Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Joan of Arc
Appendix II
JOAN OF ARC IN POETRY

The Maid of Orleans (though a more poetical figure cannot be found in all history) has not been more fortunate at the hands of the poets than at those of the historians.

To begin with her own countrywoman—for the first who sang of Joan of Arc was appropriately enough a fellow-countrywoman—Christine de Pisan.

As the name indicates, this poetess was an Italian by origin, but appears to have lived most of her life in France. The latter part she passed in a convent.

In the year 1429, Christine was sixty-seven years old; she had been living in some conventual establishment for eleven years. Her verses in praise of Joan of Arc—which number several hundred stanzas—were undoubtedly written in the heroine's life-time. They are supposed to have been the last lines she wrote. These stanzas were completed shortly after the coronation of Charles VII. A manuscript copy of this poem exists in which Joan of Arc is compared to Deborah, Judith, and Queen Esther. These poems are curious and quaint in their old French expressions, but they are quite unreadable for any but French students well versed in the literature of the fifteenth century.

In 1440, Martin le France, provost of the Cathedral of Lausanne, bestows some lines on Joan of Arc in his poem called the Champion des dames. In 1487, Martial de Paris published, under the title of Vigiles du roi Charles VII., a rhymed translation of Jean Chartrier's chronicle of that monarch.

Villon has left some charming lines in which he has placed the heroine's name as it were on a string of pearls; they occur in his exquisite ballad 'Dames du temps jadis,' and, as it would be profanation to try and translate, I give them here in the original:—

'La Reine blanche comme un lys
Qui chantait à voix de sirène,
Berthe au grand pied, Biétris, Allis,
Haremburge qui tint le Maine,
Et Jeanne la bonne Lorraine
Qu' Anglais brûlèrent à Rouen,
Où sont-ils, vierge souveraine?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?'

Long before those beautiful lines were written by Villon, a play called Le Mystère du Siège d'Orléans had been acted. As early as the year 1435 this performance appears to have taken place on the anniversary of the deliverance of the city, and the dramatic piece was probably acted on the return of that day for many a year after. This was one of the so-called 'Miracle Plays,' popular both in France and in England at that period. The author or authors of the play are not known.

Some one has taken the trouble to count the number of lines: they amount to 20,529, and are all in dialogue!

Whether the unfortunate audience had to sit all through this performance one does not know. One hopes, for their sake, that, like a Chinese play or a Bayreuth performance of Wagner's operas, the performance was extended over a number of days.

Joan is naturally the heroine throughout; she first appears as the bearer of the Divine mandate to drive the enemy from off the sacred soil of France. The play closes with her triumphant return to Orleans after the victory of Patay. As far as the mission is concerned the play is historically correct, and it is in this respect an improvement on Shakespeare and Schiller. There is a point of great interest concerning this piece which, so far as we know, has never been noticed—namely, the fact of one of its acts being almost identical with one in the First Part of King Henry VI. In the mystery play the scene of this act is laid before Orleans. The French are determined to defend their city to the last; the English are determined on taking it. We are in front of the besieged and the besiegers. Salisbury has entered the Tournelles, and he looks out over the city from a window in the tower. Glansdale ('Glassidas') stands beside him, and says to Salisbury, 'Look to your right, and to your left—it looks like a terrestrial paradise, all this country flowing with milk and honey; you will soon be its master.' Salisbury expresses his satisfaction at the sight of all the plunder at his feet, and gives vent to some very sanguinary sentiments about the French; he will slay every one in the place—all the men, 'et leurs femmes et leurs enfants. Personne je n'épargnerai.' But scarcely has he been able to give vent to this terrible threat when his head is carried off by a cannon ball fired from the town. The English cry out 'Ha! Hay! maudite journée!'

Earl Salisbury is carried out stiff and stark. Talbot and the other English officers now vow vengeance on the French in these words:—

'Ha, Sallebery, noble coraige!
Ta mort nous sera vendue chère,
Jamais un tel de ton paraige,
Ne se trouvera en frontière.'

If we turn to Scene 4 of the first act of Shakespeare's First Part of King Henry VI., we shall find almost the same scene enacted.

Enter on the turrets, Lord Salisbury, Talbot, etc. Salisbury, after welcoming Talbot, calls on Sir William Glansdale to look down into the town, and while conversing the shot is fired which kills Salisbury. After the death of Salisbury, Talbot vows vengeance on the French, and says he will

'Nero-like
Play on the lute, beholding the towns burn.'

There can be little doubt that whoever wrote the First Part of King Henry VI. had seen the mystery play of the Siege of Orleans acted in that town. This brings one to the much debated question, 'Who wrote the First Part of King Henry VI.?'

There can be no doubt that Shakespeare had studied both Hall's and Holinshed's chronicles. The former styled Joan of Arc 'a monstrous woman,' and also suggested that fine passage beginning 'Why ring not the bells throughout the town?' We are of those who would wish to believe that our greatest poet had but little hand in delineating the French heroine of all time as she is described in Hall and in Holinshed, and to believe that he left the play—originally written, we think, by Greene—very much as he found it. It is not indeed till the fifth act, when Joan is represented as a magician, and when the grotesqueness of the author passes even the limits of burlesque, that we fail to see a shred of the poet's skill. Nothing in Shakespeare is at once so unpoetical as well as so untrue to history as the last scene, in which Joan repudiates her father. If it is by Shakespeare—which we cannot believe—it must have been one of the very earliest of his historical plays; and, with Ben Jonson, we could wish that the passages referring to the Maid of Orleans had been freely blotted.

