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I

LATEST MEDIÆVAL POETS

 

The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries form a period of transition from the true Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The national epopee was dead; the Arthurian tales were rehandled in prose; under the influence of the Roman de la Rose, allegory was highly popular, and Jean de Meun had shown how it could be applied to the secularisation of learning; the middle classes were seeking for instruction. In lyric poetry the free creative spirit had declined, but the technique of verse was elaborated and reduced to rule; ballade, chant royal, lai, virelai, rondeau were the established forms, and lyric verse was often used for matter of a didactic, moral, or satirical tendency. Even Ovid was tediously moralised (c. 1300) in some seventy thousand lines by Chrétien Legouais. Literary societies or puys1 were instituted, which maintained the rules of art, and awarded crowns to successful competitors in poetry; a formal ingenuity replaced lyrical inspiration; poetry accepted proudly the name of "rhetoric." At the same time there is gain in one respect—the poets no longer conceal their own personality behind their work: they instruct, edify, moralise, express their real or simulated passions in their own persons; if their art is mechanical, yet through it we make some acquaintance with the men and manners of the age.

1 Puy, mountain, eminence, signifying the elevated seat of the judges of the artistic competition.

The chief exponent of the new art of poetry was GUILLAUME DE MACHAUT. Born about 1300, he served as secretary to the King of Bohemia, who fell at Crécy. He enjoyed a tranquil old age in his province of Champagne, cultivating verse and music with the applause of his contemporaries. The ingenuities of gallantry are deployed at length in his Jugement du Roi de Navarre; he relates with dull prolixity the history of his patron, Pierre de Lusignan, King of Cyprus, in his Prise d'Alexandrie; the Voir dit relates in varying verse and prose the course of his sexagenarian love for a maiden in her teens, Peronne d'Armentières, who gratified her coquetry with an old poet's adoration, and then wedded his rival.

In the forms of his verse EUSTACHE DESCHAMPS, also a native of Champagne (c. 1345-1405), was a disciple of Machaut: if he was not a poet, he at least interests a reader by rhymed journals of his own life and the life of his time, written in the spirit of an honest bourgeois, whom disappointed personal hopes and public misfortune had early embittered. Eighty thousand lines, twelve hundred ballades, nearly two hundred rondeaux, a vast unfinished satire on woman, the Miroir de Mariage, fatigued even his own age, and the official court poet of France outlived his fame. He sings of love in the conventional modes; his historical poems, celebrating events of the day, have interest by virtue of their matter; as a moralist in verse he deplores the corruption of high and low, the cupidity in Church and State, and, above all, applies his wit to expose the vices and infirmities of women. The earliest Poetic in French—L'art de dictier et de fere chançons, balades, virelais, et rondeaulx (1392)—is the work of Eustache Deschamps, in which the poet, by no means himself a master of harmonies, insists on the prime importance of harmony in verse.

The exhaustion of the mediæval sources of inspiration is still more apparent in the fifteenth-century successors of Deschamps. But already something of the reviving influence of Italian culture makes itself felt. CHRISTINE DE PISAN, Italian by her parentage and place of birth (c. 1363), was left a widow with three young children at the age of twenty-five. Her sorrow, uttered in verse, is a genuine lyric cry; but when in her poverty she practised authorship as a trade, while she wins our respect as a mother, the poetess is too often at once facile and pedantic. Christine was zealous in maintaining the honour of her sex against the injuries of Jean de Meun; in her prose Cité des Dames she celebrates the virtues and heroism of women, with examples from ancient and modern times; in the Livre des Trois Vertus she instructs women in their duties. When advanced in years, and sheltered in the cloister, she sang her swan-song in honour of Joan of Arc. Admirable in every relation of life, a patriot and a scholar, she only needed one thing—genius—to be a poet of distinction.

