As we slept the sleep of the innocent this past night Spring crept over the windowsill, to quote Eliza Dolittle. To celebrate I thought I’d post this little rondel that was composed to celebrate that event one spring in the mid-1400s by Charles, Duke of Orléans as he gazed out his window in the tower of London.
American poet and literary translator Richard Wilbur is famous for his ability to take the theatrical poetry of Molière, Racine and Corneille and make it sing as successfully on stage in English as it does in French. Here he takes the thirteen lines of the good Duke’s medieval verse and gives them a grace, elegance and economy of language the equal to their original text.
The rondel was a popular French verse form in the Middle-Ages and the Renaissance: it’s a deceptively simple poem generally made up of two stanzas of four lines and a third of five lines. But the trick is for the poet to use the first two lines as a refrain repeating them as the last lines of the second and the third stanzas. An accomplished poet such as the good Duke could create these little word jewels in praise of a lady, to celebrate an occasion or simply to rejoice in the change of the seasons.
Charles d’Orléans was one of the French knights who are mocked in Shakespeare’s Henry V for the elaborate armour they wore into battle at Agincourt. Their peacock displays contrasted, unfavourably of course, with the rough homespun wools of the honest English yeoman. However there was a bitter truth in Shakespeare’s jingoistic jabs at the French fripperies. Their armour was to be the undoing of many of the French nobles including Charles. He was thrown from his horse; unable to raise from the ground he was buried under the corpses that piled up around him. He was taken by the English and his value as a hostage meant that his life was spared – a boon not granted to many of his fellows.
In the battle France lost the cream of its nobility and fighting force; it was estimated that between 4,000 and 10,000 French died and over 1500 prisoners taken including the Marshall of France and the heads of several noble families.
Charles was to remain a hostage for the next 25 years – Henry left instructions that he was never to be exchanged for ransom. His position as head of the Armagnac faction and being in the line of succession to the French throne he was deemed too politically dicey to be returned to his native France. While a “guest” of the English Crown – he was housed in various castles throughout the country including the Tower of London – he wrote some 500 poems in both English and French.
When he finally returned to France in 1444 he settled into his estates, married for the third time (his second wife had died while he was in captivity) and was renowned as a patron of the arts. Unusually for the time he was to live until he was 70, dying at his estate in Amboise in 1465.
Today we can hopefully echo Charles’ sentiments that:
The year has cast it’s cloak away
That was of driving rains and snows …