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Books and Characters by Lytton Strachey

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At the present time,[6] when it is so difficult to think of anything but
of what is and what will be, it may yet be worth while to cast
occasionally a glance backward at what was. Such glances may at least
prove to have the humble merit of being entertaining: they may even be
instructive as well. Certainly it would be a mistake to forget that
Frederick the Great once lived in Germany. Nor is it altogether useless
to remember that a curious old gentleman, extremely thin, extremely
active, and heavily bewigged, once decided that, on the whole, it would
be as well for him _not_ to live in France. For, just as modern Germany
dates from the accession of Frederick to the throne of Prussia, so
modern France dates from the establishment of Voltaire on the banks of
the Lake of Geneva. The intersection of those two momentous lives forms
one of the most curious and one of the most celebrated incidents in
history. To English readers it is probably best known through the few
brilliant paragraphs devoted to it by Macaulay; though Carlyle's
masterly and far more elaborate narrative is familiar to every lover of
_The History of Friedrich II_. Since Carlyle wrote, however, fifty years
have passed. New points of view have arisen, and a certain amount of new
material--including the valuable edition of the correspondence between
Voltaire and Frederick published from the original documents in the
Archives at Berlin--has become available. It seems, therefore, in spite
of the familiarity of the main outlines of the story, that another rapid
review of it will not be out of place.

Voltaire was forty-two years of age, and already one of the most famous
men of the day, when, in August 1736, he received a letter from the
Crown Prince of Prussia. This letter was the first in a correspondence
which was to last, with a few remarkable intervals, for a space of over
forty years. It was written by a young man of twenty-four, of whose
personal qualities very little was known, and whose importance seemed to
lie simply in the fact that he was heir-apparent to one of the secondary
European monarchies. Voltaire, however, was not the man to turn up his
nose at royalty, in whatever form it might present itself; and it was
moreover clear that the young prince had picked up at least a smattering
of French culture, that he was genuinely anxious to become acquainted
with the tendencies of modern thought, and, above all, that his
admiration for the author of the _Henriade_ and _Zaire_ was unbounded.

La douceur et le support [wrote Frederick] que vous marquez pour
tous ceux qui se vouent aux arts et aux sciences, me font esperer
que vous ne m'exclurez pas du nombre de ceux que vous trouvez
dignes de vos instructions. Je nomme ainsi votre commerce de
lettres, qui ne peut etre que profitable a tout etre pensant. J'ose
meme avancer, sans deroger au merite d'autrui, que dans l'univers
entier il n'y aurait pas d'exception a faire de ceux dont vous ne
pourriez etre le maitre.

The great man was accordingly delighted; he replied with all that
graceful affability of which he was a master, declared that his
correspondent was 'un prince philosophe qui rendra les hommes heureux,'
and showed that he meant business by plunging at once into a discussion
of the metaphysical doctrines of 'le sieur Wolf,' whom Frederick had
commended as 'le plus celebre philosophe de nos jours.' For the next
four years the correspondence continued on the lines thus laid down. It
was a correspondence between a master and a pupil: Frederick, his
passions divided between German philosophy and French poetry, poured out
with equal copiousness disquisitions upon Free Will and _la raison
suffisante_, odes _sur la Flatterie_, and epistles _sur l'Humanite_,
while Voltaire kept the ball rolling with no less enormous
philosophical replies, together with minute criticisms of His Royal
Highness's mistakes in French metre and French orthography. Thus, though
the interest of these early letters must have been intense to the young
Prince, they have far too little personal flavour to be anything but
extremely tedious to the reader of to-day. Only very occasionally is it
possible to detect, amid the long and careful periods, some faint signs
of feeling or of character. Voltaire's _empressement_ seems to take on,
once or twice, the colours of something like a real enthusiasm; and one
notices that, after two years, Frederick's letters begin no longer with
'Monsieur' but with 'Mon cher ami,' which glides at last insensibly into
'Mon cher Voltaire'; though the careful poet continues with his
'Monseigneur' throughout. Then, on one occasion, Frederick makes a
little avowal, which reads oddly in the light of future events.

Souffrez [he says] que je vous fasse mon caractere, afin que vous
ne vous y mepreniez plus ... J'ai peu de merite et peu de savoir;
mais j'ai beaucoup de bonne volonte, et un fonds inepuisable
d'estime et d'amitie pour les personnes d'une vertu distinguee, et
avec cela je suis capable de toute la constance que la vraie amitie
exige. J'ai assez de jugement pour vous rendre toute la justice que
vous meritez; mais je n'en ai pas assez pour m'empecher de faire de
mauvais vers.

But this is exceptional; as a rule, elaborate compliments take the place
of personal confessions; and, while Voltaire is never tired of comparing
Frederick to Apollo, Alcibiades, and the youthful Marcus Aurelius, of
proclaiming the rebirth of 'les talents de Virgile et les vertus
d'Auguste,' or of declaring that 'Socrate ne m'est rien, c'est Frederic
que j'aime,' the Crown Prince is on his side ready with an equal flow of
protestations, which sometimes rise to singular heights. 'Ne croyez
pas,' he says, 'que je pousse mon scepticisime a outrance ... Je crois,
par exemple, qu'il n'y a qu'un Dieu et qu'un Voltaire dans le monde; je
crois encore que ce Dieu avait besoin dans ce siecle d'un Voltaire pour
le rendre aimable.' Decidedly the Prince's compliments were too
emphatic, and the poet's too ingenious; as Voltaire himself said
afterwards, 'les epithetes ne nous coutaient rien'; yet neither was
without a little residue of sincerity. Frederick's admiration bordered
upon the sentimental; and Voltaire had begun to allow himself to hope
that some day, in a provincial German court, there might be found a
crowned head devoting his life to philosophy, good sense, and the love
of letters. Both were to receive a curious awakening.

