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Universal pronouncing dictionary of biography and mythology (Volume 2) online

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occasion, " I thank your royal highness that you are thus
careful for my board ; but no more of your lodgings, I be-
seech you." He was twenty-four years of age when he
was released from the Bastille, after an imprisonment of
almost a year. It was soon after this event that he changed
his name from Arouet to Voltaire. " I have been," he wrote
to Mademoiselle du Noyer, " very unfortunate under my
first name. I wish to try if this new one will serve me
any better." The brilliant success of his " CEdipe" (which
was represented with great applause for thirty successive
nights) appears, however, to have completely reconciled
him to the ways of the blind goddess. Rank and beauty
were now eager to pay him homage. He became the
favoured guest and companion of the great. The Prince
of Conti addressed to him, as a brother poet, some pretty,
complimentary verses, and he was very graciously re-
ceived by the beautiful Marechale de Villars, with whom,
it is said, he fell desperately in love, (fperdumtnt amou-
rfux;) but she does not appear to have given him the
ilightest encouragement. (" Biographie Universelle.")

But the cup of prosperity presented to his lips was
not unmixed with bitter ingredients. The Abbe 1 Desfon-
taines had obtained fraudulently an imperfect copy of the
" Henriade," and had it published, under the name of
"The League," ("La Ligue," etc.) The poem, even in
this imperfect form, was very favourably received. Vol-
taire hastened to prepare for the public a more perfect
edition ; but certain passages in the work which gav<
offence to the priesthood prevented him from obtaining
permission to publish it.

His vanity and self-esteem were destined to receive
some severe rebuffs from that haughty aristocracy which
could never wholly divest itself of the idea that rank
was something essentially superior even to genius of the
highest order, which it might indeed condescend to
patronize and perhaps applaud, but with which it could
never associate on equal terms. In December, 1725,
Voltaire, while at the table of his friend the Duke of
Sully, happened to express himself on some subject with
great animation and self-confidence. One of the guests,
the Chevalier de Rohan, son of the Duke de Rohan-
Chabot, asked, "Who is this young man that speaks so
loud?" "He is," replied Voltaire, "one who does not
carry a great name, but can do credit to the one he has."
A few days after, the chevalier sent word to Voltaire that
the Duke of Sully expected him to dinner. He went
accordingly. While he was dining, one of the servants
announced that some one wished particularly to see
him. He descended, and was met by three men, who
immediately fell on him and beat him unmercifully
with their canes. It was noticed as an act of great gen-
erosity on the part of the Chevalier de Rohan that he
directed his men not to beat their victim on his head.
When Voltaire complained of the outrage to the Duke
of Sully, the latter admitted that it was a rude and "un>

His father appears to have been quite as much displeased with
Voltaire's writing poetry as with his more cujpable irregularities. He
was not less disgusted with the conduct of his eldest son, because he
had become a Jansenist He said, bitterly. "I have for sons two
fools, the one in prose, the other io verse."

a, e, I, o, u, y, /0f/4,e, 6, same, less prolonged: a, e, T, 5, ii, y, short;*, e, i, o, obscure; f Jr, fall, fat; met;n6t; good; moon;



civil" act on the part of Rohan, but declined to aid him
in any way to obtain satisfaction. Thereupon Voltaire
practised fencing diligently for some weeks, and at the
end of that time challenged Rohan to a duel. The
challenge was accepted, but, before the parties met, Vol-
taire was arrested and sent to prison. We are not told
whether or not the chevalier gave notice to the police ;
but a chivalrous knight who could employ three men to
attack another who was unarmed might reasonably be
supposed capable of such an act. This proceeding had,
in all probability, an important influence on the destinies
of Europe. It seems for a time to have completely
disgusted Voltaire with the society and government of
France, and it determined him to accept an invitation,
received from Lord Bolingbroke, that he should visit
England. This visit, which may be regarded as the
most important event of his life, dates from August,
1726. While in that country, he was particularly struck
with the absolute freedom of thought enjoyed by all the
people ; his own views, in the society of Bolingbroke and
his deistical friends, appear to have been developed and
matured. In England, also, he acquired some acquaint-
ance with the Newtonian philosophy, the knowledge of
which he was afterwards among the first to introduce
among his countrymen in France. After nearly three
years' absence, he returned to Paris in 1729. At first he
lived retired, and finished his tragedy of " Brutus," which
he had begun in England. According to some critics,
the influence of Shakspeare is clearly visible in this
piece, and perhaps still more in his next tragedy, " Zaire,"
(1730,) although Voltaire afterwards affected to despise
the great English dramatist, perhaps the better to con-
ceal how much he was indebted to him. About this
time, also, he finished his "History of Charles XII.,"
for which he had procured some very valuable materials
during his sojourn in London.

