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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE NAME of Louis XIV. suggests ultra-lavishness in life and taste; a time when French society, surfeited with pleasure, demanded a stimulus of continual novelty in current literature. The natural result was preciosité, hyperbole, falsetto sentiment, which ranked the unusual above the natural, clever conceit above careful workmanship. It was tainted with artificiality, and now seems mawkish and superficial.  1
  But Boileau changed all that. Perhaps no author unendowed with genius has ever so influenced literature.  2
  Aside from his work, the man and his life seem essentially commonplace. Nicholas Boileau, who, adding another name to his own,—quite a fashion then,—was usually called Despréaux by his contemporaries, was born in Paris, in the palace court, nearly opposite the royal Sainte Chapelle. He rarely went farther from the city than to the little house at Auteuil, where he spent twenty summers. So he knew his Paris very intimately, and was limited too by knowing only her life and thought. To his repressed youth, guarded by a strict father and a cross servant,—for his mother died in his babyhood,—is sometimes attributed his lack of emotional quality. But his was not an intense nature, and probably no training could have made the didactic poet lyric or passionate. Sincerity and common-sense were his predominating qualities, and he had the rare faculty of obedience to his own instincts. He first studied for the priesthood, but anything like mysticism was too repellent to his matter-of-fact mind. Then, as many of his family had been lawyers, he naturally turned toward that career. But the practice as taught him seemed senseless and arbitrary. Its rational basis upon a logical theory only dawned upon him later. In spite of his literary tastes, there was something extremely mundane about the pleasure-loving bachelor, so fond of good eating and of jovial café revels with Racine, Furetière, Ninon de L’Enclos, and other witty Bohemians. With them he was much happier than in the more fastidious society of the Hôtel Rambouillet, from which he retired after reading aloud a satiric poem not favorably received. Neither was he happy at court, in spite of the favor of Louis XIV., who, entertained by his rough honesty, gave him a pension of two thousand francs. Later, when appointed with Racine to write a history of the reign,—that unfortunate history which was accidentally burned,—we find him an unwilling follower on royal expeditions, his ungainly horsemanship the mock of high-bred courtiers. In fact, he was bourgeois through and through, and not at ease with the aristocrats. He was thrifty bourgeois too; so often called miserly as well as malicious that it is pleasant to remember certain illustrations of his nobler side. The man who offered to resign his own pension if that of old disfavored Corneille might be continued, and when the latter was forced to sell his library, paid him its full value and then left him in lifelong possession,—was generous if he did love to save sous. His was a fine independence, which felt his art too lofty for purchase, and would accept nothing from the booksellers.  3
  He had always wished to be a poet. Feeble of body, asthmatic, and in later life deaf and almost deprived of voice, he found in writing all the charm of a brilliant and ingenious game. Then too he had something definite to say, as all his work consistently testifies. Neither rich nor poor, without family cares, he could give himself unreservedly to authorship. In 1660 he published a satire upon the vices of Paris, which inaugurated his great success. Seven satires appeared in 1666, and he afterward added five others. Their malicious wit, their novel form, the harmonious swing of the couplet rhyme, forced immediate attention. They held up contemporary literary weaknesses to scorn, and indulged in the most merciless personalities, sparing not even his own brother, the poet Gilles Boileau. All retorts upon himself the author bore with complacent superiority which forced his adversaries to feel worsted.  4
  From 1666 to 1774 most of the ‘Epistles’ were written; and also his best-known work, ‘L’Art poétique’ (The Art of Poetry). In the satires he had been destructive, but he was too practical to be negative. The ‘Art of Poetry,’ modeled after Horace’s work of that name, offers the theory of poetic composition. It is a work in four cantos of couplets: the first setting forth general rules of metrical composition; the second a dissertation upon different forms—ode, sonnet, pastoral, and others; the third treating tragedy, comedy, and epic poetry; and the last consisting of general reflections and advice to authors. Briefly stated, Boileau’s desire was to establish literature upon a foundation of unchanging laws. Why did some works speedily die while others endure through the centuries? Because works akin to the eternal classics did not, like much contemporary writing, reflect the trivial and evanescent. They contained what is perennially true of humanity; and stated this in a simple, interesting, and reasonable way. Above all, Boileau demands truth in subject, and the conscientious workmanship which finds the most suitable form of expression. To see a word at the end of a couplet only because it rhymes with the word above it, he finds inexcusable. Without a method resulting in unity, clearness, and proportion, writing is not literature. Later, in his ‘Reflections upon Longinus,’ Boileau repeated and emphasized these views.  5
  His mock-heroic poem ‘Le Lutrin’ (The Reading-Desk), ridiculing clerical pettinesses, was strong in realistic descriptions, and was perhaps his most popular work.  6
  A modern poet’s definition of poetry as “the heat and height of sane emotion” would have been unintelligible to Boileau. Deficient in imagination, he always saw life on its material side, and was irritated by any display of emotion not reducible to logic. So his poetry is sensible, clear argument in exquisitely careful metre. His great strength lay in a taste which recognized harmony and fitness instinctively. To us his quality is best translated by the dainty, perfect couplets of his imitator Pope. His talent, essentially French in its love of effect and classification, has strewn the language with clever saws, and his works have been studied as authoritative models by generation after generation of students.  7
  But after all, it is less as a poet than as a critic, “the lawgiver of the French Parnassus,” that the world has always known Boileau, Before him the art of criticism had hardly existed. Authors had received indiscriminate praise or blame, usually founded upon interested motives or personal bias; but there had been little comparison with an acknowledged standard. This “slashing reviewer in verse,” as Saintsbury calls him, was a severe pedagogue, but his public did learn their lesson. He made mistakes, was neither broad-minded nor profound in attainments, was occasionally unjust; but he showed readers why they should praise or blame; taught them appreciation of his greater friends Molière and Racine; and pointed out to authors what their purpose should be. With a greater creative power seeking self-expression, he might have accomplished less in literary reform.  8
 
 
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