The World of Books

Ronsard’s rose garden is a pure delight

Stratford-upon-Avon, especially in summer, is one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions:  the crowds come not to see the Royal Shakespeare Company at the theatre, but the birth place of Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.

The theatre with its celebrated productions is a truly vital place – the others are mere frauds.

There is no evidence that the poet was born in the house in Henley Street; there is no evidence that he was educated at the Grammar School; and there is doubt that the Anne Hathaway cottage has any connection with the woman who was licensed in November 1582 to marry a William Shagspere, the day before a Wm Shaxpere was licensed to marry an Anne Whateley.

It is all a pious deceit, according to John Michell, a  secular revival of the sort of pilgrimage common in the middle ages complete with bogus relics.

Here in Ireland, we experience the same thing with some of our literary and patriotic sites. But “they order these things differently in France”.  

A highlight of a recent excursion with a literary society to see the chateaux and vineyards of the Loire Valley was a visit to a little place whose peace and beauty contrasts with other celebrated sites of international culture.

We were based in Tours, associated, of course, with Balzac and Rabelais. But those vigorous talents are not the only literary associations of the district. Nearby is the priory of Saint-Cosme-lez-Tours, where the poet Pierre Ronsard (a cleric in minor orders) passed the last years of his life as prior, dying there in 1585.

The leader of the Pléiade school of French poets, Pierre Ronsard is undoubtedly one of the greatest poets of the European Renaissance, who managed to draw of the resources of classical Latin and Greek poetry to enrich his own language with new words, new metres and new passions.

During the enlightened 18th and 19th Centuries his reputation was under a cloud, but was revived in the last century to a true estimate of his worth. His Calvinist opponents saw him, in the words of a critic, as a frivolous dissipated Catholic cleric. But one of the best biographies of him in English is that D. B. Wyndham Lewis (London: Sheed & Ward, 1944) – dedicated to Hilaire Belloc – in which a co-religionist places all this in perspective.

Great celebration

There had been a great celebration in Paris of the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1924. Then in 1932, in the little cemetery at St Cosme, the bones of the poet were recovered and re-interred with due Catholic ceremony. But the priory was not then a scheduled historical monument; it was merely a place where ordinary people lived among the fragments of a faded past.

The little place was badly bombed during the Allied invasion in 1944; the village never recovered. In 1948 it passed to the Conseil Général of the departament of Indre-et-Loire.

Today the priory is a delightful scene. It is filled with the roses which the poet loved and cultivated one of the most beautiful of which has been given his name.

But unlike so many places of literary pilgrimage this is a peaceful and enchanting place. The grounds have been beautifully laid out – indeed, one of party insisted strongly that there was much that our own Office of Public Works could learn from what had been done there.

The refectory has been converted into a venue for music events and lectures. The residence itself has been restored, but it has not been filled with relics. Each room contains one poem to be read, but everything else has been left plain and unadorned by the tricksy efforts of modern museum culture. It was evocative and most moving. The atmosphere of the garden and the house evoked the style and substance of Ronsard’s own poetry in itself.

Among the beauties of his verse there are also messages for today, such as that couplet reacting against the infamous Calvinist against Catholic religious wars of his time:

Ne presche plus en France une Evangilé armée,

Un Christ empistollé, tout noircy de fumée.

(Preach no more in France an armed Gospel, / A Christ bristling with pistols, blackened by smoke.)