La Pléiade Promotes French Poetry Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A group of ambitious young French poets, commonly known as La Pléiade, strove to elevate French poetry to the level of its venerated Greek, Latin, and Italian predecessors, thus creating a national literature that would correspond to and illustrate France’s prominent position in early modern Europe.

Summary of Event

In 1546, Joachim du Bellay met Jacques Peletier du Mans, translator of Horace’s Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry, 1567), ardent advocate of the potential of the French language, and an acquaintance of Pierre de Ronsard. At the time, Ronsard and his friend Antoine de Baïf were students of the Hellenist Jean Dorat. In 1547, Dorat was appointed to the Collège de Coqueret in Paris, and Ronsard, Baïf, and du Bellay followed him there to study Greco-Latin and Italian culture with him. These ambitious poets called themselves the “Brigade”—a name that Ronsard would change into “Pléiade” in the mid-1550’—and, following Italy’s example, they set out to create a national French literature that would rival and eventually surpass its illustrious predecessors. Poetry;France La Pléiade Ronsard, Pierre de du Bellay, Joachim Tyard, Pontus de Baïf, Antoine de Peletier, Jacques du Mans Du Bellay, Joachim Peletier du Mans, Jacques Ronsard, Pierre de Baïf, Antoine de Dorat, Jean Sébillet, Thomas Marot, Clément Aneau, Barthélémy Tyard, Pontus de Speroni, Sperone

Members of the French literary group, La Pléiade.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The publication of Thomas Sébillet’s Art poétique françoys Art poétique françoys (Sébillet) (1548; French poetic art) triggered a violent reaction by the Brigade. Sébillet’s treatise expressed many of the group’s convictions but advocated the imitation of French models, particularly those from the author’s own school of poetry, which was headed by the late Clément Marot (1496-1544). The Brigade’s answer, du Bellay’s La Défense et illustration de la langue française (1549; The Defense and Illustration of the French Language Defense and Illustration of the French Language, The (du Bellay) , 1939), dismissed all previous literary productions in the vernacular as inferior, with the exception of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung’s Le Roman de la rose (thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose, partial translation c. 1370, complete translation 1900). Du Bellay was particularly dismissive of French medieval genres, of the verbal acrobatics of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century “great rhetorical” school (les Grands Rhétoriqueurs), and the merely amusing “superficial” style of Clément Marot and his disciples.

This sweeping and exaggerated condemnation of Sébillet’s poetics was necessary from a political point of view, since the Brigade tried to present itself as the true beginning of French letters, adopting Petrarchism and Neoplatonism as its main guiding principles. Sébillet answered the Brigade rather violently in his preface to his 1549 edition of Euripides’ Iphigenia ē en Aulidi (405 b.c.e.; Iphigenia in Aulis, 1782), an illustration of his poetic principles, to which du Bellay responded in turn in the preface to the 1550 second edition of L’Olive Olive, L’ (du Bellay) (first edition 1549; the olive), a work meant to put into practice the Pléiade’s theories. The dispute was continued by Barthélémy Aneau’s Quintil horatian Quintil horatian (Aneau) (1550), which responded to du Bellay by quoting and refuting all the major points of the later’s treatise in an attempt to rehabilitate Sébillet. Other significant treatises to follow were Pontus de Tyard’s Solitaire Premier Solitaire Premier (Tyard) (1552; first recluse), Peletier’s Art poétique Art poétique (Peletier) (1555; poetic art), and Ronsard’s Abrégé de l’art poétique français Abrégé de l’art poétique français (Ronsard) (1565; résumé of French poetic art).

Although there was some fluctuation within the group, as well as conflicting opinions in certain areas, the Pléiade’s main goal was to establish lyrical poetry as a genre independent from rhetoric. Sébillet’s treatise was in fact the first one to be devoted to poetry, which, up to then, had been considered a subcategory of rhetoric, a second rhetorical art (art de seconde rhétorique). The Pléiade asserted that the characteristics of lyrical poetry would confer a sublime status to the genre and, by extension, to the poet. The latter would henceforth be clearly superior to his predecessor, the orator, a mere craftsperson who mechanically applied rules to his “artificial” (or unnatural) creations. The major consequence of poetry’s newly sublime status would be the inevitable elevation of French culture, which, in turn, was meant to complete the prestigious transfer of power and learning (translatio imperii et studii) from Italy to the new supreme nation, France. This ambitious undertaking inevitably hinged on a redefinition of the nature of poetry that was developed with the help of three key concepts: imitation, invention, and inspiration.

Imitation was probably the single most important and most complex of these concepts. It derived from the Pléiade’s admiration for their Greek, Roman, and Italian forebears. Several major problems presented themselves, however, especially the question of how to create a unique and original national identity by following foreign models. This issue was exacerbated by the well-known Platonic principle that all imitation is intrinsically inferior to the original.

