ON THE whole, the critic's task is perhaps less to classify a type of character as good or bad, as worthy of so much praise or so much censure, than to mark the material out of which a man has his life to make, and the kind of use and form to which he puts his material. To begin with, the bald division of men into sheep and goats is in one sense so easy as not to be worth performing, and in another sense it is so hard as only to be possible for some being with supernatural insight. And even were the qualities employed in the task of a rarer kind than they are, the utility of the performance is always extremely slight, compared with that other kind of criticism which dwells less on the final balance of good or evil than on the first innate conditions of temperament, the fixed limitations of opportunity, and the complex interplay of the two with that character, which is first their creature and then their master. It is less the concern of criticism to pronounce its man absolutely rich or absolutely poor than to count up his talents and the usury of his own which he added to them. Assuredly there ought to be little condonation of the foibles, and none at all of the moral obliquities, of the dead, because this would mean the demoralization of the living. But it is seriously to overrate the power of bald words and written opinion, to suppose that a critic's censure of conduct which a thousand other agents, from the child's hornbook up to the obvious and pressing dictates of social convenience, are daily and hourly prescribing, can be other than a work of supererogation, which fixes the mind on platitudes, instead of leading it on in search of special and distinctive traits.
It would be easy to pour overflowing vials of condemnation on many sides of Voltaire's character and career. No man possessed of so much good sense ever fell so constantly into the kinds of error against which good sense particularly warns men. There is no more wearisome or pitiful leaf in the biographies of the great, than the tale of Voltaire's quarrels with ignoble creatures; with a wrecked soul, like J. B. Rousseau (whom the reader will not confound with Jean Jacques); with a thievish bookseller, like Jore; with a calumnious journalist, like Desfontaines; with a rapacious knave like Hirschel; and all the other tormentors in the Voltairean history, whose names recall vulgar, dishonest, and indignant pertinacity on the one side, and wasteful, undignified fury on the other. That lesson in the art of life which concerns a man's dealings with those who have shown conspicuous moral inferiority, was never mastered by Voltaire. Instead of the silence, composure, and austere oblivion, which it is of the essence of strength to oppose to unworthy natures, he habitually confronted the dusty creeping things that beset his march, as if they stood valiant and erect; and the more unworthy they were, the more vehement and strenuous and shrill was his contention with them. The ignominy of such strife is clear. One thing only may perhaps be said. His intense susceptibility to vulgar calumny flowed from the same quality in his nature which made unbearable to him the presence of superstition and injustice, those mightier calumnies on humanity. The irritated protests against the small foes of his person were as the dregs of potent wine, and were the lower part of that passionate sensibility which made him the assailant of the giant oppressors of the human mind. This reflection does not make any less tedious to us the damnable iteration of petty quarrel and fretting complaint which fills such a space in his correspondence and in his biographies, nor does it lessen our regret at the havoc which this fatal defect of his qualities made with his contentedness. We think of his consolation to a person as susceptible as himself: "There have always been Frérons in literature; but they say there must be caterpillars for nightingales to eat, that they may sing the better;" and we wish that our nightingale had devoured its portion with something less of tumult. But it may do something to prevent us from giving a prominence, that is both unfair and extremely misleading, to mere shadow, as if that had been the whole substance. Alas, why after all should men, from Moses downwards, be so cheerfully ready to contemplate the hinder parts of their divinities?
The period of twenty years between Voltaire's departure from England and his departure for Berlin, although often pronounced the happiest time of his life, is very thickly set with these humiliating incidents. To us, however, they are dead, because though vivid enough to Voltaire — and it is strange how constantly it happens that the minor circumstance of life is more real and ever-present to a man than his essential and abiding work in it — they were but transitory and accidental. Just as it does little good to the understanding to spend much time over tenth-rate literature, so it is little edifying to the character to rake among the private obscurities of even first-rate men, and it is surely a good rule to keep ourselves as much as we can in contact with what is great.
The chief personal fact of this time was the connection which Voltaire formed with the Marquise du Châtelet, and which lasted from 1733 till 1749. She was to him that important and peculiar influence which, in one shape or another, some woman seems to have been to nearly every foremost man. In Voltaire's case this influence was not the rich and tender inspiration with which women have so many a time sweetened the lives and glorified the thought of illustrious workers, nor was he bound to her by those bonds of passion which have often the effect of exalting the strength and widening the range of the whole of the nature that is susceptible to passion. Their inner relations hardly depended on anything more extraordinary or more delicate than the sentiment of a masculine friendship. Voltaire found in the divine Emily a strong and active head, a keen and generous admiration for his own genius, and an eagerness to surround him with the external conditions most favorable to that steady industry which was always a thing so near his own heart. They are two great men, one of whom wears petticoats, said Voltaire of her and of Frederick. It is impossible to tell what share vanity had in the beginning of a connection, which probably owed its long continuance more to use and habit than to any deep-rooted sentiment. Vanity was one of the most strongly marked of Voltaire's traits, and to this side of him relations with a woman of quality who adored his genius were no doubt extremely gratifying. Yet one ought to do him the justice to say that his vanity was only skin-deep. It had nothing in common with the greedy egotism which reduces the whole broad universe to a mere microcosm of pygmy self. The vanity which discloses a real flaw in character is a loud and tyrannical claim for acknowledgment of literary supremacy, and with it the mean vices of envy, jealousy, and detraction are usually in company. Voltaire's vanity was something very different from this truculent kind of self-assertion. It had a source in his intensely sympathetic quality, and was a gay and eager asking of assurance from others that his work gave them pleasure. Let us be very careful to remember that it never stood in the way of self-knowledge — the great test of the difference between the vanity that is harmless, and the vanity that is fatuous and destructive.
It has been rather the fashion to laugh at the Marquise du Châtelet, for no better reasons perhaps than that she, being a woman, studied Newton, and had relations called tender with a man so little associated in common opinion with tenderness as Voltaire. The first reason is disgraceful, and the second is perhaps childish. Everything goes to show that Madame du Châtelet possessed a hardy originality of character, of which society is so little likely to have an excess that we can hardly ever be thankful enough for it. There is probably nothing which would lead to so rapid and marked an improvement in the world as a large increase of the number of women in it with the will and the capacity to master Newton as thoroughly as she did. And her long and sedulous affection for a man of genius of Voltaire's exceptional quality entitles her to the not too common praise of recognizing and revering intellectual greatness as it deserves. Her friendship for him was not the semi-servile and feebly intelligent solicitude which superior men have too often the wretched weakness to seek in their female companions, but an imperial sympathy. She was unamiable, it is true, and possessed neither the delicacy which a more fastidious age requires in a woman, nor the sense of honor which we now demand in a man. These defects, however, were not genuinely personal, but lay in the manners of the time. It was not so with all her faults. To the weak and dependent she was overbearing, harsh, mean, and even cruel. A fatuous caprice would often destroy the domestic peace and pleasure of a week. But nothing was suffered to impede the labor of a day. The industry of the house was incessant.
It is said, and it was said first by one who lived with them for some time, and has left a graphic account of the interior of Cirey, that she made Voltaire's life a little hard to him. There were many occasional storms and short sullen fits even in these high regions of science and the finer tastes. Yet such stormful scenes, with great actors as with small, are perhaps more painful in description than they were in reality; and Voltaire was less discomposed by the lively impetuosity of a companion like Madame du Châtelet than he would have been by the orderly calm of a more precise and perfectly well-regulated person. A man follows the conditions of his temperament, and Voltaire's unresting animation and fire might make him feel a certain joy of life and freedom in the occasional conten tiousness of a slightly shrewish temper. We cannot think of him as ever shrinking, ever craving for repose, as some men do as for a very necessity of existence. "The health of your friend," wrote Madame du Châtelet to de Argental, in 1739, "is in so deplorable a state that the only hope I have left of restoring it is in the turmoil of a journey." A tolerably frequent agitation was a condition of even such health as he had, to one of Voltaire's nervous and feverish habit.
