Page images


by the circumstances of his life. After noticing some of the leading features of his history, our author proceeds thus :

The more Voltaire advanced in his career, the more he found himself surrounded with applause and homage. Sovereigns became his friends and even his flatterers. Envy and hatred in opposing his triumphs excited his indignation. Their continual resistance gave stil more vivacity to his character, and made him frequently forget moderation, decency, and good taste. Such was his life; suchi was the course which conducted him to that long old age which he might have rendered so honourable: when encircled with a prodigious glory he reigned despotically in letters, which had themselves assumed the fi rst rank among the objects which attract tlie curiosity and attention of men.

It is melancholy that Voltaire did not perceive how much dignity and lustre he might have acquired by availing himself of the advantages of such a position, and pursuing the conduct which it seemed to prescribe to him. It is amicting to behold him yielding to the torrent of a degraded age, and plunging in a base cynickism, which, whatever be its apologies in youth, forms a revolting contrast to white hairs, the symbols of wisdom and purity. What spectacle is more sad than that of an old man insulting the Deity in the moment when he is about to call him hence, and repelling the respect of the young by participating their excesses." P. 41, 42.

“Often in the midst of the scandalous inebriation in which he seemed to be plunged by vanity and the desire of influencing the age in which he lived, he had returus of reason : he wished to resist in some things the impulse in which he had shared, and to which lie had given increased activity. In his latter works, in the midst of that perpetual variation of opinions and systems, of those assertions always positive and incessantly contradicting each other, one finds at times reflections full of profound sense—a just appreciation of the miserable spirit which reigned around him. It is then that one regrets to find in him that perpetual mobility, that absence of reflection, and, above all, that immense passion for success and the mode of liis day. He alone, armed with all the powers of bis nind, might have retarded a little the course of those menacing opinions which were accumulating on every side, and which, opposed with feebleness or insincerity, acquired fresh strength from that powerless resistance.” P. 42, 43.

It is impossible not to pause for a moment on a character such as that which has been delineated; equally singular and instructive. We all recollect the old and eloquent description of man, "a being of large discourse, looking before and after." Voltaire answered sufficiently well to the first half of the portrait, but he had no sort of resemblance to the other. He was semivir. His avidity for enjoyment, and his habitual disregard of the future, made him in truth a child through life. Such he is described by cotemporary writers, and such he proved himself to be in every feature of his character; by his inextinguishable gayety, and his ridiculous irritability; by the exquisite playfulness which gave life to bis productions on the verge of fourscore, and by that last sally of literary vanity wbich snapped the feeble thread that sustained his eartbly existence. Voltaire seems to have been entirely the slave of present feelings; the consequences of his conduct to bimself or others never disturbed him: and this is the moral definition of childishness. But, unhappily, that entire thoughtlessness which, allied to the weakness and ignorance of youth, is pardoned and even loved; when combined with mature knowledge, and with faculties and passions fully developed, assumes a very different character. The gambols of the kitten are amusing, but not so the bounds of the tiger. The childish vanity, the childish irritability, the childish love of pleasure, which were characteristic of Voltaire from his earliest years to bis late decline, were all thought to be very entertaining by his friends, who, with less excuse perhaps from natural temper, were for the most part just as careless of consequences as himself

. But mark the effects. Vanity tempted him to hazard a few sallies against churchmen. The clergy noticed them, and he was banished. Provoked by the persecution of those whom he despised, what was at first only mirth rankled into hatred. The spirit of his age and coun try encouraged him. His passion for literary applause allied itself to his resentments. The gratification he felt in indulging his talents for pleasantry was irresistible. He attacked every thing, he ridiculed every thing, he sported with every thing. Nothing so sacred, nothing so venerable, nothing so useful or necessary, as to be secure from his merriment. By degrees he grew almost serious in his folly. He aspired to the glory of crushing that infamous* religion wbich was proclaimed by angels from heaven, with the song of glory to God and good will towards men: and he enjoys the bad preeminence of having contributed indirectly, more perhaps than any other man, to the revolution in France, and all its wasteful results in Europe. But we turn gladly from the man to his writings.