A legend relates that the Dauphiness, Margaret of Scotland, kissed the lips of a sleeper who was the ugliest man in France, because from that "precious mouth" had issued so many "good words and virtuous sayings." The sleeper was Christine's poetical successor, ALAIN CHARTIER. His fame was great, and as a writer of prose he must be remembered with honour, both for his patriotic ardour, and for the harmonious eloquence (modelled on classical examples) in which that ardour found expression. His first work, the Livre des Quatre Dames, is in verse: four ladies lament their husbands slain, captured, lost, or fugitive and dishonoured, at Agincourt. Many of his other poems were composed as a distraction from the public troubles of the time; the title of one, widely celebrated in its own day, La Belle Dame sans Mercy, has obtained a new meaning of romance through its appropriation by Keats. In 1422 he wrote his prose Quadrilogue Invectif, in which suffering France implores the nobles, the clergy, the people to show some pity for her miserable state. If Froissart had not discerned the evils of the feudal system, they were patent to the eyes of Alain Chartier. His Livre de l'Espérance, where the oratorical prose is interspersed with lyric verse, spares neither the clergy nor the frivolous and dissolute gentry, who forget their duty to their country in wanton self-indulgence; yet his last word, written at the moment when Joan of Arc was leaving the pastures for battle, is one of hope. His Curial (The Courtier) is a satire on the vices of the court by one who had acquaintance with its corruption. The large, harmonious phrase of Alain Chartier was new to French prose, and is hardly heard again until the seventeenth century.

The last grace and refinements of chivalric society blossom in the poetry of CHARLES D'ORLÉANS, "la grâce exquise des choses frêles." He was born in 1391, son of Louis, Duke of Orleans, and an Italian mother, Valentine of Milan. Married at fifteen to the widow of Richard II. of England, he lost his father by assassination, his mother by the stroke of grief, his wife in childbirth. From the battlefield of Agincourt he passed to England, where he remained a prisoner, closely guarded, for twenty-five years. It seems as if events should have made him a tragic poet; but for Charles d'Orléans poetry was the brightness or the consolation of his exile. His elder years at the little court of Blois were a season of delicate gaiety, when he enjoyed the recreations of age, and smiled at the passions of youth. He died in 1465. Neither depth of reflection nor masculine power of feeling finds expression in his verse; he does not contribute new ideas to poetry, nor invent new forms, but he rendered the old material and made the accepted moulds of verse charming by a gracious personality and an exquisite sense of art. Ballade, rondeau, chanson, each is manipulated with the skill of a goldsmith setting his gems. He sings of the beauty of woman, the lighter joys of love, the pleasure of springtide, the song of the birds, the gliding of a stream or a cloud; or, as an elder man, he mocks with amiable irony the fatiguing ardours of young hearts. When St. Valentine's day comes round, his good physician "Nonchaloir" advises him to abstain from choosing a mistress, and recommends an easy pillow. The influence of Charles d'Orléans on French poetry was slight; it was not until 1734 that his forgotten poems were brought to light.

In the close of the mediæval period, when old things were passing away and new things were as yet unborn, the minds of men inclined to fill the void with mockery and satire. Martin Lefranc (c. 1410-61) in his Champion des Dames—a poem of twenty-four thousand lines, in which there is much spirit and vigour of versification—balances one against another the censure and the praise of women. Coquillard, with his railleries assuming legal forms and phrases, laughs at love and lovers, or at the Droits Nouveaux of a happy time when licence had become the general law. Henri Baude, a realist in his keen observation, satirises with direct, incisive force, the manners and morals of his age. Martial d'Auvergne (c. 1433-1508), chronicling events in his Vigiles de Charles VII., a poem written according to the scheme of the liturgical Vigils, is eloquent in his expression of the wrongs of the poor, and in his condemnation of the abuses of power and station. If the Amant rendu Cordelier be his, he too appears among those who jest at the follies and extravagance of love. His prose Arrêts d'Amour are discussions and decisions of the imaginary court which determines questions of gallantry.

Amid such mockery of life and love, the horror of death was ever present to the mind of a generation from which hope and faith seemed to fail; it was the time of the Danse Macabré; the skeleton became a grim humourist satirising human existence, and verses written for the dance of women were ascribed in the manuscript which preserves them to Martial d'Auvergne.

