Charles D'Orléans

The French prince and poet Charles, Duc d'Orléans (1394-1465), a repeated victim of the political intrigues into which he was born, drew from his tragic life the impetus to write lyrics remarkable for their polish and charm.

The son of Charles VI's brother Louis d'Orléans, Charles d'Orléans was only 13 years old when the Burgundians assassinated his father, thus making him titular head of his family in 1407. His mother, Valentine Visconti, Duchess of Milan, died the following year. In 1415 Charles participated in the Battle of Agincourt, where he was taken captive by the English. Taken to England and held for ransom, the duke remained in captivity until 1440, receiving now painful, now charitable treatment from the English.

When freedom came, Charles's misfortunes did not cease. The cost of his ransom had depleted his resources, and his attempt in 1447 to regain by force the Italian lands he had inherited from his mother failed utterly. Charles ended his years on his estates near Blois, where he formed a literary circle of sufficient renown to attract François Villon. Charles's court was graced by his third wife, the young Marie de Clèves, with whom he had several children, including a son, Louis, who later became King Louis XII of France.

The greatest portion of Charles's writing consists of ballads and rondels. The poet evolved in their use, preferring the ballad in the years before his return to France and the rondel after 1440; that is, Charles moved away from a malleable form that he exploited to the fullest toward an equally malleable form that he treated conservatively. Although no pattern dominates among the ballads, Charles had a marked predilection for the rondel with either a 4-4-5 or 4-3-5 strophic arrangement. Charles also evolved away from the amour courtois views of his younger years. His mature verse exhibits an amused, ironic, and, rarely, wistful attitude toward life and its lost pleasures. Only too aware of the vanity of titles and of the gap between the chivalric code and the realities of aristocratic life, Charles produced poetry that participates fully in the malaise of the declining Middle Ages.

Charles's poetry of self-analysis is best known for its ingenious use of allegory. Influenced by Le Roman de la rose and by Jean de Garencières, Charles greatly expanded their techniques until triple the number of allegorical characters that appear in Le Roman de la rose people his poems. During his period of exile, Hope, Sadness, and Loyalty recurred in his verse, whereas in his later poems Melancholy and Care figured. Initially very artificial, these characters were gradually developed by the poet into a means of self-expression of undeniable sophistication.

Further Reading on Charles D'Orléans

Two major studies of Charles are by Norma L. Goodrich, Charles, Duke of Orleans: A Literary Biography (1963) and Charles of Orleans: A Study of Themes in His French and in His English Poetry (1967). Also useful is John H. Fox, The Lyric Poetry of Charles d'Orléans (1969).