Authors: François Malherbe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French poet and critic

Author Works


Les Larmes de Saint Pierre, 1587

Consolation à Monsieur du Périer sur la mort de sa fille, c. 1600

Prière pour le roi Henri le Grand, 1605

Prière pour le roi allant en Limousin, 1607

Ballet de Madame, 1615

Poésies, 1626


François Malherbe (mah-lehrb) was the official court poet of Henri IV and Louis XIII. His poetry and doctrine established the rules of poetic composition in his time and became the standard for French classical literature. He was the eldest son of François de Malherbe and Louise de Valois. The family belonged to the noblesse de robe (court nobility); his father held the position of councillor of the inferior court at Caen. Expecting his son to take up the profession of law and eventually to succeed him in his office, Malherbe’s father sent him to study at the universities in Basel and Heidelberg. Malherbe, however, had little predilection for the law and, upon finishing his studies, became secretary to Henri d’Angoulême, grand prieur of France and governor of Provence, and followed him to Aix-en-Provence in 1576. The young Malherbe had aspirations for a military career, but military glory was not to be his, although he was invested as a soldier in September, 1577. With the exception of two brief stays in Normandy, he lived in Aix until 1605. He married Madeleine de Coriolis in October, 1581. Henri d’Angoulême was killed in a duel in 1586, and Malherbe returned to Caen. In 1587, he began his career as a poet with an imitation of a work of Luigi Tansillo, Les Larmes de Saint Pierre (the tears of Saint Peter). He later denied having composed this poem. In 1590, he wrote his best-known poem, Consolation à Monsieur du Périer sur la mort de sa fille (consolation to Mr. du Périer on the death of his daughter). In 1595 he returned to Aix and the following year composed an ode to Henri IV on the capture of Marseilles. Then, in 1600, he offered an ode to Marie de Medici, who had arrived in France to become the queen of Henri IV.{$I[A]Malherbe, François}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Malherbe, François}{$I[tim]1555;Malherbe, François}

Although Malherbe had been living away from the court and had written only about fifteen poems, he had come to the attention of several individuals who were influential at court. Cardinal Jacques Davy du Perron was a Calvinist converted to Catholicism, instrumental in the conversion of Henri IV and a writer of sermons, religious polemics, and poetry. Du Perron spoke of Malherbe to the king and said Malherbe was the best poet in the kingdom. When Malherbe arrived in Paris in 1605, the duc de Bellegarde welcomed him into his home and gave him an allowance which permitted him to live at court. Vauquelin des Yveteaux, one of the poets of the hôtel du quai Malaquais, obtained an audience for Malherbe with the king, who asked him to compose a poem. Malherbe composed Prière pour le roi Henri le Grand (prayer for Henri the Great). Henri IV admired the poem greatly, and Malherbe became the most influential poet at the court. As the favorite poet of both the king and his queen, Malherbe composed poems for all of the important national events and for many other court occasions. He also wrote paraphrases of psalms and poems dedicated to ladies of the court. Thus, during his lifetime, he composed 125 poems (approximately four thousand verses) in various poetical forms–odes, sonnets, songs, and stanzas.

Malherbe’s position as official court poet afforded him the opportunity to impose his poetical doctrine and to orient the literature of his time. He quickly acquired a number of disciples. Malherbe was happiest when surrounded by his students. Self-confident and persuaded of the superiority of his poetical doctrine, Malherbe was quick to criticize and to reject the great poets of the past, such as Pierre de Ronsard. However, he did not reject the poetical forms but called for more regulated poetic technique. In spite of his preoccupation with rules of poetry, Malherbe wrote no treatise on theory. He recorded his doctrine, as critical commentary, on the pages of his copy of the œuvres of Philippe Desportes. He also applied his rules and standards of composition in his poems. The doctrine that he developed for writing verse broke with the Humanist tradition, which relied heavily on imitation of the Greek and Latin poets of antiquity. He advocated a new poetry imbued with rigorous logic and absolute clarity, precise and completely free of ambiguity. In his desire for precision and clarity, Malherbe went beyond setting technical rules in poetry; he also played the role of the grammarian, concerning himself with exact meaning of words and proper syntax. By 1620, Malherbe’s doctrine was the rule for most of the poets of importance at court.

In 1627, Malherbe’s son died in a duel. It is believed that the loss of his son contributed to Malherbe’s own death, which occurred in 1628. His doctrine continued to exert enormous influence after his death. Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, whose L’Art poétique (1674; The Art of Poetry, 1683) summarized classical doctrine, looked upon Malherbe as the savior of the French language, and his rules of poetry became the standard for the great classical theater of the seventeenth century.

BibliographyAbraham, Claude K. Enfin Malherbe: The Influence of Malherbe on French Lyric Prosody, 1605-1674. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1971. A good discussion of Malherbe doctrine, giving insight into the importance of Malherbe and the role he played in the development of literature in France.Campion, Edmund J. “Poetic Theory in Théophile de Viau’s ‘Élégie à une dame.’” Concerning Poetry 20 (1987): 1-9. Describes why Malherbe’s contemporary Théophile de Viau rejected Malherbe’s attempt to impose one standard on all poets. Unlike Malherbe, Théophile de Viau believed that a truly original poet must develop his or her unique style and voice.Chesters, G. “Malherbe, Ponge, and Revolutionary Classicism.” In The Classical Tradition in French Literature. London: Grant and Cutler, 1977. Describes well the arguments in Francis Ponge’s 1965 book Pour un Malherbe in which this eminent twentieth-century French poet attempted rather successfully to rehabilitate Malherbe’s poetry but not his poetics.Gershuny, Walter, “Seventeenth-Century Commemorative Verse.” Cahiers du dix-septième 3, no.1 (Spring, 1989): 279-289. Explains very clearly formal poems which the court poet Malherbe wrote to honor the French kings Henry IV and Louis XIII.Gosse, Edmond. Malherbe and the Classical Reaction in the Seventeenth Century. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1920. This study deals specifically with Malherbe’s importance to the creation of French classical literature.Rubin, David Lee. Higher, Hidden Order: Design and Meanings in the Odes of Malherbe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972. A book-length study on the rhetoric of praise and blame in the numerous odes that Malherbe wrote during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Like Abraham, Rubin argues that Malherbe was a more successful and effective poet than traditional criticism indicates.Wadsworth, Phillip A. “Malherbe and His Influence.” In Studies in Seventeenth Century French Literature Presented to Morris Bishop. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1962. A concise evaluation of the importance of Malherbe as a critic and theorist.Winegarter, Rene. French Lyric Poetry in the Age of Malherbe. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1954. A useful consideration of Malherbe’s work in the light of that of his contemporaries.
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