A Short History of French Literature, by George Saintsbury

Chapter 4.

The Pléiade.

Character and Effects of the Pléiade Movement.

Almost exactly at the middle of the sixteenth century a movement took place in French literature which has no parallel in literary history, except the similar movement which took place, also in France, three centuries later. The movement and its chief promoters are indifferently known in literature by the name of the Pléiade, a term applied by the classical affectation of the time to the group of seven men192, Ronsard, Du Bellay, Belleau, Baïf, Daurat, Jodelle, and Pontus de Tyard, who were most active in promoting it, and who banded themselves together in a strict league or coterie for the attainment of their purposes. These purposes were the reduction of the French language and French literary forms to a state more comparable, as they thought, to that of the two great classical tongues. They had no intention (though such an intention has been falsely attributed to them both at the time and since) of defacing or destroying their mother-tongue. On the contrary, they were animated by the sincerest and, for the most part, the most intelligent love for it. But the intense admiration of the severe beauties of classical literature, which was the dominant literary note of the Renaissance, translated itself in their active minds into a determination to make, if it were possible, French itself more able to emulate the triumphs of Greek and of Latin. This desire, even if it had borne no fruit, would have honourably distinguished the French Renaissance from the Italian and German forms of the movement. In Italy the humanists, for the most part, contented themselves with practice in the Latin tongue, and in Germany they did so almost wholly. But no sooner had the literature of antiquity taken root in France than it was made to bear novas frondes et non sua poma of vernacular literature. There were some absurdities committed by the Pléiade no doubt, as there always are in enthusiastic crusades of any kind: but it must never be forgotten that they had a solid basis of philological truth to go upon. French, after all, despite a strong Teutonic admixture, was a Latin tongue, and recurrence to Latin, and to the still more majestic and fertile language which had had so much to do in shaping the literary Latin dialect, was natural and germane to its character. In point of fact, the Pléiade made modern French — made it, we may say, twice over; for not only did its original work revolutionise the language in a manner so durable that the reaction of the next century could not wholly undo it, but it was mainly study of the Pléiade that armed the great masters of the Romantic movement, the men of 1830, in their revolt against the cramping rules and impoverished vocabulary of the eighteenth century. The effect of the change indeed was far too universal for it to be possible for any Malherbe or any Boileau to overthrow it. The whole literature of the nation, at a time when it was wonderfully abundant and vigorous, 'Ronsardised' for nearly fifty years, and such practice at such a time never fails to leave its mark. The actual details of the movement cannot better be given than by going through the list of its chief participators.

The Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française.

