1902 Encyclopedia > Pierre de Ronsard

Pierre de Ronsard
French poet

PIERRE DE RONSARD (1524-1585), "Prince of Poets" (as his own generation in France called him, and as after much change of criticism there is reason for calling him still in reference to that generation and country), was born at the Château de la Poissonnière, near the village of Couture in the province of Vendômois (department of Loir-et-Cher) on September 11, 1524. His family are said to have come from the Slav provinces to the south of the Danube (provinces with which the crusades had given France much intercourse) in the first half of the 14th century. Baudouin de Ronsard or Rossart was the founder of the French branch of the house, and made his mark in the early stages of the Hundred Years' War. The poet's father was named Loys, and his mother was Jeanne de Chaudrier, of a family not only noble in itself but well connected. Pierre was the youngest son. Loys de Ronsard was maître d'hôtel du roi to Francis I., whose captivity afte/ Pa via had just been softened by treaty, and he had to quit his home shortly after Pierre's birth. The future Prince of Poets was educated at home for some years and sent to the College de Navarre at Paris when he was nine years old. It is said that the rough life of a mediaeval school did not suit him. He had, however, no long experience of it, being quickly appointed page to the duke of Orleans. When Madeleine of France was married to James V. of Scotland Ronsard was attached to the king's service, and he spent three years in Great Britain. The latter part of this time seems to have been passed in England, though he had, strictly speaking, no business there. On returning to France in 1540 he was again taken into the service of the duke of Orleans. In this service he had other opportunities of travel, being sent to Flanders and again to Scotland. After a time a more important employment fell to his lot, and he was attached as secretary to the suite of Lazare de Baïf, the father of his future colleague in the Pléiade and his com-panion on this occasion, Antoine de Baïf, at the diet of Spires. Afterwards he was attached in the same way to the suite of the Cardinal du Bellay-Langey, and his mythical quarrel with Rabelais dates mythically from this period. His apparently promising diplomatic career was, however, cut short by an attack of deafness which no physician could cure, and he determined to devote himself to study. The institution which he chose for the purpose among the numerous schools and colleges of Paris was the College Coqueret, the principal of which was Daurat—afterwards the "dark star" (as he has been called from his silence in France) of the Pléiade. Baïf accompanied Ronsard ; Belleau shortly followed ; Joachim du Bellay, the second of the seven, joined not much later. Muretus, a great scholar and by means of his Latin plays a great influence in the creation of French tragedy, was also a student here.

Ronsard's period of study occupied seven years, and the first manifesto of the new literary movement, which was to apply to the vernacular the principles of criticism and scholarship learnt from the classics, came not from him but from Du Bellay. The Défense et Illustration de la Langue Française of the latter appeared in 1549, and the Pléiade may be said to have been then launched. It con-sisted, as its name implies, of seven writers whose names are some-times differently enumerated, though the orthodox canon is beyond doubt composed of Ronsard, Du Bellay, Baïf, Belleau, Pontus de Tyard (a man of rank and position who had exemplified the prin-ciples of the friends earlier), Jodelle the dramatist, and Daurat. Ronsard's own work came a little later, and a rather idle story is told of a trick of Du Bellay's which at last determined him to publish. Some single and minor pieces, an epithalamium on Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne de Xavarre, a " Hymne de la France," an "Ode à la Paix," preceded the publication in 1550 of the four first books ("first" is characteristic and noteworthy) of the Odes of Pierre de Ronsard. This was followed in 1552 by the publication of his Amours with the fifth book of Odes. These books excited a violent literary quarrel. Marot was dead, but he left a numerous school, some of whom saw in the stricter literary critique of the Pléiade, in its outspoken contempt of merely ver-nacular and mediaeval forms and so forth, an insult to the author of the Adolescence Clémentine and his followers. The French court, and indeed all French society, was just then much interested in literary questions, and a curious story is told of the rivalry that ensued. Mellin de St Gelais, it is said, the chief of the École Marotique " and a poet of no small merit, took up Ronsard's book and read part of it in a more or less designedly burlesque fashion before the king. It may be observed that if he did so it was a dis-tinctly rash and uncourtier-like act, inasmuch as from Ronsard's father's position in the royal household the poet was personally known and liked both by Henry and by his family. At any rate Marguerite the king's sister, who afterwards became duchess of Savoy, is said to have snatched the book from St Gelais and insisted on reading it herself, with the result of general applause. Hence-forward, if not before, his acceptance as a poet was not doubtful, and indeed the tradition of his having to fight his way against cabals is almost entirely unsupported. It is quite true that he more than any other poet has had to suffer detraction from a remarkably different series of opposing forces. But none of these interfered with his popularity in his own time, which was over-whelming and immediate, or with his prosperity, which was unbroken. He published his Hymns, dedicated to Marguerite de Savoie, in 1555, the conclusion of the Amours in 1556, and then a collection of Œuvres Complètes said to be due to the invitation of Mary Stuart, queen of Francis II., in 1560.

