À ma petite Nicole afin qu’elle découvre notre belle France
À Gabriel, mon adorable petit-fils,
et à mes fils Mickael et Francky
afin qu’ils se reconnaissent dans leurs ancêtres
To my sweet Nicole so she will discover our beautiful France
To Gabriel, my delightful grand-son
and to my sons Mickael and Francky
so they may see their soul in their ancestors
To my beautiful Sister Claudine, the marvellous artist, who painted the superb aquarelle Le
Dormeur du Val for the cover of this book and some of the other paintings reproduced inside.
To my precious Mum, who gave me her incredible optimism and cheerfulness, and to my little
Sister Josyane always close to my heart.
To my dearest friends, Nicolas and Irina, who offered me judicious advice; to Lynette who
attentively read my manuscript with a kind critical eye, and to Alice who eagerly encouraged me all the
To Sybille who shares my love for poetry and offered me a superb work on Baudelaire. This
amazing gift triggered the wish to write this anthology.
To Casimir who brightened our arrival in Australia with his wonderful and lasting friendship.
Finally, thanks to my wonderful husband, mon Petit Canard (my Little Duck), who
unwearyingly supported my complete immersion in this captivating work.
My thanks also to the fantastic libraries of Australia and France; and to the magical Internet,
which allowed me to consult remarkable manuscripts online; particularly, the Bibliotheque Nationale de
France (BNF) and Mandragore, and all the members of Wikipedia, who created and are contributing to
the most outstanding online encyclopaedia. All images taken from the Internet are under the GNU Free
Documentation License or on Public Domain.
Without them all, nothing would have been achieved.
Poetry is the language of the soul and the beauty of language itself. As Dante once says, French
seems to have been created for poetry and it is probably why so many people love the sound of it. Being a
lover of poetry, to them and to those who have no or very rudimentary knowledge of French, I wrote this
anthology on France’s most prestigious poets. I did it with no pretension and enjoyed every minute of
this very demanding but fascinating task.
French poetry is built on rhymes, number of syllables, caesura, enjambments and rejects.
Furthermore, the rhyme scheme is incorporated in the poem’s meaning; for instance, the successive
rhymes aabb generally present two thoughts while the embrasure abba indicates that the first idea
encompasses the next. In the 19th Century, versification changes drastically. The caesura moves as the
poets want, and free verses of various lengths are introduced; furthermore, the first poems in prose mark
the coming of modern poetry.
Of course, I would have been delighted to keep the poems’ structure but my first priority was to
convey the poets’ feelings and the music of their magnificent works; this was at the expense of meters
The art of translating French poetry is very complex. According to my research, translations from
French to English are generally ‘versions’ which means that a document in foreign language is translated
in one’s native language. The present work is not a version but a ‘theme’ and if deep inside you, waves of
emotions flow into your heart when you read or listen to the most beautiful poems of France whether in
French or in English language, this will be my ultimate reward.
A brief word now about the selection of poets and poems. Though the beauty of French poetry is in
the music of its language, it is not only the sound of words precisely chosen and arranged that convey
delightful emotions but their meaning. French poetry evolved as the French language evolved and it
really began when the French were able to communicate their feelings. Tristan et Iseult, the Arthurian
legends and the Roman de la Rose are marvellous works of art praised all over Europe simply because
Middle Ages people finally realised that Love was one of their raisons d’être (reasons of being). This
anthology therefore starts with them and even if they sometimes hurt our modern ear, they nevertheless
mark the beginning of French poetry.
For the next centuries, I must concede that my choice was arbitrary; I simply selected those I love
the most. At first, my aim was to present one poet and his best works per century. For the 19th, this was
impossible; I could not even choose all the poets and poems I love, as this would have required many
volumes. Consequently, I chose only the greatest and sincerely apologise if you do not find those you
expected. Indeed, the 19th Century deserves a whole book and this is my next project.
Finally, I must say that this book is the result of meticulous research in numerous libraries. I
cannot however assert that every document refers with certitude to the original. Furthermore, this is not
a philological work and my dear readers will most certainly find many signs of ignorance and regrettable
distractions. I sincerely hope that these blunders will not spoil their pleasure.
In texts, all French words or phrases are in italic; and to help readers who do not really master
French but want to feel the music of the poem in French, letters that must be stressed are written in bold
and mute vowels in italic. Liaisons are underlined. An audio CD of all the poems in French and English
will be released soon but poetry lovers can already listen to some online www.poetry/bellepage.com.
So stay with me for few hours of history and beautiful poetry. Light the fire, prepare your
favourite drink, sit on your best armchair, and listen to the music of the words.
In this anthology of French poetry, we shall travel through the centuries with the poets who not
only improved French language but left to the world one of the most beautiful literary heritages.
From the night of time, all forms of beauty have impressed men and women; unsurprisingly,
poetry and music have always occupied a privileged place in their heart.
At the end of the Roman Empire, the Church decided to use simple metric so people could
memorise the teaching of the new religion with its traditions and legends. The syllabic mode was
adopted and lines of six, seven, eight, and twelve syllables appeared. The longest lines were divided in
hemistiches (equal parts) so the reader was able to breathe at the caesura; and they ended with similar
sounds to create an echo effect. At first, the similarity called assonance stayed on the last accentuated
vowel; then, the similarity reached the consonant so the assonance became rhyme. Opposed to the prose
always going forward, the lines whose flow returns to the beginning through the assonance or rhyme
were called verses or vers from the Latin, vertere that could be translated as the labourer’s furrow turning
the soil in regular lines.
Saint Ambroise1 was the first bishop who raised people’s enthusiasm with his hymns. To stir
the Faithfull’s heart and encouraged them to sing, he added simple melodies to his poems. The first poets
who composed in vulgar language strictly followed these principles and the Cantilène de Sainte-Eulalie
was written on this syllabic model.
Then, in the Middle Ages, era of darkness and superstition, trouvères and troubadours translated
their concept of beauty into their own language, which may seem quite coarse and tortuous to our
modern ear. As years and centuries went by, the concept did not changed but the language evolved and
became beauty itself. With emotion, medieval people who rarely knew how to read and write listened to
the jongleurs who sang the lives of the saints and the popular chansons de geste accompanied by the harp,
the viola, or the lyre.
1 Bishop of Milan around 390.
Most jongleurs had more than one skill to their arc; they were prestidigitators, fire-eaters,
jugglers, acrobats, and tamers of beasts. Travelling from one province to the next, they performed in the
market places; and those with exceptional talents were invited to seigniorial courts. As the jongleurs
rarely composed, we may ask who were the first poets and where did they come from?
Medieval poetry began in the South of France with the troubadours who believed that love is the
fundamental raison d’être (reason of existence) and this love often goes beyond the physical attraction of
two human beings. Unsurprisingly, such noble theme required a rich and complex vocabulary, finely
tuned musical arrangements, highly sophisticated versification with strophes and verses of various
lengths and rare rhymes.
The troubadours came from different backgrounds; they were kings, princes, and nobles of
various ranks, clerks and canons, monks and priests, or people from humble condition, including the
jongleurs. For these highly sensitive people, love rhymed with beauty, which not only embraced the
permeability to the revelation of ‘being’ but also elegance of manners and speech, and nobleness of
sentiment, in one word, courtoisie (courtesy).
In the South a new civilisation was therefore at an embryonic stage thanks to the troubadours
while in the North of France, trouvères focused on religious matters and military prowess. The public
essentially masculine loved the Chansons de geste, which combine reality with magic and mystery. These
epopees based on important victories or disasters were well known as every-one used to sing them at the
veillée (after-dinner gathering) or when going to battle. The chansons have an impersonal and historic
character in which heroes incarnate the good and bad of the race they represent. To embellish their story,
the poets introduced the marvellous; through God’s intervention, heroes accomplish superhuman tasks.
The Chansons were written in octosyllable or decasyllable verses grouped in laisses (strophes of various
lengths); the style is naïf, concrete, and analytical; and like in children stories, comparisons and images
French poetry however drastically evolved with the arrival of Aliénor d’Aquitaine and her
troubadours at the court of France. As the country was experiencing the longest peace ever, the nobility
spent more time in court than in the garrison; and if the knights’ muscles and bravery impressed women,
Ladies were above all very fond of compliments and chivalric manners. Inspired by the new fashion and
the troubadours’ conception of lyrical poetry, the trouvères softened their style and created a new genre of
literature called roman (romance) where courtesy took the path of chivalry. The valiant knight of the
chansons de geste is the respectful lover whose magnificent legend spread all over Europe as a gigantic
tidal wave. Masterpieces like Tristan et Iseult and Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian legends are the greatest
monuments of medieval poetry.
Thanks to Aliénor and her literate children, French literature blossomed all over France. In
Champagne, Aliénor’s daughter, Marie had a brilliant court at Troyes where Chrétien probably met the
troubadour Bernard de Ventadour. At Blois, Marie’s sister Aélis welcomed all poets; and Richard Coeur
de Lion (Lion-heart), their brother, was a remarkable poet who composed in langues d’oil and d’oc
(languages of the North and South France).
The troubadours realised that long verses had more majesty and solemnity than short verses. The
twelve-syllable verse or alexandrine, which took its name from the Roman d’Alexandre was more
appropriate than the octosyllable to capture the unfolding of epics, brooding emotion, and reasoning. In
this alexandrin classique, the reader marks a neat break at the caesura to separate the verse in two
hemistiches. Nonetheless, many liked the octosyllable, as Guillaume de Lorris who used it gracefully in
Roman de la Rose and François Villon who as we shall see had some predilection for this type of verses
and the huitain.
The rhymes also got richer. Since the 7th Century in Ireland, poets knew the rimes plates (aabb)
also called couplettes or doublettes, which were used in the first Latin poems. From the South, the trouvères
learnt new schemes: the rimes croisées, alternées or entrelaissiées (abab), the rimes embrassées or desjoinctes
(abba) and the rimes mélées, which regroup them all. For such patterns, the rimes have to be more
elaborated; from the assonance or rimes pauvres emerged the rimes suffisantes also called consonantes or
sonnantes where the similarity reaches the consonant preceding the last vowel. Then followed the rimes
riches and their three elements of similarity, the rimes léonines simples and their four elements, the parfaites
with five, and the plus-que-parfaites with six or more.
Still from the South, another improvement dating from the Middle Ages was the alternation of
feminine (silent vowels) and masculine (accentuated syllables) rimes, a technique, which harmoniously
breaks the monotony of the stance; it softens the verse and slows down its tempos. Through the centuries,
poets have been very fond of alternation. In Éléments de littérature, Marmontel emphasises: « Les vers
masculins sans mélange auraient une marche brusque et heurtée ; les vers féminins sans mélange auraient de la
douceur, mais de la mollesse. » (With no alternation, the masculine verses would have a brusque and
dashing cadence; with no alternation, the feminine verses would be soft but flabby.)2
The 13th Century went a step further with the beginning of didactic poetry whose purpose was
to transmit intellectual and moral knowledge in a pleasant and easy way. Such poetry allowed authors to
expose their views about the society in which they lived and formulate critiques. Many enjoyed
Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose and its superb allegories; but forty years later, the public preferred
Jean de Meung’s satirical verve, more challenging than Guillaume’s art d’aimer. Jean threw his whole
knowledge in the poem and severely criticised the courteous tradition referring to love as the best device
for the propagation of the species. Satires were indeed popular and poets of wretched conditions did not
hesitate to use them to talk about their misfortune; but rather than weeping on their fate, they chose to
gaily mock the upper class responsible for their misery. The sarcastic but humorous and merry style
2 Jean-François Marmontel, French historian, writer, and member of the French Accademia; among
others, he wrote Éléments de littérature published by Éditions Desjonquères in 2005.
encountered in the fabliaux and the excellent Roman de Renart sprang from this esprit gaulois (Gaul spirit),
one of the most typical characteristics of being French even today.
In the following century, poetry gained structure. With Guillaume de Machaut, rondets became
musical poems called rondeaux and rondels, the ballettes ballades; and triolets, lais and virelais took a fixed-
form. The lai lyrique and its twelve symmetrical couplets differ from Marie de France’s lais narratives,
which are short compositions in octosyllable and rimes plates. These types were suitable for tragedies and
sad events. Guillaume also introduced the autobiographical je (I) in his Dit (Say), and as Michel Stanesco
emphasises, such personal revelations allowed poetry to advance from the abstract to the circumstantial,
the general to the particular.3
In this 14th Century, France had never been so small and seemed unable to regain the territories
lost during the disastrous Guerre de Cent Ans (Hundred Years War), which was still going on.
Nevertheless, the precariousness of the situation did not stop many cities to found their own académie
and organised competitions of poetry. In Toulouse, the seven bourgeois who created the Consistoire du Gai
Savoir were reviving the poetry of the troubadours with their famous Jeux Floraux (literally, floral games
but in our context literary contests). Paris, however, was still Europe’s centre of attraction and despite its
secrecy, Isabeau de Bavière’s Cour d’Amour was the meeting place of illustrious intellectuals who
passionately pondered on love and poetry.
The 15th Century then arrived; Black Death, wars, and famine brought great sorrows all over
Europe; Charles d’Orléans and François Villon, two brilliant poets very different in style and character
recalled their moving experiences. While with exquisite and noble manners, Charles, the aristocrat,
venerated ultimate and ideal beauty in the traditional and artificial way of the littérature courtoise,
François, the poor escolier (scholar) boldly revealed his impressions; but he wrote with such candidness
and intensity that he luminously stands out as the greatest poet of the Middle Ages. Following the steps
of Rutebeuf, his themes embrace poverty, physical decrepitude, thought of death, and obscenity (the
parody of the fin’amor); they also show an ardent devotion to the Virgin Mary. Charles d’Orléans also
composed profound poems, but he wrote with such incredible facility that people failed to see the depth
of his work. What united Charles and François was their misfortune, the lost of their youth, the regret of
the past, and the awareness that nothing is made to endure. These poets signalled the end of the Middle
Ages and the coming of the magnificent Renaissance all over Europe.
The 15th Century ended with the grands rhétoriqueurs (lovers of rhetoric) who did not leave
much for posterity except complicated and exuberant techniques of versification. The richer the rhyme,
the better it was; and the greater the intricacy of the verse, the greater the poet’s achievement.
La Bibliothèque de Poésie, Le Moyen Âge, Troubadours et Trouvères, XIe au XVe siècle, p 21
Without discarding his father’s teaching, Clément Marot was impressed by the Italian
Renaissance; and with the encouragements of François 1er, he composed the first French sonnets
combining Villon’s humour and naivety. Since Petrarch, the sonnet always had a prestigious reputation.
All the great masters wrote sonnets and despite the strophes’ and rimes’ variations, it kept its form
through the centuries. Most of the time, the sonnet expresses états d'âme (states of mind) but it can also be
satirical, political, moral, religious, and even burlesque.
Marot, the humanist poet was overshadowed by the Pléiade’s members who scorning medieval
poetry searched for inspiration in Greek and Latin classics. In his Deffence et Illustration de la Langue
Francoyse,4 Du Bellay strongly advises poets to leave the vieilles poésies françaises (old French poems) to
the Jeux Floraux arguing that rondeaux, ballades, virelais, chants royaux, and chansons are only groceries that
corrupt French language and show evidence of ignorance.
Nevertheless, Ronsard, the Pléiade’s master and Prince des Poètes did receive the highest reward
from the same Jeux Floraux, proving against du Bellay that Toulouse was up-to-date with modern
literature. It is incontestable that Ronsard excelled in all poetic fields; his delightful odes and pastorals,
drinking songs, love-sonnets, and discourses on religious and political matters charmed every-one; and
Mignonne allons voir… is still on the curriculum of all French primary schools. Even today, Ronsard is
known as the universal poet par excellence.
Odes and sonnets were in great favour in the 16th Century. The ode lyrique, well known since
Antiquity, celebrates great events and prestigious people. Divided in strophes of equal number of lines
and meters, this type of poem was sung or accompanied by music up to 19th Century. Nonetheless, poets’
preferred form was and has always been the sonnet. Traditionally, this fixed-form poem of fourteen lines
is divided in two quatrains and two tercets; the first tercet exposes the argument and the second presents
the conclusion with a striking last verse.
After the talented Pléiade, followed a decadent phase with the emergence of the baroque and its
anti-rational and anti-classical conception of poetry and art. Desportes’s maniérism soon encouraged
préciosité (extreme sophistication) in the ruelles5. This préciosité was a return to courtly love and chivalry
characterised by an excessive refinement in language, manners, and designs, and by a disappointing lack
of deep feeling. The aim was only to distinguish oneself from the vulgar.
The baroque age marks a period of excess and agitation. On one hand, the wars of religion
decimated the population, the monarchy was in crisis, and the humanists were losing faith; on the other
hand, Henri IV’s Edit de Nantes signed in 1598 brought great relief to free thinkers; and with Descartes’s
Méthode and Newton’s scientific discovery, philosophy and science made prodigious progress.
4Joachim Du Bellay La Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Francoyse, p 107.
5Meeting so called as the hostess was receiving in bed, her guests sitting on each side at the edge of the
bed; such edges being called ruelles
The 17th Century is indeed known as the Grand Siècle. Louis XIV and Richelieu founded
numerous academies, the Académie Française (French Academia) in 1634 and the Académie Royale de
peinture et de sculpture (Royal Academia of painting and sculpture) in 1648. Eighteen years later the
Académie de France (French Academia) opened its door in Rome. Finally in 1671, the Académie Royale
d’architecture (Royal Academia of architecture) was founded with the superb château de Versailles as an
With its balance, clarity, and natural, classicism was a response to the grotesque and préciosité
shone in all forms of art.
Courageously and pleasantly, La Fontaine, the brilliant fabulist depicted his society in his
Fables, unafraid of the wrath of King Louis XIV who had great respect for art and its creators but
tolerated no criticism. Similar to the famous Roman de Renart and the fabliaux of the Middle Ages, fables
are short comedies; their personages are generally animals and their moral intent is revealed at the
beginning or end of the story. In his Fables, La Fontaine used the vers libre classique (classical free verse)
which differs from the vers libre symbolique of the 19th Century.
Louis XIV also showed his intolerance in religion with the revocation of the Edit de Nantes. This
and the beginning of the Counter Reformation brought back questions about death and salvation; and
with the king’s support, the Jansenists spread their rhetoric.
To the Grand Siècle followed the siècle des lumières (the enlightenment), French poetry was
exhausted and more concerned by religious, philosophical, and political matters than romances, poet-
philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau spread their revolutionary ideas but still found the time to write
beautiful novels. The romantic style of Rousseau’s Julie ou la nouvelle Héloïse deeply impressed Madame
de Staël and Chateaubriand, the precursor of the Romantic Movement. Alas, the French Revolution
horribly ended the 18th Century without bringing the justice so many desperately expected.
France soon became an Empire, then more revolutions brought new Republics and another
Empire; finally and lastingly, at the end of the 19th Century, the Republic came back. Meanwhile, France
was not only fighting to install a fair political regime, it also eagerly participated in the industrial and
scientific revolutions; and Paris, with her impressive Tour Eiffel, her large boulevards, and her
magnificent shopping centres became the world’s capital for its charm and elegance.
Amazingly and despite tremendous activities, the 19th Century also witnessed the apotheosis of
French poetry with a succession of master poets. Lamartine, Hugo, Vigny, and Baudelaire had a mission
to accomplish; they were the seers and lawgivers of humankind.
In the middle of the 19th Century, poets began discarding rules and invented new poetical
forms. Different meters alternate eliciting a rhythm the reader has to discover. Baudelaire used the vers
impairs (uneven verse) to create special effects in his Invitation au voyage; and he modified the sonnet by
changing its rhyme scheme. Even more, the rhymes are not systematic; either they have totally
disappeared as in Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en Prose and Rimbaud’s Saison en enfer (Season in hell) and
Illuminations or they have been replaced by assonance and alliteration. In Verlaine’s melodious poems,
rhythm and sonority reflect the poet’s melancholy.
As we shall see, Baudelaire’s magnificent work embraces romanticism and symbolism, the new
school emerging from the Parnasse. Among its leaders, the impressionist-poets, Verlaine and Rimbaud
splendidly ended the 19th Century with their sensibility and exaltation. Alienated from a society where
the Industrial Revolution had invaded every realm of life, these poets, the Bohémiens strived to create new
worlds matching their états d’âme.
Then came the 20th Century with the new masters, Prévert, Aragon, Eluard, and Géraldy,
Apollinaire, Valéry, and Cocteau; but this is another project.
La Complainte de Rutebeuf By Claudine Bigaut (2004)
9 and 10 Centuries
French literature emerges in the second half of the Middle Ages with the birth of French
language. French does not originate, as we could have expected, from the gaulois (Gallic), the numerous
Celtic dialects spoken in Gaule (Gaul) before Caesar’s invasion.1 Being under Roman domination for
more than five hundred years, the Gaulois (the Gauls) learned Vulgar Latin at the market places and in
camps; but unable to pronounce this popular Latin, much different from the Latin of Caesar and
Cicerone, they deformed it, and gradually, new dialects appeared.
Almost everywhere in Europe, the metamorphoses of Vulgar Latin occurred simultaneously
and produced the langues romanes (Roman languages): Basque, Rumanian, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish,
Old German known as langue tudesque, and Old French or vieux français with its many dialects. In the 13th
Century, the great Dante Alighieri classifies some of them according to people’s manner of saying ‘yes’.
The Middle Ages is a period of constant evolution and instability in which faith and feudality
illustrate the literature of the time. It is also the birth of human sentiment and patriotism.
The Serment de Strasbourg (Strasbourg’s Oath)2 is one of the first documents written in the new
idiom, an intermediary stages between Latin and French. Sworn near Verdun, on 14 February 842 in a
freezing meadow covered with snow, the oath seals the alliance of two of Charlemagne’s grandsons,
Charles II le Chauve (the Bald) and Louis I le Germanique (the German)3 against their brother, Lothaire I,
who claimed the title of empereur d’Occident (Holy Roman emperor).4 While Charles uses the langue
tudesque to be understood by Louis’s soldiers, Louis chooses the langue romane for Charles’s soldiers.
Pro Deo amur et pro christian poblo et nostro comun salvament, d'ist di in avant, in quant
Deus savir et podir me dunat, si salvarai eo cist meon fradre Karlo, et in adjudha et in
cadhuna cosa si cum om per dreit son fradra salvar dift, in quid il mi altresi fazet; et ab
Ludher nul plaid nunquam prindrai qui meon vol cist meon fradre Karlo in damno sit.
1 From the gaulois spoken during the Roman conquest, only few geographic names remain such as Isère,
Verdun, and Rouen.
2 Extract from Nithard’s manuscript: Louis’s oath in langue romane.
3 Also called Louis II as his father was Louis I le Pieux (the Pious).
4 This Serment has been preserved in Historiae De dissensionibus filiorum Ludovici pii (Dissensions among
the sons of Louis the Pious) written by the Frankish chronicler, Nithard, the son of Bertha, Charlemagne’s
daughter, and the imperial chancellor and poet Angilbert.
For the love of God, for Christian people and our common safety, from this day and as long
as God gives me knowledge and power, I shall defend my brother Charles here present. I
shall help him in everything, as a dutiful man ought to protect his brother, on the condition
that he does the same to me; and with Lothaire, I shall never make any arrangement, which
of my own free will, could injure my brother Charles here present.
Serment de Strasbourg5
In the 10th Century, the langue romane is evolving toward French as in the twenty-five
assonanced verses of the Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie (Saint Eulalie’s Cantilena) composed in 881.6
6The manuscript of this Cantilène was found in Valenciennes in 1837; the author was probably Hucbald,
one of Charles le Chauve’s favourite Benedictine monks, who taught at Saint-Amand-les-Eaux until 883.
Eulalie, a Spanish maiden from Medina was martyrised in 304 under the reign of the emperor Maximien.
Cantilenas are popular lyrical epics but for the first time, the story is written in vernacular so that it
can be revealed to ordinary people. As we can see in this extract, we are a little closer to French.
Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie
Buona pulcella fut Eulalia.
Bel avret corps, bellezour anima
Voldrent la veintre li Deo inimi,
Voldrent la faire diaule servir.
Elle no'nt eskoltet les mals conselliers
Qu'elle Deo raneiet, chi maent sus en ciel,
Ne por or ned argent ne paramenz
Por manatce regiel ne preiement.
Niule cose non la pouret omque pleier
La polle sempre non amast lo Deo menestier.
Eulalie was a good maiden
With a fair body and a fairer soul
God’s enemies wanted to defeat her,
Pressing her to serve the devil.
She did not listen to the vile advisers
Asking her to reject God dwelling in Heaven,
Not even for gold, money, or jewellery
Not even under threats or at the king’s request
Nothing could ever bend her will or bring
The young girl not to always love serving her God…
This is how French people express themselves in the 9th and 10th Centuries;7 but are they really
France as we know it does not exist yet and we must wait the coming of Hugues Capet, the duc
de l’Ile-de-France, to see her birth. With the support of the clergy, Hugues becomes king of France in 987;
7 Even today, many people speak various dialects. At the end of the 19th Century, half of the population
hardly spoke French but Breton, Flemish, German, Gascon, Basque, Languedocian, Provençal, or Italian,
to name some of the dialects in vigour at the time.
and gradually, the Ile-de-France extends its boundaries, spreads its language, and finally becomes a vast
country known as France.
Cantilène de Sainte-Eulalie
Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes (Codex 150, f. 141v-143r)
In this very young France, the literature of the Middle Ages starts two hundred years after the
Serment de Strasbourg. The public of the 11th Century is still illiterate and manuscripts are rare;8 but French
people love listening to the legends composed by musician-poets who interpret lyrical poems and
illustrious chansons de gestes (epic songs relating heroic deeds), while the jongleurs—the entertainers—
mime the scenes.9 These minstrels are the trouvères and troubadours10 who crisscross the country;
travelling from castle to castle, they entertain the nobles and also perform in market’s places.
Middle Ages literature deals with realistic—though much embellished—situations chosen from
three categories. French subjects focus on the crusades and the great battles to defend France and
Christianity; Brittany subjects involve Celtic legends and their heroes; and subjects from Antiquity deal
with Greek and Roman history and mythology.
The audience particularly welcomes the chansons de geste celebrating the exploits of French
heroes who fight for a noble cause. According to Gaston Paris’s theory of the cantilènes, these chansons
originate from popular songs spontaneously composed on the battlefield. Joseph Bédier however prefers
the hypothesis of epic legends forged by friars on various sanctuaries and widespread by pilgrims.
Certainly, the chansons de geste are based on historical events; but to captivate their credulous
public, poets adorn them with splendours and magical interferences.
La Chanson de Roland (Roland’s Song) is not only one of the oldest vernacular epics, it is also the
most beautiful épopée of the Middle Ages written before the first crusade of 1095-1099 by the Norman
8 Paper did not exist yet and parchments were made of animal skin
9 Most poets were also jongleurs.
10The trouvères were poets from the North of France and the troubadours from the South especially
Provence. The word troubadour derives from trobar itself coming from the Latin tropare, which means
composing tropes (liturgical songs); it therefore implies ideas of invention and creation.
11 ‘Barbe Blanche tiret. Ci falt la geste que Turoldus declinet’ (He tore his white beard. So ends the geste
Turold conceived). Though the interpretation of ‘declinet’ still poses numerous problems as the word
means also transcribe or declaim. This Turoldus or Théroulde, a Norman Benedictine Monk from Fécamp
abbey, could be the author of the song or the keeper of an older geste written about the battle of
Roncesvalles and its hero Roland. Others suggest that the monk’s father could be the author. On the
Bayeux Tapestry, Turold is indeed presented as one of Guillaume the Conqueror’s advisers. The only
logical assumption we can make is that the Chanson was certainly written before the first crusade
La Chanson de Roland recounts the famous battle of Roncevaux (Roncesvalles) where on 15
August 778, Roland, Préfet (Prefect) de la Marche de Bretagne, lost his life, having refused three times to
blow his horn and alert Charlemagne of the treacherous ambush of the Saracens. This story however
greatly exaggerates what really happened; according to Charlemagne’s chronicler, Einhard, the battle of
Roncevaux was an insignificant event where the Vascons, the Basques’ ancestors, not the Saracens, killed
the last column of the Frankish army, headed by some Hroudland or Roland, Prefect of the Marche de
The plan of the chanson is simple and in few words, the author characterises the personages.
Roland, the French hero par excellence is brave, Olivier is wise, and every-one in the chanson has
prodigious strength. Nevertheless and as a chronicler, the
poet calmly describes their prowess introducing here and
there the merveilleux (the marvellous, the inexplicable, the
supernatural), which remains essentially Christian.
La Chanson de Roland is a very long epic poem
written in Avranchin dialect.12 It counts five songs of more
than 4200 decasyllables (ten-syllable verses) and few
alexandrines (twelve-syllable verses)13 organised in 291
laisses (strophes of various lengths) of twelve and fifteen
feminine and masculine14 verses. The cadence of the
chanson is obtained through the assonance and the caesura
after the fourth accentuated syllable. Each laisse is
constructed on the same assonance based on the last
accentuated vowels.15 Many critiques have condemned the
gaucherie and naïve popularity of the chanson,
nevertheless, the style is noble; all traces of vulgarity have
been scrupulously avoided; and despite the diversity and
rusticity of the dialect, we see the evolution of a marvellous
In Laisse CLXXIV verses 2355-2365, Roland and
considering that if such a grand endeavour had already begun, the author would have mentioned it one
way or another.
12 However, the Chanson could have been written in another dialect and copied
13The Oxford manuscript retrieved in 1836 is now in the Oxford Library
14All verses ending with a mute e or et, es, or ent are feminine, the others masculine.
15The rhyme became necessary only when the public was able to read poetry.
his men valiantly fight on the sharp stones of the gorge where scarce brushwood hardly survives in this
austere land. One after the other, they die preserving not only their honour but also the honour of their
family, of their country, and of their king. Roland accepts this ultimate sacrifice with pride and dignity.
Ço sent Rollant ║que la mort le tresprent, But Rolland feels that Death is coming,
Devers la teste ║ sur le quer li descent. Going down from his head toward his heart.
Desuz un pin ║ i est alet curant, To a pine-tree, he runs in haste
Sur l’erbe verte ║ s’i est culchet adenz. And on the green grass, lies on his face.
Desuz lui met ║ s’espee e l’olifan, His sword and olifant16 beneath him,
Turnat sa teste ║vers la paiene gent : He turns his head toward the pagan race.
Pur ço l’at fait║ que il voelt veirement He does all this because he dearly wants
Que Carles diet║ e trestute sa gent, Charles to loudly proclaim to his people
Li gentilz quens, ║ qu’il fut mort cunquerant. That the gentle earl died while conquering.
Cleimet sa culpe ║ e menut e suvent, Then he lightly strikes his breast many times;
Pur ses pecchez ║Deu en puroffrid lo guant. And for his sins, gives his glove17 to God.
Despite its nationalist inclination, the chanson seduces all European countries, charming them
by its simplicity and originality. These medieval writers not only master the art de l’intrigue (art of
intrigue) with brio, they also depict with astonishing vividness unique personages. Unfortunately,
modern readers are swift to single out the numerous clichés, repetitions, and unoriginal formulas of
transition; they seem to forget that these ingenious means cleverly facilitate memorisation.
Roland gives himself and all his strength and courage to God. La Mort de Roland
Musée Condé Folio 153v des Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (1412–1416)
French language is evolving so rapidily that despite three hundred years of popularity, la
Chanson de Roland will be forgotten, as no one will be able to read this vieux français for centuries to come.
Meanwhile, French poetry is slowly taking shape. In the North, the trouvères continue to focus
on manhood and rigid morality so their poetry remains severe and cold; and in the south, the troubadours
are deeply inspired by Hispano-Arabic literature.18 Since the beginning of the 11th Century, Arab poets
from Spain are singing idealised love; but this love being far from platonic, women are rather objects than
subjects. In most of the troubadours‘works, especially in the cansos (songs) of Guillaume IX d’Aquitaine,19
we find the same sensuality and eroticism as in Tawq al-hamâma (The Dove’s Necklace) written by the
Andalusian poet Ibn Hazm in 1022. In both works, the poets acknowledge their submission to their
beloved and address them with masculine honorific titles such as Milord or Master not Milady or
Mistress; furthermore, the obstacles hindering their love are always the Lady’s guardian, the calumniator,
the envious, and the moralist.
Arabic music however largely differs from provençal melody. While the former is sensual and
oriental, the other is sober and grave reminding us of the chants grégoriens (Gregorian chants).20 There are
certainly some similitude with the tropes (lyrical works inserted in liturgy) and the troubadours’
compositions; in four of Guillaume’s poems, we find the syllabic and accentuate verses, the rimes plates
(successive pairs of masculine and feminine rhymes) aabb, and the structured strophes of four
octosyllables (eight-syllable verses) and two tetrasyllables (four-syllable verses).
18 Though the Muslim invasion was stopped with Charles Martel’s victory at Poitiers in 732, the Arabs
continued to have a very strong influence on Provençal culture
19 Guillaume or Guilhem (or William) de Peitous, was Aliénor d’Aquitaine’s grandfather. He is the first
known troubadour from whom eleven chansons have been preserved. The poet was certainly a gai luron
20 The Church’s ritual songs from the 11th and 12th Centuries
(1071 – 1127)
Guillaume le Jeune, duc d’Aquitaine and seventh comte (earl) de Poitou is one of the most
powerful seigneurs (lords) of France; his domain is impressive, spreading in
Aquitaine and Poitou as well as Périgord, Limousin, Angoumois, Saintonge, and
Gascony. The comte also has suzerainty over Auvergne and the county of Toulouse.
This is significant compared to the Kingdom of France covering only Paris, Orléans,
and Compiègnes. Guillaume21 cherishes his dear Poitou with its dried and wet
marshes, its small islets bathed by natural canals, its ancestral forests of oaks,
beeches, and elms skirting narrow bands of meadows.
As all the comtes de Poitou, Guillaume holds his court in Poitiers and
speaks a northern dialect; yet, he writes all his chansons in provençal, the meridional
dialect spoken by his subjects in the South of France. Certainly, Guillaume is a pure
Gaulois; he loves women and often, he crudely associates them with pleasure in his
chansons paillardes (ribald songs) as in the following extract
Dos cavalhs ai a ma selha ben e gen ;
Bon son e adreg per armas e valen ; …
Ges non sai ab qual mi tengua de N’Agnes o de N’Arsen.22
I have two fillies for my saddle and this is very well;
Both are good, trained for battle and valiant; …
I do not know which one to keep: Agnes or Arsen.
This love is certainly quite remote from the sublimate love later found in the romans chevaleresques
(chivalric romances). Nevertheless, our troubadour clearly understands that poetry is the perfect medium
to express his feelings and he uses it brilliantly in Ab la dolchor del temps novel (Sweetness of Renewal).
Here, Guillaume chooses the octosyllable and the assonance with the structure aabcbc and
bbcaca, a modification of the old strophe couée (aabccd), quite different from the variations of the popular
form of the time (aaabab).
21 Image from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS Cod. fr. 12473
22 Guillaume IX, Les Chansons de Guillaume IX Duc d’Aquitaine, pp 1-2.
Ab la Dolchor del Temps novel 23 Sweetness of Renewal
Ab la dochor del temps novel With spring and the sweetness of renewal
Foillo li bosc, e li aucel Leaves glow in the woods while birds
Chanton chascus en lor lati Sing, and every-one in its own Latin
Segon lo vers del novel chan ; Exults and chants the verse of a new song;
Adonc esta ben c’om s’aisi It is so good that all seek and obtain
D ‘acho don him a plus talan. What men have always desired so much.
De lai don plus m’es bon e bel From what is good and sweet to my heart
Non vei mesager ni sagel, I see no messenger or sealed letter
Per que mos cors non dorm ni ri, My heart does not sleep or laugh anymore
Ni no m’aus traire adenan And I dare not advance a step further
Tro qe sacha ben de la fi So at last, I could know the end
S’el’ es aissi com eu deman. And find out if my hope is not vain.
La nostr'amor vai enaissi This is our wandering love carelessly dragged
Com la branca de l'albespi Like the hawthorn branch,
Qu'esta sobre l'arbre en treman, Trembling on the tree
La nuoit, a la ploja ez al gel, All night, under icy rain and cruel frost
Tro l'endeman, que-l sols s'espan Till morning, when the sun at last shines
Pel las fueillas verz e-l ramel. On the green and tender leaves of the shrub.
Enquer me membra d'un mati I remember very well one morning
Que nos fezem de guerra fi, When we finally ended the long war
E que-m donet un don tan gran, And when she granted me the supreme gift:
Sa drudari’ e son anel : To seal our Love
Enquer me lais Dieus viure tan God! Let me live a little longer
C’aja mas manz soz so mantel ! So I may keep my hands under her gown!
Qu’eu non ai soing d’estraing lati I care not about the strange Latin
Que-m parta de mon Bon Vezi, That diverts my neighbours from me,
Qu’eu sai de paraulas com van As I know very well all the vain words
Ad un breu sermon que s’espel, Which always abound in brief sermons;
Que tal se van d’amor gaban, While some boast about their love affairs,
Nos n’avem la pessa e-l coutel. Luckily, we have the piece and the knife.24
23 Ibid., pp 24-26
Guillaume’s works mark the beginning of the golden age of the littérature romane. Courtly love,
amour courtois also known as Fin’ amors seduces the trouvères and the whole France, when the beautiful
and sophisticate Aliénor d’Aquitaine marries the king of France in 1137.25 Life is indeed more joyful and
refined in Provence where the rich seigneurs build luxurious castle, buy sumptuous furniture, tapestries,
jewels, and beautiful clothes made of silk and embroidery.
Having greatly expanded her domain thanks to the charming Aliénor, France is enjoying a
relative stability and this facilitates intellectual and economic growth. Around 1100, Paris, the new capital
of France, has already gained an excellent academic reputation; and scholars from all over Europe are
coming to study with illustrious masters. The young Abélard teaches dialectic at the Écoles de Notre-
Dame and Montagne Sainte-Geneviève on the left bank of the River Seine in the famous Quartier Latin.26
Soon, Abélard’s intellectual jousts with the theologians Guillaume de Champeaux and Bernard de
Clairvaux27 attract so many students that lodging in Paris become almost impossible.28
Yet, Abélard’s celebrity stands on the distressing result of his love affair with Héloïse, the fair
and well-educated niece of Canon Fulbert. The professor is fully aware that seducing his beautiful
student is unacceptable; nonetheless, he openly shows his passion, and despite Héloïse’s wise objections,
he marries her in secrecy. Unsurprisingly, the girl’s family is enraged by the scandalous affair, and one
night, Abélard is ferociously emasculated. Forever unable to satisfy his beloved, he dedicates his life to
God; and at his request, Héloïse becomes a nun.
Everyone in Paris weeps for the unfortunate lovers and soon, all in Occident know about
Abélard’s tragedy. Certainly, the times have changed; warriors and knights are not fighting so they
spend most of their time in tournaments and festivities. Their unique challenge is to love and be loved.
Accordingly, poetic eloquence smoothly supplants heroism in war; and women become an inexhaustible
source of inspiration.
For poets and writers, this is the opportunity to develop the art d’aimer (the art to love) and
rapidly, the romans chevaleresques take over the chansons. These romans are read not sung and this is an
24 In other words, ‘we don’t dream about love we make love!’
25 Aliénor (1122-1204) was married to Louis VII for fifteen years
26 Régine Pernoud, Héloïse et Abélard, p 11.
27 While Bernard fought for the primacy of the heart but warned against sensuality and luxury, Abélard
succumbed to earthly love but vehemently defended reason
28 I. Heullant Education et Cultures. Occident Chrétien XII- mi XVe siècle, p 378.
Abelard and Heloise surprised by Fulbert29
29 Paint by Romanticist Painter Jean Vignaud in 1819. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Abelard
In chivalric romans, the etiquette of courtly love has suppressed the sensuality of fin amors but
idealisations of love outside marriage taken from Celtic legends delight the public. Le Roman de Tristan
(Tristan’s Romance)1 composed by Béroul2 probably about 1150 and adapted by Thomas d’Angleterre3 in
1170 is not a roman, as we know it, but a long poem of more than 4485 octosyllables written in Vieux
Français; the structure of many sentences is still Latin but the vocabulary has evolved. Furthermore and
this is the main poetic innovation, the poem is read without musical accompaniment.
After having accidentally drunk the love potion prepared by the queen of Ireland for her
daughter and King Marc, Tristan and Iseult fall irresistibly in love. Unfortunately, this innocent love
brings misery and sorrow, raising the big questions about good and evil, innocence and culpability,
passion and reason, will and fatality. Soon, Tristan’ and Yseult’s love is stained by deceit and treachery
but how could we not feel compassion for this passionate love even when the magical effect of the potion
ceases. Indeed, how could they forget the tenderness and ardour they experienced for so long?
« Ahi, Yseult, fille de roi, “Ah! Yseult, king’s daughter,
Franche, cortoise, en bone foi,! Noble and courteous; in faith,
Par plusors foiz vos ai mandee, I asked to see you many times,
Puis que chambre me fu veee, As your room was closed to me
Ne puis ne poi a vos parler. And I could not talk to you.
Dame, or vos vuel merci crier Lady, I beg your mercy
Qu'il vos membre de cel chaitif Remember the hapless man
Qui a traval et a duel vif; Who suffers so much for you;
Quar j'ai tel duel c'onques le roi The king alas suspects me
Out mal pensé de vos vers moi Of evil thoughts toward you
Qu'il n'i a el fors que je muere... So I prefer to die…
…Qu’il n’en creüst pas losangier …He believed the delators
1 Manuscript from the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris probably written in 1185.
2 Béroul signed post it verses 1268 and 1788 ‘Berox l’a mex en sen memoire…La ou Berox le vit excrit’
(Béroul kept it in his memory…where Béroul saw it written.) He was Norman and lived in England.
3 The Anglo-Norman poet, Thomas d’Angleterre lived at the court of Henry II of England and Aliénor
d’Aquitaine. Only few fragments of the manuscript remain.
Moi desor lui a esloignier. And has kept me away. 4
While Béroul is compassionate, Thomas writes like a tragedian and his work is known as the
courtly version; he does not take side and simply exposes the lovers’ misfortune focusing on their
extreme suffering. After Roland’s epopee of the will, Tristan is the romance of fatality where tragic fate
devastates three heroes’ lives.
Marie de France, the first known French woman-writer, also contributes
to Middle Ages literature. Again, we know very little about her; born in France,
probably in Ile-de-France, she later lives at the brilliant court of Henry II
Plantagenêt and Aliénor d’Aquitaine.5
In 1160-75, Marie dedicates twelve lais6 in Vieux Français to Henry II. In
the prologue, she modestly confides that she only narrates the legends sung by
the bards. For Marie, oral tradition is therefore of primary importance. With its
one hundred eighteen verses, Chevrefoil (Honeysuckle) is one of Marie’s shortest
lais7 but it is certainly the most beautiful as nowhere before, have melancholy and
exaltation been dealt with such refinement. The lai exposes the poet’s tender and
feminine feelings blending delicately subtle emotion and melancholy; it also
announces the ultimate sacrifice depicted in the Tristan of Thomas.
In this extract, Tristan exiled from his marvellous queen walks in the
wood; and as a sign of reconnaissance, he puts on the path the symbol of his
indestructible love, a twig of honeysuckle tied up to a branch of hazel. When
Yseult enters the wood, she recognises the sign and soon meets Tristan. 8
D'eus deus fu il tut autresi They were two bound together
Cume del chevrefoil esteit As the honeysuckle always
Ki a la codre se perneit : Binds to the hazel tree:
Quant il est s'i laciez e pris When caught in its branchs,
E tut entur le fust s'est mis, They hug tightly
Ensemble poënt bien durer, Together they can live long
Mès ki puis les volt desevrer, But should anyone part the two,
Li codres muert hastivement The hazel tree surely dies
E li chevrefoil ensement. And the honeysuckle follows it.
4 Tristan de Béroul in Les Tristan en vers, verses 87-99.
5 In the epilogue of her fables, Marie says her name and that she came from France. Perhaps, Marie was
also Abbess of Shaftesbury and this explains her erudition.
6 Coming from the Celtic word laid, lais are musical compositions.
7 The longest is Eliaduc with 1184 verses.
8 Extract from Lai du Chèvrefeuille in Les Tristan en vers, verses 68-78. Image from BNF
« Bele amie, si est de nus : “My beloved, so it is with us.
Ne vus sanz mei, ne mei sanz vus. » No you without me, no I without you.”
Inspired by the legends of Britain and Bretagne (Brittany), Marie composes many fables in
verses. While beast tales written in Latin remain in monasteries, she is the first to write an Ysopet (word
derived from Aesop) in vernacular so that lay people can appreciate them. Clearly, Marie’s aim is to
depict the 12th Century society, while preserving the merveilleux of the Celtic soul and its Breton
We may wonder why Thomas and Marie wrote in French. England at the time or at least the
royal court is very French. Since 1152, the duc de Normandie, Henri Plantagenêt is king of England; and
thanks to his wife Aliénor (ex-king of France’s wife) his domain largely extends to France. Furthermore,
Aliénor continues to rule her duchy and holds a brilliant court at Poitier where she protects artists and
Normandie was a strategic place; this sends us back to the 10th Centuries, when men coming
from the North, the Danes or Vikings, settled in the northern coast of France and the North and East of
For more than a century, the Vikings were devastating the Seine Valley running from Verdon to
Le Havre. In 911, the French king Charles le Simple and Rollon, the chieftain of the Danes, agreed to sign
a treaty in Saint-Clair, a small town near Vernon. Rollon accepted to end pillages and massacres; in
exchange, he obtained the right to occupy Neustrie, which he renamed Normandie. The province became
a duchy and Rollon was the first duc de Normandie. Soon, the
North-men or Normands (Normans) adopted French civilisation
as their own, abandoned their language, and converted to
The relation between England and Normandie was
excellent; and when Ethelred the Unready was chased by the
Danes in 1002, he took refuge in Normandie, his wife’s native
country. Ethelred’s son, Edward was then raised in France; and
when the last Danes in power finally died in 1042, Edward
regained the throne and brought back with him many Norman
Edward’s affinity with the Normands greatly displeased
the English Earls particularly Godwin of Wessex, his father-in-
law, who raised an army against him. Godwin was defeated and
banished from the country. Free, Edward continued to favour the
Normands.9 This generated hostile reactions and Edward was
9Robin Hood’s legend depicts the hatred of the Saxons for the Norman sheriffs who occupied their land
and made their lives miserable.
constrained to call back Godwin for the security of the country. Later, Godwin’s son, Harold became one
of the king’s most influential advisers. Nevertheless, Edward designated his cousin Guillaume (William
the Conqueror), the duc de Normandie, as his successor; and reluctantly, Harold had to swear allegiance
to the future king of England.10 This pledge did not deter Harold to seize the crown one day after
Edward’s death on 5 January 1066; he argued that just before he died, the king changed his mind and
named him as his heir. Of course, Guillaume challenged this claim; and while in September, Harold was
defeating Hardrade III (The Hard Ruler), the king of Norway, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in the
north of England, Guillaume and his impressive army landed on the south coast of England at Pevensey.
Harold met the invaders with a small army on 14 October but his position on the hill of Senlac
was so advantageous and his soldiers fought so well that Guillaume retreated. This, however, was a
clever stratagem to drive the enemy off the hill; indeed, as soon as Harold’s army pursued the Normands
down the hill, the latter immediately turned back and the famous Battle of Hastings started. During the
fierce fight, Harold was instantly killed by an arrow in his eyes; and deprived of their leader, the English
retreated in confusion allowing Guillaume to take possession of the field.
