(1524 – 1585)
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 Ple´iade 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.
Pierre de Ronsard was born at La Poissonnie`re 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 maıˆtre 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 Colle`ge 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 In spring 1534, after only one semester of study, the boy was peremptorily withdrawn from the school and returned to the paternal manor.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 Rhoˆne 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 Possonnie`re. 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 priesthood. 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 Colle`ge 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 Ple´iade 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 Ple´iade 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.
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.’’