Ronsard is an outstanding (if out-of-fashion) poet, but there is very little of his poetry available on the web to a non-French speaking audience. (An honourable exception is Tony Kline’s translations of a number of Ronsard’s sonnets and odes.) I am not claiming to fill that gap, but I hope my literal rather than literary translations can assist English-speaking readers to understand his meaning and thus enjoy also the music in his poetry.
For French speakers, Wikisource has a range of texts, including complete texts of some books, and in several versions. You can also find texts on Google Books and on Gallica (BNF.Gallica.fr) including first editions.
Ronsard achieves a wonderful naturalness within the rather artificial constraints set by classical allusions, sonnet form and Anacreontic ode, and of the conventions of love poetry of his time. At the same time his language is far from ‘natural’: he is a master of a heightened style that reads easily and looks easy to write; a little like Shakespeare.
Ronsard was writing a generation before Shakespeare, so his poetry seems maybe rather mannered today. It certainly deals in what are by now hackneyed themes and phrases. But at the time this was all astonishingly new – and even astonishingly natural, compared say with the poetry of the classic period of Corneille which followed later. Generally speaking, Ronsard and the other poets of the Pleiade prided themselves on moving away from mannered vocabulary and using ‘normal’ words. It’s a bit like Wordsworth’s later ‘revolution’ in English poetry.
At the same time, they were in no doubt that their job was to set a high standard of style and erudition. The previous generation’s great poet was Marot, praised for being “facile, humble, imitant quasi la coutume de parler, … une admirable douceur et naive grace” (‘easy-flowing, lowly, almost as if it were imitating common speech, … a marvellous sweetness and natural elegance’); but Guillaume des Autelz – who praised Marot thus in 1551 – continued to say “another poet [meaning Ronsard] must be the one to move the passions, to use ingenious imagination and ideas, appropriate poetic descriptions, a high style, weighty sentences, magnificence of new or borrowed words, and all kinds of wide and varied learning”.
Ronsard is at his best when his vocabulary is straightforward, while his learning and erudition is also on display. The combination of those ordinary conversational words, used with such deftness, and the lofty style is what makes him so special a poet. Just as Shakespeare makes writing English poetry using ordinary language seem easy, though of course he sprinkles more elaborate words into his works too; so Ronsard blends the ordinary and the extraordinary with astonishing ease. On the other hand, Ronsard can get rather lost in elaborate classical allusions and so forth, to the detriment of his ‘poetic simplicity’.
I am concentrating here on his sonnets, though will gradually add some of his other poetry, especially the Odes. The Hymns are also fine poetry, but rather out of fashion – being mostly there to flatter nobles and kings.
Ronsard was not the first to write love sonnets in French but, rather like Shakespeare in England, was the first great figure to produce a large body of work in the form. Ronsard’s sonnets use a 4+4+3+3 form, never rhyming the final couplet as some English sonneteers do. Unlike Shakespeare – – and Petrarch – – who preferrered to group the rhymes in 3s within the final sestet – so that the second tercet reflected the first though not necessarily rhyming the lines in the same order – Ronsard uses a-a-b c-c-b consistently. Despite these small structural differences, all three of course use the constraints of the form to produce elegant masterpieces in miniature. Of course, not every attempt is a success; but Ronsard, like the others, produced a body of work in which an astonishingly large proportion of the poems are of a very high standard.
Like Shakespeare, he is able to exploit the sonnet form and the limited canvas of love poetry to an astonishing degree: compared with Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, Ronsard wrote over 220 sonnets to Cassandra alone in his First Book of Amours, another 50 to Marie in his second, and 142 sonnets to Helen in 2 books – plus many others! He also pioneered the Ode form, writing both short and long odes in emulation of classical models.
However hackneyed his themes may seem now, the poems themselves are gems: beautifully written, beautiful sounding, elegant, charming, occasionally slyly amusing or unexpected. They are a body of work which should be better known, and I hope that the gradual presentation of the sonnets – and some of his other poetry – here may make them more accessible.
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