- L’Àede et le géographe: poésie et espace du monde à l’époque prémoderne par Phillip John Usher
Phillip John Usher has played a leading role in the recent critical reconsideration of French Renaissance epic poetry. His book, Epic Arts in Renaissance France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), and numerous articles have opened up new ways of reading a misunderstood and overlooked body of work. His latest monograph contributes an essential element to this reconsideration by dismantling a common assumption: that French epic poets in the Renaissance, unlike their homologues in Portugal and Spain, took little interest in geography or concerns of global import. With analyses informed by both Peter Sloterdijk’s concept of spherology and Ptolemy’s cartographic scales (chorography and geography), Usher studies poems that depict the spaces of cities and regions, then moves outward to consider representations of French and European space, and finally expands his enquiry to include texts about Africa and the Americas. The first chapter approaches questions of poetic chorography in three epics: the Nancéide (1518) by Pierre de Blarru, the Rusticiade (1548) by Laurent Pillart, and the Rochelléide (1573) by Jean de La Gessée. Usher argues that these poems represent regional space as imagined totalities whose inhabitants share a cultural identity. While they differ from national epics in terms of scale, these poems foster a similar connection between space and power, resembling pages of an atlas that cannot be separated from the larger map of the nation. The author turns next to national epic with Pierre de Ronsard’s Franciade (1572), considering the overlapping geographies in the itinerary of the poem’s protagonist and the palimpsest geographies of Crete, where most of the poem takes place. While Ronsard’s geography is beholden to ancient models, he also approaches these places through a contemporary lens of Renaissance maps, travel accounts, and, finally, his readership’s knowledge of France. Usher then demonstrates how poems written about the 1571 Battle of Lepanto map the Mediterranean basin and the geographic realities of the period to reveal the diversity of perspectives in the Christian world. Finally, the book enlarges its focus with discussions of the Cape of Good Hope and the cartography of New World exploration. Among the many points of interest here, the author demonstrates how Du Bartas’s Seconde Sepmaine (1584) relies upon contemporary maps, and how Marc Lescarbot’s Défaite des sauvages armouchiquois (1607) weaves together epic tradition, the poet’s own travel narratives, and contemporary cartography. In its consideration of epic poems along a continuum of cartographic scale, the book is in and of itself an admirable work of exploration, introducing a number of lesser-known texts of the era to a wider public. Drawing on a profound knowledge of cultural practices of the period, Usher offers connections that inform our understanding of both the literary history of French epic poetry and the role of the epic within the broader discourse of Renaissance cartography. Usher’s meticulous and farreaching research is foundational for specialists in the field, and the book’s arguments regarding co-existing scales and shifting geographical perspectives will appeal to a larger readership of early modern scholars.