Peril at sea: the digital search for allusions in Voltaire’s epic poetry

Tesserae-OBVIL is an intertextual search tool currently being developed with support from the Voltaire Foundation, designed to compare French and Latin texts and locate possible poetic allusions between them. In this blog post, developer and Vf Post-Doctoral Fellow James Gawley explains several new allusions found with Tesserae-OBVIL that deepen our understanding of the Henriade, one of Voltaire’s most important, yet least-studied works.

The Henriade
Louis-François Charon, Voltaire à la Bastille composant la Henriade, 1822, print, 48.2cm x 34.7cm, Musée Carnavalet, Paris.

In 1717, Voltaire was thrown into the Bastille for writing and distributing scurrilous verses about the Regent. In his cell, he began to compose a new poem called the Henriade. In contrast to the short, scandalous verses that had put him in prison, this would be a national epic designed to trumpet France’s place in the world and in world literature. Voltaire’s ambition was huge: unlike Greece and Rome, and unlike other modern European nations, France lacked a national epic, a crowning work of literature that could give the country a sense of national identity.

The poem made its author a celebrity. For the eighteenth century, Voltaire was the author of the Henriade. It was quickly translated into many languages and published in almost every European country. Voltaire even lived to see an American edition released in 1778. Yet today, we hardly know what to make of his epic. There is little critical work published on the poem, and print editions are rare in libraries and non-existent in bookstores. Simply put, something considered to be Voltaire’s masterpiece by his contemporaries is virtually unknown to modern readers. One key missing element is the classical context, obvious to eighteenth-century readers, but increasingly obscure today.


Allusion, at its simplest, is the adaptation of a recognisable passage or phrase in the text of a new poem. Allusion is not rote copying; it depends on an adaptation of old material, meaning that the words or the context are altered to create something new. Nor is it plagiarism, since the author intends for the reader to recognise the borrowed material. In fact, the word ‘allusion’ is derived from the Latin ludus, or ‘game’. This game was much easier for Voltaire’s readers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when epic poetry and its allusive tradition were taught in schools. Today, expertise in both the Latin epic tradition and the literature of the Enlightenment is rare. So that new readers might come to appreciate the Henriade, I have adapted the open source Tesserae Project to search for allusions that connect French epic poetry with its Latin predecessors. The tool (in its current, early form) is called Tesserae-OBVIL.

Detail of La Tour’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour showing the Henriade on her bureau. Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Portrait en pied de la marquise de Pompadour, 1749-1755, 175cm x 128cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Poets use a very small amount of shared language to connect themselves to their predecessors; once the connection is formed in the reader’s mind, the alluding poet changes the text as much as possible. So instead of looking for passages with a large number of similarities, Tesserae-OBVIL looks for places where just two or more words are shared between poems within a single phrase. The system then filters these points of similarity according to the rarity of the shared words and their proximity to one another on the page. The user still has to interpret the search results, sifting out the meaningful allusions. Yet even with false positives in the search results, Tesserae-OBVIL makes it easier for us to read the Henriade as Voltaire’s contemporaries did, with an eye for epic allusion and intimate knowledge of the Latin epics.

Allusions in the Henriade

The genre of epic poetry depends on allusions. References to the canon prove that a poet has done their homework. Even better, if the poet can improve on famous verses, then they elevate themself above their predecessors and take their own place in the canon. Perhaps most important, allusions in epic poetry establish the mastery of the poet’s culture. Allusions are therefore intrinsic to Voltaire’s goals in composing the Henriade.

To establish France’s literary supremacy, Voltaire had to engage closely with Virgil. This is why the Henriade starts out in the same way as the Aeneid. Both poems begin with a hero’s sea voyage to a foreign queen; Aeneas encounters Dido, while Henry IV meets Elizabeth I of England. Voltaire is taking advantage of poetic license here: though England did aid France in the wars of religion, Henry never actually met Elizabeth. Voltaire invents the scene to connect himself to Virgil, and this engagement has a competitive French twist. When the hero Aeneas is nearly shipwrecked at the beginning of Virgil’s poem, he bitterly laments his fate. This lamentation is a failure of stoic courage, which would require Aeneas to accept whatever the gods have in store for him without complaint. Voltaire reproduces this scene at the beginning of the Henriade, but when Henri believes he will be drowned, he does not rail against fate. His only lament is for the fate of France. The French hero of the Henriade is implicitly braver than the Roman hero of the Aeneid.

