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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Katharine Hillard (1839/40–1915)
 
THERE is no more picturesque moment in the whole history of France than that at which Pierre Ronsard was born. The first quarter of the sixteenth century had just struck, and Europe was waking to the new day of the Renaissance. Luther had burned the Pope’s bull at Wittenberg, and had introduced the reformed worship there. Henry VIII. and Francis I. had met on the Field of the Cloth of Gold; Michaelangelo had finished his masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel; Raphael, having painted the greatest of all Madonnas, had been dead five years; Titian was still holding the world breathless with the triumphs of his brush; Rabelais had just emerged from his monastic prison to begin life at the age of forty; Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Earl of Surrey, and their co-mates, were preparing the way in England for the full choir of the next half-century; and France, stimulated on all sides by the advance of her neighbors in literature and art, had set herself to rival them. Since the appearance of the ‘Roman de la Rose’ in 1310, there had been little of note in French literature. The feeble singers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, whose voices could scarcely be heard through the constant din of war, made that poem their great example; and it is hard to say whether the poverty of their invention, or the religious allegory concealed beneath its sentimental platitudes, had had the greater power in preserving it so long. Charles d’Orléans, François Villon, and Clément Marot, had already sung the first chansons worthy of note since the ‘Roman de la Rose’ began to reign; and the “gentil maistre Clément” was even now sharing the captivity of his royal master at Pavia.  1
  Besides the usual causes that impede the production of great poems, we must take into account the transitions and imperfect condition of the French language at this time; the patronage of zealous but ignorant princes; and more than all, the fact that in the recent revival of learning, studious minds grasped at everything. They made no distinction between natural genius and acquired talents; and believed the development of poetry to be as much a matter of perseverance as the development of physics,—a thing to be worked at like a sum in arithmetic.  2
  While, then, in France the learned were poring over classical dictionaries, and occasionally giving evidence of progress by a neat copy of Greek or Latin verses, the French language was suffering neglect. Noble words and phrases used by the Troubadours had dropped out altogether; the writers of each half-century had to be translated by their successors before they could be understood. For the new music there must be new strings to the lyre; and two young poets, Pierre Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay, undertook the audacious task of reconstructing their native tongue.  3
  Pierre Ronsard, to whose influence may be ascribed the ‘Illustration de la Langue Française,’ published by his friend du Bellay, was born on the 11th of September, 1524, at the Château de la Poissonière (Vendômois). He was the fifth son of Louis Ronsard, maître d’hotel to Francis I. His father, born of a noble Hungarian family, was himself a scholar and a poet, who composed verses in both French and Latin which received a tolerable amount of praise from his contemporaries. Till the age of nine, Pierre was brought up at home under the direction of a tutor. When sent to the College of Navarre, he was a bright and beautiful boy of ten; but the Regent there was an uncommonly harsh master, under whose rule in six months the child lost not only his color and his vivacity, but his taste for study. His alarmed father gave up all thought of educating him for the law or the church, and entered him in the service of the Duke of Orléans as a page. Three years later, in 1537, when James V. of Scotland returned to his own country with his first wife, Madeleine of France, Ronsard went in their train to Edinburgh, where he spent two years; and then, despite the King’s efforts to detain him, returned to France (spending six months in England on the way), and re-entered the service of the Duke. His royal master sent his prodigy of a page on all sorts of secret missions,—to Scotland, to Flanders, to Zealand, to the Diet of Spires with Lazare de Baïf, to Piedmont with the viceroy du Bellay. He suffered many hardships, and even shipwreck; and finally a severe illness, which left him almost totally deaf at the early age of sixteen. He lost his heart too about this time (not so irremediable a loss, however, as his hearing), to a fair bourgeoise of Blois, whom he chose to christen Cassandra. She was little more than a child; and he, though not seventeen, was already an accomplished courtier, skilled in all manly exercises, and already a verse-maker. His deafness interfering with his chances at court, he wished to devote himself to study. But his father, ambitious for the future of his brilliant son, peremptorily forbade his apprenticeship to “le mestier des Muses.” During his travels, however, he had learned to speak English, Italian, and German, while one of his comrades had taught him Latin.  4
  When the elder Ronsard died, Pierre was left free to follow his own inclinations. At eighteen, having already seen more of life than most men, he retired with his friend Antoine de Baïf, then only sixteen, to the College of Coqueret. Seven long years they passed in this retreat, studying with the greatest ardor, and helping each other along the thorny ways of learning.  5
  At the college they were joined by Remi Belleau, afterwards an enthusiastic disciple of Ronsard, and by Antoine Muret, his future commentator. Here too came Joachim du Bellay, who eagerly embraced the literary theories of Ronsard, and published in 1549 the result of their joint studies and speculations under the title of ‘L’Illustration de la Langue Française.’ “Coloring their prejudices as erudite scholars with all the illusions of youth and patriotism,” says Sainte-Beuve in his admirable work on ‘French Poetry in the Sixteenth Century,’ “they asserted that there was no such thing as poetry in France, and promised themselves to create it all.” The ideas of these youthful enthusiasts were set forth (in part) as follows:
          “Languages are not like plants, strong or weak by chance: they depend upon human volition. Consequently, if our language be more feeble than the Greek or the Latin, it is the fault of our ancestors, who neglected to strengthen and adorn it. Translations alone will never enrich a language. We need to follow the example of the Romans, who imitated rather than translated the best Greek authors, transforming them into their own likeness, devouring their substance, and after digesting it thoroughly, converting it into nourishment and blood.”
