Now, let’s place Theophile de Viau in context, and get on to the marvelous public letter he wrote Louis XIII – in a tone, and with a frankness, that would certainly have been unthinkable fifty years later.
Scholars would place Theophile de Viau in the French Renaissance period. He’s a contemporary of Robert Herrick – of the Cavalier poets. He started out in life with an excellent education – he learned Greek, Spanish, Italian and English at his school, Saumer, and he gained a smattering of the new sciences – or natural magic, as Bacon referred to them. Being relatively wealthy, when he came to Paris, as he confesses in his letters, he fell into vice. Although nowadays he is celebrated as a Gay litterateur – by people who simply sort through history, look for the assfucking, not literature, and pluck out the assfucker – his debauches were, as far as we know from his own words, with women, although Tallement repeats a story that he seduced a boy he was tutoring, and there are enough rumors about Theophile that the hasty searchers for Gay avatars aren’t wholly wrong. But he was not Marlowe – or at least not in this sense. There is a boldness, a recklessness in Theophile that does remind one of Marlowe, though. As Claire Gaudiami has pointed out, for instance [The Cabaret Poetry of Théophile de Viau: Texts and Traditions, 43-5], an 1618 poem, Elegie de M. de C., contains cosmological speculation about the materiality of the soul – composed of the four elements, governed by the stars – and its finitude, on the lines of Vanini, who was burned at the stake in 1619 in Toulouse. And like Marlowe, the record of his banishments, arrests and connections is a strange one – he certainly had influence with King Louis XIII, and the Duke of Buckingham was instrumental in getting him out of some jams – and we do know, following the sodomite trail, that the Duke of Buckingham was rumored to be not only a sodomite, but a corruptor of Prince Charles, and certainly a favorite of King James, famous for his taste in pretty boys. It was this atmosphere that made the Victorians, always eager to find good protestant martyrs to the intolerance of superstition and the Catholic Church, shy away from him. And, of course, it is what makes him wildly attractive to us. Mad, bad and dangerous to know – isn’t this the stuff of our heroes?
So here he is, poet and backdoor man, courtier, connector, the rich man’s son who flees from his debtors, the cabaret poet, to use Gaudiami’s term, the beaux esprit, to use the sneering phrase of his great accuser, the Jesuit Voisin.
Mon esprit, plein d’amour et plein de liberté
Sans fard et sans respect t’escrit la verité.
So, there you have the man who wrote the poem in my last post, more or less.
Which brings us to one of the odder ‘human documents’ of the seventeenth century, Theophile’s Apologie, a letter he wrote the King about his arrest and trial for – well, it is part of his complaint that it was never quite clear what his crime was.
It is an odd document because it mixes a tone of courtly flattery and servility (worthy of an op ed piece in the Washington Post) with the recounting of incidents in a tone that is recognizably modern. That is, recognizably conscious of its modernity – for that is what is modern. Just that. And so the tone in the letter has an intimacy, breaks down the barriers of politesse, with an unusual assurance, as if the way Theophile was writing was just the way everybody wrote. With all the assumption that intimacy, of a sort that did not exist between a husband and wife or a father and son in the seventeenth century, could exist between the writer and the reader – who is, of course, the King. Less invisible than in Velasquez’ Las Meninas, and yet not wholly visible. Well, here is Theophile’s account of his arrest.
“After the interrogation, which contained no accusation, M. de Conmartin assured me that I was dead. I responded that the king was just and that I was innocent. And then he ordered me to taken to Saint-Quentin, after which he took his leave to join the constable, who he had quit in order to help the priests capture me. They tied great ropes around me all over and put me on a feeble, limping horse, which made me run more risks than all the witnesses of my hearings. The spectacle of the execution of some famous criminal never attracted the crowd that I drew to my imprisonment. All of a sudden I am in the holding area, then thrust into a hole in which the ceiling itself was underground. I lay down, still dressed, and draped with irons so rude and weighty that the marks and pains of them remain in my limbs. The walls sweated with humidity; I, with fear.”
Theophile’s first play used motifs from Gongora. Although Don Quixotte wasn’t translated into French until after Theophile died, I don’t think it is so unlikely that he might have read the first volume of it. Louis XIII’s wife was Spanish, Theophile could speak the language – am I stretching to see the intrusion of a new prose style, a cross section of the vernacular of the peasant and the new learning, in this image of a man on a limping horse, surrounded by priests, trussed up like a pig? “The walls sweated with humidity; I, with fear.” It is going to take a long time for English prose to get close to this kind of statement of fact.