A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 6.

Early Lyrics.

Early and Later Lyrics.

The lyric poetry of the middle ages in France divides itself naturally into two periods, distinguished by very strongly marked characteristics. The end of the thirteenth century is the dividing point in this as in many other branches of literature. After that we get the extremely interesting, if artificial, forms of the Rondeau and Ballade, with their many varieties and congeners. With these we shall not busy ourselves in the present chapter. But the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are provided with a lyric growth, less perfect indeed in form than that which occupied French singers from Machault to Marot, but more spontaneous, fuller of individuality, variety, and vigour, and scarcely less abundant in amount.

Origins of Lyric.
Romances and Pastourelles.

Before the twelfth century we find no traces of genuine lyrical work in France. The ubiquitous Cantilenae indeed again make their appearance in the speculations of literary historians, but here as elsewhere they have no demonstrable historical existence. Except a few sacred songs, sometimes, as in the case of Saint Eulalie, in early Romance language, sometimes in what the French call langue farcie, that is to say, a mixture of French and Latin, nothing regularly lyrical is found up to the end of the eleventh century. But soon afterwards lyric work becomes exceedingly abundant. This is what forms the contents of Herr Karl Bartsch's delightful volume of Romanzen und Pastourellen67. These are the two earliest forms of French lyric poetry. They are recognised by the Troubadour Raimon Vidal as the special property of the Northern tongue, and no reasonable pretence has been put forward to show that they are other than indigenous. The tendency of both is towards iambic rhythm, but it is not exclusively manifested as in later verse. It is one of the most interesting things in French literary history to see how early the estrangement of the language from the anapaestic and dactylic measures natural to Teutonic speech began to declare itself68. These early poems bubble over with natural gaiety, their refrains, musical though semi-articulate as they are, are sweet and manifold in cadence, but the main body of the versification is either iambic or trochaic (it was long before the latter measure became infrequent), and the freedom of the ballad-metres of England and Germany is seldom present. The Romance differs in form and still more in subject from the Pastourelle, and both differ very remarkably from the form and manner of Provençal poetry. It has been observed by nearly all students, that the love-poems of the latter language are almost always at once personal and abstract in subject. The Romance and the Pastourelle, on the contrary, are almost always dramatic. They tell a story, and often (though not always in the case of the Pastourelle) they tell it of some one other than the singer. The most common form of the Romance is that of a poem varying from twenty lines long to ten times that length and divided into stanzas. These stanzas consist of a certain number (not usually less than three or more than eight) of lines of equal length capped with a refrain in a different metre. By far the best, though by no means the earliest, of them are those of Audefroy le Bastard, who, according to the late M. Paulin Paris, may be fixed at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Audefroy's poems are very much alike in plan, telling for the most part how the course of some impeded true love at last ran smooth. They rank with the very best mediaeval poetry in colour, in lively painting of manners and feelings, and in grace of versification. Unfortunately they are one and all rather too long for quotation here. The anonymous Romance of 'Bele Erembors' will represent the class well enough. The rhyme still bears traces of assonance, which is thought to have prevailed till Audefroy's time:—

Quant vient en mai, que l'on dit as lons jors,

Que Frans en France repairent de roi cort,

Reynauz repaire devant el premier front

Si s'en passa lez lo mes Arembor,

Ainz n'en designa le chief drecier a mont.

E Raynaut amis!

Bele Erembors a la fenestre au jor

Sor ses genolz tient paile de color;

Voit Frans de France qui repairent de cort,

E voit Raynaut devant el premier front:

En haut parole, si a dit sa raison.

E Raynaut amis!

'Amis Raynaut, j'ai ja veu cel jor

Se passisoiz selon mon pere tor,

Dolanz fussiez se ne parlasse a vos.'

'Ja mesfaistes, fille d'Empereor,

Autrui amastes, si obliastes nos.'

E Raynaut amis!

