VOLTAIRE AS PERCEIVED BY PUSHKIN
ДАТА ПУБЛИКАЦИИ: 07 сентября 2018
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© V. SOMOV
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by Valery SOMOV, Cand. Sc. (Philol.), Institute of Artistic Education, Russian Academy of Education
From his tender nail the great Russian poet was a fervent admirer of Voltaire, or Francois Marie Arouet, the French satirist, philosopher and historian (1694- 1778). As Vassily Lvovich Pushkin, the poet's uncle and a poet himself, confided in his poetic epistle to Count F.I. Tolstoy (1816): "Fond is he of Voltaire alone." Perhaps none of the Russian poets and writers has bestowed as many epithets on the "ruler of people's minds in enlightened Europe" as Pushkin did. Pushkin's works bristle with metaphors like "Ariosto's grandson", "singular grandsire", "oracle of France", "Candide's sire", "singer of love", "first among the poets", "Ferne's angry shouter", "philosopher and abuser"... These and other metaphors or descriptions* are eloquent enough: Pushkin was well-versed in Voltaire. Let's try and look at the French man of genius the way Pushkin saw him.
* Here, turns of speech for proper or common names. - Ed.
Articles in this rubric reflect the opinion of the author. - Ed.
Three images of Voltaire: in the nightcap; a profile sketch and portrait side by side with a self-portrait on a sheet of the draft copy of the novel in verse EUGENE ONEGIN. 1824.
Although such poetic paraphrases may not be exhaustive in their meaning (Pushkin thought highly of Voltaire the historian, but makes no mention of that), they are illustrative enough of how much Voltaire meant to Pushkin, for the emotionally tinged image of the great Frenchman pictured in his mind.
But first, this point: a close look into what Pushkin says about the "chief of people's minds and vogue"* has enabled us to see clearly what belonged to the past, stereotype notions of that time as part of the poet's historical-and-cultural background, and what came as a result of his own cogitations.
In his younger years - when he was still an adolescent - Pushkin admired Voltaire first as a devotee of Eros, or Cupid-the god of love, as we learn from some of his first poems, "Monk" (1813), and "Little Town". The implication is clear enough, for Voltaire also wrote erotic verses - stanzas and madrigals, and such things as the mischievous poem La Pucelle d'Orleans. Small wonder that the name of the great Frenchman occurs every now and then in Pushkin's verses as a metaphor rather than a proper name.
Words sweet, and lips and eyes
Are better preachers of the law
Of Aristippi and Glycaires
Yea - better than Voltaires...
"Epistle to Lyda", 1816
Pushkin worshiped the muses of Voltaire, "blithe and merry". So much so that in 1817 he translated two short poems - "Stanzas" ("Thou wilt my soul afire...") and "Dream" ("To the Prussian Princess Ulrike"). But most of all our young poet was captivated by the poem La Pucelle d'Orleans, a caustic parody in the rococo style, the pinnacle of the Voltairian poetry. It sparkles with flashes of good wit. Its slings and arrows against the church, against literary foes, and its sensuality overwhelmed the young Pushkin who praised it as "the catechism of merry wit" ("Bova", 1814), "the holy bible of the Charites" ("When you press my hand again...", 1818). When one of his friends was leaving for London to take up an official post there, Pushkin gave him La Pucelle d'Orleans as a gift - "the best remedy against hypochondria", as he said quoting the author, Voltaire. Even much later Pushkin thought it to be the best poem of Voltaire's.
Soon after it was published in Paris in 1755, this satirical poem became known in Russia. Yet censorship banned its Russian translations, and so our public had to read the poem either in the original or in hand-written translations. And it sparked controversy among our enlightened public. Some considered it "harmful, though witty". Others could see no wit in it at all, - a bad job, period. Pushkin and his friends thought it to be dangerous rather than harmful.
When in his short poem "To the Grand" (1830) Pushkin called Voltaire a "cynic now gray", our poet voiced the opinion of the Russian readership, admirers and opponents alike. Four years later, in his article "On the Smallness of Russian Literature" (left incomplete) Pushkin spoke of Voltaire as a "destructive genius" who "gave vent to his feelings in a cynical poem where every lofty sentiment precious to humankind is sacrificed to the fiend of laughter and irony, where the Greek antiquity is derided, and the holy of both testaments abused". Such was the view of Pushkin as a mature poet. But he held this opinion in his tender years too, for instance, in one of his early poems "To My Friend the Poet" (1814) where Voltaire is described as the author of "depraved prose" and "dangerous verses". By "depraved prose" Pushkin must have meant Voltaire's philosophical narratives, first and foremost, "Candide, or Optimism" (1759), while "dangerous verses" certainly applied to La Pucelle d'Orleans. Probably Pushkin
* Here and elsewhere we cite from: A.S. Pushkin, Complete Works in 10 Volumes; Publishing House of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Moscow, 1957 (Russian edition). - Ed .
