« AnteriorContinuar »
MEMOIRS OF VOLTAIRE.
François Marie AROUET, who by assuming the name of Voltaire has rendered 1.5 Tds, was born at Chatenay, on the 20th of February, 1694, and was bapBeda Paris, in the church of St. André-des-Arcs, on the 22nd of November in Benz fear. His excessive weakness was the cause of this delay, which, during
dezed doubts concerning the place and time of his birth. The lines of M. de Voltaire exercised the office of treasurer to the Chamber of Atexas; his mother, Marguerite d'Aumart, was of a noble family of Poitou. The sco has been reproached for having taken the name of Voltaire; that is, for larang followed a custom at that time generally practised by the rich citizens and page sons, who, leaving the family name to the heir, assumed that of a fief, or peaps of a country house. His birth was questioned in numerous libels. His oazies, among men of literature, seemed to fear that the fashionable world would be readily sacrifice its prejudices to the pleasure found in his society, and the reumation his talents inspired, and that a man of letters should be treated with too mech equality. Such reproaches did him honour; malignity does not attack the
rah of a man of literature, but from a secret consciousness, which it cannot stifle, Narit is wholly unable to diminish his personal fame.
The fortune which M. Arouet, the father, enjoyed, was doubly advantageous to esca; it procured him the advantages of education, without which genius never Bains those heights to which it might otherwise arise. Nor was the advantage of being born to an independent fortune less inestimable. M. de Voltaire never felt e misery of being obliged to abandon his liberty that he might procure subsist
; to subject his genius to labour, which the necessity of living enforced ; nor fatter the prejudices, or the passions, of a patron. The young Arouet was sent to the Jesuits College, where the sons of the first brtility, except those of the Jansenists, received their education. The professors rhetoric, ander whom he was placed, were Father Porée and Father Jay : the , being a man of understanding, and of a good heart, discovered the seeds of a bere greatness in his scholar; and the latter, struck with the boldness of his frenons and the independence of his mind, predicted that he would become the Eestle of deism in France: both of which prophecies were verified by time.
When he left college, he again found the Abbé de Châteauneuf, his godfather and the friend of his mother, an intimate at home. The abbé was intimate with Ninon de l'Enclos, whom, for her probity, her understanding, and her freedom of thought, he long had pardoned in despite of the somewhat notorious adventures of her youth. The fashionable world were pleased that she had refused the invitation of her former friend, Madame de Maintenon, who had offered to invite her to court, on condition that she would become a devotee. The Abbé de Châteauneuf had presented Voltaire to Ninon. Though but a boy, he already was a poet ; already began to tease his Jansenist brother by his trifling epigrams, and to please himself with reciting the “ Moïsade" of Rousseau.
Ninon had taken delight in the pupil of her friend, and had left him by will two thousand livres (about eighty guineas), to purchase books. Thus was he taught, by fortunate circumstances, even in infancy, and before his understanding was formed, to regard study and labours of the mind as pleasing and honourable employments.
The Abbé de Châteauneuf also introduced the young Voltaire to these societies, and particularly to the company of the Duke of Sully, the Marquis de la Fare, the Abbé Servien, the Abbé de Chaulieu, and the Abbé Courtin ; who were often joined by the Prince de Conti, and the Grand Prior de Vendôme.
M. Arouet imagined his son was ruined, when he was told that he wrote poetry and frequented the society of people of fashion. He wished to make him à judge, and saw him employed on a tragedy. This family quarrel ended by sending the young Voltaire to the Marquis de Châteauneuf, the French ambassador in Holland.
His exile was not of long duration. Madame du Noyer, who had fled thither with her two daughters, rather to avoid her husband than from zeal for the Protestant religion, was then at the Hague, where she lived by intrigues and libels, and proved from her conduct that she did not go thither in search of liberty of conscience.
M. de Voltaire became enamoured of one of her daughters ; and the mother, finding that the only advantage she could gain from his attachment was that of making it public, carried her complaints to the ambassador, who forbade his young dependent to continue his visits to Mademoiselle du Noyer; and sent him back to his family for having disobeyed his orders.
Madame du Noyer failed not to print this story with the letters of the young Arouet to her daughter, hoping that this already well-known name would promote the sale of her book; and vaunted of her maternal severity and delicacy in the very libel in which she proclaimed her daughter's dishonour.
The youth, when returned to Paris, soon forgot his love; but he had afterward the good fortune to be of service to Mademoiselle du Noyer, when she had married the Baron de Vinterfeld.