On Christmas Day of the same year, Guillaume was finally crowned king of England. The
conquest and the campaigns of rebellion that followed nearly decimated the English nobility; and for
many generations, the Normans held the most important positions in the government. As a result, French
became the court’s language while the lower classes continued to speak English.
As the years passed, the nobles became bilingual through intermarriages and associations; and
the kings of England, deeply attached to their duchy of Normandie, spent most of their reign in France.
The court accordingly travelled from one country to the other. Even the great English landowners were
seduced by the country behind the sea; they bought large properties in France and arranged marriages to
protect their interests. Finally and as the Danes did before, all these people embraced the French culture
and loved the littérature courtoise (courtly literature).
10Tapisserie de Bayeux (Tapestry of Bayeux) showing Harold’s allegiance to Guillaume. This giant
needlework measures 70m long and 0.495m wide and is preserved in the Musée de la Reine Mathilde in
Dominions of William the Conqueror around 1087 11
11Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd in
Chrétien de Troyes
(~1150 - ~1200)
Erec et Enide written by Chrétien de Troyes around 1170 is probably one of the greatest chef
d’oeuvres (work of art) of courtly literature. It is the oldest version of the Arthurian legend.
As for many Middle Ages’ poets, we do not know much about Chrétien. His patroness, Marie
de Champagne is the daughter of Louis VII and Aliénor d’Aquitaine; thanks to her mother, Marie not
only has a Provencal conception of love, she also knows and loves all the legends from Brittany. Chrétien
has therefore a splendid opportunity to enrich his culture. Indeed, Marie teaches him the style of poetry
from the South of France; and she encourages him to read the Latin Chronicle of Nennius, which depicts
the conflicts between the Celts and the Saxons in the 5th and 6th Centuries, and Robert Wace’s Roman de
Brut, a translation of Historia Regum Britaniae written around 1135 by the Bishop, Geoffrey of Monmouth.1
Deeply inspired by his teacher, Chrétien concentrates his writing on love and begins the amazing legends
of King Arthur.
In the courteous universe of his romances, we now travel in a fairylike world where the
merveilleux swerved from Christianity. While the knight in the Chansons de Gestes accomplished fabulous
deeds for God, the courteous knight wants to conquer his Lady’s heart.
Though Chrétien’s work is sometimes monotonous with repetitions and tedious details, his
audience loves lengthy descriptions and argumentations about the art d’aimer. Furthermore, Chrétien
uses analogy and contrast with great subtlety and elegance, when he reveals his characters’ weaknesses
and virtues. Rather than exposing the torments of love and the ravages they cause in lovers’ hearts,
Chrétien observes and analyses their feelings; he describes the mechanism of love with intelligence and
wit; but in Erec et Enide, Chrétien goes much further.
With its 6958 verses, Erec et Enide emphasises the social ideal of French aristocracy and chivalry;
here, men and women revere the rules of courtesy, are generous toward the weak, and highly praise
truth. Primarily, the legend exposes the conflict between love and adventure. By overcoming all the
hindrances they find on their journey, Erec and Enide learn self-respect, friendship, and love—love for
the people they will rule one day. Only then, are they crowned king and queen. Surprises, obstacles, and
extraordinary quests abound; and by interrupting the story at the most captivating moment, Chrétien
cleverly keeps his public on edge. The master-poet also uses vivid images and skilfully introduces new
1According to Geoffrey, Arthur or Artus was a Breton king who united the Celtic tribes of Great Britain
and Brittany against the Anglo-Saxons in the sixth century. However, Geoffrey’s Historia, which blends
paganism and Christianity, is purely fictional. The Anglo-Norman Wace was the Canon of Bayeux; he
dedicated his Roman de Brut to his queen, Aliénor d’Aquitaine, in 1155.
poetic devices like enjambment. The romance is written in octosyllables grouped in assonanced strophes
of unequal length. In the extract, Chrétien describes King Arthur’s outstanding court with its valiant
knights and fair Ladies.
Un jor de Pasque, au tans novel, One Easter day in renewal,
A caradigan, son chastel, In his town of Caradigan,
Ot li rois Artus cort tenue. The good King Arthur held his court.
Ains si riche ne fu veüe; No one had ever seen such a rich place
Car mout i ot buens chevaliers, So many valiant knights, courageous
Hardiz et corageus et fiers, And proud were present,
Et riches dames et puceles, With their rich ladies and damsels,
Filles a rois, jantes et beles.2 Daughters of kings, gentle and fair.
Erec et Enide
BNF Français 113 (3), fol. 111v, Mort d’Erec
2 Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide, édition Forster, verses 27-34.
The exceptional success of the Arthurian Romances contributes to the spreading of the francien,
the dialect of the Ile-de-France. Soon, the legends cross the frontiers making Chrétien the père de la
littérature précieuse (father of precious literature) and a master in the art of storytelling.
Empire Plantagenêt 1144-11663
A century later, Europe sees the opening of its first universities. Originally, universitas means
union or corporation of academic or non-academic nature;1 and universities are before anything else
associations of masters and students. Founded by Philippe Auguste, the Université de Paris is attached to
the beautiful cathedral Notre Dame de Paris.2 Like most universities, it is primarily a school of theology,
philosophy, medicine, and law, where teachers are paid by their students. Nevertheless, the university
also attracts poor students unable to pay for their tuition; for them, Robert de Sorbon, the confessor and
chaplain of Louis IX3 opens a college Montagne Sainte Geneviève in 1257; it soon becomes a faculty of
excellent reputation, the famous Sorbonne.
13th Century poets still cherish the art d’aimer, which reaches its apogee in le Roman de la Rose
(Romance of the Rose), a superb allegory of 22000 octosyllables first written by Guillaume de Lorris
around 1230 and achieved in 1270-75 by Jean Clopinel de Meung. Le Roman de la Rose is of a didactic
genre as the poets’ essential objective is to teach something to their readers. With Guillaume, the reader is
initiated to the art d’aimer; and with Jean, they learn moral, social, and philosophical values.
1 Durkheim, p 154-157
2 Built in 1180, the cathedral was finished around 1320.
3 Louis IX was canonized Saint-Louis in 1297.
Guillaume de Lorris
(1210 – 1237)
The only thing we know about Guillaume4 is from Jean de Meung5 who indicates in his work
that Guillaume wrote the first part of Le Roman de la Rose.
In the poem, Guillaume alias Amant (Lover) dreams. He walks in a magnificent garden where
Plaisir (Pleasure), Jeunesse (Youth), Richesse (Wealth), Liesse (Gaiety), and Beauté (Beauty) live happily.
He then encounters Amour (Love), the wonderful but exigent master of the garden, when he sees the
reflection of a marvellous rosebud in the clear fountain of Narcissus. The Rose is the classic symbol of
love and desire; but to conquer her, Amant must learn the art d’aimer enclosed in Amour’s ten
commandments. With this code of courtesy, Amant escapes the ruses of Malebouche (Wicked-tongue)
Alas, Guillaume dies and the poem suddenly ends when Amant reaches the high walls of
Jalousie’s castle, the last obstacle between him and his Rose.
Guillaume’s delicate and graceful poetic descriptions charm the public even though his writing
is sometimes a little dull. Nevertheless, poetry has evolved with Guillaume; for the first time, assonances
have become rimes and some even contain more than two elements of similarity so they are called rimes
riches (rich rhymes). Here is Guillaume’s introduction.
El vintiesme an de mon aage, In the twentieth year of my age,
el point qu’Amors prend le paage when Love calls on the young
des jones genz, couchier m’aloie to pay their tributes, I was lying
une nuit, si con je souloie, on my couch one night as usual,
et me dormoie mout forment, having a deep and peaceful rest,
si vi un songe en mon dormant, when I had a dream
qui mout fut biaus, et mout me plot ; so sweet it gave me great delight;
mes en ce songe onques riens n’ot every detail came true
qui tretot avenu ne soit, All happened exactly
si con li songes recensoit. as the dream predicted it.
Or veil cel songe rimeer, Thus, I put it into verse
por vos cuers plus feire agueer, to brighten and enchant your hearts,
4 Guillaume de Lorris wrote the Roman de la Rose in 1230
5 Jean was an erudite clerk and a philosopher without nobility
qu Amors le me prie et comande. as Love commands me to do so.
Et se nule ne nus demande And if anyone asks
comant je veil que li romanz the title of this Romance
soit apelez, que je comanz, that will soon commence here after,
ce est li Romanz de la Rose, it is the Romance of the Rose,
Ou l’art d’Amors est tote enclose where the art of love is enclosed.
La matire est et bone et nueve, The theme is sweet and new,
or doint Dex qu’en gré le receve and may God grant it, be well viewed
cele por qui je l’ai empris : by her for whom I cheerfully wrote it:
c’est cele qui tant, a de pris she is so dear to me
et tant est digne d’estre amee and deserves love so much
qu’el doit estre Rose clamee. 6 that Rose she should be named.
Roman de la Rose7
6 Guillaume de Lorris et Jean de Meung (1995) Le Roman de la Rose, verses 21-44.
While in his 4058 verses Guillaume depicts with beauty and vividness a naïve and enchanted
world of abstractions symbolising the state of the soul in love, Jean is cynical and sometimes obscene.
Rather than a poet, he is a thinker and his style is certainly not courteous, as we perceive the new esprit
bourgeois (bourgeois spirit) with its unshaken will to rise above poverty to be free to undertake whatever
can be achieved.
Though in the end Amant finally conquers the Rose, Guillaume’s romance is now a satire.
Amant has lost his chivalric illusions and uses force and ruse to hastily reach his goal. The conquest is
more or less a rapt as Christine de Pisan later suggests.8
This second part is indeed the blatant critique of the first. No more should we learn the art
d’aimer but science and strategy; and Jean coldly exposes his knowledge, as he would do in a treatise.
Furthermore, his ideas are not always original; many passages are directly inspired from Latin literature
especially Sallust.9 Above all, Jean vociferates against women, the institution of marriage, the clergy, and
the legitimacy of the monarchy. To him, poverty is ugly, and Abstinence and chastity unnatural.
However, he worships Nature who tirelessly creates beings to replace those who perish.
Lost are Guillaume’s elegance, respect, and devotion for his beloved rosebud; but despite his
cynicism, Jean is seen by his contemporaries as a talented writer and a bright pamphleteer.
Literature from the 12th and 13th Centuries reveals more than courtly love and philosophical
ideas. With audacity and humour, poets denounce the their rulers’ injustice, the nobles’ corruption and
hypocrisy, and the avarice and cupidity of the church. If Jean de Meung displays an esprit bourgeois, the
fabulists of the time are not bitter and prefer to laugh. This is the esprit gaulois excellently defines by
Sidney Lee :
It is often confused unjustly with humorous obscenity. In its original manifestations, l’esprit gaulois
implies three enviable qualities: firstly, flexibility of thought; secondly, gaiety, tending at times to
levity and coarseness, but readily yielding to pathetic tenderness; thirdly, a melodious ease of
frank and simple utterance.10
Yes, the esprit gaulois is the natural tendency to mock and denigrate with good humour and cynicism the
high society. Inspired by this spirit, the satiric literature of the Middle Ages with its fables and fabliaux
despises the littérature féodale, chevaleresque, and courtoise. This literature bourgeoise is spontaneous and
joyful so it attracts a very large public.
8 The feminist poet and historian Christine de Pisan (1360-1431) severely condemned Jean’s romance as
immoral and misogynistic.
9 Roman historian and political leader from the 1st Century B.C.
10 Sidney Lee (1968) The French Renaissance in England, pp 13-14
11 Paris’s University was founded by Philippe Auguste in 1200 not as this map suggests in the 12th
Century. Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd in
Pierre de Saint Cloud & all
(~1150 – ~1250)
Among the best satires of the time, are the twenty-eight versed narratives called branches or
estoires12 of the hilarious Roman de Renart (Renart’s Romance) written between 1150 and 1342 by Pierre de
Saint-Cloud, Richard de Lison, Rutebeuf, and anonymous authors. The
first two branches were inspired by the Latin poem Ysengrinus written by
the Flemish monk, Nivart in 1148-49, and by the German poem, Reinhart
Fuchs (Reinhart the Fox), composed by the Alsatian writer, Heinrich der
Glïchezäre13 in 1180.14
Le Roman de Renart 15does not teach any moral. In this amusing
epopee of 100 000 verses written in octosyllables and rimes plates, the
authors’ funny and impish descriptions make people laugh.16 Here,
animals live in a well-structured society, a society, which clearly mirrors
the human society of the time. These animals not only have a family,
they also have names; such individualisation is a great innovation and
Renart, the fox, is so popular that his name will forever supplant the
word goupil in French language.
Le Roman de Renart is a parody of the aristocracy and while
Ysengrin personifies the church’s greed and stupidity, Renart is the
cunning intelligence and the good little devil who mocks courtly love and its heroic knights. Indeed,
Renart’s love affair with Ysengrin’s unfaithful spouse, Hersent, comically evokes Lancelot and
Guinevere; and the lion and his barons closely resemble King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table;
but above all, Renart is the symbol of the poor but intelligent rebel whose amorality is excused by the
futility and hypocrisy of his oppressors. This transposition of the animal world to the human world is not
a protest but a picturesque and realistic painting of the 13th Century society.
Here follows an extract of Le Jugement de Renart (Renart’s Judgment) 17 with the poignant but
ludicrous discourse of Pinte, the eccentric hen! The tone is light but passionate.
12 Isolate short stories or tales.
13 Der Glïchezäre means ‘the Hypocrite’.
14 The story of the lion cured by the wolf’s skin was written in 940 by a monk from Toul in Lorraine.
15 Le Roman de Renard, XIVe siècle Bibliothèque Nationale Français 1581, fol. 19, Renart
16 Even today, French children study it in primary school and they love it
17 Extract of Jugement de Renart in Le Roman de Renart, edited by Ernest Martin, branche I, verses 295-344.
Quant li rois ot jugie asez, When the king was tired of listening
Qui del pleider estoit lassez, To so many pleaders,
Ez les jelines meintenant The hens arrived with Chantecler
Et Chantecler paumes batant. They were beating their palms madly.
Pinte s'escrie premereine Pinte was the first to declaim while
Et les autres a grant aleine : The others yelled in one breath:
« Por Deu, fet ele, gentix bestes “Before God, she said, gentle beasts,
Et chen et leu tex con vos estes, Dog, wolf, all of you sitting here,
Qar conseilliez ceste chaitive ! Give your advice to a poor hen!
Molt he l'oure que je sui vive. O! I hate the hour I was born.
Mort, car me pren, si t'en delivre, Death, please come and deliver me,
Quant Renart ne me lesse vivre ! As Renart wants to take my life!
Cinc freres oi tot de mon pere : From Father I had five brothers:
Toz les manja Renart li lere, Renart, the vile thief, ate them all,
Ce fu grant perte et grant dolors. Such a great loss and great sorrow!
De par ma mere oi cinc serors, From Mother, I had five sisters,
Que virges poules, que mescines : All young maidens, all lovely chicks:
Molt i avoit beles jelines. So young and beautiful pullets.
Gonberz del Frenne les passoit, Gonberz from Fresne fed them quite well
Qui de pondre les anguissoit : Fattening them just for laying:
Li las ! mal les i encressa. Alas! Why did he fatten them?
Qar ainc Renart ne l'en laissa For Renart only spared one
De totes cinc que une soule : Yes, only one out of five:
Totes passerent par sa goule. Soon all of them went down his throat.
Et vos qui la gisez en bere, And now you lay in this coffin,
Ma douce suer, m'amie chere, My sweet sister, my darling friend,
Con vos estieez tendre et crasse ! Oh! How tender and plump you were!
Que fera vostre suer la lasse How your poor sister could now live
Que a nul jor ne vos regarde ? Without seeing you one more day?
Renart, la male flambe t'arde ! Renart, the flame of hell burn you!
Tantes foiz nus avez foleez How many times did you harm us?
Et chacies et tribulees, You always chase and torment us.
Et descirees nos pelices, Many times, you wrecked our silk coats
Et enbatues dusq'as lices. Hunting us to the palisades.
Ier par matin devant la porte Yesterday morn, on my doorstep
Me jeta il ma seror morte, He threw the corpse of my sister
Puis s'en foï parmi un val. And ran away in the val.
Gonberz n'ot pas isnel cheval, Gonberz who had no fast horses
Ne nel poïst a pie ateindre. Had no hope to catch him on foot.
Ge me voloie de lui pleindre, At once, I wanted to sue him
Mes je ne truis qui droit m'en face, But found no one to hear my case
Car il ne crent autrui manace Because Renart fears no menace
N'autrui coroz vaillant deus foles. » And no anger can alarm him.”
Pinte la lasse a ces paroles So tired after such a discourse
Chaï pamee el pavement, Pinte soon fainted on the pavement
Et les autres tot ensement. With her distressed and loyal friends.
Por relever les quatre dames To revive and comfort the ladies
Se leverent de lor escames The dog, the wolf, and all the beasts
Et chen et lou et autres bestes, Left their wooden stools instantly
Eve lor getent sor les testes. And sprinkled their head with water.
After two centuries of economic prosperity, demographic growth, and territorial expansion,
France is now the most powerful European country. Unfortunately, famine, war, and horrible diseases
soon ruin the country.
From the beginning of the 14th Century, the king of France, Philippe IV le Bel (the Fair) enters
into conflict with the papacy objecting to its intrusion in the affairs of France. With the support of the first
États Généraux (Estates-General),1 Pope Boniface VIII is arrested in 1309 and a French pope is elected and
settled in Avignon.2 Philippe also wants to replenish France’s coffers with the Knights Templar’s
impressive wealth3 and in 1312, he obtains the suppression of their order; many knights are tortured and
sent to the stake including the Great master, Jacques de Molay who curses him and his offspring.
The rois maudits (the cursed kings) indeed die prematurely one after the others starting from
Philippe in 1314 and ending in 1328 with his last son Charles IV le Bel who leaves no male heir. The
crown then passes to Philippe VI de Valois, Philippe le Bel’s nephew, despite the legitimate claim of
Edward III of England, Philippe’s grandson.
Edward is furious but has no choice, he must pay homage to the new king in order to keep his
possessions in Gascogne (Gascony) and Guyenne; yet, Philippe has no respect for England; he complots
with Scotland, seizes the free towns of Flanders, which are England’s wool market, and takes back
Guyenne and Bordeaux. With the fair motive to defend England’s trade, Edward challenges the king of
France; and on 7 February 1337, the Guerre de Cent Ans (the Hundred-Years War), the longest war France
has ever known, begins.
At first, England is successful; its fleet remarkably defeats the French navy at L’Écluse, a port on
the Channel; and Edward’s army wins decisive battles on land—especially Crécy in 1346—scaring the
enemy with its deadly canons and its swift and accurate longbows. Finally, by 1347, England holds
Is it the war, the famine, or Europe’s insalubrious conditions that propagates the Peste Noire
(Black Death), the terrifying plague from Asia? All contributes to the decimation of one-third of the
European population between 1347 and 1351. Nevertheless, the horrible disease does not even stop the
war and to make things worse, the new king of France, Jean II le Bon (the Good), is threatened by his son-
1 Assembly representing the three estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the Third State or Tiers États
representing the people.
2 The papacy returned to Rome in 1377 but another French pope was elected the following year leaving
the Church with two and even three popes in 1409.
3 Religious and military order founded in 1118 to protect pilgrims going to Jerusalem
in-law, the king of Navarre, Charles II le Mauvais (the Bad). On 5 April 1356, Charles is thrown in jail for
the murder of the king’s adviser.
The war is still raging with England and in September, Jean is captured at Poitiers by the Black
Prince4 of Wales; Jean’s son, Charles must assure the regency but the États Généraux led by the merchant
Etienne Marcel, rejects his authority and constrains him to release le Mauvais, who becomes Paris’s
leader. The regent, nevertheless, aborts Marcel’s revolution on 22 February 1358;5 but another problem
threatens the city; fed up with the wars ravaging their fields, the peasants join, and armed with batons
and forks, they come to Paris and demand justice. With Gaston Phoebus’s alliance,6 le Mauvais finally
defeats the Grande Jacquerie7 in June.
Two years later, King Edward finally accepts a treaty in Brétigny. He regains his territory and in
compensation, he receives the Limousin, Périgord, Rouergue, Saintonge, and Angoumois. Edward also
demands a ransom of three millions of livres tournois—the equivalent of twelve tonnes of gold—for two of
Jean’s sons kept as hostages. To repay this enormous sum, the king implements a tax on salt, the gabelle,
and creates a new gold coin, the Franc;8 but this is not enough; and when the duc d’Anjou escapes from
England, Jean must take his place. Accompanied by his other son, the duc du Berry, he goes to London
where he dies in 1364.
The same year in May, the new king Charles V le Sage (the Wise) and the General Du Guesclin
finally vanquish le Mauvais, who was occupying Paris with his Gascon troupes.
Charles is indeed a very wise and cultivated king who enjoys art and poetry and encourages the
Compagnonnage, a secret association of apprentices travelling from town to town to perfect their skills.9
Charles also reconstructs the Louvre so he may use it as one of his royal residences, and he brings his
magnificent collection of 917 books. The king then founds the Bibliothèque Royale (Royal Library) and
builds the Bastille, the fortress that will become the famous state prison under Louis XIII.
4 Always wearing a black armour, the son of Edward III, was called the Black Prince.
5 EMarcel’s objective was to limit royal power by imposing the great ordinance of 1357; this ordinance
ensured the control of the state’s subsidies
6 The fierce and powerful Comte de Foie
7 The Jacqueries were peasants’ revolts against the nobles and the écorcheurs (mercenaries) who pillaged
their land. Peasants were often called Jacques and their leaders or kings were nicknamed Jacques
8 The name Franc was chosen as a symbol of liberty
9 This association still exists today and apprentices of various trades now travel from country to country.
Le Louvre in 1334, Miniature from Limbourg, Musée Condé, Chantilly
The 14th Century is very rich in literature from its beginning to its end. While Guillaume de
Machaut invents new lyrical forms, rondeaux, ballades, chants royaux, lais and virelais, in Florence, the
illustrious Dante Alighieri compose his grandiose Divina Commedia (1309-1320), an allegorical and
personal journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Then, in 1358, a new genre of literature appears
with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a book of audacious and spicy novels set up in the wake of the
plague and featuring unfaithful wives, priests, nuns, merchants, sultans, and kings of the Orient engaged
in promiscuous adventures. Finally, ending this tumultuous century, the brilliant Geoffrey Chaucer gives
us his superb Canterbury’s Tales written in verses between 1387 and 1400; this unfinished series of stories
are told by thirty pilgrims travelling from London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury.
In France, lyric poetry, which derives from the chanson, is an art still reserved to the nobles; and
as usual, its favourite theme is love. However, poets being inspired by their own experiences and
environment, general ideas are becoming more personal. They express their états d’âme (states of mind)
and to highlight deepest values, they continue to use the personified abstractions of the Ancients.
Compared to older works, the rimes are richer and as the pronunciation drastically evolves, the melody is
harmonious and elaborate.
Guillaume de Machaut is certainly one of the greatest poets and musicians of the Middle Ages;
he is also the first poet of vernacular and it is with him that this anthology really starts.
Guillaume de Machaut
Born just at the turn of the century, Guillaume de Machaut grows up in Machaut, a small
village of Champagne where he receives a clerk formation. In 1323, he becomes the secretary of the
valiant knight, Jean de Luxembourg, king of Bohème (Bohemia), with whom he travels extensively. When
he comes back to Reims in 1340, Guillaume shares the position of Canon with his brother; and in homage
to his patron Jean and his daughter, Bonne,10 he composes Remède de Fortune (Fortune’s Remedy). He
then writes the Dit du Lion (the Say of the Lion); and after Jean’s heroic death at Crécy in 1346, he starts
Jugement du Roi de Behaigne (King of Behaigne’s Judgement), a narrative relating the king’s campaigns
Guillaume de Machaut, the last trouvère, is also one of the first masters of Western music and
the most eminent avant-garde composer of the Middle Ages.11 Furthermore and for the first time, the
term ‘poet’ has been attributed to a writer of vernacular; this epithet, invented by Brunetto Latini12 in his
Livre du Trésor (Treasure’s Book), was given only to the great authors of Antiquity.
As his predecessors, Guillaume uses l’amour courtois as a theme but with his new forms of
verses, and his exceptional monophonic and polyphonic songs, he brilliantly distinguishes himself from
the other poets of his time. Undeniably, Machaut is impressed by Philippe de Vitry’s ars nova,13 which he
elegantly blends with ars antiqua in more than four hundred lyric works.
For Guillaume, poetry is not the mere arrangement of words and sounds; it is music, not the
artificial music of the instruments, but the natural music of language with its rhymes, rhythms,
alliterations and much more. His most exceptional works are the grandiose and austere four-voice Messe
de Nostre Dame (Mass of Notre Dame) and the Livre du Veoir-dict.
The next poem, Dame de qui toute ma Joie vient, is a ballade taken from Remède de Fortune, which
regroups nine lyrical pieces. In Remède, the poet proposes a new way to perceive reality by introducing
the innovative dit (autobiographical narrative); furthermore, he presents fixed-form poems such as the
glorious ballades. Originally, the word ballade comes from the Old Provencal ballada, which means dance;
10 Jean le Bon’s wife
11 Great men whose techniques or ideas are far ahead of their time
12 The Florentine poet, Brunetto Latini, was Dante’s master. In 1267, he wrote his Livre du Trésor in French
not only because he lived in France at the time but because la parleure (language) of this country seemed
to him plus délitable (more delectable) than those of other countries and plus commune à toutes gens (more
common to all people).
13 French leading composer and theoretician of the Ars nova (new art) written in 1325.
and being a chanson de danse (a dance song), a Middle Ages ballade is always accompanied by music.
Machaut’s ballade or baladelle consists of three strophes and a refrain focusing on the main idea of the
poem. The half strophe called envoy only exists (at the time) in Machaut’s chant royal; this extended ballade
implying grandeur and majesty always praises a royal person.
Though Machaut’s ballades generally adhere to the pattern ababbccb, in Dame de qui toute ma
Joie, the poet prefers the structure ababccdD14 and plays with assonance. The rhymes are pauvres (poor)
and if Machaut is not rigorous in the metric (one heptasyllable15 among decasyllables), the shortness of
some verses, pleasantly accelerates the tempo of the ballade; and the syncopate rhythm is particularly
suitable for a poem reflecting a lover’s unabated enthusiasm and confidence.
After having received Hope’s advice about Love and Fortune, Amant composes a beautiful
ballade in which he reveals his hope to see his beloved; this exhilarating expectation brings him a joy
almost impossible to conceive. Yes, Machaut is fond of allegory as his predecessors were; but above all,
we are witnessing the shaping of French poetry with the poet’s undisputable poetical and musical skills.
Dame de qui toute ma Joie… Lady whom my Joy… 16
Dame, de qui toute ma joie vient, Lady, whom my joy comes from,
Je ne vous puis trop amer ni chierir, I love and cherish you so much,
N'asses loër, si com il apartient, That I cannot praise you as you deserve,
Servir, doubter, honnourer n'obeïr; When I serve, doubt, honour, and obey you,
Car le gracieus espoir, Because the gracious hope,
Douce Dame, que j'ay de vous vëoir That I have to see you, my sweet Lady,
Me fait cent fois plus de bien et de joie Gives me more than one hundred times the joy
Qu'en cent mille ans desservir ne porroie. That I could not earn in one thousand years.
Cils dous espoirs en vie me soustient The sweet hope that keeps me alive
Et me norrist en amoureus desir, Feeds me with amorous desire,
Et dedens moy met tout ce qui couvient Putting in my bosom the softest balms
Pour conforter mon cuer et rejoïr; To comfort and rejoice my heavy heart;
N'il ne s'en part main ne soir, All day all night it stays
Einçois me fait doucement recevoir So that always, I may gently receive
Plus des dous biens qu'Amours aus siens ottroie, The warmest joys Pure Love can offer and
Qu'en cent mille ans desservir ne porroie. That I could not earn in one thousand years.
14 Capital letter for the refrain
15 Seven-syllable verse
16 Œuvres de Machaut, edited by Ernest Hoepffner, pp 110-111.
Et quant Espoir que en mon cuer se tient And when Hope dancing in my heart
Fait dedens moy si grant joie venir, Revives the great joy inside me,
Lonteins de vous, ma Dame, s'il avient When you are so far away, my lady
Que vo biaute voie que moult desir, I still can see your beauty much desired.
Ma joie, si com j'espoir, My joy, if I may say,
Ymaginer, penser ne concevoir Is so incredible that no-one could
Ne porroit nuls, car trop plus en aroie, Ever feel or even conceive the bliss
Qu'en cent mille ans desservir ne porroie. That I could not earn in one thousand years.
Guillaume continues to fervently serve Bonne until she dies from the plague in 1349. Then, he
accepts Charles le Mauvais’s friendship and writes Jugement du Roi de Navarre (King of Navarre’s
Judgement). In this work, Machaut contemplates the evils ravaging the world and exposes people’s
deceitful nature. He strongly believes that God sent Black Death to punish the pervading corruption of
the church and the nobles; but he concedes sadly that many good people like his good patroness Bonne
did not escape the calamity and horribly perished.
In Confort d’Ami (Friend’s consolation) written in 1356, the tone is much lighter; Guillaume
consoles his friend Charles le Mauvais who is in jail weeping for his young wife, Jeanne de France.
However, the poet wisely distances himself from le Mauvais when he starts conspiring with England. He
renews good relation with the royal family and escorts the duc du Berry to Calais after the treaty of
Brétigny. Guillaume reports this event in the Dit de la Fonteinne Amoureuse (the Say of the Amorous
It is probably a year later that Guillaume receives a billet doux (gallant message) from a fervent
admirer, Peronne d’Armentières. Charmed and seduced by the beautiful young lady, Guillaume accepts
to reveal their platonic idyll in his poetic masterpiece, the Livre du Veoir-dict or Dit de la vérité (the Say of
Truth) written between 1362-1365. The Livre du Veoir-dict is an autobiographical confession on old age and
Machaut’s masterpiece consists of a narrative written in octosyllables, sixty-three lyrical poems
of fixed-form, forty-six amorous letters in prose including those of his platonic lover, and few
Though Peronne has never met Guillaume, she is fascinated by his magnificent poetry and falls
in love with the old trouvère who knows so well the art d’aimer. From the very beginning, Machaut
confides that le Veoir-dict is made at the request of the young woman. Its aim is to reveal the truth and
only the truth.
The virelai Douce Dame jolie follows the pattern Aaab aabaabaaab A. The repetitive rhyme i
tenderly reflects the poet’s suffering; and the dissyllabic rejects17 (two-syllable) intercalated between the
hexasyllables (six-syllable verses) enhances the idea of begging. Guillaume indeed implores the sweet
pretty Lady not to ignore him.
Douce Dame jolie 18 Sweet Pretty Lady
Douce dame jolie, Sweet pretty lady
Pour dieu ne penses mie God knows that in my heart
Que nulle ait signorie No one has seigneury
Seur moy fors vous seulement. On me except you.
Qu'ades sans tricherie That I never cheat you
Vous ay et humblement Always humbly I have,
Tous les jours de ma vie Every day of my life,
Servie Served you Served you
Sans vilein pensement. With no disgraceful thought.
Helas! et je mendie Alas! And I beg you
D'esperance et d'aïe; For hope and warm support;
Dont ma joie est fenie, As my joy is fading
Se pite ne vous en prent. When you show no pity.
Douce dame jolie. Sweet pretty lady
Mais vo douce maistrie But your mastery
Maistrie Rules so
Mon cuer si durement Harshly on my poor heart
Qu'elle le contralie That it soon retaliates,
Et lie Binding
En amour tellement My love with such a force,
Qu'il n'a de riens envie That I have no more wish
Fors d'estre en vo baillie; Than to be in your arms;
Et se ne li ottrie This alas brings me
17 The rejet is a word or the beginning of a verse, rejected at the beginning of the next line; and the
enjambement is the part of a verse at the end of the line, which is tied up to the next verse.
18 Le Voir-dit, Paris: Bibliotheque Nationale
Vos cuers nul aligement. No relief from your heart.
Douce dame jolie. Sweet pretty lady
Et quant ma maladie And to heal my cruel
Ne sera nullement It surely cannot be
Sans vous, douce anemie, Without you, sweet enemy,
Qui lie Who is
Estes de mon tourment, The cause of my torment.
A jointes mains deprie With my hands joined, I pray
Vo cuer, puis qu'il m'oublie, But your heart ignores me;
Que temprement m'ocie, As your temper kills me
Car trop langui longuement. I slowly languish.
Douce dame jolie, Sweet pretty lady.
Pour dieu ne penses mie God knows that in my heart
Que nulle ait signorie No one has seigneury
Seur moy fors vous seulement. On me except you.
Guillaume’s fame reaches Asia around 1371 with La prise d’Alexandrie (Alexandria’s Fall), a
work dedicated to Pierre 1er de Lusignan, king of Cyprus; the chronicle in verses and prose recounts the
life of this adventurous king and gives interesting historical details. Few years before his death in 1377,
Machaut decides to regroup his works and to explain why he wrote them, he composes an interesting
At the end of the 14th Century, we are in the middle of the Guerre de Cent Ans (Hundred Years’
War) and the king of France, Charles VI is insane. His brother Louis, duc d’Orléans and his uncle
Philippe le Hardi, duc de Bourgogne are fighting for the throne.
Born in such turmoil on 24 November 1394, Charles d’Orléans
spends his childhood in the Loire Valley where under his mother’s
supervision,1 he receives the best education.
At the age of eleven, Charles2 marries his cousin, Isabelle de
France, 3 the daughter of Charles VI and Isabeau de Bavière. Two years
later, a succession of disasters brutally ends his childhood. Under the
command of Jean Sans Peur,4 his father is assassinated by the
Bourguignons (Burgundians) on 23 November 1407; inconsolable, his
mother perishes the following year; and in September 1409, his wife
Isabelle dies in childbirth.
Overwhelmed by calamity, the young man’s sole objective is to
avenge his father; he joins force with the comte d’Armagnac and to seal their alliance, he marries his
daughter, Bonne in August 1410. Together, Charles and the Armagnacs valiantly defeat Jean Sans Peur
and his army in 1414. At last, this is the end of the civil war; and in ballades and chansons, Charles
expresses his joy.
Nevertheless, France is far from stable and Henry V of England invades the country in 1415.
Charles and his friends fight the enemy with great courage but the battle of Azincourt5 in October is a
1 Valentine Visconti de Milan
2 Image from Gazier’s Petite Littérature Française
3 Isabelle de France is also the widow of Richard II of England.
4 The Burgundians’ leader and son of Philippe le Hardi,
5 Also known as Agincourt
bitter defeat. Charles miraculously survives; and pulled out from among the dead, he is sent to England
as a prisoner where he will stay for twenty-five years.
The 15th Century is for pertinent reasons called the century of melancholy in France and Charles
d’Orléans is her best ambassador with his aristocratic poetry. The poet brilliantly excels in subjects as
various as the nature of the self, the passage of time, and Mother Nature’s beauty. Above all, he has the
reputation of being le plus grand des amoureux (one of the greatest lovers).
Charles d’Orléans, prisoner in the Tower of London
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 16F II f73
At first, Charles dwells at the Tower of London; then he moves anywhere people are willing to
receive him. Kept in close confinement, Charles spends his time in unsuccessful peace negotiations.
Finally, the treaty of Troyes is signed in 1420 between Isabeau de Bavière and Henry V; this treaty
designates him as regent and heir of the French throne by his marriage to Catherine de Valois, daughter
of Charles VI.
Two years later, the dauphin Charles is repudiated; and when the very young king of England,
represented by the duke of Bedford and supported by the church and the university, takes over the city
and the North of France, he must flee Paris.
In De voir France que mon Cœur aimer doit… written in 1423, Charles, the poet, languishes for his
beloved France. During these eight years of captivity, his situation has not improved and he prays God to
bring peace so he may have the joy to see his cherished country again. In this touching ballade, the
rhymes in ance gently contrast with those in er alternating softness and regret; the rather long
decasyllables mark the bitterness of confinement, the very slow passing of time, and hopelessness. This
grande ballade respects the traditional structure aaababbccdcd with its three strophes ending with a refrain
and borrowing the envoy of the chant royal. Being a septain, the poem runs on three rhymes only with the
pattern ababbcC and its envoy bbcC.6
De voir France que mon Cœur aimer doit… 7
To see France, the Country my Heart loves
En regardant vers le païs de France, Gazing at the land of France
Un jour m’avint, a Dovre, sur la mer, A day I was at Dover, near the sea,
Qu’il me souvint de la doulce plaisance I remembered the elating pleasure
Que souloye oudit pays trouver ; I enjoyed in France, my dear country;
Si commençay de cueur a souspirer, Soon my heart began to sigh in sorrow,
Combien certes que grant bien me faisoit O but how sweet it was for my soul
De voir France que mon cueur amer doit. To see France, the country my heart loves.
Je m’avisay que c’estoit non savance I knew it was very imprudent
De telz souspirs dedens mon cueur garder, To keep those heavy sighs deep in my heart,
Veu que je voy que la voye commence But while gazing at her across the sea
De bonne paix, que tous biens peut donner ; I felt a peace nothing else could give me
Pour ce, tournay en confort mon penser ; Nothing could distract my contemplation;
6 We find the same structure in Chaucer’s verses
7 Charles D’Orléans, Poésies, Ballade LXXV, pp 122-123.
Mais non pourtant mon cueur ne se lassoit And not even once, did my heart feel tired
De voir France que mon cueur amer doit. To see France, the country my heart loves.
Alors chargay en la nef d’Esperance Then, I loaded on the ship Esperance
Tous mes souhaitz, en leur priant d’aler All my wishes and I begged them to sail
Oultre la mer, sans faire demourance, Over the sea not stopping even once
Et a France de me recommander. To remember me to my dear France
Or nous doint Dieu bonne paix sans tarder ! So that God may send Peace with no delay
Adonc auray loisir, mais qu’ainsi soit, And give me time – but so be it –
De voir France que mon cueur amer doit. To see France, the country my heart loves.
Paix est tresor qu’on ne peut trop loer. Peace is a treasure beyond price
Je hé guerre, point ne la doy prisier ; I hate war; no one should ever praise it:
Destourbé m’a long temps, soit tort ou droit, Fairly or not, it deprived me too long
De voir France que mon cueur amer doit ! To see France, the country my heart loves.
Despite his lack of ambition and a shortage of money, the future Charles VII rules what is left of
France relying on the Armagnacs and the valiant maid, Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Ark) who firmly believes
that she can defeat the English. Under the French banner, the young peasant girl from Domremy8
fearlessly leads a small troupe of seven thousand soldiers and liberates Orléans. This superb and
unexpected victory allows Charles to be crowned king of France at Reims, as the tradition requires.
Unfortunately, Jeanne is unable to free Paris and while delivering Compiègne, she is captured
by the Bourguignons and turned over to the English. Declared a heretic by a clerical tribunal presided by
Archbishop Cauchon, a friend of the Bourguignons, she is condemned to be burned at the stake in May
1431.9 At the end of the year, Henry VI of England is finally crowned king of France in the Cathedral of
Notre Dame. France has now two kings!
With his good adviser the Comte de Dunois10 and encouraged by Jeanne’s bravery, the petit roi
de Bourges (little king of Bourges) has gained dynamism and audacity; and in 1434, he makes an alliance
with Sigismond, the Holy Roman Emperor.
8 In Lorraine
9Jeanne claimed that at 13, she heard the divine voices of Saint Michel, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, and
Saint Marguerite, commanding her to save France. Charles, who did not intervene to save her, ordered a
review of her trial in 1456; she was rehabilitated and canonised.
10 Charles d’Orléans’s brother also known as the Bastard of Orléans.
For Charles d’Orléans who is still a prisoner in England, the situation has hardly changed.
Deeply affected by his captivity, Charles composes interesting and moving poems in English and
Orleanais, his native language. Charles only writes because he loves writing; he writes with elegance and
distinction but his style is never pretentious; and in some of his poems, we find the wisdom of Rabelais
Struck again by fatality with the death of his young wife, Bonne d’Armagnac, Charles expresses
his sorrow in the ballade En Paine, Soussi et Doleur. Adroitly, he chooses the octosyllable so the tone is
brief and reveals his rancour. The three neuvains (nine-verse strophe) dragging on regret and sorrow
follow the original pattern ababbcddC with the envoy ccddC; and while the rhymes in i and esse convey
the image of Death as a hissing serpent, the rhymes in eur augment the poem’s melancholy.
En Paine, Soussi et Doleur 12
In Sorrow, Burden, and Pain
Las ! Mort, qui t’a fait si hardie, Las! Death, how did you dare
De prendre la noble Princesse To take so noble Princess?
Qui estoit mon confort, ma vie, She was the joy of my life,
Mon bien, mon plaisir, ma richesse ! My pride, my pleasure, my wealth!
Puis que tu as prins ma maistresse, You took my dear mistress
Prens moy aussi, son serviteur, So take her loyal servant too
Car j’ayme mieulx prouchainnement For I prefer to die soon
Mourir que languir en tourment, Than languish in such torment,
En paine, soussi et doleur ! In sorrow, burden, and pain!
Las ! de tous biens estoit garnie Las! She had all she could hope
Et en droitte fleur de jeunesse ! Smiling in the bloom of youth!
Je pry a Dieu qu’il te maudie, O! I pray God to curse you,
Faulse Mort, plaine de rudesse ! Devious and wicked Death!
Se prise l’eusses en vieillesse, If taken in old age,
Ce ne fust pas si grant rigueur ; It would not have been so cruel
Mais prise l’as hastivement, But hastily you took her,
Et m ‘as laissié piteusement And piteously, you leave me
En paine, soussi et doleur. In sorrow, burden, and pain.
11 J. Marie Guichard, Poésies de Charles d’Orléans, Rondel p 351.
12 Charles d’Orléans, Poésies, Ballade LVII, p 81-82
Las ! Je suy seul, sans compaignie ! Las! I am alone and friendless!
Adieu ma Dame, ma lyesse ! Farewell my Lady, my joy!
Or est nostre amour departie, Our love is now departing,
Non pour tant je vous fais promesse But I promise with my heart
Que de prieres, a largesse, To pray for you fervently;
Morte vous serviray de cueur, Even dead, I shall serve you,
Sans oublier aucunement, How could I forget our love!
Et vous regretteray souvent I shall miss you so much
En paine, soussi et doleur. In sorrow, burden, and pain.
Dieu, sur tout souverain Seigneur, God, sovereign Lord over all,
Ordonnez, par grace et doulceur, With grace and kindness, command
De l’ame d’elle, tellement That her pretty soul may not
Qu’elle ne soit pas longuement Remain for a long long time
En paine, soussy et doleur ! In sorrow, burden, and pain!
Meanwhile in France, Charles VII finally signs a treaty in Arras with Philippe le Bon (the Good),
duc de Bourgogne in 1435;13 and in triumph, he enters Paris in 1437, after having chased the English few
At last, the poet is free in 1440 after having paid a big ransom. He returns to France and settles
in Blois where he marries Marie de Clèves who gives him three children, among them the future Louis
XII also known as the père de son people (father of his people).
In one of his beautiful and traditional rondels, Le Temps a laissié son Manteau,14 with gaiety and
freshness, Charles celebrates the renewal of nature after a freezing winter. Appropriately, the tone is very
light, almost dancing with the octosyllables. As it should be in a rondel, the poet uses only two rhymes; in
the first quatrain, they are embrassées, in the second, they are croisées; and in the quintil, they are embrassées
again. Another particularity of the rondel is the repetition of the first two verses of the first quatrain as the
last two verses of the second quatrain; finally, the first verse only is repeated at the end of the quintil. All
this gives the harmonious pattern ABba abAB abbaA.
13 Philippe ended his alliance with England in exchange of important concessions.
14 In some editions such as Champion, the poem is a rondeau.
Le Temps a laissié son manteau 15
The Weather has left his coat
Le temps a laissié son manteau The weather has left his coat
De vent, de froidure et de pluye, Of wind, cold, and freezing rain,
Et s’est vestu de brouderie, And put on fair embroidery
De soleil luyant, cler et beau. Of shining sun, clear and warm.
Il n’y a beste, ne oyseau, No beasts no birds but sing and shout
Qu’en son jargon ne chante ou crie : Happily in their own language:
Le temps a laissié son manteau ! The weather has left his coat
De vent, de froidure et de pluye.16 Of wind, cold, and freezing rain.
Riviere, fontaine et ruisseau Clear fountains, rivers, and brooks
Portent, en livree jolie, Wear on their finest liveries
Gouttes d’argent, d’orfavrerie, Silver drops and golden threads;
Chascun s’abille de nouveau : Everyone clad in fresh garments:
Le temps a laissié son manteau. The weather has left his coat
Though Charles receives the Ordre de la Toison d’Or (Order of the Golden Fleece),17 the king
does not trust him; he has too many English friends and his disastrous campaigns in Italy in 1448
definitely end his political expectations. Wisely, he retires in Blois and his prestigious little court becomes
the rendez-vous of the intellectual elite. Villon among others gladly participates in the poetic
competitions organised by the doulx seigneur (kind lord).18 From 1450 to 1455, Charles copies his work
regrouping five complaintes, eighty-nine chansons, one hundred twenty-three ballades, and four hundred
thirty-five rondeaux, most of them written in Blois.
The king, now called Charles le Victorieux (the Victorious) reorganises his army with les
Compagnies d’Ordonnance (small but permanent army) and expels the English from Normandie and
Guyenne, leaving them only Calais. As the years pass, Charles—the poet—is slowly losing his verve. He
is tired of living and even the birth of his son does not bring him joy.19 Furthermore, his return on the
15 Charles d’Orléans, Poésies, Rondeau [sic] XXXI, pp 307-308
16 This line is missing in Champion’s edition.
17 Order created by Philippe le Bon in 1430 to reward his valiant knights
18 Charles d’Orléans, Poésies, Villon’s Ballade CXXIIIe, p 194-195.
19 Ibid, Ballade CXXIIa, pp 185-186 and Rondeau CLXXXVII, p 397
political scene is a mistake and a disaster. Like his father, the new king Louis XI has no sympathy for the
poet; and when he timidly advises him not to fight the duc de Bretagne, the king violently interrupts him
and regardless of his old age, crudely insults him. Dejected, the poet flees to Amboise where he dies
shortly after on 5 January 1465.
In the western world, the 15th Century is a period of transition and the great transformations
occurring in Italy soon reverberate in France. Art is flowering; in Florence, the Medici patronise artists
and poets, and in Rome, the pope employs illustrious architects and sculptors to embellish the city.
Germany as well is contributing to the coming Renaissance with printing, the splendid invention of the
century. In 1434, the goldsmith Johann Gutenberg from Mainz builds the first printing press with
movable blocks and invents an ink allowing printing on both sides of the paper. Sixteen years later, he
and his team print the 641 pages of the Latin Bible known as Bible Mazarine and make 300 copies. Soon
most European countries have their own presses and as printing has become cheaper, anyone willing to
share ideas with others can have them printed on pamphlets or books. Yet, nothing has changed in the
streets of Paris where it is still very hard to carve one’s place in the high society, when we are a pauvre
écolier (poor scholar).
François de Montcorbier,1 born in Paris in summer 1431 is one of them. Having lost his father at
an early age, François lives with his mother; they are very poor but thanks to the kindness of Guillaume
de Villon, Chaplain of Saint-Benoît-le-Bientourné, he receives an excellent education and enters the
Université de Paris. In March 1449, the young man obtains his Bachelor of Art and three years later, he
gets his master. Still under Guillaume’s protection, François lives Hôtel de la Porte-Rouge next to the
cloister and it is probably at this time that he takes his benefactor’s name in homage to his generosity.
