A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 9.

Later Songs and Poems.

The Artificial Forms of Northern France.

Not the least important division of early French literature, in point of bulk and peculiarity, though not always the most important in point of literary excellence, consists of the later lyrical and miscellaneous poems of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. By the end of the thirteenth century the chief original developments had lost their first vigour, while, on the other hand, the influence of the regular forms of Provençal poetry had had time to make itself fully felt. There arose in consequence, in northern France, a number of artificial forms, the origin and date of which is somewhat obscure, but which rapidly attained great popularity, and which continued for fully two centuries almost to monopolise the attention of poets who did not devote themselves to narrative. These forms, the Ballade, the Rondeau, the Virelai, etc., have already been alluded to as making their appearance among the later growths of early lyrical poetry. They must now be treated in the abundant development which they received at the hands of a series of poets from Lescurel to Charles d'Orléans.

General Character. Varieties.

The principle underlying all these forms is the same, that is to say, the substitution for the half-articulate refrain of the early Romances, of a refrain forming part of the sense, and repeated with strict regularity at the end or in the middle of stanzas rigidly corresponding in length and constitution. In at least two cases, the lai and the pastourelle, the names of earlier and less rigidly exact forms were borrowed for the newer schemes; but the more famous and prevailing models110, the Ballade, with its modification the Chant Royal, and the Rondel, with its modifications the Rondeau and the Triolet, are new. It has been customary to see in the adoption of these forms a sign of decadence; but this can hardly be sustained in face of the fact that, in Charles d'Orléans and Villon respectively, the Rondel and the Ballade were the occasion of poetry far surpassing in vigour and in grace all preceding work of the kind, and also in presence of the service which the sonnet — a form almost if not quite as artificial — has notoriously done to poetry. It may be admitted, however, that the practitioners of the Ballade and the Rondeau soon fell into puerile and inartistic over-refinements. The forms of Ballade known as Équivoquée, Fratrisée, Couronnée, etc., culminating in the preposterous Emperière, are monuments of tasteless ingenuity which cannot be surpassed in their kind, and they have accordingly perished. But both in France and in England the Ballade itself and a few other forms have retained popularity at intervals, and have at the present day broken out into fresh and vigorous life.

Jehannot de Lescurel.
Guillaume de Machault.
Eustache Deschamps

The chief authors of these pieces during the period we are discussing were Jehannot de Lescurel, Guillaume de Machault, Eustache Deschamps, Jean Froissart, Christine de Pisan, Alain Chartier, and Charles d'Orléans. Besides these there were many others, though the epoch of the Hundred Years' War was not altogether fertile in lighter poetry or poetry of any kind. Jehannot de Lescurel111 is one of those poets of whom absolutely nothing is known. His very name has only survived in the general syllabus of contents of the manuscript which contains his works, and which is in this part incomplete. The thirty-three poems — sixteen Ballades, fifteen Rondeaus112, and two nondescript pieces — which exist are of singular grace, lightness, and elegance. They cannot be later and are probably earlier than the middle of the fourteenth century, and thus they are anterior to most of the work of the school. Guillaume de Machault was a person sufficiently before the world, and his work is very voluminous. As usual with all these poets, it contains many details of its author's life, and enables us to a certain extent to construct that life out of these indications. Machault was probably born about 1284, and may not have died till 1377. A native of Champagne and of noble birth, he early entered, like most of the lesser nobility of the period, the service of great feudal lords. He was chamberlain to Philip the Fair, and at his death became the secretary of John of Luxembourg, the well-known king of Bohemia. After the death of this prince at Cressy, he returned to the service of the court of France and served John and Charles V., finally, as it appears, becoming in some way connected with Pierre de Lusignan, king of Cyprus. His works were very numerous, amounting in all to some 80,000 lines, of which until recently nothing but a few extracts was in print. In the last few years, however, La Prise d'Alexandrie113, a rhymed chronicle of the exploits of Lusignan, and the Voir Dit114, a curious love poem in the style of the age, have been printed. Besides these his works include numerous ballades, etc., and several long poems in the style of those of Froissart, shortly to be described. On the other hand, the works of Eustache Deschamps, which are even more voluminous than those of Machault, his friend and master, are almost wholly composed of short pieces, with one notable exception, the Miroir de Mariage, a poem of 13,000 lines115. Deschamps has left no less than 1175 ballades, and as the ballade usually contains twenty-four lines at least, and frequently thirty-four, this of itself gives a formidable total. Rondeaus, virelais, etc., also proceeded in great numbers from his pen; and he wrote an important 'Art of Poetry,' a treatise rendered at once necessary and popular by the fashion of artificial rhyming. The life of Deschamps was less varied than that of Machault, whose inferior he was in point of birth, but he held some important offices in his native province, Champagne. Both Deschamps and Machault exhibit strongly the characteristics of the time. Their ballades are for the most part either moral or occasional in subject, and rarely display signs of much attention to elegance of phraseology or to weight and value of thought. In the enormous volume of their works, amounting in all to nearly 200,000 lines, and as yet mostly unpublished, there is to be found much that is of interest indirectly, but less of intrinsic poetical worth. The artificial forms in which they for the most part write specially invite elegance of expression, point, and definiteness of thought, qualities in which both, but especially Deschamps, are too often deficient. When, for instance, we find the poet in his anxiety to discourage swearing, filling, in imitation of two bad poets of his time, one, if not two ballades116 with a list of the chief oaths in use, it is difficult not to lament the lack of critical spirit displayed.


