Dix raisons de lire et d’aimer ‘La Henriade’ de Voltaire

La Henriade a obtenu le privilège – rarissime – d’être considérée, du vivant de Voltaire, comme un classique, une œuvre qui pouvait être étudiée en classe. Les rééditions incessantes jusqu’au XIXe siècle, ou les parodies et les traductions en plusieurs langues, témoignent de l’énorme succès de ce poème épique, et cela en dépit des réactions sévères et partisanes de la part des détracteurs de l’auteur. Voltaire a défendu avec détermination son épopée, et se désigne de surcroît, dans le titre d’une œuvre-testament, ‘auteur de La Henriade’; cette périphrase attribue au poème une marque de distinction au sein d’une production foisonnante ainsi qu’une valeur métonymique, à savoir le chef-d’œuvre destiné à entrer dans le temps de Mémoire. Néanmoins, du point de vue historiographique, les critiques ont réussi à s’imposer au fil du temps, la défaveur pour un genre en déclin comme l’épopée ayant sans doute été fatale.

Si on peut supposer que tout le monde connaît le titre ‘La Henriade’, on ne peut pas affirmer pour autant que tout le monde ait lu l’œuvre. Elle n’a jamais été introuvable: véritable succès de librairie, il a toujours été facile de se procurer une édition parue au XVIIIe ou au XIXe siècle. Parmi les éditions modernes, il faut remonter cependant à celle procurée par O. R. Taylor en 1970 pour les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, savante et volumineuse, idéale surtout pour la consultation. Un demi-siècle après celle-ci paraît enfin une nouvelle édition.

C’est là l’occasion de se forger soi-même une idée sur ce poème épique, sans intermédiaires, en délaissant les critiques normatives de La Beaumelle et Batteux, reprises plus récemment par Pierre Bayard. Il y aurait alors au moins dix bonnes raisons de lire et d’apprécier, voire d’aimer La Henriade:

La première raison est que l’on peut se procurer enfin une édition récente et commentée de La Henriade, parue chez Classiques Garnier, plus maniable malgré les autres textes qui l’accompagnent. Dans l’Essai sur les guerres civiles, Voltaire esquisse l’escalade qui aboutit aux luttes fratricides et les solutions philosophico-politiques pour mettre fin à la guerre. Dans l’Essai sur le poème épique, il explique et légitime la place de son épopée moderne en qualité de digne héritier d’Homère et de Virgile. Cette nouvelle édition, pour la première fois, met en réseau La Henriade avec des considérations poétologiques et la réflexion historienne de Voltaire.

Si on s’intéresse à l’histoire des guerres de religion, on pourra apprécier un récit pathétique et terrifiant du massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy, qui commence avec l’assassinat de Coligny, cet amiral ‘qui aimait la France en combattant contre elle’, un récit saisissant qui inspire des tragédies sur la mort de Coligny (Coligni ou la Saint-Barthelemi de Baculard d’Arnaud, 1740) ou des tableaux (L’Amiral Coligny en impose à ses assassins de Joseph-Benoît Suvée, 1787). Ce chant, que Voltaire ne retouche guère, aura contribué à fonder une mémoire visuelle de la Saint-Barthélemy que la littérature romantique saura mettre à contribution, par exemple l’épisode de Charles IX tirant avec l’arquebuse sur les huguenots depuis le Louvre, ce roi qui ‘du sang de ses sujets souillait ses mains sacrées’, crime atroce que souligne l’allitération.

‘Qui pourrait… exprimer les ravages / Dont cette nuit cruelle étala les images!’ (La Henriade, chant 2). Voltaire avait suggéré quelques modifications que Gravelot n’a pas retenu: ‘Je ne sais si dans le dessin de la Saint-Barthelémy, le personnage qui porte d’une main un flambeau, et de l’autre une épée, les tient dans une attitude assez terrible. Je ne sais s’il ne conviendrait pas qu’on aperçût son visage, qu’il parût enflammé de fureur et qu’il eût un casque sur la tête, au lieu de chapeau. C’est à vous, Monsieur à en décider’ (lettre passée en vente en 2022 chez Drouot).
‘Mayenne, qui de loin voit leur folle entreprise, / La méprise en secret, et tout haut l’autorise’ (La Henriade, chant 4). Le dessin de Gravelot reflète fidèlement la vision de Voltaire: ‘Je ne haïrais pas au quatrième chant quelques moines, et quelques prêtres armés; la religion éplorée les regardant avec indignation ; la discorde à leur tête, et le duc de Mayenne avec quelques ligueurs à un balcon souriant à cette milice monacale’ (lettre passée en vente en 2022 chez Drouot).
  

Dans La Henriade on peut lire une satire du Vatican, qui ‘de la discorde allume les flambeaux’, et du pape qui ‘met aux mains de ses fils un glaive sanguinaire’. C’est déjà tout l’esprit satirique de Voltaire qui se déploie, comme dans ses vers épigrammatiques sur la Rome catholique: ‘Inflexible aux vaincus, complaisante aux vainqueurs, / Prête à vous condamner, facile à vous absoudre’. Raisons suffisantes pour attirer les foudres de la censure catholique en France, où le poème épique fut interdit de publication, mais aussi les sympathies du lectorat protestant – et c’est à Londres que paraît, avec une dédicace à la reine Caroline, l’editio princeps en 1728.

Rédigé en grande partie en Angleterre, et à la découverte de ce pays, de son système politique, de la physique de Newton, La Henriade fait écho à certaines prises de positions développées dans les Lettres philosophiques. Elisabeth d’Angleterre incarne ce pays du progrès, elle qui avait su rétablir le progrès économique, politique et artistique. Après plusieurs années tumultueuses entre différentes factions, elle donne l’exemple de ce que doit être un siècle éclairé philosophiquement, entraînant la prospérité: 

‘Londres, jadis barbare, est le centre des arts,
Le magasin du monde, et le temple de Mars.
Aux murs de Westminster on voit paraître ensemble
Trois pouvoirs étonnés du nœud qui les rassemble,
Les députés du peuple, et les grands, et le roi,
Divisés d’intérêt, réunis par la loi; […].
“Ah! s’écria Bourbon, quand pourront les Français
Réunir comme vous la gloire avec la paix?
Quel exemple pour vous, monarques de la terre!
[…]
“Vous régnez, Londre est libre, et vos lois florissantes.
Médicis a suivi des routes différentes.
[…]
Le ciel qui vous forma pour régir des états,
Vous fait servir d’exemple à tous tant que nous sommes,
Et l’Europe vous compte au rang des plus grands hommes.’

C’est également dans ce poème qu’est proposé un premier tableau voltairien du siècle de Louis XIV, partagé entre une critique de l’absolutisme:

‘Ciel! quel pompeux amas d’esclaves à genoux
Est aux pieds de ce roi qui les fait trembler tous!
Quels honneurs! quels respects! jamais Roi dans la France,
N’accoutuma son peuple à tant d’obéissance.’

Et l’éloge du progrès des arts et des sciences:

‘Siècle heureux de Louis, siècle que la nature
De ses plus beaux présents doit combler sans mesure,
C’est toi qui dans la France amènes les beaux arts;
Sur toi tout l’avenir va porter ses regards;
Les Muses à jamais y fixent leur empire;
La toile est animée, et le marbre respire.
Quels sages rassemblés dans ces augustes lieux,
Mesurent l’Univers, et lisent dans les Cieux;
Et dans la nuit obscure apportant la lumière,
Sondent les profondeurs de la nature entière!
[…]
Français, vous savez vaincre, et chanter vos conquêtes:
Il n’est point de lauriers qui ne couvrent vos têtes.’

De manière plus générale, La Henriade livre les premières réflexions de Voltaire sur l’intolérance et le fanatisme religieux ainsi que sur les horreurs de la guerre, qui font écho à notre actualité. Voltaire se contente de condamner les radicalismes:

‘Je ne décide point entre Genève et Rome
De quelque nom divin que leur parti les nomme
J’ai vu des deux côtés la fourbe et la fureur.’

Mais La Henriade est également un poème épique, qui donne accès à la création d’un jeune poète qui n’arrêtera jamais de récrire ses vers et de repenser son poème. On pourra apprécier la cadence et la vocalité de l’alexandrin de Voltaire:

‘Au milieu de ses feux, Henri brillant de gloire, / Apparaît à leurs yeux sur un char de victoire’ (La Henriade, chant 5). Le dessin de Gravelot se conforme de nouveau à une suggestion de Voltaire: ‘Comme on a déjà gravé l’assassinat de Henri trois pour le cinquième chant, je crois que les conjurations magiques des Seize pourraient fourni un sujet très pittoresque. Il est aisé de rendre Henri quatre ressemblant, on pourrait le dessiner sur un char traversant les airs aux yeux des sacrificateurs étonnés’ (lettre passée en vente en 2022 chez Drouot).

