Pierre de Ronsard 1524-1585
French poet and critic.
The following entry presents recent critical discussion of Ronsard. For a survey of prior criticism, see LC, Volume 6.
The central figure of the Pléiade poets—who sought to create a national literature in France to rival that of Renaissance Italy—Ronsard is considered the finest French lyric poet of the Renaissance. Patterning his verse upon the great works of classical antiquity, Ronsard is recognized for his contributions to the poetic forms of ode, sonnet, and elegy. In the two books of his Sonnets pour Helene, among his many works, he combined complex rhyme, picturesque imagery, and classical allusions and metaphors, thereby introducing what modern critics recognize as innovative poetic expressions to French literature. A renowned court poet in the later portion of his career, Ronsard was a champion of the established church and a defender of the monarchy. Ronsard is today regarded as the epitome of French Renaissance poetics.
Ronsard was born at the Château de la Possonière in the Vendômois region of France, the son of Louis de Ronsard, a minor nobleman, and Jeanne Chaudrier, a close relative of many of the aristocratic families of Touraine and Anjou. Except for a half year spent at the Collège de Navarre in Paris, Ronsard passed his early years in the Vendômois, where he was educated at home and acquired an abiding love for his native province that would later figure prominently in his poetry. At the age of twelve Ronsard was sent to court to serve as a page to members of the royal family. In 1538 he began a peripatetic career as a soldier and a diplomat. However, illness—the beginnings of a lifelong affliction with arthritis and deafness—forced him to abandon a diplomatic career. During his convalescence Ronsard determined to take up literature as a full-time occupation. Encouraged by the distinguished poet Jacques Peletier, Ronsard published his first work, “Ode de Pierre de Ronsard à Jacques Peletier,” in 1547. Ronsard's first collection of poems, Les quatre premier livres des odes, met with considerable critical success. In subsequent works Ronsard diversified his style to include philosophical and scientific poetry. In 1558 or 1559, with his reputation firmly established, he was made official court poet, the responsibilities of which included writing occasional and honorary verse. Ronsard spent his last years mainly at Saint-Cosme Priory near Tours and at Croixval Priory, where he devoted himself to religious duties and to revising his works. Ronsard died at Saint-Cosme in 1585.
The poems of Ronsard's first major collection, Les quatre premier livres des odes, evince the themes, imagery, and style of his models from classical antiquity—principally Pindar and Horace—as they honor outstanding individuals, commemorate significant events, and celebrate the beauty of nature. The work contains Ronsard's best-known ode, “Ode à Michel de l'Hospital,” composed in recognition of the man who defended Ronsard's views on poetic reform from one of its vocal detractors, Saint-Gelais. Ronsard's Les amours, Continuation des amours, and Nouvelle continuation des amours, which were inspired by the poet's love for a Florentine banker's daughter, Cassandre de Salviati, are a departure from the style and purpose of Les quarter premiers livres. Drawing from the poetry of Petrarch, the elaborate and sensual sonnets of Les amours treat conventional themes—unrequited love, solitude in a lover's absence, and erotic longing. In contrast, Ronsard's two books of Homeric poetry, Les hymnes and Le second livre des hymnes, published at about the same time as Les amours, are majestic, laudatory addresses and panegyrics to patrons and friends on philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic subjects. The publication of Les oeuvres in 1560 initiated Ronsard's second literary period, distinguished from the first by its public nature. In a number of alexandrine discours, or addresses, most notably Discours des misères de ce temps and Remonstrance au peuple de France, Ronsard used satire and invective for religious and political effect, discussing patriotism, Catholicism, and the French king's success in religious wars. Ronsard's most celebrated work, the extensive sonnet series Sonnets pour Helene is unlike any of the poet's other late verse in that it recalls Ronsard's earlier Petrarchan material, but with a more restrained and sincere tone. In the Sonnets, Ronsard explored the theme of love sacrificed for art while employing imagery drawn from classical myth. Ronsard's ambitious late work, Les quatre premiers livres de la Franciade was never completed. Ronsard offered an epic account of French history in the Franciade, linking in verse his nation's origins to the Trojan War as the Roman poet Vergil had done in his Aeneid. Ronsard's sole work of criticism, Abrege de l'art poëtique françois, was published anonymously. The work contains Ronsard's explication of his poetic theory, which suggests the importance of mimesis, or imitation of reality, combined with the creative imagination.
In his day Ronsard claimed to have equaled the poetic achievement of the classical Greek poet Pindar, and certainly he enjoyed extraordinary critical and popular success. Soon after his death, his reputation declined significantly, and Ronsard's poetry suffered a period of neglect lasting nearly two centuries. By the early nineteenth-century, however, interest in his works had renewed, and in the twentieth century his poems have become the subject of rigorous academic inquiry and criticism. Critical regard has been focused on the nature of Ronsard's poetic theory, and the extent to which his works may be said to uphold the doctrines he outlined in his Abrege de l'art poëtique françois. Critics have also explored Ronsard's use of irony to transgress the poetic boundaries set by his classical models. Another primary area of contemporary critical interest has been Ronsard's participation in the ongoing Renaissance debate concerning the preeminence of one artistic form over all others, with scholars studying his claims that poetry should occupy the position of excellence above the visual arts. Additionally, critics have examined Ronsard's more marginal texts, including his early Livret de folastries, a work that can be described as almost pornographic, and which Ronsard suppressed during his later career. Overall, most modern scholars concur that Ronsard gave to French literature something it had never before known, the concept of the creative imitation of the ancients. Thus, in regard to his poetic range and sustained innovation, Ronsard is widely viewed as the greatest French poet of his age.