Thursday, May 22, 2014

Shake-speare and the Influence of Ronsard

Sidney Lee on Shake-spear and Ronsard

I’ve always found the best of traditional 19th century Shakespeare scholarship to be superior in all matters with the exception of the Stratford Shakespeare’s pseudo-biography.  The dedication of such scholars as Sidney Lee, Edmond Malone, Frederick Fleay, and so many others, to seek out and pore over thousands of obscure manuscripts, in a wide range of languages, was phenomenal.  Of course, there was also more to be discovered at that earlier time.

In my own search for authorship information, they have been far and away my best source on all detail not directly related to identifying the author who wrote under the name.  Often their being totally unaware that any legitimate authorship question existed also made them the best source for detail in that regard as well.  They felt no need to write wearing blinders in order to avoid “aiding the enemy”.

On the other hand, they did feel the constant need to alter their findings to make them fit the life of the man they felt to be the only possible claimant to the authorship.  What else could they do but count that biography, such as it was (or wasn’t), as an absolutely established fact to which all others must somehow eventually prove to conform.  At best (and not infrequently), they felt it a matter of personal and profession honor to state that they could not see how the evidence fit together, in light of the purported biography  and that they could only await further breakthroughs for clarification.

These pages are excerpted from Sidney Lee’s exceptional THE FRENCH RENAISSANCE IN ENGLAND: AN ACCOUNT OF THE LITERARY RELATIONS OF ENGLAND AND FRANCE IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY.  As the reader will see, Lee’s observations are filled with small facts that could have been understood to argue for Edward de Vere as the author of the works of Shake-speare had Lee any idea that such a thing was possible.  De Vere is even mentioned, in passing, as sharing Shake-speare’s predilection for the French poet Ronsard.  I have taken the liberty to include a few notes of my own to highlight the relationship of these pages with de Vere.  The text is otherwise precisely as Lee published it.

More important still, the reader will learn more about the sources that helped make a great writer of Shake-speare and about the poetry of his also towering French contemporary.




Pt 1: The French Renaissance in England, pp. 220-224.

Of Shakespeare's Anacreontic adaptations probably the most striking example is met with in Timon of Athens (IV. Iii. 442-8), where the dramatist wrote:
The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction
Robs the vast sea; the moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun:

The sea’s a thief, whose liquid surge resolves
The moon into salt tears: the earth’s a thief,
That feeds and breeds by a composture stol’n
From general excrement: each thing’s a thief.
Here Shakespeare handled in his own manner a famous Anacreontic ode in its French form. The Greek verse draws a natural justification for drinking from the fact that heavenly and earthly bodies reciprocally seek liquid sustenance. The fancy was thoroughly acclimatized by the Renaissance in France, and the Anacreontic poem was popular in independent versions of Ronsard and Remy Belleau.   Ronsard's version opens thus:
La terre les eaux va boivant,
L’arbre la boit par sa racine,
La mer éparse boit le vent,
Et le soleil boit la marine;
Le soleil est beu de la lune:
Tout boit, soit en haut ou en bas.[1]
Shakespeare invests the suggestion of the reciprocal relations of sun, moon, and ocean with a poetic luxuriance which was peculiar to his genius. There is a new purpose in Shakespeare's use of the imagery. But as soon as the French and English lines are studied side by side their kinship becomes unmistakable.


The study of Ovid, chiefly in Golding's translation, is a main source of Elizabethan knowledge of classical mythology. But contemporary French feeling would seem to have largely stimulated the classical sympathies of the Elizabethan lyrists, and their mythological touches constantly pursue distinctive hints of the Pléiade. It does not seem to have been noticed that, in the year of Shakespeare's birth [sic][2], Ronsard anticipated Shakespeare's poetic version of the Ovidian story of Venus and Adonis. The evidence of literal borrowing on Shakespeare's part from Ronsard's poem on the subject may not go far. Ronsard's Venus and Adonis has a more pronounced mythological setting than Shakespeare's work.[3] Yet Shakespeare's descriptive imagery is often of Ronsardian temper. When Shakespeare's goddess tells how she conquered the god of war, ‘leading him prisoner in a red-rose chain,’ the English poet echoes a familiar line in one of Ronsard's Anacreontics.[4] In the pathetic appeal to Adonis's hounds and to Echo, which Shakespeare sets on Venus's lips, he seems to follow Ronsard's guidance. The fact at any rate that the ‘first heir’ of Shakespeare's invention should concern itself with one of Ronsard's themes, and should bear resemblance to Ronsard's treatment suggests an imaginative bond which might well develop closer relationship later.[5]

