14 September 2014

Ronsard: A Romance of the Rose

“In the midst of war, in a faithless age,
Amid a thousand lawsuits, is it not the height of madness
To write about love?” – Pierre de Ronsard
No, a thousand times.  The greatest French poet of the Renaissance, an omnivorous student of  classical poetry, Ronsard "the schizophrenic," as Wyndham Lewis called him, combined within his verse-world the literary paganism of antiquity and the moral self-examination of his Catholic education. The same poet who could introduce himself to a beautiful woman by saying "I am Ronsard, I said - that is enough for you,"  could also write (D)onnez-moi la force et le courage De contempler mon couer et mons corps sans degouts!” (Give me the strength and courage to comtemplate my heart and my body without mortification!)

Academics have estimated that more than 300,000 sonnets were produced by Europeans poets in the 16th century.  Ronsard authored at least one thousand of them.   Next to Shakespeare, he was the per-eminent poet of the age.  And there may be a more intimate connection between the two.  From Sonnet XXVI of the Second Book of  Ronsard's finest work,Sonnets pour Helene (1578), are these lines that soound more than passingly similiar to Shakespeare's As You Like It (c. 1599)

“The world’s a theater, and mankind the players;
And Fortune, who is mistress of the stage,

Lends costumes, and Heaven and Destiny,

Are the great spectators of human life;”

Who was Helen that Ronsard should compose volumes in her honor?  Both Helene de Sequere and Ronsard were employed by Catherine de Medici, Queen mother of France, at Fontainebleau in 1564.   Apparently, Catherine encouraged their romance.  Exactly what - or more precisely - how much happened is open to conjecture but Helene was concerned to protect her good reputation at court..  There is great sweetness in what little we do know.  To read this is to sigh with envy across centuries.

“Once on a staircase in one of the royal palaces she allowed him to twine a thread of crimson silk round  and round her arm while they talked.  Once, in a kittenish mood, she powdered her hair and his beard with her own hair-powder, andce she made him a wreath of laurel.” (WL)
So who was Pierre de Ronsard? A younger son of the nobility from Vendome, he entered royal service at age twenty-two as page to Princess Madeleine. This promising career took him to Scotland, where on one trip, he met the young, beautiful Mary, Queen of Scots to whom he dedicated several poems.  As befits a man known for his affection for his friends, Ronsard was with the doomed Mary in Fotheringay prison on the day she was executed.     His father hoped that the young man would become a diplomat or a military officer but those hopes were dashed when Ronsard suffered an illness that left him partially deaf.  He then entered minor clerical orders; he never became a priest, not being priest material.  Ronsard idolized Horace, the Roman lyric poet, finding in the dicturm carpe diem, qusm  minimum credula postero (seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one) a confirmation of his own youthful enthusiasm.

Where love is the subject of poetry, you often find roses, symbolic as well as floral.  Think of Robert Herrick's "Gather-ye Rose buds while ye may," and then read Ronsard's bets known poem To Cassandra, where the rose is the mufti-purpose symbol of beauty in all its luscious brevity and eventual decay, the symbol of the flesh of a woman. 
Which leads us to Cassandra, a real woman.    She was fifteen when she met Ronsard on an April day, like another April day in 1327 when the Italian poet  Petrarch met Laura.  Avignon is no so far from the Chateau de Blois, after all, which is where Ronsard met Cassandra.    His poems moved her but not so much to keep her from marrying someone else a year later. Cassandre was both nubile and virtuous. Between his poetic demonstrations of unruly passion and dazzling lyricism Ronsard assured readers by his frequent laments that he did not compromise her virtue.  Decades later,  in 1571, when Ronsard wrote Derniers vers pour Cassandre (Last Poem for Cassandra), he \ still remembered  how deeply she had touched him

"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 !
Ô 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." - A Cassandre by Pierre de Ronsar, 1545

"Mignonne, let us go see if the rose
that this morning did disclose
her purple robe to the Sun,
lost just before the day was dead
Her color as bright as yours?

Ah, See how quickly,
Mignonne, she loses them (her petals)
Ah, how her beauties drift down!
Ôh, truly monstrous Nature,
that such a flower only lasts
from morning just to night!

Therefore, if you believe me, Mignonne
While your youthful bloom
Is in its green freshness
pick, pick the flowers of your youth:
Before, like a flower, old age
will tarnish your  beauty." - translation mine, J.A.L.

Called the "Prince of Poets" by his contemporaries,  his reputation has had its ups and downs, mostly a matter of literary back-biting.   There were those who condemned him while he lived for being highbrow and lowbrow at the same time.  Ronsard had an answer for that, too.

“ It is better Rubampre, /To spend one’s life in business,/Or to sell one’s tongue for money /Before a purple Senate,/Than to follow the purple train/Of poor Calliope/ Why invariably allows the best singers of her troup/ To die of hunger.” 

For further reading: 
1.Ronsard by D.B. Wyndham Lewis, New York, Coward-McCan and Sheed & Ward: 1944.
2. Ronsard, Je dirai (in English)
1, Paul Serusier - Mignonne, allons voir si la rose,  Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse.

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