22 APRIL 1882, Page 17

AN AMERICAN LIFE OF VOLTAIRE.* As a life of Voltaire,

this is a very unsatisfactory performance. As a book about Voltaire to be dipped into, much as one dips into a volume of ana or an encyclopaedia, it may, by a good- humoured or wearied reader, be found very enjoyable. Unless we are much mistaken, Mr. Parton gives the bulk of his time and energy to daily journalism and to magazinism, which is threatening now-a-days to become merely journalism writ large.

• Life of Voltaire. 2 vols. %lames Pa- ton. London : Sampson Lowe Marston, Searle, and Rivington.

Nor is it any reflection either upon Mr. Parton or upon his profession to say that his intellectual habits have been some- what demoralised by it. The hurried conditions under which most journalistic work is produced, the inevitable hunt for "salient points," arc disastrous to capacity for accurate observation in all writers, except those who daily discipline themselves by some severe study with the courage and thoroughness of a Goethe.

To show what we mean, we shall leave Voltaire for a moment.

Mr. Parton is the author of an article in the North-American.

Review on "The Power of Public Plunder," which, appearing about the time Guitean made his attack on President Garfield, has been a good deal talked about. To point one of his morals, Mr. Parton introduces " Palmerstou, Prime Minister at eighty- four, coming out of his house early in the morning, and taking a spring over the railings, to find out whether he was beginning to grow old." This is just one of those illustrations in which Mr. Emerson delights, and Mr. Parton is a disciple of Mr. Emer- son, though he may be unconscious of the fact. Now let us re- duce it to Carlyliau "mensurative accuracy." Lord Palmerston did not reach eighty-four; he died on October 18th, 1865, within two days of completing his eighty-first year. The " railings " incident, which occurred at Brocket about a fortnight before Palmerstou died, is thus told by Mr. Evelyn Ashley :—" There were some high railings immediately opposite the front door, and Lord Palmerston, coming out of the house without his hat, went straight up to them, after casting a look all round to see that no one was looking. He then climbed deliberately over the top rail down to the ground on the other side, turned round, climbed back again, and then went indoors. It was clear that be had come out to test his strength, and to find out for himself in a practical way how far he was gaining or losing ground." This is a very different story from the bit of bravado which Mr.

Parton would have his readers believe of Lord Palmerston, and which Englishmen know him to have been utterly incapable of.

Such slipshoddy statements may be of little account, when Mr. Parton is on his own ground, dealing with subjects with which he is familiar. Thus, one finds his Life of Jackson more than readable, and is indisposed to examine it closely. But the

intellectual habits which lead to the making of such statements altogether incapacitate their author from dealing with so extra- ordinary and foreign a subject as Voltaire. It is safe to say that Voltaire will never be thoroughly understood and satisfac- torily interpreted to the public by a biographer who merely gives up his leisure to a study of him, even although that may be a laborious leisure. He will only be done justice to by some one who is prepared to do what the late Mr. Spedding did for Bacon, and give up the best of his time, if not almost his heart's blood, to and for him. Mr. Parton has produced two huge volumes, which satisfac- torily prove nothing but that he has been crushed by his subject, as Tarpeia was crushed beneath the Sabine bracelets and shields. They contain no light, of criticism, of philosophy, of history, but only " darkness visible." It is safe to say that Mr. Parton is essentially ignorant of the France—and for that matter, of the England—of the seventeenth and eighteenth cen- turies, and that he has not that equipment of classical culture without which no one has a right to speak of the literature of these countries and centuries at all. His work teems with inaccurate statements which betray ignorance, and with vague and safe statements which serve only to drape it. Is a writer to be trusted who speaks of Madame du Chatelet as 4`Megara," who confounds Congreve's Duchess of Marlborough with the hero of Blenheims, who talks with comic "knowing- ness " of " the truly fine career " of " Pierre de Ronsard, French poet of the sixteenth century," and of Artemire as " Queen to Cassander, a king of the time of Alexander the Great ;" and who chirps about "the light audacities'by which Byron, a century later, rescued cakes and ale from the ban of virtuous Southey ?" What a world of critical incompetency of the worst kind does this last statement display,—the kind that tries, in Mr. Arnold's spirit, to apply ideas to life, and absolutely fails in the attempt. An even worse and more exasperating failure of the same description is this,—" He [poor Deacon Paris, the crazy saint of the " Convesionists"] died of self- mortification, at about the age when many young men (Byron and Burns, for example) die of self-indulgence,—a meaner and madder kind of suicide than his." How carelessly must the man have read his Carlyle and Emerson who can venture on a sum- ming up of two tragic careers like this, which would probably not " go down " even with a " hyper-ethical tea-party " in a New-

