Not a name that gets much English or American attention these (or other) days, Joachim du Bellay made his way before my eyes through the work of C.H. Sisson (a much lesser name who nonetheless receives less due than he deserves). Du Bellay, a sixteenth century French poet, was a member of one of the most brilliant gatherings of poets, the Pléiade, of whom Ronsard is the most famous member. As a blossom in the efflorescence of French vernacular verse, du Bellay not only composed verse, taking inspiration from Classical models, but also argued in a prose tract for the potential of the French language as a medium for high literary achievement. He represents a stage of Renaissance commentary that precedes the pruning impulses of Boileau’s Classicism: an urge to cultivate the vernacular through appropriate neologism and learned imitation of the classics.
I don’t know nearly enough to survey his achievement as a whole, but can offer at least a recommendation for appreciating his long 1558 sonnet sequence, Les Regrets, found here in the French original. Unfortunately, Sisson’s are not available online.
All of the translator’s remark on du Bellay’s enduring tones of intimacy, the sense that, despite the rhetorical elaboration of the sonnets, they are friendly, unassuming, spontaneous, with intrusions of life’s daily complaints. “Du Bellay’s poems of complaint,” writes Slavitt, have a “with their breezy intimacy, their brave dysphoria, and their spontaneity, have a freshness and intimacy that invited my attention.” And in the words of Cisson: “There is no work of du Bellay’s so packed with matter as the Regrets, and it is not matter which he has decided is poetical but what hits him, often painfully, in his day-to-day life. It is this which gives the sequence its greatness.”
It is easy to lose sight of what must have been du Bellay’s extraordinary sense of the potential of the sonnet form. In a curious misjudgment, Richard Helgerson, introducing du Bellay in his edition, remarks that, compared to Ronsard, du Bellay “more nearly deserves the title of the French Petrarch.” In Helgerson’s estimate, Les Regrets is the most original sonnet sequence by any poet between Petrarch and Shakespeare. It is Helgerson writes, a sequence “directly concerned with the predicament of the modern poet.”
But if du Bellay deserves the title of the French Petrarch, it is not because he is the most masterful in his adaptation of the sonnet to French, but because he is as creative in his adaptation and re-envisioning of the sonnet as any sonneteer after Petrarch can be. Unlike Shakespeare, who is mostly still writing Sonnets about desire, the will, the eyes, the heart, du Bellay abandons Petrarchan figurations of interiority. Petrarch’s sonnets divide the self from within, contending forces vying agains one another, interior appropriations of exterior objects scuttling the boundaries of self and other, and absences impacting like presences and presences proving absent fullfillment. Du Bellay’s record the self at the mercy of the world; the self at the mercy of duty, sovereignty, occupation, status, salary, material exigency, and worldly contingency. The absent other that provokes desire and despair in Petrarch is transfigured in Du Bellay as exile: he is away from friends, yes, but also from those surroundings, a sort of Horatian retirement, that he would relish, he says, if he could. He is wrongly circumstanced, and the circumstances are not those he carries or makes within; he does not blame himself for being unable to make more of a bad situation, he only blames himself for staying too long or for getting into it in the first place.
Why then write sonnets at all? What had the sonnet proven good for that made it seem valid for new purposes? The sonnet, as Petrarch established it, as others practiced it (even as Milton would develop it, in his own way), represented an opportunity for an affirmation and figuration of the self. What’s more, in its unity, balance, and proportion, and in the repetition of the form over a series, the sonnet is a vehicle by which the integrity of the self is tried and established. But whereas the trials of integrity in the Petrarchan sonnet are brought on by the violent fragmentations of desire, of loss, and of redemption, attempted in the sometimes successful, sometimes not, righting and harmonizing of word and world that the sonnet form promises, for du Bellay the harmony of the sonnet provides a carapace behind which the self may endure, protected and beyond reach, from the demands of duties, tasks, borrowing friends, commitments to the world; and when mid-way through the sequence du Bellay lashes out at others, the sonnet becomes a trench for satirical shots at those whose demands toll most on the poet.
A single sonnet will not serve to show all I’ve claimed; two will do a bit better. Here are, in Sisson’s translation, 42 and 45:
Now, my dear Vineus, take a look at me,
Do you know anyone in such a mess?
