Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) was the greatest French poet of his day. His verse influenced French poetry well into the 17th century.
Pierre de Ronsard was born at La Poissonnie‧re on Sept. 11, 1524. He was the son of Loys de Ronsard, an aristocrat whose nobility, if unquestionable, afforded him neither fame nor fortune. Pierre became a page in the royal house, where he attended briefly Francis I's eldest son and then the third son, Prince Charles. When James V of Scotland married Madeleine of France (1537), Charles gave the young page to his sister. Ronsard accompanied Scotland's new queen to her country but appears not to have stayed there more than a year. By 1540 he was acquainted with Lazare de Baïf, diplomat and humanist of distinction, who would help determine Ronsard's future. It began to take shape when an illness left the boy partially deaf and unsuited for a military career.
In 1543 Ronsard was tonsured. The act did not make the future poet a priest, but it did permit him to receive income from certain ecclesiastical posts—potentially an important source of revenue and one he would exploit. After his father died in 1544, Ronsard accepted an invitation from Lazare de Baïf to study in Paris with his son Jean Antoine under the direction of Jean Dorat. When Dorat became principal of the Colle‧ge de Coqueret in 1547, he took his pupils with him. Joined by Joachim du Bellay, the youths followed a strict but enlightened discipline that brought them into intimate contact with the languages, forms, and techniques of the ancient poets. In this way, the nucleus of that school of French poets known as the Pléiade was formed.
With the publication of Les Quatre premiers livres des odes (1550), the story of Ronsard's life is inseparable from the chronology of his works. Ronsard determined to open his career with éclat and chose to imitate the long, difficult odes of Pindar written in praise of Olympic heroes. The subjects of Ronsard's odes are the royal family and court dignitaries, but the length and difficulty remain.
With the Amours of 1552, Ronsard attempted to prove his ability to rival yet another great poet, Petrarch. Indeed, the Amours, addressed to Cassandra (identified as a Cassandra Salviati), so seek to capture the traits of the Italian's famous love poems to Laura that the existence of a woman named Cassandra at that time must be considered as incidental. Poetry in the 16th century was an affair of imitation and skill but rarely biography. The sonnets, in decasyllabic verse, are highly conventional, and whereas some critics find an appealing "baroque" quality in certain of them, many poems are so obscure, poorly constructed, and basely derivative that even Ronsard's contemporaries found fault with them.
During the remainder of the 1550s, Ronsard published his licentious Livret de folastries (1553, unsigned), his philosophical Hymnes (1555-1556), and more love poetry, the Continuations des Amours (1555-1556). The love sonnets of the cycles, addressed primarily to a Marie, are often no different in style from those of 1552. The greatest innovation lies in Ronsard's experimentation—the use of the Alexandrine and the increased quantity of nonsonnet material, for example. Yet even here, especially in the songs in imitation of Marullus, mannered phrases betray the relative simplicity of Ronsard's style bas.
Ronsard had official as well as personal reasons for becoming involved in the tensions that in 1562 brought Catholics and Huguenots to war. That year he composed his most important works on France's troubles: the Discours des mise‧res de ce temps, the Continuation du Discours des mise‧res de ce temps, and the Remonstrance au peuple de France. With eloquent virulence Ronsard depicts the desperate situation created by a divided France. He begs Beza, John Calvin's lieutenant, to help restore peace.
With the Remonstrance, Ronsard's tone rises to the satiric as he scourges Calvinism. Adhering to the principle of one king, one law, and one faith, he maintained that disregard for the last of these elements was bringing in its wake disobedience for the first two. Moreover, whereas he admitted that the Church needed reform, nothing he saw assured him that Calvinism was a more Christian, charitable sect. His personal feud with the Protestants stemmed from an attack by them on Ronsard as a pagan and a mediocre poet. Ronsard replied in his Réponse aux injures et calomnies de je ne sais quels prédicants et ministres de Gene‧ve (1563) with a proud (and revealing) defense supported by devastating satire.
In 1572 Ronsard published Les Quatre premiers livres de la Franciade. The remaining books were never written; it was obvious even to Ronsard that the poem was a failure. Why did this versatile poet fail in the epic when he had been so successful in numerous other genres? Critics have pointed to the verse form (decasyllabic verse, not the Alexandrine) and to the subject (a learned myth tracing France's royal house back to Troy). No less revealing are Ronsard's own words about the epic genre he published in a preface to the Franciade. Here the poet makes clear that only an epic written on the pattern set by Homer and Virgil is acceptable and that this pattern is to be followed in the greatest detail. Ronsard is so true to his own principles that the Franciade is often little more than a sustained reproduction of a traditional form.
Ronsard's failure in the Franciade is more than offset by a new collected edition of his works printed in 1578. It contains two of his best-known sonnets, Comme on voit sur la branche and Quand vous serez bien vieille. The former was inserted among the previously published Marie poems but was most certainly written at the death of the King's mistress, Marie de Cle‧ves. Quand vous serez bien vieille belongs to an entirely new cycle of love poems, the Sonnets pour Héle‧ne, inspired in part by Héle‧ne de Surge‧res, a lady of the court. The cycle reproduces much of the Petrarchan material used in 1552 and 1555. Its remarkable qualities— to be found also in Comme on voit sur la branche—lie in the poet's ability to manipulate the tradition and the sonnet form. The best sonnets of 1578 abandon the nervous style of 1552 and achieve with the same Petrarchan commonplaces a simplicity that is not without richness of expression and emotion.
Ronsard died on Dec. 27, 1585, at the priory of StCosme near Tours. In his late works he was the forerunner of 17th-century French classicism.
Both the contemporary and modern biographies of Ronsard are unreliable mixtures of fact, fiction, and romance. Recent studies of his poetry include Isidore Silver, Ronsard and the Hellenic Renaissance in France (1961); Donald Stone, Jr., Ronsard's Sonnet Cycles: A Study in Tone and Vision (1966); and Elizabeth T. Armstrong, Ronsard and the Age of Gold (1968). Grahame Castor, Pléiade Poetics: A Study in Sixteenth-century Thought and Terminology (1964), discusses Ronsard's theoretical writings, and Richard A. Katz, Ronsard's French Critics, 1585-1828 (1964), considers his influence. □