Books and Characters
Lytton Strachey

Part 2 out of 4

they bear upon every page of them the traces of a mind to which the
whole movement of contemporary life was profoundly distasteful. The new
forces to which the eighteenth century gave birth in thought, in art, in
sentiment, in action--which for us form its peculiar interest and its
peculiar glory--were anathema to Madame du Deffand. In her letters to
Walpole, whenever she compares the present with the past her bitterness
becomes extreme. 'J'ai eu autrefois,' she writes in 1778, 'des plaisirs
indicibles aux operas de Quinault et de Lulli, et au jeu de Thevenart et
de la Lemaur. Pour aujourd'hui, tout me parait detestable: acteurs,
auteurs, musiciens, beaux esprits, philosophes, tout est de mauvais
gout, tout est affreux, affreux.' That great movement towards
intellectual and political emancipation which centred in the
'Encyclopaedia' and the _Philosophes_ was the object of her particular
detestation. She saw Diderot once--and that was enough for both of them.
She could never understand why it was that M. de Voltaire would persist
in wasting his talent for writing over such a dreary subject as
religion. Turgot, she confessed, was an honest man, but he was also a
'sot animal.' His dismissal from office--that fatal act, which made the
French Revolution inevitable--delighted her: she concealed her feelings
from Walpole, who admired him, but she was outspoken enough to the
Duchesse de Choiseul. 'Le renvoi du Turgot me plait extremement,' she
wrote; 'tout me parait en bon train.' And then she added, more
prophetically than she knew, 'Mais, assurement, nous n'en resterons pas
la.' No doubt her dislike of the Encyclopaedists and all their works was
in part a matter of personal pique--the result of her famous quarrel
with Mademoiselle de Lespinasse, under whose opposing banner d'Alembert
and all the intellectual leaders of Parisian society had unhesitatingly
ranged themselves. But that quarrel was itself far more a symptom of a
deeply rooted spiritual antipathy than a mere vulgar struggle for
influence between two rival _salonnieres_. There are indications that,
even before it took place, the elder woman's friendship for d'Alembert
was giving way under the strain of her scorn for his advanced views and
her hatred of his proselytising cast of mind. 'Il y a de certains
articles,' she complained to Voltaire in 1763--a year before the final
estrangement--'qui sont devenus pour lui affaires de parti, et sur
lesquels je ne lui trouve pas le sens commun.' The truth is that
d'Alembert and his friends were moving, and Madame du Deffand was
standing still. Mademoiselle de Lespinasse simply precipitated and
intensified an inevitable rupture. She was the younger generation
knocking at the door.

Madame du Deffand's generation had, indeed, very little in common with
that ardent, hopeful, speculative, sentimental group of friends who met
together every evening in the drawing-room of Mademoiselle de
Lespinasse. Born at the close of the seventeenth century, she had come
into the world in the brilliant days of the Regent, whose witty and
licentious reign had suddenly dissipated the atmosphere of gloom and
bigotry imposed upon society by the moribund Court of Louis XIV. For a
fortnight (so she confessed to Walpole) she was actually the Regent's
mistress; and a fortnight, in those days, was a considerable time. Then
she became the intimate friend of Madame de Prie--the singular woman
who, for a moment, on the Regent's death, during the government of M. le
Duc, controlled the destinies of France, and who committed suicide when
that amusement was denied her. During her early middle age Madame du
Deffand was one of the principal figures in the palace of Sceaux, where
the Duchesse du Maine, the grand-daughter of the great Conde and the
daughter-in-law of Louis XIV., kept up for many years an almost royal
state among the most distinguished men and women of the time. It was at
Sceaux, with its endless succession of entertainments and
conversations--supper-parties and water-parties, concerts and masked
balls, plays in the little theatre and picnics under the great trees of
the park--that Madame du Deffand came to her maturity and established
her position as one of the leaders of the society in which she moved.
The nature of that society is plainly enough revealed in the letters and
the memoirs that have come down to us. The days of formal pomp and vast
representation had ended for ever when the 'Grand Monarque' was no
longer to be seen strutting, in periwig and red-heeled shoes, down the
glittering gallery of Versailles; the intimacy and seclusion of modern
life had not yet begun. It was an intermediate period, and the
comparatively small group formed by the elite of the rich, refined, and
intelligent classes led an existence in which the elements of publicity
and privacy were curiously combined. Never, certainly, before or since,
have any set of persons lived so absolutely and unreservedly with and
for their friends as these high ladies and gentlemen of the middle years
of the eighteenth century. The circle of one's friends was, in those
days, the framework of one's whole being; within which was to be found
all that life had to offer, and outside of which no interest, however
fruitful, no passion, however profound, no art, however soaring, was of
the slightest account. Thus while in one sense the ideal of such a
society was an eminently selfish one, it is none the less true that
there have been very few societies indeed in which the ordinary forms of
personal selfishness have played so small a part. The selfishness of the
eighteenth century was a communal selfishness. Each individual was
expected to practise, and did in fact practise to a consummate degree,
those difficult arts which make the wheels of human intercourse run
smoothly--the arts of tact and temper, of frankness and sympathy, of
delicate compliment and exquisite self-abnegation--with the result that
a condition of living was produced which, in all its superficial and
obvious qualities, was one of unparalleled amenity. Indeed, those
persons who were privileged to enjoy it showed their appreciation of it
in an unequivocal way--by the tenacity with which they clung to the
scene of such delights and graces. They refused to grow old; they almost
refused to die. Time himself seems to have joined their circle, to have
been infected with their politeness, and to have absolved them, to the
furthest possible point, from the operation of his laws. Voltaire,
d'Argental, Moncrif, Henault, Madame d'Egmont, Madame du Deffand
herself--all were born within a few years of each other, and all lived
to be well over eighty, with the full zest of their activities
unimpaired. Pont-de-Veyle, it is true, died young--at the age of
seventy-seven. Another contemporary, Richelieu, who was famous for his
adventures while Louis XIV. was still on the throne, lived till within a
year of the opening of the States-General. More typical still of this
singular and fortunate generation was Fontenelle, who, one morning in
his hundredth year, quietly observed that he felt a difficulty in
existing, and forthwith, even more quietly, ceased to do so.

Yet, though the wheels of life rolled round with such an alluring
smoothness, they did not roll of themselves; the skill and care of
trained mechanicians were needed to keep them going; and the task was no
light one. Even Fontenelle himself, fitted as he was for it by being
blessed (as one of his friends observed) with two brains and no heart,
realised to the full the hard conditions of social happiness. 'Il y a
peu de choses,' he wrote, 'aussi difficiles et aussi dangereuses que le
commerce des hommes.' The sentence, true for all ages, was particularly
true for his own. The graceful, easy motions of that gay company were
those of dancers balanced on skates, gliding, twirling, interlacing,
over the thinnest ice. Those drawing-rooms, those little circles, so
charming with the familiarity of their privacy, were themselves the
rigorous abodes of the deadliest kind of public opinion--the kind that
lives and glitters in a score of penetrating eyes. They required in
their votaries the absolute submission that reigns in religious
orders--the willing sacrifice of the entire life. The intimacy of
personal passion, the intensity of high endeavour--these things must be
left behind and utterly cast away by all who would enter that narrow
sanctuary. Friendship might be allowed there, and flirtation disguised
as love; but the overweening and devouring influence of love itself
should never be admitted to destroy the calm of daily intercourse and
absorb into a single channel attentions due to all. Politics were to be
tolerated, so long as they remained a game; so soon as they grew serious
and envisaged the public good, they became insufferable. As for
literature and art, though they might be excellent as subjects for
recreation and good talk, what could be more preposterous than to treat
such trifles as if they had a value of their own? Only one thing; and
that was to indulge, in the day-dreams of religion or philosophy, the
inward ardours of the soul. Indeed, the scepticism of that generation
was the most uncompromising that the world has known; for it did not
even trouble to deny: it simply ignored. It presented a blank wall of
perfect indifference alike to the mysteries of the universe and to the
solutions of them. Madame du Deffand gave early proof that she shared to
the full this propensity of her age. While still a young girl in a
convent school, she had shrugged her shoulders when the nuns began to
instruct her in the articles of their faith. The matter was considered
serious, and the great Massillon, then at the height of his fame as a
preacher and a healer of souls, was sent for to deal with the youthful
heretic. She was not impressed by his arguments. In his person the
generous fervour and the massive piety of an age that could still
believe felt the icy and disintegrating touch of a new and strange
indifference. 'Mais qu'elle est jolie!' he murmured as he came away. The
Abbess ran forward to ask what holy books he recommended. 'Give her a
threepenny Catechism,' was Massillon's reply. He had seen that the case
was hopeless.

An innate scepticism, a profound levity, an antipathy to enthusiasm that
wavered between laughter and disgust, combined with an unswerving
devotion to the exacting and arduous ideals of social intercourse--such
were the characteristics of the brilliant group of men and women who had
spent their youth at the Court of the Regent, and dallied out their
middle age down the long avenues of Sceaux. About the middle of the
century the Duchesse du Maine died, and Madame du Deffand established
herself in Paris at the Convent of Saint Joseph in a set of rooms which
still showed traces--in the emblazoned arms over the great
mantelpiece--of the occupation of Madame de Montespan. A few years later
a physical affliction overtook her: at the age of fifty-seven she became
totally blind; and this misfortune placed her, almost without a
transition, among the ranks of the old. For the rest of her life she
hardly moved from her drawing-room, which speedily became the most
celebrated in Europe. The thirty years of her reign there fall into two
distinct and almost equal parts. The first, during which d'Alembert was
pre-eminent, came to an end with the violent expulsion of Mademoiselle
de Lespinasse. During the second, which lasted for the rest of her life,
her salon, purged of the Encyclopaedists, took on a more decidedly
worldly tone; and the influence of Horace Walpole was supreme.

