Ronsard, Pierre de
BORN: 1524, Couture-sur-Loir, France
DIED: 1585, Tours, France
Amours de Cassandre (1550)
Odes of Pierre de Ronsard (1552)
La Franciade (1572)
Pierre de Ronsard is considered by many scholars to be the greatest poet of the French Renaissance. He founded and led a small group of like-minded writers known first as the Brigade and later as the Pléiade who sought to create a French literature. Ronsard's body of literary works shaped French poetry long after his death, giving direction to the idealistic voices of the nineteenth-century romantics.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Prominent Family Pierre de Ronsard was born at La Poissonnière on September 11, 1524, the youngest of the four surviving children of Jeanne Chaudrier and Louis de Ronsard. Jeanne was the daughter of a Poitevin family with ties to several prominent bloodlines of sixteenth-century France; Louis was a country gentleman whose distinction as a knight in the Italian campaigns of Charles VIII and Louis XII earned him the position of royal diplomat and maître d'hotel. As Louis was frequently absent, Ronsard was strongly influenced by his relation with his cleric uncle, Jean de Ronsard. Thought to have played an important role in his nephew's earliest education, Jean de Ronsard was a writer of verses, and he possessed a substantial library to which Ronsard became heir upon his uncle's death.
In 1533 Ronsard left his home to receive formal instruction in Paris at the academically and religiously conservative Collège de Navarre. In spring 1534, after only one semester of study, the boy was peremptorily withdrawn from the school and returned to the paternal manor. This departure has been ascribed both to the young Ronsard's homesickness and to his father's fear that his son might become associated with the position taken by the college against the reformist leanings of the king's sister, Marguerite de Navarre.
Cruel Fortune and the Inevitability of Death Louis took advantage of his office in the royal household to secure his son a position as page to the dauphin Francis. A mere six days after joining Francis in the Rhône Valley, the dauphin died, and Ronsard, not yet twelve years old, found himself attending the prince's autopsy—an event he recalled, some thirty-nine years later, among the verses of his Le Tombeau de tres-illustre Princesse Marguerite de France, Duchesse de Savoye (1575; Tomb for the Most Illustrious Princess, Marguerite de France, Duchess of Savoie).
This shocking experience was followed by others. While in Lyon on October 7, 1536, Ronsard was witness, on orders from a vengeful Charles V, to the quartering of the dauphin's foreign-born squire, who was wrongly convicted of poisoning his master. On July 2, 1537, barely a month and a half after arriving in Scotland as a page in the service of Madeleine de France, Ronsard watched as the ravaging effects of tuberculosis, a highly contagious and often deadly disease, extinguished the lady's life before she reached her seventeenth birthday. Biographers and literary critics have speculated that these encounters with human mortality at an early age account for the themes of cruel fortune and the inevitability of death throughout Ronsard's poetry.
Career in Diplomacy Cut Short by Illness Ronsard became a page in the royal house, where he attended briefly Francis I's eldest son and then the third son, Prince Charles. When James V of Scotland married Madeleine of France (1537), Charles gave the young page to his sister. Ronsard accompanied Scotland's new queen to her country but appears not to have stayed there more than a year.
During his travels abroad, Ronsard learned to speak English. He was eventually promoted from page to squire and assigned to military training. However, Ronsard's life took a different path after his return to France in August 1540. Struck by a high fever that permanently impaired his hearing, he had to abandon his pursuit for a military career and retreat to La Possonnière. The three-year convalescence afforded him an opportunity to deepen his admiration for the natural beauty of the French countryside and to peruse his uncle Jean's library. The result was an awakening to his inner calling, a discovery that led to his decision to write.
A New Direction By early 1543 Ronsard had recovered from his fever and was confronted with supporting himself in his new vocation. The surest option for a gentleman of the day in his situation was to enter the church. In March 1543 Ronsard was tonsured, or had his head shaved in the manner of those entering the priest-hood. The act did not make the future poet a priest, but it did permit him to receive income from certain ecclesiastical posts—potentially an important source of revenue, and one he would exploit.
