Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(European Poets and Poetry)

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux was born and raised in Paris and was intended for the church, but by the age of twenty, he had instead pursued the study of law. By 1666, with the publication of part of his Satires, he had established himself as a bright young star in the French literary firmament. The year 1674 was something of an annus mirabilis for Boileau, as he not only produced Le Lutrin and The Art of Poetry, his two major works of poetry, but also published his translation of the ancient critic Longinus’s Peri hypsous (first century c.e.; On the Sublime, 1652), which, in the long term, became his greatest legacy to European literature. In 1677, he was named historiographer to the king, and he increasingly put his life at court and his responsibilities to that social milieu ahead of his writing. Increasing deafness and the lingering effects of a botched surgery performed on his back in his youth hindered him in his later years, although he remained revered by younger writers.

If Boileau at times seems like the mouthpiece of an authoritarian ruler, it can also be said that he possessed the verve and sense of individual assurance to keep up with the demands of an often petulant monarch and an often capricious and intrigue-ridden court.