I cannot be even the man I was,
Having let youth escape so idiotically.
I remain poor, and eaten out by care,
My days are miserable, my nights still more so
With what I didn’t do and what I must do!
If I were a satirist—I wish I were—
I’d attack others and not feel a thing,
My pen would run freely, I’d not be wondering
What my superious would have to say.
I tell you, Vineus, the only true superior
Is he who is not in duty bound to please
And can write as he will from day to day.
Stepmother nature (and you are a step-mother
Or you would have borne me happier and wiser)
Why did you not make me, shall we say, less supine,
Able to act as reasonably as others?
I see two roads, the wrong and the right,
I know which is the better, and I choose
Infallibly the one I should refuse,
To follow a vain hope which looks delightful.
Does that do any good? No, no the least!
I spend my last ounce of energy
To get the wrong results and more trouble.
It is the stranger benefits by my service.
I wear myself out in fatuous exercises
And get the blame for other people’s muddles
Shakespeare’s nearest approach to du Bellay would be sonnet 66, “Tir’d of all these, for restful death I cry,” but not for its first or last lines (where the Petrarchan love, the object of desire, appears), but for the anaphora, charging the world with a brutal succession of grievances and also registering their successive force as the poet is beat down. Du Bellay’s entire sequence is dedicated to the ends of Shakespeare’s anaphora.
Du Bellay’s Regrets are true to the spirit of the sonnet as a technique of self-avowal when the self passes days under threat from the mundane. He must insist both that he is speaking in the sonnets as himself, and that the sonnets complain of what is genuinely set against the self. Hence in 77: “La plainte que je fais, Dilliers, est véritable”. In turning the sonnet a public accounting of oneself, he reconciles Villon with the sonnet tradition. He would have known Villon through an edition of the 1530s, by one of du Bellay’s literary antagonists, Clement Marot, and he works Villon’s manner of confident confession—a showy confiding really–of life’s haps and mishaps, into his own poems (maybe he is attempting to gain revenge on Marot by out-doing the latter’s poetic hero). Like Villon, he feels obliged to provide testimony to his life; to account for what he has done to lead him to where he is. But in an inversion of Villon’s wrong-doings, du Bellay has none worth confession: “I think that nobody can fairly say | that I have ever done him a bad turn” (43).
But the self-avowal is strongest in two sonnets, 39 and 79, where the rhetoric resembles a credo of compromised selfhood. The former comes during a span of sonnets in which his meaningless career is the focus, the latter during a span of sonnets attacking the Catholic church. I will quote first in French, with Sisson’s English translations in brackets beneath.
J’aime la liberté, et languis en service,
Je n’aime point la cour, et me faut courtiser,
Je n’aime la feintise, et me faut déguiser,
J’aime simplicité, et n’apprends que malice :
Je n’adore les biens, et sers à l’avarice,
Je n’aime les honneurs, et me les faut priser,
Je veux garder ma foi, et me la faut briser,
Je cherche la vertu, et ne trouve que vice :
Je cherche le repos, et trouver ne le puis,
J’embrasse le plaisir, et n’éprouve qu’ennuis,
Je n’aime à discourir, en raison je me fonde :
J’ai le corps maladif, et me faut voyager,
Je suis né pour la Muse, on me fait ménager :
Ne suis-je pas, Morel, le plus chétif de monde ?
[I love liberty, but I am a servant, | I don’t like servile manners, but must have them,| I do not like pretence, but I pretend,| I like straightforwardness, but I am learning: | Property bores me but I work for avarice,| I do not care for honours but must act as if I do,| I like to keep my word, my employer says no,| I look for decency and find only vice:| I look for peace, and find something else,| For pleasure, and I do not get it myself,| I don’t like argument although on the right side:| I am not fit, and yet I have to travel,| I am born for poetry, but my job is to manage,| Am I not, Morel, the unluckiest man alive?]
