François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778). Letters on the English.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
Letter XXIOn the Earl of Rochester and Mr. Waller
THE EARL OF ROCHESTER’S name is universally known. Mr. de St. Evremont has made very frequent mention of him, but then he has represented this famous nobleman in no other light than as the man of pleasure, as one who was the idol of the fair; but, with regard to myself, I would willingly describe in him the man of genius, the great poet. Among other pieces which display the shining imagination his lordship only could boast, he wrote some satires on the same subjects as those our celebrated Boileau made choice of. I do not know any better method of improving the taste than to compare the productions of such great geniuses as have exercised their talent on the same subject. Boileau declaims as follows against human reason in his “Satire on Man”:“Cependant à le voir plein de vapeurs légeres,Soi-même se bercer de ses propres chimeres,Lui seul de la nature est la baze et l’appui,Et le dixieme ciel ne tourne que pour lui.De tous les animaux il est ici le maître;Qui pourroit le nier, poursuis tu? Moi peut-êtreCe mâitre prétendu qui leur donne des loix,Ce roi des animaux, combien a-t’il de rois?” “Yet, pleased with idle whimsies of his brain,And puffed with pride, this haughty thing would fainBe think himself the only stay and propThat holds the mighty frame of Nature up.The skies and stars his properties must seem,……..Of all the creatures he’s the lord, he cries.……..And who is there, say you, that dares denySo owned a truth? That may be, sir, do I.……..This boasted monarch of the world who awesThe creatures here, and with his nod gives lawsThis self-named king, who thus pretends to beThe lord of all, how many lords has he?”
OLDHAM, a little altered.
The Lord Rochester expresses himself, in his “Satire against Man,” in pretty near the following manner. But I must first desire you always to remember that the versions I give you from the English poets are written with freedom and latitude, and that the restraint of our versification, and the delicacies of the French tongue, will not allow a translator to convey into it the licentious impetuosity and fire of the English numbers:—“Cet esprit que je haïs, cet esprit plein d’erreur,Ce n’est pas ma raison c’est la tienne, docteurC’est la raison frivôle, inquiete, orgueilleuseDes sages animaux, rivale dédaigneuse,Qui croit entr’eux et l’Ange, occuper le milieu,Et pense être ici bas l’image de son Dieu.Vil atôme imparfait, qui croit, doute, disputeRampe, s’élève, tombe, et nie encore sa chûte,Qui nous dit je suis libre, en nous montrant ses fers,Et dont l’œil, trouble et faux, croit percer l’univers.Allez, reverends fous, bienheureux fanatiques,Compilez bien l’amas de vos riens scholastiques,Pères de visions, et d’enigmes sacres,Auteurs du labirinthe, où vous vous égarez.Allez obscurement éclaircir vos mistères,Et courez dans l’école adorer vos chimères.Il est d’autres erreurs, il est de ces dévotsCondamné par eux mêmes à l’ennui du repos.Ce mystique encloîtré, fier de son indolenceTranquille, au sein de Dieu. Que peut il faire? Il pense.Non, tu ne penses point, misérable, tu dors:Inutile à la terre, et mis au rang des morts.Ton esprit énervé croupit dans la molesse.Reveille toi, sois homme, et sors de ton ivresse.L’homme est né pour agir, et tu pretens penser?” &c.
The original runs thus:“Hold mighty man, I cry all this we know,And ’tis this very reason I despise,This supernatural gift that makes a miteThink he’s the image of the Infinite;Comparing his short life, void of all rest,To the eternal and the ever blest.This busy, puzzling stirrer up of doubt,That frames deep mysteries, then finds them out,Filling, with frantic crowds of thinking fools,Those reverend bedlams, colleges, and schools;Borne on whose wings each heavy sot can pierceThe limits of the boundless universe.So charming ointments make an old witch fly,And bear a crippled carcass through the sky.’Tis this exalted power, whose business liesIn nonsense and impossibilities.This made a whimsical philosopherBefore the spacious world his tub prefer;And we have modern cloistered coxcombs, whoRetire to think, ’cause they have naught to do.But thoughts are given for action’s government,Where action ceases, thought’s impertinent.”
Whether these ideas are true or false, it is certain they are expressed with an energy and fire which form the poet. I shall be very far from attempting to examine philosophically into these verses, to lay down the pencil, and take up the rule and compass on this occasion; my only design in this letter being to display the genius of the English poets, and therefore I shall continue in the same view.
