Nicholas Boileau-Despreaux

(1 November 1636 – 13 March 1711 / Paris)

To Moliere - Poem by Nicholas Boileau-Despreaux

Unequaled genius, whose warm fancy knows
No rhyming labor, no poetic throes;
To whom Apollo has unlocked his store;
Whose coin is struck from pure Parnassian ore;
Thou, dextrous master, teach thy skill to me,
And tell me, Moliere, how to1 rhyme like thee!

You never falter when the close comes round,
Or leave the substance to preserve the sound;
You never wander after words that fly,
For all the words you need before you lie.
But I, who--smarting for my sins of late--
With itch of rhyme am visited by fate,
Expend on air my unavailing force,
And, hunting sounds, am sweated like a horse.
In vain I often muse from dawn till night:
When I mean black, my stubborn verse says white;
If I should paint a coxcomb's flippant mien,
I scarcely can forbear to name the Dean;
If asked to tell the strains that purest flow,
My heart says Virgil, but my pen Quinault;
In short, whatever I attempt to say,
Mischance conducts me quite the other way.

At times, fatigued and fretted with the pain,
When every effort for relief is vain,
The fruitless chase I peevishly give o'er,
And swear a thousand times to write no more:
But, after thousand vows, perhaps by chance,
Before my careless eyes the couplets dance.
Then with new force my flame bursts out again,
Pleased I resume the paper and the pen;
And, all my anger and my oaths forgot,
I calmly muse and resolutely blot.

Yet, if my eager hand, in haste to rhyme,
Should tack an empty couplet at a time,
Great names who do the same I might adduce;
Nay, some who keep such hirelings for their use.
Need blooming Phyllis be described in prose
By any lover who has seen a _rose?_
Who can forget heaven's masterpiece, her eye,
Where, within call, the Loves and Graces lie?
Who can forget her smile, devoid of art,
Her heavenly sweetness and her frozen heart?
How easy thus forever to compound,
And ring new changes on recurring sound;
How easy, with a reasonable store
Of useful epithets repeated o'er,
Verb, substantive, and pronoun, to transpose,
And into tinkling metre hitch dull prose.
But I--who tremble o'er each word I use,
And all that do not aid the sense refuse,
Who cannot bear those phrases out of place
Which rhymers stuff into a vacant space--Ponder
my scrupulous verses o'er and o'er,
And when I write five words, oft blot out four.

Plague on the fool who taught us to confine
The swelling thought within a measured line;
Who first in narrow thraldom fancy pent,
And chained in rhyme each pinioned sentiment.
Without this toil, contentment's soothing balm
Might lull my languid soul in listless calm:
Like the smooth prebend how might I recline,
And loiter life in mirth and song and wine!
Roused by no labor, with no care opprest,
Pass all my nights in sleep, my days in rest.
My passions and desires obey the rein;
No mad ambition fires my temperate vein;
The schemes of busy greatness I decline,
Nor kneel in palaces at Fortune's shrine.
In short, my life had been supremely blest
If envious rhyme had not disturbed my rest:
But since this freakish fiend began to roll
His idle vapors o'er my troubled soul,
Since first I longed in polished verse to please,
And wrote with labor to be read with ease,
Nailed to my chair, day after day I pore
On what I write and what I wrote before;
Retouch each line, each epithet review,
Or burn the paper and begin anew.
While thus my labors lengthen into years,
I envy all the race of sonneteers.

Hail, happy Scudere! whose prolific brain
Brings forth a monthly volume without pain;
What though thy works, offending every rule,
Proclaim their author an insipid fool;
Still have they found, whate'er the critic says,
Traders to buy and emptier fools to praise.

And, truly, if in rhymes the couplets close,
What should it matter that the rest is prose?
Who stickles now for antiquated saws,
Or cramps his verses with pedantic laws?
The fool can welcome every word he meets,
With placid joy contemplating his feats;
And while each stanza swells his wondering breast
Admires them all, yet thinks the last the best.
But towering Genius, hopeless to attain
That unknown summit which he pants to gain,
Displeased himself, enchanting all beside,
Scorns each past effort that his strength supplied,
And filling every reader with delight,
Repents the hour when he began to write.

To you, who know how justly I complain,
To you I turn for medicine to my pain!
Grant me your talent, and impart your store,
Or teach me, Moliere, how to rhyme no more.


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Poem Submitted: Thursday, September 23, 2010

Poem Edited: Tuesday, November 1, 2011


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