Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409
Sonnets for Helen is the English title of Sonnets pour Hélène, which the French poet Pierre de Ronsard wrote in the 1570s for Hélène de Surgères. It consists of two books, with a total of 130 poems. Most of them are sonnets, a type of 14-line poem, but the books also include some songs and elegies; Ronsard also republished some sonnets from an earlier work, Amours (Loves). Hélène was a noblewoman at the court of Queen Catherine de Medici. Several years earlier, her fiancé had died, and Ronsard too had lost his beloved, Marie Dupin. In the sonnets, he both acknowledges the love he and Hélène shared and laments their separations. The poet evokes physical pain to accentuate the emotional pain he suffers from her rejection. While love is the unifying theme, the poet also considers the human lifecycle in which other emotions have their proper roles.
The so-called Petrarchan sonnet is based on an earlier Italian model, which the 14th-century Italian poet Franceso Petrarca developed to what many say is perfection. Ronsard, part of the poetic group “Pleiades,” revived the sonnet and greatly expanded its popularity in France. As did the early Renaissance Italians, Ronsard incorporates many classical themes, including the Olympian gods, the Trojan War, and allusions to classical works such as Homer’s Odyssey that also dealt with those themes. Nature plays an important role, as Ronsard especially deploys flowers and landscape features that having fixed metaphorical associations.
Although most of the themes repeat throughout both volumes, the first book is more concerned with youth and the bloom of love, while the second has more poems about mature love, aging, and even death. Ronsard’s poems have left a lasting legacy in English as well as French verse. Perhaps the Helen sonnets’ most well-known work deals with the aging and death theme: “Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle; When you are very old, in the evening by candle light.” Unusually for a poet who constantly praises his lover’s beauty, here he reminds her that she will not always be beautiful, but will be an old woman stooped over at the fireside. His point is that they should make the most of love while they can; through poetry, in fact, they both can be immortal. This poem was the basis for a similarly titled poem three centuries later, William Butler Yeats’ “When You are Old.”