1To pretend that Montesquieu was a poet would be an enormous challenge. Not only does the only evidence consist of a very thin collection of his verse works, but we also know that he had little esteem for poets themselves. Yet he did practice versification like any young man at school: he held onto a hundred or so lines from a tragedy entitled Britomare which he had composed at the collège de Juilly (Pensées, no. 359).
2We also find – though they are not very notable – a small number of unoriginal fugitive poems, like the celebration of the charms of the Marquise de Mirepoix or the Marquise de Boufflers, a few sharp verses against the city of Genoa, the trace of a short stay there in 1728, as well as an epigram aimed at the sexual tastes of both the Tuscans and the Jesuits (Sur la coutume de Florence), an epistle to the priest de Courdimanche, some nice lines to thank Dacier, who had created a medal in his honor, or again a letter with scattered verse apparently addressed to Mlle de Clermont (OC, t. XVIII, letter 75, 1724?: there is still doubt about addressee and date). These are merely the signs of a worldly use of poetry to which moreover Montesquieu lent himself rather reluctantly. La Harpe relates that he was wont to have his secretary compose madrigals for him… But that is just an example of the innumerable legends that crop up around any great man.
3So it is not through the practice of verse that we can analyze Montesquieu’s judgment concerning poetry. We must first recall the various condemnations we can read in the Persian Letters. Thus, in letter 34 Usbek ridicules the excesses generated in France by the “Homer quarrel” – the debate apparently did not impassion Montesquieu – but especially in letters 46, and by Rica in letter 131, poets are overtly targeted. They are “the most foolish of men”, “scorn is heaped on them by the handful”, they are “amateurs whose trade is to put shackles on common sense and to overwhelm reason with ornaments”, and if this condemnation excludes dramatic poets (in the Pensées Montesquieu sometimes comments attentively on lines from Crébillon, as he also does Ovid), the others are deprecated and notably the ones styled as “lyrical”, who produce nothing but “harmonious extravagance”.
4Why such severity? Must we believe Voltaire when he writes in a letter to Saurin in 1768: “Montesquieu, who in his Persian Letters, goes out of his way to belittle poets. He wanted to overturn a throne where he sensed he could not sit” (D15395)? This condemnation of poetry would be nothing but the vengeance of someone with a mediocre talent for it… But Montesquieu never showed the slightest ambition for it, nor the slightest positive taste for it. Should we see in it the attitude of a “Modern” more tempted, like Marivaux, by prose than by what in the Essay on taste he would call “the constraint of verse”? That constraint is all the same pleasing, and in the Quarrel Montesquieu took no sides, preferring to borrow from each what seemed to him most worthy of interest. Still, we can think that Montesquieu tried, like others in the same period, to combat the tyranny of verse on poetry. Thus The Temple of Gnidus , in 1725, a poem in several cantos of gallant, even precious, inspiration, is composed in prose. As much as to say that the libertine vein he espouses on that occasion seemed to him adaptable to an expression freed from versification. In the Essay on taste, the examples involve painting and prose more than poetry, often in the form of lapidary sentences serving to illustrate the “pleasures of surprise” or of symmetry. But his general practice of quotation certainly deserves to be looked at more closely, since it could well reveal something of his preference for artful prose: isolating a phrase, even a few words borrowed from a prose writer or Latin poet, it is akin to the ingenious art of inscription; it makes use of sonorous or intertextual poetic practices (Volpilhac). Used for ironic purposes in the catalogue of the library at La Brède, or programmatically in the short text Au château de La Brède, and even in the library itself, it shows up again in the Pensées (no. 1386) as mode of self-affirmation or judgment without appeal.
5We can add to the dossier the “Invocation to the Muses” which Montesquieu composed for L’Esprit des lois. Absent from the first edition, as desired by Jacob Vernet, it was re-established in the posthumous editions, although Montesquieu had done nothing to bring it about. In five stanzas, if they can be so called, the invocation is a sort of ode in prose that recalls other attempts, like those of La Motte. He seeks the inspiration of the Muses to make “reason speak” and attempts a sort of alliance between intellectual preoccupations, sensitive taste and passion for truth. Hence one senses that to him versification is no doubt just a vain, mechanical exercise to be reserved for the most pointless subjects.
OC, t. VIII, 2003: À madame de Prie (p. 267-272), Épître au curé de Courdimanche (p. 273-278), Chansons Nous n’avons pour philosophie…, Amour après mainte victoire… (p. 279-290); OC, t. IX, 2006: Adieux à Gênes (p. 17-22), Sur la coutume de Florence de n’admettre que les hommes pour jouer les rôles sur le théâtre. Epigramme (p. 23-30), Portrait [de madame de Mirepoix] (p. 277-284), À madame la marquise de Boufflers (p. 285-290), Madrigal. À deux sœurs qui lui demandaient une chanson (p. 291-296), À Dassier (p. 423-428), Au château de La Brède (p. 537-542).
Sylvain Menant, La Chute d’Icare: La crise de la poésie française (1700-1750), Geneva: Droz, 1981, p. 99-102.
Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “La référence antique dans les œuvres de Montesquieu: de la rhétorique à l’histoire des idées”, Montesquieu: les années de formation (1689-1720), Cahiers Montesquieu no. 5 (1999), p. 79-88.
Sylviane Albertan-Coppola, “‘L’invocation aux Muses’ dans L’Esprit des lois”, Littérales (Université de Paris X) 28 (2001), p. 101-108.