Voltaire (Writing, 1856)

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A writing by Walt Whitman that appeared in the Orleans Independent Standard in 1856 on the anniversary of Voltaire's death.

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From Life Illustrated.



Condition of Writers before the American Era--Birth and growth of Voltaire.--Louis the Grand was king of France, under confessors, and a devotee wife-- wonderful men and wonderful women were plenty-- literature looked up at last from its knees where it had so long been kneeling and mumbling. The eye hardly knew what to make of it; it had been accustomed to see writers exist merely by permission of the court, or protected by nobles. Rousseau--was he not exiled from France, home, friends, happiness, fortune, for forty years, because he strung together four or five witty phrases? Raeine, Bouileau, Corneille, Moliere, La Bruyere, Fenelon--what had they to eat or drink but the shadows of royalty or the aristocracy? Was it not in England the same? Had it not been with Shakespeare and his contemporaries the same? There was only one other choice for literateurs. Some were devoted to the service of priests. Kings and Catholic church directed with strong hand the wrists of erudition, and punished with all bloody and remorseless punishments, whoever questioned them or their will. Among the profuse shoals of the writers of those times, not one appeared to speak for man, for mind, for freedom, against superstition and caste.

Francis-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, a fit precursor, in one or two points, of the American era, was born the year 82 before it, namely 1694.) He devoted himself to letters from his boyhood. He mixed with the world, went to court, went among women--was educated at a Jesuit school--had hardly come of age before he was packed off to the Bastile for writing two or three lines the government did not like--came out by and by--wrote his tragedy of (Edipus--succeeded--became thenceforth a known and established man. (The only like instance of such luck, and proportionate success long afterward, is the case of the German Goethe.) Voltaire saw the Bastile again in his thirty-second year, for giving a spirited reply to an insult from one of the pets of the court. Such were the conditions under which writers held their pens and lives.

The French Encyclopaedia.--Voltaire, from being quite an habitue of the Bastile, and seeing others often sent there for no better reasons, began to cast around him with a mixture of feelings of manliness, resentment, ambition, benevolence, conscious power, and pride. Years elapsed in the process and determination of the mind. He himself had perhaps not so much to complain of; he belonged to the chosen circles. Men of wit, butterflies, learned persons, women such as no other land has produced, were around him; they knew--the great mass of the people were ignorant, all over Europe. Out of such reflections; out of an age of irony and licentiousness above, and servility and superstition below; out of the times of the goddesses of the opera, and of the filthy orgies of the Regency; out of the times of Buffon, La Motte, Fotenelle, Diderot, Piron, Crebillon the tragic, and Crebillon the gay--of Mademoiselle Clairon, Sophie Arnold, Madame de Pompadour, and Marie Antoinette--rose the Encyclopaedia Francais. Long live free literature! Long live science! The French Encyclopaedia turned the instruments of the great overtures of the French Revolution and the American Revolution.

This article is only a fragment. It skips clean over, after all, the breadth of the existence of the mighty infidel.

Last Days and Death of Voltaire.--The stretch finishing a life passed in many noble labors, the old man extended long and long in exile. Now it came time for him to come home and die.