Voltaire, Marie-Francis Arouet De

, the greatest literary character which France produced in the last century, was born at Paris, February 20, 1694. His father, Francis Arouet, was “ancien notaire du Chatelet,” and treasurer of the chamber of accounts; his mother, MaryMargaret Daumart. At the birth of this extraordinary man, who lived to the age of eighty-five years and some months, there was little probability of his being ‘reared, and for a considerable time he continued remarkably feeble. In his earliest years he displayed a ready wit and a sprightly imagination: and, as he said of himself, made verses before he was out of his cradle. He was educated under Father Por6, in the college of Louis the Great; and such was his proficiency, that many of his essays are now existing, which, though written when he was between twelve and fourteen, shew no marks of infancy. The famous Ninon de l’Enclos, to whom this ingenious boy was introduced, left him a legacy of 2000 livres to buy him a library. Having been sent to the equity-schools on his quitting college, he was so disgusted with the dryness of the law, that he devoted himself entirely to the Muses. He was admitted into the company of the abb< Chaulieu, the marquis de la Fare, the duke de Sully, the grand prior of Vendo;ne, marshal Villars, and the chevalier du Bouillon; and caught from them that easy taste and delicate humour which distinguished the court of Louis XIV. Voltaire had early imbibed a turn for satire; and, for some philippics against the government, was imprisoned almost a year in the Bastile. He had before this period produced the tragedy of “Oedipus,| which was represented in 1718 with great success; and the duke of Orleans, happening to see it performed, was so delighted, that he obtained his release from prison. The poet waiting on the duke to return thanks: “Be wise,” said the duke, “and I will take care of you.” “I am infinitely obliged,” replied the young man; “but I intreat your royal highness not to trouble yourself any farther about my lodging or board.” His father, whose ardent wish it was that the son should have been an advocate, was present at one of the representations of the new tragedy: he was affected, even to tears, embraced his son amidst the felicitations of the ladies of the court, and never more, from that time, expressed a wish that he should become a lawyer. About 1720, he went to Brussels with Madam de Rupelmonde. The celebrated Rousseau being then in that city, the two poets met, and soon conceived an unconquerable aversion for each other. Voltaire said one day to Rousseau, who was shewing him “An Ode to Posterity,” “This is a letter which will never reach the place of its address.” Another time, Voltaire, having read a satire which Rousseau thought very indifferent, was advised to suppress it, lest it should be imagined that he “had lost his abilities, and preserved only his virulence.” Such mutual reproaches soon inflamed two hearts already sufficiently estranged. Voltaire, on his return to Paris, produced, in 1722, his tragedy of “Mariamne,” without success. His “Artemira” had experienced the same fate in 1720, though it had charmed the discerning by the excellence of the poetry. These mortifications, joined to those which were occasioned by his principles of imprudence, his sentiments on religion, and the warmth of his temper, induced him to visit England, where he printed his “Henriade.” King George I. and particularly the princess of Wales (afterwards queen Caroline) distinguished him by their protection, and obtained for him a great number of subscriptions. This laid the foundation of a fortune, which was afterwards considerably increased by the sale of his writings, by the munificence of princes, by commerce, by a habit of regularity, and by an ceconomy bordering on avarice, which he did not shake off till near the end of his life. On his return to France, in 1728, he placed the money he carried with him from England into a lottery established by M. Desforts, comptroller-general of the finances; he engaged deeply, and was successful. The