Froissart, though inferior to Lescurel, and though far less remarkable as a poet than as a prose writer, can fairly hold his own with Deschamps and Machault, while he has the advantage of being easily accessible117. The later part of his life having been given up to history, he is not quite so voluminous in verse as his two predecessors. Yet, if the attribution to him of the Cour d' Amour and the Trésor Amoureux be correct, he has left some 40,000 or 50,000 lines. The bulk of his work consists of long poems in the allegorical courtship of the time, interspersed with shorter lyrical pieces in the prevailing forms. One of these poems, the Buisson de Jonece, is interesting because of its autobiographical details; and some shorter pieces approaching more nearly to the Fabliau style, Le Dit du Florin, Le Débat du Cheval et du Lévrier, etc., are sprightly and agreeable enough. For the most part, however, Froissart's poems, like almost all the poems of the period, suffer from the disproportion of their length to their matter. If the romances of the time, which are certainly not destitute of incident, be tedious from the superabundance of prolix description, much more tedious are these recitals of hyperbolical passion tricked out with all the already stale allegorical imagery of the Roman de la Rose and with inappropriate erudition of the fashion which Jean de Meung had confirmed, if he did not set it.

Christine de Pisan.

Christine de Pisan, who was born in 1363, was a pupil of Deschamps, as Deschamps had been a pupil of Machault. She was an industrious writer, a learned person, and a good patriot, but not by any means a great poetess. So at least it would appear, though here again judgment has to be formed on fragments, a complete edition of Christine never having been published, and even her separate poems being unprinted for the most part, or printed only in extract. Besides a collection of Ballades, Rondeaux, and so forth, she wrote several Dits (the Dit de la Pastoure, the Dit de Poissy, the Dittié de Jeanne d'Arc, and some Dits Moraux), besides a Mutation de Fortune, a Livre des Cent Histoires de Troie, etc., etc.

Alain Chartier.

Alain Chartier, who was born in or about 1390, and who died in 1458, is best known by the famous story of Margaret of Scotland, queen of France, herself an industrious poetess, stooping to kiss his poetical lips as he lay asleep. He also awaits a modern editor. Like Froissart, he devoted himself to allegorical and controversial love poems, and like Christine to moral verse. In the former he attained to considerable skill, and a ballade, which will presently be given, will show his command of dignified expression. On the whole he may be said to be the most complete example of the scholarliness which tended more and more to characterise French poetry at this time, and which too often degenerated into pedantry. Chartier is the first considerable writer of original work who Latinises much; and his practice in this respect was eagerly followed by the rhétoriqueur school both in prose and verse. He himself observed due measure in it; but in the hands of his successors it degraded French to an almost Macaronic jargon.

In all the earlier work of this school not a little grace and elegance is discoverable, and this quality manifests itself most strongly in the poet who may be regarded as closing the strictly mediaeval series, Charles d'Orléans118. The life of this poet has been frequently told. As far as we are concerned it falls into three divisions. In the first, when after his father's death he held the position of a great feudal prince almost independent of royal control, it is not recorded that he produced any literary work. His long captivity in England was more fruitful, and during it he wrote both in French and in English. But the last five-and-twenty years of his life, when he lived quietly and kept court at Blois (bringing about him the literary men of the time from Bouciqualt to Villon, and engaging with them in poetical tournaments), were the most productive. His undoubted work is not large, but the pieces which compose it are among the best of their kind. He is fond, in the allegorical language of the time, of alluding to his having 'put his house in the government of Nonchaloir,' and chosen that personage for his master and protector. There is thus little fervency of passion about him, but rather a graceful and somewhat indolent dallying with the subjects he treats. Few early French poets are better known than Charles d'Orléans, and few deserve their popularity better. His Rondeaux on the approach of spring, on the coming of summer and such-like subjects, deserve the very highest praise for delicate fancy and formal skill.