Let it be said that his restlessness never took a form which involved the sacrifice of the happiness of other people. It was never tyrannical and exigent. There are many, too many, instances of his angry impatience with persons against whom he thought he had cause of offence. There is not a single instance in which any shadow of implacableness lurked for an enemy who had repented or fallen into misfortune; and if his resentment was constantly aflame against the ignoble, it instantly expired and changed into warm-hearted pity, when the ignoble became either penitent or miserable. There are many tales of the readiness with which his anger was appeased. Any one will suffice as a type. On some occasion when Voltaire was harassed by a storm of libels, and happened to be on good terms with the police, a distributor of the libels was arrested. The father, an old man of eighty, hastened to Voltaire to pray for pardon. All Voltaire's fury instantly vanished at the first appeal; he wept with the old man, embraced him, consoled him, and straightway ran to procure the liberation of the offender. An eye-witness related to Grimm how he happened to be present at Ferney when Voltaire received Rousseau's "Lettres de la Montagne," and read the apostrophe relating to himself. His face seemed to take fire, his eyes sparkled with fury, his whole frame trembled, and he cried in terrible tones: "The miscreant! the monster! I must have him cudgelled — yes, I will have him cudgelled in his mountains at the knees of his nurse." "Pray, calm yourself," said the bystander, "for I know that Rousseau means to pay you a visit, and will very shortly be at Ferney." "Ah, only let him come," replied Voltaire. "But how will you receive him?" "Receive him…I will give him supper, put him in my own bed, and say, 'There is a good supper; this is the best bed in the house; do me the pleasure to accept one and the other, and to make yourself happy here.'" One does not understand the terrible man, without remembering always how much of the hot generosity of the child he kept in his nature to the last. When the very Jesuits were suppressed with circumstances of extreme harshness, he pitied even them, and took one of their number permanently into his household.
The most important part of a man's private conduct, after that which concerns his relations with women and his family, is generally that which concerns his way of dealing with money, because money in its acquisition and its dispersion is the outward and visible sign of the absence or of the presence of so many inward and spiritual graces. As has often been said, it is the measure of some of the most important of a man's virtues, his honesty, his industry, his generosity, his self-denial, and most of the other elements in keeping the difficult balance between his care for himself and his care for other people. Voltaire perceived very early in life that to be needy was to be dependent; that the rich and poor are as hammer and anvil; that the chronicles of genius demonstrate that it is not by genius that men either make a fortune or live happy lives. He made up his mind from the beginning that the author of the French epic would not share the poverty and straitened lives of Tasso and Milton, and that he for his part would at any rate be hammer and not anvil. "I was so wearied," he wrote in 1752, "of the humiliations that dishonor letters, that to stay my disgust I resolved to make what scoundrels call a great fortune." He used to give his books away to the printers. He had a small fortune from his father; he is said to have made two thousand pounds by the English subscriptions to the "Henriade;" and he did not hide his talent in the ground, but resorted skilfully to all sorts of speculations in stocks, army contracts, and other authorized means of converting one livre into two while you sleep. He lent large sums of money, presumably at handsome interest, to the Duke of Richelieu and others, and though the interest may have been handsome, the trouble of procuring it was often desperate. Yet after much experience Voltaire came to the conclusion that though he had sometimes lost money by bankers, by the devout, by the people of the Old Testament, who would have had many scruples about a larded capon, who would rather die than not be idle on the Sabbath, and not be thieving on the Sunday, yet he had lost nothing by the great except his time.
It is easy to point a sneer at a high priest of humanity jobbing in the funds. Only let us remember that Voltaire never made any pretence of being a high priest of humanity; that his transactions were substantially very like those of any banker or merchant of to-day; and that for a man who was preaching new opinions it was extremely prudent to place himself out of the necessity of pleasing booksellers or the pit of the theatre on the one hand, and on the other to supply himself with ready means of frequent flight from the ceaseless persecutions of authority. Envious scribes in his lifetime taunted him with avarice, and the evil association still clings to his memory now that he is dead. One can only say that good and high-minded men, who never shrank from withstanding him when in fault, men like Condorcet for example, heard such talk with disdain, and set it down to the disgraceful readiness of men to credit anything that relieves them from having to admire. The people who dislike prudence in matters of money in those whose distinction is intellectual or spiritual, resemble a sentimental lover who should lose his illusions at sight of his mistress eating a hearty meal. Is their lot, then, cast in the ethereal fluid of the interstellar spaces?
At all events Voltaire had two important gifts which do not commonly belong to the avaricious; he was a generous helper alike of those who had, and those who had not, a claim upon him, and he knew how to bear serious losses with unbroken composure. Michel, the receiver-general, became bankrupt, and Voltaire lost a considerable sum of money in consequence. His fluency of invective and complaint, which was simply boundless when an obscure scribbler earned a guinea by a calumny upon him, went no farther on the occasion of this very substantial injury than a single splenetic phrase, and a harmless quatrain:
Michel au nom de l'Éternel,
Mit jadis le diable en déroute;
Mais, après cette banqueroute,
Que le diable emporte Michel!
It has been fairly asked whether a genuine miser would content himself with a stanza upon the man who had robbed him. His correspondence with the Duchess of Saxe-Gotha shows him declining to accept the thousand louis which she had sent as a fee for the composition of the "Annales de l'Empire."
Much has been made of the bargaining which he carried on with Frederick, as to the terms on which he would consent to go to Berlin. But then the Prussian king was not one with whom it was wise to be too nice in such affairs. He was the thriftiest of men, and as a king is a person who lives on other people's money, such thrift was in his case the most princely of virtues. Haggling is not graceful, but it need not imply avarice in either of the parties to it. The truth is that there was in Voltaire a curious admixture of splendid generosity with virulent tenacity about pennies. The famous quarrel with the President de Brosses about the fourteen cords of firewood is a worse affair. Voltaire, who leased Tourney from him, insisted that de Brosses had made him a present of the fourteen cords. De Brosses, no doubt truly, declared that he had only ordered the wood to be delivered on Voltaire's account. On this despicable matter a long correspondence was carried on, in which Voltaire is seen at his very worst; insolent, undignified, low-minded, and even untruthful. The case happily stands alone in his biography. As a rule, he is a steady practitioner of the Aristotelian megaloprepeia, or virtue of magnificent expenditure.
The truly important feature of the life which Voltaire led at Cirey was its unremitting diligence. Like a Homeric goddess, the divine Emily poured a cloud round her hero. There is a sort of moral climate in a household, an impalpable, unseizable, indefinable set of influences, which predispose the inmates to industry and self-control, or else relax fibre and slacken purpose. At Cirey there was an almost monastic rule. Madame Grafigny says that though Voltaire felt himself bound by politeness to pay her a visit from time to time in her apartment, he usually avoided sitting down, apologetically protesting how frightful a thing is the quantity of time people waste in talking, and that waste of time is the most fatal kind of extravagance of which one can be guilty. He seems to have usually passed the whole day at his desk, or in making physical experiments in his chamber. The only occasion on which people met was at the supper at nine in the evening. Until then the privacy of the chamber alike of the hostess, who was analyzing Leibnitz or translating Newton, and of the unofficial host, who was compiling material for the "Siècle de Louis XIV.," or polishing and repolishing "Mahomet," or investigating the circumstances of the propagation of fire, was sacredly inviolable.
The rigor of the rule did not forbid theatrical performances, when any company, even a company of marionettes, came into the neighborhood of the desolate Champagne château. Sometimes after supper Voltaire would exhibit a magic lantern, with explanatory comments after the showman's manner, in which he would convulse his friends at the expense of his enemies. But after the evening's amusement was over, the Marquise would retire to work in her chamber until the morning, and, when morning came, a couple of hours' sleep was the only division between the tasks of the night and the tasks of the day. Two splenetic women have left us a couple of spiteful pictures of Madame du Châtelet, but neither of her detractors could rise to any higher conception of intellectual effort than the fine turn of phrase, the ingenious image, the keen thrust of cruel satire, with which the polished idle of that day whiled away dreary and worthless years. The translator of Newton's "Principia" was not of this company, and she was wholly indifferent to the raillery, sarcasm and hate of women whom she justly held her inferiors. It is much the fashion to admire the women of this time, because they contrive to hide behind a veil of witty words the coldness and hollowness of lives which had neither the sweetness of the old industrious domesticity of women, nor the noble largeness of some of those in whom the Revolution kindled a pure fire of patriotism in after days. Madame du Châtelet, with all her faults, was a far loftier character than the malicious gossips who laughed at her. "Everything that occupies society was within her power, except slander. She was never heard to hold up anybody to laughter. When she was informed that certain people were bent on not doing her justice, she would reply that she wished to ignore it." This was surely better than a talent for barbing epigrams, and she led a worthier life at Cirey than in that Paris which Voltaire described so bitterly.
Là, tous les soirs, la troupe vagabonde,
D'un peuple oisif, appelé le beau monde,
Va promener de réduit en réduit
L'inquiétude et l'ennui qui la suit.