Voltaire sketched on a leaf with the draft notes of the poem NAPOLEON. 1821.
Voltaire in the nightcap; on a sheet with the draft notes of poem EUGENE ONEGIN (Ch. II, Stanzas 1-2). 1824.
Voltaire; a sketch of a portrait on a leaf with the draft version of EUGENE ONEGIN. 1824.
and his milieu knew that several Paris printers had been packed off to penal servitude for having printed, sub rosa, the hot poem. Hence its persistent reputation of being reprehensible and corrupt. Give a dog a bad name... The bad name stuck anyway. But it was a free-thinking poem through and through - in its anti-clerical stance and in its sensuality. Here libido is seen as an all-powerful instinct that knows no shame and that fertilizes life here on earth. We now see why Pushkin perceived the poem as "the holy bible of the Charites", the Greek goddesses of ever-youthful beauty and grace.
So: there is no contradiction in that Pushkin, while admiring La Pucelle d'Orleans, would in the same breath call the author a "cynic now gray", that is a sage who decries the commonly accepted norms for the sake of supreme virtues and human bliss. In this sense the poem is "cynical" indeed.
Even in his lifetime Voltaire was the acknowledged Number One poet of France, and he enjoyed that fame for more than six decades. By calling him "the sultan of the French Parnassus" (in the "Monk"), the young Pushkin would adhere to the then canonical tradition. Shortly afterwards in the poem "Little Town" he would say much the same thing, though in different words ("first among the poets"). Even though at his mature age Pushkin took a more critical view of Ms idol, his verdict still held: "The first writer of Ms time" (in the article "Voltaire", 1836).
As a poet, according to Pushkin, Voltaire was a heir to the two great Italians of the Renaissance age: Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533) and Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). In his articles and letters Pushkin often puts these names - of Ariosto, Tasso and Voltaire - side by side in the context of his thoughts about romantic poetry that "had its lush and magnificent efflorescence all over Europe". As our great poet saw it, this poetry took in "whatever there was light and merry", irrespective of the time of creation.
To Pushkin, the great French author and idol of his youth was also an heir to the Greek playwright Euripides (ca. 480-407, or 406 B.C.). Since Pushkin has left us no articles to this effect, I would make bold to venture a guess, why Pushkin called Voltaire "a rival of Euripides" (in the poem "Little Town", 1815). First, because these two dramatists were quite prolific. Euripides is the author of 92 drama pieces (only 17 have come down to us). As to Voltaire, dramaturgy was his forte as well. All in all, he has authored 52 pieces, among them 27 tragedies, which are the flower of his literary heritage. That's the first point. Second, because of the common verve and spirit of both playwrights, their "craft of exciting the hearts". Before Pushkin, and during his lifetime too, both Voltaire and Euripides had a strong impact on the stage. Creating his emotional and picturesque tragedies, Voltaire sought, in his own words, to "rend the spectator's heart". Since in the 18th century Voltaire the dramatist had no peers in Europe, the young Pushkin had every ground to regard him as a rival of Euripides. But in later years, as Pushkin mastered English well enough to read Shakespeare in the original and after he had written drama works of his own, he revised his attitude to the dramaturgy of the great Frenchman. In the article "On the Smallness of Russian Literature" our poet evaluates the artistic significance of Voltaire otherwise. "For 60 years he was filling the theater with tragedies in which, with no regard either for the verisimilitude of characters or for the legitimacy of devices, he made his personages, in place and out of place, express the rules of his philosophy." Pushkin singles out such tragedies as "Zaire", "Fanaticism, or Mahomet", and "Merope". The best of them, "Zaire" (1732), he considered an imitation of Shakespeare.
In fact, Voltaire was the first in France to let the broad public into Shakespeare, into the motifs and artistic discoveries of the great
Voltaire on a leaf with the draft notes of EUGENE ONEGIN. (Ch. V). 1826.
Voltaire in the nightcap; on a leaf with the sketches of the poem POLTAVA (Canto II). 1828.
Voltaire as sketched by Alexander Pushkin on the MS of his article VOLTAIRE.
English playwright. Voltaire the dramatist was certainly influenced by Shakespeare. Still, he looked down on Shakespeare. Yes, the great English dramatist was a "genius" full of vim, natural ease and lofty feelings, but he "wanted good taste and knowledge of the rules"; Voltaire was indignant there were people in France who would put the "coarse" talent of Shakespeare - that "country buffoon who couldn't put two lines right" (as he said in one of his letters) - above the coryphaei of French classicism. To some extent Pushkin shares this appreciation when speaking of the crude, and often "ugly" style of the Shakespearean plays.
