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A lover's discourse in 449 fragments: the failure of representation in Sceve's Delie.

L'amoureux, c'est le semiologue sauvage a l'etat pur! Il passe son temps a lire des signes. Il ne fait que ca: des signes de bonheur, des signes de malheur.

--Barthes, Le grain de la voix


I will read certain dizains of Delie that please me (as Valery Larbaud said we may), linking them together by their common topic of representing Delie. (1) I make no claim that this choice of poems is necessary or even exemplary (not to say representative ...). Rather, I choose these dizains because they show how poetic language represents the poet's split self, and because they summon each other with compelling insistence.

The lover as written figure, "un sujet amoureux qui n'est pas aime," according to Barthes, "se developpe principalement dans un registre que, depuis Lacan, on appelle l'imaginaire." (2) From within the imaginary, the split subject of love writes a repeated symbolic figure or matrix (consisting of ten lines of ten syllables), in which figures of metonymic repetition dominate, prompting an aware reader to take a Lacanian tack on desire. The overwhelmingly metaphoric lover's language slides into a metonymic discourse. In the structure of Delie, in the recalls from poem to poem, in the recollected readings, drifting derivations, sonorous echoes, lexical reflections, and repetitions with a difference, one finds the circulating letter of desire, "'fragmentee, discontinue, papillonnante," as Barthes said about the lover's discourse (Le grain de la voix, 267). Because words thus acquire a thickness, a consistency, a solidity which the poetic discourse ideally illustrates, representation of Delie stands in her place: "words ... always interpose their opacity between the reader-listener and any conceivable experience of things seen," Terence Cave writes in The Cornucopian Text. (3) An ineluctable law states that Delie represented is absent; by definition, representation fails to make her present. (4) As necessary correlates, writing Delie/Delie excludes living the imaginary relation of love, and the poet is absent too. Robbe-Grillet has said that "L'auteur est toujours present dans son texte, qu'il soit autobiographique ou pas, mais cette presence manque"--an almost ideal expression of the paradox governing the "I" in the poetry. (5) Thus the poet would apparently accede to the symbolic, but at the cost of the death of the lover's imaginary relation to the self; transferring experience to poetry entails this price. The figure of the poet's written self thus becomes neurotic, at times psychotic. (6)

The reader follows, embracing the poet's risk: never far behind any attempt at an objective reading "out" of meanings in Delie is the necessary reading "in" of the poetry's effect on its reader.

To describe the significance of this metonymic strategy for the reader's experience of the poetic language, I begin with a commonplace. One can never read a single dizain satisfactorily; each one calls to others. No dizain is self-sufficient, and in this the work mirrors the insistent thematics of the incompleteness of the lover's self. The recalls among dizains produce meanings that can be found only in a group of poems, never in a single one. One must always take into account other uses of words, phrases, syntactical structures, rhymes, rhythms, rhetorical features, and every other trait of poetic language. A word or phrase from one poem takes you into another one, and from there branches lead you to yet others. Cupid's arrow carries you to Delie's portrait, which brings you to architecture and to the mirror and of course to eye imagery, which calls forth poems about the five senses, and those about "le sens." Circles of sense radiate outward from a center, and any meaning can be the center of its own circles. So persistent is this strategy that if there is nevertheless a single meaning found in every poem, it is only that it is impossible to say something here--it must be said elsewhere. Although the stimulation of intellectual connectedness brings rewards, meaning is always put off; it seeks completion only elsewhere; reading a single dizain means reading at a minimum several others, or better the entire Delie. Thus reading Delie never stops. It hardly even pauses.

The result is that the interpretation that takes place in our mind while we read remains largely unspoken, because we are carried immediately into another poem and have no breath to speak our thoughts. Nor can we sort the many threads that ask simultaneously to be woven into the tissue of our writing.

Reading thus reproduces the experience the writing claims to represent: such is the perfection of Delie that the effort to capture it in writing must begin again and repeat 449 times. (Even that number is insufficient, as is 450, if one counts the liminary huitain.) Each dizain is a mere fragment of the lover's discourse, shreds or splinters that never add up to more than a large network of smaller fragments. Closure, completion, finitude are never attained--not in the work as a whole, nor in any single poem. What passes for closure or finality, on occasion--the frappe or rhetorical punch of certain last lines, the pointes (pointed effects), the chutes or falling endings, the striking image, the momentary pause in pleasure--merely suspends sense and masks openings for other senses. The effort to "parfaire"--to perfect by going away--insists. Each poem leaves behind the injunction to begin again, both for the writing and for the reading; each poem yearns for completion by others, and yet its call for the word that would complete it is also a deception. (7)

One could almost describe such reading as the mental writing of a personal, subjective concordance, always renewed, always varying, always selecting and suppressing, a litmus test of the reader's state of mind.


Dizain 26 forces the reader to pose the essential question of representation, on the nature of analogy, by vigorously positing the likeness of the poet to the Mont Fourviere at Lyon. Opening with the strong assertion of an assimilated representation, underscored in line 2 by the rhetorical repetition known as derivation: "Ie voy en moy estre ce Mont Foruiere, / En mainte part pince de mes pinceaulx," the poem multiplies concrete instances to prove the likeness. (8) Poetic language swells mere comparison and gives a pictorial rendition of analogy; the lover is not simply similar to the mountain, he sees it engraved within himself, almost everywhere, by his own drawing instruments. Alas, it is a setup: like traditional love poems marking a key difference, (9) lines 9 and 10 overturn the structure of symbolic similarity by contrasting an exceptional, mythical, but apparently natural event with a miraculous physical impossibility: "Seule vne nuict fut son feu nompareil: / Las tousiours i'ars, & point ne me consume." With this defect of similarity the entire analogy representing poet as mountain fails, and the failure of representation attains the lover in his most characteristic activity as a poet, that of sketching or inscribing: it suffices that his "engraving" could not match the "nompareil" original for the entire edifice of representation to finish in the fire that does not consume--that never ends and never brings an end. (10)