Là sont en foule antiques mijaurées,
Jeunes oisons et bégueules titrées,
Disant des riens d'un ton de perroquet,
Lorgnant des sots, et trichant au piquet.
Blondins y sont, beaucoup plus femmes qu'elles.
Profondément remplis de bagatelles,
D'un air hautain, d'une bruyante voix,
Chantant, dansant, minaudant à la fois.
Si par hasard quelque personne honnête,
D'un sens plus droit et d'un gout plus heureux
Des bons écrits ayant meublé sa tête,
Leur fait l'affront de penser à leurs yeux;
Tout aussitôt leur brillante cohue,
D'étonnement et de colère émue,
Bruyant essaim de frêlons envieux,
Pique et poursuit cette abeille charmante.1
It was not the fault of Madame du Châtelet that the life of Cirey was not the undisturbed type of Voltaire's existence during the fifteen years of their companionship. Many pages might be filled with a mere list of the movements from place to place to which Voltaire resorted, partly from reasonable fear of the grip of a jealous and watchful government, partly from eagerness to bring the hand of the government upon his enemies, and most of all from the uncontrollable restlessness of his own nature. Amsterdam, The Hague, Brussels, Berlin, the little court of Lunéville, and the great world of Paris, too frequently withdrew him from the solitary castle at Cirey, though he never failed to declare on his return, and with perfect sincerity, that he was never so happy anywhere else. If it was true that the Marquise made her poet's life a little hard to him, it is impossible to read her correspondence without perceiving that he, too, though for no lack of sensibility and good feeling, often made life extremely hard for her. Besides their moral difference, there was a marked discrepancy in intellectual temperament, which did not fail to lead to outward manifestations. Voltaire was sometimes a little weary of Newton and exact science, while the Marquise was naturally of the rather narrow turn for arid truths which too often distinguishes clever women inadequately disciplined by contact with affairs.
Voltaire was not merely one of those "paper philosophers," whose intrusion into the fields of physical science its professional followers are justly wont to resent. He was an active experimenter, and more than one letter remains, containing instructions to his agent in Paris to forward him retorts, air-pumps, and other instruments, with the wise hint in one place, a hint by no means of a miser, "In the matter of buying things, my friend, you should always prefer the good and sound even if a little dear, to what is only middling but cheaper." His correspondence for some years proves the diligence and sincerity of his interest in science. Yet it is tolerably clear that the man who did so much to familiarize France with the most illustrious of physicists, was himself devoid of true scientific aptitude. After long and persevering labor in this region, Voltaire consulted Clairaut on the progress he had made. The latter, with a loyal frankness which Voltaire knew how to appreciate, answered that even with the most stubborn labor he was not likely to attain to anything beyond mediocrity in science, and that he would be only throwing away time which he owed to poetry and philosophy. The advice was taken; for, as we have already said, Voltaire's self-love was never fatuous, and the independent search of physical truth was given up. There is plainly no reason to regret the pains which Voltaire took in this kind of inquiry, not because the study of the sciences extends the range of poetic study and enriches verse with fresh images, but because the number of sorts of knowledge in which a man feels at home and is intelligently cognizant of their scope and issues, even if he be wholly incompetent to assist in the progress of discovery, increases that intellectual confidence and self-respect of understanding, which so fortifies and stimulates him in his own special order of work. We cannot precisely contend that this encyclopædic quality is an indispensable condition of such self-respect in every kind of temper. It certainly was so with Voltaire. "After all, my dear friend," he wrote to Cideville, "it is right to give every possible form to our soul. It is a flame that God has intrusted to us, we are bound to feed it with all that we find most precious. We should introduce into our existence all imaginable modes, and open every door of the soul to all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of feelings. So long as it does not all go in pell-mell, there is plenty of room for everything."
To us, who can be wise after the event, it is clear that if ever a man was called not to science, nor to poetry, nor to theology, nor to metaphysics, but to literature, the art, so hard to define, of showing the ideas of all subjects in the double light of the practical and the spiritual reason, that man was Voltaire. He has himself dwelt on the vagueness of this much-abused term, without contributing anything more satisfactory towards a better account of it than a crude hint that literature, not being a special art, may be considered a kind of larger grammar of knowledge. Although, however, it is true that literature is not a particular art, it is not the less true that there is a mental constitution particularly fitted for its successful practice. Literature is essentially an art of form, as distinguished from those exercises of intellectual energy which bring new stores of matter to the stock of acquired knowledge, and give new forces to emotion and original and definite articulation to passion. It is a misleading classification to call the work of Shakespeare and Molière, Shelley and Hugo, literary, just as it would be an equally inaccurate, though more glaring piece of classification, to count the work of Newton or Locke literature. To take another case from Voltaire, it would not be enough to describe "Bayle's Dictionary" as a literary compilation; it would not even be enough to describe it as a work of immense learning, because the distinguishing and superior mark of this book is a profound dialectic. It forms men of letters and is above them.
What is it then that literature brings to us that earns its title to high place, though far from a highest place, among the great humanizing arts? Is it not that this is the master organon for giving men the two precious qualities of breadth of interest and balance of judgment; multiplicity of sympathies and steadiness of sight? Unhappily, literature has too often been identified with the smirks and affectations of mere elegant dispersiveness, with the hollow niceties of the virtuoso, a thing of madrigals. It is not in any sense of this sort that we can think of Voltaire as specially the born minister of literature. What we mean is that while he had not the loftier endowments of the highest poetic conception, subtle speculative penetration, or triumphant scientific power, he possessed a superb combination of wide and sincere curiosity, an intelligence of vigorous and exact receptivity, a native inclination to candor and justice, and a pre-eminent mastery over a wide range in the art of expression. Literature being concerned to impose form, to diffuse the light by which common men are able to see the great host of ideas and facts that do not shine in the brightness of their own atmosphere, it is clear what striking gifts Voltaire had in this way. He had a great deal of knowledge, and he was ever on the alert both to increase and broaden his stock, and, what was still better, to impart of it to everybody else. He did not think it beneath him to write on "Hemistichs" for the "Encyclopædia." "It is not a very brilliant task," he said, "but perhaps the article will be useful to men of letters and amateurs; one should disdain nothing, and I will do the word 'Comma,' if you choose." He was very catholic in taste, being able to love Racine without ignoring the lofty stature of Shakespeare. And he was free from the weakness which so often attends on catholicity, when it is not supported by true strength and independence of understanding; he did not shut his eyes to the shortcomings of the great. While loving Molière, he was aware of the incompleteness of his dramatic construction, as well as of the egregious farce to which that famous writer too often descends. His respect for the sublimity and pathos of Corneille did not hinder him from noting both his violence and his frigid argumentation. Does the reader remember that admirable saying of his to Vauvenargues: "It is the part of a man like you to have preferences, but no exclusions?" To this fine principle Voltaire was usually thoroughly true, as every great mind, if only endowed with adequate culture, must necessarily be.
Nul auteur avec lui n'a tort,Quand il a trouvé l'art de plaire;
Thirdly, that circumfusion of bright light which is the highest aim of speech, was easy to Voltaire, in whatever order of subject he happened to treat. His style is like a translucent stream of purest mountain water, moving with swift and animated flow under flashing sunbeams. "Voltaire," said an enemy, "is the very first man in the world at writing down what other people have thought." What was meant for a spiteful censure, was in fact a truly honorable distinction.
The secret is incommunicable. No spectrum analysis can decompose for us that enchanting ray. It is rather, after all, the piercing metallic light of electricity than a glowing beam of the sun. We can detect some of the external qualities of this striking style. We seize its dazzling simplicity, its almost primitive closeness to the letter, its sharpness and precision, above all, its admirable brevity. We see that no writer ever used so few words to produce such pregnant effects. Those whom brevity only makes thin and slight may look with despair on pages where the nimbleness of the sentence is in proportion to the firmness of the thought. We find no bastard attempts to reproduce in words deep and complex effects, which can only be adequately presented in color or in the combinations of musical sound. Nobody has ever known better the true limitations of the material in which he worked, or the scope and possibilities of his art. Voltaire's alexandrines, his witty stories, his mock-heroic, his exposition of Newton, his histories, his dialectic, all bear the same mark, the same natural, precise, and condensed mode of expression, the same absolutely faultless knowledge of what is proper and permitted in every given kind of written work. At first there seems something paradoxical in dwelling on the brevity of an author whose works are to be counted by scores of volumes. But this is no real objection. A writer may be insufferably prolix in the limits of a single volume, and Voltaire was quite right in saying that there are four times too many words in the one volume of d'Holbach's "System of Nature." He maintains too that Rabelais might advantageously be reduced to one-eighth, and Bayle to a quarter, and there is hardly a book that is not curtailed in the perfecting hands of the divine muses. So, conversely, an author may not waste a word in a hundred volumes. Style is independent of quantity, and the world suffers so grievously from the mass of books that have been written, not because they are many, but because such a vast proportion of their pages say nothing while they purport to say so much.
