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Modern Language Association

Voltaire and Homer


Author(s): Warren Ramsey
Source: PMLA, Vol. 66, No. 2 (Mar., 1951), pp. 182-196
Published by: Modern Language Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/459598
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VOLTAIRE AND HOMER
BY WARREN RAMSEY
NY discussion of Voltaire's attitude toward
Homer,
a
figure
admired
and condemned for a
great variety
of reasons
during
the neoclassic
period,
must touch
ultimately
on several different
questions.
Voltaire's
reaction to
primitive
manners and customs as
represented
in the Homeric
poems,
his
understanding
of
history
and
chronology,
the method of his
mind in
approaching, again
and
again
between 1727 and
1772,
a tradi-
tional admiration of the first
importance-all
these
subjects
and more
are involved in a
study
whose immediate
purpose
is to show that Voltaire
held a consistent view of Homer. And
they
all
prepare
a still more com-
prehensive question:
whether Voltaire defended or
neglected
the cause of
poetry
at a time when an
opinion
of Homer was not far from
being equiv-
alent to an
opinion
of the essential
literary
art.
In what remains a valuable
history
of the
Quarrel
of Ancients and
Moderns, Hippolyte Rigault
wrote
(p. 504)
that "dans sa
jeunesse
Vol-
taire admirait Homere et
l'appelait
'un
peintre
sublime' . . .
mais,
en
vieillissant,
Voltaire devint moins
homerique."
The historian of the
Quarrel
went on to make the
appropriate quotations
from a work which
he
evidently
associated with Voltaire's
youth,
the Essai sur la
poesie
epique
as
published
in 1732.
Rigault
seems not to have read or not to have
taken into account that
English Essay
on
Epick
Poetry which, published
in
1727,
throws a
quite
different
light
on Voltaire's
youthful opinions
of
Homer.
Sainte-Beuve,
on the other
hand, writing
two
years
before Ri-
gault's
book
appeared,
demonstrated awareness that Voltaire
expressed
himself on the
subject
of Homer while in
England:
"Dans l'Essai sur la
poesie {pique, qu'il composa
a Londres en
1726,
et
qui
fut
imprime
a
la suite de la
Henriade,
Voltaire n'a
pas trop
mal
parle
d'Homere: 'Le
grand
merite
d'Homere, y disait-il,
est d'avoir ete un
peintre
sublime;
inferieur de
beaucoup
a
Virgile
dans tout le
reste,
il lui est
superieur
en
cette
partie.'
"m
The
only difficulty
is that the sentence
quoted by
Sainte-
Beuve, long regarded
as the
pith
of Voltaire's
early thought
on
Homer,
is taken from the French Essai: and there is
nothing very
much like it
in the
English Essay published
in London in 1727. Sainte-Beuve
ap-
parently
believed that Essai and
Essay
were
substantially
the same. So
far as the
chapters
on Homer are concerned
they
are
radically
different.
The critic of the Lundis adds
that, "toutefois,
a mesure
que
Voltaire
s'eloigna
de la lecture d'Homere
qu'il
avait di faire a cette
occasion,
il
redevint
plus leger
et fut
repris
d'irrev6rence . ..
,"
thus
tracing
out that
descending
curve of Voltaire's Homeric
appreciation which,
with
1
"De la
Reputation
d'Homere et de
Virgile
en
France,"
Etude sur
Virgile (1857),
ed.
Calmann
Levy (1891), pp.
306-307.
182
Warren
Ramsey
Rigault's retracing
and
prolongation
two
years later,
was to become
traditional.
It was not till 1915 that Florence Donnell
White,
in Voltaire's
Essay
on
Epick Poetry,
a
Study
and an
Edition, presented
Voltaire's first
thoughts
on heroic
poetry
in definitive fashion and went far toward
showing
their full
import. "Wholly unappreciative
of the Greek
poet
in
1727,"
she concluded
(p. 161),
"Voltaire was soon to attain to a
degree
of real
sympathy
with
him, only
to return in after
years
to his
early
position
and to take it still more
strongly."
Miss White
detected,
in
my opinion,
more
sympathy
than existed. Yet her edition of the
Essay
is what
permits
a
reading
of the Essai different from hers.
Since Miss White's critical
study Raymond
Naves in Le Goit de Vol-
taire has
proceeded
with awareness that Voltaire's view of Homer is no
simple
matter of fluctuation from
early appreciation
to
subsequent
hos-
tility.
No book has contributed more than Naves' to
showing
the diver-
sity
of Voltaire's
opinions
on
many literary subjects, including
the
present
one,
and none testifies to a more earnest search for a fundamental
unity.
Under the
important heading,
"Voltaire militant du
gout jusqu'en
1738,"
Naves finds in the Essai the
workings
of a critical
strategy.
He
rejects
the notion of an "evolution" in Voltaire's taste between 1719 and
1733, insisting
that the various critical utterances
represent
a fundamen-
tally
stable
point
of
view,
that
Essay
and Essai make a
single work,
what-
ever the revisions. One could
object
to a somewhat too
ready rolling
of
the two works into one ball and to a too facile
acceptance
of familiar
patterns
of
thought
and
language.
"L'unite de l'Essai sur la
poesie epique
apparait;
elle
pourrait s'exprimer
dans une formule: tout
accueillir,
tout
controler"
(p. 142).
The
differing
national tastes considered
by
Voltaire
are said to have made him
only
more aware of "la
permanence
d'un
gout
general
... bien
frangais."
Ernst Merian-Genast in his fine "Voltaire und die
Entwicklung
der
Idee der Weltliteratur"2 has called attention to some of the differences
between the
essays
and has
helped
to establish Voltaire in his due
place
as one of the first critics of
general
literature. In effect this excellent work
neutralizes others which
deny
or overlook that
place: Wladyslaw
Folkier-
ski's,
for
example,
which
relegates
Voltaire on the ancients to an unin-
formative footnote.3
However,
neither Merian-Genast's work nor Naves'
nor Miss White's exhausts the
subject
of Voltaire's Homeric criticism.
No work has shown once for all
how,
after the so-called second or Hom-
eric
phase
of the
Quarrel
of Ancients and
Moderns,
a
dispute reopened
in
1714
by
Houdar de la Motte's mutilation and shrewd
anti-poetic
attack
2
Roman.
