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Clément Marot, a witty and learned poet

problems of perception


First part of an essay by Dick Wursten, 'Clément Marot, the Learned Poet. If interested in the full text (focussing in particular on his Psalm versifications, I refer to my scholarly website: www.renaissance.wursten.be

To substantiate my thesis (and for further reading) : footnotes and part of the bibliography are retained.




Viewing the French poet Clément Marot not only as a ‘court poet’ - writing light verse (badinage) - but as a ‘learned poet’ as well, opens up new possibilities not only to understand why he translated the Classics: Ovid, Virgil, Martial - to which list the Hebrew Psalter should be added, but also how he did it. The 'playful' and the 'serious' are not conflictuous, but united in Renaissance Humanism. That is where Marot really belongs.

The famous Boileau quote («Imitons de Marot l'élégant badinage / Et laissons le burlesque aux plaisants du Pont-Neuf.») haunts the Marot reception already too long. It is uncritically reproduced in almost every introduction to Marot’s poetry. The venom is not in the tail (the reproach), but in the first line, the compliment. The appraisal narrows the perspective of the reader to Marot as an elegant badineur (which he was), obscuring that his qualities might extend further than this, that he was something else as well. Another fatal mixture of apprecation and reproach can be observed in religious circles concerning Marot’s beliefs and morals, exemplified in the judgement of Th. de Bèze (for this see note 2 and the full article, already referred to).





First part of the Essay

The perception of the French poet Clément Marot (ca. 1496-1544) is still heavily loaded up by the way he was perceived in the past. Although the idea that he was the last of the Grands Rhétoriqueurs (not really a great poet, more a transitory figure, on the brink of the Renaissance but not fully aware of it) is now abandoned by everyone with more than superficial knowledge of the matters at stake, the discussion about his work and person is still often conducted based on premises of the past.[1] Too often Marot is torn between two kinds of lovers of his work: those who appreciate the secular Marot, the skilful court poet who had to please his benefactors and who succeeded brilliantly in doing so. It is true, who will deny it: Marot has an amazing ability to write the kind of poetry his readers wanted to hear, once pleasing – almost seducing – the Ladies of the Court with his elegant poetic verse; then pleasing the male with coarse and jocular epigrams, but always wittily approaching his superiors, versatile and volatile.[2] On the other hand there are readers who are fascinated by his biography. Living close to Marguerite de Navarre, the ‘mother’ of the French evangelical movement, he found himself in the eye of the religious storms of his days. Willingly or unwillingly he played a role in the struggle for reform of the church that escalated during his lifetime; his name figured prominently on the list of wanted ‘heretics’ (the first who is not a cleric or a theologian[3]) in the aftermath of the Affaire des Placards (1534/1535), forcing him into exile for two full years, and of course: his cooperation with Jean Calvin in 1543 culminating in the publication of his 50 Psalm versifications. Lots of ink have been spilled on efforts to reconcile these two views on Marot, or rather: on outplaying them one against the other. Some conclude that Marot was a protestant zealot, others suggest that his allegiance to the evangelical cause was only transitory and superficial etc.[4] Next to the fact that we should not be surprised that sixteenth century human beings are as complex as we are, that they can change, develop, mature, react differently when circumstances change etc., and that – thus – straightforward explanations of texts and motives are generally erroneous, it might be helpful to introduce a third perspective to look at the same poet, sc. that he – as a participant of the Humanist movement – was a learned poet, a ‘Docte Poët’. This is often obscured because of the focus (determined by the past) on Marot as a court poet and on his religious commitment (or the absence of it), but everyone in the first part of the 16th century agreed on this aspect of Marot’s poetic output.[5] His poems were highly praised in Humanist circles; some were even translated into Latin by French neo‑Latin poets, often the same who wrote laudatory verses to serve as preliminary texts to the editions of L’Adolescence clementine (1532), the Suite (1533/1534) and the Oeuvres (1538).[6]  More than a decade later Marot’s translation of the first two books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses were incorporated in the editon by the Barthélémy Aneau, principal of the Collège de la Trinité in Lyon, when he published them together with his translation of the third book.[7] These learned men, Humanist scholars, did consider Marot one of theirs, even though he wrote in the vernacular. We often overlook this aspect because it is so unexpected (exactly the opposite to the traditional image of the frivolous poet who took life lightly) and because our own focus can easily become a bias, so that we do not see the obvious: to play the role of a courtly poet, to write light verses, esp. in dangerous times, requires a lot of rational and emotional intelligence, ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’. One word on the wrong place, to the wrong person, on the wrong moment, might be fatal. Trying to please the powerful is not something lightly to be undertaken. On the other hand: the focus on religious aspects and his tumultuous biography might blind readers for other motives behind his actions than the ones one is looking for. Without being aware of it, all actions or writings of Marot that touch this field are automatically interpreted as signs of allegiance to one or other party, obscuring the possibility that Marot might well have entered this field on his own terms and with his own agenda. Including this new element – Marot as a learned poet – as a third parameter in the discussion concerning Marot’s poetry and person, might not only help to relax the previously experienced opposition between the secular court poet and the religiously involved psalmist , but also to open some new perspectives on the man and his writings. Finally, signalling this aspect of Marot’s poetry is not at all new. Anyone who has followed the efforts of the Marot scholars of the last 50 years (naming only C.A. Mayer, G. Defaux and F. Rigolot), will have noticed how gradually a Marot emerged, who was so much more than a clever versifier. He was aware of his times, not a follower but a fore-runner. This is not the place to expand on this aspect, it might suffice to draw attention to the fact that everything he touched changed under his hands. Chansons were never the same after Marot wrote his chansons, epistolary art idem ditto; psalm versifications: it was done before, but after Marot made it his job, it seemed as if he was the inventor of the genre etc. He was involved in publishing his own poems, editing a poet from the past to protect his poetry from oblivion (Villon), participating in the homogenisation of French orthography, inventing new lyrical forms, transforming old ones. He was not a background player, but a front man. If one reads his longer lyrical and narrative poetry, one is impressed how he succeeds in finding that particular tone that befits the subject and the addressee. If one then studies the footnotes, the references, one is impressed how he excelled in re-creating, imitating and emulating Latin originals, not only in explicit translations, but also in implicit imitations (mainly Ovid’s Tristia in his epistolary art). For this I refer the readers to the critical editions of any of the three Marot-editors, mentioned above; even Guiffrey in the nineteenth century had already a keen eye for this if one scrolls through his extensive footnotes.


