Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Regrets Only: Three Poetic Paradigms in Du Bellay

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Regrets Only: Three Poetic Paradigms in Du Bellay

Article excerpt

Joachim Du Bellay's Les Regrets offers several sources of interest to the alert reader. It can be read, and it often has been, as one of the most engaging and original sonnet sequences of its century, mingling the gossip and scandal of a vice-sodden city with the splenetic mood swings of its discontented poet. Or secondly it can be read as the programmatic self-exposure of a complex human subject struggling for coherence against radical disorientation, a subject caught between a crumbling feudalism and an incipient modernity. Finally, Les Regrets can be read for its various experiments with a range of rhetorical, stylistic, and existential modes which permit a trans-historical analysis. They permit, that is to say, a reader to isolate patterns of relationship between poet and context which are not limited to a transitional historical moment or a unique existential situation, patterns which exemplify perennially recurrent structures of poems. The present essay will touch on all of these sources of interest, but its ultimate concern is with the last. And while it will cite several sonnets, it will scrutinize three most closely, each of them considered as paradigmatic of a distinct pattern of relationship.

First however some preliminary comments are in order. The most obtrusive impression in the earlier sonnets of Les Regrets is the poet's pathos of exile, and any commentary on the sequence has to consider this impression. Exile comes to mean many things, not all of them easily reconcilable. The circumstance that the historical figure Joachim Du Bellay more or less deliberately chose to enter the entourage of his powerful kinsman, the cardinal Jean Du Bellay, during a protracted diplomatic mission to Rome - this circumstance is passed over in the poetic text. The title of the sequence, like many of its members, recalls the enforced exile of Ovid among the Scythian "barbarians." Many a sonnet reaches for an Ovidian pathos, as does the longish verse dedication which imitates Ovid's Tristia. There exile becomes banishment: ". . . je languis banny de ma maison" (l.26).(1) But this pathos might conceivably prove misleading. An exile can potentially provide something positive to an individual already discontented at home, as had been the case with the historical author. In view of the profound restlessness which seems never to have spared him, a fresh start need not have been altogether unwelcome. There are hints that this was indeed the case with the writer of Les Regrets.

What is commonly called exile might better be analyzed in terms of a multiform denudation traceable roughly in the first fifty sonnets. The first and most obvious form of denudation is geographic and linguistic. The poet has lost his role as a Frenchman among Frenchmen; he has lost his nation and his community, and the series of addresses to friends, most of whom have remained in France - these addresses running from sonnet to sonnet can be construed as an ineffectual effort to reconstitute a community experienced as lacking. One prominent motif in this series of addresses is the professional success of the friends back in France and most notably of Ronsard. Ronsard allegedly enjoys the favor of the court and the generosity of the king which Du Bellay has failed to acquire.

. . . chascun n'a pas merite que d'un roy La liberalite luy face, comme a toy,

Ou son archet dore, ou sa lyre crossee. (22)

It matters little whether Ronsard had truly achieved what he wanted in worldly terms during the middle fifties; what matters for us is the perception by his friend and rival of unequal recognition. A displacement, an exile," might have allowed the friend to reduce the intensity of a rivalry which left him the visible second. It might have allowed this, although the textual evidence suggests that the displacement was far from dispelling all feelings of emulation. More broadly, it can be said that the loss of a fixed role and a familiar context can be liberating as well as impoverishing. …

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