Forsch.,
XL
(1927),
1-226
(esp. pp. 119-120, 133-148).
3
At the end of his
chapter,
"Les Anciens et la
regle,"
in Entre le classicisme et le roman-
tisme
(1925), pp.
168-169.
183
Voltaire and Homer
on the
Iliad,
Voltaire
evolved, borrowing
elements from both
sides,
a
new
position,
to which he held rather
persistently.
No
study
has suc-
ceeded or is
likely
to succeed more than
partially
in
relating
these
thoughts
on Homer to the defense of
poesy-qualified,
hesitant and
yet
on the whole a defense-of which
they
form a
part.
For the
twenty-year-old Arouet, meditating upon
his future
epic
and
beginning,
under the
joint
influence of the Abbe Dubos and the
Marquis
de
Saint-Ange,
to think of Henri IV as a
likely subject,
La Motte's
haling-up
of Homer into the
bright literary light
of
day
must have been
an event of considerable
importance. Despite
his
lowly place
in Voltaire's
first
satire,
Le
Bourbier,
earned when an obscure friend of La Motte won
over Arouet the
prize
awarded for the best ode at the Fete de Saint Louis
in
1714,4
La Motte was eminent. His Discours sur
Homare
(1714),
far
from
being negligible,
is on the one hand a skillful
linking-together
of
anti-authoritarian
arguments
from Desmarets de
Saint-Sorlin,
Charles
Perrault,
and earlier
commentators,
and on the other hand a curious
pushing
of honorable neoclassic
principles
of
unity
to intolerable ex-
tremes. La Motte's radical definition of the
epic-"le
r6cit d'une action"
-encountered at a formative
period
may
have had
something
to do with
Voltaire's latitudinarian
descriptions
of the form. "A Discourse in
Verse,"
"un
discours,
epos"x-these
two definitions of the
epic
from different
stages
in Voltaire's career
represent
with La Motte's an
important
de-
parture
from Le Bossu's
conception
of the didactic
epic: "l'epopee
est
un discours invente avec
art, pour
former les mceurs
par
des instructions
d6guisees
sous les
allegories
d'une action
importante."6
This latter was
the definition
paraphrased
and
expounded by
Madame Dacier in that
earnest defense of Homer7 from which we find Voltaire
borrowing
the
only part
which had much
value,
the
sympathetic appreciation
of Ho-
meric customs.
A
profound
undercurrent beneath "Modern" criticism of Homer before
1715 was the Abbe
d'Aubignac's long
withheld
Conjectures Academiques
ou Dissertation sur l'Iliade.
D'Aubignac's
harsh irreverence for the cus-
toms and manners of Homeric heroes sustained
part
of La Motte's
argu-
ment most
energetically,
even
though
the later critic
rejected
d'Aubi-
gnac's far-reaching hypothesis
that the Iliad was the work of
many
hands.
Victor
Magnien
has told in the
preface
to his edition of the
Conjectures
of the circumstances
surrounding
the
surreptitious publication
of this
work in 1715.
Entirely
unnoticed
by
French
periodicals,
unmentioned
by
Gustave
Desnoiresterres,
Voltaire et la societt au XVIIIe siecle
(1871), I,
79-85.
6
Essay
on
Epick Poetry,
ed.
White, p.
32.
"EpopEe," Questions
sur
l'Encyclopedie
(cinquiime partie, 1771), (Euvres,
ed.
Moland, xvuI,
565.
6
Traite sur le
poeme epique (1675), p.
26.
7Des Causes de la
corruption
du
golt (1715), p.
45.
184
Warren
Ramsey
the authors of numerous works on Homer
appearing shortly
after
1715,
the
Conjectures
were
obviously suppressed by
a Chancellerie to whom the
main
theory appeared
not
only
"invraisemblable" and
"extravagante"
but "fausse et
pernicieuse."
This sudden and strenuous
suppression may
tell us much about the kind of
authority
to which Voltaire was
obliged
to
adapt
his Essai sur la
poesie epique only eighteen years
later. But it
makes the direct
contemporary
influence of the
Conjectures
hard if not
impossible
to
gauge.
The
principal points
of reference so far as Voltaire's
thought
on Homer is concerned are those about which he was
explicit,
the works of La Motte and Madame Dacier.
In an effort to show that Voltaire's
appreciation
of Homer followed
neither the
descending
curve traced
by
Sainte-Beuve nor the
ascending-
descending
curve
proposed by
Miss
White,
but hewed to a
fairly straight
line,
we
may begin
at a
point
close to the end of that line. One of the
least familiar of Voltaire's
pronouncements
on Homer is
among
his last.
To Les Lois de
Minos,
an
unperformed play
of
1772,
a vehicle for ideas
rather than for dramatic
characters,
Voltaire wrote two
important
notes.
Apropos
of
Polyxena, daughter
of Priam whom Achilles
desired,
he re-
calls that the maiden was
finally
sacrificed to the manes of Patroclus.
... et Homere decrit le divin Achille sacrifiant de sa main douze
citoyens troyens
aux manes de Patrocle. C'est a
peu pres
l'histoire des
premiers
barbares
que nous
avons trouves dans
l'Amerique septentrionale.
Il
parait, par
tout ce
qu'on
nous
raconte des anciens
temps
de la
Grece, que
ses habitants n'etaient
que
des sau-
vages superstitieux
et
sanguinaires,
chez
lesquels
il
y
eut
quelques
bardes
qui
chanterent des dieux ridicules et des
guerriers tres-grossiers
vivant de
rapine;
mais ces bardes etalerent des
images frappantes
et sublimes
qui subjuguent
l'imagination.8
Voltaire's second and
longer note, concerning Greece,
is to the same
effect. He considers that the
people
of the
West,
to
begin
with the
Greeks,
must indeed have been barbarians at the time of the
Trojan
War.
Euripide,
dans un
fragment qui
nous est rest6 de la
trag6die
des
Cretois,
dit
que,
dans leur
ile,
les
prOtres mangeaient
de la chair crue aux fetes nocturnes de
Bacchus. On sait d'ailleurs
que,
dans
plusieurs
de ces
antiques orgies,
Bacchus
6tait suromme
mangeur
de chair crue.
