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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

During forty years Ronsard remained the Prince of Poets


and Du Bellay broke with the tradition of the Middle Ages, and inaugurated the French classical school; it remained for Malherbe, at a later date, to reform the reformation of the Pleiade, and to win for himself the glory which properly belongs to his predecessors. Unfortunately from its origin the French classical school had in it the spirit of an intellectual aristocracy, which removed it from popular sympathies; unfortunately, also, the poets of the Pleiade failed to perceive that the masterpieces of Greece and Rome are admirable, not because they belong to antiquity, but because they are founded on the imitation of nature and on ideas of the reason. They were regarded as authorities equal with nature or independent of it; and thus while the school of Ronsard did much to renew literary art, its teaching involved an error which eventually tended to the sterilisation of art. That error found its correction in the literature of the seventeenth century, and expressly in the doctrine set forth by Boileau; yet under the correction some of the consequences of the error remained. Ronsard and his followers, on the other hand, never made the assumption, common enough in the seventeenth century, that poetry could be manufactured by observance of the rules, nor did they suppose that the total play of emotion must be rationalised by the understanding; they left a place for the instinctive movements of poetic sensibility.

During forty years Ronsard remained

the "Prince of Poets." Tasso sought his advice; the Chancellor Michel de l'Hospital wrote in his praise; Brantome placed him above Petrarch; Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart sent him gifts; Charles IX. on one occasion invited him to sit beside the throne. In his last hours he was still occupied with his art. His death, at the close of 1585, was felt as a national calamity, and pompous honours were awarded to his tomb. Yet Ronsard, though ambitious of literary distinction, did not lose his true self in a noisy fame. His was the delicate nature of an artist; his deafness perhaps added to his timidity and his love of retirement; we think of him in his garden, cultivating his roses as "the priest of Flora."

His work as a poet falls into four periods. From 1550 to 1554 he was a humanist without discretion or reserve. In the first three books of the _Odes_ he attempted to rival Pindar; in the _Amours de Cassandre_ he emulates the glory of Petrarch. From 1554 to 1560, abandoning his Pindarism, he was in discipleship to Anacreon[1] and Horace. It is the period of the less ambitious odes found in the fourth and fifth books, the period of the _Amours de Marie_ and the _Hymnes_. From 1560 to 1574 he was a poet of the court and of courtly occasions, an eloquent declaimer on public events in the _Discours des Miseres de ce Temps_, and the unfortunate epic poet of his unfinished _Franciade_. During the last ten years of his life he gave freer expression to his personal feelings, his sadness, his gladness; and to these years belong the admirable sonnets to Helene de Surgeres, his autumnal love.

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