Prince of Poets: Pierre de Ronsard
This French Renaissance poet was deemed by his literary peers to be “the Prince of Poets” or « le prince de poètes ». Ronsard was sans doute the most accomplished among this group of poets, a literary school that became known as La Pléiade. The name refers to their desire to emulate the seven ancient Greek poets of Alexandria. The goal of the French poets of La Pléiade was to create poetry en français that could withstand comparison with the verse of classical antiquity, perhaps even best the bards of Ancient Greece.
My Classical Scholar-Daughter and I agree that the French writers’ rivalry with the verse of classical antiquity produced much phenomenal and phenomenally pretty literature, but the Classics nonetheless win the contest, hands down, for originality of subject matter and for boldness of form. Loveliness, or beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, or reader, and so I shall simply say that to each her own where Classical poetry or French classical poetry is concerned.
I must also opine, through the words of Vladimir Nabokov: “There is only one school of literature - that of talent.” Consequently, the names and categories of literary movements and genres hold no interest for me, save to place the poet in a certain place and time. Ronsard, replete with talent, does not belong to any era or school of writing. He, and his work, are timeless.
Thus, although Pierre de Ronsard became the head of La Pléiade, he was fundamentally the chief of his own creative engine. He did not write, as later French literary greats would do, for the Court of Versailles, or for any court, but he was born of the aristocracy. He arrived at his stellar poetic peak in a rather round-about way.
Born 11 September 1524 at le château de la Possonnière, near Couture-sur-Loir in the department of Loir-et-Cher, France, Ronsard was the younger son in a family of nobility (ergo, the château and le particule, de). He began working at the age of 12 as a page, accompanying Princess Madeleine, daughter of the French king, François I, to Edinburgh after she wed James V of Scotland to become Queen of the Scots.
Ronsard returned to France two years later, in 1538, fully prepared to accept a diplomatic post or perhaps even an appointment to the royal court of François I, who was the definitive and emblematic king of the French Renaissance. Arts and letters in France thrived under François I, a descendant of the House of Valois. Pierre de Ronsard was not especially interested in the arts & letters aspect of the reign of his King; this young aristocrat would, however, figure prominently in the development that this king fostered of a truly French poetry.
In 1540, Ronsard journeyed with a French diplomat to an international conference in the region of Alsace. There, he contracted an illness that rendered him partially deaf. He then looked to books and literature as an avocation. Aware that writing poetry would not secure him financially, this sixteen-year-old took minor orders in the Roman Catholic Church, thereby granting him ecclesiastical benefices, or income.
Ronsard was never ordained a priest, but his poetic fervor displays the devotion of a devout man ripe in spirit, strong in body, and meditative in mind about the world around him. After he’d convalesced from his ailment, he heartily indulged in learning the classics. He was taught Greek by a renowned tutor; and he read all of the Greek and Latin poetry that was known at that time. Wisely, even shrewdly, he introduced himself to Italian poetry, thus broadening his fluency in Latin.
Ronsard chose his literary idols well and he set the bar high for himself. The obvious reach toward the Odes of Horace, the ancient Roman poet, was evidenced by his first collection of poems, Odes, 4 books that were published in 1550. From that point on, Ronsard became more playful with his verse, more profound, more eloquent and more accomplished with each line of verse, each alexandrine, the 12-syllable line that this man perfected.
The alexandrine had hitherto been dry as dust for the French, lengthy and monotonous — even in poetry! Ronsard took those 12 syllables and set them to metrical music. The biting wit of the French mind, tender elegiac sentiment, noble but tragic passion, the yearning for permanence within the ephemeral -- all of those glorious elements were not merely innovated by Ronsard in his poems: this Renaissance poet came to personify them. It would take the great Victor Hugo in the 19th century to attain such poetic grandeur, and in his own inimitable way.
I love the writing of Pierre de Ronsard because it exudes the direct, almost bold, sensuousness of the Renaissance French while, at the same time, it reaches with purity and simplicity toward the more ethereal art of the Romantic era. He did not cleave the body from the spirit and become the prisoner of his own self. Though he lived in a monastery he was as free as a bird to fly and to soar within his own heart. His perceptions of ideas and images flowed from his physical senses to his imagination and from his imagination to his carnal sensations. This communion of his spirit with his body created the soul of a poet.
His later years were disturbed by ill health, yet his literary work increased in quality and deepened in beauty. Ronsard made use of words, and shadows of words, in the way that a highly-skilled composer works with notes, mastering melodious lyrics and profound emotions as well as the literary forms that must contain them.
Yet, those forms do not completely contain such sweet and passionate sentiments. The reader feels a tug at the heart long after the poem has ended. That quest is, for any writer, the ultimate achievement.
Pierre de Ronsard died 27 December 1585, at not quite sixty years of age, at his priory of Saint-Cosme in Touraine. His was a compelling and complete life, one that he might not have planned, but one that he lived fully, with the love of poetry that came from his heart.
In THE DAWN, I made use of what is perhaps the most famous and favored line of Ronsard, « Mignonne, allons voir si la rose . . . ».
This poem has become as beloved and recognizable in France as a folk song. With aching tenderness and beauty, the poem captures, in an incomparable French way, the essence of Horace’s carpe diem, or “seize the day” from his Odes. Rather than deliver that poem in a dramatic reading, I chose another poem of exquisite but frank expression from the Odes of Pierre de Ronsard:
Pourtant, si j'ai le chef plus blanc
Que n'est d'un lis la fleur éclose,
Et toi le visage plus franc
Que n'est le bouton d'une rose
Pour cela, cruelle, il ne faut
Fuir ainsi ma tête blanche ;
Si j'ai la tête blanche en haut,
J'ai en bas la queue bien franche.
Ne sais-tu pas, toi qui me fuis,
Que pour faire bien une couronne,
Ou quelque beau bouquet, d'un lis
Toujours la rose on environne ?
Yet, if I have the head more white
than a lily, a flower in bloom
And you the face more open
than the bud of a rose
For that reason, cruel one, you should not
then flee my white head;
If I have on top the head of white
I have below the tail so very forthright.
Do you not know, you who run away from me,
that to make well a crown
or some beautiful bouquet, from a lily
Always the rose it surrounds.