C'est d'abord un
grand
roi
qui
refuse avec
outrage
a un
pretre
sa file dont
ce
pretre apportait
la
rangon.
C'est Achille
qui
traite ce roi de l&che et de chien.
Diomede blesse Venus et Mars
qui
revenaient
d'Ethiopie,
ou ils avaient
soupe
avec tous les dieux.
Jupiter, qui
a
deja pendu
sa femme une
fois,
la menace de la
pendre
encore.
Agamemnon
dit aux Grecs assembles
que
Jupiter
machine contre
lui la
plus
noire des
perfidies.
Si les dieux sont
perfides, que
doivent etre les
hommes?
(Euvres, VII,
177.
185
Voltaire and Homer
Et
que
dirons-nous de la
generosite
d'Achille envers Hector?
Achille,
invul-
nerable,
a
qui
les dieux ont fait une armure defensive
tres-inutile;
Achille se-
conde
par Minerve,
dont Platon fit
depuis
le
Logos divin,
le
verbe;
Achille
qui
ne
tue Hector
que parce que
la
Sagesse,
fille de
Jupiter,
le
Logos,
a
trompe
ce heros
par
le
plus
infame
mensonge
at
par
le
plus
abominable
prestige;
Achille
enfin,
ayant
tue si
aisement, pour
tout
exploit,
le
pieux Hector,
ce
prince
mourant
prie
son adversaire de rendre son
corps sanglant
a ses
parents;
Achille lui
repond:
"Je
voudrais te hacher
par morceaux,
et te
manger
tout cru." Cela
pourrait
justifier
les
pretres cretois,
s'ils n'etaient
pas
faits
pour
servir
d'exemple.
Achille ne s'en tient
pas la;
il
perce
les talons
d'Hector, y passe
une
laniere,
et le traine ainsi
par
les
pieds
dans la
campagne.
Homere ne dormait
pas quand
il chantait ces
exploits
de
cannibales;
il avait la fievre
chaude,
et les Grecs etaient
atteints de la
rage.
Voila
pourtant
ce
qu'on
est convenu d'admirer de
l'Euphrate
au mont
Atlas,
parce
que
ces horreurs furent c6lebrees dans une
langue harmonieuse, qui
devint
la
langue
universelle.
Thus
roundly
and for such reasons Voltaire in his old
age
dismisses the
manners of the Iliad. His
objections
were not
new;
he had been
preceded
in some of them
by
no less a condemnation of
poetry
on moral
grounds
than Plato's
Republic (568 B-C;
595
A-B;
607
C-D-E).
Cicero in the Tuscu-
lan
Disputations
had
disapproved
of the
dragging
of Hector's
body.
The
Pere
Rapin
in his
Comparaison
d'Homerre et de
Virgile (1669)
had
quoted
Cicero's stricture
along
with a similar one made
by Torquato
Tasso in
his Discorsi del
poema
eroico. The whole line of the French Moderns had
taxed Homer with his
crudities,
and Fenelon when he intervened in their
quarrel
with the Ancients had commented
sadly
that Homer's heroes
were
very
far from
being
"honn6tes
gens"
and that the
gods, alas,
were
even worse.
Despite
all these
precedents, however,
the
tone,
the vehe-
mence and the
anthropological
information of the notes to the Lois de
Minos are Voltaire's own.
As
regards
the artistic
qualities
of the
Iliad,
Voltaire
may
never have
expressed
himself more
candidly
than
by
the words
put
into the mouth
of Pococurante:
Candide en
voyant
un Homere
magnifiquement reli6,
loua l'Illustrissime sur son
bon
gout. "Voila, dit-il,
un livre
qui
faisait les d6lices du
grand Pangloss,
le meil-
leur
Philosophe
de
l'Allemagne....
II ne fait
pas
les
miennes,
dit froidement
Pococurante: on me fit accroire autrefois
que j'avais
du
plaisir
en le lisant. Mais
cette
repetition
continuelle de combats
qui
se ressemblent
tous,
ces Dieux
qui
agissent toujours pour
ne rien faire de
decisif;
cette Helene
qui
est le
sujet
de la
guerre,
&
qui
a
peine
est une Actrice de la
piece;
cette
Troye qu'on assiege
&
qu'on
ne
prend point;
tout cela me causait le
plus
mortel ennui.
J'ai
demande
quelquefois
a des
savans,
s'ils
s'ennuyaient
autant
que
moi a cette lecture? Tous
les
gens
sinceres m'ont avoue
que
le livre leur tombait des
mains,
mais
qu'il
186
Warren
Ramsey
fallait
toujours
l'avoir dans sa
bibliotheque
comme un monument de
l'antiquite,
& comme ces medailles rouillees
qui
ne
peuvent
etre de commerce.9
Does the acidulous Venetian senator
speak
for his creator? We
may
be-
lieve so if Pococurante
speaks
as Voltaire
spoke
before and after 1759.
Forty-five years
before Les Lois de
Minos,
in
December, 1727,
the
booksellers of London and Westminster had
put up
for sale a little vol-
ume entitled An
Essay upon
the Civil Wars
of
France extracted
from
Curious
Manuscripts,
and also
upon
the
Epick Poetry of
the
European
Nations, from
Homer down to
Milton, by
Mr. de Voltaire. The
essays
were
meant to
prepare
the
English public
for the matter and manner of the
Henriade,
so
long delayed, published only surreptitiously
in France as
La
Ligue
ou Henri le
Grand,
soon to
appear
much revised and
impressively
printed
in
England. Clearly,
time and circumstance had much to do with
the
conception
of the
essays.
On the other
hand,
Voltaire had had the
most
compelling
reason of all to think about
epic
form
during
the
years
when he had written and rewritten and written
again
his most ambitious
imaginative work,
intended to be a more
commanding accomplishment
even than a first-rate
tragedy. Away
from France and the kind of censor-
ship
that had been able to make
d'Aubignac's Conjectures
almost as if
they
had never been
printed, speaking
his mind
freely
to the freest minds
in
England,
Voltaire
may
have delivered himself
spontaneously
of
sig-
nificant
opinions.
Despite
his
something
less than
eighteen
months in
England,
Voltaire's
language
in the
Essay
on
Epick Poetry
is
astonishingly easy, vigorous,
inviting
to
quotation
and
discouraging
to
paraphrase.
