Boileau, Nicholas Despreaux

, an eminent French poet, usually called by his countrymen Despreaux, was born on November 1, 1636. His parents were Gilles Boileau, register of the great chamber, and Ann de Nielle, his second wife; but it is uncertain whether he was born at Paris or Crone. In his early years, he was the reverse of those infantine prodigies who often in mature age scarcely attain to mediocrity; on the contrary, he was heavy and taciturn; nor was his taciturnity of that observing kind which denotes sly mischief at the bottom, but the downright barren taciturnity of insipid good-nature. His father, on comparing him with his other children, used to say, “as for this, he is a good-tempered fellow, who will never | speak ill of any one.” In his infancy, however, he ap“pears to have been of a very tender constitution, and is said to have undergone the operation for the stone at the age of eight. Through compliance with the wishes of his family, he commenced with being a counsellor; but the tlryness of the Code and Digest soon disgusted him with this profession, which, his eulogist thinks, was a loss to the bar. When M. Dongois, his brother-in-law, register of parliament, took him to his house in order to form him to the style of business, he had a decree to draw up in an important cause, which he composed with enthusiasm, while he dictated it to Boileau with an emphasis which shewed how much he was satisfied with the sublimity of his work; but when he had finished, he perceived that Boileau was fallen asleep, after having written but few words. Transported with anger, he sent him back to his father, assuring him he” would be nothing but a blockhead all the rest of his life." After this he began to study scholastic divinity, which was still less suited to his taste, and at length he became what he himself wished to be a Poet; and, as if to belie, at setting out, his father’s prediction, he commenced at the age of thirty, with satire, which let loose against him the crowd of writers whom he

attacked, but gave him friends, or rather readers, among that very numerous class of the public, who, through an inconstancy cruelly rooted in the human heart, love to see those humbled whom even they esteem the most. But whatever favour and encouragement so general a disposition might promise Boileau, he could not avoid meeting with censurers among men of worth. Of this number was the duke de Montausier, who valued himself upon an inflexible and rigorous virtue, and disliked satire. But, as it was of the greatest importance to Boileau to gain over to his interest one of the first persons about court, whose credit was the more formidable, as it was supported by that personal consideration which is not always joined to it, he introduced into one of his pieces a panegyrical notice of the duke de Montausier, which was neither flat nor exaggerated, and it produced the desired effect. Encouraged by this first success, Boileau lost no time in giving the final blow to the tottering austerity of his censurer, by confessing to him, with an air of contrition, how humiliated he felt himself at missing the friendship of “the worthiest man at court.” From that moment, the | worthiest man at court became the protector and apologist of the most caustic of all writers. Though we attach less value to the satires of Boileau than to his other works, and think not very highly of his conduct to his patron, yet it must be allowed that he never attacks bad taste and bad writers, but with the weapons of pleasantry; and never speaks of vice and wicked men but with indignation. Boileau, however, soon became sensible that in order to reach posterity it is not sufficient to supply some ephemeral food to the malignity of contemporaries, but to be the writer of all times and all places. This led him to produce those works which will render his fame perpetual. He wrote his “Epistles,” in which, with delicate praises, he has intermixed precepts of literature and morality, delivered with the most striking truth and the happiest precision; and in 1674 his celebrated mock-heroic, the “Lutrin,” which, with so small a ground of matter, contains so much variety, action, and grace; and his “Art of Poetry,” which is in French what that of Horace is in Latin, the code of good taste. In these he expresses in harmonious verse, full of strength and elegance, the principles of reason and good taste; and was the first who discovered and developed, by the union of example to precept, the highly difficult art of French versification. Before Boileau, indeed, Malherbe had begun to detect the secret, but he had guessed it only in part, and had kept his knowledge for his own use; and Corneille, though he had written “Cinna” and “Polieucte,” had no other secret than his instinct, and when this abandoned him, was no longer Corneille. Boileau had the rare merit, which can belong only to a superior genius, of forming by his lessons and productions the first school of poetry in France; and it may be added, that of all the poets who have preceded or followed him, none was better calculated than himself to be the head of such a school. In fact, the severe and decided correctness which characterizes his works, renders them singularly fit to serve as a study for scholars in poetry. In Racine he had a disciple who would have secured him immortality, even if he had not so well earned it by his own writings. Good judges have even asserted, that the pupil surpassed the master; but Boileau, whether inferior or equal to his scholar, always preserved that ascendancy over him, which a blunt and downright self-love will ever assume over a timid and delipate self-love, such as that of | Racine. The author of “Phaedra” and of “Athaliah” had always, either from deference or address, the complaisance to yield the first place to one who hoasted of having been his master. Boileau, it is true, had a merit with respect to his disciple, which in the eyes of the latter must have been of inestimable value, that of having early been sensible of Racine’s excellence, or rather of what he promised to become; for it was not easy, in the author of the “Freres Ennemis,” to discover that of “Andromache” and “Britannicus,” and doubtless perceiving in Racine’s first essays the germ of what he was one day to become, he felt how much care and culture it required to give it full expansion.

