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FRENCH IGNORANCE OF ENGLISH

LITERATURE IN TUDOR TIMES

I

WHEN old Deschamps wrote, five centuries ago, in the middle of the Hundred Years' War, his graceful and now famous compliment to that 'great translator ' Geoffrey Chaucer, he had no idea he was performing an unparalleled, unprecedented, and peerless deed, that was to remain for centuries unique of its kind. His praise, it is true, was of a limited sort ; Chaucer was for him of worldly loves god in England' only because he had translated the Romaunt of the Rose. The English poet sang, perhaps, of Troilus; he told, maybe, tales on the road to Canterbury. Deschamps never heard of that; no one did in France; no other French poet spoke of any other English poet for ages. When the Renaissance came Chaucer was totally ignored in France, and Deschamps himself was scarcely better known.

Yet the connection and intercourse between the two nations was never interrupted; were it in peace, were it in war, they remained constantly in touch. The kings of France had Scotch auxiliaries who swore by · St. Treignan’and spoke Scottish ; English students elbowed French students at the Paris University; the sovereigns accredited to each other poets and authors of fame as ambassadors. Charles the Seventh of France was represented by Alain Chartier in Scotland, Charles the Eighth by the humanist Robert Gaguin in England, the said Gaguin falling into a mad quarrel with the rash Laureate of the early Tudors. Skelton aimed wild invectives at him, but allotted to him none the less a crown of laurel and a place by the side of Apollo; for, after all, one must be just. Homer, Cicero, and Petrarch were therefore to be seen on Skelton's Parnassus :

With a frere of Fraunce men call syr Gagwyne
That frownyd on me full angerly and pale.

And well he might. Henry the Eighth sent as ambassadors to France the cleverest poets of his day, those who best understood the delicate art of sonnet-writing, the greatest admirers of Petrarch and of the French and Italian models, such men as Sir Thomas Wyatt, and 'thee '-Bryan—'who knows how great a grace--in writing is. But neither helped to spread in France a knowledge of English

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poetry. Bryan in particular made himself famous only as a matchless drinker. Little importance should be attached to his despatches, wrote the Constable of Montmorency, when he has written them après soupper (1538). The English poet Sackville is ambassador to France during the reign of Elizabeth, and the French poet Du Bartas is sent on diplomatic missions several times to the English and the Scottish Courts.

Marriages tightened periodically the bonds between the two royal families and the aristocracy of the French-speaking and the English-speaking countries. The sister of Henry the Eighth was Queen of France; the daughter of Francis the First became Queen of Scotland; Marot celebrated in French the happy event, and Lyndesay deplored in English the early death of the princess. Mary Stuart began her royal career as Queen of the French ; interminable negotiations prepared a union between Elizabeth and a Bourbon prince. A daughter of Henri the Fourth of France was later Queen of England; a sister of Charles the Second married the brother of Louis the Fourteenth.

Numerous Englishmen visited Paris in the sixteenth century, and appeared either at Court or at the University, for the grand ville, with her numerous printers, her savants, her royal lecturers, recently created by Francis the First (an institution which developed into the Collège de France of to-day), had followed eagerly the Renaissance movement and attracted foreigners from every part. Henry the Eighth sent his natural son, the Duke of Richmond, to be taught there ; English Linacre struck there a friendship with French Budée, who' opened freely his mind and bosom to him?–a thing, he said, * he would not do for many people. Surrey spent a year in Paris. The learned Sir Thomas Smith made a prolonged stay in France as ambassador of Queen Elizabeth, and some time as a prisoner in Melun, for ambassadorial privileges were not always a perfect safeguard in those days. Such mishaps did not matter so much then as they would now; Sir Thomas, when liberated, returned very quietly to his functions, remained a few years more in France, kept up

his connection with the country, and had his principal works printed there; his book on the pronunciation of Greek, and even a work he had written while taking the waters in fashionable Bourbon l'Archambault on the pronunciation of English. Robert Estienne had to secure some Anglo-Saxon types to print this last book. It was, however, specially written for English people; few others read it, and the copy --to speak only of that one-preserved in the National Library has certainly not, even at this day, the appearance of having suffered from being over-read. Scotchmen, like Major and Buchanan, filled chairs in France; the latter, 'prince of the poets of our day,' says Florent Chrestien, wrote Latin tragedies, performed by his pupils (one of them being young Montaigne) and translated later into French: Jephtée, 1566; Baptiste ou la Calomnie, 1613. He paid (at times) high compliments to France: 'Hail, happy France, sweet nurse of arts, mother country of all nations !' and grateful France repaid his homage in translating by the hand of Du Bellay one of his Latin poems :

Adieu, ma lyre, adieu les sons
De tes inutiles chansons.

No Du Bellay bethought himself of turning into French a poem of the same period beginning

My lute, awake, perform the last
Labour that thou and I shall waste,

the work of the ambassador Wyatt.

Great indeed were the opportunities for the two nations, and very strange the results. Royal marriages, embassies, travels, and proscriptions multiplied for them the occasions to know each other. The religious troubles which caused so much bloodshed throughout Europe increased the intercourse, each country being used alternately as a place of refuge by the exiles of the other. Groups of French and English Protestants also met and lived together in the Low Countries, Strasbourg, and Geneva. The great English Bible of 1539 was printed in Paris by François Regnault. “The paper is of the best sort in France,' wrote Coverdale. French printers crossed the Channel and settled in London ; for there was in France a superfluity, and in England a scarcity, of printers; forty-one French towns had their printers before 1500, whereas, north of the Channel, only Westminster, London, Oxford, and St. Albans had theirs at that date. One of these immigrants, Richard Pynson, became printer to the king; he preserved his connection with France, ordered his material from Rouen, and used a finch (pinson) as his crest. But the English produce of his presses remained entirely ignored in France.

