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Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 2


Pierre de Ronsard was born in 1524 and died in 1585, aged sixty-one. In addition, therefore, to the labours of the Pléiade, of which he was the leader, his life-span included the activities of Calvin (1509-1564) and the consequent internal strife in France, the publication of Pantagruel (1532), the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1558), the massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day (1572), and the publication of Montaigne's Essays (1580). In a literary sense the century might well take its name from him, for he was its greatest poet in all Europe; the greatest, says Wyndham Lewis1, of the Renaissance poets save only Shakespeare. And different as these two poets are, there is a suggestive link in Ronsard's lines:—

Le monde est le theatre, et les homes acteurs,
La Fortune qui est maistresse de la scene
Apreste les habitz, et de la vie humaine
Les Cieux et les Destins sont les grans spectateurs.....

He had other, stronger links with Britain. At the age of twelve he went to Edinburgh as a page in the suite of Queen Madeline, and to London after her death. Twenty-eight years later, Elizabeth of England send him a fine diamond after his dedication of the first two parts of his Elegies, Mascarades, et Bergerie; but the third partr was dedicated to Mary, Queen of Scots. The latter was a dedication of love, not of interest; for like so many men of his time he was in love with the lovely Queen.; and oddly enough it was another of her lovers, Chastelard, whose last act, before being executed for his habit of being found under her bed, was to read Ronsard's Hymn to Death, the last section of which opens with the noble lines:

Je te salue, heureuse et profitable Mort!
Des extremes douleurs medecin et confort......

Love and classical studies were the lights by which Ronsard lived. May we suspect that the latter, like mathematics, are aphrodisiac? His life was a series of ardent loves, extremely passionate and, for the most part, extremely painful. Cassandre, Marie (another as well as the Queen), Genèvre, Isabeau, Astrée, Hélenè, were the names of the womenwho successively spurred him to write his finest poems. Before the reign of Cassandre, however, he had published his first volumes, consisting of odes and similar pieces, including that on the choice of his burial-place, a translation of which is given below. Twenty-seven of these short stanzas are perhaps rather many, but this is the exuberance of youth. Already he had visied Germany as well as Britain, contracted the partial deafness that cut short his career as a courtier ("pox," said his detractors later), studied under Dorat at the College de Coqueret in Paris, and accumulated a deal of manuscript. In 1552 he published Les Amours, consisting of one hundred and eight-two sonnets for Cassandre—and the long series had begun which was to end in 1578 with the one hundred and forty-two sonnets for Hélène. For Cassandre, too, was written that famous little ode, Mignonne, allons vair si la rose..... which so many have attempted to translate, myself included2. Here is the "rose motif," similar to Herrick's "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," which often recurs in Ronsard and others of his period and there is a well-known ode devoted exclusively to his flower, with copious classical allusions3. The furniture of classicism became for these stars of the Pléiade so perfectly familiar that they thought in classical pagan rather than in contemporary Charistian terms. This is again exemplified in the ode to the lark, also translated below. Often we are driven to consult our Classical Dictionary, and as often do we forget the precise allusions. But what matter, since the song of the lark and the zest of life are the eternal things here, before which the lark's mythical father is no great impediment and may well be overlooked.

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By 1560, with the publication of his first collected edition, Ronsard's preeminence was established. Then came volume after volume, and in 1578 the seventh collected edition was reached, followed by a beautiful one-volume folio in 1584. The earlier work was continually reexamined, and hosts of alterations were made. At the same time there were years of work on his epic, La Franciade, published (unfinished) in 1572. It had only a success d'estime, and has since been forgotten except as an example of noble effort misspent. The last love-poems were still to come, after seven years' fruitless wooing of the frigid Hélène de Surgéres; and these include that most famous of all, Quand vaus serez bien vieille ... ., of which I give a translation.

But love, though it spiced much of Ronsard's life, did not fill the whole of it. Wyndham Lewis shows by quotation how much more than love can be traced in his works—genial friendships, criticism of kings and courts, feeling for Nature.

Escoute, Bucheron! Arreste un peu le bras,
Ce ne sont pas des bois que tu jettes a bas!
Ne vois-tu pas le sang lequel degoutte a force.
Des Nymphes qui vivoyent dessous la dure escorce?
Sacrilege meurdrier ... .

he writes against a woodman he find destroying his beloved Forest of Gastine.

After Hélène came a slow and painful bodily decline under gout and fever, and near the end he made a lovely adaptation of the famous dying lines of the Emperor Hadrian—

Animula vagula blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis...

Which he adapts as

Amelette Ronsardelette,
Mignonnelette, doucelette,
Tres-cher hostesse de mon corps ...

I have tried to reecho this in English. What matter if this distant echo is faint? There will be many others, I dare say, before European literature is wholly forgotten.