The Art of Poetry by Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux: An Overview

Boileau's poem, L'Art Poétique (The Art of Poetry) is best read as a sort of codification of French Neo-Classicism as the great French writers practiced it. Boileau in his "The Art of Poetry" states that good sense and rhyme should be in harmonious unity no matter what the subject matter is in the poetry. He puts much emphasis on rhyming. He says "Rhyme bends willingly to the yoke of reason and far from obstructing serves and adorns it" (242).

Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux

The poetry should be written in ornate style according to Boileau. "Low style disdains the careless extravagance of bad verses"(243). To maintain the ornate style we should give a critical ear for the cadences (rise and fall of voice in verse), choose harmonious words and avoid the loathsome competition of unpleasant sounds. There should also be harmony in form and content. For example, the meanest verse and the noblest thought cannot please the mind and enjoy the ears. The strict decorum must be followed as suggested by Boileau.

The beginning, middle and ending must be in proper harmony. The complication must be in ever increasing order from scene to scene leading to climax. The tragic hero must be preserved from the 'pettiness' of the heroes of romance, and yet he should be given some weakness, which initiates his fall. If there is a new character introduced, he/she must be the same person as he/she was in the opening. Nature also can play a part of the character.

To draw tears from others, you must first weep yourself. To please other you must be pleasant. Theatre is 'perilous' space where the audience is watching the activities going on the theatre. The tragic, hero, therefore, "must be easy, solid, pleasant, profound; he must incessantly stir us with surprising touches; he must dash from marvel to marvel; and everything he says must be easy to remember and so keep his work in our head for a long time afterwards" (247). Epic and fables fulfill the characteristics required not only in their heroes, but also a marvelous subject matter with ornamental decoration in verse form and language used.

A poet should be a severe critic of himself. He should be bearable of criticism. He should seek some advice rather than fawning. He avoids foolish admirers.

The good poet makes his work pleasing; only low ones make verses dull and boring. The beautiful poetry lasts long in people's memory. Beauty in poetry is the matter of smoothness in action, clearly designated place, ornate style and much besides. A beautiful poem cannot be an outcome of sudden impulse. It is a matter of labor and craftsmanship.

The audience should be credible to the actions occurred in the poem. The actions may be incredible, but joy of poetry lies on credibly observing the actions improbable.

Comedy should make people laugh without producing an ill feeling. It should "instruct and reprove without bile or venom”, and renders "an innocent pleasure". Comedy always keeps inimical relationship with signs and tears, bars the tragic from its verses, but it is not its business to go into the market place and charms the crowds with vulgarities and dirty jokes" (205). It treats trifles nobly. Comedy plays fun, but not at the loss of good sense. The subject matter for comic humor changes from time to time. Ever epoch has its own type of human that the writer must know. His/her characters must befit with the idiosyncrasies of the age in which he/she lives.

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