Perhaps the most remarkable of all instances of identity of fancy between Ronsard and the great English dramatist finds illustration in a classical outburst of wonderful energy in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (IV. Xii. 50-4). In that great tragedy, which shows Shakespeare's power at its zenith, Antony, on hearing the false report of Cleopatra's death, exclaims in an ecstasy of poetry, of which Plutarch gives no hint, that he will be her companion in Hades:
Where souls do couch on flowers, we’ll hand in hand,
And with our sprightly port make the ghosts gaze:
Dido and her Aeneas shall want troops,
And all the haunt be ours.
Nowhere does Shakespeare strike quite so vividly Ronsard s precise note. In his impassioned Chanson III the French poet had already greeted his mistress Hélène in the identical key.. Together he and his beloved Hélène, Ronsard declares, will pass to the Elysian fields.


Là, morts de trop aimer, sous les branches myrtines
Nous verrons tous les jours
Les anciens Héros auprès des Héroines
Ne parler que d’amours.[6]

All the divine ‘troop’ of past lovers (‘la troupe sainte autrefois amoureuse’) will come to offer greeting, and none will refuse to quit their seats for the new comers, who will ‘couch on flowers’ in midst of all:


Ny celles qui s’en vont toutes tristes ensemble,
Artemise et Didon:
Ny ceste belle Grecque à qui ta beauté semble,
Comme tu fais de nom. [7]
Puis, nous faisant asseoir dessus l’herbe fleurie,
De toutes au milieu,
Nulle en se retirant ne sera point marrie[8]
De nous quitter son lieu.


Shakespeare in his maturity was at any rate faithful to the classical sentiment which animated the poetry of the French Renaissance.


No comparative student can ignore the resemblance, whatever the precise deduction to be drawn from it, between the buoyant notes with which both Pléiade and Elizabethan schools of lyric poetry greeted the months of April and May and the floral pageantry of spring and summer. Chaucer had caught something of the same exuberance, in part at least from French lyres, more than two centuries before. But the fresh delight of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the painted meadows and in the brilliant colours of bud and blossom seems to proclaim another mark of affinity with Ronsard and his disciples. A hundred lines or stanzas could be quoted from the French poets in terms such as these:

Avril, l’honneur des prés verts,
Jaunes, pers (i.e. azure), Qui d’une humeur bigarrée
Émaillent de mille fleurs
De couleurs
Leur parure diaprée.[9]

It was of ‘ce mois Avril’ that Ronsard wrote—
Il peint les bois les forêts et les plaines[10]
with rainbow hues—

le bel esmail qui varie
L honneur gemmé d une prairie
En mille lustres s’esclatant.[11]

Shakespeare also likened ‘flowers purple, blue, and white’ to ‘sapphires, pearls, and rich embroidery’ (Merry Wives, V. v. 75) and graphically presented spring as the season—

When daisies pied and violets blue
And lady-smocks all silver-white
And cuckoo-buds of yellow hue[12]
Do paint the meadows with delight.
Love's Labour’s Lost , V. ii. 902-5.



Pt. 2: The French Renaissance in England, pp. 226-227.

The lyric play of amorous fancy constantly runs in a mould which, whatever its ultimate origin, was reckoned by Elizabethans among French types. Elizabethan poets were wont to speculate interrogatively on the origin of love, and all seem to ring variations on a famous sonnet of Desportes (Diane, I. xxxvii. Ed. Michiels p 28):
Amour, quand fus-tu né ? Ce fut lors que la terre
S’émaille de couleurs et les bois de verdeur.
De qui fus-tu conçeu ? D’une puissante ardeur
Qu’oisiveté lascive en soy-mesmes enserre….
De qui fus-tu nourry ? D’une douce beauté,
Qui eut pour la servir jeunesse et vanité.
De quoy te repais-tu? D’une belle lumière.[13]
To like effect runs the Earl of Oxford's popular ditty:

When wert thou born, Desire? In pomp and prime of May.
By whom sweet boy wert thou begot? By fond Conceit men say.[14]

Shakespeare's

Tell me, where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?

is in a kindred key. Shakespeare's ‘fancy’ is ‘love’.

There are indeed few lyrical topics to which the French and English writers failed to apply on some occasion or other much the same language. Juliet admonishes Romeo not to swear by the moon:

O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,[15]
Swear by thy gracious self ,
Which is the god of my idolatry. (II. Ii. 109 sq.)

