In addition to his poetry, Charles d’Orléans left a long and partly autobiographical speech which he had presented in defense of the Duke of Alençon at the latter’s trial. The speech, which dates from 1458, contains reminiscences of Charles’s captivity and of his early life.
Charles d’Orléans is by any measure one of the preeminent poets of the latter Middle Ages; most critics would in fact rank him second in France only to François Villon. They would, however, doubtless consider him a rather distant second and that would represent both an accurate assessment and something of an injustice. He is by no means the literary equal of Villon, one of the world’s great poets. Yet Charles is often underestimated, not only because he is inferior to Villon, but also because, quite simply, he is not Villon.
To many readers, Charles’s poetry may seem somewhat dated, in contrast to the timeless texts of his contemporary. Indeed, Charles uses images, formulas, and conventions associated with the literature of courtly love, which enjoyed its greatest vogue during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. His allegories and personifications have been dismissed as delicate and cultivated playthings, valuable witnesses to an age but of quite limited appeal to modern readers.
It is important, however, to meet Charles on his own terrain and on his own terms; there he is found to be an extraordinary poet. Charles was a wealthy and refined prince; for him and for many of his contemporaries, poetry was both a pastime and an art to be cultivated. A poem might be a witty rejoinder in a literary debate with friends, or it might be an artistic creation of the highest order, an artifact to be sculpted carefully and consciously....
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There are many places where Charles makes explicit reference to his experiences in England. Even though his captors treated him comparatively well, his poems could hardly have conveyed more anguish and melancholy. His best-known work of the period is doubtless the poem “While Looking Towards the Country of France,” in which Charles, from Dover, laments his fate and declares: “Peace is a treasure that cannot be praised too highly. I detest war, for it has long prevented me from seeing my beloved France.” Later, he was to remark in another context that he would prefer to have died in battle rather than endure his English captivity. Other works express his sorrow at France’s lot and his later exultation at the English defeat (“Rejoice, Noble Kingdom of France”). Such passages offer a good deal of interest for reasons both historical and biographical, and even though their artistic value is uneven, some of them are likely to appeal to modern readers more than do Charles’s love poems.
On first reading, the love poems may appear dated—and, indeed, some of them are. Charles is generally thought of as a poet of courtly love, and that is the way he began his literary career. At that time, he cultivated (not always with much originality) all of the conventions of courtly love inherited from Guillaume de Lorris (in Le Roman de la rose, thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose, 1900) and from others who wrote two centuries or more before Charles. Not only his ideas but also his modes of expression are traditional. Thus, in Ballade 29 he writes: “I do not fear Danger or his followers,/ For I have reinforced the fortress/ In which my heart has stored its goods/ . . . And I have made Loyalty mistress of it.” Such passages are often ingenious, but the premises underlying them offer nothing new.
With time, however, his ideas evolved, and later he either turned against courtly love or (according to John Fox) simply found it largely irrelevant. Thus, while he had earlier noted without much apparent conviction that “Sadness has held me in its power for so long that I have entirely forgotten Joy,” his protestations begin to assume a more personal and intense tone. He points out that “the poor souls of lovers are tormented in an abyss of sorrow” (Rondeau 140); he wonders if it is Fortune’s desire that he suffer so much (Rondeau 217); he orders Beauty out of his presence, because “you tempt me too often” (Rondeau 236). In some cases, to be sure, the later poems are superficially indistinguishable from the traditional laments of the courtly lover, but one can generally discern a subtle shift of tone, and some texts go further and constitute a clear rejection of courtly premises. For example, replacing the traditional notion that suffering tempered by hope is adequate recompense for the lover is Charles’s insistence (in Rondeau 65) that he can love only if his love is reciprocated, and in Rondeau 160 he states cynically that a medicine can surely be found to help those who are in love.
Retenue d’amours and Songe en complainte
A revealing example of the evolution in Charles’s thought is provided by the contrast between his two long poems, Retenue d’amours...
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Despite the fact that Charles is often considered to have made extensive use of allegory, it is essential to define his technique with more precision. Ann Tukey Harrison correctly suggests that Charles reduces allegories and personifications to metaphors tailored to his purposes. Often the narrative element in his poems is radically diminished or entirely eliminated, leaving him with Esperance (hope), Beauté (beauty), Bon Acceuil (welcome), or some other quality which appears to be a dramatized personification but in fact simply represents an aspect of his own experience. Thus, one of his famous poems, “La Forêt de longue actente” (the forest of long awaiting), provides not the locus of a sustained series of events (as it might have for Guillaume de Lorris, for example) but rather a simple indication of a psychological or emotional state.
Moreover, while Charles may appear to maintain a static set of personifications adopted from earlier tradition, his system is in reality remarkably flexible, each figure being freely fashioned to the need created by a particular poem and by a particular dramatic situation. Thus, Comfort (for example) may be specific or abstract, ally or foe, as the context dictates. Each figure exists within a rather wide range of possible functions, and, as a result, Charles’s poetic cosmos is constantly shifting and developing with each text and with each artistic choice.
“La Forêt de longue actente”
The stylistic pattern employed in “La Forêt de longue actente” (that is, the conjoining of a natural or architectural object with an abstraction) occurs in many of Charles’s poems and pulls them in opposing directions, creating a tension between the concrete and the abstract: the Cloud of Sadness, the Ship of Good News, the Doorway of Thought, the Window of the Eyes. Such formulas are simple stylistic inversions that present a metaphor (thought is a doorway) as an...
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Arn, Mary-Jo, ed. Charles d’Orléans in England, 1415-1440. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2000. A biography of Charles’s life while imprisoned in England. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Arn, Mary-Jo. “The Structure of the English Poems of Charles of Orléans.” Fifteenth Century Studies 4 (1981): 17-23. Argues that Charles’s English poems constitute a single work representing love as an incurable disease. The two separate ladies, one admired in conventional, courtly terms, another more petulantly, are separate stages in a lover’s struggle with his addiction.
Champion, Pierre, ed. Charles d’Orléans: Poésies. 2 vols. Paris: Librairie Honore Champion,...
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