Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) is indisputably the greatest poet of the French Renaissance. His reputation hasn’t always been secure – he was violently derided by Boileau and the Classicists in the century after his death, and for a century after that everyone preferred Marot – but he was rehabilitated in the 19th century by the Romantics and has maintained his position ever since.
Villon was poor, Marot was the son of a merchant; Ronsard was born into an illustrious and well-connected family. He enjoyed an excellent education and a very promising diplomatic career, but he suffered from attacks of deafness that made him unable to fulfill his diplomatic ambitions and devoted himself instead to literature. During his studies he assembled around himself a group of ambitious young poets – Jean-Antoine de Baïf, Joachim du Bellay, Antoine Muret – who would later be known as the Pléiade and who would forever change the direction of French literature.
Du Bellay, whom Ronsard met randomly in a tavern in 1547 and invited to Paris, was the theoretician of the group and wrote the manifesto for the Pléiade – the 1549 Défense et illustration de la langue française, in which he put forth the group’s views on French poetry: 1) Antique forms were a better basis for poetry than native medieval French forms; 2) The language was weak but could be renewed and strengthened with skillful borrowings from Latin, Greek, and Italian; 3) The language would never gain strength if people continued to use Latin for their writings on serious subjects; and 4) no one should imitate Marot, who was a frivolous dead end. The Pléiade’s hatred of Marot is ironic and a bit misplaced – it was Marot who introduced most of their favorite forms to France and began the renewal of the language with borrowings – but Marot, recently dead, was still the most influential poet in France, and if the Pléiade wanted to make their own names, he would have to be dispensed with somehow.
In his own time Ronsard was acknowledged as the prince des poètes. His fame came quickly and his fortunes never wavered; he always succeeded in finding patrons, among them Henri II, François II, Charles IX, and Henri III; his health was bad at the end of his life and he witnessed the death of most of his closest friends, but his life cannot be said to have been externally difficult. On his death in 1585 he had a lavish funeral, so crowded that even some court dignitaries were denied entry, accompanied by a specially-composed requiem mass and an eulogy by Du Perron, whose subjects were usually royal. A year later his first biographer published a life of Ronsard.
Ronsard’s best poems are about love; when he goes into other subjects he can be technically interesting but somewhat dull, and his ill-advised attempt at an epic, the Franciade commissioned by Charles IX, is today universally ignored. Unlike Marot, whose attachments were fleeting, Ronsard had three great documented loves, to whom he dedicated much of his best poetry; Cassandre, Marie, and Hélène, all of whom I will discuss in turn. He wrote a lot, and my selection of poems was more difficult for him than for Villon or Marot. I find myself barely equal to the task of talking about Ronsard, but let’s read some of his poems and see what we can get out of him.
Let’s start with Quand je suis vingt ou trente mois, which I might like better than any other poem by Ronsard.
When I’ve gone twenty or thirty months, 1550
When I’ve gone twenty or thirty months
Without returning to the Vendômois
Full of wandering thoughts,
Full of regrets and cares,
This is the way I complain to the rocks,
To the forests, to the caves, and to the waves.
Rocks, even though you’re old,
Three thousand years old, you never change
Your status or your form.
But my youth is always fleeing me.
And the old age that follows me
Is transforming me from a young man into an old one.
Forests, even though you lose, every year,
In the wintertime, your pleasing hair,
The coming year, renewing itself,
Renews your head as well.
But mine will never again be able
To have the wig it started with.
Caves, I used to see myself near you
My knees flexible like a young plant;
My body was able, my hand was steady;
But now I have a stiffer body
And knees than the wall of rock
That coldly envelops you.
Waves, you go on without stopping,
And you send out and call back in
Your currents from an unstopping path:
Me, too, without staying too long,
I go on leaving, night and day,
But I don’t come back like you do.
And if I do not wish
To have been a rock or a forest
To have a thicker skin
And win the battle against celebrated time,
It’s because if I had been so hard, I would never have loved
You, my Mistress, who have made me old.
Quand je suis vingt ou trente mois, 1550
Quand je suis vingt ou trente mois
Sans retourner en Vandomois,
Plein de pensées vagabondes.
Plein d’un remors et d’un souci.
Aux rochers je me plains ainsi.
Aux bois, aux antres, et aux ondes.
Rochers, bien que soyez âgez
De trois mil ans, vous ne changez
Jamais ny d’estat ny de forme :
Mais tousjours ma jeunesse fuit.
Et la vieillesse qui me suit.
De jeune en vieillard me transforme.
