The European Sun: Proceedings of the Seventh International Conference on Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Language and Literature, University of Strathclyde, 1993

By Graham Caie; Roderick J. Lyall et al. | Go to book overview

PRISCILLA BAWCUTT


11. French Connections? From the Grands
Rhétoriqueurs to Clément Marot

This paper, unlike Gaul, is divided into two parts. The first is a response to an elegant lecture given to this conference at Aberdeen in 1987 by Professor Joanne Norman, when she enlisted Dunbar into ‘the company of the grands rhétoriqueurs’.1 In 1990 at Columbia her conclusions were enthusiastically endorsed by Professor Lyall: ‘Dunbar’, he said, ‘is neither a Scottish Chaucer nor a “Scottish Lydgatian”, but a corresponding member of that Continental fellowship, the grands rhétoriqueurs’.2 Now one of the things that puzzles me is precisely this enthusiasm, the notion that some sort of accolade is conferred upon Dunbar by saying that he – I quote – ‘at his best’ is capable of ‘the rhetorical pyrotechnics of the grands rhétoriqueurs’ (Lyall, 18). These French poets, despite the epithet grands, are not exactly great; they are not in the class of Chrétien de Troyes or Villon. How many in this audience, I wonder, have read any of their writings, or are familiar even with their names. ‘Grands rhétoriqueurs’ is a convenient modern label for a number of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century poets – important examples are Jean Molinet, Octovien de Saint—Gelais, Guillaume Crétin, and Jean Lemaire – but it was not applied to them until the nineteenth century (despite Norman, 182); it originated as a mocking reference to lawyers, not poets, and has been translated as ‘pompous phrasemakers’.3 ‘Les mal aimés, les mal nommés’ are the first words of Paul Zumthor’s Le Masque et la lumiére (Paris, 1978), a brilliant attempt to rehabilitate their reputation from the onslaughts of Henry Guy.4 Many other critics, however, remain unimpressed: one speaks of their ‘imbecile ingenuity’; to another they appear ‘undiscerning and immoderate in their praises, their homage tainted with false humility, in their political poems servile propagandists… above all, banal’.5 Is this the company to which Dunbar belongs? Is he too mediocre, servile and banal?

In fact I remain unconvinced that there is good reason to associate Dunbar

1 Joanne Norman, ‘William Dunbar: Grand Rhétoriqueur’, in Bryght Lanternis: Essays on the Language and Literature of Medieval and Renaissance Scotland, ed. J. Derrick McClure and Michael R.G. Spiller, Aberdeen, 1989, pp. 179–99.

2 Roderick J. Lyall, ‘“A New Maid Channoun”? Redefining the Canonical in Medieval and Renaissance Scottish Literature’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 26 (1991), 1–13.

3 On the origin of the phrase, see Pierre Jodogne, ‘Les “Rhétoriqueurs” et l’humanisme’, in Humanism in France at the End of the Middle Ages and in the Early Renaissance, ed. A.H.T. Levi, Manchester, 1970, pp. 150–75.

4 Henry Guy, Histoire de la poésie française au XVIe siècle, I: l’école des rhétoriqueurs, Paris, 1910.

5 The quotations are from Derek Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry, London, 1977, p. 219; and P.M. Smith, Clément Marot: Poet of the French Renaissance, London, 1970, p. 54.

-119-

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