Joseph de Boulmier
0 Joseph Boulmier’s Villanelles has always been puzzling: it seems so decidedly the work of someone outside literary and scholarly circles that it is difficult to attribute to it any serious influence on those circles. In one sense Gosse could hardly have consulted a worse source for an authoritative reference text such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica; Boulmier had few literary or scholarly credentials, though he does seem to have been a bibliophile and book collector. It is likely that he owned a copy of the 1606 Recueil in which Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle”; he certainly seems to have been the first nineteenth-century admirer of the villanelle to consult it.
0 Boulmier was as dedicated a Parisian, at least in his youth, as his contemporary Banville; he was born in Burgundy in 1821, which made him three years older than Banville. Boulmier had published six books before his Villanelles, three of them privately published: Jehan le brave, ou, La bataille de Poitiers, épisode national: lu en séance publique le 22 décembre 1844 (“Jehan the Brave, or, The Battle of Poitiers, National Episode: Read in Public Session the 22nd of December 1844″) (Poitiers: Imprimerie de F.-A. Saurin, 1845); Estienne Dolet, sa vie, ses oeuvres, son martyre, études sur le seizième siècle (“Etienne Dolet: His Life, His Works, His Martyrdom,” Studies on the Seventeenth Century) (Paris, A. Aubry: Libraires de la Société des Bibliophiles françois, 1857); Rimes loyales (“Loyal Rhymes”) (Paris: Poulet-Malassis et De Broise, 1857); Portefeuille intime (“Intimate Portfolio”) (Paris: L’auteur, 1864); Rimes brutales (“Brutal Rhymes”) (Paris: L’auteur, 1864); and Rimes chevaleresques (“Chivalrous Rhymes”) (Paris: L’auteur, 1868; Laine, 1871). McFarland also reports that Boulmier “collaborated with Adolphe Royannez in writing a historical verse drama on Francis Villon in 1865 and with Eugene Vignon in a one-act verse drama, L’Aveugle, in 1879″ (49). Boulmier’s first two works in particular indicate that he shared the interest in the Renaissance that was so current with Ténint and others in the middle of the eighteen-forties, although they are prose histories rather than poetry. Etienne Dolet was a printer, which additionally indicates Boulmier’s interest in printing, publishing, and book history.
0 Boulmier appeared as a character called “Boulimier” in Le Bachelier (“The Bachelor”), which was the second volume of a triple-decker fictionalized autobiography by yet another contributor to the Parisian journals, Jules Vallès. Boulmier does not appear in any French biographical dictionary that I can find, so relying on Vallès’s very lightly disguised fiction is perhaps allowable. Vallès reports that Boulmier was “un de nos anciennes camarades de l’hôtel Lisbonne” (“one of our old comrades from the Hotel Lisbon”) and that, circa 1855, he worked “comme correcteur chez Firmin Didot” (“as a proofreader at Firmin Didot”) (314). Firmin Didot published chiefly reference and scholarly works, including, as it happens, one of the mammoth biographical dictionaries in which Boulmier himself does not appear.[i] Vallès’s biographer, Roger Bellet, writes that Vallès at that time “compte sur Joseph Boulmier pour accéder au milieu fécond qu’on appelait ‘bohème litteraire’” (“counted on Joseph Boulmier for access to that fecund milieu known as ‘literary Bohemia’”) (136-7). Boulmier would have been about thirty-four in that year of 1855; Vallès was about twenty-three.
0 Un beau jour, après avoir parlé successivement du rondeau, du triolet, de la ballade, du lai, du virelai, du chant royal, l’auteur de je ne sais plus quel traité de versification, bâclé à la diable comme ils le sont à peu près tous, abordant à la fin la villanelle, eut l’idée, ou plutôt la chance, de citer comme modèle de ce dernier genre,–en quoi du reste il n’avait pas tort,–un certain naïf chef-d’oeuvre échappée, Dieu sait comme, à la plume du savant Passerat.