Some twenty years before, Ronsard had given a like warning to his mistress Hélène (Livre II, Sonnet xv):

Je ne veux comparer tes beautés à la lune,
La lune est inconstante, et ton vouloir n’est qu’un;…
Tu es toute ton Dieu, ton astre et ta fortune.

In a detached poem which Ronsard wrote before 1567 as epilogue of a dramatic performance at the royal palace of Fontainebleau, he played effectively on a classical figure, and gave it a new vogue (Oeuvres, iv, 184):

Le Monde est le theatre, et les hommes acteurs;
La Fortune, qui est maistresse de la Sceine,
Appreste les habits, et de la vie humaine
Les Cieux et les Destins en sont les spectateurs.
En gestes differens, en differens langages,
Roy, Princes, et Bergers jouent leurs personnages
Devant les yeux de tous sur l’eschafaut commun.

The famous dialogue on the like theme in which the banished Duke and the melancholy Jaques engage in Shakespeare's As You Like It ,II. vii. 137 seq., opens on Ronsard’s note:


Duke.   This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in
Jacq.                             All the world’s a stage,
            And all the men and women merely players.









[1] Oeuvres ed. Blanchemain ii. 286.
[2] [My note] Of course, in 1564, Edward de Vere, the young Earl of Oxford, was 14 years old, fluent in French and by all appearances a voracious reader of the popular French poetry and novels.  If Shake-speare were actually born in 1564, the question should naturally arise as to why so many of the sources for his works were written between 1560 and 1580, when he could not possibly have read them, or the languages in which many of them were written, and so many of the plays had their first (if not only) performance in the Court of Queen Elizabeth, where he could not possibly have seen them.
[3] There are signs that both the French and English poet had made some independent study of earlier poetic versions of the fable in Italian.
[4] Cf Ronsard's (Œuvres ed Blanchemain ii 285) :
Les Muses liirent un jour De chaίnes de roses Amour
Ronsard's poem was universally popular and had already been cited in 1582 by Watson as the source of his Passion lxxx1II
[5] In Ronsard's poem Mars's jealous anger leads the God of War to seek Diana's aid, and it is the divine huntress who contrives Adonis's death by means of the boar. With beautiful effect Ronsard again and again repeats with slight modification this refrain:

Hélas, pauvre Adonis, tous les Amours te pleurent,
Toi mourant par ta mort, toutes délices meurent.

Ronsard's poem closes in a key which echoes with a delightful freshness l’esprit gaulois. He slyly mentions at the end that the goddess of love, despite her wailing, soon set her heart on the Phrygian shepherd Anchises. The French poet takes leave of the theme with a reflection that women's love, like April flowers, only lives a day. Shakespeare is more loyal to the sentiment of the myth.
[6] Œuvres, ed. Blanchemain,  i. 383.
[7] Ronsard is addressing a lady named after Helen the fair Greek.
[8] This is Ronsard's final reading. The line read originally ‘Nulle, et fût ce Procris, ne sera point marrie. [i.e. grieved or offended].
[9] Belleau, Œuvres, ed. Gouverneur, ii. 43.
[10] Ronsard, Œuvres, i. 132.
[11] Ibid., ii. 342.
[12] Cowslips were known in France as ‘brayes de cocu’.
[13] Desportes adapts an Italian sonnet by Pamphilo Sasso, which was published as early as 1519 at Venice. Sasso's sonnet opens:

‘Quando nascesti, amor? quando la terra
Si reuesti de uerde: e bel colore
Dhe che sei generato? dun ardore
Che occio lasciuo in se rachiuda:’ &c.

Before Desportes’ time Sasso's poem was independently turned into Latin by the Scotsman, George Buchanan, while domiciled in France.

Quis puer ales Amor Genitor quis Blandus ocelli
Ardor Quo natus tempore Vere novo
Quis locus excepit Generosi pectoris aula
Quae nutrix Primo flore iuventa decens

(Cf. Un modèle de Desportes non signalé encore : Pamphilo Sasso, par MM. Vaganay, et Vianey, Paris, 1903.)
[14] [My note] It is interesting to find the young Earl of Oxford going to the same sources as Shake-speare.  Especially suggestive in light of the fact that we have no work from de Vere after Shake-speare appears on the stage.
[15] [My note] While this does not argue against the traditional assignment of “the inconstant moon” with Queen Elizabeth, it must be admitted that the image is taken literally from Ronsard.  Both may be correct, but the Ronsard citation is established beyond doubt with this.



More from Virtual Grub Street on Shake-speare and Edward de Vere:

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