Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Tending to One's Garden: Deschamps's 'Ballade to Chaucer' Reconsidered

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Tending to One's Garden: Deschamps's 'Ballade to Chaucer' Reconsidered

Article excerpt

Sometime towards the end of the fourteenth century, the French poet Eustache Deschamps wrote a formes fixes ballade addressed to Geoffrey Chaucer. Somewhat surprisingly, this address appears to be the only known direct acknowledgement of Chaucer's literary activity to have been made within the English poet's own lifetime, and it is famously ambiguous. In the lyric, Deschamps compares Chaucer to multiple venerable figures, such as Socrates, Seneca, and Ovid, as one who has illuminated England. He further commends Chaucer for having translated that Ur-text of French courtly love literature, the Roman de la Rose, 'en bon anglès' (line 16: 'into good English') and for planting a literary garden in England that will be full of French plants.1 While Deschamps remains far from the fountain of Helicon in France, Chaucer has the fountain under his 'baillie' (line 23: 'jurisdiction'). That all said, Deschamps declares that he is sending work to Chaucer but does not ask for any of Chaucer's in return, and he famously refers to him in the refrain as 'grant translateur, noble Geoffroi Chaucier'.

Where earlier critics had scarcely doubted the sincerity of Deschamps's high valuation of Chaucer, William Calin tempered the enthusiasm by questioning how much this ballade could really be saying about Chaucer's fame on the Continent and Deschamps's interest in English literature.2 Many of Deschamps's other lyrics testify to his strongly anti-English and proto-nationalistic sentiments, such as the ballades in which he paints idealizing futures that see England wiped from the very face of the earth.3 There is also no evidence that Deschamps, in fact, knows more than a few words of English, as observable from his well-known ballade on an encounter with two menacing English soldiers in Calais, in which he mocks their alien-sounding language.4 The insistent refrain within the lyric - 'grant translateur, noble Geffroy Chaucier' - has the ring of praise to it, but it is also potentially dismissive, or, at the very least, vexed. Ardis Butterfield too reads all of Deschamps's compliments to Chaucer as subtly backhanded. Thus Deschamps's portrayal of the fountain of Helicon as being in Chaucer's 'baillie' recalls for her, in its legalistic use of the term, the English siege and subsequent occupation of Calais in 1346 and the destructive pillaging of its surrounding region by the troops of the Black Prince in the decades to come.5 For John Bowers, the whole ballade is an 'exercise in hyperbole' and a 'subtle effort in demeaning Chaucer's enterprise as the mere importation of the French Rose for an English garden'.6 The ballade generally tends to be read in the context of Deschamps's anti-English political sentiments. Indeed, scholars seeking to date the ballade have favoured periods of peace or of less strained political conditions between England and France as the most suitable possibilities.7

As this piece argues, however, Deschamps's 'Ballade to Chaucer' is about far more than Deschamps's degree of familiarity with Chaucer's work. Rather, this ballade sheds light on a significant feature of late medieval Anglo-French translation practice that has heretofore received comparatively less attention. Scholarly discussions of Anglo-French literary exchange have tended to focus on issues surrounding language, linguistic difference being clearly a fundamental feature of translation activity.8 Yet, as I aim to show, Anglo-French literary exchange was also heavily concerned with policing the transmission of literary form and of literary tropes, with a special interest in the transmission of references to classical antiquity. While synchronic translation between contemporary languages and literatures was, necessarily, a dominant feature of Anglo-French literary exchange, the diachronic translation of antiquity became an important yardstick for evaluating a cross-Channel poet's literary achievements, particularly within the tense geopolitical climate created by the Hundred Years War. …

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