Bois, bien que perdiez tous les ans
En l’hyver voz cheveux plaisans,
L’an d’après qui se renouvelle.
Renouvelle aussi vostre chef :
Mais le mien ne peut derechef
R’avoir sa perruque nouvelle.
Antres, je me suis veu chez vous
Avoir jadis verds les genous.
Le corps habile, et la main bonne :
Mais ores j’ay le corps plus dur,
Et les genous, que n’est le mur
Qui froidement vous environne.
Ondes, sans fin vous promenez.
Et vous menez et ramenez
Voz flots d’un cours qui ne séjourne :
Et moy sans faire long séjour
Je m’en vais de nuict et de jour.
Mais comme vous, je ne retourne.
Si est-ce que je ne voudrois
Avoir esté rocher ou bois.
Pour avoir la peau plus espesse,
Et veincre le temps emplumé :
Car ainsi dur je n’eusse aimé
Toy qui m’as fait vieillir, Maistresse.
Quand je suis vingt ou trente mois – reactions
Renaissance poetry, and Ronsard’s in particular, is filled with horror at aging. This usually takes projected form in transparent pleas to women to “enjoy life before you’re old,” but here Ronsard has the courage to confront it directly. From the text we might guess Ronsard to have been old when he wrote this; in fact he was at most 26 and may have been younger. His health was never the best – remember his abortive diplomatic career – but even so the suggestions of baldness and arthritis must be exaggerated. What can explain a man in his 20’s complaining of being old?
In 1545 Ronsard met and fell violently in love with the young and attractive Cassandre Salviati – depending on the historian, either at a court ball in Blois or at her father’s château, when she was either 13 or 15 years old – but never did anything about it. (Coincidentally, Cassandre was a distant cousin of Catherine de Médicis.) Ronsard at this point seemed to be destined for a career in the church and had taken the tonsure, which promised him to celibacy ; Cassandre married almost immediately after their meeting. Inaccessible and therefore infinitely compelling, first because of Ronsard’s position, then because of her marriage, Cassandre would come to dominate most of Ronsard’s poetry until 1555.
Ronsard was a young man, whose contact with an even younger woman made him keenly aware of the differences between them. He felt old even in his youth; next to the woman who had become his standard of value, he was old at 26. And at the beginning he complains about this – full of “regrets and cares,” he addresses himself with humor and resignation to the natural world, which neither loves nor feels anything else, and which remains unchanging and immortal. All of this is fairly standard Renaissance stuff, although the passage on the waves is uncommonly beautiful. But then he turns everything on its head. He’s glad he’s not like that. He doesn’t want immortality. He wants to go on loving.
“Look,” he says to the “Mistress,” presumably Cassandre, at the end. “I’m getting old, and it’s your fault. I’m full of regrets and cares because I love you, I see no way to make it work, and I’m getting older every day. First I was destined for the church and I couldn’t do anything; maybe I could have, but I couldn’t find the courage, and it would have been madness anyway. Now you’re married and I can’t do anything now either. This is killing me. But at the same time, I want you to know that I wouldn’t change loving you for anything. I may be getting old, and the situation may be hopeless (though maybe not; I guess your husband could die at some point; but moving on . . . ), but the experience of loving you is worth it. I might have been like the natural world. I might have been hard like a rock or a cave. I might have given up. I might have moved on. But then I would never have really loved you, and that’s worth everything I’ve been through.”
Could anything practical have worked out between Ronsard and Cassandre? The difference in ages, while significant, could have been easily overlooked. Ronsard could probably have renounced his orders, which would have caused some practical trouble, but doing so for someone he had met once and in whose interest he had no proof would have been massively silly, even by the standards of poets. As for Cassandre, she came from an excellent family and was presumably rich, educated, charming, and beautiful, but would she have been worth the sacrifice? We know nothing about her self-awareness, her view of humanity, her views on love. They may have had nothing in common. Very rarely does one find himself in love with someone who’s worth the trouble, and Ronsard gives no indication that he knows she is. Most people are worth more as inspirations than as lovers. Cassandre did very well as an inspiration; could she have done more in reality? We don’t know, and neither does Ronsard. It doesn’t matter. He loves her anyway.
