A page from the "Poetry through the Ages" exhibit...

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Renaissance hits.

The rondeau derived from two main sources: the rondel, a short repeating-line poem; and the rondeaux, courtly songs that, with their catchy rentrement (refrains), were akin to pop hits in 14th and 15th century France. The form’s colorful evolution begins with a pair of rondels that show the makings of a fixed repeating-line style:

Anonymous Woman Poet (12th century)

I walk in loneliness through the greenwood

for I have none to go with me.
Since I have lost my friend by not being good
I walk in loneliness through the greenwood.
I’ll send him word and make it understood
that I will be good company.
I walk in loneliness through the greenwood
for I have none to go with me.
Charles d'Orleans (1391-1465)

Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart,

And with some store of pleasure give me aid,
For jealousy, with all them of his part,
Strong siege about the weary tower has laid.
Nay, if to break his bands thou art afraid,
Too weak to make his cruel force depart,
Strengthen at least this castle of my heart,
And with some store of pleasure give me aid.
Nay, let not jealousy, for all his art
Be master, and the tower in ruin laid,
That still, ah, Love, thy gracious rule obeyed.
Advance, and give me succor of my part;
Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart.

Literary roundeaux.

By the 14th century, poet-composer Guillame de Machaut, poet Christine di Pisan, and Parisian music school headmaster Jehan Valliant found large audiences with literary rondeaux. With his reach as the Western world’s foremost composer, de Machaut popularized the form. This Jehan Valliant poem illustrates both full-length refrain lines and the 15-line form we know today:

Listen, Everyone!
Jehan Valliant (14th century)

Listen, everyone! I have lost my girl

For he who finds her, on my soul
Even though she is fair and kindly
I give her up heartily
Without raising a stink at all.

This girl knows her graces well

God knows, she loves and is loyal
For heaven’s sake, let him keep her secretly
Listen, everyone! I have lost my girl

Look after her well, this pearl

Let no one hurt or wound her
For by heaven, this pretty
Is sweetness itself to everybody
Woe is me! I cry to the world
Listen, everyone! I have lost my girl

Format changes.

In the 15th century, three poets emerged to keep the rondeau’s popularity burning: outlaw poet Francois Villon, Eustache Deschamps, and Clement Marot. Villon’s rondeaux were interesting because they dealt not with love, spring, or the other lofty-heart subjects for which the form was best known, but with bitterness, envy, death, loss, and revenge. Villon’s work illustrates a format change in the rondeau: truncated end-lines of the second and third stanzas.

Death I Appeal
Francois Villon (c. 1431-1463)

Death I appeal your harshness

Having robbed me of my mistress
You remain unsatisfied
Waiting for me to languish, too
Since then I’ve had no strength or vigor
But in her life did she offend you?
Death etc.

We were two, we had but one heart

Since it is dead then I must die
Yes or live without life
As images do, by heart
Death etc.

Messages of the heart.

After its popularity waned in the early 16th century, the rondeau was practically obsolete. English poet Anthony Hamilton (1646-1720) tried to revive the form, but it wasn’t until 150 years later that the ever-studious Romanticists found in rondeau poems yet another way to convey messages of the heart. The form was revived, then a century later served to deliver two of the English language’s most famous poems, one by Paul Lawrence Dunbar and the other by John McCrae.

We Wear the Mask
Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties

Why should the world be over-wise

In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see up, while
We wear the mask

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
In Flanders Fields
John McCrae (1872-1918)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row
That mark the place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below

We are the dead; short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take upon your quarrel with the foe!

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.