17th-century French Literature - Poetry


Because of the new conception of l'honnête homme (the honest or upright man), poetry became one of the principal genres of literary production of noble gentlemen and the non-noble professional writers in their patronage during the 17th century. Poetry was used for all purposes. A great deal of 17th- and 18th-century poetry was "occasional", meaning that it was written to celebrate a particular event (a marriage, birth or a military victory) or to solemnize a tragic occurrence (a death or a military defeat); this type of poetry was favored by gentlemen in the service of a noble or the king. Poetry was the chief form of 17th-century theater; the vast majority of scripted plays were written in verse (see "Theater" below). Poetry was used in satires (Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux is famous for his Satires (1666)) and epics (inspired by the Renaissance epic tradition and by Tasso) like Jean Chapelain's La Pucelle.

Although French poetry during the reign of Henri IV and Louis XIII was still largely inspired by the poets of the late Valois court, some of their excesses and poetic liberties found censure—especially in the work of François de Malherbe, who criticized La Pléiade's and Philippe Desportes's irregularities of meter or form (the suppression of the cesura by a hiatus, sentence clauses spilling over into the next line—enjambement—neologisms constructed from Greek words, etc.). The later 17th century would see Malherbe as the grandfather of poetic classicism. The Pléiade poems of the natural world (fields and streams) were continued in the first half of the century—but the tone was often elegiac or melancholy (an "ode to solitude"), and the natural world presented was sometimes the seacoast or some other rugged environment—by poets who have been tagged by later critics with the "baroque" label (notably Théophile de Viau and Antoine Gérard de Saint-Amant).

Poetry came to be a part of the social games in noble salons (see "salons" above), where epigrams, satirical verse, and poetic descriptions were all common (the most famous example is "La Guirlande de Julie" (1641) at the Hôtel de Rambouillet, a collection of floral poems written by the salon members for the birthday of the host's daughter). The linguistic aspects of the phenomenon associated with the précieuses (similar to Euphuism in England, Gongorism in Spain and Marinism in Italy)—the use of highly metaphorical (sometimes obscure) language, the purification of socially unacceptable vocabulary—was tied to this poetic salon spirit and would have an enormous impact on French poetic and courtly language. Although préciosité was often mocked (especially in the late 1660s, when the phenomenon had spread to the provinces) for its linguistic and romantic excesses (often linked to a misogynistic disdain for intellectual women), the French language and social manners of the 17th century were permanently changed by it.

From the 1660s, three poets stand out. Jean de La Fontaine gained enormous celebrity through his Aesop and Phaedrus-inspired "Fables" (1668–1693), which were written in an irregular-verse form (different meter lengths are used in a poem). Jean Racine was seen as the greatest tragedy writer of his age. Finally, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux became the theorizer of poetic classicism. His Art poétique (1674) praised reason and logic (Boileau elevated Malherbe as the first of the rational poets), believability, moral usefulness and moral correctness; it elevated tragedy and the poetic epic as the great genres and recommended imitation of the poets of antiquity.

"Classicism" in poetry would dominate until the pre-romantics and the French Revolution.

A select list of French poets of the 17th century includes:

  • François de Malherbe (1555–1628)
  • Honoré d'Urfé (1567–1625)
  • Jean Ogier de Gombaud (1570?–1666)
  • Mathurin Régnier (1573–1613) - nephew of Philippe Desportes
  • François de Maynard (1582–1646)
  • Honorat de Bueil, seigneur de Racan (1589–1670)
  • Théophile de Viau (1590–1626)
  • François le Métel de Boisrobert (1592–1662)
  • Antoine Gérard de Saint-Amant (1594–1661)
  • Jean Chapelain (1595–1674)
  • Vincent Voiture (1597–1648)
  • Jacques Vallee, Sieur Des Barreaux (1599–1673)
  • Tristan L'Hermite (1601?–1655)
  • Pierre Corneille (1606–1684)
  • Paul Scarron (1610–1660)
  • Isaac de Benserade (1613–1691)
  • Georges de Brébeuf (1618–1661)
  • Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695)
  • Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711)
  • Jean Racine (1639–1699)
  • Guillaume Amfrye de Chaulieu (1639–1720)
  • Jean-François Regnard (1655–1709)

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Famous quotes containing the word poetry:

    I owe everything to a system that made me learn by heart till I wept. As a result I have thousands of lines of poetry by heart. I owe everything to this.
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