Essays on the Poetry of the French Renaissance by Hilaire Belloc
Part 1: Charles of Orleans, Francois Villon and Clément Marot
Part 2 will contain Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and François de Malherbe

Containing some of the finest French poetry and some of the finest English prose, the book, on which this web page is based, has long been my choice for Desert Island Discs.

Belloc, who wrote the most beautiful English love sonnets of the 20th Century, through his love of French poetry, attempts to increase mutual appreciation between the French and English.

Hilaire Belloc
Charles of Orleans 1394 – 1465
Charles of Orleans

Charles became Duke of Orleans at the age of 13 after the murder of his father by John the Fearless of Burgundy.

Belloc: I put down Charles of Orleans here as that first representative of that long glory which is the French Renaissance.
Charles was also Duke of Valois, Count of Beaumont-sur-Oise and of Blois, lord of Coucy, and the inheritor of Asti in Italy via his mother Valentina Visconti, daughter of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan.
The French Renaissance made something completely new: a new architecture, new cities, a new poetry, almost a new language, a new kind of government – ultimately the modern world.

His first wife Isabella of Valois (daughter of Charles VI of France and widow of Richard II of England), whom he married in Compiègne in 1406, died in childbirth. All the Valois were poets in their kind; his life by its every accident caused him to write. At fifteen they wedded him to that lovely child whom Richard II had lifted in his arms at Windsor as he rode out in fatal pomp for Ireland. Three years later, when their marriage was real, she died in childbirth, and it is to her I think that he wrote in his prison the ballad which ends:
Dieu sur tout souverain seigneur
Ordonnez par grace et douceur
De l’ame d’elle tellement
Qu’elle ne soit pas longuement
En peine souci et douleur.
God, sovereign lord of all
Your gentleness and grace befall
Grant that the soul of her I love
Fly swiftly to your realm above
Her pain and sorrow pray forestall.
Charles fought at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. He was discovered unwounded, but trapped under a pile of corpses, made helpless by the weight of his own armour. He was taken prisoner, and spent the next twenty-four years being moved from one English castle to another. Like many other captured nobles, the conditions of his confinement were lenient; he was allowed to live more or less in the manner, to which he had become accustomed.
His verse was laid aside as mediaeval, and was wholly forgotten for three hundred years. No one had even heard of him for all those centuries till Sallier, that learned priest, pacing, full of his Hebrew and Syriac, the rooms of the royal library which Louis XV had but lately given him to govern, found the manuscript of the poems and wrote an essay on them for the Academy. Claude Sallier 1685 – 1761 was keeper of the King’s Library.
Charles' imprisonment in the Tower of London from an illuminated manuscript of his poems
The Pleiade is the name given to a group of 16th-century French Renaissance poets whose principal members were Pierre de Ronsard, Joachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baif.

Charles of Orleans has a note quite new and one that after him never failed, but grew in volume and in majesty until it filled the great chorus of the Pleiade–the Lyrical note of direct personal expression. Perhaps the wars produced it in him; the lilt of the marching songs was still spontaneous:
Le temps a laissié 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 chant ou crie
Le temps a laissié son manteau
De vent de froidure et de pluye.
Riviere, fontaine et ruisseau
Portent, en livrée jolie,
Gouttes d’argent d’orfavrerie,
Chascun s’abille de nouveau.
Le temps a laissié son manteau.
The year has changed his mantle cold
Of wind, of rain, of bitter air;
And he goes clad in cloth of gold,
Of laughing suns and season fair;
No bird or beast of wood or wold
But doth with cry or song declare
The year lays down his mantle cold.
All founts, all rivers, seaward rolled,
The pleasant summer livery wear,
With silver studs on broidered vair;
The world puts off its raiment old,
The year lays down his mantle cold.
After his imprisonment by the British Charles retired with his third wife, Marie de Cleves, to his castle at Blois Painting by Ange Francois
This roundel is among the most famous things he wrote. It has all these qualities.

First, the Roundel should interweave, repeat itself, and then recover its original strain, and this one exactly gives such unified diversity.

