Voltaire séducteur

Dans l’ensemble, la critique moderne s’est surtout intéressée à la signification des œuvres de Voltaire et particulièrement à leur portée philosophique. Le contexte dans lequel on l’a lu est celui des ‘philosophes des Lumières’, un groupe en réalité disparate et divisé, mais unifié dans l’historiographie par des buts communs, la lutte contre les préjugés et les progrès de la raison.

Ce sont bien les buts que Voltaire poursuit dans son œuvre, mais cette entreprise doit se concilier chez lui avec une préoccupation majeure, sa réussite littéraire. Cette préoccupation n’est évidemment pas étrangère à ses confrères en littérature, mais elle semble particulièrement puissante chez le ‘poète-philosophe’ qui a réussi à faire de son siècle, dans l’opinion publique, ‘le siècle de Voltaire’. Cette constatation, ou ce choix de lecture, conduit à scruter les rapports entre l’écrivain et son lecteur.

À côté d’une prise en compte des traces profondes, visibles ou cachées, que les péripéties de son existence ont laissées dans sa création littéraire, à côté de l’analyse des ambitions intellectuelles d’un grand esprit aux curiosités universelles, animé d’un intense ‘besoin de vérité’ (Marc Hersant), il y a place pour la description des méthodes que Voltaire a pratiquées dans tous les genres littéraires pour concilier son projet critique et ‘philosophique’ au sens du XVIIIe siècle avec les attentes et les résistances du lecteur de son temps auquel il pense en écrivant ou en dictant. Cette démarche critique a déjà été pratiquée à propos de ses lettres (notamment par Geneviève Haroche-Bouzinac) ou à propos de certains de ses écrits polémiques (notamment par Olivier Ferret). Mais elle joue un rôle permanent dans toutes les formes de l’écriture voltairienne.

Il suffit de feuilleter la correspondance de l’écrivain pour mesurer l’intérêt passionné avec lequel, de sa jeunesse à ses derniers jours, il sollicite et guette les avis des membres de son premier cercle de lecteurs, celui de connaissances fidèles, appartenant au monde auquel il est attaché, des camarades de collège comme Cideville aux animatrices de salons en vue comme Mme Du Deffand, ou à des personnalités de la cour, comme les d’Argental. La circulation de copies manuscrites en avant-première permet à Voltaire de tenir compte des réactions de ce public représentatif de l’élite sociale à laquelle il veut plaire, à la fois parce qu’elle a le pouvoir d’assurer le succès et parce qu’elle détient une influence majeure dans le domaine politique et moral.

Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier, 1812, Lecture de la tragédie de ‘l’orphelin de la Chine’ de Voltaire dans le salon de madame Geoffrin, huile sur toile, Musée National du Château de Malmaison, Rueil-Malmaison.

Ces ‘prépublications’ lui permettent de perfectionner une adaptation de ce qu’il écrit aux attentes et au goût du lecteur qu’il ambitionne de séduire. Ce lecteur est presque certainement catholique et de tendances conservatrices, même s’il existe des nuances entre la noblesse militaire et la bourgeoisie cultivée, par exemple. Pour conquérir ce public, il n’y a pas d’autre voie que celle d’un respect, au moins d’apparence, pour ses réflexes intellectuels, ses convictions et ses intérêts.

C’est ce que la finesse de Voltaire lui enseigne, mais c’est aussi ce que lui a appris la rhétorique de sa jeunesse, cette forme moderne de la seconde sophistique qui est enseignée dans les collèges de la Compagnie de Jésus. De là sort une véritable poétique voltairienne de la conciliation, qui englobe tous les aspects de la création littéraire: choix des genres, superposition des thématiques, captatio benevolentiae fondée sur un jeu de masques.

