Seccombe and Arber, comps. Elizabethan Sonnets. 1904.
IV. The Sonnet in Sixteenth-Century France
It was from Italy that the sonneteering vogue spread to France. There it did not come to birth before the middle years of the sixteenth century, but it then developed with a rapidity and intensity which produced sonnets in number hardly inferior to the Italian record. Melin de St. Gelais (14871558) and Clément Marot (14971544) have long disputed with one another the honours of first introducing, in the third or fourth decades of the sixteenth century, the Petrarchan sonnet to France. The priority is justly allotted to Marot, who, in a detached sonnet penned in honour of a dignitary of Lyons in the year 1529, first in France touched the Petrarchan lyre.1 This and two other quatorzains of like date, in one of which he adapted an epigram from Martial, figure in Marots collection of Épigrammes. Shortly afterwards, Marot translated six sonnets and a canzone directly from Petrarch.
It was, however, only after Marots death that the reign of the sonnet was definitely inaugurated in France. That result was due to the deliberate resolve of Pierre de Ronsard and six friends, who were already acquainted with the work of Marot or Melin de St. Gelais, to adapt to the French language the finest products of foreign literature. Ronsard and his companions assumed the corporate title of La Pléiade, and adopted the sonnet as the characteristic instrument of their school. The manifesto of the new movement was written by Joachim du Bellay, one of its ablest champions. There Frenchmen were adjured to write sonnets after the manner of Petrarch and the modern Italians.2 While pointing out to the French nation all the avenues to literary culture which the ancient classics offered them, Du Bellay was especially emphatic in his commendation of the Italian sonnet as a main source of culture. Sonne-moi ces beaux sonnets, non moins docte que plaisante invention italienne, pour lesquels tu as Pétrarque et quelques modernes Italiens.3
With rare enthusiasm, Du Bellay and his colleagues devoted themselves to acclimatising in the French tongue the thought and expression of Greek writersfrom Homer and Pindar to the latest Alexandrine and Byzantine poetsand of Latin writersfrom Ovid and Vergil to the Latin versifiers of mediæval and modern Italy. To the work of the late Greek lyrists the new French poets quickly acknowledged a close affinity, and one of Ronsards and Du Bellays lieutenants, Remy Belleau, turned from manuscript Anacreons verse into sparkling French song, and published his version before the Greek text appeared in its editio princeps. But to no poet of the past did the Pléiade leaders pay such whole-hearted homage as to Petrarch, of whose work Du Bellay asserted that, if Homer and Vergil had undertaken to translate it, they would have been unable to reproduce its grace and sincerity.
The Petrarchan sonnet-sequence, with its intermingled odes and sestines and madrigals, was cultivated by Ronsard and his friends and disciples with marvellous assiduity.4 The Petrarchan vein was at once assimilated. The French sonneteers idealised beauty, alike in its yielding and wayward moods, in strict imitation of their Italian masters. The imagery is always derivative. Flowers and precious stones, planets and comets, sunrise and sunset, shipwrecks and sieges, the ghostly phantoms of lovers nights, tigresses and Medusas, march in as wearisome a procession through the French sonnet-sequences as through the Italian sonnet-sequences of the sixteenth century. Loves mundane, sensual aspects are, except in a few instances, ignored, and no reader is long left in doubt of the unreality which infects the sixteenth-century French quatorzain of love. At the same time, the French poets were fertile in adulatory sonnets addressed to men of rank and fashion, and many penned, too, long series on political and philosophical themes. But whatever the subject of the French sonnet, it is rarely that a spontaneous note was sounded.
No limits were set to the sonneteering productivity of sixteenth-century France. Ronsard, who of all his colleagues was most bountifully endowed with lyric gifts, aspired to wear the laurels of Pindar, Horace, and Anacreon, as well as those of Petrarch. But he succeeded in publishing nearly a thousand sonnets during the middle years of the century. Most of them were amorous sequences bearing such titles as Amours de Cassandre, Amours pour Hélène, and Amours pour Astrée. Ronsards ally, Du Bellay, christened a sequence of the same type Olive, and he also won renown through a long series of political and metaphysical sonnets, which he collected under the names of Regrets, and Antiquités de Rome. De Baif, a third member of the Pléiade, was equally voluminous in sonneteering addresses to fanciful mistresses like Méline and Francine, or to friends and patrons. The leaders of the new school quickly gathered about them hosts of disciples, who energetically emulated their example. In the later years of the sixteenth century, when the energy of French sonneteers was still untamed, the crown was worn among them by Philippe Desportes (15461606), a fashionable ecclesiastic, whose fluency as a sonneteer is probably unsurpassed in literature. He has little other genuine claim to lasting remembrance. All the artifices of thought and language which render the later Italian Petrarchism tedious and repugnant to true lovers of poetry, found reflection in his ample pages.5
The French Pléiade and their followers, in a greater and greater degree as the years passed, contented themselves with literal translation of the Italian words. There is probably no sonnet of Petrarch, and few of the popular sonnets of his Italian followers, which were not more or less exactly and more or less independently reproduced a dozen times or more in French verse during the later years of the sixteenth century. To a student of Italian sonnet-literature French sonnet-literature of the sixteenth century reveals practically nothing that will not be already familiar to him in its Italian original.