Secondly: it was evidently written in a moment of that unknown power when words suggest something fuller than their own meaning, and in which simplicity itself broadens the mind of the reader. So that it is impossible to put one’s finger upon this or that and say this adjective, that order of the words has given the touch of vividness.

Thirdly: it has in it a living spirit of reality; read it to-day in Winter, and you feel the Spring. It is this quality perhaps which most men have seized in it, and which has deservedly made it immortal.

A further character is that, being a perfect lyric, it is also a specimen of an old-fashioned manner and metre peculiar to the time. It is the resurrection not only of the Spring, but of a Spring of the fifteenth century. Nor is it too fantastic to say that one sees in it the last miniature and the very dress of a time that was intensely beautiful, and in which Charles of Orleans alone did not feel death coming.
Francois Villon 1431 – 1463
Belloc: Villon is certainly in the small first group of the poets. His little work, like that of Catullus, like that of Gray, is up, high, completed and permanent. And within that little work this famous Ballade is by far the greatest thing.

It contains all his qualities: not in the ordinary proportion of his character, but in that better, exact proportion which existed in him when his inspiration was most ardent: for the poem has underlying it somewhere a trace of his irony, it has all his ease and rapidity – excellent in any poet – and it is carried forward by that vigour I have named, a force which drives it well upwards and forward to its foaming in the seventh line of the third verse.

The sound of names was delightful to him, and he loved to use it; he had also that character of right verse, by which the poet loves to put little separate pictures like medallions into the body of his writing: this Villon loved, as I shall show in other examples, and he has it here.

The end of the middle ages also is strongly in this appeal or confession of mortality; their legends, their delicacy, their perpetual contemplation of death.

But of all the Poem’s qualities, its run of words is far the finest.
Dictes moy ou, n’en quel pays
Est Flora la belle Rommaine;
Archipiada, ne Thais,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus riviere ou sus estan,
Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu’humaine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?

Ou est la tres sage Hellois,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart a Saint-Denis?
Pour son amour ot cest essoyne.
Semblablement, ou est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust gecté en ung sac en Saine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan!

La Royne Blanche comme un lis,
Qui chantoit a voix de seraine;
Berte au grant pié Bietris, Allis;
Haremburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Englois brulerent a Rouan;
Ou sont elles, Vierge souvraine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan!

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Ou elles sont, ne de cest an,
Que ce reffrain ne vous remaine
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan!
Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
It was famously translated by Dante Gabriel Rosetti:
Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where’s Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere, –
She whose beauty was more than human?
. . . But where are the snows of yester-year?

Where’s Héloise, the learned nun,
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?
And where, I pray you, is the Queen
Who willed that Buridan should steer Sewed in a sack’s mouth down the Seine? .
. . But where are the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden, –
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine, –
And that good Joan whom Englishmen At Rouen doomed and burned her there, –
Mother of God, where are they then?
. . . But where are the snows of yester-year?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Except with this for an overword, –
But where are the snows of yester-year?
Francois Villon, poet, thief and vagabond, was born into a poor Parisien family in the year that Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake.
His youth and his activity of blood forbad him any contact with other than immediate influences. He was wholly Northern; he had not so much as guessed at what Italy might be.
He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Paris in 1449 and a master’s degree in 1452.
He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Paris in 1449 and a master’s degree in 1452. The decrepit University had given him, as best she could, the dregs of her palsied philosophy and something of Latin. He grew learned as do those men who grasp quickly the major lines of their study, but who, in details, will only be moved by curiosity or by some special affection. There was nothing patient in him, and nothing applied, and in all this, in the matter of his scholarship as in his acquirement of it, he is of the dying middle ages entirely. His laughter also was theirs: the kind of laughter that saluted the first Dance of Death which as a boy he had seen in new frescoes round the waste graveyard of the Innocents. His friends and enemies and heroes and buffoons were the youth of the narrow tortuous streets, his visions of height were the turrets of the palaces and the precipitate roofs of the town.
Medieval Paris
The majestic which, in sharp separate lines of his verse, he certainly possessed, he discovered within his own mind. Till now he is secure among the first lyric poets of Christendom. It led to no excess of matter, but to an exuberance of attitude and manner, to an inexhaustibility of special words, to a brilliancy of impression unique even among his own people.
About Christmas, 1446, Villon participated in a burglary at the College of Navarre. He fled to Angers, and then he wandered for more than 4 years. In June 1455 he killed Philip Chermoye, a priest, in a brawl, and he immediately fled from Paris. But the murder was well provoked, and in January 1456 Villon was released. Perhaps his status as a man of learning or perhaps the later intervention of Charles d’Orleans influenced judicial leniency.
His major quality, by which he stands up out of his own time and is clearly an originator of the great renewal, is his vigour.