With the deaths of his father in June 1544 and his mother in January 1545, Ronsard found the independence to devote greater attention to his poetic ambitions. Especially valuable was the time he began dedicating to his studies under the eminent Hellenist, Jean Daurat, a scholar whose analyses of Homer captured the imagination of Ronsard and his fellow pupils. When Daurat became principal of the Collège de Coqueret in 1547, he took his pupils with him. The students followed a strict but enlightened discipline that brought them into intimate contact with the languages, forms, and techniques of the ancient poets. In this way, the nucleus of that school of French poets known as the Pléiade was formed.
Prince of Poets Ronsard's first works inscribe his fascination with the lore of antiquity as evidenced in poems such as “Song of Folly to Bacchus” and “The Deflowering of Leda.” During the following years, Ronsard continued to expand his poetic portfolio. In January 1550, the twenty-five-year-old Ronsard published his first major work, The Odes of Pierre Ronsard (1550). Ronsard was determined to open his career brilliantly and chose to imitate the long, difficult odes of Pindar written in praise of Olympic heroes. The subjects of Ronsard's odes are the royal family and court dignitaries, but the length and difficulty remain.
Ronsard's next major accomplishment came in 1552 with the Amours. Ronsard attempted to prove his ability to rival yet another great poet, Petrarch (1304–1374). Some of the sonnets seemed to be obscure and poorly constructed. In 1553, Ronsard published a second edition of Amours, hoping to improve reception by elucidating the obscure literary and mythological references that had frustrated readers of the initial version.
Ronsard's success and productivity grew considerably in the three-year period from 1554 through 1556. Notable among the pieces of the 1554 Bocage are the ode “A Pierre de Pascal,” presenting an autobiography of the Pléiade leader through 1550. The last major work Ronsard published, in the fall of 1555, was Hymns.
Return to the Court Though Ronsard continued writing, he returned to the court in the 1560s, serving Charles IX and Marguerite. In addition to filling his duties as a royal poet, Ronsard was able to publish new versions of his existing collections, reorganizing the order, revising old poems, and adding new pieces.
During the final eight years of his life, Ronsard was markedly less engaged in matters of the court. His diminished presence in society notwithstanding, during the months following the appearance of the fifth edition of Amours, Ronsard's praises were enthusiastically sung by several writers of the new generation, including Henri III's secretary, Clovis Hesteau, and the Angevin poet, Pierre Le Loyer. In September 1584, Ronsard even began work on a seventh edition of Amours. The “prince of poets, poet of princes” died in his bed on December 27, 1585.
Works in Literary Context
Inspired by the lessons of contemporary classicists, such as Jean Daurat, Ronsard set out to break away from the stale conventions of his contemporaries by infusing his verse with the spirit, wisdom, and mythological legacy of antiquity. That influence fueled experiments with major and minor ancient genres ranging from the ode to the dithyramb; moreover, supported by the theories of poets such as Horace and Virgil, it emboldened him to ascribe a potential prophetic quality to verse.
Antiquity was not the only source of Ronsard's creative flow. He also drew upon the writings of early modern Italian and neo-Latin poets such as Francesco Petrarch and Michael Marullus. The result was a voluminous corpus of poetry as diverse as the worlds Ronsard aspired to represent—a body of literary works that shaped French poetry for decades after his death and gave direction to the idealistic voices of the nineteenth-century romantics. His works provide literary critics and cultural historians of today with insight into the dominant aesthetic, philosophical, and social concerns of France during the second half of the sixteenth century.
Works in Critical Context
During his lifetime, Ronsard's work received an incredibly positive reaction from his contemporaries. However, toward the end of his life and, more so, after his death, his work became increasingly disliked and eventually fell into obscurity for a period of several hundred years. Then, in the nineteenth century, his work reentered scholarly debate and grew in popularity well into the twentieth century, rebuilding the reputation he lost in the intervening years between his death and present day.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Ronsard's famous contemporaries include:
Henry II of France (1519–1559): Succeeding Francis I, Henry II ruled as king of France from 1547 until his death. Under his rule, France warred with Austria and persecuted the Protestant Huguenots for heresy.
