Je n’escris point d’amour, n’estant point amoureux,

Here is a melancholy sonnet from Joachim du Bellay, presumably written while living in Rome on a diplomatic assignment and pining for his native France. In the 1500s, distances were real, not bridged by an hour or two in a plane…

The poem follows a simple, repetitive structure, with each line consisting of a statement of what the poem is not about, followed by a statement of the reason why. The effect is to build up a cumulative sense of the poet’s sadness, almost with a hypnotic effect.

Je n’escris point d’amour, n’estant point amoureux,

Je n’escris de beauté, n’ayant belle maîtresse

Je n’escris de douceur, n’esprouvant que rudesse

Je n’escris de plaisir, me trouvant douloureux :

Je n’escris de bon heur, me trouvant malheureux,

Je n’escris de faveur, ne voyant ma Princesse,

Je n’escris de tresors, n’ayant point de richesse,

Je n’escris de santé, me sentant langoureux :

Je n’escris de la Court, estant loing de mon Prince,

Je n’escris de la France, en estrange province,

Je n’escris de l’honneur, n’en voyant point icy :

Je n’escris d’amitié, ne trouvant que feintise,

Je n’escris de vertu, n’en trouvant point aussi,

Je n’escris de sçavoir, entre les gens d’Eglise.

Joachim Du Bellay, Les Regrets Sonnet 79

Most of the examples are personal – love, beauty, gentleness, pleasure, happiness, favours, riches, good health, friendship, honour etc, but the final line takes a somewhat daring dig at the Church, saying he doesn’t write about knowledge or learning, because he is among churchmen. In Rome, the city of the Pope, this could have got him into trouble, I would think.

The sub-text of the poem is that all the poet’s troubles would be over if only he could return to France. Well, finally he did.

The Poetry Dude

Comme on passe en été le torrent sans danger,

That this is a sonnet by du Bellay on the glories of ancient Rome only becomes apparent at the very end of the poem. He builds up to this by a series of metaphors, so like a Rubik’s cube where the symmetrical pattern is only revealed with the final twist, the object of those metaphors is held back until the final lines of the sonnet. Perhaps it was a challenge to the audience as to who could guess the meaning of the poem first, before it got to the end?

Joachim DU BELLAY   (1522-1560)

Comme on passe en été le torrent sans danger
Comme on passe en été le torrent sans danger,
Qui soulait en hiver être roi de la plaine,
Et ravir par les champs d’une fuite hautaine
L’espoir du laboureur et l’espoir du berger :

Comme on voit les couards animaux outrager
Le courageux lion gisant dessus l’arène,
Ensanglanter leurs dents, et d’une audace vaine
Provoquer l’ennemi qui ne se peut venger :

Et comme devant Troie on vit des Grecs encor
Braver les moins vaillants autour du corps d’Hector :
Ainsi ceux qui jadis soulaient, à tête basse,

Du triomphe romain la gloire accompagner,
Sur ces poudreux tombeaux exercent leur audace,
Et osent les vaincus les vainqueurs dédaigner.

From <;

The metaphors are all about the bringing low of mighty forces, and how lesser beings can safely mock the remnants of those mighty forces. The first four lines deal with a mighty river, which in full flood would destroy the surrounding countryside and carry off the crops and flocks of the farmers and shepherds. But in summer the river is reduced to a tiny trickle and everybody can cross without danger.

The second four lines, see the lion lying weakened, perhaps dying, in the desert and the animals which are normally its prey gathered round mocking it, knowing it is too weak to attack.

The next metaphor has the Greek soldiers at the siege of Troy taunting the body of the Trojan hero Hector after he has been killed by Achilles.

And then we get to the object of the metaphor with the word “Ainsi” in the eleventh line – in this way all those who used to be dragged through the streets as captives in a Roman procession of triumph (afterwards to be executed or enslaved) can now mock and disdain the remnants of ancient Rome, its dusty monuments. The defeated of old now have the upper hand.

Rome in the 16th century by all accounts was a pretty dismal city, du Bellay hated his time there, but any visitor could compare the squalor and discomfort of contemporary Rome with the signs of the glorious and luxurious city which had existed at the height of the Roman Empire.