No study, however, of this outward ease and swift compendiousness of speech will teach us the secret that was beneath it in Voltaire, an eye and a hand that never erred in hitting the exact mark of appropriateness in every order of prose and verse. Perhaps no such vision for the befitting in expression has ever existed. He is the most trenchant writer in the world, yet there is not a sentence of strained emphasis or overwrought antithesis; he is the wittiest, yet there is not a line of bad buffoonery. And this intense sense of the appropriate had by nature and cultivation become so entirely a fixed condition of Voltaire's mind that it shows spontaneously and without an effort in his work. Nobody is more free from the ostentatious correctness of the literary precisian, and nobody preserves so much purity and so much dignity of language with so little formality of demeanor. It is interesting to notice the absence from his writings of that intensely elaborated kind of simplicity in which some of the best authors of a later time express the final outcome of many thoughts. The strain that society has undergone since Voltaire's day has taught men to qualify their propositions. It has forced them to follow truth slowly along paths steep and devious. New notes have been struck in human feeling, and all thought has now been touched by complexities that were then unseen. Hence, as all good writers aim at simplicity and directness, we have seen the growth of a new style, in which the rays of many side-lights are concentrated in some single phrase. That Voltaire does not use these focalizing words and turns of composition only means that to him thought was less complex than it is to a more subjective generation. Though the literature which possesses Milton and Burke need not fear comparison with the graver masters of French speech, we have no one to place exactly by the side of Voltaire. But, then, no more has France. There are many pages of Swift which are more like one side of Voltaire than anything else that we have, and Voltaire probably drew the idea of his famous stories from the creator of Gulliver, just as Swift got the idea of the "Tale of a Tub" from Fontenelle's "History of Mero and Enegu," that is, of Rome and Geneva. Swift has correctness, invention, irony, and a trick of being effectively literal and serious in absurd situations, just as Voltaire has; but then Swift is often truculent and often brutally gross, both in thought and in phrase. Voltaire is never either brutal or truculent. Even amid the licence of the "Pucelle" and of his romances, he never forgets what is due to the French tongue. What always charmed him in Racine and Boileau, he tells us, was that they said what they intended to say, and that their thoughts have never cost anything to the harmony or the purity of the language. Voltaire ranged over far wider ground than the two poets ever attempted to do, and trod in many slippery places, yet he is entitled to the same praise as that which he gave to them.
Unhappily, one of the many evil effects which have alloyed the revolution that Voltaire did so much to set in motion has been, both in his country and ours, that purity and harmony of language, in spite of the examples of the great masters who have lived since, have on the whole declined. In both countries familiarity and slang have actually asserted a place in literature on some pretence that they are real; an assumed vulgarity tries to pass for native homeliness, and, as though a giant were more impressive for having a humped back, some men of true genius seem only to make sure of fame by straining themselves into grotesques. In a word, the action against a spurious dignity of style has carried men too far, because the reaction against the dignified elements in the old order went too far. Style, after all, as one has always to remember, can never be anything but the reflex of ideas and habits of mind, and when respect for one's own personal dignity as a ruling and unique element in character gave way to sentimental love of the human race, often real, and often a pretence, old self-respecting modes of expression went out of fashion. And all this has been defended by a sort of argument that might just as appropriately have been used by Diogenes, vindicating the filthiness of his tub against a doctrine of clean linen.
To follow letters, it is important to observe, meant then, or at least after Voltaire's influence rose to its height, it meant distinctly to enter the ranks of the opposition. In our own time the profession of letters is placed with other polite avocations, and those who follow it for the most part accept the traditional social ideas of the time, just as clergymen, lawyers, and physicians accept them. The modern man of letters corresponds to the ancient sophist, whose office it was to confirm, adorn, and propagate the current prejudice. To be a man of letters in France in the middle of the eighteenth century was to be the official enemy of the current prejudices and their sophistical defenders in the church and the parliaments. Parents heard of a son's design to go to Paris and write books, or to mix with those who wrote books, with the same dismay with which a respectable Athenian heard of a son following Socrates. The hyper-Hellenistic collegian need not accuse us of instituting a general parallel between Socrates and Voltaire. The only point on which we are insisting is that each was the leader of the assault against the sophists of his day, though their tactics and implements of war were sufficiently unlike. To the later assailant the conditions of the time made the pen the most effective instrument. The clergy had the pulpit and the confessional, and their enemies had the press.
It was during the period of his connection with Madame du Châtelet, that is in the active literary years between his return from England and his removal to Berlin, that Voltaire's dramatic talent was most productive.2 He is usually considered to hold the same place relatively to Corneille and Racine that Euripides held relatively to Æschylus and Sophocles. It is not easy to see what is the exact point of analogy in which the critics agree beyond the corresponding place in the order of chronological succession, and such parallels are not really very full of instruction. If we are to draw any parallel at all, it must be between the Greek and Racine. The differences between Euripides and his predecessors are not those between Voltaire and his predecessors. There may be one common peculiarity. Each made the drama an instrument for the expression not merely of passion, but of speculative and philosophical matter, and this in each case of a skeptical kind in reference to the accepted traditions of the time. But apart from the vast superiority of the Greek in depth and passion and dramatic invention, in Voltaire this philosophizing is very much more indirect, insinuatory, and furtive, than in the marked sententiousness of Euripides. There are critics, indeed, who insist that all Voltaire's poetic work is a series of pamphlets in disguise, and that he ought to be classified, in that jargon which makes an uncouth compound pass muster for a new critical nicety, as a tendency-poet. To accept this would simply be to leave out of account the very best of Voltaire's plays, including "Mérope," Sémiramis," "Tancrède," in which the most ingenious of men and critics would be at a loss to find any tendency of the pamphleteering kind. Voltaire's ever-present sense of congruity prevented him from putting the harangue of the pulpit or the discourse of the academic doctor upon the tragic stage. If the clergy found in "Mahomet," for instance, a covert attack on their own religion, it was much more because the poet was suspected of unbelief, than because the poem contained infidel doctrine. Indeed, nothing shows so clearly as the strange affright at this and some other pieces of Voltaire's, that the purport and effect of poetry must depend nearly as much upon the mind of the audience as upon the lines themselves. His plays may be said to have led to skepticism, only because there was skeptical predisposition in the mind which his public brought to them; and under other circumstances, if for instance it had been produced in the time of Louis XIV., the exposure of Mahomet would have been counted a glorification of the rival creed. Indeed, Pope Benedict XIV. did by and by accept Voltaire's dedication of the play, whether in good faith or not we cannot tell, on the express ground that it was an indirect homage to Christianity. Men with a sense of artistic propriety far inferior to Voltaire's are yet fully alive to the monstrosity of disguising a pamphleteer's polemic in the form of a pretended drama.
In choice of subject, Voltaire, we may believe, was secretly guided by his wish to relax the oppressive hold of religious prejudice. Religion, we cannot too fully realize, was the absorbing burden of the time. There was no sort of knowledge, from geometry onwards, on which it did not weigh. Whatever work Voltaire set himself to, he was confronted in it by the Infamous. Thus in accordance with the narrow theory of his time, he held Mahomet to be a deliberate and conscious impostor, and in presenting the founder of one great religion in this odious shape, he was doubtless suggesting that the same account might be true of the founder of another. But the suggestion was entirely outside of the play itself, and we who have fully settled these questions for ourselves, may read "Mahomet" without suspecting the shade of a reference from Mecca to Jerusalem, though hardly without contemning the feebleness of view which could see nothing but sensuality, ambition, and crime in the career of the fierce eastern reformer. The sentiments of exalted deism which are put into the mouth of the noble Zopire were perhaps meant to teach people that the greatest devotion of character may go with the most unflinching rejection of a pretended revelation from the gods. This again is a gloss from without, and by no means involves Voltaire in the offence of art with a moral purpose.
