On Charles of Orleans/Charles d’Orléans

Posted: February 17, 2022 in Chat
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Charles of Orleans, due to twenty-five years in captivity in England, mastered the language and idioms to write the most accomplished lyric poetry in English of the time.
And yet, even now, acceptance has been slow to accept him into the canon.


Charles, son of the Duke of Orleans, and Italian mother, Valentina Visconti, daughter of the duke of Milan, was born in 1394. He died in 1465.

As a child of the nobility marriage was a game of influence. His first marriage, aged sixteen ended very sadly as his wife, Isabella of Valois (and widow of English king Richard II) died in childbirth. His second wife, Bonne of Armagnac, died whilst he was hostage.
He married a third time, on his return to France to Marie of Cleves. One son became Louis XII of France.

One story has it that he was discovered – luckily, we might add – still alive and uninjured, under a number bodies, on the field at Agincourt. He was thought a good ransom, and held in England. 
There are stories of people drowning in others’ blood under similar circumstances. 
His imprisonment, along with his younger brother Jean d’Angoulême, was relatively ‘open’, mostly held among people of their own rank, and allowed escorted outside access.


He was eventually released, and allowed to return to his inherited Burgundy estates on condition of a sworn oath to not avenge the killers of his father. Wiki says:
Finally freed on 3 November 1440 by the efforts of his former enemies, Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, the Duke and Duchess of Burgundy, he set foot on French soil again after 25 years, by now a middle aged man at 46 and “speaking better English than French,” according to the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed.


He wrote some five hundred plus lyrics in English, and later, again in French. They are of exemplary quality. 
He was writing in that period between the death of Chaucer, the latter years of John Gower and Thomas Hoccleve, of John Skelton, and the resurgence of writing using Italian models under Sir Thomas Wyatt et al.

His earlier French contemporaries mark the ending of a rather prolific period, with the deaths early in Charles’ career, of the honoured writer Alain Chartier, and the phenomenal Christine de Pizan. 

–      It is not easy at the present to obtain affordable collections of the poems of Charles de Orleans. One I did get hold of was a collection of French poets of the period, is Formal Spring, French Renaissance Poets, by R N Currey (published 1950).
The book lists his immediate contemporaries as Guillaume de Marchault, Eustace Deschamps, Joachim du Bellay, Louise Labé, Marie Stuart (yep, Mary pre-Queen of Scots).

The author certainly has his favourites – Charles de Orleans is dismissed as ‘bourgeois’; Christine de Pizan is represented by one poem, the later Louise Labé is called a follower of Christine de Pizan. His favourite, the one with the largest poem contribution, is Francois Villon. Enough said.

His writing strides between past and future modes of literature, his earlier work continuing the debate form of Alain Chartier (The Curialetc), with his Le Débat Des Hérauts D’armes De France Et D’angleterre: Suivi De The Debate Between The Heralds Of England And France, and then the middle and later work looking onward to the Italian sonnet and lyric form of later English writers.


What has been the problem with his acceptance?
Again, Wiki tells us:
Unfortunately, his acceptance in the English canon has been slow. A. E. B. Coldiron has argued that the problem relates to his “approach to the erotic, his use of puns, wordplay, and rhetorical devices, his formal complexity and experimentation, his stance or voice: all these place him well outside the fifteenth-century literary milieu in which he found himself in England.[4]

Against the sententious background of John Lydgate, the wilder satires of John Skelton, the assured style and accomplished imagery of the poems of Charles of Orleans stand out like bright jewels in a muddy light.

Take, for instance, 

The year has changed his mantle cold                mantle: mateau – coat
of wind, of rain, of bitter air;
and he goes clad in cloth of gold,
of laughing suns and seasons fair;
no bird or beast of wood or wold                                  
but doth with cry or song declare
this year lays down its mantle cold.
All founts, all rivers, seaward rolled,
the pleasant summer livery wear,
with silver studs on livery vair;  
                              vair: common fur in heraldry
the world puts off its raiment old,
the year lays down its mantle cold.

His use of roundels, dance forms, song formats, I suspect some view as frivolous. I would certainly argue against that, there is an atmosphere of lightness here but the poems are always so in order to counteract/interact with his own exile and imprisonment. Each poem is shadowed:
My very gentle Valentine,
Alas, for me you were born too soon,
As I was born too late for you!
May God forgive my jailor
Who has kept me from you this entire year.
I am sick without your love, my dear,

My very gentle Valentine.

And here is a particularly joyful one – compare this with the rather staid verse of his contemporaries :

Young lovers
Greeting the spring

Fling themselves downhill,
Making cobblestones ring
With their wild leaps and arcs,
Like ecstatic sparks
Struck from coal.