Parallel is the lesson of dizain 74. Wanting to represent himself as Love and for that reason creating a small mimetic albeit mythic scene, the poet is obliged to deviate from the principle that founds his representation, or to recognize its impotence. The lover happens upon Amour, playing while Venus rests in her garden, "Et l'apperceu semblable a ma figure" (line 4): both are short and pale; why is he not then a second god of love? A pitiful conclusion in lines 9-10: "Las ie n'ay pas l'arc, ne les traictz aussi, / Pour esmouuoir ma Maistresse a pitie." Representation is based on similarity, which ought to validate the comparison by a kind of syllogistic logic: "Car il estoit de tresbasse stature, / Moy trespetit: luy pasle, moy transy. / Puis que pareilz nous sommes donc ainsi ..." (lines 5-7); but the defect is on the metonymic side; the lover lacks ah attribute or a part of the whole, the bow and arrows, which are the primary icons of the god of love. The defect of representation by contiguity extends then to contaminate similarity, affirming that the poet is not like Amour, and undermines the entire notion of the imitation of reality, lending to scene, character, and action an uncertain status. This sense only confirms a first impression: that the similarity between the poet and Love is inadequate from the start, because it is based on unworthy features. Low stature and pale complexion are not the indices of beauty or force. Furthermore, to say that "pareilz nous sommes donc ainsi" (line 7) on the basis of only these two features is to exaggerate, to encumber similarity, pushing the meaning of "pareilz" well beyond its denotative frame (as poetic license alone allows). In the unwarranted passage from the perception of Amour as merely "semblable" to the result--"pareilz"--there is a slippage from metaphor to metonymy. Worse, poetic expression abandons analogy and turns to metonymy to achieve the comparison, saying, not that the self is like the god, but: "Pourquoy ne suis second Dieu d'amytie?" (line 8). The comparison is at best ironic, this defect playing itself out like an inkblot radiating from this center until ali representation in the poem fails.

Without referring to a painted portrait of Delie, which is to come, dizain 275 speaks of the image of her beauty, as a miraculous idea which the poet salutes with all the reverence allowed short of sacrilege. (11) The poem performs the homage of which it speaks: "Pour m'incliner souuent a celle image / De ta beaulte esmerueillable Idee, / Ie te presente autant de foys l'hommage, / Que toute loy en faueur decidee / Te peult donner" (lines 1-5). Placed in the position of an idol, a figure of the Virgin before which the poet inclines with reverence, the image of Delie's beauty prompts the offering of the poet's life. Dizain 275, then, "paints" the poet's reverential attitude before the image. Dizain 277 inaugurates the conceit according to which Delie painted "au vif" would surpass art's excellence, furnishing a pointe whose apparently obvious meaning masks a troubling uncertainty of reference. The dizain invokes two famous portrait painters and places the accent on the techniques and success of portraiture. Amour, ardent to see himself painted, would have liked Apelles to be alive still. Yet, he convokes so good a painter, Benedetto dal Bene, that, being paid, he makes the drawing. (12) Benedetto is just finishing the bow and arrow when the poet pulls him away by the hand, tells him he must do otherwise, suggests he remove the drawn arrow, and, to paint love well, only to paint the living image of Delie: "Pour bien le paindre oste ce traict tire, / Et paings au vif Delie seulement" (lines 9-10). The living portrait of Delie would better represent love than any arrow, a mere attribute, as we saw in dizain 74; "arc, & traict" do nota perfect semblance make. Rhymes, polyptoton, and derivation portray the language of drawing and establish a relation between pictorial technique and the subject of the artist's gaze: portrait, attrait, trait; retire (reproduced), retire (withdrew), and tire are derivatives that play on different meanings: draw (in both senses), features, arrow, portrait, ray of her eye, and others. The "drawn arrow" is both pictured and pulled. (Traire, tirer are synonyms.) While this poem leads directly to Delie's painted portrait in dizains 288 and 297, it also finishes on a striking paradox which remains to be explored: just what can it possibly mean to say "Et paings au vif Delie seulement"? This last line challenges the opposition expressed elsewhere with clarity between the painted image and the "vif" or living. (13) The contradiction refers us to the central problematics of referentiality.


Dizain 288 describes the poet with Delie's portrait:
   Plus ie poursuis par le discours des yeulx
   L'art, & la main de telle pourtraicture,
   Et plus i'admire, & adore les Cieulx
   Accomplissantz si belle Creature,
   Dont le parfaict de sa lineature
   M'esmeult le sens, & l'imaginatiue"
   Et la couleur du vif imitatiue,
   Me brule, & ard iusques a l'esprit rendre.
      Que deuiendroys ie en la voyant lors viue?
   Certainement ie tumberois en cendre.

The sense is so moved, seeing only the portrait of Delie, that the poet wonders what would happen if he were then to see her, living. There comes a powerful chute: "Certainement ie tumberais en cendre." (Dizain 288 is a star in the constellation of "body-reduced-to-ash" poems: 13, 81, 82, 264; the fire in 26 which does not consume might be described as an arrested state of the fire which here renders the spirit.) The pointe is made particularly pungent because the poet apparently abandons poetic language and mimics simple, conversational, expressive speaking in the last line: the subject pronoun is present; (14) there are no rhetorical devices; word order is quite normal. This simple discourse follows upon and caps a complex conceit leading from the contemplation of Delie's image to a Christ-like yielding up the ghost.

Powerful poetic effects stem from the multiple links in the lexical network. "Art," "main," "lineature," and "couleur," terms connected to pictorial art, richly suggest the contributing elements through which representation signifies. Together "l'art" and "la main" express painting technique, but "main" signifies skill in painting at a second remove. "Le travail" or "l'ecriture," senses of "la main," become the tenor of a metaphor for painting which inflects "l'art" toward verbal art. The "main" thus signified still recalls another part of the body, "yeulx" (line 1), in the unusual expression "discourse of the eyes," which suggests a running movement ("course") that imitates the flow of speaking. The poet's pursuit of the artistic image, his looking, is not innocent or uncomplicated; the glance is a language, with rules and a syntax, implying a way of reading. The discourse of the eye follows the art and skill of the hand while it produces a work or a writing, mediation for the trace the portrait reveals of the artist's vision. "Lineature" is multivalent in describing the disposition of the lines the artist makes, the "traits" or drawing which he then fleshes out with his paints, as well as the geometry, as it were, of Delie's body (the "lineature" of her body is linked to "figure"). "Couleur" naturally refers to the paint applied to the canvas, but it also suggests the lying, fictive effect that a painting can achieve by imitating a model, as its use in line 7 emphasizes: "Et la couleur du vif imitatiue." (Huguet's dictionary gives "pretexte" for couleur.)

