The French poet Joachim du Bellay (ca. 1522-1560) was second only to Ronsard in his mastery of 16th-century poetic forms and showed an arresting talent for satire and simplicity.
Joachim du Bellay was born at the Château de la Turmelière in Anjou, probably in 1522. When he was about 23, he began to study law at Poitiers, but the lure of poetry was stronger and Du Bellay soon left for Paris to study along with Pierre Ronsard and Jean Antoine de Baïf under the great Jean Dorat, who taught Latin and Greek literature at the Collège de Coqueret.
In 1549 Dorat's students published the Deffence et illustration de la langue française, written by Du Bellay. It defended French against Latin and proposed ways by which French writers could elevate their language and literature to the perfection of the classics. The work specifically singled out the Italian sonnet, the ode, the elegy, the epic, and tragedy and comedy as practiced by the ancients as fitting genres to replace the traditional medieval forms. With the Deffence Du Bellay published the first major sonnet cycle in France, the Olive.
Du Bellay's major works, the Regrets, the Divers jeux rustiques, Le Premier livre des antiquitez de Rome, and the Poemata (all published in 1558), owe a large part of their inspiration to his stay in Rome, where he went with his relative Cardinal Jean du Bellay in 1553. However, with the passage of time his enthusiasm for Rome gave way to bitter disappointment in both the city and the Church, and in August 1557 he returned to Paris.
These four works of 1558 are quite diverse. The Poemata contains only Latin verse. The Jeux rustiques, in French, is mainly a collection of light works in the tradition of Navagero and Secundus. The Antiquitez and the Regrets offer Du Bellay's most brilliant French poetry in a serious vein. The former work contrasts Rome's past glory with the decay that Du Bellay discovered. The Regrets can be divided into three parts. The first relates Du Bellay's unhappiness in Rome and his longing for France and includes his famous sonnet Heureux qui comme Ulysse. The second part is a biting satire on Rome and the Holy See, and the third treats his return to the French court.
More personal than the Antiquitez, the Regrets reveals Du Bellay as a versatile master of the sonnet form. He was derivative, like all the poets of his time, but was particularly skillful in conveying a sense of private anguish or scorn. The young poet died of a stroke on New Year's Day 1560.
H. W. Lawton's anthology of Joachim du Bellay's Poems (1961) includes a discussion of the poet's life and works. Useful for an understanding of Du Bellay's Roman poems is Gladys Dickinson, Du Bellay in Rome (1960).