England, however, was visited by other people besides printers, courtly gentlemen, and diplomatists. The best writers and greatest poets of the period crossed the Channel. Ronsard in his youth made two journeys to Scotland and one to England. He spent thirty months in Scotland and six in London. He had performed the long sea voyage between France and Scotland in the company of one of the most famous poets of the latter country-the quick-witted Sir David Lyndesay. Claude Binet, the biographer of Ronsard, goes so far as to affirm that he accomplished the extraordinary deed of learning the language: “Having learnt the language with great rapidity, he was received with such favour [in London] that France was very near losing one whom she had bred to be some day the trumpet of her fame. But the good instinct of the true Frenchman tickled him every hour, and incited him to return home; and he did so.'

He did so, and if a knowledge of English is not one of the fabulous attainments lavishly attributed to him by Binet, it can be asserted that his work does not show the slightest trace of any acquaintance with English literature. He does not seem to have preserved any remembrance of Lyndesay, whose fame, however, was meant to cross the seas; his English poems being translated during the sixteenth century, not into French, it is true, but into Danish. Greatly admired by Mary Stuart, the star-eyed queen,' as he calls her, and by Queen Elizabeth, author of several pieces dedicated to them, panegyrist of my Lord Robert Dudley, comte de Leicester, l'ornement des Anglois,' Ronsard scarcely left among the huge mass of his works some vague allusion to the possibility of such a thing as English poets. He had observed the presence of swans on the Thames, and that seemed to him a good omen for the poetical future of the race; but the way in which he expresses himself clearly shows that he had seen the swans with his own eyes, but not the poets. The fact is the more noticeable that Ronsard had been careful, before he wrote, to refresh his memory of England by a conversation with a newly returned French traveller. The traveller had described to him the queen, a youthful, learned, elegant, beautiful queen, who loved all arts, knew everything, and spoke all languages :

On dit que vous savez conter en tous langages.

He had given Ronsard full particulars about the splendid way in which Elizabeth loved to dress and 'adonise 'herself, to mix gold and pearls with her longues tresses blondes,' and how she succeeded so well in making herself admirable that the sight would move even l'estomach d'un barbare Scythois.' But the traveller, who had noted all these details and many others given in full by Ronsard, had not had the curiosity to open Tottel's Miscellany, widely read then in London, and whose fifth edition had just appeared (1567). He did not think fit to give the head of the Pléiade information concerning the English rivals of Petrarch, Marot, and Saint-Gelais.

Another visitor, and a famous one, a good observer if any, came to England during the same reign. Brantôme, whose father had been united by the ties of a 'grande amitié' to Henry the Eighth, appeared twice at the Court of Queen Elizabeth. When, at a later date, wounds obliged him to renounce an active life, and he began to note all he remembered of his chequered career, he found place in his memoirs for three things he had been struck by among all those he had seen in England : a play, a picture, and a breed of dogs. The play was a mask of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, performed at Court in 1561 (the year of Gorboduc). "The lady performers were quite beautiful, honest and well-behaved; they took us French to dance with them. Even the queen danced, and she did so with excellent good grace and royal majesty; for she was then in all her beauty and grace. There would be only praise for her had she not caused the poor Queen of Scots to be executed.'

The picture was a representation of the battle of Cerisoles, painted by order of Henry the Eighth, and preserved in one of the queen's closets. But the only sight which seems to have given the visitor a heart-beat was the unexpected encounter in the Tower of certain dogs which suddenly reminded him of his native Perigord. François de Bourdeille, his father, taken to England by Henry the Eighth, had observed, while shooting with the king, that the royal dogs were · but indifferent dogs either for the partridge or the hare,' and said that he would give his Majesty some of his own,' much better looking, better trained, and black as moles, all of them.' He did as he had said, and sent to the king six dogs, four of them being bitches. With filial joy Brantôme discovered among the 'spaniels of the Queen of England’ a quantity of those dogs as beautiful as before and as black as ever ; they had increased to the number of twentyfour, and the Lieutenant of the Tower certified their origin and pedigree : «Feu M. votre père y envoya cette race.” Brantôme is mute; on dramas and theatres he is mute also. He had been able to see during his second journey in 1579 the two or three great theatres newly built in London (while there was only one in Paris), but he remembered only the dogs.

On poets

II

Very different were the results of this intercourse in the two countries; while English literature continued ignored in France French literature was familiar to everybody in London. Skelton imitates the Pèlerinage de la Vie Humaine, Barclay translates Gringoire, Wyatt derives his inspiration not only from the Italians but also from Marot and St. Gelais; Spenser translates the Roman sonnets of Du Bellay, copies Marot and takes from him the idea of his royal and noble shepherds: Raleigh is in his lines the 'shepheard of the ocean,' and Elizabeth is the 'great shepheardesse,' in the same way as Louise de Savoie is in Marot “la mère au grand berger' Francis the First." Margaret of Navarre is praised by Nash as a maintener of mirth.' Rabelais, that merry man Rablays' (says Nash again), is famous in London, famous enough to be a cause of anxiety to moralists:

Let Rabelais, with his durtie mouth ... writes Guilpin in his Skialetheia. Ronsard figures on the most elegant desks; James the Sixth has a copy which comes from his mother, Mary Stuart ; Montaigne is translated and becomes familiar to Shakespeare; Du Bartas (owing partly to the similitude of religion) is more celebrated in England than in France ; even the

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