Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Waging Loving War: Lucretius and the Poetry of Remy Belleau

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Waging Loving War: Lucretius and the Poetry of Remy Belleau

Article excerpt

In 1558 Joachim du Bellay completed the first translation of Lucretius into French, twenty-two lines from the beginning of De rerum natura (henceforth DRN), for a collection of ancient sources to accompany Louis Le Roy's translation of Plato's Symposium. This translation is one of a set of texts that demonstrates the Pleiade group's wide-ranging engagement with Lucretius, marking not only its first explicit textual manifestation but also its central themes: poetry, desire, and politics. (1) In this essay I look at the adoption of that tradition in the work of one of the lesser known but most innovative members of the group, Remy Belleau. The other Pleiade poets acknowledged Belleau as the most learned among them. (2) He wrote across traditions and took special pleasure in new and uncommon genres, producing among other things a translation of the Anacreontic odes, a pastoral compilation, a commentary on Ronsard's second book of Amours, sacred eclogues translated from the Song of Songs, poems about assorted small objects, and a collection of poems about precious stones. (3) This essay focuses on the last of these texts, Les Amours et nouveaux eschanges des pierres precieuses (henceforth Pierres), to argue that Belleau was a careful reader of Lucretius whose poetry applies the Latin poet's language of pleasure to questions of politics.

I. Art and State in Belleau and Lucretius

Belleau's poetry provides an excellent case study in how thoroughly sixteenth-century poets responded to Lucretius's demanding vision of poetry's political role. A shrewd reader of Lucretius, Belleau discerns the implications that DRN's forays into the language of pleasure and the genres of love have for politics and poetry. He combines what at first glance appear to be sharply opposed Lucretian treatments of desire in order to articulate a particular vision of French patrimony. (4) For Belleau, working through the text, language, and themes of DRN was a way to propose how poetry could participate in the stabilization and perpetuation of the turbulent French nation, wracked by the Wars of Religion.

Particularly in the Pierres, Belleau uses desire as a master metaphor for both politics and art, drawing inspiration from DRN's persistently erotic tone. But before moving to Belleau's work, we must address how Lucretius modified his Epicurean sources. Expounding Epicurean philosophy in verse, Lucretius had adapted Greek and Latin love lyric traditions to express the central Epicurean concept of ataraxia (mental calm) and its opposite, mental torment, through the tropes and vocabulary of love poetry. In DRN, the frenzies of lust constitute a vocabulary for everything from the cycles of nature (in book 1) to the vagaries of sense perception (book 4). Moreover, Lucretius's recourse to the figure of Venus makes even war and peace subject to desire: the goddess seduces warlike Mars to bring peace to the Romans. Thus--in a departure from Epicurus, who believed that one must remove oneself from the world to achieve ataraxia, an ideal accomplished at his garden school--Lucretius politicizes ataraxia as much as he eroticizes it.' In DRN, ataraxia gains political potency as a concept that can describe national unrest as well as individual turmoil.

In its Renaissance reception, DRN's simultaneously erotic and political treatment of ataraxia yields two plots, ' which map ataraxia and the peaceful state, or conversely, mental disturbance and the warring state, onto romantic scenarios. The first plot takes the form of a conventional courtship, where moderate affection and mutual compatibility yield stability and a healthy family. The second showcases the melancholic lover of Petrarchan verse, the youth whose burning passion usually goes unfulfilled, threatening to destroy him. (6)

The key features of these double plots are also drawn from DRN, specifically the hymn to Venus, which opens book 1, and book 4, with its mutually supporting accounts of vision and lust. …

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