Although the French sonneteer failed to announce to his readers the precise Italian source whence he derived individual poems, he was true to the spirit of Du Bellays original call to arms, and avowed in general terms his veneration for the Italian sonnet, and his large debt to it. No higher eulogy could be passed on Du Bellay, in the eyes of his French admirers, than the bare statement that he had introduced into his own land the love-sonnet of Italy.6 In one of his sonnets Du Bellay tells his mistress that although she has all the charms of Laura, his lack of Petrarchs power prevents him from doing her justice.7 That regret was echoed by hundreds of Du Bellays countrymen. Desportes, in the following sonnet which he wrote for the flyleaf of a copy of Petrarchs poems (Pour mettre devant un Petrarque), struck the note that was universal:
Le labeur glorieux dun esprit admirable
Triomphe heureusement de la posterité,
Comme ce Florentin qui a si bien chanté
Que les siecles dapres nont trouvé son semblable.
La beauté nest ainsi, car elle est perissable;
Mais Laure avec ses vers un trophée a planté,
Qui fait que lon revere à jamais sa beauté,
Et qui rend son laurier verdissant et durable.
Celle qui dans ses yeux tient mon contentement,
La passant en beauté luy cède seulement
En ce quun moindre esprit la veut rendre immortelle.
Note 1. Cf. Les uvres (Paris, c. 1550), Épigrammes, pp. 469, 489, 509 (an imitation of Martial). See also uvres Complètes de Clément Marot, published by Jannet (18681872), vol. iii. p. 59 (Épigrammes). Melin de St. Gelais familiar sonnet beginning
Voyant ces monts de veue ainsi lointaine,
which is often quoted as the first of French sonnets, and which was translated by Sir Thomas Wyatt, was clearly anticipated by the efforts of his friend Marot. [back]
Note 2. Du Bellays manifesto, which revolutionised French literature, was entitled Défense et illustration de la langue Française, and was published in February 1549. It recommended the deliberate imitation in French of the best Greek, Latin, and Italian poetry. [back]
Note 3. Défense et illustration, etc., IIe partie, ch. iv. [back]
Note 4. The precise relations between the Pléiade and Petrarch are well indicated in Le Pétrarquisme au XVIe Siécle. Pétrarque et Ronsard, par Marius Pieri (Marseilles, 1896). [back]
Note 5. Desportes pillages of Italian poetry covered a wide area, and many were very civilly indicated in his lifetime in a rare volume called Les Rencontres des Muses de France et dItalie (Lyon, 1604). Desportes translated and adapted a very large number of the sonnets of Serafino dell Aquila and of Antonio Tebaldeo, both writers of the fifteenth century (cf. Francesco Flamini, Studi di storia letteraria italiana e straniera, Livorno, 1895, pp. 34179, 4339). He made equally free with the work of Bembo, Ariosto, Sannazaro, Tansillo, and Molza, all of whom were popular sonneteers in the sixteenth century. To these sources MM. Vaganay et Vianey have recently claimed to add by their researches the poetry of a less known Italian poet, Pamphilo Sasso (d. 1556), some portions of whose work seem to have been printed in later editions of Serafino, without indication of its true authorship (cf. Revue dHistoire littéraire de la France, AprilJune 1903). [back]
Note 6. Vauquelin de la Fresnaie, one of Du Bellays most ardent imitators, in a sonnet addressed to his master, wrote:
Ce fut toy, Du Bellay, qui des premiers en France
DItalie attiras les Sonets amoureux.
Divers Sonets, No. iii. (ed. Julien Travers, 1870, ii. p. 702).