Alas, François is weak; he chooses his friends among the most turbulent students and his Romant du Pet-
au-Deable (Romance of the Devil’s Fart) recounts one of their most famous adventures, the uprooting of
the landmark Pet-au-Deable.2 Yes, Villon writes but he is also well known in all Paris’s taverns that he
visits with assiduity. In these evil dens, he befriends prostitutes and villains such as Christophe Turgis,
Régnier de Montigny, and Colin de Cayeux, all members of the gang the Coquillards.3
1 Villon’s name was perhaps Corbueil as he asserts in one of his huitains. However, the structure of this
huitain is so different from the others that Villon probably did not write it. Villon also used the name of
Jehan des Loges in some circumstances.
2 Villon mentions it in one of the Ballades of the Testament verses 857-858. In 1451, some students uprooted
the landmark and replanted it into the ground of the University.
3 Christophe Turgis, a counterfeiter was boiled alive in a vat of oil on 17 December 1456; Regnier de
Montigny was hanged on 7 September 1457, and Colin de Cayeux was hanged and strangled on 25
In June 1455, Villon has his first encounter with justice followed by a succession of street brawls,
manslaughters, and robberies. Unfortunately, one of such brawls ends very badly. While talking to his
friends on a bench in front of the church Saint-Benoît-le-Bientourné, a priest, Philippe Sermoise violently
attacks him. Villon had to defend himself; tragically, the priest dies of his wounds a few days later. In
panic, the poet runs away and failing to appear in court when summoned, he is banished from the
With the support of his protector Guillaume, Villon4 asks for
mercy explaining what really happened that day in his supplication.
Nevertheless, Villon is sliding on the wrong path. In October, under the
name of Jehan des Loges, he is implicated in a double theft in Anjou.
Luckily, he escapes and having obtained his letter of remission for
Sermoise’s homicide, he comes back to his room, Hôtel de la Porte-Rouge,
pledging to improve his conduct. He returns to the university and begins
to work hard; but soon, love disturbs his study when Catherine de
Vauzelles, who blatantly encouraged his advances, now rebukes him with
no remorse. Disgusted, Villon releases his anger in a provocative ballade
and asks his friends to sing it near the woman’s window.5 Having
tarnished her reputation, the poet expects reprisals but never thinks that
he will be arrested for slander and blasphemy. Sentenced by the
ecclesiastic tribunal to be flogged on the woman’s doorstep, the poor
lover will never forget the humiliation.
Deeply hurt, Villon flees to Angers and begins his Lais also
known as the Petit Testament in which he regroups forty huitains in octosyllables. In this testament, the
grotesque juxtaposes the sublime and albeit joyful exuberance, sincere emotions transpire and tear the
heart. First, Villon explains the reason of his departure and evokes some vivid childhood memories of the
terrible winter of 1439, when the wolves entered the streets of Paris. Villon then praises his benefactor
Guillaume who never failed him; and he begins the ludicrous distribution of his wealth. To his mistress,
he legates his heart dead and chilled; to his friend Jacques Cardon, the acorn of a willow; to the sergeant
Perrenet Marchant, three bundles of straw to spread on the ground so he can make love, the only task he
does well; and to the hospitals, his windows covered with spider webs. In this original satire, the poet’s
humour discreetly veils his deep sensibility and compassion for the poor and the outlaw.
Alas, his sympathy is going too far and when before Christmas, Cayeux convinces him to
participate in the robbery of the Collège de Navarre, he cannot resist; one evening, with Guy Tabarie,
Dom Nicolas, and Petit Jehan, he breaks into the Collège and steals five hundred gold écus (crowns). The
5Villon will later expose her mistress’s wickedness in Le Lais or Petit Testament; Œuvres Complètes, pp 159-
next day, the villains celebrate their success at the Pomme-de-Pin and Villon leaves for Angers promising a
plan to rob its abbey.
Few months pass without incident and it would have been the perfect theft, if Tabarie did not
boast about it in March 1456; surprisingly, he and Cayeux are not arrested before June 1457. Warned by
the other members of the gang, Villon prudently stays away from Paris and wandering from town to
town, he soon becomes a vagabond who will probably die ‘vertically’ Place de Grève as many of his
But perhaps not; Villon is born under a lucky star. Despite his deplorable reputation as a thief,
he is highly praised in intellect milieu, and always finds the right support to avoid the death sentence.
Aware of his arrival at Blois, Charles d’Orléans offers him hospitality and asks him to participate in the
poetic competitions he regularly organises. Predictably, Villon’s Ballade outshines all other poems; and
commending his guest to the king, the perceptive Charles manages to obtain him a pension.6
Of course, Villon cannot stay indefinitely at Charles’s castle so he leaves Blois for Bourges and
then goes to Moulin. Alas, the incorrigible scoundrel ends up in the duc d’Orléans’s prison. Again, he is
amnestied when in July 1460, Charles’s daughter, Marie makes her first official entrance in Orléans.7 So
happy to have miraculously escaped death, the poet puts all his verve in a beautiful épître dedicated to
the young princess.
One more time, Villon swears that he has learned his lesson but his good resolutions do not last.
The following summer, we find him languishing in Thibault d’Aussigny’s8 dungeon for the robbery of a
village church. Fed with stale bread and water, Villon will probably die there if a miracle does not save
him soon; and yes, the miracle occurs when Louis XI enters Meung-sur-Loire for the first time in October
1461. Villon is liberated!
The poet comes back to Paris weak and disabused. Feeling his end coming despite his relatively
young age, he composes Le Testament between 1461 and 62 inserting few pieces written before as the
famous Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis and Les Regrets de la belle Heaumière. With his spicy jokes and his
jargon, Villon is the people’s voice and thanks to this gavroche du Moyen Age (street-kid of the Middle
Ages) who loves talking about his memories and misfortunes, we discover Paris’s hard but joyful life
during such difficult times. Like all the Parisians of small condition, Villon loves wine and dreams about
thick fat soup; like them, he knows all Paris’s taverns and brothels, and most bandits’ dens; like them, he
prays and repents for his sins; but it is so hard to be honest when poverty strikes.
Indeed, Paris is still under English occupation suffering from war and famine; and starving
people are legions. Villon himself does not eat every day and he violently resents the unfair inequality
raging among humans. To make every-one knows his feelings, to empty his heavy heart, he writes; he
6 Je meurs de seuf auprès de la fontaine, Ballade CXXIIIe, in Charles d’Orléans, Poésies, edited by Pierre
Champion, pp 194-195.
7 For such glorious events, the custom was to liberate all the prisoners.
8 Bishop of Orléans
writes with good humour, anger, or irony but also with humility and compassion. Unlike most medieval
ballades, Villon’s work is personal, sadly lucid, and often shockingly frank. In Histoire de la Littérature
Française, Gustave Lanson gently says:
Voilà une poésie qui est la résonance d'une pauvre âme, battue d'outrageuses misères, et qui
n'est que cela : et dans cette voix bouffonne ou plaintive, qui crie son vice ou son mal, passe parfois
le cri de l'éternelle humanité : Nous, honnêtes gens, paisibles bourgeois, ce louche rôdeur du 15ème
siècle parle de nous, parle pour nous, nous le sentons, c'est ce qui le fait grand.
Here is a poetry reflecting a poor soul, beaten by outrageous miseries and nothing else. In this
farcical or plaintive voice, crying on weakness and pain, sometimes rises the cry of eternal
humanity: we, honest people, peaceful bourgeois, this 15th Century suspicious prowler talks about
us and talks to us; we feel this and this is what makes him great.
While Charles d’Orléans skilfully used the rondel, Villon masters the huitain, and in the
illustrious Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis, he shows his patriotism and his admiration for the
exceptional women whose name have entered History. This beautiful poem in octosyllables is still well
known today in France thanks to the poet-singer, Georges Brassens, who interprets it superbly. The
ballade respects the traditional structure of the petite ballade ababbcbC and the envoy with its rimes croisées
Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis 9
Ballade for the bygone Ladies
Dictes-moy où, n’en quel païs, Tell me where, or in which country,
Est Flora la belle Romaine ; Is Flora the fair Roman girl;
Archipiada ne Thaïs, Archipiada10 or Thaïs,11
Qui fut sa cousine germaine ; Her very close cousin
Echo parlant quand bruyct on maine All echoing what we hear
Dessus rivière ou sus estan, On river and still pool,
Qui beaulté eut trop plus qu’humaine ? About her uncommon beauty.
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ! But where have gone Yesterday’s snows!
9 In Oeuvres Complètes, edited by Théophile Gautier, pp 100-101.
10 Probably Archippa, Sophocle’s lover or perhaps Alcibiade, the Greek general who studied with Pericles
and Socrates. In the Middle Ages, every-one thought he was woman.
11 Saint Thaïs, the Egyptian courtesan who in the 4th century converted to Christianity
Où est la très saige Heloïs, Where is Héloïse, the wise,
Pour qui chastré fut et puis moyne For whom was gelt and monk became
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct Denys ? Pierre Esbaillart 12 from Saint Denis?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne. For love, he bore this sacrifice.
Semblablement, où est la royne And now, where is the ruthless queen13
Qui commanda que Buridan Who ordered noble Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine ? To be sacked and thrown in Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ! But where have gone Yesterday’s snows!
La royne Blanche comme un lis Where are Queen Blanche,14 white as a lily,
Qui chantoit a voix de sereine ; Who sang with a siren’s voice
Berthe15 au grand pied, Bietris, Allys ; Berthe Bigfoot,16 Bietrix,17 Allys;18
Harembourges qui tint le Mayne, Harembourges,19 dower of Maine,
Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine, And Jeanne,20 the good maid of Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslèrent à Rouen ; Whom the English burned at Rouen;
Où sont-ilz, Vierge souveraine ? Where are they Virgin Sovereign, where?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ! But where have gone Yesterday’s snow!
Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine Prince, do not ask where they are
Où elles sont, ne de cest an, In a week or a year,
Que ce refrain ne vous remaine : This refrain only reminds us of them:
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ! But where have gone Yesterday’s snows!
12 Pierre Abélard
13 The three daughters-in law of Philippe le Bel were accused of adultery and one of them Marguerite de
Bourgogne, Louis le Hutin’s wife was strangled in her prison in 1314. All the university students knew
that in the Tour de Nesles, the queen of France had her lovers killed and thrown in the Seine after having
obtained what she wanted; luckily, Buridan escaped such ending and become one of the most famous
professors of the Université de Paris.
14 Blanche de Castille, mother of the good roi de France, Saint Louis
15 Here, we have the e caduc, which is a vowel that we do not pronounce. In the present case, we must
read Berth’au grand pied.
16 Berthe is Charlemagne’s mother.
17 Béatrix de Provence, wife of Charles de France, son of Louis VII
18 Alis de Champagne, wife of Louis le Jeune in 1160
19 Haremburgis, the Comte of Maine’s daughter
20 Joan of Ark
Compared to the satirical buffoonery of the Lais, Villon’s Grand Testament is grim; the poet-
vagabond reflects on his life and confides his regrets. Despite the sarcasms and invectives, a sincere
pathétisme (intense emotion) dominates. Primarily, Villon reveals his resentment against d’Aussigny; he
then laments about the passing of time, injustice, and suffering, reminding his fellowmen that ultimately,
death’s inevitability brings equality to all regardless worth and rank. Still in contact with the Coquillards,
for them, Villon writes the hystoyres des repeus franches (stories of frank gluttony), a collection of lais and
ballades in jargon.
Because of his bad frequentation and past record, he is falsely accused of another theft in
November 1462; but once more and thanks to his high-ranking friends and particularly Guillaume, Villon
is released after having agreed to repay all his debts including the money stolen from the Collège de
Navarre six years earlier. It seems however that Villon’s fate is to spend most of his life in jail. A year
later, he is implicated in another street brawl. Although witnesses affirm that he was only a bystander, he
is sentenced to be hanged and strangled. This time, the situation is critical and losing hope, Villon
composes his epitaph, the touching and gruesome Ballade des Pendus.
This ballade is Villon’s last work. It consists of three dizains in decasyllables and a quintil where
he implores God’s pardon. The rhymes are suffisantes, having two elements of similarity. Here, the poet
exposes the horror of death, depicting the gruesome scene of corpses on the gallows, a common sight in
medieval towns. No more sarcasm or mockery in this ballade, only fear, regret, and sorrow!
Ballade des Pendus 21
Frères humains qui après nous vivez,
N’ayez les cueurs contre nous endurciz,
Car, si pitié de nous pouvres avez,
Dieu en aura plustost de vous merciz.
Vous nous voyez cy attachez cinq, six :
Quant de la chair, que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est pieça devorée et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et pouldre.
De nostre mal personne ne s’en rie ;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre !
Se vous clamons, frères, pas n’en devez
Avoir desdaing, quoyque fusmes occis
21L’Épitaphe en forme de Ballade, in Oeuvres Complètes, pp 167-169. Image from an edition printed in
Par justice. Toutesfois, vous sçavez
Que tous les hommes n’ont pas bon sens assis ;
Intercedez doncques, de cueur rassis,
Envers le Filz de la Vierge Marie,
Que sa grace ne soit pour nous tarie,
Nous preservant de l’infernale fouldre.
Nous sommes mors, âme ne nous harie ;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre !
La pluye nous a debuez et lavez,
Et le soleil dessechez et noirciz ;
Pies, corbaulx, nous ont les yeux cavez,
Et arrachez la barbe et les sourcilz.
Jamais nul temps nous ne sommes rassis ;
Puis çà, puis là, comme le vent varie,
A son plaisir sans cesser nous charrie,
Plus becquetez d’oyseaulx que dez à couldre.
Ne soyez donc de nostre confrairie,
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre !
Prince JESUS, qui sur tous seigneurie,
Garde qu’enfer n’ayt de nous la maistrie :
A luy n’ayons que faire ne que souldre.
Hommes, icy n’usez de mocquerie ;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre !
Ballade for the Hanged Men
Human Brothers who after us live,
Against us, do not harden your heart,
For if you show pity on us, poor wretches,
Sooner, God will have mercy on you.
Here you see, we are five or six tied up:
And the flesh that we fed too well
Is pierced, devoured, and rotten,
We, the bones, are now ash and dust.
No one dares to laugh at our misery;
But pray God He may absolve us all!
If we call on you, brothers, do not look
At us with contempt; though we were slain
In accordance with justice, you know
Men do not always have sound judgement.
Plead our behalf, with a sober heart,
To the Son of the Virgin Mary;
That his grace never dries up for us
So we can be saved from hell’s fires.
We are dead; soul, do not torment us;
But pray God He may absolve us all!
The rain has drenched and washed our body,
And the sun dried and blackened our skin;
Magpies and ravens dug our eyes out,
And plucked our beards and our eyebrows.
Never can we rest once:
Hither and thither, as the wind moves,
We drift ceaselessly at its will
More pecked by birds than sewing thimbles.
Men, do not think of joining our guild;
But pray God He may absolve us all!
Prince JESUS, who have lordship on all,
Forbid Hell to gain power on us:
May we never have to deal with Her.
Men, do not use trifling mockeries here;
But pray God He may absolve us all!
Amazingly, Villon’s sentence is commuted to ten years of banishment in January 1463. Since
that day, nothing has been heard of him.
At the beginning of the 16th century, France has regained all her territories except Calais.
Having managed to liberate her people from the dogmatic Middle Ages, France is now experiencing a
great rebirth, the famous Renaissance.
With Fernando de Magellan’s travel around the world and Christopher Columbus’s discovery
of the New Continent, new horizons open; scientific knowledge is revolutionised; and even though
Nicolaus Copernicus has not managed to convince the church with his heliocentric model of the universe
proposed in De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, many are seriously working on it.
Fine Arts are blooming thanks to Leonardo da Vinci, Raffaelo Sancio, and Michelangelo
Finally and above all, the germination of religious ideas leads to drastic reforms all over
Europe. In 1517, Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of his church in Wittenberg; and in 1532,
Calvin publishes his Institutes of the Christian Religion in Switzerland. Three years later, Henry VIII
designates himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Though the king of France, François 1er is unable to solve crucial problems related to finance
and religion, he deserves his title of grand prince de la Renaissance (great prince of the Renaissance).
Inspired by the Italian Renaissance and lover of Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts), the king invites to his court
illustrious artists and poets. While Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini contribute to enrich the
French patrimony with their magnificent works,1 François 1er rebuilds the Louvre and gives
incomparable prestige to Fontainebleau, transforming the feudal castle into a sumptuous palace.
The king also encourages originality and humour; poets are no more the subservient people
whose duties are to amuse and flatter their masters; they are now the symbols of refinement, elegance,
and knowledge. François indeed truly enjoys Pantagruel (1532) and Gargantua (1534), the satiric tales of
the famous universal savant François Rabelais;2 and he protects Clément Marot, his gentil poète (gentle
poet), who glorifies Villon and the old gauloise tradition. Insuspicious of heretical doctrines, he also
praises the theologian and humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples for his French translation of the Bible, the
first written on scholarly lines; and he attentively listens to another humanist and friend, Guillaume Budé
or Budaeus. Professor at the Université de Paris and royal librarian, Budaeus has an enormous influence
on François 1er; in his Institution du Prince (Institution for a Prince) he emphasises that a king ought to be a
philosopher and a man of learning. Such a man must know Greek, Hebrew, and Latin; hence, under
1 The amazing Joconde (1503-06) and the superb Nymphe de Fontainebleau (1543).
2 Rabelais was seen as a disgusting atheist by the Sorbonne
Budé’s advice, François 1er founds the Collège des Trois Langues (College of the Three Languages)3 and
creates the magnificent library of Fontainebleau.4
Though the king already has an outstanding library of 1626 volumes—most of them superb
manuscripts, he decides to drastically increase his small collection of printed books by implementing on
28 December 1537 the Ordonnance de Montpellier. In this ordinance, French printers and booksellers are
required to deliver a copy of every new book to the royal library. Furthermore, on 15 August 1539, in the
Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterets, the king imposes the use of French in official documents stressing that no
other languages or dialects will be legally recognised. In this decree, he also orders the registration of
birth and death of every French citizen and the registration of all notarial acts for which strict
confidentiality ought to be applied.
Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterets5
Paris is the place to be, except for the reformists hunted by the church. Many find refuge in
Nerac where Marguerite d’Angoulême’s court6 is brilliant and original. Many poets, humanists, and
religious leaders such as the austere Calvin enjoy the princess’s hospitality. Marguerite also supports the
annual poetic competition of the Grands Jours (Great Days); this competition organised in many cities is
modelled on the famous Jeux Floraux (Floral Game) created in Toulouse in 1324 by the troubadours.7
3 Also known as Collège Royal or Collège de France
4 The future Bibliothèque Nationale de France
6 Marguerite d’Angoulême, the kind’s sister is also known as Marguerite d’Alençon, de Valois, and de
7 Sidney Lee (1968) The French Renaissance in England.
The second half of the 16th Century is dominated by the Pléiade, the seven stars of French poetry
represented by the magnificent Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay, Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Pontus de
Tyard, Étienne Jodelle, Rémy Belleau, and Jacques Pelletier du Mans. Thanks to these remarkable poets,
the happy king, François 1er has the joy to see the blooming of French language just before his death on 31
Unfortunately, the 16th Century is also stained with blood due to religious intolerance.8 Unlike
his father, Henri II does not see any difference between evangelicalism and heresy, and to stop the wave
of Protestantism he organises a special tribunal, the Chambre Ardente (the Burning Chamber), so-called for
its horrible punishments. With the Duc de Guise, Henri II defeats the emperor Charles Quint and seizes
Metz, Toul, and Verdun; furthermore and this is certainly the most sensational victory of Henri’s reign,
Calais finally regains its French citizenship after two centuries of English domination.
Nevertheless, Henri II is not invincible; despite the warning of the illustrious astrologer,
Nostradamus, he decides to participate in a tournament organised for the festivities of his daughter’s and
sister’s wedding. As predicted, the king is fatally wounded by the lance of the comte Gabriel de
Montgomery. The treacherous weapon finds a gap in the king’s helmet, pierces his eye, and reaches the
brain. For ten days, Henri suffers atrociously and finally dies on 10 July 1559.9
Before Charles (Henri’s brother) reaches his maturity, Catherine de Médicis assures the regency.
Unfortunately, all attempts of conciliation with the Calvinists fail and the first civil war begins in March
1562 at Vassy, when the duc de Guise Henri le balafré (scar-face) and his men viciously murder thirty
Huguenot worshippers and wound more than one hundred. The second and the third civil wars soon
follow the first and finally a peace is sealed with the marriages of Marguerite de Valois with the
Huguenot leader, Henri de Navarre (future Henri IV), and Henri d’Anjou, the king’s brother with
Elizabeth I of England.
Alas, the Catholics’ hatred for the Huguenots does not abate. Probably with the support of
Catherine de Médicis, on 24 August 1572 at dawn, the duc de Guise and his men break into houses and
ferociously murder more than three thousand Protestants in Paris and many provinces. The Saint
Bartholomew’s Day massacre is a horrible night to remember and in the South where they have full
power, the Huguenots create a Protestant state within the French state.
Neither Charles IX who dies from tuberculosis in 1574 nor his brother Henri III can solve the
religious conflict; and twenty-six years will pass before Henri IV10 signs the Édit de Nantes on 13 April
1598, establishing Catholicism as the state’s religion but also granting the freedom of religious conscience
8 R. J. Knetch (1996) The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France.
9 During the first tournament against the comte, the king fells; furious, he orders another tournament; the
comte refused twice but the king ordered him to fight
10 Though Henri de Navarre was the leader of the Huguenot forces, he solemnly accepted the Catholic
Church and adjured his faith to become king of France.
Premiéres Imprimeries en France11
Pierre de Ronsard
Born the night of 10-11 September 1524 at the Château de la Possonnière in Couture-sur-Loir,
Pierre de Ronsard is the son of an aristocratic family issued of the ronciers (clearers). Ronsard’s father,
maître d’hôtel (headwaiter) to François 1er follows the king everywhere and even escorts the children of
France to Castille where they are kept as hostages. Meanwhile, Ronsard’s mother, a well-educated
woman, reads the History of France to her children in the family room facing the beautiful sculpture on
the massive chimney representing a roncier vivace (hardy bramble).
On the walls and façades of the elegant manor recently built by his father, pagan adages and
Christian maxims share the place with the blazons and medallions of Ronsard’s ancestors. With them,
Ronsard learns the glory to serve his king, respect God, fear death, and achieve a good life according to
In 1433, Pierre is sent to the Collège de Navarre where he studies and falls in love with Virgil
learning all his verses by heart. It seems however that the youngster does not really like school and just
before graduating in 1536, his father calls him to Avignon where he joins the army. In Valence, Pierre
meets the king and soon he is appointed page to his son François. Alas, the young prince dies of a bad
cold three days later and this unexpected death deeply marks the child who is then given to his brother
Charles, duc d’Orléans, the future Charles IX.
In May 1537, Ronsard sails to Scotland with Madeleine, the king’s daughter, future queen of
Scotland; but the harsh climate does not suit the fragile princess who dies a month later at Holyrood. The
sad little page then comes back to France and in 1538, he sails again to Scotland through Flanders with
the king’s ambassador, Claude d’Humières, seigneur de Lassigny. After a terrible storm, the vessel finally
strands at the Scottish port. In Scotland, Ronsard meets a Scottish aristocrat named Paul who introduces
him to Horace and exacerbates his fondness for poetry. After having sojourned a few months in
Linlithgow, the Ambassador and the young page travel through England and for six months, they visit
the country and perfect their English.
In 1540, Pierre returns to France and works at the Royal Stable. There, he enjoys the company of
esquires, painters, goldsmiths, and saddlers. However, his life takes a new turn, when under the
protection of the French Ambassador, Lazare de Baïf, he goes to Germany. With him, Ronsard listens to
the theological controversies raging in the country; being a fervent admirer of Erasmus, Lazare initiates
him to Humanism. Ronsard deeply enjoys the memorable discussions in Latin with the German
intellectuals; but these philosophical debates always accompanied with too much food and wine, do not
suit the young page’s delicate constitution. Sick, Ronsard must come back to France. During the trip, he
catches a cold and a nasty purulent ear infection leaves him partially deft for life.
This infirmity ends Ronsard’s promising diplomatic career. Before thinking about other
opportunities, the young man passes his convalescence at La Possonnière. Thinking that he will die soon,
he is overwhelmed with melancholy and confides his despair to Mother Nature.
In his dear Vendômois, Ronsard finds inspiration and writes small poems weeping about his
misfortune and the ineluctable flight of time. With exquisite grace, the poet describes his Ile verte (green
island) emerging from the impetuous Loir and the bubbling Braye, with the deep Gastine forest towering
above the green pastures, and of course, the magic fountain Bellerie, where at midnight the nymphs
dance with the fairies.
In the arms of Mother Nature, Ronsard slowly regains his strength but he is still unable to face
the reality of life. Hating to see his son wasting his life dreaming all day long, his father takes the
opportunity of a trip to the Mans to present him to the Bishop, René du
Bellay. Soon, Ronsard is tonsured; and he receives the priories of Saint-
Cosme-en-l’Isle and Sainte-Croix-Val in Touraine.
At the Mans, Pierre befriends the bishop’s secretary, Jacques
Peletier, a famous Latinist, linguist, geometer, and medical practitioner.
Pleased with Ronsard’s odes, Jacques encourages him to imitate Homer
and Virgil but he also convinces him to write in French stressing the
importance to develop French literature.
The same year just after his father’s death, Ronsard12 goes to
Paris and du Baïf takes him under his protection. With Lazare’s son, Jean-
Antoine, and under the supervision of Jean Dorat, an exceptional savant
from Limousin, Ronsard becomes an expert in Hellenism and Paganism.
Dorat is indeed a great master who with incredible spontaneity translates
any texts in Latin or Greek; with him, pale texts become superb allegories
vibrating with life and passion. Dorat also knows how to explain with
surprising simplicity the most difficult versions; and with great discernment, he sees and reveals the best
in his students who adore him.13 Yes, Dorat is a great man but he is also a simple, cordial, and joyful man
who seizes every opportunity to divert his students by organising famous banquets and country retreats.
Always washed down with good wine, these feasts are propitious to the most spontaneous
After a brief interruption due to the war, Dorat is elected headmaster at the Collège de Coqueret
and immediately, Ronsard and Jean-Antoine return to their study with their new friend, Joachim du
Bellay. For these young men, the literature of the past is clumsy, insipid, and bucolic; it must be reformed
to ultimately give to the French language its proper place. To achieve their ambitious project, they found
12 Léonard Gaultier’s estampe from Des Granges’s Histoire de la Littérature Française
13 In Oeuvres Complètes, edited by Gustave Cohen, tome 1, pp 413-414
14 Ibid., in Le second livre des poèmes, Le Voyage d’Hercueil, tome 2, pp 452-464
a new school, the Brigade, later renamed the Pléiade.15 Soon, Étienne Jodelle and Jean de La Péruse,16 the
best students of the Collège de Boncourt join them, as well as Pontus de Tyard et Guillaume des Autels.17
The Pléiade’s ambition is to perfect French in order to create a literature that will rival those of
Greece and Rome. Accordingly, the Pléiade strives to enrich vocabulary, improves style and grammar,
and finally composes exquisite poems of lyric elegance abandoning rondeaux and virelais and replacing
chansons and dizains with odes and sonnets.
The Pléiade is not just a school of literature and poetry; indeed, its members are the last
humanists of the Renaissance and their objective includes the revival of eternal truths. Exploring Druidic
traditions, Greek philosophy, and Christianity, they unveil the best concepts of human nature, wisdom,
Inspired by the Ancients, the young scholars artfully combine myths, allegories, and religious
truths. Unfortunately, they are often unfairly accused of plagiarism; but Ronsard, for instance, does not
only translate or copy, he transposes and transforms. In Le Voyage d’Hercueil of the Bacchanales,18 he freely
and marvellously paraphrases Anacreon, the Greek poet well known for his celebrations on love and
As Du Bellay stresses, poets are born poets but such natural endowment must be supported by
hard work, self-criticism, erudition, and imitation of the classics. For seven years, these young men
indeed work very hard and all become outstanding poets.20 Of course, Dorat is very proud of his students
especially Ronsard, who is the most brilliant; he reads Greek fluently, knows Virgil by heart, and
thoroughly masters Plato’s ideas.
Les Quatre Livres des Odes published in 1550 is a triumph. In this magnificent series, Ronsard
surpassed himself superbly using the imagery of Antiquity as no one else did before. Irresistibly attracted
to mythology, the new generation immediately adopts Ronsard as their Grand Prêtre (Great Master); and
when two years later, he publishes Le Cinqiesme Livre des Odes and Les Amours, his consecration is
legitimate and definitive.
Certainly, Ronsard has a temperament de Gaulois (he is typically French); he loves women and
knows how to charm them. The Odes and especially Ode a Cassandre first known as Mignonne, allons
15 For his school, Ronsard selected seven of the best students and to ridicule such an idea, the Protestants
called it the Pléiade. Certainly thinking of the mythological Pléiade of Atlas’s seven daughters changed
into constellations and to the seven alexandrine poets of the 3rd century AD, Ronsard eagerly adopts the
16 Replaced later by Rémy Belleau
17 Replaced later by Jacques Peletier du Mans and then Jean Dorat
18 Work written in 1549; anonymous Livret de Folastries (1553)
19 Ronsard admitted that this book was a collection of trivialities
20 Henri de Mesmes(1532-1596) Mémoires inedits, edited by E. Frémy, pp. 139-140.
voir...,21 the delightful ode XVII inspired by Ausonius’ De Rosis Nascentibus, is dedicated to Cassandre
Salviati,22 a young woman Ronsard met in 1546 in Blois. The lady-child singing and playing lute is so
beautiful with her lovely brown eyes illuminating her rosy face that Ronsard instantly falls in love with
her; but Cassandre will never cede to the charming poet and when she marries Jean Peigné, Seigneur du
Pray, a year later, she becomes Ronsard’s impossible love, his muse.
The theme of Mignonne, allons voir... 23s certainly not original but its quality is exceptional. Each
of the three movements of the ode corresponds to a strophe of six lines; and the brevity of the
octosyllables enhances the idea of légèreté de la jeunesse (flightiness of youth). Tenderly, the poet calls his
beloved Mignonne24 and this simple word gives a tone of graciousness to the poem.
Ode à Cassandre 25 Ode to Cassandre
Mignonne, allons voir si la rose Mignonne, come and see if the rose
Qui ce matin avoit desclose Who, early morning, unfolded
Sa robe de pourpre au soleil, Her crimson dress in the warm sun,
A point perdu ceste vesprée Has not lost this eventide,
Les plis de sa robe pourprée, The smooth fold of her scarlet dress
Et son teint au vostre pareil. And her soft shade so much like yours.
Las! voyez comme en peu d’espace, Las! See how in so little time,
Mignonne, elle a dessus la place Mignonne, she has shed her beauties
Las! Las! Ses beautez laissé cheoir ! On the ground, Las! Las! They have gone.
O vrayment marastre Nature, O you harsh and unkind Nature
Puis qu’une telle fleur ne dure Why such pretty flowers scarcely
Que du matin jusques au soir ! Only lasts from dawn to dusk?
Donc, si vous me croyez, Mignonne, So, believe me, Mignonne,
Tandis que vostre âge fleuronne While your age is still flowering
En sa plus verte nouveauté, In your greenest novelty,
Cueillez, cueillez vostre jeunesse: Enjoy, enjoy your fleeting youth
Comme à ceste fleur la vieillesse As upon this flower, old age
Fera ternir vostre beauté. Will come and tarnish your beauty.
21 Ronsard, Oeuvres Complètes, tome I, pp. 419-420
22 Florentine merchant’s daughter.
23 This poem is for my little Nicole so she may not forget to enjoy life now, just now.
24 Pretty lady
25 Oeuvres Completes, Tome I, p 419.
Les Amours bears the stamp of life experience as Ronsard splendidly reveals his passion; for this
reason, the Prince des Poètes (the Poets’ Prince) becomes the Prince de l’Amour (the Prince of Love), and
when his admirers call him, he leaves Vendôme for the Louvre.
In 1453, Ronsard publishes a second edition of the Cinqiesme livre des Odes with some new
pieces; but having no inspiration in Paris, he returns to his dear Vendômois away from the servility of the
Between 1554 and 1556, the illustrious poet probably lives the happiest days of his life spending
his time strolling the woods and courting pretty maids. Of course, he writes all day long and this simple
life invites him to renew with the light and charming esprit gaulois. In November 1554, he dedicated Le
Bocage to his friend Pierre de Paschal. In this collection, Ronsard describes a beautiful countryside where
humans live happily with the gods of the past, the muses, and the fairies. Soon, Le deuxième livre du
Bocage appears with the Meslanges, Ronsard then realises his old dream and composes a truly French
chant for which the Académie des Jeux Floraux in Toulouse honours him with the traditional rosehip. The
following year, by public decree, the poète François par excellence receives the ultimate reward, a splendid
Minerva in solid silver, which, with supreme elegance, he humbly offers to his king, Henri II.
In January 1555, Ronsard publishes the third editions of the Quatre premiers livres des Odes and
twenty-one new pieces in which he gives a glorious description of the royal family and Diane de
Poitiers.26 Ronsard is now a habitué of the Louvre but he admires the court as much as he despises the
fatuous courtesans who overcrowd it. The little provincial presented to the court a few years earlier by
the Cardinal de Châtillon, Odet de Coligny, is now an audacious poet. He is also the chronicler of the
Valois; and, with lucidity, simplicity, and elegance, he reports the joys and sorrow of the time.
Nevertheless, Ronsard will never become a courtesan and it is with ingenuity and excellent judgement
that he uses his influence to reward the brightest.
In August 1555, Ronsard publishes the Continuation des Amours with ninety new pieces; seventy
delightful sonnets, seven odes, thirteen épigrammes, and five gayetez already published in the Folastries of
1553. Then, he composes the Hymnes using the alexandrin (twelve-syllable verses) with an incomparable
dexterity. In this work, Ronsard gives a magnificent portrait of his king, the new Caesar who rules over
the richest and most beautiful kingdom of Europe but who, above all, gave back to France her lost
territories after having vanquished the English and the Holy Roman emperor Charles-Quint.27
The following year, Ronsard publishes the Deuxième livre des Hymnes and the Nouvelle
Continuation des Amours with its sixty-one pieces. The Continuation des Amours and the Nouvelle Continuation
des Amours are dedicated to Marie, a pretty peasant girl Ronsard met in Bourgueil while visiting his
friend, the abbot Charles de Pisseleu. Though Ronsard is still upset by Cassandre’s refusal, he succumbs
to Marie’s delightful grace and simplicity. She is the wild flower free and ardent who may not live long
but fully. Unlike Cassandre, Marie is not prude; she accepts Ronsard’s burning kisses on her hands, eyes,
26 The official mistress of François 1er and Henri II
27 Charles V
lips, and even her little tétins (bubs) but their effusiveness never goes further. Tired of Ronsard’s pressing
requests, Marie finally ends their relationship and Ronsard will never see the pretty maiden ever again.
In Les Amours de Marie, Ronsard reveals his libertine and voluptuous temper. Marie has become the
goddess of the Loir; and for her, Ronsard builds a temple of love.
In 1560, the Première Edition Collective des Oeuvres de Pierre de Ronsard is published in four tomes
but the most illustrious poet of France has not found the serenity of the mind yet. Yes, Ronsard is
unhappy; he hates life in court, and the religious quarrel that divides the country worries him greatly.
Ronsard has publicly denounced the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy, avarice, and scandalous
corruption; but he strongly argues that if the Catholics are unable to defend a noble cause, the Protestants
only defend a wrong cause. Furthermore, he is confident that the Guises will solve the problem very
shortly. Unfortunately and as the years pass, the tension between the two churches dangerously increases
and in the Discours des Misères de ce Temps28 published in Spring 1562, the poet directly asks the queen,
Catherine de Médicis, to intervene.
Despite his exceptional popularity, Ronsard has enemies who accuse him of being an atheist. In
the Continuation du Discours des Misères de ce Temps published in October, he not only reaffirms his faith in
the Catholic church, he also fiercely condemns the brigandage of the new Christians that Calvin himself
deplores. Ronsard is indeed horrified by what is happening, and in December, he writes the Remontrance
au Peuple de France.29 Again, the poet blames the vices of the Church and pleads for reform; but he also
begs the French people to unite against the Spanish and the English who are ready to invade their
Ronsard’s courageous intervention does not stop his enemies who continue to attack him in
anonymous pamphlets. Wisely, he chooses to ignore the calumny. Ronsard is not an atheist but he cannot
deny his paganism and his sensual temper. In his poetic universe, he invokes Apollo, worships
Aphrodite, devises rituals in honour of Pan and Bacchus, and seeks the companionship of the beautiful
Naiads and Dryads haunting his dear Vendômois; and, in the real world, he seduces the most gorgeous
women. Mademoiselle de la Tour-Limeuil,30 Françoise d’Estrées,31 Madeleine de Laubespine, and
Mademoiselle de Chasteaubrun are only few of Ronsard’s conquests. These beautiful Ladies are
Ronsard’s greatest source of inspiration and with ingenuity, he argues that they are part of his work.
In July 1563, the poet publishes Élégies, Mascarades et Bergerie and sends it to Queen Elizabeth of
England. He also dedicates the Bergerie to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland.32 This charming pastoral
28 Ibid, Tome 2, pp 544-549
29 Ibid, Tome 2, pp 573-592
30 Mademoiselle de la Tour-Limeuil was Condé’s mistress ; see Oeuvres Complètes, tome 1, pp 169-172.
31 Françoise d’Estrées was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting and soon became Ronsard’s beautiful Astrée; see
Oeuvres Complètes, tome 1, pp 205-214.
32 Queen Elizabeth sent him a beautiful diamond and Marie Stuart a magnificent buffet with the
inscription “A Ronsard l’Apollon de la source des Muses” (to Ronsard, the Apollo of the muses)
played in spring 1564 by the royal children of France aged between 9 and 12 enchants the court.
Delighted, Charles IX commands La Franciade, a project originally conceived for Henri II. Unfortunately,
the young king asks Ronsard to write it in decasyllables not in alexandrins as the poet has always wanted
Ronsard is disgusted but having no choice, he does his best. As expected and despite the
enormous work done between 1565 and 1572, the four tomes are insipid but its author is highly rewarded
and receives the Ordre de la Croix du Christ.
The poet finally returns to Croix-Val where he can enjoy the green pasture of his priory and his
quiet office. There, Ronsard works four to five hours a day in company of his loyal friend and secretary,
Amadis Jamyn.33 For Ronsard, glory is a load of wind and he certainly prefers this tranquil life to the
mondanités (over-sophisticate manners) of the Louvre. However, he must go to Paris from time to time;
and in 1570, with the Pléiade’s members, he joins the first académie de poésie et de musique created by Jean-
Antoine de Baïf and sponsored by Charles IX. Soon, the académie becomes the most elegant European art
In 1572, Ronsard has certainly lost his youth but not his charm. After having met Hélène de
Fonsèque, demoiselle de Surgères, he promises to immortalise her name. This implies to compete with
young poets such as Philippe Desportes who excels in a new genre of poésie légère (frivolous poetry).
Bold as ever, Ronsard does not hesitate to change his style and again he overshadows the brightest with a
magnificent series of sonnets, a type of verses in great fashion at the time.34 Immediately, Hélène falls in
love with the poet who with his pen delicately transforms words into pearls. Yes, Ronsard’s poetry is
much different from the mignardises (finicalities) Hélène has been used to. Furthermore, Ronsard is the
ideal companion to discuss philosophy. Unfortunately, the poet will seduce Hélène no more than he
seduced Cassandre and Marie. Hélène has bright eyes but a frozen heart, and even Ronsard’s sweet
poems cannot melt the ice built around it. Nevertheless, Helene not only manages to tame Ronsard’s
impetuous temper, she is above all the inspiration that regenerates his verve and revives his fame, which
was beginning to fade. Hélène however is getting colder and colder; and in 1477, Ronsard finally ends
their stormy relationship, and returns to his priory where he writes Le Tombeau des Valois in homage to
the king and his sister Marguerite de France who recently died.35
In 1478, he finally publishes the Premier livre des Sonets pour Hélène and Sur la mort de Marie, a
collection of sixteen beautiful works of art. In the touching sonnet Comme on voit sur la branche, Ronsard is
not mourning Marie de Clèves who died in 1574 but the pretty country girl for whom he wrote Marie,
levez-vous, ma jeune paresseuse.36 Three indications indeed point to Marie Dupin. First, Ronsard would
33 Amadis Jamyn (1538-~1585) was Ronsard’s life-long confidant and secretary. In 1575, he wrote Oeuvres
Poétiques and translated part of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
34 Out of 1396 poems, Ronsard wrote 709 sonnets.
35 Oeuvres Complètes, tome 2, pp 474-491
36 Ibid, Tome 1, p 128
never have used the familiar tutoiement suggesting intimacy when addressing to a princess; second, the
funeral offering of milk and flowers is associated with old pagan rites celebrated in many villages; and
third, in the Stances following the poem, Ronsard does not evoke a noble Lady’s fragility but the
robustness of a country girl.
En ton âge le plus gaillard
Tu as laissé seul ton Ronsard.37
In your happiest and healthiest age
You left your Ronsard alone
In this sonnet, Ronsard does not rebel against Death; with serenity, he composes a soft music of
words ending in ose and eur, which with the alexandrin convey to the poem an atmosphere of eternal
Comme on voit sur la branche 38
Comme39 on voit sur la branche au mois de may la rose,
En sa belle jeunesse, en sa premiere fleur,
Rendre le ciel jaloux de sa vive couleur,
Quand l’Aube de ses pleurs au point du jour l’arrose ;
La grâce dans sa fueille et l’amour se repose,
Embasmant les jardins et les arbres d’odeur ;
Mais batue ou de pluye ou d’excessive ardeur,
Languissante elle meurt, feuille à feuille déclose.
Ainsi, en ta premiere et jeune nouveauté,
Quand la Terre et le Ciel honoroient ta beauté,
La Parque t’a tuee, et cendre tu reposes.
Pour obseques reçoy mes larmes et mes pleurs,
Ce vase plein de laict, ce panier plein de fleurs,
Afin que vif et mort, ton corps ne soit que roses.
37 Ibid, Tome 1, p 182
38 Ibid, Tome 1, pp. 184-185
39 Here we have an e caduc so we should read comm’on voit…
When we see on the branch
When we see on the branch the pretty rose of May,
In the prime of her youth, in her very first bloom,
She makes the sky jealous of her radiant colour
When Dawn gently sprays her at sunrise with her tears.
Grace sleeps in her leaves and love reposes;
Reviving with her scent the gardens and the trees.
But beaten by rain or excessive ardours,
Languorously she dies, leaf after leaf exposed.
So, in your prime and youthful freshness,
When sky and earth celebrated your beauty,
Fate slyly killed you, and ashes you repose.
For your burial, receive with my cries and tears,
This vase full of sweet milk, this basket of flowers
So that dead or alive, you will remain a rose.
The same year, Ronsard dedicates his time to more austere works: Institution pour l’adolescence
du Roy,40 Discours de l’équité des vieux Gaulois,41 and the Songe.42 Regrettably, the new king Henri III is not
impressed by Ronsard’s solemnity. Since his return from Italy, Henri is obsessed with futility; and when
Ronsard sends him the beautiful verses of Bocage Royal,43 he does not appreciate them.
The king is nevertheless ready to defend the Belles Lettres so he creates the académie Florentine. It
succeeds to de Baïf’s first académie, which ended with Charles IX. As before, the Pléiade’s members are
invited to join, and twice a week, the king presides the séances in the royal antechamber.
Meanwhile, the civil war is still raging and the Parisians are more and more agitated. In the
Panégyrique de la renommée published in 1579, Ronsard fiercely defends his king but urges him to
seriously mend the conduct of his guards who are called the king’s mignons because of their effeminate
appearance and scandalous reputation. This time, the king listens; but Ronsard is tired of the court’s
intrigues and again, he returns to his Vendôme priory.
40 Oeuvres Complètes, tome 1 pp 560-564.
41 Ibid, pp 809-817
42 Ibid, pp 804-809
43 Ibid, pp 787-914
Ronsard cannot believe his eyes when he sees his dear Gastine forest disappearing.44 In the
superb elegy XXIV, he confides his distress. Contre les bûcherons de la forest de Gastine is published in
January 1584 in the Sixième edition collective des Oeuvres. The elegy counts two huitains and a sizain, then,
we have another huitain and two sizains, and a last huitain. In this exceptional elegy, Ronsard uses the
alexandrins to stretch time and express his melancholy. He carries us in a world of nymphs and dryads,
muses and goddesses.
Élégie (Contre les bûcherons de la forêt de Gastine)
Quiconque aura premier la main embesongnée
A te couper, forest, d’une dure congnée,
Qu’il puisse s’enferrer de son propre baston,
Et sente en l’estomac la faim d’Erisichthon,
Qui coupa de Cerés le chesne venerable,
Et qui, gourmand de tout, de tout insatiable,
Les bœufs et les moutons de sa mère esgorgea,
Puis, pressé de la faim, soy-mesme se mangea.
Ainsi puisse engloutir ses rentes et sa terre,
Et se devore apres par les dents de la guerre.
Qu’il puisse pour vanger le sang de nos forests,
Tousjours nouveaux emprunts sur nouveaux interests
Devoir à l’usurier, et qu’en fin il consomme
Tout son bien à payer la principale somme.
Que, tousjours sans repos, ne face en son cerveau
Que tramer pour-neant quelque dessein nouveau,
Porté d’impatience et de fureur diverse,
Et de mauvais conseil qui les hommes renverse.
Escoute, bucheron, arreste un peu le bras,
Ce ne sont pas des bois que tu jettes à bas,
Ne vois-tu pas le sang, lequel degoute à force
Des Nymphes qui vivoyent dessous la dure escorce ?
Sacrilege meurdrier, si on pend un voleur
Pour piller un butin de bien peu de valeur,
Combien de feux, de fers, de morts et de destresses
44 In 1573, the duc de Vendôme, the future Henri IV sold part of his forest and the new owner seeking
profit did not hesitate to decimate it.
45 Oeuvres Complètes, Tome II, p 116
Merites-tu, meschant, pour tuer des Deesses ?
Forest, haute maison des oiseaux bocagers,
Plus le cerf solitaire et les chevreuls legers
Ne paistront sous ton ombre, et ta verte criniere
Plus du soleil d’esté ne rompra la lumiere.
Plus l’amoureux pasteur sur un tronq adossé,
Enflant son flageolet à quatre trous persé,
Son mastin à ses pieds, à son flanc la houlette,
Ne dira plus l’ardeur de sa belle Janette ;
Tout deviendra muet, Echo sera sans voix,
Tu deviendras campagne, et, en lieu de tes bois,
Dont l’ombrage incertain lentement se remue,
Tu sentiras le soc, le coutre et la charrue.
Tu perdras ton silence, et haletans d’effroy,
Ny Satyres ny Pans ne viendront plus chez toy.
Adieu, vieille forest, le jouët de Zephyre,
Où premier j’accorday les langues de ma lyre,
Où premier j’entendi les fleches resonner
D’Apollon, qui me vint tout le cœur estonner ;
Où premier, admirant ma belle Calliope,
Je devins amoureux de sa neuvaine trope,
Quand sa main sur le front cent roses me jetta,
Et de son propre laict Euterpe m’allaita.