The Pléiade endeavored to refute fundamental theoretical objections to the practice of imitation in several ways. The goal, du Bellay stated, was not to copy admired models mechanically but to create an “ancient renewed poetry.” In his Defense and Illustration of the French Language, the poet had already used the metaphors of graft and digestion to describe an “intelligent” form of imitation that could lead to something new. Both metaphors were meant to suggest the organic appropriation and transformation of ancient and foreign poetic practice into something novel and inherently French. In fact, du Bellay’s treatise was itself a case study, modeled closely after Sperone Speroni’s Il dialogo delle lingue Dialogo delle lingue, Il (Speroni) (1542; the dialogue of languages).

Drawing on the sixteenth century understanding of Aristotelian thought, the Pléiade claimed that poetic imitation, as opposed to historiography, should show what is likely or possible, not what is real or true. Poetry would thus depict particular cases and situations that would allow the reader a glimpse of universal truths. In this idea of the Pléiade, that poetry should create rather than capture truth, can be found the kernel of a modern understanding of invention. Invention, the first element of the traditional model of rhetoric, derived from the Latin invenire, meaning “to find,” and it almost exclusively designated the poet’s task of finding extant in reality appropriate subjects for his writing. With the theories of the Pléiade, however, a more recognizably modern concept of invention as original, imaginative creation, rather than mere discovery of something in the world, began to appear.

To explain how original, imaginative creation was possible, the Pléiade employed their third key concept: inspiration, or divine furor. Tyard’s Solitaire Premier furnished a detailed explanation of this Neoplatonic idea, which involved the infusion of divine powers into selected souls. These souls, thus empowered, were able to create lyrical poetry, to experience the revelation of a higher truth, and ultimately to achieve salvation. Infused by divine inspiration, which revealed both divine and natural secrets to him, the poet was able to take advantage of the powerfully allegorical images of ancient mythology and to exploit them in a Christian context, embracing a syncretism typical of Renaissance thought.

The divine nature of poetic inspiration irrefutably demonstrated the sublime status of poetry and its creators in human society. This privileged status also had its price, however. The poet had to prepare his soul for the reception of the divine furor by cleansing it of all vice. He also owed it to his calling to be well versed in classical mythology and to perfect his technique to supplement his inspiration. This, as the Pléiade saw it, was precisely the difference between themselves and the condemned “versifiers” of earlier French poetry: Earlier craftspeople lacked the supreme qualification of a true poet, divine furor. They had perfected their technique, not as a means to an end (to be worthy of and to express their inspiration) but as an end in itself, having seen poetry as entirely a matter of technique.

The elitist attitude of the Pléiade—their belief that they were the first French poets, and the only ones then writing, to be blessed with divine inspiration—inevitably led to highly erudite poetry. This erudition necessitated the inclusion of a detailed commentary in the 1553 second edition of Ronsard’s Les Amours Amours, Les (Ronsard) (first edition 1552; loves). Officially responding to public criticism, the Pléiade poets later showed their versatility by turning away from Petrarchism and obscure classical allusions to adopt a much simpler and allegedly more natural style, imitating poets like Ovid and Catullus. As if to underscore his mastery of various techniques, Ronsard returned to Petrarchism toward the end of his career.

Significance

The Pléiade had a considerable impact in several respects. Its promotion of the vernacular boosted national self-confidence and supported a fledgling French cultural nationalism. Such cultural nationalism was an integral component of the nation-building process in early modern Europe, as national identity gradually replaced the former supranational religious identity of Catholicism as the primary register of self-understanding. The quasi-sacred character of poetry also helped assert the autonomy of literature and of the poet at a time when artists depended almost exclusively on patronage, which usually affected the quality and the character of their creations. The redefinition of the poet as an extraordinary persona, blessed with divine inspiration which must then be developed and realized through labor (refining technique and studying ancient and Italian models), can also be seen as a precursor of later bourgeois ethics. Finally, the Pléiade’s poetics laid the groundwork for modern literary aesthetics that informed nineteenth and twentieth century poets and critics such as Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Victor Hugo, Charles Baudelaire, and Paul Valéry, who freely expressed their admiration for and admitted their debt to the Pléiade. Modern literature would be quite different without these Renaissance “avant-garde” poets’ contribution.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castor, Grahame. Pléiade Poetics: A Study of Sixteenth Century Thought and Terminology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1964. Groundbreaking and still the authoritative study in English on the movement as a whole; analyzes its aesthetics from a Renaissance point of view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conley, Tom. The Graphic Unconscious in Early Modern French Writing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Innovative approach stressing the visual impact and the role of psychoanalysis in Renaissance literature; chapters on Marot and Ronsard.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Thomas M. The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Essential study of the concept of imitation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hampton, Timothy. Literature and Nation in the Sixteenth Century: Inventing Renaissance France. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001. Chapter on du Bellay and the lyric invention of national character as part of a study of literary nationhood.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langer, Ullrich. Invention, Death, and Self-Definitions in the Poetry of Pierre de Ronsard. Saratoga, Calif.: ANMA Libri, 1986. In-depth study of Ronsard’s poetry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ronsard, Pierre de. Selected Poems. Translated by Malcolm Quainton and Elizabeth Vinestock. London: Penguin, 2002. Bilingual edition with an informative basic introduction covering Ronsard’s life, career, and technique.

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