  6
  To this careful transportation of the classics, of Spanish and Italian, Ronsard added an audacious use of the words of his own tongue. Where French failed him, he dressed up a Latin, Greek, or Italian substitute. He advised what he called the provignement (literally the layering of words,—the term being taken from the gardener’s method of laying a shoot under ground to take root, without detaching it from the parent stem); and from a recognized substantive, for instance, would form a verb or an adjective to suit his need. Moreover, he borrowed right and left from every French patois he could lay his hands upon; and in all the workshops of Paris he sought among the artisans for words and phrases to give amplitude and vigor to his verse. His genius melted down this heterogeneous mass into a wonderfully mellifluous stream; and to us, in this polyglot age, his verse presents fewer difficulties than it did, perhaps, to his contemporaries.  7
  In 1549, after seven years’ study of “le mestier des Muses,” Ronsard was persuaded to appear in print for the first time; and to publish his Epithalamium on the marriage of Antoine de Bourbon with Jeanne de Navarre. His first book of ‘Odes’ came out in 1550; and two years later, ‘Amours,’—a collection of sonnets addressed to the fair Cassandra. Meantime he was publishing more odes, of which a fifth book appeared in 1553, accompanied with music fitted to the songs and sonnets, and a commentary by Muret. Then came a book of ‘Hymnes,’ followed in two years by a second, and by the last of the ‘Amours.’ Finally, in 1560, he brought out the first edition of his collected works.  8
  Never were poems received with such tempests of applause. In vain the jovial curé of Meudon made fun of his neighbor; not even the mighty laughter of Rabelais could drown the praise of princes. The Toulouse Academy of Floral Games christened Ronsard “the prince of poets”; and although he had not entered their lists as a competitor, they not only crowned him with their usual golden wreath of eglantine, but sent him also a massive silver statue of Minerva. Queen Elizabeth presented a diamond of great price; and Marie Stuart sent him from her English prison a buffet surmounted by a silver Pegasus, standing on the summit of Parnassus, bearing this inscription: “To Ronsard, the Apollo of the fountain of the Muses.”  9
  Montaigne immortalized him in a single line; Tasso was proud to read to him the first cantos of his Gerusalemme; and his works were publicly read and expounded in the French schools of Flanders, Poland, England, and other countries. Saddest and sweetest tribute of all, the poet Chastelard would have no other consolation upon the scaffold than Ronsard’s ‘Hymn to Death.’  10
  The people shared the admiration of princes, and women burned incense before the popular idol. Many damsels besides Cassandra are celebrated in his charming verses; either by their real names, or by the finer Callirrhoës and Astræas of the fashion of the day. The nebulous clouds of adoration that surrounded him finally encompassed that famous constellation, the “Pléiade,” wherein he was still the central star. Around him at a respectful distance revolved Dorat, his old master; Jamyn, his pupil; du Bellay and de Baïf, his fellow-students; Jodelle and De Thiard: but it was only Ronsard whom the whole world delighted to honor.  11
  At the command of Charles IX. he undertook an epic poem; and about a fortnight after the massacre of St. Bartholomew (August 24th, 1572) appeared all that was ever written of the ‘Franciade,’—four cantos of the destined twenty-four. The delighted King loaded him with new honors; bestowing upon him, besides two priories, the abbeys of Bellozane and Croix-Val.  12
  To Croix-Val Ronsard retired upon the death of his royal patron in 1574. Gouty and prematurely old, he led a studious and pious life; amusing himself by editing another edition of his complete works, which appeared in 1584. So captious had grown his fastidious taste, that he altered the sonnets and lyrics of his youth with a most unsparing hand, often much to the loss of their spontaneity and vigor; “not considering,” says Colletet, in his quaint old French, “that although he was the father of his works, yet doth it not appertain to sad and captious age to sit in judgment upon the strokes of gallant youth.”  13
  A singer to the last, he died at his priory of St. Cosme, Tours, on December 27th, 1585, at the age of sixty-one; and was quietly buried in the choir of the priory church. Two months after his death, however, his dear friend Galland, who had closed the poet’s eyes, celebrated his obsequies at the chapel of the College of Boncour. Henri III., then King, sent his own musicians to sing the mass; Duperron, afterwards bishop of Evreux and cardinal, pronounced the funeral oration, and drew tears from the eyes of all present. The chapel was crowded with the princes of the blood, the cardinals, the Parliament, and the University of Paris. The next day memorial orations and verses were recited in all the colleges of Paris, and volumes might be made of the commemorative elegies and epitaphs.  14
