Born in Paris in 1636, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (bwah-loh day-pray-oh), the fifteenth child of a Parliament clerk, was left motherless at two years of age. He was educated at the Collège de Beauvais and at the Sorbonne, where he studied the classics and prepared for a career in law. He decided, however, to abandon law in favor of literature. Thus he followed his brother Gilles, translator of Epictetus, rather than his brother Jacques, canon of Ste. Chapelle.
At twenty-four, Boileau published his first satire in imitation of Juvenal; there were eleven others, all more or less didactic verses on the sad state of French letters, together with precepts for their improvement. He strongly preferred the formal five-act verse comedies of Molière, with whom he, Jean Racine, and others joined in an informal literary society. In 1664, he wrote The Heroes of Romances, first published in 1688, a scathing attack on the heroic romances of La Calprenède, Mlle de Scudéry, and others. These early polemical works were followed by his more serious and carefully polished epistles; these brought him to the attention of Louis XIV, who summoned him to court and pensioned him.
These experiences emboldened Boileau to become the leading neoclassicist of his day, the “legislateur du Parnasse,” with his verse masterpiece, The Art of Poetry. This work, in the tradition of Aristotle, Horace, and Vida, has often been misunderstood as establishing...
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