Literary Hard Labor: Hercules, lyric, and autobiography in Erasmus and Du Bellay
In scholarship on sixteenth-century France, Hercules is most widely known as the Lucianesque figure, the ‘Gallic Hercules’ who found his way into the hearts and minds of humanists, who, as R.E. Hollowell put it, ‘saw in [him] a ready-made literary and artistic device to glorify their language, their literature, and their monarchy’. Glorification of the monarchy was, not surprisingly, a key use Hercules in Ronsard, the royal poet. However, the situation is quite different in the context of Ronsard’s rival Joachim du Bellay. In the latter’s Regrets, which subtly question and undermine courtliness and French identity as attached to the person of the king, du Bellay’s diplomatic duties are often presented as so opposed to the act of writing verse that du Bellay almost wants to deny the status of poetry, likening them to ‘daily jottings or chronicles’ and thus to prose. Insofar as du Bellay underscores in the first sonnet of the Regrets how different his situation is from the epic heroes Odysseus and Jason, and furthermore that, unlike Ronsard, he has no pretense of writing epic, the appearance of Hercules in the Regrets is noteworthy.
The purpose of this chapter is first to reexamine the classical distinction between negotium and otium, and then to consider to what extent the notion of struggle and travails is central to the development of the lyric voice and the autobiographical genre in du Bellay’s innovative verse. I propose to do this not by examining the figure of Odysseus as I have in the past, but by exploring the references to and the context for the mythological figure of Hercules, who, like Odysseus, is closely associated with the king in the Regrets. Beginning with Erasmus’ paradigmatic Adagia, this chapter uses Erasmus’ treatment of the Greek hero in the adage ‘Herculei labores’, in which Hercules is made to embody humanist labour, to suggest unsuspected connections between lyric, labour, and autobiographical genre in sixteenth-century Europe.
Provisional content for The Exemplary Hercules