Nicholas Boileau-Despreaux ( 1636 - 1711 )



Edmund Spenser

Canto I

RASH author, 'tis a vain presumptuous crime
To undertake the sacred art of rime;
If at thy birth the stars that ruled thy sense
Shone not with a poetic influence,
In thy strait genius thou wilt still be bound,
Find Phoebus deaf, and Pegasus unsound.
You, then, that burn with a desire to try
The dangerous course of charming poetry,
Forbear in fruitless verse to lose your time,
Or take for genius the desire of rime;
Fear the allurements of a specious bait,
And well consider your own force and weight.

Nature abounds in wits of every kind,
And for each author can a talent find:
One may in verse describe an amorous flame,
Another sharpen a short epigram;
WaIler a hero's mighty acts extol,
Spenser sing Rosalind in pastoral.
But authors, that themselves too much esteem,
Lose their own genius, and mistake their theme:
Thus in times past Dubartas vainly writ,
Alloying sacred truth with trifling wit;
Impertinently, and without delight,
Described the Israelites' triumphant flight;
And, following Moses o'er the sandy plain,
Perished with Pharaoh in the Arabian main.

Whate'er you write of pleasant or sublime,
Always let sense accompany your rime;
Falsely they seem each other to oppose,
Rime must be made with reason's laws to close;
And when to conquer her you bend your force,
The mind will triumph in the noble course;
To reason's yoke she quickly will incline,
Which, far from hurting, renders her divine;
But if neglected, will as easily stray,
And master reason, which she should obey.
Love reason then; and let whate'er you write
Borrow from her its beauty, force, and light.

Most writers mounted on a resty muse,
Extravagant and senseless objects choose;
They think they err, if in their verse they fall
On any thought that's plain or natural.
Fly this excess; and let Italians be
Vain authors of false glittering poetry.
All ought to aim at sense: but most in vain
Strive the hard pass and slippery path to gain;
You drown, if to the right or left you stray;
Reason to go has often but one way.

Sometimes an author, fond of his own thought,
Pursues its object till it's overwrought:
If he describes a house, he shows the face,
And after walks you round from place to place;
Here is a vista, there the doors unfold,
Balconies here are balustered with gold;
Then counts the rounds and ovals in the halls.
"The festoons, friezes, and the astragals."
Tired with his tedious pomp, away I run,
And skip o'er twenty pages, to be gone.
Of such descriptions the vain folly see,
And shun their barren superfluity.
All that is needless carefully avoid;
The mind once satisfied is quickly cloyed.
He cannot write who knows not to give o'er,
To mend one fault he makes a hundred more:
A verse was weak, you turn it much too strong,
And grow obscure for fear you should be long;
Some are not gaudy, but are flat and dry;
Not to be low, another soars too high.

Would you of everyone deserve the praise?
In writing vary your discourse and phrase;
A frozen style, that neither ebbs nor flows,
Instead of pleasing, makes us gape and doze.
Those tedious authors are esteemed by none,
Who tire us, humming the same heavy tone.

Happy who in his verse can gently steer
From grave to light, from pleasant to severe!
His works will be admired wherever found,
And oft with buyers will be compassed round.

In all you write be neither low nor vile;
The meanest theme may have a proper style.
The dull burlesque appeared with impudence,
And pleased by novelty in spite of sense;
All, except trivial points, grew out of date;
Parnassus spoke the cant of Billingsgate;
Boundless and mad, disordered rime was seen;
Disguised Apollo changed to Harlequin.
This plague, which first in country towns began,
Cities and kingdoms quickly overran;
The dullest scribblers some admirers found,
And the Mock Tempest was awhile renowned.
But this low stuff the town at last despised,
And scorned the folly that they once had prized,
Distinguished dull from natural and plain,
And left the villages to Flecknoe's reign.
Let not so mean a style your muse debase,
But learn from Butler the buffooning grace,
And let burlesque in ballads be employed.

Yet noisy bombast carefully avoid,
Nor think to raise, though on Pharsalia's plain,
" Millions of mourning mountains of the slain."
Nor, with Dubartas, "bridle up the floods,
And periwig with wool the baldpate woods."
Choose a just style. Be grave without constraint,
Great without pride, and lovely without paint.

Write what your reader may be pleased to hear
And for the measure have a careful ear;
On easy numbers fix your happy choice;
Of jarring sounds avoid the odious noise;
The fullest verse, and the most labored sense,
Displease us if the ear once take offense.