Passion and the idea of death mingle with a power at once realistic and romantic in the poetry of FRANÇOIS VILLON. He was born in poverty, an obscure child of the capital, in 1430 or 1431; he adopted the name of his early protector, Villon; obtained as a poor scholar his bachelor's degree in 1449, and three years later became a maître ès arts; but already he was a master of arts less creditable than those of the University. In 1455 Villon—or should we call him Monterbier, Montcorbier, Corbueil, Desloges, Mouton (aliases convenient for vagabondage)?—quarrelled with a priest, and killed his adversary; he was condemned to death, and cheered his spirits with the piteous ballade for those about to swing to the kites and the crows; but the capital punishment was commuted to banishment. Next winter, stung by the infidelity and insults of a woman to whom he had abandoned himself, he fled, perhaps to Angers, bidding his friends a jesting farewell in the bequests of his Petit Testament. Betrayed by one who claimed him as an associate in robbery, Villon is lost to view for three years; and when we rediscover him in 1461, it is as a prisoner, whose six months' fare has been bread and water in his cell at Meun-sur-Loire. The entry of Louis XI., recently consecrated king, freed the unhappy captive. Before the year closed he had composed his capital work, the Grand Testament, and proved himself the most original poet of his century. And then Villon disappears; whether he died soon after, whether he lived for half a score of years, we do not know.

While he handles with masterly ease certain of the fifteenth-century forms of verse—in particular the ballade—Villon is a modern in his abandonment of the traditional machinery of the imagination, its convention of allegories and abstractions, and those half-realised moralisings which were repeated from writer to writer; he is modern in the intensity of a personal quality which is impressed upon his work, in the complexity of his feelings, passing from mirth to despair, from beauty to horror, from cynical grossness to gracious memories or aspirations; he is modern in his passion for the real, and in those gleams of ideal light which are suddenly dashed across the vulgar surroundings of his sorry existence. While he flings out his scorn and indignation against those whom he regarded as his ill-users, or cries against the injuries of fortune, or laments his miserable past, he yet is a passionate lover of life; and shadowing beauty and youth and love and life, he is constantly aware of the imminent and inexorable tyranny of death. The ideas which he expresses are few and simple—ideas common to all men; but they take a special colour from his own feelings and experiences, and he renders them with a poignancy which is his own, with a melancholy gaiety and a desperate imaginative sincerity. His figure is so interesting in itself—that of the enfant perdu of genius—and so typical of a class, that the temptation to create a Villon legend is great; but to magnify his proportions to those of the highest poets is to do him wrong. His passionate intensity within a limited range is unsurpassed; but Villon wanted sanity, and he wanted breadth.

In his direct inspiration from life, co-operating with an admirable skill and science in literary form, Villon stands alone. For others—Georges Chastelain, Meschinot, Molinet, Crétin—poetry was a cumbrous form of rhetoric, regulated by the rules of those arts of poetry which during the fifteenth century appeared at not infrequent intervals. The grands rhétoriqueurs with their complicated measures, their pedantic diction, their effete allegory, their points and puerilities, testify to the exhaustion of the Middle Ages, and to the need of new creative forces for the birth of a living literature.

There is life, however, in the work of one remarkable prose-writer of the time—ANTOINE DE LA SALLE. His residence in Rome (1422) had made him acquainted with the tales of the Italian novellieri; he was a friend of the learned and witty Poggio; René of Anjou entrusted to him the education of his son; when advanced in years he became the author certainly of one masterpiece, probably of three. If he was the writer of the Quinze Joies de Mariage, he knew how to mask a rare power of cynical observation under a smiling face: the Church had celebrated the fifteen joys of the Blessed Virgin; he would ironically depict the fifteen afflictions of wedded life, in scenes finely studied from the domestic interior. How far the Cent Nouvelles nouvelles are to be ascribed to him is doubtful; it is certain that these licentious tales reproduce, with a new skill in narrative prose, the spirit of indecorous mirth in their Italian models. The Petit Jehan de Saintré is certainly the work of Antoine de la Salle; the irony of a realist, endowed with subtlety and grace, conducts the reader through chivalric exaltations to vulgar disillusion. The writer was not insensible to the charm of the ideals of the past, but he presents them only in the end to cover them with disgrace. The anonymous farce of Pathelin, and the Chronique de petit Jehan de Saintré, are perhaps the most instructive documents which we possess with respect to the moral temper of the close of the Middle Ages; and there have been critics who have ventured to ascribe both works to the same hand.