Guillaume de Machaut Essay - Critical Essays

Guillaume de Machaut


Guillaume de Machaut c. 1300–-1377

French poet and composer.

Long regarded as a minor literary figure and mainly recognized as a composer, Guillaume de Machaut is now viewed as one of the principal literary voices of the late Middle Ages. In the second half of the twentieth century, and especially since the 1970s, literary critics have, following groundbreaking analyses of Machaut's major poetic works, profoundly reevaluated him as a poet. In fact, critics such as Ardis Butterfield and Anne Walters Robertson (see Further Reading), scholars with equal expertise in literary studies and music history, have concluded that Machaut's poetic oeuvre should not be eclipsed by his status as a major French composer of the fourteenth century. As scholars have noted, it is difficult to separate Machaut the composer from Machaut the poet, despite the fact that he abandons, as Robertson has written, the traditional view that poetry and music are one art. While music historians and literary critics focus on different aspects of Machaut's oeuvre, they agree that his work heralds a new era. According to music historians, Machaut embodies the Ars nova (New Art), which expanded the rhythmic vocabulary of music and established the new practice of fixed forms—repetitive patterns derived from poetic structures. In her analyses of Machaut's motets, works that blend music and language, Robertson finds that Machaut, having distanced himself from the ancient conception of music as a divine creation, forges “a new and potent alliance between music and the word,” paving the way for a new definition of poetry as a human art no longer subservient to the mystical power of music. As critics have observed, Machaut's principal concern as a poet is to define his authorial status, a departure from the traditional medieval idea of the writer as scribe. Underlying this radical shift, as Robertson remarks, is a profound transformation of worldview: Machaut's self-awareness as an artist reflects the gradual disappearance of the theocentric world view, replaced in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance by a passionate devotion to human concerns. Critics generally agree that the work most explicitly exemplifying Machaut's authorial awareness is Le Livre dou Voir-Dit (1363-65; The Book of the True Poem), which describes the poet's convoluted love affair with a young admirer. After failing to determine whether the “true story” was truth or fiction, critics finally agreed that the question was irrelevant because Machaut's true subject was ultimately poetry itself.

Biographical Information

Machaut was born around 1300, probably in Machaut, near the old city of Reims, famous for its cathedral, the coronation site of French kings. Having most likely received his early education in one of the cathedral schools, Machaut became, around 1323, a secretary to King John of Bohemia, also known as King John of Luxembourg, who led numerous military campaigns throughout Europe. Machaut faithfully served his lord, accompanying him on many expeditions. In appreciation for his servant's loyalty, John secured a church benefice for Machaut. (A benefice, which includes a church appointment, brought the recipient a steady income from church revenues.) Scholars have established that Machaut already held his first benefice, a chaplaincy in the diocese of Arras, as early as, and probably earlier than, 1330. There is evidence that Machaut held other benefices in the 1330s, as appointments did not require permanent residence. Finally, in 1337, Machaut, was made canon in his home diocese of Reims, and probably kept that post until the end of his life. Machaut stayed in John's service until 1346, when the King died at the battle of Crécy. After his patron's death, Machaut served the French royal family. Venerated as the greatest poet of his time, Machaut spent his later years editing and organizing his manuscripts.

Major Works

Master of the rondeau form, composer of chansons and ballades, Machaut raised the poetic dit, or story, to a new level of elaborate intricacy. His Remede de fortune (1340-before 1357; Fortune's Cure), a complex, multidimensional narrative about the poet's search for love, exemplifies this type of extended narrative poetry. In the midst of his quest, frustrated by the fickleness of Fortune, the poet encounters a mysterious figure, Lady Espérance, or Hope, who offers consolation. Having experienced triumphs and disappointments in love, the poet finally realizes that regardless of his destiny as a lover, his poetic achievements, as evidenced by the poem he is narrating, will never be questioned. Machaut reaches a similar conclusion in The Book of the True Poem, in which the love affair between the aged poet and a young admirer, a girl still in her teens, goes through numerous transformations as the lovers meet under various circumstances. Was the love consummated? Machaut does not say explicitly. However, toward the end of the poem the reader realizes that Machaut's true mistress is Poetry herself. Machaut viewed his entire poetic oeuvre, even his lesser poems, as one gigantic book; he wrote a separate work, his Prologue (1372), as an introduction to his collected writings. The Prologue, which Machaut wrote toward the end of his life, also sums up his ideas about poetry.