In 1740 Frederick became King of Prussia, and a new epoch in the
relations between the two men began. The next ten years were, on both
sides, years of growing disillusionment. Voltaire very soon discovered
that his phrase about 'un prince philosophe qui rendra les hommes
heureux' was indeed a phrase and nothing more. His _prince philosophe_
started out on a career of conquest, plunged all Europe into war, and
turned Prussia into a great military power. Frederick, it appeared, was
at once a far more important and a far more dangerous phenomenon than
Voltaire had suspected. And, on the other hand, the matured mind of the
King was not slow to perceive that the enthusiasm of the Prince needed a
good deal of qualification. This change of view, was, indeed, remarkably
rapid. Nothing is more striking than the alteration of the tone in
Frederick's correspondence during the few months which followed his
accession: the voice of the raw and inexperienced youth is heard no
more, and its place is taken--at once and for ever--by the
self-contained caustic utterance of an embittered man of the world. In
this transformation it was only natural that the wondrous figure of
Voltaire should lose some of its glitter--especially since Frederick now
began to have the opportunity of inspecting that figure in the flesh
with his own sharp eyes. The friends met three or four times, and it is
noticeable that after each meeting there is a distinct coolness on the
part of Frederick. He writes with a sudden brusqueness to accuse
Voltaire of showing about his manuscripts, which, he says, had only been
sent him on the condition of _un secret inviolable_. He writes to Jordan
complaining of Voltaire's avarice in very stringent terms. 'Ton avare
boira la lie de son insatiable desir de s'enrichir ... Son apparition de
six jours me coutera par journee cinq cent cinquante ecus. C'est bien
payer un fou; jamais bouffon de grand seigneur n'eut de pareils gages.'
He declares that 'la cervelle du poete est aussi legere que le style de
ses ouvrages,' and remarks sarcastically that he is indeed a man
_extraordinaire en tout_.

Yet, while his opinion of Voltaire's character was rapidly growing more
and more severe, his admiration of his talents remained undiminished.
For, though he had dropped metaphysics when he came to the throne,
Frederick could never drop his passion for French poetry; he recognised
in Voltaire the unapproachable master of that absorbing art; and for
years he had made up his mind that, some day or other, he would
_posseder_--for so he put it--the author of the _Henriade_, would keep
him at Berlin as the brightest ornament of his court, and, above all,
would have him always ready at hand to put the final polish on his own
verses. In the autumn of 1743 it seemed for a moment that his wish would
be gratified. Voltaire spent a visit of several weeks in Berlin; he was
dazzled by the graciousness of his reception and the splendour of his
surroundings; and he began to listen to the honeyed overtures of the
Prussian Majesty. The great obstacle to Frederick's desire was
Voltaire's relationship with Madame du Chatelet. He had lived with her
for more than ten years; he was attached to her by all the ties of
friendship and gratitude; he had constantly declared that he would never
leave her--no, not for all the seductions of princes. She would, it is
true, have been willing to accompany Voltaire to Berlin; but such a
solution would by no means have suited Frederick. He was not fond of
ladies--even of ladies like Madame du Chatelet--learned enough to
translate Newton and to discuss by the hour the niceties of the
Leibnitzian philosophy; and he had determined to _posseder_ Voltaire
either completely or not at all. Voltaire, in spite of repeated
temptations, had remained faithful; but now, for the first time, poor
Madame du Chatelet began to be seriously alarmed. His letters from
Berlin grew fewer and fewer, and more and more ambiguous; she knew
nothing of his plans; 'il est ivre absolument' she burst out in her
distress to d'Argental, one of his oldest friends. By every post she
dreaded to learn at last that he had deserted her for ever. But suddenly
Voltaire returned. The spell of Berlin had been broken, and he was at
her feet once more.

What had happened was highly characteristic both of the Poet and of the
King. Each had tried to play a trick on the other, and each had found
the other out. The French Government had been anxious to obtain an
insight into the diplomatic intentions of Frederick, in an unofficial
way; Voltaire had offered his services, and it had been agreed that he
should write to Frederick declaring that he was obliged to leave France
for a time owing to the hostility of a member of the Government, the
Bishop of Mirepoix, and asking for Frederick's hospitality. Frederick
had not been taken in: though he had not disentangled the whole plot, he
had perceived clearly enough that Voltaire's visit was in reality that
of an agent of the French Government; he also thought he saw an
opportunity of securing the desire of his heart. Voltaire, to give
verisimilitude to his story, had, in his letter to Frederick, loaded the
Bishop of Mirepoix with ridicule and abuse; and Frederick now secretly
sent this letter to Mirepoix himself. His calculation was that Mirepoix
would be so outraged that he would make it impossible for Voltaire ever
to return to France; and in that case--well, Voltaire would have no
other course open to him but to stay where he was, in Berlin, and Madame
du Chatelet would have to make the best of it. Of course, Frederick's
plan failed, and Voltaire was duly informed by Mirepoix of what had
happened. He was naturally very angry. He had been almost induced to
stay in Berlin of his own accord, and now he found that his host had
been attempting, by means of treachery and intrigue, to force him to
stay there whether he liked it or not. It was a long time before he
forgave Frederick. But the King was most anxious to patch up the
quarrel; he still could not abandon the hope of ultimately securing
Voltaire; and besides, he was now possessed by another and a more
immediate desire--to be allowed a glimpse of that famous and scandalous
work which Voltaire kept locked in the innermost drawer of his cabinet
and revealed to none but the most favoured of his intimates--_La