In 1770 Voltaire was in for the greatest of honors: a subscription was on to commemorate him in a statue ordered to the famous sculptor of the day, Pigal. Flattered that the best minds of Europe were eager to put up a monument like that, Voltaire had certain misgivings about his wretched appearance. He expressed his fears in a letter to Madame Necker at whose initiative the subscription was launched: "I am seventy-six years old. They say Monsieur Pigal should come to sculpture my face. And yet, madame, I have none. It's hard to guess where it is now. My eyes are sunk three inches deep, and the cheeks are like threadbare parchment just hanging loose from the bones... The last of my teeth are gone... None has ever sculptured statues from a man in a state like that." Nevertheless the philosopher was quite satisfied with the sculpture, though his busts wrought by Jean Houdon gained renown. The best known one (1778) portrayed Voltaire without a wig, with his skull bald and lips pressed tight; the shriveled mouth betrayed the absence of teeth. The famous sarcastic smile that came from the thus disfigured features also reflected the philosopher's temper; and it was copied in other portraits as well.
The young Pushkin could naturally see such portraits and sculptures in books at home and elsewhere; hence the image he sketched in one of his last poems written in 1836, a year before his death. The poet, thinking back to his childhood impressions, speaks of Voltaire as an old fellow bald as a coot... With orbs flashing wit, and lips contorted in a sardonic smile...
Voltaire entertained our poet's mind and imagination, inspiring so many verses, critical essays and even drawings which Pushkin jotted here and there in his manuscripts. Pushkin scholars have identified as many as fifteen doodlings representing "Europe's idol" now in a nightcap on, now without, but always with the bald patch, hard look and sardonic smile.
Voltaire was frail and sickly even when a youth. All that comes up in his portraiture-the man looked older than his age. That's why Pushkin visualized the great Frenchman only as an oldster: "Ferne old man" ("Monk"), "singular grand-sire" and "gray mischief- maker" ("Little Town"), "gray-haired chief of people's minds and vogue" ("To the Grand")...
From the very outset the Russian public took the French free-thinker for a wit having a sharp tongue full of gall and wormwood. It all began in the mid-18th century and after, when the elite of Russian aristocrats could first familiarize themselves with Voltaire's works: Prince Antioch Kantemir (poet and diplomat), Count Ivan Shuvalov (founder of Moscow University), and then Count Mikhail Vorontsov (statesman and diplomat), among others. The first Russian academician, Mikhail Lomonosov, who showed interest in Voltaire's writings and who translated some of his verses, would frown now and then on the "half-witted wit" of the French philosopher and writer.
But many Russians begged to differ, Pushkin for one. Some of his paraphrases describe Voltaire as a mocking wizard who uses his wit for noble purposes, on behalf of the weak and humiliated.
In 1764 Voltaire moved to his country estate at Ferne in Switzer-
Pushkin's drawings: Voltaire and a self-portrait.
Voltaire in the nightcap. 1828.
land, a place made famous throughout Europe due to his sojourn there. Enlightened devotees flocked thither, and so did the hounded and downtrodden for asylum there. Voltaire the lawyer took up the cudgels for innocent victims of judicial persecution - he pleaded in their defense, appealing to public opinion in Europe, he spent big sums of money, and in many cases he won by having the unjust sentences reversed, and the victims acquitted. Hence such cognomens as "Ferne wizard", "Ferne patriarch". The Pushkin version - "Ferne's angry shouter" ("Little Town's-stressed the polemic ardor and aggressive engagement of this man.
Another descriptive paraphrase, from the poem A Little House at Kolomna (1830) - "philosopher and abuses' - is in about the same tenor, it hints at Voltaire's scathing sarcasm and mockery.
In his critical essay "Voltaire", Pushkin put down the short temper of the French thinker, his mordant wit and ruthless sarcasm to "his ardent soul and troubled sensitiveness". He said as much in the poem A Little House at Kolomna and in one of his early short poems, "Little Town", where he called his idol a "son of Momos and Minerva", that is the son of the antique deities - the god of scandal and the goddess of wisdom. Here, in this very poem, Voltaire is also "Candide's sire" (an allusion to the philosophical narrative Candide, or Optimism ) .
The young Pushkin offers the first examples of vivid descriptions that graced his mature works, as one of our Pushkin scholars, Dmitry Blagoi, noted back in 1950. Paraphrases are also in this category - like this one: "A poet well fortunate in commerce with Dutch merchants" ("To My Friend the Poet"). The reference is to Voltaire, of course.
