Literary Criticism of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

The French poet, satirist, and critic Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711) had a pervasive influence not only on French letters (of the old-fashioned kind) but also on English and German poets and critics. His L’Art Poétique (The Art of Poetry), first published in 1674, was translated into English by John Dryden. Boileau’s text represents a formal statement of the principles of French classicism, and perhaps the most direct expression of neoclassical ideals anywhere. It drew heavily on Aristotle and Horace, and in its turn was a powerful influence on English neoclassical writers such as Pope; in fact, some of it is echoed very directly in Pope’s Essay on Criticism. Boileau’s text and authority enjoyed such prestige that he was known as the législateur du Parnasse, credited with the formation of French literary taste, fixing this taste through consistent criteria and extricating it from “unclassical” Spanish and Italian influences. Boileau helped the French public to appreciate the works of his friends Racine and Molière. Above all, Boileau became the embodiment of classical rationality, “good sense,” and proportion.

Like Pope’s Essay on Criticism, Boileau’s Art of Poetry embodies some of the vast intellectual and political changes that were already beginning to sweep over Europe. In some ways, it embodies a rejection of the entire feudal system; characteristically of neoclassical thinking, it virtually ignores the Middle Ages and seeks to restore the classical principles of reason and nature, together with the classical view of the human being as essentially social. Just as Molière’s plays effect a balance between religious belief and rationalism, arguing for an enlightened rather than authoritarian religion, so Boileau’s text is marked by a central affirmation of the importance of reason, as well as observation. To this extent, Boileau’s neoclassicism, like Molière’s and Pope’s, exhibits surface similarities with emerging bourgeois philosophy and relatively modern ways of thinking. It reacts against Christian puritanism, submitting the claims of the latter to the judgment of reason. But, as in the case of these other authors, the “reason” espoused by Boileau is a classical view of reason as a common human faculty which perceives what is universally true. It is not the individualistic reason of bourgeois philosophy that rejects all authority and relies ultimately on the findings of individual sense-perception. Moreover, Boileau appeals directly in his text, as does Molière in Tartuffe, to the authority of the king (Louis XIV) as an enlightened and near-omniscient monarch who has extinguished “rebellion” and has brought order to all of Europe.

Like Pope’s Essay, Boileau’s text is written as a poem, in the tradition of Horace’s Ars poetica, and offers advice to the poet in various genres such as tragedy, comedy, epic, and ode, as well as summaries of various aspects of literary history. The parallels with Horace’s text are clearly discernible in canto I, which offers general prescriptions to the poet. Boileau asks the poet to consider the extent of his own ability, his “own force and weight” (I, l. 12).1 He insists, perhaps even more than Horace, on the craft, the labor, involved in writing poetry: “A hundred times consider what you’ve said; / Polish, repolish, every color lay,” (I, ll. 172–173). Like Horace, he admonishes the poet to avoid showing his work to flatterers: “Embrace true counsel, but suspect false praise” (I, l. 192). He cautions the poet to avoid excessive detail, “barren superfluity,” and to vary his discourse in the interests of “pleasing” the reader (I, ll. 60, 70–72, 105). The most significant parallel is perhaps afforded by Boileau’s reiteration of the Horatian formula:

In prudent lessons everywhere abound,
With pleasant join the useful and the sound;
A sober reader a vain tale will slight,
He seeks as well instruction as delight.
(IV, ll. 86–89)

That Boileau almost repeats Horace’s most general statement of the function of poetry, with the added requirement that the content be “sound” (Partout joigne au plaisant le solide et l’utile), indicates that his text is not original in its fundamental claims. However, where it moves beyond Horace, where it embodies the long historical development of rhetoric and thought between its own time and Horace’s era, is in its insistence on the centrality of reason to the poetic enterprise.

