French poet and critic Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636-1711) was by turns venerated (in the eighteenth century) and reviled (in the nineteenth century) as the lawgiver of French classicism. Today critics see his achievement as more varied and complex than the label of classicism generally allows. This selection of Boileau’s poems, translated with spirit and carefully annotated by Burton Raffel, brings the work of Boileau to English-speaking readers for the first time in a generation.
Much admired for his wit and ingenuity, Boileau perceived the role of the satirist as the scourge of bad writing and delighted in the notion of “l’ami du vrai,” the brash truth-teller and enemy of humbug, inflation, and equivocation. Raffel’s translations, vigorous and engaging, preserve the meaning of Boileau’s poems and invite today’s reader to enjoy the poet’s astute perceptions. Julia Prest’s insightful introduction to the volume provides an overview of Boileau’s life and achievement.
|Publisher:||Yale University Press|
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About the Author
Burton Raffel is Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities Emeritus and professor of English emeritus, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He lives in Lafayette. His many works of translation include the narrative poems of Chrétien de Troyes, Candide, and Das Nibelungenlied, all published by Yale University Press. Julia Prest is assistant professor of French, Yale University.
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By NICOLAS BOILEAU
Yale University PressCopyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSatire II: To Monsieur de Molière Oh famous mind, unique, which pours out lines But never fights or frets for metered rhymes. The Muse's gold comes flying to your hand, Apollo's borrowed treasure, perfect-scanned. Teach me, Molière, so deft in poet duels, 5 How versing masters dance, but keep the rules. Your rhymes flood forth, I know, like milk and cream, Gushing from your pen in liquid streams. Digressions make no trouble, plots stay clear, You cast your line, and form and sense cohere. 10 But driven into scribbling (senseless whim), Bent to rhyming, for unpunished sins, I thrash, and bleat, and flog my fainting brain, Digging words, pursuing rhymes-in vain. From morn to dusk I plod the blurry verges, 15 I dream of white, but only black emerges. I try to draw a knight, a gallant hero, My rhyme-blocked pen depicts a hack like Puro. I long to praise some peerless, flawless poet, My mind says Virgil, my rhyming word is "Quinault." 20 No matter how I plan, or plan to plan, Excesses push me on, my pen like Pan. Thisdrives me mad, I scream, I moan, I roar, My hangdog Muse indifferent, silent, bored. Then, cursing Fiends who tempt an itching pen, 25 I swear a thousand oaths: oh, never again! Condemn Apollo-all the Muses-cursing, When suddenly I see such glorious verses Spleen be damned, I flame immortal fire, And once more tilting windmills, pant, aspire. 30 Forgetting useless vows, I stumble, run, And bouncing line by line, I take what comes. My tepid Muse enduring tepid music, I offer well-worn rhyme; she won't refuse it. I do what's always done, go picking here 35 And there, stitching rags from everywhere. In praise of Phyllis, call up high-flown miracles; Marvels found, at once, on matchless pinnacles; I glorify a face as bright as spheres, My mistress shines eternal, has no peers, 40 Dealing burning suns and perfect wonders, Scribbling sky-gold creatures, Jove's high thunders. Throwing splendid phrases, clouds of darts, I dash off poems: no fuss, no pains, no art. A hundred times transposing nouns and verbs, My verse resembling chopped-up, stale Malherbe. 45 But oh my trembling heart, which dreads the thought Of words misplaced, and phrases dearly bought, Panting hard at every rhymeless void Until my empty verses self-destroy! 50 I start, I stop, begin a dozen times, And scribbling four, erase the first three lines. Damn the first wild fool who shaped this path For turning sense to senseless, gold to brass, Cramming words in narrow boxes-prisons!- 55 With rhyme to darken light, befuddle reason. This deadly craft destroys my days; it smashes Calm, impales delight, makes leisure ashes: I'd sing, and laugh, and guzzle as I please, As gay as any priest, as fat, at ease, 60 My days all peaceful, out of thought or care, Sleeping well, then breathing placid air: Unworried heart, exempt from burning passion, Self-limiting, no doorway for ambition, Fleeing fame and all its pushy friends, 65 Not stunned by royal riches, closed to ends And means. I'd be so happy, envious Fate! Just free me from this rhymester's crippled gait. But yet, the moment madcap fancy rings Its frenzied verses, black clouds fall, and cling, 70 And Demons, loathing gentle peace, fashion Dreams of polished lines and perfect passion. Helpless, trapped, I burn in inky rages, Quarry fragments, rub out ill-starred pages, 75 And see my life quite ruined by sad-faced art, I even envy Pelletier, born to the part. Oh happy Scuders, blessed with fertile pens, You spawn a book each month, for years on end, You write, oh artless, pages drooping, dense, Plainly shaped as if to spite good sense, 80 But books that sell (and some are even read), Adored by merchants, praised by empty heads. The rhymes go clank, in closing scraggly lines, But no one cares, for see! it clearly rhymes. You silly fools, enslaving art itself, 85 Try pulling Homer, Virgil off their shelves! But scribbling idiots love their childish noise, For what in sottish lines requires a choice? They gape and labor, stunned, transfixed, amazed: Did I write that? Oh wondrous, fabled page! 90 While noble spirits struggle, always fail To capture perfect art (as truth entails), Depressed to find what poor excuses words Can be, displeased, yet pleasing all the world. Their poems stuffed with spirit, still they take 95 No pleasure, wishing they could stop creating. And you, who see the depths my Muse can sink to, Grant me grace, teach poems and Muse to think too: Or else, since even help from you won't work, 100 Molière! oh teach me how to leave off verse.