The "imaginatiue," on the reception side of the vocabulary of painting, is the faculty of imagining by which the subject receives the portraiture. Perhaps it also inscribes the Lacanian imaginary, the mirror-stage self before the accession to the symbolic; if the spirit is lost in the contemplation of the portrait, the access to the symbolic is blocked; the poet loses his being in the "imaginatiue." This figures a sort of death--of the faculty that breathes life into the body, the ghost. The perfection of the portrait burns and inflames the lover "iusques a resprit rendre" (line 8). The excessive doublet "brule, & ard," its insistence linked to the syntax with which the poem opens ("Plus ... Et plus"), prepares the chute of the poem, the reduction to ash. (15)

The syntactical structure of lines 1-3, inaugurated by "Plus ... Et plus," creates a hierarchy subordinating mere portrait to real model, the "si belle Creature" made by the Heavens. This interpretation is facile. "Plus ... et plus" always heralds perfection, in Delie. It is the grammatical armature in which an expression of excellence fits, as if to mark profusion followed by excess. If the discourse of the eyes pursuing the portrait inspires in the poet an even greater admiration of the Heavens, "accomplissantz si belle Creature," then a vision of the "real" Delie, superior to her excellent portrait, occurs as a result of this contemplation. Where is this vision--in the "sens," the "imaginatiue," the "esprit"? Its nature is dominated by ambiguity, as I hope to show.

Having established an opposition between the portrait and "si belle Creature," the poem continues in lines 5 to 8 as if speaking of the creature perfected by the Heavens. What happens there, however, is a kind of slippage, promoted by the uncertain, drifting antecedent of "Dont" in line 5 (is it "pourtraicture," or "Creature," or something less delimited by words such as the act of painting, or the Heavens' accomplishing of a creature?) and by the uncertain reference of "Accomplissantz" (who accomplishes?), "sa lineature" (of the portrait or of the woman?) and even "Et la couleur." It is not until the reader arrives at "du vif imitatiue" (line 7) that one realizes that the four and one-half lines before it must be referring still to the portrait, if the hierarchy subordinating the portrait to the "vif" is being maintained. A trick is being played on the reader, because lines 9 and 10 make it clear that the perfection of the image of lines 1-8 and its effect on the poet arise from those of the portrait. The reversal in the last two lines operates a classic surprise, stressing the power of "la voyant lors viue," even before the pointe of line 10. In sum, gazing at the portrait produces an image of "si belle Creature" in the poet's "imaginatiue," causing him to give up the ghost.

The hinge phrase, "du vif imitatiue," revealing as it is, leads to a powerful network of associations in other dizains (see 277 and 375) which supplement its sense. This expression, in ali its clarity, contributes both insight and obscurity to the puzzling "paings au vif Delie seulement" of dizain 277. In spite of the perfection of Delie's lineature, and the vitality of its imitation of nature, the poem subordinates her lineature to her hypothetical presence: "la voyant lors viue." The reversal in lines 9-10, overthrowing the artfully inscribed excellence of the painted portrait, casting the "mental" image into ambiguity, asserts only one conjectural certainty: falling into ash. The surprise, and the poem's expressive effect, depend on the impossibility of representing the "real" Delie, even by so excellent a portrait as the one here described, or by the most excellent of poems.

The next dizain about the portrait of Delie is 297:
   si, tant soit peu, dessus ton sainct Pourtraict
   L'oeil, & le sens aulcunement ie boute,
   De tout ennuy ie suis alors distraict,
   Car ta figure a moy s'addonne toute.
      Si ie luy parle, intentiue elle escoute,
   Se soubriant a mes chastes prieres.
      Idole mienne, ou fais que ses meurs fieres
   Celle la puisse en humaines changer,
   Ou bien reprens ses superbes manieres,
   Pour non, ainsi m'abusant, m'estranger.

Contemplation binds both the eye and the sense on the portrait, for vision and thought are two ways to capture Delie. She gives herself as a "figure," which means both face, shape, or form (configuration) and painted image, thus abstracting the poet from his "ennuy." The image he has of her, in his thought as in his eye (or his vision), answers to his prayers, which are addressed to the portrait; but the price of this pleasure, mediated because it passes through representation, is alienation (McFarlane in his gloss speaks of distance). Since the idol (cf. dizain 1) is not "representative," does not resemble the original, and Delie is more inhuman than her image, the poet suffers a loss of the self ("m'estranger"). If the saintly portrait (recall the attitude of veneration in dizain 275) smiles at the lover, what veracity does it have? Faulty representation would abuse the lover.

The dizain begins with a movement similar to dizain 288, which it irresistibly calls to mind, while highlighting its difference. (Repetition with difference, which is also the repetition of differences, is the rule in Delie.) In both poems, lines 1 and 2 describe the glances taking in the portrait; the syntactic armature of the four lines conveys a drifting similarity. Dizain 288 mentions "yeulx," dizain 297 "l'oeil"; 288 speaks of "pourtraicture," 297 of "Pourtraict"; rhythmic and syntactic resonances between 288 and 297 occur in the first four syllables of their second lines: "L'art, & la main" and "L'oeil, & le sens." The grammatical echo suggests to the mind a semantic connection between the two phrases, reinforced by the presence of one physical body part in each segment, for the hand that draws the portrait calls for its reception by the eye, whose glance passes over the drawn lines. At the same time, "l'oeil," like "la main," rhetorically beckons to a higher esthetic and ethical meaning: 'Toeil" is the entry point for the "sens." In dizain 288, lines 1 and 2 form the first member of a sentence containing a consequence, in this case an intensification: "Plus ... Et plus." In dizain 297, lines 1 and 2 are the initial, preparatory proposition of a consequential construction completed in line 3, hypothetical rather than intensifying: "Si ... alors." The three opening lines, in sum, cement the two dizains into a unity representing the poet's stance before the portrait, and the happy consequences this vision prepares for him.