Je n’écris point d’amour, n’étant point amoureux,
Je n’écris de beauté, n’ayant belle maîtresse,
Je n’écris de douceur, n’éprouvant que rudesse,
Je n’écris de plaisir, me trouvant douloureux :
Je n’écris de bonheur, me trouvant malheureux
Je n’écris de faveur, ne voyant ma princesse,
Je n’écris de trésors, n’ayant point de richesse,
Je n’écris de santé, me sentant langoureux :
Je n’écris de la cour, étant loin de mon prince,
Je n’écris de la France, en étrange province,
Je n’écris de l’honneur, n’en voyant point ici :
Je n’écris d’amitié, ne trouvant que feintise,
Je n’écris de vertu, n’en trouvant point aussi,
Je n’écris de savoir, entre les gens d’Église.
[I do not write of love, I am not a lover,| I do not write of beauty, I have no mistress,
I do not write of kindness, here is my uncouthness, | I do not write of pleasure, my pleasures are over:| I do not write of happiness, I am unhappy,| I do not write opf favours, no one to give them,| I do not write of health, for I am poorly:| I do not write of the court, I am far from my Prince,| I do not write of France, I am in a strange province,| I do not write of honour, I see none here:| I do not write of friendship, all is here pretence,| I do not write of virtue, which is also absent,| I do not write of knowledge, where churchmen are.]
For du Bellay, the besieged self is equated with the poetic self: the self that composes. One of his chief complaints through the series is that it is this self that is pressed on, suffocated, day to day; the series is a record of a life in which the pursuits most essential for sustaining a proper sense of self are denied and compromised. He will write anything he can, not aspiring, he says in sonnet 4, for “Petrarchan grace,” but instead grinding away, content if he can manage “soit une prose en ryme ou une ryme en prose” (“Pieces of prose in rhyme, or rhyme in prose”; sonnet 2).
He writes in sonnet 39, in Sisson’s translation: “I am born for poetry, but my job is to manage.” And in sonnet 59: “my indisposition | Does not come from too much reading or too long a stay here | But from having to attend to my office work all day.” The poet as middle-manager; the poet as administrator; no wonder so many find in du Bellay a note of modern life that sets him apart from his peers. Here, in sonnet 84, on what a day consists of in Rome. First the French, with Cisson’s translation (somewhat freer here) beneath:
Nous ne faisons la cour aux filles de Mémoire,
Comme vous qui vivez libres de passion:
Si vous ne savez donc notre occupation,
Ces dix vers en suivant vous la feront notoire :
Suivre son cardinal au Pape, au Consistoire,
En Capelle, en Visite, en Congrégation,
Et pour l’honneur d’un prince ou d’une nation
De quelque ambassadeur accompagner la gloire :
Etre en son rang de garde auprès de son seigneur,
Et faire aux survenants l’accoutumé honneur,
Parler du bruit qui court, faire de l’habile homme
Se promener en housse, aller voir d’huis en huis
La Marthe ou la Victoire, et s’engager aux Juifs
Voilà, mes compagnons, les passe-temps de Rome.
[We do not spend our time here writing poetry, | As you do, whose lives are undisturbed:| If you want to know what in fact it is we do do,| The next ten lines will make it plain as day:| Follow one’s cardinal to the Pope, to the consistory,| To chapel, on visits, or to the congregation,| And honour some prince, or some nation| BY waiting on some ambassador in his glory”| Be in place in the train of one’s master,| And do the usual honours to chance-comers,| Talking of the latest rumour, and seeming smart:| Go out in state, calling from door to door,| Borrowing money from Jews and talking to whores,| These my friends, are what the amusements of Rome are.]
With every allusion to the classical poets, and the Renaissance masters (Petrarch, but also his friend Ronsard), to the heroes of epics, to the Gods of Ovid, we are reminded of the distance between du Bellay’s public life and private life, with its inner self that he fosters in fantasies which the public arena will not permit him to realize or even display. The sonnet for du Bellay is the wall between the two, guarding the one from the other; in it, he finds room for the private life to be articulated; but in its construction, he also repeatedly hems the private life in, pressing against it constant recognition and submission to the public role he lives.
