In France, as in most other parts of Europe, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries developed elaborate rules and conventions for the writing of poetry. Indeed, nowhere were the conventions more rigid and the rules more precise than in France, and nowhere, perhaps, was the poetry more impressive; no writer has ever produced fine verse within narrower and more restrictive limits than did the seventeenth-century dramatist Jean Racine.
Racine's verse, like all other French verse of the era, always rhymed; and his rhymes were invariably arranged according to complex and inflexible rules. The shape of his verse nearly always mirrored its grammatical structure: sense rarely spilled across line-boundaries, as it constantly does in Milton and the later Shakespeare. His language was drawn from a remarkably small stock of acceptably dignified, 'poetic' words (a bottlenose dolphin, we are sometimes told, may use a wider 'vocabulary' within a few months than Racine did in his whole career). His subject-matter was correspondingly limited.
Most of Racine's eighteenth-century successors seem to have felt that he had written not merely one kind of poetry, but the best possible kind. Even Voltaire, who delighted in unconventionalities and novelties of thought, kept within the established conventions when he was writing verse, and looked back at earlier, pre-Racinian poets with the assured superiority of an educated adult listening to the prattle of ignorant children. When, for instance, in his Commentaries on Corneille he turned the pages of Pierre Corneille Polyeucte ( 1642), he felt that he was in the presence of a 'masterpiece' written by a 'great poet', yet scarcely anything in it quite satisfied him. One turn of phrase was 'bourgeois', another was 'too colloquial', a third was 'not pure French'; he objected to repetitions of the same phrase in close succession, and to touches of comedy in a work that is supposed to be tragic. He spoke of certain words or phrases as 'forbidden': 'forbidden in tragedy', 'forbidden in dignified writing', or even 'in writing of any kind'. Above all, he disliked half-lights and ambiguities. 'This is scarcely intelligible,' he complained at one point. 'If you want to know whether verses are