His " Brutus" was by some considered a complete
failure, and Fontenelle indeed advised him to aban-
don tragedy, as unsuited to his genius ; but his next
drama, "Zaire," proved a brilliant success. It is re-
garded by many as the finest of all Voltaire's tragedies,
and as fully equal to the best in the language. His
" Lettres Philosophiques," otherwise called " Lettres sur
les Anglais," (" Letters on the English,") appeared about
1732. The freedom of some of his ideas gave offence to
the clergy. The " Lettres" were condemned to be pub-
licly burned, the publisher was imprisoned, and an order
was issued to arrest the author, so that to escape the
officers of the law he was fain to make a speedy retreat
to Cirey, (on the borders of Lorraine,) an estate belong-
ing to the celebrated Madame Chatelet, (or Chastelet,)
with whom he formed a liaison which continued until
the death of that lady. (See CHASTELET, GABRIELLE.)
While in this retreat he wrote his "Siemens de la Phi-
losophic de Newton," (published at Amsterdam in 1738,)
designed to set forth and elucidate the theories and dis-
coveries of the great English philosopher. He also
composed his "Alzire," a tragedy, which was acted at
Paris with great applause in 1736. His "Mahomet,"
which he dedicated to the pope, was first acted in 1741.
His holiness accepted the dedication very graciously,
unable, or perhaps unwilling, to perceive that the shafts
which the author seemed to aim at the false pretences
of the prophet were in reality directed against those of
the Catholic Church. His "Merope," brought out in
1743, was received with an enthusiastic and tumultuous
applause such as had never before been exhibited in
any theatre in Europe.

Several years before the last-named date, Frederick,
the Prince-Royal of Prussia, had written to Voltaire and
expressed his admiration of the genius which was then
dazzling Europe : this led to an intimacy between the
prince and the poet, which was kept up by a constant
exchange of letters and flattering compliments from both
the parties. When, in 1740, Frederick succeeded to the
throne, he invited his friend to visit him at Berlin. But
Voltaire was unwilling to separate himself from Madame
Chatelet. He accepted, however, in 1743, a mission
from the government to visit Frederick for the purpose
of securing Prussia's alliance with France, in which
Undertaking he was successful. Through the influence

of Madame Pompadour, with whom Voltaire was ac-
quainted, as he tells us, before she became the favourite
mistress of Louis XV., he was chosen (May 9, 1746) a
member of the French Academy to succeed Bouhier,
and appointed historiographer of France. He had de-
clined the flattering offers of Frederick, that he might
not be deprived of the society of Madame Chatelet
But the mistress to whom he was so fondly attached no
longer felt for him the affection of former years, but had
(about 1748) given her heart to another and younger
lover, Saint-Lambert

Madame Chatelet died in childbed, in August, 1749.*
After her death, although he knew she had been un-
faithful to him, Voltaire said of her, " I have not lost a
mistress ; I have lost the half of myself. ... I love to
find everywhere something that can recall the though'
of her." A short time afterwards, as her husband, M.
du Chatelet, was on the point of opening a locket which
had been carried by Madame du Chatelet, Voltaire con-
fidently expected to see his own portrait : it proved to be
that of Saint-Lambert ; he said to M. du Chatelet, "Be-
lieve me, monsieur, neither of us has here any cause to
boast." On a previous occasion he spoke to Saint-
Lambert (with whom, it appears, he had at first been
offended) with a kindness and magnanimity which would
have been sublime, could they have had existence in a
pure and elevated mind. "It is I," said he, "who have
been to blame ; you are at the age when one loves and
inspires love ; ... an old man, infirm as I am, is not
made for pleasure."