The principle of reason is at the heart of Boileau’s text, receiving an emphasis well beyond that in Horace’s text and greater even than that in Pope’s text. Boileau’s most general imperative that the poet employ reason is contained in the lines: “Love reason then; and let whate’er you write / Borrow from her its beauty, force, and light” (I, ll. 37–38). Boileau is skillful in drawing out the widely varied ramifications of the reliance on reason. To begin with, it underlies a poem’s unity of form and content. Boileau says: “Whate’er you write of pleasant or sublime, / Always let sense accompany your rime” (I, ll. 27–28). Indeed, rhyming in poetry should not be allowed to dictate the poem’s course; it must be subjected to the power of “master reason” (I, l. 36). It is reason which protects against the “excess” of “false glittering poetry,” and the use of “Extravagant and senseless objects” (I, ll. 40–45). The sounds in a poem should be informed by the light of reason; perfection of style will follow perfection of content:

Learn then to think ere you pretend to write.
As your idea’s clear, or else obscure,
The expression follows, perfect or impure;
(I, ll. 150–152)

This view of thought as somehow preceding language and expression runs counter to our modern ideas of language itself as not only a vehicle but also a shaper of thought. Nonetheless, like Pope, Boileau demands a unity between the various parts of a poem, “One perfect whole of all the pieces joined” (I, l. 180). Later in his text, Boileau reiterates this counsel of classical moderation: “above all avoid the fond [foolish] excess” (II, l. 132). To steer a path between extremes, Boileau advises the writer to emulate the revered poets of antiquity such as Vergil and Theocritus: of Homer he says: “Let his example your endeavors raise; / To love his writings is a kind of praise” (III, ll. 306–307). Boileau even associates the classical dramatic unities with reason (III, ll. 43–46). In his second and third book, Boileau describes the characteristic of various poetic forms and genres such as the eclogue, elegy, ode, tragedy, comedy, and epic. On the issue of the relative merits of tragedy and epic, he appears to side with Tasso as against Aristotle’s view of the superiority of tragedy. The heroic poem, says Boileau, “claims a loftier strain” (III. ll. 159–161).

Hence, poetic control, moderation, the unities of time and place, and the imitation of classical examples are all associated by Boileau with the exercise of reason; later, in Pope’s Essay, all of these virtues will be associated with following nature. For Boileau, reason also urges against the subjection of poetry to religious puritanism. He states: “Our pious fathers, in their priest-rid age, / As impious and profane abhorred the stage.” But “At last right reason did his laws reveal, / And showed the folly of their ill-placed zeal” (III, ll. 79–80, 85–86). Boileau’s point is that religious zeal is misplaced in substituting angels, virgins, and saints for classical heroes. He also sees as misplaced the puritanical aversion to the use of poetic ornament. Ornament, he says, is indispensable to the poet’s art: “Without these ornaments before our eyes / The unsinewed poem languishes and dies” (III, ll. 173–174, 188–191). Boileau denies that he is asking for Christian poems to be filled with “the fictions of idolatry,” but that rejecting the heathen deities and poetic ornaments outright is to trouble oneself with “vain scruples” and to seek an impossible perfection (III, ll. 216–225). Boileau’s point here is complex and perhaps incompletely coherent: in his desire to return to classical models, he countenances even those aspects of classical paganism that directly contradict Christian teaching, on the grounds that the gospels are not a fitting subject for verse and that removal of classical ornament will impoverish a poem. As many critics have pointed out, Boileau betrays here some of his own limitations: he entirely bypasses the contributions of medieval aesthetic theory and Christian notions of beauty. He is unable to envision a Christian mythology at all replacing classical mythology or even complementing it, as it does in Dante and Milton, whose work he does not seem to appreciate. He accords grudging praise to Tasso (III, ll. 208–215). His argument that the God of the gospels should not be mixed with accounts of the pagan gods effectively forestalls the very idea of a poem with Christian content. Against such religious and puritanical poets he invokes reason, which for him is not only classical but also pagan: “Leave them their pious follies to pursue, / But let our reason such vain fears subdue, / And let us not, amongst our vanities, / Of the true God create a god of lies” (III, ll. 232–235). Hence, for the Christian God to remain pure and true, his domain of portrayal must be restricted to the gospels and theology; he must not be allowed access to the province of poetry.