Our ancient verse, as homely as the times,
Was rude, unmeasured, only tagged with rimes;
Number and cadence, that have since been shown,
To those unpolished writers were unknown.
Fairfax was he, who, in that darker age,
By his just rules restrained poetic rage;
Spenser did next in pastorals excel,
And taught the noble art of writing well,
To stricter rules the stanza did restrain,
And found for poetry a richer vein.
Then Davenant came, who, with a new-found art,
Changed all, spoiled all, and had his way apart;
His haughty muse all others did despise,
And thought in triumph to bear off the prize,
Till the sharp-sighted critics of the times
In their Mock Gondibert exposed his rimes,
The laurels he pretended did refuse,
And dashed the hopes of his aspiring muse.
This headstrong writer, falling from on high,
Made following authors take less liberty.

WaIler came last, but was the first whose art
Just weight and measure did to verse impart,
That of a well-placed word could teach the force,
And showed for poetry a nobler course.
His happy genius did our tongue refine,
And easy words with pleasing numbers join;
His verses to good method did apply,
And changed hard discord to soft harmony.
All owned his laws; which, long approved and tried,
To present authors now may be a guide;
Tread boldly in his steps, secure from fear,
And be, like him, in your expressions clear.
If in your verse you drag, and sense delay,
My patience tires, my fancy goes astray,
And from your vain discourse I turn my mind,
Nor search an author troublesome to find.

There is a kind of writer pleased with sound,
Whose fustian head with clouds is compassed round
No reason can disperse them with its light;
Learn then to think ere you pretend to write.
As your idea's clear, or else obscure,
The expression follows, perfect or impure;
What we conceive with ease we can express;
Words to the notions flow with readiness.

Observe the language well in all you write,
And swerve not from it in your loftiest flight.
The smoothest verse and the exactest sense
Displease us, if ill English give offense;
A barbarous phrase no reader can approve,
Nor bombast, noise, or affectation love.
In short, without pure language, what you write
Can never yield us profit or delight.

Take time for thinking; never work in haste;
And value not yourself for writing fast;
A rapid poem, with such fury writ,
Shows want of judgment, not abounding wit.
More pleased we are to see a river lead
His gentle streams along a flowery mead,
Than from high banks to hear loud torrents roar,
With foamy waters, on a muddy shore.
Gently make haste, of labor not afraid;
A hundred times consider what you've said;
Polish, repolish, every color lay,
And sometimes add, but often er take away.

'Tis not enough, when swarming faults are writ,
That here and there are scattered sparks of wit;
Each object must be fixed in the due place,
And differing parts have corresponding grace;
Till, by a curious art disposed, we find
One perfect whole of all the pieces joined.
Keep to your subject close in all you say,
Nor for a sounding sentence ever stray.

The public censure for your writings fear,
And to yourself be critic most severe.
Fantastic wits their darling follies love;
But find you faithful friends that will reprove,
That on your works may look with careful eyes,
And of your faults be zealous enemies.
Lay by an author's pride and vanity,
And from a friend a flatterer descry,
Who seems to like but means not what he says;
Embrace true counsel, but suspect false praise.

A sycophant will everything admire;
Each verse, each sentence, sets his soul on fire;
All is divine! there's not a word amiss!
Hc shakes with joy, and weeps with tenderness;
He overpowers you with his mighty praise.
Truth never moves in those impetuous ways.

A faithful friend is careful of your fame,
And freely will your heedless errors blame;
He cannot pardon a neglected line,
But verse to rule and order will confine,
Reprove of words the too-affected sound,
"Here the sense flags, and your expression's round,
Your fancy tires, and your discourse grows vain,
Your terms improper; make it just and plain."
Thus 'tis a faithful friend will freedom use.

But authors partial to their darling muse
Think to protect it they have just pretense,
And at your friendly counsel take offense.
" Said you of this, that the expression's flat?
Your servant, sir, you must excuse me that,"
He answers you. -" This word has here no grace,
Pray leave it out." -" That, sir, 's the properest place."
"This turn I like not." -" 'Tis approved by all."
Thus, resolute not from one fault to fall,
If there's a symbol of which you doubt,
'Tis a sure reason not to blot it out.
Yet still he says you may his faults confute,
And over him your power is absolute.
But of his feigned humility take heed,
'Tis a bait laid to make you hear him read;
And, when he leaves you, happy in his Muse,
Restless he runs some other to abuse,
And often finds; for in our scribbling times
No fool can want a sot to praise his rimes;
The flattest work has ever in the court.
Met with some zealous ass for its support;
And in all times a forward scribbling fop
Has found some greater fool to cry him up.

Canto 2

As a fair nymph, when rising from her bed,
With sparkling diamonds dresses not her head,
But without gold, or pearl, or costly scents,
Gathers from neighboring fields her ornaments;
Such, lovely in its dress, but plain withal,
Ought to appear a perfect Pastoral.
Its humble method nothing has of fierce,
But hates the rattling of a lofty verse;
There native beauty pleases and excites,
And never with harsh sounds the ear affrights.

But in this style a poet often spent,
In rage throws by his rural instrument,
And vainly, when disordered thoughts abound,
Amidst the eclogue makes the trumpet sound;
Pan flies alarmed into the neighboring woods,
And frighted nymphs dive down into the floods.

