The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by W. Osborne Brigstocke.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 185-194

[Wikipedia says, "Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, 1636-1711, often known simply as Boileau, was a French poet and critic.]

Few things in the study of literature are more interesting than the observation of the successive moods of the world's thought. One age is characteristically matter-of-fact, another intensely poetic, philosophical or satirical. The course of these phases of intellectual activity can be traced just as the atmospheric fluctuations are registered in the meteorological offices. It must not be forgotten that in literature, at all events, the theory of continual progress is a fallacy. The regular motion of the world's thought, which is as evident as the ebb and flow of the tide, describes, like many of nature's moving members, a closed figure. Human thought in literature may be described as an ellipse whose foci are God and man. The highest literature deals with God; that which treats of man may be divided into classes according to whether man is considered in relation to his Maker, his fellow-man, or his environment. But satire, the Proteus of literature, defies classification and occurs in all sorts of writing and in every age. To say that satire may be divided into two great groups--the school of Horace and the school of Juvenal, is too arbitrary a generalisation. Roughly speaking, most satirists can be described as belonging to one school or the other, or classed under one of the denominations--religious, social or political satirists. But it will be found better to overlook these imaginary groupings and, if possible, to study the world's satirists as individuals. The personality of many satirists is as pleasing as their genius, which latter, in nine cases out of ten, is the joint product of their own character and that of the generation in which they live. When the mask of satire is removed, one is often surprised to find what is hidden behind it. Boileau is one of those satirists who must be severely criticised only so long as he wears his mask. The harm he did as a satirist and as a critic will probably be found to be almost equal to the good he did. Some refuse to acknowledge him as a poet, but none can say that he was not in his private life a typical French gentleman, whom to know was to esteem and to love. These are the chief aspects of Boileau--the satirist, the critic, the poet, and the man himself.

Boileau had a natural bent toward satire. That so subtly powerful weapon was his first love. Why is it that all really great satirists enlist our warmest sympathy or pity? Surely because we feel that if they are carried to excesses, if they offend us sometimes by an intellectual cat-and-mouse game, if they shock us by their truculence, it is that they are eaten up by their zeal for what is true, beautiful and pure. Even when satire is not the offspring of a passion for what is noble, it enlists our sympathy as being the consequence of some bodily or mental defect. Satire is only blameworthy when its intention is to lash the victim himself, and not his faults. Boileau it must be confessed is occasionally guilty of this trespass, but in his case it is not from any pleasure he takes in paining another, but from sheer vexation and affliction. He only insults because he feels that insult is his victim's meed--not because he relishes it himself. He was capable of any amount of disdain, never of petty jealousy or rancour.

[Truculence: savagely brutal]
[Jansenist: Dutch theologian Cornelius Jansen revered Augustine of Hippo

Boileau's masters were undoubtedly Horace and Juvenal. As far as his choice of Horace was concerned, Boileau could not have done worse. In the Roman's graceful satire we find nothing but the self-confidence and spontaneousness of a mind smiling with goodwill at what it ridicules. To think of Boileau imitating him! Boileau the consummate rhymer, jansenist, not only in matters of religion but also of versifying, whose very grace and polish were laboured (if exquisite) and redolent of midnight oil. As to Juvenal, his choice was happier. If Boileau lacked the depth of soul and lived in an age which could not have produced Juvenal's compeer, he proved at least that he had a voice of indignation as strong, mellow and melodious as that of his forerunner. But there are so many differences between these two men, that one almost loses sight of any similarity. Boileau lived in an age when the hideous pictures of Juvenal could not be painted, nor had he the wealth of feeling which Juvenal displayed, more especially in his beautiful passages about the charms of country life. The verses describing the pathetic sadness of old age are far above Boileau's highest range of thought. Juvenal's birthplace--his first home--is unknown. But passages in his works seem to point to an early life similar to Virgil's, and it is probable that he retained amidst the squalor and corruption of the capital a remembrance of the happy years of childhood spent in the country. Boileau, on the other hand, was born and bred in the city, like Voltaire, who looked upon him as his master and called him "l'oracle du goût." When he first began to write, Boileau knew no one; he had no one to support him. The power and influence of the Hotel de Rambouillet and the school of Chapelain was almost unbounded, and it was against the formidable foes that he proposed to direct the fire of his satirical guns. He saw at once how futile would an unsupported attack be--and so resolved to do his utmost to win the king over to his side. He was in no way addicted to flattery or adulation, and it can hardly be doubted that his "épîtres" to the king were prompted by this necessity of winning some substantial support. But, whether this be so or not, certain it is that the king was at once struck by the dexterity with which every rally was sugared with clever and beautifully-expressed encomia. It was impossible to suppress a single sting without at the same time losing some compliment to himself, and he came to the conclusion that it was better to give the young satirist a free rein than to sacrifice the faultless verses in which his name and throne were so superbly glorified. In this manner Boileau gained the king's support. Later, he won the great poets and the people also to his side. But by that time he had become a critic as well as a satirist, and it is in that light that he must be viewed. The connection between satire and criticism is palpable, and it is not surprising to find Boileau attracted by the latter branch of literature also.

