“I crave that even the busiest of mind might not be a stranger to those moments of repose, when the clock of time clicks drowsily behind the door, and trifles become the amusement of the wise and great” (Longfellow, Outre-Mer).
For the past few months, I have been examining Longfellow’s collection of poetry in the The Poets and Poetry of Europe (1845). I began synthesizing this collection into my blog posts with the emergence of language and poetry in chronological order of the Anglo-Saxons, then Danish, German, Dutch and now finally, four hundred and thirty pages later, my beloved French writers. I love this connection I have with Longfellow of translation, and French language and literature; two of my passions colliding and expanding.
Through this collection of European poetry, Longfellow states that his purpose has not been to illustrate any poetic definition or establish any theory of art. His purpose was to bring together the English translations of a large amount of works that are not easily accessible to the general reader. He has treated the subjects historically rather than critically. One thing I love about Longfellow’s collections is that he includes the works of Royalty: Catherine de Medicis, Henri II, Marie Stuart, Francois I!! In order to publish these works into one volume, however, Longfellow omitted some authors of great note as this is to be regarded as “a collection rather than a selection” (Poets, Preface).
After the French Language and Poetry collection, Longfellow will continue this chronology of language and poetry with the Italian and Spanish and will end with the Portuguese. It is interesting to me that he did not continue with the writers and works of which he knew best: British and American. Perhaps these were reserved for Volume II, but never written (or perhaps published?)!
Longfellow began learning French when he lived abroad and wrote several poems as well as a Travelogue , Outre-Mer, [see post] reflecting his experiences in France. He was also a prolific translator as he kept to the original physiognomy in translation. Many Instructors of second language acquisition in France continue to include the works of Longfellow with their students to help them learn English (Mercer Cook, “Longfellow for the French Class”, 135).
A Brief History from Longfellow of the French Language – Des Origins to the 16th century
Longfellow begins this chapter with the rich genesis of the French language. After the Roman Conquest, Latin became the prevalent language of what was then known as Gaul. It was not the elegant and nervous Roman of the Augustan age, for the existence of the Latin language in its purity was limited to a single century, from the days of the last Scipio Africanus to those of Augustus (Longfellow, 402).
After the Franks took control of Gaul under Clovis in the middle of the fourth century, the French monarchy was established. While Latin became the language of public records and ceremonies of the church, the language of the people was affected by the dialects of the North and the Romance Languages common among the peasantry and lower classes of society. In the eighth century, Charlemagne composed a grammar in order to improve this new language hoping that he could one day publish his laws and edicts in the Roman Rustic language. However, the people wanted to continue to use their own ruder dialects and, therefore, it wasn’t until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the French language became enriched and perfected through the poems of the Troubadours.
In the sixteenth century, the French language became more widely spread and spoken among the peoples of France. Michel de Montaigne, one of the great French writers of this time, said of the French language that:
“the characteristics are ease, vivacity, precision, perspicuity, and directness. It is superior to all the other modern languages in colloquial elegance; and those who are conversant with the genteel comedy of the French stage and have frequented the theatrical exhibitions of the French metropolis, must have been struck with the vast superiority of the French language over the English, in its adaptation to the purposes of conversation and the refinement of its familiar dialogue.
It possesses a peculiar point and antithesis in the epigram, a spirited ease in songs, and great sweetness and pathos in ballad- writing. But in the higher walks of tragic and epic poetry it feebly seconds the high-aspiring mind (Montaigne, Essays Book III., Chapter V).”
Longfellow ends his history of the French language in the sixteenth century with this footnote: *For a more complete history of the French language, the reader is referred to the Histoire de la Langue Franchise, par M. Henri: Paris: 2 vols. 8vo.; — Revolutions de la Langue Francaise, by the Abbe Ravalliere, in the first volume of Les Poesies du Roy de Navarre : Paris : 1742 ; — Origine et Formation de la Langue Romaine, par M. Raynouard, in his Choix des Poesies des Troubadours: Paris: 6 vols. 8vo. 1816-21.]
Dialects of the French Language
At the time that Longfellow compiled this collection of French poetry , in the mid-nineteenth century, the principal dialects of the French language were divided into two great families; since the people north of the Loire expressed affirmation by the word Oui, and those south of it, by the word Oc, France was divided into the land of the Langue d’Oui, or French, and the land of the Langue d’Oc, or Provencal. The dialects of the North being: 1.The Poitevin ; 2. The Saintongeois ; 3. The Burgundian; 4. The Franc-Comtois ; 5. The Lorrain ; 6. The Picard ; 7. The Walloon; and those of the Langue d’Oc, In the South: 1. The Gascon ; 2. The Perigourdin ; 3. The Limousin ; 4. The Languedocien ; 5. The Provencal ; 6. The Dauphinois.
Of course, as is still true of Modern French today, these principal dialects have numerous subdivisions, more or less distinctly marked, amounting in all to seventy or eighty. I experienced the explicit demarcations of these dialects when I lived in France in 2012-13 for a graduate internship. The purpose of this internship was to immerse myself in the French language and culture for my Thesis work in second language acquisition of Applied French. Through the Cours de Civilisation Francaise at the Sorbonne, I was enrolled in these five courses: « Paris des origins à la Rèvolution Française », « L’Histoire de l’art Français », « Civilisation et littérature françaises and “ Les leçons de grammaire et de phonétique” using the French prescribed textbooks of The Académie française.
After being immersed in the traditional French language classroom for seven hours a day, I would then attempt to use my French skills in my neighborhood community of boulangeries and cafes, with much success. However, on the weekends, I would travel across the various regions of France and have difficulty understanding and communicating in these different dialects. In particular, while visiting southern regions in France of Aix-en-Provence and Roussillon where the dialects are softer and more musical, I noticed a stark contrast to the Parisian dialects, or more urban, which are harsher and more abbreviated (not to mention the stark contrast of idiomatic expressions!). The Parisians had little patience with my “slow-Texan French drawl”; rightly so! It is very similar to a southerner visiting New York City or Boston and trying to communicate successfully. I also had some issues in my family home of Strasbourg, north east region of France on the border of Germany, where there is still a heavy influence of the Alemannic German dialect of Alsace.
French Poetry Collection
In returning to Longfellow’s collection, he divides the history of French poetry into the following periods : I have included some notable authors that I will be writing about for these periods —
I. From the earliest times to 1300.
II. From 1300 to 1500 (Villon).
III. From 1500 to 1650 (Henri II, Francois I , Catherine de Medicis, Rabelais, Marie Stuart!!).
IV. From 1650 to 1700 (Corneille, La Fontaine, Racine, Ronsard, Molière!!!).
V. From 1700 to 1800 (Voltaire, Francois Auguste, La Martine, DeLavigne).
VI. From 1800 to his present time (mid 19th century) which concludes with the poetry of Victor Hugo. This is the period I am the most familiar with. Hugo is my guy![see posts]
As I have concentrated mainly on French prose over the past twenty years, this collection of French poetry is new and exciting! I have spent much time reading and translating Victor Hugo’s poetry, but only a few previous to this time [see La Fontaine post]. I will be here for a bit–but oh, what a wonderfuI “Moment of Repose”.
“I ask only a welcome and God-speed; hoping that, when thou hast read these pages, thou wilt say to me, “I desire you of more acquaintance” (Longfellow).
I hope you will join me in my Frenchquest of French poetry!
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
Longfellow, Henry W. The Poets and Poetry of Europe: Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845.