It is this final period of Madame du Deffand's life that is reflected so
minutely in the famous correspondence which the labours of Mrs. Toynbee
have now presented to us for the first time in its entirety. Her letters
to Walpole form in effect a continuous journal covering the space of
fifteen years (1766-1780). They allow us, on the one hand, to trace
through all its developments the progress of an extraordinary passion,
and on the other to examine, as it were under the microscope of perhaps
the bitterest perspicacity on record, the last phase of a doomed
society. For the circle which came together in her drawing-room during
those years had the hand of death upon it. The future lay elsewhere; it
was simply the past that survived there--in the rich trappings of
fashion and wit and elaborate gaiety--but still irrevocably the past.
The radiant creatures of Sceaux had fallen into the yellow leaf. We see
them in these letters, a collection of elderly persons trying hard to
amuse themselves, and not succeeding very well. Pont-de-Veyle, the
youthful septuagenarian, did perhaps succeed; for he never noticed what
a bore he was becoming with his perpetual cough, and continued to go the
rounds with indefatigable animation, until one day his cough was heard
no more. Henault--once notorious for his dinner-parties, and for having
written an historical treatise--which, it is true, was worthless, but he
had written it--Henault was beginning to dodder, and Voltaire, grinning
in Ferney, had already dubbed him 'notre delabre President.' Various
dowagers were engaged upon various vanities. The Marquise de Boufflers
was gambling herself to ruin; the Comtesse de Boufflers was wringing
out the last drops of her reputation as the mistress of a Royal Prince;
the Marechale de Mirepoix was involved in shady politics; the Marechale
de Luxembourg was obliterating a highly dubious past by a scrupulous
attention to 'bon ton,' of which, at last, she became the arbitress:
'Quel ton! Quel effroyable ton!' she is said to have exclaimed after a
shuddering glance at the Bible; 'ah, Madame, quel dommage que le Saint
Esprit eut aussi peu de gout!' Then there was the floating company of
foreign diplomats, some of whom were invariably to be found at Madame du
Deffand's: Caraccioli, for instance, the Neapolitan Ambassador--'je
perds les trois quarts de ce qu'il dit,' she wrote, 'mais comme il en
dit beaucoup, on peut supporter cette perte'; and Bernstorff, the Danish
envoy, who became the fashion, was lauded to the skies for his wit and
fine manners, until, says the malicious lady, 'a travers tous ces
eloges, je m'avisai de l'appeler Puffendorf,' and Puffendorf the poor
man remained for evermore. Besides the diplomats, nearly every foreign
traveller of distinction found his way to the renowned _salon_;
Englishmen were particularly frequent visitors; and among the familiar
figures of whom we catch more than one glimpse in the letters to Walpole
are Burke, Fox, and Gibbon. Sometimes influential parents in England
obtained leave for their young sons to be admitted into the centre of
Parisian refinement. The English cub, fresh from Eton, was introduced by
his tutor into the red and yellow drawing-room, where the great circle
of a dozen or more elderly important persons, glittering in jewels and
orders, pompous in powder and rouge, ranged in rigid order round the
fireplace, followed with the precision of a perfect orchestra the
leading word or smile or nod of an ancient Sibyl, who seemed to survey
the company with her eyes shut, from a vast chair by the wall. It is
easy to imagine the scene, in all its terrifying politeness. Madame du
Deffand could not tolerate young people; she declared that she did not
know what to say to them; and they, no doubt, were in precisely the same
difficulty. To an English youth, unfamiliar with the language and shy
as only English youths can be, a conversation with that redoubtable old
lady must have been a grim ordeal indeed. One can almost hear the
stumbling, pointless observations, almost see the imploring looks cast,
from among the infinitely attentive company, towards the tutor, and the
pink ears growing still more pink. But such awkward moments were rare.
As a rule the days flowed on in easy monotony--or rather, not the days,
but the nights. For Madame du Deffand rarely rose till five o'clock in
the evening; at six she began her reception; and at nine or half-past
the central moment of the twenty-four hours arrived--the moment of
supper. Upon this event the whole of her existence hinged. Supper, she
used to say, was one of the four ends of man, and what the other three
were she could never remember. She lived up to her dictum. She had an
income of L1400 a year, and of this she spent more than half--L720--on
food. These figures should be largely increased to give them their
modern values; but, economise as she might, she found that she could
only just manage to rub along. Her parties varied considerably in size;
sometimes only four or five persons sat down to supper--sometimes twenty
or thirty. No doubt they were elaborate meals. In a moment of economy we
find the hospitable lady making pious resolutions: she would no longer
give 'des repas'--only ordinary suppers for six people at the most, at
which there should be served nothing more than two entrees, one roast,
two sweets, and--mysterious addition--'la piece du milieu.' This was
certainly moderate for those days (Monsieur de Jonsac rarely provided
fewer than fourteen entrees), but such resolutions did not last long. A
week later she would suddenly begin to issue invitations wildly, and,
day after day, her tables would be loaded with provisions for thirty
guests. But she did not always have supper at home. From time to time
she sallied forth in her vast coach and rattled through the streets of
Paris to one of her still extant dowagers--a Marechale, or a
Duchesse--or the more and more 'delabre President.' There the same
company awaited her as that which met in her own house; it was simply a
change of decorations; often enough for weeks together she had supper
every night with the same half-dozen persons. The entertainment, apart
from the supper itself, hardly varied. Occasionally there was a little
music, more often there were cards and gambling. Madame du Deffand
disliked gambling, but she loathed going to bed, and, if it came to a
choice between the two, she did not hesitate: once, at the age of
seventy-three, she sat up till seven o'clock in the morning playing
vingt-et-un with Charles Fox. But distractions of that kind were merely
incidental to the grand business of the night--the conversation. In the
circle that, after an eight hours' sitting, broke up reluctantly at two
or three every morning to meet again that same evening at six, talk
continually flowed. For those strange creatures it seemed to form the
very substance of life itself. It was the underlying essence, the
circumambient ether, in which alone the pulsations of existence had
their being; it was the one eternal reality; men might come and men
might go, but talk went on for ever. It is difficult, especially for
those born under the Saturnine influence of an English sky, quite to
realise the nature of such conversation. Brilliant, charming,
easy-flowing, gay and rapid it must have been; never profound, never
intimate, never thrilling; but also never emphatic, never affected,
never languishing, and never dull. Madame du Deffand herself had a most
vigorous flow of language. 'Ecoutez! Ecoutez!' Walpole used constantly
to exclaim, trying to get in his points; but in vain; the sparkling
cataract swept on unheeding. And indeed to listen was the wiser part--to
drink in deliciously the animation of those quick, illimitable,
exquisitely articulated syllables, to surrender one's whole soul to the
pure and penetrating precision of those phrases, to follow without a
breath the happy swiftness of that fine-spun thread of thought. Then at
moments her wit crystallised; the cataract threw off a shower of radiant
jewels, which one caught as one might. Some of these have come down to
us. Her remark on Montesquieu's great book--'C'est de l'esprit sur les
lois'--is an almost final criticism. Her famous 'mot de Saint Denis,' so
dear to the heart of Voltaire, deserves to be once more recorded. A
garrulous and credulous Cardinal was describing the martyrdom of Saint
Denis the Areopagite: when his head was cut off, he took it up and
carried it in his hands. That, said the Cardinal, was well known; what
was not well known was the extraordinary fact that he walked with his
head under his arm all the way from Montmartre to the Church of Saint
Denis--a distance of six miles. 'Ah, Monseigneur!' said Madame du
Deffand, 'dans une telle situation, il n'y a que le premier pas qui
coute.' At two o'clock the brilliance began to flag; the guests began to
go; the dreadful moment was approaching. If Madame de Gramont happened
to be there, there was still some hope, for Madame de Gramont abhorred
going to bed almost as much as Madame du Deffand. Or there was just a
chance that the Duc de Choiseul might come in at the last moment, and
stay on for a couple of hours. But at length it was impossible to
hesitate any longer; the chariot was at the door. She swept off, but it
was still early; it was only half-past three; and the coachman was
ordered to drive about the Boulevards for an hour before going home.

It was, after all, only natural that she should put off going to bed,
for she rarely slept for more than two or three hours. The greater part
of that empty time, during which conversation was impossible, she
devoted to her books. But she hardly ever found anything to read that
she really enjoyed. Of the two thousand volumes she possessed--all bound
alike, and stamped on the back with her device of a cat--she had only
read four or five hundred; the rest were impossible. She perpetually
complained to Walpole of the extreme dearth of reading matter. In
nothing, indeed, is the contrast more marked between that age and ours
than in the quantity of books available for the ordinary reader. How the
eighteenth century would envy us our innumerable novels, our
biographies, our books of travel, all our easy approaches to knowledge
and entertainment, our translations, our cheap reprints! In those days,
even for a reader of catholic tastes, there was really very little to
read. And, of course, Madame du Deffand's tastes were far from
catholic--they were fastidious to the last degree. She considered that
Racine alone of writers had reached perfection, and that only once--in
_Athalie_. Corneille carried her away for moments, but on the whole he
was barbarous. She highly admired 'quelques centaines de vers de M. de
Voltaire.' She thought Richardson and Fielding excellent, and she was
enraptured by the style--but only by the style--of _Gil Blas_. And that
was all. Everything else appeared to her either affected or pedantic or
insipid. Walpole recommended to her a History of Malta; she tried it,
but she soon gave it up--it mentioned the Crusades. She began Gibbon,
but she found him superficial. She tried Buffon, but he was 'd'une
monotonie insupportable; il sait bien ce qu'il sait, mais il ne s'occupe
que des betes; il faut l'etre un peu soi-meme pour se devouer a une
telle occupation.' She got hold of the memoirs of Saint-Simon in
manuscript, and these amused her enormously; but she was so disgusted by
the style that she was very nearly sick. At last, in despair, she
embarked on a prose translation of Shakespeare. The result was
unexpected; she was positively pleased. _Coriolanus_, it is true, 'me
semble, sauf votre respect, epouvantable, et n'a pas le sens commun';
and 'pour _La Tempete_, je ne suis pas touchee de ce genre.' But she was
impressed by _Othello_; she was interested by _Macbeth_; and she admired
_Julius Caesar_, in spite of its bad taste. At _King Lear_, indeed, she
had to draw the line. 'Ah, mon Dieu! Quelle piece! Reellement la
trouvez-vous belle? Elle me noircit l'ame a un point que je ne puis
exprimer; c'est un amas de toutes les horreurs infernales.' Her reader
was an old soldier from the Invalides, who came round every morning
early, and took up his position by her bedside. She lay back among the
cushions, listening, for long hours. Was there ever a more incongruous
company, a queerer trysting-place, for Goneril and Desdemona, Ariel and
Lady Macbeth?

Often, even before the arrival of the old pensioner, she was at work
dictating a letter, usually to Horace Walpole, occasionally to Madame de
Choiseul or Voltaire. Her letters to Voltaire are enchanting; his
replies are no less so; and it is much to be regretted that the whole
correspondence has never been collected together in chronological order,
and published as a separate book. The slim volume would be, of its kind,
quite perfect. There was no love lost between the two old friends; they
could not understand each other; Voltaire, alone of his generation, had
thrown himself into the very vanguard of thought; to Madame du Deffand
progress had no meaning, and thought itself was hardly more than an
unpleasant necessity. She distrusted him profoundly, and he returned the
compliment. Yet neither could do without the other: through her, he kept
in touch with one of the most influential circles in Paris; and even she
could not be insensible to the glory of corresponding with such a man.
Besides, in spite of all their differences, they admired each other
genuinely, and they were held together by the habit of a long
familiarity. The result was a marvellous display of epistolary art. If
they had liked each other any better, they never would have troubled to
write so well. They were on their best behaviour--exquisitely courteous
and yet punctiliously at ease, like dancers in a minuet. His cajoleries
are infinite; his deft sentences, mingling flattery with reflection,
have almost the quality of a caress. She replies in the tone of a
worshipper, glancing lightly at a hundred subjects, purring out her
'Monsieur de Voltaire,' and seeking his advice on literature and life.
He rejoins in that wonderful strain of epicurean stoicism of which he
alone possessed the secret: and so the letters go on. Sometimes one just
catches the glimpse of a claw beneath the soft pad, a grimace under the
smile of elegance; and one remembers with a shock that, after all, one
is reading the correspondence of a monkey and a cat.

Madame du Deffand's style reflects, perhaps even more completely than
that of Voltaire himself, the common-sense of the eighteenth century.
Its precision is absolute. It is like a line drawn in one stroke by a
master, with the prompt exactitude of an unerring subtlety. There is no
breadth in it--no sense of colour and the concrete mass of things. One
cannot wonder, as one reads her, that she hardly regretted her
blindness. What did she lose by it? Certainly not

The sweet approach of even or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summer's rose;

for what did she care for such particulars when her eyes were at their
clearest? Her perception was intellectual; and to the penetrating
glances of her mental vision the objects of the sensual world were mere
irrelevance. The kind of writing produced by such a quality of mind may
seem thin and barren to those accustomed to the wealth and variety of
the Romantic school. Yet it will repay attention. The vocabulary is very
small; but every word is the right one; this old lady of high society,
who had never given a thought to her style, who wrote--and spelt--by the
light of nature, was a past mistress of that most difficult of literary
accomplishments--'l'art de dire en un mot tout ce qu'un mot peut dire.'
The object of all art is to make suggestions. The romantic artist
attains that end by using a multitude of different stimuli, by calling
up image after image, recollection after recollection, until the
reader's mind is filled and held by a vivid and palpable evocation; the
classic works by the contrary method of a fine economy, and, ignoring
everything but what is essential, trusts, by means of the exact
propriety of his presentation, to produce the required effect. Madame du
Deffand carries the classical ideal to its furthest point. She never
strikes more than once, and she always hits the nail on the head. Such
is her skill that she sometimes seems to beat the Romantics even on
their own ground: her reticences make a deeper impression than all the
dottings of their i's. The following passage from a letter to Walpole is

Nous eumes une musique charmante, une dame qui joue de la harpe a
merveille; elle me fit tant de plaisir que j'eus du regret que vous
ne l'entendissiez pas; c'est un instrument admirable. Nous eumes
aussi un clavecin, mais quoiqu'il fut touche avec une grande
perfection, ce n'est rien en comparaison de la harpe. Je fus fort
triste toute la soiree; j'avais appris en partant que Mme. de
Luxembourg, qui etait allee samedi a Montmorency pour y passer
quinze jours, s'etait trouvee si mal qu'on avait fait venir
Tronchin, et qu'on l'avait ramenee le dimanche a huit heures du
soir, qu'on lui croyait de l'eau dans la poitrine. L'anciennete de
la connaissance; une habitude qui a l'air de l'amitie; voir
disparaitre ceux avec qui l'on vit; un retour sur soi-meme; sentir
que l'on ne tient a rien, que tout fuit, que tout echappe, qu'on
reste seule dans l'univers, et que malgre cela on craint de le
quitter; voila ce qui m'occupa pendant la musique.

Here are no coloured words, no fine phrases--only the most flat and
ordinary expressions--'un instrument admirable'--'une grande
perfection'--'fort triste.' Nothing is described; and yet how much is
suggested! The whole scene is conjured up--one does not know how; one's
imagination is switched on to the right rails, as it were, by a look, by
a gesture, and then left to run of itself. In the simple, faultless
rhythm of that closing sentence, the trembling melancholy of the old
harp seems to be lingering still.