Voltaire was among the few professional writers in history to earn material affluence and live comfortably off his literary works. He also showed himself as a successful entrepreneur involved in commerce and finances. That is why in the above poem ("To My Friend the Poet") Pushkin broached the subject of a mercantile poet, in no way disapproving such entrepreneurial activities. He returned to this subject in the article "Voltaire": "In spite of the multitude of materials collected for the life history of Voltaire (there is a whole library of them), he is still rather little known as a man of business, capitalist and owner."
In fact, Pushkin was the first to speak of Voltaire as a "capitalist and owner". Somehow this facet of his life was passed over in silence until the early 20th century and the first publications about Voltaire the businessman. This point had a deep personal meaning to the Russian poet: for all the vicissitudes of fortune, he-Francois Marie Arouet, alias Voltaire-was independent and well off, he needed no alms from grands of every stripe and could earn enough for his comfortable living which, as Pushkin believed, was a pledge of spiritual, intellectual independence of a man of letters.
As we have said above, in one of his early poems, "Little Town" (1815), Pushkin described Voltaire as a " singular grandsire". The interpretation of this description is rather difficult. The young poet used a kindred metaphor in his poem "Bova" which he wrote in 1814 and left unfinished - "singular man". Here Pushkin subscribed to the then common view of Voltaire as the intellectual idol and authority for the enlightened public of his time. Another paraphrase, "oracle of France", is consonant with these two descriptions. The French admirers of Voltaire awarded him the title of "oracle de la patrie" still in his lifetime.
Pushkin was an avid reader of the literature on Voltaire. On the tenth of December 1815 the young poet wrote in his diary, "In the morning I read La Vie de Voltaire. " He meant the first biography of Voltaire by Jean Condorcet (1795), a friend of
Voltaire's. And in the article "On the Smallness of Russian Literature" Pushkin praised the French thinker as "the giant of that epoch"; and in another essay, "Voltaire", he spoke of "the idol of Europe", "the ruler of people's minds and contemporary opinion". Both as a raw beginner and as a seasoned author Pushkin did not waver in his appraisal of the great Frenchman, revered by some and reviled by others. These sentiments are summed up in the poem "Bova":
O Voltaire! O singular man!
Thou, a god in France,
a devil, antichrist in Rome,
and ape in Saxony!
The Pushkin paraphrases "singular man" and "singular grandsire" are thought to go back to the Russian thinker, poet and prose writer Alexander Radishchev (1749-1802) who, in his poem "Bova" (1798 or 1799) has this verse, "O Voltaire, O glorious man!" But both authors, I think, drew their notions from the same spring of tradition. Thus, Voltaire would speak of himself as "old man", "sly old man", "sick old man of Ferne". The description "old Voltaire" ("old man", "oldster", "grandsire") became a cliche among the Russian intellectuals long before Pushkin's birth, as evidenced by memoirs of that age.
Still, what did Pushkin mean by the metaphoric description "singular grandsire"?
As evident from the context of the verse "great everywhere is the singular grandsire", Pushkin considered him great both as a dramatist ("a rival of Euripides") and as the author of philosophical narratives ("Candide's sire"). That is to say, Voltaire was great in his universality. Even at his tender age our poet could find an apt and terse formula for the creative elan of the French genius in all its diversity. This formula, this metaphor came as a whiff of breath to fit the scope of the image.
In the poem "To the Grand" (1830) Pushkin sized up Voltaire in all its stature and dimension (this poem is addressed to Prince N. Yusupov, a contemporary of Voltaire and Pushkin):
Envoy of the young
To Ferne thou came-
where the cynic now gray,
The pushy chief of people's
minds and vogue,
He hailed thee by voice
sepulchral in his abode,
For love he did his
domination of the North.**
Pushkin sees in the great Voltaire, the swayer of people's minds and vogue, also a pushy fellow; here he lends a touch of personal to the icon image of the French thinker.
Indeed, Voltaire was an "uncrowned king" of the European public of the day. His forerunners and contemporaries had many talented writers in their midst. But none could ever measure up as a public personality. Voltaire had no peers. And Pushkin stressed the immense influence of Voltaire on European society:
"All sublime minds will take after Voltaire. The pensive Rousseau avows himself his pupil, the ardent Diderot is the most zealous of his disciples... Europe goes to Ferne to bow in worship... Society submits to him..." ( On the Smallness of Russian Literature ) .
* With reference to Catherine the Great, Russian empress. - Tr.
** Voltaire gained much popularity in Russia. - Tr .
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