, for he thought they would not survive, and, indeed, the majority of his editors have had the piety to suppress them.

No one will understand Malherbe who only hears of how, like a dusty workman, he cut and polished, and so fixed the new jewel of letters. In our less happy age the academic spirit is necessarily associated with a lethargic stupidity. In his it was not so. His force, by which this work was carried through, lay in a character of penetration. His face expresses it. His very keen and ready eyes, his high lifted brow, his sharp nose, and the few active lines of his cheek and forehead, the poise of his head, the disdain of his firm mouth, all build him back alive for us. His talk, which stammered in its volubility, was incessant and varied; his temper ready; his bodily command of gesture and definition perfect in old age: he was of good metal all those years.

Of his intense Toryism, his vivacity, his love of arms, his tenacity of perception, Racan gives us in his biography an admirable picture. Just before he died his son was killed in a duel—he, at seventy-two, desired passionately to kill the adversary. "Gambling," he said, "my pence of life against the gold of his twenty-five years." He had wit, and he hated well—hating men after death:

Here richly with ridiculous display Killed by excess was Wormwood laid away, While all of his acquaintance sneered and slanged, I wept: for I had longed to see him hanged.

His zeal for his tongue was real. As he lay upon his death-bed making his confession after so vigorous a life, he heard his nurse say something to herself which sounded ungrammatical and, turning round from the priest, he put her right in a manner most violent and sudden. His confessor, startled, said: "The time is not relevant". "All times are relevant!" he answered, sinking back. "I will defend with my last breath the purity and grandeur of the French tongue."

To such a man the meaning of the solution at which his people had arrived after a century of civil war lay, above all, in their ancient religion. On that converged those deeper and more permanent things in his soul of which even his patriotism and his literary zeal were but the surface. In the expression of that final solution his verse, which was hardly that of a poet, rises high into poetry; under the heat and pressure of his faith, single lines here and there have crystallized into diamonds. By far the most vigorous of so many frigid odes is the battle cry addressed by him in old age to Louis XIII setting out against La Rochelle. He visited that siege, but had the misfortune to die a bare week before the fall of the city. The most powerful of his sonnets, or rather the only powerful one, is that in which he calls to Our Lord for vengeance against the men who killed his son. Catholicism in its every effect, political and personal, as it were literary too, possessed the man, so that in ending the types of the French Renaissance with him you see how the terms in which ultimately the French express themselves are and will remain religious. The last two lines of his most famous and most Catholic poem have about them just that sound which saves them, in spite of their too simple words, from falling into the vulgar commonplace of vague and creedless men. In writing them down one seems to be writing down the fate of the great century now tamed, alas! and ordered, as must be the violence of over-human things:—

Vouloir ce que Dieu veut est la seule Science Qui nous met en repos.


(From the "Ode to Louis XIII setting out against La Rochelle," and the "Sonnet on his son's death.")

It has been remarked that Malherbe in his most vigorous years deliberately employed the strength of his mind to the repression of emotion in his verse, and used it only to fashion, guide, control, and at last fix permanently the rules of the language. It is certainly true that as his bodily vigour declined, a certain unexpected anger and violence enters into his verse, to the great relief of us moderns: not to that of his contemporaries.

Of this feature in him, the two following extracts are sufficient proof. They were written, the first at the close of his seventy-second, the other at the entry of his seventy-third year. In each, something close to his heart was at issue, and in each he gives some vent—far more than had been his wont—to passion.

The first is a cry to Louis XIII to have done with the Huguenot. It was written to the camp before La Rochelle. I know of nothing in French literature which more expresses the intense current of national feeling against the nobility and rich townsmen who had attempted to warp the national tradition and who had re-introduced into French life the element which France works perpetually to throw out as un-European, ill-cultured and evil. Indeed, the reading of it is of more value to the comprehension of the national attitude than any set history you may read.

The second is in its way a thing equally religious and equally catholic. This call for vengeance to God was not only an expression of anger called forth by his son's death, it was also, and very largely, the effect of a reaction against the ethics of Geneva: an attack on the idolatry at once of meekness and of fatality which was to him so intolerable a corruption of the Christian religion.

There is some doubt as to whether it is his last work. I believe it to be so; but Blaise, in his excellent edition, prints the dull and unreadable ode to Lagade later, and ascribes it to the same year.


