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Letters to Dead Poets: To Pierre de Ronsard

by Andrew Lang

Master And Prince of Poets,—As we know what choice thou madest of a sepulchre (a choice how ill fulfilled by the jealousy of Fate), so we know well the manner of thy chosen immortality.  In the Plains Elysian, among the heroes and the ladies of old song, there was thy Love with thee to enjoy her paradise in an eternal spring.

Là du plaisant Avril la saison immortelle
   Sans eschange le suit,
La terre sans labour, de sa grasse mamelle,
   Toute chose y produit;
D’enbas la troupe sainte autrefois amoureuse,
   Nous honorant sur tous,
Viendra nous saluer, s’estimant bien-heureuse
   De s’accointer de nous.

There thou dwellest, with the learned lovers of old days, with Belleau, and Du Bellay, and Baïf, and the flower of the maidens of Anjou.  Surely no rumour reaches thee, in that happy place of reconciled affections, no rumour of the rudeness of Time, the despite of men, and the change which stole from thy locks, so early grey, the crown of laurels and of thine own roses.  How different from thy choice of a sepulchre have been the fortunes of thy tomb!

I will that none should break
The marble for my sake,
   Wishful to make more fair
      My sepulchre!

So didst thou sing, or so thy sweet numbers run in my rude English.  Wearied of Courts and of priories, thou didst desire a grave beside thine own Loire, not remote from

The caves, the founts that fall
From the high mountain wall,
   That fall and flash and fleet,
      With silver feet.

Only a laurel tree
Shall guard the grave of me;
   Only Apollo’s bough
      Shall shade me now!

Far other has been thy sepulchre: not in the free air, among the field flowers, but in thy priory of Saint Cosme, with marble for a monument, and no green grass to cover thee.  Restless wert thou in thy life; thy dust was not to be restful in thy death.  The Huguenots, ces nouveaux Chrétiens qui la France ont pillée, destroyed thy tomb, and the warning of the later monument,


has not scared away malicious men.  The storm that passed over France a hundred years ago, more terrible than the religious wars that thou didst weep for, has swept the column from the tomb.  The marble was broken by violent hands, and the shattered sepulchre of the Prince of Poets gained a dusty hospitality from the museum of a country town.  Better had been the laurel of thy desire, the creeping vine, and the ivy tree.

Scarce more fortunate, for long, than thy monument was thy memory.  Thou hast not encountered, Master, in the Paradise of Poets, Messieurs Malherbe, De Balzac, and Boileau—Boileau who spoke of thee as Ce poète orgueilleux trébuché de si haut!

These gallant gentlemen, I make no doubt, are happy after their own fashion, backbiting each other and thee in the Paradise of Critics.  In their time they wrought thee much evil, grumbling that thou wrotest in Greek and Latin (of which tongues certain of them had but little skill), and blaming thy many lyric melodies and the free flow of thy lines.  What said M. de Balzac to M. Chapelain?  “M. de Malherbe, M. de Grasse, and yourself must be very little poets, if Ronsard be a great one.”  Time has brought in his revenges, and Messieurs Chapelain and De Grasse are as well forgotten as thou art well remembered.  Men could not always be deaf to thy sweet old songs, nor blind to the beauty of thy roses and thy loves.  When they took the wax out of their ears that M. Boileau had given them lest they should hear the singing of thy Sirens, then they were deaf no longer, then they heard the old deaf poet singing and made answer to his lays.  Hast thou not heard these sounds? have they not reached thee, the voices and the lyres of Théophile Gautier and Alfred de Musset?  Methinks thou hast marked them, and been glad that the old notes were ringing again and the old French lyric measures tripping to thine ancient harmonies, echoing and replying to the Muses of Horace and Catullus.  Returning to Nature, poets returned to thee.  Thy monument has perished, but not thy music, and the Prince of Poets has returned to his own again in a glorious Restoration.

Through the dust and smoke of ages, and through the centuries of wars we strain our eyes and try to gain a glimpse of thee, Master, in thy good days, when the Muses walked with thee.  We seem to mark thee wandering silent through some little village, or dreaming in the woods, or loitering among thy lonely places, or in gardens where the roses blossom among wilder flowers, or on river banks where the whispering poplars and sighing reeds make answer to the murmur of the waters.  Such a picture hast thou drawn of thyself in the summer afternoons.

Je m’en vais pourmener tantost parmy la plaine,
Tantost en un village, et tantost en un bois,
Et tantost par les lieux solitaires et cois.
J’aime fort les jardins qui sentent le sauvage,
J’aime le flot de l’eau qui gazoüille au rivage.

Still, methinks, there was a book in the hand of the grave and learned poet; still thou wouldst carry thy Horace, thy Catullus, thy Theocritus, through the gem-like weather of the Renouveau, when the woods were enamelled with flowers, and the young Spring was lodged, like a wandering prince, in his great palaces hung with green:

Orgueilleux de ses fleurs, enflé de sa jeunesse,
Logé comme un grand Prince en ses vertes maisons!