Pierre de Ronsard193, Prince of Poets194, was born at La Poissonnière, in the Vendômois, or, as it was then more often called, the Gâtinais, on the banks of the river Loir, in 1524. He died in his own country in the year 1585, acknowledged, not merely in France but out of it, as the leader of living poets. His early life, however, was rather that of a man of action than of a poet, and one of the most studious of poets. His father was an old courtier and servant of Francis I., whose companion in captivity he had been, and Ronsard entered upon court life when he was a boy of ten years old. He visited Scotland and England in the suite of French ambassadors, and remained for some considerable time in Great Britain. He was also attached to embassies in Flanders, Holland, and Germany. But before he was of age he fell ill, and though he recovered, it was at the cost of permanent deafness, which incapacitated him for the public service. He threw himself on literature for a consolation, and under the direction of Daurat, a scholar of renown, studied for years at the Collège Coqueret. Here Du Bellay, Belleau, Baïf, were his fellow-students, and the four with their master, with Étienne Jodelle, and with Pontus de Tyard, afterwards bishop of Chalon, formed, as has been said, the Pléiade according to the most orthodox computation. The idea conceived and carried out in these studious years (by Ronsard himself and Du Bellay beyond all doubt in the first place) was the reformation of French language and French literature by study and imitation of the ancients. In 1549 the manifesto of the society issued, in the shape of Du Bellay's Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française, and in 1550 the first practical illustration of the method was given by Ronsard's Odes. The principles of the Défense et Illustration may be thus summarised. The author holds that the current forms of literature, dizains, rondeaus, etc., are altogether too facile and easy, that the language used is too pedestrian, the treatment wanting in gravity and art. He would have Odes of the Horatian kind take the place of Chansons, the sonnet, non moins docte que plaisante invention Italienne, of dizains and huitains, regular tragedy and comedy of moralities and farces, regular satires of Fatrasies and Coq-à-l'âne. He takes particular pains to demonstrate the contrary proposition to Wordsworth's, and to prove that merely natural and ordinary language is not sufficient for him who in poesy wishes to produce work deserving of immortality. He ridicules the mediaeval affectations and conceits of some of the writers of his time, who gave themselves such names as 'Le Banni de Liesse,' 'Le Traverseur des Voies Périlleuses,' etc. He speaks, indeed, not too respectfully of mediaeval literature generally, and uses language which probably suggested Gabriel Harvey's depreciatory remarks about the Fairy Queen forty years later. In much of this there is exaggeration, and in much more of it mistake. By turning their backs on the middle ages — though indeed they were not able to do it thoroughly — the Pléiade lost almost as much in subject and spirit as they gained in language and formal excellence. The laudation of the sonnet, while the ballade and chant royal, things of similar nature and of hardly less capacity, are denounced as épiceries, savours of a rather Philistine preference for mere novelty and foreign fashions. But, as has been already pointed out, Du Bellay was right in the main, and it must especially be insisted on that his aim was to strengthen and reform, not to alter or misguide, the French language. The peroration of the book in a highly rhetorical style speaks of the writer and his readers as having 'échappé du milieu des Grecs et par les escadrons Romains pour entrer jusqu'au sein de la tant désirée France.' That is to say, the innovators are to carry off what spoils they can from Greece and Rome, but it is to be for the enrichment and benefit of the French tongue. Frenchmen are to write French, not Latin and Greek; but they are to write it not merely in a conversational way, content as Du Bellay says somewhere else, 'n'avoir dit rien qui vaille aux neuf premiers vers, pourvu qu'au dixième il y ait le petit mot pour rire.' They are to accustom themselves to long and weary studies, 'ear ce sont les ailes dont les escripts des hommes volent au ciel,' to imitate good authors, not merely in Greek and Latin, but in Italian, Spanish, or any other tongue where they may be found. Such was the manifesto of the Pléiade; and no one who has studied French literature and French character, who knows the special tendency of the nation to drop from time to time into a sterile self-admiration, and an easy confidence that it is the all-sufficient wonder of the world, can doubt its wisdom. Certainly, whatever may be thought of it in the abstract, it was justified of its children. The first of these was, as has been said, Ronsard's Odes, published in 1550. These he followed up, in 1552, by Les Amours de Cassandre, in 1553 by a volume of Hymnes, as well as by Le Bocage Royal, Les Amours de Marie, sonnets, etc., all of which were, in 1560, republished in a collected edition of four volumes. From the first Ronsard had been a very popular poet at court, where, according to a well-known anecdote, Marguerite de Savoie, the second of the Valois Marguerites, snatched his first volume from Mellin de Saint Gelais, who was reading it in a designed tone of burlesque, and reading it herself to her brother Henry II. and the court, obtained a verdict at once for the young poet. The accession of Charles IX. brought Ronsard still more into favour, and during the next ten years he produced many courtly poems of the occasional kind, besides others to suit his own pleasure. In 1572 the first part of his most ambitious, but perhaps least successful, work appeared. This was the Franciade, a dull epic. At the death of Charles, Ronsard retired to his native province, where he had an abbacy, Croix-Val. Here all his poetical powers returned, and in his last Amours, Sonnets to Hélène, and other pieces, some of his very best work is to be found. The year before his death he produced an edition of his works much altered, but by no means invariably improved.