The poet addresses his "chaste priere" directly to the idol--the portrait--asking it to make the other idol ("celle la") change her proud ways into human ones; or (if that is not possible), the portrait should perhaps take on again the haughty manners of Delie, in order to cease abusing him and thus alienating him. In this alternative, the polyvalent verb "reprens" in line 9 carries the key to the ambiguity of representational meaning. "Reprendre" means to take again, but it also means to correct, particularly in the moral sense: to chastise. (16) One reading of line 9 thus asks the portrait to resemble the original better, by reprising Delie's haughty manners (no more smiling, listening figure, given over intently to the poet); but another reading, more surprising, makes the second phrase of the alternative simply repeat the first: change, chastise her proud ways, make her more human. (McFarlane glosses "reprens" as "chide.") That would be a reaffirmation of the poet's desire and not the expression of an alternative at all. One feels obliged to insist on this second meaning, because it is "wrong," in terms of logic; clearly "reprens" must mean "take again," if the alternative "ou ... Ou bien" is to make sense. But must it make sense? The habit that seeks sense in structure and certainty in words dies a slow death in Delie. An additional nuance of "reprendre," to fix the error by doing it over again, by starting over, may refer to the action of writing the poetry. "Reprendre" also suggests mending ("repriser," to mend clothing, is a derivative of a common root); mend or amend her ways, says the poet to the portrait-idol, or amend your ways to represent accurately her haughty manners, for the portrait is defective in its inaccurate representation.

Is one representation of "reprendre" more real than another? That very question undermines the poet's glance at the portrait in this dizain. Representation of Delie in the portrait abuses him--uses him badly, cheats him, fools him, harms him--and distances him, makes a stranger of him. The movement of happiness, the distraction from all "ennuy" of the first hall of the poem, reverses in the final quatrain, where the object of bis happy contemplation produces the opposite of happiness, alienation (a different outcome than the one that resulted from the movement toward destruction through intense pleasure in dizain 288). The ambiguity of logic and meaning in line 9 opens line 10 to an excess of sense. If line 9 means "take on again the haughty manners of the real Delie," the lover is rejecting the smiling figure in the portrait because it is abusing him and distancing him--but from the real Delie, or from himself?. If line 9 means "chastise her haughty manners," whence comes the abuse, and what kind of alienation results from it?

The reader too moves from a pleasing understanding to a kind of estrangement, because the drifting logic of the lover's discourse forces the reader to abandon comfortable configurations and to embrace an uncomfortable ambiguity. Only inattention allows the confident feeling of knowing what the poem represents; it is when one interrogates the possible senses of "reprens" within the logical framework of the "ou ... Ou bien" alternative that one suffers the uncertainty of reference, which is a kind of abuse of the reader.

Dizain 291 is linked to the two portrait poems:
   Le Painctre peult de la neige depaindre
   La blancheur telle, a peu pres, qu'on peult veoir:
   Mais il ne scait a la froideur attaindre,
   Et moins la faire a l'oeil apperceuoir.
      Ce me seroit moymesmes deceuoir,
   Et grandement me pourroit lon reprendre,
   Si ie taschois a te faire comprendre
   Ce mal, qui peult, voyre l'Ame opprimer,
   Que d'vn obiect, comme peste, on voit prendre,
   Qui mieulx se sent, qu'on ne peult exprimer.

The poem depicts well the consciousness the poet has of the amorous state. (17) Its theme is the feebleness of representation; the poet protests that it would be deceptiveness if he claimed to be able to represent the "mal" he suffers and make Delie understand it. The term of comparison, the vehicle for his message, is a short example of the limits of painting: the painter can paint the color of the snow, but not its coldness. Like the painter, the poet cannot express the ill that oppresses, that one "takes" the way one takes ill with the plague, by contagion. One can only feel this ill, not speak of it--the epistemology opposes visible to sensible qualities. The limits or the failure of representation take the form of the failure to express--to press out--speech. A structure of contrasts underlies the rhymes: "depaindre" opposes "atteindre" as the represented to the real; "opprimer" oppresses the power to "exprimer"; "apperceuoir" is entirely dominated by "deceuoir." Rhymes b and c are structured in the same manner, in each a verb with two derivatives: voir, apercevoir, decevoir; and prendre, reprendre, comprendre.

This dizain develops the opposition of the two kinds of vision, with the eyes and with the "sens," found in dizains 288 and 297. "Comprendre" refers to vision by the eyes, not in the "imaginatiue" as in 288; similarly, in 288 and 297, the eye and the sense skirmish. Line 2, "La blancheur telle, a peu pres, qu'on peult veoir," includes a formula for the representation of color that painting gives to the eye: "telle, a peu pres." The representation that is put into question--i.e., not even approximately visible to the eye--concerns a characteristic that another sense perceives, "la froideur." The latter six lines of the poem do not develop, as one might expect them to, the theme of Delie's "froideur" (very appropriately linked to her "blancheur" or purity). (18) Such a development would have been traditional and conventional. Instead, the dizain is put to higher use. An analogy is made comparing on the one hand the opposed terms "blancheur" and "froideur" in the first four lines, which are the visible and the sensible, to the "mal" which is only sensible, not visible like the "peste," in the last six lines. Strong verbs at the rhyrne, as I have already suggested, carry the key oppositions.

