Chapter Two: Young Men of Talent
0 Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle,” though generally ignored by twentieth-century poets and scholars, has at least attained a certain cursory eminence in poetic handbooks as an example (the only one) of the Renaissance nineteen-line villanelle. How did this come about? The short answer: through a series of errors made in the service of certain nineteenth-century artistic and critical agendas. The Parnassian movement and its post-Romantic relatives in both France and England excavated archaic forms, particularly medieval and Renaissance forms, as a protest against both the vulgarity of bourgeois materialism and the restraint of neoclassical rationalism.[i] The archaic forms were meant to revive in the current age the fervent idealism and unselfconscious emotion of what the post-Romantics regarded as a nobler era. In their general enthusiasm for the quaint, intricate innocence of the forms of the medieval French trouvères (troubadours)–the triolet, the ballade, the rondeau, the chant royal–nineteenth-century post-Romantics swept up Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” and accorded it and its form a new consequence.
0 Wilhelm (also “Wilhem”) Ténint’s 1844 Prosodie de l’école moderne attempted to outline a unified prosodic theory of French Romantic poetry and to legitimize its techniques, and in the course of this proceeding Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” was held up as the best example of a common Renaissance form. In 1845, Théodore de Banville–who had edited and promoted Ténint’s Prosodie–published a poem modeled very closely after Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle”: “Villanelle de Buloz.” This ephemeral, trivial, satiric poem, legible and interesting only to a small audience for a few weeks in the fall on 1845, was the unlikely progenitor of the modern villanelle. After its birth, Banville and his friend Philoxène Boyer would remain the only poets to write villanelles on the Ténint model for a good thirty years–and they only wrote four between the two of them.
0 The propagation of the villanelle as a form swung into full gear only in the eighteen-seventies, being carried out by four poetic treatises, two French and two English: Théodore de Banville’s 1872 Petit traité de poésie française; Edmund Gosse’s 1877 article in the Cornhill Magazine, “A Plea For Certain Exotic Forms of Verse”; Austin Dobson’s 1878 essay in W. Davenport Adams’ Latter-Day Lyrics, “A Note on Some Foreign Forms of Verse”; and Joseph Boulmier’s 1878 Villanelles, suivies de poésies en langage du XVIe siècle. It was Banville’s Petit traité that caused Gosse and Dobson to begin writing villanelles in English, and it was they who promoted the villanelle to the Anglophone poetic establishment. Boulmier’s eccentric Villanelles poses more of a problem in terms of determining influence; Gosse certainly became aware of the work, but the mere existence of a book-length collection of nineteen-line double-refrain villanelles probably had more to do with establishing the villanelle in that fixed form than anything Boulmier actually wrote, though Boulmier is virtually always mentioned in twentieth-century histories of the villanelle.