- Renaissance de l'épopée: La poésie épique en France de 1572 à 1623
The lamentable reputation of the French epic in the era that gave us Tasso and Milton has left its critics with an uninspiring set of justifications for their work: someone ought to fill the scholarly void (David Maskell, The Historical Epic in France: 1500–1700, 1973); or the genre's failure merits investigation (Siegbert Himmelsbach, La Case vide: La réflexion poétologique sur l'épopée nationale en France, 1988; Klára Csurös, Variétés et vicissitudes du genre épique de Ronsard à Voltaire, 1999). In undertaking one of the longest studies to date on epics of a more limited period, Bruno Méniel may thus appear to have undertaken a thankless task. Little daunted, however, by a corpus that includes many unfinished and even unpublished works, Méniel refreshingly declares Renaissance epic to be "passionante à étudier" because Ronsard's failure to produce the expected French Aeneid gave rise to a period of audacious experimentation (12–13). Moreover, his time frame, bound by the publication of the Franciade in 1572 and Chapelain's introduction into French of the word épopée in 1623, serves him well, and not only because it produced the exceptional successes of d'Aubigné and Du Bartas. What gives this study its unity and originality is its ability to link a period of generic ferment with the civic unrest of the religious wars and their aftermath.
In his introductory section, Méniel provides not only the usual survey of epic theory, but a helpful look at the sixteenth-century reception of individual works, including medieval chansons de gestes and romances as well as ancient and Italian epics. He then examines a number of poems, with an eye to revealing the gap between theory and practice. He treats Protestant poets individually, while grouping Catholics, whose epics he deems to have been more influenced by the choice of dedicatee, around patrons. In his second part, Méniel explores what he terms the "éclatement de l'epos," the splitting of the heroic poem modeled by the Franciade into distinct types in the wake of Ronsard's dispute with the Protestants over whether epic was properly a fabulous or a truthful genre. After establishing a typology that opposes the fabulous heroic and Romanesque poems to three truthful types, the biblical and encyclopedic epic and the contemporary "poème de combat," he examines their stylistic and thematic features, noting, in particular, the tendency of discourse to invade narrative in the epics of the period. Méniel's final and most interesting section seeks to explain the fissuring of the epos by looking at the varied philosophical, historiographical, and esthetic underpinnings [End Page 615] of the several types. Among his many striking observations is the suggestion that the oratorical features of history writing, banned from the impartial history advocated by the likes of La Popelinière, took refuge in epic. If the wars of religion inspired some individual poems, he concludes, their more profound influence lay in the way they forced poets individually to confront the religious and political conflicts of the day, producing epics that could no longer claim to speak for all of society.
It is impossible here to adequately summarize this study, which is both exhaustive in its scholarship and richly suggestive in its treatment of individual poems and broader patterns. Although most of the types Méniel proposes have been discussed by other scholars, he brings a hitherto unseen depth and complexity to his treatment of their individual coherence, each lending itself to different discourses, heroes, and religious and philosophical stances. His care, at every point of his study, to distinguish the ways the traditions of epic were inflected by Protestants and Catholics is exemplary. Still, this book includes its share of frustrations. Méniel does not always signal clearly the broad outlines of his argument, which...