His father, however, finding him persist in writing poetry, and living at large forbade him his house. The most submissive letters made no impression on him the son even asked permission to go to America, provided that before bis departur he might but be permitted to kneel at his feet : but there was no choice ; he mus determine not to depart for America, but to bind himself to an attorney. He di not here remain long; M. de Caumartin, the friend of M. Arouet, pitied the fat of his son, and requested permission to take him to St. Ange; where, remove from those societies which alarmed paternal affection, he might reflect on, and make choice of a profession. Here he met with Caumartin, the elder, à respectable ol man, who was passionately fond of Henry IV. and Sully, at that time too mug forgotten by the nation. Caumartin had been intimate with the best informed men of the reign of Louis XIV.; and was acquainted with the most secret anecdotes, such as they really happened. These he took a pleasure to recount, and Voltaire retumed from St. Ange, oceupied by the project of writing an epic poem, of which Hears IV. should be the hero, and ardently desirous of studying the history of France. To this journey are we indebted for the “ Henriade," and the Age of Louis XIV.
The death of this monarch was recent; the people, of whom he had long been the idol—the very people who had pardoned his profusion, his wars, and his despotisa, and had applauded his persecution of the Protestants-insulted his memory by testifying indecent joy. A bull, obtained from Rome against a book of devotion, had occasioned the Parisians to forget that glory of which they so long had been ermoured. Satires on the memory of Louis the Great were as numerous as ealogies had been during his life. Voltaire, being accused of having written one of these satires, was sent to the Bastile. The poem ended with the following line :
J'ai vu ces maux, et je n'ad pas vingt ans.
him a recompense.
These evils have I seen, yet have not reached my twentieth year.] Voltaire was then upwards of two and twenty, and the police took this conformity of age to be proof suficient to deprive him of his liberty.
It was in the Bastile that the young poet sketched his poem of the “ League," corrected his tragedy of “ (Edipus," which he had begun long before, and wrote sue merry verses on the misfortune of being there a prisoner. The regent, Duke of Orleans, being informed of his innocence, restored him to freedom, and granted
"I thank your royal highness," said Voltaire, “ for having provided me with food; but I hope you will not hereafter trouble yourself concerning my lodging." The tragedy of ". (Edipus” was performed in 1718.
The author had hitherto been known only by his fugitive pieces, by some epistles which breathed the spirit de Chaulieu, but written more correctly, and by an ode which had vainly contended sex the prize bestowed by the French Academy: to this, a ridiculous piece written by the Abté du Jarri had been preferred. The theme proposed by the academy was the decoration of the altar" of Notre Dame ; for Louis XIV., after having ponied seventy years, recollected it was time to perform the promise of Louis III
. Thus was the subject of the first serious poem, written by Voltaire, devotion. Possessed of native and unerring taste, he would not mingle the passion love with a tale so horrid as that of “ Edipus;" and had been daring enough to present his piece to the theatre without having paid this tribute to custom. But it w rejected. The assernbled comedians took it amiss that the author should dare despate their judgment.
"The young man well deserves,” said Dufresne, “ as peabent for his pride, that his tragedy should be played with the long vile scene which he has translated from Sophocles.” Folture was obliged to cede, and to insert a whole episode of love. The piece es applauded,
though in despite of the episode; and the long vile scene from Sophocles ensured its success. La Motte, who was at that time the first among een of letters, said in his approbation that
this tragedy gave promise of a worthy kee was established, and who had reason to fear he might see himself surpassed,
lorerer do bonour to the character of La Motte. But Voltaire, proclaimed a man of genius and a philosopher to a crowd of inferior krama and farstics of all sects, even then gained a combination of enemies, whom
the rising generation of sixty years have continued to supply, and who often have molested his long and glorious career. The following celebrated lines
Nos pretres ne sont pas ce qu'un rain peuple peuse
Notre credulite fait toute leur science--(Our priests are not what the foolish people suppose ; their whole knowledge is derived from our credulity.] --were the first signal of a war, which not even the death of Voltaire could extinguish.
At one of the representations of “Edipus," Voltaire appeared on the stage, bearing up the train of the high priest. The Marchioness de Villars asked who was that young man who wished the piece might be condemned; she was told it was the author. This thoughtless act, which spoke a man so superior to the trifling anxieties of self-love, made the marchioness desirous of his acquaintance. Voltaire, being admitted her visitor, conceived a passion for her the first and the most serious he ever felt. He was unsuccessful; and was for a considerable time diverted from study, which had already become necessary to his existence. He never afterwards mentioned this subject but with a sensation of regret, and almost of remorse.
Having freed himself from his passion, he continued the “ Henriade," and wrote the tragedy of “ Artémire.” The public, who had done justice to “Edipus," was (to say the least) severe to “ Artémire.” This is a common consequence of success : nor is secret aversion for acknowledged superiority the only cause, though this aversion has the art to profit by a natural feeling which renders us niore difficult to be pleased in proportion as we have more to hope.