S’agit-il de dénoncer l’influence terrifiante de la religion sur l’action politique? Ce sera dans une épopée, genre académique, à sujet national et monarchique, avec des épisodes charmants ou terrifiants, comme celui des amours d’Henri ou celui du siège de Paris où la famine conduit à des comportements monstrueux. S’agit-il de remettre en question l’idéal chrétien de chasteté? Ce sera dans des contes en prose ou en vers, comme L’éducation d’une fille, qui célèbre l’union libre sur le mode gai et badin.

Le genre si sérieux et à la mode en Europe de l’histoire universelle est exploité pour dénoncer mille absurdités des croyances et des institutions, mais avec des brassées d’anecdotes et de scènes pittoresques, des aperçus exotiques, des réflexions qui font ressortir la supériorité de la civilisation où vivent les lecteurs contemporains, comme le fait la conclusion du Siècle de Louis XIV, histoire certes ‘philosophique’ d’un règne, mais farcie de ‘particularités et anecdotes’, de détails sur l’armée et les combats, de portraits de figures mondaines, de récits de fêtes.

Rien de plus respectable que la tragédie: ce genre, ornement des cours, rassemble tous les éléments de la culture officielle. C’est donc dans une tragédie comme Mahomet, d’inspiration si catholique en apparence qu’elle peut être dédiée au pape, que Voltaire dénonce l’imposture religieuse, support du despotisme. Il désarme ainsi la défiance de gens dont la vie est enracinée dans le catholicisme.

Pour se concilier un public idéologiquement hostile à ses convictions, mais dont les regards sont tournés vers les cours et les monarques, il consacre tout au long de sa carrière des ouvrages historiques à des figures royales, Charles XII, Louis XIV, Pierre le Grand, les souverains du Saint-Empire. Pour plaire à une aristocratie à dominante militaire, il donne à l’armée et à la guerre une large place, du Poème de Fontenoy à l’Essai sur les mœurs.

OCV, t.23, p.283.

Un autre remède à la défiance du lecteur qu’il veut choisir, c’est l’usage des vers. Fortement liés dans les esprits avec un loisir de qualité et avec une longue tradition classique, ils constituent un langage en général indépendant des réalités et des débats du temps (même si derrière l’aimable paravent des bergeries peut se cacher le loup de la satire). Nourris du souvenir d’Horace et de Lucrèce, les lecteurs auxquels s’adresse Voltaire sont prêts à accepter bien des audaces morales et philosophiques, sans y voir malice. Le poète Voltaire travaille ainsi, le plus souvent aimablement et gaîment, à faire accepter le philosophe Voltaire.

Bien d’autres ressources littéraires l’aident à concilier les attentes du public et son inspiration. Il mêle des thèmes audacieux, comme l’apologie du bonheur par la consommation, à des thèmes traditionnels, comme celui du bonheur rustique dans la simplicité (Discours en vers sur l’homme). Il présente dans le cadre de genres neutres et utilitaires à la mode comme le dictionnaire un mélange d‘informations inoffensives et d’idées subversives (Dictionnaire philosophique portatif).

En lisant de près, au cours d’une longue carrière de commentateur et d’éditeur de ses œuvres, des textes de Voltaire dans tous les genres qu’il a pratiqués, j’ai cru pouvoir discerner chez lui une anticipation permanente des réactions d’un certain lecteur auquel il ne cesse de penser. Il m’a semblé que cette préoccupation était en général plus décisive dans sa création que l’influence des modèles, le respect des règles, les pulsions de l’inconscient, la marque des expériences, la recherche de la cohérence intellectuelle… C’est elle qui mettait en musique tous ces matériaux et déterminait leur choix. Cette approche critique peut s’appliquer à d’autres auteurs; mais elle trouve dans l’œuvre de Voltaire un objet fascinant. Voltaire n’avait qu’un maître: son lecteur, tel qu’il le connaissait ou l’imaginait. C’est ce que j’ai essayé de montrer dans le livre que j’ai sous-titré: Essai sur la séduction littéraire.

Sylvain Menant, Voltaire et son lecteur, essai sur la séduction littéraire (Genève: Droz, 2021).

