Pierre de Ronsard’s “The Nightingale”

In French Blog Posts by Brock Bourgase

My Second Essay for FCS369Y:

Irony and Pierre de Ronsard’s “Nightingale”

All night the nightingale hears Ronsard’s pleas.
Singing, sighing, the bird learns of love scorned.
It knows life without love is a heart torn,
But it may not see the poem’s irony.

Pierre de Ronsard constructs the poem by comparing himself to a nightingale, fluttering from tree to tree and warbling its song during the night, hoping to find true love. The foundation of the metaphor is the role the nightingale as a symbol for tragic love in literature. In his cathedral for Marie d’Anjou, Ronsard used some conventional architecture, such as pillars influenced by the metaphor’s history and his influences Petrarch and Plato. Overall, the final design of the work features his unique flourishes.

The nightingale is a vehicle for Ronsard to express his feelings for Marie. The bird fulfills its traditional poetic role as a metaphor for which tragic love is the tenor. Nevertheless, originality can be seen in the ground of the metaphor. Ronsard’s lamentation to the bird adds depth to the comparison. The disparate outcomes realized by man and animal as both search for true love provide the poem’s irony.

Flying through literary history, the nightingale has appeared as a symbol in various periods as if it were alighting on a tree. The emblem first hatched in antiquity, when both the Greeks and Romans associated the bird with tragic love. Medieval poets included its melody in their sonnets. From Ronsard’s perspective, his appreciation of the nightingale likely grew when he read Francesco Petrarch’s poem of the same name.

The history of the metaphor dates to back to the Greek myth of Aëdon of Crete, who accidentally killed her only son. Zeus transformed her into a nightingale so she could mourn the death (Young 181). In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope likens the grief over her missing husband to Aëdon’s feelings (xix. 518-23).

Ancient Rome had its own metaphor, written by Ovid in 8 A.D.. In the sixth book of Metamorphorses, Theseus develops an infatuation with his sister-in-law Philomela, forcing himself upon her before cutting of her tongue and concealing her in a dungeon for a year. Philomena could only communicate with her sister Procne by surreptitiously sending her a tapestry explaining her imprisonment. Procne’s loyal love for her sister proves greater than her erotic attraction to Theseus so she helps Philomena escape. Afterwards, the sisters kill Itys, Theseus’ only son, and serve him to his father in a feast.

After their brutal act of revenge, the sisters were transformed into birds by the Gods: Procne into a swallow and Philomena a nightingale who flees to the woods (Ovid VI. 412-674). The tale serves as an allegory for the frailty of love as Theseus destroyed his marriage due to lust for his wife’s sister. In Ovid’s mind, Philomena signified erotic love and the acts humans would commit to realize their desires (Shippey 49).

Subsequently, Virgil would use the association in Georgics to describe Orpheus’ emotions regarding his lost son Eurydice. Other similar classical myths exist but Aëdon and Philomena are the most prominent; their names mean “nightingale” in their respective languages (Young 181).

Medieval poets employed the bird frequently. Some references can be found as early the seventh century but the nightingale’s metaphorical character began to grow in stature during the twelfth century. Poets in England and Europe were very consistent about the themes used as a tenor, connecting the nightingale with love. Many poets feel that the bird’s song is sorrowful, bemoaning love gone array. Others regard the chirping as an omen of spring or a signal that night is upon us (Shippey 47-51). These contrasting beliefs spur an evolution of the symbol. The nightingale begins to represent the many feelings associated with love, especially an amorous dichotomy of pleasure and pain.

Given the role of the nobility at the time, the class system and arranged marriages often kept two lovers apart. Occasionally, secret meetings or mistresses were arranged and the nightingale’s melody – indicating that night had fallen – signified that it was safe for the individuals to get together. Often, the couple was forced to sublimate their passion. To the separated partners, the nightly chirping was a sad song written by a society that would not permit their love (Shippey 48).

Despite the poor circulation of art in his time, Ronsard should have been familiar with the metaphor due to his education. Since he valued Petrarch so highly, he would have read the Italian poet’s treatment of the nightingale (Petrarch “CCCXI”) and likely sought to introduce the concept to a French audience.

In order to claim the metaphor as his own, Ronsard goes a step further than his predecessors. The poet not only elaborates upon the links between the vehicle and the tenor but the links between the bird and himself. He is writing for Marie but the nightingale becomes the subject of the sonnet. Talking to the bird is how he expresses the desperation he feels about her rejection.

The sonnet’s first two quatrains list the similarities between Ronsard and the nightingale. The bird feels the same physical needs as the poet and seeks true love like it seeks food to eat.