There is no reason
to believe that he had undue
help
in the
composition.
With its bold in-
troductory proposal
to
try
"the Taste of
every Nation,"
with its brisk
sections on
Homer, Virgil, Lucan, Trissino, Cam6es, Tasso,
Alonzo de
Ercilla,
and
Milton,
the
Essay
is one of the first texts in which literatures
are
veritably compared.
It is
interesting
that it should have been
pro-
duced and had wide
currency
in a
language
not the author's. The
Essay
went
through
three still
surviving
editions in
England,
those of
1727,
1728, 1731,
and
probably
another
one,
now
lost,
between 1728 and 1731.
A Dublin edition of 1760 with an introduction
by J.
S. D. D. D. S. P. D.
(Jonathan Swift,
Doctor of
Divinity,
Dean of St.
Patrick's, Dublin),
long
familiar to students of
Voltaire, pointed
back to an
original
Dublin
edition of 1728 which was believed lost until its
discovery
in recent
years.10
Two kinds of
brevity
are
apparent
in the treatment of Homer. The
first is
physical:
the Father of
Poetry
is dealt with in some
1,100
words
9
Candide ou
l'Optimisme,
traduit de l'allemand de M. le docteur
Ralph,
ed. Andre Morize
(1913), pp.
187-188.
10
By
Horatio
Smith,
in the
John
Carter Brown
Library,
Providence. See
MLN,
XLVII
(April 1932),
234.
187
Voltaire and Homer
(Virgil
in about
1,500).
The second kind of summariness is best revealed
by
an examination of the
chapter.
A
preliminary
reference to
Pope's
Iliad is
probably
not ironical: "As to
Homer,
those who cannot read him
in the
Original
have Mr.
Pope's Translation; they may
discern the Fire of
that Father of
Poetry,
reflected from such a
polish'd
and faithful Glass.""
(This
is reminiscent of an
image
in the Preface to
Pope's
translation:
"This Homer's Fire is discern'd in
Virgil,
but discerned as
through
a
Glass,
reflected ....") The reader is invited to consult his own reactions
and decide whether "Homer hath reach'd the utmost Pitch of the
Art,
in
any Thing
else but in that
predominant
Force of
Painting
which makes
his
peculiar
character."
Notwithstanding
the Veneration
due,
and
paid
to
Homer,
it is
very strange, yet
true,
that
among
the most
Learn'd,
and the
greatest
Admirers of
Antiquity,
there is scarce one to be
found,
who ever read the
Iliad,
with that
eagerness
and
Rapture,
which a Woman feels when she reads the novel of
Zaida;
and as to
the common mass of
Readers,
less conversant with
Letters,
but not
perhaps
endow'd with a less Share of
Judgment
and
Wit,
few have been able to
go
through
the whole
Iliad,
without
struggling against
a secret
Dislike,
and some
have thrown it aside after the fourth or fifth Book. How does it come to
pass
that Homer hath so
many Admirers,
and so few Readers? And is at the same time
worshipp'd
and
neglected?
As a first reason Voltaire
proposes
the
inability
of readers to
"transport
themselves far
enough
into such a remote
antiquity,
as to become the
Contemporaries
of Homer." The
explanation
is common to several Mod-
erns. The
wording suggests
La
Motte's,
who had
spoken
of "lecteurs
degoutez, qui trop pleins
de nos
usages,
& de nos
gouts,
ne scauroient se
transporter
a des tems si differens des notres." The
language
in which
Voltaire continues is his own: "The
Rays
of
[Homer's] Light
trans-
mitted to their
Eyes through
so
long
a
Way,
afford them but a feeble
glimmering Twilight,
and no warmth.
They
are like the old Counsellors
of
Priam,
who confess'd without
any
emotion of
Heart,
that Helena
was a
beauty."
Then the Iliad is too uniform. "The Battles take
up
three
Parts of the whole
Iliad,"
and the reader is
"likely
to be
disgusted by
the
continual Glare of that
predominant
Colour."
Thirdly,
the
poem
is cer-
tainly
too
long. So,
it is
true,
are all
epic poems,
for the
genre
requires
a
powerful imagination
and a
vigorous imagination
tends to
superabound.
Fourthly
and most
extensively,
Voltaire is concerned with the fact that
"Homer interesses
[the
spelling
of the word is one reason for
believing
that
the author did not have substantial
help
in
composing
his
essay]
us for
none of his Heroes." Achilles is too
boisterous,
and whatever admiration
one
might
have had for his valor is worn
away by
his
long idleness;
11
White, p.
89. All
quotations
from the
English
Essay
are made from Miss White's
edition.
188
Warren
Ramsey
Menelaus is
merely Agamemnon's brother;
Paris is
contemptible;
Agamemnon proud
without
any particular
reason for
pride;
and "I do
not know how it comes to
pass,
but
every
Reader bears
secretly
an ill Will
to the wise
Ulysses.
The fair
Helena,
the cause of so
great Mischiefs,
is
insignificant enough. Nobody
cares whose Share she will fall
to,
since
she seems herself indifferent between her two Husbands."
Lesser neoclassic critics had
objected
to inconsistencies in the conduct
of the characters. Voltaire is
chiefly
concerned with the fact that
they
lack
power
to move. When two warriors
fight
we feel neither
hope
nor
fear for either of them. "We are like Juno in the
Aeneid,
Tros rutulus ve
fitat,
nullo discrimine
habebo"-though, incidentally,
it is not
Juno
but
Jupiter
who
professes
unconcern as to the outcome in the tenth book of
the Aeneid. We do have a
feeling
of
pity
for
Priam,
at least toward the
end of the
poem,
and we
sympathize
with
Hector, tender, courageous
and
betrayed by
the
gods.
But this
feeling
for the
Trojans only
diverts our at-
tention from the
Greeks, putative
heroes of the action. And our
genuine
concern for Hector is lost as Hector is
lost, among
a crowd of heroes.
"Our Attention is divided and
lessen'd,
like a Stream cut into
many
rivu-
lets."