_Fais choir en sacrifice au demon de la France Les fronts trop eleves de ces ames d'enfer; Et n'epargne contre eux, pour notre delivrance, Ni le feu ni le fer.

Assez de leurs complots l'infidele malice A nourri le desordre et la sedition: Quitte le nom de Juste, ou fais voir ta justice En leur punition.

Le centieme decembre a les plaines ternies, Et le centieme avril les a peintes de fleurs, Depuis que parmi nous leurs brutales manies Ne causent que des pleurs.

Dans toutes les fureurs des siecles de tes peres, Les monstres les plus noirs firent-ils jamais rien Que l'inhumanite de ces coeurs de viperes Ne renouvelle au tien?

Par qui sont aujourd'hui tant de villes desertes, Tant de grands batiments en masures changes, Et de tant de chardons les campagnes couvertes, Que par ces enrages?

Marche, va les detruire, eteins-en la semence, Et suis jusqu'a leur fin ton courroux genereux, Sans jamais ecouter ni pitie ni clemence Qui te parle pour eux.

Toutes les autres morts n'ont merite ni marque; Celle-ci porte seule un eclat radieux, Qui fait revivre l'homme, et le met de la barque A la table des dieux._


_Que mon fils ait perdu sa depouille mortelle, Ce fils qui fut si brave, et que j'aimai si fort, Je ne l'impute point a l'injure du sort, Puis que finir a l'homme est chose naturelle.

Mais que de deux marauds la surprise infidele Ait termine ses jours d'une tragique mort, En cela ma douleur n'a point de reconfort, Et tous mes sentiments sont d'accord avec elle.

O mon Dieu, mon Sauveur, puisque, par la raison, Le trouble de mon ame etant sans guerison, Le voeu de la vengeance est un voeu legitime,

Fais que de ton appui je sois fortifie; Ta justice t'en prie, et les auteurs du crime Sont fils de ces bourreaux qui t'ont crucifie._


These stanzas, which are among the best-known as they are, in the opinion of many, the dullest, in French literature, serve well to close this book.

One verse at least (the fourth) is most legitimately famous, though it is hackneyed from the constant repetition of fools. For the rest a certain simplicity, a great precision, may or may not atone for their deliberate coldness.

What is certain is that, poetry or not, they admirably express the spirit of his pen and its prodigious effect. They express the classical end of the French Renaissance with as much weight and hardness as the great blank walls of stone that were beginning to show in the rebuilding of Paris. It is for this quality that I have printed them here, using them as the definite term of that long, glorious, and uncertain phase in European letters.


Ta douleur, du Perrier, sera donc eternelle? Et les tristes discours Que te met en l'esprit l'amitie paternelle L'augmenteront toujours?

Le malheur de ta fille au tombeau descendue Par un commun trepas, Est-ce quelque dedale ou ta raison perdue Ne se retrouve pas?

Je sais de quels appas son enfance etoit pleine, Et n'ai pas entrepris, Injurieux ami, de soulager ta peine Avecque son mepris.

Mais elle etoit du monde, ou les plus belles choses Ont le pire destin; Et rose elle a vecu ce que vivent les roses L'espace d'un matin.

Puis quand ainsi seroit que, selon ta priere, Elle auroit obtenu D'avoir en cheveux blancs termine sa carriere, Qu'en fut-il avenu?

Penses-tu que, plus vieille, en la maison celeste Elle eut eu plus d'accueil, Ou qu'elle eut moins senti la poussiere funeste Et les vers du cercueil?

De moi, deja deux fois d'une pareille foudre Je me suis vu perclus; Et deux fois la raison m'a si bien fait resoudre, Qu'il ne m'en souvient plus.

Non qu'il ne me soit mal que la tombe possede Ce qui me fut si cher; Mais en un accident qui n'a point de remede, Il n'en faut point chercher.

La Mort a des rigueurs a nulle autre pareilles: On a beau la prier; La cruelle qu'elle est se bouche les oreilles, Et nous laisse crier.

Le pauvre en sa cabane, ou le chaume le couvre, Est sujet a ses lois; Et la garde qui veille aux barrieres du Louvre N'en defend point nos rois.

De murmurer contre elle et perdre patience, Il est mal a propos; Vouloir ce que Dieu veut est la seule science Qui nous met en repos.

"Vouloir ce que Dieu veut est la seule science Qui nous met en repos."




Line 5. Prins. An inaccurate pedantic past participle of prendre.