"Reprendre" in line 6 not only glosses "reprens" in dizain 297, but radiates a spectrum of meanings. One could chastise the poet, according to an obvious meaning, for claiming to portray--to make Delie understand--the "mal," the ill that oppresses his soul. Nancy Frelick, in a personal communication, suggests that expressing his "mal" is reprehensible, "as if to communicate his feeling would also be to communicate the dreaded disease, which he ought to protect her from and at the same time wants her to share with him." The poet would be like the painter who would claim to make the coldness of the snow visible to the eye, which can only be an abusive, deceptive claim; but it would deceive not only Delie (and any potential third party), but also the poet. Line 5--"Ce me seroit moymesmes deceuoir"--conveys an effort at lucidity. Assuming the clear vision which would allow the poet to see the deception painters practice, the poet compares himself to the painter in terms of the limits of what the painter can represent. That very analogy puts limits on the lucidity the poet here claims. Nevertheless he continues as if able to see, pursuing the analogy between painting and the representation of his suffering. The coldness of the snow announces the "mal," in that both are ineffable and cannot be expressed. The poem thus moves from the limits of painting, the "telle, a peu pres, qu'on peult veoir," to the limits of verbal representation. "Exprimer," the plural last word of the poem, inscribes and plays out the analogy, showing how a metaphor functions to express something. That movement, however, of the expressive function of metaphoric language is undermined by the tenor of the metaphor itself, which says that it cannot be expressed. Indeed, because of its syntax--"Qui mieulx se sent, qu'on ne peult exprimer" (line 10)--the "mal" is all the more felt that it cannot be expressed; deadened expression gives greater feeling; and part of the "mal" stems from this inability to express it, to press it out as pus from a wound, or, more pertinently, as microbes from buboes. At the same time, the very existence of the poem implies that the poet succeeds better at making the "mal" felt by Delie or any other addressee by protesting his inability to depict it in speech. For he does succeed better--not at representing his ill, but at figuring it: making it sensible, not visible. The sense by which coldness is felt is not the eye; the sense by which the "mal" is felt is not vision either. Indirectly, in roundabout poetic language, the poet says she and we will not see in his writing that he is suffering, but we will feel it. Finally, if we obey the near-injunction to chastise the poet for a deceptive maneuver, which we almost must do if we follow him, taking the position of the "on" who might "reprendre" the poet, we would in essence repeat what he has said, taking him up again.

If the poem begins under the sign of similarity (whiteness and coldness of snow), it ends with a striking image which functions via contiguity: "Que d'vn obiect, comme peste, on voit prendre." Contiguous relations among the two verbal groups at the rhyme (veoir, deceuoir, apperceuoir and prendre, reprendre, comprendre) doubly convey the message that to see is to perceive, but that way lies deception; the claim that it is possible to make someone understand how you can see one take ill is punishable as being an abuse of representation. The ill is unattainable, deceptive, unexpressible. A string of five uses of the auxiliary verb "pouvoir," with four additional enabling auxiliaries ("scait," "faire," "taschois," and "voit") constitutes a network that further contributes to the self-destructive effect of the poem by putting into question the ability of the poet as painter. That is, depicting, attaining, making the loved one understand, or in sum expressing "Ce mal" is not possible. Expressed only in its inexpressibility, the residue of the unexpressed is desire.


A series of poems concerns Delie's portrait in the poet's intellectual vision. Ceard suggests that while the portrait of Delie "pretend etre un substitut de l'absente," memory proposes not a substitute "mais comme sa presence epuree," her "effigie." (19) Only dizain 375 speaks of her "effigie":
   De toy la doulce, & fresche souuenance
   Du premier iour, qu'elle m'entra au coeur
   Auec ta haulte, & humble contenance,
   Et ton regard d'Amour mesmes vainqueur,
   Y depeingnit par si viue liqueur
   Ton effigie au vif tant ressemblante,
   Que depuis l'Ame estonnee, & tremblante
   De iour l'admire, & la prie sans cesse:
   Et sur la nuict tacite, & sommeillante,
   Quand tout repose, encor moins elle cesse.

A single sentence, the poem embraces the gamut from the beginning of love through its ceaseless continuation. Delie's effigy is so well painted in his heart, since the first day, that the Soul admires it with fear and trembling and prays to ir constantly, day and night, as if it were an idol (cf. dizains 1 and 275), reprising the "chastes prieres" of dizain 297. The effigy, which Ceard describes as a mental image devoid of the imperfections of the senses, "garde, de Delie, la grace et la vertu" ("Le temps et la memoire," 111). Perhaps the lover hopes the image will be more likely to answer his prayer than Delie herself. But that was also the claim of dizain 297, where the smiling portrait abuses the poet and estranges him from himself. The liquor emanating from her glance, which paints her effigy, recalls the "couleur" in dizain 288, which I interpreted as both paint and its somewhat deceitful effect. In fact, lines 5 and 6 of dizain 375, reprising the concept that a painting can resemble the "vif' exceedingly well, can be considered an expansion of line 7 of dizain 288: "Et la couleur, du vif imitatiue." "Si viue liqueur" intensifies "vif"; "tant ressemblante" amplifies "imitatiue." The effigy comes closest to capturing the inner qualities of Delie.

A representation of Delie, then, has the potential to answer the poet's desires, as in dizains 288 and 297. However, a major difference is that the poet receives the effigy of 375 as an effect of Delie's virtues or force--her "regard," her "contenance," the "souuenance" coming from "toy"--rather than through an action of his own (the discourse of the eyes pursuing the painted portrait, or laying eyes on it--"L'oeil, & le sens aulcunement ie boute"). This not passive but submissive reception of her act of "painting" in his heart reveals her powers on his soul, which is stunned as if by thunder--"estonnee, & tremblante"--so that admiration is constrained. (20)

These lines of force are consummated in a pointe in the last line, which is based on the motto from emblem 42. While one might expect night to bring, with its silence and sleepiness, the opposite of day, the cessation of energetic prayer and admiration, instead the soul admires and prays to the effigy all the more. Here a homophonic rhyme underscores the effect of surprise and calls attention to the striking double negative of the last line: "encor moins elle cesse." (21) To cease even less apparently means to continue all the more, but logic demands that we ask: if he was not ceasing before, how can he now cease even less? We know from dizains 291 and 297 that friendly answers to his prayers are merely deceitful; from 288 that the perfection of the image consumes the spirit. No rest is allowed the lover who once allows "souuenance" to conjure an effigy more powerful than its source.