Voltaire est un écrivain du passé universellement célèbre, comme Shakespeare, Tolstoï, Molière, Balzac ou Goethe. L’essentiel de l’œuvre de ces derniers auteurs est largement connu par le public cultivé de tous les pays, dans la langue originale ou en traduction, mais ce n’est pas le cas pour Voltaire, même en France. Il ne surnage de son œuvre qu’un ou deux contes en prose, que lui-même considérait comme des à-côtés inavouables du monument littéraire et philosophique qu’il avait eu l’ambition de bâtir.

Subsistent aussi, et de façon plus évidente, une façon de penser, sceptique et ironique, ‘l’esprit voltairien’, et la réputation d’un maître de justice et de tolérance. Mais la connaissance de cet esprit est fondée sur des on-dit bien plutôt que sur une fréquentation directe des textes. La lecture de son œuvre s’est réduite de façon spectaculaire après sa mort, même si les éditions de ses œuvres complètes se sont multipliées depuis l’édition de Kehl, dont il a pu voir la préparation, jusqu’à la grande édition dont la Voltaire Foundation vient d’achever triomphalement la publication.

C’est que le lecteur pour lequel Voltaire a écrit son œuvre, qu’il a cherché et réussi à séduire, sans jamais se relâcher dans cette entreprise, ce lecteur n’est plus.

– Sylvain Menant

Sylvain Menant, professeur émérite à la Sorbonne (Sorbonne-Université), vient de recevoir le Grand Prix de la Critique 2022 de l’Académie française pour Voltaire et son lecteur, essai sur la séduction littéraire (Genève: Droz, 2021) et l’ensemble de ses travaux critiques.

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800

Carly Watson, Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 (London, 2021).

Today’s miscellanies tend to be compendia of interesting facts or curious trivia – think of Schott’s original miscellany – but three centuries ago miscellanies were at the forefront of literary culture. My book, which is aimed at an academic audience, reveals how miscellanies changed the ways poetry was written, published, and read in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

What is a miscellany?

The word miscellany comes from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a hash of mixed ingredients. The English word has been applied to books since the late sixteenth century, but its meaning as a literary term has changed over time.

In the period that the book covers, the word miscellany was used to refer to books with one author and books containing works by many authors. A miscellany could be any book offering an assortment of shorter works or extracts of different kinds. As the lawyer and writer William King wrote in 1709, it ‘is generally presum’d, that a Miscellany should consist of what the World most delights in, that is, Variety’.

Samuel Lewis, A Deception, c.1780. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA. Gift of Max and Heidi Berry. (Wikimedia Commons)
 

Today, though, the word miscellany is usually used by scholars in a narrower sense, to mean a book containing works by more than two authors. This is the definition used by the Digital Miscellanies Index, a freely available database providing details of over 1750 miscellanies published between 1557 and 1800.

My book argues that we can better understand the cultural importance of miscellanies in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries if we let go of this more limited sense of what a miscellany is. Unlike most other studies of miscellanies in the period, this book looks at both single- and multiple-author miscellanies, showing that miscellanies were a popular vehicle for authors publishing their own writing as well as editors collecting works by many writers.

Putting authors in the spotlight

Hundreds of books called miscellanies, and many more that could be thought of as miscellanies, were published between 1680 and 1800. Why did miscellanies become ubiquitous in this period?

For some scholars, it was because of the changing needs of readers: as more people learned to read, and more books were published, there was a growing market for miscellanies offering handy selections of material from the mass of literature in print.

Miscellany, being a collection of poems by several hands; together with Reflections on morality, or, Seneca unmasqued, edited by Aphra Behn (London, 1685).

My book argues that this is only part of the story.

As well as catering to new readers and reading habits, miscellanies appealed to authors. From the 1680s to the 1730s many leading authors, including Aphra Behn and John Dryden, edited miscellanies showcasing new writing by their friends and contemporaries. For ambitious young authors, publishing in miscellanies was a way of getting their work noticed. For those who might not otherwise have been able to publish their writing, such as schoolboys and young women, miscellanies offered the chance to see their work in print.