speculations | of finance, however, did not check his attachment to the belles lettres, his darling passion. In 1730, he published “Brutus,” the most nervous of all his tragedies, which was more applauded by the judges of good writing than by the spectators. The first wits of the time, Fontenelle, La Motte, and others, advised him to give up the drama, as not being his proper forte. He answered them by publishing “Zara,” the most affecting, perhaps, of all his tragedies. His “Lettres Philosophiques,” abounding in bold expressions and indecent witticisms against religion, having been burnt by a decree of the parliament of Paris, and a warrant being issued for apprehending the author in 1733, Voltaire very prudently withdrew; and was sheltered by the marchioness du Chatelet, in her castle of Cirey, on the borders of Champagne and Lorraine, who entered with him on the study of the “System” of Leibnitz, and the “Principia” of Newton. A gallery was built, in which Voltaire formed a good collection of natural history, and made a great many experiments on light and electricity. He laboured in the mean time on his “Elements of the Newtonian Philosophy,” then totally unknown in France, and which the numerous admirers of Des Cartes were very little desirous should be known. In the midst of these philosophic pursuits, he produced the tragedy of “Alzira.” He was now in the meridian of his age and genius, as was evident from the tragedy of “Mahomet,” first acted in, 174-1 but it was represented to the “procureur general” as a performance offensive to religion and the author, by order of cardinal Fleury, withdrew it from the stage. “Merope,” played two years after, 1743, gave an idea of a species of tragedy, of which few models have existed. It was at the representation of this tragedy that the pit and boxes were clamorous for a sight of the author; yet it was severely criticised when it came from the press. He now became a favourite at court, through the interest of madam d’Etoile, afterwards marchioness of Pompadour. Being employed in preparing the festivities that were celebrated on the marriage of the dauphin, he attained additional honours by composing “The Princess of Navarre.” He was appointed a gentleman of the bed-chamber in ordinary, and historiographer of France. The latter office had, till his time, been almost a sinecure; but Voltaire, who had written, under the direction of the count d’Argenson, the “History of the War of 1741,” was employed by that | minister in many important negociations from 1745 to 1747 j; the project of invading England in 1746 was attributed to him and he drew up the king ofFrance’s manifesto in favour of the pretender. He had frequently attempted to gain admittance into the academy of sciences, but could not obtain his wish till 1746 *, when he was the first who broke through the absurd custom of filling an inaugural speech with the fulsome adulation of Richelieu; an example soon followed by other academicians. From, the satires occasioned by this innovation he felt so much uneasiness, that he was glad to retire with the marchioness du Chateletto Luneville, in the neighbourhood of king Stanislaus. The marchioness dying in 1749, Voltaire returned to Paris, where his stay was but short* Though he had many admirers, he was perpetually complaining of a cabal combined to filch from him that glory of which he was insatiable. “The jealousy and manoeuvres of a court,” he would say, “are the subject of conversation; there is more of them among the literati.” His friends and relations endeavoured in vain to relieve his anxiety, by lavishing commendations on him, and by exaggerating his success. He imagined he should find in a foreign country a greater degree of applause, tranquillity, and reward, and augment at the same time both his fortune and reputation, which were already very considerable. The king of Prussia, who had repeatedly invited him to his court, and who would have given any thing to have got him away from Silesia, attached him at last to his person by a pension of 22,000 livres, and the hope of farther favour .