Accordingly the royal letters became more frequent and more flattering
than ever; the royal hand cajoled and implored. 'Ne me faites point
injustice sur mon caractere; d'ailleurs il vous est permis de badiner
sur mon sujet comme il vous plaira.' '_La Pucelle! La Pucelle! La
Pucelle!_ et encore _La Pucelle_!' he exclaims. 'Pour l'amour de Dieu,
ou plus encore pour l'amour de vous-meme, envoyez-la-moi.' And at last
Voltaire was softened. He sent off a few fragments of his
_Pucelle_--just enough to whet Frederick's appetite--and he declared
himself reconciled, 'Je vous ai aime tendrement,' he wrote in March
1749; 'j'ai ete fache contre vous, je vous ai pardonne, et actuellement
je vous aime a la folie.' Within a year of this date his situation had
undergone a complete change. Madame du Chatelet was dead; and his
position at Versailles, in spite of the friendship of Madame de
Pompadour, had become almost as impossible as he had pretended it to
have been in 1743. Frederick eagerly repeated his invitation; and this
time Voltaire did not refuse. He was careful to make a very good
bargain; obliged Frederick to pay for his journey; and arrived at Berlin
in July 1750. He was given rooms in the royal palaces both at Berlin and
Potsdam; he was made a Court Chamberlain, and received the Order of
Merit, together with a pension of L800 a year. These arrangements caused
considerable amusement in Paris; and for some days hawkers, carrying
prints of Voltaire dressed in furs, and crying 'Voltaire le prussien!
Six sols le fameux prussien!' were to be seen walking up and down the

The curious drama that followed, with its farcical [Greek: peripeteia]
and its tragi-comic _denouement_, can hardly be understood without a
brief consideration of the feelings and intentions of the two chief
actors in it. The position of Frederick is comparatively plain. He had
now completely thrown aside the last lingering remnants of any esteem
which he may once have entertained for the character of Voltaire. He
frankly thought him a scoundrel. In September 1749, less than a year
before Voltaire's arrival, and at the very period of Frederick's most
urgent invitations, we find him using the following language in a letter
to Algarotti: 'Voltaire vient de faire un tour qui est indigne.' (He had
been showing to all his friends a garbled copy of one of Frederick's

Il meriterait d'etre fleurdelise au Parnasse. C'est bien dommage
qu'une ame aussi lache soit unie a un aussi beau genie. Il a les
gentillesses et les malices d'un singe. Je vous conterai ce que
c'est, lorsque je vous reverrai; cependant je ne ferai semblant de
rien, car j'en ai besoin pour l'etude de l'elocution francaise. On
peut apprendre de bonnes choses d'un scelerat. Je veux savoir son
francais; que m'importe sa morale? Cet homme a trouve le moyen de
reunir tous les contraires. On admire son esprit, en meme temps
qu'on meprise son caractere.

There is no ambiguity about this. Voltaire was a scoundrel; but he was a
scoundrel of genius. He would make the best possible teacher of
_l'elocution francaise_; therefore it was necessary that he should come
and live in Berlin. But as for anything more--as for any real
interchange of sympathies, any genuine feeling of friendliness, of
respect, or even of regard--all that was utterly out of the question.
The avowal is cynical, no doubt; but it is at any rate straightforward,
and above all it is peculiarly devoid of any trace of self-deception. In
the face of these trenchant sentences, the view of Frederick's attitude
which is suggested so assiduously by Carlyle--that he was the victim of
an elevated misapprehension, that he was always hoping for the best, and
that, when the explosion came he was very much surprised and profoundly
disappointed--becomes obviously untenable. If any man ever acted with
his eyes wide open, it was Frederick when he invited Voltaire to Berlin.

Yet, though that much is clear, the letter to Algarotti betrays, in more
than one direction, a very singular state of mind. A warm devotion to
_l'elocution francaise_ is easy enough to understand; but Frederick's
devotion was much more than warm; it was so absorbing and so intense
that it left him no rest until, by hook or by crook, by supplication, or
by trickery, or by paying down hard cash, he had obtained the close and
constant proximity of--what?--of a man whom he himself described as a
'singe' and a 'scelerat,' a man of base soul and despicable character.
And Frederick appears to see nothing surprising in this. He takes it
quite as a matter of course that he should be, not merely willing, but
delighted to run all the risks involved by Voltaire's undoubted roguery,
so long as he can be sure of benefiting from Voltaire's no less
undoubted mastery of French versification. This is certainly strange;
but the explanation of it lies in the extraordinary vogue--a vogue,
indeed, so extraordinary that it is very difficult for the modern reader
to realise it--enjoyed throughout Europe by French culture and
literature during the middle years of the eighteenth century. Frederick
was merely an extreme instance of a universal fact. Like all Germans of
any education, he habitually wrote and spoke in French; like every lady
and gentleman from Naples to Edinburgh, his life was regulated by the
social conventions of France; like every amateur of letters from Madrid
to St. Petersburg, his whole conception of literary taste, his whole
standard of literary values, was French. To him, as to the vast majority
of his contemporaries, the very essence of civilisation was concentrated
in French literature, and especially in French poetry; and French poetry
meant to him, as to his contemporaries, that particular kind of French
poetry which had come into fashion at the court of Louis XIV. For this
curious creed was as narrow as it was all-pervading. The _Grand Siecle_
was the Church Infallible; and it was heresy to doubt the Gospel of

