Poetry as Science: Boileau’s L’Art poétique (1674)

“Ce qu’on nomme le bon sens ou la raison, est naturellement égale en tous les hommes; et ainsi que la diversité de nos opinions ne vient pas de ce que les uns sont plus raisonnables que les autres, mais seulement de ce que nous conduisons nos pensées par diverses voies, et ne considérons pas les mêmes choses. Car ce n’est pas assez d’avoir l’esprit bon, mais le principal est de l’appliquer bien.”

René DescartesDiscours de la méthode (1637)

Descartes wrote his Discours de la méthode in 1637 and ushered in what was to become the Age of Reason where we learn about the world, not from ancient texts, but through clear and rational thinking. Boileau’s L’Art poétique is an attempt to translate the rationalism of Descartes and Leibniz into an aesthetic manifesto that would define the standards for French neoclassical literature.

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a new poetry for a new age. French literature would turn from the marvels and fantastic settings of the medieval romance. There would still be the great stories from the Bible and particularly classical literature but they would be treated naturalistically. Magic and miracles are not needed to capture and hold the attention and they distract from rational and sensible understanding.

“Never offer the spectator anything incredible … the absurdly marvelous has no attractions for me; the mind is not affected by what it does not believe.”

More than anything else, all elements of poetry must follow the dictates of reason. Like Descartes, Boileau uses the word raison over and over.  It is the key theme that runs throughout L’Art poétique.

“Rhyme bends willingly to the yoke of reason.”
“Love reason, then; let all that you write borrow both its luster and its worth from her alone.”
“Be sure that the action, guided by reason, never gets lost on an empty stage. … pleases by appealing to reason, and never offends against it.”
“Bowing to reason, correct your work without grumbling.”

Another idea important to Boileau is the clarity of thought. Again following the method outlined by Descartes, to break things down into small and simple parts and work toward the more complex. Focus on one idea at a time.

“Do not offer us a subject too full of incident. The wrath of Achilles alone, skillfully managed, abundantly satisfies what is required for an entire Iliad. Abundance in excess of need is likely to impoverish the whole.”

Express those ideas clearly and simply.

“Before writing, first learn how to think. Expression follows thought, and will be as clear or obscure as the thought was in the first place. What is clearly understood is clearly expressed, and the words to it come easily.”

Similar ideas are expressed in Aristotle’s Organum, his books on logic written to clarify thinking and separate it from sophistry. Even more influential was his Poetics. Boileau drew heavily upon his ideas on comedy and tragedy and set his unities of time, place an action as rules for the classical French stage.

“Let the place where the events occur be fixed, as well as clearly designated … a single thing done, in one place, in one day.”

But we also see the influence of Aristotle’s Ethics as well. Aristotle recommends that the best behavior is finding the mean between extremes. Not eating or drinking too little or to excess but the amount that is just right for the body. It is an ethics of moderation and balance. These ideas show up frequently in L’Art poétique.

“I like a brook … not a torrent … make haste slowly.”
“Fear of one evil often leads us into a worse … trying not to be wordy, I become obscure; rather than overdress his Muse, a writer may leave her nakedness too much exposed.”
“It’s not easy to find the way between these two extremes.”

Just as Boileau draws from Aristotle’s Ethics I think he intends there to be an ethical component to L’Art poétique as well. This is not just about how to write poetry, it is also about how one should think and about how one should behave. We have reached the Age of Reason. We are no longer told what to do, but we must think and reason. We must think clearly and we must speak clearly. We begin with simple ideas and build to the complex. No superstitions, rituals and mystification. Descartes wrote in Latin for his international audience of scholars but also translated his books into the French vernacular so they could be read by a wider audience. Reason and clear thinking are not just for the elite; they are the property, and responsibility, of everybody.



~ by severalfourmany on February 23, 2013.

4 Responses to “Poetry as Science: Boileau’s L’Art poétique (1674)”

  1. Am I correct in thinking that Boileau also had something to do with the stage? I seem to remember the name from a long-ago class on drama.

  2. It is my understanding the Boileau wrote mainly poems, satire, criticism and epistles. He did write a satiric epic called Lutrin which influenced Pope’s Rape of the Lock. I don’t know that he wrote any theatrical works himself. However, his critical writings and support for Molière and Racine had a large influence on French theater. The entire Book III of L’Art poétique is devoted to theatrical verse.

  3. I’ve never heard of Boileau, or his art of poetry. Your blog is wonderful. I instantly follow it. Thank you so much.

    • Thank you. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. He certainly practiced what he preached. L’Art poétique is unusual for literary criticism as it was a long poem composed entirely of French classical alexandrines.

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