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La Pléiade : an informal académie

Members of the Pléiade, a French informal Renaissance academy, had been thoroughly schooled in the texts and wisdom of Græco-Roman antiquity. Their mentor was Jean Dorat or Daurat, one of Europe’s most prominent Hellenist. So they had gleaned knowledge from the past.

Défense et illustration: The vernacular

Yet, in the Pléiade‘s manifesto, the Défense et illustration de la langue française, written by Joachim du Bellay, members of the Pléiade advocated the use of the French language, or the vernacularPléiade poets worked at making French richer and more colourful.

Pierre de Ronsard: l’alexandrin

Pierre de Ronsard, the Pléiade’s chief poet, was not a theorist, but he nevertheless contributed to a literary rebirth by perfecting the twelve-syllable French alexandrine, a verse borrowed from the Roman d’Alexandre, a French medieval romance written in the vernacular, of which there had been several versions beginning in the 3rd century: Middle Greek, Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew, and various European languages.

As used by Ronsard, the alexandrine is the twelve-syllable vers noble, broken in two ‘hémistiches’ (six syllables), used by French dramatist Jean Racine (22 December 1639 – 21 April 1699). Here is an example of an alexandrine verse. It is Ronsard’s very own Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May, which I have divided into its twelve components called pieds or feet: « Cueil-lez -dès -au-jour-d’hui, / les -ro-ses -de -la -vie. »  (Sonnets pour Hélène [1578]).

Sonnets pour Hélène

In the Sonnets pour Hélène, Ronsard was emulating his sources, the writings of Horace (8 December 65 BCE – 27 November 8 CE), Decimius Magnus Ausonius (c. 310–395), born in Bordeaux, and Publius Vergilius Maro Virgil or Vergil (15 October  70 BCE – 21 September 19 BCE), the celebrated Roman poet and Italian-language poets. However, there is timelessness to “lieux communs,”  such as the Gather Ye Roses While Ye May. 

The Carpe diem: “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May”

The Carpe diem, Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May is indeed a common-place theme, un lieu commun, but although the creative mind seeks newness and originality, the Carpe diem is about evanescence, and evanescence is the human condition. In a darker light, the Carpe diem constitutes an Ecce Homo, a poem about death, the great equalizer. Both Carpe diem and Ecce homo poems are forever timely.

Carpe diem sundial

Ronsard wrote several poems on the theme of the Carpe diem, but we cannot treat more than two to respect the limits of a blog:


In 1550, Ronsard published a four-book set of odes and, two years later, in 1552, a fifth book of odes as well as a collection, odes again, entitled Les Amours de Cassandre. The eventually folkloric « Mignonne, allons voir si la rose …, » a poem dedicated to 15-year-old Cassandre Salviati, dates back to that period and is not an anonymous work. However, although Pierre was not an ordained priest, he had taken minor orders, which precluded marriage. He was a “prieur tonsuré.”

After Cassandre, there was a Marie, Les Amours de Marie (1578), as well as an Hélène, Hélène de Surgères (1546-1618) who inspired the aging author to write « Quand vous serez bien vieille, » one of the Sonnets pour Hélène (1578).

Ronsard’s « Mignonne, allons voir… »  is modelled on the Pindaric ode that uses three stanzas (strope, antistrophe and epode). Ronsard’s poem is a three-stanza ode, each stanza containing six octosyllablic (8 syllables) lines divided as follows: « Mi-gnonne, -al-lons -voir -si -la -rose… »  As in all Carpe diem texts, the poet invites his lady-love to consider that the rose, newly-born on that very day, has wilted by night. The poem can be read in both French and English if you click on Mignonne.


As for the Sonnets pour Hélène, they are modelled mostly on the Petrarchan sonnet.  Ronsard’s sonnet consists of two four-line stanzas followed by two three-line stanzas.  This is the form French poets would adopt. But Ronsard’s « Quand vous serez bien vieille » is so melodious that it transcends both the alexandrine verse and the sonnet. It can be read in both French and English if you click on Hélène.

But I am including the French text, old French (II, 24 [1578]):

« Quand vous serez bien vieille »

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
« Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle. »

Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Desja sous le labeur à demy sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille resveillant,
Benissant vostre nom de louange immortelle.

Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos :
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.


Biographical notes

Pierre de Ronsard [i] (11 September 1524 – 27 December 1585), the “prince of poets,” was born to a noble family and would probably have become a diplomat had he not fallen ill travelling with Lazare de Baïf (Antoine’s father) on a mission. His hearing was impaired and, as did Joachim du Bellay, who heard only intermittently, Ronsard chose to live a more private life, dedicated entirely to writing poetry, and, to this end, he became a pupil of Jean Dorat at the Collège de Coqueret

Ronsard was venerated in his own lifetime. He was, although unofficially, the Poet Laureate of France and, during Charles IX’s brief reign, he had his rooms at court.  Ronsard wrote abundantly:  Continuation des amours, Meslanges (1554), Nouvelles Continuations (1555), occasional verses (vers de circonstances), Hymnes, modelled on 3rd century-bce Greek poet Callimachus [ii], a second book of Meslanges (1559) etc.

However, within the scope of a blog, other than an ode and a sonnet, I will only mention briefly Ronsard’s Discours des misères de ce temps (1562; “Discourse on the Miseries of These Times.” As a Catholic, Ronsard had opponents, yet he helped Huguenot composer Claude Le Jeune escape probable torture and death. The religious wars truly saddened Ronsard.

When he died, Ronsard’s fame had earned him a state funeral during which Jacques Mauduit’s Requiem was played. The composer, Jacques Mauduit (16 September 1577 – 21 August 1627) had been a friend of Ronsard and an advocate of polyphony: the intertwining of voices.


In short, the poets of La Pléiade, Ronsard in particular, looked backwards but demonstrated that there is timelessness to most things human. Pierre de Ronsard went out of fashion in the 17th century, but he was rediscovered two centuries later and his Carpe diem poems retain the newness they possessed when they were first written.

A poem is not so much what is said as the manner in which it is said. So enjoy the day and look forward to even better days. “Le style, c’est l’homme même.” (Buffon)


« Mignonne, allons voir si la rose », music by Guillaume Costeley                       Anonymous, The King’s Singers’, Madrigal History Tour, Anthony Rooley, Director

200px-rosa_eden_rose_j11© Micheline Walker
2 January 2012