In 1565, Pierre de Ronsard published his Abbregé de l’art poëtique français (brief treatise on French poetics), a theoretical work written in prose. In addition, he wrote a number of prose prefaces to his poetry (notably to the first volume of odes), and political or religious tracts.
Pierre de Ronsard, the Prince of Poets, was both a great writer and a writer fully aware of his greatness. Although he and the poets around him did not, as they may have thought, create something out of nothing, they clearly did create new and often brilliant poetry. They demonstrate a fresh and sometimes naïve exhilaration in their poetic mission and boundless pride in their accomplishments.
Fascinated with classical culture, with the possibilities of the French language, and with his own abilities, Ronsard set out to emulate and to rival the Greek and Latin poets. At times, his pursuit of that goal led him into pedantry, with conspicuous and often heavy-handed references to classical antiquity and myth. When he was at his best, however, such references were a poetic means, not an end; they were a way of translating his vision into accessible form. Moreover, at his best (particularly in his love lyrics), he used such material judiciously, occasionally dispensing with it altogether in order to let his persona speak in a direct poetic voice.
Ronsard himself published only a minor treatise on poetic art, but he almost certainly played a major role in formulating the theory propounded in Joachim Du Bellay’s Defence et illustration de la langue françoyse (1549; Defense and Illustration of the French Language, 1939), the principal manifesto and manual of Ronsard’s poetic circle. Moreover, implicit in his poetry...
For most readers, Ronsard’s reputation rests most solidly on the sonnets, songs, and other lyrics expressing the poet’s love for Cassandre, Marie, Hélène, and others. Occasionally obscure or pedantic in these compositions (and especially in the earliest ones), he is more often direct, accessible, and lyrical. Yet, even within the collections of love poems themselves, there is a considerable amount of diversity, and from one of them to the next, Ronsard’s evolution is obvious. He himself acknowledges that evolution (in the preface to the second book of love poems), noting that his style is not as elevated as it had earlier been. He has come to believe that love is best expressed not by cultivated high seriousness, but by an appealing lower style. He adds that he “want[s] to follow a gentler Muse . . .” and concludes that he is now writing to please no one but his lady.
The love lyrics are strongly influenced by Petrarchan images and conventions. The poet—or at least his persona—loves his lady, finds himself constantly fascinated and inspired by her, and also suffers from the love. His suffering, however, is suspect. He asserts that, with her unpitying heart, she makes him languish; his spirit is heavy and sad, and he suffers great pain with only brief respite. There is a curious absence of passion, however, in most of these assertions; one has the impression that he makes them because the conventions he is following require it. One more readily accepts as accurate the poet’s image of a “sweet venom,” and in general he seems to derive far more pleasure than pain from his love. If this is a somewhat atypical expression of Petrarchism, one soon finds an explicit rejection of one aspect of it. In the prologue to the Marie poems, Ronsard insists that Petrarch has no authority to impose rules on him. Of course, there is good reason for him to reject Petrarch’s influence. The French poet is after all defending himself against a possible accusation of poetic infidelity, since, after devoting more than two hundred poems to Cassandre, he is now turning his attention and affection to Marie. In the process, he questions certain assumptions about Petrarch himself: “Either he received pleasure from his Laura, or else he was a fool to go on loving with nothing in return.” Ronsard goes on to suggest, uncharitably, that women are frequently the reason for men’s inconstancy: If a woman is cold and unyielding, it is not merely natural, but even advisable, for a man to turn elsewhere.
Ronsard’s lyrics at this point in his career offer a very curious version of Petrarchism: Its demands include neither permanent fidelity to one woman nor excessive anguish or melancholy on the part of the lover. One can see in these departures from Petrarchan conventions not only a particular conception of love, but also an attempt by Ronsard to affirm his own poetic originality and to avoid being seen as a mere imitation or reflection of the renowned Italian writer.
In any event, the reader often has the impression that love and the lady are being “used” by the poet, for they permit him to experience and express inspiration and beauty more intensely. Petrarchism is, in a sense, turned on its head, the lady becoming a means rather than an end; in fact, there is something of a Neoplatonist substructure in Ronsard’s work, as love becomes the means of apprehending truth.
In the first sonnet for Hélène, composed late in his life, Ronsard seems once again self-conscious about transferring his allegiance and love...
Ronsard is most often thought of as the poet of love, as a poet who sang of beauty, youth, springtime, and pleasure. In addition, however, he was both an author of occasional verse and a polemical writer. A mark of literary success was the approval of the court, and currying favor with a prince or lesser noble was a far more respectable literary enterprise in the sixteenth century than it would be considered today. Ronsard, apparently, was something of a master of the art of soliciting royal patronage. Modern readers are, however, more likely to be impressed by his polemical writings.
When religious tensions began to develop in France, Ronsard entered the debate, speaking at first in moderate tones, but as these tensions erupted into open conflict, he became as engagé—and at times as brutal—as any of his Protestant adversaries. He endured virulent abuse, and he responded in kind in his Discours des misères de ce temps—especially those of 1562-1563—and in various other works. Throughout these exchanges of diatribes, political and religious discussions were often mixed with violent personal attacks.
Résponce aux injures et calomnies de je ne sçay quels prédicans et ministres de Genève
Résponce aux injures et calomnies de je ne sçay quels prédicans et ministres de Genève is his answer to those who accused him of being an atheist, a priest, a syphilitic, and a poet of limited talent. Ronsard was...
Campo, Roberto. Ronsard’s Contentious Sisters: The Paragon Between Poetry and Painting in the Works of Pierre de Ronsard. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Continues previous studies of the relationship of poetry and painting as expressed in Ronsard’s poetry, especially of words to pictorial images in both narrative and portraits.
Cave, Terence, ed. Ronsard the Poet. London: Methuen, 1973. A thorough biography of the poet with a bibliography and index.
Fallon, Jean M. Voice and Vision in Ronsard’s “Les Sonnets pour Hélène.” New York: P. Lang, 1993. A historical and critical study of Ronsard’s love poetry. Includes bibliographical references and...