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  • From “Defense And Illustration” To “Dishonor And Bastardization”:Joachim Du Bellay On Language And Poetry (1549)
  • François Cornilliat (bio)

As sometimes happens with “classics” credited (rightly or wrongly) with inaugurating a tradition, Du Bellay’s Defence and Illustration of the French Language is a text whose merit and purpose remain, to this day, a matter of speculation and controversy. The Defence’s unwieldy, ambiguous composition has long been blamed on the hasty, juvenile enthusiasm of an over-ambitious poet trying, in 1549, to launch his career with a bang, and more recently hailed (notably by Jean-Charles Monferran and Francis Goyet in their respective, diverging but equally compelling editions)1 as evidence of conceptual sophistication and [End Page 730] rhetorical stealth, in the service of a deeply coherent intent.2 My goal in what follows is simply to reflect, after many others, on the stereoscopic effect created by the author’s decision to wrap a theoretical (though unusually brash and aggressive) exposé of what French poetry ought to be within a passionate lecture on the French language, defending the latter against two enemies (the contempt in which it was held by worshippers of Latin and Greek; the supposed ignorance and sloth of its own practitioners) and explaining how to achieve its “illustration”: that is, to render it at once more beautiful and more glorious—literally more “luminous.”3 I will focus on this double synecdoche, whereby language is seen as part of poetry and poetry as part of language, in a manner that brands them both as a source of “national” pride and cannot but alter their respective definitions.

I must confess that I have always read the Defence through the lens of poetry or poetics, and always had trouble taking its propositions on language at face value.4 Hence my tendency to begin with the end and pounce on the work’s farewell “To the Reader”:

You may find it strange that I have dealt so succinctly with such a fertile and abundant subject as the glorification of our French poetry [l’Illustration de nostre poësie Françoyse], which is surely capable of greater embellishment than many believe.5 [End Page 731]

Only a few pages earlier, at the end of a conclusive chapter in which he vividly recapitulated, for the benefit of the same “reader,” his “idea of what our French poet should be” (not without heaping contempt upon “bad French poets” along the way), Du Bellay had reminded us that his “main goal” had been “the defence of our language, its embellishment [ornement] and glorification [amplification].”6 Yet the farewell gives the game away. The true (or at any rate the principal) object of the Defence is not the “illustration” of the French language, but that of French poetry, preceded and facilitated by a strategic defense of the language in which the best, most learned French poets ought to write, not in spite but because of the very fascination exerted on them by Greek and Latin masterpieces. The ultimate goal is the promotion of a new kind of French verse,7 which Du Bellay himself exemplified by publishing his own creations along with his manifesto, in a separate volume under the title L’Olive et quelques autres œuvres poéticques.8 Emmanuel Buron has shown definitively that the two volumes should in fact be read and studied together,9 not because the poems “apply” the Defence’s precepts, but because they were conceived together and, in effect, buttress one another: one defines and the other incarnates the fundamental principle of imitation. In this light, the final, paratextual substitution of “poésie” where “langue” originally stood does not even constitute a lapsus, because it has become obvious at this point, at the end of the Defence’s second book (dedicated to poetry, whereas the first was dealing with the nature and progress of language), that the improvement and exaltation of French verse is indeed what the work as a whole is mainly about, and that whatever Du Bellay had to say about language was calculated to serve the poet’s cause.

It does not follow that the choice of “la langue françoyse” as the Defence...


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pp. 730-756
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