After having examined the conduct and general character of Voltaire, we may proceed to speak more particularly of his works. Their merit has been a hundred times discussed and disputed. Almost always received with enthusiasm by the public, they at the same time met with obstinate opponents and enemies, and the spirit of party has always prevailed in the judgment pronounced upon them. Half a century has elapsed, and the reputation of Voltaire is still like the body of Patroclus, disputed between two parties who are animated against each other. Such a contest would alone suffice to perpetuate the glory of that name. Some men have made themselves famous by defending him; others have gained celebrity solely by having pertinaciously attacked him. In this protracted conflict ihe glory of Voltaire has undoubtedly not preserved all its original splendour. It is no longer that national enthusiasm, that admiration equal to what the heroes and benefactors of mankind have inspired; it is no longer that triumph which was decreed bim on the last day of his life, whilst he was dea scending into the tomb. A colder and more measured judgment has enfeebled these passionate emotions. But there is something idle and ridiculous in the endeavours of those who labour to blast entirely the honours of Voltaire. A sufficient space of time has elapsed to entitle us to consider the judgment of posterity as pronounced.” P. 43, 44.

* Ecrasez l'infame-was the common watchword of the philosopher.

This little summary is followed by a more detailed examination of Voltaire's productions, and the criticism is so good that we have unwillingly passed it over with a general eulogy.

Voltaire acquired his earliest celebrity as a dramatic writer, and perhaps he will owe his reputation, in future ages, chiefly to his Théatre. In his first pieces (our author observes) he imitated his predecessors. Edipe and Mariamne were composed in the style of Corneille and Racine. At length the impatience of his genias broke through those shackles, and then appeared Zayre, with its faults, which have been so often assailed, and its beauties, which so entirely redeem them. It is here that Voltaire impressed the stamp of his talents as a tragedian. It is not the perfection and melody of Racine. It is not the lofty imagination and simplicity of Corneille; and yet there is something which one does not find in either of them, and the absence of which may be regretted. There is a certain warmth of passion, a complete self abandonment, a vivacity of feeling, which carries us away and awakens profound emotion, a grace which charms and which subdues.

We have already made a few remarks on the French drama, and the complaints made by Englishmen of its deficiency in inte. rest. If we wished to justify the opinions of our countrymen by a single and decisive experiment, we should request an impartial person, thoroughly acquainted with both languages, to compare Zayre and Othello. The former is celebrated, perhaps, above all other specimens of the French theatre, for its passion and depth of feeling. “If any thing," says the writer of the Tableau, w can give the idea of an author perfectly transported with passion and poetry, it is a work such as Zayre.". Unquestionably it is a very fine collection of verses; the speech of Lusignan when he discovers that his daughter has renounced her faith, is one of the noblest effusions of passionate declamation extant in any language, and the concluding scene is very affecting. This conclusion, however, Voltaire manifestly imitated from Shakspeare; and it is one of the instances in which he was content to enrich his soil by borrowing from that grand fermier, (as he was pleased to call him,) without acknowledging the obligation. In taste, correctness, and spirited declamation, Zayre is above Othello; it is not without


merits of a higher kind; and it exercises some influence over the feelings. But for that powerful magic which opens all the springs of emotion in the soul; for that master genius which pours down the whole torrent of passion, sweeping away every other thought, and hurrying us we know not and care not whither; for whatever belongs to the phrensy and inspiration of poetry-to contrast Zayre with Othello! truly we should as soon think of comparing a cascade at Versailles to the cataracts of Niagara.