Frederick's library, still preserved at Potsdam, shows us what
literature meant in those days to a cultivated man: it is composed
entirely of the French Classics, of the works of Voltaire, and of the
masterpieces of antiquity translated into eighteenth-century French. But
Frederick was not content with mere appreciation; he too would create;
he would write alexandrines on the model of Racine, and madrigals after
the manner of Chaulieu; he would press in person into the sacred
sanctuary, and burn incense with his own hands upon the inmost shrine.
It was true that he was a foreigner; it was true that his knowledge of
the French language was incomplete and incorrect; but his sense of his
own ability urged him forward, and his indefatigable pertinacity kept
him at his strange task throughout the whole of his life. He filled
volumes, and the contents of those volumes afford probably the most
complete illustration in literature of the very trite proverb--_Poeta
nascitur, non fit_. The spectacle of that heavy German Muse, with her
feet crammed into pointed slippers, executing, with incredible
conscientiousness, now the stately measure of a Versailles minuet, and
now the spritely steps of a Parisian jig, would be either ludicrous or
pathetic--one hardly knows which--were it not so certainly neither the
one nor the other, but simply dreary with an unutterable dreariness,
from which the eyes of men avert themselves in shuddering dismay.
Frederick himself felt that there was something wrong--something, but
not really very much. All that was wanted was a little expert advice;
and obviously Voltaire was the man to supply it--Voltaire, the one true
heir of the Great Age, the dramatist who had revived the glories of
Racine (did not Frederick's tears flow almost as copiously over
_Mahomet_ as over _Britannicus_?), the epic poet who had eclipsed Homer
and Virgil (had not Frederick every right to judge, since he had read
the 'Iliad' in French prose and the 'Aeneid' in French verse?), the
lyric master whose odes and whose epistles occasionally even surpassed
(Frederick Confessed it with amazement) those of the Marquis de la Fare.
Voltaire, there could be no doubt, would do just what was needed; he
would know how to squeeze in a little further the waist of the German
Calliope, to apply with his deft fingers precisely the right dab of
rouge to her cheeks, to instil into her movements the last _nuances_ of
correct deportment. And, if he did that, of what consequence were the
blemishes of his personal character? 'On peut apprendre de bonnes choses
d'un scelerat.'

And, besides, though Voltaire might be a rogue, Frederick felt quite
convinced that he could keep him in order. A crack or two of the
master's whip--a coldness in the royal demeanour, a hint at a stoppage
of the pension--and the monkey would put an end to his tricks soon
enough. It never seems to have occurred to Frederick that the possession
of genius might imply a quality of spirit which was not that of an
ordinary man. This was his great, his fundamental error. It was the
ingenuous error of a cynic. He knew that he was under no delusion as to
Voltaire's faults, and so he supposed that he could be under no delusion
as to his merits. He innocently imagined that the capacity for great
writing was something that could be as easily separated from the owner
of it as a hat or a glove. 'C'est bien dommage qu'une ame aussi lache
soit unie a un aussi beau genie.' _C'est bien dommage_!--as if there was
nothing more extraordinary in such a combination than that of a pretty
woman and an ugly dress. And so Frederick held his whip a little
tighter, and reminded himself once more that, in spite of that _beau
genie_, it was a monkey that he had to deal with. But he was wrong: it
was not a monkey; it was a devil, which is a very different thing.

A devil--or perhaps an angel? One cannot be quite sure. For, amid the
complexities of that extraordinary spirit, where good and evil were so
mysteriously interwoven, where the elements of darkness and the elements
of light lay crowded together in such ever-deepening ambiguity, fold
within fold, the clearer the vision the greater the bewilderment, the
more impartial the judgment the profounder the doubt. But one thing at
least is certain: that spirit, whether it was admirable or whether it
was odious, was moved by a terrific force. Frederick had failed to
realise this; and indeed, though Voltaire was fifty-six when he went to
Berlin, and though his whole life had been spent in a blaze of
publicity, there was still not one of his contemporaries who understood
the true nature of his genius; it was perhaps hidden even from himself.
He had reached the threshold of old age, and his life's work was still
before him; it was not as a writer of tragedies and epics that he was to
take his place in the world. Was he, in the depths of his consciousness,
aware that this was so? Did some obscure instinct urge him forward, at
this late hour, to break with the ties of a lifetime, and rush forth
into the unknown?

What his precise motives were in embarking upon the Berlin adventure it
is very difficult to say. It is true that he was disgusted with
Paris--he was ill-received at Court, and he was pestered by endless
literary quarrels and jealousies; it would be very pleasant to show his
countrymen that he had other strings to his bow, that, if they did not
appreciate him, Frederick the Great did. It is true, too, that he
admired Frederick's intellect, and that he was flattered by his favour.
'Il avait de l'esprit,' he said afterwards, 'des graces, et, de plus, il
etait roi; ce qui fait toujours une grande seduction, attendu la
faiblesse humaine.' His vanity could not resist the prestige of a royal
intimacy; and no doubt he relished to the full even the increased
consequence which came to him with his Chamberlain's key and his
order--to say nothing of the addition of L800 to his income. Yet, on the
other hand, he was very well aware that he was exchanging freedom for
servitude, and that he was entering into a bargain with a man who would
make quite sure that he was getting his money's worth; and he knew in
his heart that he had something better to do than to play, however
successfully, the part of a courtier. Nor was he personally attached to
Frederick; he was personally attached to no one on earth. Certainly he
had never been a man of feeling, and now that he was old and hardened by
the uses of the world he had grown to be completely what in essence he
always was--a fighter, without tenderness, without scruples, and without
remorse. No, he went to Berlin for his own purposes--however dubious
those purposes may have been.