'Sire Raynaut, je m'en escondirai:

A cent puceles sor sainz vos jurerai,

A trente dames que avuec moi menrai,

C'onques nul hom fors vostre cors n'amai.

Prennez l'emmende et je vos baiserai.'

E Raynaut amis!

Li cuens Raynauz en monta lo degre,

Gros par espaules, greles par lo baudre;

Blonde ot lo poil, menu, recercele:

En nule terre n'ot so biau bacheler.

Voit l'Erembors, so comence a plorer.

E Raynaut amis!

Li cuens Raynauz est montez en la tor,

Si s'est assis en un lit point a flors,

Dejoste lui se siet bele Erembors.

  *  *  *  *  *  *

Lors recomencent lor premieres amors.

E Raynaut amis!

The Pastourelle is still more uniform in subject. It invariably represents the knight or the poet riding past and seeing a fair shepherdess by his road-side. He alights and woos her with or without success. In this class of poem the stanzas are usually longer, and consist of shorter lines than is the case with the Romances, while the refrains are more usually meaningless though generally very musical. It is, however, well to add that the very great diversity of metrical arrangement in this class makes it impossible to give a general description of it. There are Pastourelles consisting merely of four-lined stanzas with no refrain at all. The following is a good specimen of the class:—

De Saint Quentin a Cambrai

Chevalchoie l'autre jour;

Les un boisson esgardai,

Touse i vi de bel atour.

La colour

Ot freche com rose en mai.

De cuer gai

Chantant la trovai

Ceste chansonnete

'En non deu, j'ai bel ami,

Cointe et joli,

Tant soie je brunete.'

Vers la pastoure tornai

Quant la vi en son destour;

Hautement la saluai

Et di 'deus vos doinst bon jour

Et honour.

Celle ke ci trove ai,

Sens delai

Ses amis serai.'

Dont dist la doucete

'En non deu, j'ai bel ami,

Cointe et joli,

Tant soie je brunete.'

Deles li seoir alai

Et li priai de s'amour,

Celle dist 'Je n'amerai

Vos ne autrui par nul tour,

Sens pastour,

Robin, ke fiencie l'ai.

Joie en ai,

Si en chanterai

Ceste chansonnete:

En non deu, j'ai bel ami,

Cointe et joli,

Tant soie je brunete.'

So various, notwithstanding the simplicity and apparent monotony of their subjects, are these charming poems, that it is difficult to give, by mere citation of any one or even of several, an idea of their beauty. In no part of the literature of the middle ages are its lighter characteristics more pleasantly shown. The childish freedom from care and afterthought, the half unconscious delight in the beauty of flowers and the song of birds, the innocent animal enjoyment of fine weather and the open country, are nowhere so well represented. Chaucer may give English readers some idea of all this, but even Chaucer is sophisticated in comparison with the numerous, and for the most part nameless, singers who preceded him by almost two centuries in France. As a purely formal and literary characteristic, the use of the burden or refrain is perhaps their most noteworthy peculiarity. Herr Bartsch has collected five hundred of these refrains, all different. There is nothing like this to be found in any other literature; and, as readers of Béranger know, the fashion was preserved in France long after it had been given up elsewhere.

Thirteenth Century.
Changes in Lyric.

