Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century Poets

In 1392, Eustache Deschamps, a royal administrative officer who in his spare time composed 1,500 poems totaling some 82,000 lines, wrote the first known French treatise on poetry, L’Art de dictier [The Art of Composing Poetry]. For Deschamps, poetry belongs to the seventh liberal art of music, but he makes a crucial distinction: “We have two kinds of musics: one that is artificial, and another that is natural” [Nous avons deux musiques, dont l’une est artificiele et l’autre est naturele]. Artificial music is what we would call “music” today. The other music is called natural because it cannot be learned but must come from a special disposition of the heart. Deschamps defines it as “a music of the mouth uttering metered speech, sometimes in the form of lais, sometimes as ballades, sometimes as rondeaulx” [une musique de bouche en proferant paroules metrifiées, aucunefoiz en lais, autrefoiz en balades, autrefoiz en rondeaulx]. This is what we call “poetry” today. Deschamps marks here a clear departure from the troubadours and trouvères tradition, by separating the poem from the song. However, in both his treatise and his poems, he maintains the importance of form, the predominance of entertainment and pleasure as a goal, which were characteristics of troubadours and trouvères poetry. Deschamps is apparently also the first to have used the French word “poète” to describe an author writing in French and not in Latin—specifically the man he considered as his master, father, and predecessor: Guillaume de Machaut. Deschamps is not the first “French poet” but one of the first to have thought of French poetry as a distinctive tradition upheld by a succession of distinguished poets who were not anonymous.

We can find poets who were not song makers before Machaut and Deschamps, but they are difficult to locate in a continuous poetic tradition. They often have didactic preoccupations as well as a desire to express themselves through the “natural music” Deschamps would eventually come to define. In the last years of the twelfth century, Helinand de Froidmont, a benedictine monk, wrote a haunting poem called Les vers de la mort (The Verses/Worms of Death). In fifty stanzas (whose rhyme scheme Helinand apparently invented), the poet asks Death to convince his friends and relatives to flee the world and convert. A few years later, Jean Bodel, a known epic and comic author of Arras, wrote his farewell to the world and his friends in a poem titled Les Congés. He had not willingly followed Helinand’s call, but, having contracted leprosy, he was forced to retire to a leper-house. Les Congés is an amazing blend of humor and sadness, detachment and complaint. Another great poet of the thirteenth century, Rutebeuf (c. 1245-1285), can be added as a precursor of the “lyric turn” of the fourteenth century. He wrote fabliaux, one play, saints' lives, satiric and polemic pieces related to political and religious issues of his day, and a series of poems, seemingly autobiographical, but certainly building up the prototype of the “starving poet” tradition.

Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) and Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406 or 7) wrote almost nothing other than lyric poetry, or, in the case of Machaut, narratives staging and embedding lyric poetry. Machaut still continued the trouvères tradition of writing songs. But his way of composing music, writing poems, and conceiving books marks a clear departure from this tradition. For a long time, he was best known as a great musician, one of the inventors of polyphony. In the recent decades, literary scholars have brought to the fore his literary works and shown that he was also a great writer. Machaut was not a prince like Guillaume de Poitiers or Thibaut de Champagne, but a clerk from a non-noble family. He worked at the service of several royal patrons (Jean de Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, the duke Jean de Berry, the king of Navarre). Under the vague label of “secretary,” he wrote the letters of his patrons, accomplished diplomatic missions, advised, entertained, and wrote a large amount of poems and songs: about 420 lyric poems, and 12 dits, narrative in verse including lyric parts. He did not invent the forms of the ballade androndeau but contributed to their fame and pushed them to an extreme level of sophistication. One of his most ingenious poems is the rondeau “My end is my beginning” [Ma fin est mon commencement], which explains precisely how the third voice will go forward and then backward three times:

Ma fin est mon commencement
Et mon commencement ma fin
Est teneüre vraiement
Ma fin est mon commencement.
Mes tiers chans trois fois seulement
Se retrograde et einsi fin.
Ma fin est mon commencement
Et mon commencement ma fin.

[My end is my beginning
And my beginning my end
And this truly holds
My end is my beginning
My third voice just three times
Reverses itself and thus ends.
My end is my beginning
And my beginning my end.]

