restricted access A Fool in Verse: Du Bellay and Erasmus
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A Fool in Verse:
Du Bellay and Erasmus

The poet of Joachim du Bellay's Les Regrets et autres œuvres poëtiques displays an inordinate fondness for proverbs, which links him not only to the author of the Adagiorum Chiliades but also to the speaker of the Encomium Moriae. Like Folly, the poetic voice of the Regrets delights in a foolish profusion of proverbs, and like the same dubious model, he offers some provocative insight into the art of praise and blame. Like The Praise of Folly, the Regrets illustrate both the theory and practice of epideictic rhetoric, often through the restatement of the same proverbial images of praise. All of these traits make of Du Bellay's narrator a fool in verse, from whom we may expect some untimely wisdom.

Criticism has by no means ignored the importance of Erasmus's scholarship for Du Bellay's poetry. After the pioneering efforts of Henri Chamard, Michael Screech made the most important contribution toward documenting Du Bellay's use of the Adages, first in his groundbreaking edition of the Regrets in the 1960s and then in an article on the role of commonplaces in French Renaissance literature published in 1976. More recently, Marie-Dominique Legrand has reopened the same dossier and revealed the art with which Du Bellay rewrote neo-Latin proverbs in French verse. In assessing the poet's use of proverbs, little attention has been paid so far to how Erasmus himself used the adages in his own work. To conduct our analysis, we begin with the observation that Erasmus's masterpiece, the Encomium Moriae (Paris, 1511), forms a sequel to his collection of adages and that there is no more attentive student of Erasmian paremiography than Moria or Folly herself.1

The poet of the Regrets is famous for the eloquence with which he [End Page 1] deplores his lack of eloquence, and the ardor with which he regrets his loss of inspiration. This paradox serves to develop the persona of an elegiac poet exiled from patronage and poetic grandeur and uneasily reconciled to the spontaneous expression of grief. The same pose can also recuperate the role of Folly, which carries with it the burden of satire and the stigma of self-praise. In the very first sonnet, speaking from Rome, the poet declares:

Mais suivant de ce lieu les accidents diversSoit de bien, soit de mal, j'escris à l'adventure.

(r1 vv. 7-8)

Here, Du Bellay announces his esthetic of spontaneity and impremeditation. Guided by the incidents of Roman life, as well as by his shifting emotions, the poet means to follow the impulse of the moment without any fixed itinerary. The expression "écrire à l'adventure" suggests the haphazard movement of occasional poetry, in the sense of poetry that responds to each occasion as it arises. The alternative "soit de bien, soit de mal" suggests the moral eclecticism of a collection that aspires to emulate the diversity of real life.

Du Bellay cultivates the same pose in nearly the same terms in sonnet 21 addressed to the painter/poet Nicolas Denisot:

J'escry naïvement tout ce qu'au coeur me touche,Soit de bien, soit de mal, comme il vient à la bouche.

(r21 vv. 6-7)

Here the poet professes a proverbial sincerity, for the expression "comme il vient à la bouche" renders a pair of adjacent adages from Erasmus's first half-chiliad, adage 472 Quicquid in buccam venerit and adage 473 Quicquid in linguam venerit. The most famous use of these adages in Renaissance literature is made by Folly in the prologue to her speech when she warns us that she has always loved to say just exactly what was on her mind: "Mihi porro semper gratissimum fuit, ὅττικεν ἐπ’ ἀκαιρίμαν γλῶτταν ἔλθῃ dicere" (ASD IV-3:74).2 The expression akairiman glottan literally means "untimely tongue," and so the whole saying means to blurt out whatever is on the tip of your tongue, regardless of the circumstances.3 The Greek phrase that Folly pronounces is the equivalent to the Latin adage quicquid in linguam venerit, as Erasmus explains in his commentary on that adage [End Page 2] in the Chiliades (ASD II-1:546). Gerhard...