He realizes here, frustrated, probably close to despair, and at an age when love for most people is primarily physical, practical, and to be abandoned when it doesn’t work out, in ways that Marot never did, that love is worth something in itself. It is the great human experience, and even if it brings on pain, distress, and old age, its value outweighs the heavy price we pay for it. Ronsard here has learned, with some regret but without bitterness, one of the greatest lessons of life, and one we would all do well to learn ourselves. Those who keep from feeling, from loving, may avoid mentally aging and being hurt, but they close themselves off to what matters most in life. Someone who, like Ronsard, is unhappily in love still holds interior riches that no rock or cave or mouse will ever know. And to Ronsard, those riches are worth everything – even without fulfillment and even without hope.
May we all be so strong; Ronsard very often wasn’t, and only toward the end of his life do we see him quite so unambiguously happy about the experience of love. Let’s move on to the most famous poem to Cassandre, and possibly the most famous in the whole oeuvre :
Ode to Cassandre, 1545
Mignonne, let’s go see if the rose
That this morning was displaying
Its crimson dress to the sun
Hasn’t lost by this evening
The folds of its crimson dress
And its color, so like yours.
Alas! Look at how, in so short a time,
Mignonne, she – on the spot –
Alas, alas, has let her beauty fade!
O, nature is a cruel mother,
Since such a flower cannot last
But from morning to evening !
So, if you believe me, mignonne,
While your age is flourishing
In its greenest novelty,
Harvest, harvest the flowers of your youth:
For, just like it has to this flower, old age
Will someday destroy your beauty.
Ode à Cassandre, 1545
Mignonne, allons voir si la rose
Qui ce matin avoit desclose
Sa robe de pourpre au Soleil,
A point perdu ceste vesprée
Les plis de sa robe pourprée.
Et son teint au vostre pareil.
Las ! voyez comme en peu d’espace,
Mignonne, elle a dessus la place
Las, las, ses beautez laissé cheoir !
O vrayment marastre Nature,
Puis qu’une telle fleur ne dure
Que du matin jusques au soir !
Donc, si vous me croyez mignonne,
Tandis que vostre âge fleuronne
En sa plus verte nouveauté,
Cueillez, cueillez vostre jeunesse :
Comme à ceste fleur la vieillesse
Fera ternir vostre beauté.
Ode à Cassandre – reactions
This is one of the first poems explicitly dedicated to Cassandre, and from the way I see it there are two ways to read it. This could either be a poem actually sent to Cassandre before it became obviously impossible for anything to come of Ronsard’s love, or it could be a regretful “if only I had said this . . . ” piece written later in the same year. Both interpretations have their appeal.
Here we see Ronsard in full Renaissance mode, pleading with a girl to “gather the flowers of her youth” – embark on an affair – while she still has time. Nature is impermanent; so is female beauty. Ronsard threatens Cassandre with impending ugliness, the implication being that once the time has passed, he – and the rest of the world – will no longer be interested in her. One has to suspect the depth of Ronsard’s love if even he doesn’t think he’ll still be interested when she’s older, but this is neither here nor there.
If we read this as being meant for Cassandre’s own reading, we cannot escape an uncomfortable feeling that Ronsard is resorting to some very unattractive emotional manipulation to attain his desires. Yet nothing in the poem is specific to either party. Ronsard’s argument isn’t that she should submit because of anything intrinsic to either of them, but that she should submit simply because she, like everyone else, is growing older, and that he’s as good a choice as any. It is impossible for me to believe that Ronsard actually thought this way – he knew far too much about the experience of love to believe in the interchangeability of partners – so could we be dealing with a Marotian adoption of fashionable tropes? This could be an act to win an impressionable girl. We’ll explore Ronsard’s sincerity more deeply in a few later poems, but here – is Ronsard purposely adopting a nonchalant attitude to avoid frightening the girl away with the actual strength of his feelings? Could Ronsard be pretending to be attracted primarily to her beauty because that’s what everyone expects and that’s what’s least likely to frighten Cassandre? Surely she’s been told a million times before that she’s desired for her beauty – would she know how to take a deeper affection like Ronsard’s?
Of course, if the poem is written by Ronsard and for Ronsard – not to send to Cassandre or gain any practical advantage – we have to see things a different way. Here, we can imagine a Ronsard who never took any steps to actualize his liking for Cassandre – and who is imagining, in this poem, a way he might have done so. Faced with the experience of loving a much younger woman, Ronsard himself has feelings of insecurity about aging – the rose reflects him as much as it reflects Cassandre, who after all is so young that her beauty is in no danger of fading any time soon.
