IX. VOLTAIRE AND THE BASTILLE: 1715–26

A characteristic passage in Saint-Simon describes a young upstart who made much noise during the Regency:

Arouet, son of a notary who was employed by my father and me until his death, was exiled… to Tulle at this time [1716] for some verses very satirical and very impudent. I should not amuse myself by writing down such a trifle if this same Arouet, having become a great poet and academician under the name of Voltaire, had not also become… a manner of personage in the republic of letters, and even achieved a sort of importance among certain people.93

This young upstart, now twenty-one, described himself as “thin, long, and fleshless, without buttocks.”94 Perhaps because of this disability, he pranced from one host or hostess to another, welcomed even in lordly circles for his sparkling verse and ready wit, imbibing and effusing heresy, and playing the gallant. Shining especially at Sceaux, he pleased the Duchesse du Maine by satirizing the Regent. When Philippe reduced by a half the horses in the royal stables, Arouet quipped that he would have done better to dismiss half the asses that crowded his Highness’s court. Worse yet, he seems to have set afloat some lines on the morals of the Duchesse de Berry. Voltaire denied authorship, but those lines were later published in his Works. He kept up this strategy of denial almost to the end of his life, as a forgivable protection against a threatening censorship. The Regent could pardon lampoons of himself, for they were often undeserved; but he was deeply hurt by squibs on his daughter, for they were mostly true. On May 5, 1716, he issued an order that “the Sieur Arouet, the son, be sent to Tulle”—a town three hundred miles south of Paris, famed for its odorous tanneries, not yet for the delicate fabric that later took its name. Arouet’s father persuaded the Regent to change the place of exile from Tulle to Sully-sur-Loire, a hundred miles from the capital. Arouet went, and was received as a house guest by the current Duc de Sully, descendant of Henry IV’s great minister.

He enjoyed there everything but liberty. Soon he addressed a verse “Épître á M. le duc d’Orléans,” protesting his innocence, and begging release. It was granted; and by the end of the year he was back in Paris, fluttering and rhyming, sometimes obscenely, often superficially, always cleverly. Consequently any able satire running anonymously along café tables was ascribed to him. Early in 1717 an especially pointed diatribe appeared, in which each sentence began with J’ai vu—“I have seen.” For example:

I have seen the Bastille and a thousand other prisons filled with brave citizens, faithful subjects.

I have seen the people wretched under a rigorous servitude.

I have seen the soldiery perishing of hunger, thirst… and rage.

I have seen a devil in the guise of a woman… ruling the kingdom….

I have seen Port-Royal demolished….

I have seen—and this includes all—a Jesuit adored….

I have seen these evils, and I am not yet twenty years old.95

Obviously these verses referred to Louis XIV and Mme. de Maintenon, and they must have been written by a Jansenist foe of the Jesuits, rather than by an impious skeptic who still had a kindly beat in his heart for the Society of Jesus. The real author was A. L. Le Brun, who later begged Voltaire’s forgiveness for having let him bear the blame.96 But gossip lauded Arouet for the poem; literary gatherings importuned him to recite it, and no one (except the author) believed his denials. Reports to the Regent accused him not only of the J’ai-vus but also—and apparently with justice—of a Latin inscription, “Puero regnante…”—“A boy [Louis XV] reigning; a man notorious for poisoning and incest ruling;… public faith violated [failure of Law’s bank];… the country sacrificed to the hope of a crown; an inheritance basely anticipated; France about to perish.”97 On May 16, 1717, a lettre de cachet directed “that Sieur Arouet be arrested and taken to the Bastille.” The poet was surprised in his rooms, and was allowed to take with him nothing but the clothes he wore.