In dizain 226, knowledge comes better by the intellect than by the eye, reprising the topic of dizain 291: "Ie le concoy en mon entendement / Plus, que par l'oeil comprendre ie ne puis / Le parfaict d'elle" (lines 1-3). "Concoy" is the verb for the intellect's activity, while "comprendre" (embrace, compass, measure) designates the activity of the eye. A]though the intellect "sees" better the image of her perfection, still it is an image, a representation of the perfection. On that perfection the poet has founded his potential contentment, but he has never obtained its fruit; and of that he keeps silent, and has always; he will not speak so as not to expose her virtue to suspicious rumors, which might bring doubt. Beginning with the expression of Delie's perfection conceived by the intellect, the poem ends with suspicion, doubt, trembling, dispute, the objects of the poet's fear and uncertainty, promoted by the defects of the visual representation of Delie.

In contrast, dizain 264 claims to overcome the loss of Delie's presence:
   Tes fiers desdaingz, toute ta froide essence,
   Ne feront point, me nyant ta presence,
   Qu'en mon penser audacieux ne viue,
   Qui, maulgre Mort, & maulgre toute absence,
   Te represente a moy trop plus, que viue.
        (D 264, lines 6-10)

The power of the "penser audacieux," greater than death and absence, overcomes the negation of presence and represents Delie with an excessive liveliness: "trop plus, que viue." This expression, claiming the portrait is more alive than its model, extends the cluster of our insights on "vif." In dizain 214 also the internal image of Delie overcomes separation. There the central distich describes the image in the poet's heart, a third way of knowing Delie (other than his thought and her speaking in his presence): "Si viue au coeur la me voulut pourtraire / Celluy, qui peult noz vouloirs esgaller" (lines 5-6). Ambiguity in the grammar makes it difficult to be certain whether "Si" signals a hypothetical phrase or an emphatic one; the difference is significant, and only a few lines from dizain 215 help us decide whether the portrait love paints in the poet's heart is emphatically lively--so alive--or if it is merely a possibility--if alive. In 215 the poet is unable to make Delie present in his absence: "Et si ne puis bonnement toutesfoys / Que, moy absent, elle ne soit presente" (lines 3-4). This phrase defeats the possibility of a so lively representation of Delie in dizain 214. The failure of the attempt to portray or re-present Delie is mitigated by the drift toward "le souvenir" in dizain 215, a sliding of sense that substitutes for the absent synthesis of contraries (synthesis of absence and presence). The "souvenir," not as organic or intimate as "la memoire," imperfectly represents present absence. (22)

These poems instigate a movement towards excellence in representation that simultaneously opens the door to defects. Analogy becomes mere contiguity; lively representation is overcome by absence or inexpressible souvenir. At best, representing Delie thrusts the poet into frenetic, ceaseless desire (as in dizain 216). At worst, the mental image casts the poet into a bottomless pit, as in dizain 165:
   Mes pleurs clouantz au front ses tristes veulx,
   A la memoire ouurent la veue instante,
   Pour admirer, & contempler trop mieulx
   Et sa vertu, & sa forme elegante.
      Mais sa haultesse en mageste prestante,
   Par moy, si bas, ne peult estre estimee.
   Et la cuvdant au vray bien exprimee
   Pour tournover son moins, ou enuiron,
   Ie m'appercoy la memoyre abismee
   Auec Dathan au centre d'Abiron.

Tears, closing the poet's eyes, preventing ordinary vision, open vision to memory, by which he admires and contemplates better both her virtue and her elegant form. The poem thus begins on the confident, comfortable note of admiration and contemplation--the "hommage" of dizain 275. Yet remembered vision fails in the last six lines, because she is so high, he so low, and because the faculty by which he thought to capture her image, memory, is abysmal. Here is the antipodes of the claim made in dizain 264 to overcome, through the forces of intellectual vision, the haughty coldness of Delie that the poet experiences as death and absence. Although he thought memory was "bien exprimee," well expressed, able to "tournoyer son moins, ou enuiron," that is, describe her least contours or approximately recall her image (compare to "telle, a peu pres, qu'on peult veoir" in dizain 291), now he sees this representing faculty swallowed by the abyss which punished the audacity of Dathan and Abiram (Numbers 16:1-33). (23) The punishment radiates from this embedded narrative to chastise the secular "penser audacieux" of dizain 264. The significant idea is that memory fails because of its pretense to capture Delie in a mental representation. Memory is not well-spoken and clear, no more than are the words by which the poet attempts to admire and contemplate Delie. The contiguity of "abysmee" with "exprimee" recalls dizain 291, the poem about the inefficacy and deceptiveness of expression, which ends "Qui mieulx se sent, qu'on ne peult exprimer." Already line 7 in dizain 165, "Et la cuydant au vray bien exprimee," implies the audacity that the Biblical exemplum purports to express as the concrete anchor to the abstraction of memory. The moral punishment for thinking that memory is clear, "bien exprimee," able to delineate Delie's image in the mind, is to sink into the bottomless pit, the whirlpool of loss. (24)

Finally, dizain 341 summarizes many of these themes:
   Quasi moins vraye alors ie l'appercoy,
   Que la pensee a mes yeulx la presente,
   si plaisamment ainsi ie me decoy,
   Comme si elle estoit au vray presente:
   Bien que par foys aulcunement ie sente
   Estre tout vain ce, que ray apperceu.
      Ce neantmoins pour le bien ia receu,
   Ie quiers la fin du songe, & le poursuis,
   Me contentant d'estre par moy deceu,
   Pour non m'oster du plaisir, ou ie suis.

The poet sees Delie "Quasi moins vraye" when thought presents her image to his eyes, as pleasing and with as much deceit as in a dream. Thought thus practices a deception on his eyes, which he recognizes as "tout vain." All the while knowing that what he sees, whether in dream or by thought, is wholly empty and not real, he nevertheless receives from that hollow image a "bien," and so: "Ie quiers la fin du songe, & le poursuis" (line 8). If one reads "fin" as "end," the line might read "I seek the end of the dream and pursue it," in which "it" can be either the "bien" of the previous line or "songe"; if the latter, it is possible to read in a contradiction typical of the lover's attitude, seeking to continue the dream at the same time he seeks its end, or to dream on while awake; if the former (he pursues the "bien"), the poet wishes to pursue the good he obtained in the dream into his waking life, continuing to be tricked by the empty image his thought presented to his eyes (recall the discourse of the eyes which "pursue" the painted portrait in dizain 288). If "fin" means "goal," he seeks the purpose of the dream and pursues it--either the dream or its good effect. (25) The most compelling reading, in my view, has the poet continuing the false image in waking life. He accepts error, seeks to persist in it, and affirms the pleasure of being deceived. There is a good chance one might give a quite physical interpretation to the "bien" of line 7, received during the drea'm or the thought.