In this essay - which one can read in full at www.renaissance.wursten.be - I try to show that in his Psalm paraphrases Marot had similar objectives and that his translations should not be judged only from religious or poetical perspective, but also as a scholarly achievement or at least as an effort to achieve a translation in the vernacular of these old texts that could meet the standards of Marot’s Humanist friends, who also sometimes included Psalm translations in their collections of neo-Latin poems. To proof this – or to make this plausible – I present and analyse one of Marot’s last versifications (Psalm 110), revealing as no other that the learned aspect is a general characteristic of his effort to translate biblical Psalms après la vérité hébraique.[8] The literary-historical and poetical appreciation/evaluation of this effort has been done very convincingly by several scholars, and – for once – with converging conclusions: The historical phenomenon of Psalm translations in the vernacular and the assessment of the poetical developments in the sixteenth century have been thoroughly studied by Michel Jeanneret in his pioneering work on sixteenth century Psalm paraphrases, Poésie et tradition biblique (Paris, 1969). Jeanneret used Marot’s Psalm paraphrases as a historical benchmark: ‘before and after.’ His chapter 3 (pp. 51–87) is entirely dedicated to Marot. Poetical aspects of the translation as such have been dealt with meticulously and with much feel for detail by Catherine Reuben, La traduction des Psaumes de David par Clément Marot. Aspects poétiques et théologiques (Paris, 2004). Their conclusions converge: Marot’s approach cannot be compared to what has been done before both in poesia and in interpretation. The richness of forms developed as moulds for the Psalms, the variety of poetic means used to express the content, and the concentration on the original Bible text are features that distinguish Marot’s Psalm paraphrases from what went before. To quote de Bèze once more: “[Marot] surpassa tous les poëtes qui l’avoyent devancé.” (Bèze, Les vrais pourtraits, p. 162)









———, Les Oeuvres, 5 vols., ed. Georges Guiffrey, Robert Yve–Plessis [and Jean Plattard] (Paris, 1874–1931).

