(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Hélène de Surgères was the third woman to provide major inspiration for Pierre de Ronsard’s poetry. His first poetic love, Cassandre Saviati, whom he met when he was twenty and she only thirteen, married someone else soon after. Marie Dupin, the peasant girl who was the love of his middle years, was separated from him by death. In his late forties, Ronsard took Hélène as his muse. Much younger than the poet, she was a member of the court of Catherine de Médicis (1519-1589). Hélène’s fiancé was killed at war in 1570, so Ronsard addressed his poems to her in order to comfort her as well as to tell her of his love.

A dualism of the personal and the conventional pervades the poetry. Ronsard expresses passionate emotions to Hélène, but he writes in the newly popular sonnet form, which he and his fellow poets of the Pléiade established as a major French verse form. The Petrarchan sonnet, following the model established by Francesco Petrarca, regularly divides its fourteen lines into an introductory octave and a concluding sestet on distinct but complementary themes. Sonnets were frequently composed in sequences devoted to a single subject. In a sense the entire work may be seen as a sonnet sequence, extremely varied in its details but drawn together by the overriding theme of Ronsard’s passion.

The collection is divided into two books that show little progression or distinction between them. There are approximately 130 poems, all sonnets except for an occasional song or elegy (the exact number of poems varies among modern editions). Ronsard varies his subject matter but provides an overall thematic continuity by frequent returns to favored subjects.

The opening sonnet, “Le premier jour de mai, Helene, je vous jure” (The first day of May, Hélène, I swear to you), begins with the appropriate declaration of love on the first of May, a day linked with amorous endeavors. Ronsard swears not only by the vines, the elm trees, and the verdant woods but also by Castor and Pollux, mythological brothers who according to legend became the constellation Gemini. While the June constellation of the zodiac nearly coincides with the springtime setting, Ronsard more likely invokes the brothers because they are also related to the classical Helen of Troy. In appropriate Renaissance tradition, Ronsard invokes the heroes and gods of antiquity, and especially those of Troy because of the analogy of Helen’s name. The idea to which Ronsard swears in the octave—his love for Hélène—remains dominated by the images of nature and spring. The sestet turns specifically to his love with another major theme of the work, that of fate. Ronsard calls himself here author of his own fate because he willingly accepts love’s dominion.

The second sonnet, “Quand à longs traits je boy l’amoureuse etincelle” (When I drink deeply of the spark of love), continues the documentation of love’s effects on the lover in conventionally physical terms. The first focus is on Hélène’s eyes, whose light dazzles Ronsard and troubles his reason so that he staggers as if drunk with love. His heart beats so hard that he fears the experience will kill him, but Hélène remains aloof, unaware of the pain she causes him. The themes of physical enumeration of love’s effects and of the lover’s suffering, both common in poetry of the time, recur throughout the work.

The third sonnet, “Ma douce Hélène, non, mais bien ma douce haleine” (My sweet Hélène, no, but rather my sweet breath), combines the poet’s suffering with the legend of Troy. Ronsard finds himself fortunate to suffer the pains of love for one with such a name of destiny. She is both his Penelope and his Helen, combining the virtue of Ulysses’ faithful wife with the fascination Helen exerts on all the men around her.

Ronsard reinforces the link between classical precedents and his modern love in “Amour, abandonant les vergers de Cytheres” (Cupid, abandoning the orchards of Cythera), in which Cupid comes personally to France to strike him with his light wings so as to implant the feverish need in his heart. The need is that of the poet as much as that of the lover. Ronsard must sing of Hélène’s beauty, and when he protests his inability to treat such a heavenly subject, Cupid assures him that he will have exceptional and divine inspiration. The theme of the poet’s vocation enters the work, a theme that will recur, especially in the...

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Sonnets for Helen Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bishop, Morris. Ronsard: Prince of Poets. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959. A general biography of Ronsard. Chapter 12, “Hélène,” gives a detailed description of Hélène de Surgères, the circumstances in which Ronsard met her, and the surrounding atmosphere of court intrigue. Includes limited references to the sonnets.

Cave, Terence, ed. Ronsard the Poet. London: Methuen, 1973. Contains eight essays by various authors presenting a largely thematic approach to Ronsard’s work. In chapter 2, Grahame Castor discusses Petrarchism and the quest for beauty in the Sonnets pour Hélène; chapter 7, by Odette de Mourgues, on Ronsard’s later poetry, contains references to Hélène. The index lists references in other essays.

Fallon, Jean M. Voice and Vision in Ronsard’s “Les Sonnets pour Helene.” New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Examines the 1584 edition of the sonnets, the last edition published in Ronsard’s lifetime. Analyzes the work as a text about poetry rather than about love, describing its duality between the voices of the lover and the poet. Points out other unifying elements in the work as a whole

Jones, K. R. W. Pierre de Ronsard. New York: Twayne, 1970. This standard introductory overview to Ronsard’s life and work discusses Hélène chiefly in chapter 9, “Ronsard’s Private World.”

Lewis, D. B. Wyndham. Ronsard. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1944. Chapter 9, “Hélène,” begins with a description of Hélène as Ronsard saw her. A subsequent analysis takes a thematic approach and quotes extensively from the sonnets.

Lewis, John. “Helen on Lesbos: A Sapphic Echo in Ronsard’s Sonnets Pour Helene?” French Studies 48, no. 1 (January, 1994): 4. Discusses Ronsard’s interest in the Greek poet Sappho and points out similarities between Sappho’s poetry and Ronsard’s Sonnets for Helen. Describes how fragments of Sappho’s poetry are adapted to Ronsard’s images and how the work of both poets confers immortality on the poets and their subjects.

Ronsard, Pierre de. Sonnets for Helen. Translated by Humbert Wolfe. London: Allen and Unwin, 1972. Provides both English and French texts for a majority of the sonnets. An introductory essay details the circumstances in which the poems were written and their importance to Ronsard’s literary reputation.