Zayre was succeeded by many other pieces of great celebrity and merit, by which Voltaire is very well known even in this country. But our author remarks that his later dramatic works fell into the same train with his other productions. He would fain teach and philosophize even upon the stage; and this sort of sententious emphatic tone could not but infuse a certain chillness into the most animated scenes. “Nothing," it is justly added, “ so much injures imagination as to give it an aim, to subject it to a system.” Of all his theatrical performances Zayre was, we believe, the most popular; but the author of the Tableau gives the palm, on the whole, to Merope; and D'Alembert appears, by one of his letters, to have preferred Alzire.

The Henriade was a poem in a very different style, and aspired to the dignity of the Epopée. That Voltaire should have the vanity to think himself equal to any thing is not very extraordi. nary, considering what he had performed, and how he was flattered; but that he should have the weakness to fancy a series of correct couplets about a great monarch, with the help of a few of the heathen deities, could deserve the character of an epic poem, is marvellous. However, great men make great blunders. Addison, probably, thought his Campaign a very fine poem.

Nobody,” says our author, “contests the attraction of Vol. taire's fugitive poetry. The principal charm of these pieces is, that they express real feelings; that they catch and embody those transient impressions which were continually passing, like summer clouds, over the mind of the writer. They contain, in some measure, the history of his life, which was composed of a prodigious multitude of shifting sensations, varying with his years, and subject to no sort of control from fixed principles or designs. For the rest, to say that they are full of vivacity, facility, and grace, is only to say that they were written by Voltaire. There is a sentence here so just in its sentiment, and so incapable of translation, that we extract it as it stands. La gaielé comme le sublime demande une sorte de naïveté et de bonne foi. Elle ne resemble pas au persiflage et a la raillerie.

Voltaire's historical pieces, we think, have been overrated; with the exception, however, of the life of Charles XII., which is extremely agreeable, and could aspire to nothing greater. No

one, indeed, can dispute the power of this writer to render any subject in a very high degree picturesque and entertaining: and it happened, in the last-mentioned instance, that the prince was exactly suited to the historian; for he was, as the author of the Tableau happily says, tout en dehors. In attempting the life of Peter, Voltaire undertook a much higher style of composition. He was now to give an account of the rise and advancement of a great empire, under the counsels and auspices of a very savage, but very forcible and comprehensive, genius. This was manifestly a great undertaking, and it proved too much for the philosophizing poet;

viribus ille Confisus periit admirandisque lacertis. The failure is not scandalous, but it is manifestly a failure. There is a still more discreditable fault to be objected to the historian of Charles and Peter. His heroes, unfortunately, were rivals. It was difficult, therefore, to reconcile their respective pretensions. Voltaire, we fear, was apt to be more studious of effect than of accuracy, and it so happens, that the same facts are told in a different manner, and with opposite colouring, by the same historian in his narratives of the two princes. There is such a carelesness, of reputation, as well as disregard to truth, in these contradictions, that we think them alone sufficient to throw considerable doubt on the general veracity of Voltaire.

The Siécle de Louis XIV. has acquired so much celebrity, and, in our judgment, has, notwithstanding its real merits, been appreciated so much above its deserts, that we are happy in being, able to give to our sentiments the authority of a writer such as that before us. The following extract contains also an admirable picture, in a few words, of ancient history, so much superior in interest, so much inferior in philosophy, to what has passed, in modern days, under the same appellation.

“ To delineate the reign of Louis XIV. was a very difficult undertaking. One may say that the more civilized a nation becomes, the more its manners and its history lose those highly relieved and picturesque formos of early times which constitute the charm of narration. The office of an historian becomes also more arduous. We exact impartiality, and we reproach him with wanting warmth and interest. We require details upon the commerce, the arts, the spirit of the government, and we complain that an attention to matters of philosophy interrupts the parrative of facts. We demand erudition, and we blame the writer when he descants. Formerly historians were not subject to these fetters. They wrote with all their prejudices, they preserved their individual character, without assuming a cold impartiality, which has more of form than substance. They recounted the victories of

« PreviousContinue »