Pontus de Tyard, the French Renaissance poet and catholic priest, was heavily involved with a group known as La Pléiade. These were writers of the 16th century who favoured Greek and Roman poetic forms. It is believed that Tyard was one of the earliest writers of French language sonnets, and also that he was responsible for the introduction of the Provençal form of fixed verse poetry known as sestina into French poetry. He was a theorist and made Renaissance learning popular amongst the French elite.
He was born around the years 1521 or 1522 in Burgundy. Nothing is recorded of his early life but he was probably the seigneur of his home town, in other words the ruling Lord. Contemporaries within his literary circle were Lyonnese poets such as Maurice Scève and Antoine Héroet.
De Tyard specialised in romantic poetry and he translated an Italian piece called Dialoghi di amore (Dialogues of Love) in 1551. This was known as the “breviary of 16th-century philosophic lovers”. Two years before this he had published a collection of poems called Erreurs amoureuses (Mistakes in Love).
Fellow members of La Pléiade often followed a metaphysical program of expression and literature scholars have suggested that Tyard was able to sub-divide divine inspiration into four separate kinds while, at the same time, distinguishing it from madness or “alienation”.
He was certainly an elitist poet who shared a contempt for the masses with fellow members of La Pléiade. He and his contemporaries had a passion for making sure that the French language was enriched with ornamental and antique vocabulary and the use of, more often than not, incomprehensible dialogue. Tyard and the like felt that if they used classical imagery and rich expression the uneducated classes would never be able to understand their work.
This might seem a curious ambition to most literary scholars but Tyard truly believed that it was not the job of a poet to be understood! The “popular” audiences would probably be looking for old fashioned, medieval themes in their poems and stories and poets like Tyard would never lower themselves to satisfy that desire. The members of La Pléiade demonstrated such an overpowering attitude of hauteur, following an elite course of “mission without contact” with an inevitable result. Within a single generation the movement was as dead as the ancient writers of Greece who had inspired their name.
Tyard wrote many sonnets and here are a couple of verses from one of them:
All the time that he was writing poetry Tyard was also a practising priest and became Bishop of Chalon-sur-Saône in 1578. He remained in this post until 1594 which was the year that he retired from church life. He had suffered severe persecution for a number of years, mainly because of his support for King Henry III who was fighting for his crown against the challenges of the House of Guise. He also studied philosophy and mathematics in his later years, publishing Discours philosophiques in 1587.
Despite the difficulties and dangers of living in medieval Europe, Pontus de Tyard survived into his 84th year. It is believed that he died on the 23rd September 1605.