Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux Critical Essays


(European Poets and Poetry)

The satire at once seems an inevitable genre for someone of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux’s opinions and temperament, yet an interesting choice for a young poet starting off his literary career. Boileau was writing in an age when the development of a poet’s work was expected to conform to the rota vergilii, or wheel of Vergil: Vergil had started off writing pastoral poems, then wrote georgics (poems dealing with agriculture), and finally his great epic, the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). Satire was a somewhat wayward choice, but Boileau had a combination of the confidence of the young, the moxie of someone not born to power and wealth and thus lacking culturally sown social inhibitions, and the moral fervor of someone whose standard of taste would not permit him to sit silently while bad writing by others was overpraised. All these elements combined to render Boileau the epitome of the enfant terrible, the abrasive newcomer whose elders both are shocked by and swoon over him.

The Satires of Boileau are not just monologic screeds but also little playlets, involving personified allegorical figures such as Raison (reason) and Esprit (spirit), as well as beast-fable personas such as the donkey who narrates satire VII. Structurally, they are among his most complex works, with many small jokes and flourishes adding to their intricacy.

Le Lutrin

Le Lutrin (the lectern) was also an unusual choice for Boileau. This satire of two Catholic clerics quarreling over where to place a lectern in a church was not an attack on Catholicism as such, although liberal-leaning English commentators such as John Dennis mistakenly interpreted it as such. What Boileau intended was to make fun of two serious men of responsibility quibbling over such a trivial matter. Le Lutrin is a mock epic like Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), because it both satirizes people for quarreling over trifles and implies that the traditional contexts for epic antagonism are often little more than such trifles. However, Boileau is not out to burlesque the entire idea of epic. He merely wants to explore the poetic effect of taking the well-developed form of epic and training it on a trivial subject. Boileau imparts a wry lesson in incongruity that has a poetically self-conscious and experimental aspect.

The Art of Poetry

Boileau’s major poem, The Art of Poetry, was published in the same year as the bulk of Le Lutrin. It is a didactic poem in four books explicitly modeled on the work of the Latin poet Horace in the first century b.c.e. Boileau both provides general rules for the art of poetry and exemplifies them, using the characteristic meter and diction of the mode. When he is critiquing inept poetic procedures, or those he sees as such, he mimics them himself, demonstrating that he knows where of he speaks.

The mission of The Art of Poetry is twofold. One aim is to set abiding rules for the writing of literature, or to reiterate those the tradition had already espoused. In many ways, Boileau...

(The entire section is 1311 words.)