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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

In the Art Poetique Boileau is constructive


clear the ground for the new school of nature, truth and reason was Boileau's first task. It was a task which called for courage and skill. The public taste was still uncertain. Laboured and lifeless epics like Chapelain's _La Pucelle_, petty ingenuities in metre like those of Cotin, violence and over-emphasis, extravagances of sentiment, faded preciosities, inane pastoralisms, gross or vulgar burlesques, tragedies languorous and insipid, lyrics of pretended passion, affectations from the degenerate Italian literature, super-subtleties from Spain--these had still their votaries. And the conduct of life and characters of men of letters were often unworthy of the vocation they professed. "La haine d'un sot livre" was an inspiration for Boileau, as it afterwards was for our English satirist Pope; and he felt deeply that dignity of art is connected with dignity of character and rectitude of life--"Le vers se sent toujours des bassesses de coeur." He struck at the follies and affectations of the world of letters, and he struck with force: it was a needful duty, and one most effectively performed. Certain of the Epistles, which are written with less pitiless severity and with a more accomplished mastery of verse, continue the work of the Satires. From Horace he derived much, something from Juvenal, and something from his predecessor Regnier; but he had not the lightness nor the _bonhomie_ of Horace, nor his easy and amiable wisdom.

In the _Art Poetique_

Boileau is constructive; he exhibits the true doctrine of literature, as he conceived it. Granted genius, fire, imagination--the gifts of heaven--what should be the self-imposed discipline of a poet? Above all, the cultivation of that power which distinguishes false from true, and aids every other faculty--the reason. "Nothing," declares Boileau, "is beautiful save what is true;" nature is the model, the aim and end of art; reason and good sense discern reality; they test the fidelity of the artistic imitation of nature; they alone can vouch for the correspondence of the idea with its object, and the adequacy of the expression to the idea. What is permanent and universal in literature lives by the aid of no fashion of the day, but by virtue of its truth to nature. And hence is derived the authority of the ancient classics, which have been tried by time and have endured; these we do not accept as tyrants, but we may safely follow as guides.

To study nature is, however, before all else to study man--that is, human nature--and to distinguish in human nature what is universal and abiding from what is transitory and accidental; we cannot be expected to discover things absolutely new; it suffices to give to what is true a perfect expression. Unhappily, human nature, as understood by Boileau, included little beyond the court and the town. Unhappily his appreciation of classical literature was defective; to justify as true and natural the mythology of Greece he has to regard it as a body of symbols or a moral allegory. Unhappily his survey of literature was too narrow to include the truths and the splendours of Mediaeval poetry and art. For historical truth, indeed, he had little sense; seeking for what is permanent and universal, he had little regard for local colour and the truth of manners. To secure assent from contemporary minds truth must assume what they take to be its image, and a Greek or Roman on the stage must not shock the demand for verisimilitude made by the courtly imagination of the days of Louis Quatorze. Art which fails to please is no longer art.

To the workmanship, the technique of poetry, Boileau attaches a high importance. Its several species--idyl, elegy, ode, sonnet, epigram, rondeau, ballade, madrigal, satire, epic, tragedy, comedy--are separated from one another by fixed boundaries, and each is subject to its own rules; but genius, on occasion, may transcend those rules, and snatch an unauthorised grace. It is difficult to understand why from among the _genres_ of poetry Boileau omitted the fable; perhaps he did not regard its form, now in verse and now in prose, as defined; possibly he was insensible of the perfection to which the fable in verse had been carried by La Fontaine. The fourth _chant_ of the _Art Poetique_ is remarkable for its lofty conception of the position of the poet; its counsels express the dignity of the writer's own literary life. He has been charged not only with cruelty as a satirist, but with the baseness of a flatterer of the great. It would be more just to notice the honourable independence which he maintained, notwithstanding his poetical homage to the King, which was an inevitable requisition. Boileau's influence as a critic of literature can hardly be overrated; it has much in common with the influence of Pope on English literature--beneficial as regards his own time, somewhat restrictive and even tyrannical upon later generations.

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