Orphaned early in his short life, Angevin nobleman Joachim du Bellay wrote some of the finest elegiac and satiric poetry in the French language, although much of it was imitated or simply translated from ancient Greek, Roman, and Italian sources. While studying works from those traditions with the Hellenist Jean Dorat at the latter’s Collège de Coqueret, de Bellay and his friends Pierre de Ronsard and Jean-Antoine de Baïf founded the group of seven writers later known as the Pléiade, borrowing the name from a famous school of ancient Greek poets in Alexandria. The group’s name referred to the seven daughters of Atlas in Greek mythology, transformed into a constellation of stars. The Pléiade became the most famous French poetic school between the medieval Troubadours and the nineteenth century Romantics.
Fearing that he and his friends would be overshadowed by Thomas Sébillet, who advocated a radical renewal of French language and literature in his Art Poétique (1548), the ambitious du Bellay rushed into print with a similar program in his polemical essay La Défense et illustration de la langue française (1549; The Defence and Illustration of the French Language, 1939). At the time, French was still considered an inferior language to Latin, which was used widely in the Catholic Church and for instruction in universities. Du Bellay advocated revitalizing the French language by reviving archaic words, inventing new words, and imitating what he considered the most prestigious literary forms, such as satire as well as the Italian sonnet (Petrarch) and the Latin epic (Vergil), ode (Horace), and elegy (Ovid). These would replace the medieval French ballades, lais, virelais, rondeaux, and chansons, with their playful, personal, and often comical subjects.
During the first half of the sixteenth century, humanist scholars had used their study of ancient languages to retranslate the Bible and to call many teachings of the Catholic Church into question. Some poets, such as Clément Marot and Marguerite de Navarre, sympathized with the Huguenots (Protestants), although without leaving the Church. The Pléiade poets, however, remained loyal Catholics. Their poetry compartmentalizes pagan and Christian mythology and imagery, often placing them together without feeling any doctrinal contradiction. In their popularized Neoplatonism, they represented the idealized lady to whom their poems were dedicated as the window that offered a glimpse of ideal beauty and perfection, without intending to solicit sexual favors or advocate adultery. Thus, they continued the word-games of medieval courtly love.
To illustrate the renewed French literature and language he had recommended in his essay, du Bellay published L’Olive, a cycle of fifty sonnets, of which more than half were of neo-Petrarchan inspiration. Fifteen years earlier, the poets Clément Marot and Mellin de Saint-Gelais had introduced the sonnet (a fourteen-line poem with a fixed rhyme scheme, typically abba, abba, ccd, ede) to France, but du Bellay was the first to introduce a cycle of sonnets focused on a single love object. (The poems to Lesbia of the ancient Roman Catullus, and the fourteenth century French poet Guillaume de Machaut’s Le Voir Dit—although not sonnets—were among other precursors.) Despite its predominantly literary inspiration and its frequent Petrarchan antitheses, the world of L’Olive richly and sensuously blends mythological references, notations of color and sound, nature images, and intellectual subtlety. The title refers to a (probably imaginary) woman; to the wisdom of the goddess Athena (the olive was her tree); and to du Bellay’s main model, Petrarch, who had made the laurel tree famous by celebrating a woman named Laura. Published together with L’Olive were the Vers Lyriques. Here, du Bellay seems to achieve a more personal tone. Typical topics are the rapid flight of time and the fragility of all worldly goods.
An expanded edition of L’Olive, with sixty-five additional...
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