Aeneid 1.88–1.101

Eripiunt subito nubes caelumque diemque
Teucrorum ex oculis; ponto nox incubat atra.
Intonuere poli, et crebris micat ignibus aether,
praesentemque viris intentant omnia mortem.
Extemplo Aeneae solvuntur frigore membra:
ingemit, et duplicis tendens ad sidera palmas
talia voce refert: ‘O terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere! O Danaum fortissime gentis
Tydide! Mene Iliacis occumbere campis
non potuisse, tuaque animam hanc effundere dextra,
saevus ubi Aeacidae telo iacet Hector, ubi ingens
Sarpedon, ubi tot Simois correpta sub undis
scuta virum galeasque et fortia corpora volvit?’

[Suddenly clouds take sky and day away
from the Trojan’s eyes: dark night rests on the sea.
It thunders from the pole, and the aether flashes thick fire,
and all things threaten immediate death to men.
Instantly Aeneas groans, his limbs slack with cold:
stretching his two hands towards the heavens,
he cries out in this voice: ‘Oh, three, four times fortunate
were those who chanced to die in front of their father’s eyes
under Troy’s high walls! O Diomede, son of Tydeus
bravest of Greeks! Why could I not have fallen, at your hand,
in the fields of Ilium, and poured out my spirit,
where fierce Hector lies, beneath Achilles’s spear,
and mighty Sarpedon: where Simois rolls, and sweeps away
so many shields, helmets, brave bodies, of men, in its waves!’]

Compare these lines with a passage of the Henriade connected to it by Tesserae-OBVIL:

Henriade 1.166–1.176:

On découvrait déjà les bords de l’Angleterre;
L’astre brillant du jour à l’instant s’obscurcit;
L’air siffle, le ciel gronde, et l’onde au loin mugit;
Les vents sont déchaînés sur les vagues émues;
La foudre étincelante éclate dans les nues;
Et le feu des éclairs, et l’abîme des flots,
Montraient partout la mort aux pâles matelots.
Le héros, qu’assiégeait une mer en furie,
Ne songe en ce danger qu’aux maux de sa patrie,
Tourne ses yeux vers elle, et, dans ses grands desseins,
Semble accuser les vents d’arrêter ses destins.

[The coast of England is already appearing;
The bright star of day darkens all at once;
Air whistles, sky rumbles, the wave in the distance roars;
The winds are unleashed on the agitated waves;
Flashing lightning bursts in the clouds;
The fire of thunderbolts, and the abyss of the waves,
Showed death all around to the pale sailors.
The hero, besieged by a furious sea,
Thinks in this danger only of the suffering of his country,
Turns his eyes towards her, and, in his grand designs,
Seems to accuse the winds of stopping his destiny.]

The similarity between these passages is obvious when compared directly, but this allusion from Voltaire to Virgil has gone unnoted in scholarly literature. Sometimes it takes a digital search tool to show us where to look. Yet there is more to this passage than a French hero reacting more calmly than a Roman one. Allusions are often polyvalent, connecting one point of a poem with several predecessors. This near-shipwreck passage in Voltaire is one of these polyvalent allusions.

Claude Joseph Vernet, Le Naufrage, 1772, oil on canvas, 113.5cm x 162.9cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

In between the Aeneid and the Henriade, another epic reproduced this scene. Lucan’s Civil War was composed some eighty years after the death of Virgil, while the emperor Nero was in power. Whereas Virgil’s epic is designed to establish Rome as a nation whose culture deserves to dominate the Mediterranean, Lucan’s follow-up poem laments Rome’s mindless and self-destructive tendencies. When Lucan sends Julius Caesar – epic hero and ancestor of the current ruler – into the storm, he portrays Caesar as unflinching in the face of death. Caesar offers no lament about the fate of himself or of Rome. In fact, he is utterly convinced of his importance and does not particularly care what happens to Rome, provided that he gets what he wants. Caesar is not a ‘hero’ in the modern sense of the word – he is heroic in scale and monstrous in ambition.

