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Les Lettres romaines de Du Bellay: Les Regrets et la tradition epistolaire. .

Marc Bizer. Les Lettres romaines de Du Bellay: Les Regrets et la tradition epistolaire.

(Espace litteraire.) Montreal: Les Presses de l'Universite de Montreal, 2001. 304 pp. index. bibl. $29.95. ISBN: 2-7606-1795-5.

This book suggests that the Regrets are inspired by the Ciceronian and humanist letter in prose or familiar letter, and by Ovidian, Horatian, and Marotic epistles; they also reflect Du Bellay's work as a secretary in Rome. They abound in references to the works of their addressees; "le recueil semble tisser les liens d'un reseau humaniste a la fois romain et francais" (11).

Chapter 1 looks helpfully at the background: at the work wrongly attributed to Demetrius of Phalerum; at Cicero and the genus humile; at Seneca and Pliny. It considers how, between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries, the ars dictaminis, the writing of the chancellery, emerges and becomes increasingly technical; formulae proliferate and the secretary is born. Petrarch opts for a familiar, conversational genre adapted to the addressee; he refuses to employ philosophical discourse in his correspondence, unlike Seneca. He communicates his states of mind. His letters reflect the mutability of the self, found also in Du Bellay. Quartrocento theorists accept Cicero's idea that the letter is a communication between absent friends and that it must favor the conversational. Later, Erasmus destroys all constraints on the letter form, save that of being perfectly adapted to the circumstances and the addressee. He inaugurates a playful tension between limpidity and obscurity and makes of the letter a literary genre . Vives studies the communication of secrets.

The Renaissance secretary transcribed the missives dictated to him by a superior, comparable with the eleventh-century dictator. The second half of the sixteenth century saw the publication of manuals, Segretarii, for aspiring secretaries. Some stress the secretary's poetic dimension, and others his protean personality allowing him to submit completely to his patron. Many are treatises of epistolary art. Familiar letters and official epistles aim for brevitas, clarity, decorum.

There are affinities between the Regrets and Ovid's Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. Important too are the Heroides, translated around 1500 by Octavien de Saint-Gelais. An influence Du Bellay does not mention is Marot, who contributed to the development of the verse epistle and emphasized self-expression, and who was, like Du Bellay, inspired by exile and unhappiness. Marot reflected on the distinction between elegy, epistle, and satire, three literary forms on which the Regrets are founded. Unlike Marot, however, Du Bellay is inspired by Italian pasquinades and often engages in invective.

Chapter 2, which disappoints slightly, considers Du Bellay's use of the figure of the secretary in his verse (his poetry becomes his secretary in the first sonnet), comparing Petrarch, Ronsard, and Marot. Du Bellay aims for a poetry close to prose, the genus humile. Bizer has interesting remarks on "commentaires" (67-68). Some sonnets were probably written for a few addressees before reaching a wider public. Some are poetic postcards. Bizer speculates interestingly on to whom and what the Regrets refer. Du Bellay can be read on various levels. "Le genie de Du Bellay consiste a eviter d'alourdir inutilement ses sonnets de references historiques, geographiques et litteraites erudites, mais a les incorporer dans des contextes susceptibles d'etre compris et apprecies par un public beaucoup plus vaste" (112).

Chapter 3 groups the Regrets according to addressee. Du Bellay seeks Motel's friendship, while playing on mora, in a form of allusio he favors. Sonnets to Vineus enlist Vineus' help, while reflecting on the power of satire and parodying Ronsard and Petrarchism. Bizer ponders the identity of Gordes, to whom Du Bellay addresses gnomic sonnets commenting on people of the Roman court, elsewhere stressing the need to cultivate the vernacular and to renounce Petrarchism. Nine sonnets to Ronsard at the opening of the collection elaborate a poetics in opposition to Ronsard's, using maritime imagery. Bizer underlines the complex relationship with Magny and the Souspirs.

In this clearly written, well-annotated, and unpretentious study, Bizer observes convincingly that Du Bellay wears a variety of masks, but that unity is guaranteed by the social experience that the Regrets narrate. Du Bellay exploits the subversive potential of the letter to make it religiously, socially, and politically challenging. "Il ecrit ses lettres davantage pour s'exiler que pour combler une distance" (196).
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Author:Braybrook, Jean
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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