Page images
PDF
EPUB

nobler, even if it be to the more tender, degrees of expression. But added to this, the ineffable trammels of the French Theatremits statue-like coldness and rigidity—its monotony-its heartless inflation

-who can be a poet fettered down by such shackles as these? But Voltaire, while he feared to abandon the forms, at least, of a style, with out which knew that in France he had no chance of success, showed how he felt the iron of his chains--and, by what he has done in despite of them, proves what he could have done had he been wholly free.

But if our national taste blind us in some measure to the beauties of Voltaire's higher poetry, there cannot be—and I believe there are not -two opinions with respect to his unrivalled wit. Sheridan, our greatest name in that way, "pales his ineffectual fires" before Voltaire. To borrow, and differently apply, one of the expressions of the former, Voltaire's wit " is as keen, but, at the same time as polished, as his sword.” Perhaps, on this account, it cuts the deeper—but, at all events, we turn from the severity of the wound to gaze upon

the beauty of the weapon.

But the wit is not wit alone ; it always carries with it argument equally unavoidable and resistless. Look at the whole of Candide; throughout that which appears to slight readers, nothing more than a laughable, and somewhat loose tale, there is never for an instant lost sight of the metaphysical position which it is his object to establish. This is displayed in every illustration, however ludicrous—promoted in every incident, however farfetched-while the whole is stamped and graven on the mind by the matchless felicity of his imagery and terseness of his phrase. There is at times, too, a dash of the pathetic, seldom conjoined with such powers of satire. There are one or two flashes of real nature and tender feeling in L'Ingenu, which go more to the heart, at least to my heart, than all the spun-out sophisms and wrought protestations of Julie and St. Preux." But the truth is, that Voltaire was a man of both great generosity and tenderness of feeling: His exertions in behalf of the family of Calas bespeak more active and effective benevolence, than all the cosmopolitism of le citoyen de Génère; and who so fully as he answered that truest touchstone of goodness of heart, and kindliness of disposition—being beloved by his friends ? A man who excites strong attachments—not merely the attachment of sexual love, for that is frequently unconnected with real merit of any kind, but the affection of a surrounding family and independent friends -such a man nerer can be deficient in those qualities which alone deserve, as they alone create, such attachment.

In this, as in almost every thing else, how different from Rousseau ! No one loved him-no one could love him. Those, who, from similarity of opinion, and admiration of genius, and, still more, from common hatreds, were inclined to form, and in fact who did form, connexions of friendship with him, never could hold them above a year or two. Perversely and peevishly selfish, the manner as well as the matter made any continuance of intercourse with him impossible. Self, self, was all that he loved : it was his Alpha and Omega—his first and his last—his only-his all. Indeed, I cannot at all comprehend how any one who has read the Confessions can ever hear afterwards the name of Rousseau mentioned without mingled feelings of contempt and disgust. It is

[ocr errors]

not of his filthy details that I now speak. Some of them, it is true,
are utterly bestial--but of others, the filthiness chiefly consists in their
being recorded and published. But there are disclosures in the Con-
fessions of a nature (to me) far more revolting than these. For a sample,
the case of the unhappy fellow-servant of Rousseau's in Italy, whom he
allowed to be discharged with ignominy for a theft committed by him-
self. He records the prayers and entreaties of the poor girl (who knew
he was the thief), which must have cut into two any thing worthy of
being called a human heart. But the truth is, that Rousseau had no
hcart at all : — ay, despite Julie, and St. Preux, and Madame Houde-
tot, not so much as would fill the shell of a shrivelled hazel. It is true
he made Madame Houdętot's old flannel petticoat into an under-waist-
coat, but I will be bound he would not have given so much as a shirt-
frill to save her from perishing with cold.

His defenders have pleaded madness, but his madness was not of a nature to make the plea admissible. It was of that sort and degree which prove it, as I may say, to be, to a certain extent, under the control of the person in whom it exists. It was affiché-he was vain of it -and if it was true in a little, it was feigned in a great deal. It was more the sourness and skinlessness of exorbitant vanity and self-love than at all what we are accustomed to call insanity. It was no more to be pitied than the real madness of Swift, which was caused by, or rather which was, only the excess of all the bad passions which belong to human nature.

What a difference, indeed, between the citoyen de Génère, and the patriurche de Ferney!-the one talked sentiment, the other felt it;-the one preached universal philanthropy, the other did substantial, but at the same time extensive good ;—the one preached love and practised hatred, the other, if he wrote epigrams, displayed in his deeds kindliness and warmth of heart. What a contrast, indeed, do the circle and habits of Ferney form to what has been so forcibly and justly called

« the mire and strife, And vanities of that man's life!" * But I go even farther-and now I speak under correction, and tremblingly, as it becomes a literary heretic. To my shame be it spoken, I never could read through the Nouvelle Heloïse. It is to me dull, and that simply because I think it unnatural.