‘Quand un roi veut le crime, il est trop obéi:
Par cent mille assassins son courroux fut servi,
Et des fleuves français les eaux ensanglantées,
Ne portaient que des morts aux mers épouvantées.’

La structure narrative des dix chants a été critiquée puisqu’elle ferait avancer rapidement l’action, mais aujourd’hui on appréciera sans doute qu’on ait renoncé aux descriptions fastidieuses sur les préparatifs militaires ou sur les affrontements guerriers au profit de l’esprit de paix et de tolérance qui est défendu dans le poème ainsi que d’une action qui progresse avec détermination vers cet horizon.

La Henriade est une œuvre complexe, accompagnée de plusieurs autres paratextes que Voltaire a orchestrés dans les moindres détails. Des illustrations devaient être intégrées dans la toute première édition, parue avec le titre La Ligue (1723), et Voltaire entretient les contacts avec les dessinateurs et les graveurs les plus importants, tels que Charles Dominique Eisen ou Gravelot, pour réaliser un livre mémorable au niveau de sa matérialité.

10° Plusieurs autres paratextes accompagnent La Henriade, inséparable de ces textes programmatiques qui défendent et illustrent le poème épique, comme l’épître du roi Frédéric II de Prusse, qui célèbre Voltaire comme à la fois philosophe et historien, et surtout poète qui n’a rien à envier à Virgile. Dans ces textes historiques, on découvrira également la portée ludique de La Henriade, notamment dans le rapport entre la gravité du texte épique et l’insolence de certaines notes, comme celle de la mort du père du héros, le roi Antoine de Navarre, ‘le plus faible et le moins décis’, décédé en urinant.

En parcourant le texte, les deux essais, les paratextes ou en s’intéressant à l’histoire éditoriale d’une œuvre aussi riche que complexe, on pourra ainsi lire, voire découvrir La Henriade et s’en faire une idée peut-être plus juste.

En guise d’introduction, on pourra suivre cette présentation de Jean-Marie Roulin donnée au château de Coppet, et suivie d’une lecture de quelques extraits par Pilar de la Béraudière.

– Daniel Maira (Université de Göttingen) et Jean-Marie Roulin (Université Jean-Monnet Saint-Étienne / IHRIM)

Theodore E. D. Braun (1933–2022)

(Photo drawn from the announcement of Ted Braun’s membership of the Académie de Montauban on the University of Delaware’s website)

Friends and colleagues of the late Theodore E. D. Braun were saddened to learn of his death last December at the age of 89. Ted, as he was affectionately known, was professor emeritus of French at the University of Delaware, where he was honoured for distinguished service by the College of Arts and Sciences. A lifelong Francophile, Ted was granted the rank of ‘chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques’ by the French Government.

His career was active and wide-ranging. He was a founding member of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Ibero-American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and the Society for Eighteenth-Century French Studies. In due course, he held office in each, as well as in the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. He was also a contributing editor to the Voltaire Foundation’s Œuvres complètes de Voltaire and the leading authority on the works of Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan, a fact recognised when he was named a corresponding member of the Académie de Montauban. Ted positively beamed when he spoke of the arcane ceremonial and the celebratory dinner in the medieval town that followed. On that happy occasion, the city of Montauban awarded him the rare distinction of honorary citizenship. Many bumpers were raised in appreciation of Ted’s dedication to the Académie’s founder, ironically, one of Voltaire’s most bitter enemies. In recent years, Ted was an active member of the board of the Voltaire Society of America. In 2021, thanks to his exertions, The Quotable Voltaire, sponsored by the VSA, and co-edited by Garry Apgar and me, was published by the Bucknell University Press.

I first got to know Ted when my then student, Gillian Pink, wrote to ask his advice on research she was undertaking on Le Franc de Pompignan. With characteristic generosity, Ted responded to Gillian’s queries, and the two struck up an epistolary friendship. When later I attended ASECS, I was told to look out for a gentleman dressed entirely in bright orange. Sure enough, the genial ‘Duke of Orange’, as he was dubbed, emerged from the drab cohort of academics, smiling, and twinkling, and offering me his hand. We soon became friends, frequently meeting over breakfast to discuss our various projects, including his surprising interest in ‘chaos theory’. Throughout the years, I was impressed by how young Ted seemed, and how energetic. One of his most endearing traits was the genuine interest he took in the work of younger scholars. He always had suggestions about which publishers to approach, which journal to consider, as well as expert comments on their work. Ted had a kind heart. He was a giving man.

Theodore E. D. Braun is survived by his wife Anne, his daughter Jeanne, his son-in-law John Velonis, and three grandchildren. May he rest in peace. Requiescat in pace.

– Edouard M. Langille, St. FX University (Canada)

Beaumarchais letters: editorial history and current research

The recent addition to Electronic Enlightenment (EE) of 417 letters from the Beaumarchais correspondence is a significant event in 18th-century studies. They appeared over thirty years ago in the two-volume edition prepared by Gunnar and Mavis von Proschwitz, Beaumarchais et le Courier de l’Europe, for the Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century, volumes 273–274 (1990). Added to the 257 Beaumarchais letters already included in EE, these 674 letters constitute over a sixth of known Beaumarchais letters and approximately one third of Beaumarchais letters published to date. Their online publication, along with other current research projects on the correspondence, offers scholars new reasons to consider this oft-cited, but still little understood, figure of the Enlightenment.

A vast and far-ranging correspondence

If ever fully inventoried and edited, the Beaumarchais papers would no doubt include between 6000 and 20,000 documents. (The minimum estimate is based on the currently known corpus. The maximum is a seat-of-the-pants guess put forth by Brian Morton in 1969, based on his preliminary archival research. The actual number certainly lies somewhere in between, nevertheless making the corpus one of the largest of the period.) Beyond their sheer number, the Beaumarchais papers also stand out for their geographical and sociological breadth. From Vienna to Madrid to the Netherlands to England and North America, Beaumarchais’s correspondence network is far more than a simply ‘French’ or ‘francophone’ one. Moreover, Beaumarchais grants us insights into the 18th century that stand apart from those offered by the correspondences of other major figures. An artisan, a musician, a financier, commercial entrepreneur, printer, investor, politician, judge, diplomat, spy, litigant, criminal (he was imprisoned in at least four capitals), husband, lover, brother, father and, of course, a playwright, his correspondence brought him in touch with a wider swath of 18th-century European and North-American society than almost any other personality whose correspondence has been studied to date, with perhaps only Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson rivalling him in this respect.

Editorial history

The editorial history of the Beaumarchais correspondence traces across more than two centuries of literary and political history. Since his death in 1799, over 1500 letters have been edited, of which only slightly more than half feature a supporting critical apparatus.

Portrait of P. A. Caron de Beaumarchais, 1773, drawn by Charles Nicolas Cochin II, engraved by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the 19th century, fewer than 200 Beaumarchais letters were printed, mostly in editions of his works, but also in journals and biographies. The first edition of his complete works, edited by his amanuensis, Paul-Philippe Gudin de La Brenellerie (1809), included 55 letters, which Gudin had transcribed from the personal papers inherited by the writer’s widow upon his death. A second edition, by the journalist, historian and politician Saint-Marc Girardin, published in 1828, included 53 of the same letters, though with some editorial differences. An edition prepared in 1836 by the deputy curator at the Bibliothèque du roi, Jules Ravenel, included 10 letters reproduced from 18th-century periodicals, of which 6 were not published in either of the earlier editions. Also in 1836, the Revue rétrospective published a collection of 29 previously unpublished letters from manuscripts in the Comédie Française archives. The biographer Louis de Loménie, in his two-volume Beaumarchais et son temps (1858), referenced and included partial transcripts of hundreds of letters, but included in the appendix only 35 complete texts of previously unedited letters. A second biographer, Eugène Lintilhac, in his Beaumarchais et ses œuvres (1887), included 12 partially transcribed letters not previously published. (In 1890, Louis Bonneville de Marsangy published Madame de Beaumarchais, a biography of Beaumarchais’s third and final wife and widow, Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz; although Marsangy claimed to have consulted ‘sa correspondance inédite’, no letters are reproduced or directly referenced in the volume.)