It was not just authors editing and contributing to miscellanies who boosted their numbers. Many authors chose to present collections of their own writing as miscellanies, emphasising the variety of the work they produced. My book tells the stories of a number of these authors who deserve to be better known, including the Oxford-based writer Mary Jones, whose miscellany reveals a more diverse œuvre than is sometimes appreciated, and Richardson Pack, an army officer-turned-writer who was inspired by the influential miscellanies of the late seventeenth century.

Understanding what people read

Much of the modern interest in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century miscellanies has been driven by a desire to find out more about what people actually read in this period. What was in the hundreds of miscellanies that were published? Which authors were most popular?

Mary Jones, Miscellanies in prose and verse (Oxford, 1750).

Using newly available data from the Digital Miscellanies Index, this book reveals the authors who were featured in the most miscellanies in each decade from the 1680s to the 1770s. It is no surprise that the big names of the era – John Dryden and Alexander Pope – are the ones readers were most likely to encounter in miscellanies for much of the period, but from the 1740s onwards earlier authors such as William Shakespeare and John Milton also appeared in relatively high numbers of miscellanies.

This innovative analysis suggests that miscellanies played a more important role than has previously been thought in cementing the canonical status of the great English writers of the past.

Miscellanies, poetry, and authorship, 1680-1800 shows that miscellanies were a vital part of the literary ecosystem of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of the poetry published in them has been forgotten, but we can still be entertained and surprised by these multifaceted books, which remind us that variety is the spice of life.

–  Carly Watson

A version of this blog was published by the University of Oxford Department for continuing education.

Poetry in the digital age: the Digital Miscellanies Index and eighteenth-century culture

For most of us, reading for pleasure usually means getting stuck into some fiction or non-fiction. Poetry is a less common diversion, but we still have an appetite for poems to dip into, to find solace in, to memorise and share. And we can choose from an array of collections that promote poetry as an everyday companion, a form of therapy, and a tradition of national interest. For readers looking for peace of mind, The Emergency Poet: An Anti-Stress Poetry Anthology offers comfort, while the popular twin collections of Poems That Make Grown Men (or Women) Cry present a cult of sensibility for the modern age.

It was in the eighteenth century that poetry collections like these became a staple of literary publishing in Britain. The tradition of printed collections of English poetry stretches back to the sixteenth century, with Songes and Sonettes (1557), an edition of short lyric poems compiled by the publisher Richard Tottel, generally regarded as the foundation of English Renaissance poetry and the most important early printed collection of English verse. But it was not until the eighteenth century that collections of poems by several hands, with prose as a secondary feature, became one of the most common forms in which British readers encountered poetry. Like their modern counterparts, eighteenth-century editors and publishers sought to gain a foothold in a crowded market by targeting specific audiences and promoting the benefits of reading poetry. Some produced didactic collections for young people (Poems for Young Ladies); others pitched their collections to lovers in need of poetic inspiration (The Lover’s Manual); and many more set their sights on a local audience (The Oxford Sausage).

Poems for Young Ladies

Poems for Young Ladies (1767), edited by the poet Oliver Goldsmith.

Collections like these shaped the ways in which poetry was written and read throughout the eighteenth century. Yet until recently relatively little was known about their contents. Thanks to the Digital Miscellanies Index (DMI), this is no longer the case. The DMI provides a searchable record of the contents of over 1,600 collections of poems by several hands published over the course of the eighteenth century. These books are sometimes referred to as anthologies, as most poetry collections are today. But the word anthology, derived from the Greek for ‘a gathering of flowers’, has connotations that sit uneasily with many eighteenth-century poetry collections. Few collections produced in this period claimed to present the best of English poetry, a rationale often seen as characteristic of anthologies (collections that cull the flowers of the poetic tradition). As a result, several scholars, myself included, prefer the term miscellany. Derived from the Latin miscellanea, meaning a ‘hotchpotch’ of foodstuffs, it captures the dominant characteristic of most eighteenth-century collections: variety. A typical miscellany offers a varied feast of poems to entertain readers with varied tastes and personalities.