Villon’s whole surviving work is in the form of two rhymed wills–one short, one long: and in the latter, Ballads and Songs are put in each in their place, as the tenour of the verse suggests them. Thus the last Ballade, that of the “Dead Iadies,” comes after a couple of strong stanzas upon the necessity of death-and so forth. One might choose any passage, almost, out of the mass to illustrate the character of this “Testament” in which the separate poems are imbedded. I have picked those round about the 800th line, the verses in which he is perhaps least brilliant and most tender.
Premier je donne ma povre ame
A la benoiste Trinité,
Et la commande à Nostre Dame
Chambre de la divinité;
Priant toute la charité
Des dignes neuf Ordres des cieulx,
Que par eulx soit ce don porté
Devant le trosne precieux.

Item, mon corps je donne et laisse
A notre grant mere la terre;
Les vers n’y trouveront grant gresse
Trop luy a fait faim dure guerre.
Or luy soit delivré grant erre:
De terre vint, en terre tourne.
Toute chose, se par trop n’erre,
Voulentiers en son lieu retourne;

Item, et à mon plus que pere
Maistre Guillaume de Villon
Qui m’est a plus doulx que mere,
Enfant eslevé de maillon,
Degeté m’a de maint boullon
Et de cestuy pas ne s’esjoye
Et luy requiers à genoullon
Qu’il n’en laisse toute la joye.
Je luy donne ma Librairie
Et le Romman du Pet au Deable
Lequel Maistre Guy Tabarie
Grossa qui est homs veritable.
Por cayers est soubz une table,
Combien qu’il soit rudement fait
La matiere est si tres notable,
Q’elle amende tout le mesfait.

Item donne à ma povre mere
Pour saluer nostre Maistresse,
Qui pour moy ot doleur amere
Dieu le soet, et mainte tristesse;
Autre Chastel n’ay ni fortresse
Ou me retraye corps et ame
Quand sur moy court malle destresse
Ne ma mere, la povre femme!

Translated by A. S. Kline © 2004:

This I give to my poor mother As a prayer now, to our Mistress
– She who bore bitter pain for me,
God knows, and also much sadness –
I’ve no other castle or fortress,
That my body and soul can summon,
When I’m faced with life’s distress,
Nor has my mother, poor woman:
Mary by Jan Van Eyck
The abrupt ending of the last extract, the 79th stanza of the “Grant Testament”–“I give…” and then no objective (apparently) added–is an excellent example of the manner in which the whole is conceived and of the way in which the separate poems are pieced into the general work. What “he gives…” to his mother is this “Ballade of our lady.” These thirty-seven lines are more famous in their own country than abroad. Two qualities of Villon are to be specially found in this poem: piety and exquisite tenderness.  
Dame des cieulx, regente terrienne,
Emperiere des infernaux paluz,
Reeevez moy, vostre humble chrestienne,
Que comprinse soye entre vos esleuz,
Ce non obstant qu’oncques rien ne valuz.
Les biens de vous, ma dame et ma maistresse
Sont trop plus grans que ne suis pecheresse,
Sans lesquelz biens ame ne peut merir.
N’avoir les cieulx, je n’en suis jungleresse.
En ceste foi je veuil vivre et mourir

A vostre fils dicte que je suis sienne;
De luy soyent mes pechiez aboluz:
Pardonne moy, comme à l’Egipcienne,
Ou comme il feist au clerc Théophilus,
Lequel par vous fut quitte et absoluz,
Combien qu’il eust au Deable fait promesse
Preservez moy, que ne face jamais ce.
Vierge portant, sans rompure encourir.
Le sacrement qu’on oelebre a la messe.
En ceste foy je veuil vivre et mourir.