———, Oeuvres complètes (ed. C.A. Mayer) : 1. Les Épitres (London : Athlone Press, 1958) – 2. Oeuvres satyriques (London: Athlone Press, 1962) – 3. Oeuvres lyriques (London: Athlone Press, 1964) – 4. Oeuvres diverses. (Rondeaux, Ballades, Chants–Royaux, Épitaphes, Étrennes, Sonnets) (London : Athlone Press, 1966) – 5. Les Épigrammes (London: Athlone Press, 1967) – 6. Les Traductions (Geneva : Droz, 1980).

———, Oeuvres poétiques complètes (ed. G. Defaux). 1. L’Adolescence clementine; La Suite de l’Adolescence clementine, (Paris : Bordas, 1990) – 2. Recueil des oeuvres les plus nouvelles et récentes, augmenté d’inédits et compositions par cy devant non encore imprimées (Paris : Bordas, 1992).

———, Oeuvres complètes, 2 vols., ed. François Rigolot (Paris : Flammarion, 2007–09).

———, Cinquante pseaumes de David mis en françoys selon la vérité hébraïque, ed. G. Defaux (Paris : Champion, 1995).

———, Les psaumes de Clément Marot. Edition critique du plus ancien texte (ms. Paris B.N. Fr. 2337) avec toutes les variantes des manuscrits et des plus anciennes éditions jusqu’à 1543, accompagnée du texte définitif de 1562, ed. S.J. Lenselink (Assen : Van Gorcum, 1969).



Secondary Literature


Clément Marot “prince des poëtes françois” 1496–1996. Actes du colloque international de Cahors–en–Quercy, 21–25 mai 1996, ed. G. Defaux and M. Simonin (Paris: Champion, 1997).

Humanism and letters in the age of François Ier. Proceedings of the Fourth Cambridge Renaissance Colloquium (19–21 september 1994), ed. P. Ford and G. Jondorf (Cambridge : Cambridge French Colloquia, 1996).

La génération Marot. Poètes français et néo–latins (1515–1550). Actes du colloque international de Baltimore, 5–7 décembre 1996, ed. G. Defaux (Paris: Champion, 1997).

Literature and the Arts in the Reign of Francis I, essays presented to C.A. Mayer, eds. P.M Smith and I.D. McFarlane (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum publishers, 1985)

Renaissance reflections: essays in memory of C.A. Mayer, eds. P.M. Smith and T. Peach (Paris: Champion, 2002).



Becker, P.A., Clement Marots Psalmenübersetzung (Leipzig: Teubner, 1921).

Defaux, G., Cinquante pseaumes de David mis en françoys selon la vérité hébraïque  (Paris : Champion,1995).

———, ‘Facing the Marot Generation: Ronsard’s giovenili errori’, in MLN 119 Supplement (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004): pp. 299–326

Defaux, G. and Lestringant, F., ‘Marot et le problème de l’évangélisme: à propos de trois articles récents de C.A. Mayer,’ Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 54 (1992), 125–30.

Galand–Hallyn, P., ‘Marot, Macrin, Bourbon: “Muse naïve” et “tendre style”,’ in Actes du Colloque de Baltimore, pp. 211–40.

Jeanneret, M., ‘Marot, traducteur des psaumes, entre le néo–platonisme et la Réforme,’ Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 27 (1965), 629–43.

———, Poésie et tradition biblique au XVIe siècle (Paris : Corti, 1969).

Magnien, M., ‘Marot et l’Humanisme (suite): Jean de Boysonné et le Maro Gallicus,’ in La génération Marot. Poètes français et néo–latins (1515–1550). Actes du colloque international de Baltimore, pp. 261–80.