No matter which reading we take, the most poignant part of the poem is at “O vrayment marastre Nature” – Ronsard’s lament that things have to be this way, that beauty has to fade, that the world is set up in such a way that the most precious things can last only from morning to night. And here we cannot avoid a thought that may well never have occurred to Ronsard: youth passes; we age. Yet the most precious thing we lose isn’t our outward beauty, but our desire for actual happiness and love, not weak and easily accessible substitutes. And Ronsard, as we’ll see in a later poem, has definite a fear of losing this.
Ronsard, then, may be seeing both himself and Cassandre as roses destined to fade – not in outward beauty, but in passion and desire for happiness. Ronsard here is destined for the church, where every attempt will be made to crush his desire for love; Cassandre is destined for a marriage to a much older man, where every attempt will be made to convince her to give up any youthful dreams of love and submit to her duty.
Ronsard realizes that both of them are standing, whether they want to admit it or not, on the edge of a cliff. They’re about to pass through experiences – ordination, arranged marriage – that may well kill off everything good in them. There’s a very small window of time before that happens, before the best parts of them die, for Ronsard and Cassandre to enjoy the great human experience of fulfilled love. But of course Cassandre, being a silly teenager on whom he is not prepared to expend his intellectual resources, would never understand that, so Ronsard has to resort to tired metaphors about roses and pretend to emphasize beauty over everything else. It’s a cruel world.
In any case, if Ronsard gave Cassandre the ode, it didn’t work. We know very little about Cassandre except that she never gave in, if Ronsard ever even tried to make her, and that after 1545 she had no contact with him. Ronsard ended up writing beautifully about love for the rest of his life. Nothing died in him. But aside from Ronsard’s poems, we hear no more from Cassandre. She may not have escaped. O vrayment marastre Nature.
But Ronsard wasn’t totally safe either, and the next poem shows him at his most vulnerable.
Les Amours de Cassandre, LXXVIII, 1552
Little water dog, how happy you are,
If you could only understand your luck,
To be able to stretch your body out between her arms,
And to sleep on her lovestruck breast !
Whereas I live on weak and languishing,
Because I understand my fortune too well.
Alas! For having wanted in my youth to learn
Too many reasons, I’ve made myself unhappy.
I wish I were a village roughneck,
An idiot, without intelligence, without understanding,
Or a woodcutter working out in the fields:
Then I would have no feeling for love.
Too much mind causes my sorrows,
And my unhappiness comes from too much thinking.
Les Amours de Cassandre, LXXVIII, 1552
Petit barbet, que tu es bienheureux,
Si ton bon-heur tu sçavois bien entendre,
D’ainsi ton corps entre ses bras estendre,
Et de dormir en son sein amoureux !
Où moy je vy chetif et langoureux,
Pour sçavoir trop ma fortune comprendre
Las! pour vouloir en ma jeunesse apprendre
Trop de raisons, je me fis malheureux.
Je voudrois estre un pitaut de village,
Sot, sans raison et sans entendement,
Ou fagoteur qui travaille au bocage:
Je n’aurois point en amour sentiment.
Le trop d’esprit me cause mon dommage,
Et mon mal vient de trop de jugement.
Les Amours de Cassandre, LXXVIII – reactions
There isn’t much to say about this poem, which I’ve only included to remind us that sometimes Ronsard turned against himself, wondered whether any of his gifts were worth anything, and thought about burning the whole edifice down and starting over as a woodcutter in a random village.
The central conceit is this: I’m unhappy; the thing that’s most notable about me is that I think too much; therefore, I’m unhappy because I think too much. Furthermore, people who think less than I do seem to be happier. (I do not think the water dog “sleeping on her lovestruck breast” is a dog.) This is a running theme in the French Renaissance – we find it in Marot (“my problem is that I love you too much! Someone who loves you less will do better”), in Ronsard (“my problem is that I think too much, and that makes me love – apparently you prefer people who don’t understand anything”), and even in the usually eminently sane Montaigne (“how often are learned men rejected by women where mule-drivers succeed?”). Luckily for him, Ronsard got over this (so did Montaigne; I’m not so sure about Marot) and went about his business being a brilliant poet, but it sometimes helps to see that even the greatest men are tempted to deny their gifts and, in a rage that the world – and especially women – don’t appreciate what they have to offer, take on a different, more limited, less challenging way of life. For my money that’s probably what happened to Villon.
Of course, Ronsard could have been being very human – and could have been looking for someone to tell him it was madness to want stupidity. It’s very hard to escape the thought that all Ronsard really wanted was someone to tell him that his way of doing things, his way of loving, his way of writing, even though it wasn’t Marot’s, was okay too. Cassandre may or may not have been up to that task, if she ever even read the poems.