0 La tourterelle de Passerat une fois lancée dans la circulation, qu’arriva-t-il? Tous les traités de versification qui se succédèrent et se copièrent “à la queue leu leu,” escortent telle ou telle grammaire, tel ou tel dictionnaire de rimes, ne manquèrent pas de la ramener en scène, et surtout de la présenter comme un type dont il était absolument interdit de s’écarter.
0 Eh bien! je le déclare sans crainte: on peut, comme je l’ai fait moi-même, feuilleter l’un après l’autre tous les traités de versification du quinzième et du seizième siècle; on n’y trouvera pas la moindre trace de la tourterelle de Passerat, c’est-à-dire rien qui ressemble à ce joli rhythme.
0 One fine day, after having spoken successively of the rondeau, of the triolet, of the ballade, of the lai, of the virelai, of the chant royal, the author of I no longer know which treatise on versification, bungled to hell like they almost always are, finally tackled the villanelle, having the idea, or perhaps the luck, to cite as a model of this last genre–and after all he wasn’t wrong–a certain naïve masterpiece escaped, God knows how, from the pen of the scholar Passerat.
0 The turtledove of Passerat once launched into circulation, what happened to it? All the treatises on versification that succeeded one another and copied one another in single file, accompanying this or that grammar, this or that rhyming dictionary, did not fail to drag it back on the scene, and especially to present it as a type from which it was absolutely forbidden to depart.
0 Well, I say it without fear: you can, as I have done myself, page through all the essays on versification from the fifteenth and sixteenth century, one after another; you will not find there the least trace of Passerat’s turtledove, which is to say nothing that resembles this lovely form.
0 Boulmier’s tone is a couple of degrees more colloquial than most essays on poetics, but it is a fair sample of the brash contentiousness of journalistic Paris in the late nineteenth century. Boulmier quotes the Berthelin essay in the rhyming dictionary attributed to Richelet, misreading (as I argue in the first chapter) that terse and ambiguous passage so that the phrase “ce poëme” (“this poem”) means a poem type and not an individual poem, “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle,” in which case the Richelet rhyming dictionary would indeed have to be understood as issuing the exacting edict decreeing the precise rhyme sound of the villanelle.[ii] There is a real possibility that the French pun on the rhyme sound “oi” and the word “oie” (“goose”) is also a bilingual slam at Gosse, who had to endure many puns on Gosse/goose/gosling throughout his career–but this is only speculation.
0 Gosse, in any event, did not retreat wholly from the assertions he had made in the 1877 “A Plea For Certain Exotic Forms of Verse,” though he did acknowledge Boulmier in his article on the villanelle for the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica. Gosse concedes that there were no schematic double-refrain villanelles before Passerat, yet (like Boulmier himself) he does not conclude that it was he and his contemporaries who were most responsible for defining the modern form of the villanelle:
0 VILLANELLE, a form of verse, originally loose in construction, but since the 16th century bound in exact limits of an arbitrary kind. . . . It appears, indeed, to have been by an accident that the special and rigorously defined form of the villanelle was invented. In the posthumous poems of Jean Passerat (1534-1602), which were printed in 1606, several villanelles were discovered, in different forms. One of these became, and has remained, so deservedly popular, that it has given its exact character to the subsequent history of the villanelle. This famous poem runs as follows . . . This exquisite lyric has continued to be the type of its class, and the villanelle, therefore, for the last three hundred years has been a poem, written in tercets, on two rhymes, the first and the third line being repeated alternatively in each tercet. (73-4)
0 Gosse cites no examples on the Passerat model in the three hundred years he mentions, yet seems to assume that there must be some prior to his own and Banville’s attempts. Boulmier, of course, had not assigned a date for the fine day on which Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” first became a type, so the reader is free to imagine that the event had taken place rather longer ago than it had. Boulmier blames the authors of treatises on versification for the error, but despite the forcefulness of his declarations to the effect that he did not believe the double-refrain villanelle was a fixed form, he himself probably contributed at least as much if not more to the insistence of the error through composing so many poems in that form.