And it is curious to observe that in his correspondence with his niece,
Madame Denis, whom he had left behind him at the head of his Paris
establishment and in whom he confided--in so far as he can be said to
have confided in anyone--he repeatedly states that there is nothing
permanent about his visit to Berlin. At first he declares that he is
only making a stay of a few weeks with Frederick, that he is going on to
Italy to visit 'sa Saintete' and to inspect 'la ville souterraine,' that
he will be back in Paris in the autumn. The autumn comes, and the roads
are too muddy to travel by; he must wait till the winter, when they will
be frozen hard. Winter comes, and it is too cold to move; but he will
certainly return in the spring. Spring comes, and he is on the point of
finishing his _Siecle de Louis XIV_.; he really must wait just a few
weeks more. The book is published; but then how can he appear in Paris
until he is quite sure of its success? And so he lingers on, delaying
and prevaricating, until a whole year has passed, and still he lingers
on, still he is on the point of going, and still he does not go.
Meanwhile, to all appearances, he was definitely fixed, a salaried
official, at Frederick's court; and he was writing to all his other
friends, to assure them that he had never been so happy, that he could
see no reason why he should ever come away. What were his true
intentions? Could he himself have said? Had he perhaps, in some secret
corner of his brain, into which even he hardly dared to look, a
premonition of the future? At times, in this Berlin adventure, he seems
to resemble some great buzzing fly, shooting suddenly into a room
through an open window and dashing frantically from side to side; when
all at once, as suddenly, he swoops away and out through another window
which opens in quite a different direction, towards wide and flowery
fields; so that perhaps the reckless creature knew where he was going
after all.

In any case, it is evident to the impartial observer that Voltaire's
visit could only have ended as it did--in an explosion. The elements of
the situation were too combustible for any other conclusion. When two
confirmed egotists decide, for purely selfish reasons, to set up house
together, everyone knows what will happen. For some time their sense of
mutual advantage may induce them to tolerate each other, but sooner or
later human nature will assert itself, and the _menage_ will break up.
And, with Voltaire and Frederick, the difficulties inherent in all such
cases were intensified by the fact that the relationship between them
was, in effect, that of servant and master; that Voltaire, under a very
thin disguise, was a paid menial, while Frederick, condescend as he
might, was an autocrat whose will was law. Thus the two famous and
perhaps mythical sentences, invariably repeated by historians of the
incident, about orange-skins and dirty linen, do in fact sum up the gist
of the matter. 'When one has sucked the orange, one throws away the
skin,' somebody told Voltaire that the King had said, on being asked how
much longer he would put up with the poet's vagaries. And Frederick, on
his side, was informed that Voltaire, when a batch of the royal verses
were brought to him for correction, had burst out with 'Does the man
expect me to go on washing his dirty linen for ever?' Each knew well
enough the weak spot in his position, and each was acutely and
uncomfortably conscious that the other knew it too. Thus, but a very few
weeks after Voltaire's arrival, little clouds of discord become visible
on the horizon; electrical discharges of irritability began to take
place, growing more and more frequent and violent as time goes on; and
one can overhear the pot and the kettle, in strictest privacy, calling
each other black. 'The monster,' whispers Voltaire to Madame Denis, 'he
opens all our letters in the post'--Voltaire, whose light-handedness
with other people's correspondence was only too notorious. 'The monkey,'
mutters Frederick, 'he shows my private letters to his
friends'--Frederick, who had thought nothing of betraying Voltaire's
letters to the Bishop of Mirepoix. 'How happy I should be here,'
exclaims the callous old poet, 'but for one thing--his Majesty is
utterly heartless!' And meanwhile Frederick, who had never let a
farthing escape from his close fist without some very good reason, was
busy concocting an epigram upon the avarice of Voltaire.

It was, indeed, Voltaire's passion for money which brought on the first
really serious storm. Three months after his arrival in Berlin, the
temptation to increase his already considerable fortune by a stroke of
illegal stock-jobbing proved too strong for him; he became involved in a
series of shady financial transactions with a Jew; he quarrelled with
the Jew; there was an acrimonious lawsuit, with charges and
countercharges of the most discreditable kind; and, though the Jew lost
his case on a technical point, the poet certainly did not leave the
court without a stain upon his character. Among other misdemeanours, it
is almost certain--the evidence is not quite conclusive--that he
committed forgery in order to support a false oath. Frederick was
furious, and for a moment was on the brink of dismissing Voltaire from
Berlin. He would have been wise if he had done so. But he could not part
with his _beau genie_ so soon. He cracked his whip, and, setting the
monkey to stand in the corner, contented himself with a shrug of the
shoulders and the exclamation 'C'est l'affaire d'un fripon qui a voulu
tromper un filou.' A few weeks later the royal favour shone forth once
more, and Voltaire, who had been hiding himself in a suburban villa,
came out and basked again in those refulgent beams.

And the beams were decidedly refulgent--so much so, in fact, that they
almost satisfied even the vanity of Voltaire. Almost, but not quite.
For, though his glory was great, though he was the centre of all men's
admiration, courted by nobles, flattered by princesses--there is a
letter from one of them, a sister of Frederick's, still extant, wherein
the trembling votaress ventures to praise the great man's works, which,
she says, 'vous rendent si celebre et immortel'--though he had ample
leisure for his private activities, though he enjoyed every day the
brilliant conversation of the King, though he could often forget for
weeks together that he was the paid servant of a jealous despot--yet, in
spite of all, there was a crumpled rose-leaf amid the silken sheets, and
he lay awake o' nights. He was not the only Frenchman at Frederick's
court. That monarch had surrounded himself with a small group of
persons--foreigners for the most part--whose business it was to instruct
him when he wished to improve his mind, to flatter him when he was out
of temper, and to entertain him when he was bored. There was hardly one
of them that was not thoroughly second-rate. Algarotti was an elegant
dabbler in scientific matters--he had written a book to explain Newton
to the ladies; d'Argens was an amiable and erudite writer of a dull
free-thinking turn; Chasot was a retired military man with too many
debts, and Darget was a good-natured secretary with too many love
affairs; La Mettrie was a doctor who had been exiled from France for
atheism and bad manners; and Poellnitz was a decaying baron who, under
stress of circumstances, had unfortunately been obliged to change his
religion six times.