In the 1920s, another 200 letters were brought into print from a variety of sources. In the early years of the century, as a young and ambitious man of letters, Louis Thomas undertook to produce a complete edition of the correspondence. However, military service during the Great War put an end to his research. In 1923, he published an edition entitled Lettres de jeunesse, including 167 letters from the first two decades of Beaumarchais’s adult life, of which 120 are attributed to manuscripts in the ‘Archives de Beaumarchais’ and the rest to printed sources. At least 80 of these had not been edited in earlier collections. (Thomas achieved renown as an editor and author in the interwar period before falling into ignominy during the Occupation as an ardent antisemite and collaborator whom the Vichy regime put in charge of the publishing house seized from Gaston Calmann-Lévy.) In 1929, the eminent French literature scholar in the United States Gilbert Chinard edited a collection of Lettres inédites de Beaumarchais consisting of 109 letters, mainly to Marie Thérèse Willermaulaz and their daughter, transcribed from manuscripts acquired by the Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In the past half-century, the pace of publication has accelerated. In the late 1960s, Brian Morton (then a faculty member at the University of Michigan) launched a project to publish a complete Correspondence and began to transcribe letters from both public and private collections as well as reproduce previously published letters. In the 1970s, Donald Spinelli, then of Wayne State University (in Detroit MI), became his collaborator and continued the project. Together they published about 1000 letters, of which at least 300 were previously unpublished. Four published volumes (1969-1978) cover the years up to 1778 and are now available on open access. In 2010, Spinelli added a fifth volume, covering the year 1779, also on his professional website.

In 1990, Gunnar von Proschwitz, a noted philologist, and his wife Mavis published the most extensive critical apparatus associated with any edition of Beaumarchais letters. The notes and a lengthy introduction to this edition lay out the significance of these documents for our understanding of Beaumarchais’s life and of the 18th century. In these letters, we see Beaumarchais not only as a playwright seeking to circumvent censorship to have Le Mariage de Figaro finally staged, but also as an entrepreneur, a printer, an urban property owner, an emissary, and a transatlantic merchant. Through these documents we have a window on an 18th century that is geographically, socially, and culturally much broader and more diverse than what we generally encounter through other published 18th-century correspondences.

Current research
A letter from Beaumarchais to Antoine Dauvergne, director of the Académie royale de musique, dated 7 August 1787, about Salieri’s opera Tarare (with a libretto by Beaumarchais). (Gallica)

At present, the scholarly world can look forward to the benefits of the first new projects on Beaumarchais’s correspondence in over thirty years, including the effort spearheaded by Linda Gil to produce a definitive inventory with a material bibliography. Gil is also the editor of a forthcoming volume, Éditer la correspondence de Beaumarchais (to be published in the Cahiers du Centre d’étude des correspondences et journaux intimes), and one of the organisers of a conference on ‘L’Europe de Beaumarchais’, to be held in Paris and online on 20 and 21 January 2023.

My own contribution to this effort, begun in collaboration with Spinelli in 2019, is to prepare a searchable dataset of the 3500 documents and nearly 5000 references to letters known and unknown, with which to analyse Beaumarchais’s transatlantic network of correspondents. To date, nearly 3780 named identities have been extracted, of which 980 are unique individuals, and another 500 corporate entities have been identified. Working in collaboration with a talented doctoral student, Dakota Ciolkosz, with Voltaire Foundation colleagues who have extensive expertise in scholarly editing of correspondence, with Miranda Lewis and Howard Hotson of Early Modern Letters Online, and with Glenn Roe, whose ‘ObTIC’ laboratory of Sorbonne Université has done extensive work as well on 18th-century correspondences, this project will seek to make available in the coming years, on an open access and non-exclusive basis, the searchable dataset, the metadata drawn from these documents, and a prosopography of participants in the transatlantic correspondence network.

– Gregory Brown, Professor, Department of History, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Senior Research Fellow, Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford

An earlier version of this post appeared on the EE blog.

Celebrating the New Year with gifts of sweets and poetry

‘Telle maison reçoit au jour de l’an quinze à dix-huit cents livres de bonbons’ (and how much poetry?) (CC0 Paris Musées / Maison de Balzac)

What better time of year than this to have a look at the overlap in the New Year traditions of giving sweets and poetry? The two traditions are linked in a curious volume entitled Tableau du premier jour de l’an, ou je vous la souhaite bonne et heureuse (‘À l’île des Bonbons’, [1816]). Here, at the end of the preface, the ‘dieu des papillotes’ disappears, scattering New Year paraphernalia in his wake:

‘laissant dans sa course aérienne une odeur de caramel, de vanille, et semant sur son passage, comme un ballon qui se dégage de son lest, une quantité prodigieuse de cornets de taffetas, de satin pailleté, de bonbons, de devises, de vers, que le vent emportait malgré leur lourdeur et leur penchant naturel à tomber à plat…

The antithesis between heavy and light, ballast and airiness hints at the ephemeral quality of these bonbons, devises and vers.

Title page of Recueil de quatrains, sixains et huitains, sur le vin, les dames et l’amour; choisis dans les œuvres des poètes francais du 1er et du 2e ordre, depuis Clément Marot jusqu’à Demoustier (Paris, Imprimerie de Gillé, 1815)

Sweets and verse are also closely associated in a book (let’s call it that for the moment) recently acquired by the Bodleian Library. The Recueil de quatrains, sixains et huitains, sur le vin, les dames et l’amour; choisis dans les œuvres des poètes francais du 1er et du 2e ordre, depuis Clément Marot jusqu’à Demoustier (Paris, 1815) assembles poems about wine, women and love, dating from the 16th to the 18th century (including by Voltaire). It would not stand out of the mass of recueils of ‘light verse’ that were published until well into the 19th century were it not for its size and layout. Measuring a mere 8.3 by 7 cm, printed single-sided, each page contains three poems of varying lengths together making up sixteen lines of verse. These peculiarities are explained by an advertisement on the back of the title page which asks ‘Messieurs les Confiseurs’ to buy not the book per se, but, rather, its printed sheets in order to cut them up and package them with their ‘bonbons de cette année’.

The poems included in this recueil are thus print ephemera that have survived only because they have been bound together in a kind of sample intended to persuade confectioners to buy poetry in bulk. Confectioners could perhaps have read them in a linear fashion, but the lucky recipients would only have read an arbitrary selection, the size of which would depend on the number of gifts received.

The advertisement on the back of the title page: ‘Ces poésies […] sont destinées à remplacer dans les bonbons de cette année les devises qu’on y voit ordinairement.’

The ‘afterlife’ of 18th-century (and earlier) poésie fugitive is testament to its malleability: for example, what may originally have been a private token of gallantry or love, could become, decades or centuries later, more or less mass-produced items, still intended for use in a social setting, in which their amorous tone might have implied similar feelings on the part of the sweet-giver – or they could simply have been enjoyed as a conversation-starter, a bit like a modern-day fortune cookie or Carambar.

The ‘book’ prompts us to think of the ephemerality of poésie fugitive, not so much in terms of the poems disappearing, but, rather, in terms of them reappearing but in changing circumstances, material forms and settings. The volume is a reminder of the reusability that is characteristic of this kind of poetry, a reusability emphasised by the use of generic names: about twenty out of its 216 poems are addressed to ‘Iris’, for example. These texts could be used (or reused) by anyone, not unlike the way in which, in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897), Christian de Neuvillette acts as a mouthpiece for Cyrano’s sweet-talking verses addressed to Roxane. The highly conventional nature of the poems makes it possible for them to be adapted to ever-changing social and sociable situations, without the text having to change significantly. In fact, Cyrano himself hints at that when he claims to always carry spare love poems about his person:

The binding that preserved ephemeral poetry

‘Nous avons toujours, nous, dans nos poches,
Des épîtres à des Chloris… de nos caboches,
Car nous sommes ceux-là qui pour amante n’ont
Que du rêve soufflé dans la bulle d’un nom!’

Wrapping food in verse could pose a risk to the perceived value of poetry. Using printed paper, or paper that has been written on, in order to wrap food can be a clear indicator that the words on the paper are no longer valued (think of newspapers). When, again in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Ragueneau wraps the pastries that he made in bags that his wife has made out of his friends’ poetry, he reluctantly picks one that has the ‘sonnet à Philis’ on it, only to immediately express his horror at the desecration of the poetry: ‘“Philis!…” Sur ce doux nom, une tache de beurre!… / “Philis!…”’ And yet the relation between food and poetry, sugar and verse need not be one where the value of the one (food to be preserved) trumps the other, but could also be one where their respective values are intended to complement each other.