"Zaïre" was the first play in which French characters appeared upon the tragic stage. The heroine, the daughter of Lusignan, has been brought up, unconscious of her descent, in the Mahometan faith and usage. Consider the philosophy of these lines which are given to her:
La coutume, la loi plia mes premiers ans
À la religion des heureux musulmans.
Je le vois trop; les soins qu'on prend de notre enfance
Forment nos sentimens, nos mœurs, notre croyance.
J'eusse été près du Gange esclave des faux dieux,
Chrétienne dans Paris, musulmane en ces lieux.
L'instruction fait tout; et la main de nos pères
Grave en nos faibles cœurs ces premiers caractères,
Que l'exemple et le temps nous viennent retracer,
Et que peut-être en nous Dieu seul peut effacer.3
This of course implies the doctrine of Pope's "Universal Prayer," and contains an idea that was always the favorite weapon for smiting the over-confident votaries of a single supernatural revelation. Locke had asked whether "the current opinions and licenced guides of every country are sufficient evidence and security to every man to venture his great concernments on? Or, can these be the certain and infallible oracle and standards of truth which teach one thing in Christendom, and another in Turkey? Or shall a poor countryman be eternally happy for having the chance to be born in Italy? Or a day-laborer be unavoidably lost because he had the illluck to be born in England?" This was exactly the kind of reasoning to which Zaïre's lines pointed; and Voltaire was never weary of arguing that the divine lay outside of the multitudinous variety of creeds that were never more than local accidents. Neither, however, in "Zaïre" nor anywhere else is the law of perfect dramatic fitness violated for the sake of a lesson in heterodoxy. With Voltaire tragedy is, as all art ought to be, a manner of disinterested presentation. This is not the noblest energy of the human intelligence, but it is truly art, and Voltaire did not forget it.
It would be entirely unprofitable to enter into any comparison of the relative merits of Voltaire's tragedies and those either of the modern romantic school in his own country or of the master dramatists of our own. Every form of composition must be judged in its own order, and the order in which Voltaire chose to work was the French classic, with its appointed conditions and fixed laws, its three unities, its stately alexandrines, and all the other essentials of that special dramatic form. Here is one of the many points at which we feel that Voltaire is trying to prolong in literature, if not in thought, the impressive tradition of the grand age. At the same moment, strangely enough, he was giving that stir to the opinion of his time which was the prime agent in definitely breaking the hold of that tradition. It is no infidelity to the glorious and incomparable genius of Shakespeare, nor does it involve any blindness to the fine creation, fresh fancy, and noble thought and imagery of our less superb men, yet to admit that there is in these limits of construction a concentration and regularity, and in these too contemned alexandrines a just and swelling cadence, that confer a high degree of pleasure of the highest kind, and that demand intellectual quality only less rare than that other priceless and unattainable quality of having the lips touched with divine fire. It is said, however, that such quality does not produce acting plays, but only dramatic poems: this is really laughable if we remember first, that the finest actors in the world have been trained in the recitation of these alexandrines, and second, that as large and as delighted an audience used until within some twenty years ago to crowd to a tragedy of Corneille or Racine, seen repeatedly before, as to a brand-new vaudeville, never to be seen again.
"We insist," said Voltaire, "that the rhyme shall cost nothing to the ideas; that it shall neither be trivial nor too far-fetched; we exact rigorously in a verse the same purity, the same precision, as in prose. We do not permit the smallest licence; we require an author to carry without a break all these chains, and yet that he should appear ever free." He admitted that sometimes they failed in reaching the tragic, through excessive fear of passing its limits. He does justice to the singular merits of our stage in the way of action. Shakespeare, he says, "had a genius full of force and fertility, of all that is natural and all that is sublime." It is even the merit of Shakespeare —"those grand and terrible pieces that abound in his most monstrous farces"— that has been the undoing of the English stage.
Even the famous criticism on "Hamlet" has been a good deal misrepresented. Voltaire is vindicating the employment of the machinery of ghosts, and he dwells on the fitness and fine dramatic effect of the ghost in Shakespeare's play. "I am very far," he goes on to say, "from justifying the tragedy of Hamlet in everything: it is a rude and barbarous piece…. Hamlet goes mad in the second act, and his mistress goes mad in the third; the prince slays the father of his mistress, pretending to kill a rat, and the heroine throws herself into the river. They dig her grave on the stage; the grave-diggers jest in a way worthy of them, with skulls in their hands; Hamlet answers their odious grossnesses by extravagances no less disgusting. Meanwhile one of the characters conquers Poland. Hamlet, his mother, and his stepfather drink together on the stage; they sing at table, they wrangle, they fight, they kill; one might suppose such a work to be the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage. But in the midst of all these rude irregularities, which to this day make the English theatre so absurd and so barbarous, there are to be found in "Hamlet" by a yet greater incongruity sublime strokes worthy of the loftiest geniuses. It seems as if nature had taken a delight in collecting within the brain of Shakespeare all that we can imagine of what is greatest and most powerful, with all that rudeness without wit can contain of what is lowest and most detestable."
If one were to retort upon this that anybody with a true sense of poetry would sacrifice all the plays that Voltaire ever wrote, his eight-and-twenty tragedies, and half-score of comedies, for the soliloquy in "Hamlet," King Henry at Towton Fight, or "Roses, their sharp spines being gone," there would be truth in such a retort, but it would be that brutal truth, which is always very near being the most subtle kind of lie. Nature wrought a miracle for us by producing Shakespeare, as she did afterwards in an extremely different way for France by producing Voltaire. Miracles, however, have necessarily a very demoralizing effect. A prodigy of loaves and fishes, by slackening the motives to honest industry, must in the end multiply paupers. The prodigy of such amazing results from such glorious carelessness as Shakespeare's, has plunged hundreds of men of talent into a carelessness most inglorious, and made our acting stage a mock. It is quite true that the academic rule is better fitted for mediocrity than for genius; but we may perhaps trust genius to make a way for itself. It is mediocrity that needs laws and prescriptions for its most effective fertilization, and the enormous majority even of those who can do good work are still mediocre. We have preferred the methods of lawless genius, and are left with rampant lawlessness and no genius. The very essence of the old French tragedy was painstaking, and painstaking has had its unfailing and exceeding great reward. When people whose taste has been trained in the traditions of romantic and naturalistic art, or even not trained at all except in indolence and presumption, yawn over French alexandrines, let them remember that Goethe at any rate thought it worth while to translate "Mahomet" and "Tancrède."
An eminent German writer on Voltaire has recently declared the secret of the French classic dramaturgy to be that the drama was a diversion of the court. "The personages have to speak not as befits their true feelings, their character, and the situation, but as is seemly in the presence of a king and a court; not truth, nature, and beauty, but etiquette, is the highest law of the dramatic art." This may partially explain how it was that a return to some features of the classic form, its dignity, elevation, and severity, came to take place in France, but no explanation can be at all satisfactory which reduces so distinct and genuine a manner of dramatic expression to a mere outside accident. Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, treated their tragic subjects as they did, with rigorous concentration of action, stately consistency of motive, and in a solemn and balanced measure, because these conditions answered to intellectual qualities of their own, an affinity in themselves for elegance, clearness, elevation, and a certain purified and weighty wisdom. It is true that they do not unseal those deep-hidden fountains of thought and feeling and music, which flow so freely at the waving of Shakespeare's wand. We are not swiftly carried from a scene of clowns up to some sublime pinnacle of the seventh heaven, whence we see the dark abysses that lie about the path of human action, as well as all its sweet and shadowed places. Only let us not unjustly suppose that we are deciding the merits of the old French dramaturgy, its severe structure and stately measure, by answering the question, which no English nor German writer can ever seriously put, as to the relative depth and vision in poetic things of Shakespeare and Voltaire. Nor can we be expected to be deeply moved by a form of art that is so unfamiliar to us. It is not a question whether we ought to be so deeply moved. The too susceptible Marmontel describes how on the occasion of a visit to Ferney, Voltaire took him into his study and placed a manuscript into his hands. It was "Tancrède," which was just finished. Marmontel eagerly read it, and he tells us how he returned to the author, his face all bathed in tears. "Your tears," said Voltaire, "tell me all that it most concerns me to know." The most supercilious critic may find this very "Tancrède" worth reading, when he remembers that Gibbon thought it splendid and interesting, and that Goethe found it worth translating. One could hardly be convicted now of want of sensibility, if all Voltaire's tragedy together failed to bathe one's face in tears, but this is a very bad reason for denying that it has other merits than pathos.