[l'oracle du goût: the oracle of taste]
[épîtres: epistles]
[encomia: high praise]

A rapid glance over the earlier history of criticism in France must serve as introduction to the question, "What was the result of Boileau's criticism?"

Boileau belongs to a series of writers which includes the following names:--Ronsard, Malherbe, Chapelain, Balzac, Voltaire, and La Harpe. From the time of Ronsard, French literature may be said to have become latinistic. It is easy to prick the names of subsequent French authors who studied Greek. The hazardous flights of fancy which distinguished the poetry of Ronsard and his admirers might have led to any length of exaggeration had not it been for Malherbe, "who taught them to mould their thoughts into easy and significant words, to retrench the superfluities of expression, and to make their rhyme so properly a part of the verse, that it should never mislead the sense, but itself be led and governed by it . . ." (to quote Dryden's words.) Malherbe established the hard and fast rules which so stunted the growth of lyric poetry in France and which afterwards became a rod of iron in the hands of the Académie, especially in the time of Chapelain. The publication of Les Sentiments de l'Académie sur le Cid marks a turning point in the history of French criticism, and the following passage gives a very clear epitome of Chapelain's opinion with respect to those much discussed laws of poetry. "Comme il est impossible de plaire à qui que ce soit par le désordre et par la confusion, s'il se trouve que les pièces irrégulières contentent quelquefois, ce n'est que pour ce qu'elles ont quelque chose de régulier. . . Que si au contraire quelques pièces régulières donnent peu de satisfaction, il ne faut pas croire que ce soit la faute des règles, mais bien celle des auteurs dont le stérile génie n'a pu fournir a l'art une matière qui fût assez riche."

[Google Translate: As it is impossible to please anyone by disorder and confusion, if it turns out that irregular pieces sometimes please, it is only because they have something regular about them. . . If, on the contrary, a few regular pieces give little satisfaction, we must not believe that it is the fault of the rules, but rather that of the authors whose sterile genius could not provide art with a material which was quite rich.]

But Chapelain went further than this. He asserted that even the Ancients ought to be judged by these laws of poetry. This was almost as much as saying that there was something above all models, but Chapelain could not take the next step, which would have led him to the discovery that that something was nature as seen with the eyes of the intellect. Then follows Balzac, whose influence on French literature was eactly analogous to Malherbe's. What the one did for French poetry, the other did for prose. They were broader-minded than was Chapelain, and were not afraid to admit that the Classics are not immaculate. "Il ya a de la fausse monnaie en Grec et en Latin," * Balzac wrote to Chapelain, and Malherbe frankly admitted that he found little sense in what he called the "galimatias de Pindare." **

* [There is counterfeit money in Greek and Latin.]

** [Pindar's rigmarole]

That was the time when French literature began to be conscious of its own latent powers. It aspired to something higher than mere innovation. It hoped to rival its model. As was mentioned above, imitation of the Greek classics had been almost entirely discarded, and Spain and Italy were the idols of the French writers of that day. It is not difficult to trace their "préciosité" and bombast to such models as Marini, Bartoli, and de Gongora y Argote. Together with and in spite of this euphuistic tendency, a vein of burlesque flowed freely in such men as Charles Sorel, St. Amant and Scarron. Besides these three phases of the literature of that time, one other noticeable fact must not be overlooked. Books, generally speaking, (for instance, the majority of Balzac's, Scarron's and Chapelain's--to take three widely different types) could not be read and fully appreciated except by men educated to understand them. The literature was essentially erudite and pedantic; and it was not until the time of Molière, Pascal and Bolieau that it began to be the universal privilege and luxury, which it soon afterwards became, thanks chiefly to the influence of the Press. Writing of Boileau's influence in this connection a French critic says:--

"C'est ce que je veux dire, en insistant d'abord sur ce fait que Boileau est un bourgeois de Paris; qu'il l'est de naissance et d'éducation; qu'il l'est d'instict et de goût; qu'il en a l'humeur indépendante et brusque, volontiers satirique, la défiance innée de tout ce qui n'est pas clair--dût-il d'ailleurs être superficiel--la philosophie sommaire, une certaine étroitesse d'esprit, beaucoup de confiance en lui-même, dans la sûreté de son goût; et enfin cete francise un peu rude qui est la probité du critique. Défauts et qualités, mêlés et compensés, je nasache pas dans l'historie de notre littérature, je n'y trouve point de modèle plus complet, plus original et plus ressemblant de l'espirit bourgeois."