The Poetry Dude

Flatter un créditeur, pour son terme allonger,

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

From <;

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

Si mes écrits, Ronsard, sont semés de ton los, 

If du Bellay and Ronsard are often associated together (like eggs and bacon, or Scooby and Shaggy) it is because they were both the prime movers in the then-modern French poetic movement La Pleiade in the middle of the 16th century. But above all, as this poem shows, they were friends and collaborators in the best tradition.

This is a poem, indeed a sonnet, written by du Bellay to Ronsard, to defend them both from the accusation that they praised each other’s work from self-interest. The poem is well=articulated, achieves its goal, and demonstrates a real friendship and mutual admiration between the two great poets.

Joachim DU BELLAY   (1522-1560)

Si mes écrits, Ronsard, sont semés de ton los
Si mes écrits, Ronsard, sont semés de ton los,
Et si le mien encor tu ne dédaignes dire,
D’être enclos en mes vers ton honneur ne désire,
Et par là je ne cherche en tes vers être enclos.

Laissons donc, je te prie, laissons causer ces sots,
Et ces petits galants, qui, ne sachant que dire,
Disent, voyant Ronsard et Bellay s’entr’écrire,
Que ce sont deux mulets qui se grattent le dos.

Nos louanges, Ronsard, ne font tort à personne :
Et quelle loi défend que l’un à l’autre en donne,
Si les amis entre eux des présents se font bien ?

On peut comme l’argent trafiquer la louange,
Et les louanges sont comme lettres de change,
Dont le change et le port, Ronsard, ne coûte rien.

From <;

The first four lines set out the premise that Ronsard shouldn’t be upset by being praised in du Bellay’s poems and vice-versa. It is something that comes naturally, and not by mutual arrangement.

The poem continues by taking the moral high ground – if the two poets seen no harm in this, and don’t take offense, why should they pay attention to those fools who criticize them for scratching each other’s back. After all, they are doing no harm to anyone, and there is no law against it. And the final argument, in the last three lines, is that mutual praise is like currency in that it has value, but unlike currency or bills of exchange, because it costs nothing.

More than a defense of their mutual admiration and the expression of it in their poetry, this piece demonstrates an affinity and a shared experience between the two poets which is quite admirable.

The Poetry Dude

A vous, troppe légère,

Today we return to the 1500s with a poem from Joachim du Bellay, this time not about Rome or the poet’s absence from France, but a simple pastoral scene in which a peasant working the wheat fields, separating the wheat from the chaff, appreciates the breeze which makes his work more pleasant. So it is probably an early autumn poem, when the heat of the summer has passed but it is still very good to be outdoors.

D’un vanneur de blé aux vents

A vous, troppe légère,
Qui d’aele passagère
Par le monde volez,
Et d’un sifflant murmure
L’ombrageuse verdure
Doucement esbranlez,

J’offre ces violettes,
Ces lis et ces fleurettes,
Et ces roses icy,
Ces vermeillettes roses,
Tout freschement écloses,
Et ces oeilletz aussi.

De vostre doulce haleine
Éventez ceste plaine,
Éventez ce séjour,
Ce pendant que j’ahanne
A mon blé que je vanne
A la chaleur du jour.

Joachim du Bellay

From <;

The first stanza is addressed to the wind, which gently rustles through the trees and bushes and which pushes the clouds slowly through the sky. The “troppe legere” of the first line seems to indicate the clouds as they are flying across the horizon.

The second stanza sees the peasant offering the wind various types of flowers – violets, lilies, roses, carnations – are these flowers which he has separated from the wheat as part of his work, or are they just flowers which he has picked because they are pretty and caught his eye. The poem does not say, but the words reinforce the sense of contentment and satisfaction with the ambiance, the weather and the activity of the peasant.

The third stanza again addresses the wind directly, asking it to keep on blowing gently over the plain and the peasant while he does his work in the heat of the day, to refresh him and make his day more pleasant.

You could easily imagine this poem as a painting by one of the great pastoral painters.