Cassandre was the dominant star in Ronsard’s sky until 1555, when he met the mysterious Marie, not only considerably younger than he was but also a peasant about whom we know even less than we know about Cassandre. Their relationship would take a rather different course. Here we have a sonnet addressed to Marie :
Sonnet à Marie, 1555
I send you a bouquet that my hand
Has just selected from among these open flowers,
Which, if they had not been picked this evening,
Would have fallen to the ground tomorrow.
This should be a clear proof to you
That your beauties, even though they’re flourishing now,
In little time will all be withered,
And like flowers will suddenly perish.
Time passes away, time passes away, my Lady,
Alas! Not time, but we pass away,
And we will soon be stretched out under the knife :
And as for the loves we talk about now,
When we are dead, there will be nothing new to add to them :
So love me now, while you’re still beautiful.
Sonnet à Marie, 1555
Je vous envoye un bouquet que ma main
Vient de trier de ces fleurs épanies,
Qui ne les eust à ce vespre cuillies,
Cheutes à terre elles fussent demain.
Cela vous soit un exemple certain
Que vos beautés, bien qu’elles soient fleuries,
En peu de tems cherront toutes flétries,
Et comme fleurs, periront tout soudain.
Le tems s’en va, le tems s’en va, ma Dame,
Las ! le tems non, mais nous nous en allons,
Et tost serons estendus sous la lame :
Et des amours desquelles nous parlons,
Quand serons morts, n’en sera plus nouvelle :
Pour-ce aimés moy, ce-pendant qu’estes belle.
Reactions – Sonnet à Marie
The biggest difference between Ronsard’s ode to Cassandre and the sonnet to Marie is that the sonnet worked. Ronsard started an affair with Marie in 1555 that lasted until at least 1560 and may have gone on in fits and starts after that. Apparently unsatisfied with the melancholy of having attached himself to a married teenager, he replaced Cassandre with a teenager who was also a peasant. Ronsard, remember, came from the minor nobility and at this point was acknowledged as the leading poet in France. We could speculate all day about his taste in women; afraid of growing old and losing his individuality, he preferred youth; apparently unconvinced of the value of his education, he went on, with Marie, to prefer the peasantry.
If the Ode à Cassandre used on one hand the dying rose as a metaphor for passing beauty, and furthermore passing beauty as a metaphor for the death of the spirit, here things are rather more straightforward (unless Ronsard was actually attempting to save Marie from a marriage; there is no evidence for this). I suspect that Ronsard was at his most sincere in the poems to Cassandre, and that the images he used, and the feelings he experienced, at that hopeless situation became over the ten years he loved her a habit that he was powerless to break with Marie. He associated roses and laments on the passing of beauty with Cassandre, where it was appropriate; but he had been unhappily in love for too long to invent new images and metaphors for Marie. He fell back on the old ones, which he left it for Marie to redeem.
Once again I suspect that Ronsard speaks of beauty not because he particularly values it, but because it’s a term that Marie will understand. Whatever we can say about Ronsard, he never truly loved – at least not in the way he loved Cassandre or Marie – anyone on his level, anyone capable of appreciating him, anyone capable of understanding him, unless Cassandre and Marie were both precocious and extremely intelligent. From the scanty evidence we have, Marie was pretty but illiterate and desperately poor, and Ronsard’s liaison with her raised eyebrows. If he really was unsure of the value of his poetry and education, might he not have been surrounding himself – at least in terms of his romantic partners – with people for whom poetry and education meant nothing, and with whom he had to interact on as simple and human a level as possible? Ronsard knew he was a great poet – but he seems to have needed assurances that he was also a worthwhile human being worthy of love from those who disregarded his genius.
In any case, we have to consider a poem from the Amours de Marie that has some personal significance to me (it helped me make an extremely important life decision once) that throws a certain amount of light on Ronsard’s conception of love. The poem itself (Amours de Marie XX) is neither great nor well-known, but it includes the final lines:
L’amant est bien novice, et son art il apprend,
Quand il trouve son mieux, si son mieux il ne prend,
Sans grisonner au sein d’une vieille amant.
The lover is a novice, still learning his trade,
If he finds what he considers best and doesn’t take it –
Without groaning at the breast of a former lover.
Is this Ronsard defending himself against a guilty conscience for “abandoning” Cassandre for the sake of Marie? He hadn’t seen Cassandre for ten years by this point. Is he letting Marie know in his way that if something better comes up (maybe Cassandre with a dead husband) he’s going to take it? In any case, it seems to establish that Ronsard is looking for something wonderful, and that that ideal is more important to him than any individual person.