While the letters to Voltaire show us nothing but the brilliant exterior
of Madame du Deffand's mind, those to Walpole reveal the whole state of
her soul. The revelation is not a pretty one. Bitterness, discontent,
pessimism, cynicism, boredom, regret, despair--these are the feelings
that dominate every page. To a superficial observer Madame du Deffand's
lot must have seemed peculiarly enviable; she was well off, she enjoyed
the highest consideration, she possessed intellectual talents of the
rarest kind which she had every opportunity of displaying, and she was
surrounded by a multitude of friends. What more could anyone desire? The
harsh old woman would have smiled grimly at such a question. 'A little
appetite,' she might have answered. She was like a dyspeptic at a feast;
the finer the dishes that were set before her, the greater her
distaste; that spiritual gusto which lends a savour to the meanest act
of living, and without which all life seems profitless, had gone from
her for ever. Yet--and this intensified her wretchedness--though the
banquet was loathsome to her, she had not the strength to tear herself
away from the table. Once, in a moment of desperation, she had thoughts
of retiring to a convent, but she soon realised that such an action was
out of the question. Fate had put her into the midst of the world, and
there she must remain. 'Je ne suis point assez heureuse,' she said, 'de
me passer des choses dont je ne me soucie pas.' She was extremely
lonely. As fastidious in friendship as in literature, she passed her
life among a crowd of persons whom she disliked and despised, 'Je ne
vois que des sots et des fripons,' she said; and she did not know which
were the most disgusting. She took a kind of deadly pleasure in
analysing 'les nuances des sottises' among the people with whom she
lived. The varieties were many, from the foolishness of her companion,
Mademoiselle Sanadon, who would do nothing but imitate her--'elle fait
des definitions,' she wails--to that of the lady who hoped to prove her
friendship by unending presents of grapes and pears--'comme je n'y tate
pas, cela diminue mes scrupules du peu de gout que j'ai pour elle.' Then
there were those who were not quite fools but something very near it.
'Tous les Matignon sont des sots,' said somebody one day to the Regent,
'excepte le Marquis de Matignon.' 'Cela est vrai,' the Regent replied,
'il n'est pas sot, mais on voit bien qu'il est le fils d'un sot.' Madame
du Deffand was an expert at tracing such affinities. For instance, there
was Necker. It was clear that Necker was not a fool, and yet--what was
it? Something was the matter--yes, she had it: he made you feel a fool
yourself--'l'on est plus bete avec lui que l'on ne l'est tout seul.' As
she said of herself: 'elle est toujours tentee d'arracher les masques
qu'elle rencontre.' Those blind, piercing eyes of hers spied out
unerringly the weakness or the ill-nature or the absurdity that lurked
behind the gravest or the most fascinating exterior; then her fingers
began to itch, and she could resist no longer--she gave way to her
besetting temptation. It is impossible not to sympathise with Rousseau's
remark about her--'J'aimai mieux encore m'exposer au fleau de sa haine
qu'a celui de son amitie.' There, sitting in her great Diogenes-tub of
an armchair--her 'tonneau' as she called it--talking, smiling,
scattering her bons mots, she went on through the night, in the
remorseless secrecy of her heart, tearing off the masks from the faces
that surrounded her. Sometimes the world in which she lived displayed
itself before her horrified inward vision like some intolerable and
meaningless piece of clock-work mechanism:

J'admirais hier au soir la nombreuse compagnie qui etait chez moi;
hommes et femmes me paraissaient des machines a ressorts, qui
allaient, venaient, parlaient, riaient, sans penser, sans
reflechir, sans sentir; chacun jouait son role par habitude: Madame
la Duchesse d'Aiguillon crevait de rire, Mme. de Forcalquier
dedaignait tout, Mme. de la Valliere jabotait sur tout. Les hommes
ne jouaient pas de meilleurs roles, et moi j'etais abimee dans les
reflexions les plus noires; je pensai que j'avais passe ma vie dans
les illusions; que je m'etais creusee tous les abimes dans lesquels
j'etais tombee.

At other times she could see around her nothing but a mass of mutual
hatreds, into which she was plunged herself no less than her neighbours:

Je ramenai la Marechale de Mirepoix chez elle; j'y descendis, je
causai une heure avec elle; je n'en fus pas mecontente. Elle hait
la petite Idole, elle hait la Marechale de Luxembourg; enfin, sa
haine pour tous les gens qui me deplaisent me fit lui pardonner
l'indifference et peut-etre la haine qu'elle a pour moi. Convenez
que voila une jolie societe, un charmant commerce.

Once or twice for several months together she thought that she had found
in the Duchesse de Choiseul a true friend and a perfect companion. But
there was one fatal flaw even in Madame de Choiseul: she _was_
perfect!--'Elle est parfaite; et c'est un plus grand defaut qu'on ne
pense et qu'on ne saurait imaginer.' At last one day the inevitable
happened--she went to see Madame de Choiseul, and she was bored. 'Je
rentrai chez moi a une heure, penetree, persuadee qu'on ne peut etre
content de personne.'

One person, however, there was who pleased her; and it was the final
irony of her fate that this very fact should have been the last drop
that caused the cup of her unhappiness to overflow. Horace Walpole had
come upon her at a psychological moment. Her quarrel with Mademoiselle
de Lespinasse and the Encyclopaedists had just occurred; she was within
a few years of seventy; and it must have seemed to her that, after such
a break, at such an age, there was little left for her to do but to die
quietly. Then the gay, talented, fascinating Englishman appeared, and
she suddenly found that, so far from her life being over, she was
embarked for good and all upon her greatest adventure. What she
experienced at that moment was something like a religious conversion.
Her past fell away from her a dead thing; she was overwhelmed by an
ineffable vision; she, who had wandered for so many years in the ways of
worldly indifference, was uplifted all at once on to a strange summit,
and pierced with the intensest pangs of an unknown devotion.
Henceforward her life was dedicated; but, unlike the happier saints of a
holier persuasion, she was to find no peace on earth. It was, indeed,
hardly to be expected that Walpole, a blase bachelor of fifty, should
have reciprocated so singular a passion; yet he might at least have
treated it with gentleness and respect. The total impression of him
which these letters produce is very damaging. It is true that he was in
a difficult position; and it is also true that, since only the merest
fragments of his side of the correspondence have been preserved, our
knowledge of the precise details of his conduct is incomplete;
nevertheless, it is clear that, on the whole, throughout the long and
painful episode, the principal motive which actuated him was an
inexcusable egoism. He was obsessed by a fear of ridicule. He knew that
letters were regularly opened at the French Post Office, and he lived in
terror lest some spiteful story of his absurd relationship with a blind
old woman of seventy should be concocted and set afloat among his
friends, or his enemies, in England, which would make him the
laughing-stock of society for the rest of his days. He was no less
terrified by the intensity of the sentiment of which he had become the
object. Thoroughly superficial and thoroughly selfish, immersed in his
London life of dilettantism and gossip, the weekly letters from France
with their burden of a desperate affection appalled him and bored him by
turns. He did not know what to do; and his perplexity was increased by
the fact that he really liked Madame du Deffand--so far as he could like
anyone--and also by the fact that his vanity was highly flattered by her
letters. Many courses were open to him, but the one he took was probably
the most cruel that he could have taken: he insisted with an absolute
rigidity on their correspondence being conducted in the tone of the most
ordinary friendship--on those terms alone, he said, would he consent to
continue it. And of course such terms were impossible to Madame du
Deffand. She accepted them--what else could she do?--but every line she
wrote was a denial of them. Then, periodically, there was an explosion.
Walpole stormed, threatened, declared he would write no more; and on her
side there were abject apologies, and solemn promises of amendment.
Naturally, it was all in vain. A few months later he would be attacked
by a fit of the gout, her solicitude would be too exaggerated, and the
same fury was repeated, and the same submission. One wonders what the
charm could have been that held that proud old spirit in such a
miserable captivity. Was it his very coldness that subdued her? If he
had cared for her a little more, perhaps she would have cared for him a
good deal less. But it is clear that what really bound her to him was
the fact that they so rarely met. If he had lived in Paris, if he had
been a member of her little clique, subject to the unceasing searchlight
of her nightly scrutiny, who can doubt that, sooner or later, Walpole
too would have felt 'le fleau de son amitie'? His mask, too, would have
been torn to tatters like the rest. But, as it was, his absence saved
him; her imagination clothed him with an almost mythic excellence; his
brilliant letters added to the impression; and then, at intervals of
about two years, he appeared in Paris for six weeks--just long enough to
rivet her chains, and not long enough to loosen them. And so it was that
she fell before him with that absolute and unquestioning devotion of
which only the most dominating and fastidious natures are capable. Once
or twice, indeed, she did attempt a revolt, but only succeeded in
plunging herself into a deeper subjection. After one of his most violent
and cruel outbursts, she refused to communicate with him further, and
for three or four weeks she kept her word; then she crept back and
pleaded for forgiveness. Walpole graciously granted it. It is with some
satisfaction that one finds him, a few weeks later, laid up with a
peculiarly painful attack of the gout.

About half-way through the correspondence there is an acute crisis,
after which the tone of the letters undergoes a marked change. After
seven years of struggle, Madame du Deffand's indomitable spirit was
broken; henceforward she would hope for nothing; she would gratefully
accept the few crumbs that might be thrown her; and for the rest she
resigned herself to her fate. Gradually sinking into extreme old age,
her self-repression and her bitterness grew ever more and more complete.
She was always bored; and her later letters are a series of variations
on the perpetual theme of 'ennui.' 'C'est une maladie de l'ame,' she
says, 'dont nous afflige la nature en nous donnant l'existence; c'est le
ver solitaire qui absorbe tout.' And again, 'l'ennui est l'avant-gout du
neant, mais le neant lui est preferable.' Her existence had become a
hateful waste--a garden, she said, from which all the flowers had been
uprooted and which had been sown with salt. 'Ah! Je le repete sans
cesse, il n'y a qu'un malheur, celui d'etre ne.' The grasshopper had
become a burden; and yet death seemed as little desirable as life.
'Comment est-il possible,' she asks, 'qu'on craigne la fin d'une vie
aussi triste?' When Death did come at last, he came very gently. She
felt his approaches, and dictated a letter to Walpole, bidding him, in
her strange fashion, an infinitely restrained farewell:
'Divertissez-vous, mon ami, le plus que vous pourrez; ne vous affligez
point de mon etat, nous etions presque perdus l'un pour l'autre; nous ne
nous devions jamais revoir; vous me regretterez, parce qu'on est bien
aise de se savoir aime.' That was her last word to him. Walpole might
have reached her before she finally lost consciousness, but, though he
realised her condition and knew well enough what his presence would have
been to her, he did not trouble to move. She died as she had lived--her
room crowded with acquaintances and the sound of a conversation in her
ears. When one reflects upon her extraordinary tragedy, when one
attempts to gauge the significance of her character and of her life, it
is difficult to know whether to pity most, to admire, or to fear.
Certainly there is something at once pitiable and magnificent in such an
unflinching perception of the futilities of living, such an
uncompromising refusal to be content with anything save the one thing
that it is impossible to have. But there is something alarming too; was
she perhaps right after all?


[Footnote 2: _Lettres de la Marquise du Deffand a Horace Walpole_
(1766-80). Premiere Edition complete, augmentee d'environ 500 Lettres
inedites, publiees, d'apres les originaux, avec une introduction, des
notes, et une table des noms, par Mrs. Paget Toynbee. 3 vols. Methuen,


The visit of Voltaire to England marks a turning-point in the history of
civilisation. It was the first step in a long process of
interaction--big with momentous consequences--between the French and
English cultures. For centuries the combined forces of mutual ignorance
and political hostility had kept the two nations apart: Voltaire planted
a small seed of friendship which, in spite of a thousand hostile
influences, grew and flourished mightily. The seed, no doubt, fell on
good ground, and no doubt, if Voltaire had never left his native
country, some chance wind would have carried it over the narrow seas, so
that history in the main would have been unaltered. But actually his was
the hand which did the work.

It is unfortunate that our knowledge of so important a period in
Voltaire's life should be extremely incomplete. Carlyle, who gave a
hasty glance at it in his life of Frederick, declared that he could find
nothing but 'mere inanity and darkness visible'; and since Carlyle's day
the progress has been small. A short chapter in Desnoiresterres' long
Biography and an essay by Churton Collins did something to co-ordinate
the few known facts. Another step was taken a few years ago with the
publication of M. Lanson's elaborate and exhaustive edition of the
_Lettres Philosophiques_, the work in which Voltaire gave to the world
the distilled essence of his English experiences. And now M. Lucien
Foulet has brought together all the extant letters concerning the
period, which he has collated with scrupulous exactitude and to which he
has added a series of valuable appendices upon various obscure and
disputed points. M. Lanson's great attainments are well known, and to
say that M. Foulet's work may fitly rank as a supplementary volume to
the edition of the _Lettres Philosophiques_ is simply to say that he is
a worthy follower of that noble tradition of profound research and
perfect lucidity which has made French scholarship one of the glories of
European culture.

