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literature

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French Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century  
 
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Belleau appended to his translations from the Anacreontea the first French version of any work by Sappho, and here, too, Belleau retains the givens of the original. He makes clear that the speaker is female but keeps the fact unstated until late in the poem, well after the reader has heard about a woman's sweet voice that arouses intense emotion in the speaker.

Lesbian Poems by Male Authors

Although the depiction of lesbian feelings appears very rarely in French love poetry of the sixteenth century, Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) and Pontus de Tyard (1521-1605) both composed love poems in which a woman speaks of her love for another female.

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Ronsard's "Pour vous montrer que j'ay parfaitte envie" (To show you that I desire you absolutely) and Pontus's "J'avois tousjours pensé que d'Amour et d'honneur" (I had always believed that through Love and honor) are remarkable not only for their subject but also for the treatment the subject receives.

The sentiments expressed belong resolutely to the storehouse of commonplaces repeated over and over during the Renaissance in verse addressed to women by men, thus lending no little support to the contention that the portrayal of women loving women would enter an entirely new phase when the author was herself a woman.

Montaigne

Few French writers of the sixteenth century have enjoyed the fame of Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), whose Essays intrigued such diverse minds as Pascal, Emerson, and Gide. His "On Friendship" contains a moving account of the bond he formed with Etienne de La Boétie, a fellow public servant fated, unfortunately, to die when still a young man.

The depths to which Montaigne was touched by La Boétie are evident: "And at our first meeting, which just happened to occur during a great feast and city gathering, we discovered that we were so taken with each other, so known to each other, so beholden to each other that from that time nothing was as close to us as each was to the other."

Consequently, many modern readers have speculated that this was a homosexual relationship.

No evidence has ever come to light to support this hypothesis, however, and we may not overlook that in the same essay Montaigne establishes a firm distance between friendship (especially the kind he felt for La Boétie) and sexual passion.

On the other hand, when Montaigne has finished enumerating the various bonds that cannot meet his definition of friendship, including pederasty and family ties, we are confronted by the realization that such friendship exists exclusively between adult males. Only their relationship rests on the melding of like personalities that Montaigne exalts in his essay.

Although no extant document allows us to trace the impact of this discussion of friendship on Montaigne's readers, it must be noted that the next century greatly admired his pages, referring to the essays as the "gentleman's breviary," that is, as a handbook of appropriate conduct.

More intriguing still is the reappearance of certain attitudes expressed by Montaigne in the writings of a group of early seventeenth-century free thinkers. To be sure, these men adopted a far more radical stance, and their break with conventional morality rested above all on a questioning of philosophical and religious principles; yet some appear to have violated sexual taboos as well.

The Seventeenth-Century Libertines

Prominent among the libertines are the poets Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin, dubbed "the King of Sodom," and Théophile de Viau, whose alleged atheism and sexual activity with other males involved him in a protracted lawsuit.

Théophile's friend François de Métel, seigneur de Boisrobert (1592?-1662), fared better. Numerous contemporary jibes alluding to his interest in young pages have survived and suggest that his proclivities were common knowledge.

However, to the degree that Boisrobert felt the ignominy of disgrace, it was always for impolicy, not . He enjoyed the protection of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin and played a critical role in the founding of the French Academy.

His poetry could, like that of Théophile, escape the heaviness of the praises routinely sung to the king and his court. Often it did not, and more often still it sought only to be amusing.

Nevertheless, as his early reflections on nature please today because of the freshness that the libertines brought momentarily to French poetry, so Boisrobert's witty lines delighted his own world and ensured him success even after the authorities had silenced the radical voices of his early friends.

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