Line 14. Faulse. There is to be noted here and elsewhere throughout these extracts, until the modern spelling at the close of the period, the redundant "l" in many words. It was an effect of pure pedantry. The latin "l" had become u in northern French. Falsa made, naturally, "Fausse." The partial learning of the later middle ages reintroduced an "l" which was not known to be transformed, but was thought omitted.

Line 24. Liesse. One of the commonest words of this epoch, lost to modern French. It means joy=laetitia.

Line 25. Note the gender of "Amour," feminine even in the singular throughout the middle ages and renaissance—right up to the seventeenth century.



Line 1. Fourriers. The servants who go before to find lodging. The term survives in French military terminology. The Fourriers are the non-commissioned officers and party who go forward and mark the Billeting of a regiment.

Line 9. Pieca=il y a piece; "lately". Cf. naguere="il n'y a guere...."

Line 11. Prenez pais="take the fields," begone.

Line 19. Note "Chant," the regular form of the subjunctive=Cantet. The only latin vowel preserved after the tonic syllable is a=French e (mute). Thus contat="chante" which form has in modern French usurped the subjunctive.

Line 23. Livree="Liberata," i.e., things given out. A term originally applied not only to clothing, but to the general allowance of the king's household. Hence our word "livery."


Line 2. Chiere lie. "Happy countenance." Chiere here is the substantive, lie=laeta, is the adjective. Bonne chere means "a good time" where chere is an old word for "head" (Greek: kara).

Line 5. Baillie=Bailliwick, "For Age that has me now within her bounds."

Line 7. Mye. "Crumb". "I am not a whit (not a crumb) with her (Joie) to-day."

Line 15. "Well braced," literally "well girthed" (as a horse is).



Stanza 1, line 1. Note the redundant negative; it is characteristic of mediaeval French, as of all primitive work, that the general suggestion of doubt is sufficient to justify a redundant negative.

Line 2. Flora, etc. It is worth while knowing who these women were. Flora is Juvenal's Flora (Sat. II. 9), a legend in the university. Of Archipiada I know nothing. Thais was certainly the Egyptian courtesan turned anchoress and canonized, famous in the middle ages and revived to-day in the repulsive masterpiece of M. Anatole France. Elois is, of course, Heloise, and Esbaillart is Abelard. The queen, who in the legend had Buridan (and many others) drowned, was the Dowager of Burgundy that lived in the Tour de Nesle, where the Palais Mazarin is now, and had half the university for a lover: in sober history she founded that college of Burgundy from which the Ecole de Medecine is descended; the legend about her is first heard of (save in this poem) in 1471, from the pen of a German in Leipzig. Blanche may be Blanche of Castille, but more likely she was a vision of Villon's own, for what did St. Louis' mother ever sing? Berte is the legendary mother of Charlemagne in the Epics; Beatris is any Beatrice you choose, for they have all died. Allis may just possibly be one of the Troubadour heroines, more likely she is here introduced for rhyme and metre; Haremburgis is strictly historical: she was the Heiress of Maine who married Foulque of Anjou in 1110 and died in 1126: an ancestress, therefore, of the Plantagenets. Jehanne is, of course, Joan of Arc.

Line 8. D'Antan is not "Yester-year." It is "Ante annum," all time past before this year. Rossetti's "Yester-year" moreover, is an absurd and affected neologism; "Antan" is an excellent and living French word.

Stanza II, line 2. Note the pronunciation of "Moyne" to rhyme (more or less) with "eine": the oi, ai and ei sounds were very similar till the sixteenth century at earliest. They are interchangeable in many popular provincialisms and in some words, e.g., Fouet, pronounced "Foit" the same tendency survives. The transition began in the beginning of the seventeenth century as we learn from Vaugelas: and the influence towards the modern sound came from the Court.

Stanza III, line 2. Seraine="Syren."

Line 5. "Jehanne", "Jehan", in spite of the classical survival in their spelling, were monosyllables from the earliest times.

Line 7. The "elles" here would not scan but for the elided "e" in "souv'raine" at the end of the line. In some editions "ils" is found and souveraine is spelt normally. Ils and els for a feminine plural existed in the middle ages.

Envoi. The envoi needs careful translation. The "que" of the third line="sans que" and the whole means, "Do not ask this week or this year where they are, without letting this refrain haunt you". "Que" might possibly mean "de peur que", did not the whole sense of the poem forbid such an interpretation.


