Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux, a French didactic and satirical poet and critic, born in or near Paris, Nov. 1, 1636, died there, March 13, 1711. His mother, Anne de Nielle, who died in his infancy, was the second wife of Gilles Boileau, an esteemed greffier of the Paris parliament, who claimed descent from Etienne Boileau or Boilesve, a provost of the 18th century. Young Boileau, whose surname of Despreaux is ascribed by some authorities to a small patch of land which he owned, studied law and theology, was admitted as an advocate, and received the tonsure; but, despite the remonstrances of his relatives and the limited means bequeathed to him by his father, who died in 1651, he devoted himself to literary pursuits, and especially to satirical poems, in which he took Horace as his model. Some of them were circulated in MS. in 1660, and gained for him access to the hotel de Rambouillet, where the prevailing pedantry confirmed his purpose of refining literary taste. His Discours au roi and other satires, first published in 1666, established his reputation, and he became the highest literary authority, whose decisions made all pretentious mediocrities wince, while Cor-neille found in him a judicious admirer, and Moliere, Lafontaine, and Racine a discriminating mentor.
His numerous enemies prevented his presentation at court till 1669; but thenceforward he was the principal literary favorite of Louis XIV., whom with Racine he accompanied in his campaigns nominally as historiographer, receiving a large salary without performing any duty beyond the composition of complimentary verses. With his increasing prestige, his writings became more serene and philosophical, although he continued to use satire as a potential engine of reform. The French academy, though incensed at his bold criticisms, could not exclude him beyond 1684; and with Racine he also became one of the earliest members of the academy of medals (afterward of inscriptions). Louis XIV. presented him with a fine residence at Auteuil, where the choicest spirits of France delighted in Boileau's conversation, the sting of his satire being smoothed over by his kindly nature. According to Mme. de Sevigne, he was cruel only in writing. He was tenderly devoted to Moliere, Racine, and Lafontaine, though often unsparing in his criticism of their works, and successfully exerted his influence with Louis XIV. for restoring a pension to the aged Cor. neille.
At a later period Mme. de Maintenon took umbrage at his disparaging remarks on Scarron in the presence of Louis XIV.; and ultramontane influence also working against him, he forfeited the favor of the monarch and his court, which he ceased to frequent after the death of Racine (1699), the king having received him on his announcement of this event with marked coldness. Subsequently he was prohibited from publishing his 12th satire, De l'equivoque. In his disappointment he sold his house at Auteuil and ended his life in Paris in sadness, which was increased by his infirmities. He first resided in a cloister of Notre Dame, and finally, according to the latest researches, in the rue de Jerusalem, and not as previously stated in a village near Paris. - His greatest work is L'art poetique (1674), a didactic poem, establishing a new system of poetical and dramatic composition; and the first four cantos of Le lutein (1674), a heroico.comic poem, were admired as gems of fancy and humor. Many of his didactic Epitres also acquired celebrity, and his other productions include Satires, Epigrammes, Dialogues de lapofaie, de la musique et des heros de roman, and an annotated translation of the treatise on the sublime by Longinus. Guided solely by his judgment and his fine perceptions of the true and the beautiful, he was wrongly represented by those whose pedantry he denounced as destitute of all emotional powers.
Voltaire characterized him as the legislator of Parnassus, and his reputation as the founder of a new school of criticism and composition has survived all the changes in French literature, as attested by Sainte.Beuve and other recent authorities. Among the best editions of his works are those by Daunou (3 vols., Paris, 1809; 4 vols., 1825); by Saint.Surin, with copious notes (4 vols., 1824); and by Berriat Saint-Prix (4 vols., 1830; new ed., 1860, with an essay by Sainte.Beuve). Auguste Laverdet has published a complete edition of Boileau's Correspondance (2 vols., 1856).