He had no time to bid adieu to his current mistress, Suzanne de Livry; his friend Lefèvre de Genonville took his place on her bosom; Arouet pardoned them philosophically—“We must put up with these bagatelles.”98 A few years later Lefèvre died, and Voltaire wrote to his memory verses that may exemplify the young rebel’s talent for gracious poetry, and the tender sentiments always deeper in him than his doubts:

Il te souvient du temps, et l’aimable Égérie,

Dans les beaux jours de notre vie,

Nous nous aimions tous trois. La raison, la folie,

L’amour, l’enchantement des plus tendres erreurs,

Tout réunissait nos trois coeurs.

Que nous étions heureux! même cette indigence,

Triste compagne des beaux jours,

Ne put de notre joie empoisonner le cours.

Jeunes, gais, satisfaits, sans soins, sans prévoyance,

Aux douceurs du présent bornant tous nos désirs,

Quel besoin avions-nous d’une vaine abondance?

Nous possédions bien mieux, nous avions les plaisirs.99 II

Suzanne married the wealthy Marquis de Gouvernet, and refused to admit Voltaire when he called at her home. He consoled himself with the thought that “all the diamonds and pearls that deck her now are not worth one of her kisses in the old days.”100 He did not see her again until, fifty-one years later, he came back to Paris to die; then, aged eighty-three, he made it a point to visit the widowed Marquise, aged eighty-four. There was a devil in this Voltaire, but also the kindest heart in the world.

He did not find the Bastille intolerable. He was allowed to send—and pay—for books, furniture, linen, a nightcap, and perfume; he often dined with the governor, played billiards and bowling with prisoners and guards; and he wrote La Henriade. The Iliad was among the books he had sent for; why should he not rival Homer? And why limit epics to legends? There, in living history, was Henry IV, gay, bold, heroic, lecherous, tolerant, generous; why could not that adventurous, tragic life be fit for epic poetry? The prisoner was not allowed writing paper, for this in his hands could be a deadly weapon; so he wrote the first half of his epic between the lines of printed books.

He was released on April 11, 1718, but was forbidden to stay in Paris. From Châtenay, near Sceaux, he wrote letters to the Regent, begging forgiveness; again the Regent relented, and on October 12 issued permission to “le Sieur Arouet de Voltaire to come to Paris whenever he pleases.”101

But when and how had he come to that new name? Apparently about the time of this imprisonment in the Bastille. We find it first in the edict just cited. Some102 have thought it an anagram for AROUET L [e] J [eune], taking U as V and J as I. The Marquise de Créqui103 ascribed it to Veautaire, a small farm near Paris; Voltaire had inherited this from a cousin; it conveyed no seigneurial rights, but Arouet, like Balzac, took the seigneurial de by right of genius, and signed himself, as in the dedication to his first play, “Arouet de Voltaire.” Soon he would need only one name to identify himself anywhere in Europe.

That play, Oedipe, was an event in the literary history of France. It was stark insolence in a lad of twenty-four to challenge not only Corneille, who had staged his Oedipe in 1659, but Sophocles too, whose Oedipus Tyrannus had appeared 330 B.C. Moreover, this was a tale of incest, and might be taken as reflecting upon the relations of the Regent with his daughter—precisely the issue on which Arouet had been imprisoned. The Duchesse du Maine, at whose court the poet had conceived his play, interpreted it so, and rejoiced. With his usual audacity, Voltaire asked the Regent might he dedicate the piece to him; the Regent demurred, but permitted dedication to his mother. The première was announced for November 18, 1718. Two factions formed among the playgoers of Paris—those supporting the Regent, and those favoring the Duchesse du Maine; it was expected that their duel of hisses and cheers would make a farce of the performance. But the clever author had inserted lines to please one faction, other lines to please the other. The Regent’s party was appeased by a passage describing how King Laius (like Philippe) dismissed the costly palace guard; the Jesuits were gratified to see how well their pupil had profited from the dramas they had staged at the College Louis-le-Grand; but the freethinkers hailed enthusiastically two lines, in the first scene of Act IV, that were to become the theme song of Voltaire’s life:

Nos prêtres ne sont pas ce qu’un vain peuple pense;

Notre crédulité fait toute leur science

—“Our priests are not what a silly populace supposes; all their learning consists in our credulity.” Each faction applauded in turn, and in the end the drama was greeted with unanimous approval. According to an old tradition Voltaire’s father, approaching death, came to the first night still breathing anger against his worthless and disreputable son, but wept with pride at the splendor of the poetry and the triumph of the play.

