Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, July 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 10 [Voltaire, France, Dryden]

Philosophical Letters [Voltaire]

Why is Voltaire considered a philosopher? He seems clearly a littérateur whose comments on politics and religion are no more systematic than those of his friend Benjamin Franklin. The eighteenth century civic-minded French intellectuals who called themselves philosophes had indeed a preference for reason over mindless faith as well as curiosity about many fields but their thinking was loose and metaphorical, motivated more by a guiding sense of potential human decency than by a show of rigor or a pursuit of metaphysical truth.

What we call his Philosophical Letters was originally more accurately titled Letters concerning the English nation. Writing after a three-year exile following his imprisonment through a letter de cachet, Voltaire comments on a variety of English phenomena, often to the disadvantage of his native land.

He is most concerned with the progressive advance of the middle class against the aristocratic privileges of feudalism and the consequent progress of civil and religious liberties. The modern reader is struck with Voltaire’s praise of the London Stock Exchange as a place where “representatives of all the nations” gather “for the profit of mankind.”

He writes on inoculation, on Newton’s optics and physics and on Locke, celebrating the advance of science. To Voltaire such writers were assisting in the overdue demolition of superstition, contributing toward the development of a “natural philosophy.” (Of course, to Blake, “Newton's Particles of Light” were “sands upon the Red Sea shore,/ Where Israel's tents do shine so bright,” and Voltaire a mere “mocker.”)

Among the other pleasure of the volume are Voltaire’s wit, reminiscent of Mark Twain, in his characterization of Quakers who had his admiration in spite of their enthusiasm. It is more salutary to read his criticism of Shakespeare (indeed his preference for Addison’s Cato) than a dozen third-hand praises by less original critics.

Penguin Island [France]

Anatole France is certainly Voltaire’s literary and intellectual descendent. It is little wonder that France’s literary stock has declined since he received the Nobel prize in 1921. What the Swedish committee called his “nobility of style” and “true Gallic character” seemed to others to be heavy-handed thematic development ornamented only by dry wit and old-fashioned rhetorical turns. His rationality does not appeal to the modern infatuation with passion and the unconscious.

Penguin Island presents a parody history of France from prehistory to a collapse following anarchist assaults. is clever in ideas and turns of phrase. One finds satiric accounts of European history including figures resembling Charlemagne, Napoleon, and such a detailed account of a Dreyfus-like controversy that all but experts will go running for footnotes.

Annus Mirabilis [Dryden]

Sometimes I find that reading a poet for whom I feel I have little inclination is more productive than reading a settled favorite. Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis is fascinating simply for its implications about the role of poetry in the structure of culture. A verse account of striking recent news or a poetic tribute to a ruler and his generals would be unlikely in any country today yet was perfectly ordinary in the seventeenth century.

The specific appeal of Dryden’s work, though, is technical. The repeated rhythm of each quatrain as it sets up and delivers again and again becomes hypnotic as a tide on a shore, and his confident and clever diction eventually acquires an almost “swinging” dance-like quality.

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