This tragedy was of no other value to Voltaire than that of obtaining permission for him to return to Paris, whence he had been banished by his intimacy with the enemies of the regent, and among others with the Duke de Richelieu and the famous Baron de Gortz. Thus did this ambitious man, whose vast projects included all Europe, and threatened to overturn its governments, choose a young poet for his friend and almost for his confident. Men of genius seek for, and at once know each other ; they have a common language, which they alone can speak and understand.
In 1722, Voltaire accompanied Madame de Rupelmonde into Holland. He was desirous, at Brussels, of being acq&ainted with Jean Baptiste Rousseau, whose misfortunes he pitied, and whose poetic talent he esteemed. Voltaire consulted him on his poem on the “ League ;" and read his epistle to Urania to him, written for Madame de Rupelmonde. This poem was the first monument of his freedom of thinking, and of his talent of treating on moral and metaphysical subjects in verse, and of rendering them popular.
Rousseau, on his part, read an “ Ode addressed to Posterity," which Voltaire, as it is pretended, then told him would never arrive at the place to which it was addressed. He likewise read the “ Judgment of Pluto," which was as quickly forgotten as the ode. The two poets parted irreconcilable foes. Rousseau violently attacked Voltaire, who continued patiently to suffer during fifteen years. It is astonishing to think that the author of so many licentious epigrams, in which the clergy were continually made the subject of ridicule and opprobrium, should seriously assign the thoughtless behaviour of Voltaire during mass and his “ Epistle to Urania," as the cause of his hatred. But Rousseau had assumed the mask of devotion, which was then an honourable asylum for such as had suffered in the world's opinion : a safe and commodious asylum which philosophy, among the other evils of which it is accused, has unfortunately, for hypocrites, eternally closed.
In 1724, Voltaire presented the world with “ Mariamne," which was but “ Artemire" under new names, but with a less complicated and less romantic fable. It was written in the very style of Racine, and was forty times performed. In his preface, the author opposed the opinion of La Motte, who, possessed of much soderstanding and reason, but little sensible of the charms of harmony, discovered no other merit in versification than that of difficulties overcome ; nor anything more than a formal custom, in poetry, invented to ease the memory, and to which habit wame bed attributed charms. In his letters, printed at the end of “Edipus," he had before combatted the opinions of the same poet, who regarded the observance of the three unities as another prejudice.
Abentibe same time, the “Henriade” appeared under the name of the “League :" an imperfect copy, stolen from the author, was clandestinely printed, in which there ** s cely parts omitted, but some vacancies were supplied.
This France was at length possessed of an epic poem. It must be regretted, po dobe
, that Voltaire-the fables of whose tragedies are so full of action, who he made the passions speak a language so natural and so true, and who could paint them so effectually as well by analysing their sentiments as by their sudden salitions-should not have displayed in the “Henriade,” those talents which inter before were combined in the same man to so great a degree. Yet, a subject * well known and so recent, gave but little room for the imagination of the poet. The gloomy and persecuting spirit of fanaticism, exercising itself on subaltern Characters, could excite little more than horror. The chiefs of the league were semated by an ambition which hypocrisy debased. The hero of the poem, galaus
, brave, and humane, but continually subject to misfortune which alighted a bin alone, could interest only by his courage and his clemency. Nor was it possible that the unnatural conversion of Henry IV. should form an heroic catasBut theugh the “Henriade,” in pathos, variety, and action, be inferior to those epic poems which were then in possession of universal admiration, yet by how many sen besuties was this inferiority compensated ? Never was philosophy, so profemend and so true, embellished by verses more sublime or more affecting. What other poem presents to us characters drawn with greater strength and dignity, and thout offence to historical fact? What other contains morality more pure, bumanity more enlightened, or is more free from the errors of prejudice and vulgar pasie! Whether the poet causes his characters to act or speak, whether he pents the crimes of fanaticism, or the charms and the dangers of love, whether he trasports his hearer to the field of battle, or into that heaven which he himself treeted
, he is everywhere a philosopher, and is everywhere deeply intent on promoting the true interests of the human race. In the very palace of fiction, we behoid truth sublimelv rise, and always painted in the most splendid and purest
The “ Henriade,” “@dipus,” and “ Mariamne," had placed Voltaire much above his contemporaries ; and seemed to secure a life of fame, when his repose was troubled by a fatal accident. He had returned a satirical answer to some contemptuous words which had been spoken by a courtier, who revenged himself boy, causing Voltaire to be insulted by his servants without endangering his personal palety. The outrage was committed at the gate of the Hotel de Sully, where he deste, persuaded that the descendants of the Franks had preserved the right of life bao wanased far less misdemeanours to be punished when committed against one of