The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)





The Pléiade


1549 Joachim Du Bellay sets out the principles of the Pléiade, promoting the imitation of classical models and the revival of archaic and dialect words, as well as the invention of new words.


1555 Taking inspiration from the Greek poet Callimachus, Ronsard’s Hymns eloquently celebrate natural phenomena, such as the sky, as well as gods and heroes.

1576 Jean Antoine de Baïf, the most learned poet of the Pléiade and a skilled poetic experimenter, publishes a highly original work: Mimes, Lessons, and Proverbs.

1578 Ronsard’s Sonnets for Hélène are full of references to the suffering of lovers, as well as to classical myth and fate.

Pierre Ronsard (1524–1585) was the leading light of a group of French humanist poets named for the bright Pleiades star cluster and also for a group of Alexandrian poets from the 3rd century BCE. The Pléiade aimed to create a French literature equal to that of Renaissance Italy. They imitated the genres and forms of the ancients, and spent much time refining and defending their controversial poetic beliefs.

A sublime art

Ronsard saw poetry as a sublime art, rather than merely a courtly pastime. He was versatile and innovative, and his poems were melodious, sensual, and pagan, despite the fact that he was a cleric in minor orders. He made important contributions to the ode (inspired by the Latin poet Horace and the Greek Pindar), the sonnet, and the elegy, and in 1558 became the official poet in the court of Charles IX, the king of France. He is best remembered today for his skilful, tender love poetry.

In the poetry collection Les Amours de Cassandre, Ronsard set out to rival the Italian poet Petrarch. His devotion to Cassandre is described with imagery of piercing arrows, love potions, and poisons, which Petrarch had also deployed. But in Ronsard’s hands this imagery is imbued with sensuality. He often refers to a desire to be transformed – for example, into golden droplets, so that he may fall into his beloved’s lap, and then into a bull so that he can carry her away on his back.

"I’d like to turn the deepest of yellows, / Falling, drop by drop, in a golden shower, / Into her lap..."

Les Amours de Cassandre

See also: Gargantua and Pantagruel • Miscellaneous Poems (Marvell) • Les Fleurs du mal • A Season in Hell