Upon the events in particular which led up to Voltaire's departure for
England, M. Foulet has been able to throw considerable light. The story,
as revealed by the letters of contemporary observers and the official
documents of the police, is an instructive and curious one. In the early
days of January 1726 Voltaire, who was thirty-one years of age, occupied
a position which, so far as could be seen upon the surface, could hardly
have been more fortunate. He was recognised everywhere as the rising
poet of the day; he was a successful dramatist; he was a friend of
Madame de Prie, who was all-powerful at Court, and his talents had been
rewarded by a pension from the royal purse. His brilliance, his gaiety,
his extraordinary capacity for being agreeable had made him the pet of
the narrow and aristocratic circle which dominated France. Dropping his
middle-class antecedents as completely as he had dropped his
middle-class name, young Arouet, the notary's offspring, floated at his
ease through the palaces of dukes and princes, with whose sons he drank
and jested, and for whose wives--it was _de rigueur_ in those days--he
expressed all the ardours of a passionate and polite devotion. Such was
his roseate situation when, all at once, the catastrophe came. One night
at the Opera the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, of the famous and powerful
family of the Rohans, a man of forty-three, quarrelsome, blustering,
whose reputation for courage left something to be desired, began to
taunt the poet upon his birth--'Monsieur Arouet, Monsieur Voltaire--what
_is_ your name?' To which the retort came quickly--'Whatever my name may
be, I know how to preserve the honour of it.' The Chevalier muttered
something and went off, but the incident was not ended. Voltaire had let
his high spirits and his sharp tongue carry him too far, and he was to
pay the penalty. It was not an age in which it was safe to be too witty
with lords. 'Now mind, Dancourt,' said one of those _grands seigneurs_
to the leading actor of the day, 'if you're more amusing than I am at
dinner to-night, _je te donnerai cent coups de batons._' It was
dangerous enough to show one's wits at all in the company of such
privileged persons, but to do so at their expense----! A few days later
Voltaire and the Chevalier met again, at the Comedie, in Adrienne
Lecouvreur's dressing-room. Rohan repeated his sneering question, and
'the Chevalier has had his answer' was Voltaire's reply. Furious, Rohan
lifted his stick, but at that moment Adrienne very properly fainted, and
the company dispersed. A few days more and Rohan had perfected the
arrangements for his revenge. Voltaire, dining at the Duc de Sully's,
where, we are told, he was on the footing of a son of the house,
received a message that he was wanted outside in the street. He went
out, was seized by a gang of lackeys, and beaten before the eyes of
Rohan, who directed operations from a cab. 'Epargnez la tete,' he
shouted, 'elle est encore bonne pour faire rire le public'; upon which,
according to one account, there were exclamations from the crowd which
had gathered round of 'Ah! le bon seigneur!' The sequel is known to
everyone: how Voltaire rushed back, dishevelled and agonised, into
Sully's dining-room, how he poured out his story in an agitated flood of
words, and how that high-born company, with whom he had been living up
to that moment on terms of the closest intimacy, now only displayed the
signs of a frigid indifference. The caste-feeling had suddenly asserted
itself. Poets, no doubt, were all very well in their way, but really, if
they began squabbling with noblemen, what could they expect? And then
the callous and stupid convention of that still half-barbarous age--the
convention which made misfortune the proper object of ridicule--came
into play no less powerfully. One might take a poet seriously,
perhaps--until he was whipped; then, of course, one could only laugh at
him. For the next few days, wherever Voltaire went he was received with
icy looks, covert smiles, or exaggerated politeness. The Prince de
Conti, who, a month or two before, had written an ode in which he placed
the author of _Oedipe_ side by side with the authors of _Le Cid_ and
_Phedre_, now remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, that 'ces coups
de batons etaient bien recus et mal donnes.' 'Nous serions bien
malheureux,' said another well-bred personage, as he took a pinch of
snuff, 'si les poetes n'avaient pas des epaules.' Such friends as
remained faithful were helpless. Even Madame de Prie could do nothing.
'Le pauvre Voltaire me fait grande pitie,' she said; 'dans le fond il a
raison.' But the influence of the Rohan family was too much for her, and
she could only advise him to disappear for a little into the country,
lest worse should befall. Disappear he did, remaining for the next two
months concealed in the outskirts of Paris, where he practised
swordsmanship against his next meeting with his enemy. The situation was
cynically topsy-turvy. As M. Foulet points out, Rohan had legally
rendered himself liable, under the edict against duelling, to a long
term of imprisonment, if not to the penalty of death. Yet the law did
not move, and Voltaire was left to take the only course open in those
days to a man of honour in such circumstances--to avenge the insult by a
challenge and a fight. But now the law, which had winked at Rohan, began
to act against Voltaire. The police were instructed to arrest him so
soon as he should show any sign of an intention to break the peace. One
day he suddenly appeared at Versailles, evidently on the lookout for
Rohan, and then as suddenly vanished. A few weeks later, the police
reported that he was in Paris, lodging with a fencing-master, and making
no concealment of his desire to 'insulter incessamment et avec eclat M.
le chevalier de Rohan.' This decided the authorities, and accordingly on
the night of the 17th of April, as we learn from the _Police Gazette_,
'le sieur Arrouet de Voltaire, fameux poete,' was arrested, and
conducted 'par ordre du Roi' to the Bastille.

A letter, written by Voltaire to his friend Madame de Bernieres while he
was still in hiding, reveals the effect which these events had produced
upon his mind. It is the first letter in the series of his collected
correspondence which is not all Epicurean elegance and caressing wit.
The wit, the elegance, the finely turned phrase, the shifting
smile--these things are still visible there no doubt, but they are
informed and overmastered by a new, an almost ominous spirit: Voltaire,
for the first time in his life, is serious.

J'ai ete a l'extremite; je n'attends que ma convalescence pour
abandonner a jamais ce pays-ci. Souvenez-vous de l'amitie tendre
que vous avez eue pour moi; au nom de cette amitie informez-moi par
un mot de votre main de ce qui se passe, ou parlez a l'homme que je
vous envoi, en qui vous pouvez prendre une entiere confiance.
Presentez mes respects a Madame du Deffand; dites a Thieriot que je
veux absolument qu'il m'aime, ou quand je serai mort, ou quand je
serai heureux; jusque-la, je lui pardonne son indifference. Dites a
M. le chevalier des Alleurs que je n'oublierai jamais la generosite
de ses procedes pour moi. Comptez que tout detrompe que je suis de
la vanite des amities humaines, la votre me sera a jamais
precieuse. Je ne souhaite de revenir a Paris que pour vous voir,
vous embrasser encore une fois, et vous faire voir ma constance
dans mon amitie et dans mes malheurs.

'Presentez mes respects a Madame du Deffand!' Strange indeed are the
whirligigs of Time! Madame de Bernieres was then living in none other
than that famous house at the corner of the Rue de Beaune and the Quai
des Theatins (now Quai Voltaire) where, more than half a century later,
the writer of those lines was to come, bowed down under the weight of an
enormous celebrity, to look for the last time upon Paris and the world;
where, too, Madame du Deffand herself, decrepit, blind, and bitter with
the disillusionments of a strange lifetime, was to listen once more to
the mellifluous enchantments of that extraordinary intelligence,
which--so it seemed to her as she sat entranced--could never, never grow

Voltaire was not kept long in the Bastille. For some time he had
entertained a vague intention of visiting England, and he now begged for
permission to leave the country. The authorities, whose one object was
to prevent an unpleasant _fracas_, were ready enough to substitute exile
for imprisonment; and thus, after a fortnight's detention, the 'fameux
poete' was released on condition that he should depart forthwith, and
remain, until further permission, at a distance of at least fifty
leagues from Versailles.

It is from this point onwards that our information grows scanty and
confused. We know that Voltaire was in Calais early in May, and it is
generally agreed that he crossed over to England shortly afterwards. His
subsequent movements are uncertain. We find him established at
Wandsworth in the middle of October, but it is probable that in the
interval he had made a secret journey to Paris with the object--in which
he did not succeed--of challenging the Chevalier de Rohan to a duel.
Where he lived during these months is unknown, but apparently it was not
in London. The date of his final departure from England is equally in
doubt; M. Foulet adduces some reasons for supposing that he returned
secretly to France in November 1728, and in that case the total length
of the English visit was just two and a half years. Churton Collins,
however, prolongs it until March 1729. A similar obscurity hangs over
all the details of Voltaire's stay. Not only are his own extant letters
during this period unusually few, but allusions to him in contemporary
English correspondences are almost entirely absent. We have to depend
upon scattered hints, uncertain inferences, and conflicting rumours. We
know that he stayed for some time at Wandsworth with a certain Everard
Falkener in circumstances which he described to Thieriot in a letter in
English--an English quaintly flavoured with the gay impetuosity of
another race. 'At my coming to London,' he wrote, 'I found my damned Jew
was broken.' (He had depended upon some bills of exchange drawn upon a
Jewish broker.)

I was without a penny, sick to dye of a violent ague, stranger,
alone, helpless, in the midst of a city wherein I was known to
nobody; my Lord and Lady Bolingbroke were into the country; I could
not make bold to see our ambassadour in so wretched a condition. I
had never undergone such distress; but I am born to run through all
the misfortunes of life. In these circumstances my star, that among
all its direful influences pours allways on me some kind
refreshment, sent to me an English gentleman unknown to me, who
forced me to receive some money that I wanted. Another London
citisen that I had seen but once at Paris, carried me to his own
country house, wherein I lead an obscure and charming life since
that time, without going to London, and quite given over to the
pleasures of indolence and friendshipp. The true and generous
affection of this man who soothes the bitterness of my life brings
me to love you more and more. All the instances of friendshipp
indear my friend Tiriot to me. I have seen often mylord and mylady
Bolinbroke; I have found their affection still the same, even
increased in proportion to my unhappiness; they offered me all,
their money, their house; but I have refused all, because they are
lords, and I have accepted all from Mr. Faulknear because he is a
single gentleman.

We know that the friendship thus begun continued for many years, but as
to who or what Everard Falkener was--besides the fact that he was a
'single gentleman'--we have only just information enough to make us wish
for more.

'I am here,' he wrote after Voltaire had gone, 'just as you left me,
neither merrier nor sadder, nor richer nor poorer, enjoying perfect
health, having everything that makes life agreeable, without love,
without avarice, without ambition, and without envy; and as long as all
this lasts I shall take the liberty to call myself a very happy man.'
This stoical Englishman was a merchant who eventually so far overcame
his distaste both for ambition and for love, as to become first
Ambassador at Constantinople and then Postmaster-General--has anyone,
before or since, ever held such a singular succession of offices?--and
to wind up by marrying, as we are intriguingly told, at the age of
sixty-three, 'the illegitimate daughter of General Churchill.'

We have another glimpse of Voltaire at Wandsworth in a curious document
brought to light by M. Lanson. Edward Higginson, an assistant master at
a Quaker's school there, remembered how the excitable Frenchman used to
argue with him for hours in Latin on the subject of 'water-baptism,'
until at last Higginson produced a text from St. Paul which seemed

Some time after, Voltaire being at the Earl Temple's seat in
Fulham, with Pope and others such, in their conversation fell on
the subject of water-baptism. Voltaire assumed the part of a
quaker, and at length came to mention that assertion of Paul. They
questioned there being such an assertion in all his writings; on
which was a large wager laid, as near as I remember of L500: and
Voltaire, not retaining where it was, had one of the Earl's horses,
and came over the ferry from Fulham to Putney.... When I came he
desired me to give him in writing the place where Paul said, _he
was not sent to baptize_; which I presently did. Then courteously
taking his leave, he mounted and rode back--

and, we must suppose, won his wager.

He seemed so taken with me (adds Higginson) as to offer to buy out
the remainder of my time. I told him I expected my master would be
very exorbitant in his demand. He said, let his demand be what it
might, he would give it on condition I would yield to be his
companion, keeping the same company, and I should always, in every
respect, fare as he fared, wearing my clothes like his and of equal
value: telling me then plainly, he was a Deist; adding, so were
most of the noblemen in France and in England; deriding the account
given by the four Evangelists concerning the birth of Christ, and
his miracles, etc., so far that I desired him to desist: for I
could not bear to hear my Saviour so reviled and spoken against.
Whereupon he seemed under a disappointment, and left me with some

In London itself we catch fleeting visions of the eager gesticulating
figure, hurrying out from his lodgings in Billiter Square--'Belitery
Square' he calls it--or at the sign of the 'White Whigg' in Maiden Lane,
Covent Garden, to go off to the funeral of Sir Isaac Newton in
Westminster Abbey, or to pay a call on Congreve, or to attend a
Quaker's Meeting. One would like to know in which street it was that he
found himself surrounded by an insulting crowd, whose jeers at the
'French dog' he turned to enthusiasm by jumping upon a milestone, and
delivering a harangue beginning--'Brave Englishmen! Am I not
sufficiently unhappy in not having been born among you?' Then there are
one or two stories of him in the great country houses--at Bubb
Dodington's where he met Dr. Young and disputed with him upon the
episode of Sin and Death in _Paradise Lost_ with such vigour that at
last Young burst out with the couplet:

You are so witty, profligate, and thin,
At once we think you Milton, Death, and Sin;

and at Blenheim, where the old Duchess of Marlborough hoped to lure him
into helping her with her decocted memoirs, until she found that he had
scruples, when in a fury she snatched the papers out of his hands. 'I
thought,' she cried, 'the man had sense; but I find him at bottom either
a fool or a philosopher.'