———, ‘«Marotus latine nescivit»: la lettre de Jean De Boyssoné à Jacques Delexi. Présentation résumé transcription,’ in Clément Marot “prince des poëtes françois” 1496–1996. Actes du colloque international de Cahors–en–Quercy, pp. 817–24.

Mayer, C.A., La religion de Marot (Geneva, 1960, repr. 1973).

———, Clément Marot (Paris, 1972).

———, Bibliographie des éditions de Clément Marot publiées au XVIe siècle (Paris 1975)

———, ‘Clement Marot and literary history,’ in Clément Marot et autres études, ed. T. Peach and P.M. Smith (Paris, 1993), pp. 85–96.

———, Clément Marot et autres études sur la littérature française de la Renaissance, ed. T. Peach and P.M. Smith (Paris: Champion, 1993).

Reuben, C., La traduction des Psaumes de David par Clément Marot: aspects poétiques et théologiques (Paris : Champion, 2001).

———, ‘Clément Marot’s translation of the Psalms in the service of Reformation,’ in Renaissance Reflections (Paris, 2002), 107–27.

Screech, M.A., Marot évangélique (Geneva: Droz, 1967).

———, Clément Marot: A Renaissance poet discovers the Gospel. Lutheranism, Fabrism, and Calvinism in the royal courts of France and of Navarre and in the ducal court of Ferrara (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

Shaw, D.J., ‘Clément Marot’s humanist contacts in Ferrara,’ French studies 52 (1998), 279–90.

Smith, P.M., ‘Clément Marot and Humanism,’ in Humanism and Letters, pp. 133–50.

———, Clement Marot: poet of the French Renaissance (London: Athlone Press, 1970).

Wanegffelen, T., Ni Rome ni Genève. Des fidèles entre deux chaires en France au XVIe siècle (Paris : Champion, 1997).

Wursten, D., ‘Did Clément Marot really offer his Trente Pseaulmes to the Emperor Charles V in January 1540?,’ Renaissance Studies 22 (2008), 240–50.

———, Clément Marot and Religion, A Reassessment in the Light of his Psalm Paraphrases (Leiden: Brill, 2010)




[1] There is only one scholarly biography of Clément Marot: C.A. Mayer, Clément Marot (Paris: Nizet, 1972). In this book a general appreciation of Marot’s oeuvre is present as well. G. Defaux’s introduction to his edition of Marot’s Oeuvres Poétiques, 2 vols. (Paris: Garnier, 1990–92), vol. 1, pp. xvii–clxix, can serve as a supplement. For a survey of the reception history of Marot’s poetry through the centuries, see C.A. Mayer, ‘Clément Marot and literary history’, in C.A. Mayer, Clément Marot et autres études sur la littérature française de la Renaissance (Paris: Champion, 1993), pp. 85‑96. Once more one of the last articles of G. Defaux might also be helpful: ‘Facing the Marot Generation: Ronsard’s giovenili errori’, in MLN 119 Supplement (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004): pp. 299–326, in particular pp. 306ff. The fact that internet encyclopaedia often reproduce material older than 70 years – dissolution of copyright – not only considerably prolongs the lifespan of superseded theories, it might even occasionally cause the revival of legends having long become obsolete. Marot f.i. was nòt wounded at the battle of Pavia, but if one checks the internet one will more often read the opposite, because 70 years ago that view was commonly hold. Isn’t it a challenge for the academic world to try to compensate for this penchant for the past that paradoxically clings to the internet in these matters.