[Google Translate: This is what I mean, by first insisting on the fact that Boileau is a bourgeois from Paris; that he is born and educated; that it is of instict and taste; that he has an independent and abrupt mood, willingly satirical, the innate distrust of all that is not clear - even if it be superficial - summary philosophy, a certain narrow-mindedness, a lot of confidence in himself, in the safety of his taste; and finally this somewhat harsh francization which is the integrity of the critic. Defects and qualities, mixed and compensated, I do not nasache in the history of our literature, I find there no model more complete, more original and more resembling the bourgeois spirit.]

It must be remembered that what may be called Boileau's period of satirical writing only comprises, roughly speaking, a decade (1660-1670). During these years he was busy attacking and criticising other authors from Chapelain to Corneille. Gradually the strife became hotter and Boilearu launged pamphlet after pamphlet in answer to the "Répliques" of his victims. He won Molière, Lafontaine, Racine, the public and the king over to his side, and yet the victory could not be said to be his. The reason is obvious. He lived in an age of discipline and of conventionalism. He had no theories to give in exchange for thise he had turned into ridicule, and so we find him during the second period of his life (1670-1685) writing his "épîtres" and his Art poétique which contain his code of literary laws. This work led to an important discovery. During his ruminations, Boileau happened to be struck by the fact that all the authors he was holding up to ridicule had one common characteristic. They were all pedantic, booky, anaemic. They all seemed to need the fresh air of nature. He noticed that they all tried to improve nature in some way or other. This discovery became a favorite "leitmotiv."

    "Car la nature plait sans étude et sans art. . ."
    "Rien est beau que la vrai, le vrai seul est aimable. . ."

["Because nature pleases without study and without art . . ."
"Nothing is beautiful than truth, truth alone is lovable . . ."

It inspired him to write the well-known lines --

    "Il n'est pas de serpent ni de monstre odieux
    Qui par l'air imité ne puisse plaire aux yeux. . ."

[He is neither a snake nor an odious monster
Who by the imitated air cannot please the eyes

But in time he found that mere imitation of nature was a mistake, that it led to results he could not sanction. Either his theory was incomplete or false. If incomplete, what conditions and restrictions were to modify the imitation? Although he found the answer he never seems to have fully grasped the meaning of the formula that judgment is the faculty which makes the choice of what is fit for artistic treatment. He has several "monstres odieux" which are by no means "pleasing," and their occurrence in his verses seems to prove that his judgment was not infallible. The last question which confronted him was, "How is one to know whether a law is infallible?" This is a difficult problem and it would be futile to comment on Boileau's soltion of it in so cursory a sketch. Suffice it to say that he came to the conclusion that the only test was its permanence. This naturally forced him to admit that infallible laws could only be deduced from Classics. Since taste and right judgment were to be much the same in Paris as they used to be in Athens, it was but natural to infer that the Classics must be the criterion of literature, because they alone have survived the lapse of centuries. It is astonishing to find Boileau arriving at this conclusion. He trod--perhaps unconsciously--exactly in the footsteps of Ronsard: the only difference being that Ronsard's reverence for the Classics was intuitive, Boileau's discursive.

Shorty after this (January 27th, 1687), Perrault read the famous Le Siècle de Louis le Grand to the Académie Française. Its object was to prove that the authors and other artists of France were superior to the Classics, or, at all events, as admirable. Boileau, who was sitting next to him, could not endure this, and quite lost self-control. Perrault himself has described how he heard him begin to murmur, how the Bishop of Soissons did his best to pacify his rising indignation, and how at length Boileau jumped up before the poem was finished and strode out of the Hall exclaiming that such a disquision was a disgrace to the Académie. Perrault followed up the attack by publishing his Parallèle des Anciens et des Modernes. Boileau's response was his Réflexions critiques, in which are to be found his maturest thought and his last word regarding the famous controversy. A short extract will serve to show his insight and the nicety of his critical judgment:--

