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Labyrinth dances in the French and English Renaissance.

Some descriptions of ballets performed at the late Valois court in France draw upon accounts of choreographic and equestrian maze-like performances extending back into early antiquity. Common elements include a convoluted complexity in the dancers' movements, repeated reversals, and a series of patterns variously reformed after regular interruptions. The practice of medieval dances at Easter upon the labyrinth designs of one or more French cathedrals may also have exercised an influence on Renaissance dancing. A sonnet by Ronsard describing a labyrinthine ballet invites at least two metaphysical interpretations. Neoplatonic theories of magic are apparently reflected in the choreography by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx for his Balet Comique de la Royne. Labyrinth dances in Ben Jonson's masques are associated with Orphic cosmogony. The description of an angelic labyrinth dance in Milton's Paradise Lost leads to historical and theoretical questions concerning the intermittent persistence of the phenomenon.

"Here's a maze trod indeed Through forth-rights and meanders!"

-- The Tempest

The activity of treading a maze in dance, in ritual, in equestrian specracle, or in folk sports has been ubiquitous and long-lived in the history of European cultures. It is indeed far too large and various a subject for a single monograph. Gonzalo's remark about the labyrinthine wanderings he and his companions were forced to endure by Prospero might have reminded Shakespeare's audiences of the English turf-mazes dug for rustic games, sites whose supposed neglect is lamented by Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream: "The quaint mazes in the wanton green, I For lack of tread, are undistinguishable" (2.1.99-100).

We know little about what the "treading" actually involved in those quaint mazes, but we know slightly more about its choreographic counterpart at the Jacobean court, and still more about courtly labyrinth ballets in sixteenth-century France. Although the ancestors of these ballets in ancient dances and carousels remain somewhat murky; they have nonetheless received a good deal of scholarly attention, as have the ritual uses of labyrinths in medieval churches. What follows here represents an attempt to link certain strands in Renaissance culture, chiefly in court ballet, to the body of tantalizing materials from earlier periods. (1) The ballet is of interest not only in its own right but through the poetic texts it produced by, among others, Ronsard, Jonson, and Milton. Those texts in turn pose broader theoretical questions. But even when one sternly ignores the alluring by-ways, the historical path to be followed is long and intricate; its treading will not always be confined to forth-rights.


Late in the summer of the year 1573, a delegation of Poles visited Paris in order to offer the throne of their nation to the future Henri III of France. This misguided invitation was celebrated by a number of fetes at court; the most prestigious of these was a spectacle sponsored by the queen-mother, Catherine de' Medici, which would later come to be called the Ballet des Polonais. We are fortunate to have a description of this dance, performed in a pavilion, by the tireless court observer Brantome, who called it "le plus beau ballet qui fut jamais faict au monde." Sixteen young women were dressed, he writes, to represent sixteen provinces of France and positioned on a large artificial rock, which, after its entrance, circled the performance hall and then halted, allowing the dancers to descend and to form "un petit bataillon bizarrement invente" (a little squadron curiously designed) while the violins struck up a martial air. Brantome's description of what followed is splendidly evocative:

Elles vindrent marcher soubs l'air de ces violons, et par une belle cadence, sans en sortir jamais, s'approcher et s'arrester un peu devant leurs Majestez, et puis apres danser leur ballet si bizarrement invante, et par tant de tours, contours et destours, d'entrelasseures et meslanges, affrontemens et arrets, qu'aucune dame jamais ne faillit se trouver a son tour ny a son rang. (2)

The phrase "bizarrement invante" appears twice in Brantome's account, as though he wanted to stress, along with the skill of the dancers, both the oddity, the strangeness, of the performance and the ingenuity of its contrivance, its "invention," leaving the spectators dazzled by an originality that was flawlessly, artfully, firmly conceived. (3) The queerness of the invention does indeed come through in his account. Two choreographic elements stand out: the reversal or abrupt change of direction ("tours, contours et destours") and the complex interweaving ("entrelasseurres et meslanges"). We are left with an impression of confusion and disorder (Brantome's words) that remains paradoxically under rigid control. Another eye-witness, Agrippa d'Aubigne, writes of the "confusions bien desmeslees" (well-ordered confusions) (4:156). The choreographer of this bizarre invention was Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, a Savoyard whose artistic imagination we will meet again and whose Mannerist style is full of suggestiveness not only for the historian of dance but for the student of Valois culture.

Brantome's description can be supplemented by still another longer, more impressionistic one that leads closer to the main concerns of this paper. This description, composed by Jean Dorat in Latin verse, was printed in a booklet commemorating the occasion entitled Magnificentissimi spectaculi. Dorat's verse account follows the text of Latin poems composed by him that were recited before the ballet. The account is entitled "Chorea nympharum," and for our purposes it needs to be quoted in full.

Once the song was finished, see the band of the Nymphs begin to dance in a set rhythm. Their rhythmical movements testify to their joy for the newly chosen king, Henri. Now you would think as many queens were passing by as Nymphs, such is their dignity in their slow severity. Now you might think them as many Dolphins swimming playfully as they flit with effortless mobility. They repeat a thousand short advances and a thousand returns; they combine a thousand flights, a thousand pauses of the feet. Now they cling like bees by clasping hands together, now they form a point like a flock of voiceless cranes. Now some cleave to others in oblique knots, like a hedge made of artfully entangled brambles. Now they form variously this figure, now that, on the dance-floor; no writing-tablet ever carried more signs, nor that which shows Euclidean lines drawn in the sand, nor that on which a fleeing [chess] piece is lost to the swift enemy. There were not so many turnings in the structure of the labyrinth, nor did the wat ers of the Meander ever wind so sinuously. You would have thought this to be the game in which Trojan Julus delighted, as he imitated real battles with pretended maneuvers. In such a way now they form their lines head on, now to the side; now they rush forward, now they flee back lightly. But already they are approaching with their formation restored like troops after combat as they pass before the faces of kings. (4)

Dorat's poem omits the political implications suggested by the sixteen provincial costumes mentioned by Brantome. But the two elements of the ballet itself stressed by Brantome reappear in the poem. First, in the movement that turns back upon itself, Brantome's "tours, contours et destours" are echoed by Dorat's "thousand brief advances and thousand returns [recursus]"; and second, in the interweaving of patterns, Brantome's "entrelasseurres et meslanges" are echoed by Dorat's "oblique knots" and "entangled brambles." Dorat's poem suggests a series of reversals in which confusing series of configurations closely follow or even interrupt each other, as though to dramatize the fragility of any one pattern; each figure breaks up its predecessor with a regularity emphasized by the heavy use of anaphora: "mille...mille...mille...nunc...nunc...nunc." There are in all nine "nuncs" introducing the successive dance figures, which would have been easily perceived by the audience sitting for the most part above the danc e floor (fig. 1). Nunc becomes in this context the signal of confusing succession: "nunc hanc, nunc illam, variant per plana figuram." The activity on the dance floor begins to invade the Latin verse and to shape it with choreographic movement.

Dorat's verses state that no tablet ever contained more notas -- marks or signs -- than did this performance, but he leaves it to us to try to guess their meaning. Dorat's omission of the political theme, the theme one glimpses in Brantome's account, would seem to consign the meaning of the dance to obscurity. Still, his verses do offer a few hints, which can be pursued. His presentation of the dance is a cento of images and topoi from classical poetry that would be drawn upon, as we shall see, by a greater poet, Ronsard. But it also introduces into Renaissance France a cluster of motifs bearing rich if somewhat delphic suggestiveness. It places Beaujoyeulx's choreography and subsequent imitations in a very old tradition. Thus Dorat's verses, which to my knowledge have never been completely translated into English, (5) serve as a kind of bridging text between antiquity and an islet of Renaissance culture.


Fully to understand what Dorat is doing with this performance, one has to grasp the allusion to the ludus led by the young Trojan Iulus Ascanius in book 5 of the Aeneid. In effect, Dorat presents the ballet as a reenactment of that performance in which the funeral games for Anchises culminated. Not only does his description of Beaujoyeulx's dance patterns deliberately echo Virgil's description of his young Trojans' equestrian maneuvers, but two of his similes-- the dolphins and the labyrinth--are drawn directly from Virgil. Dorat's references to cranes and to the Meander river, famous for its intricate windings and doublings, derive from other ancient sources.

Readers of the Aeneid will recall that at the close of the funeral games for Anchises, the young Ascanius and his companions put on an equestrian display for their elders. After the boys ride in and circle the field, a crack of the whip opens the carousel, whose description needs to be quoted at length.

The column split apart

As files in the three squadrons all in line

Turned away, cantering left and right; recalled,

They wheeled and dipped their lances for a charge.

They entered then on parades and counter-parades,

The two detachments, matched in the arena,

Winding in and out of one another,

And whipped into sham cavalry skirmishes

By baring backs in flight, then whirling round

With leveled points, then patching up a truce

And riding side by side. So intricate

In ancient times on mountainous Crete they say

The Labyrinth, between walls in the dark,

Ran criss-cross a bewildering thousand ways

Devised by guile, a maze insoluble,

Breaking down every clue to the way out.

So intricate the drill of Trojan boys

Who wove the patterns of their pacing horses,

Figured, in sport, retreats and skirmishes -

Like dolphins in the drenching sea, Carpathian

Or Libyan, that shear through waves in play. (6)

This ritual of controlled confusion was written to evoke actual equestrian displays many centuries old, revived during the early first century B.C.E. and encouraged by Augustus. They would be continued up to the end of the Empire. The placement of the performance at the dose of the funeral games directs the attention of the spectators and of the reader away from the buried grandfather toward the adolescent skill of the grandson, and Virgil places stress on the joyful pride felt by the adults (Laeti) as they delight (gaudent) to see the new generation perform. Thus the games, ostensibly oriented toward the loss of an elder figure, Anchises, close with a kind of solace, the promise for the future of Anchises's grandson and his peers. Virgil concludes his account of what he calls the Troia by projecting his perspective into the distant future, long after the end of his poetic narrative, to the founding by Ascanius of the city of Alba Longa, on which occasion another similar performance would be held.

This mode of drill, this mimicry of war,

Ascanius brought back in our first years

When he walled Alba Longa; and he taught

The ancient Latins to perform the drill

As he had done with other Trojan boys.

The Albans taught their children, and in turn

Great Rome took up this glory of the founders.

The boys are called Troy now, the whole troop Trojan. (7)

What is here a funeral rite would later become a foundation rite.

It is probable that Beaujoyeulx, choreographer of the Ballet des Polonais, had this Virgilian passage in mind; at any rate, it is clear that Jean Dorat's comparison of the two performances captures something important they do, on his showing, share. As we now see, Dorat's stress on the recursus, the doubling back, was initially Virgilian, as was also the impression of tangled dance figures intruding upon and breaking up other figures. Virgil's Latin renders both elements more densely than any translation:

inde alios ineunt cursus aliosque recursus

adversi spatiis, alternosque orbibus orbis


The repetition of words in slightly varied form (alios ... aliosque... alternosque; cursus ... recursus; orbibus orbis) imitates in this context the shifting configurations of the riders.

Virgil's comparison of this carousel to the Cretan labyrinth should not be regarded as ornamental; it is rather fundamental to an understanding of the performance. (8) The ritual, which was essentially apotropaic, involved the magical creation of an invisible labyrinth through the interweaving of lines and paths. The participants in the Troia, called in English the Trojan Ride, are not to be regarded as analogous to the victims of a labyrinth. Rather they are creating their own labyrinth as they induce its power; they are a labyrinth as they weave and counter-weave their progressively bewildering patterns in a display of Daedalian art. The maze formed by their convoluted recursus serves as a ceremonial protection both against movement into or from the tomb of the dead, and also, in the later foundation rite, against supernatural enemies of the new city. Some societies believed that demons flew only in straight lines; thus a maze of movement could be said to create magically an impenetrable space that malign s pirits could not cross. (9) Historically we know that the Troia, after its revival early in the first century B.C.E., was in fact performed at the funerals of important individuals.

That the Troia was a ritual whose origins can be traced into the remote past is suggested by three pieces of evidence, which together complicate and enrich the interpretation of this Virgilian passage. The first of these is an Etruscan wine-pitcher of the seventh century B.C.E., bearing the representation of a labyrinth containing the letters TRUTA; several armed riders are shown issuing from the labyrinth's mouth near two copulating couples (fig. 2). There is much dispute over the meaning of these images and others on the pitcher, but no one disputes its connection with the performance Virgil described. The word Truia has been linked with such names of medieval English turf-mazes as Troy and Troy-town, and with Scandinavian mazes formed by stones half-buried in the earth, some of them called Troyaburg. Some scholars believe that the word "Truia" on the pitcher along with these English and Scandinavian names do not refer to the city of Troy. One theory holds that Truia meant something like "arena." (10) If th is is so, then Virgil wittingly or unwittingly invited his readers to misunderstand the origin of the name he applied to his equestrian performance; it may have had nothing at all to do with the geographic origins of Aeneas and his companions; it may have stemmed from a false etymology constituting a huge coincidence.

A second anticipation of the Troia may possibly be found in Plutarch's "Life of Theseus." A good deal of this life is devoted to contradictory versions of that hero's adventures, whose legendary character Plutarch fully recognizes. But the passage of interest here betrays no skepticism.

Now Theseus, in his return from Crete, put in at Delos, and having sacrificed to the god of the island, dedicated to the temple the image of Venus which Ariadne had given him, and danced with the young Athenians a dance that, in memory of him, they say is still preserved among the inhabitants of Delos, consisting in certain measured turnings and returnings [periodon kai diexodon], imitative of the windings and twistings [parallaxeis kai anelixeis] of the labyrinth. And this dance, as Dicaearchus writes, is called among the Delians the Crane. This he danced around the Ceratonian Altar, so called from its consisting of horns taken from the left side of the head. (13)

Here again in Plutarch we meet the familiar doublet "turnings and returnings," now associated explicitly with the Cretan labyrinth these participants have recently escaped. We have independent evidence that Theseus's socalled crane dance was in fact perpetuated on Delos. Callimachus, writing in the third century B.C.E., refers to this commemorative dance performed there. (11) A painting on the so-called "Francois vase" of the early sixth century B.C.E. represents its crane-dancers alternating sexes and holding hands. (12) Pollux, writing in the second century C.E., indicates that it was danced in a line with a "leader" at each end. Other indications suggest that the dancers held a rope, possibly representing or symbolizing a snake whose serpentine movements the dancers were imitating. (13)

This imitation of the nightmare structure of the labyrinth is clearly celebratory; infused with the joy of freedom; whatever else is happening in this myth, the dancers are claiming a superiority over Daedalus's trap, or they are dancing the superiority into existence under the sponsorship of Apollo and Aphrodite. A more modern reading would see them to be celebrating a fundamental human freedom over fate. Karl Kerenyi, among others, has suggested that the Delian dance dramatized an entrance into death and then a return to life; it would thus imitate Theseus's entrance into and return from Daedalus's labyrinth. (14) The Ceratonian Altar, with its horns pointing left, would have led the dances counter-sunwise in the direction of death, and one can imagine them moving in that direction and then doubling back, as though to brave mortality and then dramatize ecstatically their freedom over it. The serpent has immemorially served as a symbol of the eternal renewal of life in many societies through its annual renew al of its skin.

Closer reflection suggests a further complication: in view of the "measured [rhythmic] turnings and returnings" and also of the leaders at either end of the line, one is obliged to envision a repetition of this double movement, requiring the dancers to face death over and over, always ending the progression toward death with a cc counter-progression into life, which then turns around toward death again. The dance may well act our the kind of acceptance of death as an inherent part of the life cycle that emerges from the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter," wherein the goddess's unconsolable grief at the loss of Persephone to Hades yields to acceptance of her daughter's cyclical existence above and below the earth. (15)

The dance on Delos could then be understood to anticipate Virgil's Troia, which mingles the death of the aged grandfather with the brilliant vitality of youth while creating a magical barrier around the tomb. Still, there would appear to be a difference between the convolutions of Theseus and Ascanius: Ascanius and his companions are trying to weave a barrier between an inside and an outside, just as the walls of a city like Alba Longa did. But Theseus and his companions are symbolically breaking down barriers, whose power of confinement had threatened to kill them on Crete. Their dance would appear to have been unconfined. At any rate the recursus, the turnaround or reversal of direction, begins to look like a choreographic trope of the life cycle, in Plutarch as in the Aeneid. Virgil would certainly have known Plutarch's source Dicaearchus, a disciple of Aristotle. His text is not extant, but the stress it laid upon turnings and returnings, windings and twistings, was available to the poet.