Civil War 1.88–1.101

Nubibus et coelo Notus est: si murmura ponti
Consulimus, Cori verrunt mare. Gurgite tanto,
Nec ratis Hesperias tanget, nec naufragus oras.
Desperare viam et vetitos convertere cursus,
Sola salus. Liceat vexata litora puppe
Prendere, ne longe nimium sit proxima tellus.
Fisus cuncta sibi cessura pericula Caesar,
Sperne minas, inquit, pelagi, ventoque furenti
Trade sinum. Italiam si coelo auctore recusas,
Me pete. Sola tibi caussa haec est iusta timoris,
Vectorem non nosse tuum; quem numina numquam
Destituunt, de quo male tunc Fortuna meretur,
Cum post vota venit. Medias perrumpe procellas,
Tutela secure mea. Coeli iste fretique,
Non puppis nostrae labor est: hanc Caesare pressam
A fluctu defendet onus.

[A north-westerly tempest will overcome the waves.
In such a gale, neither shipwrecked crew nor vessel
shall ever reach the shore of Italy. Our one chance
is to renounce all hopes of the passage denied us
and retrace our course. Let me seek the shore nearby
in our battered craft, lest the land proves unreachable.’
Confident that all perils would give way before him,
Caesar cried: ‘Scorn the sea’s threats, spread our sail
to the raging wind. Seek Italy at my command though
you refuse that of heaven. Only your ignorance of whom
you carry justifies your fear. Here is one whom the gods
never desert, whom fate treats unjustly if she comes only
in answer to his prayers. Thread the heart of the tempest,
secure in my protection. This turmoil concerns the sea
and sky, not our vessel: that she bears Caesar will defend
her from the waves.’]

The language of Voltaire’s near-shipwreck scene shares almost as much with Civil War as it does with the Aeneid, and if we read a little further in the Henriade, Voltaire makes the reference more explicit:

Henriade 1.177-182:

Tel, et moins généreux, aux rivages d’Épire,
Lorsque de l’univers il disputait l’empire,
Confiant sur les flots aux aquilons mutins
Le destin de la terre et celui des Romains,
Défiant à la fois et Pompée et Neptune,
César à la tempête opposait sa fortune.

[Such, and less generous, on the shores of Epirus,
When the empire of the universe he disputed,
Trusting on the waves to the mutinous aquilons
The destiny of the earth and of the Romans,
Defying both Pompey and Neptune,
Caesar opposed his fortune to the storm.]

Engraving of Henri IV from a copy of Voltaire’s Œuvres complètes (Kehl, 1785), vol.10 (La Henriade), frontispiece.

If Voltaire felt obligated to demonstrate his mastery of Virgil, he also felt obligated to demonstrate his mastery of Lucan. By including hints of Julius Caesar when he depicts Henri IV as brave in the face of the storm, he adds an ominous note to his apparent flattery of the royal family – readers recall that Caesar was responsible for a civil war that nearly destroyed Rome, and died a tyrant. This is far from the only hint of Voltaire’s personal opinions in the poem. Aeneas himself was an ambiguous hero. Throughout most of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas is a patient leader and obedient to the gods. In the poem’s final lines he gives in to rage and butchers his fallen opponent, a man who is clinging to his knees and begging for mercy. Epic poetry is always somewhat ambivalent in its praise. Given the writer’s rocky relationship with the descendants of Henry IV, I would say that Voltaire chose the medium of his praise very well.

For its original audience, the Henriade was not simply an obsequious homage to the ruling family that imprisoned Voltaire. It was a celebration of France, one that also conveyed a carefully veiled criticism of its royal family. Imprisoned for openly mocking the powerful, Voltaire used allusions to add an ironic subtext to his praise of Henri IV. It is this combination of nationalist pride and mistrust of authority – both inaccessible unless one understands the allusions beneath the surface of the text – that make the Henriade a compelling piece of literature. These complexities have been mostly lost to the reader for the past century-and-a-half, and are only now being rediscovered with digital tools like Tesserae-OBVIL.

– James Gawley, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Voltaire Foundation

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