Like Pope after him, Boileau appeals to nature: “To study nature be your only care.” The poet, he says, must know human nature and the “secrets of the heart.” He must observe and be able to paint all kinds of people, at all stages in life. But even here, the following of nature is seen as obeying the rules of reason: “Your actors must by reason be controlled; / Let young men speak like young, old men like old” (III, ll. 390–391). Indeed, the poet must observe “exact decorum,” which itself rests on a knowledge of human nature and on the exercise of reason: each person must be portrayed in his “proper character,” which must be both self-consistent and consistent with the character’s country, rank, and native customs (III, ll. 110–112, 121). Hence the poet must not only know human nature; he must also be an observer of various customs and ages; he must “Observe the town and study well the court” (III, l. 392). All of this emphasis on decorum is seen by Boileau as resting on the use of reason: “I like an author that reforms the age, / And keeps the right decorum of the stage, / That always pleases by just reason’s rule” (III, ll. 422–424).

Reason has one final aspect in Boileau’s text: a relation of harmony with feeling and emotion. Notwithstanding his emphasis on reason, Boileau expresses despite for “lukewarm authors” who describe “hot desire” in a “cold style,” who “sigh by rule” (II, ll. 45–49), and in “all their raptures” keep “exactest time,” guided only “by strictest rules of art” (II, ll. 73–78). Boileau’s own advice is:

In all you write observe with care and art
To move the passions and incline the heart.
. . . The secret is, attention first to gain,
To move our minds and then to entertain . . .
(III, ll. 15–21, 25–26)

Boileau is here repeating an old formula, used earlier by many Renaissance writers such as Sidney: inasmuch as poetry instructs, it must first delight. In Boileau’s text, pervaded as this is by recourse to reason, the formula acquires a slightly new semantic texture: it effectively broadens the scope of reason. In other words, reason is equated by Boileau not with the observance of artistic rules but, rather, with a knowledge of when to observe rules. Reason itself prescribes that a poem should create an emotional impact.

While, like Horace, Boileau places a great deal of emphasis on pleasing the reader, he reminds the poet that he is not writing for present glory but for “immortal fame” (IV, ll. 124–125). In particular, he derides those who have reduced poetry to a “mercenary trade,” flawed by flattery of patrons (IV, ll. 168–171). In a highly dubious argument, Boileau claims that there is no need to be concerned about earning a living under the rule of a “sharp-sighted prince” who “Rewards your merits, and prevents your wants” (IV, ll. 188–192). Boileau sings the praises of the monarch in question, Louis XIV, who has “Europe’s balance in his steady hand,” and who has driven out “rebellion, discord, vice, and rage, / That have in patriots’ forms debauched our age” (IV, ll. 207, 214–215). Louis XIV (1643–1715) was the first of the Bourbon kings in France who exercised absolute monarchy; he believed that he was appointed by God to reign, and it is to him that the words l’état, c’est moi (I am the state) are attributed. His policy in religion was reactionary; in 1685, for example, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted freedom of belief to the Huguenots. His successors Louis XV and Louis XVI were also authoritarian in their rule, a disposition that contributed to the onset of the French Revolution of 1789. Under the reign of Louis XIV, France underwent a sustained policy of mercantilism aimed at enriching the business opportunities of the middle classes; people were discouraged from becoming monks or nuns.


1. The text used here is the translation by William Soame and John Dryden. It is reprinted in The Art of Poetry: The Poetical Treatises of Horace, Vida, and Boileau, trans. Francis Howes, Christopher Pitt, and Sir William Soames, ed. Albert S. Cook (Boston: Ginn, 1892).

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