One perennial puzzle concerning Plutarch's dance has to do with its name, "the crane-dance" -- in Greek geranos, a word which normally meant "crane." The name would be long remembered: Dorat refers to cranes in his description of the Ballet des Polonais. The puzzle is complicated by the fact that cranes are known to perform what might be called a dance in certain situations, although their movements bear no resemblance to the labyrinthine patterns of Theseus's group. (16) Once again we seem to have encountered a misleading word: just as Truia and Troia may have had nothing to do with the ancient city, so, according to the Oxford Classical Dictionary, the name of this dance "is probably derived from the root *ger-, 'to wind' and not from the word for 'crane.,'" (17) This, however, did not prevent readers up to the present century from associating Plutarch's dance with the bird he was thought to have named. (18) What matters most for us in Plutarch's account is its evidence that the allusions by Virgil, and lat er by Dorat, to the Cretan labyrinth are not merely decorative; they correspond to a complex but mistakable historical connection.

Dorat would have known the work of a certain Eustathius of Thessalonika, a Greek scholar of the twelfth century, whose commentary on Homer was published at Rome in 1542. Ronsard, who will be entering the story presently, made use of Eustathius in the composition of his Franciade. That scholar authorized a conclusion that many before and after him may have reached independently -- that the dance on Delos corresponded to a scene on Homer's shield of Achilles. If Eustathius was right, this Homeric scene would then be a third determinative anticipation of Virgil's Trojan Ride.

And the crippled Smith brought all his art to bear on a dancing circle, broad as the circle Daedalus once laid out on Cnossos' spacious fields for Ariadne the girl with lustrous hair. Here young boys and girls, beauties courted with costly gifts of oxen, danced and danced, linking their arms, gripping each other's wrists.... And now they would run in rings on their skilled feet, nimbly, quick as a crouching potter spins his wheel, palming it smoothly, giving it practice twirls to see it run, and now they would run in rows, in rows crisscrossing rows -- rapturous dancing. (Iliad, 486-87)

It would be hard to say with assurance that this description resembles what we know from Plutarch and Pollux of the geranos, but Homer's reference to Daedalus on Crete does invite the linkage and the "rows crisscrossing rows" suggest something of the intricacy of the dance on Delos. (19) Some scholars have suggested that the image of the potter trying our his wheel includes an implication of movement first in one direction and then in the other, like the choreographic reversals in Plutarch. One other detail would confirm a linkage for those disposed to see one: the Francois vase shows dancers with their hands linked, as the arms are linked in the Iliad. The effect of this similarity was of course to narrow the gap between Homer's text and Virgil's, since now Homer's dance could also be seen as labyrinthine. It is worth noting Eustathius's assertion that he had seen performances of the geranos in Greece during his own lifetime.

One ancient text that Eustathius may or may not have known could be taken to strengthen a supposition that traditional Mediterranean folk dances of the Homeric type did contain a "labyrinthine" element. This text, admittedly late, appears in Apuleius''s The Golden Ass, where it describes a balletic performance in a crowded amphitheater.

A number of beautiful boys and girls in rich costumes were moving with dignity through the graceful mazes of the Greek Pyrrhic dance. Sometimes different streams of dancers would weave in and out of the same circle, sometimes all would join hands and dance sideways across the stage, then separate into four wedge-shaped groups with the blunt ends enclosing a square space; sometimes there would be a sudden divorce of the sexes, the boys and girls separating from each other. Presently the trumpet blew the Retreat, to signal the end of these complicated dance-movements [multinodas ambages]. (20)

Here the alternation of rows and circles recalls the shield of Achilles, as does the joining of hands. But the explicitly maze-like character of the evolutions described by Apuleius has no obvious counterpart in Homer. If, in fact, Apuleius was describing dancing he had personally witnessed, as seems likely, one might hypothesize either that he makes explicit what had only been implicit in the Iliad, or else that the centuries separating the two texts had permitted a conflation of choreographic elements that had been separated earlier.

One non-choreographic element present quite explicitly in the texts by Homer and Virgil, implicitly in Plutarch and Apuleius, is the quality of joy already noticed, even if in one case we seem to discern a mingling with the tragic. The persistent element of joy in a variety of texts will ultimately require an explanation. In this regard it would be well to call attention here to a fundamental distinction that governs all study of the labyrinth phenomenon. In the visual designs of labyrinths that have come down to us -- on the archaic Etruscan wine-pitcher, on ancient Cretan coins, in Roman mosaics, later in medieval manuscripts, in designs engraved on the floors of medieval cathedrals, in English turf-mazes and Scandinavian stone mazes -- the patterns differ to a degree, but only to a degree, and certain patterns became so standard that they survived for centuries and even millennia. It is an oddity of these visual labyrinths that before the sixteenth century they are always unicursal, that is to say that the y contain no blind alleys or choices and always lead through manifold windings from an entrance inside and then out again. Generally, but not always, there is a center to be attained.

These unicursal designs must then be opposed to verbal descriptions of labyrinths like the one on Crete, which are so confusing and treacherous precisely because they contain so many blind alleys. These are labyrinths in which a visitor like Theseus, lacking a thread, could lose himself forever. Such a labyrinth is multicursal, and it is most commonly confined to written texts. The only multicursal designs we possess before the Baroque era can be found in the garden mazes recorded as early as the fourteenth century in France, often called dedales. The Troia of the Aeneid, like the historical Troiae revived in the first century B.C.E., was intended to recall the multicursal model, as Virgil's simile emphasizes, but ultimately dramatized the human power to control confusion unicursally. This would be equally true of ancient and Renaissance labyrinth dances, clearly including the Ballet des Polonais. The unicursal type, for all its play with confusion, actually demonstrates the triumph of human resourcefulness o ver confusion. Labyrinth performances deliberately evoke the multicursal model but in effect affirm all the more emphatically and joyfully the victory of human artifice over perplexities in d'Aubigne's "confusions bien desmelees." (21)


If we return now to Dorat's evocation of the ballet for the Polish ambassadors, we can see how loaded was his comparison of that performance to the Cretan labyrinth and to Ascanius's ludus. We can see where he found his dolphin and crane similes. But still another image in his "Chorea nympharum" needs to be traced back as far as we can follow it in antiquity, which is to say probably not as far as it could lead us if we had all the necessary knowledge. This is the reference to the Meander river ("Non Maeandreae sic sinuantur aquae"). That river in Asia Minor with its eccentric windings and sinuosities had already become a topos for visual intricacy in antiquity, and we even find it, not surprisingly, along with Daedalus's labyrinth, in a text from the fourth century C.E, by Claudian, describing more recent Troiae:

Here we often see armed bands advancing and retiring in mazed movements [recursus] that are nevertheless executed according to a fixed plan.... The companies separate, wheeling and counter-whelling with ordered skill, following a course more tortuous than the corridors of the Minotaur's Cretan palace or the reaches of Meander's wandering stream. (22)

Claudian's association of Meander and labyrinth is not accidental. One connection between them can be found in the architectural motif called the meander pattern, today sometimes called the key pattern.

The life of this simple ornamental device is astonishingly long: it can be traced back to the paleolithic era; it appears on Egyptian seals of the third millennium B.C.E., and it is still alive and well in twentieth-century architectural decoration. It can be rendered more complex by multiplying the turns in the line or by superimposing one linear pattern on another while still remaining recognizably the same device. It was already associated with the Meander river early in antiquity. In ancient Greek art, the same pattern, whatever it was called, was associated explicitly with the Cretan labyrinth.

On one drinking bowl of the fifth century, the minotaur is shown next a more complex version of this pattern, which served apparently as a kind of iconographic shorthand representation of the labyrinth (fig. 3). Beginning also in the fifth century B.C.E., a series of Cretan coins bore a labyrinth on one side and a minotaur on the other. But on some coins, a somewhat complex version of the meander pattern is again substituted for the labyrinth. The palace at Knossos, which lacks any trace of an actual labyrinth, is "profusely decorated with meander patterns." (23) The temple to Apollo at Didyma, built in the third century B.C.E., is ornamented with the meander pattern, which an inscription refers to as a "labyrinthos." It turns up in book 5 of the Aeneid not many lines before the Troia: Aeneas offers to the victor of the boat-race in Sicily a cloak whose hem is decorated, writes Virgil, with a double Meander (Maeandro duplici, 5.25 1). The first Latin dictionary, compiled by a certain Nonius Marcellus in the f ourth century G.E., states that the meander pattern is "a kind of design similar to the labyrinth." (24) This link between the two motifs was known to Renaissance humanists; Erasmus, in his adage "Labyrinthus," refers to the Meander in terms that suggest the ornamental pattern. (25) 'The labyrinth designs published by Sebastiano Serlio are adorned with a meander pattern. (26) In the nineteenth century, John Ruskin would again make the connection in his Fors Clavigera. (27) The meander pattern in its most familiar form reduces the recursus, the motif of reversed direction, to its simplest possible shape; it is nothing more than a line that repeatedly and systematically turns back before continuing forward.

The iconographic relationship between the Meander and the labyrinth may or may not have been present in Ovid's mind when he wrote the Metamorphoses. But when he wanted to describe Daedalus's Cretan labyrinth in book 8 of that poem, he chose to evoke it chiefly by means of a simile describing the winding of the Meander river.

[Daedalus] confused the usual passages and deceived the eye by a conflicting maze of divers winding paths. Just as the watery Maeander plays in the Phrygian fields, flows back and forth in doubtful course and, turning back on itself, beholds its own waves coming on their way, and sends its uncertain waters now towards their source and now towards the open sea: so Daedalus made those innumerable winding passages, and was himself scarce able to find his way back to the place of entry. (1.416-19) (28)

Ovid describes the Daedalian labyrinth by describing the river that here becomes itself more radically mazelike than a lesser poet could have imagined it. The Meander's flow is bewildering (ambiguo lapsu) because it appears impossible to know in which direction the water moves as it pours backward and forward; with slightly comic confusion, the river sees itself advancing toward its own approaching source. The puzzlement of the victim trapped in the Cretan labyrinth becomes the confusion of the river uncertain which way to approach the sea. The river is said to be playing (ludit), and Ovid's language captures its ludic dimension, but the playfulness is hard to separate out from the potential nightmare of the labyrinth. Here the cursus ... recursus we know are replaced by the aquatic refluitque fluitque, the confused direction of the flow being reflected in the reversal of the order we would expect to govern these two verbs.

Ovid's language suggests an analogy here, which it would be irresponsible to ignore. The confusion of end and beginning in the flow of the Meander not only resembles the back-and-forth of the labyrinth's sinuosities but the alternating swings of the geranos between left and right, death and life. More generally, labyrinth performances tend to evoke this kind of confusion in the act of exorcizing it. Like the mazy convolutions of the Meander, labyrinth performances lack the center of the unicursal labyrinth or the Cretan multicursal labyrinth; they institute instead a controlled confusion whose essence lies in an interflow where source and goal are indistinguishable. We will meet this interflow again; I propose to call it "the Meander effect." This effect can be said to extend to other realms the choreographic patterns we have been following.

The two features of the labyrinth performances that have repeatedly emerged -- the cursus/recursus sequence and the formation/disturbance sequence -- both share a common element that could be described as an alternation between affirmation and negation. In view of the Theseus myth, this alternation presents itself most plausibly in biological terms, that is to say in the cycle of death and life. It could also be read in moral terms as a cycle of achievement and failure. Logically, it could be read as an alternation of clarity and confusion. Plato, in fact, describes in passing a Meander effect in the process of reasoning, and compares it to the confusion of a labyrinth:

It seemed like falling into a labyrinth; we thought we were at the finish, but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning, and just as far from that which we were seeking at first. (Euthydemus 291b)

At a certain level of abstraction, the Meander effect could be read metaphysically as an alternation of being and non-being. An analysis of the poetry of labyrinth dances below will suggest a semiotic alternation.

Not only does retro-progression frustrate all progress toward a goal, but its peril can also be perceived as distorting all the straight Aristotelean lines by which our western culture has taught us to organize our lives: the line from beginning to end, from desire to fruition, from cause to effect, from past to future, from parent to child, from creator to creation, from sign to meaning, from life to death. The peril of reversals, which can be described as the Meander effect in malo, diverts and entangles these lines, thus rendering explicit a half-conscious fear that human experience is indeed an entanglement of lines, of progressions, of sequences, we had been led to expect to remain distinct. The Meander effect will reveal itself as ubiquitous in the materials that concern us.

As for the Meander river itself, it would seem predictable that a reference to it should appear in Dorat's evocation of the Ballet des Polonais, as we have seen it does, along with the military metaphor, the labyrinth, the Troia, dolphins, and cranes. Whether or not the ballet resembled the labyrinth dances and carousels of antiquity, Dorat perceived a resemblance or wanted his readers to perceive one. But his text is not so important in itself to justify a demonstration of the weight of classical allusion that almost buries it. It only acquires importance when it is recognized that Dorat's former pupil Ronsard drew upon his mentor's Latin verses and, through them, upon the classical texts they echo. Dorat's description of a ballet does nor have great intrinsic importance, but we will see that it served as a hinge-text, transmitting a cluster of motifs to a greater poet. It also sheds light on the choreography of Beaujoyeulx, to whose masterwork we now must turn.


A year after the Polish ambassadors were entertained by a ballet in 1573, the king of Poland had fled his throne there and had become King Henri III of France. Seven years after that (1581), Henri decided to marry his favorite Anne d'Arques, Duc de Joyeuse, to his wife's sister, and the celebration of this wedding led to a series of costly festivities. Among those called upon to contribute their talent to the ruinous display of royal favor was the choreographer of the Ballet des Polonais, Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, who devised for the occasion Le Balet Comique de la Royne, doubtless the grandest and most elaborate of all court ballets in France during the sixteenth century. For this magnificent spectacle we possess a precious volume written by the choreographer who was also the inventor of the narrative, a volume containing a detailed account of the entire performance, complete with music and illustrations (see fig. 4). What in this account most concerns us here is the description of the final "grand balet" th at concluded the performance.

Ce fut lors que les violons changerent de son and se prindrent a sonner l'entree du grand Balet, compose de quinze passages, disposez de telle facon qu'a la fin du passage toutes tournoyent tousjours la face vers le Roy: devant la majeste duquel estans arrivees, danserent le grand Balet a quarante passages ou figures Geometriques: & icelles toutes justes & considerees en leur diametre, tantost en quarre, & ores en rond, & de plusieurs & diverse facons, & aussi en triangle, accompagne de quelque autre petit quarre, & autres petites figures. Lesquelles figures n'estoyent si tost marquees par les douze Naiades, vestues de blanc ... que les quatre Dryades habillees de verd ne les veinssent rompre: de sorte que l'une finissant, l'autre soudain prenoit son commencement. A la moitie de ce Balet se feit une chaine, composee de quatre enrelacemens differents l'un de l'autre, tellement qu'a les voir on eust dit que c'estoit une bataille rangee, si bien l'ordre y estoit garde, & si destrement chacun s'estudioit observer son rang and cadence; de maniere que chacun creut qu'Archimede n'eust peu mieux entendre les proportions Geometiques, que ces princesses & dames les pratiquoyent en ce Baler. (29)

The close of this passage suggests how certain dances could be regarded as quadrivial, as belonging to that cluster of rigorous disciplines that included both geometry and music. (30) But the major impression of the description is of a brilliant series of successive geometric patterns always dissolving before another reforms, like the patterns in the Ballet des Polonais. This first-hand evidence of a choreography based on interrupted patterns is valuable because it provides unmistakable historical proof that the interruptions present in the Roman Troia were perpetuated in Renaissance France. There is reason to believe that Beaujoyeulx possessed some learning; two of the four complimentary poems published with his account pay tribute to his erudition and to his perpetuation of ancient dance. (31) It is reasonable to assume that he was familiar with relevant Greek and Latin writing on dance, including a major text yet to be mentioned, Lucian's De saltu.

