How to write poetry, by a 17th Century Frenchman, via Dryden

Boileau’s lengthy verse rephrased by John Dryden tells tips

Are they mostly obvious, or obsolete, or still apt?

Maybe you will find this long piece of wisdom worth quoting at friends climbing the mountain of poetic achievement.  Or maybe not.  We haven’t yet read all the way through it, since we have not yet found the time needed. Let us know what you find.

Who was Nicolas Boileau Despréaux, 1636-1711?   A critic and poet. See

In his masterpiece, The Art of Poetry, Boileau distinguishes himself not by the theoretical argument of the content, but by the witty, succinct phrases that summarize concepts examined previously by others. Added to this are several satiric passages that ridicule those authors whose bad taste or poor judgment led them to stray from the ideals of order, simplicity, and reason. In the first of four cantos, general principles of versification and clarity of expression are developed, and the useful service a poet’s honestfriend and critic can provide are described. The second canto provides the guidelines for the lesser genres, such as ode, elegy, satire, and sonnet. The third canto presents rules for writing the major poetic genres: tragedy, epic, and comedy. The well-known classical principle of the three dramatic unities (time, place, and action) is stated in a memorable couplet. The final canto is general in scope, moving from satire of Perrault to praise for the king, who encourages poetry and civilized discourse.

Who was Dryden?  One of England’s finest, an also ran to Shakespeare. See the Poetry Foundation:

Here’s the Art of Poetry:

The Art of Poetry
Art poâetique

Nicolas Boileau Despréaux, 1636-1711
John Dryden, 1631-1700 translator Sir William Soames
R. Bentley and S. Magnes

Published: 1683

(Found at the University of Virginia, from Early English Books Online, published by Bell and Howell).

Canto I.

Rash Author, ’tis a vain presumptuous Crime
To undertake the Sacred Art of Rhyme ;
If at thy Birth the Stars that rul’d thy Sence
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 the desire to try
The dangerous Course of charming Poetry ;
Forbear in fruitless Verse to lose your time,
Or take for Genius the desire of Rhyme :
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 :
Waller a Hero’s mighty Acts extol ;
Spencer 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,
Allaying Sacred Truth with trifling Wit,
Impertinently, and without delight,
Describ’d the Israelites Triumphant Flight,
And following Moses o’re the Sandy Plain,
Perish’d with Pharaoh in th’ Arabian Main.
What-e’re you write of Pleasant or Sublime,
Always let sence accompany your Rhyme :
Falsely they seem each other to oppose ;
Rhyme must be made with Reason’s Laws to close.

nd 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 what e’re you Write
Borrow from her its Beauty, Force, and Light.
Most Writers, mounted on a resty Muse,
Extravagant, and Senceless Objects chuse ;
They Think they erre, 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 glitt’ring Poetry.
All ought to aim at Sence ; but most in vain
Strive the hard Pass, and slipp’ry 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 his Object till it’s over-wrought :
If he describes a House, he shews the Face,
And after walks you round from place to place ;
Here is a Vista, there the Doors unfold,
Balcone’s here are Ballustred with Gold ;
Then counts the Rounds and Ovals in the Halls,
* The Festoons, Freezes, and the Astragals :
Tir’d with his tedious Pomp, away I run,
And skip o’re twenty Pages to be gon.
Of such Descriptions the vain Folly see,
And shun their barren Superfluity.
All that is needless carefully avoid ,
The Mind once satisfi’d, is quickly cloy’d :
He cannot Write, who knows not to give o’re,
To mend one Fault, he makes a hundred more :

A Verse was weak, you turn it much too strong,
And grow Obscure, for far you should be Long.
Some are not Gaudy, but are Flat and Dry ;
Not to be low, another soars too high.
Would you of every one deserve the Praise?
In Writing, vary your Discourse, and Phrase ;
A frozen Stile, that neither Ebs or Flows,
Instead of pleasing, makes us gape and doze.
Those tedious Authors are esteem’d 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 admir’d where-ever found,
And oft with Buyers will be compass’d round.
In all you Write, be neither Low nor Vile :
The meanest Theme may have a proper Stile.
The dull Burlesque appear’d with impudence,
And pleas’d by Novelty, in Spite of Sence.

and on and on.  You might like some sections more than others.  We like this part, on page 10, which seems very good advice.  Think before you compose:

No Reason can disperse ’em with its Light :
Learn then to Think, e’re you pretend to Write,
As your Idea’s clear, or else obscure,
Th’ 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 Sence
Displease us, if ill English give offence :
A barb’rous 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 hast ;
And value not your self for writing fast.
A rapid Poem, with such fury writ,
Shews want of Judgment, not abounding Wit.

Much more to be said, but we”ll  leave it to Boileau and Dryden.

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