The Poetry Dude

Ô qu’heureux est celuy qui peult passer son aage 

Here is a sonnet from Joachim du Bellay which is a reflection on the satisfactions of a comfortable old age. I suspect it was written in a yearning mood before he reached that stage of life when you can kick back, relax and stop taking things seriously. As we know from many of his poems, du Bellay was very frustrated by the years he spent in Rome, away from his homeland, his family and friends and occupied in futile diplomacy. Perhaps this poem is his wish for a better life one day.


Ô qu’heureux est celuy qui peult passer son aage
Entre pareils à soy ! et qui sans fiction,
Sans crainte, sans envie et sans ambition,
Règne paisiblement en son pauvre mesnage !

Le misérable soing d’acquérir davantage
Ne tyrannise point sa libre affection,
Et son plus grand désir, désir sans passion,
Ne s’estend plus avant que son propre héritage.

Il ne s’empesche point des affaires d’autry,
Son principal espoir ne dépend que de luy,
Il est sa cour, son roy, sa faveur et son maistre.

Il ne mange son bien en pais étranger,
Il ne met pour autry sa personne en danger,
Et plus riche qu’il est ne voudroit jamais estre.

Joachim du Bellay.

From <;

The first stanza depict the happiness of the person who can spend his final years among his family with no need for fear, envy or ambition. He is in peace, the master of his own house. (This assumes of course that he is relatively prosperous and was able to provide for his old age, which would have been far from the norm in the sixteenth century.)

The second stanza declares him liberated from the cares of needing to earn and acquire wealth; his only material concerns are to ensure his legacy.

The third and fourth stanzas praise the freedom of the old person to be totally self-reliant and his own master – he doesn’t have to travel to another country, he doesn’t have to risk his life for others and he has no need to seek more riches. Surely these are references to the poet’s own situation, in the service of others in a foreign country. He can’t wait to finish his tour of duty, go home and retire.

The Poetry Dude

Il fait bon voir, Paschal, un conclave serre

Here is a sonnet from Joachim du Bellay from the mid 1550s, written, as many of his poems were, while on a lengthy diplomatic mission to Rome. It is a poetic, and rather cynical account of his impressions of a conclave of Cardinals gathered together to elect a Pope. I’m not sure which Papal election is referred to here, there seem to have been several during du Bellay’s years in Rome. In any event, the poet’s impressions could probably apply to any one of them.
The poem is adressed to one Paschal, presumably a friend or colleague of the poet’s, in the manner of a letter.


Il fait bon voir, Paschal, un conclave serré

Il fait bon voir, Paschal, un conclave serré,
Et l’une chambre à l’autre également voisine
D’antichambre servir, de salle et de cuisine,
En un petit recoin de dix pieds en carré :

Il fait bon voir autour le palais emmuré,
Et briguer là-dedans cette troupe divine,
L’un par ambition, l’autre par bonne mine,
Et par dépit de l’un être l’autre adoré :

Il fait bon voir dehors toute la ville en armes
Crier : le Pape est fait, donner de faux alarmes,
Saccager un palais : mais plus que tout cela

Fait bon voir, qui de l’un, qui de l’autre se vante,
Qui met pour celui-ci, qui met pour celui-là,
Et pour moins d’un écu dix cardinaux en vente.

From <;

The poem opens with an expression of the poet’s pleasure or enjoyment at witnessing the discomfiture and corruption of the Cardinals during the conclave, Cardinals who presumably in ordinary times were seen to live in luxury in sumptuous palaces. The first four lines draw attention to their small and crowded living conditions when locked in to the conclave hall for the election, with the rooms crowded together and minimal space for cooking and meeting.

The second stanza talks of the place being walled off like a prison; and inside the intrigues, ambition and conniving of the Cardinals.

The third stanza reports on the atmosphere in the city with the excitement, the false rumours of the election of the pope, the crowds out of hand ransacking a palace, a bit like football hooligans,

A d the final stanza homes in on the fun of witnessing the dealings and double-dealings of the Cardinals as they declare and withdraw their votes and sell their votes to the highest bidder.

I wonder if much has changed since then…

The Poetry Dude