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

Letter XX—On Such of the Nobility as Cultivate the Belles Lettres

THERE once was a time in France when the polite arts were cultivated by persons of the highest rank in the state. The courtiers particularly were conversant in them, although indolence, a taste for trifles, and a passion for intrigue, were the divinities of the country. The Court methinks at this time seems to have given into a taste quite opposite to that of polite literature, but perhaps the mode of thinking may be revived in a little time. The French are of so flexible a disposition, may be moulded into such a variety of shapes, that the monarch needs but command and he is immediately obeyed. The English generally think, and learning is had in greater honour among them than in our country—an advantage that results naturally from the form of their government. There are about eight hundred persons in England who have a right to speak in public, and to support the interest of the kingdom and near five or six thousand may in their turns aspire to the same honour. The whole nation set themselves up as judges over these, and every man has the liberty of publishing his thoughts with regard to public affairs, which shows that all the people in general are indispensably obliged to cultivate their understandings. In England the governments of Greece and Rome are the subject of every conversation, so that every man is under a necessity of perusing such authors as treat of them, how disagreeable soever it may be to him; and this study leads naturally to that of polite literature. Mankind in general speak well in their respective professions. What is the reason why our magistrates, our lawyers, our physicians, and a great number of the clergy, are abler scholars, have a finer taste, and more wit, than persons of all other professions? The reason is, because their condition of life requires a cultivated and enlightened mind, in the same manner as a merchant is obliged to be acquainted with his traffic. Not long since an English nobleman, who was very young, came to see me at Paris on his return from Italy. He had written a poetical description of that country, which, for delicacy and politeness, may vie with anything we meet with in the Earl of Rochester, or in our Chaulieu, our Sarrasin, or Chapelle. The translation I have given of it is so inexpressive of the strength and delicate humour of the original, that I am obliged seriously to ask pardon of the author and of all who understand English. However, as this is the only method I have to make his lordship’s verses known, I shall here present you with them in our tongue:—

  • “Qu’ay je donc vû dans l’Italie?
  • Orgueil, astuce, et pauvreté,
  • Grands complimens, peu de bonté
  • Et beaucoup de ceremonie.
  • “L’extravagante comedie
  • Que souvent l’Inquisition
  • Veut qu’on nomme religion
  • Mais qu’ici nous nommons folie.
  • “La Nature en vain bienfaisante
  • Veut enricher ses lieux charmans,
  • Des prêtres la main desolante
  • Etouffe ses plus beaux présens.
  • “Les monsignors, soy disant Grands,
  • Seuls dans leurs palais magnifiques
  • Y sont d’illustres faineants,
  • Sans argent, et sans domestiques.
  • “Pour les petits, sans liberté,
  • Martyrs du joug qui les domine,
  • Ils ont fait vœu de pauvreté,
  • Priant Dieu par oisiveté
  • Et toujours jeunant par famine.
  • “Ces beaux lieux du Pape benis
  • Semblent habitez par les diables;
  • Et les habitans miserables
  • Sont damnes dans le Paradis.”