The era of the Renaissance brought with it in France no poets to sing of Joan of Arc, and we only find—besides the mystery play of the Siege of Orleans—one literary work relating to her at this period; that is a five-act tragedy written by a Jesuit priest named Fronton du Duc, a gloomy piece, which was acted in 1580 at Pont-à-Mousson. In the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared another tragedy by a Norman squire named Virey: it was titled Jeanne d'Arques, dite la Pucelle d'Orléans. This very mellifluous production was published at Rouen in the year 1600.

Another tragedy on the same subject appeared in 1642, written by the Abbé d'Aubignac—a very pedantic play.

Next appears an 'heroic poem' by Chapelain, published in 1656, entitled La Pucelle. Great things had been expected of this poem, but it fell very flat after a long expectancy of thirty years when it at length saw the light. Chapelain's ridiculous poem gave the idea to Voltaire of his licentious one.

Even Voltaire was ashamed of his work, and long denied that he was its author. As a very slight reparation for his deed, he writes of Joan of Arc in his Essai sur les m[oe]urs et l'esprit des natives, that the heroine would have had altars built in the days when altars were erected by primitive men to their liberators.

Southey, referring to Voltaire's infamous production, said, 'I never committed the crime of reading Voltaire's Pucelle.'

After all, Voltaire did infinitely more harm to himself by writing his poem La Pucelle than he did to the memory of the Maid of Orleans, for it revealed to the world what an amount of depravity was mixed up within that wonderful shrewd mind, and how it weakened its genius. The great Revolution which swept so many shams away with its terrible breath, venerated, to its honour be it said, both the spirit of humanity displayed by the poet-philosopher and the spirit of patriotism that possessed the virgin heroine and martyr.

In 1795 appeared Southey's heroic play on Joan of Arc. That drama is more a glorification of the principles of the French Revolution than of Joan of Arc. There is no attempt made to follow out her history. The play contains a love episode due entirely to the youthful poet's imagination, but it contains fine passages as well, and seems to us to have merited more praise from posterity than it has received.

Schiller's play, like Southey's, sins grievously as far as historical truth is concerned. The German poet wishes, it seems, to remove the bad impression made by Voltaire's poem. The play was first performed on the stage at Weimar in 1801; and the Jungfrau von Orleans met with considerable success. It contains noble lines, but is historically a mere travesty of the life and death of the heroine.

In 1815 Casimir Delavigne wrote, as a counterblast to the double invasion that France had just undergone, his well known Messeniennes to the honour of the French heroine. These poems had a great success, the second being the most admired; but they are now forgotten. Two other dramatic poets followed in Delavigne's steps: these were d'Avrigni and Soumet. By the former appeared, in 1819, a tragedy in five acts and in verse; it was performed at the Théâtre Français. Soumet's play was also acted; it almost equals d'Avrigni's in length and tediousness.

Besides the above tragedies which had, as the French term it, the honour of seeing the light of the footlights, Desnoyers wrote a play on Joan of Arc in 1841, and was followed by a series of other writers in verse and in prose—Caze, Dumolard, Maurin, Cramar, Hédouville, Millot, Lequesme, Crepot, Puymaigre, Porchat, Haldy, Renard, Jouve, Cozic, Daniel Stern, Bousson de Maviet, Constant Materne. All the above wrote plays and tragedies on the subject of Joan of Arc between the years 1805 and 1862. Daniel Stern was the only authoress who composed a drama in honour of the heroine.

While all this galimatias of dramas has sunk into the limbo which waits for all such work, Villon's two lines remain as bright as the day on which, four centuries ago, he wrote them:—

'Jeanne la bonne Lorraine,
Qu' Anglais brûlèrent à Rouen.'

Some plays on the subject of the Maid of Orleans also appeared in Italy and in England, but none is likely to retain a long hold of the stage. The drama of Joan of Arc's life has inspired two of the greatest masters of music of our day. Verdi set a tragedy by Solera to music in 1845, and in 1869 Gounod wrote some music for a piece by Jules Barbier, which was performed with some success at the Gaîté Théâtre in Paris in 1873.

What will always remain an unfortunate fact in the history of modern literature is that the two greatest minds of England and France have written on the subject of the Maid of Orleans lines which—for their fame—it were well they had never written. Whether Shakespeare composed the First Part of King Henry VI. may for long remain a disputed point, but he is responsible for that play, and consequently for the manner in which Joan of Arc is treated in it. No genius can pardon or excuse the abuse and filth with which Voltaire bespatters the immortal memory of the glorious Maid of Orleans.

Voltaire's attack on Church and State had much to excuse them in his day; but that on Joan of Arc was entirely unwarranted, uncalled for, and unpardonable. Still, could Joan have known the offence and the offender, we have no doubt she would have forgiven the ribaldry and the ribald as freely as she forgave all her enemies.

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