Ronsard, Pierre de 1524–1585 French Poet

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Ronsard, Pierre de
1524–1585 French poet

Pierre de Ronsard, the leading French poet of the 1500s, is best known for his love poems. Ronsard's works inspired many French poets in the late 1500s, and his influence spread to the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and England.

Early Work. Born to a noble family in Vendôme, in central France, Ronsard served in the households of several royal and noble French families. Ronsard began writing poetry in both Latin and French in the 1540s, and he also took up the study of Greek. In the 1550s Ronsard became part of a group of young poets who called themselves the "Brigade." (They later renamed themselves the Pléiade, a name drawn from Greek mythology.) Inspired by classical* and Italian poets, these writers wanted to create a French literature in the grand tradition of ancient Greece and Rome.

In 1550, Ronsard published his first collection of poetry, The First Four Books of the Odes*. The ode was one of the young poet's favorite forms. In an ode published in 1552, Ronsard described both poetry and the political order that it praises as being inspired by God. This verse expresses the ideals of the poets who made up the Pléiade.

Love Poems. Within a couple of years, however, Ronsard had turned away from classical models and toward the sonnet*, a more personal verse form. In 1552 he published his most celebrated work, Loves, a collection of love sonnets modeled on the Canzoniere (Book of Songs) of the Italian poet Petrarch. Ronsard referred to his beloved in these poems as Cassandre, the name of the daughter of a wealthy Italian merchant. In many of the verses he played on the fact that Cassandra was also the name of a prophetess in Greek mythology.

In 1555 Ronsard produced a second collection of love poems addressed to a new mistress, Marie, whose name is an anagram of the French word aimer, meaning "to love." When he published his collected works in 1578, Ronsard added two more sets of love poems: one dedicated to French noblewoman Françoise d'Estrées and one inspired by Hélène de Surgères, a lady at the court of Catherine de MÉdicis. In this last collection Ronsard plays on the name Hélène, linking his beloved to the mythical figure Helen of Troy.

Other Works. Though he was most famous for his love poetry, Ronsard's true ambition lay in the field of the epic*. The growth of French as a literary language brought with it a demand for a French national epic, which Ronsard attempted to address. The first four books of Ronsard's epic, La Franciade, appeared in 1572. This work drew on the model of the Aeneid, by the ancient Roman writer Virgil, which described the adventures of Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. Ronsard presented his hero, Francus, as a survivor of the Trojan War and the ancestor of French royalty. However, Ronsard lost his royal patron, Charles IX, in 1574, and the poet never finished his national epic.

Ronsard composed a great variety of other poems during his life, including hymns in honor of nature, pastoral* poetry, and Last Verses, the sad sonnets he wrote on his deathbed in 1585. Ronsard also contributed to the field of poetic theory. His Summary of French Poetics (1565) offered practical advice on how to write in French and urged poets to take pleasure in variety.

(See alsoFrench Language and Literature; Poetry. )

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* ode

poem with a lofty style and complex structure

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* pastoral

relating to the countryside; often used to draw a contrast between the innocence and serenity of rural life and the corruption and extravagance of court life