Seen more practically, Ronsard gives us a modern conception of love that casts doubt on certain institutions and may help to explain why he never married. Ronsard says here that all relationships are temporary; they give us what we need when we need it; and they should only last for as long as they promise to offer “the best available” to the parties involved. Staying with someone out of obligation, or duty, or loyalty is alien to Ronsard’s conception. We all deserve to be as happy as we can be, and when we find someone who “we consider best” – who might actually make us truly happy – we owe it to ourselves to throw all other considerations aside and take the risk. I suspect that Ronsard might still be kicking himself here for not having “taken” Cassandre when he had the chance. But no matter.
For Ronsard, love lasts for as long as it holds out the promise of the highest happiness possible. His Platonic adoration of Cassandre was the highest happiness possible for ten years of his life; in 1555 that changed. He knew that it would change again, and that he, in sincerity and vulnerability, would go on to the next woman when it did. For all Marot’s blather about serving the “God of love,” it might have been Ronsard who did it best – prioritizing not any one person, but a striving after closeness to “the best” in a way that changed and redeemed both parties.
In the Amours de Marie we start to see a certain self-lacerating bitterness in Ronsard, as evidenced in the next poem – again neither great nor famous, but offering some insight into Ronsard’s mind.
Les Amours de Marie – XXXI, 1555
If there’s any girl in all the land
Who’s inexorable, inhumane and cruel,
She’s always the one I take for my lady,
And misfortune always makes me her servant.
But if someone is sweet, honest, pleasant, and beautiful,
It’s always hopeless for me to take her:
Even though I’m courteous, young, agreeable, and faithful,
She’ll always be enamored of some idiot.
Under what a cruel star I was born into the world !
This is what love is: those who deserve
To be recompensed are deeply sorrowful,
And the idiot is always willingly treated well.
O treacherous and cowardly Love, how unhappy you are;
Unhappy is the one who falls in love.
Les Amours de Marie – XXXI, 1555
S’il y a quelque fille en toute une contrée,
Qui soit inexorable, inhumaine et cruelle,
Tousjours elle est de moy pour dame rencontrée,
Et tousjours le malheur me fait serviteur d’elle.
Mais si quelcune est douce, honneste, aimable et belle,
La prinse en est pour moy tousjours desesperée:
J’ay beau estre courtois, jeune, accort, et fidelle,
Elle sera tousjours d’un sot enamourée.
Sous tel astre malin je nasquis en ce monde !
Voyla que c’est d’aimer : ceux qui ont merité
D’estre recompensez sont en douleur profonde,
Et le sot volontiers est tousjours bien traité.
O traistre et lasche Amour, que tu es malheureux
Malheureux est celuy qui devient amoureux.
Les Amours de Marie XXXI – reactions
There’s honestly not much to say about this poem that isn’t immediately obvious; it shows Ronsard in a very vulnerable position. There are poets who doubt their powers; Ronsard isn’t really one of them, and his work is marked throughout with a kind of confidence in his literary position that makes sense for someone who was recognized in his lifetime as the “prince of poets.” Ronsard here is even confident in his human qualities – “courteous, young, agreeable, faithful.” Yet nothing – not his genius, not those admirable traits – has the power to win over women who, despite being admirable themselves, are “enamored of idiots.” We remember that back in Cassandre LXXVIII Ronsard was tempted to try to become an “idiot” himself, using the same word – sot – that he uses here. Now we may see why.
Ronsard, here and in Cassandre LXXVIII, is faced with a reexamination of values that profoundly shakes his confidence in himself. He knows himself to be a great poet and suspects himself to be a good man; he sees that where things matter to him most – in the pursuit of love – these qualities are not always enough. What is the value of being a great poet and a good man when you’re passed over, where the stakes are highest, in favor of idiots? Ronsard never has the courage (or perhaps it simply never occurs to him) to recognize that these “idiots” may have redeeming qualities themselves, notably a freedom from the bitterness that creeps into Ronsard’s work whenever he can’t get what he wants. He seems, in desperation, to assign a kind of positive value to idiocy – seeing his own qualities not just as useless but actually harmful in the pursuit of love.
