Joachim Du Bellay c. 1522-1560
French poet and critic.
Du Bellay's contributions to French poetry and literature are both numerous and significant. His Le Deffence et Illustration de le Langue Françoyse, (1549) set the groundwork for French as a language of literature and poetry in a time when there was very little of either in the vernacular. His poems were among the first of their kind in the written language of French, and though his works were largely overshadowed by those of his more widely-acclaimed contemporary, Pierre de Ronsard, Du Bellay holds a significant place in French verse.
Joachim Du Bellay was born in the Anjou province of France, in the Château of La Turmeliėre, the third son of Jean Du Bellay, a farmer of moderate repute. Little is known of Du Bellay's childhood, though in his works he expressed nostalgia for his days spent in the French countryside. His parents are said to have died when he was nine years old, leaving him under the guardianship of his older brother, René. As a youth, he was not prepared for a career in the same manner as his cousins, and it was clear that his education was neglected by his family. It is speculated that one of the local priests schooled him sufficiently in Latin to allow for his further education. He enrolled at the University of Poitiers circa 1542, where he studied law. Around 1543, he traveled to Paris, where he met Pierre De Ronsard, who would later become his good friend and fellow poet. Around 1544, he enrolled at the Collėge du Coqueret, where he studied under Jean Dorat, one of the eminent scholars of classical Greek and Roman studies in his day, and under whose tutelage he developed a love and ability for poetry. It was at the Collėge that Du Bellay, Ronsard, and several other scholars and would-be poets formed Le Plėiade, a collective based on the principles of Humanism of the day, using Du Bellay's Deffence et Illustration as their manifesto arguing for the composition of poetry in French.
From 1553 to 1558, Du Bellay served as a secretary to his cousin, Cardinal Jean Du Bellay, who worked for the Vatican in Rome. He was at first excited to travel to what was then arguably the most modern city in all of Europe, but became disillusioned when confronted with both the decadence of then-modern Roman life and the intrigues of those under Papal employ. In 1558, Du Bellay returned to Paris, where he published both Les Regrets, and Les Antiquitez de Rome in 1558. Du Bellay died in 1560 at his home in Paris.
One of the most influential works from Du Bellay's repertoire was written on the argument that the written language of French had no true documented poetry of its own. Le Deffence et Illustration de le Langue Françoyse, a response to a pamphlet entitled Art Poetique Françoys, written by Thomas Sebillet one year earlier, argued that French was not a barbarous language, and that it was only less rich than Latin or Greek because scholars of the day paid so little attention to it, and that it could someday be equally rich. He also argued for a complete overhauling of the genres of poetry as they were then known, calling for a return to the use of more classical forms, as opposed to those more popular at the time. In his work, he called on French poets to experiment with the language, to create new words, and to resurrect words fallen from fashion.
1549 also saw Du Bellay's publication of L'Olive, the first collection of love sonnets ever written in the French language. Many of these poems were borrowed from classical writers such as Horace or Virgil, while others were entirely of his own design. The poems speak of the dual nature of love as expressed by the classical poet Petrarch. This particular volume of Du Bellay's works is believed to be in honor of a certain lady, whom he describes as a lovely golden-haired woman. However, the historical identity of this object of his sonnets is entirely open to speculation, and many scholars believe her to be an invention of Du Bellay's. In 1550, Du Bellay appended the book, adding thirteen new odes, with such themes as the fickle nature of fortune and pastoral scenes of springtime.
