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French Forum 28.1 (2003) 1-27

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Love, Hope, and the Nature of Merci in Machaut's Musical Balades Esperance (B13) and Je ne cuit pas (B14)

Elizabeth Eva Leach


Esperance qui masseure (B13) and Je ne cuit pas quonques a creature (B14), copied adjacently in the music section of the Machaut manuscripts, are musically paired: Wulf Arlt has termed them "sister balades." 1 This pairing makes meaningful their many contrasts, in particular the very different musical and poetic functions of their refrains. Arlt's musico-textual approach will here be combined with Sylvia Huot's analysis of Machaut's book as a scribal-authorial collection in which manuscript order creates additional meanings. 2

One effect of Machaut's control over his works is the use of ordering to promote relationships between adjacent lyrics. In his collected lyrics without music, the Loange des dames, poems linked by a combination of adjacency and shared lexis, rhymes, and/or versification create the illusion of a background narrative supporting the lyric moments. Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet has drawn attention to the "auto-intertextuality" relating items from the Loange and the Voir Dit. 3 Arguably, such a technique can be seen throughout Machaut's œuvre. In the poems of the music section such proto-narrative sequences have an additional level of signification—the music—which can link seemingly dissimilar poetic texts. Musical structure offers a performative punctuation which can highlight or upset the poetic verse structure of a poem, subverting poetic meanings, playing games with versification, and re-weighting semantic elements. Careful placement of musical cadences (closural articulations) can emphasize specific words; melismas (singing many notes to one syllable) can prolong vowel sounds, emphasizing rhymes. This musical poetry takes place in time, its delivery authorially controlled and manipulated. [End Page 1]

As well as treating the pair B13/B14 in their immediate context in the music balade section, I will discuss B14's duplication within a sequence of poems in the Loange. The relationship between B14's sung and unsung contexts elucidates a theme central to Machaut's courtly discourse: the role of merci within the dialectically related poetics of Esperance and Desirs.

Esperance in the Sequence of the Music Balades

In relation to his lady, the lover of Esperance (B13) is little better off than the unhappy lovers who dominate most of the music balades that precede B13 in the collected works manuscripts. 4 The lady's beauty has attracted the lover and he awaits her merci. However, the very presence of Esperance verbally at the beginning of the song makes all the difference to the lover's emotional experience of his situation (see figure 1). Unlike the generally suffering amants who pervade the first twelve music balades, B13's je is reassured by Hope, and does not grieve, even if the waiting is hard, since he has hope of reward without equal.

The balades preceding B13 in the music section culminate in the self-conscious poet's je of Pour ce que tous (B12), who threatens to stop composing and singing songs. His refrain asserts that no one can blame him "se je chant mains que ne sueil." His audience complains because his songs are sorrowful, but this, he explains, reflects nothing other than his own authentic lover's sentement upon which his lady's lack of reciprocal love has had a deleterious effect.

B12's refrain rhyme, "-eil," new in the context of the music balades, is the a-rhyme of B13, whose lady similarly has not reciprocated, but where the presence of Esperance reconfigures as joy B12's sorrow. For Kevin Brownlee, B13 "articulates the classic Machauldian topos: for the loving self, Hope (Esperance) transforms loving into a self-sufficient state which does not depend on actual erotic fulfillment; thus awaiting the Lady's favors becomes an end in itself." 5 This feature of Machaut's courtly doctrine is central to Machaut's negotiation of the tension between his social status as poet and his poetic persona as...


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