belles-lettres (rhetoric and literature)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

belles lettres
Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner, The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800 (1997). (Getty Images)


In its broadest sense, the term belles-lettres can refer to any literary work. More particularly, the term "is now generally applied (when used at all) to the lighter branches of literature" (The Oxford English Dictionary, 1989). Until recently, belles-lettres has similarly been used as a synonym for the familiar essay. Adjective: belletristic.

From the Middle Ages until the late 19th century, notes William Covino, belles-lettres and rhetoric "had been inseparable subjects, informed by the same critical and pedagogical lexicon" (The Art of Wondering, 1988).

Usage note: Though the noun belles-lettres has a plural ending, it can be used with either a singular or plural verb form.

From the French, literally "fine letters"

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The emergence of a literature of belles-lettres in Anglo-America reflected the success of the colonies: it meant there now existed a community of settlers who took settling in the New World enough for granted not to write about it. Instead of histories, they wrote essays in which style mattered as much as content and sometimes more . . ..

    "'Belles-lettres,' a literary mode that originated in 17th-century France, signified writing in the style and service of cultivated society. The English mostly kept the French term but on occasion translated it as 'polite letters.' Belle-lettres denotes a linguistic self-consciousness testifying to the superior education of both writer and reader, who come together more through literature than through life. Or rather, they meet in a world reconstructed by literature, for belles-lettres makes life literary, adding an aesthetic dimension to morality."
    (Myra Jehlen and Michael Warner, The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800. Routledge, 1997)

  • "Reporting trained me to give only the filtered truth, to discern the essence of the matter immediately and to write about it briefly. The pictorial and psychological material which remained within me I used for belles-lettres and poetry."
    (Russian author Vladimir Giliarovskii, quoted by Michael Pursglove in Encyclopaedia of the Essay, ed. by Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997)

  • Examples of Belle-Lettrists
    "Often the essay is the favoured form of the belle-lettrist. The works of Max Beerbohm provide good examples. So do those of Aldous Huxley, many of whose collections of essays . . . are listed as belles-lettres. They are witty, elegant, urbane and learned--the characteristics one would expect of belles-lettres."
    (J.A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 3rd ed. Basil Blackwell, 1991)

  • Belletristic Style
    "A piece of prose writing that is belletristic in style is characterized by a casual, yet polished and pointed, essayistic elegance. The belletristic is sometimes contrasted with the scholarly or academic: it is supposed to be free of the laborious, inert, jargon-ridden habits indulged by professors.

    "Reflection on literature has most often been belletristic: practiced by authors themselves and (later) by journalists, outside academic institutions. Literary study, beginning with research on the classics, became a systematic academic discipline only in the 18th and 19th centuries."
    (David Mikics, A New Handbook of Literary Terms. Yale University Press, 2007)

  • Oratory, Rhetoric, and Belles-Lettres in the 18th and 19th Centuries
    "Cheap print literacy transformed the relations of rhetoric, composition, and literature. In his review of [Wilbur Samuel] Howell's British Logic and Rhetoric, [Walter] Ong notes that 'by the close of the 18th century orality as a way of life in effect ended, and with it the old-time world of oratory, or, to give oratory its Greek name rhetoric' (641). According to one of the literature professors who occupied the chair of rhetoric and belles lettres established for Hugh Blair, Blair was the first to recognize that '"Rhetoric" in modern times really means "Criticism"' (Saintsbury 463). Rhetoric and composition began to be subsumed into literary criticism at the same time that the modern sense of literature was emerging . . .. In the 18th century, literature was reconceived as 'literary work or production; the activity or profession of a man of letters,' and it moved toward the modern 'restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect.' . . . Ironically, composition was becoming subordinated to criticism, and literature was becoming narrowed to imaginative works oriented to aesthetic effects at the same time that authorship was actually expanding."
    (Thomas P. Miller, The Formation of College English: Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the British Cultural Provinces. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)

  • The Influential Theories of Hugh Blair
    "[Throughout the 19th century, prescriptions for] fine writing--with their attendant critique of literary style--advanced an influential theory of reading as well. The most influential exponent of this theory was [Scottish rhetorician] Hugh Blair, whose 1783 Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres was the text for generations of students. . . .

    "Blair intended to teach college students the principles of expository writing and speaking and to guide their appreciation of good literature. Throughout the 48 lectures, he stresses the importance of a thorough knowledge of one's subject. He makes it clear that a stylistically deficient text reflects a writer who doesn't know what he thinks; anything less than a clear conception of one's subject guarantees defective work, 'so close is the connection between thoughts and the words in which they are clothed' (I, 7). . . . In sum, Blair equates taste with the delighted perception of wholeness and posits such delight as a psychological given. He makes this remark by way of connecting taste with literary criticism and concludes that good criticism approves unity above all else.

    "Blair's doctrine of perspicuity further connects least effort on the reader's part with admirable writing. In Lecture 10 we are told that style discloses the writer's manner of thinking and that perspicuous style is preferred because it reflects an unwavering point of view on the part of the author."
    (William A. Covino, The Art of Wondering: A Revisionist Return to the History of Rhetoric. Boynton/Cook, 1988)


    Pronunciation: bel-LETR(ə)