The DMI was launched in 2013, following three years of development and data collection carried out by a team based at the University of Oxford. Led by Abigail Williams and Jennifer Batt, the project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust. In 2014, another Leverhulme grant set in motion the second phase of the project. One of the aims of this phase, to be completed in 2017, is to harness the data now accessible via the DMI to shed new light on how miscellanies evolved, how they packaged and popularised poetry, and on the habits of their readers. At the same time, we are working with the Bodleian’s Digital Libraries team to develop the DMI into a more flexible and wide-ranging resource, and last month we celebrated a milestone on this road. The thirty-strong audience at Lines of Connection, a conference I co-organised as part of the project, were among the first to see the DMI’s new search interface, which replaces the beta site created in 2013.

The Book of Fun

The Book of Fun (1759), a miscellany dominated by seventeenth-century verse.

The new search platform is much more than a digital facelift for the DMI. It provides access to a database undergoing expansion: the latest version includes new records for miscellanies published between 1680 and 1699, and future updates will extend the DMI ’s coverage further back to Tottel’s foundational Songes and Sonettes. The redeveloped interface also enables users to explore the data in new ways. Keyword and phrase searching is quicker and more extensive with the new basic search function. There is also the option to filter the records using a number of facets, which display and rank the data in ways that suggest key trends and lines of enquiry. For instance, clicking on ‘Poem’ under ‘Content Type’, then selecting the ‘Related People’ facet, reveals a list of almost one hundred of the most prominent authors in the database, ranked according to the number of poems attributed to them. At the top of the list is John Dryden, with around 1,500 poems; the highest ranked French author is Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, with over 120 poems in English translation (the DMI does not record appearances of poems in foreign languages). Although these figures should not be seen as straightforward indications of popularity, they remind us that many of the most widely read poets of the eighteenth century were those who had been active in the late seventeenth century. In his imitation of Horace’s epistle to Augustus (written 1737), Alexander Pope observed that the verse of his seventeenth-century predecessors was scattered ‘Like twinkling stars the Miscellanies o’er’. The DMI has made it possible to see these stars, and the sky around them, more clearly.

– Carly Watson

Strange skies: Voltaire’s physics

Letter XIV of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques provides an insight into the early days of modern science, contrasting the theories of Descartes and Newton at a time in which Newtonian physics was new and controversial. The vitality of the debate as approached in this volume struck me, as a humanities student, more intensely than GCSE science lessons ever managed to; it made me realise that even the laws of gravity were a new discovery once.

VA39_Tourbillons

‘Figure des tourbillons de Descartes’, in Voltaire, La Henriade, divers autres poèmes etc. [Geneva, Cramer and Bardin], 1775, 37 vol., vol.26, facing p.355.

However, it was the way in which Descartes’ world was depicted that left a greater mark on me, through its apparent strangeness (although, had I heard about it in a physics classroom, no doubt it would seem as banal as gravity). In Voltaire’s portrayal, the emphasis is on movement, ‘tourbillons de matière subtile’,[1]  next to which our modern conception of gravity seems, if more accurate, somehow less dynamic. This theoretical universe is a crowded one, where light ‘existe dans l’air’ and the dominant forces are pushing ones; Newton’s is an elegant void, where movement is due to attraction.

After studying the letter, I wrote the poem below, inspired both by the painterly quality of Voltaire’s images, and the way in which reading it had offered me a new perspective on the way human knowledge changes. Letter XIV typifies a time very different from our era of specialization, where science and the humanities are carefully cordoned off from one another. Voltaire was spreading something that was, at that time, revolutionary, and it seems unlikely nowadays that a literary figure could be so fully involved with the cutting edge of science. I wanted to capture this sense of change, and the related fact that, while these competing explanations for the universe once ranked side by side, one has now been relegated to the status of image, while the other has become (relatively) unquestioned scientific fact.

