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François Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694–1778). Letters on the English.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Letter XXII—On Mr. Pope and Some Other Famous Poets

I INTENDED to treat of Mr. Prior, one of the most amiable English poets, whom you saw Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary at Paris in 1712. I also designed to have given you some idea of the Lord Roscommon’s and the Lord Dorset’s muse; but I find that to do this I should be obliged to write a large volume, and that, after much pains and trouble, you would have but an imperfect idea of all those works. Poetry is a kind of music in which a man should have some knowledge before he pretends to judge of it. When I give you a translation of some passages from those foreign poets, I only prick down, and that imperfectly, their music; but then I cannot express the taste of their harmony.

There is one English poem especially which I should despair of ever making you understand, the title whereof is “Hudibras.” The subject of it is the Civil War in the time of the grand rebellion, and the principles and practice of the Puritans are therein ridiculed. It is Don Quixote, it is our “Satire Menippée” blended together. I never found so much wit in one single book as in that, which at the same time is the most difficult to be translated. Who would believe that a work which paints in such lively and natural colours the several foibles and follies of mankind, and where we meet with more sentiments than words, should baffle the endeavours of the ablest translator? But the reason of this is, almost every part of it alludes to particular incidents. The clergy are there made the principal object of ridicule, which is understood but by few among the laity. To explain this a commentary would be requisite, and humour when explained is no longer humour. Whoever sets up for a commentator of smart sayings and repartees is himself a blockhead. This is the reason why the works of the ingenious Dean Swift, who has been called the English Rabelais, will never be well understood in France. This gentleman has the honour (in common with Rabelais) of being a priest, and, like him, laughs at everything; but, in my humble opinion, the title of the English æbelais which is given the dean is highly derogatory to his genius. The former has interspersed his unaccountably fantastic and unitelligible book with the most gay strokes of humour; but which at the same time, has a greater proportion of impertinence. He has been vastly lavish of erudition, of smut, and insipid raillery. An agreeable tale of two pages is purchased at the expense of whole volumes of nonsense. There are but few persons, and those of a grotesque taste, who pretend to understand and to esteem this work; for, as to the rest of the nation, they laugh at the pleasant and diverting touches which are found in Rabelais and despise his book. He is looked upon as the prince of buffoons. The readers are vexed to think that a man who was master of so much wit should have made so wretched a use of it; he is an intoxicated philosopher who never wrote but when he was in liquor.

Dean Swift is Rabelais in his senses, and frequently the politest company. The former, indeed, is not so gay as the latter, but then he possesses all the delicacy, the justness, the choice, the good taste, in all which particulars our giggling rural Vicar Rabelais is wanting. The poetical numbers of Dean Swift are of a singular and almost inimitable taste; true humour, whether in prose or verse, seems to be his peculiar talent; but whoever is desirous of understanding him perfectly must visit the island in which he was born.

It will be much easier for you to form an idea of Mr. Pope’s works. He is, in my opinion, the most elegant, the most correct poet; and, at the same time, the most harmonious (a circumstance which redounds very much to the honour of this muse) that England ever gave birth to. He has mellowed the harsh sounds of the English trumpet to the soft accents of the flute. His compositions may be easily translated, because they are vastly clear and perspicuous; besides, most of his subjects are general, and relative to all nations.

His “Essay on Criticism” will soon be known in France by the translation which l’Abbé de Renel has made of it.

Here is an extract from his poem entitled the “Rape of the Lock,” which I just now translated with the latitude I usually take on these occasions; for, once again, nothing can be more ridiculous than to translate a poet literally:—