After the twelfth century the early lyrical literature of France undergoes some changes. In the first place it ceases to be anonymous, and individual singers — some of them, like Thibaut of Champagne, of very great merit and individuality — make their appearance. In the second place it becomes more varied but at the same time more artificial in form, and exhibits evident marks of the communication between troubadour and trouvère, and of the imitation by the latter of the stricter forms of Provençal poetry. The Romance and the Pastourelle are still cultivated, but by their side grow up French versions, often adapted with considerable independence, of the forms of the South69. Such, for instance, is the chanson d'amour, a form less artfully regulated indeed than the corresponding canzon or sestine of the troubadours, but still of some intricacy. It consists of five or six stanzas, each of which has two interlaced rhymes, and concludes with an Envoi, which, however, is often omitted. Chansonnettes on a reduced scale are also found. In these pieces the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, which was ultimately to become the chief distinguishing feature of French prosody, is observable, though it is by no means universal. To the Provençal tenson corresponds the jeu parti or verse dialogue, which is sometimes arranged in the form of a Chanson. The salut d'amour is a kind of epistle, sometimes of very great length and usually in octosyllabic verse, the decasyllable being more commonly used in the Chanson. Of this the complainte is only a variety. Again, the Provençal sirvente is represented by the northern serventois, a poem in Chanson form, but occupied instead of love with war, satire, religion, and miscellaneous matters. It has even been doubted whether the serventois is not the forerunner of the sirvente instead of the reverse being the case. Other forms are motets, rotruenges, aubades. Poems called rondeaux and ballades also make their appearance, but they are loose in construction and undecided in form. The thirteenth century is, moreover, the palmy time of the Pastourelle. Most of those which we possess belong to this period, and exhibit to the full the already indicated characteristics of that graceful form. But the lyric forms of the thirteenth century are to some extent rather imitated than indigenous, and it is no doubt to the fact of this imitation that the common ascription of general poetical priority to the Langue d'Oc, unfounded as it has been sufficiently shown to be, is due in the main. The most courageous defenders of the North have wished to maintain its claims wholly intact even in this instance, but probability, if not evidence, is against them.

Traces of Lyric in the Thirteenth Century.
Quesnes de Bethune.
Thibaut de Champagne.

It has been said that the number of song writers from the end of the twelfth century to the end of the thirteenth is extremely large. M. Paulin Paris, whose elaborate chapter in the Histoire Littéraire is still the great authority on the subject, has enumerated nearly two hundred, to whose work have to be added hundreds of anonymous pieces. It would seem indeed that during a considerable period the practice of song writing was almost as incumbent on the French gentleman of the thirteenth century as that of sonnetteering on the English gentleman of the sixteenth. There are, however, not a few names which deserve separate notice. The first of these in point of time, and not the last in point of literary importance, is that of Quesnes de Bethune, the ancestor of Sully, and himself a famous warrior, statesman, and poet. His epitaph by a poet not usually remarkable for eloquence70 is a very striking one. It gives us approximately the date of his death, 1224; and the word vieux is supposed to show that Quesnes must have been born at least as early as the middle of the twelfth century. He took part in two crusades, that of Philip Augustus and that which Villehardouin has chronicled. His poems71 are of all classes, historical, satirical, and amorous, some of last being addressed to Marie, Countess of Champagne; and his Chansons are, in the technical sense, some of the earliest we possess. Contemporary with Quesnes apparently was the personage who is known under the title of Châtelain de Coucy, and whose love for the Lady of Fayel resulted in an interchange of very tender and beautiful verse; the poem known as the lady's own is one of the very best of its kind. Long afterwards lover and lady became the hero and heroine of a romance, which has led some persons to throw doubt upon their historical existence, and the Lady of Fayel has even been deprived of her poem by a well-known kind of criticism. Of more importance is Thibaut de Champagne, King of Navarre, who is indeed the most important single figure of early French lyrical poetry. He was born in 1201, and died in 1253. His high position as a feudal prince in both north and south, the minority of St. Louis, and the intimate relations which existed between the King's mother, Blanche of Castille, and Thibaut, made him the mark for a good deal of satirical invective. There is a tradition that he was Blanche's lover, the only objection to which is that the Queen was thirty years his senior. Thibaut's poems have been more than once reprinted, the last edition being that of M. Tarbé72; this contains eighty-one pieces, not a few of which, however, are probably the work of others. The majority of them are Chansons d'Amour, of the kind just defined. There are, however, a good many Jeux-Partis, and a certain number of nondescript poems on miscellaneous subjects. There is more reason for the common opinion which attributes to Thibaut the marriage of the poetical qualities of northern and southern France, than the mere fact of his having been both Count of Champagne and King of Navarre. His poems have in reality something of the freshness and the individuality of the Trouvères, mixed with a great deal of the formal grace and elegance of the Troubadours. The following may serve as an example:—

Contre le tens qui desbrise

Yvers, et revient este,

Et la mauvis se desguise,

Qui de lonc tens n'a chante

Ferai chanson. Car a gre

Me vient que j'aie en pense

Amor, qui en moi s'est mise.