Stanza 75, line 4. A charming example of those "flashes" which reveal Villon.

Stanza 76, line 2. Note the spelling of Grant in the feminine without an e. Adjectives of the third declension whose feminine was not distinguishable in Latin took no "e" in early French. A survival of this is found in grand' rue, grand' messe, etc.

Line 5. Grant erre, "quickly", and the whole line reads: "Let it (my body) be delivered to it (luy=la terre) quickly," the "erre" here is from the popular late Latin "iterare"="iter facere". It survives in the nautical idiom "reprendre son erre"="to get under weigh again."

Line 7. "Erre" here comes, on the contrary, from errare, to make a mistake, to err.

Stanza 77, line 4. Maillon. Swaddling clothes.

Line 5. Boullon, scrape. The two lines are obscure but seem to read: "He has got me out of many a scrape which gave him no joy" (esioye from esjouir=rejouir).

Line 7 and 8. These are obscure but apparently="And beseech him on my knees not to forsake all joy on that account."

Stanza 78, line 2. "Le Romman du Pet au Deable." The Pet au Deable was a great stone at the door of a private house in the university. The students took it away and all Paris fought over the matter. The "Roman" was a set of verses, now lost, which Villon wrote on the quarrel.

Line 3. Guy Tabarie who grossa (wrote out), these verses was a friend of Villon's: soon hanged.

Line 5. Soubz. The "b" is pedantic, the ou indicates of itself the loss of the b. The "z" (and the "s" in the modern sous) are due to the derivation not from sub but subtus.


Stanza 2, line 3. Egypcienne. St. Mary of Egypt.

Line 4. Theophilus. This was that clerk who sold his soul to the Devil and whom Our Lady redeemed. You may find the whole story sculptured on the Tympanum of the exquisite northern door of Notre Dame in Paris.

Line 8. Vierge Portant="Virgin that bore a son".

Stanza 3, line 4. Luz="luthus". "S" becomes "z."

The Envoi. Note the Acrostic "Villon" in the first letters of the first six lines. It is a trick he played more than once.


Stanza 1, line 1. Calixte. These names are of less interest. Calixte was Pope Calixtus III, Alphonso Borgia, who died in 1458—in Villon's twenty-sixth year. Alphonse is Alphonso V of Arragon, who died in that same year. The Duc de Bourbon is Charles the First of Bourbon, who died at the end of the year 1456, "gracieux" because his son protected Villon. Artus (Arthur) of Brittany is that same Richemont who recaptured Paris from Willoughby. Charles VII is Charles VII. The Roy Scotiste is James II, who died in 1460: the Amethyst half of his face was a birthmark. The King of Cyprus is probably John III, who died in that same fatal year, 1458. Pedants will have it that the King of Spain is John II of Castille, who died in 1454—but it is a better joke if it means nobody at all. Lancelot is Vladislas of Bohemia, who died in 1457. Cloquin is Bertrand de Guesclin who led the reconquest. The Count Daulphin of Auvergne is doubtful; Alencon is presumably the Alencon of Joan of Arc's campaign, who still survived, and is called "feu" half in ridicule, because in 1458 he had lost his title and lands for treason.

Stanza 2, line 3. Amatiste=amethyst.

Stanza 3, line 7. Tayon=Ancestor. "Etallum." Latin "Stallio."


Line 1. Cil=celui-ci. The Latin "ecce illum."

Line 3. Escuelle=bowl. "With neither bowl nor platter."

Line 4. Note again the constant redundant negative of the populace in this scholar: "Had never, no—not a sprig of parsley."

Line 5. Rez=ras, cropped.



Line 5. On se prenoit, one attacked—"it was but the heart one sought."

Line 11. Fainctz=sham; "changes" is simply like the English "changes": the form survives in the idiom: "donner le change."

Line 13. Refonde=recast.


Verse 1, line 3. L'Autre hyer=alterum heri, "t'other day."

Line 10. Noe. The tendency to drop final letters, especially the l, is very marked in popular patois, and this is, of course, a song based on popular language. Most French peasants north of the Loire would still say "Noe" for "Noel." Noel is, of course, Natalem (diem).

Verse 2, line 2. Cas de si hault faict=so great a matter.

