Literary Criticism of Pierre de Ronsard

Like his friend and distant cousin Joachim Du Bellay, Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585) eventually studied under the supervision of the Hellenist Jean Dorat at the Collège de Coqueret in Paris, an institution that housed a nucleus of seven poets known as the Pléiade. This group, engaged in intense study of Greek and Latin poetry, was dedicated to a renewal of French poetry and language based on imitation and adaptation of classical models.

Ronsard came from a Catholic and noble family which had close connections with the royal court in France. His father worked for King Francis I, and he himself served as page to the royal prince Charles. While his family promoted the ideals of Renaissance scholarship and poetry, Ronsard, himself a member of the clergy, was a staunch defender of Catholicism, in an era of violent religious strife in France. He was opposed especially to the more puritanical forms of Protestantism which decried imitation of the pagan classics. Indeed, Ronsard is best known for his sonnets which, in the tradition of Plotinus and subsequent Neo-Platonism, bring into coexistence elements from both Christian theology and classical pagan philosophy. In accordance with the literary ideals of the Pléiade, he wrote in French but imitated classical and Italian verse forms. His poetic output included four books of Odes (1550), a collection of sonnets, Les Amours de Cassandre (1552), and an unfinished epic based on Vergil’s Aeneid entitled the Franciade (1572), as well as his renowned Sonnets to Helene (1578).

Ronsard’s A Brief on the Art of French Poetry was published in 1565. Like Horace’s Ars poetica, this brief takes the form of a letter offering advice to a young poet, in this case a young nobleman, Alphonse Delbene. In this brief essay, Ronsard begins with a somewhat radical claim: the art of poetry “can be neither learned nor taught by precept, it being a thing more experiential than traditional.”1 In other words, the very nerve of poetry derives from the author’s experience of life. Ronsard encourages the young poet to “frequent the practitioners of all trades, seamanship, hunting, falconry, . . . goldsmiths, foundrymen, blacksmiths, metallurgists.” From such broad experience, the poet will be able to “store up many good and lively semblances” in order to “enrich and beautify” his work. This experience of life will provide him with the material needed for “excellent inventions, descriptions and comparisons,” which will give charm and perfection to poetry, enabling it to be universal and “victorious over time” (182).

This apparently radical strain, in Ronsard’s emphasis on experience as opposed to tradition, is somewhat counterbalanced by his vision of the theological origin and infrastructure of poetry, and its consequently intrinsic spiritual and moral function. This theological foundation appears to derive from Plotinus. It was through the classical Muses, says Ronsard, that God, “in his sacred grace . . . made known to ignorant peoples the excellence of his majesty. For poetry was in the earliest time only an allegorical theology, to carry into men’s coarse brains, by charming and prettily colored fables, the secret truths which they could not comprehend if openly declared” (179). Like the medieval rhetoricians and poetic theorists, Ronsard sees poetry in its origins as intrinsically allegorical and as overlapping heavily with the offices of theology. At this early stage, says Ronsard in terms reminiscent of Plotinus, poets were called divine on account of their “god-like soul”: they were in communion with “oracles, prophets, diviners, sibyls, interpreters of dreams,” amplifying with color and commentary their prophetic utterances. What the prophets and sibyls were to the poets, the poets were to ordinary people. Hence the function of poetry was effectively to expound and translate into an accessible idiom the cryptic sayings of the divines. However, unlike most of his medieval predecessors, Ronsard sees later poetry as emerging from this intrinsic allegorical and theological function into a more humanistic mode: a “second school” of poets emerged during the days of Roman predominance, who were “human, as being more filled with artifice and labor, than with divine inspiration” (180).

