Emblems of Desire: Selections from the Délie of Maurice Scève
Edited and translated from the French by Richard Sieburth
Archipelago Books, $15 (paper)

The most famous incident in the mysterious life of Maurice Scèvetook place in 1533. While a student in Avignon, he was asked by two Italian noblemen to help locate the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura. Scève took them to a chapel where, in an unmarked grave, they discovered bones, a bronze medal with an eroticized image of the Madonna, and a locked box, in which Scévefound a sealed sheet of paper, which in turn contained a sonnet, the words illegible with age. Only Scéve, as the apocryphal tale recounts, could decipher the text, presumed to have been written by Petrarch himself.

Regardless of its facticity, the anecdote perfectly depicts the French writer claiming poetic authority from the “Tuscan Apollo.” Much of the wonder of the early-modern period consists in observing the myriad ways the Italian Renaissance trickled into neighboring languages and cultures. In English poetry, this occurred with Thomas Wyatt and Surrey’s translations of Petrarch and first tinkerings with the sonnet. In France, this importation began with Clément Marot, but it is perhaps most deeply expressed in the 1544 appearance of Maurice Scéve’s canzoniere, Délie .

The dedicatory huitain of the sequence announces Scève’s intention and method:

To His Délie

Not the scorching sparks of Venus,
And less the arrows Cupid shoots:
But those deaths you renew in me
I wished to describe to you in this Work.
I know you’ll read many an error
Here, even in Epigrams this hard:
Love (all the same) seeing me write these
For your sake, drew them through his flames.
Suffer not suffer

The following 449 poems exemplify this “hard” retelling of love’s “renewing deaths.” Although his mentor Marot and others had begun working with the sonnet form, Scève intriguingly chooses the dizain, a poem of ten lines, each consisting of ten syllables. What seems to be a highly restricted form Scévemakes surprisingly versatile, nuancing the divisions of the poems into 6+4 or 4+4+2 or 4+3+3. Likewise, the form’s compression preserves the true songlike quality of Italian canzone, in particular the strambotto. It is known that several of Scéve’s dizains were set to music, something that, in the case of the sonnet, occurred more and more seldomly. Indeed, these one-hundred-syllable containers make the sonnet seem to be “four lines too long,” as Valéry Larbaud claimed. The formal risk for Scéve, meanwhile, was a hyper-compression that his early readers took for deliberate abstruseness. Richard Sieburth, in his excellent introduction to Emblems of Desire, recounts that “A mere generation after Scéve’s death, the critic Pasquier was already observing that the poet’s ‘senseless obscurity’ was the reason why ‘his book died with him,’ while the 19th-century Sainte-Beuve pronounced him ‘well-nigh unreadable.’”

Aside from technical prowess, what makes the Délie so rich is how much these little boxes contain. On the one hand, it is richly allusive to legends and the classical tradition. On the other, it is a thoroughly modern text, describing landscapes with a new precision that displays an awareness of Renaissance discoveries in color and scientific reason, as embodied most notably in the career of da Vinci. At one point, Scéverefers to “counting the Clock,” what is commonly thought to be the first reference to the timepiece in Western literature. Likewise, the fifty woodcut emblems embedded among the dizains are thought to be the first to appear within a canzoniere. Incorporating Petrarch, the Bible, and various classical texts and topoi, the Délie embodies an apex of humanist learning as applied to a singular sensibility.

The Délie begins with the arrow of love piercing the lover’s eye like a Basilisk, the legendary serpent whose gaze can kill:

The Eye, too afire with my youthful errors,
Whirled like a weathercock, without design:
When suddenly (what delight, what terrors)
My Basilisk, now sharpening its sights,
Pierced Body, & Heart, put Reason to flight,
Lancing deep into the Soul of my Soul.

Each poem then proceeds to distill individual moments of a (quite literally) delirious love affair. Zigzagging between hope and despair, indeed completely absent of narrative, this sustained and systematic recounting of “renewing deaths” captures every angle of intense and complicated love. Even in contemporary poetry this remarkable minimalism remains influential. For instance, “Fragment,” John Ashbery’s fifty-dizain sequence (originally illustrated with “emblems” by Alex Katz), explores the “intermediate” nature of the dizain. Not quite a stanza, not quite an autonomous poem, the dizain connects tentatively with others around it, emphasizing a poem’s multiplicity rather than its satisfying closure. And it is this peculiar quality of the Délie that leads to what initially seems like a grave error—Sieburth’s choice to translate only 88 of the 450 poems in the sequence—a pleasing distillation of a text that prizes the potency of distillation and compression.

Scèvegave his editors permission to publish the sequence with or without the accompanying emblems, yet it is clear that he collaborated in their making and conceived of them providing commentary, emphasis, and counterpoint to the poems. In the full Délie , the emblems occur once every nine poems, as if they are the first of ten statements or reflections. If Sieburth’s choice to provide only a selection of the poems while publishing all fifty of the original emblems is problematic, it is only because it might overemphasize the degree of interaction between emblem and text. However, Sieburth’s selection is so careful and the notes on images and texts so pragmatic that regardless of the design of the original, this volume’s organization succeeds in activating the complex and sophisticated function of the emblems in Scéve’s text.

