Academic journal article French Forum

Deadly Words, Captive Imaginations: Women and Poetic Creation in Jean Froissart's Prison Amoureuse

Academic journal article French Forum

Deadly Words, Captive Imaginations: Women and Poetic Creation in Jean Froissart's Prison Amoureuse

Article excerpt

Jean Froissart's Prison Amoureuse (c. 1372), a courtly narrative by an author better known today for his historical works, is very much a poet's poem. The most noteworthy human relationship in this self-reflexive tale is the literary friendship between the poet and his male patron, and the traditional romantic intrigue takes a back seat to the story of the book's composition. Flos, the narrator-poet, and Rose, his patron, exchange a series of poems and letters that Flos eventually compiles into a book--the Prison itself. Meanwhile, the female figures of the Prison are relegated to its margins: the two unnamed ladies whom Flos and Rose love make brief appearances, and a smattering of the book's allegorical and mythological figures are female, but the Prison's main concern would appear to be the male characters and their collaborative literary project.

The Prison's lack of prominent female characters might seem to indicate that the book's subject, literary creation, is for Froissart the domain of men. However, this essay will argue that such is not the case. Rather than excluding women from the literary process, the Prison in fact portrays them as having creative powers that are by turns helpful and threatening to the male writers. Both Flos's and Rose's ladies compose poetry, and both have the potential to contribute to the success of the men's literary project by adopting the roles of reader and critic. (1) However, when these women misread, refuse to read, or adopt independent voices that run counter to the male poet's, they pose a distinct threat. The Prison makes it clear both that feminine creativity can be harnessed in the service of a male-authored book, and that it must be kept under strict control, "captured" in much the same way as the male poet harnesses the feminine principle of imagination in order to imprison it in his text.

I. Deadly Words: misreading and refusing to read

Two poems in women's voices bracket the text of the Prison, the first sung by Flos's lady, the second composed by Rose's. Within the space framed by these parallel compositions, the two women perform acts of reading, misreading and literary commentary in scenes that sketch out the range of their creative functions vis a vis the two male writers. These scenes, while brief in terms of the overall length of the Prison, nonetheless demonstrate both the importance and the dangers of women for writers.

The Prison's first episode involves a poem sung by Flos's lady, in a scene that showcases not only her role as a reader of Flos's work, but also her own creative abilities. We learn that Flos has composed a virelai about his sufferings in love (II. 273-326). (2) His lady hears of the virelai, asks for a copy, learns it, and sings it--a success for the poet (11. 337-42). However, soon afterwards the lady does something that upsets Flos greatly. At a dance, when his virelai is sung by a young lady, his lady immediately sings another virelai as if in response.

Mes a painnes peut il fin prendre,
Quant ma dame en volt un reprendre
Qu'onques mes je n'avoie oI. (II. 421-23)

  [But it (my virelai) was seareely finished when my lady wanted to
  take up another one that I had never heard before.]

The virelai sung by the lady, in a first person feminine voice, expresses the speaker's happiness at seeing her lover downcast, "because he takes joy and delight [in melancholy]" (1. 438). The song that his lady sings casts Flos into deep despair, for reasons that bear a closer look. As he explains:

Li oi par tres grant revel
Chanter un virelai nouvel.
Bien le glosai, mieuls 1 entendi:
A celi qui pour Vamour d'elle
Fu fes et q'une damoiselle
Eut chante. Trop fort me reprens,
Quant pour s'amour ensi m'esprens.
Lors est elle, ce dist, moult lie
Quant je sui en merancolie,
Et qu'elle me feroit grant tort
Se j'avoie grasce ou confort.
Ce sont parolles pour morir! (11. 505-17; emphasis mine)

[1 heard her sing a new virelai with great merriment. …

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