There are few poets to whose personal merits there is more unanimity of trustworthy testimony than there is to those of Ronsard. From the time of his betaking himself to literary work, he seems to have been wholly given to study, and to the contemplation of natural beauty. Although jealous of his own great reputation, and liable to be nettled when it was imperilled, as it was by Du Bartas, he was as a rule singularly placable in literary quarrels. The story of his quarrelling with Rabelais is late, unsupported, and to all appearance fabulous; while, on the other hand, the passages which have been supposed to reflect on the Pléiade in the writings of Rabelais can, for chronological reasons, by no possibility refer to Ronsard or his friends. Lastly, the poet appears to have had no thought of writing for gain, and though, like all his contemporaries, he did not scruple to solicit favours from the king, he was in no way importunate or servile. But while his personal character, as well as the extraordinary esteem in which he was held by all his contemporaries, has never been seriously contested, critical estimates of his literary work have strangely varied. To his own age he was the 'Prince of Poets.' His successor, Malherbe, behaved to him as certain popes are reported to have behaved to their predecessors, excommunicating him in the literary sense. Boileau, with his usual ignorance of French literature before his own day, described his work in lines which French schoolboys long learnt by heart, and which are as false in fact as they are imbecile in criticism. Fénelon was almost the only sincere partisan he had for two centuries. But when the Romantic movement began Ronsard was for a while almost restored to the position he held in his lifetime, and his works became a kind of Bible to the disciples of Sainte-Beuve and the followers of Hugo. The strong mediaeval revival which accompanied the movement was however unfavourable to Ronsard, and he has again sunk, though not very low, in the general estimation of French critics. The history is curious, and as a literary phenomenon instructive. But it is not difficult for an impartial judge to place Ronsard in his true position. His main defects are two: he was too much a poet of malice prepense, and yet he wrote on the whole too fluently. The mass of his work is great, and it is not always, nor perhaps very often, animated by those unmistakable and universal poetical touches which in the long run will alone suffice to induce posterity to keep a writer on its shelf of great poets. Yet these touches are by no means wanting in Ronsard. Many of his sonnets, especially the famous and universally admired 'Quand vous serez bien vieille,' not a few of his odes, especially the equally famous 'Mignonne, allons voir si la rose,' rank among those poems of which it can only be said that they could not be better, and detached passages innumerable deserve hardly lower praise. But it is when Ronsard is viewed from the standpoint of a thoroughly instructed historical criticism that his real greatness appears. It is when we look at the poets that came before him and at those who came after him that we see the immense benefit he conferred upon his successors, and upon the language which those successors illustrated. The result of his classical studies was little less than the introduction of an entirely new rhythm into French poetry: let it be observed that a new rhythm, and not merely new metre, is what is spoken of. Since the disuse of the half-inarticulate but sweet rhythmical varieties of the mediaeval pastourelles and romances a great monotony had come upon French poetry. The fault of the artificial forms of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries, the épiceries of Du Bellay's scornful allusion, was that they induced their writers to concentrate their attention on the arrangement of the rhymes and stanzas, to the neglect of the individual line, the rhythm of which was but too frequently lame, stiff, and prosaic in the extreme. With Marot and Saint Gelais the introduction of less formal patterns, dizains, huitains, etc., had had the additional drawback of making the individual verse even more prosaic and pedestrian, though it may be somewhat less stiff. Now the line is, after all, the unit of poetry, and all reform must start with it. It is the great glory of Ronsard that his reform did so start. From his time French poetry reads quite differently. Perhaps this was due to his study of the Horatian quantity-metres, where every syllable has to give its quota to the effect of the line as well as every line its quota to the effect of the stanza. But whether it was this or something else, the effect is indisputable. To this must be added a liberal, though in Ronsard's own case not excessive, importation of new words from Greek and Latin, a bold and striking mode of expression, the retention of many picturesque old words which the senseless folly of the seventeenth-century reformers banished, and, above all, a great indulgence in diminutives, which give a most charming effect to the lighter verse of Ronsard and his friends, and which also were cut off by the indiscriminate and 'desperate hook' of Malherbe and Boileau. So great were the formal changes and improvements thus introduced, that French poetry takes a new colour from the age of Ronsard, a colour which in its moments of health it has ever since displayed.

Du Bellay.

Next to Ronsard, and perhaps above him, if uniform excellence rather than bulk and range of work is considered, ranks Joachim du Bellay195. He was a connection, though it does not seem quite clear what connection, of the Cardinal du Bellay to whom Rabelais was so long attached, and whose house included other illustrious members. Probably he was a cousin of the cardinal and of his two brothers the memoir writers. His youth was rendered troublesome by illness and law difficulties, but at last he was able with Ronsard, whose junior he was by a little, to give himself up to study under Daurat. His prose manifesto has already been dealt with, and almost immediately afterwards he in some sort anticipated Ronsard's poetical carrying out of his principles by a volume of Sonnets to Olive, the anagram of a certain Mademoiselle de Viole. The sonnet, however, was not such an absolute novelty as the ode, having been introduced already by Mellin de Saint Gelais. Shortly afterwards he went to Italy with the Cardinal du Bellay, a proceeding which did not bring him good luck. The intriguing diplomacy of the papal court displeased him, and he soon lost his cousin's favour. A volume of sonnets entitled Regrets, full of vigour and poetry, dates from this time. But Du Bellay, deprived of the protection of the most powerful member of his family, again fell into difficulties, and finally died in 1560 at the age of thirty-five. His Roman sojourn has given birth to perhaps the finest of his works, Les Antiquités de Rome, Englished by Spenser under the slightly altered title of 'The Ruins of Rome.' Du Bellay's works are not extensive, and indeed they could hardly be so, considering the shortness of his life and the interruptions of business and study which even that short life underwent. But he is undoubtedly the member of the group whose work keeps at the highest level. Nor is his excellence limited to one or two tones. For grace and simplicity his Vanneur, his Épitaphe d'un Chat, and several others of his Jeux Rustiques challenge comparison. He had a strong vein of satire, which he showed in denouncing fawning poetasters as well as the corrupt and intriguing hangers on of the Papal court. His sonnets to Olive have the finest flavour of the peculiarly cultivated and graceful voluptuousness which has been noted as one of the distinguishing marks of the French Renaissance. His Antiquités de Rome exhibit even more strongly another of those distinguishing marks, the melancholy sense of death, destruction, and nothingness; indeed, as the Heptameron is the typical prose work of this period, so Du Bellay's poems may be taken as its typical poetry. He has been called the Apollo of the Pléiade, but he should with justice be called its Mercury as well, for, as he was perhaps its best poet, so he was certainly its best prose writer. It is unlucky that he was less favoured by fate and fortune than any other of the greater writers of the century.


