Poets of Love: Ronsard
Updated: Jan 5, 2021
Wow! Where should we start? Ronsard's impact upon French poetry is immense. Whereas before him poetry was just a silly pastime and poets merely court jesters ('troubadours') whose role was to entertain the wealthy, Ronsard will, on the contrary, take the art very seriously. Spearheading Renaissance in France, he will in fact get away with the Medieval poetical forms then 'en vogue' (eg. lai, virelai, rondel...) to import instead the odes, the epics, the epigrams and other classical forms usually associated with Greco-Roman Antiquity. More, at a time when French was not a national language but a patchwork of patois and dialects looked down upon by the intellectuals and the scholars (how could it even compete with Latin or Ancient Greek!?) Ronsard will dare to do the unthinkable: write in French. At he head of the Brigade, a bunch of like-minded poets and intellectuals then eager to gather around him (we now know them as the Pléiade) he triggered a movement which would ultimately lead to French establishing itself as a national language - what Chaucer will do with English, or Dante with Italian.
What about his poetry, then?
Ronsard was a court page, so, unsurprisingly, some of his writings are about politics; especially the tumultuous events then shattering and tearing France apart. The country was indeed at the throat of an intense quarrel between Catholics and Protestants, and the conflict will nastily turn very bloody (eg. think of the Saint Bartholomew's Massacre...). As a Catholic, although he may have been critical of the Church, Ronsard didn't shy away from defending his catholic faith. He had, to say the least, no sympathy for Protestants; as reading his Discourse on the Miseries of the Time makes it quite clear:
'What? Burning houses, plundering and pillaging, killing, assassinating and dominating by force, no longer obeying Kings, raising armies, is this what you called reformed Churches?'
However, here's not the reason why he still is remembered and admired as one of the greatest. Ronsard, contributing to popularise the sonnet in France, in fact made himself a master of the sonnet and its expected yet perfectly suited topic of choice: love. Ronsard was, first and above all, a master love poet.
During the course of his life, three women will be his muses -Helene, Marie, Cassandre- and he will dedicate indeed among the most beautiful love poems ever written to all three of them. Strikingly, such poems are more than your usual praises lavished upon desired women (romantically and sexually, for he didn't shy away from the lascivious). They are, also, embedded within his epicurean ethos; the idea that life is so short one should strive to enjoy it to the full even in its most modest pleasures. As such, Ronsard's poetry is not only passionate, but, very impatient too! The women he loves are indeed encouraged to give in while they are young, beautiful and desired, as not doing so might lead them to regret it once old and unwanted (let alone him, given his age in comparison to theirs, being dead!). Love, with Ronsard, is more than a longing for a soulmate. It's a urge to defy time and death - a celebration of life.
'Time passes, time passes, my Lady; alas! not time, but we, we pass away, and soon we should be stretched out beneath a tombstone; and when we are dead, no more will be heard of the love we are speaking of; therefore love me, while you are still beautiful.'
A poet that definitely worth a read!
This post was adapted from my video 'Ronsard: Renaissance and the Triumph of French' on Burning Words Poetry (please subscribe!).
My own English edition of Ronsard's work is Pierre de Ronsard, Selected Poems, Penguin Classics, 2002
Last but not least, if you are interested in romance and love poems, why not give a go at my A Vow - A Collection of Love Poems, available on Amazon: