François Malherbe’s poetic production is far from extensive; it is, nevertheless, considerably varied and of uneven merit. Much of his success at court was due to the ballet libretti which he wrote; these are of interest to court historians, but their literary value is negligible at best. His epigrams today seem derivative and forced. Of primary interest are his great odes and other solemn occasional poems such as the “Prière pour le Roi allant en Limousin.” Also of interest are his religious poems and, to a lesser degree, his erotic ones.
“Récit d’un berger”
Nearly everything that Malherbe wrote for public consumption was a political statement. That is the case even for seemingly innocuous poems such as the “Récit d’un berger” of the Ballet de Madame of 1615, a lavish court festivity celebrating the marriage of Elizabeth, sister of Louis XIII, to the future Philip IV of Spain. The “ballet” was really a revue of court notables in sumptuous costumes parading through equally sumptuous settings activated by what were then astonishing machines. Malherbe’s “Récit d’un berger” allowed its speaker to praise the efforts of the young king and of the Queen Mother on behalf of peace, and to vaunt the advantages of what was a far from popular alliance of royal families. Malherbe’s lines had been commissioned by the Queen Mother, and in addition to the usual flattery, they faithfully reflected her policy and desires. It is almost impossible to divorce Malherbe the poet from Malherbe the political animal. In 1617, with the rise to power of D’Albert de Luynes, Malherbe lost his privileged status at court; the need to write disappeared and he seriously thought of “abandoning the Muses.” In fact, until 1623—by which date de Luynes had died and Richelieu was quickly rising in power, welcoming Malherbe back into the official fold—Malherbe concentrated his literary efforts on his letters and translations; the poet was silent.
Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that these poems are so hyperbolic in their flattery and allusions as to defy credibility—an ingredient no one expected anyway—and to verge on sycophancy. The most indecisive military encounter could, with such a pen, be transformed into a momentous and stupendous triumph. Today, the reader of such excesses may be tempted to smile, but it must be kept in mind that for an official court poet, as for the painters of the portraits d’apparat, the presentation of the royal apotheosis was a very serious matter.
Asked why he did not write any elegies, Malherbe is said to have answered, “Because I write odes,” referring to the form he considered to be the ultimate endeavor in lyric poetry. He used the term only for long poems dealing with great matters of state, and he called “stances” those poems dealing with less lofty subjects—or, as in the case of his famous “Prière pour le Roi allant en Limousin,” briefer treatments of lofty themes—a distinction his successors were not to maintain. It is these odes which are today considered the omphalos of Malherbe’s official poetry.
For generations, the guardians of academic truths steadfastly maintained that Malherbe’s odes were characterized by rigorous composition, striking articulation, and, above all, a strictly logical discourse from which all digressions were ruthlessly banished. Recently, however, Wadsworth, by closely analyzing the great odes, has shown that “a forceful argument . . . is not necessarily a logical one,” and that these poems, using a certain fragmentary, accumulative process, do in fact violate the rules of deductive logic more often than not. For all that, Wadsworth does not suggest that Malherbe’s official poems lack structure. Rather, he points to the age-old theory of the ode as an inspired creation, one “in which elevation of style mattered much more than obedience to rules of composition.” He hints that beyond that apparent “beautiful disorder,” there might be found a higher, hidden order. It is precisely this more subtle order which Rubin has analyzed. Looking closely at the six completed odes, he concludes that they contain both literal and figurative structural elements; that the literal ones include successions of facts “from whose less-than-rigorous presentation stems the surface disorder noted by Professor Wadsworth”; that the figurative ones, however, contain “the techniques by means of which Malherbe integrated the fragmentary literal elements into a [higher, hidden order].” It is at this level that the poet established—through intricate, yet coherent, systems of figures—series of correlations yielding a not-too-obvious but profound metaphorical...
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