The celebrated Mr. Waller has been very much talked of in France, and Mr. de la Fontaine, St. Evremont, and Bayle have written his eulogium, but still his name only is known. He had much the same reputation in London as Voiture had in Paris, and in my opinion deserved it better. Voiture was born in an age that was just emerging from barbarity; an age that was still rude and ignorant, the people of which aimed at wit, though they had not the least pretensions to it, and sought for points and conceits instead of sentiments. Bristol stones are more easily found than diamonds. Voiture, born with an easy and frivolous genius, was the first who shone in this aurora of French literature. Had he come into the world after those great geniuses who spread such a glory over the age of Louis XIV., he would either have been unknown, would have been despised, or would have corrected his style. Boileau applauded him, but it was in his first satires, at a time when the taste of that great poet was not yet formed. He was young, and in an age when persons form a judgment of men from their reputation, and not from their writings. Besides, Boileau was very partial both in his encomiums and his censures. He applauded Segrais, whose works nobody reads; he abused Quinault, whose poetical pieces every one has got by heart; and is wholly silent upon La Fontaine. Waller, though a better poet than Voiture, was not yet a finished poet. The graces breathe in such of Waller’s works as are writ in a tender strain; but then they are languid through negligence, and often disfigured with false thoughts. The English had not in his time attained the art of correct writing. But his serious compositions exhibit a strength and vigour which could not have been expected from the softness and effeminacy of his other pieces. He wrote an elegy on Oliver Cromwell, which, with all its faults, is nevertheless looked upon as a masterpiece. To understand this copy of verses you are to know that the day Oliver died was remarkable for a great storm. His poem begins in this manner:—“Il n’est plus, s’en est fait, soumettons nous au sort,Le ciel a signalé ce jour par des tempêtes,Et la voix des tonnerres éclatant sur nos tetesVient d’annoncer sa mort. “Par ses derniers soupirs il ébranle cet ile;Cet ile que son bras fit trembler tant de fois,Quand dans le cours de ses exploits,Il brisoit la téte des Rois,Et soumettoit un peuple à son joug seul docile. “Mer tu t’en es troublé; O mer tes flots émusSemblent dire en grondant aux plus lointains rivagesQue l’effroi de la terre et ton maitre n’est plus. “Tel au ciel autrefois s’envola Romulus,Tel il quitta la Terre, au milieu des orages,Tel d’un peuple guerrier il recut les homages;Obéï dans sa vie, à sa mort adoré,Son palais fut un Temple,” &c. “We must resign! heaven his great soul does claimIn storms as loud as his immortal fame;His dying groans, his last breath shakes our isle,And trees uncut fall for his funeral pile:About his palace their broad roots are tostInto the air; so Romulus was lost!New Rome in such a tempest missed her king,And from obeying fell to worshipping.On Oe! OElig>ta’s top thus Hercules lay dead,With ruined oaks and pines about him spread.Nature herself took notice on his death,And, sighing, swelled the sea with such a breath,That to remotest shores the billows rolled,Th’ approaching fate of his great ruler told.”
It was this eulogium that gave occasion to the reply (taken notice of in Bayle’s Dictionary), which Waller made to King Charles II. This king, to whom Waller had a little before (as is usual with bards and monarchs) presented a copy of verses embroidered with praises, reproached the poet for not writing with so much energy and fire as when he had applauded the Usurper (meaning Oliver). “Sir,” replied Waller to the king, “we poets succeed better in fiction than in truth.” This answer was not so sincere as that which a Dutch Ambassador made, who, when the same monarch complained that his masters paid less regard to him than they had done to Cromwell: “Ah, sir!” says the Ambassador, “Oliver was quite another man ——.” It is not my intent to give a commentary on Waller’s character, nor on that of any other person; for I consider men after their death in no other light than as they were writers, and wholly disregard everything else. I shall only observe that Waller, though born in a Court, and to an estate of five or six thousand pounds sterling a year, was never so proud or so indolent as to lay aside the happy talent which Nature had indulged him. The Earls of Dorset and Roscommon, the two Dukes of Buckingham, the Lord Halifax, and so many other noblemen, did not think the reputation they obtained of very great poets and illustrious writers, any way derogatory to their quality. They are more glorious for their works than for their titles. These cultivated the polite arts with as much assiduity as though they had been their whole dependence. They also have made learning appear venerable in the eyes of the vulgar, who have need to be led in all things by the great; and who, nevertheless, fashion their manners less after those of the nobility (in England I mean) than in any other country in the world.