Previous page Page 2 of 4 Next page
List of subjects |  Sources |  Feedback 

Share |

Discover in a free
daily email today's famous
history and birthdays

Enjoy the Famous Daily

François Villon: 1455-1463

With the poems of Villon literature seems to spring, at one bound, from the mentality of the Middle Ages to a completely modern poetic sensibility. In the 14th century Chaucer describes the Canterbury pilgrims with well observed realism, but he does so in a mood of wry amusement. He keeps his distance, as a poet who moves in rather more elevated court circles.

Villon, just half a century later, spends his life among people lower in society than Chaucer's humblest pilgrims. He observes their condition, together with his own, in short, vivid, unblinking verses of an extraordinary immediacy - often deriving directly from the circumstances in which he finds himself.

He graduates from the Sorbonne in Paris as a master of arts in 1452, but in a quarrel three years later runs his sword through a priest. This murder (for which he is at first sentenced to banishment, then pardoned by royal reprieve) begins a spell of eight years during which Villon is constantly at odds with the law, until he vanishes from sight in 1463.

In 1456 he is apprehended with some friends robbing a college of 500 gold coins. He makes his escape, leaving a poem called Lais ('Legacy', also known as the 'Little Testament') in which bequeaths all sorts of useless objects to friends and enemies alike.

The records reveal that Villon is in prison in Meung-sur-Loire for much of 1461. After his release he writes his major poem, the Grand Testament, surveying the sorrows and horrors of his life. He interrupts the text from time to time with self-contained ballads.

One of these is the famous Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past), in which he compares the passing of beautiful women to the vanishing of the snows of yesteryear. His subjects range from Thaïs, a famous courtesan loved by Alexander the Great, to a romantic heroine of his parents' generation - 'Joan, the beautiful girl from Lorraine, whom the English burnt at Rouen'.

In 1462, and again in the following year, Villon is in gaol in Paris. On the second occcasion he is condemned to be hanged. This predicament prompts his extraordinary Epitaph, in the form of a ballad which Villon writes for himself and his companions waiting together to be hanged. He imagines in vivid detail their dead bodies drenched in the rain, bleached in the sun, picked at by crows and magpies, and he asks the living to pray that all men be spared the further torment of Hell.

Villon's sentence is commuted to banishment. No more is heard of him. But an extraordinarily personal voice has made a brief and unforgettable appearance in literature, during eight years of the troubled 15th century.

Rabelais: 1532-1552

In 1532 there is published in Lyons the first volume of one of the strangest works in all literature. It has the title Pantagruel and the author is given as Alcofribas Nasier. This awkward name is an anagram of the altogether more believable François Rabelais.

Rabelais' own picaresque life has brought him interests, influences and experiences as varied as those which inform his book. Born in the 1490s as the son of a well-to-do lawyer, he is by 1520 a Franciscan friar. He subsequently travels widely as secretary to a rich abbot, transfers to the Benedictine order so as to study in Paris (a period in which he fathers two children), and finally abandons his monk's habit to become a physician.

Rabelais is employed as a doctor in Lyons from the summer of 1532. This is a period when the ferment of the Reformation and the humanist excitement of the northern Renaissance are alike at their peak, and Lyons is an important intellectual centre. The exciting themes of the day blend with Rabelais' own love of word play and fantasy.

In French popular tradition Pantagruel is a devil whose duty is to put salt in the mouths of drunkards. Transformed by Rabelais into a giant, with a prodigious appetitite for food and drink, his exploits prove an ideal vehicle for his author's bubbling imagination. This first volume is sufficiently popular for a sequel, Gargantua (the story of Pantagruel's father), to be published in 1534.

There is no equivalent in the literature of Rabelais' time to the anarchic blend of the scholarly, the satirical and the scurrilous which characterizes these books. The nearest parallel is in the visual arts of northern Europe, where two eccentrics stand out in a similar fashion. The lifetime of Rabelais falls neatly between that of Hieronymus Bosch (40 years older) and Pieter Brueghel (25 years younger). He shares the surrealism of Bosch, the earthiness of Brueghel and the fantasy of both.