In honour of Rostand, here are two poems from our bonbonnière, one addressed to Philis and the other mocking Cloris. The first is by Chaulieu:

‘Le respect est de glace et l’Amour est de flamme,
Ils ne sauraient tous deux compatir dans une âme;
Mais ils peuvent, Philis, y régner tour-à-tour,
L’Amour toute la nuit, et le respect le jour.’

The second is by Brébeuf:

‘Cloris quitte et reprend, par un rare mystère,
Jeune et vieille peau tour-à-tour,
Et la Cloris de nuit serait bien la grand’mère
De la Cloris de jour.’

The obvious commonalities between these two poems, despite the fairly arbitrary criteria used to select them, illustrate how assembling different poems with a couple of sweets could have prompted a search for (more or less) hidden connections between the texts. It also stresses the sometimes disturbing proximity between madrigals and epigrams in this collection of poetry. There are 214 more poems in the recueil and many more connections to be made and judgements to be passed as to whether the poems take flight or tombent à plat. But this is for the coming year (and an article to be published in the Bodleian Library Record). In the meantime, je vous la souhaite bonne et heureuse!

– Roman Kuhn

‘Élargissez Dieu’

In the stained glass of the chapel at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, the phrase ‘Élargissez Dieu’ – Make God bigger – appears several times. I confess that, despite being Principal of the college for the past four years, I had not paid any attention to it until recently when Professor Nicholas Cronk, Director of the Voltaire Foundation, was visiting and pointed it out.

Close-up of the stained glass window at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, showing the quotation ‘Élargissez Dieu’ from Diderot’s Pensées philosophiques.

The phrase is from the eighteenth-century French philosopher Diderot, from his Pensées philosophiques, fragment 26. This was Diderot’s first original work (he had worked on translations up until then) and it appeared anonymously in 1746. But, despite the attempt at anonymity, his name as author leaked out and its arguments in favour of deism and materialism, along with its critique of Christianity, caused trouble for him and he soon landed up imprisoned.

What is a quotation from one of the Enlightenment’s most sceptical philosophers (and a French one, at that) doing in stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones, in a very English, late nineteenth-century arts and crafts chapel?

This chapel – although built in the late nineteenth century when Manchester College (as it was then named) came to Oxford – has its roots in the Enlightenment because the college was founded at the height of the Enlightenment in the 1780s. It was begun by and for those who could not accept the dogma of any denomination; those who had absorbed the words of Diderot and other Enlightenment philosophers and found themselves questioning many aspects of Christian theology.  In practice, many of those people were Unitarians.

The Unitarians shared Diderot’s quest for an expansive God. It is no surprise, then, that this quotation from Diderot was a favourite of James Losh (1763–1833) a Unitarian lawyer, reformer, and ardent campaigner for the abolition of slavery, who was much influenced by the Enlightenment and visited revolutionary France in the 1790s. Losh was the grandfather of James Arlosh (1834–1904), a prominent Unitarian and trustee of Manchester College in the 1890s when the chapel was built. James and his wife Isabella funded the six days of creation windows in memory of their son, Godfrey, who had died in a riding accident on Port Meadow in Oxford. At the top of each of these six windows, Diderot’s words ‘Élargissez Dieu’ are inscribed. The portraits of James, Isabella, and Godfrey are in the college’s dining hall, named the Arlosh Hall in acknowledgement of their generosity to the college.

Harris Manchester College Chapel, Oxford.

In Harris Manchester College chapel, Diderot’s words in the stained glass stand as a reminder of the deep influence of the Enlightenment on the liberal and reformed thinking of the college’s founders and benefactors. And that influence came not just from the English Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley, who was one of the college’s tutors, but also the French philosophes.  In the spirit of both the Unitarians and Diderot, we might translate ‘Élargissez Dieu’ as ‘You – make your God bigger!’

Jane Shaw, Principal of Harris Manchester College, Oxford

Related posts

Wisdom in wax: eighteenth-century waxworks of Voltaire

In the late 1780s, Londoners had a rare opportunity to see the great writer and philosopher Voltaire with their own eyes for the cost of just one shilling. The fact that he had died eight years earlier was of no concern, for this Voltaire was sculpted entirely from wax.

Voltaire had been rendered in wax by one Mr Sylvester – an ‘eminent Artist’ who had recently trained at the Royal Academy in Paris – and housed in his Wax Work Cabinet. The Cabinet had first been on display in Paris, before moving to ‘Mr. Ansell’s Large Room, Spring Gardens, London’ – a street at the southeast extreme of St James’s, crossing the eastern end of The Mall, a fashionable quarter of the city inhabited by civil servants and politicians. The Cabinet was described as being ‘an assembly of the most distinguished potentates and characters in Europe’ including royalty from across Europe, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Madame du Barre, the goddess Venus, and the Countess de la Motte accompanied by a fortune teller.

Bodleian Library, Bodleian Library Waxworks 3 (12c), ‘For the inspection of the curious grand exhibition of royal wax-work’ (1794).

In January 1786, notices were placed in local newspapers declaring that Mr Sylvester’s Wax Work Cabinet was being moved ‘to that more centrical situation, the Lyceum, in the Strand’, a grander venue just a ten-minute walk from Spring Gardens. The Lyceum had been built in 1772 as an exhibition room for the use of the Royal Incorporated Society of Artists of Great Britain, having been designed by the architect James Paine to rival the ‘grand salons’ of Paris. It quickly became clear, however, that the Lyceum was a financial disaster as it could not compete with the Royal Academy. The building was subsequently sold in 1777, becoming an exchange, exhibition space, debating room, and gallery. It was while the Lyceum was in this state that Mr Sylvester moved his collection of wax works into the Grand Saloon in 1786, but it was not to last long; the Lyceum was put up for auction in March 1790 and though it did not sell, the space was instead repurposed, coming to house a Phantasmagoria that featured a menagerie of exotic animals, Mr Diller’s Philosophical Fireworks, and an Irish giant.

Advertisements for Mr Sylvester’s exhibition of the Wax Work Cabinet at the Lyceum proclaimed that the spectacle was designed ‘for the Inspection of the CURIOUS’ and it was here that Voltaire’s waxwork was prominently displayed alongside a host of other wax curios including ‘an exact Representation of The Seraglio’, the rulers of Germany, Russia, France, Spain, Prussia, Naples, and the Netherlands, and a rendition of the goddess Venus sleeping, though one newspaper reported that the most popular figures were those of the Princess Royal, the Prince of Wales, the Countess de la Motte, le Montrofin, and the Countess du Barre. Indeed, Mr. Sylvester was noted for his specialism in the life-sized reproduction of royal figures, making his inclusion of Voltaire in the midst of such royalty notable, and these noble figures were much admired by spectators. The actor and theatrical manager Henry Irving, for instance, visited the exhibition in November 1790 just before its closure and remarked upon the visit in the following way:

‘The enterprising Mr. Sylvester, always anxious to gratify the Curiosity of a generous Public, has added to his grand Exhibition a Model of the Head of the late Governor of the Bastille. He received the exact likeness from the same Gentleman who sent him the likeness of Baron Trenck, who happened to be on the spot when the Governor was executed, and got permission of the mob to take it off in plaster, which Mask he sent to Mr. Sylvester. N.B. Mr. Sylvester returns his most grateful Thanks to the Nobility and Gentry, and Public in general, for the very great encouragement he has received; and as he means to close his Exhibition very soon, admits Servants and Children at Half Price, viz., Sixpence only. That much admired Figure of the Sleeping Venus at Full Length.’ (Brereton, 1803, p.18)

From this account, it is clear that the exhibition was ever-evolving, adding new figures to an illustrious cast of which Voltaire was a steady constant.