This dizain caps the series I have been reading for the acuity of its self-consciousness; it brings to the surface themes of almost all the poems I have discussed here. Apperception and deception are the ethical categories between which the poet-lover places himself, willingly or at least contentedly (recall the play of the two verbs in dizain 291). Abandoning the pretense to capture the perfect portrait of Delie, whether in his thought, his heart, his soul, or his memory--to apperceive her--the poet loses entirely on the score of expression or depiction--he deceives, estranges, and disappoints himself--but he gains pleasure: "Si plaisamment ainsi ie me decoy"; "pour le bien ia receu"; "Pour non m'oster du plaisir, ou ie suis" (emphasis added). The loss of symbolic depiction is the price of pleasure. The lover seeks, even pursues this loss, at once accepting to remain "tout vain," devoid of expressiveness. If apperception, the visual comprehension of the image, implies the symbolic register, deception colors the sensible, mind's eye painting, the work of the "imaginatiue" which remains imaginary. Between these categories lie the poet's contemplation and estrangement, his "hommage" and "dommage":
      Or que seroit a penetrer au bien,
   Qui au parfaict d'elle iamais ne fault?
   Quand seulement pensant plus, qu'il ne fault,
   Et contemplant sa face a mon dommage,
   L'oeil, & le sens peu a peu me deffault,
   Et me pers tout en sa diuine image.
        (D 397, lines 5-10)


To become the poet of Delie is apparently to engage the symbolic system endeavoring to represent Delie as the object of love. Once such a poetic language is invoked, with its illustrious history, the lover is wrenched from wholeness: rent into lover and poet. The mirror reflects not a copy but a duple image of the self, stuck in the synecdoche of part for the whole.

There, the lover produces a discourse not of the eyes but only of words. Imitating the discourse of the analysand, the words at once embroil themselves in a network or lacis--or Barthes's "episodes de langage qui tournent dans la tete" (Le grain de la voix, 267), of which the ineluctable circuits reveal the poet's secret, neurotic desire. Since this discourse relates powerfully to other parts of itself (the "thickness" of words), it dampens the referential relations of its signs to any non-linguistic entity--the lived experience of love, the memory of experience. As Lacan writes, "ce qui est refoule, ce n'est pas le represente du desir, la signification, mais le representant ... de la representation." (26) Instead, discourse constructs a self only in writing. It is no longer the record of a lived experience but the putative symbolic transposition of it. Expressive is the very act of revealing, more than a hidden content that the words reveal. Thus the poet successfully portrays the desire to express which is inherent in the words, but at the cost of never finishing Delie's portrait--of never achieving a perfected representation. The poetry is condemned to repeat, to approximate perfection (the meaning of parfaire is to finish) only by trying again. "De mot en mot, je m'epuise a dire autrement le meme de mon Image, improprement le propre de mon desir: voyage au terme duquel ma derniere philosophie ne peut etre que de reconnaitre--et de pratiquer--la tautologie" (Fragments d'un discours amoureux, 28).

That, at least, is how the poet-lover represents himself. The signs this savage semiologist reads are on balance "des signes de malheur," for representation is constrained. Barthes cast representation into an almost entirely negative mold, calling it "une figuration embarrassee, encombree d'autres sens que celui du desir: un espace d'alibis (realite, morale, vraisemblance, lisibilite, verite, etc.)"; representation is what happens "quand rien ne sort, quand rien ne saute hors du cadre: du tableau, du livre, de l'ecran." (27) The dizains of Delie succeed rather at figuration, unconstrained representation, which swarms, overwhelms, proliferates on the image of the figures of repetition (like polyptoton and derivation). "La figuration serait le mode d'apparition du corps erotique (a quelque degre et sous quelque mode que ce soit) dans le profil du texte" (Le plaisir du texte, 88). Delie figures the amorous discourse of the poet-lover, but it fails to represent it. The writer is in the position of Barthes's "amoureux" who writes: "Ce que l'ecriture demande et que tout amoureux ne peut lui accorder sans dechirement, c'est de sacrifier un peu de son Imaginaire, et d'assurer ainsi a travers sa langue l'assomption d'un peu de reel. Tout ce que je pourrais produire, au mieux, c'est une ecriture de l'Imaginaire" (Fragments d'un discours amoureux, 115). (28) Playing with words, as if never fully acceding to the symbolic, his language remains "inqualifiable" (Fragments d'un discours amoureux, 44), defective by definition. It succeeds best--or only--at resembling the impotence of language to portray what is grasped in the flash of intuition: "Qui mieulx se sent, qu'on ne peult exprimer" (D 291). The choice is for pleasure, not for portraying Delie's perfection, in spite of how often he tries.

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


(1) Read diligently until you find a dizain that pleases, which is therefore the first easy one (and Larbaud proposes dizain 344!); then find another that is related to it; thus you will build a network that will increase with each reading. These honest suggestions for overcoming the well-entrenched difficulty of Delie can be found in "Notes sur Maurice Sceve," in Ce vice impuni, la lecture: Domaine francais, Oeuvres completes (Paris: Gallimard, 1953), 7:93ff.

(2) Barthes was speaking of his Fragments d'un discours amoureux in an interview in Le grain de ta voix. Entretiens 1962-1980 (Paris: Seuil, 1981), 280, 265.

(3) Terence Cave, The Cornucopian Text: Problems of Writing in the French Renaissance (Oxford U. Press, 1979), 29.