Only slightly less clear is the association of his conceptions with that Daedalian labyrinth Virgil had explicitly associated with the Troia and, more significantly, Dorat had associated with the Ballet des Polonais. Beaujoyeulx would certainly have known Dorat's "Chorea nympharum" describing his own dance, and it is probable that he believed, if he did not inspire, the connections it drew between his choreography and ancient legend. The evidence suggests that the retour and the repeated interruption of geometric figures in his ballets were understood to represent somehow the confusing evolutions of the Cretan labyrinth. (32) What is apparently unusual in this series of interrupted patterns is the separate roles assigned to the interrupters (the Dryads) and the interrupted (the Naiads), each group responding to the other alternatively in a kind of Meander effect. We can also note that the analogy with the pitched battle (bataille rangee) inherited from Virgil is pointed out by the choreographer, as it had bee n by Dorat. Here the analogy is suggested by four different "entrelacemens" during which the dancers formed a chain. This phrase in itself is insufficient to represent exactly what happened, but it recalls suggestively the "rows crisscrossing rows" of Homer. At the midpoint of the dance, these "entrelacemens" replaced for a period the formation and break-up of geometric patterns. We cannot of course assume that the formal ballets of the Valois court resembled closely the equestrian carousels of antiquity, and still less the geranos, but we can note the strong likelihood of a performative tradition dependent on the virtuosic bewilderment of the beholders' eyes by abrupt and dazzling transitions.

Another artist was also called upon for the Joyeux festivities, Pierre de Ronsard, and it is of considerable interest that in his case he wrote a "Cartel" for an equestrian carousel that was apparently performed. A cartel was literally a challenge by an armed knight or group of knights to any wishing to do battle, but it had become in the Valois court a highly artificial poetic and ceremonial sub-genre, as Ronsard's example demonstrates. This particular text was one of several he produced for court occasions during his career, and it is noteworthy because it preserves, in addition to the military metaphor, a reference to Virgil's Troia and to the familiar images of the labyrinth, the Meander, the crane, and the dolphin.


Ces nouveaux Chevaliers par moy vous font entendre

Que leurs premiers ayeuls furent fils de Meandre,

A qui le fleuve apprit a tourner leurs chevaux

Comme il tourne & se vire & se plie en ses eaux.

Pyrrhe en celle facon sur le tombeau d'Achille

Feit une danse armee: & aux bords de Sicile

Enee en decorant son pere de tournois,

Feit sauter les Troyens au branle du harnois,

Ou les jeunes enfans en cent mille manieres

Meslerent les replis de leurs courses guerrieres.


Tantost vous les voirrez a courbettes danser,

Tantost se reculer, s'approcher, s'avancer,

S'escarter, s'esloigner, se serrer, se rejoindre

D'une pointe allongee, & tantost d'une moindre,

Contrefaisant la guerre au semblant d'une paix,

Croizez, entrelassez de droit & de biais,

Tantost en forme ronde, & tantost en caree,

Ainsi qu'un Labyrinth, dont la trace esgaree

Nous abuse les pas en ses divers chemins.

Ainsi qu'on voit danser en la mer les Dauphins,

Ainsi qu'on voit voler par le travers des nues

En diverses facons tine troupe de Grues. (33)

The concluding lines explain that the troop of knights has come to the court of Henri to render his people as docile as their horses are to the bridle. This is minor Ronsard, which fails to capture the magical and ritualistic dimensions of its ancient sources. It does, however, provide evidence, if any were needed, that the poet was familiar with his mentor's account of the Ballet des Polonais. The thousand reversals ("mille recursus") of that text are multiplied here in the "cent mule manieres . . . [de] replis" of lines 9-10, the sinuosities described by Virgil's young Trojans and imitated here. The Pyrrhic dance alluded to in line 5 is commonly supposed to have been a military dance performed by men and boys in armor and featuring high leaps, but we recall that Apuleius speaks of its "graceful mazes."

Above all, this cartel shows Ronsard's inveterate ability to match sound to sense, signifier to signified. That ability is already present in the fourth line, "Comme il tourne & se vire & se plie en ses eaux," where the accumulation of verbs meaning almost the same thing suggests a doubling back close to the verbal original that in its Meander effect is analogous to the doubling back of the river. This twisting and winding movement will then be expanded and detailed in the series of verbs beginning with "danser" below, where the surprising and resourceful display of ever new patterns and figures in the carousel is imitated by the darting progression of parallel linguistic expressions mirroring or creating the flow of performative designs. Ronsard's verse leaves the reader's perplexed eye faltering behind a series of elaborate evolutions drawn out longer than Virgil's, as the language acts out the interlacing bewilderments of the drill. The crucial word is tantost with its fivefold repetitions, corresponding t o Dorat's nunc and communicating the provisional and evanescent duration of each formation, punctuating the single long sentence whose sinuosity imitates its subject.

The editors of the Pleiade Ronsard (Ronsard, 1993) note that this "Cartel" presents many similarities, "nombreuses analogies," with one of his sonnets to Helene, as indeed it does; (34) the sonnet looks backward at the same history of labyrinth-performances. The sonnet was published in 1577, four years after the Ballet des Polonais and four years before the wedding that occasioned the cartel. At the heart of the textual labyrinth we have ourselves entered one might choose to place this radiant and mysterious poem. (35)

Le soir qu'Amour vous fist en la salle descendre

Pour danser d'artifice un beau ballet d'Amour,

Vos yeux, bien qu'il fust nuict, ramenerent le jour,

Tant ils sceurent d'esclairs par la place repandre.

5 Le ballet fut divin, qui se souloit reprendre,

Se rompre, se refaire, et tour dessus retour

Se mesler, s'escarter, se tourner a l'entour,

Contre-imitant le cours du fleuve de Meandre:

Ores il estoit rond, ores long, or' estroit,

10 Or en poincte, en triangle, en la facon qu'on voit

L'escadron de la Grue evitant la froidure.

Je faux, tu ne dansois, mais ton pied voletoit

Sur le haut de la terre: aussi ton corps s'estost

Transforme pour ce soir en divine nature. (36)

Here the Meander reappears along with the crane (grue). There also reappears the suggestion that within the performance, each given choreographic figure finds itself quickly replaced by another. This is precisely the suggestion of the repeated adverb "or[es]." The particular ballet evoked in the sonnet may or may not ever have been performed in historical reality, but we are surely authorized to assume that Ronsard's description conforms to some court ballets he had witnessed.

The sonnet records what is presented as a transformational experience, an encounter through dance with the transcendent. This is implied first in the double reference to the god "Amour" and then in line 5 ("Le ballet fut divin"); it is confirmed in the closing line, where the participle "transforme" leads to the oxymoron that ends the poem: "divine nature." The shift from the customary "vous" in line 1 to the reverent "tu" of line 12, the pronoun addressed to the deity, underscores the transfiguration. But there is no precise clarification of this process or this divinity, both of which presumably have to be located in the choreographic movements that occupy the center of the poem. What we find in that evocative series of evolutions is the familiar motif of the recursus, here present in the central phrase of line 6: "tour dessus retour." That phrase serves as a kind of umbrella for all the movements that follow, as each shape is formed by the corps de ballet only to turn away from itself toward a new emergent shape, doubling back as it were in a Meander effect to undo what has just been done. Whatever is transformational in the performance depicted must have something to do with that element of the reversal, the retour, and with the constantly interrupted succession of formations -- two devices whose age as elements of the performative vocabulary we are in a position to measure. The syntax of the first two lines offers an example of the Meander effect, since the subject-object relationship of line 1 ("Amour vous fist") is reversed chiastically in line 2 when Amour becomes the object of Helene's dance. As a linguistic structure, the sonnet acquires the artifice of the performance mentioned in that second line: "Pour danser d'artifice un beau ballet d'Amour." The ballet is beautiful apparently because it is in the old good sense "artificial," skillful, artful, elegant, and these qualities are then exemplified in the twinings, turnarounds, sinuosities, and geometrical figures, the evanescent formations through which Helene moves with her companions.

The presence of the cranes, like the presence of the Meander, can be taken to represent Ronsard's effort to establish the tradition in which he was conscious of working, the tradition of the labyrinth dance. He had no way of knowing that the reading of geranos as crane-dance was mistaken and so did the best he could with it, remembering with Dorat the way cranes in flight form geometric designs. He adds on his own the little phrase "evitant la froidure," conjuring up by contrast the warmth and light of this room, this nocturnal salle, which enjoys a particular brilliance from the rays emitted by Helene's eyes. (37) Ronsard would have been aware that the Meander and crane topoi linked his text with ancient texts in which dancing had a clearly defined ritualistic character.

Clearly the sonnet takes its place in a series of texts whose origins are traceable back to Homer and the myth of Theseus. Indeed, so dense is the repetition of the key motifs in the texts we have considered that they can be represented by a diagram.

The common factor in the poetic texts representing performative evolutions is their evident attempt to dramatize motion verbally. Ronsard's sonnet is simply the most effective in suggesting the engagement of his language in the action it evokes; this engagement is particularly interesting and subtle in the admirable musicality of lines 5-11, those lines which describe the ballet most directly. Ronsard matches the dancers' elegant, shifting evolutions with the corresponding insinuations of a linguistic ballet. Nor the least effective device is the masterful use of internal echo and rhyme, limited precisely to those lines devoted to the dancers' movements:

...tour dessus retour

Se mesler, s'escarter, se tourner a l'entour,

Contre-imitant le cours du fleuve de Meandre.

Ores il esroit rond, ores long, or' estroit,

Or' en poincte, en triangle, en la facon qu'on voit

L'escadron de la Grue...

In this interwoven texture of sound, the interweaving of bodily movement finds its proper analogue.

The sonnet is luminous, literally luminous, but it doesn't lack obscurity. How are we to understand the agency of Amour in bringing Helene down to the hall (line 1)? In what sense is this performance a "ballet d'Amour," as line 2 asserts? Part of the mystery lies in these questions. The figures formed by the dancers can in no obvious way be said to suggest the god of love. In what sense is the performance "divin," as it is said to be in line 5? The adjective might appear to be formulaic if the close of the sonnet did not return to the assertion. How is the reader to understand the transcendent character and transformative force of the ballet as well as its basis in Eros? The sonnet, unlike the "Cartel," invites the reader to look for signs in the evolutions of the dance, for notas of the same kind Dorat attributed to the Ballet des Polonais.

If, in fact, the reader turns to the context of Ronsard's entire poetic canon, and then to the still wider context of his cultural world, he or she may well conclude that the images of the sonnet are over-determined, that they lend themselves to more than one plausible interpretation depending on which available cluster of concepts is brought to bear upon them. Indeed, once all the relevant texts, traditions, and ideas are focussed on what I shall call the ballet sonnet, the danger arises of its collapse under the weight of potential exegesis. Happily, its inherent dynamism suffices to ensure its survival. The resonance of its poetic language deepens as the circle of significance around it is filled in.


Before attempting to reach any final reading of the over-determined meanings in Ronsard's sonnet, it would be advisable to consider any conceivable links -- they are certainly suggestive and tantalizing -- between ballets at the Valois court and the labyrinth dances or rituals or games of the medieval era. (The Latin sources refer both to saltatio and ludus.) These were apparently performed on Easter at sundown around some of the unicursal labyrinths marked out on the pavements of many medieval churches and cathedrals (fig. 5). (38) The extant documentation is fullest at the cathedral of Auxerre (whose labyrinth has since been destroyed). A sixteenth-century document records what had been the annual ritual since at least as early as 1396:

Having received the pilota [a leather ball] from the newest canon, the dean, or someone in his place, in former times wearing an amice on his head and the other clergy likewise, began antiphonally the sequence appropriate for the feast of Easter, Victimae paschali laudes. Then taking the ball in his left hand, he danced to the meter of the sequence as it was sung, while the others, joining hands, danced around the maze. And all the while the pilota was delivered or thrown by the dean alternately to each and every one of the dancers whenever they whirled into view. There was sport, and the meter of the dance was set by the organ. Following this dance, the singing of the sequence and the dancing having concluded, the chorus proceeded to a meal. (39)

This account is provocative but it raises many questions. How are we to understand the relationship of the four elements: the hymn, the ball, the dance movements, and the labyrinth? The hymn, which was composed by a certain Wipo and which is extant, celebrates Christ's victory over sin and death through his crucifixion and resurrection. The joining of hands by the clerics at the circumference of the circle was characteristic of the age-old round dance, although it remains undear how a given dancer could then catch the pilota and return it to the dean.

But what for our purposes is the central question, the role of the labyrinth in the ritual, is clarified not at all by the Auxerre document. When it states that the clerics danced around (circum) the maze, does this mean that they remained at the circumference and moved in a traditional round-dance or rather that they actually passed along the windings of the labyrinth? Hermann Kern and Craig Wright believe that the dean must have moved through the windings, first out and then back, while the ball was thrown and the singing continued, but Wright acknowledges that the document does not specifically state this. Penelope Doob leaves open the question whether it was the dean who trod the labyrinth or the members of the chapter. But of course it remains possible, on the basis of the description we possess, that nobody trod it. It should be noted that the presence of labyrinth patterns in Christian churches long antedates any records of dancing around them. Mosaic labyrinths could be found in African churches alrea dy during the Patristic period, and in Italy as early as the tenth century. Some of these were located on walls. Thus we have no reason to suppose that these, whatever their function, were first created as sites for the Easter ritual. Their purpose in fact remains essentially a mystery. One frequent assumption, that they were placed there as "pilgrimage" sites for the faithful to trace on their knees, may be justified by developments during the later Middle Ages in France, since one name for the pavement designs was "chemins de Jerusalem." But this hypothesis leaves mysterious the function of the smaller examples or of those placed vertically.

In any case, on the basis of what is now known, we have no right to assume that the labyrinth mosaics were first designed specifically for the kind of ritual performed at Auxerre and possibly elsewhere. This means in turn that the labyrinth need not have been an essential part of the ritual; it may simply have been a convenient place for it. Wright points out that round-dances at Easter were performed in various places early in Christian history without benefit of labyrinths. And, of course, a round-dance is not a labyrinth dance. A document from Chartres dated 1609 describes Easter dances at the high altar but fails to mention the labyrinth that existed on the cathedral pavement. (40)

The author of this document does, however, interpret the dance as appropriate to the wonder and doubt of the patriarchs when Christ appeared to them during the harrowing of Hell. This association might then be linked in turn to an early Christian typological analogy between the harrowing and Theseus's entry into the labyrinth, an analogy in which the minotaur would become the Devil. A labyrinth in Lucca cathedral and another in the church of San Michele at Pavia place These us attacking the Minotaur at the center. (41) Doob links the ball, perhaps the most disconcerting element in the ritual, with the two balls given Theseus by Ariadne -- one a ball of thread, the other a ball of pitch to stuff in the Minotaur's mouth (126). In this interpretation of the Easter ritual, the pilota would derive from Ariadne's ball of pitch. The dance at Auxerre, which was sometimes criticized as unseemly, was evidently performed with high spirits. A ludic dimension of the "ritual" is by no means to be excluded. (42) Still, like the geranos, this ludus must have been in some sense a victory dance -- in both cases evidently a celebration of a triumph over death.

Wipo's hymn evokes the "gloriam resurgentis," and it weaves a verbal garland where life and death seem almost inextricably entwined in a Meander effect but where in this case life predominates: "Death and life struggled in a wondrous war. The dead prince of life reigns alive." (43) If one accepts as probable the conflation of the Theseus story with the Auxerre Easter ritual, then its performance on the site of the pavement-maze does become a relevant element, whether or not anyone actually trod the maze design. Through coincidence or through the long, intermittently visible persistence of iconographic tradition, the medieval maze-dance dramatized the supremacy of life in the face of death, just as the geranos dancers, their arms also linked, danced toward death and back again toward life, and just as Virgil's Troia responded to the death of a patriarch with a vibrant epiphany of youth. The Easter dance could be said to have translated into a Christian symbolic vocabulary what Karl Kerenyi, analyzing the geran os, called "the endlessness of life in mortality." (44)


This theme may well have been perpetuated in the ballets of the Valois court. Before returning to Ronsard, we can glimpse it in the Balet Comique de La Royne. Frances Yates, developing and refining contemporaneous commentaries, reached the following interpretation of the Grand Ballet at its conclusion:

The dance of the nymphs represents the two eternities, the eternity of matter and the eternity of spirit. On the one hand the figures of the dance, constantly forming, breaking, and re-forming in a new figure, are the endless succession of birth and death in the transmutation of the elements and the passage of the seasons. On the other hand these geometrical figures stand for the eternal truths, reached by the spiritual side of man through moral choice and the right direction of desire. (1947, 249)

Let us bracket provisionally the "eternity of spirit" in this passage. Yates professes to derive her interpretation of the "eternity of matter" from the commentary by Conti to the Balet Comique (as distinct from his explication of the Cretan maze in his Mythologiae), but in fact it represents a conflation of three commentaries, one of them by Conti, all printed as appendices in the original livret of 1581. Nonetheless, what she writes about "the eternity of matter" is close enough to Conti's stress on the perpetual mutation of the four elements, and on his view that Circe in the ballet represents that process whereby "la corruption d'une chose, est la generation de l'autre qui renaist, mais non pas en sa premiere forme." (45)

Beaujoyeulx had created in Circe the principal antagonist in his choreographic narrative. As in Homer, she is an enchantress capable of turning men into beasts, and she explicitly associates herself with the principle of change on earth. Seule cause je suis de tout ce changement / Qui suit de rang en rang, de moment en moment. (25v) (46)

During most of the ballet she reigns supreme, and it is only at the close that an alliance of gods and personified virtues succeeds in storming her castle and dragging her to the feet of the figure seated in direct opposition to her at the opposite end of the rectangular hall, King Henri III, the supposed embodiment of earthly and heavenly stability: What was problematic for Conti and the other interpreters, as it still was for Yates, was the apparent restoration of Circe to vigor and power in the Grand Ballet, which does indeed visibly dramatize an endless renewal of changeful being. In the Grand Ballet, Circe is alive and well.