The closure of the exhibition at the Lyceum did not signal the end of the Wax Work Cabinet, however. A newspaper advertisement from 1794 noted that the exhibition had moved to ‘No. 341, near Catherine-street, in the Strand’ and was now being run by Mrs Sylvester, the former proprietor’s wife. The Cabinet appears to have been well-travelled between its departure from the Lyceum and its arrival on the Strand, with the advertisement noting that the exhibition – including Voltaire – had been ‘displayed with so much éclat at Dublin, Edinburgh, and most of the principal Towns in England, and approved of by the most curious Connoisseurs, and chiefly by the most eminent Artists in most parts of Europe’. And, as was ever the case, the Cabinet continued to evolve and grow in size, now totalling fifty-two figures and including renderings of recent events such as the British naval victory over the French on 1st June 1794. The advertisement reported that the additions and alterations made by Mrs Sylvester had been well received, being ‘deservedly esteemed by an impartial Public, to be the first productions of the kind’.

This was not the first time that Voltaire had been rendered in wax and it certainly would not be the last. He had been the subject of the very first waxwork crafted by the now famous Marie Tussaud in 1777 when she was just 16 years old, for instance. Tussaud had made the cast of Voltaire’s face just two months before his death, and the resulting waxwork was initially displayed in the Salon de Cire sat at a desk surrounded by books. Voltaire himself had insisted on sending his own clothes to dress the waxwork and onlookers often remarked that his model was significantly scruffier than others on display (Pillbeam, 2006, p.29). Tussaud later brought both the Voltaire mould and waxwork to England, where they remain today, and one catalogue for her London exhibition remarked that ‘the most admirable specimen of her talent in the present collection is the portrait model of the most famous wit Voltaire’ (Pillbeam, 2006, p.173). Clearly her wax rendering of Voltaire was a big hit.

Tussaud’s uncle, Philippe Curtius, also created a wax figure of Voltaire but for a much more sombre purpose, this time to be used in his funeral procession. Here, the model of Voltaire lay on a sarcophagus placed in a funeral chariot that was drawn by twelve white horses, offering mourners one last chance to glimpse the writer before his burial. Unfortunately, heavy rain caused the vermillion robes in which the waxwork had been clothed to run, turning the effigy a somewhat grotesque shade of purple. So well-received was this figure, however, despite its ghoulish hue, that Curtius instigated a boom for wax effigies in funeral processions, with tourists attending funeral processions specifically to view the waxworks on display, as if they were carnivalesque floats. The advertisements for the Cabinet certainly were not wrong when they described the audience for waxworks as curious.

Waxworks of Voltaire were also made in miniature. In c.1790, for example, Francesco Orso created a set of miniature waxworks that included Voltaire, the only example of his waxwork to survive today. Orso was not so concerned with accuracy here as he was allegory and genre, situating his miniature Voltaire in a pastoral scene besides the other spiritual fathers of the French Revolution – Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin – and two children. This peaceful scene exudes an air of new beginnings and the blossoming of Spring after a long, hard winter. Other miniature waxworks of Voltaire were more gruesome, such as the 55 x 48.5 cm wax relief of Voltaire on his death bed produced by Samuel Percy in England in the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century, modelled on an earlier example by Philippe Curtius. Here, Voltaire is not delightfully posed in an allegorical pastoral scene but instead lies awkwardly across a green canopied bed as a maid enters to the left, raising her hands in horror at the sight. This was not a waxwork designed to glorify a great man as much as it was a scene intended to invoke an emotive response, with the artist depicting Voltaire as a frail, pained, and pitiful figure lacking any dignity in his final moments. Even more disturbing is a waxwork produced by Kaspar Berhard Hardy in c.1780, again of Voltaire on his deathbed. This time, the wider scene of the bedroom has been stripped away and the waxwork centres on Voltaire’s face and upper body, reclining ungracefully, his expression pained, as he takes his last breaths. Again, we see no glory in this 24 x 7 x 23.5 cm cased waxwork figure, no triumphal or defiant display in the face of his own mortality, but rather a pained and frightened Voltaire fearfully awaiting his death. There is an intimacy here, and a humbling of a great literary figure, stripping back the layers of celebrity to reveal a mere mortal, not so dissimilar to the viewer.

But why should waxworks of Voltaire have created such a draw for visitors? What was it about lifelike waxworks that proved to be such an attraction? And did visitors attach any emotion to their viewing of such figures? In the advertisement for Sylvester’s exhibition, Voltaire is described as ‘that justly admired French Genius, who died in Paris in the Year 1778, aged 85, and has been in his Life-time an intimate Friend to Pope, Congreve and Young’. He was not only an admired individual but also an influential one. Certainly, this celebrity could have been enough of a draw in and of itself, offering the public the chance to see great figures for themselves, with their own eyes.

There is, however, as Michelle E. Bloom has noted, something captivating about waxworks simply for their ability to blur boundaries (Bloom, 2003, pp.xi-xiii). No longer is the spectator sure of the dividing line between human being and inanimate form, life and death, celebrity and normality. The viewer knows that the Voltaire they are seeing is a mere artistic representation, that the real Voltaire has been dead for many years, and yet there is something so lifelike about the waxwork that it is as if the veil between life and death has been lifted, just for a moment. Indeed, waxworks had their origins in funeral effigies rather than art, being carried atop royal coffins across medieval and early modern Europe in order to provide onlookers with one last chance to catch a glimpse of someone of status. These effigies would often be displayed by the tomb of the deceased royal or elsewhere in the church after the funeral, becoming a popular attraction that visitors would sometimes have to pay to view. For many who had never seen a royal figure before, such displays of effigies in churches provided the rare opportunity to see the majesty of royalty for themselves, to get up close to a member of the royal family in a way that they never could have done in life, momentarily dismantling social divides.

Waxworks thus seem to be intimately intertwined with possibility. For many, it is unlikely that they will ever meet a celebrity. Yet a waxwork provides the opportunity to at least stand shoulder to shoulder with their likeness. At the same time, waxworks break down the barrier between celebrities and normal people. These were not attempts, necessarily, to glorify; waxworks did not smooth wrinkles, remove scars, or reverse time as lofty marble busts may have done. Instead, they portrayed the subject in intimate and realistic detail. When viewing a Voltaire waxwork, therefore, the spectator was not viewing a great marble effigy designed to instil a sense of grandeur – such as Jean-Antoine Houdon’s Seated Voltaire – or a trinket sized piece of memorabilia – like the statuettes featured in a recent study by Antoine Lilti – but rather a humbling glimpse of the real man behind the vast writings, warts and all. Such realistic representations were not always well received. Antonio Canova and commentator on the visual arts James Ralph both thought that waxworks were undignified, ‘expressing neither figure like statuary nor colour like painting’ (Craske, 1997, p.192-94).

But perhaps the purpose of the waxwork was never meant to be art. Perhaps instead the place of the waxwork was firmly entrenched in the juxtaposing notions of celebrity and humility. The ability to look a great celebrity in the eyes, to stand in their presence, and yet see them exactly as they were (a human being just like the viewer) was perhaps equally as emotive, albeit in a different way, as viewing a painting produced by a great master of a beautiful and idealised figure.

(L) Jean-Antoine Houdon, Seated Voltaire, ca.1779-1795, (R) Voltaire waxwork at Madame Tussaud.

Waxworks create a world of make-believe that somehow feels very real. The viewer knows that the slightly iridescent flesh and glassy eyes they are staring at have been shaped by human hands and yet there is the unnerving sense that when one turns ones back on a waxwork it may just come alive. To view figures like Voltaire in this way, to gaze upon them more intently than one ever could in polite society, and to note the most intimate details of their faces, blurs the boundary between normality and celebrity, life and death, mortality and immortality. It offers a unique and humbling chance to see notable figures as the human beings that they are or were and, as the advertisement for the Wax Work Cabinet proclaimed, was undeniably an experience for the curious.

Zoe Screti, Astra Foundation Research Fellow in Manuscript Studies at the Voltaire Foundation

Related posts

Editing and digitising marginalia

Voltaire’s comments on Frederick II’s L’Art de la guerre, Clement Draper’s depictions of chemical processes, Herman Melville’s pencil scores, or Samuel Beckett’s reading traces… these are all what we define as marginalia: the reader’s markings in the margins of a book. These markings are difficult to pin down in terms more specific than scribbles, references, and thoughts captured on a page. There is no apparent common rule that groups them together and specifies how they should be understood as a whole, even though they are often studied as an ensemble or a genre. Furthermore, the line – if there is a line – that defines the margins themselves is not always evident, and that is why scholars are constantly questioning what marginalia are, while trying to differentiate between the primary text and its annotations. As Laura Estill acknowledges in her article ‘Encoding the edge: manuscript marginalia and the TEI’, ‘perhaps there are easier distinctions to be made when marginalia is handwritten in printed books – although even then, in the case of authorial revisions, stop-press corrections, or (say) Whitman’s notes in another book, there is no easy answer as to what is “marginal”’.

