Joachim du Bellay and Pierre de Ronsard are considered the two most important poets of the French Renaissance. Although Ronsard enjoyed a long career as a poet, du Bellay’s career was a brief ten years. His first publications appeared in 1549 and his last poetry was published in 1559, shortly before his untimely death at the age of thirty-eight. Nevertheless, du Bellay made significant contributions to French poetry both in theory and in poetic creation.
Du Bellay’s The Defence and Illustration of the French Language became the manifesto of the Pléiade. In this work, Du Bellay elucidated the two major aims of the Pléiade, who maintained that medieval French poetry had deteriorated into mediocre genres that lacked the grandeur and significance of the poetry of classical antiquity. The group wished to create French poetry equal to the Latin and Greek poetry of classical antiquity. Du Bellay proposed that French poets write in French rather than in Latin but in imitation of the poets of classical antiquity, using the forms those poets used and the Italian sonnet. Although the sonnet had a long tradition and many practioneers in Italian poetry, du Bellay took the sonnets of Petrarch for his model. The preferred poetical forms for French poetry were to be the sonnet and the ode. Du Bellay also addressed the need to enrich the French poetical language by incorporating words taken from dialects and from other disciplines and by creating new words.
Du Bellay’s early poetry illustrates the tenets set forth in the manifesto. In 1549, he published three collections of poetry: L’Olive, Vers Lyriques, and Recueil de poésie. Vers Lyriques and Recueil de poésie are odes in imitation of Horace, both in form and in subject matter. In L’Olive, du Bellay imitates Petrarch, writing poems in sonnet form. By addressing the sonnets in this work to the same mistress, he also incorporates the Italian tradition of the canzonieri, a collection of love poems all written to a single woman. This early poetry is a poetry of imitation, a sort of literary exercise that exhibits both the skill of the writer and the appropriateness of French as a language of poetry. However, the individuality of the poet is absent.
Although du Bellay continued to write in these poetical forms, the themes of the poetry that...
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