Beaujoyeulx, it would appear, wanted to have his moral both ways. He wanted to assert the supposedly unshakable dominion of the royal principle while still dramatizing "the endlessness of life in mortality (see note 44)." The affirmation of change as a positive governing force in the cosmos is given to no less a personage than Jupiter, whose epiphanic descent from the ceiling of the hall marks the definitive turn of events against Circe and leads to her capture. Jupiter in fact describes himself as a kind of superior Circe:

Tout ce qui vit de corps & sentiment

Suiet tousiours a divers changement,

En un estat durable ne demeure:

La liaison s'en corrompt & desfait

Et sans perir par apres se refait,

Et prent de moy une vie meilleure (52r) (47)

What distinguishes Jupiter from Circe evidently is the better life deriving from the changes over which he presides. The perennial succession of mutable and mortal creatures here acquires his Olympian dignity, and it is clearly this succession that the Grand Ballet acts out with energy and brilliance.

The pitched battle, the "bataille rangee," of the interlacings at the middle of the ballet would then become another choreographic means of displaying the endless Lucretian struggle of life and death.

What is beginning to emerge from the various texts considered here is a precarious continuity through the millennia of meanings attached to public group dances whose choreographic movements were themselves only partially continuous. Even if the dance figures varied, it would appear that a set of sublime significations was assigned to them that received the cultural imprint of each successive historical world but tended to remain within recognizably stable parameters. The meanings, insofar as we can determine them, appear to have designated a world that was in Spenser's phrase "eterne in mutability," governed by the effort of life to persist in spire of death. What is remarkable is that the meanings themselves, if not "eterne", recurred despite cultural mutability. This tentative conclusion will need a good deal of qualification below, but first it needs further support from the poetry of Ronsard.

The one belief that suffuses all of Ronsard's writing and that can be taken as profoundly characteristic is a faith in a cosmic energy; which pervades all things. This is the energy that guides the celestial bodies, that animates the natural world, that produces sexual desire, and that inspires the divine breath of poetry, when poetry is divine. Ancient texts existed to authorize this belief, notably by Virgil, (48) but Ronsard would have used these only to support his own deeply personal intuition. In his poetry the world energy, depending on the poetic context and the mood of the poet, may be represented as moral or amoral, and it may be derived from Amour, Dieu, le Ciel, l'Eternite, Jupiter, Venus, Bacchus, or la Paix, among other mythic or pseudo-mythic sources. Often the names are virtually interchangeable, but the intuition remains firm.

The intuition however did not lack pathos; it included a sensitivity to the inevitable decline and failure of energy in all living things. Toward the close of Ronsard's career, as his own vitality ebbed and the life of the French nation seemed to be disintegrating into chaos, many of his poems reflected a pathos of advancing lifelessness. But already early in his career an Ovidian metaphysic of perennial life enduring only through individual deaths emerges clearly. (49) Typically he expresses both a resignation to and celebration of the continuity that endures in the midst of death. If specific living forms fade and die, matter remains constant: "La matiere demeure et la forme se perd" ("Contre les bucherons"). (50) That metaphysic underlies the lines written for Amour at a court intermede:

Je tourne et change et renverse et desfais

Ce que je veux, et puis je le refais...

("Pour le Trophee d'Amour, a la comedie," 19-20) (51)

and again those addressed to Bacchus:

Toujours un sans estre un, qui te fais et desfais

Qui meurs de jour en jour, et si ne meurs jamais.

("Hymne de Bacchus," 275-76) (52)

When in the ballet sonnet we observe the making and unmaking of forms, that process which occupies the entire duration of the performance, it would be perverse not to recognize the ballet of life and death that constituted for the poet the essential rhythm of earthly existence. The repetition with a difference of the key verbs in both the cited passages ("desfais...refais"; "te fais et desfais") might be described as a rhetorical equivalent of the choreographic "tours et retours" we have met so often; it acts out a verbal doubling back of the kind they describe in the hall.

Thus the intuition of cosmic energy that underlay Ronsard's view of the world had a tragic dimension, since it assumed the inevitable demise of individual beings, who are succeeded by the newborn. Time is continuously changing one form into another, and in this change the life-principle can be located. The workings of life-giving change are the basis of the celebration of Death in the hymn addressed to that quasi-divinity.

Que ta puissance (o Mort) est grande & admirable!

Rien au monde par toy ne se dit perdurable:

Mais tout ainsi que l'onde a-val des ruisseaux fuit

Le pressant coulement de l'autre qui la suit,

Ainsi le temps se coulle, et le present faict place

Au futur importun qui les talons luy trace.

Ce qui fut se refaict: tout coulle comme une eau,

Et rien dessous le Ciel ne se void de nouveau:

Mais la forme se change en une autre nouvelle,

Et ce changement-la, Vivre au monde s'appelle,

Et Mourir, quand la forme en une autre s'en va.

Moyen de r'animer par longs et divers changes

Ainsi avec Venus la Nature trouva

(La matiere restant) tout cela que tu manges.

("Hymne de la Mort," 319-32) (53)

In this formulation, the distinction between life and death becomes minimal, since both partake of the flux of mortal existence, flowing like the Ovidian stream whose drops pass and are eternally replaced. Thus is the mystery of Bacchus explained: "toujours un sans estre un, qui te fais et desfais." Just as in Ovid's description of the Meander river, which finds its source as it approaches its end, so we can recognize here another profounder version of the Meander effect, in which life and death lead into each other and become virtually indistinguishable. The conception owes a good deal to book 15 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, where the stress is negative, but it can also be found in Renaissance Neoplatonism, where the stress is positive.

In this way everything that changes in body and soul is preserved, not because it remains absolutely the same -- that is the privilege only of divine beings -- but because what wastes away and disappears leaves behind something new, similar to itself. It is surely through this remedy that mortal things are made similar to the immortal. (54)

In both Ovid and Ficino (and in Ficino's source in Plato, Symposium 207de), the dissolution of form is the occasion of recreation, which then invites its fatal metamorphosis. The ballet of Ronsard's sonnet, like the actual ballet choreographed and described by Beaujoyeulx, can be read in malo as a tragic representation of universal mutability; dramatizing the vulnerability and brevity of form, or can be read in bono as an affirmation of the perdurability of form, perennially emerging, familiar but changed, out of a chaotic void.

The reading in bono would have received powerful authorization for many sixteenth-century writers in France from the thought of Plotinus, whose Enneads had become available after their Latin translation by Ficino. For Plotinus, the variability and brevity of individual lives are necessary for the permanence of the living cosmos in its perennial dance. One cannot expect completeness from the individual organism but rather from the whole.

The rise of all these forms of being, their destruction, and their modification, whether to their loss or gain, all goes to the fulfillment of the natural unhindered life of that one living being: for it was not possible for the single thing to be as if it stood alone; the final purpose could not serve to that only end, intent upon the partial: the concern must be for the whole to which each item is member;...nor could anything remain utterly without modification if the All is to be durable; for the permanence of an All demands varying forms. (4:4, 32)

The variability of individual items within the harmonious whole is likened by Plotinus to a ballet in which each dancer performs his own part within the organized dance-movement. Each dancer, intent on his own gestures, cannot understand the governing plan. So it is with the universe:

Every several configuration within the Circuit must be accompanied by a change in the position and condition of things subordinate to it, which thus by their varied rhythmic movement make up one total dance-play. (4:4, 33)

Life and death within this Plotinian scheme contribute to the cosmic ballet.

As noted above, Karl Kerenyi, in a monograph devoted to worldwide labyrinth phenomena, understood the geranos dance on Delos as a performative celebration of the continuity of life in spite of mortality. Kerenyi's conclusion can be related to the assumption reached by some scholars -- that in certain archaic societies, entrance into the labyrinth, attainment of the center, and reemergence constituted an initiation rite entailing a ritual death and rebirth. (55) But in the Valois labyrinth dances we have been considering, this classic ethnographic sequence has been telescoped to the point of overlapping: there is no definitive irreversible rebirth, no consummation, but rather a continuous spiral of foreplay, an endless series of forming and deforming. The Valois dances do, however, in their own way conform to Kerenyi's formula; they do appear to act out implicitly the persistence of life in the presence of death. By refusing the permanence of dissolution, by insisting on the perpetual recasting of a design, ma gically defying the destructive forces of time and nature, they do offer a brave counterpart to the terror of the labyrinth experience understood in malo.


In view of the appeal exercised on Ronsard's imagination by his profound intuition of Ovidian flux, one is compelled to recognize its presence in the tours and destours of his ballet-sonnet. But this recognition still leaves the reader of the sonnet with unanswered questions, not least concerning the role of Amour, whose ballet it is that, the poet tells us, Helene and her companions perform. Having discerned a metaphysical meaning dramatized by the sonnet, we must now make room for another complementary meaning, which reaches out beyond life on earth to the limits of the universe.

A grammarian of the fourth century C.E., Marius Victorinus, had suggested an alternative interpretation for the geranos danced by Theseus and his companions; it may possibly not have been intended to recall the windings of the Cretan labyrinth, wrote Marius, but rather the movements of the heavenly bodies.

They say that Theseus taught this measure in sacred songs when he discharged his vows after killing the Minotaur, imitating the confused and twisting path of the labyrinth with those boys and girls with whom he escaped, singing hymns first in one circuit, then in the opposite direction, which is to say strophe and antistrophe. Others say that men imitated with this chanting of sacred hymns the harmonious movement of the cosmos. For in this chant the five stars which are called errant, together with the sun and moon (as the most learned philosophers inform us), produce the sweetest sounds with their shining spheres. Analogously the chorus [of Theseus], imitating the harmony and movement of the cosmos, first stepped three paces to the right, because the heavens revolve to the right from east to west; then the chorus stepped back to the left, because the sun and moon and the other errant stars, which the Greeks call "planers," move to the left from west to east. In the third phase they sang standing in place, be cause the earth remains stationary in the center of the universe as the heavens circle about it. (56)

Marius is attempting here to explain the tripartite structure of the classical ode in reference to the motions of heavenly bodies, using as a bridge the legendary dance. His reference to "others" (alii) who have already advanced this argument is vague, but we do find the idea expressed by an anonymous ancient scholiast commenting on the choral dancers in Euripides's Hecuba. (57) This passage by Marius does at any rate offer a second hermeneutic approach to the geranos which, like the dramatization of the life cycle, can properly be called sublime. In effect the dance imposes on the cosmos an order that the cosmos fails to display in itself, since some bodies were perceived to move in one direction and others contrariwise. The reversals of the dance can be observed as part of a larger order the dancers are performing, and thus by extension the cosmos can be seen to be orderly as well. (58)

This text by Marius Victorinus was not forgotten in the early modern period. Pontus de Tyard, writing in 1557, revises its ideas in a way that makes his indebtedness clear (103). A treatise by the Italian acrobat Arcangelo Tuccaro, published in 1599 in Paris, appears to echo it. (59) A later work by the Jesuit Claude Francois Menestrier, Des Ballets ancients et modernes, published in 1682, cites the above passage from Marius and refers to him by name. If, as seems likely, it was known to Dorat, Ronsard, and Beaujoyeulx, its link between the geranos and the heavenly circles would have been easily absorbed. In the case of Ronsard, the poet's interest in Orphic doctrines would have facilitated the absorption. Although it is now clear that the anonymous Orphic Hymns and the Orphic epic Argonautica were composed at some point in the early centuries of the common era, most Renaissance readers assigned them far earlier and more prestigious origins.

Orphism appears at the very opening of the ballet sonnet in a pair of signals inviting interpretation, both having to do with the god of love. First there is the indication that Helene is brought down, presumably from her chamber, to the dance floor by the god, who is thus the originator or instigator of the whole performance. Second there is the indication that the ballet is about him; it's a "beau ballet d'Amour," despite the absence from the ballet of anything directly referable to him. Why should he choose to bring about this particular performance, and in what sense might it be said to represent him?

The answers to these questions would be familiar to a student of the Orphic tradition in Renaissance thought -- and here we are in a position to revise Yates's phrase "eternity of spirit." It was Love, according to Orphic doctrine, that first brought order out of chaos at the creation of the cosmos and that set in motion the dance of celestial bodies. This primal act appears in more than one text by Ronsard, for example in the intermede already quoted above.

Je suis Amour le grand maistre des Dieux,

Je suis celuy qui fait mouvoir les Cieux,

Je suis celuy qui gouverne le monde,

Qui, le premier hors de la masse eclos

Donnay lumiere & fendi ie Chaos,

Dont fut basti ceste machine ronde.

("Pour le Trophee d'Amour, a la comedie" 1-6) (60)

These lines are based on the Orphic doctrine, drawing on Hesiod but diverging from him, that in the cosmogonic act of overcoming Chaos and ordering the movements of the celestial spheres, Eros-Amor-Amour initiated the perennial ballet of the universe, which he still governs. (61)

That the movements of the celestial bodies constitute a dance was in itself a familiar idea during the Renaissance, and it became a frequent topos in Ronsard's poetry. The "Ode Michel de l'Hospital" texts refers to "la courbe trace / Des feux qui dancent par les Cieux" (359-60) (62), and the "Ode de la Paix" refers to "le bal des estoilles roulantes" (60. 3:6). (63) This idea was authorized by Plato in the Timaeus.

Vain would be the attempt to tell all the figures of [the heavenly bodies] circling as in dance, and their juxtapositions, and the return of them in their revolutions upon themselves, and their approximations, and to say which of these deities in their conjunctions meet, and which of them are in opposition, and in what order they get behind and before one another, and when they are severally eclipsed to our sight and again reappear. (40c) (64)

We can note in passing the resemblance of Plato's cosmic dance to a labyrinth dance. Ronsard may have been thinking of Plato when he wrote, in his "Hymne de la Philsophie," that it

A sceu comment tout le firmament dance,

Et comme Dieu le guide la cadance,

A sceu les corps de ce grand Univers,

Qui vont dancant de droit, ou de travers...

(87-90) (65)

The belief that this celestial dance corresponded to human dances, that it underlay them and formed their most profound rationale, had been stated in an important passage by Lucian.

Those historians of dancing who are the most veracious can tell you that Dance came into being contemporaneously with the primal origin of the universe, making her appearance together with Love -- the Love that is age-old. In fact, the concord of the heavenly spheres, the interlacing of the errant planets with the fixed stars, their rhythmic agreement and timed harmony, are proofs that Dance was primordial. (5:221)

Lucian's conception, which was an Orphic conception, of the primordial and foundational character of dance, coeval with Love and governed by it, was widely shared in the early modern period; it would influence such Neoplatonic texts as Leone Ebreo's "Dialoghi d'Amore"; (66) it reappeared in the hymns of the Greco-Latin poet Marullus, much imitated by Ronsard; (67) in England it helped to inspire the splendid poem "Orchestra" by Sir John Davies; we will encounter it again in the masques of Ben Jonson. It also expands immensely, of course, the meaning of Helene's participation in a "ballet d'Amour," She and her companions were imitating the movements of those heavenly bodies first set in motion by Love.

It may now be clear why the metaphysical meanings of Ronsard's ballet sonnet could be said to be over-determined. The choreography described in the sonnet, with its ever-interrupted and ever-renewed geometric patterns, lends itself to interpretations that stress the renewal of life in the face of death. But the choreography can also be read, asks to be read, in the Orphic terms its mythology suggests, as suggesting that the dancers are imitating the cosmic dance of the heavenly bodies. These were conceptions present in ancient and Renaissance culture that demonstrably appealed to the poet and to which he frequently paid homage. Another way to put this is to say that Amour for Ronsard was both the Orphic Creator and the power ensuring the perdurability of things subject to mutability The ballet in the sonnet, perhaps confusingly, has to be understood as the reflection of both aspects of the god: it acts out the order of the cosmos and a different order of the sublunary world.