Having nothing now to detain him in France, he ac-
cepted the invitation, recently renewed, of the King of
Prussia, and arrived in Berlin in July, 1750. He was
received by Frederick with the most flattering demon-
strations of regard. No lovers in a romance could have
met, after a long absence, with greater transports of joy.
Voltaire had at last found an earthly paradise. A thou-
sand louis-d'or had been sent him for the expenses of
the journey. In addition to the splendid apartments
assigned him under the royal roof, he was to receive a
pension of twenty thousand francs. He and Frederick
studied together two hours every day, and in the evening
he was entertained at the king's own table. But this
charming life was destined to be of short duration.
" Never," says Macaulay, " had there met two persons
so exquisitely fitted to plague each other. Each of them
had exactly the fault of which the other was most impa-
tient, and they were, in different ways, the most impatient
of mankind." (See Essay on " Frederick the Great,"
originally published in the "Edinburgh Review" for
April, 1842.)

The king wrote verses, which Voltaire was to criticise
and correct, a delicate and perilous position for any
man, but peculiarly so for one who was so fastidious, so
irritable, and so prone to ridicule as Voltaire. It was
quite impossible for him to correct his majesty's verses
which might well have provoked the ridicule of a more
indulgent critic without laughing at them. " Behold,"
said he, "what a quantity of dirty linen the king has
sent me to wash !" And, as usual in such cases, there
was always some well-intentioned person ready to carry
such remarks to the ear of the king. It would be long
to tell of the irritation, the increasing disgust, the quar-
rels, the ingenious schemes devised by each to annoy or
torment the other. Suffice it to say that, after a stay of
about three years, the poet parted from the king, with a
promise to return, but with a firm determination, as he

"Everyone knows," says Carlyle, "the earthly termination of
Madame la Marquise, and how, by a strange and almost satirical
Nemesis, she was taken in her own nets, and her worst sin became
her final punishment." A few days after her death, Voltaire com-
posed the following quatrain :

" L'univers a perdu la sublime fimilie.
Elle aima les plaisirs, les arts, la ve'rite' :
Les dieux, en lui donnant leur Sme et leur Genie,
N'avaient garde" pour eux que I'immortaliteV'

("The universe has lost the sublime Emilia.

She loved pleasure, the arts, and truth; [knowledge?]
The gods, in giving her their soul and their genius.
Had reserved for themselves immortality only.")

"After which," says Carlyle, "he, like the bereaved ucivem,
consoled himself, and went on his way."

c as: casj; ^hard: gas/';G, H, K, guttural; N, nasal; R, trilled; sasz; th asin//4. (JiySee Explanations, p. 23.)





tells us, never to see him again. At Frankfort he was
arrested by an order from Berlin, and required to give
up some of the king's poetry, copies of which had been
printed for private circulation and presented to Voltaire
and other of the royal favourites. But Frederick, now
fearing that the arch wit and scoffer might perhaps use
the poetry to turn its author into ridicule, resolved to
et possession of it again. It so happened that he had
eft the poetry behind at Leipsic, and some days elapsed
before he could send for and receive it. Meanwhile he
was kept in strict custody ; and even after the precious
packet had arrived he was still detained. " The Prus-
sian agents," says Macaulay, " had, no doubt, been in-
structed not to let Voltaire off without some gross indig-
nity. He was confined twelve days in a wretched hovel.
Sentinels with fixed bayonets kept guard over him. His
niece was dragged through the mire by the soldiers.
Sixteen hundred dollars were extorted from him by his
insolent jailers. It is absurd to say that this outrage
was not to be attributed to the king." (Essay on " Frede-
rick the Great")

Voltaire returned to France thoroughly divested of
all his illusions respecting that great prince whom he
had once delighted to call the Solomon and Alexander
of the North, the Marcus Aurelius of Potsdam, the
Trajan and Pliny combined, etc.

In 1755 he established himself at Femey, near Ge-
neva, in Switzerland. Here he spent perhaps the most
tranquil, as well as the most creditable and useful,
portion of his life. He is admitted to have been a
benefactor to the inhabitants of Ferney and the vicinity.
The village or town was greatly improved and enlarged
under his auspices ; new houses were built, and a small
theatre established. He even erected a church, in which
he had the hardihood to preach. To silence the com-
plaints of those who were scandalized at his irregular
proceedings, he went through, in due form, the ceremony
of taking the communion.