In addition to its incorporation of visual emblems, Scève’s sequence breaks with Petrarchan conventions in other ways. Where the courtly love ethos continually pits spiritual love against physical lust and passion, Scéve’s sequence often emphasizes how the two are inextricable. Likewise, the beloved does, at some point, return the lover’s advances. More remarkable is the fact that she does not die. Instead, the lover describes his own aging, death, and miserable self-division, even as the beloved is still in his midst. Scéveprizes, in other words, a realistic depiction of the relationship and its aftermath, whether he is speaking of metaphysical desire or the landscape in which it takes place:

As Mountains gently retreat from our sight,
Their green is changed to the color of blue,
Which, further away, seems white to our eyes
Through the perspective which distance accrues.
The measureless affect I bring to you
Likewise takes on taints of green in your sight,
And, far from you, causes that fire to pale
Which, nearer you, consumes my very life.

The material world, especially the nature and geography of Lyons, appears throughout the Délie , an especially potent actor when one considers that the Rhône is a masculine noun in French, whereas the river that intersects it, the Saône, is feminine. Scève puns on this in dizain 396:

And you, Rhône, you roil, & foam
As you rage down from the Alps
Toward the cool waters of the Saône,
Waiting to take you in her soft breast.

Most reviews of translations concentrate on how translations fail. Because languages nuance human experience in unique ways, every translation is a failure, if the goal is to render completely the poem in the original. Good translations hierarchize, singling out the central elements that constitute the essence of the original and bringing what might exist powerfully in the target language. What makes Scéve’s work so culturally and historically significant is also what makes it so challenging to translate; the lyrical voice and image-ridden conceits, displaying the marvelous culmination of the French and Italian Medieval and Renaissance traditions, feel like newly discovered technology. It is humbling to this translator to see the ways in which Sieburth so successfully brings much of the feel and experience of Scéve’s work into English across the gulfs of both language and time. Given how crucial Scéve’s use of rhyme and the line is, Sieburth’s rendering of these dizains into a compact rhymed English is appropriate and ambitious. Many of these translations are astonishingly alive in their new forms. Take, for example, the lover’s attempt to reason:

The less I see her, the more I hate her:
The more I hate her, the less anger I feel.
The more I adore her, the less it means:
The more I flee her, the more I wish her near.

Nevertheless, there are moments in which Sieburth sacrifices the primacy of the image to accommodate the music, and the result inevitably weakens the power of the English version. An example of such occurs in dizain 221, where a fish . . .

startled by the breeze,
Fights so fiercely it at last swims away,
At which my Mistress weeps, much aggrieved.
Stop: I tell her, let me rather lament
The great joy of this Fish you could not clasp,
For he is now free from imprisonment,
And I can never escape from your grasp.

Although Sieburth admirably guards the rhyme with “clasp” and “grasp,” and therefore much of the rhythm and feel of the dizain, he still loses the frisson of opposites Scévemarvelously (and characteristically) makes chime together in the original: attraper (to trap) with eschapper (to escape). In doing so, Sieburth is also forced to weaken the image of the fish which, in the French, spasms upon “sensing the new air,” instead of being “startled by the breeze.”

Another such example occurs in dizain 345, wherein Sieburth’s fidelity to the sound of Scéve’s dizains compromises some of its most scintillating manifestations of paradox to express the effect of being stricken by love:

But in her arms, in whatever she
might do,
You do not feel the harm her love can
Which night, & day, without even
touching her,
Is enough to hearten me, & give me pause.

In the original, the beloved’s touch is compared specifically to fire, and the lover is all too happy to be scorched. Sieburth’s version sacrifices the fire as well as the paradox that such a touch destroys the lover, more or less joyfully.

Scholars repeatedly point out that Scéve’s work was uniformly overlooked until it was defended and recuperated in the early 20th century, beginning with the poet and translator Valôry Larbaud. But even now, it is no exaggeration to state that Scéveis virtually unknown to the average reader of poetry, and even to college French majors. An earlier version of the Sieburth’s translation likewise received hardly any notice when it was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2002. But it is a tremendous service to have such a strong translation of Scéve’s work, and in the present edition Archipelago Books has produced the kind of book one likes to hold in one’s hands. In addition to the pleasing feel of the cover and the paper, even the book’s square shape is compelling, an apt physical container for the dizains and emblems it holds. Sieburth’s selections, meanwhile, cover the key poems in Scéve’s sequence while also including virtually every poem of importance to French scholars. His thorough and highly readable introduction and notes, marked by academic rigor, provide insightful context and glosses of the poems. It is rare to see a book so perfectly equipped to both befriend the non-specialist reader and aid the scholar. If Scéve’s work is finally to enter the mainstream, this is the book that will make it possible.