We cannot, indeed, compare the author of "Zaïre" and "Tancrède" with the great author of "Cinna" and "Polyeucte," any more than in another kind we can compare Gray with Milton. Voltaire is the very genius of correctness, elegance, and grace, and if the reader would know what this correctness means, he will find a most wholesome exercise in reading Voltaire's notes on some of the most celebrated of Corneille's plays. But in masculine energy and in poetic weightiness, as well as in organ-like richness of music, Voltaire certainly must be pronounced inferior to his superb predecessor. There is a certain thinness pervading the whole of his work for the stage, the conception of character, the dramatic structure, and the measure alike. Undoubtedly we may frequently come upon weighty and noble lines, of fine music and lofty sense. But there is on the whole what strikes one as a fatal excess of facility, and a fatal defect of poetic saliency. The fluent ease of the verse destroys the impression of strength. "Your friend," wrote Madame du Châtelet once of her friend, "has had a slight bout of illness, and you know that when he is ill, he can do nothing but write verses." We do not know whether the Marquise meant alexandrines, or those graceful verses of society of which Voltaire was so incomparable a master. It is certain that he wrote "Zaïre" in three weeks and "Olympie" in six days, though, with respect to the latter we may well agree with the friend who told the author that he should not have rested on the seventh day. However that may be, there is a quality about his tragic verse which to one fresh from the sonorous majesty and dignified beauty of "Polyeucte," or even the fine gravity of "Tartufe," vibrates too lightly in the ear. Least of all may we compare him to Racine, whose two great tragedies of "Iphigénie" and "Athalie" Voltaire himself declared to mark the nearest approach ever made to dramatic perfection. There is none of the mixed austerity and tenderness, height and sweetness, grace and firmness, that blend together with such invisible art and unique contrivance in the poet whose verses taught Fénelon and Massillon how to make music in their prose. To this Voltaire could only have access from without, for he lacked the famous master's internal depth, seriousness, and veneration of soul. We know how little this approach from without can avail, and how vainly a man follows the harmonious grace of a style, when he lacks the impalpable graces of spirit that made the style live. It is only when grave thoughts and benignant aspirations and purifying images move with even habit through the mind, that a man masters the noblest expression. De Maistre, to whom Voltaire's name was the symbol for all that is accursed, admitted the nobleness of his work in tragedy, but he instantly took back the grudged praise by saying that even here he resembles his two great rivals only as a clever hypocrite resembles a saint. Malignantly expressed, there is in this some truth.
It was one of the elements in the plan of dramatic reform that sprang up in Voltaire's mind during his residence in England, that the subjects of tragedy should be more masculine, and that love should cease to be an obligatory ingredient. "It is nearly always the same piece, the same knot, formed by jealousy and a breach, and united by marriage; it is a perpetual coquetry, a simple comedy in which princes are actors, and in which occasionally blood is spilt for form's sake." This he counted a mistake, for, as he justly said, the heart is but lightly touched by a lover's woes, while it is profoundly softened by the anguish of a mother just about to lose her son. Thus in "Mérope" we have maternal sentiment made the spring of what is probably the best of Voltaire's tragedies, abounding in a just vehemence, compact, full of feeling at once exalted and natural, and moving with a sustained energy that is not a too common mark of his work. It was the same conviction of the propriety of making tragedy a means of expressing other emotions than that which is so apt to degenerate into an insipidity, which dictated the composition and novel treatment of the Roman subjects, "Brutus" and "La Mort de César." Here the French drama first became in some degree truly political. His predecessors when they handled a historic theme did so, not from the historic or social point of view, but as the illustration, or rather the suggestion, of some central human passion. In the "Cinna" of Corneille the political bearings, the moral of benevolent despotism which Bonaparte found in it, were purely incidental, and were distinctly subordinate to the portrayal of character and the movement of feeling. In "Brutus" the whole action lies in the region of great public affairs, and of the passions which these affairs stir in noble characters, without any admixture of purely private tenderness. In "La Mort de César" we are equally in the heroics of public action. "Rome Sauvée," of which the subject is the conspiracy of Catiline, and the hero the most eloquent of consuls or men — a part that Voltaire was very fond of filling in private representations, and with distinguished success — is extremely loose and spasmodic in structure, and the speeches sound strained even when put into Cicero's mouth. But here also private insipidities are banished, though perhaps it is only in favor of public insipidities. It is impossible to tell what share, if any, these plays had in spreading that curious feeling about Roman freedom and its most renowned defenders, which is so striking a feature in some of the great episodes of the Revolution. We cannot suspect Voltaire of any design to stir political feeling. He was now essentially aristocratic and courtly in his predilection, without the smallest active wish for an approach to political revolution, if indeed the conception of a change of that kind ever presented itself to him. He was indefatigable in admiring and praising English freedom, but, as has already been said, it was not the laudation of a lover of popular government, but the envy of a man of letters whose life was tormented by censors of the press and the lieutenant of police. Perhaps the only approach to a public purpose in this fancy for his Roman subjects was a lurking idea of arousing in the nobles, for whom we must remember that his dramatic work was above all designed, not a passion for freedom from the authority of monarchic government, but a passion of a more general kind for energetic patriotism. Voltaire's letters abound with expressions of the writer's belief that he was the witness of an epoch of decay in his own country. He had in truth far too keen and practical and trained an eye not to see how public spirit, political sagacity, national ambition, and even valor had declined in the great orders of France since the age of the Grand Monarch, and how much his country had fallen back in the race of civilization and power. We should be guilty of a very transparent exaggeration of the facts, if any attempt were made to paint Voltaire in the attitude and colors of one transcendentally aspiring to regenerate his countrymen. But there is no difficulty in believing that a man who had lived in England, and knew so much of Prussia, should have seen the fatal enervation which had come upon France, and that with Voltaire's feeling for the stage, he should have dreamed, by means of a more austere subject and more masculine treatment, of reviving the love of wisdom and glory and devotion in connection with country. In a word, the lesson of "La Mort de César" or of "Brutus" was not a specific admonition to slay tyrants, or to execute stern judgments on sons, but a general example of self-sacrificing patriotism and devoted public honor.
It is often said that Voltaire's Romans are mere creatures of parade and declamation, like the figures of David's paintings, and it is very likely that the theatre infected the French people with that mischievous idea of the Romans, as a nation of declaimers about freedom and the death of tyrants. The true Roman was no doubt very much more like one of our narrow, hard, and able Scotchmen in India than the lofty talkers who delighted the parterre of Paris or Versailles. Unluckily for truth of historical conception, Cicero was, after Virgil, the most potent of Roman memories, and a man of words became with modern writers the favorite type of a people of action. All this, however, is beside the question. Voltaire would have laughed at the idea of any obligation to present either Romans or other personages on the stage with realistic fidelity. The tragic drama with him was the highest of the imaginative and idealistic arts. If he had sought a parallel to it in the plastic arts he would have found one, not in painting, which by reason of the greater flexibility of its material demands a more exact verisimilitude, but in sculpture. Considered as statuesque figures endowed with speech, Brutus, Cæsar, and the rest are noble and impressive. We may protest as vigorously as we know how against any assimilation of the great art of action with the great art of repose. But we can only criticise the individual productions of a given theory, provided we for the moment accept the conditions which the theory lays down. All art rests upon convention, and if we choose to repudiate any particular set of conventions, we have no more right to criticise the works of those who submit to them than one would have to criticise sculpture, because marble or bronze is not like flesh and blood. Within the conditions of the French classic drama Voltaire's Romans are high and stately figures.
Voltaire's innovations extended beyond the introduction of more masculine treatment. Before his time romantic subjects had been regarded with disfavor, and Corneille's "Bajazet" was considered a bold experiment. Racine was more strictly classic, and dramatists went on handling the same ancient fables, "Thebes, or Pelops' line, or the tale of Troy divine," just as the Greeks had done, or just as the painters in the Catholic times had never wearied of painting the two eternal figures of human mother and divine child. Voltaire treated the classic subjects as others treated them, and if "Œdipe" misses the depth, delicate reserve and fateful gloom of the Greeks, "Mérope" at any rate breathes a fine and tragic spirit. But his restless mind pressed forward into subjects which Racine would have shuddered at, and every quarter of the universe became in turn a portion of the Voltairean stage. "L'Orphelin de la Chine" introduces us to China and Genghis Khan, "Mahomet" to Arabia and its prophet, "Tancrède" to Sicily; in "Zulime" we are among Moors, in "Alzire" we are with Peruvians. This revolutionary enlargement of subject was significant of a general and very important enlargement of interest which marked the time, and led presently to those contrasts between the condition of France and the imaginary felicity and nobleness of wilder countries, which did so much to breed an irresistible longing for change. Voltaire's high-minded Scythians, generous Peruvians, and the rest, prepared the way along with other influences for that curious cosmopolitanism, that striking eagerness to believe in the equal virtuousness and devotion inherent in human nature, independently of the religious or social form accidentally imposed upon them, which found its ultimate outcome, first in an ardent passion for social equality, and a depreciation of the special sanctity of the current religion, and next in the ill-fated emancipating and proselytizing aims of the Revolution, and in orators of the human race.