What is their brazen goal?

They grab at whatever passes,

So we can hardly hazard guesses.
But they rear like prancing steeds
Raked by brilliant spurs of need,

Young lovers.
It is the surprisingly fresh and contemporary imagery that catches our attention first. There is also a sophistication of emotive expression, that further persuades us to ‘partake of the poem’. 
Although coal was in use by then, its domestic use was rare. As a noble, though, he would have been familiar enough with its properties.

There is a very interesting article on Charles of Orleans, by Mary-Jo Arn: Poetic Form as a Mirror of Meaning (Philological Quarterly, 1999, Number 1, Volume 69)
that argues for an overall structure to the collection of his poetry. ‘Charles of Orleans,’ she writes, ‘following Continental convention, composed in Middle English a type of work that no English poet had yet attempted.

His various poetic forms: roundels, ballads, narrative verse, relate fictional/autobiographical adventures in the Court of Love.

He tells how the supposed author enters the service of the God of Love, and therewith love for a Lady to whom he addresses ballads. This is followed by the death of the Lady, at which the author retires from service and enters the Castle of No Care, supposedly for the rest of his life, to lament the loss. Here he writes nearly one hundred roundels. His heart does not allow him peace, and he wanders, physically and emotionally; he encounters Venus, then Fortune, and once again becomes enamoured. He then writes further of amour. 

‘He’, I write, but there is ‘the poet,’ and ‘the lover’, and both are distinct persons. Mary-Jo Arn calls this form pseudo-biography.

The collection opens with an allegorical section, followed by Part One of eighty-four ballades; section two of nearly one hundred roundels; section three of thirty-seven ballades.

The structure presents the reader with three differing accounts of love. The first section and retirement section produce two very different versions of the same experience, and the last section again a very different approach, to a different set of experiences, presented with comedy, and non-courtly responses from the lady. Courtly idealised love – love of love itself? – is contrasted with the real thing: love of a real woman.

There are some commentators who are not convinced the last section are authentic poems of Charles of Orleans, but suspect that they are copies made of other’s work, and incorporated here, or tacked-on by later compilers. The problem is the change in tone of the last section.
Mary-Jo Arn argues convincingly for overall authorship.

A Selection of Poems

Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,
Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains,
Your hands so smooth, each finger straight and plain,

Your little feet – please, what more can I say?

It is my fetish when you are far away
To muse on these and thus to ease my pain –
Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,

Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains.

So I would beg you, if I only may,
To see such sights as before I have seen,
Because my fetish pleases me. Obscene?
I’ll be obsessed until my dying day

By your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright grey,
Your ample breasts and slender arms twin chains!

My ghostly father, I confess
First to God and then to you,
That at a window watched by few
I stole a sweet and gentle kiss;

I did this out of avidness –
Now it’s done, what can I do?

My ghostly father, I confess
First to God and then to you:
I shall restore the kiss doubtless 
And give my lover back her due!

And thus to God I make my vow
While always seeking forgiveness.
My ghostly, I confess,
First to God and then to you.

Can we also consider this an early sonnet, I wonder?


One day I asked my heart
In confidence, if he
Had put by any part
Out of our property
When serving Love. Freely
He promised me a true
Account as soon as he
Had looked his papers through.

He promised me this, this heart,
And took his leave of me;
And soon I saw him start 
To rummage freely
Amongst the note books he
Keeps in his desk. I knew

He’d speak immediately
He’d looked his papers through.

I waited, and my heart,
Returning presently
Showed me the books he’d brought,
And I was glad to see
That he had carefully
Entered the facts – so now

I’d know as soon as he
Had looked his papers through.

Such clerical exactitude! The development of the scientific, analytical attitude.
A praise for double-entry bookkeeping?

And so, what do we make of this:

Stephen Le Gout, in the nominative,
Quite recently tried in the optative
Mood to proceed to the copulative,

But failed when it came to the genitive.

Six ducats he placed in the dative
To bring him his love in the vocative –
Stephen Le Gout in the nominative.

He came up against an accusative
Who made of his robe a mere ablative;
From a window whose height was superlative

He jumped, taking blows in the passive: 
Stephen Le Gout, in the nominative.

In his last years he was instrumental in fostering the careers of many writers. In 1455 he attended a performance of Complainte d’Hectorby Georges Chastellain, thereby consolidating the position of the aspiring writer and Burgundian chronicler in literary circles.

·      Works by or about Charles d’Orléans at Internet Archive

  1. equinoxio21 says:

    Charles d’Orláns “en Anglois”? Amazing. Thank you.

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