Montesquieu

Rica to the same


The next day he led me to ano­ther side room. These are the poets, he said ; in other words those authors whose pro­fes­sion is to put sha­ck­les on com­mon sense and weigh down rea­son under flou­ri­shes as they used to bury women under their gowns and orna­ments. You know them ; they are not rare among the Orientals, where the more ardent sun seems even to heat up their ima­gi­na­tions.

Here are the epic poems. Ah, what are epic poems ? In truth, he said, I have no idea ; the connois­seurs say that there have never been but two,1 and that the others that are put for­ward under that name are not authen­tic. That too is some­thing I do not know. They say moreo­ver that it is impos­si­ble to make new ones,2 and that is even more sur­pri­sing.

Here are the dra­ma­tic poets, who, in my view, are the consum­mate poets, and the mas­ters of the pas­sions. There are two kinds : the comics, who stir us so agreea­bly, and the tra­ge­dians, who trou­ble and agi­tate us so vio­lently.

Here are the lyrics,3 whom I scorn as much as I applaud the others, and who make of their art a har­mo­nious extra­va­gance.

Next we see the authors of idylls and eclo­gues, who please even the peo­ple of the court, by the idea they give them of a cer­tain tran­qui­lity which they do not have, and which they show to them in the situa­tion of she­pherds.4

Of all the authors we have seen, here are the most dan­ge­rous : they are those who shar­pen epi­grams,5 which are nim­ble lit­tle arrows that make a deep wound inac­ces­si­ble to reme­dies.

You see here the novels, which are kinds of poets, and who abuse the lan­guage both of the mind and of the heart ; who spend their lives pur­suing nature, and always fail to find it ; and who invent heros who are as foreign there as win­ged dra­gons and cen­taurs.

I have seen some of your novels, I said, and if you saw ours, you would be even more appal­led : they are just as unna­tu­ral, and besi­des extre­mely cons­trai­ned by our ways : it takes ten years of pas­sion before a sui­tor can even have seen the face of his mis­tress, yet authors are for­ced to make the rea­ders go through these boring pre­li­mi­na­ries. Now it is impos­si­ble for the inci­dents to be varied ; they have recourse to an arti­fice even worse than the disease they want to cure : it is to the super­na­tu­ral. I am sure you will not approve of a enchan­tress brin­ging an army from under­ground, or a hero alone des­troying an army of a hun­dred thou­sand men. Yet that is what our novels are ; we are bored by those cold and oft-repea­ted adven­tu­res, and revol­ted by those out­lan­dish won­ders.6

Paris this 6th day of the moon of Chalval 1719

The Iliad and the Odyssey, according to the most determined Homeric partisans.

This is an aspect of the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns. This is just the time when Voltaire was working on La Ligue (later La Henriade) completed in 1721 but used in readings all over Paris before that. It was published in 1727, accompanied by his Essay on Epic Poetry, which treats, notably, of Milton.

This designates particularly “old odes or stanzas that correspond to our airs or songs” (Encyclopédie, art. “Lyrique”, IX, 780), in other words Pindar above all, and after him Alcaeus, Sapho, Horace, or even the moderns Malherbe and Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (art. “Ode”, vol. XI, p. 346).

Allusion to the idylls and eclogues in the ancient manner, which Boileau celebrated in canto II of L’Art poétique.

Among epigramatists the Encyclopédie cites Martial and Piron (art. “Epigramme”, vol. V, p. 793).

Allusion both, it appears, to Antoine Galland’s Mille et Une Nuits, 1704, and to François Pétis de la Croix’s Les Mille et Un Jours, 1712.