0 Interestingly, the more it seemed as though someone had blundered, the more the post-Romantics insisted upon the objective excellence of Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle,” which they had so hastily and assiduously imitated. Gosse calls the poem “dainty” in 1877 and “exquisite” in 1911. Boulmier exhibits an almost cultish admiration for the poem in his Villanelles, but exhibits an equally fervent antipathy to the rest of Passerat’s poetry: “God knows how” the scholar produced “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle.” After the passage quoted above, Boulmier goes on to reprint the second poem titled “Villanelle” in Passerat’s 1606 Recueil. This is a poem of five stanzas in quatrains that begins “Qui en sa fantasie / Loge la jalousie, / Bientost cocu sera, / Et ne s’en sauuera” (“Who in his mind / Lodges jealousy / Will soon be a cuckold / And will not save himself”) with the two-line refrain altering by the poem’s end to “Bientost cornu sera, / Et ne s’en sauuera” (“Will soon be horned / And will not save himself”). Boulmier seems disgusted by this poem, calling it “une grosse ‘gauloiserie’” (“an arrant bawdiness”), and asserts that it cannot come close to the turtledove villanelle, “la vraie, la bonne” (“the true one, the worthy one”) (12). It is because of the formal and substantive superiority of “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle,” Boulmier claims, that he has adopted it as a model. This claim need not be true. It is entirely possible that Boulmier, having written a great many villanelles on the scheme then current and wishing to publish them, discovered only after the fact that it was not an antique form. Certainly the comment he makes to the effect that he will reprint “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” a second time in the introduction indicates that the introduction was written after the rest of the book had been assembled; the introduction precedes the rest of the book, so that in terms of position this “second” printing of the poem is actually the first.
0 Boulmier is nevertheless willing to assume some responsibility for his role in prescribing the form to others; he has merely had to abandon the crutch of defending that prescription by gesturing to an existing, if forgotten, tradition. Boulmier writes, “Il serait à desirer, j’en conviens sans peine, que dorénavant cette forme si heureuse de la villanelle devînt définitive, comme l’est depuis longtemps la forme du sonnet. En ce cas, on pourrait en formuler ainsi les règles: [...] ” (“It will be desirable, I have no trouble admitting, that henceforth this felicitous form of the villanelle should become definitive, as has long been the case for the form of the sonnet. In that case, one can thus formulate the rules: [...] “) (13). Boulmier proceeds to outline his scheme, which did not, at least in the case of the English villanellists, take hold. He would require the line to be seven syllables and the rhymes to alternate between masculine and feminine, though a poet may begin on either a masculine or a feminine rhyme. He does not include the nineteen-line stipulation in his rules, but he does opine in the course of his text that this is the best length, and in practice all his own villanelles were of that length. Boulmier is most insistent on the question of subject matter, writing that “En fait du style, ce qu’il faut avant tout à la villanelle, c’est du tendre et du naïf. Les souvenirs aimés, les mirages du coeur, les divins enfantillages de l’amour, voilà son meilleur domaine” (“In terms of style, that which above all is necessary for the villanelle, is the tender and the naïve. Cherished memories, the mirages of the heart, the divine immaturities of love: these are its best domain”) (17). This stylistic bias is appropriate to the villanelle because of its “origine paysanne” (“peasant origin”); Boulmier, like McFarland after him, is willing to erase the differences between the unformulated pastoral song originally designated by the term “villanelle” and the fixed poetic form. Boulmier concedes that the villanelle may sometimes be serious, but rails against the “messieurs de Parnassiens” (“Parnassian gentlemen”) who would make it banal or pretentious (17).
0 Boulmier’s Villanelles did earn a second printing in 1879, but on the whole the poems in that volume (which included twenty-two poems “in fifteenth-century language” not on the villanelle scheme) were not much admired, or at least not for long. The forty villanelles so closely modeled after Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle” were technically proficient, however, in the sense that Boulmier adhered rigidly to the rules he had set himself and others in his introduction. Perhaps for this reason, Andrew Lang, another popularizer of the villanelle (though he preferred the ballade, of which he wrote many), included a single villanelle in his 1885 Rhymes à la Mode: “Villanelle (To M. Joseph Boulmier, author of ‘Les Villanelles’).” The villanelle seeks more villanelles by Boulmier. It begins, “Villanelle, why art thou mute? / Hath the singer ceased to sing? / Hath the Master lost his lute?” Lang’s note to the poem comments, “M. BOULMIER, author of Les Villanelles, died shortly after this villanelle was written; he had not published a larger collection on which he had been at work” (59). Boulmier had died in 1881 at the age of about sixty, judged a “Master” of the villanelle by Lang if by few others, but with his revelation that the villanelle was not a fixed form in the Renaissance largely disregarded or glossed over by the literary establishment.
