NEXT morning he took me to another room. Here, he said, we have the poets; that is to say, those authors whose business it is to shackle common sense, and to smother reason with embellishment, as women were formerly buried under their ornaments and jewelery. You must know them; they are not uncommon in the east, where a hotter sun seems to give new heat even to the imagination.1
There are the epic poems. Ah! and what are epic poems? Indeed, said he, I dont know; critics say that there were never more than two, and that the others, which go by the name, are not epics: that, too, I know nothing about. They say, besides, what is still more surprising, that it is impossible to make more.2
Here are the dramatic poets, which are, in my opinion, the best of all, and the masters of passion. There are two kinds: the comic dramatists, who move us so agreeably, and the tragic dramatists, who rouse our passions and shake our dispositions.
Then come the authors of idylls and eclogues, which charm even courtiers, who imagine that they receive from them a feeling of serenity which they do not possess, and that they are brought face to face with the pastoral life.
Here you see the romances, whose authors are a sort of poets, and who are as extravagant in their wit as they are outrageous in their treatment of passion: they spend their lives seeking nature and never finding it: their heroes are about as natural as winged dragons and hippogriffs.
I have seen, said I, some of your romances, and if you could see ours, you would be yet more disgusted. They are as unnatural as yours, and, on account of our manners, excessively tedious; it takes ten years of devotion before a lover may be allowed as much as to see the face of his mistress. Yet the authors are compelled to conduct their readers through these wearisome preliminaries. As it is impossible that incidents should be endlessly varied, they have recourse to an artifice worse than the evil they would remedy; I mean the introduction of prodigies. I am sure you would not approve of a sorceress causing an army to spring out of the earth, or of a hero destroying single-handed a hundred thousand men. Yet such are our romances; the repetition of these dull adventures tires us out, and these absurd marvels disgust us.
Note 1. Like Pascal, Montesquieu despised poetry, although he liked plays. Voltaire, having been taken to task concerning his attacks on Montesquieu, replied, He is guilty of lèse-poésie. [back]
Note 2. M. Meyer, in his Études de critique ancienne et moderne, detects here an allusion to Voltaires Henriade, the beginning of which was already circulating in manuscript. This is not impossible, as Montesquieu had no great regard for Voltaire. [back]