(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

More than any other single theme or idea, it is Pierre de Ronsard’s awareness of the role of the poet and of his own mission and immortality that defines his literary production. The true poet, he says, is the recipient of divine inspiration, and the implication (or, frequently, the explicit contention) is that the preeminent example of the true poet was Ronsard. He boasts of raising poetry in France to the level of a sublime art; indeed, he was known as the first French lyric writer. These are themes that recur with a striking degree of regularity throughout his work, interrupted only once, in the early 1560’s, when he briefly doubted his creative powers and referred to himself as “half a poet.” His confidence and pride quickly returned, however, and in his Résponce aux injures et calomnies de je ne sçay quels prédicans et ministres de Genève (response to the insults and calumnies of certain pastors and ministers of Geneva), he likened himself to a poetic fountain, while other poets are mere streams who have their source in his work and his “grandeur.” Others plagiarize him (he noted), and with good cause, since his work rivals Latin and Greek poetry.

For a poet who at every turn boasts of his originality, Ronsard may at times impress modern readers as strikingly derivative, as he mines classical myth and letters for images. He provides an explanation of his method, however, noting that myth hides truths—that is, clothes them in presentable literary form. Myth is for him a key to truth, and one approaches that truth by a kind of allegorical method, extrapolating from heroes and mythic events to contemporary characters and occurrences.

Ronsard would doubtless suggest that his method is far from being as mechanical as these remarks suggest; he is free to use or ignore myth or any other material; he can exploit it to reveal truth or simply to adorn his verse. In any case (he would insist), poetic inspiration obeys its own laws, which are independent of habitual or logical practices. The autonomy of poetic inspiration becomes, in fact, a major theme of Ronsard’s theoretical and polemical work, and it is his inspiration, he says, that raises him above others. In the preface to the first book of Odes, he informs his rivals: “I follow an unknown path to arrive at immortality.”