Pierre Ronsard (1524-85) was the central figure of the French poetry renaissance and perhaps the greatest French lyrical poet before Hugo. Like his father, Ronsard was attached to court, and served on various missions, including two to Scotland in the service of Madeleine de France and Marie de Guise. Increasing deafness caused him to withdraw from diplomacy and for seven years he studied literature and the classical authors. With du Bellay and Baïf, Ronsard attended the Collège de Coqueret, publishing his first collection of Odes in 1550, his Amours in 1552 and his Hymnes in 1555-6.

The first Odes were modelled on Pindar, and somewhat pedantic, but his later work fused mythology and nature in a spring-like expression of tenderness and lyricism. Ronsard became the most celebrated poet of Europe, achieving for his fellow practitioners the recognition of poet as vates or seer.

Ronsard was a prolific writer who produced six editions of his work between 1560 and 1584, plus countless occasional pieces. The most important publications were: Les Amours de Cassandre (2 books of sonnets, Paris, 1550), Odes (5 books, Paris, 1551-1552), Le Bocage Royal (Paris, 1554), Les Hymnes (2 books, Paris, 1556), Poèmes (2 books, Paris, 1560-73), Discours sur les Misères du Temps (1560) and La Franciade (Paris, 1572).

However lively and charming to his contemporaries, the work did not measure up to the strict demands of French classicism, and Ronsard's achievements were overlooked for three centuries. To our ears, however, the poetry is immensely varied — simple, sublime, tender and ironic — often taking its inspiration from women who seemed to have been both real and imagined.

So strict became the rules of French prosody that lyrical poetry was all but extinguished between the 16th and 19th centuries. The exuberance of Renaissance verse was particularly censured, and poetry greatly narrowed in its language (though not its themes). Beside the point, therefore, that Ronsard enriched the French vocabulary with borrowings from Greek and Latin, the old romance dialects and the technical languages of trades, sports, and sciences. Or that he invented a large variety of metres, adopted the regular intertwining of masculine and feminine rhymes, and introduced harmony in French verse. Ronsard was rediscovered in the early 20th century, inspiring many translations.

Ronsard's French is not modern, but readily understood with application and a simple glossary. It predates classical verse, but is nonetheless built on syllabic subtleties that take some time to appreciate. A brief but rather technical introduction to French prosody is to be found in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993). Better is On Reading French Verse by R. Lewis (1982), or these works by C. Scott: French Verse-Art A Study (1980), A Question of Syllables (1986), and The Riches of Rhyme (1988). I. Silver's Ronsard and the Hellenic Renaissance in France (2 vols, 1961 & 1987) is more for specialists.

Suggestion: Ronsard: Selected Poems. Penguin Classics. 2003: $16.00

85 poems with French text and parallel English translation. Includes a robust introduction, biography of the poet, and notes on individual poems. A handsome paperback selection of some of the great love poems in the French language.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.