We know that many of du Bellay’s poems were written while he spent several years in Rome, as part of a diplomatic mission to the Papal Court. There are poems where he bemoans his absence from France, poems where he reflects on the glories of ancient Rome and its decline to a state of decadence, and more personal poems, like this one, where he shares some of his own experiences of living in the Eternal City. But in fact the bulk of this poem could be summarised as du Bellay’s lessons for life, wherever anyone happens to live. It is only in the last two lines of the sonnet that he reveals that these are the lessons he has learnt from living in Rome for three years.
Flatter Un Créditeur, Pour Son Terme Allonger,
Flatter un créditeur, pour son terme allonger,
Courtiser un banquier, donner bonne espérance,
Ne suivre en son parler la liberté de France,
Et pour répondre un mot, un quart d’heure y songer :
Ne gâter sa santé par trop boire et manger,
Ne faire sans propos une folle dépense,
Ne dire à tous venants tout cela que l’on pense,
Et d’un maigre discours gouverner l’étranger :
Connaître les humeurs, connaître qui demande,
Et d’autant que l’on a la liberté plus grande,
D’autant plus se garder que l’on ne soit repris :
Vivre avecques chacun, de chacun faire compte :
Voilà, mon cher Morel (dont je rougis de honte),
Tout le bien qu’en trois ans à Rome j’ai appris.
Joachim du Bellay
All of the 15 or so pieces of advice which the poet gives seem sound to me, and of universal application. I particularly like the one about thinking for a quarter of an hour before replying to someone – this is very relevant in the age of Twitter. And I love the last one, which I interpret as rub along with everyone, take their views into account, don’t ignore people – this is very human and the world would certainly be a better place of we could all follow this advice.
I would happily spend three years in Rome, if it meant I could truly internalise all these great lessons in life. What a pity Paul Gascoigne didn’t follow du Bellay’s example.
The Poetry Dude