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Théophile de Viau (1590 - 1626)

Related: 1600s literature - French literature

Contemporaries: Shakespeare - Caravaggio - Robert Fludd - Rubens - Jacques Callot - Artemisia Gentileschi - René Descartes - Salvator Rosa

"The trial of the poet Theophile de Viau in 1623 is a milestone both in the reinvention of obscenity and in the history of censorship..." --The Reinvention of Obscenity : Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France (2002) - Joan DeJean


Théophile de Viau (Clairac, near Agen in the Lot-et-Garonne, 1590 - Paris, September 25, 1626) was a French baroque poet and dramatist.

Raised as a huguenot, Théóphile de Viau participated in the protestant wars in Guyenne from 1615-1616 in the service of the Comte de Candale. After the war, he was pardoned and became a brilliant young poet in the royal court. Théophile came into contact with the epicurian ideas of the Italian philosopher Lucillo Vanini (who was accused of heresy and of practicing magic and was burned alive in Toulouse in 1619) which questioned the immortality of the soul. Because of his religion, his libertine ideas and his homosexuality (in his youth, he is believed to have been the lover of Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac), Théophile de Viau was banished from France (1619) and traveled in England; he returned to the court in 1620. In 1622, a collection of licentious poems, "Le Parnasse satyrique", was published under his name (although many of the poems were written by others) and Théophile was denounced by the Jesuits and was sentenced to appear bare foot before Notre Dame in Paris and to be burned alive (1623). With Théophile de Viau in hiding, the sentence was carried out in effigy, but the poet was eventually caught in flight toward England and put in the Conciergerie prison in Paris for almost two years. The trial lead to debates among scholars and writers, and 55 pamphlets were published both for and against Théophile. His sentence was changed to perpetual banishment and Théophile spent the remaining months of his life in Chantilly under the protection of the Duke of Montmorency before dying in Paris in 1626.

Théophile de Viau's works includes one play, "Les Amours tragiques de Pyrame et Thisbé" (performed 1621) (the story of Pyramus and Thisbe), satirical poems, sonnets, odes and elegies. Théophile's poetic style refused the logical and classicist constraints of François de Malherbe and remained attached to the emotional and the baroque images of the late Renaissance, such as in his ode "Un corbeau devant moi croasse" ("A crow before me caws") which paints a fantastic scene of thunder, serpents and fire (much like a painting by Salvator Rosa). Two of his poems are melancholy pleas to the king on the subject of his incarceration or exile, and this tone of sadness is also present in his ode "On Solitide" which mixes classical motifs with an elegy about the poet in the midst of a forest.

Théophile de Viau was rediscovered by the French Romantics in the 19th century. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Th%C3%A9ophile_de_Viau [May 2006]

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