Oedipe had an unprecedented run of forty-five days. Even Corneille’s nephew, the aging Fontenelle, praised it, though he suggested to Voltaire that some of the verses were “too strong and full of fire.” The brash youth replied with an ungracious double-entendre:“To correct myself I shall read your Pastorales.”104 Paris insisted on identifying the incestuous Oedipus with the Regent, and Jocasta with his daughter. Facing the gossip bravely, the Duchesse de Berry attended several performances. The Regent had the play produced at his palace theater, and welcomed the author to his court.

A few months later a scandalmongering poet, hiding under anonymity, issued Les Philippiques, diatribes in which Philippe was accused of planning to poison the young King and usurp the throne. Voltaire was widely suspected of authorship; he protested his innocence, but he had lied so flagrantly in similar cases that now only the author believed him. Philippe gave him the benefit of the doubt, and merely advised him to absent himself from Parisian felicity a while. He went back to the Château de Sully (May, 1719). After a year he was allowed to return to the capital. There he was for a time a darling of the aristocracy.

Convinced that money was the philosopher’s stone, he put his sharp wits to the problems and tricks of finance. He cultivated bankers, and was well rewarded for helping the brothers Paris to secure contracts to supply provisions and munitions to the army;105 our hero was a war profiteer. He stayed out of Law’s System, invested judiciously, lent money at interest. In 1722 his father died, and after some resolute litigation Voltaire inherited an annuity of 4,250 francs. In that same year he received from the Regent a pension of 2,000 livres. He was now a rich man; soon he would be a millionaire. We must not think of him as a revolutionist, except in religion.

Fortunately for his education, his second drama, Artémire, failed (February 15, 1720). He ran from his box onto the stage, and argued with the audience on the merits of the piece; they applauded his speech but kept their thumbs down; after eight performances he withdrew the play. Later in that year he read part of La Henriade at a gathering; there were some criticisms; in a Virgilian gesture he threw the manuscript into the fire; Hénault snatched the sheets from the flame, and compared himself to Augustus rescuing theAeneid; Voltaire, he said, now owed him an epic and “a nice pair of sleeve ruffles.”106 The poet easily recovered his pride when the Regent himself listened to a reading from the poem. Wherever he went he read some part of it. In 1723 he visited Lord Bolingbroke and his French wife at their villa, La Source, near Orléans; they assured him that his epic surpassed “all poetical works which have appeared in France.”107 He pretended to doubt it.

Meanwhile he exchanged philosophies with the titled skeptic, and heard of the deists who were bedeviling Christianity in Britain. He began to suspect that England had advanced beyond France in science and philosophy. But he had come to Bolingbroke’s heresies before meeting him or reading the English deists. In 1722 he accepted the invitation of the Comtesse Marie de Rupelmonde to accompany her to the Netherlands. She was a widow, aged thirty-eight, and intellectual, but she was beautiful. He, aged twenty-eight, accepted. At Brussels he met a rival poet, Jean Baptiste Rousseau, who praised Oedipe but chided Voltaire for impiety. Seldom able to bear criticism patiently, Voltaire remarked about Rousseau’s “Ode to Posterity,” “Do you know, my master, that I do not believe this ode will ever reach its address?”108 They continued to snap at each other till Rousseau’s death. As Voltaire and his Countess continued on their way to Holland, she revealed her religious doubts to him, and asked him for his own views. Bubbling with verse, he replied in a famous Épître à Uranie, which was not published till 1732, and not acknowledged by Voltaire till forty years afterward. Every sensitive Christian youth will recognize in it a stage in his own development.