The one aspect of Voltaire's character which can be
viewed with unmingled approbation was the deep,
heartfelt pity and indignation with which he regarded
every flagrant act of cruelty or oppression, whether it
was enacted in his own country or in the remotest part
of Europe. He signalized his philanthropy in the
earnest zeal with which he took up the cause of Jean
Galas, who had been condemned at Toulouse and
broken on the wheel for a crime of which he was inno-
cent, and his family had been driven from the country.
Through Voltaire's generous exertions and untiring zeal,
the sentence was annulled and the family partially indem-
nified. His sympathy in the case of Admiral Byng was no
less real or less earnest ; but he exerted himself in vain
to prevent the consummation of that judicial murder,
which has left an indelible stain upon the character of
the ministry under whose auspices it was committed.*
Another act of his, though of a different kind, reflects
no less credit on his character. Having learned that a
young girl, a near relative of the great Corneille, (she
was then believed to be the grand-daughter of that
poet,) was living in extreme poverty, he sent for her
and had her brought to Ferney, where he gave her an
education, and settled on her, out of his own means, a
life-annuity of fourteen hundred francs.

During his residence at Ferney he composed or
finished some of his greatest works, among which the
most valuable and perhaps the most original of all was
his " Essay on the Manners of Nations," etc., (" Essai
ur les Moeurs et 1'Esprit des Nations," 1756,) which
might, says Brougham, be justly designated the " Phi-
losophy of History." It has unquestionably exerted
throughout Europe a great and beneficent influence
upon the mode of writing history. No inconsiderable
portion of this work had been composed during his
residence at Cirey. His " Candida, " the most remark-
able of his prose fictions, appeared in 1758. "Dr.
Johnson," says Brougham, " never spoke of it without

* However deeply his feelings might be touched, he never failed to
give free scope to his wit. He remarked, after the execution of
Byng, that it was the policy of the English now and then to put to
death an admiral, in order to encourage the rest, (" pour encourager
les autres.")

unstinted admiration, professing that had he seen it he
should not have written ' Rasselas.' " Among his other
romances may be named "Zadig," (about 1758,) and
"L'lng^nu," (1767.) Of his tragedies, besides those
already named, the most deserving of notice are per-
haps the following : " Arte'mise," (about 1721,) " Mari-
amne," (1724,) " Eriphile," (1732,) " La Mortde Cesar,"
('735>) "Semiramis," (1748,) "Oreste," (1750,) "Rome
Sauvee," otherwise called " Catiline," (1752,) which Vol-
taire is said to have preferred to all his tragedies, but
the critics and the public decided differently, and
" Tancrede," (1760,) which had a brilliant success. His
powers had confessedly begun to fail when, in 1778, on
his visit to Paris, his " Irene," the last of his dramatic
productions, was acted with great applause, which, how-
ever, was bestowed rather on its illustrious author than
upon the piece itself. He also attempted comedy, and
composed " L'Indiscret," which had but an indifferent
success. The " Enfant Prodigue," another comedy,
brought out anonymously, was much more popular, but
it was not known to be Voltaire's until he claimed it
several years afterwards.

He wrote a satirical poem, " Le Temple du Gout,"
('733>) a "d a mock-heroic poem, entitled " La Pucelle,"
( 1 755<) f which the history of Joan of Arc forms the
subject This, according to Brougham, (than whom
Voltaire has probably no more indulgent critic,) is "the
great master-piece of Voltaire's poetic genius." He
adds, however, " The ' Pucelle' is one continued sneer
at all that men do hold and all that they ought to hold
sacred. . . . Religion, virtue, ... all are made the
constant subjects of sneering contempt and ribald
laughter ;"t and he might have added that many parts
are disfigured by gross obscenities. We must not omit
to notice Voltaire's connection with the famous " Encyclo-
pedic" founded by Diderot and Alembert. The success
of this publication was due in no small measure to
the name and influence of Voltaire, who contributed to
it many articles on various subjects, among which will
be found some of his most reckless and violent attacks
upon Christianity.

Of his histories, "Charles XII" (1731) is admitted
to be the best It is, indeed, a chef-d'aruvrt of clear,
elegant, animated, and rapid narration. His "Siecle
de Louis XIV" (1752) holds the second place. The
" Histoire de Russie sous Pierre I" (1759) is considered
to be the least successful of his productions in this

In 1778, being then in his eighty-fifth year, Voltaire
visited Paris, where his sojourn was one continued ova-
tion. " The homage of every class," says Brougham,
" and of every rank was tendered to him ; and it seemed
as if one universal feeling prevailed, the desire of
having it hereafter to say, 'I saw Voltaire.' His car-
riage was drawn by the populace, who were inspired
with the wildest enthusiasm. At the theatre his bust
was crowned with laurels and garlands of roses, amid
the shouts and tears of the audience. He exclaimed,
' You will make me die with pleasure ; you will stifle me
with roses.'"

