Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas

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Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas

Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas (nēkôläˈ bwälōˈ-dāprāōˈ), 1636–1711, French literary critic and poet. He was the spokesman of classicism, drawing his principles from his contemporaries, among them his friends Racine, Molière, and La Fontaine. His critical precepts are embodied in L'Art poétique (1674), a verse treatise; Le Lutrin (1683), a mock epic; 12 Satires (1st collected ed. 1716) and 12 Épîtres (1st collected ed. 1701), after Horace; and Les Héros de roman (1688), a dialogue in literary criticism. Revered in the 18th cent. as a literary lawgiver, he was later detested by the romantics. Boileau's poetic reputation rests on his satires, especially Le Lutrin, on the clerical world; Satires III and VI, on life in Paris; and Satire X, on women. He was a zealous polemicist, notably in quarrels with Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin and Perrault.


See edition of Les Héros de roman by T. F. Crane (1902); study by G. Pocock (1980).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas


Born Nov. 1, 1636, in Paris; died there Mar. 13, 1711. French poet, critic, and theoretician of classicism. Son of a bourgeois functionary.

Boileau studied theology and later law at the Sorbonne. During 1660-66 he wrote nine Satires on worldly, moral, and literary themes, in which he maliciously ridiculed precious literature and burlesque. The dialogue Heroes of Romances is devoted to the critique of precious literature (1665, published 1701). His Discourse on the Ode (1693) and Critical Reflections on Several Passages in the Rhetorician Longinus (1694) are associated with the so-called debate between the ancients and moderns. Boileau defended the superiority of the ancients over contemporary writers.

The basic aesthetic principles of French classicism were formulated by Boileau in the poem The Art of Poetry (1674). Boileau’s aesthetics were pervaded by rationalism: the beautiful for him was identical with the rational. Having made the principle of the “imitation of nature” the basis of his poetics, Boileau limited it to the expression of an abstract generality and typicality that excluded everything individual and changeable. According to Boileau this kind of “imitation of nature” was the essence of ancient art, which he regarded as the absolute aesthetic norm (Aristotle and especially Horace). Boileau established firm rules of “good taste” and regarded popular poetry as “vulgar” and “barbarous, ” “marketplace” art. Boileau put forward the requirement of the observation in drama of the three unities: of place, time, and action. He devoted much attention to problems of artistic form as manifestations of the writer’s reason. The normative character of Boileau’s aesthetics was reflected in his theory of genres. Boileau’s aesthetics did not permit the slightest mixing of the sublime and the low, of the tragic and the comic, and of the heroic and the humorous.

Boileau’s poetics influenced the aesthetic thought and literature of the 17th and 18th centuries in many European countries. In Russia, Boileau’s aesthetic theories were followed by A. D. Kantemir, A. P. Sumarokov, and especially by V. K. Trediakovskii, who in 1752 translated The Art of Poetry into Russian.


Oeuvres complètes, vols. 1-4. Paris, 1870-73.
In Russian translation:
Peoticheskoe iskusstvo. Foreword by N. A. Sigal. Moscow, 1957.


Istoriia frantsuzskoi literatury, vol. 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946. Pages 523-38.
Anikst, A. Teoriia dramy ot Aristotelia do Lessinga. Moscow, 1967. Pages 255-62.
Bray, R. Boileau, l’homme et l’oeuvre. Paris [1942].
Brody, J. Boileau and Longinus. Geneva, 1958.
Magné, E. Bibliographe générale des oeuvres de N. Boileau. Paris, 1929.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.