I set out for Potsdam in June 1750. Astolpha did not meet a kinder reception in the palace of Alciua. To be lodged in the same apartments that marshal Saxe had occupied, to have the royal cooks at my command when I chose to dine alone, and the royal coachmen when I had an inclination to ride, were trifling favours. Our suppers were very agreeable. If I am not deceived, I think we had much wit. The king was witty, and gave occasion of wit to others; and what is still more extraordinary, I never found myself so much at my ease. I worked two hours a day with his majesty, corrected his works, and never failed highly to praise whatever was worthy of praise, though I rejected the dross. I gave him details of all that was necessary, in rhetoric and criticism, for his use; he profited by my advice, and his genius assisted him more effectually than my lessons. Voltaire.

From the particular respect that was paid to him, his time was now spent in the most agreeable manner; his
*

From my acquaintance with Louis XV.‘s mistress (afterwards Mad. Pompadour), in 1746, I obtained,” says Voltaire,“rewards which had never been granted to my works or my services. I was deemed worthy to be one of the forty useless members of the academy, was appointed historiographer of France, and created by the king one of the gentlemen in ordinary of his chamber. Voltaire.

| apartments were under those of the king, whom he was allowed to visit at stated hours, to read with him the best works of either ancient or modern authors, and to assist his majesty in the literary productions by which he relieved the cares of government. But this happiness was soon at an end; and Voltaire saw, to his mortification, when it was too late, that, where a man is sufficiently rich to be master of himself, neither his liberty, his family, nor his country, should be sacrificed for a pension. A dispute which our poet had with Manpertuis, the president of the academy at Berlin, was followed by disgrace *. It has been said that the king of Prussia dismissed him with this reproof: “I do not drive you away, because I called you hither; I do not take away your pension, because I have given it to you; I only forbid you my presence.” Not a word of this is true; the fact is, that he sent to the king the key of his office as chamberlain, and the cross of the order of merit, with these verses:

" Je les re^us avec tendresse;

Je vous les rends avec douleur,

Comme un amant jaloux, dans sa mauvaise humetir,

Rend le portrait de sa maitresse."

But the king returned him the key and the ribbon. Things assumed a different aspect when he took shelter with the duchess of Saxe Gotha. Maupertuis, as Voltaire himself related, took the advantage of misrepresenting him in his absence; and he was detained by the king’s order, at

*

His leaving Potzdam he ascribes to this incident: “One La Metric, a physician, an atheist, and the king’s reader, told his majesty one day after the lecture, that there were persons exceeding jealous of my favour and fortune. ‘ Be quiet a while,’ said Frederic, ‘ we squeeze the orange, and throw it away when we have swallowed the juice.’ La Metrie did not forget to repeat to me this fine apophthrgem, worthy Diunysius of Syracuse From that time I determined to take all possible care of the orange-peel. I had about 12,000 louis to place out at interest, but was determined it should not be in the territories of my Alciua. I found an advantageous opportunity of lending them upon the estates which the duke of Wiriemburg possessed in France. The king, who opened all my letters, did not doubt of my inten­ tion to quit his service. The furor of rhyming, however, still possessing him, as it did Di.nysius, I was obliged continnally to pore, and again revise his ‘ History of Braridenbourg,’ and all the rest of his works. Maupertuis, who knew the anecdote of the orange-peel, spread a report that I had said ‘ the plaue of king’s atheist was vacant’ (by the death of La Metrie). This caiumny did not succeed but he afterwards added, I had also said ‘ the king’s poetry was bad’ and this answered his purpose. From this time forward I found the king’s suppers were no longer so sorry I had fewer verses to correct, and my disgrace was complete. I once more, however, supped, at his desire, like Damocles; after which I parted, with a promise to return, but with a firm design never to see him more. Voltaire.

| Francfort on the Maine, till he had given up a volume of“Royal Verses.” Having regained his liberty, be endeavoured to negociate a return to Paris; but this he was not able to accomplish, since one of his poems, the “Pucelle DOrleans,” which was both impious and obscene, had begun to make a noise. He was resident for about a year at Colwar, whence retiring to Geneva, he purchased a beautiful villa near that city, where he enjoyed the homages of the Genevans, and of occasional travellers; and for a short time was charmed with his agreeable retirement, which the quarrels that agitated the little republic of Geneva compelled him soon to quit. He was accused of privately fomenting the disputes, of leaning towards the prevailing party, and laughing at both. Compelled to abandon Les Delices *
*

There were two estates, about a league fiom Geneva, which had furmerly enjoyed all the privileges of that city and 1 had the good fortune to obtain a brevet from the kin?, by which those privileges were continued to me. At last I so managed my destiny, that I was independent in Switzerland, in the territories of Geneva, and in France. I have heard much of liberty, but I do not believe there is an individual in Europe who had wrought his own freedom like me. Let those who will, follow my example; or rather, those who can. Voltaire.