Voltaire's final
judgment against
the Iliad is
sufficiently classical,
stemming
as it does from the
eighth chapter
of Aristotle's
Poetics,
on
the
untransposability
of
parts. "Many
of the books of the Iliad are inde-
pendent
from one
another; they might
be
transposed
without
any great
Alteration in the Action. And
perhaps,
for that
Reason, they
were call'd
Rhapsodies.
I leave to the
Judgement
of the
Reader,
if such a
work,
be it
never so well
written,
never so
teeming
with Beauties
(can
be
interesting)
and win our attention."
Only
one sentence in the
chapter
could be con-
strued as favorable to Homer or the Iliad. It comes between the third and
fourth
objections
and wanders from the main line of the
argument:
"Homer's
gods
are
perhaps
at once absurd and
entertaining,
as the Mad-
ness of Ariosto amuses us with a
bewitching Delight....
And for his
other
Faults,
the
Majesty,
and the Fire of his
Stile, brightens
them often
into Beauties." But this
chapter
would have to be reckoned for the Mod-
ern side in
any Quarrel
of Ancients and Moderns. The most
conspicuous
writer of the new
century
does not believe with Boileau in the seventh
section of his
Reflexions
sur
Longin,
that while
"l'antiquite
d'un ecrivain
n'est
pas
un titre certain de son merite . .
l'antique
et constante ad-
miration
qu'on
a
toujours
eue
pour
ses
ouvrages
est une
preuve
sure et
infaillible
qu'on
les doit admirer."
Translated almost
immediately
into French
by
the Abbe
Desfontaines,
Voltaire's first
essay
on
epic poetry
was to
appear
in the Amsterdam
edition of his works in
1732,
in the eiuvres
completes
of
1739,
and be-
latedly
in an edition of the Henriade
published
at Neuchatel in 1772.
189
190 Voltaire and Homer
But Voltaire was
quite
aware that his
English
effort was an
"embryon
mal
forme,"'2
unsuitable for a French
public.
"I1 me faut
deguiser
a
Paris ce
que je
ne
pourrais
dire
trop
fortement a
Londres,"'3
he wrote at
a time when this work was
undergoing revision,
at a time when there
was still a distinct
polemical tinge
to all his criticism. An
accomplished
strategist
now as on other
occasions,
he will
not,
in
France, proceed
in
plain
blunt fashion. In 1733 Voltaire
published
his recast Essai sur la
poesie epique.
If in certain sections the
English original
is
clearly recog-
nizable,
the
chapter
on Homer is
sharply
and
completely
different. The
English chapter
has been
replaced by
a new
chapter
more than twice as
long. Passing
with few
though meaningful changes through
editions of
1738, 1742, 1746, 1751, 1756, 1768,
1775 and
1784,
this was to remain
Voltaire's
lengthiest
treatment of Homer.
He attacks his
subject chronologically, following
Isaac
Newton,
who
in his later
years
was
perfectly
clear about the date of the fall of
Troy.14
Newton had died and his
Chronology of
Ancient
Kingdoms
Amended had
appeared during
Voltaire's
stay
in
England.
Not
unnaturally,
the future
popularizer
of the
theory
of
gravitation
in France was inclined to
accept
the time-scale established
by
a man whom he revered.
Accepting
Hesiod's
testimony
that he lived in the
age immediately following
that of the
12
"Je joindrai
a cette edition [a new edition of the
Henriade]
un Essai sur la poesie
epique qui
ne sera
point
la traduction d'un
embryon
mal
forme,
mais un
ouvrage complet
tres curieux
pour
ceux
qui, quoique
nes en France, veulent avoir une id6e du gofit
des autres
nations."-To
Thieriot, Correspondance de Voltaire (1726-29),
ed. Lucien Foulet
(1913),
p.
175.
13
To
Formont, Nov. 1732, concerning
the Lettres anglaises-.(Euvres, xxxiii, 307.
14
"904.
Troy
taken.
Amenophis
was still at
Susa;
the Greeks
feigning
that he came from
thence to the
Trojan
war ...."
"870. Hesiod flourishes. He hath told us himself that he lived in the
age
next after the
wars of Thebes and
Troy, and that this
age
should end when the men then
living grew
hoary
and
dropt
into the
grave;
and therefore it was but of an ordinary length: and
Herodotus has told us [L-2] that Hesiod and Homer were but 400
years
older than himself.
Whence it follows that the destruction of
Troy
was not older than we have
represented
it."-The
Chronology of
Ancient
Kingdoms
Amended. To which is Prefix'd,
a Short Chronicle
from
the First Memory of Things
in
Europe,
to the
Conquest of
Persia by Alexander the Great.
By
Sir Isaac Newton. London: Printed for
J.
Tonson,
J.
Osborn and T.
Longman; and
Sold
by
Alexander
Symmer
and William
Monro,
Booksellers in
Edinburgh. MDCCXXVII.
(The
Rare Book Room of the Yale Library
has a
copy
of the book.)
With which
compare
Voltaire: "Homere vivait probablement
environ huit cent
cinquante
annees avant l'ere
chr6tienne;
il 6tait certainement
contemporain
d'Hesiode. Or Hesiode
nous
apprend qu'il
6crivait dans
l'Age
qui
suivait celui de la guerre
de
Troie, et
que
cet
age,
dans
lequel
il
vivait,
finirait avec la
g6neration
qui
existait alors. II est donc certain
qu'Homere
fleurissait deux
generations apres
la
guerre
de
Troie; ainsi il pouvait avoir vu
dans son enfance
quelques
vieillards
qui
avaient et6 A ce
siege,
et il devait avoir parle
souvent A des Grecs
d'Europe qui
avaient vu
Ulysse, Menelas,
et
Achille."-CEuvres, viii,
314. Other
quotations
from the French Essai are made from this
page and pages
immedi-
ately following.
Warren
Ramsey
Trojan War, accepting
further the tradition that Hesiod and Homer were
contemporaries,
Voltaire was
prepared
to believe that an historic Homer
had
spoken
as a
boy
with men who had seen
Ulysses, Menelaus,
and
Achilles face to face. The Arundelian marble and most recent accounts
agree
that Homer must have lived at least three hundred
years
after
the War of
Troy;
but the Newtonian-Voltairian error is
ingenious
and
explicable.