Those letters are not, in my humble judgment and experience, the letters which two people would write under such circumstances. They have the tone of what the French call faire des phrases : de belles phrases, I admit, but still they are " head-work.” It has often been spoken of as matter of wonder that Rousseau wrote slowly and with difficulty. Now this does not at all surprise me. His eloquence, eloquence though it be, has the

appearance of being painfully elaborated : it does not, in my view at the least, seem heartgushing and spontaneous. I am perfectly aware that

[ocr errors]

1

• Moore's Rhymes on the Road.-If I have sometimes lost patience at the praises lavished on Rousseau by those who, one would think, ought to know or to feel better, I have been proportionably gratified by seeing, at last, a man of genius stand forward to speak of him as he deserves.

[ocr errors]

two years

this is far from being the general opinion ; but, after having tried once and again, I cannot help its being mine. I first attempted to read the Heloise when I was between seventeen and eighteen, and again about

afterwards-ages when the head is brimmed with poetry, and the heart with passion. And yet, the first time I did not get through a volume—the whole appeared to me so overwrought-the author seemed so much se battre les flancs to be tender and impassioned, that, after considerable toil, I gave up the labour in despair. The next time I got farther, having finished the second volume. But still my feeling remained the same. I could not see nature and passion in what seemed to me the work of an author, not the feelings of overwhelming and uncontrollable love. Take one instance, which is not far from the beginning of the book, and of which poor Julie herself is made to complain, Rousseau evidently thinking some apology to be necessary. I mean when, at the crisis almost of their fate, when it is doubtful even whether they shall ever meet again St. Preux writes her a long letter on the relative merits of French and Italian music! And this is the nature, directness, and simplicity for which Rousseau has acquired so much fame!

But all this, as I have said, is quite under correction ; for where so many and such people have united in admiring passion and eloquence, they assuredly must in some measure exist. I am only grieved that I am blind to them. But with respect to Rousseau as a man, it is more matter of fact and less matter of opinion. The apostle of love-the beau idéal of all that is fond and fervent, impassioned, delicate, and tender, is content to share his mistress, and his first mistress, with her servant of all work !-the creator of Julie, and St. Preux marries his maid—the author of Emile sends his children to the Foundling hospital !—and, therefore, all who visit Geneva must talk ecstasies about Rousseau !

Give me Ferney! for the reality of Voltaire, with all his faults, is to me relief after the sickly and crazy eloquence of Jean Jacques : proceed we thither. The house stands about a mile within the French boundary, on the road between Geneva and Gex. It is of considerable extent, square-built, with broad eaves, the walls white, and the shutters of bright green. An avenue of poplars leads up to the door from the gate, about fifty yards. On one of the wings are astronomical and geometrical emblems, on the other theatrical ones, meaning, perhaps, to designate the observatory, if one there were, and the theatre. But I have read somewhere that the theatre stood before this wing--and I do not exactly see what Voltaire would do with an observatory. Certain it is, however, these emblems exist there. There are only two rooms of the house which are shown, the rest being occupied by the family of the present proprietor. These two are said to be exactly in the same state in which they were when Voltaire left Ferney on his last journey to Paris, and they have every appearance that the truth is so. The first was the salon de compagnie ; it is an octagon form, with crimson tapestry, and a large ornamented and gilded stove, crowned with a bust of Voltaire. This recalled to my mind the famous story of Phidias Pigalle, recorded by Grimm ; but I could not make out from our very stupid conductor whether this had any thing in common with that celebrated production. The room is also adorned with a number of indifferently painted pictures of Venuses and Cupids-all sufficiently naked. There is, however, one other which is very remarkable for its subject, though its execution is even inferior to that of the next. It is an emblematical piece, representing, in the centre, Voltaire, with the Henriade in his hand, being presented by a female figure representing France, to Apollo. There is a strange and somewhat ludicrous contrast between the stiff modern French habits of Voltaire and his conductress, and the classical nudity of the god. A little to the right are flying figures --something like Cherubim or Cupids-crowning the bust of Voltaire in a full-bottomed wig. On the left are Fame and other allegorical personages, whom I could not recognize,—while in the front are Furies annihilating Fréron and Voltaire's other enemies, whose works are labelled on their backs! The most extraordinary part of the whole is, that, we were assured this piece was composed under the immediate direction of Voltaire himself! I cross-questioned the old guide with regard to this repeatedly, but he stuck immovably to his point.

