The French critic and writer Nicholas Boileau-Despréaux (1636-1711) is best known for the theory of poetics expressed in his "Art poétique." Through this work he became the foremost exponent of French literary classicism.
Nicholas Boileau was born in Paris, the son of a registrar in the Grande Chambre of Parlement. (His later claims to nobility could be substantiated only by fraudulent documents.) Boileau's mother died when he was 19 months old, and his childhood is reputed to have been very unhappy. After attending the Collèges d'Harcourt and de Beauvais, Boileau entered theological school in 1652. Quickly tiring of these studies, he turned to law, his family's traditional vocation. He was admitted as an advocate in 1656, but after his father's death in 1657, he decided to pursue a literary career. Boileau's three older brothers, especially Gilles, who became a critic and translator, were also active in the literary world.
As a young man, Boileau enjoyed reciting his virulent satires between drinks at various Paris cafés. His physical description indicates that he was probably not attractive. He was short and had thin legs, humped shoulders, a large nose, and possibly an asthmatic condition.
Boileau's first collection, Satires, modeled on the works of the Latin poet Juvenal and dating from 1657, began as daring jibes not meant for publication. The poems were usually inspired by the political, social, and literary events of the day. Satire I complains of corruption brought about by the major financiers of that time. Satire II supports his friend the dramatist Molière against the Précieuses, a coterie of popular writers whose works were written in a highly ornate and artificial style. Although Satires III and IV are famous because of their picturesque portrayals of frustrating city life and of country bumpkins at a banquet, Satires VII and IX indicate more accurately the formation of Boileau's literary tastes.
The clandestine publication of Satires in 1666 crystallized forces against Boileau. His most formidable enemy, in addition to a number of literary figures, was Colbert, minister in charge of awarding state pensions to poets. The attacks on Boileau were violent, and he was accused of cynicism, debauchery, plagiarism, and blasphemy.
Boileau's transition from satirist to literary theorist is marked by the Epistles, modeled on the works of the Latin poet Horace. Epistles I and IV praised King Louis XIV's policies and contributed to Boileau's reconciliation with the governing powers. He was presented to Louis in 1674 and was assured of a pension and publication rights. Boileau did not, however, drop the satirical vein; in the Lutrin a quarrel among Paris church canons is made ridiculous through his treatment of it in a serious and elevated style.
During this time Boileau had been reading his Art poétique in prominent Paris salons, where it met with immediate success. The tenets of French classicism had been formulated from 1630 to 1650, and thus the Art poétique did not dictate the rules of this literary movement. In fact, the ideas in this work had also been expressed by a number of Boileau's contemporaries. But Boileau was original in that he captured the concept of classicism in a concise, forceful, and poetic form. In addition, his literary judgments were remarkably astute; he recognized the genius of, among others, the contemporary playwrights Molière and Racine.
The Art poétique is divided into four parts: style and versification, the less important poetic genres, the three great genres (tragedy, epic, comedy), and the vocation of the poet in general. Boileau placed great importance on certain often-repeated key words, such as raison (reason), nature (nature), verité (truth), and vraisemblance (likeness to truth). He believed that "Only the true is beautiful" and that the poet's role lies in the discovery and presentation of truth. Sincerity and a great desire for ideal truth are necessary to arrive at the essence of things. And once found, truth must be communicated by the poet in a style marked by simplicity, clarity, and grandeur, such as that found in Homer and the Bible. These rules on style are similar to those of the Greek philosopher Longinus, whose On the Sublime was translated by Boileau, but are opposed to those advocated by the précieuses. During the 18th century Boileau's theories influenced literature in England, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Russia.
Toward the end of Boileau's life the famous quarrel between two factions of the French literary world, the Ancients and the Moderns, called into question the nature of literary history and the cultural achievement of 17th-century France. The Ancients held that, since the greatest possible literary excellence had been achieved by the Greek and Latin authors, later writers should imitate the content and style of ancient masterpieces. Boileau's translation of Longinus put him on the side of the Ancients. The Moderns, however, recognized progress in the arts and exalted the French tragédie galante and the Christian epic. They were more socially sophisticated than Boileau's circle of friends and had the support of influential Parisian women. Thus when Boileau turned again to satire after a period of silence during his term as royal historian, he directed his vehemence against women (Satire X).
Boileau's last satire (Satire XII), a brilliant portrait of the hypocrisy in society's morals and religion, involved him in still another controversy with the government. His numerous friends and his literary importance did little to stave off his growing bitterness. In 1711, 2 months after a final refusal by the state to allow the printing of his satire, Boileau died of pleurisy.
The most complete and recent works on Boileau are in French. Books in English deal with specialized subjects; for example, A. F. B Clark, Boileau and the French Classical Critics in England, 1660-1830 (1925), and Jules Brody, Boileau and Longinus (1958). Recommended for general historical background is E. B. O. Borgerhoff, The Freedom of French Classicism (1950).
Haley, Marie Philip, Sister, Racine and the Art poetique of Boileau, New York: Octagon Books, 1976, 1938.
Pocock, Gordon, Boileau and the nature of neo-classicism, Cambridge Eng.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980.