(which was the name of his countryhouse), he fixed himself in France, within a league of Geneva, in Le Pays de Gex, an almost savage desert, which he had the satisfaction of fertilizing. The village of Ferney, which contained not above 50 inhabitants, became by his means a colony of 1200 persons, successfully employed for themselves and for the state. Numbers of artists, particularly watchmakers, established their manufactures under the auspices of Voltaire, and exported their wares to Russia, Spain, Germany, Holland, and Italy. He rendered his solitude still more illustrious by inviting thither the great niece of the famous Corneille, and by preserving from ignominy and oppression Sirven and the family of Calas, whose memory he caused to be restored. In this retirement Voltaire erected a tribunal, at which he arraigned almost all the human race. Men in power, dreading the force of his pen, endeavoured to secure his esteem. Aretin, in the sixteenth century, received as many insults as rewards. Voltaire, with far more wit and address, obtained implicit homage. This homage, and some generous actions, which he himself occasionally took care to proclaim, either with a view that they should reach posterity, or to please the curious, contributed as much to extend his | reputation as the marks of esteem and bounty he had received from sovereign princes. The king of Prussia, with whom he still maintained an uninterrupted correspondence, had his statue made in porcelain, and sent to him, with the word Immortali engraven on its base. The empress of Russia sent him a present of some magnificent furs, and a. box turned by her own hands, and adorned with hi& portrait and 20 diamonds. These distinctions did not prevent his sighs for Paris. Overloaded with glory and wealth, he was not happy, because he never could content himself with what he possessed. At length, in the beginning of 1778, he determined to exchange the tranquillity of Ferney for the incense and bustle of the capital, where he met with the most flattering reception. Such honours were decreed him by the academies as till then had been unknown; he was crowned in a full theatre, and distinguished by the public with the strongest enthusiasm. But the philosopher of fourscore soon fell a victim to thi* indiscreet officiousness: the fatigue of visits and attendance at theatrical representations, the change of regimen and mode of living, inflamed his blood, already too much disordered. On his arrival, he had a violent haemorrhage, which greatly impaired him. Some days before his last illness, the idea of approaching death tormented him. Sitting at table with the marchioness de Villette, at whose house he had taken up his abode, after a solemn reverie, he said, “You are like the kings of Egypt, who, when they were at meat, had a death’s head beTore them.” On his arrival at Paris, he said, “he was come to seek glory and death;” and to an artist, who presented him the picture of his triumph, replied, “A tomb would be fitter for me than a triumph.” At last, not being able to obtain sleep, he took a large dose of opium, which deprived him of his senses. He died May 30, 1778; and was buried at Sellices, a Benedictine abbey between Nogent and Troyes; Many accounts have been published respecting his behaviour when in the nearer view of death. Some of these are so contradictory, that it is difficult to attain the exact truth. His infidel friends, Diderot, D’Alembert, and others, took every pains to represent that he died as he had lived, a hardened infidel, and a blasphemer; but they have not been credited, and it is more generally believed that he was visited on this awful occasion with the remorse of a man, whose whole life had been | a continued attempt to erect vice and immorality on the ruins of revealed religion. The mareschal cle Richelieu is said to have fled from the bed-side, declaring it to be a sight too terrible to be sustained; andTronchin, the physician, asserted that the furies of Orestes could give but*a faint idea of those of Voltaire.

