Poetry & Language in 16th-Century France
Joachim du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard, and Thomas Sébillet.
Translation with an introduction and notes by Laura Willett.
Before the 1540s, French poetry had been conceived as merely versified rhetoric. Considerations of prosody and genre dominated critical thought and the models of usage proposed to poets were exclusively French. Under the influence of humanism and contacts with Italian culture, however, poets began to sense that their art was not circumscribed by rhyme schemes, rhetorical principles, and native French practices.
The first “art of poetry” to enunciate these views was Joachim du Bellay’s Defence and Illustration of the French Language (1549). Breaking radically with tradition, Du Bellay condemned French in its current state as being inadequate for composing a poetry equal to the ancients and the modern Italians. Eschewing formal concerns, he called on the French in revolutionary terms to enrich their language and hence their poetry by borrowing words, ideas, and genres from the Greeks, the Romans, and the Italians, and to invent neologisms and new syntactic structures. Du Bellay was attacked by Thomas Sébillet, author of a rival ars poetica, for plagiarizing Latin theorists, but he and Ronsard defended his position. The texts translated here initiated a debate that refocused poetic theory onto the question of language and that influenced other theorists in France, England, and Scotland.
Laura Willett has degrees in art history and French literature from UC Santa Barbara, the Université de Bordeaux, and UCLA. She has taught at the University of Toronto since 1997 and is currently a Fellow of the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies. Author/editor of The Changing Face of Montaigne (Paris, 2003) she is presently preparing a book on Montaigne’s visual universe.
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