The name of Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, is often linked only to L’Art poétique (1674; The Art of Poetry, 1683), his critical treatise setting down the rules and unities of French classicism. He received the mantle of prophet and lawgiver for that movement, which is something of a false emphasis. The Art of Poetry was a summary and compendium of standard poetic practices, of the rules French literature had been operating under for the entire century.
The modern student of literature may not realize the importance of Boileau-Despréaux in the development of literary taste. The subjects of Boileau-Despréaux’s satires resemble those of his classical predecessors and of his contemporaries in seventeenth century France. Modeling his work on the giants of the past, most noticeably Juvenal, Boileau-Despréaux attacks contemporary fashion and its excesses with a vitriol exceeding that of many less perceptive and less daring satirists. While only a dozen of his writings are formally designated satires, the satiric point of view colors all his writings, including The Art of Poetry.
The influence of Boileau-Despréaux on the development of literature should not be underestimated. For more than a hundred years Boileau-Despréaux was upheld as something like a literary dictator of Europe. His influence extended over England during the late seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth centuries. His work established on the Continent and in England a feeling of reverence for the authors of Greece and Rome. His support of the ancients over the moderns in his discussion of literary merit may seem strange, since on numerous occasions he expressed great admiration for his contemporaries Jean Racine and Molière. He was nevertheless a vigorous defender of the classical methods of balance and restraint, contrasting their reserve with what he found to be the silly exuberances of most contemporary writing (especially the multivolume romances that were exceptionally popular in France). His pronouncements on the necessity to “follow nature”—which, in turn, meant to follow the practices of the great classical writers whose works mirrored nature—became dogma for authors both in France and abroad for the next century.
Despite his great influence on European ideas of what literature should be, Boileau-Despréaux may be best remembered as a practitioner, not a theoretician, of French verse. His Satires are a notable example of the skill with which he returned French poetry to a character of imitation of nature. Seventeenth century poetry had turned chiefly to the burlesque and the heroic styles, which were highly conceited and artificial. With Satires, written with common sense as a norm and the expression of truth as a goal, Boileau-Despréaux did much to purify his medium.
He had a genius for satire and ample opportunity to find subjects for his verse in the brilliant and sophisticated court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The monarchy had become absolute in France, and the ideal of the courtier—the aristocratic, gracious, elegant, witty, refined, accomplished man—afforded ideal occasion for a satirist to comment upon the vanity, ambition, intrigue, and posturings that invariably accompany competition for royal favor.
Boileau-Despréaux was presented to the king in 1669. Despite his trenchant criticisms of the vices and foibles of society, he remained in favor at the court for thirty years. His frank and courageous outspokenness was notable as well as his benevolence, generosity, and kindliness. Accordingly, his satirical writings are not stinging lashes of vice, as with Juvenal, but a gentler ridiculing of humanity’s failings. His twelve satires touch on many facets of the fashionable life of his times and give a lively indication of what it was like to live in seventeenth century Parisian society.
The second, seventh and ninth satires are concerned with the art and craft of the satirist and with Boileau-Despréaux’s own fortunes in that calling. Boileau-Despréaux liberally criticizes his fellow poets and makes no pretense of acceding to public opinion about the merit of any writer. However high a poet’s fashionable reputation may be, if he cannot rhyme Boileau-Despréaux says so. He attacks many of his contemporaries, but seldom drops into ad hominem criticism. Moreover, time has proven his opinions to be remarkably just: The names that receive most of Boileau-Despréaux’s scorn have become as obscure to the present day as their poetry is mediocre. Likewise, those whom he praised remain as the outstanding seventeenth century French authors.
Satire 2, addressed to Molière, laments the difficulties of finding rhymes without having them tyrannize...
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