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A Criticism of Pierre de Ronsard

by J. Middleton Murry

Ronsard is rangé now; but he has not been in that position for so very long, a considerably shorter time for instance, than any one of the Elizabethans (excepting Shakespeare) with us. Sainte-Beuve was very tentative about him until the sixties, when his dubious, half-patronising air made way for a safe enthusiasm. And, even now, it can hardly be said that French critical opinion about him has crystallised; the late George Wyndham's essay shows a more convinced and better documented appreciation than any that we have read in French, based as it is on the instinctive sympathy which one landed gentleman who dabbles in the arts feels towards another who devotes himself to them—an admiration which does not exclude familiarity.

Indeed, it is precisely because Ronsard lends himself so superbly as an amateur to treatment by the amateur, that any attempt to approach him more closely seems to be tinged with rancour or ingratitude. There is something churlish in the determination to be most on one's guard against the engaging graces of the amateur, a sense that one is behaving like the hero of a Gissing novel; but the choice is not large. One must regard Ronsard either as a charming country gentleman, or as a great historical figure in the development of French poetry, or as a poet; and the third aspect has a chance of being the most important.

Ronsard is pre-eminently the poet of a simple mind. There is nothing mysterious about him or his poetry; there is not even a perceptible thread of development in either. They are equable, constant imperturbable, like the bag of a much invited gun, or the innings of a safe batsman. The accomplishment is akin to an animal endowment. The nerves, instead of being, if only for a moment, tense and agitated, are steady to a degree that can produce an exasperation in a less well-appointed spectator. He will never let himself down, or give himself away, one feels, until the admiration of an apparent sure restraint passes into the conviction that there is nothing to restrain. All Ronsard the poet is in his poetry, and indeed on the surface of it.

Poetry was not therefore, as one is tempted to think sometimes, for Ronsard a game. There was plenty of game in it; l'art de bien pétrarquiser was all he claimed for himself. But the game would have wearied any one who was not aware that he could be completely satisfied and expressed by it. Ronsard was never weary. However much one may tire of him, the fatigue never is infected by the nausea which is produced by some of the mechanical sonnet sequences of his contemporaries. No one reading Ronsard ever felt the tedium of mere nullity. It would be hard to find in the whole of M. van Bever's exhaustive edition of 'Les Amours'[9] a single piece which has not its sufficient charge of gusto. When you are tired, it is because you have had enough of that particular kind of man and mind; you know him too well, and can reckon too closely the chances of a shock of surprise.

   [Footnote 9: Les Amours. Par Pierre de Ronsard. Texte établi par
   Ad. van Bever. Two volumes. (Paris: Crès.)]

With the more obvious, and in their way delightful, surprises Ronsard is generous. He can hold the attention longer than any poet of an equal tenuity of matter. Chiefly for two reasons, of which one is hardly capable of further analysis. It is the obvious reality of his own delight in 'Petrarchising.' He is perpetually in love with making; he disports himself with a childlike enthusiasm in his art. There are moments when he seems hardly to have passed beyond the stage of naive wonder that words exist and are manipulable.

  'Dous fut le trait, qu'Amour hors de sa trousse
  Pour me tuer, me tira doucement,
  Quand je fus pris au dous commencement
  D'une douceur si doucettement douce….'

Ronsard is here a boy playing knucklebones with language; and some of his characteristic excellences are little more than a development of this aptitude, with its more striking incongruities abated. A modern ear can be intoxicated by the charming jingle of

  'Petite Nimfe folastre,
  Nimfette que j'idolastre….'

One does not pause to think how incredibly naive it is compared with Villon, who had not a fraction of Ronsard's scholarship, or even with Clement Marot; naive both in thought and art. As for the stature of the artist, we are back with Charles of Orleans. It would be idle to speculate what exactly Villon would have made of the atomic theory had he read Lucretius; but we are certain that he would have done something very different from Ronsard's

  'Les petits cors, culbutant de travers,
  Parmi leur cheute en biais vagabonde,
  Heurtés ensemble ont composé le monde,
  S'entr'acrochant d'acrochemens divers….'

For this is not grown-up; the cut to simplicity has been too short. So many of Ronsard's verses flow over the mind, without disturbing it; fall charmingly on the ear, and leave no echoes. But for the moment we share his enjoyment.

The second cause of his continued power of attraction is doubtless allied to the first; it is a naïveté of a particular kind, which differs from the profound ingenuousness of which we have spoken by the fact that it is employed deliberately. Conscious simplicity is art, and if it is successful art of no mean order, Ronsard's method of admitting us, as it were, to his conversation with himself is definitely his own. His interruptions of a verse with 'Hà' or 'Hé'; his 'Mon Dieu, que j'aime!' or 'Hé, que ne suis-je puce?' (the difference between Ronsard's flea and Donne's would be worth examination) have in them an element of irresistible bonhomie. We feel that he is making us his confidant. He does not have to tear agonies out of himself, so that what he confides has no chance of making explicit any secrets of our own. There is nothing dangerous about him; we know that he is as safe as we are. We are in conversation, not communion. But how effective and engaging it is!

