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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

The later Art Poetique of Ronsard


It

was such an interest in the life and ideas of antiquity as Amyot conveyed to the general mind of France that was wanting to Ronsard and the group of poets surrounding him. Their work was concerned primarily with literary form; of the life of the world and general ideas, apart from form, they took too little heed. The transition from Marot to Ronsard is to be traced chiefly through the school of Lyons. In that city of the South, letters flourished side by side with industry and commerce; Maurice Sceve celebrated his mistress Delie, "object of the highest virtue," with Petrarchan ingenuities; and his pupil LOUISE LABE, "la belle Cordiere," sang in her sonnets of a true passion felt, as she declares, "en ses os, en son sang, en son ame." The Lyonese poets, though imbued with Platonic ideas, rather carry on the tradition of Marot than announce the Pleiade. PIERRE DE RONSARD, born at a chateau a few leagues from Vendome, in the year 1524, was in the service of the sons of Francis I. as page, was in Scotland with James V., and later had the prospect of a distinguished diplomatic career, when deafness, consequent on a serious malady, closed for him the avenue to public life. He threw himself ardently into the study of letters; in company with the boy Antoine de Baif he received lessons from an excellent Hellenist, Jean Daurat, soon to be principal of the College Coqueret. At the College a group of students--Ronsard, Baif, Joachim du Bellay, Remi Belleau--gathered about the master. The
"Brigade" was formed, which, by-and-by, with the addition of Jodelle and Pontus de Thyard, and including Daurat, became the constellation of the Pleiade. The seven associates read together, translated and imitated the classics; a common doctrine of art banded them in unity; they thought scorn of the vulgar ways of popular verse; poetry for them was an arduous and exquisite toil; its service was a religion. At length, in 1549, they flung out their manifesto--the _Defense et Illustration de la Langue Francaise_ by Du Bellay, the most important study in literary criticism of the century. With this should be considered, as less important manifestoes, the later _Art Poetique_ of Ronsard, and his prefaces to the _Franciade_. To formulate principles is not always to the advantage of a movement in literature; but champions need a banner, reformers can hardly dispense with a definite creed. Against the popular conception of the ignorant the Pleiade maintained that poetry was a high and difficult form of art; against the pedantry of humanism they maintained that the native tongue of France admitted of literary art worthy to take its place beside that of Greece or Rome. The French literary vocabulary, they declared, has excellences of its own, but it needs to be enriched by technical terms, by words of local dialects, by prudent adoptions from Greek and Latin, by judicious developments of the existing families of words, by the recovery of words that have fallen into disuse.

It is unjust to the Pleiade to say that they aimed at overloading poetic diction with neologisms of classical origin; they sought to innovate with discretion; but they unquestionably aimed at the formation of a poetic diction distinct from that of prose; they turned away from simplicity of speech to ingenious periphrasis; they desired a select, aristocratic idiom for the service of verse; they recommended a special syntax in imitation of the Latin; for the elder forms of French poetry they would substitute reproductions or re-creations of classical forms. Rondeaux, ballades, virelais, chants royaux, chansons are to be cast aside as _epiceries_; and their place is to be taken by odes like those of Pindar or of Horace, by the elegy, satire, epigram, epic, or by newer forms justified by the practice of Italian masters. Rich but not over-curious rhymes are to be cultivated, with in general the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes; the caesura is to fall in accordance with the meaning. Ronsard, more liberal than Du Bellay, permits, on the ground of classical example, the gliding from couplet to couplet without a pause. "The alexandrine holds in our language the place of heroic verse among the Greeks and Romans"--in this statement is indicated the chief service rendered to French poetry by Ronsard and the rest of the Pleiade; they it was who, by their teaching and example, imposed on later writers that majestic line, possessing the most varied powers, capable of the finest achievements, which has yielded itself alike to the purposes of Racine and to those of Victor Hugo.


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