Adieu, vieille forest, adieu, testes sacrées,
De tableaux et de fleurs autrefois honorées,
Maintenant le desdain des passans alterez,
Qui bruslez en esté des rayons etherez,
Sans plus trouver le frais de tes douces verdures,
Accusent vos meurtriers et leur disent injures.
Adieu, chesnes, couronne aux vaillans citoyens,
Arbres de Jupiter, germes Dodonéens,
Qui premiers aux humains donnastes à repaistre,
Peuples vrayment ingrats, qui n’ont sceu recognoistre
Les biens receus de vous, peuples vraiment grossiers,
De massacrer ainsi leurs peres nourriciers.
Que l’homme est malheureux qui au monde se fie !
O Dieux, que veritable est la philosophie,
Qui dit que toute chose à la fin perira,
Et qu’en changeant de forme une autre vestira.
De Tempé la vallée un jour sera montagne,
Et la cyme d’Athos une large campagne,
Neptune quelquefois de blé sera couvert :
La matiere demeure, et la forme se perd.
Elegy (Against the woodcutters of the Gastine forest)
To anyone willing to have his hand busy
cutting you down, forest, with the blow of his axe,
May he fall to his death on his treacherous baton,
And feel in his stomach Erisichthon’s hunger,46
He who dared to cut down Ceres’s marvellous oak,
Who, insatiable and greedy for all things,
ferociously slaughtered his mother’s ox and sheep,
And, still pressed by hunger, finally ate himself.
Likewise, let his money and lands be swallowed,
And with the teeth of war, let him devour himself.
To avenge our forest, let him beg for new loans
on renewed interests, the highest of all;
And to repay his depts, let him always consume
all of his possessions to pay back the premium.
With no respite, let his dangerous mind vainly
devise lucrative but impossible projects;
May they bring him distress, anger, and impatience,
And the evil counsels that shatter all men’s lives.
Listen woodcutter, hold your arm an instant;
It is not wood alone you are falling down;
See the blood of our nymphs47 pouring out
from the hard and thick bark of the trees, their dwellings.
Murderous sacrilege! If we hang a thief
for having stolen things of little value,
46 Mythological character punished for having decimated Ceres’s oldest oak.
47 The nymphs or dryads
How many flames, fetters, death, and distress
You deserve, O villain, for killing our goddesses?
Dear forest, lofty abode of the boscage birds!
No more the lonely stag and the agile roe deer
will graze within your shade, no more your green mane
will shield us from the harsh summer light.
No more the shepherd in love leaning on a trunk
will tenderly inflate his four-holed flageolet.
His mastiff at his feet, his crook near his flank,
No more will he sing his Janette’s sweet ardour.
All will be quiet; Echo48 will lose her voice;
You will become grassland and instead of your groves
whose uncertain shadows slowly move to and fro,
You will feel the sharp spade, the coulter, and the plough;
You will lose your silence, and panting with horror
Neither Satyrs nor Pans will visit you again.
Adieu, dear old forest, Zephyr’s49 marvellous toy,
Where first I learned to tune the tongues of my lyre;
Where first I heard Apollo’s vibrant arrows
which came with the wind and enchanted my heart;
Where first I gazed upon fair Calliope,
And fell madly in love with all the forest’s muses;
When Euterpe50 cast roses on my face in wonder,
And when she lovingly fed me with her own milk.
Adieu, dear old forest, adieu sacred green heads,
Honoured so long ago with paintings and flowers.
Vainly searching the freshness of your greens,
unable to avoid summer’s treacherous sunbeams,
it is with contempt that thirsty passers-by
accuse your murderers and insult them fiercely.
48 The forest’s nymph whose voice only remained after Narcissus’s rejection
49 Gentle breeze
50 Calliope, Muse of epic poetry and Euterpe, Muse of lyric poetry
Adieu, proud oaks, green crown of valiant citizens,51
Jupiter’s trees, Dodona’s52 seeds
Who were the first to feed our ancestors;53
O ungrateful people, who fail to recognise
The goodness you gave them; O ignorant people
Who shamelessly murder our fostering fathers!
How wrechted is man who trusts the world!
O gods, whose philosophy holds all truths
And predicts that all things at the end will perish,
Leaving their present form so others will wear it!
One day, Tempe’s54 valley will become a mountain,
And Athos’s55 summit an immense grazing land;
Sometimes, even Neptune will be flooded with wheat:
Only matter endures, all forms disappear.56
For the publication of the sixth edition of his work, Ronsard comes back to Paris Rue des
Fossés-Saint-Victor and spends time with his friends at the Collège de Boncourt. The enormous work he
just achieved exhausted him. In spring 1584, he feels better and asks to be brought to Croix Val so he may
enjoy the fresh country air. During 1585, he writes his discourse in prose Au lecteur apprenti (the reader-
In October, Ronsard is very ill and feeling his end coming, he calls his solicitor and the curé de
Ternay. When Galland arrives, Ronsard is ready to die peacefully. Peacefully? No not really, the poet
suffers so much that he cannot sleep anymore and even poppy juice does not alleviate his pain. He
nevertheless composes his epitaph and despite his doctor’s advice and the freezing winter rain, he comes
back to his dear priory of Saint-Cosme.
Close to his Green Island, the Ile Verte, the Great Pan of the Renaissance dies on 27 December
1585 after having composed his last witty verses. Ronsard is one of the greatest French poets. With
passion, delicacy, and elegance, he describes love in its most sublime state; but it is Ronsard’s artistic
blend of noblesse, simplicity, and sensuality that particularly enchants the readers.
51 A crown made of oak’s leaves for Roman soldiers who saved a companion
52 The prophetic oak forest of Dodona consecrated to Jupiter
53 Acorns were, it has been said, the food of primitive men
54 The Penee Valley in Thessaly is well known by the Greek poets for its freshness
55 Greek mountain
56 More than 400 years have passed; today many still weep and denounce the decimation of our forests...
17 Century - le Grand Siècle
The 17th Century also known as the Grand Siècle (Great Century) really starts in 1624. Though
Louis XIII is a mediocre ruler, he has the wisdom to fully trust his minister, Cardinal de Richelieu whose
main objective is to ensure the king’s absolute authority. The Cardinal is popular in intellectual circles; he
regularly visits the Hôtel de Rambouillet where the Marquise, Catherine de Vivonne-Pisani, regularly
receives illustrious men and women in the famous Chambre bleue (blue room).
Horrified by the vulgarity prevailing in Henri IV’s court, the Précieuse (precious) Catherine also
known as the incomparable Arthénice opens her sumptuous hotel to those sharing her taste for distinction;
this implies elegance in thoughts, manners, and language. Richelieu, Condé, La Rochefoucauld, La
Fayette, Malherbe, Corneille, the Marquise de Sévigné, and many more, regularly come to the Hôtel de
Soon, some of them decide to meet secretly every week to discuss literature at Valentin
Conrart’s, a well-known and highly educated man. Richelieu hears about their small association and
offers them full support. On 21 March 1634, he founds the Académie Française and a year later, the
academy and its forty members1 are officially recognised by Louis XIII. The main objective of the
academicians is to ensure the purity of French language. To achieve this noble task, they immediately
begin to work on the elaboration of a Dictionnaire, a Grammaire, a Rhétorique, and a Poétique.
The high society and particularly the Libertins also enjoy the Société du Temple and Ninon de
Lenclos’s mundane salon. These Libertines, well-known for their dissolute morality, discuss controversial
scientific hypotheses, contest Biblical teachings, substitute God with Nature, and agree with Descartes’s,
Locke’s, and Spinoza’s philosophical principles that reason and common sense are primordial in
philosophy and scientific research.
The young Louis XIV also loves beauty and elegance but his real passion is absolute supremacy.
After the death of his father, the new king immediately demonstrates his willingness to rule alone; he
refuses to take a minister, ignores the Parliament’s anger, and sneezes at the nobles’ conspiracy against
the centralisation of royal authority.2 Furthermore and above all, he ensures the renaissance of
Catholicism and revokes the Édit de Nantes in 1685. Yes, religion is on the agenda again. Pascal’s
religious ardour is on its rise; and in the Provinciales (Provincials), he fervently defends Port Royal and
the Jansenists against the laxity of the Jesuits. Of course and despite his fatal illness, Pascal writes his
famous Pensées, which will not be published before 1670, eight years after his death.
1 This number will never change.
2 This conspiration called La Fronde began in 1648 and finished in 1653.
The public however prefers emotions to philosophy. At the Comédie Française, they applaud
Corneille’s and Racine’s tragedies; they laugh with Molière, who in delightful comedies mocks the new
fashion, pushing wit, elegance, and refinement to their extremes; and they smile with Jean de la Fontaine
who gently exposes the hypocrisy of the noble society and the pettiness of human behaviour in his Fables.
As we shall see, the king’s absolute power on any of his subjects does not deter audacious
writers to freely express their views on the society in which they live.
Jean de la Fontaine
Born the 8 July 1621 at Château-Thierry, a small county in Champagne’s province, Jean de La
Fontaine goes to school at the Oratoire; and later, he enters the Séminaire de Saint-Magloire where he
achieves his novitiate. However, having no religious vocation, the young man decides to study law. He
obtains his master; and in 1647, he marries Marie Héricart who gives him a son six years later.
This is not a happy marriage. La Fontaine spends most of this time in Paris where he meets
Jean-Baptiste Poquelin also known as Molière, Racine, his cousin,
and Charles Perrault, who is writing the famous Contes de ma mère
l’Oye (Tales of My Mother, the Goose). Soon, Cendrillon (Cinderella)
and the Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood) will become
immortal heroes worldwide. La Fontaine also loves reading; he
highly admires Clément Marot, Rabelais, and Montaigne; and he
Well inspired, the young man composes little poems; and
in 1654, he translates and adapts Terence’s Eunuchus.4 Four years
later, he dedicates his poem Adonis to the superintendent of finance,
Nicolas Fouquet, who becomes his protector. La Fontaine5 now
works with assiduity. He writes Clymène a comedy composed in
homage to Madame Rousselet where he reveals the diversity of his
talent; and just before Fouquet’s arrest for treason in 1661, he
publishes Le Songe de Vaux describing marvellously the splendours
of Fouquet’s palace. Devastated by the news, La Fontaine openly
pleads his friend’s cause in Élégie aux Nymphes de Vaux and in the
Ode au Roi. Alas, his intervention irritates Colbert and Louis XIV, who suspect him of complicity. Wisely,
he chooses to go and stay with his uncle Jannart in Limousin until things calm down.
Appointed gentleman-in-waiting to the Duchesse d’Orléans, he comes back to Paris; and from
1664 to 1667, he writes his first Contes6 and dedicates them to the Duchesse de Bouillon. With its irregular
verses, the versification is original and gives lightness and natural to the tales.
4 Terence (~183-159AC) a freed slave from Carthage was a Latin comic poet.
5 Image from Gallica BNF
6 27 Contes et Nouvelles en Vers, including Joconde, La Matrone d’Ephèse, and Le Calendrier des Vieillards.
However, La Fontaine’s genius is fully recognised only after the publication of his first
collection of Fables Choisies mises en vers par Mr de La Fontaine. The collection of 126 fables is divided in six
books with two prefaces dedicated to the six years old dauphin.
Certainly, La Fontaine plagiarises Aesop;7 but as Aesop himself admitted having used oriental
tales, the fabulist clearly acknowledges his debts to Aesop, Phaedrus,8 and others9 in the Préface of the
Fables, stressing that his modest task is only to égayer (enliven) the already excellent works
On ne trouvera pas ici l’élégance ni l’extrême brèveté (sic) qui rendent Phèdre recommandable :
ce sont qualités au-dessus de ma portée. Comme il m’était impossible de l’imiter en cela, j’ai cru
qu’il fallait en récompense égayer l’ouvrage plus qu’il n’a fait. Non que je le blâme d’en être
demeuré dans ces termes : la langue latine n’en demandait pas d’avantage.10
We shall not find here the elegance or extreme brevity, which makes Phaedrus commendable:
such qualities are unreachable to me. As it was impossible to imitate him, I thought that as a
reward I could enliven his work more than he did. Not that I blame him for having been satisfied,
Latin language requiring nothing else.
Les Fables is a chef d’œuvre (masterpiece). La Fontaine does not simply translate old fables, he
transformed them into miniature comedies in which he gently depicts the stupidity of human vanity, and
gracefully evokes France’s charming countryside. Young and old, rich and poor, nearly everyone enjoys
the fables. Furthermore, and to the delight of children, moral lessons are now fun and interesting.
La Fontaine’s genius is his ability to transform the apologue into poetry. The narration is still
pleasant and the symbolic personages are deliberately unreal to create a fabulous atmosphere; but the
moral or alluded moral at the end of the fables invites the reader to reinterpret them. Undeniably, the
7 According to Claude Gaspard Bachet de Mézeriac’s Life of Aesop, published in 1632, Aesop was a slave
by birth; and as a reward for his erudition and talent, his second master made him free. He then went to
the court of Lydia where he met the learned and rich king Croesus and many sages and philosophers.
Later, he was sent by the king as an ambassador to Delphi where he was supposed to share a large
amount of gold among the people; but when Aesop saw their covetousness, he sent back the money to his
master. This enraged the Delphians who put him to death as a vulgar criminal. The collection of fables
attributed to him largely consists of the prosed paraphrases of Babrius’ Fables.
8 Inspired by Aesop, Phaedrus, a Roman author (~15 B.C.-~50 A.D.) wrote 5 books of fables in Latin.
9 La Fontaine probably read Isaac Nicolas Nevelet’s Mythologia Aesopica published in 1610, and the works
of Planude and Phaedrus. Maximus Planudes, a Byzantine monk from the 12th century A.D., translated in
Latin the Greek prose and poetry from the 7th century B.C. up to his day. In his Life and Fables of Aesop,
he says that Aesop was a semi-legendary hunchback and stuttering slave. La Fontaine was also aware of
Guillaume Haudent’s translation of Aesop’s fables, published at the end of the fifteenth century.
10 Jean de La Fontaine (1932) Préface, Fables de La Fontaine.
imaginary world of the fables closely reflects the real world and its unkind human society. La Fontaine
abhors violence and hypocrisy, but he always remains gentle and compassionate, reminding us that in
the personages and animals of the Fables, we should recognise our brothers and sisters, our friends, and
above all, ourselves. La Fontaine also strongly believes that we must accept our fate even if we are poor
or weak but we ought to sacrifice everything to preserve our freedom.
Le Chêne et le Roseau, the twelfth and last fable of Book I of the first collection is La Fontaine’s
favourite fable.11 Certainly, the theme is not original as Aesop, Aphthonius,12 and even Virgil in his
Aeneids and Georgics already dealt with it; but with La Fontaine, the story has become a tragedy.
In this play in three acts, inanimate characters infused with life reveal their personalities.
Despite the pervasive irony, an atmosphere of detachment prevails as La Fontaine only narrates the event
and lets the reader draws the moral. Only narrates? Yes narrates but with such dexterity! Here, La
Fontaine uses the vers libres (free verses) and alternates masculine and feminine rhymes.13 Alphonse de
Lamartine will later argue that La Fontaine used free verses simply because he did not want to be
restrained by the rules of poetry. What a mistake! In Le Chêne et le Roseau, for instance, the contrast
between the oak and the reed is obtained through the careful combination of alexandrins and
octosyllables. This combination also skilfully enhances the story’s intensity and liveliness. While the
alexandrin is the keystone of La Fontaine’s metrical edifice when solemnity and emphasis are required,
the octosyllable and the rimes riches croisées (abab) and embrassées (abba) produce picturesque effects.
11 In the final edition, Le Chêne et le Roseau is Fable 22 of Book 1, pp 99-100.
12 Aphthonius of Antioch, rhetorician from the 2nd century A.D. translated some of Aesop’s fables in Latin
13 A feminine rhyme is a rhyme where the last syllable contained an e caduc.
Le Chêne et le Roseau 14 The Oak and the Reed
Le chêne un jour dit au roseau : One day the oak said to the reed:
« Vous avez bien sujet d’accuser la nature : “You have good reasons to accuse Mother Nature;
Un roitelet pour vous est un pesant fardeau ; Even a little wren is for you a burden
Le moindre vent qui d’aventure And the lightest wind that by chance
Fait rider la face de l’eau, Wrinkles the surface of the stream
Vous oblige à baisser la tête ; Forces you to bend your head,
Cependant que mon front, au Caucase pareil, While I, standing high as a Caucasus Mountain,
Non content d’arrêter les rayons du soleil, Not only happy to block the sunbeams,
Brave l’effort de la tempête. I also brave the wildest storms.
Tout vous est aquilon, tout me semble zéphir. What is Aquilon to you is Zephyr to me.
Encor si vous naissiez à l’abri du feuillage If at least you were born under my foliage
Dont je couvre le voisinage, That covers the whole neighbourhood,
Vous n’auriez pas tant à souffrir : You would suffer much less:
Je vous défendrais de l’orage ; I would protect you from the squalls
Mais vous naissez le plus souvent But most of the time, you are born
Sur les humides bords des royaumes du vent. On the humid shores of the wind’s kingdoms
La nature envers vous me semble bien injuste. Mother Nature is truly unfair to you.
- Votre compassion, lui répondit l’arbuste, - Your compassion, replied the shrub
Part d’un bon naturel ; mais quittez ce souci ; Springs from your heart; but have no fear :
Les vents me sont moins qu’à vous redoutables ; The winds are less dangerous to me than you;
Je plie, et ne romps pas. Vous avez jusqu’ici I bend but do not break. You have until now,
Contre leurs coups épouvantables Resisted against their dreadful blows
Résisté sans courber le dos ; Without bending your back;
Mais attendons la fin. » Comme il disait ces mots, But let us wait the end.” As he said this,
Du bout de l’horizon accourt avec furie. Far from the horizon, speeding in great fury,
Le plus terrible des enfants Appears the most fearful offspring
Que le Nord eût portés jusque-là dans ses flancs. The Great North had ever borne in his flanks.
L’arbre tient bon ; le roseau plie. The tree stands firm; the reed bends.
Le vent redouble ses efforts, The wind renews his efforts
Et fait si bien qu’il déracine And does it so well that he deracinates
Celui de qui la tête au ciel était voisine, The one who touched heaven with his head
Et dont les pieds touchaient à l’empire des morts. And reached with its feet, the empire of the dead.15
14 La Fontaine (1991) Oeuvres Complètes, p 54.
15 Similar verses in Virgil’s Georgics (Part II, verses 291-292) and in the Aeneids (Part IV, verses 445-446)
Some however do not appreciate the fables. Jean-Jacques Rousseau will strongly argue later that
young children do not understand them; and when they do, they are seduced by vice. This is not always
the case; children probably do not grasp the fables’ philosophical meaning but they recognise and despise
Unsurprisingly, Louis XIV deeply resents La Fontaine’s audacity but he cannot reprimand him
openly, the tales being written especially for children. La Fontaine does not care; he fully enjoys his
success, and a year later, he publishes Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, a novel in prose and verse
where he blends mythology and actuality. Then, he writes a new series of Contes et Nouvelles.
La Fontaine is now very popular. He rarely sees his family preferring Paris to the province and
he spends without counting; but when the duchess d’Orléans dies in 1673, he must sell his domain.
Gratefully, he accepts Madame de la Sablière’s offer to shelter him in her sumptuous residence, Rue
Saint-Honoré. There, La Fontaine meets the intellectual elite, among them, François Bernier, the famous
philosopher and medical practitioner, with whom he learns about India. Bernier also encourages him to
read the French version of Pilpay’s16 oriental tales in Gilbert Gaulmin’s Livre des Lumières en la conduite des
rois composé par le sage Pilpay,17 published in 1644.
This encounter deeply inspires La Fontaine who immediately starts composing new fables.
However, Jean is also very impressed by Giovanni Boccaccio’s Décameron, Marguerite de Navarre’s
Heptaméron, and Antoine de La Salle’s Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles; therefore, he concentrates on his Nouveaux
Contes and publishes them in 1674. This time, the moralist is amoral; he exasperates the church, and the
king seizes the shameful work.
Wisely, La Fontaine comes back to his fables; and in 1679, he adds five more books to his
Collection, dedicating them to Madame de Montespan, the royal mistress. Having a great influence on
the king, La Fontaine hopes to seduce her so he may become a member of the Académie Française.
La Laitière et le Pot au Lait, the tenth fable of Book VII, is inspired by Aesop and also by
Bonaventure des Périers’ Nouvelles Récréations et Joyeux Devis18 and Pilpay’s oriental tales. In the
Panchatantra, a similar event happens to a Brahmin with his pot of rice; and in another tale, we find the
same Brahmin covered with flour.
16 Pilpay’s fables include the two jewels of Indian literature; Jataka and Panchatantra were written in
Sanskrit around 200 by a Brahmin named Vishnusharman. The Brahmin sage Pilpay is also known as
Bidpaï and many have argued that he is a fictive character of the tales not its composer.
17 René Radouant (1929) Les Fables de La Fontaine. In Gaulmin’s French version, David Sahib d’Ispahan
translated the five books of the Panchatantra from Ibn al-Muqaffa’s Persian translation, Kalîla Wa Dimna
written around 750.
18 Nouvelle XII, Comparaison des alquemistes à la bonne femme qui portait une potée de lait au marché
(Alchemists’ comparison of the brave woman bringing a milk-can to the market).
Here, La Fontaine calls the reader as a witness and gently emphasises that a similar accident
could happen to all of us. Enumerations and repetitions give a comic but compassionate tone to this
charming fable. As usual, the fabulist plays with the alexandrin and the octosyllable; and switching from
the past tense to the present, he creates a clever contrast between Perrette’s rather long dreaming and the
La Laitière et le Pot au Lait 19
Perrette, sur sa tête ayant un pot au lait
Bien posé sur un coussinet,
Prétendait arriver sans encombre à la ville.
Légère et court vêtue, elle allait à grands pas,
Ayant mis ce jour-là, pour être plus agile,
Cotillon simple et souliers plats.
Notre laitière ainsi troussée
Comptait déjà dans sa pensée
Tout le prix de son lait, en employait l’argent ;
Achetait un cent d’œufs, faisait triple couvée :
La chose allait à bien par son soin diligent.
« Il m’est, disait-elle, facile
D’élever des poulets autour de ma maison ;
Le renard sera bien habile
S’il ne m’en laisse assez pour avoir un cochon.
Le porc à s’engraisser coûtera peu de son ;
Il était, quand je l’eus, de grosseur raisonnable :
J’aurai, le revendant, de l’argent bel et bon.
Et qui m’empêchera de mettre dans notre étable,
Vu le prix dont il est, une vache et son veau,
Que je verrai sauter au milieu du troupeau ? »
Perrette là-dessus saute aussi, transportée :
Le lait tombe ; adieu veau, vache, cochon, couvée.
La dame de ces biens, quittant d’un œil marri
Sa fortune ainsi répandue,
Va s’excuser à son mari,
En grand danger d’être battue.
19 La Fontaine (1991) Oeuvres Complètes, p 268.
Le récit en farce en fut fait :
On l’appela le Pot au Lait.
Quel esprit ne bat la campagne,
Qui ne fait châteaux en Espagne ?
Picrochole, Pyrrhus, la laitière, enfin tous,
Autant les sages que les fous.
Chacun songe en veillant ; il n’est rien de plus doux.
Une flatteuse erreur emporte alors nos âmes ;
Tout le bien du monde est à nous,
Tous les honneurs, toutes les femmes.
Quand je suis seul, je fais au plus brave un défi ;
Je m’écarte, je vais détrôner le sophi ;
On m’élit roi, mon peuple m’aime,
Les diadèmes vont sur ma tête pleuvant.
Quelque20 accident fait-il que je rentre en moi-même :
Je suis Gros Jean comme devant.
The Dairymaid and the Milk-can
Perrette, a milk-can on her head
Nicely set on a small cushion,
Hoped to reach town with no mishap.
Lightly clad, she was striding along,
Having put on, to be more agile that day,
Flat-heeled shoes and plain petticoat.
Thus accoutred, our dairymaid
Was quickly counting in her mind
The price her milk would fetch and mentally spent it;
With hundred eggs, she will make a three-fold hatching:
With care, all is going well.
“It is very easy, she said,
To rear chicks around the house;
The fox would be very clever
Not to leave me some so I could get a nice pig.
The bran to fatten it will not really cost much
20 Here we have an e caduc so we should read quelqu’accident
If I bought it reasonably big:
I will surely sell it for pretty good money.
And, who will stop me from putting in our stable,
Considering their fair price, a cow and its calf
Gaily skipping among the flock?”
Carried away with joy, Perrette hops carelessly:
Down goes the milk: adieu calf, cow, pig, and chicken.
Distressed and leaving
Her great fortune spilt on the road
The dairymaid goes home, and scared to be beaten
Begs her husband forgiveness.
A farcical tale was then written about it
And is known as the Milk-can.
Which mind does not ramble sometimes?
Who does not build castles in Spain?
Picrochole, 21 Pyrrhus, 22 the dairymaid, all of us,
Wise men and common fools alike.
We all dream wide-awake; and nothing is sweeter.
A flattering delusion then beguiles our weak souls;
All the wealth of the world seems ours,
All its honours, all its women.
Alone, I challenge the bravest;
I travel far away; I dethrone the Sophi;23
I become a great king and my people love me,
Rich diadems are showered on my head.
But, mishaps always bring me back to my senses:
And here I am, Fat Jean, as always.
The second edition of Les Fables is another triumph; and in a letter to her friend Bussy, Madame
de Sévigny enthusiastically advises him to read the divine fables.24 However, when La Fontaine’s name is
proposed at the Académie in 1683, Louis XIV seizes the opportunity of the scandal caused by the Contes
to suspend his nomination.
21 Rabelais’s character in Gargantua who wanted to conquer the universe.
22 The emperor of Epirus who dreamed to conquer Rome and the world.
23 The king of Persia
24 Letter written in 1679 by the Marquise de Sévigné (1626–1696) correspondence.
La Fontaine has no choice; he must appease the king’s anger so he publicly apologises for his
licentious tales and composes a Ballade au Roi, where he humbly asks him to reconsider his position. The
king agrees; and in 1684, La Fontaine becomes member of the Académie Française.
Three years later, Jean writes L’Epître à Huet revealing his sympathy for the Anciens (Ancients)
in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes (Quarrel about the Ancients and the Moderns).25
La Fontaine still lives at Madame de la Sablière’s; but after her death in 1693, he is seriously ill
and starts reconsidering his dissolute life. Without resource once more, the poet thinks to immigrate to
England; but at the last minute, Madame Hervart, another charitable woman, offers to take care of all his
expenses. Free from material uncertainties, the poet has now time to meditate on his life and soul and he
reconciles with Catholicism, the faith of his childhood. In 1694, he translates the Psalms; and in
September, he finally publishes the last book of the Fables bringing the whole collection to 243. This book
dedicated to the Duc de Bourgogne is La Fontaine’s last work. The French fabulist dies a few months later
in Paris on 13 April 1695.
Le Juge arbitre, l’Hospitalier, et le Solitaire is the twenty-ninth and last fable of La Fontaine’s Book
XII.26 Here, La Fontaine uses La Vie des Saints Pères du Désert et de Quelques Saints written by the Church’s
fathers and edited by Arnaud d’Andilly. This fable is La Fontaine’s legacy.
Le Juge Arbitre, l’Hospitalier, et le Solitaire 27 28
Trois saints, également jaloux de leur salut,
Portés d'un même esprit, tendaient à même but.
Ils s'y prirent tous trois par des routes diverses :
Tous chemins vont à Rome; ainsi nos concurrents
Crurent pouvoir choisir des sentiers différents.
L'un, touché des soucis, des longueurs, des traverses
Qu'en apanage on voit aux procès attachés,
S'offrit de les juger sans récompense aucune,
Peu soigneux d’établir ici-bas sa fortune.
Seeing the gigantic discoveries of science and the excellent works of the contemporary philosophers,
playwrights, poets, and artists, many intellectuals such as Charles Perrault argue that the great men of
Antiquity are finally not so great.
26 In La Fontaine’s last edition, Fable 27 book XII, pp 395-396.
27 Religious order of the Knights Hospitallers founded during the Middle Ages to help the traveller, the
ill, and the poor
28 La Fontaine (1991) Oeuvres Complètes, pp 536-538
Depuis qu'il est des lois, l'homme, pour ses pêchés,
Se condamne à plaider la moitié de sa vie :
La moitié? Les trois quarts, et bien souvent le tout.
Le conciliateur crut qu'il viendrait à bout
De guérir cette folle et détestable envie.
Le second de nos saints choisit les hôpitaux.
Je le loue; et le soin de soulager ces maux
Est une charité que je préfère aux autres.
Les malades d'alors, étant tels que les nôtres,
Donnaient de l'exercice au pauvre hospitalier,
Chagrins, impatients, et se plaignant sans cesse.
« Il a pour tels et tels un soin particulier,
Ce sont ses amis; il nous laisse. »
Ces plaintes n'étaient rien au prix de l'embarras
Où se trouva réduit l’appointeur de débats :
Aucun n'était content; la sentence arbitrale
A nul des deux ne convenait :
Jamais le juge ne tenait
A leur gré la balance égale.
De semblables discours rebutaient l'appointeur :
Il court aux hôpitaux, va voir leur directeur :
Tous deux ne recueillant que plainte et que murmure,
Affligés, et contraints de quitter ces emplois,
Vont confier leur peine au silence des bois.
Là, sous d'âpres rochers, près d'une source pure,
Lieu respecté des vents, ignoré du soleil,
Ils trouvent l'autre saint, lui demandent conseil.
" Il faut, dit leur ami, le prendre de soi-même.
Qui mieux que vous sait vos besoins ?
Apprendre à se connaître est le premier des soins
Qu'impose à tous mortels la Majesté suprême.
Vous êtes-vous connus dans le monde habité ?
L'on ne le peut qu'aux lieux pleins de tranquillité :
Chercher ailleurs ce bien est une erreur extrême.
Troublez l'eau: vous y voyez-vous ?
Agitez celle-ci. - Comment nous verrions-nous ?
La vase est un épais nuage
Qu'aux effets du cristal nous venons d'opposer.
- Mes frères, dit le saint, laissez-la reposer,
Vous verrez alors votre image.
Pour vous mieux contempler demeurez au désert. »
Ainsi parla le solitaire.
Il fut cru; l'on suivit ce conseil salutaire.
Ce n'est pas qu'un emploi ne doive être souffert.
Puisqu'on plaide, et qu'on meurt, et qu'on devient malade,
Il faut des médecins, il faut des avocats.
Ces secours, grâce à Dieu, ne nous manqueront pas:
Les honneurs et le gain, tout me le persuade.
Cependant on s'oublie en ces communs besoins.
O vous, dont le public emporte tous les soins,
Magistrats, princes et ministres,
Vous que doivent troubler mille accidents sinistres,
Que le malheur abat, que le bonheur corrompt,
Vous ne vous voyez point, vous ne voyez personne.
Si quelque bon moment à ces pensers vous donne,
Quelque flatteur vous interrompt.
Cette leçon sera la fin de ces ouvrages :
Puisse-t-elle être utile aux siècles à venir!
Je la présente aux rois, je la propose aux sages :
Par où saurais-je mieux finir ?29
The Judge, the Hospitaller, and the Lonely
Three saints, equally anxious to gain salvation,
Were seeking the same goal with the same spirit.
To achieve it at their best, they took diverse routes:
All paths leading to Rome: our brave candidates
Decided to choose different roads.
One, touched by anxiety, delay, and traverse,
Which are the appanage tied to any court cases
Offered to judge them with no recompense ever
29 Image from http://environnement.ecoles.free.fr/fables_de_la-fontaine
For he was not inclined to build his wealth down here.
Since laws have been invented, Man has always wasted
Half of his confused life pleading for all his sins.
Half? No, three quarters, often all.
Yet, the conciliator thought that he could manage
To heal this foolish and detestable desire.
The second of our Saints preferred the hospitals
And I praise him, as the task of relieving suffering
Is a charity I prefer to any others.
Patients, being the same as ours then,
Plagued the poor Hospitaller with their grievances;
Morose and impatient, they ceaselessly complained:
“He cares for this one and this one;
When he worries for his friends, he neglects us.”
These complaints were nothing compared
To the irksome situation the appointor had to put up with;
None were satisfied; and arbitral sentences
Did not even please the claimants:
Never did the judge truly hold,
According to them, an equal or fair balance.
Such discourses disheartened the appointor who
Runs to the Hospitals seeking the director:30
Having only gained protest and ingratitude,
Afflicted, and constrained to leave their employments,
Both decide to confide their torment to the woods.
There, beneath some sharp rocks and beside a clear stream,
Respected by the winds and ignored by the sun,
They find the other Saint and seek advice from him.
-You must deeply search into your soul, says their friend.
For who can better know your needs?
Learning to know oneself 31 is one of the duties
The supreme Majesty imposes to mortals.
Did you really know who you were in the busy world?
You can only know yourself in tranquil havens:
30Tense changed to give an illusion of reality
31On the frontispiece of the temple of Delphi, was engraved the inscription ‘Know thyself’ adopted by
Socrates as the true principle of philosophy.
Looking anywhere else is an extreme error.
Disturb the water: do you see your face clearly?
Stir it. How could we really see it?
The silt rises like a thick green cloud
And perturbs the crystal effects.
- My brothers, says the Saint, let it rest for a while,
And then, you will see your image.
To meditate on your soul, dwell in wilderness. 32
Thus spoke the solitary man.33
They believed him and followed his salutary advice.
This does not mean that jobs are unacceptable.34
We always appeal to law, we die, and we fall ill,
We need doctors, we need lawyers.
Thanks God, they will always be available
As honour and money are very convincing.
But, these fruitless needs make us forget who we are.
You, for whom public care is one of your concerns,
Magistrates, lords, and ministers,
You that sinister accidents disturb,
That misery defeats and happiness corrupts,
You do not see yourself, you see no one really.
And when you meditate a moment on this thought,
You are interrupted by senseless flatterers.
This lesson is my conclusion:
Let it be useful in future centuries!
I give it to the kings, I give it to the sage:
How could I choose a better end?
32 The Jansenists of Port Royal called their place for meditation the desert.
33 Those who live in tranquillity and isolation; again, La Fontaine switches from the present to past tense
34 And again back to the present
18 Century– le Siècle des Lumières
We are now in the 18th Century, le Siècle des Lumières or age of enlightenment. The interminable
theological discussions between Jesuits and Jansenists, and the persecutions following the revocation of
the Edit de Nantes have severely damaged ecclesiastic authorities. While fervent Christians like
Montesquieu do not talk about faith in their works, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau clearly admit
been deists; and the Libres Penseurs (Free Thinkers), particularly Diderot and d’Alembert, are very hostile
to all forms of religion; this is transparent in the Encyclopédie.
Café Procope with Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet and others1
Salons and cafés are now places of rendez-vous for journalists, philosophers, poets, and artists.
In these cafés, novelists spread rumours circulating in Paris, and poets declaim satiric songs against the
government, which quickly reacts to any criticisms and imprisons the audacious who do not flee in time.
Compared to 17th Century-writers who pondered on morality and self-improvement, modern authors
want to renovate their society. They are men of thought and action rather than artists and they often
abandon poetry for prose to give life and colour to their pamphlets. What matters is the message not the
form as intellectuals have now a great influence on those who desperately want political reforms.
1 The first café opened in 1667, and in 1715, more than 300 existed in Paris alone
The second half of the 18th Century starts with the Seven Years’ War in 1756. In the United
States, the situation is very tensed as well; and while Benjamin Franklin meditates on Montesquieu’s
projects of reforms2 to prepare the new Constitution, Voltaire, Rousseau, Beaumarchais, and of course
Montesquieu, are drafting the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen3 focusing on liberty, equality,
and fraternity. Soon, the Americans will celebrate their Independence in 1776 and the French will fiercely
start their Revolution on 14 July 1789. No one suspects the terror it will alas generate.
2 Charles de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, De l’Esprit des Lois (Of the Spirit of the Laws)
published in 1748.
3 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen Next Page
François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet, later known as Voltaire, comes from a wealthy and sophisticated family.
At a very early age, François knows many poems and fables. When his mother dies in 1701, he is sent to
the Jesuit College Louis-le-Grand where his enthusiasm for the Belles Lettres really explodes. Voltaire will
always remember the Jesuit brothers who knew so well how to instil his passion for literature1
Even if they do not appreciate his eloquent impiety, Voltaire’s teachers immediately recognise
his talents; and when Father Porée asks him to write few verses for an invalid man requesting the
dauphin’s generosity, his supplication is so brilliant that everyone
talks about it in the most eminent salons. The old Ninon de Lenclos,
famous courtesan, asks to meet the prodigious boy, and impressed
by his erudition, she gives him a legacy of two thousand francs so
he may buy books.
As the years pass, François’s literary skills improve
magnificently; he writes his first plays, and composes and translates
Latin poetry. At sixteenth, François2 leaves the college and against
his wish to become a man of letters, he must study law. François
does not like the ‘barbaric’ language of jurisprudence and during
his spare time, he continues to read and write with assiduity.
To cure his son from his unworthy passion, Monsieur
Arouet sends him to Holland as private secretary of the French
ambassador; but François is incorrigible, and his liaison with
Madame Dunoyer’s daughter causes a scandal. On the king’s order,
he must return to France and face deportation if he refuses to obey his father’s wish.3 The young man
capitulates and accepts to work with Maître Alain, prosecutor at the Châtelet prison. Here, he meets his
lifelong friend Nicolas Thieriot who will later become his literary agent. 4
Lacking the vocation, the young man is bored and asks his father the permission to quit his job.
As a last resort, Monsieur Arouet sends him to his friend, Marquis de Caumartin who lives in a luxurious
château at Saint-Ange near Fontainebleau. Away from the libertine Société du Temple, his son will
1 Gustave Desnoiresterres (1967) Voltaire et la Société Française au XVIIIe Siècle.
Musée Carnavalet Paris ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Voltaire.jpg
3 Voltaire’s father asked the king to bring his son back and to threaten him with deportation. The king
sent a lettre de cachet, an order bearing the king’s seal.
4 Nicolas Claude Thieriot (1696-1772) wrote Tableau de l’Empire Germanique in 1741.
perhaps choose an honourable career. With Caumartin, François learns to appreciate opulence, and
develops a keen interest for history; but above all, the young man discovers his hatred for intolerance and
Back in Paris, he starts writing Le Siècle de Louis XIV (Louis XIV’s Century) and the Poème de la
Ligue (Poem of the League), later known as La Henriade. In this poem focusing on the life of Henri IV, he
brilliantly appeals for religious tolerance and exposes his deist view in a superb hymn dedicated to the
glorious God, the eternal geometer and architect of the world.5
In 1717, two years after the king’s death, François is received in the most elegant and aristocratic
salons where his brilliant and sarcastic intelligence is immediately recognised. However, the young
Arouet often uses his wit indiscriminately and dangerously. Two libellous poems and a satire involving
the duc d’Orléans and the duchesse du Berry send him to the famous prison La Bastille. In detention,
Voltaire composes La Bastille proclaiming his innocence and arguing vehemently about unfair
persecutions;6 he also finishes Oedipe, a tragedy based on Sophocles’s play. François is free in April 1718
and his exile is lifted a few months later.
Then, Voltaire’s celebrity is official with the Première (first showing) of Oedipe at the Théâtre
Français7 where it receives a very enthusiastic response. For many, this young playwright, who now calls
himself Voltaire, is a new Racine.8 However, Voltaire is also seen as someone unafraid to bluntly expose
his opinions and if many applaud the famous verse
Nos prêtres ne sont pas ce qu’un vain peuple pense.
Notre crédulité fait toute leur science.9
Our priests are not what vain people think.
Our credulity resumes their knowledge.
the clergy certainly does not appreciate those who encourage reason rather than faith. Voltaire does not
care, and after a long illness,10 he is appointed Court’s poet in 1723. Unsurprisingly, he shines in every
5 This Poème de la Ligue was published anonymously in Geneva in 1723.
6 Adrien Beuchot, ed. (2001) Biographie par Monsieur le Marquis de Condorcet, Oeuvres de Voltaire, Tome
I, note 3 p128. Voltaire explained that the author of the famous J’ai vu was M. Le Brun and not he as
7 Le Théâtre Français also knows as the Comédie Française.
8 As note 6, Tome I, note 3, p 119. François chooses his penname Voltaire—a small estate belonging to his
mother. When dedicating Oedipe to the regent’s wife in 1719, he signs Arouet de Voltaire.
9 Oedipe, (IV. I).
10 Voltaire almost died from smallpox when he was 29.
salon and uses his excellent verve to defend his honour when attacked by those who are jealous of his
Unfortunately, not long after the opening of Marianne in 1724, a sharp reply to the Chevalier de
Rohan followed by a spank and a dual sends him again to the Bastille. The sentence is commuted to exile,
and Voltaire chooses to go to England. During three years, he studies Locke’s philosophy questioning the
divine right of kings and the authority of the state, and he increases his scientific knowledge with
Newton’s law of gravitation. Voltaire loves science and strongly believes that the application of natural
laws can contribute to the improvement of the human condition.
Impressed by England’s balanced constitution, religious tolerance, and freedom of speech, he
swears to fight against all kinds of injustices. Soon as he returns to Paris in 1728, he writes Brutus focusing
with eloquence on the rights of man, and he publishes La Henriade.
Two years later, Voltaire’s freedom is again at stake. In his elegy on the death of Mademoiselle
Lecouvreur, he virulently expresses his indignation about discrimination, unfair treatment, and laissez-
faire (let-it-be). Above all the poet severely criticises the stupid and malevolent superstition to deprive
artists of decent burial.11 In a letter to his friend Thieriot, he confides his sadness:
…Je joins ma faible voix à toutes les voix d’Angleterre, pour faire un peu sentir la différence
qu’il y a entre leur liberté et notre esclavage, entre leur sage hardiesse et notre folle
superstition, entre l’encouragement que les arts reçoivent à Londres et l’oppression honteuse
sous laquelle ils languissent à Paris.12
…I join my feeble voice to all the voices of England to demonstrate the differences between
their liberty and our servitude, their wise audacity and our foolish superstition, the
encouragement given to arts in London and the shameful oppression they receive in Paris.
The elegy is seen as another attack against ecclesiastic institutions, and Voltaire must leave Paris.
In La Mort de Mlle Lecouvreur, Voltaire’s indignation explodes; he cannot tolerate Languet’s13
refusal to decently bury the beautiful artist. For this poem, Voltaire mainly uses alexandrins and few
11 Voltaire was a fervent admirer of Mademoiselle Lecouvreur; he was also his friend and his lover. See
Oeuvres de Voltaire, Tome LI, p 213.
12 Ibid, Lettre 120, May 1, 1930, p 211
13 Saint-Sulpice’s priest
La Mort de Mlle Lecouvreur 14
Que vois-je? quel objet! Quoi! ces lèvres charmantes,
Quoi! ces yeux d'où partaient ces flammes éloquentes,
Éprouvent du trépas les livides horreurs!
Muses, Grâces, Amours, dont elle fut l'image,
O mes dieux et les siens, secourez votre ouvrage!
Que vois-je? c'en est fait, je t'embrasse, et tu meurs!
Tu meurs; on sait déjà cette affreuse nouvelle;
Tous les cœurs sont émus de ma douleur mortelle.
J'entends de tous côtés les beaux-arts éperdus
S'écrier en pleurant: « Melpomène n'est plus! »
Que direz-vous, race future,
Lorsque vous apprendrez la flétrissante injure
Qu'à ces arts désolés font des hommes cruels?
Ils privent de la sépulture
Celle qui dans la Grèce aurait eu des autels.
Quand elle était au monde, ils soupiraient pour elle;
Je les ai vus soumis, autour d'elle empressés:
Sitôt qu'elle n'est plus, elle est donc criminelle!
Elle a charmé le monde, et vous l'en punissez!
Non, ces bords désormais ne seront plus profanes;
Ils contiennent ta cendre; et ce triste tombeau,
Est pour nous un temple nouveau!
Voilà mon Saint-Denis; oui, c'est là que j'adore
Tes talents, ton esprit, tes grâces, tes appas:
Je les aimai vivants, je les encense encore
Malgré les horreurs du trépas,
Malgré l'erreur et les ingrats,
Que seuls de ce tombeau l'opprobre déshonore.
Ah! verrai-je toujours ma faible nation,
Incertaine en ses vœux, flétrir ce qu'elle admire:
14 Beuchot, Poesies, Oeuvres de Voltaire, Tome XII, pp 29-32.
Nos mœurs avec nos lois toujours se contredire;
Et le Français volage endormi sous l'empire
De la superstition?
Quoi! n'est-ce donc qu'en Angleterre
Que les mortels osent penser?
O rivale d'Athène, ô Londre! heureuse terre!15
Ainsi que les tyrans vous avez su chasser
Les préjugés honteux qui vous livraient la guerre.
C'est là qu'on sait tout dire, et tout récompenser;
Nul art n'est méprisé, tout succès a sa gloire.
Le vainqueur de Tallard, le fils de la victoire,
Le sublime Dryden, et le sage Addison,
Et la charmante Ophils, et l'immortel Newton,
Ont part au temple de mémoire:
Et Lecouvreur à Londre aurait eu des tombeaux
Parmi les beaux-esprits, les rois, et les héros.
Quiconque a des talents à Londre est un grand homme.
L'abondance et la liberté
Ont, après deux mille ans, chez vous ressuscité
L'esprit de la Grèce et de Rome.
Des lauriers d'Apollon dans nos stériles champs
La feuille négligée est-elle donc flétrie?
Dieux! pourquoi mon pays n'est-il plus la patrie
Et de la gloire et des talents?
Mademoiselle Lecouvreur’s Death
What do I see? What is this? What! These charming lips,
What! These eyes from which eloquent flames escaped,
Will forever be marked by the horrors of death!
O Muse, Grace, Love, whom she was the resplendent image,
O my gods and hers, rescue your beautiful work!
O, what is this? That’s it, I kiss you and you die!
You die; we already know the terrible news;
15 Athènes and Londres
Every gentle heart is moved by my mortal grief.
Everywhere I hear the Beaux-arts
crying: “Melpomene16 is no more!”
What will you say, future race,
when you learn the wicked injure
cruel men do to noble arts?
They deprive of sepulchre the one
who in Greece would have received an altar.
When she was in this world, all yearned for her;
and, I saw them docile and assiduous:
As soon as she has gone, she is a criminal!
She charmed the world and for this, you now punish her!
No, this street will never be profane anymore;17
it contains your ashes; and this sad resting place,
honoured by our chants and sanctified by your Manes,18
is for us all a new temple!
Here, at Saint-Denis, it is here that I adored
Your talent, your wit, your grace, your exquisite charms:
Alive I loved them all, now I revere them
despite the horrors of death
despite the errors of ungrateful men;
only their evil censure dishonours this tomb.
Alas! Shall I always see my feeble nation,
doubtful in her wishes, withering what she admires?
Our customs and our laws contradict each other
and inconstant French men are lost
What! Is it only in England
that mortals freely think?
O Athens’s rival! O London! O Happy lands!
with all your tyrants, you chased
the shameful prejudices fighting against you.
There, we can say what we want, reward anything;
no arts are rebuked; success is always honoured.
16 The Muse of tragedy
17 Mlle Lecouvreur was berried at the corner of the rue de Bourgogne.
18 The spirits of the dead
Tallard’s19 conqueror, the proud and victorious son,
the inspiring Dryden20 and the wise Addison,21
the charming Ophils,22 the immortal Newton,
all now live in the temple of our memory:
Yes, in London, Lecouvreur would have had a tomb
among beautiful minds, among kings and heroes.
In London, anyone gifted is a great man.
There, abundance and liberty
have finally revived, after two thousand years,
the great spirit of Rome and Greece.
