In the introduction of The Essay on Epic Poetry (1727), Voltaire gives an account of his eighteen months stay in England and his observations of the English language. He is attempting to write in “a language which I speak very badly and which I can hardly understand in conversation”(205).
Voltaire states that most European travelers in this time, the early eighteenth century, spoke ill of their neighbors while they lavished praise on the Persians and the Chinese. Voltaire observes that this is because “we naturally like to reduce those who can easily be compared to us, and to raise in esteem those whom distance protects them from our jealousy”(206). On the contrary, Voltaire will not speak with malice in his travel narrative about England. He will instead instruct men on the useful things of the country so that his fellow citizens may benefit from knowing them.
Voltaire looks at England from the point of view that it has produced such Epic poets as Newton, Locke, Tillotson, Milton and Boyle whose “glory in the profession of arms, in politics, or in letters, deserves to be extended beyond the limits of that island [England]”(206). He takes issue, however, with the prodigious number of rules that the English use in the critiques of poetry. He claims that their way in which the art of thinking has been taught is directly opposed to the gift of thought. These English critics have written volumes on what one ought to feel when reading Homer, Virgil, Tasso and Milton. They see an epic poem as the account of an unhappy adventure. Voltaire states that these rules serve only to get in the way of the activity of these great men.
In the art of poetry, one is dependent on the imagination, not the products of nature. “Nature is always the same; but almost all the works of men change with the imagination that produces them”. Customs, languages, the taste of most neighboring peoples cannot be recognized after a passage of three or four centuries. This is where the imagination comes in. The England of the 1700’s that Voltaire visited is hardly the England of today; even in the architecture and traditions. “We follow the architectural rules of Vitruvius; yet the houses built in France by our own architects resemble those of Pliny and Cicero no more than our clothes resemble theirs”(208).
Voltaire returns to the subject of poetry by comparing tragedy among the Greeks-no division of acts; very little action, and even less plot. On the other hand, tragedy among the French is ordinarily a succession of conversation in five acts, with a love plot. If the authors of England would combine a natural style of “decence and regularity”with the activity that animates their plays, then they would certainly triumph over both Greeks and French (209).
In looking at Homer’s tragedies, Voltaire considers them an account of Epic Poetry in verse of heroic adventures; whether the action is simple or complex, whether it lasts for a month, a year or longer, whether the action is in a fixed place (Iliad) or the hero travels from sea to sea (Odyssey), these poems will always be Epic poems and will be based on judgment and embellished by the imagination; this opinion, according to Voltaire, belongs to all the nations of the world. The principal rules that nature dictates to all the nations are cultivated in the written word. As the poems of Homer move us, they will never be insipid in any age or country.
Voltaire continues by looking at the cultural differences in examining Homer’s writings. One can sense the character of a country by the imitation of its antiquity: the sweetness and softness of the Italian authors; the pomp of words, metaphors and a majestic style belong to Spanish writers; force, energy and boldness are proper to the English; and clarity, exactness and elegance belong to the French, Voltaire’s native language (211)!
What is the sense of character in Homer’s homeland of Greece? Voltaire notes the universally beautiful language of the ancients—their language, their manners, their religion. On the contrary, European writers do not speak the same language at all. Their customs are completely different from the heroes of the Trojan war; also, their battles and their philosophy are complete opposites. When Homer depicts his gods drunk with nectar, it was good at that time. When the gods were what fairies are to modern poets. No modern (according to Virgil’s time) would consider depicting a troupe of angels and saints drinking and laughing at the table. But it works for Homer.
Voltaire concludes his essay by encouraging us to admire the ancients, like Homer, but not let it be a blind superstition:
“let us not commit that injustice to ourselves and to human nature of closing our eyes to the beauties she places around us in order to examine and admire only her ancient productions, which we cannot judge with as much accuracy” (214).
Let the writer judge between the gods of Homer and the god of Milton, between Calypso and Dido, between Armida and Eve. May the nations of Europe pay attention to their neighbors works and manners, not laugh at them but profit from them (215).
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com).
Block, Haskell M. (1956). Voltaire: Candide and Other Writings. New York: Random House.
I enjoyed your paragraph about Voltaire’s comparison of cultural differences…
Yes, I thought it interesting about the European culture at that time. I wonder if this is still true.
LOL I think it’s unlikely there’ll be any agreement about that.