Of poets of less importance, or whose names have not been preserved, the amount of this formal poetry which remains to us is considerable. The best-known collection of such work is the Livre des Cent Ballades119, believed, on tolerably satisfactory evidence, to have been composed by the famous knight-errant Bouciqualt and his companions on their way to the fatal battle of Nicopolis. Before, however, the fifteenth century was far advanced, poetry of this formal kind fell into the hands of professional authors in the strictest sense, Grands Rhétoriqueurs as they were called, who, as a later critic said of almost the last of them, 'lost all the grace and elegance of the composition' in their elaborate rules and the pedantic language which they employed. The complete decadence of poetry in which this resulted will be treated partly in the summary following the present book, partly in the first chapter of the book which succeeds it.

Meanwhile this frail but graceful poetry may be illustrated by an irregular Ballade from Lescurel, a Chanson Balladée from Machault, a Virelai from Deschamps, a Ballade from Chartier, and a Rondel from Charles d'Orléans.

Jehannot de Lescurel.

Amour, voules-vous acorder

Que je muire pour bien amer?

Vo vouloir m'esteut agreer;

Mourir ne puis plus doucement;


Amours, faciez voustre talent.

Trop de mauvais portent endurer

Pour celi que j'aim sanz fausser

N'est pas par li, au voir parler,

Ains est par mauparliere gent.


Amours, faciez voustre talent.

Dous amis, plus ne puis durer

Quant ne puis ne n'os regarder

Vostre doue vis, riant et cler.

Mort, alegez mon grief torment;

Ou, briefment,

Amours, faciez voustre talent.

Guillaume de Machault.

Onques si bonne journee

Ne fu adjournee,

Com quant je me departi

De ma dame desiree

A qui j'ay donnee

M'amour, & le cuer de mi.

Car la manne descendi

Et douceur aussi,

Par quoi m'ame saoulee

Fu dou fruit de Dous ottri,

Que Pite cueilli

En sa face coulouree.

La fu bien l'onnour gardee

De la renommee

De son cointe corps joli;

Qu'onques villeine pensee

Ne fu engendree

Ne nee entre moy & li.

Onques si bonne journee, &c.

Souffisance m'enrichi

Et Plaisance si,

Qu'onques creature nee

N'ot le cuer si assevi,

N'a mains de sousci,

Ne joie si affinee.

Car la deesse honnouree

Qui fait l'assemblee

D'amours, d'amie & d'ami,

Coppa le chief de s'espee

Qui est bien tempree,

A Dangier, mon anemi.

Onques si bonne journee, &c.

Ma dame l'enseveli

Et Amours, par fi

Que sa mort fust tost plouree.

N'onques Honneur ne souffri

(Dont je l'en merci)

Que messe li fu chantee.

Sa charongne trainee

Fu sans demouree

En un lieu dont on dit: fi!

S'en fu ma joie doublee,

Quant Honneur l'entree

Ot dou tresor de merci.

Onques si bonne journee, &c.

Eustache Deschamps.

Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?

Il me semble, a mon avis,

Que j'ay beau front et doulz viz,

Et la bouche vermeilette;

Dictes moy se je sui belle.

J'ay vers yeulx, petit sourcis,

Le chief blont, le nez traitis,

Ront menton, blanche gorgette;

Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle, etc.

J'ay dur sain et hault assis,

Lons bras, gresles doys aussis,

Et, par le faulx, sui greslette;

Dictes moy se je sui belle.

J'ay piez rondes et petiz,

Bien chaussans, et biaux habis,

Je sui gaye et foliette;

Dictes moy se je sui belle.

J'ay mantiaux fourrez de gris,

J'ay chapiaux, j'ay biaux proffis,

Et d'argent mainte espinglette;

Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?

J'ay draps de soye, et tabis,

J'ay draps d'or, et blanc et bis,

J'ay mainte bonne chosette;

Dictes moy se je sui belle.

Que quinze ans n'ay, je vous dis;

Moult est mes tresors jolys,

S'en garderay la clavette;

Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?

Bien devra estre hardis

Cilz, qui sera mes amis,

Qui ora tel damoiselle;

Dictes moy se je sui belle?

Et par dieu, je li plevis,

Que tres loyal, se je vis,

Li seray, si ne chancelle;

Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?

Se courtois est et gentilz,

Vaillains, apers, bien apris,

Il gaignera sa querelle;

Dictes moy se je sui belle.

C'est uns mondains paradiz

Que d'avoir dame toudiz,

Ainsi fresche, ainsi nouvelle;

Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?

Entre vous, acouardiz,

Pensez a ce que je diz;

Cy fine ma chansonnelle;

Sui-je, sui-je, sui-je belle?

Alain Chartier.

O folz des folz, et les folz mortelz hommes,

Qui vous fiez tant es biens de fortune

En celle terre, es pays ou nous sommes,

Y avez-vous de chose propre aucune?

Vous n'y avez chose vostre nes-une,

Fors les beaulx dons de grace et de nature.

