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S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.

Nicholas Boileau

  • [A celebrated French poet and satirist, called by Mathieu Marais, “Reason Incarnate;” born 1636; member of the French Academy; published “The Art of Poetry,” 1674; appointed, with Racine, historiographer, by Louis XIV.; died 1711.]
  • I only know three,—Corneille, Molière, and myself.

  • In reply to the question, how many great writers the age of Louis XIV. had produced. “And how about Racine?” was asked. “He was an extremely clever fellow, whom I taught with great difficulty to write verse.” Madame de Genlis, a celebrated French writer (1746–1830), is credited with a similarly egotistical remark, “Madame de Staël was not lacking in imagination: I could have made something of her if I could have taught her to write.” Buffon said, “Read only the works of men of genius: these are but few,—Newton, Bacon, Leibnitz, Montesquieu, and I.”
  • I have always observed that a man’s faults are brought forward whenever he is waited for (J’ai remarqué que ceux qui attendent ne songent qu’aux défauts de ceux qui se font attendre).

  • The reason he gave for his habitual punctuality. It naturally suggests the French proverb, “Les absents ont toujours tort” (The absent are always wrong).
  • Your majesty is always lucky: you will not find him.

  • To Louis XIV., who said he was looking everywhere for Antoine Arnauld, the theologian and leader of the Port Royalists, then in hiding. In this way Boileau delicately expressed his disapproval of the persecution of the Jansenists of Port Royal. It was this member of the celebrated family of writers and ecclesiastics, male and female, who, when urged to rest from his labors, replied, “Shall I not have all eternity to rest in?” (N’aurai-je pour me reposer l’éternité entière?) Another version is sometimes given of the answer of the “Great Arnauld,” whose genius was described by Fontenelle as that of a military commander. His companion-in-arms, Nicolle, of a more peaceful and accommodating disposition, once avowed that he was tired of theological controversy, and wished to rest; to which Arnauld impetuously replied, “Will you not have eternity to rest in?”
  • Boileau allowed himself an uncourtier-like freedom of speech towards le Grand Monarque, for when the king once asked him to criticise some verses from the royal pen, the poet returned them with the remark, “Nothing is impossible with your majesty: you wished to make a bad poem, and you succeeded.” “Boileau had the spirit,” says Macaulay, “to tell Louis XIV. firmly, and even rudely, that his majesty knew nothing about poetry.”
  • On another occasion, he expressed his agreement with the king, who maintained that the words gros and grand were not synonymous, by saying, “I am certainly of your majesty’s opinion: there is a great difference between Louis le Gros and Louis le Grand” (or, as would be said in English, between Louis “the Fat,” the soubriquet of Louis VI., and Louis “the Great,” the designation of Louis XIV.).
  • He showed the same freedom with the king’s cousin, the Duc d’Orleans, who invited him to dine on a Friday. The poet ate nothing but bread; but the duke, saying that the servants had forgotten the day, urged him to eat meat with the rest. “You have only to stamp your foot,” replied the poet, “and fish would start from the ground.” When Pompey was advised to make further levies against Cæsar (B.C. 50), he declared that he “had only to stamp with his foot, when the occasion required, to raies legions from the soil of Italy.”
  • It is a great consolation to a dying poet to have never written any thing against morality.

  • Thus Fontenelle said at the close of his long life, “I was born a Frenchman, I have lived one hundred years, and I die with the consolation of never having thrown the slightest ridicule upon the smallest virtue.” Voltaire, when a candidate for the French Academy, declared, “If ever a page has been printed in my name, which could scandalize the sacristan of my parish, I am ready to tear it to pieces in his presence.” Sir Walter Scott was comforted by the thought, “I have tried to unsettle no man’s faith, to corrupt no man’s principles, and have written nothing which on my death-bed I should wish blotted.”
  • Boileau said to a playwright who brought him a play shortly before the death of the great critic, “Do you wish to hasten my last hour?”