"Je commencerais par avouer sincèrement que nous n'avons point de poètes héroïques ni d'orateurs que nous puissons comparer aux Virgile et aux Cicéron; je conviendrais que nos plus habiles historiens sont petits devant les Tite-Live et les Salluste; je passerais condamnation sur la satire et sur l'élégie, quoiqu'il y ait des satires de Regnier admirables et des élégies de Voiture, de Sarazin, de la comtesse de la Suez, d'un agrément infini. Mais en même temp je ferais voir que pour la tragédie nous sommes beaucoup superiéurs aux Latins . . Je ferais voir que, bien loin qu'ils aient eu dans le siècle d'Auguste des poètes comiques meilleurs que les nôtres, ils n'en ont pas eu un seul dont le nom ait mérité qu'on s'en souvînt, les Plaute, les Cécilus, les Térence étant morts dans le siècle précédent. Je montrerais que, si pour l'ode nous n'avons point d'auteurs si parfaits qu'Horace, qui est leur seul poète lyrique, nous en avons néanmoins un assez grand nombre que ne lui sont guére inférieurs en délicatesse de langue et en justesse d'expression . . . Je montrerais qu'il y a des genres de poésie, oú non seulement les Latins ne nous ont point surpassés, mais qu'ils n'ont pas même connus, comme par exemple ces poèmes en prose que nous appelons Romans. . ."

[Google Translate: I would begin by sincerely admitting that we have no heroic poets or speakers that we can compare to Virgil and Cicero; I would agree that our most skilful historians are small in front of the Tite-Live and the Salluste; I would pass condemnation on satire and on elegance, although there are admirable satires of Regnier and elegies of Voiture, Sarazin, the Comtesse de la Suez, of infinite pleasure. But at the same time I would show that for the tragedy we are much superior to the Latins. . I would show that, far from having had better comic poets in the century of Augustus than ours, they did not have one whose name deserved to be remembered, the Plautus , the Ceciluses, the Terences having died in the previous century. I would show that, if for the ode we have no authors so perfect as Horace, who is their only lyric poet, we nevertheless have a fairly large number of them that are hardly inferior in language delicacy and accuracy of expression. . . I would show that there are kinds of poetry, where not only the Latins did not surpass us, but that they did not even know, like for example these prose poems which we call Romans.. . .]

His successor was Voltaire, whose whole influence as a critic may be summed up by saying that he left things in almost exactly the same position as did Boileau. All the innovations he brought forward in the prefaces to his tragedies were premature, for in his Essai sur la poésie épique, Voltaire displayed in Lutrin for composing a poem on some serious or religious subject, he would certainly have produced a masterpiece. Instead of winning the smile, he would have wrung tears from his readers, but nature had not given him access to the source of tears.

The total product of a long literary life consists only of a few epigrams, two or three unsuccessful attempts to spread his wings for flight in heroic odes, the satires and epistles. Boileau is not one of the few Frenchmen to have written lyric poetry. He never rose above the domain of sensibleness and brilliant mediocrity. His fancy never grew indomitable and his heart seldom thrilled. But if he had all the superficiality and triviality of the French character, he had also all its nobler qualities. He was an honest and plucky soul. Like many other satirists, he was remarkable for his warm sympathy and affection, and his constancy in friendship is beautiful. He stood by Molière, persecuted by the hypocrites of his day; he stood by Racine, forsaken by the king. His correspondence, especially his letters to Racine, who was his fellow historiographer at the court, and to his editor, reveals a man entirely lovable. Saint Prix's biography of Boileau, in which every detail of his private and public life has been collected and brought to light with such devoted pains, does not make us love him more--it only teaches us to esteem him more highly. Near the end of his correspondence is a letter in which he tells of a fall downstairs, and of his lameness and approaching blindness. He begins to realize that his days are numbered. Racine, who is on his death-bed, sends for him. Boileau drags himself to his friend's bedside. At the sight of him Racine revives and tries to sit up in bed to embrace him for the last time. Boileau is touched and seeks to comfort his friend by a few cheering words. "No, no!" said Racine, "do not pity me. I hold that I am fortunate in dying before you." A man who could inspire one of the most sensible of the great minds of that age with such feelings, could not have had a cold heart. Racine was his noblest work. Master and pupil ought always to be linked together in the memory of posterity.

Typed by CarleyM, Feb 2020; Proofread by LNL, Apr 2020