Pierre de Ronsard was in his own time, and to a less degree in later times as well, the “prince of poets.” This was not merely an impression generally held. It was Ronsard’s own conviction, and he did not hesitate to admonish a coy mistress by reminding her that her kindness to him was as nothing to his generosity in fixing her name in the midst of immortal lines. But the arrogance can, though infrequently, coincide with just estimate; Ronsard, the kings of France whom he served, and those enemies, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth of England, were at one in their estimate of his verses.
Some poets speak at variance with the conditions of their lives and their own time. Ronsard, however final and universal his accent, always speaks to us of his own era and the circumstances of his life. Great and moving as his poems are, they speak of Renaissance spirit as well as of humanity pure and simple.
The Renaissance, in France as elsewhere, was a time when several tendencies, not necessarily compatible, merged with each other. It was a time when nationalism was taking the place of the feudal loyalties that had once held society loosely together. At the center of Ronsard’s political consciousness are the king and his court: from the king flow the favors, including ecclesiastical benefices, which allow a poet to live, and the king’s court, the nobility that dine, talk, and dance there day after day, constitutes the audience for whom the poet writes. Ronsard addressed not a general public but a particular one in that it was small and self-conscious in its tastes. It expected a poet to be learned as well as moving, and it accepted and understood references to events known only to the privileged.
Related to this rarefied centrality is the growing patriotism that led Ronsard’s friend Du Bellay, also a member of the literary group called the Pleiade to which Ronsard belonged, to write La defense et illustration de la langue Francaise (1549), in which the tendency of the learned to write Latin verse is censured and, perhaps inconsistently, the importance of classical studies to any French-writing poet is underlined. The result was that Ronsard’s use of his mother tongue reflected literary conventions as old as Homer, Sappho, Theocritus, and Horace. Nymphs haunt Ronsard’s home forest of Gastine; local fountains, like that of Ballerie, have all the grace and romantic significance of the ancient Arethusa; and the real charms of Ronsard’s various mistresses—Cassandre, Marie, Astree, Helene—receive additions from what Catullus, many centuries before, wrote about his Lesbia.
Like numerous other Renaissance persons, Ronsard was a full-blooded man as well as a literary person. He did not, for example, escape the serious political turmoil of the century which divided Catholic France against Protestant...
(The entire section is 1160 words.)