[2] Next to Boileau's mixture of appreciation and reproach («Imitons de Marot l'élégant badinage / Et laissons le burlesque aux plaisants du Pont-Neuf.»), which haunts the Marot reception already too long, obscuring that his qualities might extend further than his ability to write light verse, there is a similarly fatal mixture of apprecation and reproach in religious circles concerning Marot’s beliefs and morals: Théodore de Bèze, Les vrais pourtraits des hommes illustres en pieté et doctrine ([Geneva], Jean I de Laon, 1581), grants Marot a place in the gallery but not without reproaching him at the same time for his lifestyle: “…il fit un notable service aux Eglises, & dont il sera memoire à jamais, traduisant en vers françois un tiers de Pseaumes de David. Mais au reste, ayant passé presque toute sa vie à la suite de Cour (où la pieté et l’honnesteté n’ont gueres d’audiance), il ne se soucia pas beaucoup de reformer sa vie peu chrestienne, ains se gouvernoit à sa manière acoustumee, mesmes en sa vieillesse…” (p. 162). That Marot was not half-hearted in his religious opinions, but simply refused to make a choice on the terms of the ermerging calvinist doctrine, is what it obscured by this statement. For a full assessment of his religious stance, see Dick Wursten, Clément Marot and Religion, A Reassessment in the Light of his Psalm Paraphrases (Leiden: Brill, 2010).

[3] Two different lists exist. They were published in BSHPF 10 (1861), 34–39 and BSHPF 11 (1862), 253–258; corrected, merged and commented by V.–L. Bourrilly and N. Weiss in BSHPF 53 (1904), 125–129. N° 1 on the list is Pierre Caroli, n° 7 is Marot. His friend Lyon Jamet and the court musician Jehannet de Bouchefort also figure on it.

[4] The protagonist was C.A. Mayer. He published a controversial book on Marot’s religion in 1960 stating that the only religion Marot really adhered to, while fiercely criticising the established Church and its practices, was a profound faith in man: C.A. Mayer, La religion de Marot (Geneva: Droz, 1960). The antagonist was M.A. Screech. In 1967 he claimed that Marot was a committed Evangelical with strong Lutheran traits: M.A. Screech, Marot Evangélique (Geneva: Droz, 1967). These two views have dominated the field for a long time, the position of Screech having been adopted and adapted by G. Defaux (1990/92). In 1992 this conflict culminated in a harsh polemics, when G. Defaux and F. Lestringant accused Mayer of an unscholarly bias in his treatment of the subject of Marot and religion: ‘Marot et le problème de l’évangélisme: à propos de trois articles récents de C.A. Mayer,’ BHR 54 (1992), pp. 125–130. In the aftermath of this conflict Screech’s monography was translated into English (with additions, among which an analysis of an unauthentic poem with a Calvinist tone): Clément Marot. A Renaissance poet discovers the gospel: Lutheranism, Fabrism and Calvinism in the Royal courts of France and of Navarre and in the ducal court of Ferrara (Leiden:Brill, 1994). For this, see Dick Wursten, Clément Marot and Religion, pp. 112-120.

[5] That Marot is ‘un Humaniste méconnu’ is the complaint of M.‑M. de La Garanderie (quoted by P.M. Smith, “Clément Marot and Humanism’, in Humanism and letters in the age of François Ier., ed. P. Ford and G. Jondorf (Cambridge, 1996). p. 133). The term ‘Docte Poëte’ is used by De Bèze to refer to Marot (prefatory epistle to the edition of the Pseaumes Octantetrois (Geneva, 1551), v. 104). Modern studies analysing his translations from the Latin find only few mistakes, of which some even might be liberties taken deliberately. Soundings can be found in: Clément Marot “prince des poëtes françois” 1496–1996. Actes du colloque international de Cahors–en–Quercy, 21–25 mai 1996, ed. G. Defaux and M. Simonin (Paris: Champion, 1997), part I (p. 21‑140); and in: La génération Marot. Poètes français et néo–latins (1515–1550). Actes du colloque international de Baltimore, 5–7 décembre 1996, ed. G. Defaux (Paris, 1997). The phrase in a text by Jean de Boyssoné, ‘Marotus latine nescivit’ (“Marot does not know Latin”) refers to the fact that ciceronian Latin was not the kind of Latin that should be associated with Marot, but it does not say anything about his ability to read, understand and translate from the Latin. For this, see Michel Magnien, ‘Marot et l’Humanisme (suite): Jean de Boysonné et le Maro Gallicus’ in Actes du colloque de Baltimore, pp. 261‑280.

