Meanwhile a veritable flood of poetry was pouring over France. We know some 200 French poets in the reigns of Francis and his sons; and these were no vapid mourners in an unheeding wilderness; they were warriors in a literary battle—form vs. content, Ronsard vs. Rabelais—that determined the character of French literature till the Revolution,
A complex ecstasy inspired them. They longed to rival the Greeks and Romans in purity of style and perfection of form, and the Italian sonneteers in grace of speech and imagery; nevertheless they were resolved to write not in Latin, like the scholars who were instructing and exciting them, but in their native French; and at the same time they proposed to mellow and refine that still rough tongue by teaching it words, phrases, constructions, and ideas judiciously pilfered from the classics. The episodic formlessness of Rabelais’ romance made it, in their eyes, a crude vessel of clay hastily turned by hand, unpainted and unglazed. They would add to his earthly vitality the discipline of form carefully designed, and of feeling rationally controlled.
The classical crusade began in the Lyons of Rabelais himself. Maurice Sève spent part of his life locating, as he thought, the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura, then composed 446 stanzas to his own desired Délie; and in the melancholy delicacy of his verse he cleared a path for Ronsard. His ablest competitor in Lyons was a woman, Louise Labé, who, in full armor, fought like another Joan at Perpignan, and then cooled into marriage with a rope-maker who winked in kindly Gallic fashion at her subsidiary amours. She read Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish, played the lute alluringly, kept a salon for her rivals and her lovers, and wrote some of the earliest and finest sonnets in the French language. We might judge her fame from her funeral (1566), which, said a chronicler, “was a triumph. She was carried through the city with her face uncovered, and her head crowned with a floral wreath. Death could do nothing to disfigure her, and the people of Lyons covered her grave with flowers and tears.”37 Through these Lyonese poets the Petrarchan style and mood passed up to Paris, and entered the Pléiade.
The very word was a classic echo, for in the Alexandria of the third century before Christ a galaxy of seven poets had likewise been named from the constellation that commemorated the seven mythological daughters of Atlas and Pleïone. Ronsard, brightest star in the French Pléiade, rarely used that term, and his models were Anacreon and Horace rather than Alexandrian Theocritus or Callimachus. It was in 1548, at an inn in Touraine, that he met Joachim du Bellay, and conspired with him to make French poetry classical. They won to their enterprise four other young poets—Antoine de Baïf, Remi Belleau, Étienne Jodelle, and Ponthus de Thyard; and they were joined also by the scholar Jean Dorat, whose lectures on Greek literature at the Collège de France and the Collège de Coqueret fired them with enthusiasm for the lyric singers of ancient Greece. They called themselves La Brigade, and vowed to rescue the French muse from the coarse hands of Jean de Meung and Rabelais, and the loose measures of Villon and Marot. They turned their noses from the riotous language and privy wisdom of Gargantua and Pantagruel; they found no classic restraint in those jumbled verbs and adjectives, those coprophilic ecstasies, no feeling for beauty of form in woman, nature, or art. A hostile critic, seeing them seven, dubbed them La Pléiade. Their victory turned the word into a flag of fame.
In 1549 Du Bellay proclaimed the linguistic program of the Brigade in a Défense et illustration de la langue françoyse. By défense he meant that the French language could be enabled to express all that the classic tongues had uttered; by illustration he meant that French could take on new luster, could brighten and polish itself, by putting aside the rough speech of prevalent French prose, and the ballad, roundel, virelay forms of French poesy, and purify and enrich itself by importing classical terms and studying classical forms, as in Anacreon, Theocritus, Virgil, Horace, and Petrarch. For to the Pléiade Petrarch was already a classic, and the sonnet was the most perfect of all literary forms.
Pierre de Ronsard realized in his verse the ideals that Du Bellay voiced in splendid prose. He came of a recently ennobled family; his father was maître d’hôtel to Francis I, and for some time Pierre lived at the brilliant court. He was successively page to the Dauphin Francis, then to the Madeleine who married James V of Scotland, then écuyer or squire to the future Henry II. He looked forward to military exploits, but at sixteen he began to grow deaf. He sheathed his sword and brandished a pen. He fell in with Virgil by accident, and saw in him a perfection of form and speech as yet unknown in France. Dorat led him on from Latin to Greek, and taught him to read Anacreon, Aeschylus, Pindar, Aristophanes. “O Master!” cried the youth, “why have you hidden these riches from me so long?” 38 At twenty-four he met Du Bellay. Thereafter he divided his time devotedly among song, woman, and wine.
His Odes (1550) completed the lyric revolt. They frankly imitated Horace, but they introduced the ode into French poetry, and stood on their own feet in purity of language, elegance of phrase, precision of form. Two years later, in the 183 sonnets of hisAmours,he took Petrarch as his model, and achieved a grace and refinement never surpassed in French poetry. He wrote to be sung, and many of his poems were put to music during his lifetime, some by famous composers like Jannequin and Goudimel. He offered to the women he courted the old invitation to make play while beauty shines, but even on that ancient theme he struck an original note, as when he warned one prudent lass that she would someday regret having lost the opportunity of being seduced by so renowned a bard:
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, devisant et filant,
Direz chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’êtais belle.
Lors vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desia sous le labeur à demi soummeilant,
Qui au bruit de son nom ne s’aille reveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.
Je serai sous la terre et, fantôme sans os,
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos;
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain;
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie*
The exaltation of style suited well the court of Catherine de Médicis, who had brought to France an Italian retinue bearing Petrarch in their books. The new poet—hard of hearing but proud of carriage, with martial figure, golden hair and beard, and the face of Praxiteles’ Hermes—became a favorite of Catherine, Henry II, Mary Stuart, even of Elizabeth of England, who, as his seventeenth cousin, sent him a diamond ring. The Greco-Roman mythology of the Pléiade was welcomed; when the poets talked of Olympus the court acknowledged the compliment;39 Henry became Jupiter, Catherine Juno, Diane Diana; and the sculpture of Goujon confirmed the comparison.
When Henry died, Charles IX continued to befriend Ronsard, not quite to good result, for the young monarch wanted an epic about France to match the Aeneid. “I can give death,” wrote the royal simpleton, “but you can give immortality.” 40 Ronsard began aFranciade, but found his muse too short of breath for so long a run; soon he gave up the pretense, and returned to lyrics and love. He passed peacefully into old age, protected from the noise of the world, safely conservative in politics and religion, revered by younger minstrels, and respected by all but death. It came in 1585. He was buried at Tours, but Paris gave him an Olympian funeral, in which all the notables of the capital marched to hear a bishop intone an oraison funèbre.
The poets who called him prince produced many volumes of verse, delicate but dead. Most of them, like the master, were pagans who at their ease professed Catholic orthodoxy, and scorned the moralistic Huguenots. However poor these poets might be in pocket, they were aristocrats in pride, sometimes in blood, and they wrote for a circle that had the leisure to relish form. Rabelais returned their hostility by ridiculing their pedantry, their servile imitation of Greek and Roman meters, phrases, and epithets, their thin echoes of ancient themes and Petrarchan conceits and laments. In that conflict between naturalism and classicism the fate of French literature was decided. The poets and tragic dramatists of France would choose the straight and narrow path of perfect structure and chiseled grace; the prose writers would aim to please by force of substance alone. Hence French poetry before the Revolution is untranslatable; the vase of form cannot be shattered and then be refashioned in an alien mold. In nineteenth-century France the two streams met, the half-truths merged, content married form, and French prose became supreme.