The world hurt me, Climène, hour by hour. I knew for certain Love had shown its power. Hearing the news, You swore you'd never relent. But oh, cruel muse, It wasn't you I meant.
Quatrain on a Portrait of Rocinante, Don Quijote's Horse
This was the king of all good horses, Flowering rose of Spanish steeds, Who jogged up hills, and jogged down valleys, And once, says the Book, ran-when forced to.
On My Older Brother, Member of the Académie Française, with Whom I'd Quarreled
My brother, yes, is a writer of first-rate fame, And a man of excellent parts, Who's never shown the slightest regard For me. I think he deserves his eminent name; His poetry's pleasant; his lectures surely eternal; But nothing in him is ever fraternal.
Epitaph for the Author's Mother
She herself speaks:
Wife to a husband gentle, plain, approving, Whose constant sweetness proved him always loving, Our speech was never mocking, biting. Don't bother asking if our children inherit Such splendid spirit: Just read these lines, and leave off writing.
Epigram: The Grateful Debtor
His world collapsed, I helped him survive. I never saw a copper cent. But even owing food and rent And life itself, he smiled when he saw me. How grateful he was, not to ignore me!
A Perpetual Student of Time
For thirty years (or was it forty?) Lubin wound his watches, oiled His clocks, polished glass and toiled At washing hands and faces. Ought he, Winding springs and rubbing wood, Have learned a little something worth The knowing? Oh yes. No one on earth Told the time as well as he could. Satire I
Damon-noble author, fertile Muse That, year by year, played games with rustic views And Court opinion-wore just burlap gowns, In summer days no linen, in winter no down, His dried-out body, hunger-stricken face 5 No better fed for all our empty praise. Tired by verse that cost him time and money, Cadging here and there, but earning nothing, His closet empty, purse the same, in panic Forced to flee from debtor's prison, frantic, 10 Far from cities, lawyers, courtiers, priests, He hunted twin unknowns, viz. stillness, peace, Rejecting hostile Justice, jealous Fate, That sought to lock him deep in holes, awaiting Death (or healthy snubs from fresh-faced poets, 15 Which wither faded bays before one knows it). Yet on the day he left, disheveled, pale, Like Penitents in dismal Lent, he railed, His eyes aflame and anger in his heart, Distilling rage in valedictory art: "The Muses once lived well, in gracious France, 20 But spirit, talent, worth have lost their chance; Poets, once so blessed, have now been cursed, Virtue tossed from home, and hearth-and worse. "Let's hunt some cave, some lofty mountain rock, 25 That sheriffs, bailiffs, lawyers can't unlock. Instead of Heaven plagued by helpless cries Let's hide ourselves from vulgar insults, lies, Still free, in spite of Fate and savage times, Unbent by age and callous, casual crimes, 30 Not tottering, old and feeble, blind and gray, Until at last Death sweeps us all away. I've learned, so hear what counsel I can give: In making France your home, know how to live In France. So steal your millions, all in cash; 35 Starting nowhere, climb in noble fashion. Old Jacquin knew: his fatal fiscal lore Destroyed our army swift as plagues, or war, His profits piled so high that, written down, They'd stuff a book all juicy, fat, and round. 40 For money rules this city, sets its rules. But me, in Paris? Fool amid the fools! Without a gift for cheating, lies, pretending, Backbone far too stiff for violent bending. I can't be cowed enough to let some proud 45 Rich rascal shame me: money talks that loud? But scribbling flattering sonnets, sure to bore The world? Selling self and poems to order? My Muse remains too proud for stooping low. I'm far too rustic, soul too hopeless, gross. 50 Whatever is, I have to call by name: A cat's a cat, and Charles Rolet's a shame. I'm not much good at crafting verse seductions: Adventure leads me off in plain directions. Paris brings me sadness, left unknown 55 And poor, a body, not a soul-alone. "But why, you ask, such wild, such hopeless valor, Poorhouse-aimed? You really love such squalor? Wealth allows an honest upright pride, But poor folk bend their backs, must scrape their hides. 