Theologically and practically, man is not much different from animal. Created by God in the first seven days of the world (Gen. 1:1-31), both must find a mate in order to propagate their species and satisfy their biological urges. Ronsard describes how they are “ever trying” to find a consort.

The pair also possesses similar personality traits. Instead of dancing at a chateau, the nightingale flies among the willows in the forest. The poet identifies their shared purpose as they sing and sigh, “we two” endeavouring to enhance a love for life with real love. Ronsard may travel between his home in Vendôme, Angers, and the royal court to pursue Marie but the bird does likewise, searching clearings, streams, and countless trees in the woods. The actions are parallel, as the two are singing a “common song” for their “ladies” who are playing hard to get (Ronsard Les Amours “XLIII”).

The sole difference is that the bird succeeds and becomes “much loved.” “Dulcet trillings” which encouraged the poet earlier become difficult to hear once he realized that the bird has melted the chill within its lady’s heart. The motif of the final sextet is his frustration in the face of rejection. The nightingale can advance from sublimated love to the furor of eros, sensual love, but the poet must keep his own love sublimated.

The irony of the poem lies in the ground of the metaphor: the vehicle that symbolizes tragic love has fallen in love itself. Ronsard’s lady will not wait by a window waiting for him upon hearing his song but the bird has succeeded where he has failed. At court, music accompanied his poetry and the nobility would increase their enjoyment by dancing. In this poem the singing of the nightingale increases the pain of the poet by reminding him how Marie is still out of reach (Ronsard “XLIII”).

When nightingales mate and the nestlings hatch, the male’s song becomes more of a croak (Young 184). Ronsard does not have the opportunity to stop his song as he must continue to write elegantly and persistently in order to gain the object of his love.

Addressing a nightingale is fairly absurd since irrespective their, the bird will not understand what Ronsard says. The nightingale is still given an identity, growing into a character who displays a number of human characteristics. The nightingale’s songs are not aimless chatter but acts motivated by love. It is not flying randomly through the forest but persistently seeking a soul mate. Other animals have been portrayed similarly by the poet, such as the jay who is accused of hurting a linnet’s courtship with loud chirping (Ronsard La Nouvelle continuation des amours “XLIII”).

Speaking an animal is a method for the author to debate with himself. Suffering is not articulate in a letter to a lover but a philosophical deliberation later published (Gendre 535). The technique is later repeated by Ronsard with a skylark, a jay, and other birds in his third volume; the common thread among all of the fowls is that they are known for their beauty and song (Gendre 551). The interaction with the metaphor, real or imagined, humanizes the poem.

The poem also contrasts the contribution of previous generations with the originality possessed by Ronsard and his peers. First seeded by Clément Marot, the patronage of François I, and Jean de Tournes translation of Petrarch’s Canzioniere in the first half of the sixteenth century French Renaissance poetry bloomed with the Pléiade’s poems at the dawn of the 1550s (Glidden 5-13).

When first formed at the Collège Coqueret, the Pléiade group believed that “personal creation must come from an erudite mind” and heavily used classical and Italian influences. As Renaissance trends permeated France, classical or Italian influences became very fashionable. But by the middle of the century, that trend had run its course, replaced by a desire for increased individual innovation (Gendre 14).

Le Continuation des amours was published in 1556, followed the year after by Joachim Du Bellay’s Divers jeux rustiques. Both collections show the beginning of a unique French style (Glidden 19). In the four years since Les Amours, Ronsard made significant advances in his technique. He wrote about himself and his surroundings. The influence of Petrach’s symbolism remains, but Ronsard began making more complete comparisons by adding details.

Along with his work, Ronsard’s philosophy evolved. He largely abandoned composing heavenly topics about subjects like the Gods and creation and chose more earthbound subjects, such as Nature (Silver 225). Classical metaphors are discarded in favour of simpler symbolism from the countryside.

Earlier metaphors were abstract, invoking mythology or nature to depict the passion of love. Inspired by her beauty, Ronsard addressed Cassandra Salviati as a goddess, peerless on Heaven and Earth. To him, she was the only woman worthy of his love and he was devasted when she married Jean Peigné (Ronsard Les Amours “LXI”).

In one poem in Les Amours, Ronsard used four classical metaphors in fourteen lines to portray his feelings. He wanted to disguise himself as a golden shower, like Jupiter did to rape Danae, or transform himself into a white bull and carry her off, imitating the legend of Europa. The banker’s daughter was so attractive that he wrote:

I’d like then, the better to ease my pain,
To be Narcissus, and she a fountain,
Where I’d swim all night, at my pleasure:

And I’d like it, too, if Aurora would never
Light day again, or wake me ever,
So that this night could last forever
(Ronsard “XX”).

