The Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns

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Clayton D. Lein (essay date 1974)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Boileau, the Moderns, and the Topinamboux,” in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter 1974, pp. 21-34.

[In essay that follows, Lein examines two epigrams Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, an Ancient, directed against the Moderns, noting the “potency of the invective” Boileau employed.]

One of the most distinctive cleavages distinguishing contemporary poetic taste from that of earlier periods lies in our modern lack of appreciation for epigrams, and this dislocation in taste unfortunately conditions the direction of criticism and scholarship. The epigrams of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux supply a good case in point. They have stirred little critical interest and seem to be condemned universally as possessing little poetic or intellectual significance. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as a close examination of two epigrams related to the controversy of Ancients and Moderns can demonstrate.

Although the intellectual and literary roots of the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns clearly lie more than a century earlier, formal hostilities opened in the Académie française on 27 January 1687, a day set apart by the Academy “pour marquer publiquement sa joie de la parfaite guérison du roi.”1 As part of the celebration, Charles Perrault read his latest panegyric, Le Siècle de Louis le Grand. Boileau's immediate reaction was vitriolic:

Despréaux, dit le Furetiriana, ne put entendre cette lecture sans éclater et faire des protestations publique de leur fausseté. Il promit hautement d'écrire contre, sitôt que son emploi lui en laisseroit le temps.2

Boileau's fury at Perrault's seemingly scandalous assessments of the ancients and at his blind, ebullient praise of such poetasters as Sarasin, Rotrou, Gombauld, Mainard, and Godeau could barely be controlled by the tactful admonitions of Abbé Huet. At the conclusion of the reading, Boileau stalked off, his mind teeming with designs for poetical revenge.

At this point the quarrel actively progressed to the stage of literary ambush and assassination, with murderous epigrams as the principal weapons.3 Boileau's behavior at the meeting made him especially vulnerable; one epigram survives in manuscript which indeed attacks him on that ground:

          Dans le corps de l'Academie
          Où l'on ne dit point d'infamie,
          Chacun pense comme il lui plaît;
Elle est sans passion, et sans prendre interet
          Dans les ouvrages qu'on lui montre,
Ecoute avec plaisir et le pour et le contre;
Elle laisse un auteur travailler tout son saoûl
          Et le sujet qu'il a pris pour sa tâche
Et sans s'inquiéter regarde comme un fou
          Tout homme qui s'en fâche.(4)

Boileau also turned instinctively to epigrams, quite a few of them, which clearly record his disgust over the abhorrent incident. Two of them, however, “Sur ce qu'on avoit leu a l'Academie des vers contre Homere et contre Virgile” and the later “Sur l'Academie,” have lost much of their meaning primarily because of our ignorance of the geographical literature of the time. When we supply the correct context for them, they pulse with a new intensity and illuminate quite accurately Boileau's blazing passion over the incident and his mischievous (not to say malign) response to Perrault's newly publicized position.

Before one can appreciate the potency and savagery of Boileau's invective, however, he must know the precise character of several doctrines of Perrault and the Moderns. The foundation for their perceptions was a mentality of progress; the rehearsal or exposition of scientific advancement since antiquity became the first maneuver of every Modern treatise. But more important for the context of the epigrams is their curious insistence upon progress in rationality, in the assimilation of such human experience as sentiment, religion, and moral awareness—since men, they argued, benefited from and applied the knowledge of thousands of years of accumulated human thought and action.5 Each Modern...

(The entire section is 24,344 words.)