(4) According to The Cornucopian Text, "mimesis necessarily entails the absence of that which it purports to represent: the word 're-presentation' itself implies a secondary or feigned presence" (29). The Heiaeggerian impossibility of thinking of representation as presence may underlie the law; we cannot use representation of presence in the effort to define presence, because we are trying to think of presence as such in order to establish a representation; representation is defined by the very presence the poet wants to represent; and the definition of representation rests on the presence that the representation would present. Martin Heidegger, On Time and Being, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1972), 19.

(5) Published discussion in Alfred Hornung and Ernstpeter Ruhe, ed., Autobiographie et Avant-garde (Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1992), 121.

(6) In a different reading, Robert D. Cottrell links the dizains to the conscious discourse of the voice and the emblems to the primal repressed of the unconscious; the first word of the liminary poem, "Non,' institutes the splitting of the subject. Summarizing Lacaman theory, he writes: "the Oedipalization of the subject ... designates accession to the Symbolic through recognition of the Name-of-the-Father .... [The mother's] acknowledgement of the Law allows the subject access to the Name-of-the-Father, the signifier of the paternal function in the symbolic order. It permits the 'I to register itself in language and in literature." "Graphie, phone, and the Desiring Subject in Sceve's Delie," L'Esprit Createur 25, no. 2 (1985): 5, 11.

(7) Gregory de Rocher, in "The Curing Text: Maurice Sceve's Delie as the Delie," Romanic Review 78 (1987): 16, makes an analogous point about the writing when he claims that "language, endlessly driven by desire to 'subdue' reality, must constantly miss the mark, so to speak, or else reduce to chaos an order inherently dependent upon signifiers that are constantly in flux."

(8) I quote The "'Delie" of Maurice Sceve, ed. ,I. D. McFarlane (Cambridge U. Press, 1966). All further references to Sceve's poetry or to McFarlane's glosses or commentary on each poem will be indicated without the page number from this edition.

(9) An example from Ronsard's sonnet "Rossignol mon mignon": "nous differons d'un poinct: / C'est que tu es ayme, et je nele suis point." The theme is common among the Petrarchan poets, notably Bembo.

(10) Thomas Greene includes the referential function among four basic conditions of language that make poetry vulnerable. Poems intensify the tendency of the signifier to be clearer and more present than the signified; located near the "border of the ineffable," poems heighten the referential problem: "there lies the danger that the border may be overstepped and the act of reference may fail. The poem participates--and invites the reader to participate--in the quintessentially human quest to fix meanings behind representations, and it characteristically chooses meanings closest to the unrepresentable." Hence a "persistent struggle to win through to the unnamable, to that which resists reference." Thomas M. Greene, "Rescue from the Abyss: Sceve's Dizain 378," in Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, ed. Mary Ann Caws (New York: Modern Language Association, 1986), 16.

(11) McFarlane confidently glosses "image" as portrait, but I do not see why.

(12) McFarlane identifies the "Benedict" of the dizain with this Florentine painter. Apelles was a famous Greek painter, a contemporary of Alexander the Great.

(13) It helps little that Huguet gives "au naturel" for "au vif," citing three passages from Montaigne. That writer's expository intent to paint an undeceitful portrait of himself is lightyears away from the intentions one can read into Sceve's text. On the other hand, where "apres le vif" means "d'apres nature," still in Huguet's dictio.nary, we are much closer to a straightforward meaning of "paings au vif Delie": use her as the model. That is indeed the gist of the lover's dialogue with the painter.

(14) Gisele Mathieu-Castellani has designated the suppression of the subject pronoun as one of three distinguishing traits of Sceve's grammar. The "effacement delibere du sujet" only lends greater power to its deliberate use. "Petite grammaire de Delie," L'Information Grammaticale 36 (1988): 27.

(15) According to Deborah Lesko Baker, Narcissus and the Lover: Mythic Recovery and Reinvention in Sceve's Delie (Saratoga: Anma Libri, 1986), 58-60, "cendre" climaxes a Ficinian process of self-disintegration.

(16) Ina charming epigram, "De ouy et nenny," Marot wrote: "D'avoir trop dict je vouldroys vous reprendre," to the woman who would say "ouy." Dizain 133 in Delie alludes to it.

(17) In Francoise Charpentier's reading, desire can express itself through the desire to paint, which repulses the object of painting to the horizon of admiration; but the desire for painting can be stopped by the impotence of the painter. "'Le painctre peult de la neige depaindre': la question des emblemes dans Delie," Litteratures 17, automne (1987): passim.

(18) The coldness of Delie is only an incidental lesson of this dizain. Compare to dizain 415 in which the poet becomes "plus froid que neige de Scythie" thinking he has offended Delie when she suddenly leaves, and to 26, where the poet is compared to the mountain which gets colder as it nears the sun.

(19) Jean Ceard, "Le temps et la memoire dans Delie," Europe 64, no. 691-92 (1986): 111.

(20) An interesting amplification on "heart" comes from Barthes's Fragments d'un discours amoureux (Paris: Seuil, 1977), 214: "Le coeur est l'organe du desir (le coeur se gonfle, defaille, etc., comine le sexe), tel qu'il est retenu, enchante, dans le champ de l'Imaginaire."

(21) The comparative form is the major revision of the motto of emblem 42, which reads: "Quand tout repose, poinct ie ne cesse," an octosyllabic line.

(22) Frelick shows how the ebb and flow of memory and forgetfulness reflect the presence and absence of the image of Delie, in Delie as Other: Toward a Poetics of Desire in Sceve's Delie (Lexington: French Forum, 1994), 23.

(23) McFarlane suggests that "exprimee" is a Latinism, the calque of expressus, " clear, distinct. '

(24) "Abisme": "swallowed by a whirlpoole, bottomless pit," or "sunke, undone, utterly ruined" (Cotgrave).

(25) Frelick, in Delie as Other, points out the ambiguitv of the last two words, 'je suis," I am or I follow; the poet's "very condition of being is that of the ardent pursuit of desire" (26).

(26) Jacques Lacan, Le Seminaire Livre XI: Les Quatre Concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse (Paris: Seuil, 1973), 199.

(27) Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte (Paris: Seuil, 1973), 89.

(28) The Fragments d'un discours amoureux are the figuration, not the representation, of the amorous discourse.
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Author:Mortimer, Armine Kotin
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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