It is peculiarly tantalising that our knowledge should be almost at its
scantiest in the very direction in which we should like to know most,
and in which there was most reason to hope that our curiosity might have
been gratified. Of Voltaire's relations with the circle of Pope, Swift,
and Bolingbroke only the most meagre details have reached us. His
correspondence with Bolingbroke, whom he had known in France and whose
presence in London was one of his principal inducements in coming to
England--a correspondence which must have been considerable--has
completely disappeared. Nor, in the numerous published letters which
passed about between the members of that distinguished group, is there
any reference to Voltaire's name. Now and then some chance remark raises
our expectations, only to make our disappointment more acute. Many years
later, for instance, in 1765, a certain Major Broome paid a visit to
Ferney, and made the following entry in his diary:

Dined with Mons. Voltaire, who behaved very politely. He is very
old, was dressed in a robe-de-chambre of blue sattan and gold spots
on it, with a sort of blue sattan cap and tassle of gold. He spoke
all the time in English.... His house is not very fine, but
genteel, and stands upon a mount close to the mountains. He is tall
and very thin, has a very piercing eye, and a look singularly
vivacious. He told me of his acquaintance with Pope, Swift (with
whom he lived for three months at Lord Peterborough's) and Gay, who
first showed him the _Beggar's Opera_ before it was acted. He says
he admires Swift, and loved Gay vastly. He said that Swift had a
great deal of the ridiculum acre.

And then Major Broome goes on to describe the 'handsome new church' at
Ferney, and the 'very neat water-works' at Geneva. But what a vision has
he opened out for us, and, in that very moment, shut away for ever from
our gaze in that brief parenthesis--'with whom he lived for three months
at Lord Peterborough's'! What would we not give now for no more than one
or two of the bright intoxicating drops from that noble river of talk
which flowed then with such a careless abundance!--that prodigal stream,
swirling away, so swiftly and so happily, into the empty spaces of
forgetfulness and the long night of Time!

So complete, indeed, is the lack of precise and well-authenticated
information upon this, by far the most obviously interesting side of
Voltaire's life in England, that some writers have been led to adopt a
very different theory from that which is usually accepted, and to
suppose that his relations with Pope's circle were in reality of a
purely superficial, or even of an actually disreputable, kind. Voltaire
himself, no doubt, was anxious to appear as the intimate friend of the
great writers of England; but what reason is there to believe that he
was not embroidering upon the facts, and that his true position was not
that of a mere literary hanger-on, eager simply for money and _reclame_,
with, perhaps, no particular scruples as to his means of getting hold of
those desirable ends? The objection to this theory is that there is even
less evidence to support it than there is to support Voltaire's own
story. There are a few rumours and anecdotes; but that is all. Voltaire
was probably the best-hated man in the eighteenth century, and it is
only natural that, out of the enormous mass of mud that was thrown at
him, some handfuls should have been particularly aimed at his life in
England. Accordingly, we learn that somebody was told by somebody
else--'avec des details que je ne rapporterai point'--that 'M. de
Voltaire se conduisit tres-irregulierement en Angleterre: qu'il s'y est
fait beaucoup d'ennemis, par des procedes qui n'accordaient pas avec les
principes d'une morale exacte.' And we are told that he left England
'under a cloud'; that before he went he was 'cudgelled' by an infuriated
publisher; that he swindled Lord Peterborough out of large sums of
money, and that the outraged nobleman drew his sword upon the miscreant,
who only escaped with his life by a midnight flight. A more
circumstantial story has been given currency by Dr. Johnson. Voltaire,
it appears, was a spy in the pay of Walpole, and was in the habit of
betraying Bolingbroke's political secrets to the Government. The tale
first appears in a third-rate life of Pope by Owen Ruffhead, who had it
from Warburton, who had it from Pope himself. Oddly enough Churton
Collins apparently believed it, partly from the evidence afforded by the
'fulsome flattery' and 'exaggerated compliments' to be found in
Voltaire's correspondence, which, he says, reveal a man in whom
'falsehood and hypocrisy are of the very essence of his composition.
There is nothing, however base, to which he will not stoop: there is no
law in the code of social honour which he is not capable of violating.'
Such an extreme and sweeping conclusion, following from such shadowy
premises, seems to show that some of the mud thrown in the eighteenth
century was still sticking in the twentieth. M. Foulet, however, has
examined Ruffhead's charge in a very different spirit, with
conscientious minuteness, and has concluded that it is utterly without

It is, indeed, certain that Voltaire's acquaintanceship was not limited
to the extremely bitter Opposition circle which centred about the
disappointed and restless figure of Bolingbroke. He had come to London
with letters of introduction from Horace Walpole, the English Ambassador
at Paris, to various eminent persons in the Government. 'Mr. Voltaire, a
poet and a very ingenious one,' was recommended by Walpole to the favour
and protection of the Duke of Newcastle, while Dodington was asked to
support the subscription to 'an excellent poem, called "Henry IV.,"
which, on account of some bold strokes in it against persecution and the
priests, cannot be printed here.' These letters had their effect, and
Voltaire rapidly made friends at Court. When he brought out his London
edition of the _Henriade_, there was hardly a great name in England
which was not on the subscription list. He was allowed to dedicate the
poem to Queen Caroline, and he received a royal gift of L240. Now it is
also certain that just before this time Bolingbroke and Swift were
suspicious of a 'certain pragmatical spy of quality, well known to act
in that capacity by those into whose company he insinuates himself,'
who, they believed, were betraying their plans to the Government. But to
conclude that this detected spy was Voltaire, whose favour at Court was
known to be the reward of treachery to his friends, is, apart from the
inherent improbability of the supposition, rendered almost impossible,
owing to the fact that Bolingbroke and Swift were themselves subscribers
to the _Henriade_--Bolingbroke took no fewer than twenty copies--and
that Swift was not only instrumental in obtaining a large number of
Irish subscriptions, but actually wrote a preface to the Dublin edition
of another of Voltaire's works. What inducement could Bolingbroke have
had for such liberality towards a man who had betrayed him? Who can
conceive of the redoubtable Dean of St. Patrick, then at the very summit
of his fame, dispensing such splendid favours to a wretch whom he knew
to be engaged in the shabbiest of all traffics at the expense of himself
and his friends?

Voltaire's literary activities were as insatiable while he was in
England as during every other period of his career. Besides the edition
of the _Henriade_, which was considerably altered and enlarged--one of
the changes was the silent removal of the name of Sully from its
pages--he brought out a volume of two essays, written in English, upon
the French Civil Wars and upon Epic Poetry, he began an adaptation of
_Julius Caesar_ for the French stage, he wrote the opening acts of his
tragedy of _Brutus_, and he collected a quantity of material for his
History of Charles XII. In addition to all this, he was busily engaged
with the preparations for his _Lettres Philosophiques_. The _Henriade_
met with a great success. Every copy of the magnificent quarto edition
was sold before publication; three octavo editions were exhausted in as
many weeks; and Voltaire made a profit of at least ten thousand francs.
M. Foulet thinks that he left England shortly after this highly
successful transaction, and that he established himself secretly in some
town in Normandy, probably Rouen, where he devoted himself to the
completion of the various works which he had in hand. Be this as it may,
he was certainly in France early in April 1729; a few days later he
applied for permission to return to Paris; this was granted on the 9th
of April, and the remarkable incident which had begun at the Opera more
than three years before came to a close.

It was not until five years later that the _Lettres Philosophiques_
appeared. This epoch-making book was the lens by means of which Voltaire
gathered together the scattered rays of his English impressions into a
focus of brilliant and burning intensity. It so happened that the nation
into whose midst he had plunged, and whose characteristics he had
scrutinised with so avid a curiosity, had just reached one of the
culminating moments in its history. The great achievement of the
Revolution and the splendid triumphs of Marlborough had brought to
England freedom, power, wealth, and that sense of high exhilaration
which springs from victory and self-confidence. Her destiny was in the
hands of an aristocracy which was not only capable and enlightened, like
most successful aristocracies, but which possessed the peculiar
attribute of being deep-rooted in popular traditions and popular
sympathies and of drawing its life-blood from the popular will. The
agitations of the reign of Anne were over; the stagnation of the reign
of Walpole had not yet begun. There was a great outburst of intellectual
activity and aesthetic energy. The amazing discoveries of Newton seemed
to open out boundless possibilities of speculation; and in the meantime
the great nobles were building palaces and reviving the magnificence of
the Augustan Age, while men of letters filled the offices of State.
Never, perhaps, before or since, has England been so thoroughly English;
never have the national qualities of solidity and sense, independence of
judgment and idiosyncrasy of temperament, received a more forcible and
complete expression. It was the England of Walpole and Carteret, of
Butler and Berkeley, of Swift and Pope. The two works which, out of the
whole range of English literature, contain in a supreme degree those
elements of power, breadth, and common sense, which lie at the root of
the national genius--'Gulliver's Travels' and the 'Dunciad'--both
appeared during Voltaire's visit. Nor was it only in the high places of
the nation's consciousness that these signs were manifest; they were
visible everywhere, to every stroller through the London streets--in the
Royal Exchange, where all the world came crowding to pour its gold into
English purses, in the Meeting Houses of the Quakers, where the Holy
Spirit rushed forth untrammelled to clothe itself in the sober garb of
English idiom, and in the taverns of Cheapside, where the brawny
fellow-countrymen of Newton and Shakespeare sat, in an impenetrable
silence, over their English beef and English beer.

It was only natural that such a society should act as a powerful
stimulus upon the vivid temperament of Voltaire, who had come to it with
the bitter knowledge fresh in his mind of the medieval futility, the
narrow-minded cynicism of his own country. Yet the book which was the
result is in many ways a surprising one. It is almost as remarkable for
what it does not say as for what it does. In the first place, Voltaire
makes no attempt to give his readers an account of the outward surface,
the social and spectacular aspects of English life. It is impossible not
to regret this, especially since we know, from a delightful fragment
which was not published until after his death, describing his first
impressions on arriving in London, in how brilliant and inimitable a
fashion he would have accomplished the task. A full-length portrait of
Hanoverian England from the personal point of view, by Voltaire, would
have been a priceless possession for posterity; but it was never to be
painted. The first sketch revealing in its perfection the hand of the
master, was lightly drawn, and then thrown aside for ever. And in
reality it is better so. Voltaire decided to aim at something higher and
more important, something more original and more profound. He determined
to write a book which should be, not the sparkling record of an
ingenious traveller, but a work of propaganda and a declaration of
faith. That new mood, which had come upon him first in Sully's
dining-room and is revealed to us in the quivering phrases of the note
to Madame de Bernieres, was to grow, in the congenial air of England,
into the dominating passion of his life. Henceforth, whatever quips and
follies, whatever flouts and mockeries might play upon the surface, he
was to be in deadly earnest at heart. He was to live and die a fighter
in the ranks of progress, a champion in the mighty struggle which was
now beginning against the powers of darkness in France. The first great
blow in that struggle had been struck ten years earlier by Montesquieu
in his _Lettres Persanes_; the second was struck by Voltaire in the
_Lettres Philosophiques_. The intellectual freedom, the vigorous
precision, the elegant urbanity which characterise the earlier work
appear in a yet more perfect form in the later one. Voltaire's book, as
its title indicates, is in effect a series of generalised reflections
upon a multitude of important topics, connected together by a common
point of view. A description of the institutions and manners of England
is only an incidental part of the scheme: it is the fulcrum by means of
which the lever of Voltaire's philosophy is brought into operation. The
book is an extremely short one--it fills less than two hundred small
octavo pages; and its tone and style have just that light and airy
gaiety which befits the ostensible form of it--a set of private letters
to a friend. With an extraordinary width of comprehension, an
extraordinary pliability of intelligence, Voltaire touches upon a
hundred subjects of the most varied interest and importance--from the
theory of gravitation to the satires of Lord Rochester, from the effects
of inoculation to the immortality of the soul--and every touch tells. It
is the spirit of Humanism carried to its furthest, its quintessential
point; indeed, at first sight, one is tempted to think that this quality
of rarefied universality has been exaggerated into a defect. The matters
treated of are so many and so vast, they are disposed of and dismissed
so swiftly, so easily, so unemphatically, that one begins to wonder
whether, after all, anything of real significance can have been
expressed. But, in reality, what, in those few small pages, has been
expressed is simply the whole philosophy of Voltaire. He offers one an
exquisite dish of whipped cream; one swallows down the unsubstantial
trifle, and asks impatiently if that is all? At any rate, it is enough.
Into that frothy sweetness his subtle hand has insinuated a single drop
of some strange liquor--is it a poison or is it an elixir of
life?--whose penetrating influence will spread and spread until the
remotest fibres of the system have felt its power. Contemporary French
readers, when they had shut the book, found somehow that they were
looking out upon a new world; that a process of disintegration had begun
among their most intimate beliefs and feelings; that the whole rigid
frame-work of society--of life itself--the hard, dark, narrow,
antiquated structure of their existence--had suddenly, in the twinkling
of an eye, become a faded, shadowy thing.