These were the boon companions among whom Frederick chose to spend his
leisure hours. Whenever he had nothing better to do, he would exchange
rhymed epigrams with Algarotti, or discuss the Jewish religion with
d'Argens, or write long improper poems about Darget, in the style of _La
Pucelle_. Or else he would summon La Mettrie, who would forthwith prove
the irrefutability of materialism in a series of wild paradoxes, shout
with laughter, suddenly shudder and cross himself on upsetting the salt,
and eventually pursue his majesty with his buffooneries into a place
where even royal persons are wont to be left alone. At other times
Frederick would amuse himself by first cutting down the pension of
Poellnitz, who was at the moment a Lutheran, and then writing long and
serious letters to him suggesting that if he would only become a
Catholic again he might be made a Silesian Abbot. Strangely enough,
Frederick was not popular, and one or other of the inmates of his little
menagerie was constantly escaping and running away. Darget and Chasot
both succeeded in getting through the wires; they obtained leave to
visit Paris, and stayed there. Poor d'Argens often tried to follow their
example; more than once he set off for France, secretly vowing never to
return; but he had no money, Frederick was blandishing, and the wretch
was always lured back to captivity. As for La Mettrie, he made his
escape in a different manner--by dying after supper one evening of a
surfeit of pheasant pie. 'Jesus! Marie!' he gasped, as he felt the pains
of death upon him. 'Ah!' said a priest who had been sent for, 'vous
voila enfin retourne a ces noms consolateurs.' La Mettrie, with an oath,
expired; and Frederick, on hearing of this unorthodox conclusion,
remarked, 'J'en suis bien aise, pour le repos de son ame.'

Among this circle of down-at-heel eccentrics there was a single figure
whose distinction and respectability stood out in striking contrast from
the rest--that of Maupertuis, who had been, since 1745, the President of
the Academy of Sciences at Berlin. Maupertuis has had an unfortunate
fate: he was first annihilated by the ridicule of Voltaire, and then
recreated by the humour of Carlyle; but he was an ambitious man, very
anxious to be famous, and his desire has been gratified in over-flowing
measure. During his life he was chiefly known for his voyage to Lapland,
and his observations there, by which he was able to substantiate the
Newtonian doctrine of the flatness of the earth at the poles. He
possessed considerable scientific attainments, he was honest, he was
energetic; he appeared to be just the man to revive the waning glories
of Prussian science; and when Frederick succeeded in inducing him to
come to Berlin as President of his Academy the choice seemed amply
justified. Maupertuis had, moreover, some pretensions to wit; and in his
earlier days his biting and elegant sarcasms had more than once
overwhelmed his scientific adversaries. Such accomplishments suited
Frederick admirably. Maupertuis, he declared, was an _homme d'esprit_,
and the happy President became a constant guest at the royal
supper-parties. It was the happy--the too happy--President who was the
rose-leaf in the bed of Voltaire. The two men had known each other
slightly for many years, and had always expressed the highest admiration
for each other; but their mutual amiability was now to be put to a
severe test. The sagacious Buffon observed the danger from afar: 'ces
deux hommes,' he wrote to a friend, 'ne sont pas faits pour demeurer
ensemble dans la meme chambre.' And indeed to the vain and sensitive
poet, uncertain of Frederick's cordiality, suspicious of hidden enemies,
intensely jealous of possible rivals, the spectacle of Maupertuis at
supper, radiant, at his ease, obviously protected, obviously superior to
the shady mediocrities who sat around--that sight was gall and wormwood;
and he looked closer, with a new malignity; and then those piercing eyes
began to make discoveries, and that relentless brain began to do its

Maupertuis had very little judgment; so far from attempting to
conciliate Voltaire, he was rash enough to provoke hostilities. It was
very natural that he should have lost his temper. He had been for five
years the dominating figure in the royal circle, and now suddenly he was
deprived of his pre-eminence and thrown completely into the shade. Who
could attend to Maupertuis while Voltaire was talking?--Voltaire, who as
obviously outshone Maupertuis as Maupertuis outshone La Mettrie and
Darget and the rest. In his exasperation the President went to the
length of openly giving his protection to a disreputable literary man,
La Beaumelle, who was a declared enemy of Voltaire. This meant war, and
war was not long in coming.

Some years previously Maupertuis had, as he believed, discovered an
important mathematical law--the 'principle of least action.' The law
was, in fact, important, and has had a fruitful history in the
development of mechanical theory; but, as Mr. Jourdain has shown in a
recent monograph, Maupertuis enunciated it incorrectly without realising
its true import, and a far more accurate and scientific statement of it
was given, within a few months, by Euler. Maupertuis, however, was very
proud of his discovery, which, he considered, embodied one of the
principal reasons for believing in the existence of God; and he was
therefore exceedingly angry when, shortly after Voltaire's arrival in
Berlin, a Swiss mathematician, Koenig, published a polite memoir
attacking both its accuracy and its originality, and quoted in support
of his contention an unpublished letter by Leibnitz, in which the law
was more exactly expressed. Instead of arguing upon the merits of the
case, Maupertuis declared that the letter of Leibnitz was a forgery, and
that therefore Koenig's remarks deserved no further consideration. When
Koenig expostulated, Maupertuis decided upon a more drastic step. He
summoned a meeting of the Berlin Academy of Sciences, of which Koenig
was a member, laid the case before it, and moved that it should solemnly
pronounce Koenig a forger, and the letter of Leibnitz supposititious and
false. The members of the Academy were frightened; their pensions
depended upon the President's good will; and even the illustrious Euler
was not ashamed to take part in this absurd and disgraceful

Voltaire saw at once that his opportunity had come. Maupertuis had put
himself utterly and irretrievably in the wrong. He was wrong in
attributing to his discovery a value which it did not possess; he was
wrong in denying the authenticity of the Leibnitz letter; above all he
was wrong in treating a purely scientific question as the proper subject
for the disciplinary jurisdiction of an Academy. If Voltaire struck now,
he would have his enemy on the hip. There was only one consideration to
give him pause, and that was a grave one: to attack Maupertuis upon this
matter was, in effect, to attack the King. Not only was Frederick
certainly privy to Maupertuis' action, but he was extremely sensitive of
the reputation of his Academy and of its President, and he would
certainly consider any interference on the part of Voltaire, who himself
drew his wages from the royal purse, as a flagrant act of disloyalty.
But Voltaire decided to take the risk. He had now been more than two
years in Berlin, and the atmosphere of a Court was beginning to weigh
upon his spirit; he was restless, he was reckless, he was spoiling for a
fight; he would take on Maupertuis singly or Maupertuis and Frederick
combined--he did not much care which, and in any case he flattered
himself that he would settle the hash of the President.