Critical Reception

Reception of Machaut's work during the poet's lifetime was extremely favorable, as his themes and poetic style appealed to the nobility. Eustache Deschamps (1346-1406), who considered himself Machaut's disciple, bestowed the title of poet on his master, adding the French term, faiseur, or maker, a literal translation of the Greek word poietes. Deschamps and the new generation of French poets accepted Machaut as the great poet of his time. After a few generations, however, French poets abandoned Machaut's style of poetry, as humanism introduced new topics and ideas. In the nineteenth century, when literary criticism was establishing itself as a field, current views of poetry led to rather negative assessments of Machaut's work. The 1960s marked the beginning of a new interest in Machaut. Following Le poète et le prince (1965), Daniel Poirion's pioneering study of Machaut in the changing literary and intellectual context of the late Middle Ages, critics turned their attention to the problem of literary awareness, finding in Machaut a poet who successfully imparted his conception of a poet's role and status to posterity. Consequently, critics writing in the 1970s and 1980s not only accepted Machaut's authorial awareness as valid and important, but also regarded his works, particularly the longer poems, as ingenious, masterfully crafted chronicles of a poet's inner intellectual, artistic, and spiritual struggle to fulfill his destiny as an artist. In the early twenty-first century, musicologists and literary scholars have rediscovered Machaut as a poet who not only uses bitextualism to juxtapose seemingly irreconcilable traditions in his motets (a French melody line superimposed on a Latin voice), but also creates an extraordinarily original and convincing poetic synthesis that incorporates and transcends his traditional poetic themes and procedures. As scholars have realized, Machaut eludes precise definitions and clear assessments, drawing the critic into his inner world and offering insights.

Principal Works

Remède de Fortune (poetry) 1340-before 1357

Le Confort d'Ami [Comfort of a Friend] (poetry) 1357

Le Dit de la Fonteinne Amoureuse [The Fountain of Love] (poetry) 1360-61

Le Livre dou Voir-Dit [The Book of the True Poem] 1363-65

Prologue (poetry) 1372

Remede de Fortune (translated by James I. Wimsatt and William W. Kibler) 1988

Comfort of a Friend (translated by R. Barton Palmer) 1992

The Fountain of Love (translated by R. Barton Palmer) 1993

Prologue (translated by R. Barton Palmer) 1993

The Book of the True Poem (translated by R. Barton Palmer) 1998


Siegmund Levarie (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: Levarie, Siegmund. “Guillaume de Machaut and His Time.” In Guillaume de Machaut, edited by John J. Baker, pp. 3-36. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Levarie discusses Machaut's life and work in the wider context of fourteenth-century social and political upheavals, also explaining the impact of the plague epidemic on social life.]

Guillaume de Machaut, composer and poet, was born around 1300 in the village of Machault near Réthel in the Champagne in France and died in 1377 as a canon of Rheims. Chronologically and artistically he represents his century, with which his life almost coincided and from which...

(The entire section is 9920 words.)

William Calin (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Calin, William. “Le Livre du Voir-Dit.” In A Poet at the Fountain: Essays on the Narrative Verse of Guillaume de Machaut, pp. 167-202. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.

[In the following essay, Calin discusses Le Livre du Voir-Dit, Machaut's principal work, concluding that the ultimate reality implied by the poet's text is the reality of artistic creation itself.]

Toute-belle sends a rondeau to the Narrator, in which she says that she offers him her heart. The Narrator replies in kind. Soon the aging poet and his youthful admirer are involved in an amorous correspondence. He visits her several times, and...

(The entire section is 14738 words.)