60 And that's how writers, crushed by piled-up debt, Can change the fate their cursèd stars have set, And pedants, in this iron time, play jokes, And turn themselves to peers, or royal dukes. For Fortune plays its games on every virtue: 65 See them triumph, high above their birth-due, Cruising Paris streets in gaudy coaches, Decked like clowns, who once were crawling roaches, Whipping once-proud France with savage laws, Sucking blood, and flexing fearful claws. weary, dragging door to door, He pawned his nothing, went in search of more. Head heaped with poems, teeming hot his brain, He came to Court, and hoped for wealth and fame. What happened, then, to this abused old Muse? 105 He crawled back home in shame, decayed, confused. Hunger, fever ended courage, fame; Starvation started, courtiers closed the game. The Court's own poets were the height of fashion, Now it's clowns and fools who always cash in; 110 No nobler spirit, art of defter pen, Can rise like butlers, grooms, or scullery men. "What's needed now? Much different Muse-drawn roles? Abandon art and ape the lawyers' souls? 115 Then black's the color-buckles, wigs, and gowns. We'll dance in circles, slow and jurist rounds. But just the thought bewilders blood and brain: I'm lost, destroyed by violence so insane! I see the pure go down those greedy maws, Trapped in mazes, Daedalus wrapped in laws, 120 In whirled confusion, heaped-up legal cheating, Black now white, both good and bad now fleeting, And honest Patru killed by lawyer sharks (So fierce that even Cicero fears their bark). My friends, before I go that route, the Seine 125 Will freeze from Paris down to old Saint-Jean, Jansen's preachers flog the pope in Rome, Sorlin believe the truth, Pavin go wrong. "Let's flee this pushing city, left behind, Where Honor fights with Fortune, virtue's blind, 130 Where strutting Vices walk and talk like kings (They hold up miters, crosses, wear gold rings), Where learning's frightened, sad, without support. We're hunted down like villains-noble sport! The only art in fashion, here, is theft. 135 I choke ... alas, I cannot say the rest. But what unmoving man would not be moved By Paris love? It's hate, and hates true love. Oh how endure it? Once resolved, attack it, Never mind Apollo! Kill it, smash it! 140 Don't strive for grace, on fatal fields like these! Don't try for mighty art, when killing fleas. Why summon beauty, fighting fiends and evil? Anger's good enough to kill the Devil. "'Relax,' they say. 'Why get yourself upset? 145 Why fling great words? Talk soft, there's hope still left. Go climb a chair, preach nice professor talk, While listeners snore in peace, and let you squawk. Now that's the way to deal with wrong, and write.' "They talk like that, who never want to fight! 150 They think they need no help, their lives are safe, They like to sneer a poet in the face. But weak-kneed men just play at being strong, Who don't believe in God till things go wrong. They weep in storms, they pray the angry sky, 155 But tempests done, they laugh at men who cry, Assured that God will spin the earth around And keep it balanced, hold it nicely bound. Their lives ascend, surpassing any sin. They won't admit the mess our world is in. 160 "But even healthy, ah! that other world Can make me tremble, shake at God's own word. But where is God, if I am in this hell? I'm going, gone: Farewell, Paris, farewell."
Excerpted from Selected Poems by NICOLAS BOILEAU Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: A Classicist in Modern Times....................ix
Satire II: To Monsieur de Molière....................3
Quatrain on a Portrait of Rocinante, Don Quijote's Horse....................8
On My Older Brother, Member of the Académie Française, with Whom I'd Quarreled....................9
Epitaph for the Author's Mother....................10
Epigram: The Grateful Debtor....................11
A Perpetual Student of Time....................12
The Art of Poetry Canto One....................20