But what I have said so far gives the wrong impression that the sonnet is a static vehicle for du Bellay, that he uses it for the same end throughout, and that he is freighted throughout by the same burdens. But over the sequence, du Bellay arrives at an altered conception of both his place in Rome and his place in the sonnet tradition: buy the 100th sonnet, he has converted the sonnet to a vehicle for Juvenalian rather than Horatian satire, execrating the follies of the church and the swirl of Roman court life that surrounds it. From 108, he compares himself a former Hercules now reduced to a broken ruin of a Roman statue, called Pasquino by Romans of the sixteenth century: “Once I was Hercules, but am Pasquino,| As people call me now, yet I perform | The same labours as under my old name, | For with my verses I clobber dubious heroes. My true vocation is to spare nobody,| But bawl out vices at the top of my voice.” And in 109, he compares himself to Hercules cleaning out the Augean Stables.” A substantial portion of the sequence is devoted to the task, but the sequence ends on other, more subtly-hued compositions. First, a turn to international affairs, with sonnets on France’s diplomatic engagements with Spain and Italy (123-125); and then, the final three sonnets (if we consider the sequence, as Sasson does, to consist of only 130 sonnets; more sonnets were published after, but there is reason to believe that they were no intended as part of the sequence, even if they relate to its final lines), sailing home to France, like Ulysses returning home. Here, the final two sonnets as Cisson renders them:
Dilliers, I see the storm subside at last,
I see old Proteus shut up all his monsters
And green Triton desporting himself on the water
And Castor and Pollux blazing above the mast.
A favourable wind is springing up,
And I begin to row towards the harbour,
Now I see more friends than I can number,
Celebrating on the shore and holding their arms out.
There’s that great Ronsard, I recognize him here,
I see my friend Morel, and Dorat’s another,
Now I see Delahaie, and Paschal too:
And further off, if I am not deceived,
The inspired Mauleon, whom I have never seen
But whom I admire for his grace and learning and virtue.
I too thought what Ulysses once thought,
That nothing could be pleasanter than to see
The smoke rising from my own chimney,
And to be again in the land where I was brought up.
I congratulated myself on having got away
From the Circes of Italy and the Sirens of sex,
And thought that once back in France I should find the respect
That is earned by faithful service, or so they say.
No good. And after years of worry in Rome.
I come back here only to find trouble at home,
And to agonize because things will never mend.
So good bye, Dorat, I must still be a Roman
Unless you are willing to let me try my hand
With the bow the Muses gave you, to take my revenge.
Jean Dorat was a fellow Pléiade poet, a scholar of Latin and Greek, who published verses in the Classical language. Du Bellay might mean in the final lines simply that he would take up poetry in France, as Dorat has done, and that he would use the poetry to kill his enemies; he might refer to Dorat’s Greek models as opposed to the Roman, which he has referred to most persistently through his sequence; he might acknowledge that the style of poetry that Rome has taught him, the satirical mode, will perforce remain his, even in France. A final joke of course is that Ulysses’ bow could be drawn by only one man, Ulysses; Du Bellay has returned, as it were, to reclaim what, though given to Dorat, can be properly wielded by him alone; he assumes the pride he had boastingly shed during his exile in Rome.
If it were not for du Bellay’s devoted Classicism, it might seem unnecessary to ask which spirit of Classical poetry presides most over the sonnet sequence; but he draws the comparisons himself, he sought to bring those standards to French poetry, and he was steeped in them. Though it can only, given my scant reading in the Classics, be a hunch, I suspect that the essential Classical presence of the series is Ovid. And this not only because du Bellay several times plays on his exile in Rome, comparing it, with consciously perverse irony, to Ovid’s exile from Rome, and not only because of a sprinkling of Ovidian allusions in the final sonnets (Daphne and Laurel in 87; the opening of Metamorphoses, somewhat facetiously, but powerfully, in 125, a sonnet on the birth of a truce). Instead, and here is where I am most on a limb, the urbane wherewithal, the personal tones, shifting without fuss or ado, sometimes brusque, sometimes coy, sometimes plaintive, sometimes winkingly so, sound a great deal nearer to Marlowe’s translations of Ovid’s elegies than to anything else I have read; in those poems to, the concrete and sweaty presence of Rome and Romans is felt. Finally, it would be a reverse-Ovidian feat to preserve the formal identity of the sonnet while so variously transforming its function and mode; du Bellay gives us the sonnet in flux for a poetic voice in flux, at the mercy not of Gods, but of worldly and base circumstances; a voice adapting and readapting itself, being adapted and readapted from without as well as within, against the stability of the sonnet. An Ovidian sonneteer, then; a novel form for the classical poet, bridging the contemporary with the antique, the vernacular with the Latin.