It might have been expected that, among the reforms which such a work
would advocate, a prominent place would certainly have been given to
those of a political nature. In England a political revolution had been
crowned with triumph, and all that was best in English life was founded
upon the political institutions which had been then established. The
moral was obvious: one had only to compare the state of England under a
free government with the state of France, disgraced, bankrupt, and
incompetent, under autocratic rule. But the moral is never drawn by
Voltaire. His references to political questions are slight and vague; he
gives a sketch of English history, which reaches Magna Charta, suddenly
mentions Henry VII., and then stops; he has not a word to say upon the
responsibility of Ministers, the independence of the judicature, or even
the freedom of the press. He approves of the English financial system,
whose control by the Commons he mentions, but he fails to indicate the
importance of the fact. As to the underlying principles of the
constitution, the account which he gives of them conveys hardly more to
the reader than the famous lines in the _Henriade_:

Aux murs de Westminster on voit paraitre ensemble
Trois pouvoirs etonnes du noeud qui les rassemble.

Apparently Voltaire was aware of these deficiencies, for in the English
edition of the book he caused the following curious excuses to be
inserted in the preface:

Some of his _English_ Readers may perhaps be dissatisfied at his
not expatiating farther on their Constitution and their Laws, which
most of them revere almost to Idolatry; but, this Reservedness is
an effect of _M. de Voltaire's_ Judgment. He contented himself with
giving his opinion of them in general Reflexions, the Cast of which
is entirely new, and which prove that he had made this Part of the
_British_ Polity his particular Study. Besides, how was it possible
for a Foreigner to pierce thro' their Politicks, that gloomy
Labyrinth, in which such of the _English_ themselves as are best
acquainted with it, confess daily that they are bewilder'd and

Nothing could be more characteristic of the attitude, not only of
Voltaire himself, but of the whole host of his followers in the later
eighteenth century, towards the actual problems of politics. They turned
away in disgust from the 'gloomy labyrinth' of practical fact to take
refuge in those charming 'general Reflexions' so dear to their hearts,
'the Cast of which was entirely new'--and the conclusion of which was
also entirely new, for it was the French Revolution.

It was, indeed, typical of Voltaire and of his age that the _Lettres
Philosophiques_ should have been condemned by the authorities, not for
any political heterodoxy, but for a few remarks which seemed to call in
question the immortality of the soul. His attack upon the _ancien
regime_ was, in the main, a theoretical attack; doubtless its immediate
effectiveness was thereby diminished, but its ultimate force was
increased. And the _ancien regime_ itself was not slow to realise the
danger: to touch the ark of metaphysical orthodoxy was in its eyes the
unforgiveable sin. Voltaire knew well enough that he must be careful.

Il n'y a qu'une lettre touchant M. Loke [he wrote to a friend]. La
seule matiere philosophique que j'y traite est la petite bagatelle
de l'immortalite de l'ame; mais la chose a trop de consequence pour
la traiter serieusement. Il a fallu l'egorger pour ne pas heurter
de front nos seigneurs les theologiens, gens qui voient si
clairement la spiritualite de l'ame qu'ils feraient bruler, s'ils
pouvaient, les corps de ceux qui en doutent.

Nor was it only 'M. Loke' whom he felt himself obliged to touch so
gingerly; the remarkable movement towards Deism, which was then
beginning in England, Voltaire only dared to allude to in a hardly
perceivable hint. He just mentions, almost in a parenthesis, the names
of Shaftesbury, Collins, and Toland, and then quickly passes on. In this
connexion, it may be noticed that the influence upon Voltaire of the
writers of this group has often been exaggerated. To say, as Lord Morley
says, that 'it was the English onslaught which sowed in him the seed of
the idea ... of a systematic and reasoned attack' upon Christian
theology, is to misjudge the situation. In the first place it is certain
both that Voltaire's opinions upon those matters were fixed, and that
his proselytising habits had begun, long before he came to England.
There is curious evidence of this in an anonymous letter, preserved
among the archives of the Bastille, and addressed to the head of the
police at the time of Voltaire's imprisonment.

Vous venez de mettre a la Bastille [says the writer, who, it is
supposed, was an ecclesiastic] un homme que je souhaitais y voir il
y a plus de 15 annees.

The writer goes on to speak of the

metier que faisait l'homme en question, prechant le deisme tout a
decouvert aux toilettes de nos jeunes seigneurs ... L'Ancien
Testament, selon lui, n'est qu'un tissu de contes et de fables, les
apotres etaient de bonnes gens idiots, simples, et credules, et les
peres de l'Eglise, Saint Bernard surtout, auquel il en veut le
plus, n'etaient que des charlatans et des suborneurs.

'Je voudrais etre homme d'authorite,' he adds, 'pour un jour seulement,
afin d'enfermer ce poete entre quatre murailles pour toute sa vie.' That
Voltaire at this early date should have already given rise to such pious
ecclesiastical wishes shows clearly enough that he had little to learn
from the deists of England. And, in the second place, the deists of
England had very little to teach a disciple of Bayle, Fontenelle, and
Montesquieu. They were, almost without exception, a group of second-rate
and insignificant writers whose 'onslaught' upon current beliefs was
only to a faint extent 'systematic and reasoned.' The feeble and
fluctuating rationalism of Toland and Wollaston, the crude and confused
rationalism of Collins, the half-crazy rationalism of Woolston, may each
and all, no doubt, have furnished Voltaire with arguments and
suggestions, but they cannot have seriously influenced his thought.
Bolingbroke was a more important figure, and he was in close personal
relation with Voltaire; but his controversial writings were clumsy and
superficial to an extraordinary degree. As Voltaire himself said, 'in
his works there are many leaves and little fruit; distorted expressions
and periods intolerably long.' Tindal and Middleton were more vigorous;
but their work did not appear until a later period. The masterly and
far-reaching speculations of Hume belong, of course, to a totally
different class.

Apart from politics and metaphysics, there were two directions in which
the _Lettres Philosophiques_ did pioneer work of a highly important
kind: they introduced both Newton and Shakespeare to the French public.
The four letters on Newton show Voltaire at his best--succinct, lucid,
persuasive, and bold. The few paragraphs on Shakespeare, on the other
hand, show him at his worst. Their principal merit is that they mention
his existence--a fact hitherto unknown in France; otherwise they merely
afford a striking example of the singular contradiction in Voltaire's
nature which made him a revolutionary in intellect and kept him a high
Tory in taste. Never was such speculative audacity combined with such
aesthetic timidity; it is as if he had reserved all his superstition for
matters of art. From his account of Shakespeare, it is clear that he had
never dared to open his eyes and frankly look at what he should see
before him. All was 'barbare, depourvu de bienseances, d'ordre, de
vraisemblance'; in the hurly-burly he was dimly aware of a figured and
elevated style, and of some few 'lueurs etonnantes'; but to the true
significance of Shakespeare's genius he remained utterly blind.

Characteristically enough, Voltaire, at the last moment, did his best to
reinforce his tentative metaphysical observations on 'M. Loke' by
slipping into his book, as it were accidentally, an additional letter,
quite disconnected from the rest of the work, containing reflexions upon
some of the _Pensees_ of Pascal. He no doubt hoped that these
reflexions, into which he had distilled some of his most insidious
venom, might, under cover of the rest, pass unobserved. But all his
subterfuges were useless. It was in vain that he pulled wires and
intrigued with high personages; in vain that he made his way to the aged
Minister, Cardinal Fleury, and attempted, by reading him some choice
extracts on the Quakers, to obtain permission for the publication of his
book. The old Cardinal could not help smiling, though Voltaire had felt
that it would be safer to skip the best parts--'the poor man!' he said
afterwards, 'he didn't realise what he had missed'--but the permission
never came. Voltaire was obliged to have recourse to an illicit
publication; and then the authorities acted with full force. The
_Lettres Philosophiques_ were officially condemned; the book was
declared to be scandalous and 'contraire a la religion, aux bonnes
moeurs, et au respect du aux puissances,' and it was ordered to be
publicly burned by the executioner. The result was precisely what might
have been expected: the prohibitions and fulminations, so far from
putting a stop to the sale of such exciting matter, sent it up by leaps
and bounds. England suddenly became the fashion; the theories of M. Loke
and Sir Newton began to be discussed; even the plays of 'ce fou de
Shakespeare' began to be read. And, at the same time, the whispered
message of tolerance, of free inquiry, of enlightened curiosity, was
carried over the land. The success of Voltaire's work was complete.

He himself, however, had been obliged to seek refuge from the wrath of
the government in the remote seclusion of Madame du Chatelet's country
house at Cirey. In this retirement he pursued his studies of Newton, and
a few years later produced an exact and brilliant summary of the work of
the great English philosopher. Once more the authorities intervened, and
condemned Voltaire's book. The Newtonian system destroyed that of
Descartes, and Descartes still spoke in France with the voice of
orthodoxy; therefore, of course, the voice of Newton must not be heard.
But, somehow or other, the voice of Newton _was_ heard. The men of
science were converted to the new doctrine; and thus it is not too much
to say that the wonderful advances in the study of mathematics which
took place in France during the later years of the eighteenth century
were the result of the illuminating zeal of Voltaire.

With his work on Newton, Voltaire's direct connexion with English
influences came to an end. For the rest of his life, indeed, he never
lost his interest in England; he was never tired of reading English
books, of being polite to English travellers, and of doing his best, in
the intervals of more serious labours, to destroy the reputation of that
deplorable English buffoon, whom, unfortunately, he himself had been so
foolish as first to introduce to the attention of his countrymen. But it
is curious to notice how, as time went on, the force of Voltaire's
nature inevitably carried him further and further away from the central
standpoints of the English mind. The stimulus which he had received in
England only served to urge him into a path which no Englishman has ever
trod. The movement of English thought in the eighteenth century found
its perfect expression in the profound, sceptical, and yet essentially
conservative, genius of Hume. How different was the attitude of
Voltaire! With what a reckless audacity, what a fierce uncompromising
passion he charged and fought and charged again! He had no time for the
nice discriminations of an elaborate philosophy, and no desire for the
careful balance of the judicial mind; his creed was simple and explicit,
and it also possessed the supreme merit of brevity: 'Ecrasez l'infame!'
was enough for him.



[Footnote 3: _Correspondance de Voltaire_ (1726-1729). By Lucien Foulet.
Paris: Hachette, 1913.]

[Footnote 4: 'Il est aussi anime qu'il ait jamais ete. Il a
quatre-vingt-quatre ans, et en verite je le crois immortel; il jouit de
tous ses sens, aucun meme n'est affaibli; c'est un etre bien singulier,
et en verite fort superieur.' Madame du Deffand to Horace Walpole, 12
Avril 1778.]





Confess, oh _Moses_! Your Miracles were but conjuring-tricks, your
Prophecies lucky Hazards, and your Laws a _Gallimaufry_ of Commonplaces
and Absurdities.


Confess that you were more skill'd in flattering the Vulgar than in
ascertaining the Truth, and that your Reputation in the World would
never have been so high, had your Lot fallen among a Nation of


Confess that when you taught the _Jews_ to spoil the _Egyptians_ you
were a sad rogue.


Confess that it was a Fable to give Horses to Pharaoh and an uncloven
hoof to the Hare.


Confess that you did never see the _Back Parts_ of the Lord.


Confess that your style had too much Singularity and too little Taste to
be that of the Holy Ghost.


All this may be true, my good Friends; but what are the Conclusions you
would draw from your Raillery? Do you suppose that I am ignorant of all
that a Wise Man might urge against my Conduct, my Tales, and my
Language? But alas! my path was chalk'd out for me not by Choice but by
Necessity. I had not the Happiness of living in _England_ or a _Tub_. I
was the Leader of an ignorant and superstitious People, who would never
have heeded the sober Counsels of Good Sense and Toleration, and who
would have laughed at the Refinements of a nice Philosophy. It was
necessary to flatter their Vanity by telling them that they were the
favour'd Children of God, to satisfy their Passions by allowing them to
be treacherous and cruel to their Enemies, and to tickle their Ears by
Stories and Farces by turns ridiculous and horrible, fit either for a
Nursery or _Bedlam_. By such Contrivances I was able to attain my Ends
and to establish the Welfare of my Countrymen. Do you blame me? It is
not the business of a Ruler to be truthful, but to be politick; he must
fly even from Virtue herself, if she sit in a different Quarter from
Expediency. It is his Duty to _sacrifice_ the Best, which is impossible,
to a _little Good_, which is close at hand. I was willing to lay down a
Multitude of foolish Laws, so that, under their Cloak, I might slip in a
few Wise ones; and, had I not shown myself to be both Cruel and
Superstitious, the _Jews_ would never have escaped from the Bondage of
the _Egyptians_.


Perhaps that would not have been an overwhelming Disaster. But, in
truth, you are right. There is no viler Profession than the Government
of Nations. He who dreams that he can lead a great Crowd of Fools
without a great Store of Knavery is a Fool himself.