After a nod toward
skeptics
of the line of
d'Aubignac,
after a
paragraph
in which he remarks that Homer recorded both
history
and
fable,
after
commenting
on the absence of information
concerning
the
poet's life,
Voltaire ascribes the defects of the Iliad to the element of the marvelous.
Thence the two
great
flaws so often detected:
extravagance
of the
gods
and crudeness of the heroes. But-"c'est
reprocher
a un
peintre
d'avoir
donne a ses
figures
les habillements de son
temps.
Homere a
peint
les
Dieux tels
qu'on
les
croyait
et les hommes tels
qu'ils
etaient." Voltaire
here
appears
to make a serious effort at historical
comprehension, passes
well
beyond
the moral criticism of the
Essay
and
joins Saint-Evremond,
Madame Dacier and the Abbe Dubos15 in the line of those who seek to
situate Homer in his time and
place.
In
frequently quoted passages
which confirmed
Hippolyte Rigault's
belief that Voltaire was "Homeric" in his
youth,
the author of Le Mon-
dain rises to defend the
customs, culinary, gastronomic
and
other,
of the
heroic
age.
We
may laugh
as much as we like at Patroclus
putting
three
sheep
on to cook for himself and Achilles. "Charles
XII,
roi de
Suede,
a
fait six mois sa cuisine a
Demir-Tocca,
sans
perdre
rien de son heroisme."
We
may
smile at Nausicaa
doing
the
royal washing
in the
river,
at the
daughters
of
Augustus spinning
their father's
garments.
"Cela
n'empe-
chera
pas qu'une simplicite
si
respectable
ne vaille bien la vaine
pompe,
la
mollesse,
et
l'oisivete,
dans
lesquelles
les
personnes
d'un haut
rang
sont nourries."
Appreciations
of Madame
Dacier,
intimations of
prim-
itivist currents that are
gathering
force about him in
France,
criticism
of Gallic
ways
in the vein of the Lettres
anglaises,
references to an heroic
king
whose
biography
he had
published
the
year
before-all these ideas
combine to make this
chapter
on Homer
extraordinarily complex,
and
incidentally
to
postpone
critical evaluation.
Halfway through
the
chap-
15
"Homere a
plus songe
a
peindre
la nature telle
qu'il
la
voyait qu'a
faire des heros fort
accomplis."-"Sur
les
poemes
des
anciens,"
(Euvres melees de
Saint-Evremond,
ed. Charles
Girard
(1865), u,
492.
Quoted by
Donald M.
Foerster,
Homer in
English Criticism,
The
Historical
Approach
in the
Eighteenth Century,
Yale Studies in
English (1947), p.
8.
"Un
poete
n'est
pas
fait
pour purger
son siecle des erreurs de
Physique.
Sa tache est de
faire des
peintures
fidelles des moeurs & des
usages
de son
pays, pour
rendre son imitation
la
plus approchante
du vraisemblable
qu'il
lui est
possible."-R4flexions critiques
sur la
Poisie & sur la Peinture
(1719), n,
573.
191
Voltaire and Homer
ter, having,
as he
says,
done
justice
to the matter of the Homeric
poems,
Voltaire
approaches
the latter task
cautiously.
... tant de
plumes
savantes ont
epuis6
cette matiere
que je
me bornerai a une
seule reflexion dont ceux
qui s'appliquent
aux belles-lettres
pourront
tirer
quelque
utilite.
Si Homere a eu des
temples,
il s'est trouv6 bien des infideles
qui
se sont
moqu6s
de sa divinite. I1
y
a eu dans tous les siecles des
savants,
des
raisonneurs, qui
l'ont traite d'ecrivain
pitoyable,
tandis que d'autres 6taient a
genoux
devant lui.
The first
phase
of the
Quarrel
of Ancients and Moderns decided
nothing:
"Le redoutable
Despreaux
accabla son adversaire en s'attachant
unique-
ment a relever ses
bevues;
de sorte
que
la
dispute
fut terminee
par
rire
aux
depens
de
Perrault,
sans
qu'on
entamat le fond de la
question."
The
second
phase
was no more conclusive: Houdar de la
Motte, "par
son
ignorance
de la
langue grecque,
ne
pouvait
sentir les beautes de l'auteur
qu'il attaquait."
Madame
Dacier,
"toute
remplie
de la
superstition
des
commentateurs,
etait
incapable d'apercevoir
des defauts dans l'auteur
qu'elle
adorait."
What are the beauties and defects that have
passed
thus unnoticed?
In the rest of the
chapter
we
find, certainly,
evidence of a determined
confrontation of Homer's
poetry.
The
moving purpose
behind the
essay
as a whole had been to broaden the
conception
of a
genre,
to liberate
French taste from a
special
kind of confinement. Nowhere in the Essai
is that
design quite
as
severely
tested as in the
paragraphs
devoted to
evaluation of the "wild
Paradise,"
as
Pope
had called
it,
of Homer.
"Pour
moi,"
the
appraisal begins, "lorsque je
lus Homere et
que je
vis
ces fautes
grossi6res qui justifient
les
critiques,
et ces beautes
plus grandes
que
ces
fautes, je
ne
pus
croire d'abord
que
le meme
genie
eut
compose
tous les chants de l'Iliade." In
France,
to be
sure,
there was "le
grand
Corneille, genie pour
le moins
6gal
a
Homere";
and some of Corneille's
plays
are bad
enough,
but
not,
like Homer's
poems, "remplies
d'absur-
dites,
de
contradictions,
et de fautes
grossieres." Finally,
in
England,
he
had found "le
paradoxe
de la
reputation
d'Homere" matched
by
the
equally paradoxical reputation
of
Shakespeare.
At first he had been un-
able to understand how an
enlightened
nation could admire works full of
such monstrous absurdities. Then:
"Je m'apergus que
les
Anglais
avaient
raison,
et
qu'il
est
impossible que
toute une nation se
trompe
en fait de
sentiment,
et ait tort d'avoir du
plaisir.
Ils
voyaient
comme moi les
fautes
grossieres
de leur auteur
favori;
mais ils sentaient mieux
que
moi
ses
beautes,
d'autant
plus singuliires que
ce sont des eclairs
qui
ont brille
dans la nuit la
plus profonde."
