Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.17

Marc Bizer, La Poésie au Miroir: Imitation et Conscience de Soi dans la Poésie Latine de la Pléiade. Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 1995. Pp. 227. Fr 240. ISBN 2-85203-464-6.

Reviewed by Alan J.M. Haffa, University of Wisconsin-Madison (

Research on Neo-latin literature has been on-going for quite some time, but it has received precious little attention from classicists. It is not surprising then that the latest offering comes not from a classicist but from a Renaissance philologist. There has long been a stigma attached to the term "neo-latin." The implication is that the Latin of this period is inferior. The same prejudices were once shown toward Latin literature that was not "golden." Happily, this narrow focus has widened in recent years. Unfortunately, Renaissance Latin still lags behind. Hopefully, B.'s work can encourage and motivate classicists to have a new look at this fascinating period of Latin literature. B. introduces us to some material which has not even been fully covered by Renaissance philologists: Latin writing by a select group of French writers from the sixteenth century, La Pléiade, led by Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim Du Bellay. The primary questions B. asks are how and why did poets of the Pléiade write in Latin. This text offers a significant contribution to the theory of imitation which has implications for scholars of classical Latin poetry as much as for the Renaissance.

Of most interest to classicists will be the introductory chapter where B. charts the history of the theory of imitation and translation from the ancient period into the late Medieval and Renaissance. He examines the remarks on oratorical imitation made by Cicero in the De Finibus and De Oratore and by Quintilian in book X of his Institutio Oratoria (15-21). Cicero recommends that apprentice orators practice by translating Greek orators in order to learn their techniques and to develop their own style. He prohibits imitation of Latin orators because this would hinder the development of an original style. For Cicero translatio studii permits the Latin orator to construct his own identity by leaving his personal mark upon material borrowed from Greek oratory. Given the typical view of Renaissance Latin as derivative and poor imitation, it is especially fitting that B. observes how the program of translatio studii began as a Roman problem in regard to Greek literature and culture, and that the Renaissance translatio studii of Roman culture mirrors what the Romans themselves experienced.

B. distinguishes Quintilian's theory of imitation from Cicero's (17-20). He shows Quintilian to be less anxious about the danger of furtum (theft) than was Cicero. For Quintilian, translation and imitation are the same activity. Hence, Quintilian recommends imitating not only Greek authors but also Latin. This method of composing is called paraphrasis. The "paraphrase" should not be a simple copy: it should contend with and rival the original ("elle doit au contraire lutter ("certamen") et rivaliser ("aemulationem") avec l'original," 18). This is accomplished by variatio and copia. In sum, Quintilian's contribution to the theory of imitation is a belief in the "variabilité de l'expression linguistique."

The third classical source in B.'s explanation of ancient influence on Renaissance theories of imitation is Seneca's Letter to Lucilius (84). The metaphor of the bee and honey which Seneca introduces there is shown to have had a tremendous impact on Renaissance theories of imitation. The bee-like imitator is thought to transform the source materials by a digestive process which is effected through the mixing of several sources and through a recreation which resembles none of the originals exactly. All traces of the original are effaced and dissimulated by means of mingling and reforming (contaminatio).

In chapters two, three, and four, B. considers how these ancient theories influenced the poetry of three writers of the Pléiade: Joachim Du Bellay, Rémy Belleau, and Jean-Antoine de Baïf. Each of these chapters asks how the imitating poet can express his individual identity, so integral to the Renaissance aesthetic, while writing in a language which is not native and is so distant from his own. B.'s answer is that self expression was achieved by a style of imitation which today is called "intertextuality," and in the Renaissance was called variatio and contaminatio (following Erasmus' formulation in De duplici copia verborum ac rerum). This involves a complex imitation where more than one model is imitated and the result is a sort of composite. It is an expression of poetic individuality, because the choices the poet makes in terms of what to borrow from each of his models and how to blend them reflect his own aesthetic.

