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What is a Chant Royal? Famous Poem Example

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CHANT ROYAL, one of the fixed forms of verse invented by the ingenuity of the poets of medieval France. It is composed of five strophes, identical in arrangement, of eleven verses each, and of an envoi of five verses. All the strophes are written on the five rhymes exhibited in the first strophe, the entire poem, therefore, consisting of sixty lines in the course of which five rhymes are repeated. It has been conjectured that the chant royal is an extended ballade, or rather a ballade conceived upon a larger scale; but which form preceded the other appears to be uncertain. On this point Henri de Croï, who wrote about these forms of verse in his Art et science de rhétorique (1493), throws no light. He dwells, however, on the great dignity of what he calls the “Champt Royal,” and says that those who defy with success the ardour of its rules deserve crowns and garlands for their pains. Étienne Pasquier (1529-1615) points out the fact that the Chant Royal, by its length and the rigidity of its structure, is better fitted than the ballade for solemn and pompous themes. In Old French, the most admired chants royal are those of Clement Marot; his Chant royal chrestien, with its refrain

“Santé au corps, et Paradis à l’âme,”

was celebrated. Théodore de Banville defines the chant royal as essentially belonging to ages of faith, when its subjects could be either the exploits of a hero of royal race or the processional splendours of religion. La Fontaine was the latest of the French poets to attempt the chant royal, until it was resuscitated in modern times.

This species of poem was unknown in English medieval literature and was only introduced into Great Britain in the last quarter of the 19th century. The earliest chant royal in English was that published by Edmund Gosse in 1877; it is here given to exemplify the structure and rhyme-arrangement of the form:—

The Praise of Dionysus

“Behold, above the mountains there is light,

A streak of gold, a line of gathering fire,

And the dim East hath suddenly grown bright

With pale aerial flame, that drives up higher

The lurid mists which all the night long were

Breasting the dark ravines and coverts bare;

Behold, behold! the granite gates unclose,

And down the vales a lyric people flows,

Who dance to music, and in dancing fling

Their frantic robes to every wind that blows,

And deathless praises to the Vine-God sing.

Nearer they press, and nearer still in sight,

Still dancing blithely in a seemly choir;

Tossing on high the symbol of their rite,

The cone-tipp’d thyrsus of a god’s desire;

Nearer they come, tall damsels flushed and fair,

With ivy circling their abundant hair,

Onward, with even pace, in stately rows,

With eye that flashes, and with cheek that glows,

And all the while their tribute-songs they bring,

And newer glories of the past disclose

And deathless praises to the Vine-God sing.

The pure luxuriance of their limbs is white,

And flashes clearer as they draw the nigher,

Bathed in an air of infinite delight,

Smooth without wound of thorn, or fleck of mire,

Borne up by song as by a trumpet’s blare,

Leading the van to conquest, on they fare,

Fearless and bold, whoever comes or goes,

These shining cohorts of Bacchantes close,

Shouting and shouting till the mountains ring,

And forests grim forget their ancient woes,

And deathless praises to the Vine-God sing.

And youths there are for whom full many a night

Brought dreams of bliss, vague dreams that haunt and tire

Who rose in their own ecstasy bedight,

And wandered forth through many a scourging briar,

And waited shivering in the icy air,

And wrapped the leopard-skin about them there,

Knowing for all the bitter air that froze,

The time must come, that every poet knows,

When he shall rise and feel himself a king,

And follow, follow where the ivy grows,

And deathless praises to the Vine-God sing.

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But oh! within the heart of this great flight,

Whose ivory arms hold up the golden lyre?

What form is this of more than mortal height?

What matchless beauty, what inspiréd ire?

The brindled panthers know the prize they bear,

And harmonize their steps with tender care;

Bent to the morning, like a living rose,

The immortal splendour of his face he shows;

And, where he glances, leaf and flower and wing

Tremble with rapture, stirred in their repose,

And deathless praises to the Vine-God sing.

Envoi.

Prince of the flute and ivy, all thy foes

Record the bounty that thy grace bestows,

But we, thy servants, to thy glory cling,

And with no frigid lips our songs compose,

And deathless praises to the Vine-God sing.

In the middle ages the chant royal was largely used for the praise of the Virgin Mary. Eustache Deschamps (1340-1410) distinguishes these Marian chants royaux, which were called “serventois,” by the absence of an envoi. These poems are first mentioned by Rutebeuf, a trouvère of the 13th century. The chant royal is practically unknown outside French and English literature.


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