Descartes thought the sky was made of spirals,
spangled whirlwind scrawls, a tide of starlight,
oily brushstrokes crowding in the midnight,
currents sweeping past the moon. His rival,
a Mr Newton, won; the Lumières jeered,
and though the sciences were an art those days,
the pictures Descartes saw were just a phase,
an early Van Gogh in the wrong career.

StarryNight_VanGogh

The Starry Night, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889.

– Rowan Lyster

(Poem first published in the ISIS magazine, Oxford)

[1] All quotes are from Letter XIV, Lettres philosophiques.

How to solve a problem like papa

Sometimes the Voltaire Foundation’s infamous ‘yellow folders’ throw up complete mysteries! The job of the researcher thus resembles that of the detective. And just as detectives now use technology, the advances of digital humanities allow researchers to investigate cold cases by previously unavailable means.

Housed in the bowels of the VF, the yellow folder is the gathering of potentially useful information compiled over the years in advance of the preparation of a volume of the Complete Works of Voltaire. Volume 83’s folder contained a photocopy of the following verse, a manuscript in the hand of Voltaire:

Pour vous, Papa, j’ai tenté l’impossible

Ma voix est fausse & n’a pu vous chanter

Mes vers sont durs, mais mon cœur est sensible,

Seul avec vous il pourra m’acquitter

The editors of this volume – which is entirely devoted to Voltaire’s undated verse – were thus given to believe these four lines should be considered for inclusion in Voltaire’s undated poetry. Yet the incipit does not exist in any bibliographical source.

A simple Google search for ‘Pour vous, Papa, j’ai tenté l’impossible’ offers no clues. Search engines are of no use for combinations of the other verse either. Until, that is, one accommodates for the imperfections of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) that Google uses to search un-encoded text. As readers of gothic script know, ‘f’ and ‘s’ are often confused – OCR makes this same confusion. So a revised search term of ‘mes vers font durs’ was entered into Google (other search engines are available!) Result!

The verse appeared in the Courier du Bas-Rhin on Wednesday 27 October 1767 (no. 35, p. 278). Here, it is stated that the verse is by M. Dupuis, who ‘présenta ensuite ces vers à M. de Voltaire’ on the evening of the 3rd October 1767, the eve of ‘saint François’, Voltaire’s saint’s day fête (François-Marie).

The verse is thus by Dupuis, who is described in the footnotes of the Courier du Bas-Rhin as a former Cornet of Dragoons. This is Pierre-Jacques Dupuits de Maconnex, later Pierre-Jacques-Claude Dupuits de La Chaux (1739[?]-1805[?]). This Dupuis (also Dupuits, Dupuit) married Corneille’s ‘niece’ – Voltaire’s ‘adopted daughter’ – Marie-Françoise Corneille on 9 February 1763. Voltaire refers to Dupuis as his ‘gendre’ (son-in-law) in the Correspondence (D10956). Thus the ‘Papa’ in the poem is Voltaire, and not Voltaire’s own father.

The only remaining mystery, then, is how this came to be with a collection of autograph poems of Voltaire. The manuscript has an inscription which reads MA635. An expert at the VF identified this as a Pierpont Morgan shelfmark. The extremely helpful staff at the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York) confirmed that this poem was held in a collection with other autograph poems by Voltaire which were recited that evening (and are now published in OCV, vol.63b, p.591). One can only hypothesise that Voltaire was touched enough by the verse his ‘son-in-law’ had composed for him that he thought it worthy of being recorded for posterity, or indeed a report to the Courrier du Bas-Rhin, or other intermediate journal, such as the Correspondance littéraire, where other poems from the fête of 4 October 1767, but not Pour vous, papa, appeared in the edition of 15 October 1767.

And thus the case is closed!

–Nick Treuherz