Boileau, Nicolas (1636–1711)

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Nicolas Boileau, also known as Boileau-Despréaux, has retrospectively been raised to the rank of emblematic figure of French classicism. He has been described as the "lawgiver of Parnassus" (a reference to his being an arbiter of taste), the champion of poetic rationalism, and a chief apologist for the ancients in their quarrel with the moderns. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, specialists of the era consider the truth about Boileau to be more nuanced. Boileau was first and foremost a poet engaged in the literary life of his time. After having written his Satires, a vigorous denunciation of the faults and mistakes commonly made in the literary world of his days, he attempted, in his Art poétique (1674), to determine the rules that should govern the creation and reception of art in most literary genres.

Published during the same year, his translation of Longinus's Peri hypsous (On the Sublime, first cent.) contributed to popularizing this work all over Europe. In 1677 he became, along with Jean Racine, the historiographer of Louis XIV. This noticeably slowed down his literary production. From 1687 on, as defender of the ancients, he was Charles Perrault's main adversary in the first of two disputes between the ancients and the moderns that divided the field of classical aesthetics in France. His nine Réflexions critiques sur quelques passages du rhéteur Longin (Critical reflections on several passages of the orator Longinus; 1694) are explicit arguments in favor of the advocates of the ancients.

Boileau's position was not simply the result of a general nostalgic or conservative attitude, but rather followed from his very strict conception of literature. His aim is to look at the ancients' masterworks in order to find examples of perfection to stimulate the creativity and imagination of contemporaries, and models to provide the distance necessary to avoid the relativist pitfalls, not to mention the conceit, that threatened modernist partisans. According to Boileau, the criterion by which one can attest to the merit of the great artworks of the past is that they have passed the test of time. Far from being an illegitimate prejudice, imitation of the ancients is the source of the true rules of art, which reason can use as its guide.

Two aspects of Boileau's thought are of interest to the historian of philosophical aesthetics. First, there is his formulation of classical doctrine, of which Art poétique provides a synthesis. Far from displaying the merely theoretical attitude of an arbiter, Boileau reflects the aesthetic consensus obtained during the decades from 1630 to 1670 on the basis of a precarious balance between reason and sentiment, freedom and norms. Second, there is his clarification of the role of the sublime in poetry. In discussing the sublime, Boileau tried to cast light on the causes of the legitimate and enduring admiration we have for authors of merit, whether ancient or modern.

Art poétique, where Boileau provided a synthesis of classical doctrine, explicitly draws from the tradition inherited from Aristotle and Horace. It is divided into four cantos written in verse. The first canto gives authors general advice on poetry. The second canto deals with minor genres: the eclogue, sonnet, ode, satire, elegy, epigram, and the like. The third canto tackles major genres: tragedy, comedy, and epic. The fourth canto gives rules for writing, insisting on the edifying function of poetry, on the writer's disinterestedness, and on the need for the writer to surround himself with friends whose sound judgment will help him improve himself.

In the course of the four cantos, Boileau simply reaffirmed, without ever analyzing, all the principles of classical aesthetics. If genius, as a natural gift, is necessary to write poetry, only art, polishing of the work under the guidance of reason and judgment, can lead to perfection. Thus, although it is not a source of inspiration, the light of reason must nonetheless accompany the conception of thoughts, their arrangement, and their expression. As far as tragedy is concerned, Boileau reinforced the classical interpretation of the Aristotelian theory held by his contemporaries. Tragic art was said to provide an idealizing imitation of the terrifying in which pain is transformed into pleasure. The purpose of tragedy is to please and move the spectator by producing a "pleasant terror" and a "delightful pity." To produce such effects, however, reason must be respected.

Thus Boileau advocated absolute respect for the three unities of action, time, and place, even though Aristotle confined himself to the unity of action. Also, the representation ought to be submitted to the principle of verisimilitude, since what is historically true but not credible will not produce any emotion in the spectator. Verisimilitude also requires the writer to respect the rules of propriety (Horace's decorum), whether from an external point of view (agreement between the represented action and the public's expectations and customs) or from an internal one (internal coherence among characters and the language ascribed to them).

For Boileau, the sublime constitutes the supreme perfection of poetic discourse. He saw a nonrhetorical conception of the sublime at work in Longinus's treatise, one that makes possible the distinction between the really sublime (what "strikes us in a discourse, elevates, ravishes and transports us" (On the Sublime, first cent) and the sublime style (the lofty style that traditional rhetoric thought best adapted to the expression of noble ideas). The sublime can thus be found in a single thought or turn of phrase, an excellent example being God's command "Let there be light," in Genesis. The sublime reconciles grandeur and conciseness in accordance with the demands of simplicity and naturalness imposed by the aesthetics of classicism.

In his last three reflections on Longinus, published posthumously in 1713, Boileau added that the perfectly sublimethat which has the property of elevating the soul and making us participate in the greatness that we perceiveunites the grandeur of the thought with the nobility of the sentiment driving the person expressing it, the splendor of the words, and the harmony of the expression. The sublime is, paradoxically, the summit of Boileau's aesthetics. On the one hand, the "energic littleness of the words" (Réflexions X) manifests the sublime in the density of meaning sought by classicism. On the other hand, favoring the sublime introduces tension in a system of thought governed by the ideal of reason and clarity. The significant role of the sublime sufficiently demonstrates that classicism, far from being a sterile formalism, is in fact a constantly renewed demand for equilibrium between judgment and inspiration, lucidity and emotion, conciseness and grandeur.

See also Aesthetics, History of.


works by boileau

Œuvres complètes, edited by Antoine Adam and Françoise Escal. Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

works on boileau

Beugnot, Bernard, and Roger Zuber. Boileau: Visages anciens, visages nouveaux, 16651970. Montreal: Presses de l'Université de Montréal, 1973.

Brody, Jules. Boileau and Longinus. Geneva: Droz, 1958.

Génetiot, Alain. Le classicisme. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 2005.

Pocock, Gordon. Boileau and the Nature of Neo-classicism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Wood, Theodore E. B. The Word "Sublime" and Its Context, 16501760. The Hague: Mouton, 1972.

Daniel Dumouchel (2005)

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Boileau, Nicolas (1636–1711)

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