Are not you too hasty? Does not History show that there have been great
Rulers who were good Men? Solon, Henry of _Navarre_, and Milord Somers
were certainly not Fools, and yet I am unwilling to believe that they
were Knaves either.


No, not Knaves; but Dissemblers. In their different degrees, they all
juggled; but 'twas not because Jugglery pleas'd 'em; 'twas because Men
cannot be governed without it.


I would be happy to try the Experiment. If Men were told the Truth,
might they not believe it? If the Opportunity of Virtue and Wisdom is
never to be offer'd 'em, how can we be sure that they would not be
willing to take it? Let Rulers be _bold_ and _honest_, and it is
possible that the Folly of their Peoples will disappear.


A pretty phantastick Vision! But History is against you.


And Prophecy.


And Common Observation. Look at the World at this moment, and what do we
see? It is as it has always been, and always will be. So long as it
endures, the World will continue to be rul'd by Cajolery, by Injustice,
and by Imposture.


If that be so, I must take leave to lament the _Destiny_ of the Human


The historian of Literature is little more than a historian of exploded
reputations. What has he to do with Shakespeare, with Dante, with
Sophocles? Has he entered into the springs of the sea? Or has he walked
in the search of the depth? The great fixed luminaries of the firmament
of Letters dazzle his optic glass; and he can hardly hope to do more
than record their presence, and admire their splendours with the eyes of
an ordinary mortal. His business is with the succeeding ages of men, not
with all time; but _Hyperion_ might have been written on the morrow of
Salamis, and the Odes of Pindar dedicated to George the Fourth. The
literary historian must rove in other hunting grounds. He is the
geologist of literature, whose study lies among the buried strata of
forgotten generations, among the fossil remnants of the past. The great
men with whom he must deal are the great men who are no longer
great--mammoths and ichthyosauri kindly preserved to us, among the
siftings of so many epochs, by the impartial benignity of Time. It is
for him to unravel the jokes of Erasmus, and to be at home among the
platitudes of Cicero. It is for him to sit up all night with the
spectral heroes of Byron; it is for him to exchange innumerable
alexandrines with the faded heroines of Voltaire.

The great potentate of the eighteenth century has suffered cruelly
indeed at the hands of posterity. Everyone, it is true, has heard of
him; but who has read him? It is by his name that ye shall know him, and
not by his works. With the exception of his letters, of _Candide_, of
_Akakia_, and of a few other of his shorter pieces, the vast mass of his
productions has been already consigned to oblivion. How many persons now
living have travelled through _La Henriade_ or _La Pucelle_? How many
have so much as glanced at the imposing volumes of _L'Esprit des
Moeurs_? _Zadig_ and _Zaire, Merope_ and _Charles XII_. still linger,
perhaps, in the schoolroom; but what has become of _Oreste_, and of
_Mahomet_, and of _Alzire_? _Ou sont les neiges d'antan_?

Though Voltaire's reputation now rests mainly on his achievements as a
precursor of the Revolution, to the eighteenth century he was as much a
poet as a reformer. The whole of Europe beheld at Ferney the oracle, not
only of philosophy, but of good taste; for thirty years every scribbler,
every rising genius, and every crowned head, submitted his verses to the
censure of Voltaire; Voltaire's plays were performed before crowded
houses; his epic was pronounced superior to Homer's, Virgil's, and
Milton's; his epigrams were transcribed by every letter-writer, and got
by heart by every wit. Nothing, perhaps, shows more clearly the gulf
which divides us from our ancestors of the eighteenth century, than a
comparison between our thoughts and their thoughts, between our feelings
and their feelings, with regard to one and the same thing--a tragedy by
Voltaire. For us, as we take down the dustiest volume in our bookshelf,
as we open it vaguely at some intolerable tirade, as we make an effort
to labour through the procession of pompous commonplaces which meets our
eyes, as we abandon the task in despair, and hastily return the book to
its forgotten corner--to us it is well-nigh impossible to imagine the
scene of charming brilliance which, five generations since, the same
words must have conjured up. The splendid gaiety, the refined
excitement, the pathos, the wit, the passion--all these things have
vanished as completely from our perceptions as the candles, the powder,
the looking-glasses, and the brocades, among which they moved and had
their being. It may be instructive, or at least entertaining, to examine
one of these forgotten masterpieces a little more closely; and we may do
so with the less hesitation, since we shall only be following in the
footsteps of Voltaire himself. His examination of _Hamlet_ affords a
precedent which is particularly applicable, owing to the fact that the
same interval of time divided him from Shakespeare as that which divides
ourselves from him. One point of difference, indeed, does exist between
the relative positions of the two authors. Voltaire, in his study of
Shakespeare, was dealing with a living, and a growing force; our
interest in the dramas of Voltaire is solely an antiquarian interest. At
the present moment,[5] a literal translation of _King Lear_ is drawing
full houses at the Theatre Antoine. As a rule it is rash to prophesy;
but, if that rule has any exceptions, this is certainly one of
them--hundred years hence a literal translation of _Zaire_ will not be
holding the English boards.

It is not our purpose to appreciate the best, or to expose the worst, of
Voltaire's tragedies. Our object is to review some specimen of what
would have been recognised by his contemporaries as representative of
the average flight of his genius. Such a specimen is to be found in
_Alzire, ou Les Americains_, first produced with great success in 1736,
when Voltaire was forty-two years of age and his fame as a dramatist
already well established.

_Act I_.--The scene is laid in Lima, the capital of Peru, some years
after the Spanish conquest of America. When the play opens, Don Gusman,
a Spanish grandee, has just succeeded his father, Don Alvarez, in the
Governorship of Peru. The rule of Don Alvarez had been beneficent and
just; he had spent his life in endeavouring to soften the cruelty of his
countrymen; and his only remaining wish was to see his son carry on the
work which he had begun. Unfortunately, however, Don Gusman's
temperament was the very opposite of his father's; he was tyrannical,
harsh, headstrong, and bigoted.

L'Americain farouche est un monstre sauvage
Qui mord en fremissant le frein de l'esclavage ...
Tout pouvoir, en un mot, perit par l'indulgence,
Et la severite produit l'obeissance.

Such were the cruel maxims of his government--maxims which he was only
too ready to put into practice. It was in vain that Don Alvarez reminded
his son that the true Christian returns good for evil, and that, as he
epigrammatically put it, 'Le vrai Dieu, mon fils, est un Dieu qui
pardonne.' To enforce his argument, the good old man told the story of
how his own life had been spared by a virtuous American, who, as he
said, 'au lieu de me frapper, embrassa mes genoux.' But Don Gusman
remained unmoved by such narratives, though he admitted that there was
one consideration which impelled him to adopt a more lenient policy. He
was in love with Alzire, Alzire the young and beautiful daughter of
Monteze, who had ruled in Lima before the coming of the Spaniards. 'Je
l'aime, je l'avoue,' said Gusman to his father, 'et plus que je ne
veux.' With these words, the dominating situation of the play becomes
plain to the spectator. The wicked Spanish Governor is in love with the
virtuous American princess. From such a state of affairs, what
interesting and romantic developments may not follow? Alzire, we are not
surprised to learn, still fondly cherished the memory of a Peruvian
prince, who had been slain in an attempt to rescue his country from the
tyranny of Don Gusman. Yet, for the sake of Monteze, her ambitious and
scheming father, she consented to give her hand to the Governor. She
consented; but, even as she did so, she was still faithful to Zamore.
'Sa foi me fut promise,' she declared to Don Gusman, 'il eut pour moi
des charmes.'

Il m'aima: son trepas me coute encore des larmes:
Vous, loin d'oser ici condamner ma douleur,
Jugez de ma constance, et connaissez mon coeur.

The ruthless Don did not allow these pathetic considerations to stand in
the way of his wishes, and gave orders that the wedding ceremony should
be immediately performed. But, at the very moment of his apparent
triumph, the way was being prepared for the overthrow of all his hopes.

_Act II_.--It was only natural to expect that a heroine affianced to a
villain should turn out to be in love with a hero. The hero adored by
Alzire had, it is true, perished; but then what could be more natural
than his resurrection? The noble Zamore was not dead; he had escaped
with his life from the torture-chamber of Don Gusman, had returned to
avenge himself, had been immediately apprehended, and was lying
imprisoned in the lowest dungeon of the castle, while his beloved
princess was celebrating her nuptials with his deadly foe.

In this distressing situation, he was visited by the venerable Alvarez,
who had persuaded his son to grant him an order for the prisoner's
release. In the gloom of the dungeon, it was at first difficult to
distinguish the features of Zamore; but the old man at last discovered
that he was addressing the very American who, so many years ago, instead
of hitting him, had embraced his knees. He was overwhelmed by this
extraordinary coincidence. 'Approach. O heaven! O Providence! It is he,
behold the object of my gratitude. ... My benefactor! My son!' But let
us not pry further into so affecting a passage; it is sufficient to
state that Don Alvarez, after promising his protection to Zamore,
hurried off to relate this remarkable occurrence to his son, the

Act III.--Meanwhile, Alzire had been married. But she still could not
forget her Peruvian lover. While she was lamenting her fate, and
imploring the forgiveness of the shade of Zamore, she was informed that
a released prisoner begged a private interview. 'Admit him.' He was
admitted. 'Heaven! Such were his features, his gait, his voice: Zamore!'
She falls into the arms of her confidante. 'Je succombe; a peine je

ZAMORE: Reconnais ton amant.
ALZIRE: Zamore aux pieds d'Alzire!
Est-ce une illusion?

It was no illusion; and the unfortunate princess was obliged to confess
to her lover that she was already married to Don Gusman. Zamore was at
first unable to grasp the horrible truth, and, while he was still
struggling with his conflicting emotions, the door was flung open, and
Don Gusman, accompanied by his father, entered the room.

A double recognition followed. Zamore was no less horrified to behold in
Don Gusman the son of the venerable Alvarez, than Don Gusman was
infuriated at discovering that the prisoner to whose release he had
consented was no other than Zamore. When the first shock of surprise was
over, the Peruvian hero violently insulted his enemy, and upbraided him
with the tortures he had inflicted. The Governor replied by ordering the
instant execution of the prince. It was in vain that Don Alvarez
reminded his son of Zamore's magnanimity; it was in vain that Alzire
herself offered to sacrifice her life for that of her lover. Zamore was
dragged from the apartment; and Alzire and Don Alvarez were left alone
to bewail the fate of the Peruvian hero. Yet some faint hopes still
lingered in the old man's breast. 'Gusman fut inhumain,' he admitted,
'je le sais, j'en fremis;

Mais il est ton epoux, il t'aime, il est mon fils:
Son ame a la pitie se peut ouvrir encore.'

'Helas!' (replied Alzire), 'que n'etes-vous le pere de Zamore!'

_Act IV_.--Even Don Gusman's heart was, in fact, unable to steel itself
entirely against the prayers and tears of his father and his wife; and
he consented to allow a brief respite to Zamore's execution. Alzire was
not slow to seize this opportunity of doing her lover a good turn; for
she immediately obtained his release by the ingenious stratagem of
bribing the warder of the dungeon. Zamore was free. But alas! Alzire was
not; was she not wedded to the wicked Gusman? Her lover's expostulations
fell on unheeding ears. What mattered it that her marriage vow had been
sworn before an alien God? 'J'ai promis; il suffit; il n'importe a quel

ZAMORE: Ta promesse est un crime; elle est ma perte; adieu.
Perissent tes serments et ton Dieu que j'abhorre!

ALZIRE: Arrete; quels adieux! arrete, cher Zamore!

But the prince tore himself away, with no further farewell upon his lips
than an oath to be revenged upon the Governor. Alzire, perplexed,
deserted, terrified, tortured by remorse, agitated by passion, turned
for comfort to that God, who, she could not but believe, was, in some
mysterious way, the Father of All.

Great God, lead Zamore in safety through the desert places. ... Ah!
can it be true that thou art but the Deity of another universe?
Have the Europeans alone the right to please thee? Art thou after
all the tyrant of one world and the father of another? ... No! The
conquerors and the conquered, miserable mortals as they are, all
are equally the work of thy hands....

Her reverie was interrupted by an appalling sound. She heard shrieks;
she heard a cry of 'Zamore!' And her confidante, rushing in, confusedly
informed her that her lover was in peril of his life.

Ah, chere Emire [she exclaimed], allons le secourir!

EMIRE: Que pouvez-vous, Madame? O Ciel!

ALZIRE: Je puis mourir.

Hardly was the epigram out of her mouth when the door opened, and an
emissary of Don Gusman announced to her that she must consider herself
under arrest. She demanded an explanation in vain, and was immediately
removed to the lowest dungeon.

_Act V_.--It was not long before the unfortunate princess learnt the
reason of her arrest. Zamore, she was informed, had rushed straight from
her apartment into the presence of Don Gusman, and had plunged a dagger
into his enemy's breast. The hero had then turned to Don Alvarez and,
with perfect tranquillity, had offered him the bloodstained poniard.