The rapid change of sovereigns did Ronsard no harm. Charles IX., who succeeded his brother after a very short time, was even better inclined to him than Henry and Francis. He gave him rooms in the palace ; he bestowed upon him divers abbacies and priories ; and he called him and regarded him constantly as his master in poetry. Neither was Charles IX. a bad poet. This royal patronage, however, had its disagreeable side. It excited violent dislike to Ronsard on the part of the Huguenots, who wrote constant pasquinades against him, strove (by a ridiculous exaggera-tion of the Dionysiac festival at Arcueil, in which the friends had indulged to celebrate the success of the first French tragedy, Jodelle's Cléopatre) to represent him as a libertine and an atheist, and (which seems to have annoyed him more than anything else) set up his follower Du Bartas as his rival. According to some words of his own which are quite credible considering the ways of the time, they were not contented with this variety of argument, but attempted to have him assassinated. During this period Ronsard's work was considerable but mostly occasional, and the one work of magnitude upon which Charles put him, the Franciade, has never been ranked, even by his most devoted admirers, as a chief title to fame. The metre (the decasyllable) which the king chose could not but contrast unfavourably with the magnificent alexandrines which Du Bartas and Agrippa dAubigné were shortly to produce ; the general plan is feebly classical, and the very language has little or nothing of that racy mixture of scholarliness and love of natural beauty which distinguishes the best work of the Pléiade. The poem could never have had an abiding success, but at its appearance it had the singular bad luck almost to coincide with the massacre of St Bartholomew, which had occurred about a fortnight before its publication. One party in the state were certain to look coldly on the work of a minion of the court at such a juncture, the other had something else to think of. The death of Charles made, indeed, little difference in the court favour which Ronsard enjoyed, but, combined with his increasing infirmities, it seems to have determined him to quit court life. During his last year he lived chiefly at a house which he possessed in Vendôme, the capital of his native province, at his abbey at Croix Val in the same neighbourhood, or else at Paris, where he was usually the guest of Jean Galland, well known as a scholar, at the College de Boncourt. It seems also that he had a town house of his own in the Faubourg Saint Marcel. At any rate his preferments made him in perfectly easy circumstances, and he seems neither to have derived nor wished for any profit from his books. A half-jocular suggestion that his publisher should give him money to buy " du bois pour se chauffer in return for his last revision of his Œuvres Complètes is the only trace of any desire of the kind. On the other hand he received not merely gifts and endowments from his own sovereign but presents from many others, including Elizabeth of England. His last years were, however, saddened not merely by the death of many of his most intimate friends, but by constant and increasing ill health. This did not interfere with his literary work in point of quality, for he was rarely idle, and some of his latest work is among his best. But he indulged (what few poets have wisely indulged) the tempta-tion of constantly altering his work, and many of his later altera-tions are by no means for the better. Towards the end of 1585 his condition of health grew worse and worse, and he seems to have moved restlessly from one of his houses to another for some months. When the end came, which, though in great pain, he met in a resolute and religious manner, he was at his priory of Saint Cosme at Tours, and he was buried in the church of that name on Friday, December 27.