This secular development is one that Ronsard, true to the belief of the Pléiade poets in the divine inspiration of poetry, does not welcome. His advice to the poet effectively calls for a return to the earlier theological foundation. The Muses, he says, are “not willing to reside in a soul unless it be kindly, saintly, virtuous . . . let nothing enter your soul which is not superhuman, divine. You are to bear in highest regard conceptions which are elevated, grand, beautiful – not those that lie around the earth. For the principal thing is invention, which comes as much from goodness of nature as from the lessons of the good ancient authors” (180). Again, we seem to hear the voice of Plotinus behind these words. What in Plotinus was general advice to all human beings is here transmuted into the special privilege and obligation of the poet. Plotinus admonished that only by casting aside the interests of the material earthly realm could the soul hope to sustain its journey toward the vision of the One or supreme God; for Ronsard, such elevation of oneself above earthly concerns is the paramount duty of the poet, a duty difficult to reconcile with Ronsard’s earlier advice that the poet experience a broad spectrum of worldly affairs. Ronsard’s strategy might be seen as effectively aestheticizing Plotinus’ view of the ascent to God: Plotinus indeed saw the attractions of divine beauty as integral in this ascent, but Ronsard views the poet as the indispensable guide.

After urging this cleansing and upward orientation of the soul, Ronsard offers more worldly, Horatian, advice to the poet: he must study the works of the “good poets”; he must “correct and file” his verses; he must offer his work up to the scrutiny of fellow poets and friends; and obey the particular laws of French prosody. In a further respect, Ronsard’s advice is radical: the language of poetry should not be restricted, as it often is by reliance on patronage, to the idiom of the court, but it should be enriched by selective appropriation from the numerous dialects of the provinces (182).

The remainder of Ronsard’s “Brief ” deals with three of the conventional offices of rhetoric, namely, invention, disposition, and arrangement, as well as French phonetics and various aspects of French grammar and verse. The aim of the poet, he says, is to “imitate, invent, and represent – things which are, or which may be – in a resemblance to truth” (183). This is a somewhat elliptical formulation of the poet’s task: the poet may imitate or represent things which already exist, which already stand in “resemblance to truth”; but beyond simply imitating, he can also invent things that may hold such resemblance; what seems to be invoked elliptically here is the Aristotelian requirement of probability, whereby the poet is obliged to present not necessarily any actual truth about the world but something which, being probable, exhibits a resemblance to truth. Hence the poet can invent as well as imitate: he need not be tied to the real world. Indeed, Ronsard was later held up by the Romantics as a pioneer of freer verse forms. Yet the classical constraint of probability effectively limits what Ronsard’s view of invention can encompass: in contrast with some of the Romantics, he insists that inventions should be “well-ordered and appointed”; they should not be “fantastic and melancholy,” since such creations are like the “broken dreams of one in a frenzy,” and are the products of “an imagination bruised or injured” (183).

Indeed, Ronsard is even more insistent on this point when he turns to the office of “disposition” or arrangement of one’s material. Disposition, depending upon sound invention, consists in “an elegant and consummate placing and ordering of the things invented; it does not permit what appertains to one place to be put in another, but, operating by artifice, study, and application, it disposes and sets each matter to its proper point” (183). Again, the terms – “order,” “proper,” “application” – are profoundly classical and conservative. Notwithstanding his belief in the divine inspiration of poetry, Ronsard, like Aristotle and Horace, clearly views the poetic process as a rational and studied procedure (184).

Ronsard defines the third rhetorical office, elocution or style, as comprising “a propriety and splendor of words, properly chosen and adorned.” A poem will shine “in proportion as the words be significant, and chosen with judgment” (184). But again, Ronsard’s view of style is constrained by a need to return to the classics: the poet must guide himself in these elements of style “by imitation of Homer” (184). Again, there is an uneasy balance here: on the one hand, the poet must submit to ancient precedent; on the other, he must draw on life itself, on experience. With the Romantics, this classical equilibrium, precarious in Ronsard’s text, was tilted heavily in favor of experience and sanctioned by a far more radical conception of imagination.

1. Pierre de Ronsard, “A Brief on the Art of French Poetry,” trans. J. H. Smith, in The Great Critics, ed. James Harry Smith and Edd Winfield Parks (New York: W. W. Norton, 1951), p. 179. All subsequent page citations of Ronsard’s “Brief ” refer to this translation.

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