Voltaire had
certainly
found critical
pre-
cedent for such reactions in the Preface to
Pope's
Iliad. As for aesthetic
precedent,
a
theory
of
beauty
as
sensed, superior
to
rule,
reason and
analysis,
he
very likely
found that in
England
as well.
"Beauties,
in a
192
Warren
Ramsey
Word,
are rather to be
felt,
than describ'd" Leonard Welsted had written
in an
important essay published
two
years
before Voltaire's arrival.'6
English commentary certainly, English
aesthetic
theory probably,
con-
tribute to Voltaire's
acknowledgment
of Homer's
qualities,
to his novel
and
striking comparison
of Homer with
Shakespeare.
He is
willing
to ac-
cept
Homer as an inventive
genius, ruleless, artless, directionless,
and
yet
surpassing
the followers of what Welsted
scornfully
described as "me-
chanic Laws." We
must, however,
notice the terms of Voltaire's
compari-
sons.
Shakespeare's plays, by
these
tokens,
are
superior
to
Addison's;
Homer's
epics
are more meritorious than
Chapelain's.
When he
concedes,
as
Pope
had
done,
Homer's
primacy
as a
"painter,"
Voltaire cites the same verse that
Pope
had used in the same connection.
An
army
on the march is "un feu devorant
qui, pousse par
les
vents,
con-
sume la terre devant lui."'7
Recalling
the
episodes
of the
girdle
of
Venus,
of the
personification
of the
Prayers,
Voltaire thinks of La Motte and
(be-
ginning
with the edition of
1746,
fifteen
years
after that
geometric
critic's
death)
takes the traducer to task:
"Quel
malheureux don de la nature
que
l'esprit,
s'il a
empeche
M. de Lamotte de sentir ces
grandes
beautes de
l'imagination
... ." The
sentence,
"Ceux
qui
ne
peuvent pardonner
les
fautes d'Homire en faveur de ses beautes sont la
plupart
des
esprits trop
philosophiques, qui
ont etouffe en eux-m6mes tout
sentiment,"
must be
seen in its
place,
between the names of La Motte and Pascal and intro-
ducing
the well-known attack on the latter's "Beaute
po6tique."
Lessons
learned in
England concerning
sense and sentiment are
brought
to a
sharp
but
polemical point.
After
exhorting
readers to seek out
poets
in their
original tongues, especially
Homer in his
Greek,
Voltaire concludes the
chapter (beginning
with the edition of
1756)
with these words: "Mal-
heur a
qui
l'imiterait dans l'economie de son
poeme!
heureux
qui pein-
drait les details comme lui! et c'est
precisement par
ces dEtails
que
la
po6sie
charme les hommes." An
ambiguous ending
to a rich but
ambigu-
ous
essay.
In the course of
avoiding
a direct
expression
of
opinion
on
Homer's artistic
merits,
or of
indirectly expressing
such an
opinion,
in
the course of
reacting
to some of the most vital intellectual
developments
of the
time,
Voltaire has left
untouched, unanswered,
his own serious
objections
made in the 1727
essay.
What
criticisms, briefly,
had Voltaire made when he
pointed
to the
"few Readers and
many
Admirers of the Father of
Poetry"
five
years
16
"A dissertation
concerning
the Perfection of the
English Language,
the State of
Poetry,
&c."
1724,
in Critical
Essays of
the
Eighteenth Century,"
ed. Willard
Higley
Dur-
ham
(Yale, 1915), p.
365.
17
The Iliad
of Homer,
Translated
by
Mr.
Pope,
London. Printed
by
W.
Bowyer,
for
Bernard Lintott between the
Temple-Gates.
1715. First Edition.
Preface, p. [iii].
The verse
is from the
Iliad, II,
780.
193
Voltaire and Homer
before? He had called attention to the
gap
between
early
Greek and
early
eighteenth-century
taste that
good
sense could not
bridge,
to the heroes
and heroine that do not touch the
heart,
unless it is the
wrong
heroes
moving
us in the
wrong direction,
too
many
heroes
dividing
the reader's
attention too
many ways.
If the
parts
of the
poem
do not hold in inevi-
table
order,
what shall the incidental beauties
profit?
Five
years
later Voltaire is less
obviously
obedient to Boileau and the
classical
poetics.
The rare roses
among
the thorns seem worthier of at-
tention. This second
essay,
with which Voltaire took a
great
deal of
trouble,
is full of ideas:
concerning history
and
chronology
as
they
were
best
understood, concerning primitivistic currents, concerning
what is
possibly
the most fecund aesthetic
concept
of the
century,
the
theory
of
beauty
as sensed. But so far as a
general
evaluation of Homer is concerned
this
essay
is so
written-keeping
silent about
earlier, major objections,
making meaningless comparisons,
as between the Iliad and
Clovis,
di-
gressing
to
subjects
remote from
any opinion
of the
poetry-that
we can
only
conclude that Voltaire's
profound
mind had not
changed
at all.
No doubt he
was,
at the
period
of his life when he had
every
reason for
drawing
the closest to the
"genie d'invention," making
an effort to see
Homer in the most favorable
light.
But on this as on so
many
other sub-
jects
we must take
pains
to
disengage
Voltaire's
enduring opinions
from
the
shifting reprisals
to which
every
new situation stimulated him.
Does Pococurante
speak
for Voltaire?
Substantially,
I believe.
Long-
standing objections
are
expressed: general tiresomeness, futility
of the
marvelous,
tedious din and
glare
of
battles,
ineffectual
presentation
of
character. The Venetian senator
speaks
as his inventor
spoke
both before
and after 1759.
The fact that Voltaire could find Homer inferior on the whole not
only
to
Virgil,
but even to Ariosto and
Tasso,s1
does not exclude the
probabil-
ity
that he considered the Greek
poems superior
in
picturesque qualities,
plastic traits,
to
any
others. The words
"peintures"
and "details" recur
continually, usually
in
conjunction
with "belles" and "sublimes." The
revisions of the Essai sur la
poesie epique
indicate a
growing appreciation
of the visual
image
and the
arresting though
subordinate
part.