This dual conception of Amour is altogether explicit in a privileged passage within Ronsard's poetry, the hymn to Amour by the bard Terpin in the second book of La Franciade. That poem has been little read over the centuries, having been nearly disowned and certainly abandoned by its author, but it represented nonetheless a serious effort of his poetic vision, and at its high point, the prayer sung by Terpin introducing a ritual dance at a festive banquet, it deserves serious attention. Even an abbreviated version can represent its fervor:

Dieu (disoit-il) qui tiens l'arc en la main,

960 Fils de Venus, hoste du sang humain,

Qui dans les cueurs, tes royaumes, habites,...

Pere germeux de naissance, & qui fais

Comme il te plaist les guerres & la paix,

Prince invaincu, nourricier de ce monde,

970 Qui du Chaos la caverne profonde

Ouvris premier, &, paroissant arme

De traits de feu, Phanete fus nomme:...

O grand demon, grand maistre, ecoute moy....

Vien allumer noz cueurs de ton ardeur

985 De ceste danse echauffe le courage.

Sans toi n'est rien la pointe de nostre age,

Faveur, honneur, abondance de bien,

Force de corps sans ta grace n'est rien,

Ny la beaute;: & mesmes notre vie

990 Est une mort, si de toy n'est suivie,

Ensemble Dieu profitable & nuisant.

Vien doncq icy comme un astre luisant,

Donner lumiere si belle enterprise

Et ceste feste heureuse favorise. (68)

The hymn is addressed to the Orphic god who first founded the universe, and who is also the god of life, "germeux de naissance," source of war and peace, source both of profit and pain, source of death if he sheds his grace, but otherwise source of life. (69) The Orphic provenance of this Amour is direct; the name "Phanete" (972) is taken directly from the Orphic epic Argonautica (line 15). This is the god who brings about the ballet in the sonnet, that ballet which in turn is dedicated to him. It is no accident that in La Franciade Terpin's hymn is sung as an introduction to a communal dance (985); Amour is invited to enliven the hearts of the dancers with his ardor and to "donner lumiere," to illuminate it with his radiance, just as in the ballet sonnet Helene illuminates the hall with her eyes. Neoplatonic doctrine identified beauty with light. (70) It seems to me altogether likely that Ronsard truly believed in some divine principle such as the one invoked here, squaring it as best he could with his Chris tian allegiance.

This intuition of a divine dynamism joining heaven and earth, man and nature, informed Ronsard's poetry throughout his career. It led him to turn away ultimately from the Neoplatonism that he nonetheless made use of when he chose, because his deepest faith veered toward pantheism. "Dieu est par tout, par tout se mesle Dieu," (15:39) he wrote, and this immanent Dieu is indistinguishable from that transcendent force he elsewhere called "Amour." This is why the phrase that closes the ballet sonnet, "divine nature," is not truly oxymoronic, since it refers to the induction into the body of Helene of that elan in a heightened form that gives her life. The act of dancing has induced the presence of cosmic vitality into her body and into those around her as she dances the movements of the cosmos, thus imitating and repeating the primordial creation by Amour. (71) Amour has ordained the dance that not only embodies and makes visible his power, already immanent in the world, but which transfers it to the dancers.


This transference would become the goal of the Balet Comique de la Royne. There, as Beaujoyeulx's livret makes clear, the music composed by his colleague Lambert de Beaulieu was intended to resemble the music of the spheres. While some auditors formed fanciful ideas about Beaulieu's music, writes the choreographer, "d'aultres plus instruits en la discipline Platonique, l'estimerent estre la vraye harmonie du ciel, de laquelle toutes les choses qui sont en estre, sont conservees & maintenues" (5v). (72) This clearly was the view the reader is invited to adopt. A prefatory poem in the volume by a certain Volusian praises it for "Demonstrant du ciel azure / L'accord par un effect mystique" (Illustrating mystically the harmony of the azure heaven). From this conception it is only a step to the understanding that the Balet Comique was intended to heal the deep political and religious fissures of contemporaneous France by inducing magically that ordering heavenly harmony down to earth. (73)

Such an idea would have been familiar to Beaujoyeulx, as it was to Ronsard, through the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino. Ficino's magic was based on the doctrine that certain figures (figurae) enjoyed a sympathy with a given heavenly body, and could be used to attract its influence down to this world. The term figurae designated a number of different aspects of human experience; it could refer, among other things, to talismans, to facial expressions, to music, and to dance. Song, Ficino wrote, has potential magical power through its capacity to imitate, to attract, and to transfer, and this power he would extend to dance as well.

Remember that song is a most powerful imitator of all things. It imitates the intentions and passions of the soul as well as words; it represents also people's physical gestures, motions, and actions as well as their characters and imitates all these and acts them out so forcibly that it immediately provokes both the singer and the audience to imitate and act out the same things. By the same power, when it imitates the celestials, it also wonderfully arouses our spirits upwards to the celestial influence and the celestial influence downwards to our spirit. ... Song ... casts [power] into the singer and from him into the nearby listener. (74)

Song can not only induce our spirits to rise to heaven but can draw heavenly power to earth and confer it on those near the singer. Song, and more broadly music, can do this in part because of its quadrivial character, its concern with proper proportions (331). Music can thus be thought of as spatialized in patterns of points and lines. Through its capacity for becoming a figure, it contains the same potency as a talisman, also designed from points and lines, a potency to recreate the heavenly power on earth and to transfer it to others.

An image, if it is in other respects entirely consonant with the heavens, once it has received by art [arte] a figure similar to the heavens, both conceives in itself the celestial gift and gives it again to someone who is in the vicinity or wearing it. (333)

There can be no doubt that Ficino includes the figures of dance among the other magical figurae created by art, for he says so explicitly when referring to music, "with which rank and power we wish to associate gestures of the body, dancing, and ritual movements" ("gestus corporis saltusque et tripudia," (363)). The little phrase "by art" needs emphasis. The kind of magical attraction and transference Ficino is talking about is something achieved by a trained artist or adept initiated into the hermetic secrets of his craft. Ronsard makes a point of saying that the ballet described in his sonnet is performed artfully, "d'artifice," and it is permissible to link that artifice with the divinity he attributes to the performance.

In view of Ficino's emphasis on the quadrivial character of music in its magical function, we should not be surprised that the Balet Comique employed geometric figures, as had earlier dances. Beaujoyeulux's allusion to "Archimede" in his account of the Grand Ballet was echoed by the author of another prefatory poem, a certain Billard; the creator of the work, he wrote, was a "parangon d'Archimede." The quadrivial arts would assist the ballet in attracting the celestial harmony its music was said to resemble in order that human affairs could once again enjoy stability and order. So Ronsard perceived the dance he describes as having successfully attracted Divine Love into the palace: "Le ballet fut divin." (75)

There remains one more thing to be said about the interactions between magic and the Valois dances, or even between magic and all traditional communal public dance. A contemporary theoretician of dance has analyzed the theurgical implications of mimetic dance:

As uttering the name of a god compels its presence, as a god's likeness captures its sacredness, so making a god's or an animal's proper motions bring it within one's power. This is especially true in dancelike bodily motion insofar as that transports one into a special mode of being: in performing an action organized in a dance way, one's sense of becoming something special is induced, and in mimetic dance it must be as if one became what one danced. And magical action, which is especially emphatic action, would lend itself more than most action to embellishment of the sort that constitutes dancelikeness. (76)

These theurgical implications were already present, as we've seen, in the thought of Ficino, and would have gained more force in his view because Divine Love in itself possessed magical power through its network of universal sympathies binding the universe together.

Why do we consider Love to be a mage? Because all the power of magic resides in Love. The role of magic is the attraction of one thing to another through their natural affinity. (77)

The faith in a link between human dancing and the celestial dance that goes back to Plato and Lucian, among others, may have presupposed an element of magic that was not only imitative but corrective. It may have responded to an uneasy doubt that the universe was in fact as orderly as humans wanted it to be, and indeed the passage quoted above from the Timaeus does leave room for a capricious and unpredictable dance pattern followed by the heavenly bodies. Plato even speaks of them making a recursus, doubling back on themselves, and in this admission lie the seeds of doubt that they are governed at all. The capricious motions in the heavens are hard to reconcile with that perfect harmony of the spheres that produces sublime but unheard music. Why does the Primum Mobile appear to move in a direction (east to west) contrary to the sun, moon, and planets, which move west to east? 'Where is the real starting point? 'Which is cursus and which recursus? 'Why is there a Meander effect in heaven itself? The problem t roubled many early modern thinkers, one of them John Donne, who was disturbed by the contradictory and perverse discontinuity of astronomical movement. Dancing from this perspective might then be perceived to offer a kind of cosmic reassurance or even insurance. Dancing acts out an order that becomes available for the cosmos; it maintains an order, perpetuates, or even induces an order that ensures by magical correspondence the pervasive concord of all things. And if the dance finds a way to incorporate the turn, the doubling back, in its sinuous windings and interlacings, then this is all the more reassuring; it suggests that the apparent confusion in the sky can be accommodated within a larger, more intricate design.


It is unclear whether Ben Jonson knew well the continental precedents when he and his collaborators prepared their long series of court masques. (78) But there is internal evidence to suggest that several of the dances within his masques exhibited mazelike movements. In one of them, The Masque of Beauty, a maze design occupied the center of the performance space. In another, Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, the masquers' movements are stated explicitly to figure a labyrinth. A third, Love's Triumph through Callipolis, assigns a labyrinth dance to its anti-masquers. This continuity with French court ballet is confirmed by Jonson's repeated allusions in his verse and notes to Orphic cosmogony.

Jonson could have found this cosmogony, as well as maze dances and analogies with the Meander river, in Sir John Davies' poem Orchestra. In that poem again Divine Love creates the universe by inducing the elements to enter into a dance.

Dancing, bright lady, then began to be

When the first seeds whereof the world did spring,

The fire air earth and water, did agree

By Love's persuasion, nature's mighty king,

To leave their first discorded combating

And in a dance such measure to observe

As all the world their motion should preserve.

Since when they still are carried in a round,

And changing come one in another's place;

Yet do they neither mingle nor confound,

But every one doth keep the bounded space

Wherein the dance doth bid it turn or trace.

This wondrous miracle did Love devise,

For dancing is love's proper exercise. (79)

Jonson affected to dislike Davies' epigrams (see Jonson's Epigram 18), but we have no reason to think he disliked the sprightly and charming "Orchestra." He did not in any case affect to dislike Spenser, whether or not he writ no language. Spenser's cosmogony in the "Hymne in Honour of Love" told at greater length the same Orphic and Neoplatonic story (lines 50-98). Both poems were published in 1596. nine years before the performance of Jonson's first masque in 1605.

This was The Masque of Blackness. It is worth noting that two of Jonson's marginal notes to this work refer the reader to poems by the supposed "Orpheus," both to the Hymns and the Argonautica. (80) Jonson clearly had read in the original Greek these somewhat mysterious syncretic texts, apocryphally assigned to "Orpheus." He would make heavy use of them in his Masque of Beauty (1608), which served as a kind of sequel to Blackness.

In the later work, the central songs that provide a kind of metaphysical underpinning to the stage action describe again the creation of the universe by Love.

When Love at first did move

From out of chaos, brightened

So was the world, and lightened

As now!...


Jonson's note to these lines cites the name "Phanes" attributed to Eros by "Orpheus," a name we have already met in Terpin's Orphic hymn in La Franciade. (81) 'What is of special interest to us is that these lines were sung by performers who were simultaneously treading a maze. To grasp the spatial relations here one needs to consult Jonson's lengthy stage directions describing an elaborate Throne of Beauty and its surroundings, set upon an island, which moves toward the supposed mainland after the masquers placed upon it have been "discovered":

On the sides of the throne were curious and elegant arbors appointed.... The ground-plot of the whole was a subtle indented maze.... In the arbors were placed the musicians, who represented the shades of the old poets, and were attired in a priestlike habit of crimson and purple, with laurel garlands. (203, 207-11)

The priestlike poet-musicians were apparendy both instrumentalists and vocalists, as well as servants of Love and Beauty. The ritual assigned them was to tread the maze before the Throne, eventually approaching the spectators more closely, while singing their hymn to Love.

The musicians, which were placed in the arbors, came forth through the mazes to the other land, singing this full song. (232-33)

What did this maze mean to Jonson? It may not have meant what it did to Ronsard, the complex order of the celestial bodies, but rather the disorder of that chaos from which, as the musicians' song reminds us, Love moved. Later the masquers performed "a curious dance full of excellent device and change, end[ing] ... in the figure of a diamond, and so, standing still, were by the musicians with a second song...celebrated" (261-63).

So beauty on the waters stood

When Love had severed earth from flood!

So when he parted air from fire

He did with concord all inspire!

And then a motion he them taught...


Beauty stood as the masquers and musicians now stand, the latter having completed their emergence from the maze of chaos. The motion taught by Love was of course the dance performed by the elements as by the celestial bodies.

The standing, mentioned both in song and stage direction, has to be related to an earlier direction. Together the two passages reveal that Jonson had read Marius Victorinus or, less probably, another source like Tuccaro, dependent on Marius. It would not be surprising if Jonson was particularly struck by the grammarian's idea that the geranos imitated the threefold pattern of celestial motions and that both of these corresponded to the strophe, antistrophe, and epode of the classical ode. When Jonson chose to organize his Cary/Morison Ode with the same structure, he translated the Greek terms suggestively as "The Turn," "The Counterturn," and "The Stand." Thus the standing in The Masque of Beautie had been preceded by a double movement of the Throne of Beauty:

This throne, as the whole island moved forward on the water, had a circular motion of its own, imitating that which we call motum mundi, from the east to the west, or the right to the left side. The steps whereon the Cupids sat had a motion contrary, with analogy ad motum planetarum, from the west to the east; both which turned with their several lights. (218-22)

These motions had been the two celestial processions identified by Marius Victorinus with the strophe and antistrophe of the ode, as well as with the circling and doubling back by Theseus and his companions in their dance on Delos. (82) We can assume that the dances performed by the masquers were intended by jonson and the choreographer, Thomas Giles, to correspond in some way to the geranos. The "most curious dance full of excellent device and change, end[ing]... in the figure of a diamond" (261-62) sounds not unlike the Grand Ballet described by Beau) oyeulx. The second dance of the masquers was more subtle and full of change than the former" (273-74). It isn't easy to understand what "change" means here unless it refers to the interruptions of geometric figures followed by new reformations, the succession we have already met on the continent. Toward the end of the evening the masquers "danced a third most elegant and curious dance, and nor to be described again by any art but that of their own footing" (31 3-14). The word "curious," used twice to describe the dances meant, among other things, elaborate, intricate, strange, ingenious. It was the word Davies had used in a significant line, referring to dance: "For of Love's maze it is the curious plot" (339). Whatever in fact these dances looked like, their descriptions would not be ill-fitting to a Jacobean reconstruction of the ancient Delian ritual. The imitation of celestial bodies is made explicit in the final song of the night, this also sung apparently by the same musicianpriests:

Still turn, and imitate the heaven

In motion swift and even,

And as his planets go,

Your brighter lights do so.


The ritual underlying the court entertainment consisted of a magical induction downward of "the world's soul, true harmony" (312). (83) Jonson may not have believed in the effectiveness of his ritual; he may or may not even have communicated it to the queen or to his colleagues. Still, it must have mattered to him.

The Masque of Beauty calls for one last comment, in view of the succession of maze dances in which it takes its place. Davies had included in "Orchestra" a suggestion that rivers on earth could be thought to "observe a dance in their wild wandering" and then went on to devote a stanza to the Meander.

Of all their ways, I love Meander's path,

Which, to the tunes of dying swans, doth dance

Such winding sleights. Such turns and tricks he bath,

Such creeks, such wrenches, and such dalliance,

That, whether it be hap or heedless chance,

In his indented course and wriggling play

He seems to dance a perfect cunning hay.