In our barren fields, the neglected leaves
of Apollo’s laurels have dried.
Gods! Why is my country no more the nation
of glory and talent?
Voltaire is aware that his enemies have exaggerated the Elegy’s strongest points and he is
worried.23 Nevertheless, the poet-philosopher comes back to Paris and continues to fight injustice and
intolerance; he writes La Mort de César (Caesar’s Death) rejected for its republican propaganda, and
Eriphyle. If this play is a failure, the beautiful tragedy Zaïre is a great success. Then follows Le Temple du
Goût (Temple of Taste) where he exposes past and present writers’ mistakes, but the public does not
appreciate his criticism, and in reprisal, it scorns his new play, Adélaïde du Guesclin.
In 1734, Voltaire publishes Lettres sur les Anglais (Letters of the English) also called Lettres
Philosophiques (Philosophical Letters). In them, he highly praises England for her constitution, freedom of
press, and tolerance. He also indirectly attacks French political and clerical institutions. This and his
criticism of Pascal’s Pensées as well as his rejection of Leibniz’s innate ideas infuriate the clergy; at their
request, the book is symbolically burnt by the Parliament.24 One more time, Voltaire must flee.
Unfortunately, the reviews of Epître à Uranie published in Amsterdam without Voltaire’s
permission delays his return. Voltaire wrote this poem25 ten years earlier while travelling to Brussels with
Mademoiselle de Rupelmonde in 1722. The young woman, deeply disturbed by religious doubts,
confided them to Voltaire who replied with pertinent objections against Christianity. At the time, the free
19 Probably the dancing master (1651-1728)
20 John Dryden, English poet and dramatist (1631-1700)
21 Joseph Addison, English poet and essayist (1672-1719)
22Anne Oldfield, an illustrious English artist, berried at Westminster Abbey in 1730
23 Ibid, Lettre 122, p 214
24 Oeuvres de Voltaire, Tome I, p 153.
25 Originally, the title was Epître à Julie
thinker read the Epître to Jean-Baptiste Rousseau, scandalised by his friend’s impiety, interrupted the
reading and a violent quarrel soon degenerated in a lifelong enmity.26
Voltaire is a gifted poet and his oeuvre is phenomenal, embracing every branch of literature:
poetry, drama, history, science, romance, and philosophy. Nevertheless, he is not a romantic and his
poésie is de circonstance. Far from being frivolous, his verve is personal, spontaneous and witty; and rather
than describing landscapes, Voltaire shakes his readers’ apathy.
This is particularly the case in Le Pour et le Contre (Pro and Con).27 Despite the conjuncture of
the time, he virulently exposes his strongest objections against Judaism and Christianity. Certainly,
realism, passion, emotion, and above all integrity literally
explode in this highly controversial but excellent poem.
The publication of Uranie is of course disastrous for
Voltaire who must deny his work and attributes it to Abbé
Chaulieu, who died few years earlier. Fortunately, Rousseau is
in exile for a pamphlet he probably did not write so he is not in
a position to prove Voltaire’s authorship.28
Albeit his altercations with the church, Voltaire
manages to come back to Paris; he is now a celebrity all over
Europe but tired of being persecuted, he accepts the marquise
du Châtelet’s offer to retire comfortably at her château of Cirey-
sur-Blaise in Haute-Marne.
Like him, the marquise is passionate of philosophy
and mathematics; together, they study diligently despite their
divergences on metaphysics; indeed, if Voltaire thinks highly of
Locke, Madame du Châtelet29 is a fervent Leibnizian. Nevertheless, they share the same admiration for
Newton and while the marquise translates the Principia in French, Voltaire writes the Eléments de la
Philosophie de Newton (Elements of Newton’s Philosophy), giving the opportunity to the lay public to gain
scientific knowledge and grasp new philosophical principles.
Of course, the Cartesians do not like the idea that English philosophers could supplant their
thinkers and reject the book. Undeterred, Voltaire continues to write more than ever. In 1733, he starts his
Essai sur les Mœurs et l’Esprit des Nations (Essays on Nations’ customs and spirit); and in 1737, he publishes
26 Beuchot, ed. (2001) Poésies Tome I, Oeuvres de Voltaire, Tome XII, p 16; J. B. Rousseau’s letter, May 22,
1736. Voltaire however argues that the quarrel was due to his criticism of Rousseau’s Ode à la Postérité.
Here it is Jean-Baptiste not Jean-Jacques Rousseau with whom he will also quarrel.
27 Poem in French and English on http://www.poetry.bellepage.com
28 Beuchot, Biographie par Monsieur le Marquis de Condorcet, Oeuvres de Voltaire, Tome I, p 133-155.
Epître à Uranie will be included in Voltaire’s Œuvres in 1775 under the title of Le Pour et le Contre.
29 Madame du Chatelet, Musée Carnavalet, Paris
the Discours sur l’homme (Discourse on Man). It is around this time that the Prussian prince Frederick, a
lover of French literature and philosophy, chooses Voltaire as confident and mentor. Very impressed,
Voltaire is convinced that the prince-philosopher will be an exceptionally wise king. A good friendship
begins and Voltaire shares his time between Cirey, Paris, Versailles, and Berlin. He then writes Alzire, a
superb play where he bravely depicts the vices of societies corrupted by ambition and fanaticism.
After Zulime, and Mahomet, Voltaire publishes Mérope, another great tragedy. As usual, Voltaire
is brilliant; and in the Preface of the Premières Méditations Poétiques, Alphonse de Lamartine remembers
his younger years when his father used to read Mérope during the long evenings
…ce language cadencé comme une danse des mots dans l’oreille, ces belles images qui font
voir ce qu’on entend, ces hémistiches qui reposent le son pour le précipiter ensuite plus rapide,
ces consonances de la fin des vers qui sont comme des échos, répercutés, où le même sentiment se
prolonge dans le même son, cette symétrie des rimes qui correspond materiellement a je ne sais
quel instint de symetrie morale cachee au fond de notre nature, et qui pourrait bien etre une
contre-empreinte de l’ordre divin, du rhythme incree dans l’univers, enfin cette solennite de la
voix de mon père…30
…this rhythmical language like a dance of the words in the ear, these beautiful images that
make us see what we hear, these hemistiches reposing the sound to precipitate it later, these
consonants at the end of the verses which rebound like echoes, where the emotion prolongs itself
in the sound, the symmetry of the rhymes materially matching some sort of instinctive moral
symmetry, hidden in the depth of our nature, the print of the divine order perhaps, of the
uncreated rhythm in the universe, and finally, the solemnity in my father’s voice…
Nevertheless, jealous people continue to refuse his nomination to the Académie Française. At
last, the wheel turns when Voltaire meets Mademoiselle Poisson, future Madame de Pompadour who
soon becomes Louis XV’s royal mistress. Thanks to her influence, Voltaire is finally elected member of the
Académie in 1746.31 He receives the title of Royal historiographer and he is appointed valet de chambre
du roi (king’s bedchamber gentleman-in-waiting).
The same year, Voltaire and Madame du Châtelet live at the royal court of Louis XV’s son-in-
law, Stanislas Leszcsynski, the dispossessed king of Poland. There, among other things, Voltaire writes
Zadig, a beautiful philosophical novel; but in 1749, Madame du Châtelet suddenly dies. Voltaire is
shattered and returns to Paris. 32
30 Alphonse de Lamartine (1924) Préface of the Premières Méditations Poétiques edited by Hachette.
31 Voltaire (1759) Mémoires pour servir à la vie de M. de Voltaire, écrits par lui-même. Voltaire wrote in
his memoir: « Je suis maintenant l’un des quarante membres inutiles de l’académie (I am now one of the forty
useless members of the Académie). » Voltaire was nevertheless very proud of his achievement.
32 Madame du Châtelet died in childbirth and her little girl did not survive her.
To alleviate his sorrow, Voltaire immerses himself in work. He begins Sémirami, an adaptation
of Eriphyle, and composes Oreste and Rome Sauvée. More than ever, the writer’s verve is sarcastic, and
tired of his insolence, Madame de Pompadour advises him to accept the King of Prussia’s offer to join his
Disgusted, he leaves for Prussia where he becomes Frederick II’s chamberlain and continues to
write. He finishes the Siècle de Louis XIV (Louis XIV’s Century) and publishes it in Berlin in 1751. A year
later, he writes Micromégas, a science-fiction story in which two extraterrestrial ambassadors visiting
Earth discover the follies of human behaviour.
Unfortunately, Voltaire soon discovers that Frederick will never be a good king; Prussia is a
military state based on sovereign authority and strict discipline. Above all, the philosopher regrets his
independence, and finally, he sends back privileges and titles, and asks the permission to return to France
pretending some illness. For a month, Voltaire sojourns at the duchesse de Gotha’s where he starts the
Annales de l’Empire (The Empire’s diary); and on his way to the thermal town of Plombières, in May 1753,
he is arrested at Frankfort for possessing some of Frederick’s writings. After restitution, he is free and
returns to France.
As expected, Voltaire is not welcome in Paris; the publication of the Siècle de Louis XIV (Louis
XIV’s Century) in Berlin did not please the court and the poet is constrained to travel again. He stays in
Alsace for two years, spends some time in Savoy and Lyon, and finally settles in Geneva in 1754 with
Madame Denis, his niece and mistress. In his new home, Les Délices, Voltaire completes his Essai sur les
Mœurs et l’Esprit des Nations (Essay on Nations’ Customs and Spirit), and
composes La Loi Naturelle (Natural Law) and Le Désastre de Lisbonne
(Lisbon’s Disaster) where his anger again explodes against philosophers
who loudly claim that all is well in this world. How could it be well for the
hundred thousand people who perished in the terrible earthquake that
ravaged Lisbon in 1755? Nevertheless, life goes on, and the same year,
Voltaire publishes La Pucelle (The Maid of Orléans).
Voltaire is happy in Switzerland but he must search another place
to live, when the government forbids him to put his plays on stage in the
theatre he recently built on his property. Geneva is well known for its
austere Calvinism. Furthermore, in his Discours sur les Sciences et les Arts
(Discourse on Sciences and Arts)33, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argues against the pleasures of civilisation;
and in Lettre à d’Alembert sur les spectacles (Letter to d’Alembert on shows), he also warns against the vices
of French plays and the danger to offer such distractions in Geneva, a city not corrupted yet. This
infuriates Voltaire; and the greatest philosophers of the 18th Century become fierce enemies.
33With this discours, Rousseau won the competition offered by the Academy of Dijon and became
famous. Rousseau’s greatest works are La Nouvelle Héloïse, Le Contrat social, and L’Émile, which appeared
between 1761 and 1762.
Voltaire's Castle at Ferney34
In 1759, the poet-philosopher finally settles at Ferney in France near the Swiss border. In his
sumptuous château, he writes the excellent and controversial philosophical novel Candide, a critique of
Leibniz’s Essais de Théodicée35. In Candide, Voltaire expresses his hatred for war but most of all, he exposes
humankind’s villainy, ridiculing Pangloss alias Leibniz who, despites striking evidences, maintains that
all is good in the best possible world.
In 1760, he presents Tancrède, and in 1764, the Dictionnaire Philosophique (Philosophical
dictionary), one of his last major works. Again, the Parliament burns the book but cannot stop its
Voltaire is old now and time is fleeing. In December 1773, he composes the poem A Madame
Lullin and dedicates it to Madame du Deffand, who does not appreciate to be called bergère (shepherdess)
and ma chère (my dear).
For this piece of light verse, Voltaire strictly uses the lyric style of the quatrain and the
octosyllables. In a poetic pastoral atmosphere—this is quite rare in Voltaire’s works, he juxtaposes fate
with nature’s decay; everything fades and disappears. Beneath wit and irony, the old poet touchingly
reveals his sadness.
35Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1710) Essays in Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Liberty of Man,
and the Origin of Evil
A Madame Lullin 36 To Madame Lullin
Hé quoi! vous êtes étonnée Eh What! Are you really surprised
Qu'au bout de quatre-vingts hivers That after eighty-four winters
Ma muse faible et surannée My old-fashioned and feeble muse
Puisse encor fredonner des vers ? Can still compose and hum verses?
Quelquefois un peu de verdure Sometimes a few blades of grass
Rit sous les glaçons de nos champs ; Laugh under the ice of the fields;
Elle console la nature, They console Mother Nature
Mais elle sèche en peu de temps. But dry up in little time.
Un oiseau peut se faire entendre A small bird can make itself heard
Après la saison des beaux jours ; After the season’s warmest days;
Mais sa voix n’a plus rien de tendre ; But its voice has lost its softness;
Il ne chante plus ses amours. It does not sing love anymore.
Ainsi je touche encor ma lyre, As you see, I still touch my lyre,
Qui n'obéit plus à mes doigts ; But it ceases to obey my fingers;
Ainsi j’essaye encor ma voix As you see, I still try my voice
Au moment même qu’elle expire. When it is about to expire.
« Je veux dans mes derniers adieux, I want as a last farewell,
Disait Tibulle à son amante, Said Tibullus37 to his beloved,
Attacher mes yeux sur tes yeux, Fasten my eyes on your eyes
Te presser de ma main mourante. » And press you with my dying hand.
Mais quand on sent qu’on va passer, When we feel we are leaving,
Quand l’âme fuit avec la vie, When our soul flees with our life,
A-t-on des yeux pour voir Délie, Have we eyes to see Delia? 38
Et des mains pour la caresser ? Have we hands to caress her?
Dans ce moment chacun oublie At this moment, we all forget
Tout ce qu’il a fait en santé, What we did when we were young.
36Beuchot, Stance XXXIV, Oeuvres de Voltaire, Tome XIV, pp 552-554
37 Voltaire borrowed Tibullus’s verse. Tibullus was a Roman elegiac poet (~54-~19BC)
38 Poets’ beloved
Quel mortel s'est jamais flatté Which sane mortal would boast about
D’un rendez-vous à l'agonie ? A rendez-vous with agony?
Délie elle-même à son tour Delia herself when her time comes,
S’en va dans la nuit éternelle, Enters the eternal night
En oubliant qu’elle fut belle, Forgetting she was beautiful
Et qu’elle a vécu pour l’amour. And lived for pleasure and love.
Nous naissons, nous vivons, bergère, We are born, and we live, Bergère,
Nous mourons sans savoir comment : We depart not knowing how:
Chacun est parti du néant : Everyone came from nothingness:
Où va-t-il ? ...Dieu le sait, ma chère. Where do we go? … God knows, my dear.
Voltaire regrets his youth but he still has deep compassion for people. To increase the well-
being of the whole village, he opens a manufacture of silk stockings and a tannery. He also continues to
defend those who have been treated unjustly, fighting to rehabilitate them and denounce the culprits
whoever they are. With the affaires Calas (1762), Sirven (1764), la Barre (1766), Montbailli (1770), and
Lally-Tollendal (1776), he finally becomes so popular, that every traveller touring Europe wants to meet
him or at least see him.
In 1778, Voltaire who is now 84 decides to go to Paris for the presentation of his last tragedy,
Irène. Again, it is a triumph and the public’s ovation is so overwhelming that the old man can hardly
contain his emotion. Very tired and conscious that his death is near, he writes his last poem Adieux à la
A few months later, on 30 May 1778, the great philosopher dies in his sleep, after having taken
too much opium to alleviate his suffering.
Eleven years later, the French Revolution will start; and alas, Voltaire will not be there to stop
what he always fought: fanaticism.
For humankind, the 19th Century is the symbol of extraordinary achievements. The scientific
and industrial revolutions, which first began in England, are forever changing the face of the world
instigating in the mind of civilised societies the utopian idea that science will soon provide well-being to
all. The list of those contributing to this amazing flight is impressive.
Albeit the promises of a rosy future to all, industrialisation has dramatically increased urban
proletariat all over Europe and this is now the main problem of all governments. With the new
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, men are equal in rights;1 but from a social point of view,
social injustice prevails more than ever for the lower class of citizens. While many want to keep the
institution of private property, others demand drastic reforms and soon, socialist movements emerged,
the most prominent being the International socialism based on historical materialism and founded by
While absorbing all these changes, France tries to establish the best government possible but
lamentably fails. Glorified, then humiliated, passing from one extreme to the other, losing and regaining
her liberties dearly obtained during the Terror, in this century, France will witness eight political regimes:
a Consulate and an Empire with Napoléon Bonaparte, a Restoration inaugurating a constitutional
monarchy with Louis XVIII, the Cent Jours and Napoléon’s return, a Second Republic after the abdication
of Louis-Philippe in 1848, a second Empire with Napoléon III, and finally a Third Republic after
Napoléon’s military defeats and his failure to restore the economy.
All this has a deep impact on the mind of the French people; and from its beginning to its end,
the 19th Century will see an extraordinary number of masters-poets; among them, Lamartine, Hugo, and
Vigny will play a great role in politics.
In this 19th Century, two major literary movements succeed one another and even blend. Le
Romantisme (Romanticism) during the Restoration and the second Republic, and le Symbolisme
(Symbolism) with the third Republic.
1 Women did not have equal rights yet
While Romanticism started in the 18th Century with magnificent poets such as Byron, Shelley,
Keats, Schelling, and Goethe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau followed the lead with La Nouvelle Héloïse.
Impressed by this new style, the 19th Century precursors of French Romantisme, Madame de
Staël2 and Chateaubriand, stress the role of imagination in poetry. Inspired by an ardent sensitivity, a
poem must be a religious chant emerging from the deepest part of the soul. The sublimation of poetry is
therefore inside the poet who dreams about heroism, listens to celestial harmony, and contemplates
eternity in stormy skies. In this romantic soul, enthusiasm rhymes with melancholy; the grotesque
juxtaposes the sublime; and the heart rules over reason. In other words, Le Romantisme is a blend of
poetry from the North and the South of France; as Madame de Staël excellently emphasises
Les poètes du Midi mêlent sans cesse l’image de la fraîcheur, des bois touffus, des ruisseaux
limpides à tous les sentiments de la vie. Ils ne se retracent pas même les jouissances du cœur sans y
mêler l’idée de l’ombre bienfaisante qui doit les préserver des brûlantes ardeurs du soleil… Les
peuples du Nord sont moins occupés des plaisirs que de la douleur, et leur imagination n’en est que
plus féconde. Le spectacle de la nature agit fortement sur eux ; elle agit comme elle se montre dans
leurs climats, toujours sombre et nébuleuse. Sans doute les diverses circonstances de la vie peuvent
varier cette disposition à la mélancolie ; mais elle porte seule l’empreinte de l’esprit national.3
Poets from the South always mingle images of freshness, thick woods, and clear brooks with life’s
emotions. They cannot reveal the delights of their heart without blending the idea of the pleasant
shadow preserving them from the burning ardour of the sun… People from the North are less
preoccupied by pleasure than sorrow, and their imagination is therefore more fecund. The sight of
Nature has a deep effect on them; the same effect that she (Nature) has on their climates, always
dark and nebulous. Doubtlessly, the diverse circumstances of life may alter such a disposition to
melancholy; but melancholy alone wears the stamp of national spirit.
Consequently, when the trouvères adapt the troubadours’ style to their own, they become
Romantiques; their literature, deeply rooted in the soil of their country, vibrates with the marvellous
of the Middle Ages, chivalry, and Christianity. Madame de Staël explains
2François-René Vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), French writer and politician
3Anne Louise de Staël known as Madame de Staël (1766-1817) De la littérature considérée dans ses rapports
avec les institutions sociales, part I, chap. XI.
La poésie païenne doit être simple et saillante comme les objets extérieurs ; la poésie chrétienne a
besoin de toutes les couleurs de l’arc-en-ciel pour ne pas se perdre dans les nuages. La poésie des
anciens est plus pure comme art, celle des modernes fait verser plus de larmes…
La littérature romantique est la seule qui soit susceptible encore d’être perfectionnée, parce
qu’ayant ses racines dans notre propre sol, elle est la seule qui puisse croître et se vivifier de
nouveau : elle exprime notre religion, elle rappelle notre histoire ; son origine est ancienne, mais non
Pagan poetry must be simple and salient like objects; Christian poetry needs all the colours of the
rainbow so it does not lose itself in the clouds. The poetry of the ancients is artfully pure; the poetry
of the moderns draws more tears…
Romantic literature is the only one, which can be perfected, because having its roots in our own
soil, it is the only one, which can grow and renew itself: it expresses our religion and recalls our
history; its origin is ancient but not antic.
Romantisme is also marked by the mal du siècle (century’s blues), a distressing feeling of the
incompleteness of destiny with its disenchantment and delusion but also a fondness for sadness and a
morbid pleasure for suffering. This mal du siècle exalts the soul causing a fascination for love, nature,
history, and religion; all exploding in fantastic and phantasmagorical dreams, visions, and chimeras.
Around the 1820’s, this indefinable sadness dwells in the soul of many French poets—Alphonse
de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset, and Alexandre Dumas—who regularly
meet at the Arsenal, Charles Nodier’s salon. Together, they form the first Cénacle, name taken from
Sainte-Beuve’s poem, Joseph Delorme, to designate the new literary school whose objective is to liberate
In 1828, the second cenacle is formed around Victor Hugo, the uncontested leader of the
Romantic Movement. The school welcomes illustrious writers such as Gerard de Nerval and Théophile
Gautier and great artists. Definitely, the romantic style glows with magnificence in Géricault’s and
Delacroix’s paintings, and it gloriously vibrates in Chopin’s and Berlioz’s music.
The second cenacle nevertheless disappears with the July revolution, the poets being more
absorbed by social and political dilemmas. After the presentation of Victor Hugo’s Hernani, few poets
such as Théophile Gautier and Gérard de Nerval continue to see each other regularly at Jehan
Duseigneur’s atelier of sculpture. At the end of 1830, they form the petit cenacle, which will last up to the
beginning of 1833. These young men are the extremists of French literature exaggerating their attitude
and appearance with extravagance. They call themselves the Jeunes-france or the Bousingots. Though they
are against Lamartine’s and Hugo’s political aspirations and fundamentally reject the utilitarian moral of
the July monarchy, like all Romantiques, they fight for the freedom of art.
4 Madame de Staël (1766-1817) De l’Allemagne, part II, chapter II.
Liberté by Eugene Delacroix (1830)5
Alphonse de Lamartine
Born at Mâcon on 21 October 1790, Alphonse is the son of Pierre de Lamartine and Alix des
Roys, small aristocrats and fervent Catholics. In 1797, the family settles in Milly and the child begins his
literary education; he reads the Bible, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre,6 Voltaire, and Madame de Staël. Four
years later, he is sent to the Puppier pension in Lyon; very unhappy there, he runs away a year later. The
boy then goes to the Jesuit College of Belley where he studies Virgil, Horace,
Chateaubriand, Dante, Petrarch, and Shakespeare. He becomes a brilliant
student and writes his first poems.
At twenty, Lamartine refuses to serve the usurper Napoléon. With
his friend Aymon de Virieu, he travels to Italy and falls in love with a pretty
cigarette worker, Antoniella for whom he writes small verses.7 He then returns
to France and becomes mayor of Mâcon in 1812. This occupation leaving him
free time, he starts writing his first tragedy Saül.8
Two years later, Lamartine enters at the service of Louis XVIII as a
lifeguard; and during the Cent Jours, he flees to Switzerland.
Lamartine9 then comes back to France and shares his time between
Milly and Paris where he gambles more than he should. In autumn 1816, the
young man is idle, bored, and depressed so he goes to heal his nervous
breakdown at Aix-les-Bains, the famous thermal station, and he meets Madame
Charles, the beautiful Creole wife of a renowned physician, who is under treatment for a pulmonary
disease. They fall in love and see each other often in Paris and Aix; but the following summer, Julie is so
ill that she cannot go to Aix as she promised; Lamartine waits for her on the shores of the Lac du Bourget
and remembers. Julie will never come back; she dies in December 1817 and their ephemeral passion
6 Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814) wrote among other things the beautiful novel Paul
et Virginie in 1788.
7 Antoniella will later be immortalised as Graziella.
8 Saül is often referred as Médée. Lamartine confides that he wrote this play for Madame de Raigecourt.
However, the tragedy was never presented or published but most of it was inserted in Les Méditations, Les
Nouvelles Méditations, Les Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, and Les Recueillements.
9 portrait Henri Decaisne, musée de Mâcon
explodes in Lamartine most poignant poem, Le Lac (The Lake).10 Yes, Lamartine is shattered by his
beloved’s death; and with an exquisite sensibility, he lays down his soul on paper, his emotions being his
The poet weeps, the poet prays, the poet furiously rebels against the harshness of life.
Nevertheless, Lamartine reaffirms his faith in Catholicism and after few months of despairs, he starts
feeling better and goes to Paris to put his play Saül on stage. He fails; but encouraged by new friends to
pursue his poetic vocation, he regroups twenty-four of his best poems in Les Méditations Poétiques (Poetic
Meditations) and publishes them in March 1820. The success is incredible; and immediately, the literary
world claims the birth of a new genre of poetry, the Romantisme. Undeniably, Lamartine excels in
depicting ideal love and deep sorrow; but his real talent is his ability to arrange reality and use his
imagination. He also manages to make everyone believes that a poet is a lonely and suffering creature
close to God and Nature. Lamartine’s excessive passions become real because everyone wants them to be
real; furthermore, they become everyone’s passions. 11
A week later, the poet is appointed attaché d’ambassade at Naples; and in June, he marries Miss
Birch, a young English woman met at her sister’s wedding in 1819. Lamartine is now famous and in less
than a year, seven editions of Les Méditations are printed.
Coming back to France in 1821, he settles in the chateau de Saint-Point with his wife and
newborn son Alphonse. Then comes the little Julia but alas, Alphonse dies in December. These events
and his travels to England and Italy are boundless sources of inspiration, but Lamartine has so many
debts that he must sell his works before they are finished or even started. Though he is often seen in
Emile Deschamps’s salon where the first cenacle is formed, he takes no part in it, except being the father
In 1823, he publishes Les Nouvelles Méditations Poétiques (New Poetic Meditations), then la Mort
de Socrates (Socrates’s death), and in 1825, le Dernier Chant du Pèlerinage d’Harold (Last Song of Harold’s
Pilgrimage). These works are not as good as the first Méditations. Boldly, Lamartine argues that poetry is
only a distraction and this displeases the Académie who rejects his nomination in 1824.
In 1826, the poet becomes secrétaire d’ambassade at Florence and inspired by the Italian
landscapes, he composes Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (Poetic and Religious Harmonies); this
collection of forty-eight poems is another masterpiece. Haunted by the idea of immortality, the Harmonies
and especially the hymns are in homage to God’s glory; however, it is evident that Lamartine’s Catholic
faith has evolved toward a form of deism and even pantheism; all on this beautiful world attests the
existence of God and the contemplation of all these beauties help the soul to reach higher realms
Élance-toi mon âme et d’essor en essor
Remonte de ce monde aux beautés éternelles.12
10 In Raphaël as Julie and Elvire in other poems http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphonse_de_Lamartine
11 Some, however, will reproach his larmoyant (whimpering) style.
12 Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses, verses 93-94
Raise my soul and as you fly higher and higher
Leave this world and reach the eternal beauties.
Sometimes, the poet doubts as in Novissima verba; but soon, his incertitude melts as the indestructible will
to believe in God always reappears stronger than ever. In the Harmonies, Lamartine has indeed regained
the touching verve of the first Méditations.
Back in France in 1828, he sojourns in Paris and with the support of Chateaubriand and Sainte-
Beuve,13 he finally becomes member of the Académie a year later; and in June 1830, he publishes the
After the Revolution, Hugo, Vigny, and Lamartine are more interested in politics than
literature. Lamartine fights against death penalty, slavery, and poverty; and despite his aristocratic
origins, he becomes a republican and gives his resignation to Louis Philippe. In 1831, he writes an essay
Sur la Politique Rationelle (On Rational Politics) and three political odes, Contre la Peine de Mort (Against
Death Penalty), A Ménésis, and Les Révolutions.
Lamartine is a brilliant orator but his attempt to become deputy having failed, he decides to
realise his old dream, a voyage in Orient. Alas, his little Julia dies in Beirut and this terrible event
seriously falters his faith. In Gethsémani, ou la Mort de Julia (Gethsemane, or Julia’s Death),15 the father
revolts against the injustice of life.
Finally elected deputy of Bergues in March 1833, Lamartine comes back to France in October
but refuses to join any party. Attacked for using his poetic talent to satisfy his political ambitions,
Lamartine replies, in Des destinées de la poésie (Poetry’s fates),16 that when the nation is under threat, the
poet must subordinate his inspiration. His poetry therefore reflects the philosophic, religious, and
political ideas of his time. After the publication of Voyage en Orient (Voyage in Orient) in 1835, Lamartine
is inspired by Abbé Dumont, Curé at Milly and he starts the Journal d’un Vicaire (A Vicar’s Journal) later
re-titled Jocelyn. In this work, Lamartine presents democracy as the evangelical ideal where fraternity and
tolerance always prevail. Then follows La Chute d’un Ange (An Angel’s Fall) in 1838 depicting the
grandiose death of an angel condemned to be burnt at the stake for having loved a woman; here again,
Lamartine discusses charity and justice and he severely condemns those who treat others as slaves. A
year later comes the Recueillements Poétiques (Poetic Contemplations) in which the author exposes his
dreams about democracy. Unfortunately, all these works are hastily finished to pay gambling debts and
13 Sainte-Beuve’s (1804-1869) essays on Port Royal and Les causeries du Lundi.
14 Franz Listz will put some pieces into music.
15 Published with other works in Voyage en Orient
16 First published in the Revue des deux Mondes and used in the second preface of the Méditations in
Up to 1841, Lamartine supports the government but demands social reforms to alleviate the
proletariat’s misery. Aware that a new revolution is inevitable, he becomes the spokesperson of the
working class and in 1847, he publishes the Histoire des Girondins (Girondins’ History), where despite his
abhorrence for the terror, he rehabilitates Robespierre. In February 1848, Lamartine actively participates
in the Revolution and becomes Head of the Interim Government. Confident, he hopes to become
Président de la République Française against Louis Napoleon; he lamentably fails and at the legislative
election of 1849, he even loses his seat in Mâcon but wins in Le Loiret.
The same year, Lamartine publishes Confidences where he relates his first loves with Antoniella,
the pretty girl from Naples renamed Graziella, and with the marvellous Julie in Raphaël. The following
year, his play Toussaint, is presented at the Théâtre Porte Saint Martin; and shortly after, he decides to
When he returns, Napoléon III’s coup d’état in 1851 forces him to abandon politics.17 Almost
ruined, he reluctantly gets back to literature. First, he writes two novels: Geneviève and Le Tailleur de
Pierres de Saint-Point, a(Saint-Point’s Stonecutter), and few historical compilations: Histoires de la
Restauration, des Constituants, de la Turquie, (Histories of the Restauration, the Constituants, Turkey) and de
la Russie (Russia) in 1855 ; regrouping them all in Histoire de l’humanité par les grands hommes (Humanity’s
History through the great men).
The first edition of the monthly publication of Cours Familier de Littérature (Easy Course of
literature) appears in 1856 offering from time to time beautiful poems like La Vigne et la Maison (The
Vineyard and the House) where he evokes the sweet memories of his childhood. Alas, forced to sell Milly
and Saint-Point in 1860, he must accept a small chalet in Passy offered by the city of Paris; and supreme
humiliation, a pension from the Emperor. After the death of Madame de Lamartine in 1863, his niece
Valentine de Cessiat takes care of him with great devotion. The poet continues to write until a stroke
damages his mind in 1867.
Almost forgotten and poor, Lamartine dies in Paris after another stroke on 28 February 1869.
His family having refused national funerals, the poet is quietly buried in Saint-Point.
Lamartine’s most exquisite poem is Le lac. The Bourget Lake exists but what the poet describes
is the inner landscapes of his desperate mind. Charmingly, he mingles the themes of love, destiny,
immortality, infinity, and unbearable suffering. His cry contained for so long in his distressed soul
suddenly rises and bursts almost as a relief. When Lamartine writes Le Lac in August-September 1817,
Julie is still alive but the poet is very aware of the fragility of life and the flight of time. Lamartine’s lake
symbolises eternal love, as the Geneva Lake immortalises the impossible love of Saint-Preux and Julie in
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse.18 At first, Lamartine calls this poem Ode au lac du B and says
17 Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris on 25 February 1848 by Philippoteaux
18 Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1960) Quatrième Partie, Lettre XVII, in Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse, pp 503-504.
C’est une de mes poésies qui a eu le plus de retentissement dans l’âme de mes lecteurs, comme
elle en avait eu le plus dans la mienne…Niedermeyer19 a fait de cette ode une touchante traduction
en notes. J’ai entendu chanter cette romance, et j’ai vu les larmes qu’elle faisait répandre.
Néanmoins, j’ai toujours pensé que la musique et la poésie se nuisaient en associant. Elles sont l’une
et l’autre des arts complets : la musique porte en elle son sentiment, de beaux vers portent en eux
This is one of my poems, which had the greatest effect on my readers’ soul and on mine…
Niedermeyer made from this ode a touching translation in notes. I heard this romance and I saw the
tears it caused. Nevertheless, I have always thought that music and poetry are detrimental to one
another. Both are complete arts: music carries its meaning; beautiful verses carry their melody.
Here, the rimes abab are suffisantes; but Lamartine’s choice of words and excellent use of alexandrins
and hexasyllables create a tragic atmosphere; and with its frequent enjambments and alternate long and
short verses, the haunting prayer becomes a poignant melody rocked by the sound of the oars
penetrating the calm water of the lake.
Ainsi, toujours poussés vers de nouveaux rivages,
Dans la nuit éternelle emportés sans retour,
Ne pourrons-nous jamais sur l'océan des âges
Jeter l’ancre un seul jour ?
O lac ! L’année à peine a fini sa carrière,
Et près des flots chéris qu’elle devait revoir
Regarde ! je viens seul m’asseoir sur cette pierre
Où tu la vis s’asseoir !
Tu mugissais ainsi sous ces roches profondes ;
Ainsi tu te brisais sur leurs flancs déchirés :
Ainsi le vent jetait l’écume de tes ondes
Sur ses pieds adorés.
Un soir, t'en souvient-il ? nous voguions en silence ;
19 Louis Neidermeyer (1802-1861) music master and composer who founded the school of religious music
bearing his name.
20 Armand Trèves, ed. (1933) Les Meilleures Pages de Lamartine, p 38.
On n’entendait au loin, sur l’onde et sous les cieux,
Que le bruit des rameurs qui frappaient en cadence
Tes flots harmonieux.
Tout à coup des accents inconnus à la terre
Du rivage charmé frappèrent les échos ;
Le flot fut attentif, et la voix qui m’est chère
Laissa tomber ces mots :
« O temps, suspends ton vol ! et vous, heures propices,
Suspendez votre cours !
Laissez-nous savourer les rapides délices
Des plus beaux de nos jours !
« Assez de malheureux ici-bas vous implorent :
Coulez, coulez pour eux ;
Prenez avec leurs jours les soins qui les dévorent ;
Oubliez les heureux.
« Mais je demande en vain quelques moments encore,
Le temps m’échappe et fuit ;
Je dis à cette nuit : « Sois plus lente » ; et l’aurore
Va dissiper la nuit.
« Aimons donc, aimons donc ! de l’heure fugitive,
Hâtons-nous, jouissons !
L’homme n’a point de port, le temps n’a point de rive;
Il coule, et nous passons ! »
Temps jaloux, se peut-il que ces moments d’ivresse,
Où l’amour à longs flots nous verse le bonheur,
S’envolent loin de nous de la même vitesse
Que les jours de malheur ?
Hé quoi ! n'en pourrons-nous fixer au moins la trace ?
Quoi! passés pour jamais ? quoi ! tout entiers perdus ?
Ce temps qui les donna, ce temps qui les efface,
Ne nous les rendra plus ?
Eternité, néant, passé, sombres abîmes,
Que faites-vous des jours que vous engloutissez ?
Parlez : nous rendrez-vous ces extases sublimes
Que vous nous ravissez ?
O lac ! rochers muets ! grottes ! forêt obscure !
Vous que le temps épargne ou qu’il peut rajeunir,
Gardez de cette nuit, gardez, belle nature,
Au moins le souvenir!
Qu’il soit dans ton repos, qu’il soit dans tes orages,
Beau lac, et dans l’aspect de tes riants coteaux,
Et dans ces noirs sapins, et dans ces rocs sauvages
Qui pendent sur tes eaux !
Qu’il soit dans le zéphyr qui frémit et qui passe,
Dans les bruits de tes bords par tes bords répétés,
Dans l’astre au front d’argent qui blanchit ta surface
De ses molles clartés !
Que le vent qui gémit, le roseau qui soupire,
Que les parfums légers de ton air embaumé,
Que tout ce qu’on entend, l’on voit ou l’on respire,
Tout dise : « Ils ont aimé ! »
Always driven toward new shores,
Carried away in the eternal Night,
Could we ever on the ocean of Time21
One day throw the anchor?
O Lake! The Year is just ending its course,
And near the waves she hoped to see again
Look! I come alone and sit on this rock
Where you saw her sitting!
Like today you roared below these deep rocks;
Like today, you broke upon their worn flanks.
21 Perhaps taken from Léonard’s Saisons (1787) or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Like today, the wind threw your foamy waves
On her lovely feet. 22
One evening, you remember; we sailed in silence
And beneath the skies we could only hear
The sound of the rowers striking in cadence
Your harmonious waves.
Suddenly, a sound unknown to this Earth23
Echoed forth from the enchanted shore;
The waves were attentive and the voice dear to me
Let fall these few words:
"O time! Hold your flight! 24 And you, propitious hours, 25
Please hold your endless course!
Let us savour the fleeting delights
Of these marvellous days!
"Many unhappy souls implore you down here!
So flow, flow for them.
Take them and their consuming sorrows.
Forget the happy lads.
"But in vain, I beg for few more instants
Time slips away and flees;
I say to the Night: "Please slow down", but dawn
Soon dissipates the Night.
"Let us love, let us love! Let us quickly enjoy26
The fleeting hour.
Man has no port, time has no shore;
It flows, and we just pass!"
When in long draughts, love pours into our heart,
22 Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, strophe CI of the third chant
23 Young’s Night III
24 This hemistich was probably taken from Antoine-Lé6nard Thomas’s Ode au Temps
25 and from Night II
26 Horace’s Carpe diem
Is it true, jealous time, that those blissful moments
Can fly away as fast
As our days of sorrow?
What did you say! Even their trace we cannot keep?
They have gone forever? Completely lost?
The Time that gives and wipes them off
Will never give them back?
Eternity, chaos, past, and dark abysses,
What do you do with the days you swallow?
Speak! Will you give us back the heavenly raptures
That you steal from us?
O Lake! Silent rocks! Caves! Obscure forest! 27
You that Time spares and revives,
Please beautiful nature, keep from this night,
Its sweetest memory!
Keep it in your silence, keep it in your storms,
Beautiful lake, keep it on the smiling hills,
The black fir-trees, and the wild rocks
Hanging over your waves!
Keep it in the zephyr that shivers and goes by
In the sounds of your shores re-echoed by your shores,
In the silvery moon whitening your waves
With its gleaming radiance!
Let the moaning breeze and the fragile reed,
The subtle perfumes of your scented wind,
All that can hear and see,
Let them say how they loved!
Amazingly, Lamartine’s style does not charm everyone; some accuses him of using too many
abstractions, and they even question his sanity. Who would ask a lake to keep the memory of a beautiful
night? Who would ask time to stop its course? No one except a Romantique.
27 Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, last strophes
Alfred de Vigny
Born in 1797 at Loches, Alfred de Vigny comes from a family of small nobleness obtained on
both side from military services. Nevertheless, Alfred is frequently tormented at school for being an
aristocrat of mediocre condition. Hoping to gain glory in battles, he joins
the army at 17 and is appointed lieutenant of cavalry in the king’s Red
Company. Officer in the Royal guard from 1816 to 1823, he is sent to the
Pyrenees and looks forward to distinguish himself in the war with Spain.
Unfortunately, he never gets the opportunity to fight.
Bored and disgusted, he confides his distress on paper and
having joined the Cenacle, in 1823, he publishes his first book Poemes
Antiques et Modernes without revealing his identity. In 1825, Vigny
marries an English woman Lydia Bunbury.1
A year later, he publishes the excellent historical novel, Cinq-
Mars, recalling the conspiracy against Richelieu. The young author’s
populary is on its rise but it will soon be outshined by his best friend,
Sick of the casern’s life, the young man resigns in 1827 after
having decided to opt for a career more adapted to his contemplative
nature. In 1831, Vigny presents his first play La Maréchale d’Ancre , a retrospective of historical events.
The author often frequents the theatre where he meets the beautiful actress, Marie Dorval who soon
becomes his mistress, and he writes the brilliant philosophical novel Stello. In 1836, Vigny produces
Chatterton, one of the best romantic drama.
After the death of his mother and the breaking of his relationship with Mademoiselle Dorval,
Alfred decides to leave the Cenacle. In 1838, he settles in Maine-Giraud, the family manor and goes to
England to manage the succession of his father-in-law. Back in Paris few months later, he presents his
candidature to the académie; and after many rejections, he is finally elected in May 1845.
From 1846 to 1853, Vigny lives at Main-Giraud where he prepares Poèmes Philosophiques, a
splendid collection of poems later called Les destinées (Fates), which will be published after his death in
1864. The poet-philosopher also tries to become deputy but does not succeed.
1 lithograph by Antoine Maurin, 1832. By courtesy of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris
In 1862, Vigny’s wife dies from a long and cruel illness and almost a year later, on 17 September
1863, Vigny who suffers from stomach cancer follows her.
Alfred de Vigny is a romantic and his poetry is essential based on spiritual solitude. All his life,
Vigny has regretted the mediocrity of his condition; but too proud to expose his misery in lyricism, he
chooses to adopt a stoic attitude, which is to rise above the vicissitudes of life with dignity and
resignation. Indifferent to pleasure and pain, Vigny controls his passions by showing compassion and
humanity to all fellow human beings who suffer the same cruel fate.
In Vigny’s creepy atmosphere and vivid wilderness descriptions, we recognise the romantic
style and deeply feel his loneliness. La Mort du Loup taken from Les destinées is certainly the finest
expression of Vigny’s philosophy where he honours the stoic grandeur of a dying wolf and her
companion: the father who dies without uttering a sound and the mother whose duty is to save her cubs
not her mate so they may learn to live and suffer with dignity. Vigny presents a graphic account of the
hunt with concrete and striking symbols; then, facing the ultimate moment of the death sentence, he
admires the animals who proudly accept the fatal denouement. Vigny plays with tenses, suddenly using
the present when the wolf is trapped and returning to the past, skilfully marking the animal’s recognition
of the futility of an unequal combat and an impossible flight.
La Mort du loup
Les nuages couraient sur la lune enflammée
Comme sur l’incendie on voit fuir la fumée,
Et les bois étaient noirs jusques2 à l’horizon.
Nous marchions, sans parler, dans l’humide gazon.
Dans la bruyère épaisse et dans les hautes brandes,
Lorsque, sous des sapins pareils à ceux des Landes,
Nous avons aperçu les grands ongles marqués
Par les loups voyageurs que nous avions traqués.
Nous avons écouté, retenant notre haleine
Et le pas suspendu. –Ni le bois ni la plaine
Ne poussaient un soupir dans les airs ; seulement
La girouette en deuil criait au firmament ;
Car le vent, élevé bien au-dessus des terres,
N’effleurait de ses pieds que les tours solitaires,
Et les chênes d’en bas, contre les rocs penchés,
2 Old form of jusqu’à to gain another syllable
Sur leurs coudes semblaient endormis et couchés.
Rien ne bruissait donc, lorsque, baissant la tête,
Le plus vieux des chasseurs qui s’était mis en quête
A regardé le sable en s’y couchant ; bientôt,
Lui que jamais ici l’on ne vit en défaut,
A déclaré tout bas que ces marques récentes
Annonçaient la démarche et les griffes puissantes
De deux grands loups-cerviers et de deux louveteaux.
Nous avons tous alors préparé nos couteaux
Et, cachant nos fusils et leurs lueurs trop blanches,
Nous allions pas à pas en écartant les branches.
Trois s’arrêtèrent, et moi, cherchant ce qu’ils voyaient,
J’aperçois tout à coup deux yeux qui flamboyaient,
Et je vois au delà quatre formes légères
Qui dansaient sous la lune au milieu des bruyères,
Comme font chaque jour, à grand bruit sous nos yeux,
Quand le maître revient, les lévriers joyeux.
Leur forme était semblable, et semblable la danse ;
Mais les enfants du Loup se jouaient en silence,
Sachant bien qu’à deux pas, ne dormant qu’à demi,
Se couche dans ses murs l’homme, leur ennemi.
Le père était debout, et plus loin, contre un arbre,
Sa louve reposait comme celle de marbre
Qu’adoraient les Romains, et dont les flancs velus
Couvaient les demi-dieux Rémus et Romulus.
Le Loup vient et s’assied, les deux jambes dressées
Par leurs ongles crochus dans le sable enfoncées.
Il s’est jugé perdu, puisqu’il était surpris,
Sa retraite coupée et tous ses chemins pris ;
Alors il a saisi, dans sa gueule brûlante,
Du chien le plus hardi la gorge pantelante
Et n’a pas desserré ses mâchoires de fer,
Malgré nos coups de feu qui traversaient sa chair
Et nos couteaux aigus qui, comme des tenailles,
Se croisaient en plongeant dans ses larges entrailles,
Jusqu’au dernier moment où le chien étranglé,
Mort longtemps avant lui, sous ses pieds a roulé.
Le Loup le quitte alors et puis il nous regarde.
Les couteaux lui restaient au flanc jusqu'à la garde,
Le clouaient au gazon tout baigné dans son sang ;
Nos fusils l’entouraient en sinistre croissant.
Il nous regarde encore, ensuite il se recouche,
Tout en léchant le sang répandu sur sa bouche,
Et, sans daigner savoir comment il a péri,
Refermant ses grands yeux, meurt sans jeter un cri.
J’ai reposé mon front sur mon fusil sans poudre,
Me prenant à penser, et n’ai pu me résoudre
A poursuivre sa Louve et ses fils, qui, tous trois,
Avaient voulu l’attendre, et, comme je le crois,
Sans ses deux louveteaux, la belle et sombre veuve
Ne l’eut pas laissé seul subir la grande épreuve ;
Mais son devoir était de les sauver, afin
De pouvoir leur apprendre à bien souffrir la faim,
A ne jamais entrer dans le pacte des villes
Que l’homme a fait avec les animaux serviles
Qui chassent devant lui, pour avoir le coucher,
Les premiers possesseurs du bois et du rocher.
Hélas ! ai-je pensé, malgré ce grand nom d’Hommes,
Que j’ai honte de nous, débiles que nous sommes !
Comment on doit quitter la vie et tous ses maux,
C’est vous qui le savez, sublimes animaux !
A voir ce que l’on fut sur terre et ce qu’on laisse,
Seul le silence est grand ; tout le reste est faiblesse.
–Ah ! je t’ai bien compris, sauvage voyageur,
Et ton dernier regard m’est allé jusqu’au cœur
Il disait : « Si tu peux, fais que ton âme arrive,
A force de rester studieuse et pensive,
Jusqu'à ce haut degré de stoïque fierté
Où, naissant dans les bois, j’ai tout d’abord monté.
Gémir, pleurer, prier, est également lâche.
Fais énergiquement ta longue et lourde tache
Dans la voie où le Sort a voulu t’appeler.
Puis après, comme moi, souffre et meurs sans parler. »
The Death of the wolf
The clouds were running fast on the blazing moon
As we could see the smoke fleeing from the fire,
And the woods were black up to the horizon.
