¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Ténint’s Prosodie might still be worth ignoring today had not Théodore de Banville been involved in its production. In 1844, Banville was another young man of talent making a name for himself in the journals; he was even younger than Ténint, being only twenty to Ténint’s thirty-one. It was he who germinated the seed that Ténint planted. The handwriting evidence showing that Banville edited Ténint’s work becomes very important in the context of the history of the villanelle, because otherwise the 1845 poem “Villanelle de Buloz” would seem to have risen out of thin air. Banville’s “Villanelle de Buloz” was published in the journal Silhouette in October of 1845 to hilariously commemorate editor François Buloz’s loss of the writer Paulin Limayrac from the staff of the haughty Revue des Deux Mondes (“giving them the chance to say something a little malicious about their enemy while you show off,” comments Delphine de Girardin). Banville published many triolets and chansons and rondeaus in the same sniping vein in this period, and he republished them all under his own name years later (they had been anonymous before, though no doubt his authorship was well-enough known) in the 1857 Odes funambulesques (“Tightrope-Walking Odes”).
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “Villanelle de Buloz” is so specific an imitation of “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” that some have called it a parody, though in my view this is not exactly the right term. But the debt is obvious:
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 It is exceedingly appropriate that this silly poem–the true progenitor of the contemporary villanelle–is so steeped in the quotidian quarrels of the nineteenth-century Parisian reviews, because it was exactly that hurried and contentious environment that fostered the error that the villanelle was a fixed form. The reason I would not call it a parody of Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” is that the butt of the joke is not Passerat’s lyric; rather, it is Buloz and Limayrac and their whole stuffy literary practice and philosophy. Knowledge of Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” helps a reader get the joke, and such knowledge was basically only available to a reader of Ténint’s Prosodie. That Banville imitated Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” in this poem is not, to my mind, an indication that all of Paris in 1845 would have recognized the imitation’s source; rather, it is a trick in keeping with both Banville’s precocious parading of specialized knowledge and the general Romantic insistence on adopting new models. “If you don’t get the joke, it’s because you don’t know enough,” suggests Banville. The form is a rhinestone bludgeon. Clive Scott also suggests that the “heckling” quality of the double-refrain villanelle is tonally highly apposite to Banville’s satiric intention (French Verse-Art 159). The same, of course, is true for the rondeau and the triolet, whose repetitions Banville also exploited for an effect of gleeful taunting.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Banville continued to disseminate the villanelle in the years before his Petit traité appeared. Banville published a second Silhouette villanelle in June of 1846, “Villanelle à Mademoiselle ***,” and this, like “Villanelle de Buloz,” was reprinted in the 1857 Odes funambulesques. A third villanelle by Banville, “Villanelle des pauvres housseurs,” appeared in Figaro in December of 1858. Almost ten years later, in 1867, a sometime poet and dramatist named Philoxène Boyer published a villanelle titled “La Marquise Aurore” in his largely disregarded book of poetry Les deux saisons (“The Two Seasons”). Banville had collaborated with Boyer on a play titled “Le Cousin du roi” (“The King’s Cousin”) in 1857, and “La Marquise Aurore” was probably written around 1857; it is dedicated to Marie Rivet, the daughter of alienist Brierre de Boismont, and the height of Boyer’s acquaintance with Rivet dates from that year. “Le Cousin du roi” premiered on Saturday, April 4, 1857, and Boyer’s wedding breakfast was held at the house of Marie Rivet on Thursday, April 16, 1857. (There was a good bit of comment about the fact that Boyer had chosen to hold his wedding breakfast at what amounted to a private insane asylum; Marie Rivet was an advocate for the insane, and her home was open to them. Along with the mental patients, those present at Boyer’s nuptial celebration included Banville, Sainte-Beuve, and Flaubert.) 1 The obvious conclusion is that in 1857 Banville and Boyer were discussing and experimenting with the villanelle as defined by Ténint; these discussions probably also produced Banville’s 1858 “Villanelle des pauvres housseurs,” which was significantly later than his two previous villanelles. All four of these villanelles exceed nineteen lines, treating the villanelle as a stanza type rather than as a fixed form, and they are the only nineteenth-century villanelles that can be found before Banville’s Petit traité de poésie française appeared in 1872.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 The section on the villanelle in the Petit traité makes no mention of the (nonexistent) history of the form, not even to mention “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle”; the sole example that Banville cites is Boyer’s “La Marquise Aurore” of 1867. As is usual with poetry handbooks today, the villanelle is grouped with (presumably) authentic medieval and Renaissance forms: the rondel, ballade, envoi, sonnet, rondeau, rondeau redoublé, triolet, lai, virelai, and chant royal (Banville does not mention the Italian sestina), and the weight of tradition behind these forms lends tradition to the villanelle. The chapter on traditional fixed-form poems begins with a hasty few sentences of endorsement:
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 J’ai nommé poëmes traditionnels à forme fixe ceux qui pour lesquels la tradition a irrévocablement fixé le nombre de vers qu’ils doivent contenir et l’ordre dans lequel ces vers doivent être disposés. Ce groupe de poëmes est l’un de nos plus precieux trésors, car chacun d’eux forme un tout rhythmique, complet et parfait, et en même temps ils ont la grâce naïve et comme inconsciente des créations qu’ont faites les époques primitives. Je me hâte de les passer en revue et je commence par le RONDEL . . . (185)
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 I have called “traditional poems of fixed form” those for which tradition has irrevocably fixed the number of lines they must contain and the order in which these lines must be arranged. This group of poems is one of our most precious treasures, for each of them makes a formal whole, complete and perfect, and at the same time they have the naïve unconscious grace of the creations that marked the primitive epochs. I hasten to review them and I begin with the RONDEL . . .
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 This example illustrates the extent to which the chapter is merely descriptive and prescriptive, alluding to history only insofar as it supports the idyllic post-Romantic tableau of “naïve grace.” With regard to the individual forms, Banville is necessarily a little more explicit as to their precise history, but the chief part of every entry is devoted to explaining exactly how the forms are constructed rather than to an exploration of their provenance.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 In the entry on the villanelle, Banville also takes the opportunity to laud the largely disregarded work of Boyer, who had died in 1867 shortly after the publication of Les deux saisons, his sole volume of lyrics. Andrew Lang in his 1891 Essays in Little called Boyer “a generous but indiscreet patron of singers. . . . The memory of M. Boyer’s enthusiasm for poetry and his amiable hospitality are not unlikely to survive both his compositions and those in which M. De Banville aided him” (41). Banville, always a loyal partisan, defends and promotes the work of his friend with characteristically cavalier hyperbole:
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Si la muse érato possède quelque part un petit Dunkerke (au XIXe siècle, tout est possible!), la Villanelle est le plus ravissant de ses bijoux d’étagère. En voici une, tortillée de main de maître, et dont l’auteur a été un des poëtes le plus organisés et les plus érudits de notre époque. Hélas! il n’a laissé que des prémisses, et des témoins irrécusables de son génie! [Full text of “La Marquise Aurore.”] (215)
¶ 27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 If the muse Erato owns somewhere a small Dunkirk (in the nineteenth century, anything is possible!), the villanelle is the most ravishing of her shelved jewels. And here is one, twisted by the hand of a master, whose author was one of the most methodical and most erudite of our epoch. Alas! He has left nothing but some lodgings, and some unimpeachable witnesses of his genius! 2
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Again we see that the primary motivation in the dissemination of the villanelle in the nineteenth century is post-Romantic campaigning, however sincere it may have been. Boyer, incidentally, like Ténint–and everyone–worshiped Hugo from afar, and had commenced Les deux saisons with lyrics dedicated to the master.
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Prescriptive and promotional, the entry in Banville’s treatise continues with a lengthy textual description of the principles of the villanelle. Of interest is that Banville specifies and reiterates that the first and third lines of every tercet should employ feminine rhyme, while the second line of every tercet should employ masculine rhyme. Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” follows this order, but Banville himself had adopted the opposite order in “Villanelle de Buloz,” with the first and third lines of every tercet being masculine (“micmac” / “sac”) and the second line of every tercet being feminine (“tergiverse”). English poets, too, would soon ignore this rule (which did not appear in Ténint); Edmund Gosse’s “Wouldst thou not be content to die,” whether deliberately or not, like “Villanelle de Buloz” uses feminine rhyme in the second line of each tercet rather than in the first and third. Banville concludes with another highly decorative image of the form: “Et rien n’est plus chatoyant que ce petit poëme. On dirait une tresse formée de fils argent et d’or, que traverse un troisième fil, couleur de rose!” (215) (“And nothing is more sparkling than this little form. One might say that it is a plait woven from strands of silver and gold, through which winds a third strand the color of a rose!”) Banville simultaneously trivializes and beautifies the form, emphasizing its charm, its beauty, as though these save it from the taint of seriousness or utility.
