Home  »  Letters on the English  »  Introductory Note

François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778). Letters on the English.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

FRANÇOIS-MARIE AROUET, known by his assumed name of Voltaire, was born at Paris, November 21, 1694. His father was a well-to-do notary, and François was educated under the Jesuits in the Collège Louis-le-Grand. He began writing verse early, and was noted for his freedom of speech, a tendency which led to his being twice exiled from Paris and twice imprisoned in the Bastile. In 1726 he took refuge in England, and the two years spent there had great influence upon his later development. Some years after his return he became historiographer of France, and gentleman of the king’s bedchamber; from 1750 to 1753 he lived at the court of Frederick the Great, with whom he ultimately quarreled; and he spent the last period of his life, from 1758 to 1778, on his estate of Ferney, near Geneva, where he produced much of his best work. He died at Paris, May 30, 1778.

It will be seen that Voltaire’s active life covers nearly the whole eighteenth century, of which he was the dominant and typical literary figure. Every department of letters then in vogue was cultivated by him; in all he showed brilliant powers; and in several he reached all but the highest rank. Apart from his “Henriade,” an epic on the classical model, and the burlesque “La Pucelle,” most of his verse belongs to the class of satire, epigram, and vers de société. Of real poetical quality it has little, but abundant technical cleverness. For the stage he was the most prominent writer of the time, his most successful dramas including “Zaïre,” “Œdipe,” “La Mort de César,” “Alzire,” and “Merope.” His chief contribution in this field was the development of the didactic and philosophic element. In prose fiction he wrote “Zadig,” “Candide,” and many admirable short stories; in history, his “Age of Louis XIV” is only the best known of four or five considerable works; in criticism, his commentary on Corneille is notable. His scientific and philosophic interests are to some extent indicated in the following “Letters,” which also show his admiration for the tolerance and freedom of speech in England, which it was his greatest service to strive to introduce into his own country.