Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


A man of almost universal learning — a man even of genius, who joins philosophy with imagination, uses, in his excellent article “Encyclopedia,” these remarkable words: “If we except this Perrault, and some others, whose merits the versifier Boileau was not capable of appreciating.”

This philosopher is right in doing justice to Claude Perrault, the learned translator of Vitruvius, a man useful in more arts than one, and to whom we are indebted for the fine front of the Louvre and for other great monuments; but justice should also be rendered to Boileau. Had he been only a versifier, he would scarcely have been known; he would not have been one of the few great men who will hand down the age of Louis XIV. to posterity. His tart satires, his fine epistles, and above all, his art of poetry, are masterpieces of reasoning as well as poetry —“sapere est principium et fons.” The art of versifying is, indeed, prodigiously difficult, especially in our language, where alexandrines follow one another two by two; where it is rare to avoid monotony; where it is absolutely necessary to rhyme; where noble and pleasing rhymes are too limited in number; and where a word out of its place, or a harsh syllable, is sufficient to spoil a happy thought. It is like dancing in fetters on a rope; the greatest success is of itself nothing.

Boileau’s art of poetry is to be admired, because he always says true and useful things in a pleasing manner, because he always gives both precept and example, and because he is varied, passing with perfect ease, and without ever failing in purity of language, “From grave to gay, from lively to severe.”

His reputation among men of taste is proved by the fact that his verses are known by heart; and to philosophers it must be pleasing to find that he is almost always in the right.

As we have spoken of the preference which may sometimes be given to the moderns over the ancients, we will here venture to presume that Boileau’s art of poetry is superior to that of Horace. Method is certainly a beauty in a didactic poem; and Horace has no method. We do not mention this as a reproach; for his poem is a familiar epistle to the Pisos, and not a regular work like the “Georgics”: but there is this additional merit in Boileau, a merit for which philosophers should give him credit.

The Latin art of poetry does not seem nearly so finely labored as the French. Horace expresses himself, almost throughout, in the free and familiar tone of his other epistles. He displays an extreme clearness of understanding and a refined taste, in verses which are happy and spirited, but often without connection, and sometimes destitute of harmony; he has not the elegance and correctness of Virgil. His work is good, but Boileau’s appears to be still better: and, if we except the tragedies of Racine, which have the superior merit of treating the passions and surmounting all the difficulties of the stage, Despréaux’s “Art of Poetry” is, indisputably, the poem that does most honor to the French language.

It is lamentable when philosophers are enemies to poetry. Literature should be like the house of Mæcenas —“est locus unicuique suus.” The author of the “Persian Letters”— so easy to write and among which some are very pretty, others very bold, others indifferent, and others frivolous — this author, I say, though otherwise much to be recommended, yet having never been able to make verses, although he possesses imagination and often superiority of style, makes himself amends by saying that “contempt is heaped upon poetry,” that “lyric poetry is harmonious extravagance.” Thus do men often seek to depreciate the talents which they cannot attain.

“We cannot reach it,” says Montaigne; “let us revenge ourselves by speaking ill of it.” But Montaigne, Montesquieu’s predecessor and master in imagination and philosophy, thought very differently of poetry.

Had Montesquieu been as just as he was witty, he could not but have felt that several of our fine odes and good operas are worth infinitely more than the pleasantries of Rica to Usbeck, imitated from Dufrénoy’s “Siamois,” and the details of what passed in Usbeck’s seraglio at Ispahan.

We shall speak more fully of this too frequent injustice, in the article on “Criticism.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01