A discussion of what exactly this marginal space is and how it interacts with the text is crucial when considering the central query of the Editing and Digitising Marginalia workshop: how can the marginalia of source material be encoded as fully, accurately, and helpfully as possible? By trying to define the purpose and character of Voltaire’s, Draper’s, Melville’s and Beckett’s marginalia, Nicholas Cronk, Gillian Pink, and Dan Barker; and Zoe Screti, Christopher Ohge, and Dirk Van Hulle respectively delved into the challenges of digitally editing marginalia, which requires a completely different framework of analysis compared to pre-digital editions or even digital facsimile editions. Following on from the OCTET colloquium on Writers’ Libraries, this workshop explored the importance of studying authors through their reading practices. It focused on the editorial choices behind digitally encoding marginalia, with the added layer of complexity that derives both from the difficulties and the possibilities of the digital medium.

When designing a data model that could represent marginalia as a key component of Voltaire’s complete works, for example, the verbal elements were comparatively easier to encode than the non-verbal marks. Voltaire used different materials to underline, draw, and mark the pages he was reading, or he folded, licked, and stuck them together. How can these practices possibly be translated into the digital sphere? For this digital project, the source material came from the transcribed print volumes of the Corpus des notes marginales de Voltaire, which were themselves one step removed from the original source material, since they had already undergone an editorial process that transformed the original squiggles into typeset signs.

Dan Barker, ‘The aim of digitising OCV’, picture taken by author.

Dan Barker, the Digital Consultant at the Voltaire Foundation, explained in his presentation ‘The aim of digitising OCV’ how he had created a system of mark types to record these marks in order to reproduce source material fully, accurately, and helpfully. He classified a mark according to nodes (the points where the lines meet or cross) or edges (uninterrupted lines) to convey their nature, presence, and relationship to the text. Even if the method does not account for the colour, medium, intensity, or even authorship of marginal marks, readers will be able to search for specific classifications of marks and see if Voltaire used them more than once and where. It is a process that operates within the principles proposed by Gillian Pink of what a new-born digital edition of a manuscript should be: legible, containing both visual and non-verbal elements, and searchable, taking into account the modernisation of the transcription to avoid the potential pitfalls of searching for idiosyncratic spellings.

The issue of searchability was further discussed by Zoe Screti, a postdoctoral researcher at the Voltaire Foundation, in her paper ‘Alchemical marginalia written in prison and cataloguing marginalia’. The quantity and diversity of Clement Draper’s marginalia, in the shape of memory aids, summaries, symbols, diagrams, or eyewitness accounts, are not reflected in the catalogue entries of his archival materials. That discrepancy points towards an incompatibility in the way catalogues were built and the questions that scholars are asking now, hence why Screti is updating the system with usability and consistency in mind, both of which aim to make sources of marginalia accessible and discoverable.

She has access to a subset of Voltaire’s manuscripts and is cataloguing them from scratch, which provides her with a decision-making margin that others might not be able to work with. They are also small in size, allowing for a detailed granularity that would be difficult to obtain if working with Draper’s notebooks, for example. But the challenges of ensuring that catalogues keep up with the pace of research on marginalia remain, in big and small collections alike. If we want to be able to locate specific categories of marginalia, as is the case with Voltaire’s non-verbal markings, and include nuances in our current search and text analysis tools, they need to appear in the catalogue entries, and that means going beyond filters and single codes.

Voltaire’s non-verbal annotations to the Marquis de Vauvenargues’s Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain and their appearance in the Voltaire Foundation’s edition of the marginalia.

Finally, both Melville’s and Beckett’s marginalia are representative of common methodological issues in terms of how to create a uniform TEI data model. As Christopher Ohge explained in his talk entitled ‘Melville’s Marginalia Online, with some general provocations’, there is no solution that covers all cases of marginalia encoding, and that is why current projects have very different data models. He provided an overview of those differences, showing how in Keats’s Paradise Lost, a Digital Edition or Whitman’s marginalia to Thoreau’s A week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, marginalia are wedged into the hierarchy of the existing text to make it work within different structures, while Archaeology of Reading has a bespoke XML tagging structure with a marginalia attribute.

But changing content IDs and crossing over the hierarchy of line elements or having a general term that does not include subtleties is not the methodological solution chosen for Melville’s Marginalia Online. This research tool uses software developed by the Whitman Project to generate the page coordinates of the already uploaded facsimile images, to find a page directly with a word search. Melville’s marginalia are encoded in a <div> tag with several attribute values, so as to include all detail and information. The question posed by Ohge then was as follows: how much context is needed to understand marginalia, and how much granularity?

In an intervention entitled ‘Editing Beckett’s Marginalia’, Dirk Van Hulle answered by stating that it depends on the author, the type of marginalia they wrote, and the resources available for the digital project that provides such context. One of the key elements that digital marginalia allows, as is the case with Beckett, is an insight not only into the reader himself, but the underlying structure of all his drafts and notebooks: a network of markings that, in turn, puts into context how his reading engendered his writing.

In order to make that network visible and searchable, one of the solutions going forward is to use IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework) as a means of engaging with marginalia. Making resources IIIF compliant ensures they are interoperable with other software, as well as easy to maintain as an online resource with which scholars can interact. It is also culturally inclusive, as it operates on a ‘blank canvas’ principle meaning that non-codex objects can be presented in full.

A piece of marginalia in Voltaire’s copy of the Marquis de Vauvenargues’s Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain demonstrating a stark difference in line weight.

IIIF image viewers could potentially work with improving transcription software, such as Transkribus, to allow for comprehensive resources that can display an image of the page with all its marginalia, paratext, and physical attributes as well as an interactive description and viewable transcription. The ability to describe elements of a text accurately and efficiently via pinpointing areas that have their own locus of metadata, as IIIF is capable of, means that more effort can be devoted to accurate scholarship, which is precisely what Gillian Pink stated in her paper ‘Editing Voltaire’s commentary on Frederick II’s L’Art de la guerre – third time lucky?’ She proposed, for example, to use different colours for the different hands that worked on the manuscript (Frederick II, his secretary, and Voltaire) as a way to take advantage of annotation possibilities with IIIF. However, the question remains: how can we decide which textual blocks should be transcribed as a unit in order to properly represent Voltaire’s marginalia?

The various contributions to the Editing and Digitising Marginalia workshop helped us sketch some answers to this question. Nonetheless, many threads were left to pull, ensuring that, hopefully, there will be another workshop to show how all the projects have built on existing methods while defying their own limits and scope, so that we keep rediscovering authors through the marginal notes that they left.

– Joana Roque

Related Posts

Between freedom and formality

A critical edition of Voltaire’s Complete Works, begun in 1968

When, in 1958, Roland Barthes described Voltaire as ‘the last happy writer’, the accolade was surprisingly valedictory. Voltaire had customarily been acclaimed as the first, not the last, of a kind. Proud to have introduced Shakespeare to the French, he was also, it seems, the first to have written about Newton’s apple. Described as the first author of science fiction, Voltaire would become the first major writer to occupy the Panthéon in Paris, to which his remains were transferred in 1791.

Barthes did not mean that Voltaire was exceedingly cheerful; rather, that the philosopher was a serene, intellectually untroubled writer. This contrasts with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire’s unhappiest foil and his perpetual neighbour in the Panthéon. Rousseau was frustrated, tormented, given to self-sabotage, in the face of Voltaire’s smirking complacencies. ‘Jean-Jacques écrit pour écrire’, scoffed Voltaire, who viewed his own writing as an essential intervention, called into existence by particular moral or social purposes rather than by abstract philosophising.

In 1968, as French students were challenging authority, praising theory and allowing themselves, under Barthes’s imprimatur, a certain revolutionary disdain for Voltaire, the first blocks in a monument to the great man were quietly being put into place. The enigmatic Theodore Besterman, who had previously edited Voltaire’s voluminous correspondence, embarked on a new critical edition of his Complete Works. The gargantuan project’s first home was in Geneva, then it moved to Banbury and, finally, Oxford University. There, at the Voltaire Foundation and under the direction of Nicholas Cronk, who took over the project in 2001, Voltaire’s Complete Works are this year finally, triumphantly complete.