Chapter two examines the most substantial, and for classicists, the most interesting of the three Renaissance writers, Du Bellay. What makes Du Bellay so interesting is that he was the outspoken advocate of the vernacular in the Deffence et Illustration de la Langue Française (1549). Du Bellay is representative of the Renaissance Humanist torn between his sense of duty to develop the vernacular and his desire to gain immortality and test himself against the great authors of antiquity by writing in Latin (6). In addition to the Deffence, Du Bellay should be known to classicists for his translations of the Aeneid: book four in 1552 and book six in 1560. In this chapter B. looks at the Latin poetry Du Bellay wrote while in Rome and asks why such an outspoken critic of Latin imitators and advocate of French poetry should compose Amores and Epigrammata in Latin. Throughout this chapter B. gives careful attention to the influence of Ovid and Horace. He notes that Du Bellay in the Amores is trying to shift the thematic from the experience of love itself to the experience of writing about love. In doing so, he is well served by Latin elegy and by Ovid's Amores in particular. Accordingly, he exploits the metaphor of wife and mistress to depict French as his faithful wife and Latin as his mistress. He also refashions the allegory of exile as it appears in Ovid's Tristia, V, 12, 47-50 and Horace's Odes, IV, 15, 1-4. For the most part B.'s intertextual readings are convincing and enlightening. This chapter not only illuminates Du Bellay's poetry but also the classical Latin that inspired it , and in doing so B. shows a good knowledge of Horace, Ovid, Virgil, Propertius, and Catullus.1

Chapters three and four will be of less interest to classicists and will be covered more succinctly here. In chapter three B. studies the Latin translations of Rémy Belleau, the Odes of Anacreon (1556) to which are attached three poems of Ronsard. Later, Belleau translated his own French poems into Latin (1573). B.'s thesis is that by translating Anacreon and Ronsard, Belleau developed his own style and by 1573 felt confident enough to publish translations of his own French poetry. This chapter is recommended for those interested in the theory of translation but is not likely to keep the interest of most classical scholars. The fourth chapter examines the Latin imitations of the Greek Anthology by Jean-Antoine de Baïf in the Carmina (1577). The Carmina thematise the problem of imitation and furtum (160). Baïf wrote in a style that at once glories in his thefts and tries to conceal them. B. notes how Baïf challenges his readers to identify his sources. His Carmina raise the interesting question of how to distinguish between an original and a translation.

B. knows his classical authors well, especially the Augustan poets. His knowledge of scholarship on humanism, imitation, neo-Latin, translation, and rhetoric is outstanding and there are separate sections in his bibliography on each of these topics.

My only substantive criticism concerns his attempt to answer why the poets of the Pléiade wrote in Latin. His conclusion is surprisingly brief (two pages) and should have summarized and clarified this point at greater length. In the individual chapters he at times seems to hazard a psychological explanation as when he writes of Du Bellay "le changement de langue était une contrainte imposée par l'exil. Néanmoins, cette contrainte est maintenant conçue comme un devoir, un honneur à rendre au Latium, à la langue romaine et enfin au Génie du lieu" (66). Elsewhere he more than once suggests that all three writers chose Latin to escape the shadow of Ronsard, who was so dominant in the vernacular (67-9, 110, 145, 186). While this interpretation is not implausible, B. could have strengthened his thesis by presenting this material in one sustained argument, and by supporting his thesis with a theoretical framework.2 One might also challenge his contention that the terms imitation and translation were practically synonymous in antiquity, whereas they went through a period of evolution in the sixteenth century (13-4). He himself provides evidence that both in antiquity and in the Renaissance the terms were not clearly distinguished and that they were contested. Cicero, Seneca, and Quintilian agreed on this no more than did their imitators Vida, Ricci, Camilla, and Du Bellay.

Over all, the book is well written and clear. B.'s style is impeccable and the reader for whom French is a second language will have little trouble understanding B.'s prose. This book is recommended for classicists interested in the theory of imitation and translation. The whole book is essential reading for classicists who teach Medieval or Renaissance Latin. The second chapter on Du Bellay's Latin poetry should be of interest to those who work on Latin elegy. But finally, B.'s work raises an issue that transcends any period designations: he demonstrates that the distinction between original, imitation, and translation is far more fluid than commonly recognized. Furthermore, his work should inspire classicists to pay more attention to "translations" of classical texts, especially those written in Latin.


  • [1] cf. Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin poetry and the hermeneutics of reception (Cambridge Press, 1993). Martindale looks at intertextuality as a two way relation. Just as the "original" can illuminate the "imitation," so the imitation can illuminate the model. B. does not exploit this as his interest is largely in the Renaissance, but classicists could exploit the Latin poetry of Du Bellay and others to read back into the original Latin models.
  • [2] Similar kinds of psychological arguments are presented more cogently by Renaissance scholars such as Margaret Ferguson, Trials of Desire (Yale University Press, 1983), Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (University of Chicago Press, 1980), and Jane Tylus, Writing and Vulnerability (Stanford University Press, 1993).