Tu veux done, belle Uranie,

Qu’érigé par ton ordre en Lucrèce nouveau,

Devant toi, d’une main hardie,

Aux superstitions j’arrache le bandeau;

Que j’expose à tes yeux le dangereux tableau

Des mensonges sacrés dont la terre est remplie,

Et que ma philosophie

T’apprenne à mépriser les horreurs du tombeau,

Et les terreurs de l’autre vie.III

The poet proceeds with “respectful step.” “I wish to love God, I seek in him my father”; but what kind of God does the Christian theology offer? “A tyrant whom we should hate. He created men in ‘his own image,’ only to make them vile; he gave us sinful hearts to have the right to punish us; he made us love pleasure, so that he might torment us with frightful pains… eternal.” He had hardly given us birth when he thought of destroying us. He ordered the water to engulf the earth. He sent his son to atone for our sins; Christ died, but apparently in vain, for we are told that we are still stained with the crime of Adam and Eve; and the Son of God, so acclaimed for mercy, is represented as waiting vengefully to plunge most of us into hell, including all those countless people who never heard of him. “I do not recognize in this disgraceful picture the God whom I must adore; I should dishonor him by such insult and homage.” And yet he feels the nobility and the living inspiration in the Christian concept of the Saviour:

Behold this Christ, powerful and glorious,… trampling death under his triumphant feet, and emerging victorious from the gates of hell. His example is holy, his morality is divine. He consoles in secret the hearts that he illumines; in the greatest misfortunes he gives them support; and if he bases his doctrine on an illusion, it is still a blessing to be deceived with him.

In conclusion the poet invites Uranie to make up her own mind on religion, in full trust that God, who “has placed natural religion in your heart, will not resent a simple and candid spirit. Believe that before his throne, in all times, in all places, the soul of the just man is precious; believe that the modest Buddhist monk, the kindly Moslem dervish, find more grace in his eyes than a pitiless [predestinarian] Jansenist or an ambitious pope.”

Back in Paris Voltaire settled down in the Hôtel de Bernières on the Rue de Beaune and the present Quai Voltaire (1723). In November he went to a gathering of notables in the Château de Maisons (nine miles from Paris), where the greatest actress of the age, Adrienne Lecouvreur, was to read his new play, Mariamne. But before that ceremony could take place he came down with smallpox, which in those days killed a high percentage of its hosts. He made his will, confessed, and awaited death. The other guests fled, but the Marquis de Maisons called in Dr. Gervais from Paris. “Instead of the cordials usually given in this disease, he made me drink two hundred pints of lemonade.”109 The two hundred pints, more or probably less, “saved my life.” It was many months before he recovered his health; indeed, from that time onward he treated himself as an invalid, nursing the fitful life of the frail body that had to house his consuming fire.

In 1724 La Henriade began secretly to circulate among the intelligentsia. It was a political broadcast on an epic scale. Taking the Massacre of St. Bartholomew as a text, it traced religious crimes through the ages: mothers offering their children to be burned on the altars of Moloch; Agamemnon preparing to sacrifice his daughter to the gods for a little breeze; Christians persecuted by Romans, heretics by Christians, fanatics “invoking the Lord while slaughtering their brothers”; devotees inspired to kill French kings. The poem lauded Elizabeth for helping Henry of Navarre. It described the battle of Ivry, the clemency of Henry, his liaison with Gabrielle d’Estrées, his siege of Paris. It approved his conversion to Catholicism, but it criticized the papacy as a power “inflexible to the conquered, complaisant to conquerors, ready, as interest dictates, either to absolve or to condemn.”

Voltaire had hoped that La Henriade would be accepted as the national epic of France, but Catholicism was too dear to his countrymen to let them receive the poem as the epos of their soul. And its faults leaped to the scholarly eye. The obvious imitations of Homer and Virgil—in the battle scenes, in the visit of the hero to hell, in the intrusion of personified abstractions, after the manner of Homeric deities, into the action—sacrificed the charms of invention and originality; and though the style made good prose, it lacked the illuminating imagery of verse. The author, drunk with printer’s ink, had no suspicion of this. He wrote to Thieriot: “Epic poetry is my forte, or I am much deceived.”110 He was much deceived.

