The Language of Love: Overstatement and Ironic Humor in Machaut's 'Voir Dit.' (Guillaume De Machaut)

By Heinrichs, Katherine | Philological Quarterly, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

The Language of Love: Overstatement and Ironic Humor in Machaut's 'Voir Dit.' (Guillaume De Machaut)


Heinrichs, Katherine, Philological Quarterly


The Voir dit was seen by older scholars like Gaston Paris and Gustave Cohen as the literal narrative--if not wholly, then substantially true--of the sexagenarian Machaut's supposed love affair with the young Peronne d'Armentieres. Present-day students of the work--such as Kevin Brownlee, William Calin, and Jacqueline Cerquiglini--have offered correctives to that view, and the Voir dit is now understood as an extended meditation on love whose personages are to a significant extent universalized. It remains puzzling, though, in several respects, and especially in its juxtaposition of the highly conventional, hyperbolic love-language of the lyrics and correspondence with the narrative of the poet/protagonist's genuinely experienced, and genuinely painful, attachment and disillusionment. Although Machaut has rarely been suspected of humor--certain older scholars even claim he is completely devoid of it(1)--I will suggest that the contrast is both intentional and ironically humorous. In this sometimes exasperatingly prolix work, the personal relationship between Guillaume and his "Toute-Belle" takes place within an area of silence that grows ever larger and more obtrusive. In the end, the unasked questions have become the only questions worth asking, and we see clearly that, despite the claims of the title, the conventional love-dialogue will not yield truth.

Throughout the Voir dit, the distance between the superheated artfulness of the lovers' lyrical utterances and the reality of their situation produces both comedy and pathos. Reality is conveyed by indirection, in few words. Her first letter to him, containing a profession of love and the rondel "Celle qui onques ne vous vit, / Et qui vous aime loiaument"(2) incidentally reveals her as aristocratic, clever, ambitious, and coquettish; the messenger who brings it describes in extravagant terms her beauty and goodness. Guillaume, for his part--as we learn both from his own occasional protestations of unworthiness and from the remarks of his secretary--is an aging clerk of common birth, scholarly, timid, half-blind and in such precarious health that he is uncertain whether he can ride a horse. Abjectly grateful for her attentions, he eagerly returns her love, hoping through it to recapture poetic inspiration. Even with his first letter to her--fervent but literary and conventional in the highest degree-unasked questions proliferate. He protests that Love, who has sent her to him, will miraculously overcome all barriers to their union: age (she is between 15 and 20), geographical distance, physical incapacity. If their affair were to be purely epistolary, these expressions of idealism might be both apt and harmless, but from the beginning she proposes that they meet. In constructing the narrative in this way, Machaut clearly intends that we should ask the obvious questions: is her object in contacting him only to gain literary opportunities and prestige through association with a noted poet? Is he deluding himself when he protests again and again his belief in the genuineness of her love? Is the literary idealism of their letters and lyrics translatable into the realm of real experience?

From the beginning, it is apparent that it is not. Guillaume undergoes changes in mood, appetite, and complexion; swears great oaths (the sea must dry up, the winds cease, and the sun darken before he could forget her); idolatrously worships her portrait; weeps copiously; attributes miracles to her (her love, communicated by letters, twice "cures" him); and constantly offers naively idealistic praise of Love, which has the power to bring together an ungainly clerk and the loveliest lady Nature ever created. All this feverish activity, on the part of a learned man of sixty on behalf of a girl he has never seen, is amusing. His emotion, however, is apparently genuine; for him, literature has become life.

The data most relevant to our evaluation of this affair are offered offhandedly, and their significance is never explored. …

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