  • “Umbriel, à l’instant, vieil gnome rechigné,
  • Va d’une aîle pesante et d’un air renfrogné
  • Chercher en murmurant la caverne profonde,
  • Où loin des doux raïons que répand l’œil du monde
  • La Déesse aux Vapeurs a choisi son séjour,
  • Les Tristes Aquilons y sifflent à l’entour,
  • Et le souffle mal sain de leur aride haleine
  • Y porte aux environs la fievre et la migraine.
  • Sur un riche sofa derrière un paravent
  • Loin des flambeaux, du bruit, des parleurs et du vent
  • La quinteuse déesse incessamment repose,
  • Le cœur gros de chagrin, sans en savoir la cause.
  • N’aiant pensé jamais, l’esprit toujours troublé,
  • L’œil chargé, le teint pâle, et l’hypocondre enflé.
  • La médisante Envie, est assise auprès d’elle,
  • Vieil spectre féminin, décrépite pucelle,
  • Avec un air devot déchirant son prochain,
  • Et chansonnant les Gens l’Evangile à la main.
  • Sur un lit plein de fleurs negligemment panchée
  • Une jeune beauté non loin d’elle est couchée,
  • C’est l’Afectation qui grassaîe en parlant,
  • Ecoute sans entendre, et lorgne en regardant.
  • Qui rougit sans pudeur, et rit de tout sans joie,
  • De cent maux differens pretend qu’elle est la proïe;
  • Et pleine de sante sous le rouge et le fard,
  • Se plaint avec molesse, et se pame avec art.”
  • “Umbriel, a dusky, melancholy sprite
  • As ever sullied the fair face of light,
  • Down to the central earth, his proper scene,
  • Repairs to search the gloomy cave of Spleen,
  • Swift on his sooty pinions flits the gnome,
  • And in a vapour reached the dismal dome.
  • No cheerful breeze this sullen region knows,
  • The dreaded east is all the wind that blows.
  • Here, in a grotto, sheltered close from air,
  • And screened in shades from day’s detested glare,
  • She sighs for ever on her pensive bed,
  • Pain at her side, and Megrim at her head,
  • Two handmaids wait the throne. Alike in place,
  • But differing far in figure and in face,
  • Here stood Ill-nature, like an ancient maid,
  • Her wrinkled form in black and white arrayed;
  • With store of prayers for mornings, nights, and noons
  • Her hand is filled; her bosom with lampoons.
  • There Affectation, with a sickly mien,
  • Shows in her cheek the roses of eighteen,
  • Practised to lisp, and hang the head aside,
  • Faints into airs, and languishes with pride;
  • On the rich quilt sinks with becoming woe,
  • Wrapt in a gown, for sickness and for show.”
  • This extract, in the original (not in the faint translation I have given you of it), may be compared to the description of La Molesse (softness or effeminacy), in Boileau’s “Lutrin.”

    Methinks I now have given you specimens enough from the English poets. I have made some transient mention of their philosophers, but as for good historians among them, I don’t know of any; and, indeed, a Frenchman was forced to write their history. Possibly the English genius, which is either languid or impetuous, has not yet acquired that unaffected eloquence, that plain but majestic air which history requires. Possibly too, the spirit of party which exhibits objects in a dim and confused light may have sunk the credit of their historians. One half of the nation is always at variance with the other half. I have met with people who assured me that the Duke of Marlborough was a coward, and that Mr. Pope was a fool; just as some Jesuits in France declare Pascal to have been a man of little or no genius, and some Jansenists affirm Father Bourdaloüe to have been a mere babbler. The Jacobites consider Mary Queen of Scots as a pious heroine, but those of an opposite party look upon her as a prostitute, an adulteress, a murderer. Thus the English have memorials of the several reigns, but no such thing as a history. There is, indeed, now living, one Mr. Gordon (the public are obliged to him for a translation of Tacitus), who is very capable of writing the history of his own country, but Rapin de Thoyras got the start of him. To conclude, in my opinion the English have not such good historians as the French, have no such thing as a real tragedy, have several delightful comedies, some wonderful passages in certain of their poems, and boast of philosophers that are worthy writers of our nation, and therefore we ought (since they have not scrupled to be in our debt) to borrow from them. Both the English and we came after the Italians, who have been our instructors in all the arts, and whom we have surpassed in some. I cannot determine which of the three nations ought to be honoured with the palm; but happy the writer who could display their various merits.