It was the time of the rhétoriqueurs, poets who combined stilted and pedantic language with an obstinate adherence to the allegorical manner of the 15th century and to the most complicated and artificial forms of the ballade and the rondeau. Clément practised this form of poetry, which he would later help overthrow, and he wrote panegyrics to Guillaume Cretin, the supposed original of the Raminagrobis of François Rabelais, while he translated Virgil's first eclogue in 1512. He soon gave up the study of law and became page to Nicolas de Neuville, seigneur de Villeroy, which led to his introduction into court life. The house of Valois, which would hold the throne of France for the greater part of a century, was devoted to literature.
As early as 1514, before the accession of François I, Clément presented to him his Judgment of Minos, and shortly afterwards he was either styled or styled himself facteur (poet) de la reine to Queen Claude. In 1519 he was attached to the suite of Marguerite d'Alençon (the king's sister and later to become Marguerite de Navarre), a great patron of the arts. He was also a great favourite of Francis himself, attended the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, and duly celebrated it in verse. In the next year he was at the camp in Flanders, and wrote of the horrors of war.
It is certain that Marot, like most of Marguerite's literary court, and perhaps more than most, was attracted by her gracious ways, her unfailing kindness, and her admirable intellectual accomplishments, but there is no grounds for thinking that they had a romantic relationship. At this time, either sentiment or matured critical judgment effected a great change in his style, a change probably for the better. At the same time he writes in praise of a certain Diane, whom some have identified with Diane de Poitiers. There is much against this theory, it being invariably the habit of 16th century poets to refer to real women under pseudonyms.
In 1524, Marot accompanied Francis on his disastrous Italian campaign. The king was taken prisoner at the Battle of Pavia, but there are no grounds for supposing that Marot was wounded or shared the king's fate, and he was back in Paris again by the beginning of 1525. However, Marguerite for intellectual reasons, and her brother for political, had until then favoured the double movement of "Aufklärung", partly humanist, partly reforming, which distinguished the beginning of the century. Formidable opposition to both forms of innovation now began to appear, and Marot, never particularly prudent, was arrested on a charge of heresy and lodged in the Châtelet in February 1526. This was only a foretaste of his coming trouble, and a friendly prelate, acting for Marguerite, arranged his release before Easter. The imprisonment caused him to write a vigorous poem entitled Enfer (hell), later imitated by his friend Etienne Dolet. His father died about this time, and Marot seems to have been appointed in Jean's place as valet de chambre to the king. He was certainly a member of the royal household in 1528 with a stipend of 250 livres. In 1530, probably, he married. The following year he was once again in trouble, this time for attempting to rescue a prisoner, and was again released, this time after Marot wrote the king one of his most famous poems, appealing for his release.
In 1532 he published (it had perhaps appeared three years earlier), under the title of Adolescence Clémentine, the first printed collection of his works, which was very popular and was frequently reprinted with additions. Dolet's edition of 1538 is believed to be the most authoritative. Unfortunately, the poet's enemies, not discouraged by their previous failures, ensured that Marot was implicated in the 1534 Affair of the Placards, and this time he fled. He passed through Nérac, the court of Navarre, and made his way to Renée, duchess of Ferrara, a supporter of the French reformers as steadfast as her sister-in-law Marguerite, and even more efficacious, because her dominions were outside France. At Ferrara his work there included the celebrated Blasons (a descriptive poem, improved upon medieval models), which set all the verse-writers of France imitating them. The blason was defined by Thomas Sibilet as a perpetual praise or continuous vituperation of its subject. The blasons of Marot's followers were printed in 1543 with the title of Blasons anatomiques du corps féminin.
Duchess Renée was not able to persuade her husband, Ercole d'Este, to share her views, and Marot had to leave Ferrara. He went to Venice, but before very long Pope Paul III remonstrated with Francis I on the severity with which the Protestants were treated, and they were allowed to return to Paris on condition of recanting their errors. Marot returned with the rest, and abjured his heresy at Lyon. In 1539 Francis gave him a house and grounds in the suburbs.
It was at this time that his famous translations of the Psalms appeared. The powerful influence which the book exercised on contemporaries is universally acknowledged. The great persons of the court chose different pieces, each as his or her favourite. They were sung in the court and in the city, and they are said, probably with exaggeration, to have done more than anything else to advance the cause of the Reformation in France. Indeed, the prose translations of the Scriptures were of little merit or power in France, and poetry was still preferred to prose, even for the most incongruous subjects. However Marot's translations of the Psalms continued to be sung for centuries to come by Protestant congregations.