While he had the vomiting of blood, he confessed himself, and even made a sort of profession of faith: this was supposed to be policy and illusion, and served only to shew the suppleness of this singular man; who was a freethinker at London, a Cartesian at Versailles, a Christian at Nancy, and an infidel at Berlin. In society, he was alternately an Aristippus and a Diogenes. He made pleasure the object of his researches: he enjoyed it, and made it the object of his praise; he grew weary of it, and turned it into ridicule. By the natural progress of such a character, he passed from a moralist to a buffoon, from a philosopher to an enthusiast, from mildness to passion, from flattery to satire, from the love of money to the love of luxury, from the modesty of a wise man to the vanity of an impious wit. It has been said, that by his familiarity with the great, he indemnified himself for the constraint he was sometimes under among his equals; that he had sensibility without affection; that he was voluptuous without passions, open without sincerity, and liberal without generosity. It has been said, that, with persons who were jealous of his acquaintance, he began by politeness, went on with coldness, and usually ended by disgust, unless perchance they were writers who had acquired reputation, or men in power, whom he had adroitness enough to attach to his interests. It has been said that he was steadfast to nothing by choice, but to every thing by irregular starts of fancy. “These singular contrasts,” says M. Pelisson, “are not less evident in his physical than in his moral character. It has been remarkable, that his physiognomy partook of those of an eagle and an ape: and who can say that this contrast was not the principle of his predominant taste for antithesis? What an uncommon and perpetual change from greatness to meanness, from glory to contempt! How frequently has he combined the gravity of Plato with the legerdemain of Harlequin!” Hence the name of Micro­Megas, the title of one of his own crudities, which was given him by La Beaumelle, has been confirmed by the public voice. This is the portrait of an extraordinary | personage; and such was Voltaire, who, like all other extraordinary men, has occasioned some strong enthusiasts and eccentric critics. Leader of a new sect, having survived many of his rivals, and eclipsed, towards the end of his career, the poets his contemporaries; he possessed the most unbounded influence, and has brought about a melancholy revolution in wit and morals. Though he has often availed himself of his amazing talents to promote the cause of reason and humanity, to inspire princes with toleration, and with a horror for war; yet he was more delighted, more in his element, and we are sorry to add more successful, when he exerted himself in extending the principles of irreligion and anarchy. The lively sensibility which animates his writings pervaded his whole conduct; and it was seldom that he resisted the impressions of his ready and overflowing wit, or the first feelings of his heart. Voltaire stands at the head of those writers who in France are called Beaux Esprits; and for brilliancy of imagination, for astonishing ease, exquisite taste, versatility of talents, and extent of knowledge, he had no superior, scarcely an equal among his countrymen. But, if genius be restricted to invention, Voltaire was deficient. His most original pieces are, his “Candide,” a tissue of ridiculous extravagancies, which may be traced to Swift; and his infamous poem, the “Pucelle,” for which he was indebted to Chapelain and Ariosto. His “Henriade” is the finest epic poem the French have; but it wants the sublimity of Homeric or Miltonic invention. The subject, indeed, could not admit supernatural machinery. It is, as lord Chesterfield said (who did not mean to depreciate it) “all good sense from beginning to end.” It is an excellent history in verse, and the versification is as harmonious as French versification can be, and some of his portraits are admirably touched; but as a whole, as an epic, it sinks before the epics of Greece and Rome, of Italy and England.

Voltaire was a voluminous writer, and there is in his works, as perhaps in those of all voluminous writers, a very strange mixture of good, bad, and indifferent. Whether many of them will long survive his living reputation, may be doubted. Of late, we understand, that few of his separate pieces have been called for, except the Henriade, which will always be considered as a national work, and his plays. There have been lately some splendid editions of his whole works, for libraries and men of fortune and | now we hear that the French editors and booksellers find their interest in offering the public only his “CEuvres choisies.” When the misery he so largely contributed to bring on his country shall be more accurately estimated, and a reverence for revealed religion is revived, Voltaire will probably be remembered chiefly, as a terrifying example of the prostitution of the finest talents to the worst of purposes.

We shall conclude with the titles of his principal poetical performances: 1. “The Henriade, in ten cantos.” 2. A great number of tragedies, of which the first was “Oedipus,” in 1718, the last “Irene,” in 1778. 3. Several comedies of which the best are, “L’Indiscret,” “L’Enfant Prodigue,” and “Nanine.” 4. Several operas, in which he did not particularly excel. 5. An endless variety of fugitive pieces in verse. His principal prose works are, 1. “Essai sur l’Histoire General,” which with “Les Siecles de Louis XIV. et de Louis XV.” make 10 vols. 8vo. 2. “L’Histoire de Charles XII.” 3. “L’Histoire de Czar Pierre I.” 4. “Melanges de Litterature,” in many volumes. 5. “Dictionnaire Philosophique,” “Philosophic de l’Histoire,” and several other works of the same impious tendency. 6. “Theatre de Pierre et Thomas Corneille, avec des mor^eaux interessans,” 8 vols. 4to. 7. *‘ Commentaire Historique sur les Oeuvres de l’Auteur de la Henriade, avec les Pieces originates et les preuves;“a monument raised by Voltaire to his own vanity. He had indeed before this placed himself at the head of all the French writers in his” Connoissance des beautes et des defauts de la Poesie et de P Eloquence," 1749. 1