Now, there is a kind of progression between Cassandre LXXVIII (latest 1552) and Marie XXXI (1555). In the 1550-1552 poem to Cassandre he seems seriously to be considering abandoning his poetic vocation and trying to turn himself into an idiot. By 1555, he realizes that this is either ridiculous or impossible for him (or both) and the dominant note is not frustration and self-hatred as before, but rather a bitterness and resignation that will mark much of the rest of his work. This is the way things are – “this is what love is” – and although he values his qualities, he despairs of finding appreciation anywhere else.
One can question the kindness of insulting every woman Ronsard has ever been with here – if their affair had already started, Marie would probably not have appreciated being put into the category of the “inexorable, inhumane and cruel” with whom Ronsard finds success – and the poem certainly shows an unattractive side of the poet. But there’s enough to admire in Ronsard that I at least forgive him for this, and the poem at least gives us a picture of a great artist at his least guarded.
By 1560 Ronsard was for whatever reason finished with Marie and had started dedicating poems to other women, but the next hope for “the best” wouldn’t come along until 1569. She was named Hélène, was again young (though likely not as young as the others), and was attached to the court of Charles IX and Catherine de Médicis. Hélène had lost her lover in the religious wars; Catherine attempted to console her by offering Ronsard as a rebound. Despite Ronsard’s position and Catherine’s usually formidable powers of manipulation, any liaison between Hélène and Ronsard was unlikely from the beginning. This state of affairs brought out strains of miserable bitterness merely hinted at in the earlier poetry, but resulted in Ronsard’s most commanding and mature work, the Sonnets à Hélène.
The tenth sonnet will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love.
Sonnets pour Hélène I, X, latest 1578
This time when you were born doesn’t know you, Hélène.
If it knew your qualities, you would hold in your hand
A sceptre to command the human race,
And the earth would be full of your majesty.
But these times, all bogged down in wicked avarice,
Which, not knowing anything, disdain the good,
Never knew you. I knew you all at once
From your voice, which wasn’t that of any mere human.
Your mind, in speaking to me, revealed itself,
And meanwhile Love opened my understanding
To make you appear as a miracle to my eyes.
I too, I feel it well, have some share of divinity,
Because I alone knew what your divinity is capable of,
And because no one else before me knew it.
Sonnets pour Hélène I, X, av. 1578
Ce siecle où tu nasquis ne te cognois, Hélène.
S’il sçavoit tes vertus, tu aurois en la main
Un sceptre à commander dessus le genre humain,
Et de ta majesté la terre seroit pleine.
Mais luy tout embourbé d’avarice vilaine
Qui met comme ignorant les vertus a desdain,
Ne te cognut jamais : je te cognu soudain
A ta voix, qui n’estoit d’une personne humaine.
Ton esprit en parlant à moy se descouvrit,
Et ce-pendant Amour l’entendement m’ouvrit
Pour te faire à mes yeux un miracle apparoistre.
Je tiens, je le sens bien, de la divinité,
Puis que seul j’ay cogneu que peut ta Deité,
Et qu’un autre avant moy ne l’avoit peu cognoistre.
Sonnets pour Hélène I, X – reactions
This poem uses images that are less the product of Ronsard than the fashionable tropes of his time, but if we can look past the bombast and the sceptres and the divinity, we can find in this late sonnet some of the same joy and magic as in the early Quand je suis vingt ou trente mois. Forget the 16th-century overstatements (you will have to get used to this before we move on to the grand siècle) and look at the sentiment he’s actually expressing. Uncharacteristically, Ronsard here – unlike in his flower poems – is actually saying something about the woman he loves.
Ronsard is saying this to Hélène: You are a magnificent person and I cannot forgive the world for not seeing that more clearly. Even if they see something in you, and they do, they’re too caught up in the fashions of the times to be able to appreciate what’s essential. I, on the other hand, saw it right away. From the moment we started talking, I realized there was something uncommon and special and rare about you. The rest of the world might not see it, and I don’t know what it’s worth coming from me, but it’s there. Don’t give up on it. And I have to say that I’m proud of myself for having realized it. You’re dancing for the lame, painting for the blind, and singing for the deaf. I dance, I see, I hear. The best thing about me, even to me, is that I’m able to see the best things in you – even where no one else does.
Finally Ronsard finds that the experiences of his life – the edifying but ultimately unsuccessful love for Cassandre, the interlude with Marie, the doubts, the failures, and all the poetry – are suddenly redeemed, justified, and explained. Ronsard may well be saying: I went through all this so that I could grow into a man who sees the best in you and loves you for it. This is why I didn’t give up. This is why I didn’t make myself an idiot. If I had given up on understanding back then when I wanted to, I would never have understood you. My life makes sense to me now – all the pains and troubles were for this: so that I could love you. And it makes me feel like a god.