Bien m'a droit son dart gete.

Douce dame, de franchise,

N'ai je point en vos trove:

S'ele ne s'i est puis mise

Que je ne vos esgarde,

Trop avez vers moi fierte.

Mais ce fait vostre biaute,

Ou il n'i a pas de devise,

Tant en i a grand plante.

En moi n'a point d'astenance

Que je puisse aillors penser,

Pors que la, ou conoissance

Ne merci ne puis trover.

Bien fui fait por li amer;

Car ne m'en puis saoler.

Et quant plus aurai cheance,

Plus la me convendra douter.

D'une riens sui en doutance,

Que je ne puis plus celer,

Qu'en li n'ait un po d'enfance.

Ce me fait deconforter,

Que s'a moi a bon penser

Ne l'ose ele desmontrer.

Si feist qu'a sa semblance

Le poisse deviner.

Des que je li fis priere

Et la pris a esgarder,

Me fist amors la lumiere

Des iels par le cuer passer.

Cil conduit me fait grever:

Dont je ne me soi garder:

Ne ne puet torner arriere

Mon cuer; miex voudrait crever.

Dame, a vos m'estuet clamer,

Et que merci vos requiere.

Diex m'i laist pitie trover!

Minor Singers.
Adam de la Halle.

Besides Thibaut there are not a few other song writers of the thirteenth century, who rise out of the crowd named by M. Paulin Paris. Some of these, as might be expected, are famous for their achievements in other departments of literature. Such are Adam de la Halle, Jean Bodel, Guyot de Provins. There are, however, two, Gace Brulé and Colin Muset, who survive solely but worthily as song writers. Gace Brulé was a knight of Champagne, Colin Muset a professed minstrel. The former chiefly composed sentimental work; the latter, with the proverbial or professional gaiety of his class, drew nearer to the satirical tone of the Fabliau writers. His best-known and most usually quoted work describes the different welcome which he receives from his family on his return from professional tours, according to the success or ill-success with which he has met. Two other poets, Adam de la Halle and Rutebœuf, are far more prominent in literary history. Adam de la Halle73 bore the surname 'Le Bossu d'Arras,' from his native town, though the term hunchback seems to have had no literal application to him. His exact date is not known, but it must probably have been from the fourth to the ninth decade of the thirteenth century. His dramatic works, which are of signal importance, will be noticed elsewhere. But besides these he has left some seventy or eighty lyrical pieces of one kind or another. Adam's life was not uneventful; he was at first a monk, but left his convent and married. Then he proved as faithless to his temporal as he had been to his spiritual vows. He lampooned his wife, his family, his townsmen, and, shaking the dust of Arras from his feet, retired first to Douai and then to the court of Robert of Artois, whom he accompanied to Italy. He died in that country about 1288. The style of Adam de la Halle varies from the coarsest satire to the most graceful tenderness. Of the latter the following song is a good specimen:—


Comment porroie

Trouver voie

D'aler a chelui

Cui amiete je sui?

Chainturelle, va-i

En lieu de mi;

Car tu fus sieue aussi,

Si m'en conquerra miex.

Mais comment serai sans ti?


Chainturelle, mar vous vi;

Au deschaindre m'ochies;

De mes grietes a vous me confortoie,

Quant je vous sentoie,

Ai mi!

A le saveur de mon ami.

