Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
By Lord Chesterfield (16941773)
From Letters to his Son
I CONSIDER you now as at the Court of Augustus, where, if ever the desire of pleasing animated you, it must make you exert all the means of doing it. You will see there, full as well, I dare say as Horace did at Rome, how states are defended by arms, adorned by manners, and improved by laws. Nay, you have an Horace there, as well as an Augustus; I need not name Voltaire qui nil molitur inepte, as Horace himself said of another poet. I have lately read over all his works that are published, though I had read them more than once before. I was induced to this by his Siècle de Louis XIV. which I have read but four times. In reading over all his works, with more attention I suppose than before, my former admiration of him is, I own, turned into astonishment. There is no one kind of writing in which he has not excelled. You are so severe a classic, that I question whether you will allow me to call his Henriade an epic poem, for want of the proper number of gods, devils, witches, and other absurdities, requisite for the machinery; which machinery is (it seems) necessary to constitute the Epopée. But whether you do or not, I will declare (though possibly to my own shame) that I never read an epic poem with near so much pleasure. I am grown old, and have possibly lost a great deal of that fire, which formerly made me love fire in others at any rate, and however attended with smoke; but now I must have all sense, and cannot, for the sake of five righteous lines, forgive a thousand absurd ones.
In this disposition of mind, judge whether I can read all Homer through tout de suite. I admire his beauties; but, to tell you the truth, when he slumbers I sleep. Virgil I confess is all sense, and therefore I like him better than his model; but he is often languid, especially in his five or six last books, during which I am obliged to take a good deal of snuff. Besides I profess myself an ally of Turnuss against the pious Æneas, who, like many soi-disant pious people, does the most flagrant injustice and violence, in order to execute what they impudently call the will of Heaven. But what will you say, when I tell you truly, that I cannot possibly read our countryman Milton through. I acknowledge him to have some most sublime passages, some prodigious flashes of light; but then you must acknowledge that light is often followed by darkness visible, to use his own expression. Besides, not having the honour to be acquainted with any of the parties in his poem, except the Man and the Woman, the characters and speeches of a dozen or two of angels and of as many devils are as much above my reach as my entertainment. Keep this secret for me, for if it should be known, I should be abused by every tasteless pedant and every solid divine in England.
Whatever I have said to the disadvantage of these three poems, holds much stronger against Tassos Gierusalemme: it is true he has very fine and glaring rays of poetry; but then they are only meteors, they dazzle, then disappear, and are succeeded by false thoughts, poor concetti, and absurd impossibilities: witness the Fish and the Parrot extravagances, unworthy of an heroic poem, and would much better become Ariosto, who professes le coglionerie.1
I have never read the Lusiade of Camoens except in a prose translation, consequently I have never read it at all, so shall say nothing of it; but the Henriade is all sense from beginning to end, often adorned by the justest and liveliest reflections, the most beautiful descriptions, the noblest images, and the sublimest sentiments; not to mention the harmony of the verse, in which Voltaire undoubtedly exceeds all the French poets; should you insist upon an exception in favour of Racine, I must insist, on my part, that he at least equals him. What hero ever interested more than Henry the Fourth, who, according to the rules of epic poetry, carries on one great and long action, and succeeds in it at last? What description ever excited more horror than those, first of the massacre, then of the famine, at Paris? Was love ever painted with more truth and morbidezza2 than in the ninth book? Not better, in my mind, even in the fourth of Virgil. Upon the whole, with all your classical rigour, if you will but suppose St. Louis a god, a devil, or a witch, and that he appears in person, and not in a dream, the Henriade will be an epic poem, according to the strictest statute laws of the Epopée; but in my Court of Equity it is one as it is.