 

When compiling the hundreds of writings by Voltaire, previous editors had insisted on the purity of different genres, and generally required prose and poetry to keep a healthy distance from one another. According to this logic Voltaire was, first and foremost, a tragedian and a poet. The first nine volumes of the so-called Kehl edition (1784-1789, named after its place of publication), the first to be published after Voltaire’s death, contain his plays. There then follows his epic poem, the Henriade (1723). Between volumes 16 and 26 he is a historian. Only in the later volumes do we really meet the satirist and philosopher, the author of so many miscellanies grouped under the expedient title of Mélanges, while Candide (1759) is to be found lurking among the ‘Romans’ grouped in volume 44.

This arrangement was misleading, since it had the effect of making Voltaire seem both more predictable and more respectable than he actually was: it was easy to ignore the mischievous wit largely confined to the works further down the shelf. In this way, Voltaire could be understood as starting out a poet before becoming a philosopher after his trip to England in the 1720s. This illusion is dispelled by the newly complete Oxford edition, which presents a more authentic version of Voltaire, whose disparate compositions now succeed each other in more or less the order they were written. His tragedies accordingly now mingle with his works of prose. Diderot likened the elderly Voltaire bashing out alexandrines to an old man unable to stop chasing girls. Voltaire himself remarked that to be a tragedian, it was necessary to have balls: you needed really to be a young man. But, as was often the case with Voltaire, he would set out an apparent expectation, the better to defy it himself, and the tragedies kept coming.

These tragedies, such as Mahomet (1741) and Sémiramis (1749), now seldom performed, today come across as weary and formulaic. It is ironic that ‘the death of tragedy’ identified by George Steiner seems only to have been hastened by Voltaire’s proclivity. The new edition allows us better to appreciate the curious tension between what Lytton Strachey described as Voltaire’s ‘aesthetic timidity’, as exemplified by the tragedies, and the ‘speculative audacity’ of his thought.

Split into nine volumes, the Essai sur les mœurs is the longest of Voltaire’s works included in the Oxford edition of the Complete Works.

Even in the monumental surroundings of Cambridge University Library, the 205 collected Oxford volumes are an awesome sight. The full scale and range of Voltaire’s seemingly irreconcilable writing here comes to the fore. Lifting the works out of the order artificially imposed by previous editions, this complete edition mirrors the serendipitous logic of texts such as the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-4) or the Dictionnaire philosophique (1764), which delight in surprising juxtapositions. A reader is not expected to accompany the author from start to finish through these texts: given the myriad overlapping ideas, anecdotes and arguments, it is always possible that, in looking for one thing, the reader will find another.

In recent years the image of a pre-eminently ‘happy writer’ has been replaced by that of an angry opponent of fanaticism. Voltaire’s Traité sur la tolérance (1763) is, unfortunately, of renewed relevance in our age of extremity. His intellectual and moral preference for toleration can be traced to his experience of and engagement with English thinkers, notably John Locke. It seems appropriate that the final volumes of the Oxford edition turn to Voltaire’s formative time in England (1726-8) and the publication of the Lettres sur les Anglais on his return to France.

One imagines too that the bibliographical puzzle the text presents might also account for its place at the end of the queue. The difficulties begin with the title. Should we be calling this work the Lettres sur les Anglais or Lettres philosophiques, as it has sometimes been known? Or perhaps we should refer to it by its first English title, Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733)? After all, it was published in English before French, and it seems plausible that Voltaire had himself written this text in English. No tourist, he was apparently serious about becoming an English writer. It is now beyond doubt, however, that the English version is a rather free translation of a lost manuscript. The editors include it because the work was overseen, to some extent, by Voltaire himself. This English text forms Volume 6A (II). Volume 6A (I) offers a comprehensive introduction, while Volume 6B is devoted to its French incarnations: the Lettres philosophiques (1734) and Lettres écrites de Londres sur les Anglais (1734). Volume 6C consists of Voltaire’s Lettre sur M. Locke (1736).

The plaque marking Voltaire’s former lodgings at 10 Maiden Lane, a short walk south of Covent Garden. It was installed in 1994 by Westminster City Council and the Voltaire Foundation.

Voltaire’s letters paint an idealised picture of the cultural and political life he discovered in England: we could almost be looking at one of Canaletto’s sunlit views of London. But the text is tantalising in allowing shadows to fall across its pages. From the first moment that Voltaire comes face to face with a Quaker, the characteristic Voltairean tension between freedom and formality is palpable. His many quotations from English authors seem to show, too, an English propensity to melancholy.

The Lettres sur les Anglais, to use the overall title the editors have chosen, is a highly apposite place to see out the edition, a project that has been through five editors, more than two hundred contributors and fifty-three years. This work accounts for decisive influences on Voltaire, while his letter on Pascal (the twenty-fifth Lettre philosophique) is about as serviceable a statement of Voltaire’s philosophical credo as one can hope to find. Typically his position emerges only once he has felt a need to oppose and ‘rectify’ that of another writer, in this case ‘the sublime misanthrope’ who, Voltaire opined, had wasted his talents on religious speculation.

There is another reason for which the Lettres sur les Anglais provides a suitable finale: Nicholas Cronk himself has edited the two final volumes. His skills in choosing and cajoling numerous editors to contribute over the past twenty years should not be underestimated. I remember one of his predecessors remarking, with a doleful shake of his head, that a number of his designated editors had died without telling him. Cronk has the command of the technical and bibliographical detail essential to this project, but he has also allowed himself some latitude in introducing and contextualising the work. In common with the members of his team, past and present, he is, in his evaluations of Voltaire, generous but never idolatrous, a risk inherent in an all-consuming project of this size. When, at the beginning of this enterprise, with war with Germany still in the memory, Besterman edited the letters Voltaire exchanged with Frederick II, he could not resist using his footnotes to boo at the Prussian from the margins. Cronk’s editorial restraint in refraining from overt interpretation and speculation, let alone disapproval, while maintaining a uniform tone and approach throughout is remarkable.

It is, then, surprising when a newly discovered sketch by Hogarth, potentially of Voltaire in the company of Martin Folkes, is included at the end of Volume 6A (I), complete with a discussion by Anna Marie Roos; it is an unexpected bonus, perhaps marking a momentary relaxation of bibliographical norms. We cannot even be sure that the gentleman who looks like Voltaire was Voltaire, but this is a pleasing touch. Even if this edition offers the definitively last word on Voltaire, and will surely be the last scholarly project of this magnitude to be printed on paper, we are reminded that there will continue to be new discoveries and discussions.

– John Leigh, Senior Lecturer in French at Cambridge University and Fellow of Fitzwilliam College

First published by the TLS on 2/9/2022

Enlightenment research as a vocation

Enlightenment past and present is the September volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This volume by Anthony J. La Vopa explores the social meanings of Enlightenment discourses in England, Scotland, France, and Germany. This blog post written by Avi Lifschitz discusses La Vopa’s new book, sharing insight into this new publication, its themes, and the introductory essay ‘Finding Meaning in the Enlightenment’.

The Weberian title of this blog post is a fitting tribute to Anthony J. La Vopa, a prominent Enlightenment scholar who has dedicated the last fifty years to the study of what he calls ‘the social history of ideas’ in the eighteenth century. This self-definition might initially conceal the indispensable role of rhetoric, literary genre, and authorial tone in La Vopa’s work on the Enlightenment. As he notes in the introduction to the new collection of his essays, one of his major early insights was that he could effectively ‘derive social meaning from the literary properties of a text’.

The essays collected here do exactly that, covering diverse topics across eighteenth-century Germany, France, and Britain. A new essay on Denis Diderot’s theory of genius joins La Vopa’s classic 1992 article on Jürgen Habermas’s and Reinhart Koselleck’s notions of Enlightenment and its public sphere of allegedly rational debate. Johann Gottfried Herder’s complex relationship with language, print and eighteenth-century readership is discussed next to the peculiar friendship between James Boswell and William Johnson Temple. Kant’s attitudes to sex and marriage are discussed next to an essay on the shifting meanings of enthusiasm (Schwärmerei) from Luther to the late eighteenth century.

Several essays concern methodological issues, from the resurrection of the contextual biography (written on the occasion of La Vopa’s 2001 biography of the young Fichte) to the gender turn in Enlightenment studies, Jonathan Israel’s work on the radical Enlightenment, and the complex interrelations between history, philosophy and literature in Enlightenment studies.

The jewel in the book’s crown is ‘Finding meaning in the Enlightenment’, the introductory essay that serves both as a retrospective stock-taking of the author’s scholarship and as a panoramic overview of Enlightenment studies since the 1970s. This is arguably a modern incarnation of the scholarly autobiographies, or accounts of intellectual development, written by eighteenth-century German professors and clergymen of a Pietist background – a genre so effectively mined by La Vopa over the years.