Femme je suis povrette et ancienne
Qui riens ne scay; oncques lettre ne leuz;
Au moustier voy dont suis paroissienne
Paradis faint, ou sont harpes et luz,
Et ung enfer ou dampnez sont boulluzz
L’ung me fait paour, l’autre joye et liesse.
Ia j oye avoir me fay, haulte Deesse,
A qui pecheurs doivent tous recourir,
Comblez de Foy, sans fainte ne paresse.
En ceste foy je veuil vivre et mourir.
Translated by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Lady of Heaven and earth, and therewithal
Crowned Empress of the nether clefts of Hell, –
I, thy poor Christian, on thy name do call,
Commending me to thee, with thee to dwell,
Albeit in nought I be commendable.
But all mine undeserving may not mar
Such mercies as thy sovereign mercies are;
Without the which (as true words testify)
No soul can reach thy Heaven so fair and far.
Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

Unto thy Son say thou that I am His,
And to me graceless make Him gracious.
Said Mary of Egypt lacked not of that bliss,
Nor yet the sorrowful clerk Theopbilus,
Whose bitter sins were set aside even thus
Though to the Fiend his bounden service was.
Oh help me, lest in vain for me should pass
(Sweet Virgin that shalt have no loss thereby!)
The blessed Host and sacring of the Mass
Even in this faith I choose to live and die.

A pitiful poor woman, shrunk and old,
I am, and nothing learn’d in letter-lore.
Within my parish-cloister I behold
A painted Heaven where harps and lutes adore,
And eke an Hell whose damned folk seethe full sore:
One bringeth fear, the other joy to me.
That joy, great Goddess, make thou mine to be,
– Thou of whom all must ask it even as I;
And that which faith desires, that let it see.
For in this faith I choose to live and die.

O excellent Virgin
Princess! thou didst bear
King Jesus, the most excellent comforter,
Who even of this our weakness craved a share
And for our sake stooped to us from on high,
Offering to death His young life sweet and fair.
Such as He is, Our Lord, I Him declare,
And in this faith I choose to live and die.
Coronation of the Virgin
around 1444 by Filippo Lippi
Coronation of the Virgin
By Diego Velasquez
Coronation of the Virgin
Fra Angelico
Girlhood of Mary Virgin
by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Old woman in prayer
Frontispiece to an early manuscript of Villon's poetry
Involved in a fight in which his opponent was wounded, Villon was sentenced to be hanged. He appealed the decision, and Parliament by an edict on Jan. 5, 1463, annulled the sentence and reduced his penalty to a 10-year exile from Paris. After that date nothing is known of him
Clément Marot 1496 – 1544
He was born in Cahors, though his father was from Normandy. He started to read law at the University of Paris, but gave it up when at the age of 20, he succeeded in getting a post as ‘secretary’ at the court of Marguerite of Navarre, sister of Francis I, King of France.
The discovery of America preceded his birth by three or four years. His early manhood was filled with all that ferment, all that enormous branching out of human life which was connected with the expansion of Spain. He was just of age when Luther was first condemned. He had his active manhood through the experience of the great battlefields in Italy
Francis I rival to Henry VIII
In 1524, Marot accompanied King Francis on his disastrous Italian campaign. The king was taken prisoner at the Battle of Pavia.