[6] For examples and a comprehensive overview, see I.D. McFarlane, ‘Marot and the world of Neo-Latin Poetry’, in Literature and the Arts in the reign of Francis I (Lexington, Kentucky: French Forum publishers, 1985), pp. 103–130. The poets who wrote liminary verses were Nicolas Bérault (1473-1550), a Hellenist, disciple of Budé, eminent translator and commentator, who finished his life as preceptor of Gaspard de Coligny; Nicolas Bourbon (1473-1550), a highly praised neo-Latin Poet (Nugae, 1533), imprisoned for his Evangelical attitude early 1534, preceptor of Jeanne d’Albret; Jean Salmon Macrin (1490-1557), by contemporaries considered to be the ‘French Horace’. To this already impressive list we can add Antoine Macault, translator of Cicero and Homer, who translated the Bourbon and Macrin verses into French for the 1534 edition of Fr. Juste (Defaux OP II, p. 798). Etienne Dolet, publisher of Marot’s Oeuvres (1538) wrote laudatory liminary poems for the translation of Ovid and the first book of epigrams (Defaux, OP II, p. 202, 403). For this, see also Perrine Galand‑Hallyn, ‘Marot, Macrin, Bourbon, « Muse naïve » et « tendre style »’, in Actes du colloque Baltimore, pp. 211‑240. In a very illuminating article David Shaw has gathered old and new testimonies about Marot and his fame in Latinising Humanist circles. To the above list we can add: Jean Visagier (Epigrammata), Joh. Sleidanus (Commentariorum de statu religionis & reipublicae), Théodore de Bèze (Icones) and Damiao de Gois (letter to Bonifacius Amerbach. See David J. Shaw, ‘Clément Marot’s Humanist contacts in Ferrara’, French studies 52/3 (1998), pp. 279‑290.

[7] Trois premiers livres de Ia Métamorphose d’Ovide, traduictz en vers françois, le premier et second par Cl. Marot, le tiers par B. Aneau (Lyon, M. Bonhomme, 1556). In his introduction Aneau praises Marot’s translation of the Psalms: “Quant aux Pseaumes de David veritablement il les a mieux entenduz, & à son plaisir à la suycte de Campense paraphrasez bien doucement plustost que translatez.” (c5r°), and even when he refers to the fact that he had made some emendations in Marot’s translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he very elegantly turns this into a compliment: “Et ne doubte point que quand Marot mesme seroit vivant il ne me sceust bon gré de telles animadversions. Comme il estoit homme candide, gracieux, & ne portant mal estre admonesté, tant tel l’ay je congneu.” (c 4v°).

[8] The first known effort of Marot on this field is the translation of Psalm 6, one of the seven penitential Psalms, thus quite appropriately included in the 1533 edition of the Miroir de l’ame pecheresse, Marguerite de Navarre’s pious meditation on her own sinfulness and God’s all-embracing grace. His firstling proved to be successful, since after the mid-1530s other versifications began to circulate in manuscript, quotes pop up in his own poems (e.g. Epistre de Frippelippes). Thirty of them were printed officially for the first time in 1541 in Paris (E. Roffet) dedicated to King Francis. Thirteen translations were published in 1539 in Strasbourg by Jean Calvin in his hymnbook (with music) and all thirty were published in 1541 in Antwerp (De Gois – text only), both not based on the officially approved text version but testifying of a previous state. Late 1542 Marot went to Geneva, undertook a second revision of his 30 Psalms adding another 20 versifications. Jean Calvin provided housing and income, while Guillaume Franc (cantor of the Saint-Pierre) revised and composed melodies. The result was introduced in church service in the summer of 1543 (June, the 6th is the date of Calvin’s preface). An anonymous publication by Jean Girard, Geneva, of the Psalm collection (texts only), Cinquante pseaumes, appeared in 1543. In an introductory poem Marot dedicated these Psalm translations to the Ladies of the French Court (les Dames de France). All editions were censored by the Paris Faculty of Theology (1543 onwards), but remained highly popular for several decades, not limiting its success to either confession.



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