But the bed-room was the chief object of interest—for here, besides the very bed on which he slept, is the tomb erected by Madame Denis, which contained his heart. The heart was removed to the Pantheon at the time of the sale of the chateau to M. de Brudet, the present occupant. The tomb is pyramidical, and crowned with a bust. Over the whole are these words " Mes manes sont consolées, puisque mon cæur est au milieu de rous," and, on a black board, stretched across the centre of the monument, is inscribed in letters of gold, “Son esprit est partout, et son cæur est ici.” How true, said my companion, that son esprit est partout ! for here are we, two Englishmen, who have all day been doing nothing but spouting extracts from his works, and are come in pilgrimage to his dwelling. The board, however, does not contain the whole of the inscription I have transcribed, for a part was broken offthe work, as we were told, of the Austrians, who also had mutilated the monument in a manner which till then I had ascribed to the dilapidation of Time. My blood boiled, and my choler rose at this. The barbarians !--the worse than savages! Do they all partake the spirit of their blockhead Emperor, who desired to have no learned men in his dominions, thus to hate so strongly all that emanates from mind that they mutilate the monument of departed genius? It has been the fashion to cry out against the licence of the French soldiery,—but they always respected literary glory. During the war (the first war) in Spain, when there was so much exasperation on both sides, the inhabitants of Toboso were spared from all exaction, solely because it was the fictioned residence of Dulcinea.f And could not the very

* It was one of Voltaire's peculiarities that he would not sit for bis portrait ; and when Pigalle was sent from Paris by his followers and admirers, to mould his bust, he always made the most outrageous grimaces whenever the artist attempted to catch the likeness. He was about to return to Paris in despair, when one day the conversation happened to turn on Aaron's golden calf, and Pigalle gave it as bis professional opinion that such a piece of sculpture could not be completed in the time stated,—which delighted Voltaire so much, that, as a reward, he sat down quite still for half an hour, during which the model was completed.

+ See M. de Rocca s account of the War in Spain.

3

abode--the tomb itself-of one like Voltaire find mercy in the sight of those who lay claim to be ranked among the civilized nations of the earth ? I can understand, if I cannot pardon, their robbing this room of two pictures, because they were worth two hundred louis; but for them wantonly to deface this humble tomb and the inscription of the poet's praise,—this indeed argues a base and utter brutality of feeling, which it is to be hoped none but those who wear the livery of Francis of Austria can feel.

The bedstead is of plain unpainted deal. There is a small canopy over it in the French style, within which is a picture of Le Kain—a head wreathed with laurel. I thought, but it might be ideal, that the countenance bore some resemblance to Talma—though it was not quite so full a face as Talma's is now. On one side hung a portrait, in silken embroidery, of Catherine of Russia-which the guide said was brodé de sa main ; but this, besides its great improbability, was evidently not the case, as in the corner was written“ Lasalle inv. et fec." and at the bottom was “ Presenté à M. de Voltaire par l'auteur.” Between this and the bed was a picture of Frederic the Great. It is the only one I ever saw not representing him an old man ; in this, he does not appear above forty, and I think the countenance lacks, especially about the mouth, much of that intense shrewdness which the later pictures present. As a fellow to this, on the other side of the bed, hangs a picture of Voltaire himself, at about the same period of life, or perhaps a few years older. This is a very excellent picture--the expression of the eyes is peculiarly real and cutting. Opposite to Catherine is Mme. de Châtelet, and in this I was disappointed. The picture, it is true, was faded and feeble ; but there was nothing remarkably interesting in it in any way, except the fact of its being that of Mme de Châtelet. On each side of the window which faces the bed, were several prints of his most celebrated contemporaries, with some distinguished additions. There were, on one side, Diderot, a fine striking Roman head-Newton - Franklin-Racine-Milton-Washington-Corneille -Marmontel ;-on the other, Thomas--Leibnitz-Mairan-d'Alembert-Helvetius—and the Duc de Choiseul. The portrait of d'Alembert, of whom I had never seen one before, disappointed me a good deal ; it was more like that of a sharp, vivacious, humorous Frenchman, than of the great geometrician—though I believe Spurzheim would say that, like the turnip, he had a mathematical forehead. In addition to these, there was a print of the family of Calas receiving the order for the reversal of his sentence. I do not wonder that Voltaire should like to look upon this,- for of all the actions of his life there is none to which he might revert with such unmingled satisfaction. He saw what he believed to be an act of cruel and bloody injustice, and he stepped from his way to relieve, as far as it was yet possible to relieve, the sufferers. He gave his time, his talents, the influence of his great fame, to redressing the wrongs of those who had no claim on bim but that of being aggrieved fellow-creatures. He braved the danger which he incurred from bigotry in power, to which he was already obnoxious —he raised his voice till the truth could no longer be concealed-till justice could no longer be denied.

Near this hangs a sort of emblematical print of the tomb of Voltaire in Paris, dedicated to “ La Marquise de Villette, dame de Ferney”—

« PreviousContinue »