Thou sawest, in these woods by Loire side, the fair shapes of old religion, Fauns, Nymphs, and Satyrs, and heard’st in the nightingale’s music the plaint of Philomel.  The ancient poets came back in the train of thyself and of the Spring, and learning was scarce less dear to thee than love; and thy ladies seemed fairer for the names they borrowed from the beauties of forgotten days, Helen and Cassandra.  How sweetly didst thou sing to them thine old morality, and how gravely didst thou teach the lesson of the Roses!  Well didst thou know it, well didst thou love the Rose, since thy nurse, carrying thee, an infant, to the holy font, let fall on thee the sacred water brimmed with floating blossoms of the Rose!

Mignonne, allons voir si la Rose,
Qui ce matin avoit desclose
Sa robe de pourpre au soleil,
A point perdu ceste vespree
Les plis de sa robe pourpree,
Et son teint au votre pareil.

And again,

La belle Rose du Printemps,
Aubert, admoneste les hommes
Passer joyeusement le temps,
Et pendant que jeunes nous sommes,
Esbattre la fleur de nos ans.

In the same mood, looking far down the future, thou sangest of thy lady’s age, the most sad, the most beautiful of thy sad and beautiful lays; for if thy bees gathered much honey ’twas somewhat bitter to taste, like that of the Sardinian yews.  How clearly we see the great hall, the grey lady spinning and humming among her drowsy maids, and how they waken at the word, and she sees her spring in their eyes, and they forecast their winter in her face, when she murmurs “’Twas Ronsard sang of me.”

Winter, and summer, and spring, how swiftly they pass, and how early time brought thee his sorrows, and grief cast her dust upon thy head.

Adieu ma Lyre, adieu fillettes,
Jadis mes douces amourettes,
Adieu, je sens venir ma fin,
Nul passetemps de ma jeunesse
Ne m’accompagne en la vieillesse,
Que le feu, le lict et le vin.

Wine, and a soft bed, and a bright fire: to this trinity of poor pleasures we come soon, if, indeed, wine be left to us.  Poetry herself deserts us; is it not said that Bacchus never forgives a renegade? and most of us turn recreants to Bacchus.  Even the bright fire, I fear, was not always there to warm thine old blood, Master, or, if fire there were, the wood was not bought with thy book-seller’s money.  When autumn was drawing in during thine early old age, in 1584, didst thou not write that thou hadst never received a sou at the hands of all the publishers who vended thy books?  And as thou wert about putting forth thy folio edition of 1584, thou didst pray Buon, the bookseller, to give thee sixty crowns to buy wood withal, and make thee a bright fire in winter weather, and comfort thine old age with thy friend Gallandius.  And if Buon will not pay, then to try the other booksellers, “that wish to take everything and give nothing.”

Was it knowledge of this passage, Master, or ignorance of everything else, that made certain of the common steadfast dunces of our days speak of thee as if thou hadst been a starveling, neglected poetaster, jealous forsooth of Maître Françoys Rabelais?  See how ignorantly M. Fleury writes, who teaches French literature withal to them of Muscovy, and hath indited a Life of Rabelais.  “Rabelais était revêtu d’un emploi honorable; Ronsard était traité en subalterne,” quoth this wondrous professor.  What!  Pierre de Ronsard, a gentleman of a noble house, holding the revenue of many abbeys, the friend of Mary Stuart, of the Duc d’Orléans, of Charles IX., he is traité en subalterne, and is jealous of a frocked or unfrocked manant like Maître Françoys!  And then this amazing Fleury falls foul of thine epitaph on Maître Françoys and cries, “Ronsard a voulu faire des vers méchants; il n’a fait que de méchants vers.”  More truly saith M. Sainte-Beuve, “If the good Rabelais had returned to Meudon on the day when this epitaph was made over the wine, he would, methinks, have laughed heartily.”  But what shall be said of a Professor like the egregious M. Fleury, who holds that Ronsard was despised at Court?  Was there a party at tennis when the king would not fain have had thee on his side, declaring that he ever won when Ronsard was his partner?  Did he not give thee benefices, and many priories, and call thee his father in Apollo, and even, so they say, bid thee sit down beside him on his throne?  Away, ye scandalous folk, who tell us that there was strife between the Prince of Poets and the King of Mirth.  Naught have ye by way of proof of your slander but the talk of Jean Bernier, a scurrilous, starveling apothecary, who put forth his fables in 1697, a century and a half after Maître Françoys died.  Bayle quoted this fellow in a note, and ye all steal the tattle one from another in your dull manner, and know not whence it comes, nor even that Bayle would none of it and mocked its author.  With so little knowledge is history written, and thus doth each chattering brook of a “Life” swell with its tribute “that great Mississippi of falsehood,” Biography.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things