RONSARD, Pierre de

An aspiring humanist and member of the literary circle La Pleiade, Pierre de Ronsard was the official court poet during the reign of Henri II and later under Francois II. A staunch Catholic and nationalist during a time of much religious upheaval in France, he is best known for his Petrarchan-style sonnets.
He was born around 10 September 1524 in the castle of the Possonniesre near Orlesans. His parents were of minor nobility, and Ronsard spent his childhood in the family castle, tutored by his uncle, the clergyman Jean de Ronsard, who would will Pierre his library. In 1536 he entered the royal court as page to the dauphin Francis. He accompanied one of the dauphin's sisters, Magdalene, to Scotland when she married James V in 1537. Upon his return to France in 1540, he served under the duke of Orlesans, whom he accompanied to Alsace on a diplomatic mission to reach an accord between Protestants and Catholics. How­ever, he was unable to further pursue a diplomatic or military career after a fever left him hard of hearing.
Ronsard had by then already begun composing verses, first in Latin, then in French, and he was leaning toward humanist studies. After his father died, the duke of Orlesans invited Ronsard to live in his home in Paris, where he would tutor and be companion to the duke's son, Jean-Antoine, seven years Pierre's junior. Both were tutored in ancient Greek, and Ronsard became a Grecophile. In court circles he met Cassandre Salviati, the daughter of a Florentine banker living in France. She was fourteen, he was twenty-one. He wrote verses to her, despite her marriage in 1546 to Jean de Peignes. Thus Cassandre became the idealized, inaccessible woman.
After joining the political group called La Brigade, which later became La Pleiade, Ronsard published his First Four Books of Odes in 1550. In 1552 he published his sonnets, The Loves, dedicated to Cassandre, along with the fifth book of the odes. These Petrarchan sonnets sold out in six months.
While staying in the Loire Valley in 1555, Ronsard met a fifteen-year-old country girl, Marie Dupin. His verses became earthier and more realistic in his next publication, Continuation of the Loves. That same year his Hymns was published; these poems consist of political, religious, and philosophical themes. The publication of Hymns coincided with his undertaking of a French version of the Aeneid entitled La Franciade, which turned out to be his greatest literary failure. However, nine other works appeared, among them a continuation of the Hymns and the Loves. Upon his official naming as court poet, Ronsard composed Sonnets to Sinope, who was an unknown younger woman. In 1559 Henri died, but Ronsard con­tinued in his post under Francois II. Under the new king, Ronsard wrote patriotic and religious anti-Protestant poems. Francois II died in 1560, but Ronsard con­tinued as court poet under his successor, Charles IX, who was ten years old. He was faithful to the regent, Catherine de' Medici,* and more poems appeared about unknown women: Genevre and Isabel de La Tour.
Ronsard wrote his Discourse on the Calamities of Our Time as a consequence of siding with the king in the civil war against the Huguenots in 1562. In Geneva, Protestants insulted him in print, accusing him of frivolity, deafness, syphilis, pederasty, and atheism. He responded with equal passion, blaming Prot­estants for the fragmentation of national unity. His zeal was rewarded with the Priory of Saint-Cosme, near Tours. However, he moved to Vendomes in 1566, where he published nine books, got a fever, and consequently gave up the priory. He returned to court in 1570.
A few days after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, his First Four Books of the Franciade were published but were poorly received. Two years later, Charles IX died, and Henri III, the last Valois, ascended the throne. Un­fortunately for Ronsard, Henri III preferred the poetry of the younger and more modern Philippe Desportes,* who replaced Ronsard as court poet. Ronsard re­tired to Saint-Cosme and to Croixval, where he published his complete works in seven volumes (1578). These volumes included his Sonnets for Hélène and Sonnets and Madrigals for Astrea. The sonnets for Helene were destined for Helene de Surgeres, who outlived him. In his fifties, he fell in love with this inaccessible and erudite lady, and the poems reflect his suffering and his return to Petrarchism. The themes of these poems include those of inaccessible love, life that brings death, the gaze that blinds, and the wound that heals. The book is filled with mythological references and abundant Latin- and Greek-based words. Helene is compared to Helen of Troy, who had been blamed for starting the Trojan War. The historical Helene de Surgeres was a lady in the court of Catherine de' Medici. After her lover, Jacques de la Riviere, died in a duel, she took to wearing gray. Around 1570 she frequented the literary salon of her cousin, where she possibly met Ronsard. She was quite learned and fond of reading Latin and Italian as well as French literature. Although published late in life, Ronsard's sonnets to her have become his best known. After a year of fighting grave illness, Pierre de Ronsard died on 27 December 1585 at the age of sixty-one.
R. Bruneau, Ronsard, gentilhomme vendomois, 1985.
A. Prescott, French Poets and the English Renaissance, 1978.
Ana Kothe

Renaissance and Reformation 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. . 2001.

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