Authors: Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French critic and poet

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Discours sur la satire, 1668

Dissertation sur Jaconde, 1669

L’Art poétique, 1674 (The Art of Poetry, 1683)

Épître IX, wr. c. 1675, pb. 1683

Dialogue des héros de roman, 1688 (The Heroes of Romances, 1713)

Réflexions sur Longin, 1694; preface to Œuvres diverses, 1701

Selected Criticism, 1965

Translation:

Traité du sublime, 1674 (of Longinus’s On the Sublime)

Poetry:

Les Satires, 1666-1711 (12 volumes; Satires, 1711-1713)

Les Épîtres, 1669-1698 (12 volumes; English translation, 1711-1713)

Le Lutrin, 1674, 1683 (partial English translation, 1682)

Ode du sieur D*** sur la prise de Namur, 1693

Miscellaneous:

The Works of Monsieur Boileau, Made English by Several Hands, 1711-1713 (3 volumes)

Biography

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.{$I[geo]FRANCE;Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas[Boileau Despréaux, Nicolas]}

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 absolute and universal laws for literature. Actually, it is advice for young poets based on a prejudiced survey of French literature, an imitation of classical writers, and the sifting out of the best characteristics of each genre: “zealous for the right, a strict observer of each noble flight, from the fine gold I separate the alloy.” This work was quickly followed by Le Lutrin, a mock epic later imitated by Alexander Pope, and a translation of Longinus’s On the Sublime. Boileau was appointed historiographer by Louis XIV and given membership in the French Academy in 1684.

Boileau’s satires involved him in bitter controversies during his lifetime. They contained fairly harsh criticism of contemporary authors and customs, and this made their author many enemies. The Jesuits, particularly, found satire to be immoral and un-Christian, and they prevented publication of the definitive edition of the collected works which Boileau prepared just before his death in Paris on March 13, 1711. Nicolas Boileau was the most influential French literary critic of his era. The Art of Poetry contributed to the creation of an established canon of French literary works written in the second half of the seventeenth century.

BibliographyColton, Robert E. Studies of Classical Influence on Boileau and La Fontaine. New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1996. Analyzes the works of Boileau and Jean de La Fontaine.Corum, Robert T., Jr. Reading Boileau: An Integrative Study of the Early Satires. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1998. A volume in the series Purdue Studies in Romance Literatures.Davidson, Hugh M. “French Literary Criticism in the Seventeenth Century: Its Nature and Status.” In Twenty Years of French Literary Criticism, edited by Freeman C. Henry. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa, 1994. An objective evaluation of Boileau’s critical theory.Moriarty, Michael. “Boileau: Taste and the Institution of Literature.” In Taste and Ideology in Seventeenth-Century France. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. The ideological basis for Boileau’s literary views is examined.Tiefenbrun, Susan W. “Boileau and His Friendly Enemy: A Poetics of Satiric Criticism.” In Signs of the Hidden: Semiotic Studies. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1980. Examines Boileau’s skill as a satirist.White, Julian, Jr. Nicolas Boileau. New York: Twayne, 1969. The best general introduction in English. Also contains an annotated bibliography of important critical studies.
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