In later literature his ability to make words dance in new patterns and shapes is echoed by James Joyce. His pursuit of ideas in wonderland is similar to that of Lewis Carroll.

Within a year of its publication Pantagruel is condemned by the Sorbonne as obscene, but this seems to do Rabelais no harm. When he is in Rome in 1535-6 he is granted a papal bull giving him the freedom to practise medicine and to return to the Benedictine order if he so chooses. In 1540 he presents a petition to the pope for his two children to be legitimized.

A third book in the series of Gargantua and Pantagruel is published in 1546 and a fourth two years later (again condemned by the Sorbonne). The complete work is too complex, too discursive, too uneven to be read easily as a continuous whole. But it is a rich quarry which many have profitably mined.

Ronsard and the Pléiade: 1549-1553

Though elements of the Renaissance and of humanism pervade the work of Rabelais, the chaotic anarchy of his tumbling crowded canvas is also very medieval. The intellectual rigour of the Renaissance enters French literature in a more pure and self-conscious form in the work of Pierre de Ronsard and his circle.

In 1549 Ronsard's friend Joachim du Bellay publishes a tract, entitled La Défense et illustration de la langue française, which is a manifesto for a new style of poetry. As at the start of the Renaissance in Italy, the intention here is to return to classical masters as a source of inspiration.

A group of seven poets, including du Bellay and Ronsard, become associated with the movement and are known in their own time as La Pléiade, a name given originally to seven distinguished poets in Alexandria (the Pleiades being a constellation of seven stars).

Ronsard, the most talented of the seven, makes his name with short lyrical poems of polished elegance - particularly the Odes and Amours published between 1550 and 1553. The odes are intended to be sung with lute accompaniment as courtly entertainment. Ronsard subsequently occupies the position of court poet to the young French king Charles IX.

In the Amours Ronsard has an ideal love, Cassandre, similar to Petrarch's Laura but more certainly a real character. She is Cassandre Salviati, the daughter of a Florentine banker living in France.

Ronsard's relationship with Cassandre remains platonic, though his most famous poem to her (the Ode à Cassandre of 1553) urges her in effect to gather rosebuds while she may. Beginning Mignonne, allons voir si la rose (My love, let us see if the rose), the poet points out that the rose's exquisite petals have lost their sheen by the end of the day - and that her beauty, too, is not for ever.

Montaigne and the essay: 1571-1588

In 1580 there is published in Bordeaux a book by Michel de Montaigne with the simple title Essais. It is the first time that the word has been applied to a literary form, and it is used in the sense of 'trial' or 'experiment'. Essai is the standard word in modern French for the testing of a new product. In his essays Montaigne is testing his own opinions.

He does so, famously, In his library in the third storey of a tower which he adds to his ancestral home at Montaigne, near Bordeaux, in 1571. He has trained as a lawyer, but soon after his father's death he retires to Montaigne and begins a life of reading, reflecting and recording the development of his thoughts in the form of essays.

In doing so, Montaigne not only invents a new literary form. He becomes the first man in history whose thought processes we can share, as ideas strike him and are then modified - in many cases several times, when he returns to what he has written and adds to it.

This literary venture seems to have started out as a commonplace book, which Montaigne gradually builds up to form the publication of 1580. These first essays are reprinted with additions in 1582. An edition of 1588 expands once again the original essays and adds more. For the rest of his life he continues to add marginal notes to his own copy of the 1588 volume (now in the public library of Bordeaux, where Montaigne serves as mayor from 1581 to 1585).

The result of this process is to lay bare to the reader the innermost thoughts of a man who in his honesty, and the acuteness of his perceptions, becomes interesting and sympathetic.

Montaigne's essays are the precise opposite of a great diary, such as that of Samuel Pepys, where honesty is also essential. The diarist has to be honest in the heat of the moment. His words will charm later generations if he is vividly himself, even if on that particular day he is vividly greedy or lustful or vain. The essayist, by contrast, will convince only if his conclusions are convincing. A bigot may write an interesting diary, but not often a good essay.

Previous page Page 2 of 4 Next page