J'ai fait ce que j'ai du, j'ai venge mon injure;
Fais ton devoir, dit-il, et venge la nature.

Before Don Alvarez could reply to this appeal, Zamore had been haled off
by the enraged soldiery before the Council of Grandees. Don Gusman had
been mortally wounded; and the Council proceeded at once to condemn to
death, not only Zamore, but also Alzire, who, they found, had been
guilty of complicity in the murder. It was the unpleasant duty of Don
Alvarez to announce to the prisoners the Council's sentence. He did so
in the following manner:

Good God, what a mixture of tenderness and horror! My own liberator
is the assassin of my son. Zamore!... Yes, it is to thee that I owe
this life which I detest; how dearly didst thou sell me that fatal
gift.... I am a father, but I am also a man; and, in spite of thy
fury, in spite of the voice of that blood which demands vengeance
from my agitated soul, I can still hear the voice of thy
benefactions. And thou, who wast my daughter, thou whom in our
misery I yet call by a name which makes our tears to flow, ah! how
far is it from thy father's wishes to add to the agony which he
already feels the horrible pleasure of vengeance. I must lose, by
an unheard-of catastrophe, at once my liberator, my daughter, and
my son. The Council has sentenced you to death.

Upon one condition, however, and upon one alone, the lives of the
culprits were to be spared--that of Zamore's conversion to Christianity.
What need is there to say that the noble Peruvians did not hesitate for
a moment? 'Death, rather than dishonour!' exclaimed Zamore, while Alzire
added some elegant couplets upon the moral degradation entailed by
hypocritical conversion. Don Alvarez was in complete despair, and was
just beginning to make another speech, when Don Gusman, with the pallor
of death upon his features, was carried into the room. The implacable
Governor was about to utter his last words. Alzire was resigned; Alvarez
was plunged in misery; Zamore was indomitable to the last. But lo! when
the Governor spoke, it was seen at once that an extraordinary change had
come over his mind. He was no longer proud, he was no longer cruel, he
was no longer unforgiving; he was kind, humble, and polite; in short, he
had repented. Everybody was pardoned, and everybody recognised the truth
of Christianity. And their faith was particularly strengthened when Don
Gusman, invoking a final blessing upon Alzire and Zamore, expired in the
arms of Don Alvarez. For thus were the guilty punished, and the virtuous
rewarded. The noble Zamore, who had murdered his enemy in cold blood,
and the gentle Alzire who, after bribing a sentry, had allowed her lover
to do away with her husband, lived happily ever afterwards. That they
were able to do so was owing entirely to the efforts of the wicked Don
Gusman; and the wicked Don Gusman very properly descended to the grave.

Such is the tragedy of _Alzire_, which, it may be well to repeat, was in
its day one of the most applauded of its author's productions. It was
upon the strength of works of this kind that his contemporaries
recognised Voltaire's right to be ranked in a sort of dramatic
triumvirate, side by side with his great predecessors, Corneille and
Racine. With Racine, especially, Voltaire was constantly coupled; and it
is clear that he himself firmly believed that the author of _Alzire_ was
a worthy successor of the author of _Athalie_. At first sight, indeed,
the resemblance between the two dramatists is obvious enough; but a
closer inspection reveals an ocean of differences too vast to be spanned
by any superficial likeness.

A careless reader is apt to dismiss the tragedies of Racine as mere
_tours de force_; and, in one sense, the careless reader is right. For,
as mere displays of technical skill, those works are certainly
unsurpassed in the whole range of literature. But the notion of 'a mere
_tour de force_' carries with it something more than the idea of
technical perfection; for it denotes, not simply a work which is
technically perfect, but a work which is technically perfect and nothing
more. The problem before a writer of a Chant Royal is to overcome
certain technical difficulties of rhyme and rhythm; he performs his
_tour de force_, the difficulties are overcome, and his task is
accomplished. But Racine's problem was very different. The technical
restrictions he laboured under were incredibly great; his vocabulary was
cribbed, his versification was cabined, his whole power of dramatic
movement was scrupulously confined; conventional rules of every
conceivable denomination hurried out to restrain his genius, with the
alacrity of Lilliputians pegging down a Gulliver; wherever he turned he
was met by a hiatus or a pitfall, a blind-alley or a _mot bas_. But his
triumph was not simply the conquest of these refractory creatures; it
was something much more astonishing. It was the creation, in spite of
them, nay, by their very aid, of a glowing, living, soaring, and
enchanting work of art. To have brought about this amazing combination,
to have erected, upon a structure of Alexandrines, of Unities, of Noble
Personages, of stilted diction, of the whole intolerable paraphernalia
of the Classical stage, an edifice of subtle psychology, of exquisite
poetry, of overwhelming passion--that is a _tour de force_ whose
achievement entitles Jean Racine to a place among the very few
consummate artists of the world.

Voltaire, unfortunately, was neither a poet nor a psychologist; and,
when he took up the mantle of Racine, he put it, not upon a human being,
but upon a tailor's block. To change the metaphor, Racine's work
resembled one of those elaborate paper transparencies which delighted
our grandmothers, illuminated from within so as to present a charming
tinted picture with varying degrees of shadow and of light. Voltaire was
able to make the transparency, but he never could light the candle; and
the only result of his efforts was some sticky pieces of paper, cut into
curious shapes, and roughly daubed with colour. To take only one
instance, his diction is the very echo of Racine's. There are the same
pompous phrases, the same inversions, the same stereotyped list of
similes, the same poor bedraggled company of words. It is amusing to
note the exclamations which rise to the lips of Voltaire's characters in
moments of extreme excitement--_Qu'entends-je? Que vois-je? Ou suis-je?
Grands Dieux! Ah, c'en est trop, Seigneur! Juste Ciel! Sauve-toi de ces
lieux! Madame, quelle horreur_ ... &c. And it is amazing to discover
that these are the very phrases with which Racine has managed to express
all the violence of human terror, and rage, and love. Voltaire at his
best never rises above the standard of a sixth-form boy writing
hexameters in the style of Virgil; and, at his worst, he certainly falls
within measurable distance of a flogging. He is capable, for instance,
of writing lines as bad as the second of this couplet--

C'est ce meme guerrier dont la main tutelaire,
De Gusman, votre epoux, sauva, dit-on, le pere,

or as

Qui les font pour un temps rentrer tous en eux-memes,


Vous comprenez, seigneur, que je ne comprends pas.

Voltaire's most striking expressions are too often borrowed from his
predecessors. Alzire's 'Je puis mourir,' for instance, is an obvious
reminiscence of the 'Qu'il mourut!' of le vieil Horace; and the cloven
hoof is shown clearly enough by the 'O ciel!' with which Alzire's
confidante manages to fill out the rest of the line. Many of these
blemishes are, doubtless, the outcome of simple carelessness; for
Voltaire was too busy a man to give over-much time to his plays. 'This
tragedy was the work of six days,' he wrote to d'Alembert, enclosing
_Olympie_. 'You should not have rested on the seventh,' was d'Alembert's
reply. But, on the whole, Voltaire's verses succeed in keeping up to a
high level of mediocrity; they are the verses, in fact, of a very clever
man. It is when his cleverness is out of its depth, that he most
palpably fails. A human being by Voltaire bears the same relation to a
real human being that stage scenery bears to a real landscape; it can
only be looked at from in front. The curtain rises, and his villains and
his heroes, his good old men and his exquisite princesses, display for a
moment their one thin surface to the spectator; the curtain falls, and
they are all put back into their box. The glance which the reader has
taken into the little case labelled _Alzire_ has perhaps given him a
sufficient notion of these queer discarded marionettes.

Voltaire's dramatic efforts were hampered by one further unfortunate
incapacity; he was almost completely devoid of the dramatic sense. It is
only possible to write good plays without the power of
character-drawing, upon one condition--that of possessing the power of
creating dramatic situations. The _Oedipus Tyrannus_ of Sophocles, for
instance, is not a tragedy of character; and its vast crescendo of
horror is produced by a dramatic treatment of situation, not of persons.
One of the principal elements in this stupendous example of the
manipulation of a great dramatic theme has been pointed out by Voltaire
himself. The guilt of Oedipus, he says, becomes known to the audience
very early in the play; and, when the _denouement_ at last arrives, it
comes as a shock, not to the audience, but to the King. There can be no
doubt that Voltaire has put his finger upon the very centre of those
underlying causes which make the _Oedipus_ perhaps the most awful of
tragedies. To know the hideous truth, to watch its gradual dawn upon one
after another of the characters, to see Oedipus at last alone in
ignorance, to recognise clearly that he too must know, to witness his
struggles, his distraction, his growing terror, and, at the inevitable
moment, the appalling revelation--few things can be more terrible than
this. But Voltaire's comment upon the master-stroke by which such an
effect has been obtained illustrates, in a remarkable way, his own sense
of the dramatic. 'Nouvelle preuve,' he remarks, 'que Sophocle n'avait
pas perfectionne son art.'

More detailed evidence of Voltaire's utter lack of dramatic insight is
to be found, of course, in his criticisms of Shakespeare. Throughout
these, what is particularly striking is the manner in which Voltaire
seems able to get into such intimate contact with his great predecessor,
and yet to remain as absolutely unaffected by him as Shakespeare himself
was by Voltaire. It is unnecessary to dwell further upon so hackneyed a
subject; but one instance may be given of the lengths to which this
dramatic insensibility of Voltaire's was able to go--his adaptation of
_Julius Caesar_ for the French stage. A comparison of the two pieces
should be made by anyone who wishes to realise fully, not only the
degradation of the copy, but the excellence of the original. Particular
attention should be paid to the transmutation of Antony's funeral
oration into French alexandrines. In Voltaire's version, the climax of
the speech is reached in the following passage; it is an excellent
sample of the fatuity of the whole of his concocted rigmarole:--

ANTOINE: Brutus ... ou suis-je? O ciel! O crime! O barbarie!'
Chers amis, je succombe; et mes sens interdits ...
Brutus, son assassin!... ce monstre etait son fils!
ROMAINS: Ah dieux!

If Voltaire's demerits are obvious enough to our eyes, his merits were
equally clear to his contemporaries, whose vision of them was not
perplexed and retarded by the conventions of another age. The weight of
a reigning convention is like the weight of the atmosphere--it is so
universal that no one feels it; and an eighteenth-century audience came
to a performance of _Alzire_ unconscious of the burden of the Classical
rules. They found instead an animated procession of events, of scenes
just long enough to be amusing and not too long to be dull, of startling
incidents, of happy _mots_. They were dazzled by an easy display of
cheap brilliance, and cheap philosophy, and cheap sentiment, which it
was very difficult to distinguish from the real thing, at such a
distance, and under artificial light. When, in _Merope_, one saw La
Dumesnil; 'lorsque,' to quote Voltaire himself, 'les yeux egares, la
voix entrecoupee, levant une main tremblante, elle allait immoler son
propre fils; quand Narbas l'arreta; quand, laissant tomber son poignard,
on la vit s'evanouir entre les bras de ses femmes, et qu'elle sortit de
cet etat de mort avec les transports d'une mere; lorsque, ensuite,
s'elancant aux yeux de Polyphonte, traversant en un clin d'oeil tout le
theatre, les larmes dans les yeux, la paleur sur le front, les sanglots
a la bouche, les bras etendus, elle s'ecria: "Barbare, il est mon
fils!"'--how, face to face with splendours such as these, could one
question for a moment the purity of the gem from which they sparkled?
Alas! to us, who know not La Dumesnil, to us whose _Merope_ is nothing
more than a little sediment of print, the precious stone of our
forefathers has turned out to be a simple piece of paste. Its glittering
was the outcome of no inward fire, but of a certain adroitness in the
manufacture; to use our modern phraseology, Voltaire was able to make up
for his lack of genius by a thorough knowledge of 'technique,' and a
great deal of 'go.'

And to such titles of praise let us not dispute his right. His vivacity,
indeed, actually went so far as to make him something of an innovator.
He introduced new and imposing spectacular effects; he ventured to write
tragedies in which no persons of royal blood made their appearance; he
was so bold as to rhyme 'pere' with 'terre.' The wild diversity of his
incidents shows a trend towards the romantic, which, doubtless, under
happier influences, would have led him much further along the primrose
path which ended in the bonfire of 1830.

But it was his misfortune to be for ever clogged by a tradition of
decorous restraint; so that the effect of his plays is as anomalous as
would be--let us say--that of a shilling shocker written by Miss Yonge.
His heroines go mad in epigrams, while his villains commit murder in
inversions. Amid the hurly-burly of artificiality, it was all his
cleverness could do to keep its head to the wind; and he was only able
to remain afloat at all by throwing overboard his humour. The Classical
tradition has to answer for many sins; perhaps its most infamous
achievement was that it prevented Moliere from being a great tragedian.
But there can be no doubt that its most astonishing one was to have
taken--if only for some scattered moments--the sense of the ridiculous
from Voltaire.


[Footnote 5: April, 1905.]


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