The Masque of Beauty transforms the Meander into the Thames, placing it on stage in a personage played by the choreographer Giles. The Thames is addressed by the personified east wind, Vulturnus:

Rise, aged Thames, and by the hand

Receive these nymphs within the land;

And in those curious squares and rounds

Wherewith thou slow'st betwixt the grounds

Of fruitful Kent and Essex fair,

That lend thee garlands for thy hair,

Instruct their silver feet to treat,

Whilst we again to sea are fled


The Thames is enjoined to "instruct" the feet of the masquers to imitate his own meandering "curious squares and rounds," and indeed what follows is precisely the "most curious dance full of excellent device and change."

The word "curious" recurs in many later masques to evoke the dances they contained. One in The Masque of Queens is "curious and full of excellent and subtile changes" (490). One in The Vision of Delight contains "curious knots and mazes." A knot, as the Oxford editors show, was itself a maze; it was a term frequently used for garden labyrinths. (84) A passage in another masque, Love Restored, which attributes the final dance to Love ("This motion was of love begot") links its recursus to the heavenly spheres:

Have men beheld the Graces dance,

Or seen the upper orbs to move?

So did these turn, return, advance,

Drawn back by doubt, put on by love.


The evidence we have is not conclusive, but it suggests that the ballets performed by the masquers in Jonson's masques frequently, or even commonly, followed maze-like evolutions. The reference in Mercury Vindicated to "winding ways and arts" (186) would appear to have been directly applicable to the movements of the noble performers.

Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, which for some readers represents the summit of Jonson's masque-writing, shifts its focus away from the metaphysical implications of its predecessors toward the ethical. But this is the masque where the labyrinthine character of the dancing is stated most explicitly. Here the three principal dances by the male masquers are guided and given definition by an actor called Daedalus, who explains that the first of the three acts out the labyrinth of human life.

Come on, come on; and where you go,

So interweave the curious knot,

As even the observer scarce may know

Which lines are Pleasure's and which not....

Then, as all actions of mankind

Art but a labyrinth or maze,

So let your dances be entwined,

Yet not perplex men unto gaze.

(224-27, 232-35)

This makes clear that the "curious knot" called for in so many masques was indeed a maze-form. The equation of human experience with a labyrinth may be indebted to a passage from Conti's Mythologiae that we will meet below. The second dance as interpreted by Daedalus represented the labyrinth of beauty and the third was "the subtlest maze of all, that's love" (271). "Subtlest" here evidently means the most intricate, and we can use this evidence retrospectively to understand the meaning of the word "subtle" in other masques where it describes the dancing. The entwining of the masquers should not, advises Daedalus, be so very confusing as to "perplex" the spectators, but this very warning suggests that something close to an agreeable perplexity was the result. (85)

Are we given a quasi-magical interpretation to this ritual? The virtuous masquers, who included the future Charles I, have been ushered down by Mercury from the hill of knowledge and at the close are led back up its steep slope, having temporarily permitted themselves a moment of pleasure. Once back on the hill, Mercury tells them, they must advance

With labor, and inhabit still

That height and crown

From whence you ever may look down

Upon triumphed Chance.


"Triumphed" is a Latinism. Charles and his companions can look down from the "crown" upon contingency overcome. How precisely overcome? We have seen that the maze in Beauty represented the original Chaos out of which Love made the world. One has to assume here that the deft and skillful passage through the symbolic labyrinth has rendered the masquers impervious to accident. A reader may allow himself to observe that, historically, this would nor be Charles's privilege.

The presence of a maze in an early masque, Beauty (1608), and in a second from Jonson's middle period, Pleasure Reconciled (1618), would be balanced by a third in the late masque Love's Triumph through Callipolis (1631). There the anti-masque is performed by twelve "depraved lovers, who neither knew the name or nature of Love rightly, yet boasted themselves his followers" (20-22). The masque opened with their labyrinthine grotesqueries and then dismisses them: All which, in varied, intricate turns and involved mazes expressed, make the antimasque, and conclude the exit in a circle. (42-44)

This is not, however, the last we hear of mazes in the masque, nor is it a repudiation of the metaphor of love as labyrinth. That metaphor will be explicitly adopted by the chorus, which, having purified the place with censers, celebrates the expulsion of the false lovers.

No loves, but slaves to sense,

Mere cattle, and not men.

Sound, sound, and treble all our joys again,

Who had the power and virtue to remove

Such monsters from the labyrinth of love.


We are invited to understand that the intricate mazes of the anti-masque caricatured the authentic labyrinthine windings of amatory experience. The depraved lovers represent twelve pathological versions of that experience, which is nonetheless not to be simplified. Still, at a later moment, Queen Mary is praised by Euphemus and Amphitrire for her regularizing of the triumphal space:

E: The center of proportion --

A: Sweetness --

E: Grace!

A: Deign to receive all lines of love in one.

E: And by reflecting of them fill this space.

Chorus: Till it a circle of those glories prove Fit to be sought in beauty, found by Love.

The queen is placed metaphorically at the center of a circle where all the radii point to her. She, at least is free from the windings of the labyrinth. Her ordering of "the true sphere of Love" (126) after the buffoonish intrusions of the depraved lovers will then be compared, perhaps predictably, to the Familiar Orphic cosmogony: "So Love, emergent out of chaos, brought I the world to light!" (135-36). Here in this late Caroline masque, Jonson is still projecting upon the performance space the metaphysical shapes of his moral imagination.

If one considers Jonson's masques as a set, the evidence suggests that the maze dancing of Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue was not confined to that single work, but recurred frequently, whoever was the choreographer. The diamond pattern formed by the masquers in Beautie indicates that the influence of continental geometric ballet made itself felt. Traces of similar dances in masques composed by other poets, if any exist, are rare. In Jonson, the precise meaning of the maze tended to shift from one masque to another, but he repeatedly used it, as had his ancient and Renaissance predecessors, to evoke metaphysical and moral realities. The magical aspiration to induce something sublime makes itself felt repeatedly. Jonson as scholar seems to have known something of the tradition in which he was working; as artist, he expanded further its range of suggestivity.


In book 5 of Milton's Paradise Lost, the angels in heaven perform a labyrinth dance, which is said to resemble the movements of celestial bodies.

That day, as other solem dayes, they spent

In song and dance about the sacred Hill,

620 Mystical dance, which yonder starrie Spheare

Of Planets and of fixt in all her Wheeles

Resembles nearest, mazes intricate,

Eccentric, intervolv'd, yet regular

Then most, when most irregular they seem:

625 And in thir motions harmonie Divine

So smooths her charming tones, that Gods own ear

List'ns delighted.


This performance is limited to "solem days," suggesting that even for a famously anti-ceremonial poet, a sacred occasion can acquire a ritual character. And although the reader is first led to see in the dance a kind of angelic recreation, pursued purely for seraphic pleasure, the closing lines quoted reveal that there is in fact a supreme Spectator. In its context, immediately preceding as it does the account of Satan's revolt, the performance is faintly overshadowed with dramatic foreboding. Its very intricate perfection emerges as slightly vulnerable in the light of what follows, and this dramatic shadowing confers on the dance a certain crystalline purity, a pre-lapsarian innocence to be recalled nostalgically. Milton might have hoped that his readers would contrast the pleasures of these intricate but precise mazes with the plight of the fallen angels who, wrestling perplexedly with ideas of freedom and foreknowledge, "found no end, in wand'ring mazes lost" (2.561).

The passage in book 5 is notable for its recognition that the motions of celestial bodies are ostensibly irregular, so that the angelic dance in its windings and eccentricities could be said to imitate their apparent disorder, demonstrating perhaps with its underlying but elusive regularity the elusive order of a universe not easily grasped. The syntactic function of the very word "mazes" (622) is uncertain, since it could stand in apposition either to "dance" or to "Wheeles," referring either to the angelic evolutions or to the astronomic movements they imitate. In any case, Milton's language as he describes the dance in lines 620-24 becomes noticeably more intricate and intervolved than usual; the syntax seems to imitate the angelic indirections in its twisted irregularity, and this grammatical crabbedness is then under-scored by the contrasting sweet regularity of the last two and a half lines (625-27), which turn from the convolutions of the dance to the charming tones of harmony divine. The verbal crabbe dness, like the choreographic irregularity; turns out to make the harmony more engaging in the long run, more interesting in its celestial sinuosities. Milton thus takes his place at the end of the series of writers we have met whose language tries to act out the physical movements it evokes.

Milton leaves the word "mystical" (620) unexplained, although its context invites the reader to make a connection both with the ritual occasion and the astronomic imitation. It is a word, of course, that might be applied with more or less justice to most if not all the labyrinth dances preceding this one, and it is tempting to privilege Milton's usage of this word in order to illuminate retrospectively the long, intermittent, heterogeneous series whose conclusion he was here effectively punctuating. But is it actually possible to reach any plausible conclusions about this group of performances as a set -- despite their separation in space and across vast stretches of time, despite also the disparity in the actual choreographic patterns? The ballets of the Renaissance courts, whose participants may never have touched one another, did not closely resemble the geranos, whose dancers moved in lines with their hands or arms linked or connected by a rope. The recursus and the visual confusion were apparently the on ly continuous choreographic elements. What kind of semiotic continuity is conceivable in so much performative and cultural diversity?

There is one element still present in Milton that does in fact run through most of the diversity, the note sounded when we hear that God the Father watched and listened "delighted." That delight or an even stronger emotion is a constant in the accounts we've been considering, and in itself the delight is slightly mysterious. But if one were to grasp fully its significance, one might even come to understand better the "mystical" character of the performances. It would at any rate seem appropriate to attribute joy to Theseus and his companions on Delos as they performed their victory dance; joy is certainly what one feels in the historical evocation by Callimachus. The "rapturous" joy of the Iliad is shared both by dancers and spectators. The same emotion would be felt with equal intensity by the spec tators of Virgil's Troia; there may be no happier moment anywhere in the Aeneid. The ritual game at Auxerre was clearly saturated with the joy of Christ's resurrection as expressed in Wipo's hymn, and we know that it was played with high spirits by the clerics gathered around the labyrinth in the cathedral nave. The delight Brantome felt as he watched the Ballet des Polonais becomes a kind of marveling awe in Ronsard's ballet sonnet. The complimentary verses prefacing the printed Balet Comique de la Royne may be considered suspect, but for the record they too reflect analogous reactions. Davies' praise of dance as a "wondrous miracle" would be confirmed by the masquers at the Jacobean court; the account of the one eye-witness we have to Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, the Venetian observer, is full of the buoyant admiration which Jonson's Daedalus in that work seems to invite. Thus nothing is more characteristic of the tradition than the response of Milton's God the Father to the intricate mazes traced before him with angelic skill.

One may well ask what is the cause of this reliably consistent element in such various texts. What is it that underlies this upwelling of allegresse on so many different occasions? The answer to this question has something to do clearly with the virtuosity of the dancers. With the exception of the ludus at Auxerre, about which we know little, the skill of the performers is implicit or explicit in all the accounts we possess. One gathers from Brantome that the other spectators of the Ballet de Polonais were as dazzled as he was, and not least by the memory of the dancers who never forgot their steps throughout the hour-long spectacle. This was what most impressed the Venetian observer of Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue, whose dispatch praised the "ballo allestito con straordinario studio" of the masque.(86) This virtuosity which might seem on occasion almost superhuman (or angelic), seems to lie at the root of the overflowing joy the labyrinth dance triggered. The superhuman mastery, in turn, seems to have been felt to be symbolic: it could be taken to represent the superioriry of human skill to the traps of contingency. The most revealing phrase for understanding the delight of the labyrinth dance may well be Ben Jonson's "triumphed chance." To tread flawlessly and religiously the windings of a maze would be to overcome all that it stood for.

What exactly are we to understand that it stood for? Angus Fletcher has analyzed brilliantly the terror of the labyrinth.

In the Cretan maze Theseus suffers a vertiginous loss of clarity as to what 'forward' means; to go 'forward,' he must keep reversing his direction, that is, he must go backward. The tighter the arcs as he approaches the center, the more frequent will be this enforced 'undoing' of the idea of forward motion. We might label this process 'the peril of reversing convolutions. (87)

The joy of the labyrinth dance seems to correspond to the overcoming of peril. That this experience could be extended beyond the design of the literal maze to the tangles and puzzles of human experience has been suggested by many writers, ancient and modern. One finds it in Seneca, who anticipated Fletcher.

Although the sum and substance of the happy life is unalloyed freedom from care,...yet men gather together that which causes worry, and, while traveling life's treacherous road, not only have burdens to bear, but even draw burdens to themselves; hence they recede farther and farther from the achievement of that which they seek, and the more effort they expend, the more they hinder themselves and are set back. This is what happens when you hurry through a maze; the faster you go, the worse you are entangled. (88)

In the sixteenth century, the mythographer Natale Conti would also find a moral significance in the Cretan maze.

They [the ancients] wished to signify through this labyrinth nothing other than the confusion of human life and its entanglement in many troubles, since still more serious troubles are always growing from earlier ones; from these no one can disentangle himself without possessing unusual prudence and fortitude. (89)

The dances that have concerned us here would appear to have dramatized a freedom from the entanglements and confusions of human experience. To tread a series of choreographic recursus could be felt to show one's control over the negative existential recursus. To reform a group pattern after an earlier pattern had been undone could be felt to show our superiority to accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth recalls the vulnerability of humans to confusion, but the balletic mastery of labyrinthine evolutions declares the possibility of human control. However bewildering, the balletic intricacy has been designed; everyone follows a plan, which is by definition a plan under control; the dance acts out a victory of the brilliant unicursal over the entrapments of the multicursal. Thus the irregularity is reassuring and healing. If the multicursal labyrinth had been misnamed during the Middle Ages as labor intus, inner travail, (90) by the kind of false etymology that plagued this tradition, the performance of a compl icated labyrinth design was calculated to free the performer from travail. The multicursal bewilderment could always be transformed into a unicursal progress. And if in the Renaissance a magical capability was attributed to dancing (or re-attributed), this addition could only heighten the intensity of the emotions. If the dance was understood to imitate the circling of celestial bodies, or to correct their irregularities, this imitation would only assist further the realization of a liberated human power.

To point to this continuity is not, of course, to minimize the variability of local cultural interpretation. The wine pitcher of Tragliatella introduces the theme of fertility. Ascanius's foundation rite at Alba Longa sounds apotropaic. In Ronsard the astronomic interpretation is apparently superimposed upon an Ovidian one. The vast stretch of cultural history just surveyed does not permit the simplicity of a single and definitive umbrella concept. But one might hazard the conclusion that the long series of choreographic jubilation we have followed, insofar as it has a central meaning, seems to stem from an inspired and transcendent humanism. Thus Jonson's Masque of Beauty celebrates a human re-enactment of a primordial divine creative fiat.

It would be irresponsible, moreover, to ignore the recurrent theme of death we have met -- death as a presence in the continuity of life and an abiding threat to life. When Theseus brought a likeness of Aphrodite to Delos, the likeness celebrated by Callimachus, it was as a talisman of fertility and regeneration against the fate he and his companions had just evaded. The theme of death would recur on Virgil's Sicily, at Auxerre, and at the Louvre, always to be confronted with human vitality. Even the Easter hymn sung at Auxerre praised the victory of a unique human being in his duel with death. The theories of Kerenyi and Santarcangeli, associating labyrinths with initiatory experiences of death and rebirth, if accepted, serve only to intensify and complicate the meaning of the choreographic euphoria. The most suggestive of the dances might be said to attain a kind of tragic joy.


There remains a final consideration, which is more properly the concern of literary criticism and which the passage quoted from Milton well illustrates. This is the predictable effort of the language evoking the dance to capture its specificity. It was already present in the "tours, contours et destours" of Brantome's prose, just as it is in Paradise Lost. The rhetorical methods vary from text to text, but no text resists the temptation to mirror action with words. It is as though the language wants to be, tries to be, an allegory of the physical movement.

Perhaps the most exquisite example of this effort, and its most useful illustration, remains the ballet sonnet of Ronsard (quoted above). There the incipient allegorization is altogether explicit. The poetry in its fluidity is reaching out to become a ballet, attempting to incorporate itself in its subject. It is true that this pressure of the phonic to become semantic could arguably be attributed to all poetry. That pressure may well help to define the essence of poetry, wherein the sound, the signifier, is always becoming inextricable from the sense, the signified. The goal of all poetry is a Cratylan identification that refutes the familiar Saussurean distinction. In poetry the signifier and the signified acquire a unique receptivity vis-a-vis each other.(91) Ronsard's sonnet, in its evident will to cross over the Saussurean divide, would then be a particularly visible example of a law governing the entire poetic enterprise.

