Home  »  library  »  poem  »  The Pastoral, the Elegy, the Ode, and the Epigram

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Pastoral, the Elegy, the Ode, and the Epigram

By Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711)

From ‘The Art of Poetry’

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 easy 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 forced 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 transports feigned 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 lusty conqueror’s glorious course;

To Simois’s 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 phœnix 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.