Of Heaven’s Powerful Harmonies: Poetics During the French Renaissance

Written by Jason Winn

Centuries before pieces in Charles Baudelaire’s collection of decadent poetry Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) disgraced a French court for being considerably indecent—before the torrid love affair of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud shook the avant-garde circles all the way to London, there was the French Renaissance. The period, lasting between the fifteenth and early seventeenth century, saw a turn towards humanism within literature which employed a shift from medieval scholasticism to a resurgence of interests in Grecian and Roman ideals. Poetical works written during this time often consisted of allusions to myths that referenced romantic plights.

Right at the beginning of the French Renaissance a group of six men known as La Pléiade were at the forefront of the poetic movement spearheading French poetry into a new light of its own. The name was derived from the Pleiades star cluster and is a homage to the original Alexandrian Pleiad from the third century BC. The main three members were Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baif. Du Bellay wrote the group’s manifesto which stated that the French language was sophisticated, individualistic as a form of written articulation, and that it should be elevated to a status equal to Greek and Latin.

‘I’ll not trawl the Greek seas with my nets,
Nor Horace’s fine lines will I retrace,
Less do I aspire to Petrarch’s grace,
Or Ronsard’s voice, in singing my Regrets.

Those who are Apollo’s true sacred poets
Will grant their verse a bold fiery face:
I, filled with an inspiration low and base,
Am not so learned in their deepest secrets.

I’ll content myself with writing anything
That passion itself summons me to sing,
Without seeking any other argument.

Thus I’ve not sought their claims to rehearse
Who boast that they’ll live on in their verse,
And so survive the grave’s dark monument

Je ne veux feuilleter les exemplaires Grecs, written by Joachim du Bellay and translated by A.S. Kline.

The form of du Bellay’s piece above, from his collection of 191 sonnets published in 1558 entitled Les Regrets (The Regrets), is one that is repeated throughout the collection. Emulating Petrarch’s sonnets this is an attempt that coincides with La Pléiade philosophy thereby blending French linguistics with a Petrarchan vernacular. Les Regrets was written during his journey from France to Italy and while originally eager to see the country he came back disappointed. Not only did he fall madly in love with a married woman named Faustine during the end of his trip in Rome, he also began to divert from the La Pléiade manifesto.

I believe the above sonnet to be emblematic of this separation. In the beginning stanzas he parallels how he shall no longer try to emulate something he is not. He arguably feels unworthy to be on an equal level with Horace and Petrarch permitting himself to finally try to ‘write anything’ that makes him feel independent—an endeavour to be like Apollo’s sacred poets. Although it is ironically done in a Petrarchan form it can be discerned that du Bellay felt that it was necessary for him to write even if his works didn’t survive the ‘grave’s dark monument’ like that of Horace or Petrarch.

Although La Pléiade was a large contributor to the French Renaissance poetry canon this period had just as many famous female poets. An example by the name of Louise Labé, also referred to as La Belle Cordière (The Beautiful Ropemaker) by her contemporaries, strongly advocated for women to contribute to sectors that they rarely occupied in order to stand alongside their male counterparts.

‘The time having arrived…when the strict laws of men no longer prevent women from applying themselves to the arts and sciences, it seems to me that those who possess the means should employ this noble freedom, so coveted by our sex in the past, to pursue such things; and show men the wrong they have done us, in depriving us of the benefit, and the honour that might bring us’
—Preface to the 1555 edition

In this preface to her Œuvres she encouraged women to adopt their talents into fields which at the time mainly consisted of men. She even goes as far to say that what was denied to them will prove their worth to the men who have deprived them of such chances. Labé was born in Lyon in 1522 which was considered a cultural hub during the renaissance. Upon her own expanding success as a poetess she hosted literary salons with other famous names such as Maurice Scève, who will be discussed later. Her sonnets echo the passions and yearnings for a form of love that is pure and unabashed by their desires.

‘When I see your fair hair all crowned
with green laurel, and your sad lute sing,
the trees and rocks blindly following,
when I see you so renowned,

with ten thousand virtues surrounded,
higher in honour than all of grand estate,
eclipsing the highest glories of the great,
my heart cries out, by passion confounded:

so many virtues render you beloved,
and esteemed by all, as now is proved,
could they not help you to love, also,

adding to such commendable virtue
the fame of one who renders mercy too,
from my love, gently firing your love so.’

Quand j’aperçoy ton blond chef couronné, written by Louise Labé and translated by A.S. Kline

Upon wading through the allegorical musings and heavy emotive allusions, I found my favourite among all the French Renaissance poets. As previously mentioned, Maurice Scève was within the social circles of Louise Labé and was arguably the most well-known poet in Lyon at the time. His collection, like that of du Bellay’s, was reliant on Petrarchan devices. In 1544 Scève published Délie which consisted of 449 ten-line epigrams which are all addressed to a love of his. The following verse outlines his persistence in loving a partner who doesn’t seem to return his favour. Scève contrasts how other things can ‘quench’ or ‘appease’ whereas all his heart does is ‘weep’ in vain.

‘Lengthy prayers appease the Gods:
Eloquence damps the Martial fire:
Long sermons pacify those at odds,
And songs allay the sorrows of desire:
While verse can even quench the ire,
And charm the venom, of the snake.
Why, O Heart, weep for her and ache,
Dissolving into pitiable rhyme,
As though you might, in her, awake
Pity, who is as harsh as she’s sublime’

‘Par long prier lon mitigue les Dieux’, written by Maurice Scève and translated by A.S. Kline.

To a modern reader not familiar to reading poetry of this form, from such an age, it can be overwhelming and challenging to understand. Beyond the fine veneer of Roman and Grecian nuances this poetry gives us valuable insight into the poetics of centuries long lost. Mostly I find that it shows us how a fundamental human desire hasn’t changed in over five centuries. The desire to love and to be loved.

Jason is a reader, writer and editor with a penchant for the macabre and historical. Often found lost between a labyrinth of pages and books, he’s constantly delving into the literature that’ll terrify and inspire. He is also commencing his final year of his Double Bachelor of Criminology/Psychological Science and wants to further understand the complexities of crime.

Jason’s work has appeared in the Skeptic, Order, Tension, Atmosphere, Power and Discord editions of WORDLY Magazine.

2 thoughts on “Of Heaven’s Powerful Harmonies: Poetics During the French Renaissance

  1. So professionally written. Well done young man. Your words are of an old soul. Looking forward to reading more pieces in the future.

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