French Language and Poetry from 1500-1650 is a far more brilliant epoch than that which preceded it. It embraces the names of Rabelais and Montaigne in prose, and of Marot and Malherbe in poetry. It commences with the reign of François Premier (Francis 1st), who was surnamed the Father of Letters, and ends with Louis XIV. In this post, I will highlight the history and poetry of the Royalty of this time, Henri II, Francois I, his sister Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre, and the poet Pierre de Ronsard and the artist Leonardo da Vinci.
During this time period, there was a great transition from the ancient languages to a more modern French language. Up to this time, all public acts and documents of France had been published in Latin until François I abolished this ancient usage. François encouraged new honors given to literature and authors and, during his reign, the French language made much progress in ease and refinement. Longfellow, in his collection of Poets and Poetry of Europe, believes that this rise in the French language gave permission “to leave the imitation of every other language, and seek for the genius within itself”. The French poets of this time employed every pleasing rhyme and easy-flowing phrase from the ancient writers while adding the natural beauty of French “expressions, clearness, perspicuity, directness, and melody” from this period (444).
François I became king of France in 1515, loved and supported learning which procured him the honored title of the Father of Literature. He established the Royal College and laid the foundation of the Library in Paris. He introduced into France the remains of ancient literature and was a powerful protector of the arts and sciences.
The contribution of François I that I hold most important is the introduction of Leonardo da Vinci to the French art world. François I invited da Vinci to live with him in Amboise, France in 1516. Da Vinci had his own Chateau and gardens nearby at Clos Lucé and spent many hours mentoring King François and they formed a close friendship. François was with da Vinci when he died. Leonardo da Vinci brought three paintings with him to France which all hang in the Louvre today. [see post on François and da Vinci]
On the death of François I in 1547, his sister Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre, wrote this beautiful poem:
FRANCIS THE FIRST by Marguerite de Valois
‘T is done! a father, mother, gone,
A sister, brother, torn away,
My hope is now in God alone,
Whom heaven and earth alike obey.
Above, beneath, to him is known, —
The world’s wide compass is his own.
I love, — but in the world no more,
Nor in gay hall, or festal bower;
Not the fair forms I prized before,
— But Him, all beauty, wisdom, power,
My Saviour, who has cast a chain
On sin and ill, and woe and pain !
I from my memory have effaced
All former joys, all kindred, friends ;
All honors that my station graced
I hold but snares that fortune sends :
Hence ! joys by Christ at distance cast,
That we may be his own at last !
Following this period, around the middle of the sixteenth century, the poet Pierre de Ronsard, called the Prince of Poets, brought back the ancient languages of Greek and Latin and enriched the phrases of his poetry with them. Longfellow states that, unfortunately, this was like equipping “the graceful limbs of a ballet-dancer in a ponderous suit of antique armor”(445).
LOVES by Pierre de Ronsard
Mv sorrowing Muse, no more complain ‘
‘T was not ordained for thee,
While yet the bard in life remain,
The meed of fame to see.
The poet, till the dismal gulf be past,
Knows not what honors crown his name at last.
Perchance, when years have rolled away,
My Loire shall be a sacred stream,
My name a dear and cherished theme,
And those who in that region stray
Shall marvel such a spot of earth
Could give so great a poet birth.
Revive, my Muse ! for virtue’s ore
In this vain world is counted air,
But held a gem beyond compare
When ‘t is beheld on earth no more :
Rancor the living seeks,
— the dead alone Enjoy their fame, to envy’s blights unknown
It was François de Malherbe who protested the loudest to this new way of expression. In contrast, Malherbe used in his poetry beauty of expression and imagery, enthusiasm, and sublimity of ideas (445). This ushered in the brilliant age of Louis XIV. The poets of the period from 1500-1650 returned to the French language of Francois I, which continues today. There were 137 French poets during this time. Among them are several royal authors François I, Henri II, Charles the Ninth, Henri IV, and his mother, Jeanne d’Albret ; Marie Stuart, and Marguerite de Navarre.
Henri II, son of François I, was born in 1518 in Saint. Germain-en-Laye, a lovely little suburb, about 20 minutes west of Paris. It has a wonderful view of the skyline of Paris. We visited some friends there in 2012, Gil et Elisabeth, who prepared for us a delicious, traditional seven-course French meal. The Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye was reconstructed by François I and today houses many Gallo-Romain artifacts.
Henri II ascended the throne at the age of twenty-nine, made many changes in the government and developed the resources of the kingdom. As his father, François I, Henri was a lover of poetry, and, under the inspiration of his passion for the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, wrote pieces of considerable merit. His reign, however, was cut short. After an active and important reign of twelve years, Henri died of a wound he had received in a tournament, from the Comte de Montgomery, captain of the Scottish guard.
TO DIANE DE POITIERS by King Henri II
More constant faith none ever swore
To a new prince, O fairest fair,
Than mine to thee, whom I adore,
Which time nor death can e’er impair !
The steady fortress of my heart
Seeks not with towers secured to be,
The lady of the hold thou art,
For ‘t is of firmness worthy thee :
No bribes o’er thee can victory obtain,
A heart so noble treason cannot stain !
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.