England village ! It would, of course, be cruel to contrast Mr. Parton's crudities with Mr. Carlyle's estimate of Voltaire, or Mr. Morley's " study," but he will not even stand comparison with critics of less insight and playing a much more modest role. Almost simultaneously with Mr. Parton's Life of Voltaire

there appeared Studies in Modern Mind and Character, by Mr. John Wilson, a volume of essays of the solid, magazine, "pad- ding " sort. In it is an unpretentious essay on Voltaire, which shows the author to have " read up" the literature of the sub- ject very much as Mr. Parton has done. "Yet there is not in his two volumes such a piece of criticism as is contained in this phrase of Mr. Wilson's,—" The eclipse, at least partial, of Vol-

taire by Rousseau ; of aristocratic, iconoclastic pastime, by democratic, iconoclastic passion." The French Revolution is far too tremendous an affair to be adequately explained by epigrams. Yet Mr. Wilson's comes as near such an explana- tion as any we have recently had.

Still, Mr. Parton's Life of Voltaire, in spite of its faults—its fearful and wonderful Americanisms in style, in thought, even in politics, its slovenliness, its inaccuracies, its sheer " fatuity "—is the fullest work of the kind that we have. Mr. Parton has, in his own queer way, gone through everythiug that has been written about Voltaire, from the volumes of Denoiresterres to the essays of Mr. Carlyle and Mr. Morley, the special criticisms of Strauss and M. Coquerels fi/s, and that work of Mr. Espinasse, which the appearance of such a book as Mr. Parton's only makes one regret, the fragmentary nature of. Mr. Parton tells the ex- traordinary story of Voltaire with more amplitude of detail than

has ever been given before. We do not see "the great Persi-

flour" in a new light, but we see him photographed in more positions. It is satisfactory to think that the more one knows of Voltaire, the more one feels disposed to apply to him the golden rule of ethical criticism,—to be a little blind to his faults, to be wideawake to his virtues. No doubt, Mr. Carlyle is right in holding that he was not a heroic, but only a highly civilised man ; that, while he loved truth, he de- tested martyrdom. In the last resort, too, who can question the truth of Cowper's celebrated and even derided contrast be- tween "the brilliant Frenchman" and "the simple cottager," with her bobbins and her Bible P She, with her natural piety, was on the side of the angels. He was on the side of the apes from first to last, and although you may account for it by his blood, or his circumstances, or his century, you cannot deny the fact. He had no conscience but an intellectual one, and so he was mendacious, indecent, and not over-scrupulous in money matters.

Mr. Parton, indulgent biographer though he is, cannot ex- plain away " the Hirsch affair," or Voltaire's being paid twice over for his journey to Berlin. He allowed his ridicule even in

the war against L'Infame to run to excess and unfairness. Except on the theory of the " monkey tricks," one cannot

explain his double-dealing with Frederick, or his intriguing for

the favour of the Pope and the Pompadour. Yet the more.com- pletely Voltaire is portrayed, the better we like such natural

good qualities as he had. It is especially gratifying to find that he looks best in undress. The ordinary rule about eminent men is reversed in his case ; it is his intimates, his Belle-et-Bonne, even his " Bonne-Baba," that adore him most.

He appears in these volumes as naturally a most affectionate and kindly man. The monograph of the younger Coquerel on his conduct in the affair of Jean Colas shows it to have been perfectly disinterested and thoroughly justifiable. No man of his century, with the possible exception of Burns, had that hatred of cruelty which may yet prove, even more than the love of equality, to be the dominant passion of our own century.