We were walking, in silence, on the wet lawn,
In the thick heather and the high yellow grass,
When, under the fir-trees like those in the Landes,3
We saw imprinted on the path the big claws
Of the wandering wolves that we were hunting.
We listened cautiously while holding our breath
And we stopped on the track. –The wood and the plain
Did not let out a sigh in the air; only
The sad weathercock moaned to the firmament;
For the wind, well above the lands, could only
Brushed with his feet the solitary towers,
And the oaks below, lying against the rocks
On their elbows, seemed to have fallen asleep.
Not a rustling sound then, when, bending his head,
The oldest of the hunters who watched the track
Looked carefully at the sand and layed down; soon,
He whom no one ever saw making mistakes,
Declared beneath his breath that these recent marks
Announced the proud gait and the powerful claws
Of two big wolves, the stag-hunters,4 and two cubs.
At once, all of us prepared our sharpest knives
And, hiding our riffles and their too white glint,
We walked slowly pushing the branches aside.
Three stopped, and looking at what they were seeing,
I suddenly notice two big eyes glowing
And not far away, I see the four light shapes
Dancing under the moon amid the heather
As always do, with great noise, under our eyes,
When the master comes back, the happy greyhounds.
3 Region in the south-west of France
4 This type of wolf was known for attacking stags
Their shapes were the same and the same were their dance;
But the Wolf’s children were playing in silence,
Knowing well that two steps away, half-asleep,
Man, their worst enemy, lies behind his walls.
The father was standing, and against a tree,
His She-wolf was resting as the marble one
That the Romans adored and whose hairy flanks
Fed the demi-gods Remus and Romulus.5
The Wolf comes6 closer and sits down, his legs straight
On their hooked claws sunken deep into the sand
Taken by surprise, he knew that all was lost,
His retreat cut off and the other ways blocked;
So, he seized, in his burning mouth,
The panting throat of the hardiest dog
And did not loose his iron jaws,
Despite the gun-shots which were piercing his flesh
And our sharp knives, which like pincers
Criss-crossed and plunged in his entrails,
Until the last moment, when the strangled dog
Dead longer before him, rolled under his feet.
The Wolf then leaves it and proudly looks at us.
The knives were still hanging deep into his flank
Nailing him onto the lawn all bathed with blood;
Our riffles encircled him in a crescent.
He looks at us again, and then, he lies down,
Licking the warm blood on his mouth,
And, without deigning to know how he perished,
He closes his eyes, and dies without a cry.
My forehead lying on my empty riffle,
I started thinking unable to pursue
His She-wolf and his brave sons, who, the all three,
Had waited for him, and, as I do believe,
Without her two cubs, the beautiful widow
5 the founders of Rome were supposed to have been reared by a she-wolf but the statue is in bronze not
marble as Vigny says
6 Note how the present tense increases the excitement
Would never have left him fighting all alone;
But her duty was to save her sons so that
She could teach them how to suffer hunger,
To never get caught in the pact of the towns
That Man made one day with servile animals7
Which now hunt with him for a small place to sleep,
They, who were the owners of the wood and rocks.
Alas! I thought, despite this great name of Men
How ashamed I am of us, how fool!
How we should leave life and all its sufferings,
Only you, sublime animals, know!
Seeing what we were and what we leave behind,
Silence alone is great; all else is weakness.
–Ah! I understand you now, wild wanderer,
And your last look went just straight into my heart!
Saying: “If you can, make sure that your soul climbs,
By always remaining studious and thoughtful,
Up to the highest degree of stoic pride
Where, born in the woods, I naturally reached.
To moan, weep, and pray are coward attitudes.
With good energy, do your long and hard task
As destiny has seen fit to call you and
As I do, suffer and die without a word.”
7 The dogs
Born on 26 February 1802 at Besançon, his father’s garrison, Victor-Marie Hugo is a frail little
boy but as the years pass, he builds an amazing robustness and a strong mind. Exasperated by her
husband’s travels and his veneration for Napoléon, the usurper, Madame Hugo leaves and settles at Les
Feuillantines, an old convent near Paris Val de Grâce. With their mother, the three children spend their
time reading and writing poetry. Then in 1811, Victor and Eugène are sent to the Collège des Nobles, and
Abel is appointed page at King Joseph’s court in Italy. Victor will always remember the dark college and
its hunchback wakeup-man.
In 1815, Victor prepares his entry to the École de Polytechnique (School of polytechnics) and
studies law at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. The children are excellent students and Eugène will probably
become a genius in literature. Victor is also very determined; at fourteen, he proudly writes on one of his
notebooks Je veux être Chateaubriand ou rien ! (I want to be Chateaubriand or nothing!). The same
Chateaubriand calls him « l’enfant sublime » (the sublime child).
Certainly a year later, Victor receives the Académie Française’s compliment for his poem sur les
avantages de l’étude (The advantages to study); and the Société des Bonnes Lettres praises his talents. Then
at sixteen, the young Hugo wins the Lys d’Or (Golden Lily) of the Académie of Toulouse’s Jeux Floraux
for les Vierges de Verdun (Verdun’s Virgins) and the following year, he becomes Maître ès Jeux Floraux
(Jeux Floraux’s master) for his poem Moïse sur le Nil. Victor’s father, Léopold, realises that his son will
never enter the school of Polytechnic; and he agrees when Victor decides to abandon his study.
This however does not bring money home and in December 1819, with the support of
Chateaubriand and Alfred de Vigny, the three brothers join their skills and found a review called Le
Conservateur littéraire, the sister of Chateaubriand’s Conservateur. In the December issue, Victor inserts his
first novel Bug Jargal and few articles under various pseudonyms.
Victor’s achievement has already softened the mind of his beloved’s father, Mr Foucher; but
Mme Hugo refuses a union with the daughter of someone implicated in her lover’s execution in 1812.
Victor knows Adèle since childhood so he is patient and this delay allows him to idealise his future wife
who coldly responds to his passion. Meanwhile in June, Victor publishes his first collection of poems
Odes et Poésies diverses regrouping works mostly written for Adèle and pieces of catholic inspiration; he
also writes a novel Han d’Islande. Immediately, Victor’s imagination and the richness of his imagery
produce an immense effect on the public. He not only vivifies poetry, as we know it, he also creates
delightful rhythms unheard before. For these works in which we see the influence of Chateaubriand and
Lamartine, the poet receives two grants from Louis XVIII.
With Madame Hugo’s death in 1821, the opposition to Victor and Adele’s union is lifted and the
wedding is celebrated in October 1822. Alas, it tragically ends. Already deeply affected by his brother’s
literary triumph, Eugene’s distressed mind cannot handle the fact that the brother who stole the
recognition he coveted so much, is now marrying the woman he secretly loves. The poor man will die
fourteen year later without having recovered his sanity.
Meanwhile, the young couple moves to Blois in Léopold’s white house at the foot of the green
hill. Soon, the father converts his son to the Napoleonic cult; and in l’Ode à la colonne de la Place Vendôme1
published in 1827, Victor clearly shows his admiration for Napoléon. However, the poet does not reject
the monarchy and its advantages; at twenty-three, he receives the Légion d’ Honneur2 and is invited to
Charles X’s coronation.
In 1826, Victor’s finances have improved; he buys an apartment rue de Vaugirard where
Lamartine, Vigny, Sainte-Beuve, Théophile Gautier, and Gérard Nerval visit him frequently. The same
year, Hugo adds some Ballades to the Odes. Inspired this time by the German ballades and Walter Scott’s
poems, the poet-troubadour revives the Middle Ages. His style is still a little classical but the poet
admirably blends the picturesque characteristics of romanticism to the marvellous of the Middle Ages,
very fashionable at the time; furthermore, the tone shows an interesting form of aggressiveness, the
vocabulary is colourful, and the versification excellent.
Probably too busy to continue the publication of the Conservateur Littéraire, Victor now
collaborates to the Muse Française and after having joined the cenacle of Emile Deschamps, he frequently
visits Charles Nodier’s Arsenal where he meets Lamartine and fights for literature’s freedom and against
authoritarian legitimism. Still in 1827, Hugo starts his first play Cromwell; his goal is to fully renew
literary drama and he exposes his revolutionary views in the preface. With an impressive verve and a
vibrant style, Hugo explains that a good drama must present the Christian idea about the duality of Man;
and in the play, he reveals his theory. To present the complexity of Man, the writer blends the grotesque
and the sublime, synchronises the action in time and place, and with historical and geographical
sceneries, he gives an astonishing impression of life and reality.
Immediately, the new generation recognises Victor Hugo as the leader of the Romantics; and
from 1829, his apartment Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs becomes the meeting place of the second cenacle.
At twenty-seven, Victor is so popular that an editor proposes to publish his complete work in ten
volumes; but the poet is not blind by his tremendous success. Though very thankful to the society, which
acclaims him so enthusiastically, he cannot tolerate that the same society reacts with shocking
indifference to the unbearable suffering striking so many people. Seeing himself probably as a sage or a
guide, he decides to use his pen to contribute in his own way to the making of a better world. Most of
Hugo’s works is sombre, melancholic, and often revolted, but it always ends on an optimistic note, the
small light at the end of the tunnel.
1 Ode to Place Vendome’s column (where stands Napoléon’s bust)
2 Order of merit (civil or military) created by Napoleon in 1802.
In les Orientales published in 1829, Victor, who never saw the Orient, associates his memories of
Spain and the tales brought by many travellers including Chateaubriand’s famous Itinéraire. Again,
Victor succeeds; how could we resist Greece’s luminous landscapes or Grenade magical sky? Les
Orientales is l’art pour l’art (pure art). The richness of the images in Mazeppa, the variety of the rhythms in
les Djinns, and the melody of the verses in Clair de Lune enchant the reader and unsurprisingly convince
Victor Hugo’s genius is climbing but with his legendary
spontaneity and enthusiasm, he tells too many truths. In un Duel sous
Richelieu later re-titled Marion de Lorme, Victor blatantly expresses his
rebellious ideas against the monarchy and Charles X censures the novel
despite its author’s supplications.
Nevertheless, his triumph is soon complete with the first
presentation of Hernani at the Comédie
Française in February 1830. This play marks
the beginning of the quarrel between the
classics and the romantics but thanks to
Théophile Gautier, Gérard de Nerval,
Sainte-Beuve, and the ‘Jeunes France’, Victor
Hugo wins the day despite the scandalised
clamours of his opponents.
The same year the cenacle members cease to see each other.
Hugo learns about his wife’s liaison with his best friend Sainte-Beuve
and to forget his misfortune, he goes back to his writing.3 Hernani is
followed a year later by Notre Dame de Paris, the famous and superb
novel of the hunchback of Notre Dame in Paris Middle Ages with its
Cour des Miracles (villains’ den) and the magnificent cathedral of Notre
Not long after, the poet publishes les Feuilles d’Automne
(Autumn’s leaves), a new collection of poems infused with melancholy.
In this beautiful compilation, Victor Hugo talks about his mother’s protective love and his
father’s devotion for the Empire; he also disserts on the various stages of life and the fate of the poor.
Hugo dearly loves his four children, Léopoldine, Adèle, Charles, and François and the joy to see them
playing happily around him instantly melts his sadness; all these refreshing emotions transpire in Lorsque
l’enfant paraît… (When the child arrives).
3 Adèle Foucher Hugo; http://www.centre-lecture.com/home/spip.php?article1370
Victor4 is now thirty-one and more than ever, he claims his hatred for oppression. Since the
Revolution of 1830, he has been involved in politics. To Louis-Philippe’s
prudence, he opposes an indestructible faith in liberty and this is
sometimes seen as a contradiction to his unyielding admiration for
Napoléon, the despot.
This year of 1833 also marks the beginning of a new and life-long
love for the poet. As soon as Juliette Drouet, the young artist playing
Princess Négrino in Lucrèce Borgia, meets Victor, the beautiful women is
immediately attracted to him. For the poet she venerates, Juliette abandons
everything including her brilliant career. She will love him until she dies.
Victor is transformed by this unexpected passion; he visits her every day
and she follows him everywhere he goes, always remaining in the shadow
even when occasionally her insatiable lover is chasing other women.5
In 1834, Victor presents le Roi s’amuse (The King has fun) but the
play is censured as Marion de Lorme was. Yes, oppression have returned as
the monarchy fails to keep its promises. Very angry, the poet declares
Il n’y a eu dans ce siècle qu’un grand homme, Napoléon, et une grande chose la liberté. Nous
n’avons plus le grand homme ; tâchons d’avoir la grande chose.
This century has seen one great man only, Napoleon, and one great thing, liberty. We lost the
great man; let us strive for the great thing.
He then publishes Angela and les Chants du Crépuscule (Crepuscule’s Chants). This collection
marks a critical time in Hugo’s life; the poet says
C’est cet étrange état crépusculaire de l’âme et de la société dans le siècle où nous vivons : cette
brume au dehors, cette incertitude au dedans; c’est ce je ne sais quoi d’à demi éclairé qui nous
It is the strange crepuscular state of the soul and of the society in the century in which we live;
the fog outside, the incertitude inside; it is something half alight surrounding us.
4 Victor Hugo at 30, Lithography by Achille Devéria
5 Juliette Drouet by Léon Noel ; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:
Two years later, Hugo dedicates the superb volume les Voix Intérieures (Inside Voices) to his
father. These voices are the voice of Man, the voice of Nature, and the voice of what happens in Paris.
With vivid images and tenderness, Victor revives the sunny days at les feuillantines and pays tribute to his
brother in A Eugène, vicomte H. Hugo, the chronicler, describes Paris’s new Arc de Triomphe on which his
dear nation forgot to print his father’s name, and he gives an account of the death of Charles X. Hugo also
meditates on the greatest mystery of the universe and asks Virgil to give him the key as he did to Dante.
1838 brilliantly starts with the poet’s new play Ruy Blas, a drama written in verses, where the
author blends humour and sentiment with the grotesque and rich Don Saluste and the poor but charming
Blas alias Don Cesar. The play is a great success immediately followed by les Rayons et les Ombres (Rays
and Shadows), which appears in 1840. Hugo still uses the same themes: childhood, love, and Nature seen
from various perspectives according to the poet’s états d’âme (states of mind), as in Oceano Nox and
Tristesse d’Olympio (Olympio’s Sadness) where he talks of his long walks with Juliette in the Brieves
Valley during the summers 1834 and 1835. Alas, his return to Brieves in October 1837 only reminds the
author of the inexorable flight of time and the vanity of those who hope to eternalise fleeting moments of
happiness. Above all, les Rayons et les Ombres reveals the writer’s mission to alleviate human misery and
teach humanity how to prepare a better future for all.
In 1840, Victor sees with great emotion the return of Napoleon’s ashes and to mark the event, he
regroups ten poems dedicated to the great man in le Retour de l’Empereur. Nevertheless, Hugo is still in
good terms with the royal family and frequently visits Hélène Mecklenburg, Louis-Philippe’s daughter-
in-law. Thanks to her influence—but after three rejections, the Académie Française finally opens its door
to the most illustrious writer of the 19th Century.
At this time, the new academician dreams to become Foreign Affair Minister. Meanwhile, he
continues to write and from his travels to the Rhine region in 1839 and 1840, he publishes le Rhin, a
political and historical essay discussing some pressing problems.
However, 1843 does not start as he expects; his play les Burgraves is a failure; and very
disappointed that the public does not share his idea of good drama, he decides that he will never write
any more play. He takes a break with Juliette and travel to Spain; they stop at the Île d’Oléron, and on 9
September, they are in Rochefort. Victor will never forget this day. As usual, he takes his breakfast in the
café close to his hotel; and, from the local newspaper, he learns the tragic death of his daughter
Léopoldine and his son-in-law. Five days earlier, while sailing on the Seine, the boat capsized and the
young couple drowned near Villequier. Victor’s despair is immense; but his mind is strong and the man
is generous therefore politics is a salutary diversion. In 1845, he becomes pair de France and this
opportunity allows him to denounce the Polish oppression and the misery of the poor in general; he also
fights vigorously against death penalty.
Victor is certainly very busy but he still has time to fall in love with Léonie Biard, a beautiful
and ambitious Bonapartist woman, fifteen years younger than Juliette. Caught red-handed with Léonie,
the poet cannot escape the scandal; all Paris laughs at his discomfiture; nevertheless, Victor has not
abandoned his faithful Julie and when he learns about the death of her daughter Claire, he comes
immediately to comfort her. This terrible event has reopened Victor’s deep wound and when he takes his
pen again, the young Claire soon becomes Léopoldine in les Contemplations.
In October 1847, Victor composes Demain dès l'aube,6 the fourteenth poem of Book IV of his
Contemplations. Four years have passed since the tragic death of
Léopoldine7 and after the stupor of the horrible event, Victor Hugo feels
her daughter’s presence; she is waiting for him in Villequier small
cemetery so he cannot delay his visit much longer. In a very gentle tone,
he tells her about the journey he will make the following day.
No eloquence in this tender sonnet following the pattern abab.
Just a sober and touching intimacy between a father and his daughter.
The first strophe marks Victor’s need to see her defunct child; the distance
separating them being great, he will start his journey at dawn. In the
second strophe, the rejets (rejects) and the isolated words and phrases
remind us that the poet still carries the weight of his sorrow on his back.
Since her departure, he has always been alone and sad; and as we can see
in the third and last strophe nothing will chase his overwhelming
loneliness not even the beautiful countryside from Le Havre to Villequier.
Victor will not look at the beauty around him because he does not want anything to distract his thoughts
from his cherished daughter.
Demain dès l’aube, the poem of my childhood reminds me the cold and foggy mornings of my dear
Lorraine, when hand in hand, Grandma and I were walking to school. For my birthday in 2005, my
wonderful sister sent me the wonderful watercolour she painted especially for this book
7 Léopoldine by Auguste de Châtillon (1836)
Demain dès l'aube by Claudine Bigaut (Oct. 2005)
Demain dès l’aube
Demain dès l'aube, à l'heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m'attends.
J'irai par la forêt, j'irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.
Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.
Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.
Tomorrow at dawn
Tomorrow at dawn, when the country whitens,
I will leave; I know you wait for me.
I will cross the forest and climb the mountain;
No longer can I stay away from you.
I will walk, my eyes fixed on my thoughts
I will see nothing, I will hear no noise,
Alone, unknown, my back bent, my hands fold,
Sad, and for me, the days will be like nights.
I will not see the evening gold falling down
Nor the boats, sailing away to Harfleur,
And when I arrive, I will put on your grave,
A bunch of green holy, and heather in full bloom.
With the Revolution of 1848, King Louis-Philippe abdicates and the second Republic is in place.
Hugo is elected deputy at the Constituante; and with his support, Louis-Napoléon becomes President of
the Republic. A year later, Victor Hugo is member of the Legislative. Soon he realises that the Prince-
president has nothing in common with the great Napoleon except his name and angrily, he proclaims his
disappointment in his newspaper l’Événement; but Hugo’s anger reaches its paroxysm in 1851 when he
discovers Napoleon’s machination to take over the presidency after his four-year mandate with or
without the support of the two Assemblies. Infuriated, he denounces the shameful conspiracies of whom
he now calls Napoléon-le-Petit (Napoleon the Small) at the tribune of the Assemblée Législative, and he
loudly announces that he will do whatever he can to stop him. However, Hugo is unable to prevent the
tyrant’s coup d’état in December 1851. His only hope is to valiantly resist and running from one barricade
to another, he encourages the partisans; but the usurper efficiently controls the situation and sends all the
agitators to the firing squad. Hugo must flee urgently. With a falsified passport, he arrives at Brussels
where a trunk full of manuscripts is waiting for him.
There, the poet releases his indignation in Napoléon le Petit, a pamphlet published in 1852 and he
writes Histoire d’un crime (Crime Story). This displeases the Belgium authorities. Not welcome anymore,
Hugo leaves for Jersey and settles at Marine-Terrace, a beautiful villa near Saint-Hélier; as always, Juliette
discreetly follows the family. Soon, Léonie wants to rejoin her lover but Hugo forbids her to come.
Away from the political scene, Hugo the outlaw now spends all his time writing. Very intrigued
by death and after-life, the visit of Delphine de Girardin, a well-known poet, exacerbates his curiosity for
the unknown and encourages him to communicate with the dead. For two years, Victor organises
weekly-séances of spiritism and all the participants record their conversation with their defunct relatives
but also with Dante, Shakespeare, Chateaubriand, Bonaparte, and many more. In 1854, the poet reveals
his experiences in Ce que dit la Bouche d’Ombre (What the Shadow’s mouth says), and in Dieu, la Fin de
Satan (God, the End of Satan). In la Bouche d’Ombre presented in the Contemplations, Victor Hugo
meditates on the metaphysical necessity of the existence of evil; he also believes in a new religion
emerging from Christianity and he is convinced that he is the prophet chosen to reveal the Ultimate
Truth. His gospel announces the coming of the Universal Republic as the terrestrial prelude of God’s final
reconciliation with all his creatures.
Hugo is still in touch with what happens around him and when in 1855 the authors of the
newspaper l’Homme (The Man) are expulsed for spreading republican ideas, he protests furiously; this
causes his own expulsion from Jersey in October. Victor has no regret and goes to Isle of Guernsey where
he buys Hauteville-House, a property directly on the beach not far from Saint-Pierre.
In Guernsey, Victor continues les Châtiments, started just at his arrival in Jersey in November
1852. This is another masterpiece where Hugo, the democrat, the anticlerical, the apostle of the universal
republic and of the United States of Europe, pours out his rage. The poet also recalls with gruesome
details and vividness, Napoleon’s last battle at Waterloo, contrasting the great man with his descendant
Louis, the ridiculous monkey. Les Châtiments counts six thousands satirical verses, an incredible challenge
even for a master like Victor Hugo. Again, the poet keeps his reader alert with diversity and vivacity. He
complains and prophesises, and above all he insults and condemns the instigators of the coup d’état and
those who accept it.
In this epopee, things and ideas take a human form; it is the eternal battle of good against evil
and the soldiers of the Grande Armée become under Hugo’s pen, implacable
giants and heroes of incomparable bravery. The tone is virulent, passionate,
and incredibly heartbreaking. This enormous work is a magnificent work of
art with no equivalent in French poetry.
Expiation8 is certainly one of the most poignant poems of Les
Châtiments. During the retreat from Russia in October-December 1812, at
Waterloo, and at Sainte-Hélène, Napoléon is paying the price for his crime.
When he wrote Expiation, Victor Hugo took his inspiration from his master
Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe and from the Comte de Ségur’s
Histoire de Napoléon et de la Grande Armée pendant l’année 1812. From
hundreds of pages of history, the poet composes a gigantic epopee avoiding
all details that could have tarnished the terrible grandeur of the soldiers of
the Grande Armée and his superb leader Napoléon 1er.
In this magnificent tragedy where mystery pervades, imperceptibly, men are becoming ghosts.
Baudelaire superbly describes Victor Hugo’s art to express horror
Il (Victor Hugo) voit le mystère partout. Et, de ce fait, où n’est-il pas ? De là dérive ce sentiment
d’effroi qui pénètre plusieurs de ses plus beaux poèmes ; de là ces turbulences, ces accumulations,
ces écroulements de vers, ces masses d’images orageuses, emportées avec la vitesse d’un chaos qui
fuit ; de là ces répétitions fréquentes de mots, tous destinés à exprimer les ténèbres captivantes ou
l’énigmatique physionomie du mystère.9
He sees mystery everywhere. And, where is it not? From this comes his feeling of horror,
which penetrates several of his most beautiful poems; from this, comes his turbulences,
accumulations, avalanches of verses, mass of stormy images, carried away at the speed of a
fleeing chaos; from this, rise his frequent repetitions of words, all used to express captivating
darkness or the enigmatic features of mystery.
Les Châtiments10 is a message of experiences reaching its paroxysm in three phases: the battle,
the sacrifice of the Guard, and the rout. With the three syllables of Waterloo tolling above the dead, the
memories of the terrible campaign of Russia suddenly re-emerged from the heart of all French citizens.
Victor Hugo brutally moves from the imperfect to the past and with the same vigour returns to the
8 For my little heart-sister Irina who came from Russia not long ago.
9 D. Parmée, ed. (1949) Selected critical studies of Baudelaire, p 170.
10 Honoré Daumier’s Drawing http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Victor_Hugo-Cossette.jpg
imperfect. Then, he uses the present when he exposes the carnage and horror of the battlefield and the
heroic sacrifice of the imperial Guard. This epic aggrandisement prepares the contrast between Napoléon
1er and Napoléon III, finally leading to the expiation.
Il neigeait. On était vaincu par sa conquête.
Pour la première fois, l’aigle baissait la tête.
Sombres jours ! l’empereur revenait lentement,
Laissant derrière lui brûler Moscou fumant.,
Il neigeait. L’âpre hiver fondait en avalanche.
Après la plaine blanche, une autre plaine blanche.
On ne connaissait plus les chefs ni le drapeau.
Hier la grande armée, et maintenant le troupeau.
On ne distinguait plus les ailes ni le centre :
Il neigeait. Les blessés s’abritaient dans le ventre
Des chevaux morts ; au seuil des bivouacs désolés
On voyait des clairons à leur poste gelés
Restés debout, en selle et muets, blancs de givre,
Collant leur bouche en pierre aux trompettes de cuivre.
Boulets, mitraille, obus, mêlés aux flocons blancs,
Pleuvaient ; les grenadiers, surpris d’être tremblants,
Marchaient pensifs, la glace à leur moustache grise.
Il neigeait, il neigeait toujours ! la froide bise
Sifflait ; sur le verglas, dans les lieux inconnus,
On n’avait pas de pain et l’on allait pieds nus.
Ce n’étaient plus des cœurs vivants, des gens de guerre
C’était un rêve errant dans la brume, un mystère,
Une procession d’ombres sur le ciel noir.
La solitude, vaste, épouvantable à voir,
Partout apparaissait, muette vengeresse.
Le ciel faisait sans bruit avec la neige épaisse
Pour cette immense armée un immense linceul ;
Et, chacun se sentant mourir, on était seul.
- Sortira-t-on jamais de ce funeste empire ?
Deux ennemis ! le Czar, le Nord. Le Nord est le pire.
11 Victor Hugo (1857) Les Châtiments, p 43-46.
On jetait les canons pour brûler les affûts.
Qui se couchait, mourait. Groupe morne et confus,
Ils fuyaient ; le désert dévorait le cortège.
On pouvait, à des plis qui soulevaient la neige,
Voir que des régiments s’étaient endormis là.
O chutes d’Annibal ! Lendemains d’Attila !
Fuyards, blessés, mourants, caissons, brancards, civières,
On s’écrasait aux ponts pour passer les rivières.
On s’endormait dix mille, on se réveillait cent.
Ney, que suivait naguère une armée, à présent
S’évadait, disputant sa montre à trois cosaques.
Toutes les nuits, qui vive ! alerte ! assauts ! attaques !
Ces fantômes prenaient leur fusil, et sur eux
Ils voyaient se ruer, effrayants, ténébreux,
Avec des cris pareils aux voix des vautours chauves,
D’horribles escadrons, tourbillons d’hommes fauves.
Toute une armée ainsi dans la nuit se perdait.
L’empereur était là, debout, qui regardait.
Il était comme un arbre en proie à la cognée.
Sur ce géant, grandeur jusqu’alors épargnée,
Le malheur, bûcheron sinistre, était monté ;
Et lui, chêne vivant, par la hache insulté,
Tressaillant sous le spectre aux lugubres revanches,
Il regardait tomber autour de lui ses branches.
Chefs, soldats, tous mouraient. Chacun avait son tour.
Tandis qu’environnant sa tente avec amour,
Voyant son ombre aller et venir sur la toile,
Ceux qui restaient, croyant toujours à son étoile,
Accusaient le destin de lèse-majesté.
Lui se sentit soudain dans l’âme épouvanté.
Stupéfait du désastre et ne sachant que croire,
L’empereur se tourna vers Dieu ; l’homme de gloire
Trembla ; Napoléon comprit qu’il expiait
Quelque chose peut-être, et, livide, inquiet,
Devant ses légions sur la neige semées :
- Est-ce le châtiment, dit-il, Dieu des armées ? –
Alors il s’entendit appeler par son nom
Et quelqu’un qui parlait dans l’ombre lui dit : non.
Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! Morne plaine!
Comme une onde qui bout dans une urne trop pleine,
Dans ton cirque de bois, de coteaux, de vallons,
La pâle mort mêlait les sombres bataillons.
D’un côté c’est l’Europe et de l’autre la France.
Choc sanglant ! des héros Dieu trompait l’espérance ;
Tu désertais, victoire, et le sort était las.
O Waterloo ! je pleure et je m’arrête, hélas !
Car ces derniers soldats de la dernière guerre
Furent grands ; ils avaient vaincu toute la terre,
Chassé vingt rois, passé les Alpes et le Rhin,
Et leur âme chantait dans les clairons d’airain !
Le soir tombait ; la lutte était ardente et noire.
Il avait l’offensive et presque la victoire ;
Il tenait Wellington acculé sur un bois.
Sa lunette à la main, il observait parfois
Le centre du combat, point obscur où tressaille
La mêlée, effroyable et vivante broussaille,
Et parfois l’horizon, sombre comme la mer.
Soudain, joyeux, il dit : Grouchy ! – C’était Blücher !
L’espoir changea de camp, le combat changea d’âme,
La mêlée en hurlant grandit comme une flamme.
La batterie anglaise écrasa nos carrés.
La plaine où frissonnaient les drapeaux déchirés
Ne fut plus, dans les cris des mourants qu’on égorge,
Qu’un gouffre flamboyant, rouge comme une forge ;
Gouffre où les régiments, comme des pans de murs,
Tombaient, où se couchaient comme des épis mûrs
Les hauts tambours-majors aux panaches énormes,
Où l’on entrevoyait des blessures difformes !
Carnage affreux ! moment fatal ! l’homme inquiet
Sentit que la bataille entre ses mains pliait.
Derrière un mamelon la garde était massée,
La garde, espoir suprême et suprême pensée !
- Allons ! faites donner la garde, cria-t-il, -
Et Lanciers, Grenadiers aux guêtres de coutil,
Dragons que Rome eût pris pour des légionnaires,
Cuirassiers, Canonniers qui traînaient des tonnerres,
Portant le noir colback ou le casque poli,
Tous, ceux de Friedland et ceux de Rivoli,
Comprenant qu’ils allaient mourir dans cette fête,
Saluèrent leur dieu, debout dans la tempête.
Leur bouche, d’un seul cri, dit : Vive l’empereur !
Puis, à pas lents, musique en tête, sans fureur,12
Tranquille, souriant à la mitraille anglaise,
La garde impériale entra dans la fournaise.
Hélas ! Napoléon, sur sa garde penché,
Regardait, et, sitôt qu’ils avaient débouché
Sous les sombres canons crachant des jets de soufre,
Voyait, l’un après l’autre, en cet horrible gouffre,
Fondre ces régiments de granit et d’acier,
Comme fond une cire au souffle d’un brasier.
Ils allaient, l’arme au bras, front haut, graves, stoïques.
Pas un ne recela. Dormez, morts héroïques !
Le reste de l’armée hésitait sur leur corps
Et regardait mourir la garde. – C’est alors
Qu’élevant tout à coup sa voix désespérée, pietiner
La Déroute, géante à la face effarée, immonde
Qui, pâle, épouvantant les plus fiers bataillons,
Changeant subitement les drapeaux en haillons,
A de certains moments, spectre fait de fumées,
Se lève grandissante au milieu des armées,
La Déroute apparut au soldat qui s’émeut,
Et, se tordant les bras, cria : Sauve qui peut !
Sauve qui peut ! affront ! horreur ! toutes les bouches
Criaient ; à travers champs, fous, éperdus, farouches,
Comme si quelque souffle avait passé sur eux,
Parmi les lourds caissons et les fourgons poudreux,
Roulant dans les fossés, se cachant dans les seigles,
Jetant shakos, manteaux, fusils, jetant les aigles,
Sous les sabres prussiens, ces vétérans, ô deuil !
Typical trimetre coming after a tetrameter marking the change of rhythm from immobility to slow
Tremblaient, hurlaient, pleuraient, couraient ! En un clin d’œil,
Comme s’envole au vent une paille enflammée,
S’évanouit ce bruit qui fut la grande armée,
Et cette plaine, hélas ! où l’on rêve aujourd’hui,
Vit fuir ceux devant qui l’univers avait fui !
Quarante ans sont passés, et ce coin de la terre,
Waterloo, ce plateau funèbre et solitaire,
Ce champ sinistre où Dieu mêla tant de néants,
Tremble encor d’avoir vu la fuite des géants !
Napoléon les vit s’écouler comme un fleuve ;
Hommes, chevaux, tambours, drapeaux ; et dans l’épreuve,
Sentant confusément revenir son remords,
Levant les mains au ciel, il dit : - mes soldats morts,
Moi vaincu ! mon empire est brisé comme verre.
Est-ce le châtiment cette fois, Dieu sévère ? –
Alors parmi les cris, les rumeurs, le canon,
Il entendit la voix qui lui répondait : Non !
Il croula. Dieu changea la chaîne de l'Europe.
Il est, au fond des mers que la brume enveloppe,
Un roc hideux, débris des antiques volcans.
Le Destin prit des clous, un marteau, des carcans,
Saisit, pâle et vivant, ce voleur du tonnerre,
Et, joyeux, s'en alla sur le pic centenaire
Le clouer, excitant par son rire moqueur
Le vautour Angleterre à lui ronger le cœur.
Evanouissement d'une splendeur immense !
Du soleil qui se lève à la nuit qui commence,
Toujours l'isolement, l'abandon, la prison ;
Un soldat rouge au seuil, la mer à l'horizon.
Des rochers nus, des bois affreux, l'ennui, l'espace,
Des voiles s'enfuyant comme l'espoir qui passe,
Toujours le bruit des flots, toujours le bruit des vents !
Adieu, tente de pourpre aux panaches mouvants,
Adieu, le cheval blanc que César éperonne !
Plus de tambours battant aux champs, plus de couronne,
Plus de rois prosternés dans l'ombre avec terreur,
Plus de manteau traînant sur eux, plus d'empereur !
Napoléon était retombé Bonaparte.
Comme un romain blessé par la flèche du Parthe,
Saignant, morne, il songeait à Moscou qui brûla.
Un caporal anglais lui disait : halte-là !
Son fils aux mains des rois, sa femme au bras d'un autre.
Plus vil que le pourceau qui dans l'égout se vautre,
Son sénat qui l'avait adoré, l'insultait.
Aux bords des mers, à l'heure où la bise se tait,
Sur les escarpements croulant en noirs décombres,
Il marchait, seul, rêveur, captif des vagues sombres.
Sur les monts, sur les flots, sur les cieux, triste et fier,
L'œil encore ébloui des batailles d'hier,
Il laissait sa pensée errer à l'aventure.
Grandeur, gloire, ô néant ! calme de la nature !
Des aigles qui passaient ne le connaissaient pas.
Les rois, ses guichetiers, avaient pris un compas
Et l'avaient enfermé dans un cercle inflexible.
Il expirait. La mort de plus en plus visible
Se levait dans sa nuit et croissait à ses yeux
Comme le froid matin d'un jour mystérieux,
Son âme palpitait, déjà presque échappée.
Un jour enfin il mit sur son lit son épée,
Et se coucha près d'elle, et dit : c'est aujourd'hui !
On jeta le manteau de Marengo sur lui.
Ses batailles du Nil, du Danube, du Tibre,
Se penchaient sur son front ; il dit : me voici libre !
Je suis vainqueur ! je vois mes aigles accourir !
Et, comme il retournait sa tête pour mourir,
Il aperçut, un pied dans la maison déserte,
Hudson-Lowe guettant par la porte entrouverte.
Alors, géant broyé sous le talon des rois,
Il cria : - la mesure est comble cette fois !
Seigneur ! c'est maintenant fini ! Dieu que j'implore,
Vous m'avez châtié ! - la voix dit : - pas encore !
Ô noirs événements, vous fuyez dans la nuit !
L'empereur mort tomba sur l'empire détruit.
Napoléon alla s'endormir sous le saule.
Et les peuples alors, de l'un à l'autre pôle,
Oubliant le tyran, s'éprirent du héros.
Les poètes, marquant au front les rois bourreaux,
Consolèrent, pensifs, cette gloire abattue.
À la colonne veuve on rendit sa statue.
Quand on levait les yeux, on le voyait debout
Au-dessus de Paris, serein, dominant tout,
Seul, le jour dans l'azur et la nuit dans les astres.
Panthéons, on grava son nom sur vos pilastres !
On ne regarda plus qu'un seul côté des temps ;
On ne se souvint plus que des jours éclatants ;
Cet homme étrange avait comme enivré l'histoire ;
La justice à l'œil froid disparut sous sa gloire ;
On ne vit plus qu'Eylau, Ulm, Arcole, Austerlitz ;
Comme dans les tombeaux des romains abolis,
On se mit à fouiller dans ces grandes années ;
Et vous applaudissiez, nations inclinées,
Chaque fois qu'on tirait de ce sol souverain
Ou le consul de marbre ou l'empereur d'airain !
Le nom grandit quand l'homme tombe ;
Jamais rien de tel n'avait lui.
Calme, il écoutait dans sa tombe
La terre qui parlait de lui.
La terre disait : « la victoire
A suivi cet homme en tous lieux.
Jamais tu n'as vu, sombre histoire,
Un passant plus prodigieux !
Gloire au maître qui dort sous l'herbe
Gloire à ce grand audacieux !
Nous l'avons vu gravir, superbe,
Les premiers échelons des cieux !
Il envoyait, âme acharnée,
Prenant Moscou, prenant Madrid,
Lutter contre la destinée
Tous les rêves de son esprit.
A chaque instant, rentrant en lice.
Cet homme aux gigantesques pas
Proposait quelque grand caprice
A Dieu qui n'y consentait pas.
Il n'était presque plus un homme.
Il disait, grave et rayonnant,
En regardant fixement Rome :
C'est moi qui règne maintenant !
Il voulait, héros et symbole,
Pontife et roi, phare et volcan,
Faire du Louvre un Capitole
Et de Saint-Cloud un Vatican.
César, il eût dit à Pompée :
Sois fier d'être mon lieutenant !
On voyait luire son épée
Au fond d'un nuage tonnant.
Il voulait, dans les frénésies
De ses vastes ambitions,
Faire devant ses fantaisies
Agenouiller les nations,
Ainsi qu'en une urne profonde,
Mêler races, langues, esprits,
Répandre Paris sur le monde,
Enfermer le monde en Paris !
Comme Cyrus dans Babylone,
Il voulait sous sa large main,
Ne faire du monde qu'un trône
Et qu'un peuple du genre humain,
Et bâtir, malgré les huées,
Un tel empire sous son nom
Que Jéhovah dans les nuées
Fût jaloux de Napoléon ! »
Enfin, mort triomphant, il vit sa délivrance,
Et l'océan rendit son cercueil à la France.
L'homme, depuis douze ans, sous le dôme doré,
Reposait, par l'exil et par la mort sacré ;
En paix ! - quand on passait près du monument sombre,
On se le figurait, couronne au front, dans l'ombre,
Dans son manteau semé d'abeilles d'or, muet,
Couché sous cette voûte où rien ne remuait,
Lui, l'homme qui trouvait la terre trop étroite,
Le sceptre en sa main gauche, et l'épée en sa droite,
A ses pieds son grand aigle ouvrant l'œil à demi,.
Et l'on disait : c'est là qu'est César endormi !
Laissant dans la clarté marcher l'immense ville,
Il dormait ; il dormait confiant et tranquille.
Une nuit, - c’est toujours la nuit dans le tombeau, -
Il s’éveilla. Luisant comme un hideux flambeau,
D’étranges visions emplissaient sa paupière ;
Des rires éclataient sous son plafond de pierre ;
Livide, il se dressa, la vision grandit ;
O terreur ! une voix qu’il reconnut lui dit :
- Réveille-toi. Moscou, Waterloo, Sainte-Hélène,
L’exil, les rois geôliers, l’Angleterre hautaine
Sur ton lit accoudée à ton dernier moment,
Sire, cela n’est rien. Voici le châtiment !
La voix alors devint âpre, amère, stridente,
Comme le noir sarcasme et l’ironie ardente ;
C’était le rire amer mordant un demi-dieu.
- Sire ! on t’a retiré de ton Panthéon bleu !
Sire ! on t’a descendu de ta haute colonne !
Regarde : des brigands, dont l’essaim tourbillonne,
D’affreux bohémiens, des vainqueurs de charnier
Te tiennent dans leurs mains et t’ont fait prisonnier.
A ton orteil d’airain leur patte infâme touche.
Ils t’ont pris. Tu mourus, comme un astre se couche,
Napoléon le Grand, empereur ; tu renais
Bonaparte, écuyer du cirque Beauharnais.
Te voilà dans leurs rangs, on t’a, l’on te harnache.
Ils t’appellent tout haut grand homme, entre eux, ganache.
Ils traînent sur Paris, qui les voit s’étaler,
Des sabres qu’au besoin ils sauraient avaler.
Aux passants attroupés devant leur habitacle,
Ils disent, entends-les : - Empire à grand spectacle !
Le pape est engagé dans la troupe ; c’est bien,
Nous avons mieux ; le czar en est ; mais ce n’est rien,
Le czar n’est qu’un sergent, le pape n’est qu’un bonze,
Nous avons avec nous le bonhomme de bronze !
Nous sommes les neveux du Grand Napoléon ! –
Et Fould, Magnan, Rouher, Parieu caméléon,
Font rage. Ils vont montrant un sénat d’automates.
Ils ont pris de la paille au fond des casemates
Pour empailler ton aigle, ô vainqueur d’Iéna !
Il est là, mort, gisant, lui qui si haut plana,
Et du champ de bataille il tombe au champ de foire.
Sire, de ton vieux trône ils recousent la moire.
Ayant dévalisé la France au coin d’un bois,
Ils ont à leurs haillons du sang, comme tu vois,
Et dans son bénitier Sibour lave leur linge.
Toi, lion, tu les suis ; leur maître, c’est le singe.
Ton nom leur sert de lit, Napoléon premier.
On voit sur Austerlitz un peu de leur fumier.
Ta gloire est un gros vin dont leur honte se grise.
Cartouche essaye et met ta redingote grise ;
On quête des liards dans le petit chapeau ;
Pour tapis sur la table ils ont mis ton drapeau ;
A cette table immonde où le grec devient riche,
Avec le paysan on boit, on joue, on triche.
Tu te mêles, compère, à ce tripot hardi,
Et ta main qui tenait l’étendard de Lodi,
Cette main qui portait la foudre, ô Bonaparte,
Aide à piper les dés et fait sauter la carte.
Ils te forcent à boire avec eux, et Carlier
Pousse amicalement d’un coude familier
Votre majesté, sire, et Piétri dans son antre
Vous tutoie, et Maupas vous tape sur le ventre.
Faussaires, meurtriers, escrocs, forbans, voleurs,
Ils savent qu’ils auront, comme toi, des malheurs.
Leur soif en attendant vide la coupe pleine,
A ta santé ; Poissy trinque avec Sainte-Hélène.
Regarde ! bals, sabbats, fêtes matin et soir.
La foule au bruit qu’ils font se culbute pour voir,
Debout sur le tréteau qu’assiége une cohue
Qui rit, bâille, applaudit, tempête, siffle, hue,
Entouré de pasquins agitant leur grelot,
- Commencer par Homère et finir par Callot !
Epopée ! épopée ! oh ! quel dernier chapitre ! –
Entre Troplong paillasse et de Baroche pitre
Devant cette baraque, abject et vil bazar
Où Mandrin mal lavé se déguise en César,
Riant, l’affreux bandit, dans sa moustache épaisse,
Toi, spectre impérial, tu bats la grosse caisse. –
L’horrible vision s’éteignit. – l’empereur,
Désespéré, poussa dans l’ombre un cri d’horreur,
Baissant les yeux, dressant ses mains épouvantées ;
Les Victoires de marbre à la porte sculptées,
Fantômes blancs debout hors du sépulcre obscur,
Se faisaient du doigt signe et, s’appuyant au mur,
Écoutaient le titan pleurer dans les ténèbres.
Et Lui, cria : démon aux visions funèbres,
Toi qui me suis partout, que jamais je ne vois,
Qui donc es-tu ? – Je suis ton crime, dit la voix. –
La tombe alors s’emplit d’une lumière étrange
Semblable à la clarté de Dieu quand il se venge ;
Pareils aux mots que vit resplendir Balthazar,
Deux mots dans l’ombre écrits flamboyaient sur César :
Bonaparte, tremblant comme un enfant sans mère,
Leva sa face pâle et lut : - DIX-HUIT BRUMAIRE !
Jersey, 30 novembre 1852.
It was snowing.13 We were all vanquished by his conquest.
For the first time, the eagle was bending his head.
Sombre days! The emperor was slowly coming back,
leaving behind Moscow lost in flame and smoke.14
It was snowing. Winter was melting down in avalanche.
After the white plain, another white plain.
No more did we know where chiefs and flags were.
Yesterday the Grand Army,15 now the wandering flock.
No more could we discern the wings from the centre:16
It was snowing. The wounded tried to find shelters
in their horse’s belly;17 near deserted bivouacs,
we could see some buglers all frozen at their post,
standing on their horses, mute, white with frost,
their stony lips ever stuck on their brass trumpets.18
Bullets, iron balls, shells, all mingled with snowflakes
were raining down; amazed at their trembling limbs,
the grenadiers were walking thoughtful,
ice clinging on their grey moustache.
It was snowing; it was always snowing!
And while the north cold wind whistled
on the frozen sea of this unknown land,
we were walking, barefoot; for days, we had nothing to eat
13 This very short sentence repeated as a refrain marks how the snow was one factor of the disaster.
14 As Moscow was burning, Napoléon and his army had to retreat from Russia.
15 Around 600 000 men
16 Comte de Ségur (1824) Histoire de Napoléon et de la Grande Armée pendant l’année 1812, IX, xi
17 Ibid., IX, viii
18 René Chateaubriand (1849-1850) Mémoire d’outre-tombe
No more were we living hearts or proud men of war
We were a dream wandering in the fog, a mystery,
a procession of shadows on the blackening sky.
A loneliness, so vast and horrible to see
was everywhere, mute and fearless avenger.
With the thick snow, the sky was silently weaving
a white and immense shroud for this immense army;19
Death was coming to us and we felt all alone.
O! Shall we ever leave this sinister empire?
Two enemies! The Tsar, the North. The North was the worst.
We demolished the cannons to burn their large mounts.
Those who lay down died. Dejected and baffled troupe
fleeing while the desert was swallowing the procession.
At the gentle folds lifting the snow, we could see
that doomed regiments fell asleep there.
O! Hannibal’s downfalls! Attila’s tomorrows!20
Fugitive, wounded and dying men, caissons, stretchers,
all were crushed at the bridge to pass the river.
Ten thousands fell asleep, one hundred woke up.
Followed by an army yesterday, Ney21 was now
running away, trading his watch to three Cossacks.
All nights were the same: Watch! Alert! Assault! Attack!
While these ghosts were taking their rifle, frightening
and tenebrous squadrons, dreadful whirlwinds of men,
were coming, screaming horribly like bald vultures;
The whole army was vanishing into the night.
The Emperor was there, standing, staring intently;
Standing as a tree stands before the axe.
On this giant, whose grandeur had been spared ‘til now,
Doom, the ominous woodcutter, had finally climbed;
And he, the living oak, insulted by the axe,
shivering at the spectre of spiteful revenge,
20 The king of the Huns who ravaged France in 451
21 Michel Ney, duc d’Elchingen and Napoléon’s first marshal; he earned the epithet Bravest of the Brave at
the battle of Borodino in the Napoleonic Wars. When the emperor came back from Elba, Ney rejoined his
forces. He was executed for high treason in 1815.
was watching his branches falling all around.