Se Fortune donc, par cas d'adventur

Vous toult les biens que vostres vous tenez,

Tort ne vous fait, aincois vous fait droicture,

Car vous n'aviez riens quant vous fustes nez.

Ne laissez plus le dormir a grans sommes

En vostre lict, par nuict obscure et brune,

Pour acquester richesses a grans sommes.

Ne convoitez chose dessoubz la lune,

Ne de Paris jusques a Pampelune,

Fors ce qui fault, sans plus, a creature

Pour recouvrer sa simple nourriture.

Souffise vous d'estre bien renommez,

Et d'emporter bon loz en sepulture:

Car vous n'aviez riens quant vous fustes nez.

Les joyeulx fruictz des arbres, et les pommes,

Au temps que fut toute chose commune,

Le beau miel, les glandes et les gommes

Souffisoient bien a chascun et chascune:

Et pour ce fut sans noise et sans rancune.

Soyez contens des chaulx et des froidures,

Et me prenez Fortune doulce et seure.

Pour vos pertes, griefve dueil n'en menez,

Fors a raison, a point, et a mesure,

Car vous n'aviez riens quant vous fustes nez.

Se Fortune vous fait aucune injure,

C'est de son droit, ja ne l'en reprenez,

Et perdissiez jusques a la vesture:

Car vous n'aviez riens quant vous fustes nez.

Charles D'orléans.

Le temps a laissie son manteau

De vent, de froidure et de pluye,

Et s'est vestu de brouderie,

De soleil luyant, cler et beau.

Il n'y a beste, ne oyseau,

Qu'en son jargon ne chante ou crie:

Le temps a laissie son manteau

De vent, de froidure et de pluye.

Riviere, fontaine et ruisseau

Portent, en livree jolie,

Gouttes d'argent d'orfavrerie,

Chascun s'abille de nouveau:

Le temps a laissie son manteau.

110 The following is an account of these forms, in their more important developments. The ballade consists of three stanzas, and an envoy, or final half-stanza, which is sometimes omitted. The number of the lines in each stanza is optional, but it should not usually be more than eleven or less than eight. The peculiarity of the poem is that the last line of every stanza is identical, and that the rhymes are the same throughout and repeated in the same order. The examples printed at the end of this chapter from Lescurel and Chartier will illustrate this sufficiently. There is no need to enter into the absurdity of ballades équivoquées, emperières, etc., further than to say that their main principle is the repetition of the same rhyming word, in a different sense, it may be twice or thrice at the end of the line, it may be at the end and in the middle, it may be at the end of one line and the beginning of the next. The chant royal is a kind of major ballade having five of the longest (eleven-lined) stanzas and an envoy of five lines. The rondel is a poem of thirteen lines (sometimes made into fourteen by an extra repetition), consisting of two quatrains and a five-lined stanza, the first two lines of the first quatrain being repeated as the last two of the second, and the first line of all being added once more at the end. The rondeau, a poem of thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen lines, is arranged in stanzas of five, four, and four, five, or six lines, the last line of the second and third stanzas consisting of the first words of the first line of the poem. The triolet is a sort of rondel of eight lines only, repeating the first line at the fourth, and the first and second at the seventh and eighth. Lastly, the villanelle alternates one of two refrain lines at the end of each three-lined stanza. These are the principal forms, though there are many others.

111 Ed. Montaiglon. Paris, 1855.

112 The Rondeau is not in Lescurel systematised into any regular form.

113 Ed. L. de Mas Latrie. Société de l'Orient Latin, Geneva, 1877. This is a poem not much shorter than the Voir Dit, but continuously octosyllabic and very spirited. The final account of the murder of Pierre (which he provoked by the most brutal oppression of his vassals) is full of power.

114 Ed. P. Paris. Société des Bibliophiles, Paris, 1875. This is a very interesting poem consisting of more than 9000 lines, mostly octosyllabic couplets, with ballades, etc. interspersed, one of which is given at the end of this chapter. It is addressed either to Agnes of Navarre, or, as M. P. Paris thought, to Péronelle d'Armentières, and was written in 1362, when the author was probably very old.

115 Deschamps is said to have been also named Morel. A complete edition of his works has been undertaken for the Old French Text Society by the Marquis de Queux de Saint Hilaire.

116 Ballades, 147, 149. Ed. Queux de St. Hilaire.

117 Ed. Schéler. 3 vols. Brussels, 1870-1872.

118 Ed. Héricault. 2 vols. Paris, 1874. Charles d'Orléans was the son of the Duke of Orleans, who was murdered by the Burgundians, and of Valentina of Milan. He was born in 1391, taken prisoner at Agincourt, ransomed in 1449, and he died in 1465. His son was Louis XII.

119 Ed. Queux de St. Hilaire. Paris, 1868.


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29