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Convincing evidence that any part of Banville’s Petit traité directly influenced the major French poets is lacking, although Alvin Harms argues that the work “in its fundamental ideas was ahead of its time and deserves to be taken more seriously as a document in the history of Symbolism” (168). But the work was undeniably successful from a publisher’s point of view. First printed as a series of articles in the periodical Echo de la Sorbonne in 1871-2, the Petit traité was published by the Librairie de l’Echo de la Sorbonne in a separate volume in 1872. A revised edition was published in 1875, still under the auspices of the periodical. Further editions were then published by the house of Charpentier in 1881, 1883, 1884, 1888, 1894, 1899, 1903, 1909, 1915, 1922, and 1935 and by Lemerre in 1891, the year of Banville’s death; there are also two recent reprints. 3 Fuchs suggests that the work had been intended for a school textbook, and it may have been used for this purpose despite the roguish parodies of pedagogy in such moments as when Banville discourses upon the topic of poetic license:
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Supposons donc que vous n’êtes pas né poëte, et que vous voulez cependant faire des vers. Une telle supposition n’a rien d’improbable et nous pouvons même dire qu’elle se trouve chaque jour réalisée. Pénétrez-vous d’abord de l’esprit et de la letter du chapitre intitulé Licenses poétiques; je l’écris spécialement à votre usage.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Let us suppose that you were not born a poet, and that you want nevertheless to write verse. Such a supposition has nothing improbable about it, and we can even say that it is proved to happen every day. First, enter into the spirit and the letter of the chapter entitled “Poetic Licenses”; I write it especially for your use.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Examples like this illustrate that the work is programmatically opposed to high seriousness in all matters except those purely arbitrary, i.e., the game of versification. Banville’s interest in “the rules” has all the obsessive intensity of the fanatic gamer’s, and he is perfectly aware of this, and enjoys the flamboyant performance of that role.
¶ 38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Banville thus strives to keep poetry non-utilitarian–a goal he indeed shared with the Symbolists, though Mallarmé and Baudelaire (who did express admiration for Banville) were perhaps wiser in choosing abstractions such as image and sound rather than a concrete and historicized form as their aloof and arbitrary goddess. Again, we see that one characteristic of the post-Romantic movement was that it did not reject historical models, claiming instead a better right to them than their reactionary neoclassical rivals.
- ¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0
- See Sylvain-Christian David, Philoxène Boyer: un sale ami de Baudelaire (Paris: Ramsay, 1987) 246-53. For the full text of “La Marquise Aurore,” see Philoxène Boyer, Les deux saisons (Paris: A. LeMerre, 1867) 47-8. ↩
- This translation is perhaps too literal; I am not quite sure what Banville means by “une petite Dunkerque” and “bijoux d’étagère.” “Dunkirk” is perhaps an obsolete term for a jewelry box; in Essays in Little Lang writes that Banville calls the villanelle “the fairest jewel in the casket of the muse Erato,” while in “A Plea For Certain Exotic Forms of Verse” Gosse translates the phrase “the most ravishing jewel worn by the Muse Erato.” Also, “prémisses,” like its English cognate “premises,” can mean either “foundations of logical argument” or “particular location.” Since Boyer died in poverty, I think the translation “lodgings” is most likely, though perhaps Banville means to assert that Boyer has established new predicates for poetry. ↩
- This publication history is chiefly taken from OCLC WorldCat, April 2004, http://www.oclc.org/worldcat/. See also Maximilien Fuchs, Théodore de Banville (1823-1891) (Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 1972; first published Paris: Cornély, 1912) 420. ↩