As a preparatory measure, he withdrew all his spare cash from Berlin,
and invested it with the Duke of Wurtemberg. 'Je mets tout doucement
ordre a mes affaires,' he told Madame Denis. Then, on September 18,
1752, there appeared in the papers a short article entitled 'Reponse
d'un Academicien de Berlin a un Academicien de Paris.' It was a
statement, deadly in its bald simplicity, its studied coldness, its
concentrated force, of Koenig's case against Maupertuis. The President
must have turned pale as he read it; but the King turned crimson. The
terrible indictment could, of course only have been written by one man,
and that man was receiving a royal pension of L800 a year and carrying
about a Chamberlain's gold key in his pocket. Frederick flew to his
writing-table, and composed an indignant pamphlet which he caused to be
published with the Prussian arms on the title-page. It was a feeble
work, full of exaggerated praises of Maupertuis, and of clumsy
invectives against Voltaire: the President's reputation was gravely
compared to that of Homer; the author of the 'Reponse d'un Academicien
de Berlin' was declared to be a 'faiseur de libelles sans genie,' an
'imposteur effronte,' a 'malheureux ecrivain' while the 'Reponse' itself
was a 'grossierete plate,' whose publication was an 'action malicieuse,
lache, infame,' a 'brigandage affreux.' The presence of the royal
insignia only intensified the futility of the outburst. 'L'aigle, le
sceptre, et la couronne,' wrote Voltaire to Madame Denis, 'sont bien
etonnes de se trouver la.' But one thing was now certain: the King had
joined the fray. Voltaire's blood was up, and he was not sorry. A kind
of exaltation seized him; from this moment his course was clear--he
would do as much damage as he could, and then leave Prussia for ever.
And it so happened that just then an unexpected opportunity occurred
for one of those furious onslaughts so dear to his heart, with that
weapon which he knew so well how to wield. 'Je n'ai point de sceptre,'
he ominously shot out to Madame Denis, 'mais j'ai une plume.'

Meanwhile the life of the Court--which passed for the most part at
Potsdam, in the little palace of Sans Souci which Frederick had built
for himself--proceeded on its accustomed course. It was a singular life,
half military, half monastic, rigid, retired, from which all the
ordinary pleasures of society were strictly excluded. 'What do you do
here?' one of the royal princes was once asked. 'We conjugate the verb
_s'ennuyer_,' was the reply. But, wherever he might be, that was a verb
unknown to Voltaire. Shut up all day in the strange little room, still
preserved for the eyes of the curious, with its windows opening on the
formal garden, and its yellow walls thickly embossed with the brightly
coloured shapes of fruits, flowers, birds, and apes, the indefatigable
old man worked away at his histories, his tragedies, his _Pucelle_, and
his enormous correspondence. He was, of course, ill--very ill; he was
probably, in fact, upon the brink of death; but he had grown accustomed
to that situation; and the worse he grew the more furiously he worked.
He was a victim, he declared, of erysipelas, dysentery, and scurvy; he
was constantly attacked by fever, and all his teeth had fallen out. But
he continued to work. On one occasion a friend visited him, and found
him in bed. 'J'ai quatre maladies mortelles,' he wailed. 'Pourtant,'
remarked the friend, 'vous avez l'oeil fort bon.' Voltaire leapt up from
the pillows: 'Ne savez-vous pas,' he shouted, 'que les scorbutiques
meurent l'oeil enflamme?' When the evening came it was time to dress,
and, in all the pomp of flowing wig and diamond order, to proceed to the
little music-room, where his Majesty, after the business of the day, was
preparing to relax himself upon the flute. The orchestra was gathered
together; the audience was seated; the concerto began. And then the
sounds of beauty flowed and trembled, and seemed, for a little space,
to triumph over the pains of living and the hard hearts of men; and the
royal master poured out his skill in some long and elaborate cadenza,
and the adagio came, the marvellous adagio, and the conqueror of
Rossbach drew tears from the author of _Candide_. But a moment later it
was supper-time; and the night ended in the oval dining-room, amid
laughter and champagne, the ejaculations of La Mettrie, the epigrams of
Maupertuis, the sarcasms of Frederick, and the devastating coruscations
of Voltaire.

