Pierre de Ronsard (11 September 1524 – December 1585) was a French poet and "prince of poets" (as his own generation in France called him).
His popularity in his own time was overwhelming and immediate, and his prosperity was unbroken. He published his Hymns, dedicated to Margaret de Valois, in 1555; the conclusion of the Amours, addressed to another heroine, in 1556; and then a collection of Œuvres completes, said to be due to the invitation of Mary Stuart, queen of Francis II, in 1560; with Elégies, mascarades et bergeries in 1565. To this same year belongs his most important and interesting Abrégé de l'art poétique français.
The rapid change of sovereigns did Ronsard no harm. Charles IX, King of France, 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 exaggeration of the Dionysiac festival at Arcueil, in which the friends had indulged to celebrate the success of the first French tragedy, Jodelle's Cleopatre) 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 (1572), 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 d'Aubigné 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 days 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 Fauhourg 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 publishes 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 I of England. Mary, queen of Scots, who had known him earlier, addressed him from her prison; and Tasso consulted him on the Gerusalemme.
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 temptation of constantly altering his work, and many of his later alterations 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, 27 December.
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 long his fortune to be almost always extravagantly admired or violently attacked. 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. 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, 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, the rising glory of Corneille and his contemporaries obscured the tentative and unequal 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, such as Jean de La Bruyère and Fénelon, forgotten when he was not sneered at. In this condition 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 medieval peculiarities, adopted his name as a kind of battle-cry, and for the moment exaggerated his merits somewhat. The critical work, however, first of Sainte-Beuve in his Tableau de la littérature francaise 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.
Ronsard was the acknowledged chief of the Pléiade and its most voluminous poet. He 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 Sep'Maine 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 interesting 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 measure; and his occasional poetry--epistles, eclogues, elegies, etc.--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, Pikles, Marie, Genévre, Héléne--Héléne de Surgeres, a later and mainly "literary" love--etc.), 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 graceful diminutives which his school set in fashion. 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 16th-century poetry as compared with that of the two following ages - magnificence of language and imagery and graceful variety of metre.
Bust and inscription of Pierre de Ronsard at the Château de Blois.
The chief separately published works of Ronsard are noted above. He produced, however, during his life a vast number of separate publications, some of them mere pamphlets or broadsheets, which from time to time he collected, often striking out others at the same time, in the successive editions of his works. Of these he himself published seven - the first in 1560, the last 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 later in the possession of Maxime du Camp, has a place of its own in French literary history. The work of Claude Binet in 1586, Discours de la vie de Pierre de Ronsard, is very important for early information, and the author seems to have revised some of Ronsard's work under the poet's own direction.
From 1630 Ronsard was not again reprinted for more than two centuries. Just before the close of the second, however, Sainte-Beuve printed a selection of his poems to accompany the above-mentioned Tableau (1828). There are also selections, Choix de poésies - publiées par A. Noël (in the Collection Didot) and Becq de Fouquières. In 1857 Prosper Blanchemain, who had previously published a volume of Œuvres inédites de Ronsard, undertook a complete edition for the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne, in eight volumes. It is practically complete; a few pieces of a somewhat free character which are ascribed with some certainty to the poet are, however, excluded. A later and better edition still is that of Marty-Laveaux (1887-1893), and another that of Benjamin Pifteau (1891).