In 1558, after his return from five years of employment as a secretary to his cousin in Rome, Du Bellay published two books based on his experiences and impressions of the city, the Vatican, and Roman life. Les Regrets is partly a work of satire based on his reaction to the corruption of Rome and the Vatican, and partly an expression of the duality between his homesickness for France and dissatisfaction with Rome, and his fascination with a city which was then the seat of culture and modern thought in Europe. Du Bellay seems to have appropriated the title of this book from Tristia by Ovid, in which the poet speaks of regret in being exiled from Rome. The borrowing of the title was a deliberate one, as Du Bellay saw a parallel between Ovid's exile from the city and his own exile to the same. Many of the poems of Les Regrets focus on the political events of Rome in general and the Vatican in particular, providing the reader with coverage of such occurrences as the changing of Popes. Du Bellay apparently intended for this book to be humorous in nature, though throughout much of it, he expresses his unhappiness with the role into which he was forced under the Cardinal's employ, which he viewed as that of a glorified house servant. Du Bellay's second book published in 1558 was Les Antiquitez De Rome. While Les Regrets focused largely on a modern Rome, Les Antiquitez mainly concerned itself with the image of the classical city. In the book, he expresses both his marvel and his dismay at the duality between the grandeur of ancient Rome and the tawdriness and decadence of that of his day.
Though Du Bellay's works have been seen as pedantic and often even plagiaristic by many, concessions are often made due to a near-void of any other works approaching those of his caliber in his land and age: among his works were the first sonnets to ever be written in his own native tongue, as well as some of the first odes. Le Deffence has been widely regarded by critics as a rough, often reckless attack on those poets of Du Bellay's day who insisted on the use of the then-favored Italian language, poetic stylings and structure. Barthélme Aneau, the first of many critics of this work, saw the book largely in a negative light, citing a hasty writing style and accusing Du Bellay of name-calling and overstatement. Largely, Aneau attacked what he believed to be a logical flaw in the book: Du Bellay's notion that the potential of the French language put it on par with Italian. Other critics, however, concede this supposed jump of logic with the fact that the Le Deffence won Du Bellay much favor and respect among his fellow poets, and it is also hailed as a timely work, appealing to many French patriots.
Likewise, Du Bellay's L'Olive has been seen on several occasions as being plagiaristic, and indeed, many of the sonnets therein appear to be word for word translations of works of obscure Italian poets, as evidenced by the studies of researchers. Critics also attack the many discrepancies between his theory—Du Bellay prefaced the anthology with a paragraph which was seemingly intended to clear his name as a thief of the words of his fellow poets—and the practice inherent in the poems contained therein. The work, however, is also praised by many critics for Du Bellay's seemingly effortless use of rhyme and meter, as well as the quality of his translations from Italian and Latin into French, and as a successful test of the beliefs and ideals to which he espoused based on Le Deffence, when applied to several of his own original works which also appear in the book. His appendage to L'Olive, was criticized by Jehan Proust as being full of recurring references to obscure bits of mythology and obtuse metaphors. Pierre De Ronsard, Du Bellay's own friend and fellow poet, commented that Du Bellay's works were excessively dependent on a knowledge of Greek and Latin.
Arguably the most well known and diversely studied among Du Bellay's works were the two books published upon his return to France after living in Rome with his cousin for five years. These are Les Regrets and Les Antiquitez De Rome. Les Regrets was written at a point in Du Bellay's life when he was critically acclaimed as a master of the sonnet, and it was this form which he chose for the book. Many critics have spoken on the relative lack of mythological references which seemed ubiquitous in his earlier works. Still others have praised what appeared to be a newly-found sense of confidence inherent in the book; no longer the acerbic upstart of Le Deffence nor the indignant plagiarist of L'Olive, but a more mature Du Bellay, with a clear idea of his words and his intentions for them in terms of self-expression. The lofty feel of the works in this book, coupled with a true sense of irony, satire and humor, has been remarked upon by several critics, as well as the merits of the work as a piece of social criticism. Les Antiquitez De Rome, the second work spawned by Du Bellay's time in Rome, was published just six weeks after the appearance of Les Regrets, and is lauded by critics on a nearly equal level to the former title, but for contrasting reasons: while Les Regrets speaks of the personal distaste of Du Bellay for the decadence of modern Roman life and his nostalgia for his homeland, the primary theme of Les Antiquitez seems to see a return to his penchant for mythology and the city in its classical days, as well as a return to the borrowing and citing of other poets. The work is viewed unfavorably by some critics for its often melodramatic tone, while others study it extensively to find the sources for Du Bellay's many historical references.