But Hélène, despite what we have to believe were excellent qualities, probably couldn’t understand or appreciate this any more than Cassandre or Marie could. Here, as Ronsard approaches 50, he thinks he’s finally found “the best” – the son mieux he talked about in Marie XX. It will not end well for him. But here, in Hélène X, he at least finds joy, justification, and meaning in his understanding and his love. He wanted, in Cassandre LXXVIII, to become an idiot so that he would be free from love. Now he loves in a way no idiot could – and instead of complaining about it, Ronsard is grateful.
Immediately after meeting her, he was already calling Hélène “la dernière aventure” – “the last adventure.” Something in Hélène had led him to a conclusion he had never come to before – this is “the best,” and nothing else will do. We don’t know what she said, or how she was, or what he saw in her, but Ronsard knew already in 1569 that the siege of Hélène would be his last attempt at love.
Perhaps the last of the great Ronsard poems is also one of the most famous.
Sonnets for Hélène II, XLIII, 1578
When you are very old, in the evening by candlelight
Sitting by the fire, knitting and spinning,
You will say, while singing my verses, marveling :
“Ronsard celebrated me back when I was beautiful.”
Then, you won’t have a servant hearing this news
Already tired from her work and half-asleep
Who won’t wake up suddenly at the sound of my name
As it blesses your name with immortal praise.
I will be under the earth, and a ghost without bones
In the myrtled shadows I will be taking my final rest ;
You will be in the hall, a hunchbacked old woman,
Regretting the passing of my love and your proud disdain for it.
Live now, if you believe me, don’t wait for tomorrow :
Gather from this day forth the roses of life.
Sonnets pour Hélène II, XLIII, 1578
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant:
“Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.”
Lors vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.
Je seray sous la terre, et fantôme sans os
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos ;
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.
Sonnets pour Hélène II, XLIII – reactions
In this poem Ronsard realizes that everything he’s tried to tell Hélène before – about her good qualities, about his fidelity, about how special he thinks she is – hasn’t worked at all, so he plays all the cards he has left, including one that, on previous evidence, he barely believes in: You should give me a chance because I’m a genius who’s destined for fame, and if you don’t, you’ll regret it later.
This is Ronsard’s most clearly manipulative poem and expresses a confidence so brash that we can hardly believe in it. Ronsard knew well that poetic success and even positive human qualities were no guarantee of acceptance in love, but at this point it’s too late to reinvent himself, and on the evidence of previous sonnets to Hélène, he wouldn’t even want to. (To Cassandre: I wish I were an idiot. To Marie: If I were an idiot things would be better, but I can’t be one. To Hélène: God I’m glad I’m not an idiot.) With this poem he jettisons the flowers and the bombastic comparisons and goes straight to the heart: I love you as no one ever has, and if you don’t believe it, read the poetry; if you don’t love me you’ll regret it later.
It didn’t work, and Hélène would have been justified in feeling unfairly manipulated by this poem. But if Ronsard and Hélène honestly had the connection at the beginning that formed the basis of the tenth sonnet, he shouldn’t have needed to resort to this. It’s as if toward the end of his life (he would die seven or eight years later) Ronsard again doubts the validity of his entire poetic project and looks for validation from Hélène. What use is it to be the greatest poet in France if you can’t have the love you want? I no longer have my youth, but I do have my poems. A great lot of good they’ve done me up to now (Cassandre was insufficiently impressed to change her mind, Marie was a dead end).
It’s as if, by finally playing the last card of because I’m a great poet, Ronsard is looking for a way to assign value to the choices he’s made in life – to write, to love, and to never give up. Maybe here, he thinks, it’ll all be worth something practical; maybe here, he thinks, it’ll get me something no one else in my position could have; maybe here, he thinks, it’ll get me something I could never have received if I had been any other way. Maybe here it’ll win everything.
Ronsard died in 1585, still writing to Hélène, considered a fine conversationalist and agreeable friend, universally respected and beloved by everyone but the one person whose opinion by then mattered. There are historians who say that at the end, which came in his own church priory, Ronsard expressed joy at having served love, which had given him everything he had. If this is true, the Ronsard of Quand je suis vingt ou trente mois and Hélène X – the real, wise, joyful, loving Ronsard, whom Hélène apparently never understood – won out over the insecurity and the bitterness that had plagued him for most of his life in a final victory for a man who to that point had won everything – money, fame, universal respect – but the love of the one person who mattered to him.