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French Forum 28.3 (2003) 1-24
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"Pour un petit de nice semblant"
Distance and Desire in Christine de Pizan's Le Livre du Duc des vrais amans
University of Auckland
In her lyric poetry cycles, Christine de Pizan creates a narrator-poet who firmly distances herself from the poetic material of love, insisting that she has nothing in common with the lovers who recount their joys and their sorrows in the poems she writes. This thematized lack of interest in love contrasts with the practice common from the very inception of the medieval love lyric, which was for narrator-poets to draw their inspiration and authority precisely from their own experiences of love.1 The lyric tradition of poetic sincerity was based on the assumption that poets were personally moved by the emotions they expressed. Roger Dragonetti describes a topos, or cliché, like love, as a "lien d'entente pré-établie entre le poète et son public" and explains that such "liens" operate because both parties, the poet and the audience, participate in the emotion conveyed: "un cliché n'opère donc que s'il est dynamique, si par conséquent, capable de toucher, d'émouvoir d'abord le poète, il peut éveiller ensuite le public aux mêmes sentiments, au même idéal, vécu en commun."2
Christine's narrator-poet eschews any intimate relationship with Amours, breaking with tradition. And yet, she too bases her poetic authority on her own experience, foregrounding an autobiographical element that strikes many readers as more poignant than the ones proposed by traditional love lyricists. She is not in the throes of love at the time she writes, but Christine has indeed known love and lost it: not to betrayal, but to death. Although she refuses identification with her lovers, her mourning widow narrator-poet, sad, but wise, haunts the love lyrics, setting up an implicit analogy with her lovers and offering a rich paradigm for unhappiness in love. Thus Christine's love poetry cannot be reduced to a critique of the love practiced at the courts for [End Page 1] which she composed. For the reader leaves her lyric cycles, not with the message that worldly love is to be despised and abjured, but with the more ambivalent one that love stories inevitably participate in the universal story of worldly mutability under the reign of Fortune. Because it is part of the transitory world, love is overwhelmingly beautiful but fleeting. Christine's grieving narrator is fully aware of love's vast power to bring joy and its equally vast power to bring sorrow. She thus recounts love's sublimity, but simultaneously laments its capacity to destroy.
In this essay I will propose that the role of Sebille de la Tour in Le Livre du Duc des vrais amans be considered an example of a similar narratorial strategy. Sebille's purpose, I will suggest, is not to criticize the love practiced at the courts—a purpose long attributed to her. One critic has written that it is impossible to "find a clearer statement of Christine's most fundamental objections to the whole concept of courtly love."3 But exposing the folly of lovers is not Sebille's function, any more than it is the function of Christine's love lyric narrator. As I will attempt to demonstrate here, Sebille can be more accurately viewed as part of an intricate dialectic that ultimately reveals both the unavoidable pleasures and pitfalls of human love than as a simple adversary of "courtly" love.
Judging by the total number of lines allotted her, Sebille de Monthault, Dame de la Tour, is a character of negligible importance in Christine's œuvre. And yet this former governess with her highly developed sense of moral obligation towards her erstwhile charge and her talent for expressing herself persuasively in formal written language has been granted a far greater authority by modern critics than her brief appearances would seem to warrant. Although her literary...