Back in Paris the next year, Marot dabbled in Lutheranism . Never particularly prudent, he was arrested on a charge of heresy and lodged in the Grand Chatelet in February 1526. This was only a foretaste of his coming trouble, and a friendly prelate, acting for Marguerite, arranged his release.
Marguerite of Navarre
Whatever is new attracts him. The reformation attracts him. It was chic to have to do with these new things. He had the French ignorance of what was foreign and alien; the French curiosity to meddle with it because it had come from abroad; the French passion for opposing, for struggling;–and beneath it all the large French indifference to the problem of evil (or whatever you like to call it), the changeless French content in certitude, upon which ease, indeed, as upon a rock, the Church of Gaul has permanently stood and will continuously repose.
All of Paris was to become familiar with him through his translations of the psalms and his chansons.
Cahors, Marot's birthplace
Did you meet him to-day in the Strand you would know at once that you had to do with a Frenchman, and, probably, with a kind of poet. He was short, square in the shoulders, tending in middle age to fatness. A dark hair and beard; large brown eyes of the south; a great, rounded, wrinkled forehead like Verlaine’s; a happy mouth, a nose very insigniicant, completed him. When we meet somewhere, under cypress trees at last, these great poets of a better age, and find Ronsard a very happy man, Du Bellay, a gentleman; then Malherbe, for all that he was a northerner, we may mistake, if we find him, for a Catalonian. Villon, however Parisian, will appear the Bohemian that many cities have produced; Charles of Orleans may seem at first but one of that very high nobility remnants of which are still to be discovered in Europe. But when we see Marot, our first thought will certainly be, as I have said, that we have come across a Frenchman; and the more French for a touch of the commonplace.

This roundel, Of Courting Long Ago, is a fair enough specimen of Marot at his daily gait: an easy versifier.
Clément Marot
Au bon vieulx temps un train d’amour regnoit,
Qui sans grand art et dons se démenoit,
Si qu’un boucquet donné d’amour profonde
S’estoit donné toute la terre ronde:
Car seulement au cueur on se prenoit.
Et si, par cas, à jouyr on venoit,
Scavez-vous bien comme on s’entretenoit?
Vingt ans, trente ans; cela duroit ung monde
Au bon vieulx temps..
In ancient days love reigned supreme
when neither gift nor art should stream
Unless bouquets of love profound
Embrace the world and be our ground
For only then the heart should say
And if by chance should come the day
How many years should love portray
a score or more: a life t’would seem
In ancient times.
In 1534 Marot had to leave the country because of the Affaire des placards: fierce broadsheets against the ‘popish Mass’ were hung everywhere in Paris and anyone suspected of sympathies for Lutheranism, was in danger. After finding shelter in Navarre (with Marguerite, now married to the king of Navarre); and after two years of exile, Marot could only return to France because he publicly abjured his ‘errors’ and confirmed his allegiance to the Catholic Church.

One of Marot’s most charming poems: A une Damoyselle Malade, written in Autumn 1537 is a get-well note to Jeanne d’Albret, the seven year old daughter of Marguerite de Navarre.
It is the way this is printed that makes some miss its value. It is, like all the best he wrote, a song; it needs the varying time of human expression, the effect of tone, the repose and the re-lifting of musical notes; illuminated thus it greatly charmed, and if any one would know the order of such a tune, why, it should follow the punctuation: a cessation at the third line a use of rapld accents to the thirteenth, and then a change; the last three lines of the whole very much fuller and strong. So I would hear it sung on a winter evening in an old house in Auvergne and re-enter the sixteenth century as I heard it.
In his erudite, amusing and instructive book, Le Ton Beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter uses several poems by Marot to illustrate and discuss the difficulties of translation from one language (mental frame, context, moment in time) to another.> Translation by Robert French:
Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Le séjour
C’est prison.
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu’on sorte
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.
Fairest friend,
Let me send
My embrace.
Quit this place,
Its dark halls
And dank walls.
In soft stealth,
Regain health:
Dress and flee
off with me,
Clement, who
Calls for you.
Fine gourmet,
Hid from day,
Danger’s past,
So at last
Let ‘s be gone,
To dine on
Honeyed ham
And sweet jam.
If you’re still
Wan and ill,
You will cede
Pounds you need.
May God’s wealth
Bless your health
Till the end,
Fairest friend.
Jeanne d'Albret as an adult

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