0 The acutely marginal status of Boulmier’s Villanelles is additionally confirmed by a little cursory research into its publisher, Isidore Liseux. Liseux is primarily remembered today as a publisher of erotic literature. The earliest works published by Liseux date from 1875, only three years prior to the publication of Boulmier’s Villanelles, so Liseux was by no means an established concern in 1878; the erotica specialization seems to have come a bit later than Boulmier’s Villanelles, but it is still suggestive. (No pun intended.) Liseux published an edition of de Sade’s Justine in 1884 and a French edition of the Kama Sutra in 1885 (Les kama sutra; manuel d’érotologie hindoue); much of Liseux’s market was clearly Anglophone, however. Liseux himself translated several French works into English: his translation of de Sade’s Opus Sadicum appeared in 1889 and his translation of the memoirs of Casanova appeared in 1891. Liseux also republished classic English works: in 1909 came A Night in a Moorish Harem, reputedly written by George Herbert; and in 1911 came an edition of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill. Less well-known works in French and English published by Liseux included the following:
- A Treatise on the Use of Flogging in Medicine and Venery Written to the Famous Christianus Cassius, Bishop of Lubeck, and Privy Councillor to the Duke of Holstein by Johann Heinrich Meibom (1898);
- Latin and French versions of De la sodomie et particulièrement de la sodomie des femmes distinguée du tribadisme (“On Sodomy, and Particularly on Sodomy of Women Distinguished by Tribadism”) by Ludovico Maria Sinistrari (1879 and 1883);
- Traité des hermaphrodits, parties génitales, accouchemens des femmes, etc. (“Treatise on Hermaphrodites, Genitalia, Childbirth, etc.”) by Jacques Duval and Alcide Bonneau (1880); and
- L’amour aux colonies; singularités physiologiques et passionnelles, observées durant trente années de séjour dans les colonies françaises, Cochinchine, Tonkin et Cambodge, Guyane et Martinique, Sénégal et Rivières du Sud, Nouvelle Calédonie, Nouvelle Hébrides et Tahiti (“Love in the Colonies: Singularities of Physiology and Passion Observed During a Thirty Years’ Sojourn in the French Colonies of Vietnam, Tonkin and Cambodia, Guyana and Martinique, Senegal and Southern Rivers, New Caledonia, New Hebrides and Tahiti”) by “Dr. X. Jacobus” (1893); and
- Discipline in School and Cloister, also by “Dr. X. Jacobus” (1902).[iii]
0 Liseux also published an undated and anonymous erotic work titled White Stains; the author is reputed to be Ernest Dowson, a member, with Yeats, of the Rhymer’s Club, and a nineteenth-century villanellist of some repute.
0 Nothing is clearer than that the idea of the villanelle as a Renaissance form was far more important to the fabricators of nineteenth-century villanelles than any actual Renaissance poetry, no matter how much admiration they heaped upon Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma Tourterelle.” The French and English post-Romantics did of course read widely in Renaissance lyric, recovering in particular the works of Ronsard and the other members of the Pléiade, and their discoveries made much of that literature more widely available. Prosper Blanchemain, for instance, supplied a scholarly edition of the works of Passerat in 1880 in addition to editions and biographies of Ronsard, Malherbe, Vauquelin, and other Renaissance authors. Nevertheless, the motive energy that produced new villanelles by Banville, Gosse, Dobson, Boulmier, and their immediate successors was not so much a desire to imitate the poets of the Renaissance as it was a spirit of competition with their contemporaries. But this was disguised: Boulmier alone framed the rules he set down for the villanelle as an edict rather than “a treatise,” “a plea,” or “a note.”