Jean Antoine de Baïf

Jean Antoine de Baïf

More About Baïf’s Life and Works

The natural son of the humanist scholar and diplomat, Lazare de Baïf, Jean-Antoine received an excellent early education, followed by studies of the classics and Italian literature at the Collège de Coqueret in Paris. There, Baïf joined Ronsard and Du Bellay to study with the renowned humanist, Jean Dorat. At Coqueret, the young poets formed the influential French poetic circle initially called “la Brigade.” They later took the name of the “Pléïade,” after the group of seven influential Alexandrian poets of the 3rd century B.C. (whose name came from the cluster of seven stars that have inspired numerous myths and legends).

In his love poetry, Baïf follows the Italian models (Petrarch, above all) that widely influenced French Renaissance poetry. In 1552, Baïf published the two books of his Amours for Méline, a canzoniere of Petrarchan-style love poetry written for an idealized woman. Baïf wrote the four books of his Amours de Francine (1555) for Françoise de Gennes, a young woman he met in Poitiers.

Baïf took orders in the church and received an ecclesiastical income that supplemented his inheritance and allowed him to devote all his time to writing. Charles IX eventually named Baïf royal secretary, which allowed him to live with the King’s entourage in Paris. Later in his life, during the troubled reign of Henri III, Baïf finds himself suffering from illness and poverty and, in his 1581 Mimes, the poet mocks his status in the church and the insufficient financial support from his patrons:

Qui cogne cogne & rien n’auance,
   I’ay trauaillé sous esperance.
   Les Rois mon trauail ont loué,
   Plus que n’a valu mon merite.
   Mais la recompense est petite
   Pour vn labeur tant auoué.
Puis que ie n’ay crosse ni mitre:
   Puis que ie n’y plus que le tiltre
   D’vne friuole pension,
   Bonne iadis, auiourdhuy vaine:

In 1567, Baïf published his comedy in verse, Le Brave, an adaptation of Plautus’s Miles gloriosus. When staged that year at the Hôtel de Guise, the play met with success. Along with his lyric poetry and the narrative verse of his early Rauissement d’Europe (1552), Baïf’s Le Brave and several translations of classical plays point to the poet’s desire to experiment in all genres. Also in 1567, Baïf published a short scientific and didactic poem, Le Premier des Météores, dedicated to Catherine de Médicis. Based on the Meteorum Liber of Pontano, the volume reflects the increasing popularity of scientific writings (and of astrology in particular) in Baïf’s day, as well as the poet’s own interest in scientific truth.

With the support and protection of Charles IX, Baïf founded in 1570 the Académie de poésie et de musique, whose principal aim was to reestablish the union of poetry and music, after the models of classical antiquity. Members of the academy included other Pléïade poets (Ronsard and Jodelle, for example), musicians (Claude le Jeune, Eustache du Caurroy, Jacques Mauduit), and humanist scholars. As a part of his work within the academy, Baïf continued his research on rhythm and rhyme and created new metrical patterns based on Greek poetry, as well as a new, reformed system of spelling based on phonetics. The results of Baïf’s musical research, his metrical experiments and his proposed spelling reforms were not widely adopted, but together with his collected poetry and translations of the psalms they embody the versatility and enthusiastic pursuit of knowledge and invention characteristic of the French Renaissance.

Euvres en rime

In 1572, Baïf published his collected Euvres en rime in four volumes. According to the poet, these volumes represent most of his work of twenty-three years, including numerous poems written in his youth, which he carefully rewrote (changing vocabulary, syntax and versification) for the 1572 Euvres en Rime. Mathieu Augé-Chiquet’s thorough study of Baïf’s life and works (see reference at bottom of page) examines the influence of the Greek Alexandrian poets on Baïf’s work, and emphasizes the degree to which Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso served as models for Baïf’s narrative verse. Those influences surface in the many genres represented in the collected works, including pastoral eglogues, epigrams (many translated from Greek models), mythological narratives, poems for the court, Horation odes, and didactic poetry.

The first work in volume 1 of the Euvres en Rime provides a prime example of Baïf’s didactic verse. Le Premier des météores is a study of celestial (astronomical) phenomena, based primarily on scientific writings of the ancients and the Meteorum liber by the 15th century Italian humanist, Pontano. Baïf wrote his work on meteors to gain the favor of the queen mother, Catherine de Médicis, whose superstitions regularly led her to consult astrologers. Baïf’s plan was to write four books on meteors and atmospheric phenomena, but the project was interrupted by the civil wars in France. He did publish the first book, however, (dedicated to Catherine de Médicis), which explains the composition of the universe (of its four elements—fire, air, water, and earth), the movements of the sky, the influence of the stars, as well as the causes of extraordinary phenomena such as comets. Despite a pretense of scientific precision, Baïf (like his contemporaries) relies on authorial tradition and poetic imagination to explain natural phenomena.

In 1574, he published his Etrénes de poéie fransoëze an vers mezurés, printed using his new system of orthography. Baïf’s spelling reforms never took hold, but he continued to use them in his own work until his death. In 1574, Henri III elevated the status of the academy, renamed the Académie du Palais, making it one of the most important cultural institutions in France. Under the influence of the new king, however, the focus of the academy’s work shifted from that of music and poetry to eloquence in the service of morality.

Mimes, enseignements et proverbes

In 1576, Baïf published the first edition of his last collection, entitled Mimes, enseignements et proverbes. The short text of 1576 was well received, and Baïf continued to add to the work, publishing a much expanded version in 1581. Following a popular sixteenth-century format, Baïf’s Mimes use proverbs, popular expressions, fables and rhyming adages for both the pleasure and the moral edification of the reader. The collection also includes political satires and épîtres.

In the final years of his life, surrounded by civil wars in France, Baïf turned his interest to religious questions and texts. He translated the Psalter in French metrical verse, in Latin verse and in French rhyming verse.

A faithful Catholic subject of his king (first Charles IX, then Henry III), Baïf lamented in his Mimes the religious and civil conflict that turned brother against brother and caused so much suffering and bloodshed.

He condemned the sacrilegious violence of the Protestants, as well as the poisonous rebellion of the Catholic League, regretting the monarch’s difficulty in reestablishing political and religious unity.

About Gordon 1581 .B27

In the bibliographical notes to his modern critical edition of the Mimes (Geneva: Droz, 1992), Jean Vignes identifies two 1576 editions (a slim volume of what would become the first part of the 1581 Mimes) and two 1581 editions. Vignes distinguishes between the two 1581 editions based on a number of typographical and orthographical variants. The content and composition of each page is identical, but the innumerable variants “attestent une complète recomposition de l’ouvrage par l’imprimeur” (p. 42). The University of Virginia volume is one of the “exemplaires de 1581 non examinés (C ou D)” mentioned by Vignes. (p. 40-43). According to the variants cited, Gordon 1581.B27 is a copy of edition D in Vignes’ bibliography.

Vignes’s critical edition of the Mimes is based on the “D” version of the 1581 edition, the last to appear during the author’s lifetime, and the one on which the posthumous 1597 edition is based. (See Vigne’s bibliographical notes, p. 47.)

— Karen James, University of Virginia (2006)