It has usually been thought surprising that Voltaire, consummate wit as he was, should have been so markedly unsuccessful in comedy. Certainly no one with so right a sense of the value of time as Voltaire himself had, will in our day waste many hours over his productions in this order. There are a dozen of them more or less, and we can only hope that they were the most rapid of his writings. Lines of extraordinary vivacity are not wanting, and at their best they offer a certain bustling sprightliness that might have been diverting in actual representation. But the keynote seems to be struck in farce, rather than in comedy; the intrigue, if not quite as slight as in Molière, is too forced; and the characters are nearly all excessively mediocre in conception. In one of the comedies, "Le Dépositaire," the poet presented the aged patroness of his youth, but the necessity of respecting current ideas of the becoming prevented him from making a great character out of even so striking a figure as Ninon de l'Enclos. "La Prude" is a version of Wycherly's "Plaindealer," and is in respect of force, animation, and the genuine spirit of comedy, very inferior to its admirable original. "L'Indiscret" is a sparkling and unconsidered trifle, "L'Écossaise" is only a stinging attack on Fréron, and "L'Enfant Prodigue," though greater pains were taken with it, has none of the glow of dramatic feeling. The liveliest of all is "La Femme qui a Raison," a short comedy of situation, which for one reading is entertaining in the closet, and must be excellent on the stage. It is very slight, however, and as usual verges on farce.
This inferiority of Voltaire's ought not to astonish any one who has reflected how much concentrated feeling and what profundity of vision go to the production of great comedy, and how in the mind of the dramatist, as in the movement of human life, comedy lies close to portentous tragedy. The author of the "Bourgeois Gentilhomme" and "L'Avare" was also the creator of the "Misanthrope," that inscrutable piece, where, without plot, fable, or intrigue, we see a section of the polished life of the time, men and women paying visits, making and receiving compliments, discoursing upon affairs with easy lightness, flitting backwards and forwards with a thousand petty hurries, and among these one strange, rough, hoarse, half-sombre figure, moving solitarily with a chilling reality in the midst of frolicking shadows. Voltaire entered too eagerly into the interests of the world, was by temperament too exclusively sympathetic and receptive and social, to place himself even in imagination thus outside of the common circle. Without capacity for this, there is no comedy of the first order; without serious consciousness of contrasts, no humor that endures. Shakespeare, Molière, and even Aristophanes, each of them unsurpassed writers of mere farce, were one and all, though with vast difference of degree, masters of a tragic breadth of vision. Voltaire had moods of petulant spleen, but who feels that he ever saw, much less brooded over, the dark cavernous regions of human nature? Without this we may have brilliant pleasantry of surprise, inimitable caricature, excellent comedy of society, but of the veritable comedy of human character and life, nothing.
In dazzling and irresistible caricature Voltaire has no equal. There is no deep humor, as in "Don Quixote," or "Tristram Shandy," which Voltaire did not care for, or Richter's "Siebenkäs," which he would not have cared for any more than de Staël did. He was too purely intellectual, too argumentative, too geometrical, and cared too much for illustrating a principle. But in "Candide," "Zadig," "L'Ingénu," wit is as high as mere wit can go. They are better than "Hudibras," because the motive is broader and more intellectual. Rapidity of play, infallible accuracy of stroke, perfect copiousness, and above all a fresh and unflagging spontaneity, combine with a surprising invention, to give these stories a singular quality, of which we most effectively observe the real brilliance by comparing them with the too numerous imitations that their success has unhappily invited since.
It is impossible to omit from the most cursory study of Voltaire's work, that too famous poem which was his favorite amusement during some of the best years of his life, which was the delight of all who could by any means get the high favor of sight or hearing of so much as a canto of it, and which is now always spoken of, when it happens to be spoken of at all, with extreme abhorrence. The "Pucelle" offends two modern sentiments, the love of modesty, and the love of the heroic personages of history. The moral sense and the historic sense have both been sharpened in some respects since Voltaire, and a poem which not only abounds in immodesty, and centres the whole action in an indecency of conception, but also fastens this gross chaplet round the memory of a great deliverer of the poet's own country, seems to offer a double outrage to an age when relish for licentious verse has gone out of fashion, and reverence for the heroic dead has come in. Still the fact that the greatest man of his time should have written one of the most unseemly poems that exist in any tongue, is worth trying to understand. Voltaire, let us remember, had no special turn, like Gibbon or Bayle, least of all like the unclean Swift, for extracting a malodorous diversion out of grossness or sensuality. His writings betray no irresistible passion for flying to an indelicacy, nor any of the vapid lasciviousness of some more modern French writers. The "Pucelle" is at least the wit of a rational man, and not the prying beastliness of a satyr. It is wit worse than poorly employed, but it is purity itself compared with some of the nameless abominations with which Diderot besmirched his imagination. The "Persian Letters" contain what we should now account passages of extreme licentiousness, yet Montesquieu was assuredly no libertine. Voltaire's life again was never indecent or immoderate from the point of view of the manners of the time. A man of grave character and untarnished life, like Condorcet, did not scruple to defend a poem, in which it is hard for us to see anything but a most indecorous burlesque of a most heroic subject. He insists that books which divert the imagination without heating or seducing it, which by gay and pleasurable images fill up those moments of exhaustion that are useless alike for labor and meditation, have the effect of inclining men to gentleness and indulgence.
The fact is that in amusing himself by the "Pucelle," Voltaire was only giving literary expression to a kind of view which had already in the society of the time found for itself a thoroughly practical expression. The people among whom he lived had systematized that freedom from law or restraint in the relations of the sexes, of which his poem is so vivid a representation. The Duke of Richelieu was the irresistible Lovelace of his time, and it was deemed an honor, an honor to which Madame du Châtelet among so many others has title, to have yielded to his fascination. A long and profoundly unedifying chronicle might be drawn up of the memorable gallantries of that time, and for our purpose it might fitly close with the amour of Saint Lambert that led to Madame du Châtelet's death. Of course, these countless gallantries in the most licentious persons of the day, such as Richelieu or Saxe, were neither more nor less than an outbreak of sheer dissoluteness, such as took place among English people of quality in the time of the Restoration. The idle and luxurious, whose imagination is uncontrolled by the discipline of labor and purpose, and to whom the indulgence of their own inclinations is the first and single law of life, are always ready to profit by any relaxation of restraint, which the moral conditions of the moment may permit.
The peculiarity of the licence of France in the middle of the eighteenth century is, that it was looked upon with complacency by the great intellectual leaders of opinion. It took its place in the progressive formula. What austerity was to other forward movements, licence was to this. It is not difficult to perceive how so extraordinary a circumstance came to pass. Chastity was the supreme virtue in the eyes of the Church, the mystic key to Christian holiness. Continence was one of the most sacred of the pretensions by which the organized preachers of superstition claimed the reverence of men and women. It was identified, therefore, in a particular manner with that Infamous, against which the main assault of the time was directed. So men contended, more or less expressly, first, that continence was no commanding chief among virtues, then that it was a very superficial and easily practised virtue, finally that it was no virtue at all, but if sometimes a convenience, generally an impediment to free human happiness. These disastrous sophisms show the peril of having morality made an appendage of a set of theological mysteries, because the mysteries are sure in time to be dragged into the open air of reason, and moral truth crumbles away with the false dogmas with which it had got mixed.
"If," says Condorcet, "we may treat as useful the design to make superstition ridiculous in the eyes of men given to pleasures, and destined, by the very want of self-control which makes pleasures attractive to them, to become one day the unfortunate victims or the mischievous instruments of that vile tyrant of humanity; if the affectation of austerity in manners, if the excessive value attached to purity, only serves the hypocrites who by putting on the easy mask of chastity can dispense with all virtues, and cover with a sacred veil the vices most pernicious to society, hardness of heart and intolerance; if by accustoming men to treat as so many crimes faults from which honorable and conscientious persons are not exempt, we extend over the purest souls the power of that dangerous caste, which to rule and disturb the earth, has constituted itself exclusively the interpreter of heavenly justice — then we shall see in the author of the 'Pucelle' no more than a foe to hypocrisy and superstition."
