Monday, October 7, 2019

Poetry, theater: French literature Petrarchizes - However well one may be educated / In Greek and Latin subtleties

More from the difficult French 16th century. I won’t get to Montaigne.

3.  French classical theater, this is just what I mean when I say that 16th century French literature is in some sense too hard.  French writers were absorbing and transforming a flood of new classical texts coming to France from Italy, plus what had already been a century or two of Italian responses to those discoveries.  With the plays of Seneca as the crucial example, a new kind of French theater came into being.

The English history is a little bit later, but parallel.  In England, though, the academic theater quickly turned into a chaotic popular theater, while in France it became more of a purely courtly form.  More intellectual, specialized, and boring.

Shakespeare, or Kyd, or whoever, read Seneca and thought “Ghosts and murders!”; French writers apparently thought “Sententiae!”  The two plays I have read (in English) are not dramatic.  They are both by Robert Garnier, the most important French playwright of the century, although by no means the earliest.  I wrote about Les Juifves (The Hebrew Women, 1583) a few years ago, and have also read Marc-Antoine (1578), a tragedy about Anthony and Cleopatra, in Mary Sidney’s 1592 version.  These are plays where characters barely interact.  Anthony declaims a monologue and leaves the stage; Cleopatra ditto and ditto; Anthony returns etc.  The two characters do get to talk to each other at the very end of the play.

Sidney’s poetry is exquisite, and I assume Garnier’s is comparable, but you can’t give this stuff to high school kids, even French ones.  They are punished enough with Corneille and Racine.  The 16th century French theater is for graduate students.  I guess English is not so different – who outside of graduate school reads Gorbuduc (1561)?  Still, Garnier is contemporary with Marlowe and The Spanish Tragedy – dramatic plays.

4.  French poets are working on the same project, pulling the Italian Renaissance into French.  The parallel with English poetry is close.  The equivalent of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the first poet to bring Petrarch into the language, is Clément Marot, who I have not read.  The most important is Pierre de Ronsard, who is lying when he writes that his suffering is so powerful that he does not know how to express it, either “Tant lamenter, ne tant Petrarquiser” (Des Amours, sonnet 129) – “as lamenting, nor as Petrarchizing.”  This man knew how to Petrarchize.  He was the greatest of Petrarchizers.

One result, just like in English, was ingenious but esoteric demonstrations of poetic learning like the Délie of Maurice Scève, which I read some portion of in Richard Sieburth’s translation.  The reader is assumed to know his Petrarch, his Horace, and his Horace-via-Petrarch inside out, while also interpreting riddle-like emblems and so on.  Advanced intellectual pleasure.

By contrast there are The Regrets (1558) of Joachim du Bellay, expat poetry.  Du Bellay worked in Rome and missed France.  He wrote a 191-poem sonnet sequence on that subject, mostly in some way about life in Rome, although he makes it home at the end.  The poems are full of personality, and are almost conversational, a good trick in a sonnet.  Ronsard is a genius, but is always performing, however beautifully.  Du Bellay – well, he is performing, too, but he tricks me into intimacy.

However well one may be educated
In Greek and Latin subtleties, I think
The effect of this place is to teach something
One didn’t know before one came this way.
Not that one finds here better libraries
Than any that the French have put together,
But that the atmosphere, perhaps the weather,
Spirit away our less ethereal faculties.
Some demon or other, with his sacred fire,
Purifies even the worst of us, tempers and refines
Till our judgment is too wary to be misled.
But if one stays here too long, all one’s strength of mind
Goes up in smoke, and leaves nothing behind,
Or so little that one loses the thread.  (Sonnet 72 in C. H. Sisson)

It’s complex, but not because it is learned.  We are lucky to have C. H. Sisson’s 1984 translation of (most of) Les Regrets.  An all-time great translation, partly accomplished by a subtle mastery of slant rhymes.

Someday I should read the entire sequence in French.  I should read an entire book by Ronsard, too, Les Amours (1552) or something.  Long ago, I scoured the versions of Ronsard in English; they range from functional (the Penguin Classics edition, clearly meant for French students) to hilariously bad (there is one from the 1960s in free verse with “erotic” drawings by the author).  So without French, du Bellay yes, Ronsard no.

The great feminist rediscovery of the period is Louise Labé.  French critics spent the 1990s debating whether she existed, or was really a persona of Scève.  That’s some feminism!  Anyway, the consensus, now, is that she existed.  I should read her, too.  When you go to see Rabelais’s hospital in Lyon, look for the plaque identifying Labé’s childhood home, which is just across a little restaurant-packed plaza.


  1. "Quand vous serez bien vieille" is one of those poems (like Pushkin's "I loved you once," or Goethe's "Wandrers Nachtlied") that sinks immediately into your brain and never leaves; it's been in mine for over half a century now.

  2. It is exquisite, beautiful in language and thought. Light and a little bit funny - the egotism is funny. "Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os" - I will be under the earth and a ghost without bones - how can you not smile while reciting it.