The position of best poet of the Pléiade — Ronsard, the greatest, having mingled a good deal of alloy with his gold — has been sometimes disputed for Rémy Belleau196. It is certain that his 'Avril' holds with Du Bellay's 'Vanneur' and Ronsard's already-mentioned 'Quand vous serez bien vieille,' the rank of the best known and best liked poems of the school. Belleau, whose life was extremely uneventful, was born at Nogent-le-Rotrou in 1528, and was attached during nearly the whole of his life to the household of Rémy de Lorraine, Marquis d'Elbeuf, and his son Charles, Duc d'Elbeuf, whose education he superintended and in whose house he spent his days. He died in 1577 and received an elaborate funeral, being carried to the grave by his brother stars, Ronsard and Baïf, and by two of the younger disciples of the Pléiade, Desportes and Jamyn. Belleau was the chief purely descriptive poet and the chief poetical translator of the Pléiade. He began by a collection of poems entitled Petites Inventions (short descriptive pieces), and by a translation of Anacreon. In 1565 a more ambitious work, the Bergerie, made its appearance. This is a mixture of prose and poetry, describing country life and its attractions. It is in this that the famous 'Avril' occurs, and there are other detached pieces not much inferior. In 1566 another rather curiously conceived work made its appearance, the Amours et Nouveaux Échanges de Pierres Précieuses. As a whole this is perhaps his best book. Besides these, Belleau also translated or paraphrased the Phenomena of Aratus, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon. He deserves to rank with not a few poets who have often attained a fair secondary position in the art, and whose special faculty disposes them to patient and ingenious description in more or less poetical verse. The stately and at the same time flexible rhythm, the brilliant and varied vocabulary which the Pléiade used, lent themselves not ill to this task, and Belleau's talent, learning, and industry enabled him to give an unusually equable charm to his work. But he is altogether too occasional, too void of the higher poetical sentiment, and too limited in range, to be ranked with Ronsard or with Du Bellay. His peculiar quality of patient labour stood him in good stead in composing a Macaronic poem on the Huguenots, which is by no means without value.


Jean Antoine de Baïf197 was a man of more varied talent than Belleau, and his history and personality are more interesting. He was the natural son of Lazare de Baïf, French ambassador at Venice, and of a noble lady of that city. Marriage was impossible, for Lazare de Baïf, who was himself a man of letters, was in orders; but he did his best for his son, and in 1547, when he was still very young, left him a considerable fortune. Baïf was, except Jodelle, the youngest member of the Pléiade, but he early distinguished himself by his expertness in the classical languages. He began in French, like the majority of his school, with a collection of sonnets and other pieces, entitled Les Amours de Méline, and he followed them up with the Amours de Francine. Francine is said to have had over her predecessor the advantage or disadvantage of existing. Baïf then turned to the new theatre, which his comrade Jodelle had introduced, and translated or adapted several plays of Plautus, Terence, and Sophocles, but these will be noticed elsewhere. He returned to poetry proper in Les Passe-Temps, a poetical miscellany of merit. Lastly, in 1581, appeared a curious work, entitled Les Mimes, composed of octosyllabic dizains, half-moral, half-satirical in tone and subject. Baïf, who was thought by some of his contemporaries to write even better in Latin than in French, was a chief defender of the often-mooted though preposterous plan of adjusting modern languages to the exact metres of the ancients. This idea, which somewhat later seduced no less a man than Spenser for a time, and with him many of the brightest wits in England, is perhaps almost more hopeless in French than in our own tongue, owing to the omnipotence of accent and the habit of slurring almost all the syllables of a word except one. But it was frequently entertained at different times through the century, and is said by Agrippa d'Aubigné to have been started as early as 1530 by a certain Mousset, of whom there is no other trace. Baïf, who was also a spelling reformer, wrote a good deal of verse in the metres he advocated, but with no greater success than the other adventurous persons who have attempted the same tour de force. He is also said to have conceived the idea of an Academy, and to have in many other ways shown himself an active and ardent reformer of letters. It is for this alertness of spirit and general proficiency in literary craftsmanship that Baïf is memorable, rather than for supreme or even remarkable poetical power. His epitaphs are among his best work, probably owing to his careful study of the hardly-to-be-surpassed examples of this kind of composition which the classical languages afford. He was a diligent panegyrist of country life and country ways, but no single work of his in this class comes up to the masterpieces of Ronsard, Du Bellay, and Belleau. Range, variety, and inventiveness of spirit are Baïf's chief merits.