Even his relations with the women, as detailed by Mr. Parton, increase our liking for him. There can be no question that his " calf-love " was a genuine affair, though Reinette's mother was a match-maker, and, perhaps, Reinette herself was only such another as Becky Sharp. Widow Denis, his niece, does not improve on acquaintance, and almost deserves all that the misogynist Frederick said of her. But he loved her, and made innumerable sacrifices for her, as he did for his various adopted daughters. The "divine Emily" appears even worse in Mr. Parton's pages than we ever remember to have seen her ; she had the temper of a Madame Angot, the conceit of a blue- stocking in a country town, and a morality considered " unspeakable," even for the andel?, regime, while she was destitute of good looks. Yet Voltaire loved her, and was faithful to her during her life ; and although he discovered

her faithlessness to him, did not fly even to George II.'s consolations after her death. Further, Voltaire could be gener- ous even to literary opponents like Freron. In short, he was not merely "a wretch," as Mr. Saintsbury shows, in a lively article in a recent number of the Fortnightly Review; and, indeed. the inexhaustible energy with which,. single-handed, Voltaire pursued everything he took in hand, and for a parallel to which we must look to our own time, and to Mr. Gladstone's Hellenic many-sidedness and Hebraic seriousness, must have been sus- tained by something of ethical genuineness, if not nobility. Nor can we bid good-bye to Mr. Parton, and once more to Voltaire, without quoting the latest and most trustworthy, and for all practical purposes, final, account of the death of the relentless foe of superstition :- " On May 26th, the Abbe d'Hornoy wrote for Wagniere, addressing

his letter to the secretary's wife The weakness increases from day to day. The impossibility of making my unhappy uncle take nourishment still continues. It would be to deceive ourselves to hope any more What remains to him of head is spent in desiring yon.' On this day he had a gleam of reason and a brief return of mental power. For a few minutes, we may even say, he was him- self again. He received a letter from the son of that General de Lally who was beheaded twelve years before for alleged treason in India. The young Count de Lally, with Voltaire's tireless, skilful aid, had spent laborious years in vindicating his father's memory, and in getting the foul decree annulled which had condemned a faith- ful soldier to a traitor's death. This day, May 26th,1778, saw his pious efforts crowned with the most complete success, and lie sent word instantly to the Rue de Beaune that the King in Council had broken the decree, thus transferring the odium of it from the victim to the judges, and restoring to all its purity and lustre his father's name. The glad tidings awoke the invalid's dormant intelligence. He sat up in bed, the old light shone again in his eyes, and he dictated a few lines to the Count, which proved to be the last ho ever com-

posed May 26th.—The dying man revives on learning this great news; he embraces very tenderly M. do Lally ; he sees that the King is the defender of justice; he will die content.' He then, as La ilarpe records, told some one to write the news in large hand upon a piece of paper, and pin it to the tapestry in a conspicuous place, so that every one coming in could see it: The paper read thus On the 26th of May, the judicial assassination, committed by Pasquier (counsellor to the Parliament) upon the person of Lally, was avenged by the King's Council.' He soon relapsed, and durina.' the following days he lay quiet, and appeared to suffer little pain. He recognised some of his old friends when they came near his bedside or spoke to him. visited him when he was in this condition,' says D'Alembert, and he always knew me. He even uses some expressions of friend- ship, but, immediately after, would fall again into his stupor, for he was in a continual slumber. He awoke only to complain, and to say that he had come to Paris to die.' Two days after the incident of the Count de Lally, the Abbe Mignot, who was a considerable per- sonage, a member of the Grand Council, as well as the titular and beneficed head of an abbey, called upon the cure of Saint-Sulpice, and explained to him his uncle's condition. With regard to what followed, the best authority is the narrative drawn up by D'Alembert for the information of the King of Prussia, —a narrative which is confirmed by all the eye-witnesses who placed their observations on record. The cure of Saint-Sulpice replied to the Abbe Mignot that, since M. de Voltaire had lost his recollection, it was useless to visit him. The cure declared, however, that if M. de Voltaire did not make a public, solemn, and most circamstantial reparation of the scandal he had caused, he could not in conscience bury him in holy ground. In vain the nephew replied that his uncle, while he still enjoyed the possession of all his faculties, had made a profession of faith, which the care himself, had recognised as authentic ; that he had always disavowed the works' imputed to him ; that he had, nevertheless, carried his docility for the ministers of the Church so fur as to declare that, if he had caused any scandal, he asked pardon for it. The curd replied that that did not suffice ; that M. de Voltaire was notoriously the declared enemy of religion ; and that he could not without com- promising himself with the clergy and the archbishop, accord to him ecclesiastical burial. The Abbe Mignot threatened to apply to the Parliament for justice, which he hoped to obtain, with the authentic documents he had in his possession. The care, who felt that he was supported by authority, told him that he could do as he pleased."