James V of Scotland (1512–1542): During his rule as the king of Scots, he married Madeleine de Valois, the daughter of Francis I of France. This was made possible by his renewal of the Auld Alliance with France.
Jean Daurat (1508–1588): This French poet and scholar was named “The King's Poet” by King Charles IX and held membership in the group La Pléiade with Pierre de Ronsard.
Jean-Antoine de Baïf (1532–1589): Although nearly a decade younger than Ronsard, Baïf was able to assist him in his use of Greek during their shared membership in La Pléiade.
Jacques Peletier du Mans (1517–1582): As an accomplished poet, mathematician, and humanist of the French Renaissance, Mans played a significant role in encouraging Pierre de Ronsard in his literary endeavors.
The Amours of 1552 With Amours de Cassandre (1552), Ronsard attempted to prove his ability to rival another great Italian poet, Petrarch. Indeed, the Amours, addressed to Cassandra (identified as a Cassandra Salviati), so seek to capture the traits of the Italian's famous love poems to Laura that the existence of a woman named Cassandra at that time must be considered as incidental. Poetry in the sixteenth century was an affair of imitation and skill but rarely biography. The sonnets, in decasyllabic verse, are highly conventional, and although some critics find an appealing baroque quality in certain of them, many poems are so obscure, poorly constructed, and basely derivative that even Ronsard's contemporaries found fault with them. Other, modern critics have been kinder; J. Middleton Murray, writing in 1919, asserted, “It would be hard to find in the whole of … Les Amours a single piece which has not its sufficient charge of gusto.” Scholar I. D. McFarlane, writing in 1974, notes that in the Amours “some of Ronsard's major qualities are already present: a fine gift of organising imagery, a mastery of rhythms, with timely enjambements and an acute sense of the links between metrical and sentence structure, an ability to communicate a feeling of vital force.”
Responses to Literature
- Discuss the reception of Ronsard's poetry in the sixteenth century. Why was his work controversial? How does this compare to the literary controversies of today?
- Read several of Ronsard's sonnets aloud. Discuss what the speaker is saying about love. What attitudes about love have changed since Ronsard wrote these sonnets?
- Compare and contrast Ronsard's sonnets of 1578 with those of 1552 in terms of their style and emotional impact on you, the reader.
- In addition to writing poetry, Ronsard also wrote essays for the court, providing opinions about politics, religion, and nationality. Read his address, Remonstrance, and discuss Ronsard's attitude towards Calvinism. What is his stance on the principles of “one king, one law, and one faith”?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Foremost among Ronsard's themes is the importance of acting or seizing the moment. He often uses imagery representative of the human life cycle in order to emphasize the inevitability of death. Other works that explore this theme include:
“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (1648), a poem by Robert Herrick. In this poem, Herrick emphasizes the carpe diem or seize the day, theme with his opening line “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”
Twelfth Night (1601), a play by William Shakespeare. The song “O Mistress Mine” is sung by a clown in the second act of this famous play; its content is interpreted to be in the spirit of seizing the day.
Campo, Roberto E. Ronsard's Contentious Sisters: The Paragone between Poetry and Painting in the Works of Pierre de Ronsard. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Studies in Romance Languages and Literatures, 1998.
Cave, Terence, Ed. Ronsard the Poet. London: Eyre Methuen, 1973.
Ford, Philip. Ronsard's Hymnes: A Literary and Iconographical Study. Tempe, Ariz.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1997.
Jones, Kenneth R. W. Pierre de Ronsard. New York: Twayne, 1970.
“Pierre De Ronsard (1524–1585).” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Edited by James E. Person. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987, pp. 402–42.
Silver, Isidore. The Intellectual Evolution of Ronsard: I. The Formative Influences. St. Louis: Washington University Press, 1969.
Simonin, Michel. Pierre de Ronsard. Paris: Fayard, 1990. Yates, Frances A. The French Academies of the Sixteenth Century. London: Warburg Institute, 1947.