Daurat, Jodelle, Pontus de Tyard.

The three remaining members of the group may be disposed of more rapidly. Daurat, the eldest, and in a sense the master of all, was, as far as regards French composition, the dark star of the Pléiade, for he wrote nothing of importance in the vernacular. Jodelle was a voluminous writer, but his dramatic importance so far exceeds his merely poetical value that he will be best treated of when we come to discuss the Theatre of the Renaissance. A somewhat curious instance of his poetical energy is to be found in his unfinished, indeed hardly begun, Contre-Amours. All the rest had started with a volume of verse in praise of some real or imaginary mistress, so Jodelle determined to write one against an unkind lady. The seventh member of the Pléiade, Pontus de Tyard, was the eldest save Daurat, the longest-lived and the highest in station, while he was also in a way the most original, having published his first book before the appearance of the Défense et Illustration. He was born at Bissy, near Macon, and, having been appointed Bishop of Chalon, died in 1603, last of the group. Poetry was only part of his literary occupations, and literary work itself by no means absorbed him. But his Erreurs Amoureuses, addressed to a certain Pasithée, and other works, give him fair rank in the school. He has been erroneously credited with the introduction of the sonnet into France, an honour which is probably due, as has been more than once observed, to Saint Gelais. But if he did not introduce the form, he at least contributed one of its most striking examples in his beautiful Sonnet to 'Sleep,' a favourite subject of the age both in France and England.

The Pléiade proper by no means monopolised all the poetical talent of the period. Indeed, there can be no surer testimony to the real strength of the movement than the universal adherence which was given to its methods by those who were in no sense bound to it by personal connection. A second Pléiade might be made up of members who had almost as much poetical talent as the actual titular stars. Magny, Tahureau, Du Bartas, D'Aubigné, Desportes, Bertaut, had each of them talent not far inferior to that of Du Bellay and of Ronsard, and equal to that of the five minor members. Garnier was immensely Jodelle's superior in his own line. Jamyn, Durant, Passerat, the two La Tailles, Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, even La Boëtie, who had, as far as can be made out, far more vocation in poetry than in prose, are names at least equal to those of Pontus de Tyard or Baïf. But they did not form part of the energetic coterie who started and pushed the movement, and so they have lacked the reputation which the combined and successful effort of the Seven has given them. Yet Du Bartas is the one French poet of the sixteenth century who wrote a poem on the great scale with success, and D'Aubigné ranks with Regnier and Victor Hugo in the strength and vigour of his verse.


Olivier de Magny198 was a kind of petted child of the Pléiade. His Amours are prefaced by commendatory verses, among which compositions of four out of the seven — Ronsard, Baïf, Belleau and Jodelle — figure, and he was as strenuous in carrying out the recommendations of Du Bellay's Illustration as any of the seven themselves. His Amours just mentioned, his Odes, his Gayetés even, testify to the obedient admiration which young verse-writers often show for the leading poets of their day. But there is no servile imitation in Magny. His life was short, and the dates of its beginning and ending are not exactly known, though he died in 1560. He was a lover of Louise Labé, and was worthy of her, poetically speaking. He was born, like Marot, at Cahors; he went to Rome, like many other literary men of his time, on a diplomatic errand; and his works were all published between 1553 and his death. The Odes are the best of them; the Gayetés are light and lively enough; and in both his volumes of sonnets, but especially in the Soupirs, excellent examples of the form are to be found. Magny had a strong feeling for the formal art of poetry, and it was thus natural that he should eagerly embrace the gospel of Ronsard. But besides this, he had a true poetical imagination, and a real command of poetical language. A sonnet in dialogue, which greatly attracted the admiration of Colletet, the historian of French poetry in the next age, is perhaps not much more than a tour de force. But many of his other pieces show real feeling, and have a certain youthfulness about them which suits well with the sentiments they express, and the ardour of literary as well as amatory devotion which the poet endeavours to convey.


