no previous Next next

 image pending 13

the henriade.

I believe the French have few
works which they value so highly
as the Henriade. The extravagant
praises which have been lavished
upon it by the king of Prussia, M.
Marmontel, and Cocchi, have in-
duced me to read it. I need scarcely
add, how amply my trouble was
compensated. What, asks the last
of these panegyrists, can be more
interesting than to see a rebellion
stifled, the legitimate heir of a throne
combating in support of his title,
obliged even to besiege his rebellious
capital, and yet displaying in all his
actions the enterprize, the valour,
the prudence, and the generosity of
a hero. It is true, that in his poem
Voltaire has taken some slight liber-
ties with historical facts; but, not-
withstanding these events are recent
and notorious, still the ingenuity
of the poet has given them such an
appearance of probability, that their
deviation from the strict line of
truth ought not to be regarded by a
reader accustomed to consider a
poem only as an imitation of nature,
and composed of ingenious fictions.

All the praises which a writer
merits for a judicious choice of sub-
ject are due to Voltaire. He relates
the ever-memorable massacre of
Saint Bartholomew, the murder of
the third Henry, the dreadful battle
of Ivry, and the famine of Paris:
events which are no less extraordi-
nary and terrible than they are true;
and they are all represented with
such admirable skill, that they ex-
cite in the spectator the alternate
emotions of horror and compassion.

 image pending 14

The number of actors in the Hen-
riade is not very great, but they
are remarkable in their places, and
their manners are painted with a
discriminating pencil.

But the hero, Henry IV, is dis-
tinguished by the variety of traits
which form his character. We be-
hold valour and prudence, huma-
nity and love, continually striving to
gain an ascendancy, and yet all
uniting to promote his glory.

His intimate friend, Mornai, is a
rare character: he is a learned
philosopher, a valiant soldier, a
prudent and good man.

The invisible beings, without
whose assistance no poet would dare
to undertake a poem, are well ma-
naged, and not altogether incredible.
Such, for instance, are the ghost of
St. Louis and some personifications
of the human passions; yet the au-
thor has invoked their assistance so
seldom, and with so much judg-
ment, that we always see they are

In observing how this poem al-
ways sustains its dignity, without
being crowded with supernatural
and omnipotent agents, I have been
confirmed in an opinion, which I
have frequently maintained, that
the places and occupations of these
invisible beings might be supplied
by real actors, as in tragedy, with-
out any loss to epic poetry. This
remark may be justified by the ex-
amples of Homer, Virgil, Dante,
Ariosto, Tasso, and Milton, in whose
works we shall find that the most
admired parts are not those in which
we are addressed by the gods, the
devils, the fates, and the ghosts: on
the contrary, all this excites our
ridicule, without producing in the
heart those sympathetic sentiments
which we feel at the representation
of a noble action, proportionate to
the capacity of man, and which is
not beyond the regions of probabi-
lity. It is for this reason that I ad-
mire the judgment of the poet, who,
in order to confine this fiction within
the bounds of truth and the human
faculties, has conveyed his hero to

heaven and to hell in a dream, as
in a vision all these things may ap-
pear very natural, and are credible.

Upon the constitution of the uni-
verse and the laws of nature, on
morals, and on the ideas which we
have of virtue and vice, of good and
evil, Voltaire has written with so
much force and elegance, that we
are almost inclined to ascribe to him
the knowledge of a superior being,
intimately acquainted with all that
is rational in the system of modern
philosophy. He invokes all science
to his aid, in order to inspire a ge-
neral philanthropy, and a detesta-
tion of cruelty and fanaticism,
throughout human nature. Equally
the enemy of irreligion, he has, in
the disputes which depend upon re-
velation, and which, therefore, can-
not be determined by human reason,
modestly, and yet decisively, given
the preference to the Roman doc-
trine, many of the obscurities of
which his pen has illuminated.

In order to criticise his style, it
would be necessary to understand
the full force and the nice discrimi-
nations of his language: a know-
ledge which is almost impossible to
be attained by a stranger, but with-
out which we cannot fully appreciate
the purity of his diction. All that
I will say of it is, that his verse ap-
pears easy and harmonious to the
ear, and that in the poem I have
found little puerile, little lame, and
but few false sentiments, from which
faults the best poets are not ex-
empted. We find them sometimes,
but rarely, in Homer and Virgil. I
have often thought I discovered
strong marks of resemblance with
the Iliad, but I have also found an
infinite number of beauties which
belong only to the Henriade. Such
are, for example, the excellent alle-
gory in the fifth canto, where he
relates the lamentable death of Hen-
ry III, and his noble reflections on
his execrable assassin. There is
also some novelty in the ingenious
contemplations on future punish-
ments. A single line gives us more
insight into the character of the

 image pending 15

amiable Mornai, than we could
derive from whole pages of ordinary

“He fought without wishing to kill
any one.”

The death of the gallant young
D'Ailly, killed by his own father,
who did not know him, is told with
such pathos, that I could scarcely
refrain from tears when I read it.
There is a similar incident in Tasso,
but that of Voltaire, being related
with greater elegance, appears
equally new, and is more sublime.

His verses upon friendship are
irresistably beautiful, and he has
scarcely equalled them, unless it be
in his description of the modest

In this poem are dispersed a thou-
sand beauties, which evince its au-
thor to have been born with an ex-
quisite taste, which he has increased
by an indefatigable study of all kinds
of science.

The difficulties which he had to
surmount are almost innumerable.
He had the prejudice of all Europe,
and especially of his own country-
men, who believed that an epic
poem could not be written in the
French tongue; he was intimidated
by the sad example of many who
had miserably failed in this glorious
task; and he had yet to encounter
the superstitious veneration of the
learned for Homer and Virgil…..
With all this he had a constitution
so feeble and delicate, that any
other, not so desirous of his own
reputation, and the honour of his
nation, would have been entirely
deterred from undertaking any lite-
rary labour. But the genius of Vol-
taire rose superior to all these im-
pediments. He showed to the world
that his language would support an
an epic; he taught his unsuccessful
contemporaries that it was their
want of genius which prevented
their success; he convinced the ad-
mirers of Homer and Virgil that
epic poetry was not confined to an-
cient times.

no previous Next next