Pierre de Ronsard
Pierre de Ronsard
Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) was the greatest French poet of his day. His verse influenced French poetry well into the 17th century.
Pierre de Ronsard was born at La Poissonnie‧re on Sept. 11, 1524. He was the son of Loys de Ronsard, an aristocrat whose nobility, if unquestionable, afforded him neither fame nor fortune. Pierre became a page in the royal house, where he attended briefly Francis I's eldest son and then the third son, Prince Charles. When James V of Scotland married Madeleine of France (1537), Charles gave the young page to his sister. Ronsard accompanied Scotland's new queen to her country but appears not to have stayed there more than a year. By 1540 he was acquainted with Lazare de Baïf, diplomat and humanist of distinction, who would help determine Ronsard's future. It began to take shape when an illness left the boy partially deaf and unsuited for a military career.
In 1543 Ronsard was tonsured. The act did not make the future poet a priest, but it did permit him to receive income from certain ecclesiastical posts—potentially an important source of revenue and one he would exploit. After his father died in 1544, Ronsard accepted an invitation from Lazare de Baïf to study in Paris with his son Jean Antoine under the direction of Jean Dorat. When Dorat became principal of the Colle‧ge de Coqueret in 1547, he took his pupils with him. Joined by Joachim du Bellay, the youths followed a strict but enlightened discipline that brought them into intimate contact with the languages, forms, and techniques of the ancient poets. In this way, the nucleus of that school of French poets known as the Pléiade was formed.
Odes and Amours
With the publication of Les Quatre premiers livres des odes (1550), the story of Ronsard's life is inseparable from the chronology of his works. Ronsard determined to open his career with éclat and chose to imitate the long, difficult odes of Pindar written in praise of Olympic heroes. The subjects of Ronsard's odes are the royal family and court dignitaries, but the length and difficulty remain.
With the Amours of 1552, Ronsard attempted to prove his ability to rival yet another great poet, Petrarch. Indeed, the Amours, addressed to Cassandra (identified as a Cassandra Salviati), so seek to capture the traits of the Italian's famous love poems to Laura that the existence of a woman named Cassandra at that time must be considered as incidental. Poetry in the 16th century was an affair of imitation and skill but rarely biography. The sonnets, in decasyllabic verse, are highly conventional, and whereas some critics find an appealing "baroque" quality in certain of them, many poems are so obscure, poorly constructed, and basely derivative that even Ronsard's contemporaries found fault with them.
During the remainder of the 1550s, Ronsard published his licentious Livret de folastries (1553, unsigned), his philosophical Hymnes (1555-1556), and more love poetry, the Continuations des Amours (1555-1556). The love sonnets of the cycles, addressed primarily to a Marie, are often no different in style from those of 1552. The greatest innovation lies in Ronsard's experimentation—the use of the Alexandrine and the increased quantity of nonsonnet material, for example. Yet even here, especially in the songs in imitation of Marullus, mannered phrases betray the relative simplicity of Ronsard's style bas.
The Wars and an Epic
Ronsard had official as well as personal reasons for becoming involved in the tensions that in 1562 brought Catholics and Huguenots to war. That year he composed his most important works on France's troubles: the Discours des mise‧res de ce temps, the Continuation du Discours des mise‧res de ce temps, and the Remonstrance au peuple de France. With eloquent virulence Ronsard depicts the desperate situation created by a divided France. He begs Beza, John Calvin's lieutenant, to help restore peace.
With the Remonstrance, Ronsard's tone rises to the satiric as he scourges Calvinism. Adhering to the principle of one king, one law, and one faith, he maintained that disregard for the last of these elements was bringing in its wake disobedience for the first two. Moreover, whereas he admitted that the Church needed reform, nothing he saw assured him that Calvinism was a more Christian, charitable sect. His personal feud with the Protestants stemmed from an attack by them on Ronsard as a pagan and a mediocre poet. Ronsard replied in his Réponse aux injures et calomnies de je ne sais quels prédicants et ministres de Gene‧ve (1563) with a proud (and revealing) defense supported by devastating satire.
