Pierre de Ronsard 1524–1585
French poet and critic.
Considered his nation's greatest lyric poet in the Pindaric vein and an outstanding figure in the literary life of the French Renaissance, Ronsard wrote an enormous amount in a wide variety of forms: songs, elegies, sonnets, philosophical and scientific poems, and the beginning of an epic. Admired most for its meticulous language, often innovative metrics, and broad range of themes, Ronsard's poetry is today widely considered the epitome of French Renaissance poetics, and its author is regarded as a major force in the advancement of his native tongue.
Information about Ronsard's life comes from a variety of contemporary sources, none entirely reliable. He was born at the Château de la Possonière in the Vendômois, the son of Louis de Ronsard, a minor nobleman and amateur litterateur who held a court appointment, and Jeanne Chaudrier, a close relative of many of the ancient 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 by preceptors and acquired a firsthand knowledge of nature and an abiding love of his native province which later figured prominently in the poet's work. At the age of twelve, Ronsard was sent to the royal 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. Illness however—the beginnings of a lifelong affliction with arthritis and deafness—forced him to abandon a diplomatic career in order to convalesce in the Vendômois, where he at once 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 a Jacques Peletier," in 1547. Ronsard's first collection of poems, Les quatre premiers livres des odes, met with considerable critical success. Other works followed in quick succession as Ronsard diversified his style to include philosophical, occasional, and scientific poetry. In 1558 or 1559, with his reputation firmly established, he was made official court poet, the responsibilities of which position 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.
Ronsard's literary canon is vast, and its range and variety challenge critics who seek a neat, uncomplicated overview of it. His first major collection, the largely Horatian and Pindaric Les quatre premiers livres des odes, reflects, in its rhyme schemes, imagery, and themes, many of the principles found in Joachim du Bellay's Deffence et illustration de la langue françois. Ronsard's Les amours, Continuation des amours, and Nouvelle continuation des amours, which were inspired by their author's love for a Florentine banker's daughter, Cassandre de Salviati, are a departure from the style and purpose of Les quatre premiers livres. Elaborate, sensual, overtly Petrarchan, and often mannered, the sonnets of Les amours treat more 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 other typically Renaissance subjects. The publication of Les œuvres in 1560 initiated Ronsard's second literary period, distinguished from the first by its overtly public nature. In a number of alexandrine discours, or addresses, published during the next ten years, most notably Discours des miseres de ce temps and Remonstrance au peuple de France, Ronsard used satire and invective to promote religious and political issues, especially patriotism, Catholicism, and the king's success in the religious wars. Ronsard's most aspiring work, Les quatre premiers livres de la Franciade, was also one of his last. An epic account of the French nation's Trojan ancestry, this poem was never completed owing to the unfavorable reception of its first books, and, critics agree, was followed by nothing of special merit.
In his day—especially in the 1550s and 1560s—Ronsard enjoyed extraordinary critical and popular success. But Ronsard's achievement was increasingly questioned by the end of the sixteenth century, and by about 1650 his reputation had suffered a dramatic reversal, bringing on a period of neglect that lasted nearly two hundred years. Scholars and critics began to reevaluate Ronsard's poetry during the third decade of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, his work increasingly has become the subject of rigorous academic inquiry and criticism. From fame to obscurity to fame again, Ronsard's reputation has come full circle centuries after his death, and once more he is widely considered the greatest French poet of his age.