Boileau knew how to procure a still more powerful protection at court than the duke de Montausier’s, that of Lewis XIV. himself. He lavished upon this monarch praises the more flattering, as they appeared dictated by the public voice, and merely the sincere and warm expression of the nation’s intoxication with respect to its king. To add value to his homage, the artful satirist had the address to make his advantage of the reputation of frankness he had acquired, which served as a passport to those applauses which the poet seemed to bestow in spite of his nature; and he was particularly attentive, while bestowing praises on all those whose interest might either support or injure him, to reserve the first place, beyond comparison, for the monarch. Among other instances, he valued himself, as upon a great stroke of policy, for having contrived to place Monsieur, the king’s brother, by the side of the king himself, in his verses, without hazard of wounding the jealousy of majesty; and for having celebrated the conqueror of Cassel more feebly than the subduer of Flanders. He had however the art, or more properly the merit, along with his inundation of praises, to convey some useful lessons to the sovereign. Lewis XIV. as yet young and greedy of renown, which he mistook for real glory, was making preparations for war with Holland. Colbert, who knew how fatal to the people is the most glorious war, wished to divert the king from his design. He engaged Boileau to second his persuasions, by addressing to Lewis his first epistle, in which te proves that a king’s true greatness consists in rendering his subjects happy, by securing them the blessings of peace. But although this epistle did not answer the intentions of the | minister or the poet, yet so much attention to please the monarch, joined to such excellence, did not remain unrecompensed. Boileau was loaded with the king’s favour, admitted at court, and named, in conjunction with Racine, royal historiographer. The two poets seemed closely occupied in writing the history of their patron; they even read several passages of it to the king; but they abstained from giving any of it to the public, in the persuasion that the history of sovereigns, even the most worthy of eulogy, cannot be written during their lives, without running the risk either of losing reputation by flattery, or incurring hazard by truth. It was with repugnance that Boileau had undertaken an office so little suited to his talents and his taste. “When I exercised,” said he, “the trade of a satirist, which I understood pretty well, I was overwhelmed with insults and menaces, and I am now dearly paid for exercising that of historiographer, which I do not understand at all/’ Indeed,” far from being dazzled by the favour he enjoyed, he rather felt it as an incumbrance. He often said, that the first sensation his fortune at court inspired in him, was a feeling of melancholy. He thought the bounty of his sovereign purchased too dearly by the Joss of liberty a blessing so intrinsically valuable, which all the empty and fugitive enjoyments of vanity are unable to compensate in the eyes of a philosopher. Boileau endeavoured by degrees to recover this darling liberty, in proportion as age seemed to permit the attempt; and for the last ten or twelve years of his life he entirely dropped his visits to court. “What should I do there?” said he, “I can praise no longer.” He might, however, have found as much matter for his applauses as when he lavished them without the least reserve. While he attended at court^ he maintained a freedom and frankness of speech, especially on topics of literature, which are not common among courtiers. When Lewis asked his opinion of some verses which he had written, he replied, “Nothing, sire, is impossible to your majesty; you wished to make bad verses, and you have succeeded.” He also took part with the persecuted members of the Port-royal; and when one of the courtiers declared that the king was making diligent search after the celebrated Arnauld, in order to put him in the Bastile, Boileau observed, “His majesty is too fortunate; he will not find him:” and when the king asked him, what was the reason why the whole | world was running after a preacher named le Tourneux, a disciple of Arnauld, “Your majesty,” he replied, “knows how fond people are of novelty: this is a minister who preaches the gospel.” Boileau appears from various circumstances, to have been no great friend to the Jesuits, whom he offended by his “Epistle on the Love of God,” and by many free speeches. By royal favour, he was admitted unanimously, in 1684, into the French academy, with which he had made very free in his epigrams; and he was also associated to the new academy of inscriptions and belles-lettres, of which he appeared to be a fit rnember, by his “Translation of Longinus on the Sublime.” To science, with which he had little acquaintance, he rendered, however, important service by his burlesque “Arret in favour of the university, against an unknown personage called Reason,” which was the means of preventing the establishment of a plan of intolerance in matters of philosophy. His attachment to the ancients, as the true models of literary taste and excellence, occasioned a controversy between him and Perrault concerning the comparative merit of the ancients and moderns, which was prosecuted for some time by epigrams and mutual reproaches, till at length the public began to be tired with their disputes, and a reconciliation was effected by the good offices of their common friends. This controversy laid the foundation of a lasting enmity between Boileau and Fontenelle, who inclined to the party of Perrault. Boileau, however, did not maintain his opinion with the pedantic extravagance of the Daciers; but he happily exercised his wit on the misrepresentations of the noted characters of antiquity, by the fashionable romances of the time, in his dialogue entitled “The Heroes of Romance,” composed in the manner of Lucian. In opposition to the absurd opinions of father Hardouin, that most of the classical productions of ancient Rome had been written by the monks of the thirteenth century, Boileau pleasantly remarks, “I know nothing of all that; but though I am not very partial to the monks, I should not have been sorry to have lived with friar Tibullus, friar Juvenal, Dom Virgil, Dom Cicero, and such kind of folk.” After the death of Racine, Boileau very much retired from court; induced partly by his love of liberty and independence, and partly by his dislike of that adulation which was expected, and for which the dose of Lewis’s reign afforded more scanty | materials than its commencement. Separated in a great degree from society, he indulged that austere and misanthropical disposition, from which he was never wholly exempt. His conversation, however, was more mild and gentle than his writings; and, as he used to say of himself, without “nails or claws,” it was enlivened by occasional sallies of pleasantry, and rendered instructive by judicious opinions of authors and their works. He was religious without bigotry; and he abhorred fanaticism and hypocrisy. His circumstances were easy; and his prudent economy has been charged by some with degenerating into avarice. Instances, however, occur of his liberality and beneficence. At the death of Colbert, the pension which he had given to the poet Corneille was suppressed, though he was poor, old, infirm, and dying. Boileau interceded with the king for the restoration of it, and offered to transfer his own to Corneille, telling the monarch that he should be ashamed to receive his bounty while such a man was in want of it. He also bought, at an advanced price, the library of Patru, reduced in his circumstances, and left him in the possession of it till his death. He gave to the poor all the revenues he had received for eight years from a benefice he had enjoyed without performing the duties of it. To indigent men of letters his purse was always open; and at his death he bequeathed almost all his possessions to the poor. Upon the whole, his temper, though naturally austere, was on many occasions kind and benevolent, so that it has been said of him, that he was “cruel only in verse;” and his general character was distinguished by worth and integrity, with some alloys of literary jealousy and injustice. Boileau died of a dropsy in the breast, March 11, 1711, and by his will left almost all his property to the poor. His funeral was attended by a very numerous company, which gave a woman of the lower class occasion to say, “He had many friends then I yet they say that he spoke ill of every body.

Boileau 1 s character as a poet is now generally allowed to be that of taste, judgment, and good sense, which predominate in the best of his works as they do in the most popular of Pope’s writings. The resemblance between these two poets is in many respects very striking, and in one respect continues to be so; they are, in France and England, more read and oftener quoted than any other poets. Both were accused of stealing from the ancients; | but says an elegant critic of our nation, those who flattered themselves that they should diminish the reputation of Boileau, by printing, in the manner of a commentary at the bottom of each page of his works, the many lines he has borrowed from Horace and Juvenal, were grossly deceived. The verses of the ancients which he has turned into French with so much address, and which he has happily made so homogeneous, and of a piece with the rest of the work, that every thing seems to have been conceived in a continued train of thought by the very same person, confer as much honour on him, as the verses which are purely his own. The original turn which he gives to his translations, the boldness of his expressions, so little forced and unnatural, that they seem to be born, as it were, with his thoughts, display almost as much invention as the first production of a thought entirely new. The same critic, Dr. Warton, is of opinion that Boileau’s “Art of Poetry” is the best composition of that kind extant. “The brevity of his precepts,” says this writer, “enlivened by proper imagery, the justness of his metaphors, the harmony of his numbers, as far as alexandrine lines will admit, the exactness of his method, the perspicuity of his remarks, and the energy of his style, all duly considered, may render this opinion not unreasonable. It is to this work he owes his immortality, which was of the highest utility to his nation, in diffusing a just way of thinking and writing, banishing every species of false wit, and introducing a general taste for the manly simplicity of the ancients, on whose writings this poet had formed his taste.

Of the numerous editions of Boileau’s works, the best are, that of Geneva, 1716, 2 vols. 4to, with illustrations by Brossette; that of the Hague, with Picart’s cuts, 1718, 2 vols. fol. a.nd 1722, 4 vols. 12mo; that by Allix, with Cochin’s cuts, 1740, 2 vols. 4to; that of Durand, 1745, 5 vols. 8vo; and lastly, a beautiful edition in 3 vols. 8vo. or 3 vols. 12mo, Paris, 1809, with notes by Daunou, a member of the Institute. 1

1 D’Alembert’s Eulogies translated by Aikin, 2 vols. 8vo. Gen. Dict. Warton’s Kssay on Pope, &c.