Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Charles IX., king of France, was, we are told, a good poet. It is quite certain that while he lived his verses were admired. Brantôme does not, indeed, tell us that this king was the best poet in Europe, but he assures us that “he made very genteel quatrains impromptu, without thinking (for he had seen several of them), and when it was wet or gloomy weather, or very hot, he would send for the poets into his cabinet and pass his time there with them.”

Had he always passed his time thus, and, above all, had he made good verses, we should not have had a St. Bartholomew, he would not have fired with a carbine through his window upon his own subjects, as if they had been a covey of partridges. Is it not impossible for a good poet to be a barbarian? I am persuaded it is.

These lines, addressed in his name to Ronsard, have been attributed to him:

La lyre, qui ravit par de si doux accords,

Te soumets les esprits dont je n’ai que les corps;

Le maître elle t’en rend, et te fait introduire

Où le plus fier tyran ne peut avoir d’empire.

The lyre’s delightful softly swelling lay

Subdues the mind, I but the body sway;

Make thee its master, thy sweet art can bind

What haughty tyrants cannot rule — the mind.

These lines are good. But are they his? Are they not his preceptor’s? Here are some of his royal imaginings, which are somewhat different:

Il faut suivre ton roi qui t’aime par sur tous

Pour les vers qui de toi coulent braves et doux;

Et crois, si tu ne viens me trouver à Pontoise,

Qu’entre nous adviendra une très-grande noise.

Know, thou must follow close thy king, who oft

Hath heard, and loves thee for, thy verse so soft;

Unless thou come and meet me at Pontoise,

Believe me, I shall make no little noise.

These are worthy the author of the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Cæsar’s lines on Terence are written with rather more spirit and taste; they breathe Roman urbanity. In those of Francis I. and Charles IX. we find the barbarism of the Celts. Would to God that Charles IX. had written more verses, even though bad ones! For constant application to the fine arts softens the manners and dispels ferocity:

Emollit mores, nec sinit esse feros.

Besides, the French languages scarcely began to take any form until long after Charles IX. See such of Francis I.’s letters as have been preserved: “Tout est perdu hors l’honneur” —“All is lost save honor”— was worthy of a chevalier. But the following is neither in the style of Cicero nor in that of Cæsar:

“Tout a fleure ynsi que je me volois mettre o lit est arrivé Laval qui m’a aporté la serteneté du lévement du siege.”

“All was going so well that, when I was going to bed Laval arrived, and brought me the certainty of the siege being raised.”

We have letters from the hand of Louis XIII., which are no better written. It is not required of a king to write letters like Pliny, or verses like Virgil; but no one can be excused from expressing himself with propriety in his own tongue. Every prince that writes like a lady’s maid has been ill educated.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25