TWO EPIGRAMS. Epigram 1, line 2. Vostre. Marguerite of Navarre. As I have remarked, in the text, she had sent him a Dixaine (some say he wrote it himself). This one is written in answer.—Ay. Note, till the verb grew over simple in the classical French of the seventeenth century there was no more need for the pronoun than in Latin. Thus Montaigne will omit the pronoun, but Malherbe never.

Line 5. Cuydansthinking (CogitareCogtareCoydecuider, the oi became ui by a common transition; cf. noctem, octem, noit, nuit, huit.) The word is now archaic.

Line 9. Encor. Without the final e. This is not archaic but poetic licence. Encore="hanc horam," and a post tonic "am" in Latin always means a final mute e in French.

Epigram 2, line 1. Maint (now archaic) is a word of Teutonic origin, our many.

Line 6. Coulpe=Culpam, of course; a fault.

Line 9. Emport. Note the old subjunctive without the final e. Vide supra, on "Chant." The modern usage is incorrect. For the first conjugation making its subjunctive in em, should lose the final syllable in French: a post tonic em always disappears. The modern habit of putting a final e to all subjunctives is due to a false analogy with verbs from the third conjugation. These made their subjunctive in am, a termination which properly becomes the mute e of French.


Line 4. Sejour=(here) "staying at home."

Line 14, 15. Friande de la bouche, glutton.

Line 17. Danger. The first meaning of "Danger" is simply "to be in lordship" (Dominicarium). The modern is the English "Danger." This is between the two; "held to your hurt."

Line 26. Doint. This subjunctive should properly be don (donem, post tonic em is lost). The "oint" is from a false analogy with the fourth conjugation, as though the Latin had been doniam.


Verse 1, line 2. Clamours. See how southern this is, with its Lanquedoc forms, "clamours" for "clameurs."

Line 5. So are these diminutions all made up at random, as southern as can be, and note the tang of the verse, fit for a snapping of the fingers to mark the rapid time.

Verse 3, line 2. Benistre. The older form of benir from Benedicere; the c between vowels at the end of the tonic syllable becomes s: the t is added for euphony, to help one to pronounce the s.

Line 3. Silenus for Silene. Because the name was new, the Latin form is kept. The genius of the French, unlike that of modern English, is to absorb a foreign name (as we did once). Thus once we said "Anthony" "Tully": but Montaigne wrote "Cicero"—his descendants say "Ciceron."

Line 4. Aussi droict qu'une ligne="right out of the flask." The flask held above one and the wine poured straight into the mouth. The happy south still know the way.

Line 5. Bigne: a lump, a knock, a bruise.

Line 6. Guigne=cherry.



Stanza 1, line 3. Chef grison=gray head. When he says "trente ans," that is all rubbish, he was getting on for forty-three: it was written in 1567.

Stanza 2, line 1. Nocher=pilot; rare but hardly archaic.

Stanza 3, line 3. Cependant=meanwhile. The word is now seldom used in prose, save in the sense of "notwithstanding", "nevertheless".

Stanza 5, line 1. Loyer=Condition of tenure.

Line 2. Ores=Now that. Should be "ore" (horam). The parasitic "s" probably crept in by false analogy with the adverbs in "s."

Stanza 6, line 1. Lame=tombstone. The word is no longer used.

Line 4. See how, even in his lighter or prosaic manner, he cannot avoid great lines.

Stanza 8, line 1. Vela=Voila. Then follows that fine ending which I have put on the title-page of this book.


Line 1. Mignonne is, of course, his Cassandre: her personality was always known through his own verse. She was fifteen when he met her and her brown eyes: it was in 1546 at Blois, her birthplace, whither he had gone to visit the Court, during his scholar's life in Paris. He met her thus young when he himself was but in his twenty-third year, and all that early, violent, not over-tilled beginning of his poetry was illumined by her face. But as to who she was, by name I mean, remained long a matter of doubt. Binet would have it that her true name was Cassandre, and that its singularity inspired Ronsard. Brantome called it "a false name to cover a true." Ronsard himself has written, "false or true, time conquering all things cannot efface it from the marble." There need have been no doubt. D'Aubigne's testimony is sufficient. She was a Mlle de Pie, and such was the vagary of Ronsard's life, that it was her niece, Diane Salviati de Taley whom in later life he espoused and nearly wed.

Line 3. Note Pourpre, and in line 5 Pourpree so in line 9 Beautez, and in the last line Beaute: so little did he fear repetition and so heartily could his power carry it.