The character and fortunes of Ronsard's works are among the most remarkable in literary history, and supply in themselves a kind of illustration of the progress of French literature during the last three centuries. It was his fortune to be almost always extravagantly admired or violently attacked, and it is only recently that he has been set in his proper place. At first, as has been said, the enmity, not altogether unprovoked, of the friends and followers of Marot fell to his lot, then the still fiercer antagonism of the Huguenot faction, who, happening to possess a poet of great merit in Du Bartas, were able to attack Ronsard in his tenderest point, that of his reputation as the greatest living French poet. But fate had by no means done its worst with him in his lifetime. After his death the classical reaction set in under the auspices of Malherbe, a man of correct and narrow spirit who seems to have been animated with a sort of personal hatred of Ronsard, though it is not clear that they ever met. After Malherbe (who by no means himself produced the effect which some well-known but quite unhistorical lines of Boileau would convey) the rising glory of Corneille and his contemporaries obscured the tentative and equal work of the Pléiade, which was, moreover, directly attacked by Boileau himself, the dictator of French criticism in the last half of the 17th century. Then Ronsard was, except by a few men of taste, like La Bruyère and Fénelon, forgotten when he was not sneered at. In this con-dition he remained during the whole 18th century and the first quarter of the 19th. The romantic revival, seeing in him a victim of its special bête noire Boileau, and attracted by his splendid diction, rich metrical faculty, and combination of classical and mediaeval peculiarities, adopted his name as a kind of battle cry, and for the moment exaggerated his merits somewhat. The critical work, however, first of S.iinte-Beuve in his Tableau de la Littérature Française au 16ème Siècle, and since of others, has established Ronsard pretty securely in his right place, a place which may be defined in a few sentences.

For the general position of the Pléiade reference may be made to the article on the literature of FRANCE (vol. ix. p. 650). Ronsard, its acknowledged chief and its most voluminous poet, was probably also its best, though a few isolated pieces of Belleau excel him in airy lightness of touch. Several sonnets of Du Bellay exhibit what may be called the intense and voluptuous melancholy of the Renaissance more perfectly than anything of his, and the finest passages of the Tragiques and the Divine Scvmainc surpass his work in command of the alexandrine and in power of turning it to the purposes of satirical invective and descriptive narration. But that work is, as has been said, very extensive (we possess at a rough guess not much short of a hundred thousand lines of his), and it is extraordinarily varied in form. He did not introduce the sonnet into France, but he practised it very soon after its introduction and with admirable skill—the famous " Quand vous serez bien vieille " being one of the acknowledged gems of French literature. His odes, which are very numerous, are also very in-teresting and in their best shape very perfect compositions. He began by imitating the strophic arrangement of the ancients, but very soon had the wisdom to desert this for a kind of adjustment of the Horatian ode to rhyme, instead of exact quantitative metre. In this latter kind he devised some exquisitely melodious rhythms of which, till our own day, the secret died with the 17th century. His more sustained work sometimes displays a bad selection of metre; and his occasional poetry—epistles, eclogues, elegies, &c. —is injured by its vast volume. But the preface to the Franciade is a very fine piece of verse, far superior (it is in alexandrines) to the poem itself. Generally speaking, Ronsard is best in his amatory verse (the long series of sonnets and odes to Cassandre, Marie, Genèvre, Helene, &c.), and in his descriptions of the country (the famous "Mignonne allons voir si la rose," the "Fontaine Bellerie," the "Forêt de Gastine," and so forth), which have an extraordinary grace and freshness. No one used with more art than he the grace-ful diminutives which his school set in iashion. He knew well too how to manage the gorgeous adjectives ("marbrine," "cinabrine," " ivoirine," and the like) which were another fancy of the Pléiade, and in his hands they rarely become stiff or cumbrous. In short, Ronsard shows eminently the two great attractions of French 17th-century poetry as compared with that of the two following ages,— magnificence of language and imagery and graceful variety of metre.

The chief separately published works of Itonsard are noted above. He pro- duced, however, during his life a vast number of separate publications, some of them mere pamp lets or broadsheets which from time lo time he collected, often striking out others at ttie same time, in the successive editions of his works. Of these be himself published seven—the first in 1500, the hist in 1584. Between his death and the year 1630 ten more complete editions were published, the most famous of which is the folio of 1609. A copy of this presented by Sainte-Beuve to Victor Hugo, and now in the possession of il. Maxime du Camp, has a place of its own in French literary history. From 1630 Ronsard was not again reprinted for more than two centuiies. Just before the close of the second, however, Sainte-Beuve printed a selection of Ids poems at tlie end of the above-mentioned Tableau. There are also selections by M. Noel (in the Collection Didot) and Becq de Fouquières. In 1857 M. Prosper Blanchemain, who had previously pub- lished a volume of Œuvres Inédites de Ronsard, undertook a complete edition for the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne. The eighth and last volume of this appeared ten years later. It is practically complete; a few pieces of a somewhat free character which are ascribed with some certainty to the poet are, however, excluded. The chief separate volume of criticism on Ronaard is that of M. Gandar (.Metz, 1854), which considers him-chiefly in his relation to the ancients. (G. SA.)

The above article was written by: George Saintsbury.

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