In 1572 Ronsard published Les Quatre premiers livres de la Franciade. The remaining books were never written; it was obvious even to Ronsard that the poem was a failure. Why did this versatile poet fail in the epic when he had been so successful in numerous other genres? Critics have pointed to the verse form (decasyllabic verse, not the Alexandrine) and to the subject (a learned myth tracing France's royal house back to Troy). No less revealing are Ronsard's own words about the epic genre he published in a preface to the Franciade. Here the poet makes clear that only an epic written on the pattern set by Homer and Virgil is acceptable and that this pattern is to be followed in the greatest detail. Ronsard is so true to his own principles that the Franciade is often little more than a sustained reproduction of a traditional form.
Ronsard's failure in the Franciade is more than offset by a new collected edition of his works printed in 1578. It contains two of his best-known sonnets, Comme on voit sur la branche and Quand vous serez bien vieille. The former was inserted among the previously published Marie poems but was most certainly written at the death of the King's mistress, Marie de Cle‧ves. Quand vous serez bien vieille belongs to an entirely new cycle of love poems, the Sonnets pour Héle‧ne, inspired in part by Héle‧ne de Surge‧res, a lady of the court. The cycle reproduces much of the Petrarchan material used in 1552 and 1555. Its remarkable qualities— to be found also in Comme on voit sur la branche—lie in the poet's ability to manipulate the tradition and the sonnet form. The best sonnets of 1578 abandon the nervous style of 1552 and achieve with the same Petrarchan commonplaces a simplicity that is not without richness of expression and emotion.
Ronsard died on Dec. 27, 1585, at the priory of StCosme near Tours. In his late works he was the forerunner of 17th-century French classicism.
Both the contemporary and modern biographies of Ronsard are unreliable mixtures of fact, fiction, and romance. Recent studies of his poetry include Isidore Silver, Ronsard and the Hellenic Renaissance in France (1961); Donald Stone, Jr., Ronsard's Sonnet Cycles: A Study in Tone and Vision (1966); and Elizabeth T. Armstrong, Ronsard and the Age of Gold (1968). Grahame Castor, Pléiade Poetics: A Study in Sixteenth-century Thought and Terminology (1964), discusses Ronsard's theoretical writings, and Richard A. Katz, Ronsard's French Critics, 1585-1828 (1964), considers his influence. □
Ronsard, Pierre de (1524–1585)
Ronsard, Pierre de (1524–1585)
French poet, born in La Poissoniere as the son of an aristocratic but poverty-stricken family. His father arranged for him to be sent to the court of Francis I as a page boy, where he served the sons of King Francis I. He then served under Princess Madeleine after her marriage to King James V of Scotland. He returned to France and joined a circle of classical scholars around Jean Dorat, who became principal of the College de Conqueret in 1547. The group formed a literary circle known as the Pleiade. He began writing poetry and in imitation of the odes of the Greek poet Pindar wrote The First Four Books of Odes in 1550, praising members of the royal family in his lines. His next work, Amours, was a tribute to the love sonnets of the Italian poet Petrarch.
Ronsard wrote several essays during the 1560s condemning the civil war in France between Protestants and Catholics. These include Discourse on the Misery of These Times, which satirically criticized the followers of John Calvin, and the Reproof to the People of France. When Protestant critics returned fire and accused him of being a poor poet and an irreligious pagan to boot, Ronsard replied with his Response to Insults and Calumnies. His fervent support of the king earned him a stipend from King Charles IX, and he joined the king's court as an honored poet.
In 1572 Ronsard brought out The First Four Books of the Franciad, a failed attempt to imitate the classical epics and to create a French national myth that traced the lineage of the kings of France back to the Trojan kings of Homeric times. In 1578 he published a collection of sonnets, the Sonnets for Helene. Ronsard gained fame in his lifetime and many of his poems were set to music. Using the classic and medieval Italian modes in which Ronsard had worked, the Pleiade group made French a new and vital medium for poetic expression.
See Also: Rabelais
Ronsard, Pierre de