Still younger and probably still more short-lived, but superior as a poet, was Jacques Tahureau199. He was born at Le Mans of a noble family, and died at the age of twenty-eight. But his life, if short, was a happy one, and, like most of his contemporaries, he published a volume of amatory sonnets under the title, gracefully affected even for that age of graceful affectation, of Mignardises Amoureuses de l'Admirée. Unlike many of the heroines of the Pléiade and their satellites, who are either known or shrewdly suspected to have been imaginary, the Admirée of Tahureau was a real person. What is more, he married her, and they lived together for three years before his early death. Before the Mignardises, he had published a Premier Recueil, and after them he produced a third volume of odes, sonnets, etc. All three display the same peculiarities, and these peculiarities are sufficiently remarkable. Tahureau was named by the flattery and the classical fancies of his contemporaries the French Catullus, and the parallel is not so rash as might be thought. It is true that it came originally from Du Bellay in one of his satirical veins. But a later poetical critic, Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, is more precise in his description, and oddly enough uses the very term which was afterwards applied in England to Shakespeare's youthful sonnets. Tahureau, he says:—

Nous affrianda tous au sucre de cet art.

The author of the Mignardises is indeed somewhat 'sugared' in his style of writing; but there are genuine passion and genuine poetical feeling as well in his verse. Of the minor poets of the time he is probably the best.

Minor Ronsardists.

Before noticing the four remaining poets who have been mentioned as occupying the highest places next to the Pléiade itself, a brief review of the minor poets until the end of the century may be given. Étienne de la Boëtie wrote poems which, though they have some of the stiffness and a little of the hollowness of his Contre-un, possess a certain grandeur of sentiment and a knack of diction other than commonplace, which explain Montaigne's admiration. Claude Buttet is chiefly remarkable for having made a curious attempt to combine the classicism of the new school with the romanticism of the old. He wrote Sapphics in rhyme, an idea sufficiently ingenious, but hardly successful. Yet it is fair to remember that some of the varieties of Leonine verse lacked neither force nor elegance. The truth is, that these classic metres are so alien to all modern tongues, that, rhymed or unrhymed, they are doomed to failure. Jean de la Péruse was, like Magny and Tahureau, a poet who died before he had reached his term. At twenty-five few men have left lasting works. Yet La Péruse not only produced a tragedy of some merit, but minor poems promising more. Jean Doublet was a much older man, and is chiefly noticeable as an example of the writers who, beginning with Marot, or even with Crétin, and the Rhétoriqueurs for models, bowed to the overmastering influence of the Pléiade. Docility of this kind, however, rarely promises much poetical worth, and Doublet was not a great poet; but his poems, which have had better fortune in the way of reprints than those of greater men, show power of versification.

Amadis Jamyn was a somewhat more distinguished poet than those who have just been mentioned. Born in 1540, he came to Paris, when the triumph and supremacy of Ronsard was completely assured, and was taken under the protection of the Prince of Poets. He was also honoured, as we have seen, by being allowed to stand by the side of Ronsard, of Baïf, of Desportes, at the funeral of Rémy Belleau. He translated the last twelve books of the Iliad to complete Salel, and began a translation of the Odyssey; besides which he wrote a poem on the Chase, another on Generosity, and, like everybody else at the time, abundance of miscellaneous pieces. He was a good scholar, and there was more ease in his verse than is usually to be found in his contemporaries (save the greatest of them), who too often allowed their classical studies to stiffen and starch their verse. Another admirable poet, though of no great compass, was the dramatist Grévin. His Villanesques, a modified form of the favourite Villanelle, which had survived the other épiceries condemned by Du Bellay, are singularly graceful and tender, epithets which are also applicable to his Baisers. The brothers La Taille also, like Grévin, are chiefly known as dramatists. Jean de la Taille, though but a boy of ten years old when the style Marotique was swept out of fashion, had sufficient independence to compose blasons (and very pretty ones) of the daisy and the rose. Others of his poems have mediaeval forms or settings, but he imitated Ronsard in his Mort de Paris, and Du Bellay in his Courtisan Retiré. The works of Jacques de la Taille, who died young, were chiefly epigrams. Guy du Faur de Pibrac wrote moral quatrains, which had a great vogue, and which in a way deserved it. Nicolas Rapin was, with the exception of Passerat, the chief of the poets of the Ménippée, a remarkable group, who will be noticed further when we come to that singular production. But Passerat himself deserves more notice than simply as a political satirist and a famous Latin scholar. Of all the poets of the sixteenth century before Regnier and after Marot, Passerat was the one who possessed most comic talent. His works are full of little touches which exhibit this, while at the same time he was a master of the graceful love of poetry which imitation of the ancients had made fashionable. His Villanelle 'J'ai perdu ma Tourterelle' is probably the most elegant specimen of a poetical trifle that the age produced, and has of late years attracted great admiration. Vauquelin de la Fresnaye, a lawyer, the author of an Art of Poetry, and of the first satires, so called, in French, had a good deal of poetical power, which he expended chiefly on pastoral subjects; but unfortunately his command of language and style was by no means always equal to his command of fresh and agreeable imagery and sentiment.