It helps us to realize the infinite vileness of a system, like that of the Church in the last century, which could engender in men of essential nobleness of character like Condorcet, an antipathy so violent as to shut the eyes of their understanding to the radical sophistry of such pleading as this. Let one reflection out of many serve to crush the whole of it. The key to effective life is unity of life, and unity of life means as much as anything else the unity of our human relations. Our identity does by no means consist in a historic continuity of tissues, but in an organic moral coherency of relation. It is this, which alone, if we consider the passing shortness of our days, makes life a whole, instead of a parcel of thrums bound together by an accident. Is not every incentive and every concession to vagrant appetite a force that enwraps a man in gratification of self, and severs him from duty to others, and so a force of dissolution and dispersion? It might be necessary to pull down the Church, but the worst church that has ever prostituted the name and the idea of religion cannot be so disastrous to society as a gospel that systematically relaxes self-control as being an unmeaning curtailment of happiness. The apologists for the "Pucelle" exhibit the doctrine of individualism in one of its worst issues. "Your proof that this is really the best of all possible worlds is excellent," says Candide for his famous last word, "but we must cultivate our garden." The same principle of exclusive self-regard, applied to the gratification of sense, passed for a satisfactory defence of libertinage. In the first form it destroys a state, in the second it destroys the family.
It is easier to account for Voltaire's contempt for the mediæval superstition about purity than his want of respect for a deliverer of France. The explanation lies in the conviction which had such power in Voltaire's own mind and with which he impregnated to such a degree the minds of others, that the action of illiterate and unpolished times can have no life in it. His view of progress was a progress of art and knowledge, and heroic action which was dumb, or which was not expressed in terms of intellect, was to the eighteenth century, and to Voltaire at least as much as to any other of its leaders, mere barbaric energy. In the order of taste, for instance, he can find only words of cool and limited praise for Homer, while for the polish and elegance of Virgil his admiration is supreme. The first was the bard of a rude time, while round the second cluster all the associations of a refined and lettered age. A self-devotion that was only articulate in the jargon of mystery and hallucination, and that was surrounded with rude and irrational circumstance, with ignorance, brutality, visions, miracle, was encircled by no halo in the eyes of a poet who found no nobleness where he did not find a definite intelligence, and who rested all his hopes and interests on the long distance set by time and civilization between ourselves and such conditions and associations as belong to the name of Joan of Arc. The foremost men of the eighteenth century despised Joan of Arc, whenever they had occasion to think of her, for the same reason which made them despise Gothic architecture. "When," says Voltaire in one place, "the arts began to revive, they revived as Goths and Vandals; what unhappily remains to us of the architecture and sculpture of these times is a fantastic compound of rudeness and filigree." Just so, even Turgot, while protesting how dear to every sensible heart were the Gothic buildings destined to the use of the poor and the orphan, complained of the outrage done by their rude architecture to the delicacy of our sight. Characters like Joan of Arc ranked in the same rude and fantastic order, and respect for them meant that respect for the middle age which was treason to the new time. Men despised her, just as they despised the majesty and beauty of the great church at Rheims where she brought her work to a climax, or the lofty grace and symmetry of the church of St. Ouen, within sight of which her life came to its terrible end.
Henry the Fourth was a hero with Voltaire, for no better reason than that he was the first great tolerant, the earliest historic indifferent. The "Henriade" is important only because it helped to popularize the type of its hero's character, and so to promote the rapidly growing tendency in public opinion towards a still wider version of the policy of the Edict of Nantes. The reign of Louis XIV. had thrown all previous monarchs into obscurity, and the French king who showed a warmer and more generous interest in the happiness of his subjects than any they ever had, was forgotten, until Voltaire brought him into fame. It was just, however, because Henry's exploits were so glorious, and at the same time so near in point of time, that he made an indifferent hero for an epic poem. "He should never choose for an epic poem history," said Hume very truly, "the truth of which is well known; for no fiction can come up to the interest of the actual story and incidents of the singular life of Henry IV." These general considerations, however, as to the propriety of the subject are hardly worth entering upon. How could any true epic come out of that age, or find fountains in that critical, realistic, and polemical soul? To fuse a long narrative of heroic adventure in animated, picturesque, above all, insincere verse, is an achievement reserved for men with a steadier glow, a firmer, simpler, more exuberant and more natural poetic feeling, than was possible in that time of mean shifts, purposeless public action, and pitiful sacrifice of private self-respect. Virgil was stirred by the greatness of the newly united empire, Tasso by the heroic march of Christendom against pagan oppressors, Milton by the noble ardor of our war for public rights. What long and glowing inspiration was possible to a would-be courtier, thrust into the Bastille for wanting to fight a noble who had had him caned by lackeys? Besides, an epic, of all forms of poetic composition, most demands concentrated depth, and Voltaire was too widely curious and vivacious on the intellectual side to be capable of this emotional concentration.
But it is superfluous to give reasons why Voltaire's epic should not be a great poem. The "Henriade" itself is there the most indisputable of arguments. Of poems whose names are known out of literary histories and academic catalogues, it is perhaps the least worth reading in any language by any one but a professional student of letters. It is less worth reading than Lucan's "Pharsalia," because it is more deliberately artificial and gratuitously unspontaneous. "Paradise Regained," which it is too ready a fashion among us to pronounce dull, still contains at least three pieces of superb and unsurpassed description, never fails in grave majestic verse, and is at the worst free from all the dreary apparatus of phantom and impersonation and mystic vision, which have never jarred so profoundly with sense of poetic fitness, as when associated with so political and matter-of-fact a hero as Henry IV. The reader has no illusion in such transactions as Saint Louis taking Henry into heaven and hell, Sleep hearing from her secret caves, the Winds at sight of him falling into Silence, and Dreams, children of Hope, flying to cover the hero with olive and laurel. How can we overcome our repugnance to that strange admixture of real and unreal matter which presents us with a highly colored picture of the Temple of Love, where in the forecourt sits Joy, with Mystery, Desire, Complaisance, on the soft turf by her side, while in the inner sanctuary haunt Jealousy, Suspicion, Malice, Fury; while the next canto describes
L'église toujours une et partout étendue,
Libre, mais sous un chef, adorant en tout lieu,
Dans le bonheur des saints, la grandeur de son Dieu.
Le Christ, de nos péchés victime renaissante,
De ses élus Chéris nourriture vivante,
Descend sur les autels à ses yeux éperdus,
Et lui découvre un Dieu sous un pain qui n'est plus.4
Voltaire congratulated himself in his preface that he had come sufficiently near theological exactitude, and to this qualification, which is so new for poetry, the critic may add elegance and flow; but neither elegance nor theological exactitude reconciles us to an epic that has neither a stroke of sublimity nor a touch of pathos, that presents no grandeur in character, and no hurrying force and movement in action. Frederick the Great used to speak of Voltaire as the French Virgil, but then Frederick's father had never permitted him to learn Latin, and if he ever read Virgil at all, it must have been in some of the jingling French translations. Even so, with the episodes of Dido and of Nisus and Euryalus in our minds, we may wonder how so monstrous a parallel could have occurred even to Frederick, who was no critic, between two poets who have hardly a quality in common. If the reader wishes to realize how nearly insipid even Voltaire's genius could become when working in unsuitable forms, he may turn from any canto of the "Henriade" to any page of Lucretius or the "Paradise Lost." A French critic quotes the famous reviewer's sentence, concluding an analysis of some epic, to the effect that on the whole, when all is summed up, the given epic was "one of the best that had appeared in the course of the current year;" and insists that Voltaire's piece will not at any rate perish in the oblivion of poetic annuals like these. If not, the only reason lies in that unfortunate tenderness for the bad work of famous men, which makes of so much reading time worse than wasted. "The unwise," said Candide, "value every word in an author of repute."
1. Epître à Mme. la Marquise du Châtelet, sur la Calomnie. Œuvres, xvii, 85.
2. The dates of the most famous of his tragedies are these: Œdipe, 1718; Brutus, 1730; Zaïre, 1732; Mort de César, 1735; Alzire, 1736; Mahomet, 1731; Mérope, 1743; Sémiramis, 1748; Tancrède, 1760.
3. Zaïre, act i, SC. 1.
4. "Henriade," x, 485-491.
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