In tune with the spirit of the age

As a literary movement, the Pléiade was not out of tune with the spirit of the age. Its youthful leaders, out of a strong feeling of national pride, came forward to raise French poetry and, with it, the language to a level on which they hoped it would after some time be able to stand comparison with that of their Italian neighbours. A great deal of ambition and zeal went into it.

The DEFFENCE ET ILLUSTRATION DE LA LANGUE FRANCOYSE (1549), being itself a reply to Sebillet’s Art Poétique (1547), was their noisy manifesto. Whether Du Bellay and his notable friends: Ronsard, Baïf, Pontus de Tyard, Jodelle, Belleau plus Dorat and Peletier were faithful to their precepts is quite another matter. Literary historian Louis Cazamian tags them as ‘a group of brother poets, perhaps the most coherent in the history of French literature’. (1)Yet their recommendations were sound and healthy in the light of the state of French and its literary idiom by the middle of the sixteenth century. As its title implies, this collective enterprise, while aiming at defending the language against the learned that scorned its use and were vainly trying to outdo their classical models in their own languages, also suggested means of enriching it and giving it the dignity it lacked.
It was undeniable that the richness and vitality of the spoken language contrasted with the barrenness and poverty of the literary idiom. Besides, it remained with Frenchmen themselves to raise their language and literature to a dignified status. Had not the great writers of Greece and Rome set the example? Imitation, such is the method of working constantly recommended by Du Bellay. « La plus grande part de l’artifice est contenue en l’immitation. » This should however be neither superficial nor servile.

To make good for the poor vocabulary of written French, writers were exhorted to tap all sources: dialects, foreign languages, technical terms as used by the huntsman and the craftsman. There should not be any hesitation to reintroduce even archaic terms, if need be. If Malherbe in the 17th century was to ban Gascon words, the Pléiade welcomed those of Picard and Walloon origin.

Instinct for the dynamics of language

Also the members of the Pléiade showed their unmistakable instinct for the dynamics of language. To enhance the language, they held, it was essential that new words and expressions be coined. However, great caution should be exercised. There were actually four ways of going about it: by compounding two already extant words and achieving the following result: « doux-amer »; by the process of « provignement » which consisted of adding some characteristic termination to an existing adjective or noun with the following interesting results: « verve-verver », « lobbe-lobber » and « blond-blondoyer »; by the formation of diminutives: « doucelette », « âmelette », « faiblelette », « nouvelet »; and finally by introducing a great many words of Greek and Latin origin as « sympathie » and « blandice ».
With the benefit of hindsight we may find Boileau and the writers of the seventeenth century somewhat ungrateful towards the Pléiade. In more than one way the members of the group actually had a lot in common with them, though we have to make allowance for their exuberance at times. Incidentally, Ronsard showed a most commendable moderation in his use of new terms. His successors were more eccentric and loose in this respect.


(1) L. Cazamian, ‘A History of French Literature’ (OUP, 1960), p.79