Even so, the plaudits seemed to justify him. A French critic pronounced it superior to the Aeneid, and Frederick the Great thought that “a man without prejudice will prefer La Henriade to the poem of Homer.”111 The first edition was soon disposed of; a pirated edition was published in Holland and exported into France; the police banned the book; everyone bought it. It was translated into seven languages; we shall see it making a stir in England. It played a part in reviving the popularity of Henry IV. It made France ashamed of its religious wars, and critical of the theologies that had inflamed men to such ferocity.

Now for a time Voltaire enjoyed fame and fortune unalloyed. He was recognized as the greatest living poet in France. He was received at the court of Louis XV; the Queen wept over his plays, and gave him 1,500 livres from her privy purse (1725). He wrote a dozen letters complaining and boasting of his life as a courtier. He talked in a tone of easy familiarity with lords, noble or ignoble. Doubtless he talked too much, which is the easiest thing in the world. One night at the opera (December, 1725) the Chevalier de Rohan-Chabot, hearing him hold forth in the lobby, asked him, with a very superior air, “Monsieur de Voltaire, Monsieur Arouet—comment vous appelez-vous?[what really is your name?]” We do not know what the poet replied. Two days later they met at the Comédie-Française; Rohan repeated his question. Voltaire’s rejoinder is diversely reported; in one account he answered, “One who does not trail after a great name, but knows how to honor that which he has”;112 in another version he retorted, “My name begins with me, yours ends with you.”113 The noble lord raised his cane to strike; the poet made a move to draw his sword. Adrienne Lecouvreur, who was present, had the wit to faint; a truce was called.

On February 4 Voltaire was lunching at the house of the Duc de Sully when a message came that someone wished to see him at the palace gate. He went. Six ruffians pounced upon him and beat him mercifully. Rohan, directing the operation from his carriage, cautioned them, “Don’t strike his head; something good may come out of that.”114 Voltaire rushed back to the house, and asked Sully’s aid in taking legal action against Rohan; Sully refused. The poet retired to a suburb, where he practiced swordsmanship. Then he appeared at Versailles, resolved to demand “satisfaction” from the Chevalier. The law made dueling a capital crime. A royal order bade the police watch him. Rohan refused to meet him. That night, to the relief of everyone concerned, the police arrested the poet, and he found himself again in the Bastille. “The family of the prisoner,” reported the lieutenant general of the Paris police, “applauded unanimously… the wisdom of an order which kept the young man from committing some new folly.”115 Voltaire wrote to the authorities defending his conduct, and offering to go in voluntary exile to England if released. He was treated as before, with every comfort and consideration.

His proposal was accepted; after fifteen days he was freed, but a guard was ordered to see him to Calais. Members of the government gave him letters of introduction and recommendation to prominent Englishmen, and the Queen continued to pay his pension. At Calais he was entertained by friends while waiting for the next boat to sail. On May 10 he embarked, armed with books for the study of English, and not unwilling to see the country in which, he had heard, men and minds were free. Let us see.


I. Probably from rocaille, a term used in seventeenth-century France for the construction or decoration of grottoes with rocks and shells.

II. “He remembers you, and the lovely Egeria [Suzanne], in the fair days of our life, when we loved one another, all three. Reason, folly, love, the enchantment of tender errors, all bound our three hearts in one. How happy we were then! Even poverty, that sad companion of happy days, could not poison the stream of our joy. Young, gay, content, without care, without a thought for the future, limiting all our desires to our present delights—what need had we of useless abundance? We had something far better; we had happiness.”

III. “You wish, then, lovely Urania [a name for Aphrodite], that, raised at your command into a new Lucretius, I should before you, with bold hand, tear the veil from superstitions; that I should expose to your eyes the dangerous tableau of holy lies with which the earth is filled, and that my philosophy should teach you to despise the horrors of the tomb and the terrors of the other life.”

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