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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Old Arouet despaired of his son


III

The movement of Voltaire's mind went with that of the general mind of France. During the first half of the century he was primarily a man of letters; from about 1750 onwards he was the aggressive philosopher, the social reformer, using letters as the vehicle of militant ideas.

Born in Paris in 1694, the son of a notary of good family, FRANCOIS-MARIE AROUET, who assumed the name VOLTAIRE (probably an anagram formed from the letters of _Arouet l.j._, that is _le jeune_), was educated by the Jesuits, and became a precocious versifier of little pieces in the taste of the time. At an early age he was introduced to the company of the wits and fine gentlemen who formed the sceptical and licentious Society of the Temple. Old Arouet despaired of his son, who was eager for pleasure, and a reluctant student of the law. A short service in Holland, in the household of the French ambassador, produced no better result than a fruitless love-intrigue.

Again in Paris, where he ill endured the tedium of an attorney's office, Voltaire haunted the theatres and the _salons_, wrote light verse and indecorous tales, planned his tragedy _OEdipe_, and, inspired by old M. de Caumartin's enthusiasm for Henri IV., conceived the idea of his _Henriade_. Suspected of having written defamatory verses against the Regent, he was banished from the capital, and when readmitted was for eleven months, on the

suspicion of more atrocious libels, a prisoner in the Bastille. Here he composed--according to his own declaration, in sleep--the second canto of the _Henriade_, and completed his _OEdipe_, which was presented with success before the close of 1718. The prisoner of the Bastille became the favourite of society, and repaid his aristocratic hosts by the brilliant sallies of his conversation.

A second tragedy, _Artemire_, afterwards recast as _Mariamne_, was ill received in its earlier form. Court pensions, the death of his father, and lucky financial speculations brought Voltaire independence. He travelled in 1722 to Holland, met Jean-Baptiste Rousseau on the way, and read aloud for his new acquaintance _Le Pour et le Contre_, a poem of faith and unfaith--faith in Deism, disbelief in Christianity. The meeting terminated with untimely wit at Rousseau's expense and mutual hostility. Unable to obtain the approbation for printing his epic, afterwards named _La Henriade_, Voltaire arranged for a secret impression, under the title _La Ligue_, at Rouen (1723), whence many copies were smuggled into Paris. The young Queen, Marie Lecszinska, before whom his _Mariamne_ and the comedy _L'Indiscret_ were presented, favoured Voltaire. His prospects were bright, when sudden disaster fell. A quarrel in the theatre with the Chevalier de Rohan, followed by personal violence at the hands of the Chevalier's bullies, ended for Voltaire, not with the justice which he demanded, but with his own lodgment in the Bastille. When released, with orders to quit Paris, he thought of his acquaintance and admirer Bolingbroke, and lost no time in taking refuge on English soil.


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