From a
curious work of
1749,
Connaissance des beautes et des
defauts
de la
poesie
et de
l'elegance
dans la
languefrancaise,19
we learn what is no doubt worth
many pages
of comment on
Homer, namely
that Voltaire emulated and
thought
he achieved IHomeric
"painting"
of "details" in such a
passage
as that from the sixth book of the
Henriade,
which deals with the storm-
ing
of Paris. The nature of Voltaire's
perception,
its
capacity
for swift
18
Essai sur les
mwurs, (Euvres, xII,
247.
194
19
Euvre,s, xxIII,
344.
Warren
Ramsey
change
of
focus, qualified
him
uniquely
well for what was
perhaps
the
only
affirmative Homeric criticism
possible
within the neoclassic frame:
partial appreciation
of "details" which can be more
fully interpreted only
on the basis of a different
poetics.
The limitations of Voltaire's Homeric criticism are not hard to
recog-
nize
today.
We need
only
to read over those cantos of the Iliad with
which the author of Les Lois de Minos had a
particular quarrel:
the
twenty-second,
in which Achilles
slays
Hector with Pallas Athene's
aid,
as Voltaire
indignantly observed,
in which Achilles does in fact tell the
dying
and
imploring
hero that he would like to carve his flesh and eat
it
raw;
the
twenty-fourth,
wherein Achilles
drags
the
body
around
Patroclus' barrow. But without these crudities the world
might
not have
had the
glimpse
of Achilles
racing
across the
plain
toward the walls of
Troy,
his bronze armor
"blazing
like the star that comes forth at harvest-
time ... the star that men call
by
the name of the
dog
of Orion:
bright-
est of all is
he,
and
yet
he is also a
sign
of
evil,
and
brings
much fever
upon
unhappy
mortals." Priam's
premonition
that "the son of Peleus ... is
far the
mightier,
cruel as he is"
might
never have been
expressed,
or the
Trojan king's feeling
of loneliness amid his shrunken
family,
or Hector's
final realization of his doom: "Then Hector knew the truth in his heart
and
said,
'Now
truly
the
gods
have summoned me to death: I
thought
that the warrior
Deiphobus
was beside
me,
but he was within the
city
wall: Athene has deceived me."' Both
directly
and
indirectly through
characters
quite
different from Achilles the Father of
Poetry expressed
an
opinion
of that hero's
nature;
if there is less didactic intention than
Le Bossu
imagined
there is somewhat more than Voltaire allowed. In
any case,
Voltaire was far from
appreciating enough
the strokes of nar-
rative
power,
the
passages
full of human
pathos
and a sense of divine
pursuit.
It is not amiss to recall that
great poetry
is of a
piece,
the ex-
cesses interwoven with the flashes of
pure beauty;
that much
depends,
neoclassic criticism of
any period
to the
contrary,
on
putting
the whole
body
of
poetry
in its time and
place;
that Vico's Della Discoverta del
Vero Omero
(1730),
of which Voltaire seems to have been
ignorant
in
common with most non-Italians of the
eighteenth century,
took indis-
pensable steps
toward
placing
the chanters of the Iliad at the end of an
Heroic
period,
between the Divine and Human
periods.
However,
we must make an effort to situate criticism as well as
poetry
in
place
and time. We must see Voltaire's Homeric criticism where it
lies,
in the
long
shadow of
Boileau's, along
with a
goodly
number of
geo-
metric
negations
of all the values of
Homer, against
which Voltaire de-
fended,
in his
way,
the values both of Homer and of
poetry.
Viewed from
one
angle,
his Homeric criticism is a restless
lifelong
warfare
against Bayle
195
Voltaire and Homer
and La
Motte, against
their
complacent
confidence not
only
in
Progress
but in the
Progress
of
poetry.
Voltaire's saeva
indignatio
at the behavior
of Homer's heroes
belongs
to a different order of
feelings
than
Bayle's
and La Motte's
tranquil contempt.
It further differs from Fenelon's dis-
missal of these
gods
and heroes as
lacking
in
respectability.
Fenelon
speaks
of the
pagan
divinities and warriors as
though they
were
disrepu-
table members of his own
community.
Voltaire's reaction
represents
the
beginnings
of awareness that
they
are
strangers
from a
distance,
and not
from the calm
country
of the neoclassic fable. His
indignation
at the
oriental
savagery
of the
early
Greeks would
hardly
have been so
savage
if
reading
for the Essai sur les mcurs and other works had not
given
him
some intimation of what Friedrich Nietzsche and Hermann Bahr were
to call the "Greek
hysteria":
the welter of Heroic emotions which found
release in the
spectacle
of the sacrificed
hero,
which won
only through
tragedy
to the classical
appeasement,
the classical
serenity. By
his dis-
tinctive reaction to these emotions Voltaire
indicated,
at
least,
that he
was aware of their
existence;
and this
sensitivity
is
part
of his relative
completeness
as a critic of
antiquity.
We
may, indeed,
conclude that Voltaire was the most
complete
Hom-
eric critic to write in France
during
the neoclassic
period,
that he ex-
pressed
or
gave
to understand more of the truth as he saw it than
any
of
the
Ancients,
Moderns or their
pre-Revolutionary successors,
meanwhile
making
an effort to
get beyond
the natural limits of his taste. The kind of
poetry
that Voltaire
instinctively
admired was
orderly, controlled,
Vir-
gilian.
Boileau was no less devoted to these moderate virtues. But in his
reply
to
Perrault,
Boileau could find
nothing
better to
say
than that
Homer should continue to be admired becaues he
always
had
been,
sacri-
ficing
critical
appraisal
to the furtherance of a doctrine of
literary
author-
ity.
As Voltaire
said, writing
on Tasso in
Questions
sur
l'Encyclopedie,
"I1
y
a
beaucoup
de
pierres
brutes dans le
grand
b&timent de marble eleve
par
Hom[re. Boileau le
savait,
le
sentait,
et il n'en
parle pas."
Given
Boileau's and Voltaire's
poetics,
this is
undoubtedly
the case. In the
second
phase
of the
Quarrel
of Ancients and Moderns we are
equally
struck
by
the
partiality
of the truths
expressed, by
a
warping
of criticism
in order to defend whatever was
old,
or whatever was
new, by
a confusion
of issues.
Voltaire, relatively unhampered by
the
necessity
for
taking
a
polemical position,
was
correspondingly
freer to
formulate,
with certain
intimations of later
points
of
view,
the neoclassic
position.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA
Berkeley
4
196