Du Bartas.

Guillaume de Saluste du Bartas200, the 'Protestant Ronsard,' was born in 1544 at Montfort, near Auch, served Henry of Navarre in war and diplomacy, was wounded at Ivry, and died of his wounds in 1590. His first work was Judith; then followed La Première Semaine, and next Uranie, Le Triomphe de la Foi, and the Seconde Semaine. He also wrote numerous smaller poems, including one on the battle of Ivry. The 'First Week of Creation' is his greatest and most famous work. It went through thirty editions in a few years; was translated into English by Sylvester, gave not a little inspiration to Milton, and was warmly admired by Goethe. Ronsard at first eagerly welcomed Du Bartas; but his jealousy being aroused by the pretensions of the Calvinist party to set up their poet as a rival to himself, he resented this in an indignant and vigorous address to Daurat, which contains some very just criticisms on Du Bartas. Nevertheless the merits of the latter are extremely great, and his personage and work very interesting. It has been said of him that he represents, in the first place, the extreme development of the Ronsardising innovation; in the second place, the highest literary culture attained by the French Calvinists. Inferior to D'Aubigné in knowledge of the world, in the choice of subjects perennially interesting, and in terse vigour of expression, Du Bartas was the superior of the great Protestant satirist in picturesqueness, in imagination, and in facility of descriptive power. The stately and gorgeous abundance of the vocabulary with which the Hellenising and Latinising innovations of the Pléiade enriched the French language supplied him with colours and material to work with, and his own genius did the rest. His attempt to naturalise Greek compounds, such as 'Aime-Lyre,' 'Donne-Âme,' and the rest, has done him more harm than anything else; but his combination of classical learning, with the varied colour and vivid imagination of the middle age and the Renaissance, often results in extraordinarily striking expressions. L'Eschine azurée, for instance, is a singularly picturesque, if also somewhat barbaric, reminiscence of ευρεα νωτα θαλασσης: the enforcement of the idea of hora novissima tempora pessima in the four following lines is admirable:—

Nos exécrables mœurs, dedans Gomorrhe apprises,

Les troublées saisons, les civiles fureurs,

Les menaces du ciel, sont les avant-coureurs

De Christ, qui vient tenir ses dernières assises.

In such a passage again as the following, the power and simplicity of the diction can escape no reader; the piling up of the strokes is worthy of Victor Hugo:—

Les étoiles cherront. Le désordre, la nuict,

La frayeur, le trespas, la tempeste, le bruit,

Entreront en quartier.

All that was wanting to make Du Bartas a poet of the first rank was some faculty of self-criticism; of natural verve and imagination as well as of erudition he had no lack, but in critical faculty he seems to have been totally deficient. His beauties, rare in kind and not small in amount, are alloyed with vast quantities of dull absurdity.