His book titled Remedy of Fortune presents itself as a first person semi-allegorical love narrative, on the model of the Romance of the Rose, but turns into a poem for poets and musicians rather than for lovers. The shy lover, stuttering poet, and monodic musician Guillaume learns how to compose bold, polyphonic pieces under the guidance of Hope, thus escaping the grasp of Fortune and chronic melancholy. Machaut and Deschamps were among the first poets to portray themselves as melancholy men and artists—a theme with a bright future. The last book written by Machaut, The Book of the True Story [Le livre du voir dit] may be the first French “roman par lettres.” It claims to report the true story of a love affair between the old Guillaume de Machaut and a young woman. In order to support this claim, the book allegedly includes the letters and poems the lovers exchanged. This portrait of the poet as an old lover celebrates poetry, music and youth, and challenges future readers to find the truth promised in the title.

Machaut became the first “author poet” of the French literary tradition, thanks to the tribute that Eustache Deschamps paid to his master. It takes two poets to create such a position of authority. Once Deschamps made the first gesture of recognition, the torch, crown or pen could circulate from poet to poet, depending on encounters, readings, and affinities. Deschamps wrote also a poem in homage to the “Great translator, noble Geoffrey Chaucer” [Grant translateur, noble Geoffroy Chaucier], and one recognizing the talents and knowledge of a certain Christine. Deschamps does not sound ironical in his lavish compliments. However, the refrain of the ballad insists that she is “alone in her deeds in the kingdom of France” [Seule en tes faiz au royaume de France]. One female poet is something to celebrate, if only she stays alone.

Christine de Pisan (c. 1364-c. 1430) is today mostly known for her philosophical and political treatises. Before entering the arena of polemical and didactic literature, she started her literary career as a poet. Her complete poetic works, edited in 1886 by Maurice Roy, are now available online in full text. Many (but not all) of her poems have been translated into modern English and French for various anthologies. Following Machaut and Deschamps, she used the ballade as her main vehicle for poetic ideas. French ballades of this time were usually three stanzas long. Each stanza had the same rhyme and verse pattern, and each ended with the same line. Often, a half stanza addressed to “Prince”, a real or imaginary addressee of the poem, followed the last stanza. Christine, like other poets of her time, was able to produce large numbers of ballads. She did not include them in a narrative frame as Machaut had done, but ordered them in such a way as to imply a narrative underlying and connecting the poems. One collection of one hundred ballads follows and records the psychological process of mourning. Christine lost her husband, Etienne de Castel, when she was twenty-five. They had been married for ten years and had three children. The grief that is the theme and mood of the first twenty ballades of the series is probably her own. In ballade 11 “Lonely I am, of my love bereft” [Seulete suy sans ami demourée], every line except two begins with “Lonely I am” [Seulete suy]. Long before Freud associated mourning with melancholy, Christine listed the main symptoms of protracted grief in rhyming stanzas. On a lighter note, she played with the major forms of lyric poetry. One of her “Strangely made ballads” [Ballades d’estrange façon] is a sort of palindrome: each line can be read in reverse word by word and still rhyme:

Ballade retrograde qui se dit a droit et a rebours
Doulçour, bonté, gentillece,
Noblece, beaulté, grant honnour,
Valour, maintien et sagece,
Humblece en douz plaisant atour,
Conforteresse en savour,
Dueil angoisseux secourable,
Acueil bel et agreable.

The reverse stanza would read:

Gentillece, bonté, doulçour,
Grant honnour, beaulté, noblece,
Sagece, maintien et valour,
En douz plaisant atour humblece,
En savour conforteresse,
Secourable angoisseuz deuil
Agreable et bel acueil.

Christine experimented also with rondeaux and composed a few minimalist ones with lines of four, two and one syllables:

Disyllabic rondeau:

Je vois
Au bois
Je vois.
Pour nois
Je vois.

[I go
to play
In wood
I go.
To find
I go.]

Monosyllabic rondeau:



Future additions to this introductory overview will include Charles d’Orléans; François Villon; and Les Grands Rhétoriqueurs.