Sarah Jane Manley Williams (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Manley Williams, Sarah Jane. “Machaut's Self-Awareness as Author and Producer.” In Machaut's World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Madeleine Pelner Cosman and Bruce Chandler, pp. 189-97. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1978.

[In the following essay. Manley Williams describes Machaut as a remarkably self-conscious artist, observing that the poet's awareness of his importance as an author manifested itself in his consistent efforts to arrange, safeguard, copy, and distribute his manuscripts.]

About Machaut's famous contemporary, the Italian humanist, Francesco Petrarch, it has been said “we know far more about his...

(The entire section is 3932 words.)

Daniel Poirion (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Poirion, Daniel. “The Imaginary Universe of Guillaume de Machaut.” In Machaut's World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Madeleine Pelner Cosman and Bruce Chandler, pp. 199-204. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1978.

[In the following essay, Poirion depicts Machaut's imaginary universe as quintessentially modern, clearly abandoning the medieval tradition of theocentrism.]

When Machaut began to compose his polyphonic songs, much medieval music aimed rather to intellectual than to sensual effect. Mathematical laws of the universe, with their arithmetical and geometrical figures, governed composition. Through musical rhythms human...

(The entire section is 3653 words.)

Kevin Brownlee (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Brownlee, Kevin. “The Poetic Œuvre of Guillaume de Machaut: The Identity of Discourse and the Discourse of Identity.” In Machaut's World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century, edited by Madeleine Pelner Cosman and Bruce Chandler, pp. 219-31. New York: The New York Academy of Sciences, 1978.

[In the following essay, Brownlee asserts that a careful reading of Machaut's works shows how the poet transformed himself from scribe to author and imposed his authorial awareness as a new and dominant standard for writers.]

To a considerable extent the modern notion of “poet,” derives from fourteenth-century developments, for it was during the...

(The entire section is 7082 words.)

Douglas Kelly (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Kelly, Douglas. “Guillaume de Machaut and the Sublimation of Courtly Love in Imagination.” In Medieval Imagination: Rhetoric and the Poetry of Courtly Love, pp. 121-54. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Kelly analyzes Machaut's conception of love, observing that the poet's meticulous definition of love draws from classical and medieval literature.]

          and yet thei spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Ek for to wynnen love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry ben usages


Ici a commencé pour moi ce que j'appellerai...

(The entire section is 18128 words.)

Catherine Attwood (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Attwood, Catherine. “The ‘I’ of the Poet and the Poetic ‘I’: The Evolution of Literary Awareness in Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries” and “The ‘I’ and the Other: The Poetic ‘I’ in the Works of Guillaume de Machaut.” In The Poetic “I” in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century French Lyric Poetry, pp. 11-228. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

[In the following excerpt, Attwood analyzes Machaut's principal works concluding that he, more than any other poet of his time, reveals his poetic ego as a purely textual, literary construct.]

Among the most significant contributions of the writers of this period to the development of the first-person lyric...

(The entire section is 14943 words.)

Ardis Butterfield (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Butterfield, Ardis. “Part V: Lyric and Narrative” and “Part VI: Envoy: The New Art.” In Poetry and Music in Medieval France: From Jean Renart to Guillaume de Machaut, pp. 217-72, 273–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Butterfield analyzes Machaut's poetry and music, finding that both as a poet and a composer Machaut experiments with fixed forms and citation in an effort to explore the limits of his art.]

It is widely acknowledged that with Guillaume de Machaut vernacular song enters a new phase. His lais, rondeaux and ballades have an elaboration and artistic seriousness that sets them apart from...

(The entire section is 9786 words.)

Further Reading


Brownlee, Kevin. “Guillaume de Machaut Writes His Remede de Fortune: Lyricism in the Age of Allegory. In A New History of French Literature, edited by Dennis Hollier, pp. 109-14. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.

A detailed review of Machaut's principal works.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. “Poetry and Rhetoric.” In European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, translated by Willard R. Trask, pp. 145-66. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Discussion of the classical and medieval concept of the poet, with reference to Machaut. This work was originally published in...

(The entire section is 312 words.)