Charles d'Orléans Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

The subjects of Charles d’Orléans’s poetry are love, his imprisonment in England, and the pain he suffers from both. These are not necessarily discrete subjects; they frequently overlap and merge. For example, in the courtly idiom adopted by Charles, love always entails the lover’s loss of freedom. Accordingly, the poet often appears to have transformed his captivity into an amorous metaphor (without, however, diluting its literal force); he was the prisoner of the English in much the same way that his persona was the prisoner of love. His themes are also related in a more direct way, for his imprisonment deprived him not only of freedom but also of love and pleasure. Thus, even in one of his more clearly patriotic poems, “En regardant vers le pays de France,” (“While Looking Towards the Country of France”), where the source of his suffering is his separation from his homeland, his pain is caused in part by the loss of “the sweet pleasure that I used to experience in that country,” one of his specific pleasures obviously being that of love.

During his years in England, Charles often lamented the separation from “his lady.” Critical efforts to identify that lady (with Isabelle, with Bonne d’Armagnac, or with an English acquaintance) have not met with success; this failure is both inevitable and appropriate. The fact is that courtly convention would be likely to preserve the anonymity of the lady, and also, more to the point, her identity is simply irrelevant. She may thus have been any woman or an amalgam of several women—or she may not even have existed except as an abstraction. Indeed, in some poems she appears to represent not a particular lady but France itself, for Charles uses the same general terms to describe his absence from his lady and his separation from his country. Again, Charles’s emotion is his principal focus, and a shifting, ambiguous relation exists between the major causes of it. For a poet like Charles, given to persistent metaphorical associations, his lady and his country easily become almost interchangeable or doubled poetic referents throughout the period of his captivity.