Ne pour quant d'autres en ai,

A cleus d'argent et de soie,

Pour men user.

Mais lasse! comment porroie

Sans cheli durer

Qui me tient en joie?

Canchonnete, chelui proie

Qui le m'envoya,

Puis que jou ne puis aler la.

Qu'il en viengne a moi,

Chi droit,

A jour failli,

Pour faire tous ses boins,

Et il m'orra,

Quant il ert joins,

Canter a haute vois:

Par chi va la mignotise,

Par chi ou je vois.


Rutebœuf (whose name appears to be a nickname only) has been more fortunate than most of the poets of early France in leaving a considerable and varied work behind him, and in having it well and collectively edited74. Little or nothing, however, is known about him, except from allusions in his own verse. He was probably born about 1230; he was certainly married in 1260; there is no allusion in his poems to any event later than 1285. By birth he may have been either a Burgundian or a Parisian. His work which, as has been said, is not inconsiderable in volume, falls into three well-marked divisions in point of subject. The first consists of personal and of comic poems; the second of poems sometimes satirical, sometimes panegyrical, on public personages and events; the third, which is apparently with reason assigned to the latest period of his life, of devotional poems. In the first division La Pauvreté Rutebœuf, Le Mariage Rutebœuf, etc., are complaints of his woeful condition; complaints, however, in which there is nearly as much satire as appeal. Others, such as Renart le Bestourné, Le Dit des Cordeliers, Frère Denise, Le Dit de l'Erberie, are poems of the Fabliau kind. In all these there are many lively strokes of satire, and not a little of the reckless gaiety, chequered here and there with deeper feeling, which has always been a characteristic of a certain number of French poets. Rutebœuf's sarcasm is especially directed towards the monastic orders. The second class of poems, which is numerous, displays a more elevated strain of thought. Many of these poems are complaintes or elaborate elegies (often composed on commission) for distinguished persons, such as Geoffroy de Sargines and Guillaume de Saint Amour. Others, such as the Complainte d'Outremer, the Complainte de Constantinople, the Dit de la Voie de Tunes, the Débat du Croisé et du Décroisé, are comments on the politics and history of the time, for the most part strongly in favour of the crusading spirit, and reproaching the nobility of France with their degeneracy. 'Mort sont Ogier et Charlemagne' is an often-quoted exclamation of Rutebœuf in this sense. The third class includes La Mort Rutebœuf, otherwise La Repentance Rutebœuf, La Voie de Paradis, various poems to the Virgin, the lives of St. Mary of Egypt and St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and the miracle play of Théophile. Rutebœuf's favourite metres are either the continuous octosyllabic couplet, or else a stanza composed of an octosyllabic couplet and a line of four syllables, the termination of the latter being caught up by the succeeding couplet. In this the Mariage is written, of which a specimen may be given:—

En l'an de l'incarnacïon,

VIII jors aprés la nascïon

Jhesu qui soufri passïon,

en l'an soissante,

qu'arbres n'a foille, oisel ne chante,

fis je toute la rien dolante

que de cuer m'aime:

nis li musarz musart me claime.

or puis filer, qu'il me faut traime;

mult ai a faire.

deus ne fist cuer tant de pute aire,

tant li aie fait de contraire

ne de martire,

s'il en mon martire se mire,

qui ne doie de bon cuer dire

'je te claim cuite.'

envoier un home en Egypte,

ceste dolor est plus petite

que n'est la moie;

je n'en puis mais se je m'esmoie.

l'en dit que fous qui ne foloie

pert sa saison:

sui je marïez sanz raison?

or n'ai ne borde ne maison.

encor plus fort:

por plus doner de reconfort

a ceus qui me heent de mort,

tel fame ai prise

que nus fors moi n'aime ne prise,

et s'estoit povre et entreprise,

quant je la pris.

a ci marïage de pris,

c'or sui povres et entrepris

ausi comme ele,

et si n'est pas gente ne bele.

cinquante anz a en s'escuële,

s'est maigre et seche:

n'ai pas paor qu'ele me treche.

despuis que fu nez en la greche

deus de Marie,

ne fu mais tele espouserie.

je sui toz plains d'envoiserie:

bien pert a l'uevre.

