Guillaume de Machaut Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.