Maurice Scève (c. 1502-c.1564)

When Maurice Scève was born in 1501, Lyon was a thriving cosmopolitan city that enjoyed a reputation as an important economic and cultural center. Home to many wealthy banking families who had fled Italian city-states plagued by warring factions, Lyon also included a large German and Italian population responsible for the establishment of a thriving printing industry. By the 1530’s and 1540’s, Lyon had become a cultural crossroads where various intellectual communities flourished. As the paths of poets, archeologists, philologists and hommes de lettres crossed, Lyon emerged as the first center of a unified poetic movement, the site of what would become known as the “first” or “lyonnaise” Renaissance.

This poetic movement threaded together diverse influences, drawing on motifs from classical mythology as well as rules from the courtly tradition governing the codification of love that conceived of the amorous relation as a kind of mirror of the feudal structure. With the rediscovery of Plato’s works, widely circulated in a translation by the Florentine Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), Lyonnais poets began to elaborate a theory of spiritual love that was also derived partly from Petrarch.

Scève first achieved fame in 1533 by his alleged “discovery” of the tomb of Petrarch's Laura at Avignon, an event for which he would gain, in the imagination of all the sixteenth century French poets who were to imitate Petrarch in one way or another, the association of being closest intellectually and emotionally to the Italian poet. Scève’s principal works include Délie, objet de plus haulte vertu (1544); five anatomical blazons (“La Gorge,” “La Larme,” “Le Front,” “Le Souspir,” and “Le Sourcil,” the last of which was judged the best entry in a poetry competition that took place at Ferrara in 1536); the elegy Arion (1536) and the eclogue La Saulsaye (1547); Microcosme (1562), an encyclopedic epics retracing the genesis and the fall of man; as well as translations of the Spanish romance The Deplourable fin de Flamete (1535) and Latin psalms (1542), and some of the first French sonnets to be ever published in French.

Délie is composed of 449 decasyllabic dizains, or ten-line poems, after an eight-line introductory poem entitled “A Sa Délie.” “Délie” (an anagram of “L'Idée,”) long thought to be an imaginary ideal, may have alluded to the Lyonnaise poet Pernette du Guillet, whose death seems to have partly inspired Scève’s Saulsaye, églogue de la vie solitaire (1547). Regularly interspersed within the sequence are 50 emblèmes, made up of an image derived from fables, from Christian mythology or from the natural world, and a motto, usually echoed in the last line of the following poem.

The conception and the language of the collection spring from the Petrarchan tradition, but are distilled through the incorporation of a rich array of other influences synthesized by an original creative mind. Unlike in Dante and Petrarch, for example, the sublimation and purification of the love between the poet and the lady is not brought about by the lady’s death and adoption of the role of intermediary to salvation. Rather, Délie chronicles a love whose psychology is more human and realistic; though the faith of the lovers gradually evolves throughout the poem, it is never absolutely free of doubt, just as their relationship is never entirely separated from physical desire. Though Scève’s epigrams, which have been regarded with new critical interest in the last century, were considered difficult even by his contemporaries, he was widely praised during his time for having composed poetry that helped to establish French as a literary language. Scève’s Délie, the first French work modeled off Petrarch’s Canzoniere, inspired a number of later works in the same vein, including Ronsard’s Les Amours de Cassandre and Du Bellay’s Olive.

Scève is widely considered the leader of the Lyonnaise school, which included Claude de Taillemont and the women writers Pernette de Guillet, Louise Labé, Jeanne Gaillarde, Clémence de Bourges, and Scève’s sisters, Claudine and Sibyile. Scève died sometime after 1560; the exact date is unknown.
© Emily Dalton & Cécile Alduy

Selective Bibliography:
Works by Scève:

La Deplourable Fin de Flamete, elegante invention de Jehan de Flores Espaignol, traduicte en Langue Françoyse (Lyon, François Juste, 1535)
“La Gorge,” “La Larme,” “Le Front,” “Le Souspir,” and “Le Sourcil,” in Blasons anatomiques du corps féminin (c.1536-1550)
Arion and five Latin poems (Lyon, Françoys Juste, 1536)
Délie, objet de plus haulte vertu (Lyon, Constantin pour Sulpice Sabon, 1544)
La Saulsaye, églogue de la vie solitaire (Lyon, J. de Tournes, 1547)
Microcosme (Lyon, J. de Tournes, 1562)

Critical Works:

-Alduy, Cécile. Maurice Scève, Paris, Memini, 2006.
-Baker, Deborah Lesko, Narcissus and the Lover : Mythic Recovery and Reinvention in Scève's Délie, Saratoga, Cal, Anma Libri, 1986.
-Baur, Albert, Maurice Scève et la Renaissance lyonnaise : étude d'histoire littéraire, Paris, H. Champion, 1906.
-Françoise Charpentier (ed.), Dix études sur la Délie de Maurice Scève, Paris, École Nationale Supérieure de Jeunes Filles, 1987.
-Coleman, Dorothy Gabe, Maurice Scève, Poet of Love: Tradition And Originality, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
-Frelick, Nancy Margaret, Délie as Other : Toward a Poetics of Desire in Scève’s Délie, Lexington, KY, French Forum, 1994.
-Giordano, Michael.  The Art of Meditation and the French Renaissance Love Lyric: The Poetics of Introspection in Maurice Sceve's Delie, Object de Plus Haulte Vertu (1544). University of Toronto Press, 201.

- Helgeson, James Seymour, Harmonie divine et subjectivité poétique chez Maurice Scève, Genève, Droz, 2001.
-Hunkeler, Thomas, Le Vif du sens : corps et poésie selon Maurice Scève, Genève, Droz, 2003.
-Nash, Jerry C., A Scève Celebration: Délie 1544-1944, Saratoga, CA, Anma Libri, 1994.

-Quignard, Pascal, La Parole de la Délie, Paris, Mercure de France, 1974.

-Risset, Jacqueline, L’Anagramme du désir : essai sur la Délie de Maurice Scève, Rome, M. Bulzoni, 1971.
-Risset, Jacqueline, Traduction et mémoire poétique : Dante, Scève, Rimbaud, Proust, Paris, Hermann éditeurs, 2007.
-Saulnier, Verdun L., Maurice Scève : (ca. 1500-1560), Genève : Slatkine, 1981.

-Skenazi, Cynthia, Maurice Scève et la pensée chrétienne, Genève, Droz, 1992.

Digital resources:

Updated bibliography on Scève and Délie by Alduy on (2012).

Fac-simile des emblèmes en mode texte et image à French Emblems at Glasgow.


Students’ Interpretative Highlights:

“The collection’s innovation lies also in its exploration of the role of memory and retrospection in the evolution of the love relationship; the speaker of Délie must rely on memory to actively reconstruct past suffering in order to transform it into a transcendent recollected experience.” Emily Dalton, Renaissance Body Seminar 2006.