One could, of course, suggest that the unifying pressure can be felt in two directions. This duality may be an example of that Meander effect which was defined above as an interfiow in which source and goal are indistinguishable. If the poem can be read as an allegory of the ballet, the ballet can also be read as an allegory of the poem. A trope (tropos) after all was originally perceived as a verbal turning. Perhaps the poet has projected the sinuosiries of his verse upon an external and fictive event, which performs his verbal mastery. Perhaps the source and goal are inextricably conflated in an endless recursus. If Davies wrote that rhetoric is a kind of dance, Arbeau had written that dance is a kind of rhetoric.(92) Just as the agency at the opening of the sonnet becomes circular, with Amour and Helene changing places chiastically as subject and object, so perhaps this poem, like all poems, creates an endless cycle of projection and reception, a two-way system of representation in which the language is al ways to some degree creating versions of itself in order to declare itself. The Meander effect in the sonnet, whose dance imitates the cycle of death and life, shows how the sound dies into its meaning as the meaning dies into the sound, spiraling toward absolute unity. If the unity were ever to be attained, if sound and sense became not simply indissoluble but identical, then the poem could be said to substitute for the spiral of foreplay a mors osculi. At that point of stillness, the unity Plato's Cratylus dreamed of would exist for a moment, and the Meander would stop flowing.

These considerations doubtless exceed the proper scope of this article. But perhaps they are defensible as corresponding to the sweep of the material before us. What we cannot doubt in surveying all the relevant history is the pressure upon the labyrinth dance to mean something. The original purposes of the labyrinth design itself, first incised on stone in the Paleolithic era, may never be fathomed. But the formal rhythmic treading of the design seems always to have been felt at an intuitive level to be "mystical," to be charged with some profound significance. The choreographic sign, "eterne in mutability" was perceived to imitate, if it did not induce, something sublime. The labyrinth dance itself winds down through history like a meander, returning and reforming itself, seeming to disappear and then doubling back in a recursus with vibrant life.

(1.) These "strands" will be limited to France and England. I have found no fully developed labyrinth dances in Renaissance Italy.

(2.) Brantome, 5:59. "They entered accompanied by a melody played by the violins, and maintaining a pleasing rhythm, they approached and paused before their Majesties, then danced their ballet so curiously designed, with so many turns, swerves, and sinuosities, interlacings and minglings, confrontations and withdrawals, that [it was surprising that] no lady ever failed to be at her appointed turn or place." Translations are mine unless otherwise attributed. On the Ballet des Polonais, see Yates, 1959, 67-72.

(3.) Brantome's stress on the strangeness of the choreography finds negative correlation in French and Italian dance manuals of the period, such as those by Arbeau, Caroso, and Negri. Although the Ballet des Polonais must have drawn to some degree on the contemporaneous vocabulary of dance steps, the manuals offer nothing of its complexity or length. Most of the plentiful examples provided by all three authors concern social, not performative, dancing. The only exception in Arbeau (183-95) is the Bouffons, a mock sword-fight for four dancers. All the examples in Caroso's Nobilta di dame are strictly intended for social dancing. The exception in Negri's Le gratie d'amore, the qual si balla in otto (291-94), requires four shepherds and four nymphs to perform an extended dance whose choreographic vocabulary is drawn from conventional social dancing. Nowhere in the dance manuals of the Renaissance does one find suggestions for performances by female dancers alone numbering as many as sixteen. Although Beaujoyeulx, the choreographer, was a Savoyard and presumably familiar with Italian dance, which was indeed highly influential throughout western Europe at this time, it would appear that his choreography took its inspiration rather from the Academie de Musique et de Poesie (see Yates, 1947).

(4.) This little-known text deserves to be quoted in the original; see appendix.

(5.) An incomplete transcription and translation appear in Franko, 21-23. Both transcription and translation contain errors. Franko's treatment of the Ballet des Polonais on 21-31 of his book is the first extended discussion in English I am aware of and is welcome for this reason, although its emphases diverage from mine. A later chapter by Franko discusses the Balet Comique de la Royne.

(6.) Virgil, 5.749-69. The Latin original of the passage quoted is at 5.588-95.

(7.) Virgil, 5.770-77. Latin text 5.596-603.

(8.) From the extensive literature on labyrinths, I have drawn most heavily from Doob, Kern, Kerenyi, and Santarcangeli. See also Knight, Matthews, Ferrari, and Koerner. Kern's large volume remains the most exhaustive, not to say encyclopedic, study of its subject. It is an iconographic treasure trove, containing hundreds of useful and often fascinating photographs. It remains the point of departure for all labyrinth studies. But some of its speculations are fanciful and not all its conclusions can be accepted with assurance. The earlier sections of Doob's important book are more probing as well as more solid.

(9.) Knight, 73, states that meander patterns were painted on Greek houses as charms to bring luck and that maze dances were performed "to exclude evil influences."

(10.) Kern, 79.

(11.) "Then, too, is the holy image laden with garlands, the famous image of ancient Cypris, whom of old Theseus with the youths established when he was sailing back from Crete. Having escaped the cruel bellowing and the wild son of Pasiphae and the coiled habitation of the crooked labyrinth, about thine altar, 0 lady, they raised the music of the lute and danced the round dance, and Theseus led the choir" (Hymn 4, 307-13). This text substitutes the altar of Aphrodite for that of Apollo mentioned by Plutarch and presumably by Dicaearchus. Its reference to a round dance also fails to accord with their description of the geranos. In this latter respect, it is worth noting that Dicaearchus was slightly older than Callimachus and that his account would be more or less confirmed by Pollux, writing four centuries later.

(12.) The Francois vase, in the Museo Archeologico in Florence, is represented in Kern, 49, and in Lawler, 47.

(13.) Lawler, 48, writes: "As performed by Theseus and his companions in the legend, the geranos [crane-dance] is dearly a winding maze or 'snake dance,' used as a dance of victory."

(14.) Kerenyi 253.

(15.) It is not the purpose of this essay to investigate the primordial meaning(s) of the labyrinth pattern in human culture. But it is necessary to recall, nevertheless, the original purpose of the stupendous Egyptian labyrinth, which Herodotus visited and considered to be a wonder superior to the pyramids (bk. 2, paragraph 148). He records that this structure was first designed to be a necropolis for twelve kings of Egypt. Pliny, who recalls this report, adds that an Etruscan king, Lars Porsenna, had his own labyrinthine necropolis created in imitation of the Egyptian at Clusium. These antecedents may help to explain not only the performance of the Troia during the funeral games for Anchises but the presence of the Cretan labyrinth, sculpted by Daedalus, at the entrance to the Virgilian underworld (Aeneid 6.27-30).

(16.) According to a sixteenth-century authority on dance in France, there was also a dance movement called "la grue," which formed part of the "gaillarde" and involved a leap ending on one foot. See Arbeau, 76.

(17.) See the article "Dancing" in The Oxford Classical Dictionary.

(18.) One of the most recent and most distinguished scholars to defend this association is Detienne. But his ingenious explanation of the relevance of the crane to the dance is not, for this reader, convincing.

(19.) Kern, 44-45, defends the identification of the Homeric dance with the geranos against scholarly skeptics.

(20.) Apuleius 231. The Latin text can be found in the Loeb Library edition, 10:29. It is worth noting that Apuleius's word ambages was the Latin word most often used for the windings and blind alleys of labyrinths. On this word, see Doob, 53-54.

(21.) For a full discussion of this distinction, see Doob, chap. 2.

(22.) Cladian "The Sixth Consulship of Honorius, "2:119-21: "haec etbelligeros exercuit area lusus, / armatos haec saepe choros, certaque vagandi / textas lege fugas inconfusosque recursus ... cernimus ... partitis inde catervis / in varios docto discurritur ordine gyros, / quos neque semiviri Gortynia tecta iuvenci / flumina nec crebro vincant Maeandria flexu" (lines 621-23, 625, 632-35).

(23.) Doob, 25, n.12.

(24.) Nonius Marcellus, s.v. meander. Cited by Doob, 41, n.3. For further discussion of the link between the meander pattern and the labyrinth, see Matthews, 42 ff. Matthews, 43, cites Sir Arthur Evans's conjecture that certain Egyptian "button seals," bearing complex meander designs and produced as early as the VIth Dynasty, "constitute the source of the Labyrinth in Art."

(25.) Erasmus, 2, 10, 51. "Nor unlike this is the use of the meander. A meander was a kind of painted pattern derived from the idea of the labyrinth, such as we still see even today in some pavements" (148).

(26.) Two of these are reproduced in Lazzaro, 52. Tutte l'opere of Serlio were gathered posthumously and published in 1619; he died around 1554.

(27.) Ruskin, 27:400 ff.

(28) Daedlus.../ Ponit opus turbatque notas et lumina flexu / Ducit in errorem variarum ambage viarum. / Non secus ac liquidis Phrygius Maeandrus in undis / Ludit et ambiguo lapsu refluitque fluitque / Occurrensque sibi venturas aspicit undas / Et nunc ad fontes, nunc ad mare versus apertum / Incertas exercet aquas, ita Daedalus implet / Innumeras errore vias; vixque ipse reverti / Ad limen potuit" (8.159-68).

(29.) Beaujoyeulx 1982, 55v-56r. "At this point the violins changed their tone, and began to play the entree of the Grand Ballet. It was composed of fifteen figures, arranged in such a way that at the end of each figure all the ladies turned to face the King. When they had appeared before the King's Majesty they danced the Grand Ballet with forty passages or geometric figures. These were all exact and well-planned in their forms, sometimes square, sometimes round, in several diverse fashions; then in triangles accompanied by a small square, and other small figures. These figures were no sooner formed by the Naiads, dressed ... in white, than the four Dryads, dressed in green, arrived to change the shape, so that as one ended, the other began. At the middle of the Ballet a chain was formed, composed of four inrerlacings, each different from the others, so that to watch them one would say that it was in battle array, so well was order kept, and so cleverly did each dancer keep her place and her cadence. The spe ctators thought that Archimedes could not have understood geometric proportions any better than the princesses and the ladies performed them in this Ballet" (Beaujoyeulx, 1971, 90-91). I have altered slightly this translation by the MacClintocks. All future translations of the Balet Comique will be taken from their volume. On the Balet Comique, see Yates 1947 and 1959, McGowan, Franko, and Greene.

(30.) An earlier dance in the Balet Comique is explicitly associated by its creator with geometry: "At the first passage of the entree there were six abreast in one line across the hall and three in front in a broad triangle, of which the Queen marked the apex, and three others behind her did the same. Then, as the music changed, they also moved in and out among each other, now in one direction, now in another, and then returned to their first position. When they had reached a place near the King, they continued the ballet, now composed of twelve geometrical figures, each different" (55).

(31.) Yates has demonstrated at length the influence on Beaujoyeulx of the Academie de poesie et de musique, which was organized in 1570 by Jean Antoine de Baif and Joachim Thibault de Courville and was intended to restore the rhythms of ancient prosody and music in contemporaneous France. See Yates 1947, especially chapters 3 and 11.

(32.) A case could be made that the labyrinth dances of the Valois court were also related to the dedales or garden-mazes cultivated in France as early as the late medieval period. Nevile argues for "a linking of the choreographic and horticultural expressions of the 'Renaissance mind"' (805 and passim). She points out that the phrase "curious knots and mazes, employed by Ben Jonson to describe dance patterns in his masques, to be discussed below, was also used to describe the patterns used in formal gardens (830).

(33.) Ronsard, 1914, 18.1:110-11, lines 1-10 and 15-26. Quotations from Ronsard will be drawn from this edition. "These newly-arrived knights announce to you through my voice that their earliest ancestors were children of Meander, whose river taught their horses to turn about as it turns and swerves and folds back with its waters. // In the same way Pyrrhus performed an armed dance upon the tomb of Achilles, and on the coast of Sicily Aeneas, honoring his father with tournaments, spurted the Trojans into movement with the swaying of the harness, as their adolescents mingled in a hundred thousand ways the reverses of military maneuvers. . . // Now you will see them dance in curvets, now retreat, approach, advance, separate, withdraw, close ranks, reform with a narrow point, now with a broader one, imitating war in a semblance of peace, crossed and interlaced from the side and from an angle, now in a circle and now in a square, as in a labyrinth, whose wandering path confuses our steps in its various paths. // [They ride] as one sees dolphins dance in the sea, as one sees a flock of cranes fly through the clouds in various patterns."

(34.) Ronsard, 1993, 2:1386.

(35.) On this sonnet, see Fallon and also Quainton.

(36.) Ronsard 1914-1974, 17:2701-14; "The evening when Love had you come down to the hall to perform with art a beautiful ballet of Love, your eyes, in spite of the night, recalled the day, so skillful were they in scattering brilliance through the room.// The ballet was divine, recommencing, separating, reforming, and turn upon turn, mingling, parting, turning back in a wide turn, imitating the flow of the Meander river.// Now it was round, now long, now narrow, now forming a point, now a triangle, as one sees a troop of cranes flying to escape cold weather.// I err, you were not dancing, but your foot hovered above the earth; thus your body was transformed for that evening into divine nature."

(37.) I think that we are to understand from the verb "descendre" in line 1 that in this "salle" the dancers are performing on a level below most of the spectators, who are sitting or standing in galleries above them and thus able to follow without effort the changing configurations beneath. The spectators of highest rank might sit on a bench or dais at one end of the performance space. This is the relationship represented in an illustration contained in Beaujoyeulx's printed description of the Balet comique de la reine (1581), which was performed at the Louvre (fig. 4). A representation of the Ballet des Polonais (fig. 1), which was performed in a pavilion, shows in addition to a gallery some spectators seated or standing in the corners of the performance space.

(38.) Kern, 149-65, supplies a catalogue of these with photographs.

(39.) Wright, 139-40. I am grateful to Professor Wright for having shared his manuscript with me.

(40.) The document is quoted by Wright, 149-50.

(41.) See Kern, 156-58, for photographs and descriptions. The more important example is at Pavia, where the center of the labyrinth measures 75 centimeters and contains a Minotaur represented as a centaur holding a sword over a recumbent human cadaver and attacked by Theseus. A rubric reads: "Theseus intravit monstrumque biforme necavit." Kern interprets the image to represent Christ overcoming the devil.

(42.) This remark is valid for much activity associated with labyrinth designs. Pliny, 36.19, 84, refers to games played by boys with unicursal designs on the Campus Martius. English turf-mazes, of the kind referred to by Titania (see above p. 1-2), were undoubtedly used for games, although their frequent placement near graveyards suggests an apotropaic function as well. A ludic purpose may well also have been present in the labyrinthine stone designs widely scattered over northern Europe, some of which in Scandinavia received the tantalizing name Jungfraudans and in Germany Steintanz. But again in these cases, their almost invariable placement near a sea-coast suggests ulterior purposes.

(43.) Raby, 184-85. "Mors e vita duello / conflixere mirando, / dux vitae mortuus / regnat vivus."

(44.) "Die Unendlichkeit des Lebens in der Sterblichkeit" (164).

(45.) Beaujoyeulx, 1982, 74r; "The corruption of one thing is the generation of another thing formed from it, but not in the first shape" (1971, 99).

(46.) I am the only cause of all this change, which occurs from rank to rank, from moment to moment" (1971, 62).

(47.) "Nothing which has a living body and feelings, subject to many changes, remains in a permanent state. The connections grow corrupt and come unbound, and then later, without dying, are remade and take on from me a better existence" (1971, 86).

(48.) Virgil, 185. "First, then, the sky and lands and sheets of water, I The bright moon's globe, the Titan sun and stars, / Are fed within by Spirit, and a Mind / Infused through all the members of the world I Makes one great living body of the mass" (Latin text of Aeneid, 6.724-27).

(49.) Ovid's highly influential meditation on mutability in book 15 of the Metamorphoses, lines 153-430, underlies this element of Ronsard's thought. A few lines from this passage are particularly relevant: "Nec perit in toto quicquam, mihi credite, mundo, / Sed variat faciemque novat; nascique vocatur / Incipere esse aliud, quam quod fuit ante, morique / Desinere illud idem. Cum sint huc forsitan illa, / Haec translata illuc, summa tamen omnia constant" (lines 254-58); "Be sure that there's nothing that perishes in the whole universe; it only varies and renews its form. What we call birth is only a beginning to be other than what one was before; and death is only cessation of a former state. Though, perhaps, things may shift from there to here and here to there, still all things in their sum total remain unchanged" (2:383).

(50.) "Matter remains and form disappears" (18:144).

(51.) "I turn and change and invert and undo what I choose, and then I remake it..." (10:218).

(52.) "...Always one but not one, who makes and unmakes you, who dies from day to day and yet never dies" (6:190).