'Vous ne le voulez pas? Eh bien, je suis contant …'

  'Hé, Dieu du ciel, je n'eusse pas pensé
  Qu'un seul départ eust causé tant de peine!…'

or the still more casual

  'Un joïeus deplaisir qui douteus l'épointelle,
  Quoi l'épointelle! ainçois le genne et le martelle …'

Of this device of style our own Elizabethans were to make more profitable use than Ronsard. At their best they packed an intensity of dramatic significance into conversational language, of which Ronsard had no inkling; and even a strict contemporary of his, like Wyatt, could touch cords more intimate by the same means. But, on the other hand, Ronsard never fails of his own effect, which is not to convince us emotionally, but to compel us to listen. His unexpected address to himself or to us is a new ornament for us to admire, not a new method for him to express a new thing; and the suggestion of new rhythms that might thus be attained is never fully worked out.

  'Mais tu ne seras plus? Et puis?… quand la paleur
  Qui blemist nôtre corps sans chaleur ne lumière
  Nous perd le sentiment?…

The ampleness of that reverberance is almost isolated.

Ronsard's resources are indeed few. But he needed few. His simple mind was at ease in machinery of commonplaces, and he makes the pleasant impression of one to whom commonplaces are real. He felt them all over again. One imagines him reading the classics—the Iliad in three days, or his beloved companion 'sous le bois amoureux,' Tibullus—with an unfailing delight in all the concatenations of phrase which are foisted on to unripe youth nowadays in the pages of a Gradus. One might almost say that he saw his loves at second-hand, through alien eyes, were it not that he faced them with some directness as physical beings, and that the artificiality implied in the criticism is incongruous with the honesty of such a natural man. But apart from a few particulars that would find a place in a census paper one would be hard put to it to distinguish Cassandre from Hélène. What charming things Ronsard has to say of either might be said of any charming woman—'le mignard embonpoint de ce sein,'—

  'Petit nombril, que mon penser adore,
  Non pas mon oeil, qui n'eut oncques ce bien …'

And though he assures Hélène that she has turned him from his grave early style, 'qui pour chanter si bas n'est point ordonné,' the difference is too hard to detect; one is forced to conclude that it is precisely the difference between a court lady and an inn-keeper's daughter. As far as art is concerned the most definite and distinctive thing that Ronsard had to say of any of his ladies is said of one to whom he put forward none of his usually engrossing pretensions. It was the complexion of Marguerite of Navarre of which he wrote:—

  'De vif cinabre estoit faicte sa joue,
  Pareille au teint d'un rougissant oeillet,
  Ou d'une fraize, alors que dans de laict
  Dessus le hault de la cresme se joue.'

That is, whether it belonged to Marguerite or not, a divine complexion. It is the kind of thing that cannot be said about two ladies; the image is too precise to be interchangeable. This may be a reason why it was applied to a lady hors concours for Ronsard.

But we need, in fact, seek no reason other than the circumscription of Ronsard's poetical gifts. They reduce to only two—the gift of convinced commonplace, and the gift of simple melody. His commonplace is genuine commonplace, quite distinct from the tense and pregnant condensation of a lifetime of impassioned experience in Dante or Shakespeare; things that would occur to a bookish country gentleman in after-dinner conversation, the sentiments that such a rare and amiable person would underscore in his Horace. (From a not unimportant angle Ronsard is a minor Horace.) These things are the warp of his poetry; they range from the familiar 'Le temps s'en va' to the masterly straightforwardness of

'plus heureus celui qui la fera Et femme et mère, en lieu d'une pucelle.'

His melody, likewise, is genuine melody; it is irrepressible. It led him to belie his own professed seriousness. He could not stop his sonnets from rippling even when he pretended to passionate argument. Life came easily to him; he was never weary of it, at the most he acknowledged that he was 'saoûl de la vie.' It is not surprising, therefore, that his remonstrances as the tortured lover have a trick of opening to a delightful tune:—

'Rens-moi mon coeur, rens-moi mon coeur pillarde….'

In another form this melody more closely recalls Thomas Campion:—

'Seule je l'ai veue, aussi je meurs pour elle….'

But to compare Ronsard's sonnet with 'Follow your saint' is to see how infinitely more subtle a master of lyrical music was the Elizabethan than the great French lyrist of the Renaissance. From first to last Ronsard was an amateur.