To the Lady Violet Lebas.
Dear Lady Violet — I do not wonder that you are puzzled by the language of the first French novel. The French of “Aucassin et Nicolette” is not French after the school of Miss Pinkerton, at Chiswick. Indeed, as the little song-story has been translated into modern French by M. Bida, the painter (whose book is very scarce), I presume even the countrywomen of Aucassin find it difficult. You will not expect me to write an essay on the grammar, nor would you read it if I did. The chief thing is that “s” appears as the sign of the singular, instead of being the sign of the plural, and the nouns have cases.
The story must be as old as the end of the twelfth century, and must have received its present form in Picardy. It is written, as you see, in alternate snatches of verse and prose. The verse, which was chanted, is not rhymed as a rule, but each laisse, or screed, as in the “Chanson de Roland,” runs on the same final assonance, or vowel sound throughout.
So much for the form. Who is the author? We do not know, and never shall know. Apparently he mentions himself in the first lines:
“Who would listen to the lay,
Of the captive old and gray;”
for this is as much sense as one can make out of del deport du viel caitif.
The author, then, was an old fellow. I think we might learn as much from the story. An old man he was, or a man who felt old. Do you know whom he reminds me of? Why, of Mr. Bowes, of the Theatre Royal, Chatteris; of Mr. Bowes, that battered, old, kindly sentimentalist who told his tale with Mr. Arthur Pendennis.
It is a love story, a story of love overmastering, without conscience or care of aught but the beloved. And the viel caitif tells it with sympathy, and with a smile. “Oh, folly of fondness,” he seems to cry; “oh, pretty fever and foolish; oh, absurd happy days of desolation:
“When I was young, as you are young,
And lutes were touched, and songs were sung!
And love-lamps in the windows hung!”
It is the very tone of Thackeray, when Thackeray is tender; and the world heard it first from this elderly nameless minstrel, strolling with his viol and his singing boys, a blameless D’Assoucy, from castle to castle in the happy poplar land. I think I see him and hear him in the silver twilight, in the court of some chateau of Picardy, while the ladies around sit listening on silken cushions, and their lovers, fettered with silver chains, lie at their feet. They listen, and look, and do not think of the minstrel with his gray head, and his green heart; but we think of him. It is an old man’s work, and a weary man’s work. You can easily tell the places where he has lingered and been pleased as he wrote.
The story is simple enough. Aucassin, son of Count Garin, of Beaucaire, loved so well fair Nicolette, the captive girl from an unknown land, that he would never be dubbed knight, nor follow tourneys; nor even fight against his father’s mortal foe, Count Bougars de Valence. So Nicolette was imprisoned high in a painted chamber. But the enemy were storming the town, and, for the promise of “one word or two with Nicolette, and one kiss,” Aucassin armed himself and led out his men. But he was all adream about Nicolette, and his horse bore him into the press of foes ere he knew it. Then he heard them contriving his death, and woke out of his dream.
“The damoiseau was tall and strong, and the horse whereon he sat fierce and great, and Aucassin laid hand to sword, and fell a-smiting to right and left, and smote through helm and headpiece, and arm and shoulder, making a murder about him, like a wild boar the hounds fall on in the forest. There slew he ten knights, and smote down seven, and mightily and knightly he hurled through the press, and charged home again, sword in hand.” For that hour Aucassin struck like one of Mallory’s men in the best of all romances. But though he took Count Bougars prisoner, his father would not keep his word, nor let him have one word or two with Nicolette, and one kiss. Nay, Aucassin was thrown into prison in an old tower. There he sang of Nicolette,
“Was it not the other day
That a pilgrim came this way?
And a passion him possessed,
That upon his bed he lay,
Lay, and tossed, and knew no rest,
In his pain discomforted.
But thou camest by his bed,
Holding high thine amice fine
And thy kirtle of ermine.
Then the beauty that is thine
Did he look on; and it fell
That the Pilgrim straight was well,
Straight was hale and comforted.
And he rose up from his bed,
And went back to his own place
Sound and strong, and fair of face.”
Thus Aucassin makes a Legend of his lady, as it were, assigning to her beauty such miracles as faith attributes to the excellence of the saints.
Meanwhile, Nicolette had slipped from the window of her prison chamber, and let herself down into the garden, where she heard the song of the nightingales. “Then caught she up her kirtle in both hands, behind and before, and flitted over the dew that lay deep on the grass, and fled out of the garden, and the daisy flowers bending below her tread seemed dark against her feet, so white was the maiden.” Can’t you see her stealing with those “feet of ivory,” like Bombyca’s, down the dark side of the silent moonlit streets of Beaucaire?
