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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Pierre de Ronsard wrote this sonnet sequence out of love for his muse, Hélène de Surgères. In the sixteenth century, when they lived, the Petrarchan sonnet was a newly popular form; in fact, Ronsard and his fellow poets played leading roles in establishing it within French verse traditions. This type of sonnet, named for Francesco Petrarca, consists of fourteen lines that generally include two interrelated aspects of a theme. The introduction of eight lines (called an octet) is followed by a conclusion of six lines (a sestet). A set of sonnets often concentrated on variants of a single theme, of which love was a perennial favorite.

Ronsard’s set of Sonnets for Helen consists of 130 poems; most but not all are sonnets. He uses many traditional love themes, such as spring; in the first sonnet, he compares his new love to the delights of early spring that come in May. Ronsard uses many classical themes, such as the gods that are often represented by stars and constellations. Venus, goddess of love, is especially appropriate, and he describes two classical statues of the goddess, both paling in comparison to his beloved. For Hélène in particular, Ronsard evokes the beauty of Helen of Troy. Another poem brings in the constancy of Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife.

As he moves forward in time and in the phenomenon of love, images and ideas about the facing seasons of death are brought in appropriately. Classical figures appropriate to these themes include Orpheus and Eurydice, associated not only with death but the underworld and even rebirth. Ronsard uses the language to strengthen his position, often repeating an idea in slightly varying lines, or contrasting two concepts to support a point, such as lovers coming together, then fighting and separating. Their destined union remains supreme, however, as poetry and the poet will provide the means of their immortality, finally evoked through the flames rekindled in the hearth.

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