  But only fifteen years after these panegyrics filled the air, arose the star of Malherbe, severest of his critics because so close a rival. It is related that Racan, coming in one day,—when Malherbe was ill, let us hope,—took up a volume of Ronsard with many verses erased. “Posterity will quote the others as admired by Malherbe,” said Racan; whereupon the irritated censor seized a pen and scratched out all the rest.  15
  The wheel of Fortune turned again. Malherbe was as completely forgotten as Ronsard. Corneille, Racine, and classic drama ruled the day. Again the wheel went round; and in 1828 the reign of the Romantic School began. Guizot, Ampère, Prosper Mèrimée, Philarète Chasles, Théophile Gautier, Sainte-Beuve, Victor Hugo, led the acclaim for Ronsard; and once more all France rang with his praises. Sainte-Beuve wrote his ‘Tableau Historique et Critique de la Poésie Française au 16e. Siècle’ (Critical and Historical View of French Poetry in the Sixteenth Century), followed by a volume of selections which set the new school wild. Early editions commanded fabulous prices; and a copy of 1609 was presented to Victor Hugo as the fittest tribute to “the successor of the greatest lyric poet of France.”  16
  It is easier to account for the fame of Ronsard than for its sudden waning. His service to French speech is enormous. As a poet, he worked much upon the same lines as did Rabelais in prose, allowing for the humorous extravagance of the latter. Both borrowed from all sources, and both developed the French vocabulary in every direction.  17
  Nor were Ronsard’s services to the art of versification less notable. To him belongs the honor of introducing the ode into French poetry; that he also revived the epic is a doubtful matter for congratulation. Sainte-Beuve claims as his invention a great variety of new rhythms, and at least eight or ten new forms of strophes. Indeed, France had to wait three hundred years for a worthy successor to him in the realm of lyric verse. Not until Victor Hugo took up the fallen lyre do we find in French poetry any songs that for exquisite melody, simplicity, and grace can rival his. He transplanted some of the finest odes and sonnets of Anacreon, Theocritus, Horace, Petrarch, and Bembo into his native tongue; but added to them such fine and delicate touches of his own fancy that they seemed to bloom anew as with engrafted flowers.  18
  And he kept a kind and fatherly eye upon the younger poets springing up around him. He taught them the value of careful work: inspired them to write less and write better; and bade them remember that verses should be weighed, not counted, and that like diamonds, one fine gem was far more precious than a hundred mediocre specimens.  19
  Of all English poets Herrick most resembles Ronsard. But Herrick set out with the great advantage of finding his material ready to his hand; for the noble English language was at the very acme of its splendor. His mastery of rhythm is as great as Ronsard’s, but his poetic genius is of a lower order. Ronsard’s imagination has a loftier flight than Herrick’s fancy; there is more dignity and depth in his sweetness, a subtler pathos in his tenderness.  20
  Both poets profess a like Epicurean philosophy: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old Time is still a-flying,” sings Herrick; and Ronsard utters the same wisdom to Cassandra. This is the moral of many a verse in both poets, it is true; but Ronsard’s treatment of love is more noble and dignified than that of the English singer. Although touched occasionally by the worst taste of his time, Ronsard preserves in nearly all his love poems a manliness and a delicacy that enhance their richness. Perhaps the most celebrated of his verses is the sonnet to Hèlène de Surgères, maid of honor to Catherine de Medici, a sonnet which Béranger has imitated and Thackeray paraphrased :—
  “When by the fire, grown old, with silvery hair,
  You spin by candle-light with weary eyes,
  Humming my songs you’ll say, with still surprise,
‘Ronsard once sang of me, when I was young and fair.’
Then as your maidens hear the well-known sound,—
  Though half asleep after the toils of day,—
  Not one but wakes, and as she goes her way
Blesses your name, with praise immortal crowned.
I shall be dead and gone, a fleshless shade
Under Elysian bowers my head be laid;
While you, crouched o’er your fire, grown old and gray,
  Sigh for my love, regret your past disdain.
  Live now, nor wait for love to come again;
Gather the roses of your life to-day!”
  21
  Ronsard, like Chaucer, in spite of a courtier’s training, had an intense love of nature. The poet laureate of his age and country, he was none the less an excellent gardener, well versed in all the secrets of horticulture; and side by side with marriage odes to princes and epistles to kings and queens, we find charming songs addressed to the birds and insects and fountains of the country that he loved even better than the court. And like Chaucer, again, he was capable of higher flights; and could comfort a dying poet with his ‘Hymn to Death,’ or write verses full of a lofty stoicism,—like the stanzas taken from one of the odes, which irresistibly suggest the “good counsel” of Geoffrey Chaucer.  22
 
 
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