Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

From volume 2 of the work.

French poet, b. at Paris, 1 November, 1636; d. there, 13 March, 1711. He was educated at the college of Beauvais and was at first destined to enter the Church, but soon abandoned the study of theology and, to please his father, prepared himself for the Bar. Though admitted as counsellor-at-law (December , 1656), he never practised and his father having died leaving him enough to satisfy his wants, he devoted himself entirely to poetry. He was then twenty-one years old. Four years later he published his first satirical poem: "Adieux d'un poète à la ville de Paris"; immediately after this he published six others: "Les embarrass de Paris", "La satire à Molière", "Le repas ridicule", "La noblesse", and two others of minor importance. In these satires not only did Boileau parody and attack such writers as Cotin, Chapelain, and Le Voyer, but he also developed the practical capabilities of the French language. Prose in the hands of such writers as Descartes and Pascal had proved itself a flexible instrument of expression, while with the exception of Malherbe, there had been no system in french versification.

Enfin Malherbe vint et, le premier en France,

Fit sentir dans les vers une juste cadence.

Above all, these satires inaugurate in France a systematic literary criticism for art's sake, where previously criticism had been nothing but the expression of envy or anger. Indeed, in these imitations of Juvenal and Horace, one recognizes a judge of his own masters, who judged them by a higher standard than his personal tastes. In 1660 Boileau published the "Epistles", more serious in tone and also more polished in style. In 1674 appeared 'Le lutrin" which, lighter in tone, still deserves a certain degree of admiration. It furnished the model for the "Rape of the Lock", but the English poem is superior in richness and imagination. His masterpiece, however, and that of the didactic school in French, was without doubt "L'art poétique". This was also the first code of French versification. It comprises four books, the first and the last containing general precepts; the second treating of the pastoral, the elegy, the ode, the epigram, and the satire; and the third of tragic and epic poetry. His later publications were chiefly poems which he composed to defend himself against the numerous enemies his satires had raised up against him.

The end of Boileau's life was sad. He suffered a great deal from an operation which he underwent while young, and which, together with deafness, obliged him to retire from public life and even from the society of his friends. The death of Racine, his very best friend (1699), affected him deeply and his thoughts turned strongly towards religion. He was preparing a new edition of his works when death called him away. He holds a well-defined place in French literature as the first to introduce a regular system into its method of versification.

DESMAISEAUX, La vie de Boileau-Despréaux (1712); ALEMBERT, Eloge de Despréaux (1779); CHAUFEPIE, Dictionnaire, s.v. Boileau; GARNIER, (Euvres complètes (1800); FABRE, Eloges de Boileau Despréaux (1805); PORTIEN, Essai sur Boileau Despréaux (1805).