Opposed to this, another, low in style,
Makes shepherds speak a language low and vile;
His writings flat and heavy, without sound,
Kissing the earth and creeping on the ground;
You'd swear that Randal, in his rustic strains,
Again was quavering to the country swains,
And changing, without care of sound or dress,
Strephon and Phyllis into Tom and Bess.

'Twixt these extremes 'tis hard to keep the right;
For guides take Virgil and read Theocrite;
Be their just writings, by the gods inspired,
Your constant pattern, practiced and admired.
By them alone you'll easily comprehend
How poets without shame may condescend
To sing of gardens, fields, of flowers and fruit,
To stir up shepherds and to tune the flute;
Of love's rewards to tell the happy hour,
Daphne a tree, Narcissus make a flower,
And by what means the eclogue yet has power
To make the woods worthy a conqueror;
This of their writings is the grace and flight;
Their risings lofty, yet not out of sight.

The Elegy, that loves a mournful style,
With unbound hair weeps at a funeral pile;
It paints the lover's torments and delights,
A mistress flatters, threatens, and invites;
But well these raptures if you'll make us see,
You must know love as well as poetry.

I hate those lukewarm authors, whose forged fire
In a cold style describes a hot desire;
That sigh by rule, and, raging in cold blood,
Their sluggish muse whip to an amorous mood.
Their feigned transports appear but flat and vain;
They always sigh, and always hug their chain,
Adore their prisons and their sufferings bless,
Make sense and reason quarrel as they please.
'Twas not of old in this affected tone
That smooth Tibullus made his amorous moan.
Nor Ovid, when, instructed from above,
By nature's rule he taught the art of love.
The heart in elegies forms the discourse.

The Ode is bolder and has greater force;
Mounting to heaven in her ambitious flight,
Amongst the gods and heroes takes delight;
Of Pisa's wrestlers tells the sinewy force,
And sings the dusty conqueror's glorious course;
To Simois' streams does fierce Achilles bring,
And makes the Ganges bow to Britain's king.
Sometimes she flies like an industrious bee,
And robs the flowers by nature's chemistry,
Describes the shepherd's dances, feasts, and bliss,
And boasts from Phyllis to surprise a kiss,
"When gently she resists with feigned remorse,
That what she grants may seem to be by force."
Her generous style at random oft will part,
And by a brave disorder shows her art.

Unlike those fearful poets whose cold rime
In all their raptures keeps exactest time;
That sing the illustrious hero's mighty praise--
Lean writers! - by the terms of weeks and days,
And dare not from least circumstances part,
But take all towns by strictest rules of art.
Apollo drives those fops from his abode;
And some have said that once the humorous god,
Resolving all such scribblers to confound,
For the short Sonnet ordered this strict bound,
Set rules for the just measure and the time,
The easy running and alternate rime;
But, above all, those licenses denied
Which in these writings the lame sense supplied,
Forbade a useless line should find a place,
Or a repeated word appear with grace.
A faultless sonnet, finished thus, would be
Worth tedious volumes of loose poetry.
A hundred scribbling authors, without ground,
Believe they have this only phenix found,
When yet the exactest scarce have two or three,
Among whole tomes, from faults and censure free;
The rest, but little read, regarded less,
Are shoveled to the pastry from the press.
Closing the sense within the measured time,
'Tis hard to fit the reason to the rime.

The Epigram, with little art composed,
Is one good sentence in a distich closed.
These points that by Italians first were prized,
Our ancient authors knew not, or despised;
The vulgar, dazzled with their glaring light,
To their false pleasures quickly they invite;
But public favor so increased their pride,
They overwhelmed Parnassus with their tide.
The Madrigal at first was overcome,
And the proud Sonnet fell by the same doom;
With these grave Tragedy adorned her flights,
And mournful Elegy her funeral rites;
A hero never failed them on the stage,
Without his point a lover durst not rage;
The amorous shepherds took more care to prove
True to his point, than faithful to their love.
Each word, like Janus, had a double face,
And prose, as well as verse, allowed it place;
The lawyer with conceits adorned his speech,
The parson without quibbling could not preach.

At last affronted reason looked about,
And from all serious matters shut them out,
Declared that none should use them without shame,
Except a scattering in the epigram
Provided that by art, and in due time,
They turned upon the thought, and not the rime.
Thus in all parts disorders did abate;
Yet quibblers in the court had leave to prate,
Insipid jesters and unpleasant fools,
A corporation of dull punning drolls.
'Tis not but that sometimes a dextrous muse
May with advantage a turned sense abuse,
And on a word may trifle with address;
But above all avoid the fond excess,
And think not, when your verse and sense are lame,
With a dull point to tag your epigram.


To top

To home page