The exhaustion produced by this great excitement
appears to have been the cause of his death, which took
place on the 3Oth of May, 1778. Some time before his
death, while he was supposed to be very near his end,
he was induced, from his desire of obtaining a Christian
burial, to subscribe to a confession and undergo absolu-
tion, which, says Condorcet, gave less edification to the
devout than scandal to the free-thinkers.}

tSee Brougham's "Lives of Men of Letters and Science,"
London, 1845.

t Very contradictory accounts are given of his last hours. It has
been weft observed that it is of far more consequence how one spends
his life Uian how he passes the few fleeting moments at its close. Cir-
cumstances which have nothing to do with one's faith or one's con-
science may sometimes give the appearance of great tranquillity, or
the contrary, to the death-bed scene. But, as much has been said
about the death of Voltaire, it may not be without interest to cite
briefly the testimony of Tronchin, who was his friend, and who was
constantly with him (much of the time alone) during his last hours.
" If the bond of my principles," says he, " had needed to be strength-
ened, the man whom I have seen agonize and die under my eyes
would have made of them a Gordian knot ; and in comparing the
death of a good man, which is only the close of a beautiful day.with

, e, 1, 6, u, y, long; a, e. 6, same, less prolonged; 5, e. T, o, ii, y 1 , short; a, e, i, f),obscurc; far, fall, fat; nit; not; good; moon-




Voltaire is confessedly the foremost name, the acknow-
ledged head, of European literature in his time ;* whence
he was often styled " King Voltaire," (" le Roi Voltaire."]
His writings contributed powerfully to give a fresh
impulse to almost every department of human thought.
There was, indeed, no branch of literature which he him-
self did not cultivate with distinguished success. His his-
torical works mark an era in this department of writing.
If his histories are inferior to those of some other emi-
nent writers in depth of thought or in a philosophic
treatment of the subject, they are remarkable for the
clearness, simplicity, animation, and rapidity of the
narrative. If they are not calculated in an especial
manner to make philosophic historians, they are pre-
eminently fitted to interest and instruct the generality
of readers ; and they have perhaps done more to make
history popular among all classes than the works of any
other writer of modern times. Though not the first
French author who wrote on the wonderful discoveries
of Newton, he may be said to have been the first to
make them extensively known on the continent. As a
wit, he probably never had an equal either in ancient or
modern times.t As a poet, Voltaire is by some critics
ranked at the very head of the great masters of the art
in France. His " Zaire" is called the chef-d'oeuvre of
French tragedy, and his " Henriade" may be said to be
the only successful epic in the French language.

But several eminent critics, while admitting that Vol-
taire was a genius of the rarest order, deny that he was
a great poet in the truest sense of the word. " It is
certain," says Brougham, " that the tragedies of Voltaire
are the works of an extraordinary genius, and that only
a great poet could have produced them ; but it is equally
certain that they are deficient for the most part in that
which makes the drama powerful over the feelings,
real pathos, real passion, whether of tenderness, of
terror, or of horror. The plots of some are admirably
contrived ; the diction of all is pure and animated ; in
most cases it is pointed, and in many it is striking,
grand, impressive ; the characters are frequently well
imagined and portrayed, though without sufficient dis-
crimination, and thus often running one into another
from the uniformity of the language, terse, epigrammatic,
powerful, which all alike speak. Nor are there wanting
situations of great effect and single passages of thrilling
force ; but, after all, the heart is not there ; the deep feel-
ing which is the parent of all true eloquence, as well as
all true poetry, ... is rarely perceived." (See " Lives of
Men of Letters," etc., where also (pp. 36-42) will be
found an elaborate critique on the " Henriade.")

As a critic his claims, though unquestionably of a high
order, are open to great exceptions. He appears, indeed,
to have been wanting in no natural gift necessary to rank
him with the very greatest critics that ever lived. He
possessed, in a degree that has probably never been sur-
passed, a clear, incisive intellect,^ a vivid sense of pro-
priety, a quick perception of the true relations of things,
combined with an intense susceptibility to all those feel-
ings or sentiments which go to make the orator and the

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Online LibraryJoseph ThomasUniversal pronouncing dictionary of biography and mythology (Volume 2) → online text (page 379 of 425)