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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

With cesura after the sixth accented syllable


is placed his companion-in-arms,

Olivier, brave but prudent, brother of Roland's betrothed, _la belle Aude_, who learns her lover's death, and drops dead at the feet of Charlemagne. In fact but thirty-six years of age, Charlemagne is here a majestic old man, _a la barbe fleurie_, still full of heroic vigour. Around him are his great lords--Duke Naime, the Nestor of this Iliad; Archbishop Turpin, the warrior prelate; Oger the Dane; the traitor Ganelon. And overhead is God, who will send his angels to bear heavenwards the soul of the gallant Roland. The idea of the poem is at once national and religious--the struggle between France, as champion of Christendom, and the enemies of France and of God. Its spirit is that of the feudal aristocracy of the eleventh century. The characters are in some degree representative of general types, but that of Roland is clearly individualised; the excess of soldierly pride which will not permit him, until too late, to sound his horn and recall Charlemagne to his aid, is a glorious fault. When all his comrades have fallen, he still continues the strife; and when he dies, it is with his face to the retreating foe. His fall is not unavenged on the Saracens and on the traitor. The poem is written in decasyllabic verse--in all 4000 lines--divided into sections or _laisses_ of varying length, the lines of each _laisse_ being held together by a single assonance.[2] And such is the form in which the best _chansons de geste_ are written. The decasyllabic line, derived originally from popular
Latin verse, rhythmical rather than metrical, such as the Roman legionaries sang, is the favourite verse of the older chansons. The alexandrine,[3] first seen in the _Pelerinage de Jerusalem_ of the early years of the twelfth century, in general indicates later and inferior work. The _laisse_, bound in one by its identical assonance, might contain five lines or five hundred. In chansons of late date the full rhyme often replaces assonance; but inducing, as it did in unskilled hands, artificial and feeble expansions of the sense, rhyme was a cause which co-operated with other causes in the decline of this form of narrative poetry.

[Footnote 2: _Assonance_, _i.e._ vowel-rhyme, without an agreement of consonants.]

[Footnote 3: Verse of twelve syllables, with cesura after the sixth accented syllable. In the decasyllabic line the cesura generally followed the fourth, but sometimes the sixth, tonic syllable.]

Naturally the chansons which celebrated the achievements of one epic personage or one heroic family fell into a group, and the idea of cycles of songs having arisen, the later poets forced many independent subjects to enter into the so-called cycle of the king (Charlemagne), or that of William of Orange, or that of Doon of Mayence. The second of these had, indeed, a genuine cyclic character: it told of the resistance of the south of France to the Mussulmans. The last cycle to develop was that of the Crusades. Certain poems or groups of poems may be distinguished as _gestes_ of the provinces, including the _Geste des Lorrains_, that of the North (_Raoul de Cambrai_), that of Burgundy, and others.[4] Among these may be placed the beautiful tale of _Amis et Amiles_, a glorification of friendship between man and man, which endures all trials and self-sacrifices. Other poems, again, are unconnected with any of these cycles; and, indeed, the cyclic division is more a convenience of classification than a fact in the spontaneous development of this form of art. The entire period of the evolution of epic song extends from the tenth or eleventh to the fifteenth century, or, we might say, from the _Chanson de Roland_ to the _Chronique de Bertrand Duguesclin_. The eleventh century produced the most admirable work; in the twelfth century the chansons are more numerous, but nothing was written of equal merit with the Song of Roland; after the death of Louis VII. (1180) the old epic material was rehandled and beaten thin--the decadence was already in progress.


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