Indeed, the author applies to himself in the essay some of the questions that have fascinated him throughout his career. Did he follow a calling or a vocation while practising a specific trade, in this case academic teaching and writing on the Enlightenment? How much of his labour, intellectual or otherwise, has been rooted in the unconscious appropriation of a given socio-political habitus? Among other reflections on changing political and social trends from the 1970s to the present, La Vopa focuses on attitudes to higher education. Since the 1980s we have witnessed, La Vopa argues, a steady retreat of humanist ideals in the face of market-based utilitarianism, which has taken its toll on American public universities in particular.

Friedrich Schiller, the Humboldt brothers, and Goethe in Jena.  Engraving after a drawing by Andreas Müller, Die Gartenlaube 15 (1860).

In this respect, La Vopa does not shy away from drawing informed, careful parallels between past and present, based mostly on his book Grace, Talent and Merit (1988), which examined the intellectual and social implications of the career paths open to students from disadvantaged backgrounds in eighteenth-century Germany. The shift from the educational policies of the 1960s to today’s marketisation of academia is comparable, according to La Vopa, to the overtaking of the late eighteenth-century humanism of Schiller and Humboldt by the conservative educational policies of the early nineteenth century.

In both cases, class inequality prevailed, accompanied by a rhetoric that justified exclusions of the disadvantaged from university education even when in principle it implied their inclusion. Two centuries ago, the egalitarian ideals of Bildung and Menschheit were betrayed when ‘a freight of social and cultural capital – the inherited advantages of wealth and family education, including insidious codes of proper speech and manners – became a de facto entry requirement for the new classical Gymnasium, the gateway to the universities.’

This is just one of many intriguing insights in the introductory essay – an example of engaged scholarship at its best. It cautiously situates the Enlightenment in relation to the present without losing sight of diverse contexts, gaps, and discontinuities. The extensive essay spells out a central impulse behind La Vopa’s scholarship: ‘By recovering an Enlightenment field of argument about what education should do, we will not find solutions, but we can at least become more aware that a rich debate has been impoverished.’ This point applies, well beyond education, to all the chapters in this collection. La Vopa conveys here, as in his other publications, a palpable sense of Enlightenment as critique – not only of received ideas and existing structures but also of the writing self and all its habitual predispositions.

– Avi Lifschitz (Magdalen College, University of Oxford)

This post first appeared in the Liverpool University Press blog.

Meet the Suassos – tracing a family tree among Voltaire’s London patrons

One of the pleasures of exploring the recently completed Œuvres complètes de Voltaire is occasionally stumbling across hidden treasures which can enrich our understanding of the writer’s life and work. One such treasure, found in volume 6A, is the list of 342 subscribers who supported the publication of his epic poem, La Henriade, in London in 1728. It provides a fascinating insight into his connections and networks in the English capital and beyond. The list is printed in what could first appear to be a rather haphazard fashion, and certainly not in anything so easy to navigate as alphabetical order by name. Yet as one begins to delve into the identities behind the names, it becomes clear that certain family groups and other social and professional relationships are hidden in the ordering of the list.

René Pomeau has already illuminated some of these milieux and networks.[1] He identifies the Mendes d’Acosta family of bankers; a literary contingent that includes Horace Walpole, Congreve and Swift; an intellectual group, with Samuel Molyneux, Anthony Collins, Rev’d Dean Berkeley and Newton’s nephew John Conduitt; Anglicans and Quakers; some names plausibly from London’s Huguenot community; families belonging to the British aristocracy; and finally a number of ambassadors or other diplomats from Protestant European states (Denmark, Brunswick, Sweden, Holland, and Prussia).

But a list of subscribers should not be confused with a list of everyone known to Voltaire in England at the time. Just as those creating online petitions today exhort signatories to share the petition with their friends and family, so it appears to have been with literary subscriptions in the eighteenth century. Beyond the obvious names and the famous ones, then, many wider circles emerge from the list, often grouped together, but sometimes surprisingly not.

Detail from page nine of the list of subscribers to La Henriade (London, 1728), including the elusive Suassos.

As we worked to prepare this volume for publication, the names ‘Honourable Baron Swasso’, ‘Honourable Lady Swasso’ (p.9) and ‘Alvaro Lopes Swasso, Esq.’ (p.10) at first resisted identification. But family connections, in this case unearthed by Norma Perry, turned out to be the answer. The first two names appear in the list of subscribers just ahead of a group from the Mendes Dacosta family, mentioned above as one identified by René Pomeau: Anthony Moses Dacosta and his wife Catherine (‘Mrs Catherine D’acosta’). This couple (also cousins) were members of a large family who had emigrated to London to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Portugal in the seventeenth century, and had become naturalised and prosperous in their new home city. Another cousin, Anthony Jacob Dacosta, was a banker who had speculated badly and ended up bankrupt, ultimately fleeing to France at the end of 1725.

One of Anthony Jacob’s enraged creditors was none other than Voltaire himself, who, upon trying to present him with letters of credit in the summer of 1726, was apparently furious to find that his man had lost all his money and fled the country. Perry suggests that Voltaire may have encountered Anthony Moses while searching for Anthony Jacob. The ensuing interview went unexpectedly well given the circumstances: Voltaire appears to have subsequently been on friendly terms with Anthony Moses and his immediate family. Perry also proposes that Voltaire may have attended social gatherings at their main residence, Cromwell House; he certainly noted a witty exchange with Catherine in his notebook of the period: ‘Madame Acosta dit en ma présence à un abbé qui voulait la faire chrétienne, votre dieu, est-il né juif? Oui. A-t-il vécu juif? Oui. Est-il mort juif? Oui. Eh bien soyez donc juif.’ (Madame Acosta said in my presence to a cleric hoping to convert her to Christianity, Was your God born Jewish? Yes. Did he die Jewish? Yes. Well then, become Jewish. [Translation source])

Portrait of Alvaro Lopes Suasso by Catherine da Costa (1718, Joods Historisch Museum).

But, to return to our Suassos, the proximity of the Mendes Dacosta family to the baron and Lady ‘Swasso’ in the list was the clue which led us to their identity. Anthony Moses and Catherine’s daughter, Leonor Rachel, was married to the Dutch-Jewish baron Antonio Lopes Suasso, and was thus the ‘Lady Swasso’ of the subscribers. And Alvaro Lopes Suasso, who appears further down in the list on page ten, was Antonio’s brother. The Suassos were an eminent banking family in the Netherlands, fervent supporters of the House of Orange. Like Voltaire himself, Alvaro later became a member of the Royal Society, which Voltaire compares to the French Academy in the Lettres sur les Anglais, and our old friend Catherine da Costa, a talented miniaturist, painted his portrait, as well as (probably) that of her Suasso grandchildren (‘[Two young children holding an orange]’, gouache on ivory, ex Sothebys, 16 March 1999).

We can also identify Anthony Moses’ younger brother, Joseph. He subscribed for two books for himself, suggesting an even keener interest in either the work or the author than his brother had. Even Catherine’s brothers, Anthony and James ‘Mendoz’ (Mendes) put themselves down for a copy each. Directly below them, we find a certain ‘Abr. Telles, Esq’, who seems on initial research to have further Dutch-Jewish connections – perhaps another family friend, though we have not yet managed to pin down a specific relationship. And he had already subscribed to at least one other book alongside assorted Suassos and da Costas, a 1725 Vocabulary in Six Languages (which lists its subscribers in alphabetical order).

Details from pages five and nine of the list of subscribers to R. J. Andrée, A Vocabulary in Six Languages (London, 1725). Present in the list is Abraham Telles, along with several members of the da Costa and Suasso families.

Voltaire may have known other members of the family too, but it must be the case that some were approached to subscribe not by the author himself, but by other relations acting as intermediaries. Even this small section of the list of subscribers, then, which might at first glance appear an arid document devoid of interest, is testament to the influence of family connections in literary patronage of the period, and to the effectiveness of networks in a world before social media. These lists are rich sources of information and we can guarantee that there will be more stories to tell about this one in particular.

– Alison Oliver and Gillian Pink


[1] In ‘Voltaire en Angleterre. Les enseignements d’une liste de souscription’, Littératures III 4 (January 1955), p.67-76 (repr. Revue Voltaire 1, 2001, p.93-100).