Chiefs, soldiers, all were dying, all waiting their turn.
While surrounding his tent, with unabated love,
seeing his stern shadow marching to and fro,
still believing in his good star, those who remained
were cursing Fate, accusing her of treason.
Suddenly, deep in his soul, he was terrified.
Stunned and not knowing what to believe anymore,
the emperor turned to God; and the man of glory
shuddered; Napoléon finally realised
that he was expiating; livid and anxious,
in front of his legions dispersed on the white snow,
he said, —Is it your sentence, God of the armies? –
Then, from above, he heard someone calling his name
and a voice speaking in the shadow said,—No!
Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! Dull white plain!
As water boiling in an overfull jug,
in the woods, the hillocks, and the vales,
Pale Death was dancing among the battalions.
On one side was Europe; on the other was France.
Bloody shock! God was deluding the heroes’ hope
and soon, Victory ran away; Fate was too tired.
O! Waterloo! I cried; and then, I stopped!
Because these last soldiers of the last glorious war
were magnificent; they vanquished the earth,
chased twenty kings, climbed the Alps, crossed the Rhine,
their great soul singing proudly in the brass bugles!
Evening was falling, the fight was fierce and black.
He22 had the offensive and almost victory
When he hold Wellington on the ravaged wood.
The field glass in his hand, he sometimes observed
The centre of the battle, dark moving point where
The lively brushwood shudders,
Another time the horizon, dark like the sea.
Suddenly pleased, he yelled, Grouchy! – It was Blücher!23
Terrified, Hope changed sides; the battle lost its soul,
and the howling scuffle grew like a hungry flame
while the English battery crushed all the valiant squares.
Listening to the screams of the men whose throat was slit,
the plain, where the torn flags were quivering, became
a flamboyant abyss, red like a glowing forge;
Abyss where regiments were falling like pieces
of wall; where the drum-majors and their huge panache,
lied down like ripe and golden summer’s wheat,
where we could catch a glimpse of deformed red wounds!
Ugly carnage! Fatal moment! The anxious man
was feeling the raging battle bending between his hands.
Behind a knoll, the emperor’s Guard24 stayed close;
The precious Guard! The supreme Hope! The supreme Thought!
—Let’s go! The emperor shout, --Send the Guard—
And Lancers, Grenadiers with their ticking leggings,
dragoons that Rome would have welcome in its army,
cuirassiers and cannoneers dragging their thunders,
wearing the black busby25 or the polish helmet,
all, Friedland’s conquerors, and those of Rivoli,26
all knowing they were going to die this day,
saluted their god, standing in the tempest;
All in one voice, they screamed, —Long Life the Emperor!
Then, in slow steps, music in front, and with no haste,
tranquil, smiling bravely to the English bullets,
the imperial Guard entered the furnace.
Alas! Waiting expectantly, Napoléon
was watching, and as soon as they proudly emerged
near the dark cannons, spewing streams of sulphur,
one after the other, in this horrid abyss, he saw
23 On 18 June, General Emmanuel de Grouchy lost his way while pursuing the Prussian two days before
the battle of Waterloo; his absence and the unexpected arrival of the Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht
von Blücher and his army contributed to Napoléon’s defeat
24 The imperial Guard represents a group of guards so it is singular
25 Type of bonnet with fur
26 Those who victoriously fought the Russians at Friedland in Prussia on June 14, 1807 and at Rivoli in
Venetie where they defeated the Austrians in 1797.
his regiments, men of granite and steel, melting,
melting like wax at the heat of red coal.
All were marching, gun on their arm, grave, and stoical.
No one recoiled. O! Sleep, heroic dead!
Hesitant to walk on them, what was left of the grand army
was watching the Guard dying. – And then,
suddenly rising her shrieking voice
Rout, the pale giantess whose startled face
horribly petrifies the proudest battalions,
swiftly changed the banners into abject tatters;
And, repugnant spectre of smoke,
she rose and swelled above the distraught armies.
Rout, the hideous, appeared to the startled soldiers,
and wringing her arms, she screamed,—Save your life!
Save your life! Outrage! Horror! Everyone yelled.
Across the fields, lost, insane, frantic, ferocious,
as if a malevolent wind had passed over them all,
among the heavy caissons and the dusty wagons,
they rolled in ditches or vainly hid in ryes,27
leaving behind their coats, their rifles, their eagles28
under the Prussian swords; these veterans—o! grief!
trembling and screaming, were running away! and soon,
as a wisp of straw flying away with the wind,
the deafening noise made by the Grand Army vanished.
And this dull plain, where we day-dream today,
saw the flight of those in front of whom the whole world fled!
Forty years have now passed, and this small piece of land,
Waterloo, this dark and solitary plateau,
sinister field where God blended so much chaos,
still shudders, unable to forget the flight of the giants.
Napoléon saw them flowing like a river;
Men, horses, drums, flags; and facing adversity,
confusingly feeling his remorse coming back,
throwing his hands to the sky, he said, —My dead soldiers,
27 We are now in June and the rye has not been harvested
28 The Emperor’s flag and its imperial eagle.
I! Vanquished! My empire is broken like glass.
Is it your punishment this time, pitiless God?
Then, among the cries, the clamour, the cannon,
he heard the dreadful voice saying,—No!
He collapsed and God changed the chain of Europe.
There is, deep in the sea and shrouded in the mist,
A hideous rock, debris of antic volcano.
Destiny, armed with hammer, nails, and fetters,
seized the pale and living thief of thunder;
And joyously, she went on the centenary peak
and she nailed him down, exciting with her laugh
England, the vulture, to gnaw at his red heart.29
Vanishing of an immense splendour!
From the bright rising sun to the dark falling night,
always in seclusion, abandoned, in prison;
A red guard at the door, the sea for horizon,
naked rocks, ugly woods, boredom, emptiness;
White sails fleeing like transient hope;
Always the sound of the sea, always the sound of the wind!
Adieu, crimson pavilion and flying panache!
Adieu, white horse spurred by Caesar!
No more drums beating on the fields, no more laurels,
No more kings in the shadow bowing with terror,
No more coats trailing on them, no more emperor!
Napoleon was Bonaparte again.
As a Roman wounded by a Parthian arrow,
bleeding and dull, he was thinking of Moscow burning.
An English caporal told him, Stop!
His son in kings’ hands, his wife in another’s arms.
More abject than the pig wallowing in its den,
His senate, who used to love him, now abused him.
On the seashores, when the wind kept quiet,
on the escarpments crumbling down in black rubbles,
he walked, alone, pensive, captive of the dark waves.
29 Reference to Prometheus.
On the mounts, on the sea, in the sky, sad and proud,
the eyes still dazzled by yesterday’s battles,
he let his confused thoughts wandering aimlessly.
Grandeur! Glory! O! Emptiness! Nature’s silence!
Eagles flying by did not recognise him.
The kings, his merciless warders, took a compass
and shut him up in their rigid circle.
He was dying, death approaching slowly
was rising in his agitated night.
Like the cold morning of a mysterious day,
almost free, his soul was fluttering in his heart.
One day at last, he put his sword on his bed,
and lying down next to it, he said, —It is today!
Over him, someone threw his coat from Marengo.
His battles on the Nil, the Danube, the Tiber,
passed all over his face and he said,—Now, I am free!
I am victorious! I see my eagles coming!
And, turning his head to die in peace,
he saw, one foot in the deserted house,
Hudson-Lowe30 was watching through the door half open.
Then, giant crushed under kings’ heels,
he bravely screamed,—The cup is full to the brim, this time!
Lord! All is finished at last! Dear God,
You punished me! The voice replied, —Not yet!
O dark events, running away in the night!
The dead emperor fell down on his destroyed empire.
Napoléon went to sleep under the willow;
And people, from one pole to the other,
forgetting the tyrant, worshiped the hero.
Marking the killer-kings on their forehead, pensive poets
consoled the glorious man basely slaughtered.
On the widowed column, they put back his statue.
Staring up, we could see him standing
above Paris, serene, towering over the world,
alone, the day in the blue sky and the night in the stars.
30 Saint Helen’s Governor
Pantheon, we carved his name on your pillars!
And from then on, we looked at one side of times
remembering only the glowing days;
This strange man intoxicated History;
And behind his glory, Justice’s cold eyes vanished;
We only saw Eylau, Ulm, Arcole, Austerlitz;
As we did in the tombs of repudiate Romans,
We dug in those great years;
And you, submissive nations, you clapped merrily
when from the sovereign ground, the consul in marble
or the bronze emperor was careful retrieved!
Fame rises when man falls;
No one ever shined as he did.
Tranquil in his tomb, he listened
to the world talking about him.
The world was saying,—Everywhere
Victory escorted this man.
Sombre history had never seen
so prodigious a passer-by!
Glory to the master sleeping under the grass!
Glory to the audacious man!
Magnificent, we saw him climb
heaven’s first steps!
Relentless soul, taking Moscow,
taking Madrid, he sent
fighting, against Destiny
all the dreams of his mind.
Ready for challenge, this man,
making gigantic steps,
proposed enormous deals to God
who always refused them.
No more a man, grave and radiant.
Looking intently toward Rome,
he used to say
I, and only I, reign now!
Hero and symbol, pontiff and king,
light and fire, he wanted
to make the Louvre a Capitol
and Saint-Cloud a Vatican.
Like Caesar, he would have said to Pompey:
Be proud of being my lieutenant!
We could see his sword shine
in a dark thunderous cloud.
He wanted, in the frenzies
Of his huge ambitions,
Make all the nations kneel
To the least of his whims,
Blend races, and minds
as in a profound urn,
broaden Paris over the world,
and shut the whole world in Paris!
As Cyrus31 in Babylon,
he wanted, under his large hand,
make one throne for the world,
One people for the human race,
And despite the jeers, build
such an Empire under his name
That Jehovah himself, in his sky
Would be jealous of Napoléon!
At last, triumphant dead, he saw his deliverance,
And the ocean gave back his coffin to France.
For twelve years, the man under the golden dome,
asleep in exile, was sacred in death;
31 King of Persia
Peace! – When we used to pass near the monument,
We could picture him in the shadow,
mute, with his crown,
and his imperial coat sprinkled with golden bees.
Lying under the vault where nothing ever moved,
he, the man who thought that the earth was too narrow,
the sceptre in his left hand, his sword in the other,
at his feet, his great eagle opening its eyes,
quietly we said,—It is where Caesar sleeps!
Leaving the immense city working in the light,
He was asleep, confident, and tranquil.
One night—it is always a long night in the tomb—
He woke up. Shining like a hideous torch,
Strange visions were flying before his sleeping eyes
And shrill laughter burst under the stones;
Livid, he lifted his head and the vision swelled;
O! Terror! A voice he knew well said:
—Wake up! Moscow, Waterloo, Saint Helen,
the exile, the jailer-kings, haughty England
who near your bed quietly waited your last moment,
all this is nothing, Sir. Here comes the punishment!
The stern voice became fierce, harsh, and strident,
Like a black sarcasm, a scorching irony,
A bitter laugh biting a demigod.
— Sir! They removed your corpse from your blue Pantheon!
Sir! They even pulled down your statue on the column!
Look at the brigands swarming around you,
Ugly bohemians, rotten flesh conquerors;
They hold you in their hands, you are their prisoner.
At your brass toe, their vile paws touch.
They caught you and you died as a setting star,
Napoléon the Great, the emperor is back
Bonaparte, rider in the Beauharnais32 circus.
Here you are on the ring, boldly harnessed.
32 Joséphine’s family
Aloud, they call you Great, among them Blockhead.
On Paris, who sees them spreading over,
they drag the swords they could swallow
if they choose to do so.
To the passers-by gathering before their tent,
hear what they say, —Come and see the Empire’s great show!
The pope has a role in the troop and it is good
but we have better; the tsar is here too; but this is nothing
the tsar is only a sergeant, the pope a monk,
we have the fellow in brass! Yes, we do
as we are the nephews of the Great Napoléon!—
And Fould, Magnan, Rouher, Parieu chameleon,
are raging, showing a senate of automates.
They took some straw from the casemates
and stuff your eagle. O! Poor Iena’s conqueror!
Dead on the ground, the bird which used to fly so high
on the battlefield, now lies on the floor-stage.
Sir! They are stitching the silk of your throne.
Having robbed France at the dark corner of a wood,
they have blood on their filthy rags as you can see,
and in the holy basin, Sibour is washing them.
You, the lion, you follow the monkey, their master.
Your name is their new bed, Napoléon the First.
Even at Austerlitz, we can see their filth.
Your glory is a wine with which their shame gets drunk.
Cartouche is wearing your redingote;
and all collect money in a small hat;
They use your flag as tablecloth;
At this filthy table where the Greek becomes rich,
with peasants, we eat and drink, we play and cheat.
You mate, you mingle in this gambling den.
And your hand, the hand that held the Lodi’s banner,
the hand that carried thunderbolts, O! Bonaparte,
this hand now casts the dices and beats the cards.
You must drink with them, and amicably,
with familiarity, Carlier nudges your majesty—Sir!
In his treacherous lair, Pietri
Addresses you as tu; even Maupas pokes your ribs.
Falsifiers, murderers, escrows, bandits, robbers,
They expect troubles as you did expect them.
But meanwhile, they empty their cup and wish you
good health! Poissy drinks gaily with Saint Helen!
Watch the balls, Sabbaths, day and night festivities!
They do so much noise that the crowd is rushing in;
Standing on the stage invaded by the raging crowd,
Laughing, yawning, clapping, storming, whistling, hooting,
Surrounded by pasquinaders shaking their bells,
—Starting with Homer finishing with Callot!
Epopee! Epopee! Awful last chapter! –
Between Troplong, the buffoon, and Baroche, the clown,
standing before their stand, abject and vile bazaar,
where the dirty Mandrin33 is disguised in Caesar,
evil bandit laughing in his moustache,
You, the imperial spectre, you are beating the drum.—
At last, the horrible vision vanished. Desperate,
The emperor screamed with horror in the dark shadow;
He shut his eyes and raised his terrified hands;
Sculpted on the door, the marble Victories,
standing out in the obscure sepulchre, white ghosts
were pointing at him; and leaning on the wall
they could hear the titan weeping in the darkness.
He roared, — You, Demon and sinister visions!
You keep pursuing me but I never see you,
who are you? — I am your crime, says the voice.—
And a strange light filled up the tomb;
a light same as the light of God when he avenges himself,
same as the words Balthazar saw.
In the shadow, two words flared above Caesar,
And trembling as a motherless child, Bonaparte
Lifted his pallid face and read, — EIGTHTEEN BRUMAIRE!34
33 A well known villain
34 Napoléon’s punishement was Napoléon III’s accession to the throne, the latter being a caricature of the
first. Napoléon’s crime was his coup d’ état in November 1799; here it is compared to Napoléon III’s coup
d’état in December 1851.
Les Châtiments ends with a note extremely positive as Victor Hugo, the visionary, contemplates
the sublime apparition of liberty, which finally prevails in the whole world.
And Victor continues to write with frenetic energy. In his glasshouse on the top of the house,
standing in front of his desk, the poet contemplates the immensity of the sea and reviews the tumultuous
thought crowding his mind; in clear weather, he sees the coast of France and with nostalgia, he dreams of
the pretty Léonie. For Les Contemplations published in 1856, Victor Hugo regroups 156 poems divided in
six books. This lyrical masterpiece is the mirror of the poet’s soul in exile; it represents twenty-one years
of enormous work. The first part is titled Autrefois (Yesterday). In Aurore (Dawn), the poet evokes his
youth; in L’âme en fleur, (Blossoming of the soul), he talks about his idyll with Juliette; and Les luttes et les
rêves (Battles and dreams) focus on persecution, barbarian punishment, war, and tyranny. Then comes
the second part Aujourd’hui (Today) starting with Pauca meae, which we may translate as ‘A little of me’.
In this book of mourning, we find the poet’s revolt against Fate’s cruelty, his memories of Léopoldine,
and his hope in after-life. In En marche (Walks), Victor describes the countryside of his long walks, talks
again about his childhood and the hardship of humanity. Finally, Au bord de l’Infini is the book of
certitudes where spectres, angels, and spirits brings unexpected revelations to the poet; soon, fear is
supplanted by hope, and encouraging prophecies announcing the end of criminal power and the coming
of universal pardon, rise from la Bouche d’Ombre (Shadow’s mouth).
In these contemplations, Hugo mingles oppositions and contrasts, changes the rhythm according
to his inspiration, uses the alexandrin to emphasise an idea or suggest the vertiginous flight of time
toward the infinite.
A year later, the poet publishes the first series of la Légende des Siècles (Centuries’ Legend), a
giant reflection on the moral history of humanity with the awakening of human conscience and the birth
of morality through various religious and mythological tales. In 1859, Victor Hugo finishes the Misères,
the grand epopee of the century, started in 1843 as Jean Tréjean and re-titled les Misérables.
In this grandiose work, poor and villain intermingle and unite in one word les misérables, the
wretches. Only education, social justice, and evangelical charity can prevent the poor to become villain.
For Victor Hugo, even the toughest criminals can be saved with patience and love. This is the story of the
convict Jean Valjean, who thanks to Mgr Myriel’s charity repays his dept to the society with kindness and
abnegation. For this masterpiece, the writer visits the prisons of Bicêtre and Toulon and sees the prisoners
with their fetters and chains. For the publication, Hugo demands a small and cheap format. The success
of les Misérables is an apotheosis. Every-one wants to read it; even the poor factory-workers join their
meagre savings to buy the book.
Meanwhile still at Guernsey, the whole family is busy; François-Victor translates Shakespeare,
Charles paints, and Mme Hugo writes Victor’s biography. We are now in 1859 and the Hugos can come
back to France, but Victor refuses Napoléon’s amnesty; he will return only when the tyrant has gone and
liberty finally prevails. Adèle however seizes this opportunity and frequently goes to Paris.
On his rock facing the sea, the poet writes and writes, singing the joys of being alive, the bliss of
love, and the pleasures found in nature. Victor Hugo is the new Ronsard of the 19th Century; and this is
the beginning of Chansons des rues et des bois where the author uses light rhythms—octosyllabic
strophes—to describe rustic landscapes peopled with nymphs and pretty maidens.
1863 is alas a sad year for the poet who now enjoys a worldwide reputation. First, his daughter
Adèle is sent in a mental asylum; as her uncle, years of psychological disorders have destroyed her mind;
and for Victor, this separation is very distressing. A few months later, his son Charles also leaves
Guernsey to get married in Brussels. To chase the overwhelming sadness caused by the empty space his
children left, the lonely father absorbs himself into his works. Soon after, Hugo publishes les Travailleurs
de la Mer (The sea’s workers) and l’Homme qui rit. (The laughing Man). The public misunderstands the
latter, but the phenomenal success of les Misérables smoothes the author’s melancholy. Furthermore,
Juliette is always there copying his manuscripts; and she comforts him, when Mme Hugo dies in August
Two years later just after the fall of the Empire in September 1870, Victor now has no reason to
stay away so he immediately comes back to France. Earlier in July, he perceived Bismarck’s strategy and
predicted that a ‘capricious’ war will be declared soon so he demands to be enrolled in the National
Guard with his two sons.
Victor Hugo by Walery (1875)
Hugo now lives Avenue d’Eylau35 with his dear Juliette. In February 1871, the poet is elected
deputy; and in March, he says in Choses vues (seen Things) published in 1887
A deux heures je suis allé à l’Assemblée. A ma sortie, une foule immense m’attendait sur la grand
place. Les gardes nationaux qui faisaient la haie ont ôté leurs képis, et tout le peuple a crié : « Vive
Victor Hugo! Vive la France! » Ils ont répété ce double cri. Puis cela a été un délire.
At 2 pm, I went to the Assembly. When I got out, an immense crowd was waiting for me at the
town square. The national guards took off their kepi and every-one shouted, “Long life Victor Hugo!
Long Life France!” They repeated this ovation. Then it was sheer madness.
The same month, Victor Hugo learns about his son’s sudden death. Charles died from a stroke
Nevertheless, life must go on and Hugo uses his popularity to encourage his fellow citizens to
bravely fight the Prussians rather than killing each other in the
senseless civil war raging in Paris. In l’Année Terrible (The Terrible
Year), he sadly recalls the events. However, Hugo’s republican ideas
and his indulgence for the Commune strongly displease the
monarchist members of the Assemblée Nationale. Tired of their
stubbornness, he resigns in 1872 and travels to Brussels where he
stays few months. Then, he returns to Guernsey where he finishes
1873 is alas another sad year for Victor Hugo who receives
the terrible new of the death of his two sons Charles and François-
Victor killed at war. Immediately, Charles’s children and their
mother move Avenue d’Eylau. This is however a new source of
inspiration for the poet who begins l’Art d’être Grand-père (The art to
be a Grandfather)36 a collection of poems adorned with freshness,
innocence and colour.
Three years later, he receives the honorific title of senator for life but he is tired of politics. Hugo
is certainly old but far from senile; despite his long white curly beard, his serene look of patriarch, he still
chases women and falls in love with Blanche, a young and pretty laundress; again, his faithful Juliette
manages to get him back.
The same year, Victor adds a new chapter to the Légende des Siècles and finishes it in 1883 with a
series of poems where he reiterates his hatred of oppression and his compassion for the poor and the
35 Renamed Avenue Victor Hugo in December 1885.
36 Musée d’Histoire Vivante; Victor with his grandchildren by Melandrini (1881)
It is also in May 1883, that her dear Juliette dies. Two years later, on 22 May 1885, the most
illustrious master of French poetry follows her beloved to the grave having written in his will.
Je donne cinquante mille francs aux pauvres. Je désire être porté au cimetière dans leur corbillard.
Je refuse l’oraison de toutes les églises; je demande une prière à toutes les âmes. Je crois en Dieu.
I leave fifty thousand francs to the poor. I want to be carried to the cemetery in their hearse. I
refuse religious eulogy; I ask a prayer from every soul. I believe in God.
As a tribute to the great man, national funeral are organised; his body is exposed under the Arc
de Triomphe and enterred at the Pantheon.
Victor Hugo’s work resumes his long existence and the century in which he lives. He is the
mirror reflecting the world and the echo of thousand voices. Victor also reminds us that poetic creation is
neither uncontrolled effusion nor subconscious mystery; it is a methodical and rigorous activity. Even
when the poet abandons his pen to his prophetic frenzy, he writes with scrupulous care always choosing
his words, rhythms, and rhymes with meticulous precision.
From his overflowing imagination pour out vivid images, symbols, rhythms, and fountains of
magnificent and powerful words. For the master, the least detail is important, as his ultimate goal is to
give realism even to the purest imaginative work.
Such realism is skilfully obtained through the metaphors and comparisons that the poet
liberally throws in his work. The crowd compared to the rising sea evokes immensity and incredible force
whereas a battle compared to a furnace conveys the ideas of burning flesh; all this exacerbates the feeling
of suffering; and to accentuate the rising of emotion, he often repeats words or phrases several times.
These strategies stimulate the readers; they feel the heat and the pain; they sense the impressive size of
Hugo’s abstract ideas give birth to images; rout is a giantess with a startled face, remorse an
open eye, faith a red ember, and death the famous reaper. Furthermore, and according to his need, the
poet introduces popular, archaic, or technical expressions; and with a touching simplicity, he uses words
that would appear vulgar in other contexts. Hugo’s vocabulary is amazingly rich and his style
wonderfully diversified. With incredible vividness, he express all the nuances of sentiment reflecting
sorrow, melancholy, pain, anger, disgust, horror, love, and rapture, smoothly passing from one to
another. Victor Hugo is also very fond of contrasts; artfully, he juxtaposes bright colours and greyness,
shadow and light, simplicity and splendour, movements in crescendo and decrescendo as in les Djinns.
Hugo is a painter, a musician, a composer, a virtuoso in versification where the rime is an obedient slave
or a rich queen, sometimes discrete almost invisible, sometimes rich and resonant.
In the Revue Fantaisiste, Baudelaire superbly says in October 1861
La musique des vers de Victor Hugo s’adapte aux profondes harmonies de la nature ; sculpteur, il
découpe dans ses strophes la forme inoubliable des choses ; peintre, il les illumine de leur couleur
propre. Et, comme si elles venaient directement de la nature, les trois impressions pénètrent
simultanément le cerveau du lecteur. De cette triple impression résulte la morale des choses. Aucun
artiste n’est plus universel que lui, plus apte à se mettre en contact avec les forces de la vie universelle,
plus disposé à prendre sans cesse un bain de nature…l’atmosphère morale qui plane et circule dans
ses poèmes…me paraît porter un caractère très manifeste d’amour égal pour ce qui est très fort
comme pour ce qui est très faible, et l’attraction exercée sur le poète par ces deux extrêmes tire sa
raison d’une origine unique, qui est la force même, la vigueur originelle dont il est doué. La force
l’enchante et l’enivre ; il va vers elle comme vers une parente : attraction fraternelle. Ainsi est-il
emporté irrésistiblement vers tout symbole de l’infini, la mer, le ciel ; vers tous les représentants
anciens de la force, géants homériques ou bibliques, paladins, chevaliers ; vers les bêtes énormes et
redoutables…En revanche, mais par une tendance différente dont la source est pourtant la même, le
poète se montre toujours l’ami attendri de tout ce qui est faible, solitaire, contristé ; de tout ce qui est
orphelin : attraction paternelle. Le fort qui devine un frère dans tout ce qui est fort, voit ses enfants
dans tout ce qui a besoin d’être protégé ou consolé…Peu de personnes ont remarqué le charme et
l’enchantement que la bonté ajoute à la force et qui se fait voir si fréquemment dans les œuvres de
notre poète. Un sourire et une larme dans le visage d’un colosse, c’est une originalité presque divine.37
The musique of Victor Hugo’s verses adapts to the profound harmonies of nature; sculptor, he cuts
in his strophes the unforgettable shape of things; painter, he illuminates them with their own colour.
And, as if they were coming directly from nature itself, the three impressions penetrate
simultaneously in the reader’s brain. From this triple impression results the things’moral. No artist is
more universal than him, more disposed to ceaselessly take a bath in nature…the moral atmosphere,
which glides and moves in his poems seems to carry a manifest character of equal love for the very
strong and the very weak, and the attraction playing on the poet by these two extremes found its
reason in a unique origin, which is strength itself, the original vigour that he naturally possesses.
Strength enchants and intoxicates him; he is attracted to it, as he would be to a relative: fraternal
attraction. Thus, he is irresistibly seduced by all the symbols of infinity, the sea, the sky; by all those
who represented strength in ancient time, Homeric or biblical giants, paladins, knights; by all the
enormous and redoubtable beasts…On the other hand, but from a different tendency whose source is
nevertheless the same, the poet is always the compassionate friend of the weak, the solitary, the sad,
the orphan: paternal attraction. The strong who perceives a brother in what is strong, sees his children
in all who need protection or consolation…Few persons have noticed the charm and enchantment that
kindness adds to strength and which transpires so frequently in our poet’s works. A smile or a tear on
a colossus’s face is an originality almost divine.
37 October 1861, D. Parmée, ed. (1949) Selected critical studies of Baudelaire, pp 167, 172.
Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris on 9 April 1821. His father François a cheerful old man
dies in 1827 but the child lives happily in Neuilly with his mother, Caroline Archimbaut-Dufays, a
middle-class woman born in London, and Mariette, La servante au
grand Cœur, the loving maid.38 Charles will always remember la
blanche maison, petite mais tranquille (the white house, small but
serene).39 However, the child’s universe is shuttered, when in
November 1828, Madame Baudelaire chooses a new husband, Major
Aupick. Although Charles’s relation with his stepfather is affectionate,
he cannot forgive him for having stolen his mother’s love.
From 1832 to 1836, the family lives in Lyon where Aupick is
lieutenant colonel; Charles is sent to the Pension Delorme and then to
the Collège Royal. In the boarding school, the boy cruelly suffers from
an unbearable solitude, and experiences his first crises of melancholy
that will haunt him all his life. At this early age, Charles feels that the
world is boring and unkind; it is not as it should be.
Following Aupick’s mutation to Paris, Charles goes to the
Lycée Louis-le-grand. Rejected by his peers who do not understand
his complex mind and abandoned by his parents embarrassed by his
rebellious attitude toward the conventions of the bourgeoise society, he
lives as a recluse, passing his time reading the works of the Romantics especially Chateaubriand and
writing poetry. Baudelaire’s first poems reveal a cynic and revolted soul. Despite his excellent results in
Latin, he is expelled from the Lycée in April 1839 for refusing to hand over a note passed to him.
Sent to the Pension Bailly, he prepares his baccalaureate and enrols at the École de Droit in
November. For three years, Baudelaire enjoys the Bohemian lifestyle wandering Quartier Latin with
writers and poets such as Honoré de Balzac, Leconte de Lisle, Théophile Gautier, and Gérard de Nerval.
As Marx explains, la bohème is a world within the world where existence is uncertain depending more on
38 Charles Baudelaire (1857 Tableaux parisiens in Les Fleurs du Mal, poem LXIX pp 105-106.
39 Ibid. poem LXX, p 106.
chance than activities, and where the stage is Paris’s taverns, the gathering places of conspirators and
Baudelaire also frequents Fernand Boissard’s salon41 and becomes member of the Club des
haschichin. Very ambitious, the young man loves to be the centre of attention even if this implies to
scandalise those who are impressed by his handsome appearance and elegance.
All this greatly disturbed Mr and Mme Aupick who decide to send their son to India where he
can start a commercial career. In May 1841 at Bordeaux, the young man embarks on the Paquebot des Mers
du Sud, a magnificent liner sailing to Calcutta. At his first stop in Mauritius Island, the poet is rapt by the
beauty and exhilarating perfumes of the tiny paradise; but back on board, Charles cannot support the
mediocrity of his travelling companions. After a brief illness on Bourbon Island, he refuses to pursue his
voyage and comes back to France with the bitter impression that happiness cannot be found on earth.
In 1842, Baudelaire42 is twenty-one; and soon, his majority will allow him to enjoy his father’s
inheritance. This is the beginning of Baudelaire, the dandy43 and the flâneur (the idler). Sure to be able to
repay his debts when the time comes, he spends without counting in the sumptuous Hôtel Primodan, 17,
Quai d’Anjou. Of course, he continues to take extreme care of his appearance.
The same year, Baudelaire meets the beautiful mulatto actress Jeanne Duval also called Prosper,
his Vénus Noire. Her dark golden skin reminds him the warm and languid islands he visited not long ago.
With her, he lives the happiest year of his life, forgetting Paris’s rain and the world’s stupidity; but soon
follows misery, as Jeanne is unfaithful, deliberately cruel, and illiterate.
Charles’s liberality costs him his fortune; in two years, he has already dilapidated half of his
considerable wealth before having received it yet; this proves his inability to manage it; and alarmed, the
Aupicks turn Charles’s fortune into a trust appointing a judiciary guardian. From now on, M. Ancelle
will only give him a small monthly allowance corresponding to the interests of his capital. Despite,
Baudelaire’s supplications, Ancelle always refuses to give him any advance. Exasperated, the young man
breaks all relationship with his parents.
As we shall see in Les Fleurs du mal, Baudelaire finds no joy in life; his relationship with Jeanne
is disastrous, his creditors constantly harass him, and above all, his illness, probably syphilis contracted
with prostitutes, cruelly affects him physically and morally. However, the young man is excessively
proud so he scrupulously conceals his hardship; to fool everyone, he hides his distress behind a
contemptuous smile and never shows any surprise or emotion. The only person to whom he discloses his
suffering is his mother. In one letter, he sadly confides that he cannot indulge anymore in the long walks
40 Walter Benjamin (1973) Charles Baudelaire A lyric Poet in the Era Of High Capitalism, p 12; quote from Karl
Marx and Friedrich Engel’s, revue of Chenu, Les Conspirateurs, Paris, 1850.
41 Cannabis lovers’ place
42 Painted by Nadar in 1855; http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Image:Charles_Baudelaire_1855_Nadar.jpg
43 Someone venerating his own cult more than anything else; dandyism also embraces spiritualism and
he used to like for fear of tearing his clothes and shoes.44 Indeed, when Madame Aupick returns from
Constantinople where her husband has been appointed Ambassador, she finds her son in such a state
that she decides to help him with her own money; this covers his most urgent needs only.
To supplement his meagre resources, Baudelaire begins a literary career as Critique d’Art; and
in 1845, he publishes articles defending Delacroix and Balzac in various magazines. Again, this does not
pay much; and in despair, he announces his intention to kill himself in a letter to Ancelle in which he also
says that he leaves his whole estate to Jeanne. This is his second suicide attempts; fortunately, it ends
with a superficial wound. Confused and distressed, he reconciles with his family and stays a few months
with them; but unable to become what Aupick wants him to be, he leaves and goes back to his writing.
In 1846, Baudelaire publishes le Jeune Enchanteur, a translation of Reverent Croly’s English
novel. He also writes numerous articles on literature, stressing that Romanticism is the most recent
expression of beauty and the most adapted conception of the 19th Century’s morality; something eternal
and something transitory lie in all forms of beauty, and beauty itself can be found even ugliness. All this
announces Baudelaire as the forerunner of Symbolism and Surrealism; soon, he will also be known as one
of the poètes maudits (accursed poets). This term defines writers and artists who reject the values of their
society, are provocative and extravagant, abuse drugs and alcohol, and generally die at an early age.
Villon was certainly the first accursed poet.
In January 1847, the short autobiographical novel la Fanfarlo appears in the Bulletin de la société
des gens de lettres; and inspired by Marie Daubrun, another beautiful actress he meets at the theatre,
Baudelaire composes magnificent poems among them Invitation au voyage and Poison. The same year,
Baudelaire discovers Edgar Poe’s writings. The poet is enthralled; he has found his twin-soul and with
scrupulous fervour, he begins the translations of the American writer’s works.
Meanwhile, the Parisians are fomenting a new Revolution. We are now in 1848. Unlike
Lamartine and Hugo who are humanitarian idealists, Baudelaire is hostile to democracy; nevertheless, we
see him on the barricade or at his desk, writing violent articles for Le Salut public, a newspaper he founds
with his friend, Proudhon. Baudelaire also becomes Secretary of the socialist editorial La Tribune
nationale; but soon, he loses faith in politics and comes back to literature, his first love.
He starts Spleen and regroups thirty-six of his poems under the title Les Limbes (Limbos). Le Vin
de l’assassin (The murderer’s Wine) is printed in L’Écho des marchands de vin (Wine merchants’ Echo), two
also appear in Le Magasin des familles (Families’ Shop) in 1850, and eleven more in 1851.
The same year, Baudelaire is received at Madame Sabatier’s illustrious salon, Rue Frochot. This
beautiful woman is a salutary change compared to Jeanne and Marie who have no education. She is the
pure love satisfying his poetic soul; and to endure, this love must be carefully concealed. Surrounded by
beautiful women, Baudelaire has all the inspiration he needs but no real love. His relationship with
Jeanne is a complete failure and Marie prefers Théodore de Banville.45 These deceptions bring Baudelaire
44 Baudelaire (1926) Dernières lettres inédites à sa mère, edited by Eugène Crépet, p 44 ff.
45 Author of les Cariatides and les Stalactites published in 1842 and 1846
closer to Madame Sabatier to whom he passionately writes anonymous poems. The poet also publishes
Du vin et du haschisch (Wine and hashish)46 in Le Messager de l’Assemblée (The Assembly’s messenger), and
he writes several essays and articles later regrouped in L’Art romantique; he also continues his translations
of Edgar Poe’s works.
At last, the first eighteen poems of Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil) are published in La Revue
des Deux Mondes (Two Worlds’ Review); they are widely praised by the intellectual elite, but no one is
eager to publish the tendentious collection except Baudelaire’s friend, Poulet-Malassis who, in 1857,
accepts to take the risk despite his financial difficulties. As expected, the sheets are confiscated and
Baudelaire is prosecuted for immorality and indecency. By now, Madame Sabatier knows his lover’s
identity having recognised in Les Fleurs du mal, some of the beautiful poems he sent her. Failing to
understand that for Baudelaire-the troubadour, an inaccessible love becoming accessible lamentably dies,
she boldly offers herself. Unsurprisingly, the poet refuses but gladly accepts her compassion and
admiration, the strong base of their friendship. Madame Sabatier uses her influence to defend Les Fleurs
du mal but fails. Six of the one hundred and one pieces—the first poem Au Lecteur being outside
Baudelaire’s numbering—are declared obscene especially Lesbos and Femmes damnées;47 and Baudelaire
has to pay a fine of three-hundred francs, later reduced after his appeals to the Empress.
The same year, Baudelaire prepares a new edition of Les Fleurs du mal and tries to fill up the gap
left by the censured poems. In 1860, he publishes the Paradis artificiels, two essays on opium and hashish,
the two drugs he liberally abused admitting later that les chercheurs de paradis font leur enfer (those who
search for paradise create their own hell). In 1861, the second edition of Les Fleurs du Mal is published
with thirty-two new works bringing it to one hundred thirty three poems, including the six condemned
pieces, which are still banned. Craving for rehabilitation, the poet thinks to present his candidature at the
Académie, but discouraged by his friends, he goes to Belgium where he finally receive the ovation he
deserves. Still in Belgium in 1866, he publishes Les Épaves (The Wrecks),48 regrouping the six condemned
pieces, sixteen new poems, and Franciscae meae laudes.49 Again, the author is short of money, and for a
ridiculous sum, he sells his copyright to Michel-Lévi.
Baudelaire is exhausted, his precarious health is declining seriously, and a stroke in Namur
leaves him partially paralysed. Immediately, his return to Paris is arranged. A year later on 31 August
1867, the forty-six years old poet dies in his mother’s arms at the sanatorium Rue de Dome.
Long before his death, Baudelaire influenced a new wave of poetry; the Parnassians and the
symbolists, particularly Verlaine and Rimbaud venerated the man and his work; and Victor Hugo
recognises him as one of the greatest French poets much earlier than anyone did.
46 Later, part of Les Paradis artificiels
47 Les Fleurs du mal, p 119-130
48 Ibid. p 235-259.
49 Ibid. pp 81-83 and pp 364-365.
Even though Baudelaire claims that poetry is un enthousiasme, un enlèvement de l’âme (an
enthusiastic feeling, the rapture of the soul), he first writes his poems in prose, and corrects them
ceaselessly until he successfully manages to produce the emotions and sonority he wants. All details even
punctuation have their importance in order to produce enthusiasm in the reader’s soul. Nevertheless,
Baudelaire’s view of poetry may seem contradictory and therefore confusing. Adept of the Romantics’
idea of l’art pour l’art (pure art), he rejects the Parnasse’s plastic ideal and rebukes the initiative of the
École païenne (pagan School)50 which uses art as a utilitarian means; furthermore, he regards paganism
and pantheism as sentimentalist materialism finding no interest in practical life. So what does Baudelaire
want when he writes poetry? Wanting more than beauty and originality, he opens a window on the
invisible world and Serge Baudiffier brilliantly presents the poet and his masterpiece
À la nature, cent fois honnie maudir par lui comme le lieu de la chute et la source du péché qui
pèse sur l’humanité, il oppose l’artifice, produit de la civilisation, création pure, volontaire et
maîtrisée. La Ville sera donc par excellence le décor de la modernité, et la mode vestimentaire sera la
nouvelle peau dont l’homme s’enveloppe pour symboliser son autonomie esthétique. Héros de la
modernité, le dandy manifeste « la supériorité aristocratique » de son esprit en poussant au plus haut
point le raffinement, voire la sophistication, de son costume, mais plus généralement il vise à
construire toute sa vie comme une œuvre d’art, en un défi démiurgique aux fatalités de la nature.51
To Nature, which he cursed hundred times for being the place of the fall and the source of sin
towering over humanity, he opposes the artifice, the product of civilisation, the pure creation,
voluntary and mastered. The town is therefore the stage of modernity par excellence and fashion is
the new skin man wears to symbolise his aesthetic autonomy. Hero of modernity, the dandy
manifests the aristocratic superiority of his mind by pushing refinement and sophistication to the
highest level in his attire, but more generally, he tries to construct his whole life as a work of art,
defying nature’s fatality as a demiurge.
Les Fleurs du Mal is the splendid confession of a tormented soul where the poet displays his
taste for the peculiar, the sick, and the morbid; with Baudelaire, the macabre and the grotesque become
magnificent. Baudelaire’s tendency to mysticism dates from his childhood, as he reveals in Mon cœur mis à
nu (My naked heart). Gradually, the divine is supplanted by the devil’s presence; but if Baudelaire doubts
about God, he still feels a tenebrous and profound unity in which colours and scents respond to one
50 Baudelaire’s article L’Ecole Paienne ; this school did not exist
51 Serge Baudiffier (2004) Introduction des Grands Fondateurs La bibliothèque de Poésie, 18e and 19e si
ècles, p 811.
52 Charles Baudelaire (1972) Correspondances in Spleen et Idéal, Poem iv, Les Fleurs du mal, p 16.
Beauty and suffering pervade Baudelaire’s whole work. This melange or spleen is essentially
metaphysical as it reflects the poet’s conflicting perception of time; Baudelaire paradoxically feels that he
is wasting the precious minutes of his life, a life in which tomorrow is always unbearably dull. To escape
incurable boredom, suffocation, powerlessness, and solitude (La cloche fêlée), the poet desperately flees
toward an idyllic world; but as reality always claims its due, the fall become more and more intolerable
producing gruesome thoughts and hallucinations edging madness (Le cygne). In Baudelaire’s idealist
world of ideas, art and beauty erase all constraints and creates a universe of dreams.
The poet is not fooled by his imagination; unlike Lamartine or Hugo, he exposes his soul as it is,
a fallen soul in a fallen world. For Baudelaire, despite the incommensurable progress of science, little has
been gained in morality and humanism; and past revolutions proved that the man from the streets is no
better than the bourgeois or the aristocrat; Napoléon himself was the victim of his monstrous urge for
power and domination. For these reasons, Baudelaire concludes that happiness cannot be found in this
world or in any of the artificial paradises he explored with an almost insane avidity. Death, who has
always been accused of poisoning the joys of every human being, is therefore the only voyage that can
really bring novelty and hope. These are the last words of the splendid and controversial Fleurs du Mal.
Mal in French encompasses pain, suffering, evil, and ugliness; this is exactly what Baudelaire
wants to extract beauty from. Primarily, he calls his collection Limbes and finally chooses the provocative
title Les Fleurs du Mal. Les Fleurs du Mal is also a confrontation; from the very beginning, the poet involves
the reader, the Hypocrite lecteur — mon semblable, — mon frère (hypocrite reader, my fellow human who is
so much like me, my brother) and says that his sins are the sins many carefully hide behind dignity and
Les Fleurs du Mal shows the master-poet’s extraordinary talent for the sonnet in which he
skilfully plays with the octosyllables and the alexandrins. To keep his readers on edge, Baudelaire uses all
the techniques of the poetic language. He is very fond of solemn apostrophes and judicious cuts. The
vocabulary is simple but carefully chosen and well exposed; his rimes are riches and the metric produces
beautiful sonorous effects. Baudelaire also has a predilection for words that reflect his ‘états d’âme’ and
their repetitions produce striking atmospheres where infinite sadness spreads like a veil over a world of
intoxicating perfumes ranging from the most exquisite to the foulest. Baudelaire is a Romantic but also a
symbolist; he creates images from abstractions, transforms persons into objects, and gives life to objects.
Before being part of les Fleurs du mal, L’Invitation au voyage was first published in the revue des
Deux Mondes in June 1855. This melodious poems is part of Spleen et Idéal. Inspired by the exquisite works
of the Dutch painters, the author dreams to go away with the woman he loves. L’Invitation au voyage is the
magic mirror where the world goes through the most magnificent metamorphosis; it is the beloved’s
mirror, the glossy furniture, the canals reverberating the wet suns in the cloudy sky... but above all, it is
the mirror where the author can see his soul. In this dream world, reality has vanished; all is new and
resplendent. The rocking rhythm follows the movement of the ships on the canals; and their urge to sail
53 Au Lecteur in Les Fleurs du mal, p 5-7.
away resembles the author’s eagerness to find novelty. Nevertheless, the poet has not abandoned his
wish to die and like the ships, he waits for the ultimate voyage, the point of no return where lasting
happiness could only be found.
This is one of Baudelaire’s rare and luminous poems where hope and tranquillity prevails over
delusion and despair. Skilfully, the poet used the conditional to express hope, and finally switches to
present giving an illusion of reality. With the alternate verses of five and seven syllables, Baudelaire
produces a charming and sensual atmosphere. He describes the country of his dream with images of
L’Invitation au Voyage 54
Voyage Invitation 55
Mon enfant, ma soeur, My child, my sister,
Songe à la douceur densité Think of the sweetness
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble! To go there and live together!
Aimer à loisir, To love as we want,
Aimer et mourir To love and to die
Au pays qui te ressemble! In a country so much like you!
Les soleils mouillés The soaked yellow suns
De ces ciels brouillés In the cloudy skies
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes Have always in my mind the charms
Si mystérieux So mysterious
De tes traîtres yeux, Of your faithless eyes
Brillant à travers leurs larmes. Shinning through their tears.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, There, all is beauty and order,
Luxe, calme et volupté. Calm, opulent, and voluptuous.
Des meubles luisants, Gleaming furniture
Polis par les ans, Polished by the years,
Décoreraient notre chambre; Would adorn our bedroom;
Les plus rares fleurs The rarest flowers
Mêlant leurs odeurs Mingling their odours
Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre. To the scent of amber,
Les riches plafonds, And the rich ceilings,
Les miroirs profonds, The profound mirrors,
54 Baudelaire, Poem XLIX, pp 73-75
55 Probably Holland
La splendeur orientale, The splendour oriental,
Tout y parlerait All would secretly
A l’âme en secret Whisper to our souls
Sa douce langue natale. In their sweet native tongues.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, There, all is beauty and order,
Luxe, calme et volupté. Calm, opulent, and voluptuous.
Vois sur ces canaux See on the canals
Dormir ces vaisseaux The tall ships slumbering,
Dont l’humeur est vagabonde; Their mood vagabond.
C’est pour assouvir It is to satisfy
Ton moindre désir The least of your desires
Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde. That they come from the end of the world.
—Les soleils couchants - The red setting suns
Revêtent les champs, Gently clothe the fields,
Les canaux, la ville entière, The canals, the whole city
D’hyacinthe et d’or; In hyacinth and gold;
Le monde s’endort The world is falling asleep
Dans une chaude lumière. In a warm light.
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, There, all is beauty and order,
Luxe, calme et volupté. Calm, opulent, and voluptuous.
The following sonnet Recueillement 56was first published in the Revue européenne in November
1861; in the posthumous edition of les Fleurs du Mal, it ends Spleen et idéal. Baudelaire’s life is a long
meditation on pain and suffering but this sonnet displays a singular serenity as if the soul was lightly
going away from the city’s rumours and its rudeness. Here, the poet addresses to his pain as to a human
being, a sick child, a companion; and he leads her away from the impure and worldly pleasures while
death is slowly coming to take them away. Despite the solemnity of the moment, the author’s tone is
intimate, affectionate. Evening is bringing solitude, there is comfort and hope, no more despair or
rebellion but acceptance and dignity far away from the world and its futile pleasures. Here the rimes are
croisées with the pattern abab abab ccd ede. This produces a peaceful atmosphere. Furthermore, the second
quatrain, tied up to the first tercet with the reject, enhances the idea of pulling, and slightly increases the
rhythm marking the imminent arrival of the night, the ineluctable flight of time toward death.