At the same time Marot engaged in a curious literary quarrel characteristic of the time, with a lesser poet named Sagon, who represented the reactionary Sorbonne. Half the verse-writers of France aligned themselves as Marotiques or Sagontiques, and a great deal of versified abuse was exchanged. Victory, as far as wit was concerned, remained with Marot, but his biographers suggest that a certain amount of ill-will was created against him by the squabble, and that, as in Dolet’s case, his subsequent misfortunes were partly the result of his own rashness.
The publication of the Psalms gave the Sorbonne the opportunity to condemn Marot. In 1543 it was evident that he could not rely on the protection of Francis. Marot accordingly fled to Geneva; but the stars were now decidedly against him. He had, like most of his friends, been at least as much of a freethinker as a Protestant, and this was fatal to his reputation in the austere city of Calvin. He again had to flee, and made his way into Piedmont, and he died at Turin in the autumn of 1544.
In character Marot seems to have been a typical Frenchman of the old stamp, cheerful, good-humoured and amiable enough, but probably not very much disposed to an elaborately moral life and conversation or to serious reflection. He has sometimes been charged with a want of independence of character; but it is fair to remember that in the Middle Ages men of letters naturally attached themselves as dependants to the great. Such scanty knowledge as we have of his relations with his equals is favourable to him. He certainly at one time quarrelled with Dolet, or at least wrote a violent epigram against him, for which there is no known cause. But, as Dolet quarrelled with almost every friend he ever had, and in two or three cases played them the shabbiest of tricks, the presumption is not against Marot in this matter. With other poets like Mellin de Saint-Gelais and Brodeau, with prose writers like Rabelais and Bonaventure des Périers, he was always on excellent terms. And whatever may have been his personal weaknesses, his importance in the history of French literature is very great, and was long under- rather than over-valued. Coming immediately before a great literary reform--that of the Pléiade--Marot suffered the drawbacks of his position; he was both eclipsed and decried by the partakers in that reform.
In the reaction against the Pléiade he recovered honour; but its restoration to virtual favour, a perfectly just restoration, again unjustly depressed him. Yet Marot is in no sense one of those writers of transition who are rightly obscured by those who come after them. He himself was a reformer, and a reformer on perfectly independent lines, and he carried his own reform as far as it would go. His early work was couched in the rhétoriqueur style, the distinguishing characteristics of which are elaborate metre and rhyme, allegoric matter and pedantic language. In his second stage he entirely emancipated himself from this, and became one of the easiest, least affected and most vernacular poets of France. In these points indeed he has, with the exception of La Fontaine, no rival and not to be confused with the seventeenth century fable-writer of the same name, and the lighter verse-writers ever since have taken one or the other or both as model.
In his third period he lost a little of this flowing grace and ease, but acquired something in stateliness, while he certainly lost nothing in wit. Marot is the first poet who strikes readers of French as being distinctively modern. He is not so great a poet as Villon nor as some of his successors of the Pléiade, but he is much less antiquated than the first (whose works, as well as the [Testament], it may be well to mention that he edited) and not so elaborately artificial as the second. Indeed if there be a fault to find with Marot, it is undoubtedly that in his gallant and successful effort to break up, supple, and liquefy the stiff forms and stiffer language of the 15th century, he made his poetry almost too vernacular and pedestrian. He has passion, and picturesqueness, but rarely; in his hands, and while the style Marotique was supreme, French poetry ran some risk of finding itself unequal to anything but graceful vers de société. But it is only fair to remember that for a century and more its best achievements, with rare exceptions, had been vers de société which were not graceful.
The most important early editions of Marot’s Œuvres are those published at Lyon in 1538 and 1544. In the second of these the arrangement of his poems which has been accepted in later issues was first adopted. In 1596 an enlarged edition was edited by Francois Mizihre. Others of later date are those of N. Lenglet du Fresnoy (the Hague, 1731) and P. Jannet (1868–1872; new ed., 1873–1876), on the whole the best, but there is a very good selection with a still better introduction by Charles d'Hericault, the joint editor of the Jannet edition in the larger Collection Garner (no date). From an elaborate edition by G. Guiffrey only Vol. II and III appeared during his lifetime. Robert Yve-Plessis and Jean Plattard completed the edition in 5 vols (Paris, 1874-1931). The first 'scientific' edition is by C.A. Mayer in 6 vols.(1958-1980), which follows the arrangement of the material in 'genres' (like the edition 1544) The last complete scientific edition is by Gerard Defaux in 2 vols. (1990-1992). Defaux adopts the edition principles of Marot himself, as deductible from his own 1538 edition, mentioned above. There are numerous modern editions. A freely accessible internet version of this edition can be found at gallica.bnf.fr/Classique