Article abstract: Ronsard enriched French poetry by adapting classical genres and styles to his native language. He wrote historically significant odes, hymns, and lyrics and one of the most important sonnet sequences in the history of literature.
Pierre de Ronsard was born into a noble family in the Vendômois area of France. His father, Louis, was made a chevalier by Louis XII a few years before the poet was born. At the age of twelve, Ronsard was placed as a page in the French court, which put him in a position to become an important courtier or functionary in the royal household. His father wanted him to pursue a legal career, then the path to preferment, but Ronsard performed poorly at each school he attended. He was bored with the subjects that were taught but fascinated by the Latin poetry he read, and he nurtured the ambition of becoming a poet.
After the death of his father in 1544, Ronsard took a crucial step in becoming a poet. He placed himself under the tutelage of Jean Dorat, an early French Humanist. He studied Latin and Greek language and literature under Dorat with his friend Jean-Antoine de Baïf. This rigorous training provided him with classical models in form, genre, and style that he believed were superior to the existing medieval models, which were primarily romances and religious works. Ronsard and his friends Joachim du Bellay, Baïf, and others, formed a group that supported the aims of the new poetry and became known as the Pléiade. Ronsard was determined to become not merely another poet but also the poet who would change the tradition by incorporating classical models, elegance, and rigor into French literature. In 1550, three years after completing his studies with Dorat, he published Odes and was hailed as the French Pindar.
Ronsard’s Odes were well received at the time, but later criticism has tended to disparage them, and a nineteenth century critic, Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, called them unreadable. They were historically important in introducing classical forms and myths into French literature, and some can still affect readers today. One of the problems later readers faced was that Ronsard followed the metrical and stanzaic patterns of Pindar—primarily a short poetic line and stanzas grouped into triads—and he transferred some of the subject matter from Pindar directly into poems that seemed distant from sixteenth century France. The odes that imitated Horace were more successful; Horace’s structure was looser, the style more urbane, and the world they represented had some analogies to those of Ronsard.
The first poem of the third book of odes, in which he announces his vocation as a poet, is a good example of Ronsard’s celebration of his classical models. After announcing that he has become “the gods’ mortal companion” because the Greek Muse of poetry, Euterpe, has lifted him up to that state, he now can scorn common pretenders since the “Muse loves me. . . .” At the end of the poem, he describes his poetic position as directly linked to Greece and Rome: “Making me part of high Athens’ glory,/Part of the ancient wisdom of the Romans.” The common pretenders would be those still mired in the older forms of poetry or those writing merely love lyrics, while Ronsard has become one of the ancients.
Ronsard’s next major work was Les Amours (1552). Petrarch, who was Ronsard’s poetic model for this work, was closer in time. Ronsard wrote sonnets that followed and varied the Petrarchan structure and metaphors. These poems have remained popular through the years and to most people are the quintessential Ronsard. The first part of Les Amours deals with the poet’s love for Cassandra. In poem 20, he desires to be rain that falls “one golden drop after another/ Into Cassandra’s lovely lap. . . .” He then metamorphoses into a white bull who will take her when she passes. Finally, he becomes a narcissus and she a spring so he can plunge into her. After suggesting metaphorical and mythical ways to unite, the last three lines speak of a union at night with a desire to suspend the approach of dawn. The poem varies slightly from Petrarchan conventions, since it speaks directly about the union with the beloved.
In 1554, Ronsard offered a less ambitious but delightful collection, Le Bocage. These poems deal more directly with the countryside, nature, and contemporary events. There is, for example, a poem on the frog “La Grenouille”; Ronsard celebrates the ordinary frog above other animals and even calls her a goddess. In addition, the frog is not subject, as man is, to hard times. He also asks, in...
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