56 Baudelaire, Poem CLIX, pp 273-4.
Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille.
Tu réclamais le Soir; il descend; le voici;
Une atmosphère obscure enveloppe la ville,
Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci.
Pendant que des mortels la multitude vile,
Sous le fouet du Plaisir, ce bourreau sans merci,
Va cueillir des remords dans la fête servile,
Ma Douleur, donne-moi la main; viens par ici,
Loin d’eux. Vois se pencher les défuntes Années,
Sur les balcons du ciel, en robes surannées;
Surgir du fond des eaux le Regret souriant;
Le Soleil moribond s’endormir sous une arche,
Et, comme un long linceul traînant à l’Orient,
Entends, ma chère, entends la douce Nuit qui marche.
Behave, O my Pain, and keep quiet
You longed for dusk and now it comes;
A dim atmosphere envelops the city,
Bringing peace to some to others care.
While the vile multitude of mortals
Under the whip of Pleasure, the slayer
Is reaping remorse in the servile feast,
O my Pain, give me your hand; come with me
Far from them. See the bygone years leaning
Over heaven’s balconies, in faded robes;
Smiling regrets are rising from the deep;
Moribund, the sun sleeps beneath an arch,
And, like a long shroud drifting to the East
Listen, my dear, listen to the sweet night.
Parnassians and Symbolists
As we saw earlier, Baudelaire, the last Romantic initiates the systematic conversion of French
poetry. Around the 1860’s, poets form ‘le Parnasse’ a heteroclite movement where all follow their own
poetic path but agree with Leconte de Lisle that poetry must evolve as suggested in the Preface of his
Poèmes Antiques published in 1852. The Parnassians’ common goal consists of perfecting versification to
create a new form of poetry. Though they recognise Baudelaire as one of them, they reject the Romantiques
and their lyricism, sentimentalism, and individualism. Poetry must take the same approach as science the
maker of progress; and this implies as August Comte’s positivist philosophy prescribes, the scrupulous
and methodical observation of events. This does not mean that the past ought to be forgotten; on the
contrary, it must be revived with recent and accurate documentations.
Nevertheless, the Parnasse’s ultimate ambition is the realisation of beauty in its purest form as
Théophile Gautier, Leconte de Lisle, and Théodore de Banville show in their works. Unsurprisingly, the
Parnassians venerate Ancient Greece as it offers ideal models of perfection and harmony in all its arts and
even in its constitution.
From the fusion of the Parnasse’s first review, La Revue fantaisiste (Whimsical review) founded
by Catulle Mendès in 1861 and Xavier de Ricard’s Revue du Progrès in 1864, comes out the weekly
newspaper l’Art; but unable to assure its regular publication, the young poets edit a collection of new
verses titled Le Parnasse Contemporain in 1866. This excellent compilation presents poems by Gautier and
de Lisle of course, but also Baudelaire, José-Maria de Heredia, Louis Ménard, François Coppée, Mendés,
Léon Dierx, Sully-Prudhomme, Verlaine, and Mallarmé. While Mendès rehabilitates virtuosity and
Ricard praises scientific poetry, de Banville writes his Petit Traité de Versification française, and Heredia
composes les trophées, a collection of beautiful sonnets mastering with excellence the Parnassian art and
Many poets however believe that the Parnasse is going too far; they disapprove their solemnity
and coldness. Time is changing and the Wagnerian dramas especially Tannhäuser, which was booed in
1861 are now stirring the heart of French people. Inspired by music, a new generation of poets, the Néo-
Romantiques, wants to unveil its secrets announcing the birth of symbolism, which regroups the Décadents
and the Idéalistes. In 1861, Baudelaire already wrote a very enthusiast and interesting article on Wagner’s
Ce qui serait vraiment surprenant, c’est que le son ne pût pas suggérer la couleur, que les couleurs
ne pussent pas donner l’idée d’une mélodie, et que le son et la couleur fussent impropres à traduire
des idées ; les choses s’étant toujours exprimées par une analogie réciproque, depuis le jour où Dieu
a proféré le monde comme une complexe et indivisible totalité.1
What would be surprising is that sound could not suggest colour, that colour could not give the
idea of a melody, and that sound and colour could be improper for the translation of ideas; things
have always been expressed through reciprocal analogy since the day God uttered the world as a
complex and indivisible totality.
Yes yes yes!!! But if the Décadents are the adepts of Montmartre’s new Bohème, unlike the
Dandies who distinguished themselves by their elegance, the Bohemians want to be the symbol of their
decadent society so they deliberately neglect their appearance. Some of these Décadents are Idéalistes
whose dream is to reach transcendental reality, a spiritual world where their sensitivity blooms. To
describe this impalpable universe, they use the fluidity of language and the evocative power of music.
Who are their masters? From whom do they take their inspiration? Essentially, from Baudelaire but also
from Gérard de Nerval who as early as 1831 evokes in one of his odelettes titled Fantaisie (Whim), a
chimerical world of poèsie pure, where dreams and memories mingle. Of course, there are also Verlaine
and Rimbaud whose fame has not reached the public yet.
The Décadents and the Idéalistes such as Paul Verlaine, Jean-Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane
Mallarmé are the greatest Symbolists. As Charles Chadwick so cleverly perceived, Symbolism is not only
the use of concrete imagery to express abstract ideas and emotions
(it is) the art of expressing ideas and emotions not by describing them directly, nor by defining them
through overt comparisons with concrete images but by suggesting what these ideas and emotions
are, by re-creating them in the mind if the reader through the use of unexplained symbols.2
Those images however do not always convey the poet’s emotions or thoughts but an ideal
world close to Plato’s ideal and accordingly, poets who can see beyond the real world are the new
prophets, the seers. Baudelaire’s magnificent Fleurs du mal is in itself a world of symbols; and
Correspondances3 is the symbolist poem4 par excellence.
1 Baudelaire (1861) Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris
2 Charles Chadwick (1971) Symbolism, p 1.
3 Baudelaire, Correspondance, Poem VI of Les Fleurs du mal, p 19
4 To my dear son Francky so he may discover and love Baudelaire
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles ;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
— Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,
Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.
Nature is a temple where living pillars
Sometimes utter confusing words;
Man walks through these forests of symbols
Staring at him with familiar gazes.
And like long echoes mingling from far away
In a puzzling and profound unity,
Vast as the dark of night and the light of day,
Scents, colours, and sounds respond to each other.
There are scents as cool as children’s flesh,
Soft like oboes, green like meadows,
— And others, corrupted, rich and triumphant,
Expanding as infinite things,
Like amber and musk, benzoin and incense,
Singing the rapture of the mind and senses.
Music, colour, and perfume evocating mysterious worlds captivate the mind of the youth who
are unable to take any bearing in a society, which is changing too rapidly. All is going too fast and instead
of bringing universal happiness, which was so dearly expected, science and industrialisation have only
created a materialist world. Paul Verlaine, one of these young people chooses music and blurred reality.
Though the poet minimises the importance of his Art Poétique composed in 1874, it is the manifesto of the
Symbolist School. Here, Verlaine defines his conception of poetry and insists on three essential points
L’Art Poétique Poetic Art
De la musique avant toute chose, Before anything, think of music,
Et pour cela préfère l'Impair And so prefer uneven lines
Plus vague et plus soluble dans l'air, Vaguer and more soluble in air
Sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose. With nothing that weighs or arrests it.
Il faut aussi que tu n'ailles point Remember also not to choose
Choisir tes mots sans quelque méprise Words, which are unambiguous:
Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise Nothing is dearer than the grey song
Où l'Indécis au Précis se joint. Where Imprecise melts in Precise.
C'est des beaux yeux derrière des voiles Like beautiful eyes behind a veil,
C'est le grand jour tremblant de midi, Like daylight trembling at noon,
C'est par un ciel d'automne attiédi Like the Autumn sky softening,
Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles! The confused blue of clear stars!
Car nous voulons la Nuance encor, For we always want Nuance,
Pas la Couleur, rien que la nuance! Not colour, only nuance!
Oh! la nuance seule fiance O! Nuance only marries
Le rêve au rêve et la flûte au cor ! Dream to dream and flute to horn!
Fuis du plus loin la Pointe assassine, Flee the lethal Point as far as you can,
L'Esprit cruel et le Rire impur, The cruel Wit and the impure Laugh
Qui font pleurer les yeux de l'Azur Which bring tears to Azure’s eyes,
Et tout cet ail de basse cuisine ! As garlic does in vulgar cuisine.
Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui son cou ! Take eloquence and break its neck!
Tu feras bien, en train d'énergie, You will do well if with energy,
De rendre un peu la Rime assagie. You soften the Rhyme a little,
Si l'on n'y veille, elle ira jusqu'où ? If we do not watch it, where will it end?
Ô qui dira les torts de la Rime ? O! who can talk about the wrong-doings of Rhymes?
Quel enfant sourd ou quel nègre fou Which deaf child or mad nigger
Nous a forgé ce bijou d'un sou Fooled us with this worthless jewel
Qui sonne creux et faux sous la lime ? That sounds hollow and false to the ear?
De la musique encore et toujours ! Yes, music! Always music!
Que ton vers soit la chose envolée So that your verse can fly
Qu'on sent qui fuit d'une âme en allée So that we may feel the soul fleeing
Vers d'autres cieux à d'autres amours. To other skies and other loves.
Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure Let your verse be the happy event
Éparse au vent crispé du matin Scattered on the crisp morning wind
Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thym... Scented with thyme and mint...
Et tout le reste est littérature. All the rest is literature.
Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud are the precursors of Symbolism, which emerges after Jean
Moréas’s article published in le Figaro in September 1886. Moréas claims that Romanticism, the Parnasse,
and the Naturalist movement have been supplanted by poets who reject false sensibility, declamation,
and objective description. Their aim is to provide forms to ideas. The most known members of this school
are Moréas of course, Gustave Kahn, Stuart Merrill, Vielé-Griffin, and René Ghil. They all agree that the
glorious names of Nerval, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé symbolise the essential of what
Paul Gauguin called l’école d’avant-garde du XXe (‘avant-garde’ school of the 20th Century).
Paul-Marie Verlaine was born on 30 March 1844 in Metz, a city close to the German border.
Captain Nicolas Verlaine, his father, is an irreproachable army officer of Walloon origin from the Belgian
Ardennes. His mother, Élisa Dehée, comes from a bourgeoise family in Artois; she has a deep affection for
country life. Paul’s mother and his cousin Elisa Moncomble adore him and
their excessive indulgence strongly affects Verlaine’s stability and behaviour.
All his life, Verlaine will remain a spoiled child fond of merry-goes-around,
clowns, old children songs, and Perrault’s Tales.
In 1851, the Captain resigns and the family moves to Les Batignolles,
a Parisian suburb. Paul is sent to the Institution Landry and studies at Lycée
Bonaparte. In love with literature, the boy starts writing poetry; and at
fourteenth, he sends one of his poems La mort (Death) to Victor Hugo.
However, Paul cannot fail to notice his ugliness; at this early age, he looks like a
faun escaped from a magic forest.1 It is also at this time, and probably for this
reason, that Verlaine starts searching comfort in boyfriends’ arms.
After his bacchalauréat in 1862, Verlaine2 goes on holiday at Lécluse
where his cousin Elisa who is now married lives. In October, he comes back to
Paris and enters the École de Droit but shows no interest in the course; he
prefers the Quartier Latin’s Cafés and Alphonse Lemerre’s famous bookshop, where he chats with the
The following year in August, Verlaine publishes his first sonnet Monsieur Prudhomme in Xavier
de Ricard’s Revue du progrès moral, littéraire, scientifique et artistique. Unsurprisingly, Verlaine abandons his
law study two years later, and decides to devote himself to poetry. First, he is in charge of the literary
critique at the review L’Art and writes articles on Baudelaire and Victor Hugo. Verlaine also continued to
haunt Paris’s Cafés, laughing with villains and prostitutes and drinking Absinthe, a strong and
destructive alcohol causing hallucinations. Worried about his son, Monsieur Verlaine persuades him to
work as a clerk in an insurance company. A few months later, Verlaine finds a better job at the Hôtel de
Ville (City’s council) but his passion is poetry; and in 1864, Dans les bois (In the woods) and Nevermore
appear in L’Art.
1 In Nina de Callias’s salon, Verlaine was nicknamed Gwynplaine, character from Victor Hugo’s play
L’homme qui rit; Gwynplaine was captured and one of the queen’s surgeon carved a grin on his face so he
might laugh forever at his father even when he is sad. Nina was Manet’s muse, model of the Dame aux
Verlaine also frequently visits his Cousin. In love with her, he declares his flame but Élisa
refuses firmly this unacceptable affection. Nevertheless, she still
consideres Verlaine as her dear little brother so she wants to help
him as much as she can; and in 1866, Verlaine is able to publish
In this first collection, Verlaine shows a Parnassian
impassibility but the influence of his venerate master, Baudelaire,
transpires. While Baudelaire exquisitely extracted beauty from
evil with the languorous beat of his alexandrins, Verlaine gives
musicality to his poetry with a quicker rhythm. Further-more,
and as if the sun has never shone in the poet’s world, hazy
landscapes reveal his états d’âme. Verlaine only uses images reflecting his emotions. The poet indeed
abhors Nature and clearly says so in L’Angoisse (Distress)
Nature, rien de toi ne m’émeut, ni les champs
Nourriciers, ni l’écho vermeil des pastorales
Siciliennes, ni les pompes aurorales,
Ni la solennité dolente des couchants.3
Nature, nothing in you moves me, neither the fields
Feeding us, nor the reddish echo
Of the Sicilian pastorals, nor the splendour
Of dawn, nor the sad solemnity of sunsets.
In the same poem, Verlaine goes much further and releases the bitterness and despair of his hopeless
Je ris de l’Art, je ris de l’Homme aussi, des chants,
Des vers, des temples grecs et des tours en spirales
Qu’étirent dans le ciel vide les cathédrales,
Et je vois du même œil les bons et les méchants.
Je ne crois pas en Dieu, j’abjure et je renie
Toute pensée, et quant à la vieille ironie,
L’Amour, je voudrais bien qu’on ne m’en parlât plus.
3 Verlaine L’Angoisse, poem VIII from Poèmes Saturniens, p 30. Image from
Lasse de vivre, ayant peur de mourir, pareille
Au brick perdu jouet du flux et du reflux,
Mon âme pour d’affreux naufrages appareille.
I laugh at Art, I also laugh at Man, songs,
Verses, Greek temples and spiral towers
That mighty cathedrals stretch in the empty sky;
And with the same eyes, I see good and evil people.
I do not believe in God, I abjure and deny
All thoughts, and of the old irony
That we call Love, I wish to hear no more.
Tired of living, frightened to die, like
A lost boat, the toy of ebb and flow,
My soul sails toward awful shipwrecks.
Neither God nor Love exists and the future only pledges disasters. This is Verlaine’s whole life!
Nevertheless, and despite this malaise of living, Verlaine’s poetry is tranquil and melodious. Rocked by
the soft and languid music of the verses, the reader rests and dreams.
A year later, Élisa dies and Verlaine is devastated by this sudden calamity. To numb his sorrow,
he drinks and writes; and in 1868, Les Amies (Friends), a compilation of erotic poems appears
clandestinely in bookshops. Then, follows Fêtes galantes (Galant Festivities), a collection inspired by
Watteau’s paintings and Victor Hugo’s Fête chez Thérèse (Festivity at Therese’s). Magnificent works
certainly, but Verlaine handles alcohol very badly; and one day, he almost kills his mother.
The same year, Paul meets Mathilde Mauté, stepsister of his friend Charles de Sivry. Charmed
by the beauty and freshness of this sixteen years old woman, Verlaine begins to hope that a happy
marriage could change his despicable conduct. She dearly loves him and Verlaine passionately composes
for his fiancée. His destructive anxiety becomes pure joy; and the wedding is celebrated on 11 August
1870. As a wedding present, he publishes La Bonne Chanson (Good Song), the collection of his love poems.
Here, Verlaine’s true poetic nature emerges. Far from Poèmes Saturniens, the poet reveals his weaknesses,
his dreams morbid or innocent, and his remorse, with touching simplicity.
The young couple now lives rue du Cardinal-Lemoine but the Franco-Prussian war starts and
Verlaine must enrol in the National Guard. Paris is under siege a month later, and after Napoléon III’s
defeat, France becomes a republic. In March 71, Verlaine becomes the attaché de presse of the Commune4,
4 This insurrectional government controled Paris from March to May 1871. It re-established the
revolutionary calendar, proclaimed the separation of the State from Church, raised the lowest wages,
proposed free and compulsory education, and encouraged the formation of cooperatives. Its tentative to
which has taken over the French government; and during the semaine sanglante (bloody week), he must
hide as anyone having shown sympathy for the Communards are either sent to jail or deported. Luckily,
Verlaine is not arrested but he loses his job at the Prefecture. Unable to pay the rent, the young couple
leaves their apartment and moves rue Nicolet at Mathilde’s parents.
Verlaine and Rimbaud by Henri Fantin-Latour 18725
Despite the small success of Verlaine’s publication, his notoriety is growing and Jean-Arthur
Rimbaud, an impetuous but incredibly talented adolescent from Charleville, sends him some poems.
Very impressed, Verlaine invites him to Paris but Rimbaud’s anti-social behaviour displeased his family
and he must find another place to stay. This does not end Verlaine and Rimbaud’s relation. The young
poet literally revives the poetic verve of his master who has not written a single line in thirteen months.
Yes, Verlaine loves his wife; but his inspiration has faded and he blamed her for not been able to control
Mathilde however hopes that the expected birth of their son Georges will give a sense of
responsibility to her husband. This is not the case; Verlaine and Rimbaud’s friendship is equivoque to
impose socialist ideas fails and the moderate Republicans, Jules Ferry and Léon Gambetta reject La
Commune. With Adolphe Tiers, Chief of the executive power of the provisory government, and Marshall
Mac-Mahon, they regain control of Paris after the ‘semaine sanglante’ of May 22 to 28 when more than
25000 people are arrested or deported in Algeria, Guyana, and New Caledonia.
everyone and the two compeers are always drunk. Verlaine knows that he cannot handle such heavy
drinking but ignores it; and unable to control his savage temper, this time, he nearly kills his wife and the
little Georges. Probably ashamed but sick of Mathilde’s reprimands, he moves rue Campagne-Première
The latter however returns to Charleville in March 1872 and Verlaine finds a job at Lloyd Belge,
another insurance company. Believing her husband’s light promises, Mathilde moves in, failing to see
that Verlaine is still in love with Rimbaud. A secret correspondence between the two men soon begins,
and in May, Rimbaud is back in Paris. His return stimulates Verlaine who sends Ariettes oubliées
(Forgotten Arias) to the publishing company La Renaissance littéraire et artistique.
Tired of Paris, the two villains run off to Arras, then Charleville, and Brussels. Still hopeful,
Mathilde and her mother try everything to bring back the incorrigible husband. They almost succeed, but
at the last minute, Verlaine changes his mind and even blames their attempt, which could have destroyed
the wonderful relationship blossoming between him and Rimbaud. The distressed women leave and the
scoundrels decide to settle in London where they will be able to enjoy total freedom.
Certainly, the poets’ extravagant and stormy passion exalts their imagination. While Rimbaud
works at Les Illuminations, Verlaine composes Romances sans paroles (Romances without Words), title
probably inspired by Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. This time, Verlaine’s objective is to make the
readers physically feel his emotions so he becomes Verlaine the impressionist of the words.
As always, the poet is sad. Fully aware that his love for Rimbaud is doomed, he regrets his
devoted wife and the conflict is evident in Romances sans paroles. But from a poetic perspective,
Rimbaud’s influence is very positive. Liberate from strict conventions, Verlaine’s poetry has evolved; his
genial predilection for uneven verses of nine, eleven, and thirteen syllables is brilliant, and the rime is soft
and evocative unlike the barbarian rime riche. Verlaine even prefers the assonance sometimes; he also
uses alliterations and dissonances, and he discards the sacrosanct alternation of the rimes masculines and
féminines. In this spoken language, words are the voice of the poet’s soul and poems the melodies of his
In July 1873, Verlaine flees to Brussels; and in a letter addressed to Rimbaud, he explains that he
wants to go back to his wife stressing that if she refuses, he will kill himself. He sends the same message
to his mother hoping that she may help him to re-conquer Mathilde. Worried, Madame Verlaine and
Rimbaud arrive and find the poet in a disastrous state of mind. Exacerbated by drinking, his despair
turns into rage; and stupidly, he shoots his friend twice. Rimbaud is lightly wounded; but the medical
report presented in court mentions the homosexual character of the two men’s relation and because of
this irrelevant but infamous detail, Verlaine gets the maximum penalty: a heavy fine and two years of
hard labour at Mons’s prison Les Petits-Carmes.
Verlaine agrees that he deserves the sentence and seizes the opportunity of the prison’s
austerity to concentrate his life on poetry. He deeply regrets his licentious conduct; and in Kaleidoscope,
he gives his impressions of a world beyond the world. Meanwhile in Paris, his friend Lepelletier
publishes Romances sans paroles.
Verlaine’s imprisonment facilitates Mathilde’s demand for separation. Shaken by the judgment,
Verlaine weeps and accepts to see the prison’s chaplain who revives his Catholic faith. In Sagesse, the
repented poet discloses his obsessions of the past.
Released from jail in 1875, Verlaine’s first visit is to Rimbaud at Stuttgart. Still under the charm
of his rejuvenate faith, Verlaine tries to convert his friend; he also tells him of his decision to lead a
respectable life. Rimbaud laughs; but as planned, the poet wisely avoids Paris’s temptations and goes to
Stickney, a small village in England. He stays there two years teaching French, Greek, Latin, and
Drawing. Then, he moves to Bournemouth and becomes teacher at the Catholic school. In 1877, he finally
comes back to France.
While teaching at the Collège Notre Dame in Rethel, Verlaine hopes to reconcile with Mathilde.
Probably afraid of her ex-husband’s violent outbursts, she refuses. Disgusted, Verlaine succumbs to his
weaknesses again. Unsurprisingly, he loses his job; and with his new friend, Lucien Létinois, one of his
students, he moves to England. While Lucien teaches at Stickney Grammar School, Verlaine is professor
at Lymington near the Isle of Wight.
In 1880, the two friends return to France and buy a small farm at Juniville. Due for his military
duty, Lucien goes to Reims and Verlaine follows him. In this old city, the poet composes Voyage en
France par un Français and sends Sagesse for publishing at the Société Générale de Librairie Catholique.
In autumn 1881, Verlaine sells the farm, which brings no profit; he returns to Paris in 1882 and
applies for a clerk position at the Prefecture, where he worked nearly twenty years earlier. Then, he
rejoins Lucien now supervisor at Boulogne-sur-Seine; and new poems appear in Léon Vanier’s review
Verlaine is still waiting for the Prefecture’s reply; restless, he leaves Boulogne and stays with his
mother in Paris, rue de la Roquette. Soon, he learns that his candidature has been rejected due to his past
record. The poet has no choice, he must go back to his writing; and in 1883, Karl Mohr’s Nouvelle Rive
gauche publishes other poems.
Unfortunately, 1883 is another sad year for Verlaine when Lucien dies from typhoid in April.
Inspired by Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Verlaine commemorates his love in Amour. This work is
disappointing but the new collection Jadis et Naguère (Long ago and Yesterday) is superb. Soon, it is
published in Lutèce – formerly the Nouvelle Rive gauche —and in La Revue critique. Verlaine is now
acclaimed the leader of the Decadents’ school but he distances himself from them with Les Poètes maudits
(Accursed Poets) praising Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. Unfortunately, Verlaine continues to
drink heavily and after a failed attempt to strangle his mother, he spends another month in jail.
Verlaine’s mastery is now acknowledged but the poet is still very poor. After his release, he
settles at the sordid Hôtel du Midi with his mother and publishes the series Les Hommes d’aujourd’hui
(Today’s Men). In this insalubrious logging, Madame Verlaine dies and the poet sends his small
inheritance to his wife. He then moves Cour Saint-François with Marie Gambier a prostitute nicknamed
Princesse Roukhine. Verlaine’s health is precarious; he suffers from rheumatisms and goes from one
hospital to another. Nevertheless, he still searches comfort in men’s arms and falls in love with the
painter Frederic-Auguste Cazals, who will never share his feelings. Rue Royer-Collard and Rue
Vaugirard, Verlaine organises literary meetings every Wednesday; and his editor Vanier publishes Amour
in March 1888 and Paul Verlaine written by Charles Morice in November.
After the publication of Parallèlement in June 1889, Verlaine stays for two months at Aix-les-
Bains to rebuild his health. In Variété, Paul Valéry gives a fair description of the poet:
Ce maudit, ce béni, boitant, battait le sol du lourd bâton des
vagabonds et des infirmes. Lamentable, et porteur de flammes
dans ses yeux couverts de broussailles, il étonnait la rue par sa
brutale majesté et par l’éclat d’énormes propos…développant
une colère magnifique qui se changeait quelquefois, comme par
miracle, en un rire presque aussi neuf qu’un rire d’enfant. 6
This lost but blessed limping man used to strike the ground
with the heavy cane of the vagabonds and the cripples.
Lamentable, flames carrier in eyes covered with brushwood, he
amazed people on the street by his brutal majesty and the burst
of enormous sayings… developing a magnificent anger, which
sometimes and like a miracle turned into a laugh almost as fresh
as a child’s.
At this time, Verlaine7 lives with a middle-aged woman,
Philomène Boudin who accepts his numerous boyfriends. Inspired
by his homosexual experiences, the poet writes Hombres and Femmes (Women), published clandestinely at
the end of the year.
In 1891 and 1892, Verlaine settles with Eugénie Krantz, another prostitute. He publishes
Bonheur, Les Uns et les Autres, Chansons pour elle, and Mes Hôpitaux (Happiness, Ones and others, Song for
her, and My Hospitals) while the Bibliothèque-Charpentier presents Choix de poésies (Choice of poetry).
Verlaine then conducts lectures in Holland; and after four weeks spent at the hospital, he organises a
series of conferences throughout Belgium and in London, Oxford, and Manchester.
In 1893, the poet is exhausted but composes Élégies, Odes en son honneur, and Mes Prisons. He
also presents his candidature to the Académie Française. Although a referendum in Le Journal elects him
Prince des Poètes, his outrageous attitude is on everyone’s mind and no Academicians vote for him.
In 1894 and 1895, Verlaine publishes Dans les Limbes, Épigrammes, and Les Confessions. However,
all these publications hardly pay Verlaine’s heavy debts, and after a petition signed by many friends, the
government finally agrees to give him a small allowance for his medications.
6 Paul Valéry, Variété II, p 176.
7 Verlaine by Eugène Carrière (1890)
Verlaine has now made his name; Ariettes Oubliées and Fêtes galantes are put into music by
Debussy; and Faurés is composing a beautiful arrangement for Paroles, one of the poems from La Bonne
At fifty-one, the poet is an old man; his health is deteriorating rapidly; and on 8 January 1896,
comforted by the many prostitutes living in his hotel, Verlaine dies of pulmonary congestion after having
received the last sacraments. Several thousand people follows the funeral procession up to his last
dwelling, cimetière des Batignolles where the poets Lepelletier, Moréas, Kahn, Mendès, Barrès, Coppée,
and Mallarmé pay tribute to the great Verlaine.
Despite his outrageous way of life and weaknesses, Verlaine’s genius is undeniable and as
Ernest Raynaud8 claims, Verlaine’s poetry is the apotheosis of transient sensation.
Mon rêve familier, 9 poem VI of Mélancholia in Poèmes Saturniens is dedicated to Ernest Boutier10.
Verlaine is twenty years old when he writes this beautiful sonnet reflecting his hope to find someone who
will at last understand and comfort his soul. He knows however that such hope is an illusion as he is
convinced that he will never find the love he desperately seeks.
In this poem, the poet plays with the word rêve (dream) and in this obsessive dream, the loving
woman keeps a mysterious nature. In the first quatrain, Verlaine repeats words like et (and) and aime
(love) creating a stuttering effect leading to the final and essential me comprend (and understands me). In
the second quatrain, he develops the idea; again, repetitions and caesuras are skilfully used to stress that
she, only, can comfort him. In the tercets, the rhythm and the tone change as the poet admits his inability
to describe this woman. Bitterly, he has finally realised that she is just an illusion and as in Baudelaire’s
Rêve de Pierre, the poet becomes insensitive, lingering on a forgotten name, an empty gaze, and finally
silence. The pattern abba, abba, dde, fef, the alexandrins, the repetitions, and the enjambments create a
subtle cadence, a soft music as in all Verlaine’s poem.
8 Ernest Raynaud (1864-1938) Writer and poet
9 This poem is for my dear son Mickael. Paul Verlaine (1969) Oeuvres poétiques, p 29
10 One of the main contributors of L’Art and violonist amator
Mon rêve familier
Je fais souvent ce rêve étrange et pénétrant
D'une femme inconnue, et que j'aime, et qui m'aime,
Et qui n'est, chaque fois, ni tout à fait la même
Ni tout à fait une autre, et m'aime et me comprend.
Car elle me comprend, et mon coeur, transparent
Pour elle seule, hélas! cesse d'être un problème
Pour elle seule, et les moiteurs de mon front blême,
Elle seule les sait rafraîchir, en pleurant.
Est-elle brune, blonde, ou rousse? - Je l'ignore.
Son nom? Je me souviens qu'il est doux et sonore
Comme ceux des aimés que la Vie exila.
Son regard est pareil au regard des statues,
Et pour sa voix, lointaine, et calme, et grave, elle a
L'inflexion des voix chères qui se sont tues.
My familiar dream
I often have this strange and profound dream
Of an unknown woman whom I love and loves me.
And who, each time, is neither quite the same
Nor another, and she loves and understands me.
Yes, she understands me, and my transparent heart
To her only, alas, is no more a problem
To her alone, and my feverish and pale forehead
She alone knows how to cool it with her tears.
Is she brunette, blond, or red-haired? - I do not know.
Her name? I remember that it is sweet and clear
Like those of the loved ones that were banished from Life.
Her gaze is the same as the gaze of the statues
And in her voice, distant, and calm, and grave, it has
The inflexion of beloved voices now silent.
Ariette III of Romances sans paroles was probably written in Spring 1873; it evocates the London
rain and Verlaine identifies the landscape with his état d’âme. With mingling words and even losing the
reason why he is so sad, Il pleure dans mon coeur and Chanson d’Automne are two of the greatest
masterpieces of French poetry.
Il pleure dans mon cœur 11 It rains in my heart
Il pleut doucement sur la ville (Arthur Rimbaud) It gently rains on the town
Il pleure dans mon cœur It rains in my heart
Comme il pleut sur la ville, As it rains on the town.
Quelle est cette langueur What is this languor
Qui pénètre mon coeur? Penetrating my heart?
O bruit doux de la pluie O soft sound of the rain
Par terre et sur les toits! On the ground on the roofs!
Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie For a bored weary heart
O le chant de la pluie! O the song of the rain!
Il pleure sans raison It rains without cause
Dans ce coeur qui s'écoeure. In this unhappy heart
Quoi! nulle trahison? What! No sad betrayal?
Ce deuil est sans raison. This grief has no reason.
C'est bien la pire peine This is the worst distress
De ne savoir pourquoi Not knowing why
Sans amour et sans haine With no love and no hate,
Mon coeur a tant de peine. My heart has so much pain.
11 Ibid, p 148.
Les sanglots longs or Chanson d’Automne is probably the most well-known poem of Verlaine. It is
also the famous code from the BBC; on 4 June 1944 at 11pm, the resistants received the first part of
message Les sanglots longs de l’automne to start the sabotage of all the railway and telephone installations;
and on 5 June, the second part Bercent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone was broadcasted at 8pm calling
for the offensive.
Its rhythm, the soft sonority of the consonants l, m, n, the musicality of the words and their
simplicity, transform the exquisite poem into a song easy to remember. Autumn and the approaching
winter is the ideal season to reflect melancholy; swerving from the soaked landscapes to the poet’s soul,
slowly the I disappears and the inside and outside worlds finally meet in the last verse suggesting death.
The rythmus tripertitus (repeated rime after a group of two verses) and the three-syllable verses create a
touching music fading away as the days of summer. The colours of this superb Verlainian poem are faint
and the forms dissolve in the mist of the poet’s tears.
Chanson d’automne Autumn’s song
Les sanglots longs The long sobs
Des violons Of Autumn's
De l'automne Violins
Blessent mon coeur Wound my heart
D'une langueur With a monotonous
Tout suffoquant Breathless
Et blême, quand And pale, when
Sonne l'heure, Time strikes
Je me souviens I remember
Des jours anciens The bygone days
Et je pleure. And I weep.
Et je m'en vais And I go
Au vent mauvais In the mean wind
Qui m'emporte that carries me
Deçà delà, Here and there
Pareil à la Like the
Feuille morte. Dead leaf.
Jean-Arthur was born on 20 October 1854, in Charleville a small city in the North of France. In
1862, Captain Rimbaud rejoins his garrison and from that time, Arthur’s parents live separately. Madame
Rimbaud rents a flat Cour d’Orléans where she raises her three children,
and Arthur is sent to the Institution Rossat. In 1865, he studies at the
Collège and his excellent results allow him to skip a class. At fourteen, the
boy shows a deep interest for literature and already excels in poetry. Aware
of his precautious talent, he sends a letter in Latin verses to Napoléon III and
the following year, he wins the first prize of the French Académie’s
competition with his Latin poem Jugurtha. Arthur now prepares his
bacchalauréat and studies rhetoric with Georges Izambard, his teacher,
mentor, and friend who introduces him to Victor Hugo and the Parnassians.
Well inspired, the adolescent composes Les Étrennes des Orphelins (New
Year’s gift for the Orphans), one of the twenty-two poems he avidly writes
in 1870. In this superb collection, we see the incontestable influence of Victor
Hugo. Impressed by the boy’s originality, Izambard encourages him to send
a series of poems to Théodore de Banville so he may publish some in the
The same year in August, Rimbaud obtains his baccalauréat with flying colours; and at the end
of the month, he takes the train to Paris where he is arrested for not having paid his fare. Alerted by the
boy’s letter, Izambart immediately comes to his rescue; he pays the fine and brings the young man home.
A week later, Rimbaud is on the road again, this time, he goes to Brussels and then Douai where Izembart
Back to Charleville and inspired by his escapade, Rimbaud composes Ma Bohème, Le Buffet (The
Cupboard), Au Cabaret-Vert (At the Green-Cabaret) and Les assis (The sitted) at Charleville’s small library
where he spends most of his time.
Since July, the Franco-Prussian war is raging and January 1871, Mézières and Charleville are
occupied by the enemy. Unconcerned, Rimbaud makes a second trip to Paris and comes back to
Charleville on foot around March. He now works for Le Progrès des Ardennes; and when the newspaper
ceases to be published, he returns to Paris. In a letter sent to his friend, Paul Demeny, Rimbaud defines
his conception of poetry.
1 Letter sent to Théodore de Banville on Mai 24, 1870, p 236-237.
Primarily, Arthur states that it is through the derangement of the senses that a true poet can
discover the unknown. This implies searching all forms of love, suffering, and madness; and when all
poisons are exhausted, quintessence only remains. Furthermore, being the language of the universal soul,
poetry must contain the poet’s aspiration and anger, but reflecting what we see or feel with colours,
scents, and sounds is not enough; the poet must also become a seer and a multiplier of progress. Finally
in line with Greek poetry, his poems will endure as Greek poetry has endured.
Rimbaud indeed praises the seers among the first Romantiques; Lamartine, Théophile Gautier,
Théodore de Banville, and Leconte de Lisle are remarkable poets but they lack Baudelaire’s genius; and
among the Parnassians, the real voyants (seers) are Albert Mérat2 and Paul Verlaine.
Back in Charleville, Rimbaud sends his best poems to the latter who, as we already know,
immediately invites him to Paris.3 In September, Rimbaud arrives with new poems among them Le
Bateau ivre (the drunken boat).
With his master, the adolescent’s obsession is to translate his états d’âme (state of mind) in poetic
form; and to reproduce all types of sensation, he uses colour and rhythm. Rimbaud and Verlaine are the
new impressionists of poetry; but while Verlaine believes in the softness of hazy landscapes where the
sound of springs is muffled by vaporous mists, Rimbaud prefers radiant images, primary colours, and
marked lines. He probably writes the Illuminations in London in 1872 and Une saison en enfer (Season in
hell) in April 1873 in his mother’s farm at Roche. Like Baudelaire, Rimbaud is attracted by death. In Une
saison en enfer, the poet describes his tremendous will to live and climb the ladder of fame, but he also
reveals his mysterious and deadly aspiration. After a joyous and dynamic attitude toward life, the poet
now rejects all values and jump in hell so he can wake up ready to face life again.
Rimbaud’s Illuminations are the gleams of enlightenment to escape death and crime. They are
the responses to his questions, the solutions to his contradictions; but as Rimbaud emphasises, these
illuminations are the enluminures of his life, especially the season in hell. Life is now bearable; no more
revolt, desire and reality cohabite in harmony, and Génie is the fusion of the human being and the ideal
being—perhaps Nietzsche’s superman. The new world Rimbaud describes is the work of a seer, the work
of his imagination; this illuminated world exists only in a poet’s soul.
Rimbaud is nevertheless more concern about Une Saison en enfer and thanks to his mother, who
accepts to pay for its publication, five hundred copies of the book are printed in a small publishing house
in Brussels. Rimbaud sends some to his friends in Paris including Verlaine who is in jail.
Then, we see him with Germain Nouveau in Paris in March 1874, later, he teaches French in
London and Scotland, comes back to Charleville in winter; and in February 1875, he goes to Stuttgart
where Verlaine sees him after his release from prison. The same year, he sends his poems in prose—
Illuminations—for publication in Brussels, and he asks Verlaine to return all poems in his possession.
2 Albert Merat (1840-1909) French poet
3 I shall not linger on Rimbaud and Verlaine’s adventurous affair as I discussed it in Verlaine’s chapter.
Rimbaud is now twenty-one and the poet is dead; carelessly, he turns the page to live new
adventures. He travels to Switzerland and Italy. Back in Charleville at the end of the year, he perfects his
German and studies Spanish, Italian, Modern Greek, Arabic, and Dutch. Later, we find him in Holland
where he enrolled in the Dutch army; but unable to handle the military discipline, he deserts and returns
to Charleville. Expelled from Austria in 1877, he visits Sweden and Denmark.
In 1878, Rimbaud is in Cyprus where he works as a supervisor in a stone quarry; he also makes
some trips to Egypt and Aden. Then, he works for an export company and goes to Somalia to buy coffee
and sell guns. Having lost a small fortune in his affair with King Menelik of Choa, he moves to Harar and
works for a coffee exporter. Meanwhile Verlaine edits and publishes the Illuminations in La Vogue in 1886.
All these years, Rimbaud spends his holidays at Roche with his mother and his sister Isabelle; his other
sister Vitalie died in December 75.
Up to February 1891, Rimbaud is working in Harar but a tumour in his right knee brings him
back to France. Hospitalised in Marseille, his leg is amputated and Rimbaud returns to Roche under his
mother’s and sister’s care. Unfortunately, his condition worsens and to avoid the cold winter in
Ardennes, he goes back to Marseille where he dies at the hospital on 10 November 1891.
Rimbaud’s life was brief but his legacy is magnificent. Furthermore, it is indubitable that he
lived with tremendous intensity. Rimbaud is neither an angel nor a demon as so many wrongly assume;
he is a rebellious adolescent curious to know and experience everything possible. Voyant (seer) perhaps,
voyou (scoundrel) certainly. Rimbaud is the Villon of modern time and if he is not the greatest poet of his
century as some suggest, he is one of them.
The last extract in the Epilogue is taken from Phrases in Illuminations; 4 this exquisite piece of
prose will end the 19th Century.
It is brilliant by its naïve simplicity considering the complexity of the whole. Indeed,
Illuminations and Une Saison en enfer are two of the most difficult works of French literature. Their
intricacy, cryptic outbursts, and contradictions as well as their lack of transitions require unusual
concentration to apprehend their meanings, and poetic eagerness and agility to restore their melodies.
Les Éffarés is one of the magnificent poems of Poésies written in 1870. Enraged by what he sees
in the streets of Paris, Rimbaud denounces it for all to know. Admirably, the poet shows his sensitivity to
visual impressions through the vivid painting of hungry children.
Rhythmic alternations, symbols, focal contrasts (the street and the bakery, the cold and the
heat), Rimbaud the photograph-reporter haunts Paris’s streets for a scoop and finds it! The brilliant
republic promising Human Rights… The Church preaching Charity… and here they are, five homeless,
frozen, and starving little children!
4 Phrases in Illuminations, p 132.
In this superb and striking poem, we almost literally see the poor little wretches trembling, we
feel the cold of the street, the heat escaping from the small window, we smell the heavenly scent of the
golden bread; we even feel its delightful crust, and suddenly… we shiver and weep…
A diamond of French literature!
Les Effarés 5 The Startled
20 Septembre 1870
Noirs dans la neige et dans la brume, Black in the snow and the fog,
Au grand soupirail qui s'allume, Near the basement’s hole glowing,
Leurs culs en rond A ring of small bottoms
À genoux, cinq petits, - misère! - Five little ones on their knews—misery!
Regardent le boulanger faire Stare down at the Baker making
Le lourd pain blond… The heavy golden bread.
Ils voient le fort bras blanc qui tourne They see his strong white arms kneading
La pâte grise, et qui l'enfourne The grey dough and putting it
Dans un trou clair. In a bright hole.
Ils écoutent le bon pain cuire. They listen to the good bread baking.
Le boulanger au gras sourire With a well-fed smile, the baker
Chante un vieil air. Sings an old tune.
Ils sont blottis, pas un ne bouge, None moves, huddled
Au souffle du soupirail rouge In the draught of the red basement’s hole
Chaud comme un sein. Warm as a breast.
Et quand, pendant que minuit sonne, And while midnight strikes
Façonné, pétillant et jaune, When the well-shaped, crackling, and
On sort le pain, Yellow bread is taken out,
Quand, sous les poutres enfumées, When, under the smoke-blacken beams,
Chantent les croûtes parfumées, Sing the sweet-smelling crust
Et les grillons, And the crickets6
5 Arthur Rimbaud (1972) Les Effarés in Poésies, Œuvres Complètes, pp 27-28.
Quand ce trou chaud souffle la vie When this warm hole breathes out life,
Ils ont leur âme si ravie Their souls are so happy
Sous leurs haillons, Under their rags,
Ils se ressentent si bien vivre, They feel so much alive,
Les pauvres petits plein de givre ! The poor little ones covered with frost,
—Qu’ils sont là, tous, That they are, all,
Collant leurs petits museaux roses Their small pink snouts glued
Au grillage, chantant des choses, To the grille, and singing words
Entre les trous, Through the holes,
Mais bien bas,—comme une prière… But very low,—like a prayer…
Repliés vers cette lumière Crouched toward this light
Du ciel rouvert, From heaven again opened,
—Si fort, qu’ils crèvent leur culotte, So hard that they burst their pants,
—Et que leur lange blanc tremblote Their white diapers fluttering
Au vent d’hiver… In the winter’s wind...
The next poem Le Dormeur du Val,7 is a magnificent sonnet certainly inspired by Victor Hugo’s
Souvenir de la nuit du quatre, Leconte de Lisle’s La Fontaine aux lianes, and Léon Dieux’s Dolorosa mater.
Here, Rimbaud uses a classic form of poetry, the sonnet dear to Ronsard with a somewhat new pattern
abab cdcd eef ggf; dismembering the alexandrin with rejets, contre-rejets, and punctuation, the poet gives life
to his poem; and the clever alliterations and assonances skilfully change the atmosphere.
First, the poet presents a panoramic view of an idyllic and lively landscape bathing in sunlight.
In this quatrain, the two rejets ‘D’argent’ and ‘luit’ accentuate the brightness of the light; and the
personified elements symbolise the easy-going character of youth. The singing river, the watchfulness of
protective parents, the proud mountain and the shining sun, all convey a feeling of naïve cheerfulness,
the pleasure of being alive and happy in a secure environment.
In the second quatrain, the photographer-poet uses his zoom and we can now see someone
resting peacefully in the grass. In the diffused light, the colours are slightly cooler where the pale soldier
sleeps; but again, the light suggests a peaceful atmosphere skilfully reproduced with the artful
arrangement of the labial and liquid consonants at the beginning and the end of the verse as well as the
assonances vert and lumière. In the tercets, the photographer-poet gets closer and closer.
Le Dormeur du Val is not only one of the greatest French masterpieces; literally it is the Chef
d’oeuvre, par excellence.
7 Arthur Rimbaud (1972) Le Dormeur du Val in Poésies, Œuvres Complètes, p 32
Le Dormeur du Val
C'est un trou de verdure, où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D'argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c'est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.
Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l'herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.
Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.
Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur la poitrine
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.
Le Dormeur du Val by Claudine Bigaut (Oct. 2005)
The sleeper in the vale
It is a green hollow, where a river sings
Hanging here and there pretty silver tatters
On the grass; where the sun, on the proud mountain,
Shines: It is a little vale sparkling with light
A young soldier, his mouth opened, bareheaded,
And the nape of his neck in the cool blue cress.
Sleeps; he lays there in the grass, under the clouds,
Pale in his green bed where light is pouring down.
His feet in gladioli, he sleeps. Smiling as
An ill child would smile, he is taking a nap:
Nature, cuddle him warmly; he is cold.
The sweet scents do not make his nostril quiver;
He sleeps in the sun, his hand on his breast
Tranquil. He has two red holes in his right side.
Poetry in every language is a refuge away from life’s tribulations,
a world of dreams
where the power of words draws luminous sceneries as in Baudelaire’s magnificent
Invitation au voyage
where words become notes and poems melodies as in Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne and
where symbols, objects, or animals become vividly human as in the comical Roman de
Renart, Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose, Ronsard’s Comme on voit sur la branche, La Fontaine’s
Fables of course, and in Baudelaire’s Recueillement
the world of the soul
where Verlaine’s melancholy strolls in hazy landscapes, where it rains in his heart as it
rains on the town.
Poetry is also
to meditate and pray
to remember and give homage to Love ones as in Lamartine’s Lac and Victor Hugo’s
Demain dès l’aube
to convey anger, disappointment, fear, and distress as in Ronsard’s Elégie about the
Gastine Forest, Voltaire’s Mort de Mademoiselle Lecouvreur, Victor Hugo’s Châtiments, and in Vigny’s La
Mort du Loup.
More or less, poets are the chroniclers of the society in which they live. Some such as Ronsard,
Voltaire, Victor Hugo, and Rimbaut are master-reporters who focused on crucial events and often
Some believe that poetry ought to distance itself from politics and religions; but it seems to me
that poets write because they have to exteriorise what is in their heart, in their mind, in their soul. Some
also need to share this with others and the reader chooses to read or not read it taking the risk to like or
not like it.
Nevertheless, poems are like music. As soon as the poet’s or musician’s work leaves his/her
hands, it becomes universal and readers or listeners receive it with their own mind. Consequently, the
author’s message may not reach readers or listeners as (s)he expects them to do. In other words, when
readers read a poem, they create their own music and perceive their own message, as much as performers
play a Symphony or Adagio in their own way. No interpretations are alike because the mind is Free and
for this reason alone,
Literature, Poetry, Painting, and Music are magical.
But for now, let poetry be just music with Rimbaud’s Illuminations, as the final words of this
anthology, which I hope pleased you.
J’ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher ;
des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre ;
des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile,
et je danse.
I stretched ropes from stipple to stipple;
garlands from window to window;
golden chains from star to star,
and I dance.
À Bientôt et Merci -
See you soon and Thank you
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