Then she came where Aucassin was lamenting in his cell, and she whispered to him how she was fleeing for her life. And he answered that without her he must die; and then this foolish pair, in the very mouth of peril, must needs begin a war of words as to which loved the other best!
“Nay, fair sweet friend,” saith Aucassin, “it may not be that thou lovest me more than I love thee. Woman may not love man as man loves woman, for a woman’s love lies no deeper than in the glance of her eye, and the blossom of her breast, and her foot’s tip-toe; but man’s love is in his heart planted, whence never can it issue forth and pass away.”
So while they speak
“In debate as birds are,
Hawk on bough,”
comes the kind sentinel to warn them of a danger. And Nicolette flees, and leaps into the fosse, and thence escapes into a great forest and lonely. In the morning she met shepherds merry over their meat, and bade them tell Aucassin to hunt in that forest, where he should find a deer whereof one glance would cure him of his malady. The shepherds are happy, laughing people, who half mock Nicolette, and quite mock Aucassin, when he comes that way. But at first they took Nicolette for a fee, such a beauty shone so brightly from her, and lit up all the forest. Aucassin they banter; and indeed the free talk of the peasants to their lord’s son in that feudal age sounds curiously, and may well make us reconsider our notions of early feudalism.
But Aucassin learns at least that Nicolette is in the wood, and he rides at adventure after her, till the thorns have ruined his silken surcoat, and the blood, dripping from his torn body, makes a visible track in the grass. So, as he wept, he met a monstrous man of the wood, that asked him why he lamented. And he said he was sorrowing for a lily-white hound that he had lost. Then the wild man mocked him, and told his own tale. He was in that estate which Achilles, among the ghosts, preferred to all the kingship of the dead outworn. He was hind and hireling to a villein, and he had lost one of the villein’s oxen. For that he dared not go into the town, where a prison awaited him. Moreover, they had dragged the very bed from under his old mother, to pay the price of the ox, and she lay on straw; and at that the woodman wept.
A curious touch, is it not, of pity for the people? The old poet is serious for one moment. “Compare,” he says, “the sorrows of sentiment, of ladies and lovers, praised in song, with the sorrows of the poor, with troubles that are real and not of the heart!” Even Aucassin the lovelorn feels it, and gives the hind money to pay for his ox, and so riding on comes to a lodge that Nicolette has built with blossoms and boughs. And Aucassin crept in and looked through a gap in the fragrant walls of the lodge, and saw the stars in heaven, and one that was brighter than the rest.
Does one not feel it, the cool of that old summer night, the sweet smell of broken boughs and trodden grass and deep dew, and the shining of the star?
“Star that I from far behold
That the moon draws to her fold,
Nicolette with thee doth dwell,
My sweet love with locks of gold,”
sings Aucassin. “And when Nicolette heard Aucassin, right so came she unto him, and passed within the lodge, and cast her arms about his neck and kissed and embraced him:
“Fair sweet friend, welcome be thou!”
“And thou, fair sweet love, be thou welcome!”
There the story should end, in a dream of a summer’s night. But the old minstrel did not end it so, or some one has continued his work with a heavier hand. Aucassin rides, he cares not whither, if he has but his love with him. And they come to a fantastic land of burlesque, such as Pantagruel’s crew touched at many a time. And Nicolette is taken by Carthaginian pirates, and proves to be daughter to the King of Carthage, and leaves his court and comes to Beaucaire in the disguise of a ministrel, and “journeys end in lovers’ meeting.”
That is all the tale, with its gaps, its careless passages, its adventures that do not interest the poet. He only cares for youth, love, spring, flowers, and the song of the birds; the rest, except the passage about the hind, is mere “business” done casually, because the audience expects broad jests, hard blows, misadventures, recognitions. What lives is the touch of poetry, of longing, of tender heart, of humorous resignation. It lives, and always must live, “while the nature of man is the same.” The poet hopes his tale will gladden sad men. This service it did for M. Bida, he says, in the dreadful year of 1870–71, when he translated “Aucassin.” This, too, it has done for me in days not delightful. 6
6 “Aucassin and Nicolette” has now been edited, annotated, and equipped with a translation by Mr. F. W. Bourdillon (Kegan Paul & Trench, 1887).
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11