(53.) "How great and admirable is your power, O Death! Because of you, nothing on earth can call itself everlasting; but just as the flow of streams gives way to the urgent pressure of the water behind it, so time flows and the present yields to the importunate future following on its heels. What once was is remade; everything flows like water, and nothing new below the heavens can be seen, but rather each form changes into another, and this change is called Living on earth, and Dying when a form disappears into another. // Thus Nature, with the help of Venus, found a way to reanimate through long and various alterations (while matter remains) all that you devour" (8:178).

(54.) Ficino, 1978, 224.

(55.) See Kern, 30-31. This is also a theme which recurs in the important hook by Santarcangeli. I quote a characteristic passage: "The association between labyrinth, cavern and dance is thus constant. To enter the 'penetralia' is like a descent to the Underworld, a nekyia, an attempt to surpass the struggle between the two elementary principles: on the one hand the super-and extra-individual, the thesmos, the immutable law of the universe, and, within it, death; on the other hand, the ephemeral and mutable condition of man. Unless here the transcendence of the individual destiny is linked with a true and real catharsis, with the eyes fixed on the ground: descent and at the same time, in the proper meaning of the Greek word, landfall (approdo], a ladder, for him who climbs it, as the systole is to the diastole, rebirth to death, the renascent to the fall" (140-41).

(56.) Marius Victorinus, 6:60.

(57.) "One ought to know, moreover, that the choral dancers [hoi choreutai] would sing the strophe as they moved to the right, and the antistrophe as they moved to the left, and the epode as they stood still. The strophe, as they say, signified the movement of the heavens from east to west, the antistrophe the movement of the planets from west to east, and the epode the immobility of the earth, for then the choral dancers sang while standing still" (quoted by Miller, 36).

(58.) "The association of dancing with the movements of celestial bodies was not unknown earlier in ancient culture. Lawler writes that the dance on Achilles's shield might have been of the "cosmic" type: "We know that the ancients had such dances, mimetic of the movements of the heavenly bodies. Thus the rapid circular figure may have represented the movements of the planets through the skies, and the figure of the opposing lines may have represented the apparent approach of the planets to the earth and to one another, and their subsequent separation. Indeed, Euripides, in the Electra, speaking of this very shield of Achilles, says there were depicted on it 'ethereal dances of stars"' (Lawler, 46).

(59.) "All which things [the retrogressions and varying conjunctions of the planets], if one wanted to contemplate them perfectly, one could perhaps understand to be precisely imitated and represented in the dance; since the variety of movements performed by those who dance facing one another is merely a general imitation of the various movements of the heavens, and the turning backward in the dance reflects a wish to imitate with decency the retrogression of the planets" (Tuccaro, 36. Quoted by McGowan, 20).

(60.) "I am Love, the great master of the Gods; I am he who causes the heavens to move; I am he who governs the world, who first, hatched from the shapeless, brought light and cleft Chaos, whence this round cosmos was constructed" (13:218). See also the sonnet published in the earliest collection of Amours in 1552: "Avant qu'Amour, du Chaos otieux/Ouvrist le sein, qui couvoit la lumiere,/Avec la terre, avec l'onde premiere,/Sans art, sans forme, estoyent brouillez les cieulx" (Ronsard, 4:45). (Before Love opened the breast of sluggish Chaos which was brooding over light, the heavens, unwrought and unformed, were mixed with earth, with the primordial wave.)

(61.) Compare the Orphic hymn to Eros, #58: "I call upon great, pure, lovely and sweet Eros.../Inventive and two-natured, he is master of all,/Of the heavenly ether, of the sea, of the land.../And of all that lies in Tartaros and in the roaring sea./You alone govern the course of all these" (Orphic Hymns, 79). See also the reference to Eros in the anonymous Orphic epic Argonautica, lines 424-25: "the oldest of all, the primordial perfection, Love, infinite wisdom, and all the creatures he engendered, each distinct from the others." Of the lines just quoted, the editor, Vian, comments in a note: "Le sens est clair. Phanes-Protogonos est le demiurge et l'ordonnateur universel; c'est grace a lui que le cosmos s'organise, alors qu'auparavant tout n'etait que confusion."

(62.) "the curved path of the fires which dance in the heavens" (3:139).

(63.) "the dance of circling stars" (3:6).

(64.) Plato, 1169.

(65.) "[Philosophy] understood how the whole firmament dances and how God sets its rhythm; it understood the bodies of this great universe which move in a dance to the right or to the left" (8:91).

(66.) See the beautiful passage on the "mirabil corrispondenzia e concordia di diversi corpi e di difformi moti in una armonial union" (1929, 95). (the wondrous congruity and concord of divers [heavenly] bodies and variform motion in one harmonious union; 1937, 107).

(67.) "Quid, quod et novas Chaos in figuras / Digeris primus docilemque rerum / Mutuis needs seriem catenis / Pace rebeli" ("Amori," 2 1-24). (And again, you organize Chaos in new figures, you first of all, and you form the docile series of things by mutual bonds into a peaceable struggle.) My translation.

(68.) La Franciade, 2,959-61, 967-72, 976, 984-94. "O god," he sang, "who holds a bow in your hand, son of Venus, guest of our human blood who dwells in our hearts, your kingdom, ...nuclear father of birth, who causes wars and peace according to your will, unvanquished prince, nourisher of this world, who first opened the yawning cavern of Chaos and, appearing armed with fiery arrows, was named Phanete: ... o great spirit, great master, hear me: come illumine your ardor in our hearts; kindle the fervor of this dance. Without you the prime of our years is nothing; favor, honor, abundance of goods, bodily strength or beauty are nothing without your grace, and even our life is a death, if you fail to accompany it, o god who brings us both profit and harm; come then to us here like a brilliant star, confer your light on our lovely observance and show favor upon this rite" (16:142-44).

(69.) Menager, 310-11, on Terpin's hymn to love: "Avec l'amour, ce n'est pas le simple sentiment humain que celebre le vieil aede, mais un principe cosmique, le plus grand de tous, dont la puissance echappe aux categories habituelles, car il est aussi bien cause de la guerre que source de la paix. Il ne conduit pas l'homme vers la revelation, et vers l'Etre incree, mais il s'impose comme 'nourricier' du monde. Les emprunts faits ici a la pensee orphique visent redonner a cet Amour cosmique tout son mystere. En meme temps, grace a l'emploi d'une veritable litanie, ils permettent d'evoquer l'infini d'un pouvoir qui va tres au-dela de ce que l'homme peut comprendre."

(70.) Leone Ebreo, 1929, 323: "Universalmente la luce in rutto ii mondo inferiore e forma la quale leva la bruttezza de la tenebrosita de la material deforme, e percio quell corpi che piu la participano rende piu belli: onde ella giusto che sia bellezza vera" (Throughout the whole lower world light is universal form, raking away the ugliness of darkness of chaotic matter; and those bodies which have most part in it, it makes the most beautiful, so that it is rightly called true beauty; 1937, 384).

(71.) Cave has shown that Ronsard's mythological imagination becomes most active at "the lower end of the spectrum" where the highest point of the human blends with the lowest form of the divine. "Ronsard's mythological universe is centered at the threshold of supernatural experience, or conversely at the limits of purely human experience: it expresses a heightened sense of 'reality,' reflecting the world of men yet releasing it from contingency" (195).

(72.) "Others more learned in Platonic philosophy thought it was the true harmony of heaven, by which all living things are conserved and maintained" (38).

(73.) The argument here is by no means original. McGowan writes: "Constamment dans son ballet Beaujoyeulx revient sur les rapports entre l'harmonie du ciel er celle qu'on veut retablir sur la terre" (46). See also McGowan's introduction in Beaujoyeulx, especially 32-36.

(74.) Ficino, 1989, 359. Unless otherwise indicated, future quotations from Ficino will be drawn from this edition.

(75.) The ballet sonnet presents several similarities with a longer poem by Ronsard, "La Charite," (18:166 if), published in the same year (1578) but apparently written earlier, since it anticipates the wedding of Marguerite de Valois with Henri de Navarre in 1572. In that poem a Grace literally descends from heaven to enter the body of the future queen Marguerite, so that the transfiguration becomes a literal part of the poetic narrative. Even before the transfiguration, Marguerite's eyes are said to illuminate the hall as will Helene's later: "Si tost qu'au hal la Nymphe bien-aimee / Se presenta, ses deux astres jumeaux / Feirent au double esclairer les flambeaux, / Er d'un beau jour la nuict fut allumee" (125-28). (As soon as the beloved Nymph appeared at the ball, her twin stars doubled the light of the torches, and the night was illuminated like a beautiful day.) When Ronsard wrote in the sonnet "Ton pied voletoit sur le haut de la terre," he perceived this lightness as the specific attribute of a goddes s. Once the Grace has entered the body of Marguerite in "La Charite," she no longer walks like a woman: "Comme une femme elle ne marchoit pas" (150) but hovers delicately above the floor: "L'homme pesant marche dessus la place, / Mais un Dieu vole, & ne scauroit aller: / Aux Dicux legers appartient le voler, / Comme engendrez d'une eternelle race" (153-56). (Man paces on the earth weight-burdened, but a god flies and cannot walk; flight belongs to the nimble gods, born as they are of an eternal race.) The sonnet draws upon the earlier poem, shortens it, describes the dance itself much more fully, and alters the supernatural causation.

(76.) Sparshott, 268

(77.) Ficino 1978, 220-21.

(78.) Ward begins his article: "The most elaborate dances performed in England at the beginning of the 17th century were the measures of the Stuart masque. They are also the dances about which we know least" (111). See, however, his article, as well as Cunningham. Ward argues, 114-17, that masque choreography depended heavily on geometric figures but has little to say about the "curious knots" Jonson repeatedly refers to. Ward also makes clear that masque choreography cannot be supposed to have depended simply on conventional types of social dancing: "Each dance was a measure as the English understood the term; not a galliard, coranto, or other dance type that could be performed to any music in the appropriate rhythm and style, but a unique combination of steps and notes" (113).

(79.) Davies, 322-23.

(80.) The Oxford editors (Jonson, 1925) fail to identify or comment on these references, which occur at lines 44 and 180 of the Orgel edition. In the former case, Stephen Orgel refers the reader erroneously to the Homeric rather than the Orphic Hymns (Jonson, 1969, 510). The correct reference is to the introductory Orphic Hymn, line 27. In the latter case, Jonson writes in his note to the name "Albion": "Orpheus in his Argonautica calls it 'white land.'" Orgel states that Jonson's reference is untraced but cannot be found in the Argonautica, adding that Jonson found the reference in Camden's Britannia (Jonson, 1969, 511). But there does happen to be a reference to the British Isles in that poem. The name Ierne appears at 1166 and 1181. Of this name Vian, the French editor, writes: "Ierne. . . est a proprement parler 1'Irlande, mais designe ici plutor l'ensemble des iles Britanniques" (Argonautiques Orphiques, 41). It is unclear how Jonson would have found the root for "white" in this name, but clearly he did so. There is no reason why he couldn't have read the Greek in the original as well as Camden. Orgel's note appears in his edition, Jonson, 1969, from which all quotations of Jonson will be taken.

(81.) See the Argonautica, line 15. D.J. Gordon, 145, writes that this and other songs in the Masque of Beautie "are steeped in the mythological thought expressed by Plato in Agathon's oration, infused with new power by Ficino and Pico and reiterated incessantly in the 16th, century." Gordon is right about the reiteration, but it is not easy to find the seeds of these songs in Agathon's oration, which says nothing about Love as cosmogonic Creator.

(82.) Gordon, 153-54, cites the Homeric commentator Spondanus as the source of Johnson's cosmology here but fails to mention the earlier Marius Victorinus and Eustathius. In another essay, however, Gordon notes that Spondanus himself names Eustathius as a source (189).

(83.) On the world's soul (anima mundi, Joyce's "Annyma"), see Peterson, especially 184.

(84.) Jonson, 1925, 10:573. Milton would use the word apparently in this sense in Paradise Lost. "Flowers worthy of paradise which not nice art / In beds and curious knots, but Nature boon / Pour'd forth profuse" (4.241-43).

(85.) The long eye-witness account by the Venetian observer Orazio Busino is not very helpful in visualizing the labyrinth dances. The crucial phrase is: "s'andavano muttando in diverse forme fra di loro," which has been translated "they changed places with each other in various ways." Busino does make clear that six of the twelve masquers wore doublets and six breeches, thus facilitating the impression of interpenetration. He also reports that all twelve wore masks, which would have obviously rendered the rccognition of individual masquers slightly more difficult and heightened a little the visual confusion of the spectators. His account appears in the Oxford edition, 10:580-84. A translation of the important passage in his account appears in A Book of Masques, 232-34.

(86.) "dance prepared with extraordinary care" This phrase from the long description by Orazio Busino is found in Jonson, 1925-52, 10:580. Ward writes that "the masquers... met with a dancing master, on one occasion as many as fifty times, or until the freshly composed dances were mastered and the ensemble ready to perform them before an audience of its peers, many of whom were as expert in the dance as any of the masquers, and as critical" (113).

(87.) Fletcher, 334. One finds a variant of this peril in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, where the labyrinth is watery and one enters it by boat: "A rapid voyage ensues through foggy air and a very uncomfortable and difficult route, for as the revolutions of the channels approach the center, they grow ever shorter, and one flies with irresistible speed between the slippery banks to the whirlpool of the central tower" (Colonna, 126).

(88.) Seneca. Epistle #44, 291.

(89.) Conti, 219. My translation. Conti's interpretation of the Cretan labyrinth had been anticipated in Christian thought of the patristic era, for example, in the writing of Gregory of Nyssa. See Doob, 73-74.

(90.) Doob, 97.

(91.) "Neither a distinctive [phonic] feature taken in isolation, nor a bundle of concurrent distinctive features (i.e., a phoneme) taken in isolation, means anything.... But this void seeks to be filled. The intimacy of the connection between the sounds and the meaning of a word gives rise to a desire by speakers to add an internal relation to the external relation, resemblance to contiguity, to complement the signified by a rudimentary image" (Jakobson, 112-13). See also Paul Valery on the "indissolubilite du son et du sens" in poetry 1:1333.

(92.) Davies, 335; Arbeau, 16.


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 Plutarch Virgil Ovid Claudian Dorat Sonnet Cartel

Recursus X X X X X X X
Meander X X X X X
Labyrinth X X X X X X
Dolphins X X X
Mock-battle X X X X
Cranes X X X X




Tale fuit, cecinit quad Siren Gallica, carmen:

Altera nam Siren Gallica, Nympha fuit.

Carmine finito nunc incipit ecce Choreas

Nympharum ad certos grex agitare modos.

Et sua testatur numeroso gaudia gestu,

Henrico lecto quae modo Rege, capit.

Nunc veluti totidem Reginas ire putares,

Quot Nymphas: lenta sic gravitate decent.

Nunc veluti totidem Delphinas in orbe natantes

Ludere: tam facili mobilitate micant.

Mille breves cursus iterant & mille recursus:

Millle fugas miscent, mille pedumque moras.

Nunc haerent ut apes manibus per mutua nexis,

Nunc in acumen eunt ut sine voce grues.

Nunc aliis aliae transversis nexibus haerent

Implicitis sepes qualis ab arte rubis.

Nunc hanc, nunc illam, variant per plana figuram:

Descripsit plures nulla tabella notas,

Non Euclideas quae pingit pulvere metas,

Quave fugax celeri calculus hoste perit.

Non Labyrinthaei tot erant curvamina tecti:

Non Maeandreae sic sinuantur aquae.

Esse putes ludum, quo Phryx gaudebat Julus,

Dum simulat fictis praelia vera modis.

Sic nunc in frontem, nunc in latus agmina ducunt:

Sic nunc incurrunt, nunc fugiuntque leves.

Sed iam camposita veluti post praelia turma

Incedunt, Regum praeter & ora meant.

Dumque meant sua quaeque ferunt Regalia dona

Aurea, quae spectans scutula parva putes.

Er sua cuique super scuta caelata figura

Nescio quod laetum Regibus amen habet.

Mr. Akihika Watanabe assisted me with the translation. The translation in my text omits the opening two lines of the Latin ("Such was the song sung by the French Siren, for the other French Siren was a Nymph") and the last four lines ("While they pass, each carries her royal golden gift, which, as you look at them, you might take to be small shields, and on each shield an incised figure has I know nor what happy amen far kings").
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Article Details
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Author:Greene, Thomas M.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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