In the meetings of the Four Friends in the Rue du Vieux Colombier the conversation was usually dominated by Nicolas Boileau, who laid down the rules of literature and morals with all the authority and confidence of Dr. Johnson at the Turk’s Head Tavern in Soho. Like Johnson, Boileau was more important as a voice than as an author; his best works are middling poetry, but his edicts were of more lasting effect in literature than those of Louis XIV in politics. His friendship and critical acclaim helped Molière and Racine to survive the antics of hostile cabals.
He was the fourteenth child of a clerk in the Paris Parlement. Destined for the priesthood, he studied theology at the Sorbonne. He rebelled, took up law, and was entering practice when his father died (1657), leaving him a patrimony sufficient to support him in verse. He spent ten years sharpening his pen; then, in twelve Satires (1666f.), he pronounced judgment upon his fellow men. He was alarmed by “this frightful crowd of famished rhymesters”; 43 he attacked it as a horde of locusts; he named names, making enemies by the rhyme; and, to bring the women too down upon his head, he ridiculed the romances with which Mmes. de Scudéry and de La Fayette were using the paper and hours of France. He praised the ancients, and, among the moderns, Malherbe and Racan, Molière and Racine. “I think,” he said, “that without wounding conscience or the state, we may call bad poetry bad, and have full right to be bored by a foolish book.” 44 These Satires bore us in their turn because their aim was achieved: the poets condemned were destroyed beyond our memory or interest; moreover, the tender-minded amongst us, especially if we are authors, prefer critics who direct us to the good rather than those who belabor the bad.
Having adopted the severity of Juvenal in the Satires, Boileau in a series of Epistles (1669–95) restrained his hatchet to Horace’s milder mood, and achieved a smoother style. It was these poetic letters that led Louis to invite him to the court. The King asked him which of his own verses he thought the best. Boileau, with an eye to the main chance, read nothing from his published work, but recited as “least bad” some still unprinted lines in honor of Le Grand Monarque. He was rewarded with a pension of two thousand livres, 45 and became persona grata at the court. “I like Boileau,” said Louis, “as a necessary scourge that we can pit against the bad taste of second-rate authors.” 46 And as Louis sustained Molière against the bigots, so he raised no protest when Boileau published a mock epic, Lutrin (1674), poking fun at sleepy and gluttonous ecclesiastics. In 1677 the satirist was made an official historiographer along with Racine; and in 1684 he was finally admitted to the Academy at the explicit behest of the King and over the protests of those whom he had flayed.
The poem that has carried him over the whirlpools of time is L’Art poétique (1674), which has rivaled in influence its model, Horace’s Ars poética. At the outset Boileau warns young bards that Parnassus is steep; let them be sure, before they set out to climb that sacred mount of the Muses, that they have something worth saying, something that will strengthen truth and tendra au bon sens—will make for good sense and taste. Vary your discourse, he advises them; a style too equal and uniform (like Boileau’s) puts us to sleep; and “happy the poet who, with a light touch, passes from the grave to the sweet, from the pleasant to the severe.” 47 Keep a sharp ear for the cadence of your words. Follow Malherbe’s rules on language and style. Study not your contemporaries but the ancients: in epic poetry Homer and Virgil, in tragic drama Sophocles, in comedy Terence, in satire Horace, in eclogue Theocritus. “Make haste slowly; without losing courage, put your work on the anvil twenty times . . . Add occasionally, omit often.” 48 “Love those who criticize you, and, bowing to reason, correct yourself without complaint.” 49 “Work for glory, and let not sordid gain be ever the object of your toil.” 50 If you write dramas, observe the unities:
Qu’en un lieu, qu’en un jour, un seul fait accompli
Tienne jusqu’ à la fin le théâtre rempli
—“Let one action, completed in one place and one day, keep the theater full to the end.” 51 “Study the court and familiarize yourself with the city; both are rich in models; perhaps that is how Molière won the prize in his art.” 52
Boileau joined Molière in making les précieuses ridiculous, and he scorned the artificial love poetry that had enfeebled French verse. Against this bathos of sentiment he raised the Cartesian worship of reason and the classic inculcation of restraint. He formulated the principles of the classic style, and summarized them in two classic lines:
Aimez donc la raison; que toujours vos écrits
Empruntent d’elle seule et leur lustre et leur prix
—“Love reason, then; let your writings take from it both their splendor and their worth.” 53 No sentimentality, no emotionalism, no bombast; no pedantry, no artificiality, no pompous obscurity. The ideal in literature, as in life, is a stoic self-control, and “nothing in excess.”
Boileau loved Molière, but regretted his descents into farce. He loved Racine, but apparently did not remark his romantic exaltation of feeling, and his emotion-bursting heroines—Hermione, Berenice, Phèdre. A warrior must exaggerate his share of the truth. Boileau was too lusty a battler to understand what Pascal had said—that the heart has its reasons which the head cannot understand, and that literature without feeling may be as smooth as marble and as cold. Horace had allowed for feeling: “If you wish me to weep,” to feel what you write, “you must weep first”—you must feel the matter yourself. All the literature and art of the Middle Ages remained hidden from Boileau.
The influence of his teaching was immense. Through three generations French poetry and prose tried to adhere to his classic rules. These shared in molding the style of English literature in the “Augustan Age,” whose Pope frankly imitated L’Art poétique in hisEssay on Criticism. Boileau’s influence did harm and good. By deprecating imagination and feeling, it put a damper on poetry in France after Racine and in England after Dryden; verse at its best took on the chiseled form of sculpture, but lost the warmth and color of painting. Nevertheless it was good that the ideal of reason should enter into belles-lettres; too much nonsense had been written about love and shepherds; Europe needed Boileau’s angry scorn to cleanse the literary air of absurdity, affectation, and shallow sentiment. Perhaps it was in part through Boileau that Molière rose from farce to philosophy, and Racine perfected his art.
It was just like Boileau that when, with a gift from the King (1687), he bought a house and garden in Auteuil, he said nothing in his writings of the nature that surrounded him—except that from those fields he now took the name Despréaux. There, for nearly all his remaining years, he lived in simple peace, never visiting the court, but warmly welcoming his friends. People noted that “he had many friends, though he spoke ill of everybody.” 54 He was brave enough to express sympathy for Port-Royal, and to tell a Jesuit that Pascal’s Provincial Letters were a masterpiece of French prose. He outlived all of the circle of which he had been the honored theorist: Molière was long since gone, La Fontaine went in 1695, Racine in 1699; the old and ailing satirist spoke feelingly of “the dear friends whom we have lost, and who have disappeared velut somnium surgentis “—like the dream of a man rising from sleep. 55 As death neared he left Auteuil, and went to die (1711) in the rooms of his confessor in the cloister of Notre Dame. There, he hoped, Satan would not dare touch him.