Line 4. A point: the language was still in flux. The phrase would require a negative n' in modern French.

Line 10, 11. Marastre... puisqu'une... There is here an elliptical construction never found in later French. Harsh stepmother nature (whom I call harsh) since... etc.


Sonnet XLII, line 1. Ocieuse="otiosa," langorous.

Line 5. Ennuy, in the sixteenth century meant something fuller than, and somewhat different from the word "ennui" to-day. It was a weariness which had in it some permanent chagrin.

Line 8. Pipe, "cajoles": a word which (now that it is unusual) mars the effect of its meaning by its insignificant sound.

Lines 8 and 9. Note ioye, vraye, a feminine "e" following another vowel is, since Malherbe, forbidden in the interior of a verse, unless elided.

Line 11. Ton mort, "your ghost."

Sonnet XLIII, line 6. Desia=deja.

Line 7. De mon nom. I have printed the line thus because Ronsard himself wished it so, and so corrected it with his own hand. But the original form is far finer "Au bruit de Ronsard."



Line 3. Usage. A most powerful word in this slightly archaic sense: the experience of long travel: familiar knowledge of things seen.

Line 12. Loire. This word has puzzled more than one editor. There are two rivers: the great river Loire, which is feminine, and the little Loir, which is masculine. Here Du Bellay spells the name of the great river, but puts it in the masculine gender. It has been imagined that he was talking of the smaller river. But he was not. The Loire alone has any connection with Lire or with his life, and as for the gender, strained as the interpretation may seem, I believe that Du Bellay deliberately used it in the parallel with the Tiber and the idea of the "Fleuve Paternel," to which he alludes so often elsewhere.

Line 13. Lyre. The modern Lire, his birthplace, on the left bank of the Loire, just opposite Ancenis. As you go along the Poitiers road to the bridge it stands up on your right, just before the river.


Line 1. Motte=a turf.

Line 40. Damoiselet. Still used more or less in its old sense of a young man armed: not merely a young page or a cadet of the gentry,="like a little sentry."

Line 43. Anvie=(of course) "envie."


Line 22. Rouet=spinning-wheel.

Line 26. Panne=the Italian Panno—cloth.

Line 27. Troigne=the mouth and face of an animal, the muzzle.

Line 32. Chere=(originally) "head" and one of the few old French words derived from Greek, but the first signification has long been lost. Here the phrase is equivalent to "faire bonne chere" which has for centuries been used proverbially for what we call "a good time." V. supra in "The Farewell" of Charles of Orleans.



Stanza 3, line 1. Centieme. He dates the Huguenot trouble from a century. It may be said to have originated in the placards threatening the defilement of the Sacrament, placards which appeared in the streets of Paris in 1525.

Stanza 2, line 3. Le nom de Juste. Louis XIII had no particular affectation of that title: it is rather a reminiscence of his distant collatoral and namesake who closed the fifteenth century.

Last stanza, line 1. Toutes les autres morts. He has just been speaking of death in battle against the factions.


Line 1. Mon fils. The only survivor of his many children, a young man, just called to the bar at Aix and passionately loved by his father, he bore the curious name of Marc-Anthony. A M. de Piles killed him in a duel, having for second his brother-in-law. The whole was an honourable bit of business, and the death such as men of honour must be prepared to risk: but Malherbe would see no reason and defamed the adversary.

Line 9. La Raison. The idea runs all through Malherbe's work. It is his distinguishing note, and is the spirit which differentiates him so powerfully from the sixteenth century, that this stoical balance or regulator which he calls "La Raison," and which governed France for two hundred years, is his rule and text for verse and prose as well as for practical life. Even the grandeur to which it gave rise seemed to him accidental. He demanded "la raison" only, and felt the necessity of it in art as acutely as though its absence were something immoral.


Stanza 1, line 1. Duperrier. A critic of sorts and a gentleman, living in Provence and perhaps of Provencal ancestry. The verses were written while Malherbe's fame was still local, two years before the king's visit had lifted him to Paris.

Stanza 2, line 2. Ta fille. The child Marguerite. Her name does not appear in the poem nor in any letter; we have it from Racan.

Stanza 10, line 3. Et la garde, etc. These two lines are quoted, sometimes, not often, by admirers who would prove that Malherbe was not incapable of colour or of warmth.


Previous Part     1  2
Home - Random Browse