Though he has less of the 'lyrical cry' than some others, Rutebœuf is perhaps the most vigorous poet of his time.

Lais. Marie de France.

There is one division of early poetry which may also be noticed under this head, though it is sometimes dealt with as a kind of miniature epic. This is the lai, a term which is used in old French poetry with two different significations. The Trouvères of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries made of it a regular lyrical form. But the most famous of its examples, those which now pass under the name of Marie de France, are narrative poems in octosyllabic verse and varying in length considerably. It is agreed that the term and the thing are of Breton origin; and the opinion which seems most probable is that the word originally had reference rather to the style of music with which the harper accompanied his verse, than to the measure, arrangement, or subject of the latter. As to Marie herself75, nothing is known about her with certainty. She lived in England in the reign of Henry III, and often gives English equivalents for her French words. The lais which we possess, written by her and attributed to her, are fourteen in number. They bear the titles of Gugemer, Equitan, Le Fresne, Le Bisclaveret, Lanval, Les Deux Amants, Ywenec, Le Laustic, Milun, Le Chaitivel, Le Chèvrefeuille, Eliduc, Graalent and L'Espine. Mr. O'Shaughnessy has paraphrased several of these in English76; they are all narrative in character. Their distinguishing features are fluent and melodious versification, pure and graceful language — among the purest and most graceful, though decidedly Norman in character, of the time — true poetical feeling, and a lively faculty of invention and description. After Marie there was a tendency to approximate the lai to the Provençal descort, and at last, as we have said, it acquired rules and a form quite alien from those of its earlier examples. There is a general though not a universal inclination to melancholy of subject in the early lays, a few of which are anonymous.

Note to Third Edition.— M. Gaston Paris has expressed some surprise at my remarks on metre (p. 63). This from so accomplished a scholar is a curious instance of the difficulty which Frenchmen seem to feel in appreciating quantity. To an English eye and ear which have been trained to classical prosody the trochaic rhythm of, for instance, the Pastourelle quoted on p. 65, is unmistakable, and there are anapaestic metres to be found here and there in early poems of the same kind. Indeed, all French poetry is easily scanned quantitatively, though the usual authorities protest against such scansion. Voltaire, it is said, took Turgot's hexameters for prose, and the significance of this is the same whether the mistake, as is probable, was mischievous or whether it was genuine.

67 Leipsic, 1870.

68 See note at end of chapter.

69 This miscellaneous lyric for the most part awaits collection and publication. M. G. Raynaud has given a valuable Bibliographie des Chansonniers Français des XIIIe et XIVe siècles. 2 vols., Paris, 1884. Also a collection of motets. Paris, 1881.

70 Philippe Mouskès. This is it:

La terre fut pis en cest an

Quar li vieux Quesnes estoit mors.

71 The best edition is in Schéler's Trouvères Belges. Brussels, 1876.

72 Rheims, 1851.

73 The most convenient place to look for Adam's history and work is Le Théâtre Français au Moyen Age. Par Monmerqué et Michel. Paris, 1874. There are also separate editions of him by Coussemaker, and more recently by A. Rambeau. Marburg, 1886.

74 By A. Jubinal. 2nd edition. 3 vols. Paris, 1874.

75 Ed. Roquefort. 2 vols. Paris, 1820. The first volume contains the lays; the later the fables, which have been noticed in the last chapter. Later edition, Warnke. Halle, 1885. Marie also wrote a poem on the Purgatory of St. Patrick. Three other lays, Tidorel, Gringamor, and Tiolet have been attributed to her, and are printed in Romania, vol. viii.

76 Lays of France, London, 1872.


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