Agrippa d'Aubigné201 was a few years Du Bartas' junior, and long outlived him. He was an important prose-writer as well as poet, and his long life was as full of interesting events as of literary occupations. At six years old he read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew; a year or two later his father made him swear, in presence of the gibbeted corpses of the unsuccessful conspirators of Amboise, to revenge their death. Shortly afterwards he narrowly escaped the stake. For a time he dwelt with Henry of Navarre at the court of Charles IX., and there thoroughly imbued himself with the Ronsardising tradition. But he soon escaped with his master, and for years was a Calvinist irreconcileable, always for war to the knife, and as rude and bold in the council chamber as in the field. The death of his master was unfortunate for D'Aubigné; but, though he at first opposed the regency of Marie de Medicis, he made terms for himself. The publication, however, of his 'History' brought enemies on him, and he fled to Geneva, finishing his days there. His prose works are too numerous to mention separately: the chief besides his histories are the Confession de Sancy and the Aventures du Baron de Fæneste, both satirical in character and full of vigour. He began as a poet by poems in the lighter Pléiade style, but his masterpiece is the strange work called Les Tragiques. This consists of seven books, amounting to not much less than ten thousand lines, and entitled Misères, Princes, La Chambre Dorée, Les Feux, Les Fers, Vengeance, Jugement. The poem is half historical and half satirical, dealing with the religious wars, the persecution of the Huguenots, the abuses of the administration, and of contemporary manners, etc. Nothing equal to the best verses of this singular book had yet been seen in France, and not much equal to them has been produced since. The tone of sombre and impressive declamation had been to some extent anticipated by Du Bartas, but chiefly for purposes of description. D'Aubigné turned it to its natural use in invective, and the effect is often extraordinarily fine. Very copious citation would be necessary to show its excellence: but before Victor Hugo there is nothing in French equal to D'Aubigné at his best in point of clangour of sound and impetuosity of rhythm. It is noteworthy that Du Bartas' Semaine, with the Tragiques and the tragedies of Garnier, finally established the Alexandrine as the indispensable metre for serious and impassioned poetry in France. Hitherto the decasyllable and the dodecasyllable had been used indiscriminately, and Ronsard's Franciade is written in the former. But after the three poets just mentioned, the Alexandrine became invariable; the decasyllable being left for light and occasional work, as a sort of medium in usage as in bulk between the Alexandrine and the octosyllable. The truth is that, until the improvements of language and style which the Pléiade had introduced, the Alexandrine couplet had not had either suppleness or dignity enough for the work. It was lumbering and disjointed. As soon, however, as the classical turn, inseparable from a specially classical metre, had been given to the language, it at once took its place and has ever since kept it, though in the century succeeding it was deprived of much of its force by arbitrary rules. The lines of Boileau condemning Ronsard202 have inseparably connected Desportes and Bertaut, and have given them a position in literary history which is as intrinsically inaccurate as it is unduly high. Neither approaches Du Bartas or D'Aubigné in poetical excellence or in adroit carrying out of Ronsardism. But neither was in the least made retenu by Ronsard's failure, and it did not enter the head of themselves or any of their contemporaries, till their last days, that Ronsard had failed. Philippe Desportes203 was a very unclerical cleric, a successful courtier and diplomatist, a great favourite with the ladies of the court. He was also a poet of little vigour, but of great sweetness, much elegance of style and form, and extraordinary neatness, if not originality, of expression. With Jamyn he was the most prominent of Ronsard's own particular disciples. His poetical works are sharply divided, like those of Herrick and Donne and some other poets, on the one hand, into poems of a very mundane character, collections of sonnets after the Pléiade fashion to real or imaginary heroines, celebrations of the ladies and the mignons of the court of Henri III., imitations of Italian verse, and the like; on the other, into devotional poems, which include some translations of the Psalms of not a little merit. Personally Desportes appears to have been a self-seeker and a sycophant; not without good nature, but covetous, intriguing, corrupt, given to base compliances. He was Du Bellay's poëte courtisan in the worst sense of the phrase204. But working at leisure and with care, and undistracted by any literary or sentimental enthusiasm, he found means to give to his work a polish and correctness which many of his contemporaries of greater talent did not, or could not, give. In this fact the explanation of Boileau's commendation — for it is no doubt meant, relatively speaking, for commendation — is probably to be found.


Jean Bertaut was, to use a metaphor frequently employed in literary history, the 'moon' of Desportes. Like him, he is a poet rather elegant than vigorous, rather correct than spirited. Like him, he wrote light verse and devotional poems, and, as in the case of Desportes, the religious poems are — rather contrary to the reader's expectation — the best of the two. His work, however, was even more limited in amount than that of his contemporary.

192 The list is sometimes given rather differently; instead of Jodelle and Pontus de Tyard, Scévole de St. Marthe and Muretus are substituted. But the enumeration in the text is the accepted one.

193 Ed. Blanchemain. 8 vols. Paris, 1857-67.

194 The term usually applied to him by contemporaries.

195 Ed. Marty-Laveaux. 2 vols. Paris, 1866-7.

196 Ed. Gouverneur. 3 vols. Paris, 1866.

197 Not recently re-edited in full. In selection by Becq de Fouquières. Paris, 1874.

198 Recently edited in 5 vols. by Courbet. Paris, v. d.

199 Ed. Blanchemain. 2 vols. Geneva, 1869.

200 Du Bartas, always unjustly treated in France, probably from a curious tradition of mingled sectarian and literary jealousy, has not been reprinted of late years. The edition used is that of 1610-1611. Paris, 2 vols, folio.

201 Ed. Réaume and de Caussade. Vols. 1-4. Paris, 1873-7. There is another volume to follow.

202 Here are these celebrated lines:—

Ronsard, qui le suivit, par une autre méthode

Réglant tout, brouilla tout, fit un art à sa mode,

Et toutefois longtemps eut un heureux destin.

Mais sa muse en Français parlant Grec et Latin

Vit dans l'âge suivant, par un retour grotesque,

Tomber de ses grands mots le faste pédantesque.

Ce poète orgueilleux, trébuché de si haut,

Rendit puis retenus Desportes et Bertaut.


Art Poét., Chant i.

203 Ed. Michiels. Paris, 1858.

204 He was not a courtier for nothing. He held numerous abbacies, and Charles IX. is said to have given him 800 gold pieces, Henri III. 10,000 crowns of silver, in each case for a poetical offering of very small bulk.


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