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  • Attendants to the Duel:Classical Intertexts in Philippe Desportes's "Adieu À La Pologne" and Jan Kochanowski's "Gallo Crocitanti"
  • Rory Finnin (bio)

While on state visit to Warsaw in 1967, not far from the intersection of Jerozolimskie Avenue and Nowy S´wiat where a monument honoring him now stands, Charles de Gaulle gave a televised address to the Polish nation in which he declared:

Polonais, Français, nous nous ressemblons tant et tant! C'est vrai pour l'économie, la culture, la science. C'est vrai, aussi, pour la politique. De siècle en siècle, il n'arriva jamais que nos deux peuples se soient combattus. Au contraire, le succès ou le malheur de l'un ont toujours été liés au succès ou au malheur de l'autre [...]1

[The Polish, the French—we resemble each other so much! This is true for the economy, culture, and science. This is true for politics as well. From century to century, it has never been the case that our two peoples have fought each other. On the contrary, the success or the misfortune of one has always been linked to the success or to the misfortune of the other. . . .]

For the president of the Fifth Republic, this nostalgic take on Franco-Polish relations was sincere—as Neal Ascherson remembers, when de Gaulle spoke of Poland, "it was though he was speaking of a woman"—but the syntactic instability of the parallelism in his last sentence ("le succès ou le malheur de l'un ont toujours été liés au succès ou au malheur de l'autre [ . . . ]," emphasis mine) nevertheless invites a chiastic reading contrary to his sentiment, a reading in which the "succès" of one spells the "malheur" of the other.2 As [End Page 458] history would have it, such was the case in June 1574, when the French Duc d'Anjou Henri de Valois deserted the throne of Poland—to which he had been elected only months earlier—and fled from Kraków under cover of darkness to succeed his late brother Charles IX as king of France. Henri's "succès" incensed most Poles and plunged the Rzeczpospolita into a period of "malheur," of chaos and confusion. As the "headless Republic" struggled to find a suitable monarch, fending off advances from none other than Ivan IV ("the Terrible"), a certain poem by Henri's court poet and Secretary of the Royal Chancellery, Philippe Desportes (1546–1606), did nothing to ease the sting of the departure of "Henryk III Walezy."3

The poem, "Adieu à la Pologne" (written in 1574; published in 1576), rides roughshod over Polish culture and mores, characterizing the Poles as fat, frivolous, flighty barbarians. Its message can be summarized in a sentence, with apologies to de Gaulle: "Polonais, Français, nous nous ne ressemblons pas du tout!" It created a sensation in Kraków, gaining wide notoriety among the Polish szlachta [nobility], and inspired a lengthy response from Jan Kochanowski (1530–1584), "the greatest poet of the whole Slavic world" in the sixteenth century.4 His "Gallo Crocitanti" (To the crowing cock/Gaul; written in 1575[?]; published posthumously in 1612) dismisses Desportes's words as annoying flies on a dog before casting the French as homicidal maniacs who bear a striking likeness to the castrated worshippers of the goddess Cybele. To say the least, the exchange makes for raucous reading.5

While certainly not short on astringent wit or colorful invective, this poetic polemic has been almost categorically received by scholars as an exemplar of a "literature of international abuse," exhibiting "a hatred of the foreign and the unusual."6 Czesław Miłosz and Janusz Pelc characterize Desportes's "Adieu" as "a violent satire" and "a libelous verse about Poland," respectively, while Wiktor Weintraub claims that Kochanowski's "Gallo Crocitanti" is an "anti-French" poem.7 This interpretation of the exchange as a vicious "duel" has had profound significance beyond the realm of literary studies. In a few notable works of history, the polemic has been mobilized as evidence either to explain the reasons for Henri's abdication of the Polish throne or, more significantly, to advance a particular...


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