Ronsard hoped to share his love with Cassandra, ideally during a night of passion that would never end. Later, he used a list to express how Nature had created Cassandra, likening her to a fleur de lys, precious gems, and other beautiful objects (Ronsard “LXI”).

The evolution between Ronsard’s first and second anthologies is evident. Love for Cassandra has been replaced by love for Marie, who becomes the target of more worldly metaphors (Michelucci). Initially, he likened Cassandra’s stunning eyes to “two torches that light up [his] life” (Ronsard “XXV”) to and his desire to “a conquering lion” (Ronsard “XXXV”). Writing for Marie, Ronsard introduces more familiar imagery, such as asking his lady to get up early for a walk in the garden (Ronsard La Continuation “XXV”) or amusing her with an anagram of her name and aimer (Ronsard “VII”).

Instead of the mythical Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, Ronsard selects a nightingale, a species common throughout France, to hear his tale. Other poets at the time did likewise to reach more readers, like du Bellay who wrote an elegant eulogy for his dog as a metaphor for diligence and loyalty (du Bellay “Epitaphe d’un chien”).

The poet had always spoken about love’s passion but it was only as he developed that he began to write about how the emotions affected him (Cave 80-81). Instead of packing the verses with as many symbols as possible, as was common in Italian poems and earlier works, he includes only one main metaphor. This provides Ronsard an opportunity to explain his feelings further. He alternates between the metaphor and his emotions, comparing the nightingale’s “warbling” with “[his] lady’s scorn.” As the bird is “[cooing its] lady’s love to life,” Ronsard is falling ill (Ronsard “XLIII”).

In the original French version, Ronsard tells the nightingale that “[tu] chantes à l’envy de moi qui vais chantant” (Ronsard “XLIII”). Nature has evolved from basic imagery used to compliment the ode’s recipient to a character who rivals the poet. Confronted with hardships, such as Cassandra’s rejection between the publication of his first two compilations of Amours, Ronsard began to realize the imperfections in the world (Campbell “Ronsard”).

According to Ovid’s work, Philomena must continue to mourn her personal tragedy (Shippey 49). Ronsard bemoans how he has been rebuffed, reminded of his loneliness by the nightingale’s mating calls. He often mentions how life is a necessity for all life in the world. Yearning for Marie’s hand, he writes of the pain he experiences:

Sadly I sing the beauty that must be
Lost to my wounded heart, sick unto dying
(Ronsard “XLIII”).

Conceit, especially the idea of martyrdom, appears in both Ronsard and Petrarch’s “Nightingale” poems. The Italian writes that:

Now I know that my fierce fate
Wishes me to learn, as I live and weep:
Nothing that delights us here is lasting.
(Petrarch “CCCXI”)

He must cope with Laura’s passing, which has triggered a personal depression. As a result of having fallen in love, Petrarch is suffering due to the loss he feels.

Petrarch lost his love, Laura, to death in 1348 (Campbell “Franscesco Petrarca”) and writes of a nightingale who shares a similar fate. The bird sings “weeps so sweetly” and “fills the sky and country round with sweetness,” reminding the poet of his “harsh fate” throughout the night. This nightingale also receives a personality, experiencing human emotions of love and loss, using song to grieve aloud (Petrach “CCCXI”).

One of the basic metaphors shared by Ronsard and Petrarch is to describe love as a two-sided coin, capable of tumultuous highs and lows. Ronsard made use of the nightingale to juxtapose contrasting imagery, like weeping and sweetness or singing with joy and sighing in exasperation (Ronsard La Continuation des amours “XLIII”).

Plato defined the first step of love as a “desire for the perpetual possession of the good” (Plato The Symposium). Formerly, Ronsard was enthralled by Cassandra’s beauty. Although he has been rejected by Marie at the moment, Ronsard’s place on the philosopher’s gradus amoris is higher than during his obsession with Cassandra. He is no longer fixated upon one woman since he is more aware of his surroundings (Cave 85). Both the nightingale and Ronsard desire immortality; the bird by mating and having offspring, the poet through his work and desire to share himself with Marie. Ironically, the animal is ahead of man on the ladder of love, having completed its goal.

Symbolism in “The Nightingale” has centuries of history to serve as a canvas and charcoal but Ronsard uses the actions of the bird as colourful brush strokes to complete the painting. Superficially, the metaphor is not original as any scholar would be able to identify its roots. However, Ronsard surpasses a partial comparison between a tenor and the vehicle and develops the ground in detail. The fine details enrich the poem and add the irony which increases its meaning. Consequently, the poem has become a significant work and achieved literary immortality.


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