Yet, in spite of all the jests and roses, everyone could hear the
rumbling of the volcano under the ground. Everyone could hear, but
nobody would listen; the little flames leapt up through the surface, but
still the gay life went on; and then the irruption came. Voltaire's
enemy had written a book. In the intervals of his more serious labours,
the President had put together a series of 'Letters,' in which a number
of miscellaneous scientific subjects were treated in a mildly
speculative and popular style. The volume was rather dull, and very
unimportant; but it happened to appear at this particular moment, and
Voltaire pounced upon it with the swift swoop of a hawk on a mouse. The
famous _Diatribe du Docteur Akakia_ is still fresh with a fiendish
gaiety after a hundred and fifty years; but to realise to the full the
skill and malice which went to the making of it, one must at least have
glanced at the flat insipid production which called it forth, and noted
with what a diabolical art the latent absurdities in poor Maupertuis'
_reveries_ have been detected, dragged forth into the light of day, and
nailed to the pillory of an immortal ridicule. The _Diatribe_, however,
is not all mere laughter; there is a real criticism in it, too. For
instance, it was not simply a farcical exaggeration to say that
Maupertuis had set out to prove the existence of God by 'A plus B
divided by Z'; in substance, the charge was both important and well
founded. 'Lorsque la metaphysique entre dans la geometrie,' Voltaire
wrote in a private letter some months afterwards, 'c'est Arimane qui
entre dans le royaume d'Oromasde, et qui y apporte des tenebres'; and
Maupertuis had in fact vitiated his treatment of the 'principle of
least action' by his metaphysical pre-occupations. Indeed, all through
Voltaire's pamphlet, there is an implied appeal to true scientific
principles, an underlying assertion of the paramount importance of the
experimental method, a consistent attack upon _a priori_ reasoning,
loose statement, and vague conjecture. But of course, mixed with all
this, and covering it all, there is a bubbling, sparkling fountain of
effervescent raillery--cruel, personal, insatiable--the raillery of a
demon with a grudge. The manuscript was shown to Frederick, who laughed
till the tears ran down his cheeks. But, between his gasps, he forbade
Voltaire to publish it on pain of his most terrible displeasure.
Naturally Voltaire was profuse with promises, and a few days later,
under a royal licence obtained for another work, the little book
appeared in print. Frederick still managed to keep his wrath within
bounds: he collected all the copies of the edition and had them
privately destroyed; he gave a furious wigging to Voltaire; and he
flattered himself that he had heard the last of the business.

Ne vous embarrassez de rien, mon cher Maupertuis [he wrote to the
President in his singular orthography]; l'affaire des libelles est
finie. J'ai parle si vrai a l'home, je lui ai lave si bien la tete
que je ne crois pas qu'il y retourne, et je connais son ame lache,
incapable de sentiments d'honneur. Je l'ai intimide du cote de la
boursse, ce qui a fait tout l'effet que j'attendais. Je lui ai
declare enfin nettement que ma maison devait etre un sanctuaire et
non une retraite de brigands ou de celerats qui distillent des

Apparently it did not occur to Frederick that this declaration had come
a little late in the day. Meanwhile Maupertuis, overcome by illness and
by rage, had taken to his bed. 'Un peu trop d'amour-propre,' Frederick
wrote to Darget, 'l'a rendu trop sensible aux manoeuvres d'un singe
qu'il devait mepriser apres qu'on l'avait fouette.' But now the monkey
_had_ been whipped, and doubtless all would be well. It seems strange
that Frederick should still, after more than two years of close
observation, have had no notion of the material he was dealing with. He
might as well have supposed that he could stop a mountain torrent in
spate with a wave of his hand, as have imagined that he could impose
obedience upon Voltaire in such a crisis by means of a lecture and a
threat 'du cote de la boursse.' Before the month was out all Germany was
swarming with _Akakias_; thousands of copies were being printed in
Holland; and editions were going off in Paris like hot cakes. It is
difficult to withold one's admiration from the audacious old spirit who
thus, on the mere strength of his mother-wits, dared to defy the enraged
master of a powerful state. 'Votre effronterie m'etonne,' fulminated
Frederick in a furious note, when he suddenly discovered that all Europe
was ringing with the absurdity of the man whom he had chosen to be the
President of his favourite Academy, whose cause he had publicly
espoused, and whom he had privately assured of his royal protection.
'Ah! Mon Dieu, Sire,' scribbled Voltaire on the same sheet of paper,
'dans l'etat ou je suis!' (He was, of course, once more dying.) 'Quoi!
vous me jugeriez sans entendre! Je demande justice et la mort.'
Frederick replied by having copies of _Akakia_ burnt by the common
hangman in the streets of Berlin. Voltaire thereupon returned his Order,
his gold key, and his pension. It might have been supposed that the
final rupture had now really come at last. But three months elapsed
before Frederick could bring himself to realise that all was over, and
to agree to the departure of his extraordinary guest. Carlyle's
suggestion that this last delay arose from the unwillingness of Voltaire
to go, rather than from Frederick's desire to keep him, is plainly
controverted by the facts. The King not only insisted on Voltaire's
accepting once again the honours which he had surrendered, but actually
went so far as to write him a letter of forgiveness and reconciliation.
But the poet would not relent; there was a last week of suppers at
Potsdam--'soupers de Damocles' Voltaire called them; and then, on March
26, 1753, the two men parted for ever.

The storm seemed to be over; but the tail of it was still hanging in the
wind. Voltaire, on his way to the waters of Plombieres, stopped at
Leipzig, where he could not resist, in spite of his repeated promises to
the contrary, the temptation to bring out a new and enlarged edition of
_Akakia_. Upon this Maupertuis utterly lost his head: he wrote to
Voltaire, threatening him with personal chastisement. Voltaire issued
yet another edition of _Akakia_, appended a somewhat unauthorised
version of the President's letter, and added that if the dangerous and
cruel man really persisted in his threat he would be received with a
vigorous discharge from those instruments of intimate utility which
figure so freely in the comedies of Moliere. This stroke was the _coup
de grace_ of Maupertuis. Shattered in body and mind, he dragged himself
from Berlin to die at last in Basle under the ministration of a couple
of Capuchins and a Protestant valet reading aloud the Genevan Bible. In
the meantime Frederick had decided on a violent measure. He had suddenly
remembered that Voltaire had carried off with him one of the very few
privately printed copies of those poetical works upon which he had spent
so much devoted labour; it occurred to him that they contained several
passages of a highly damaging kind; and he could feel no certainty that
those passages would not be given to the world by the malicious
Frenchman. Such, at any rate, were his own excuses for the step which he
now took; but it seems possible that he was at least partly swayed by
feelings of resentment and revenge which had been rendered
uncontrollable by the last onslaught upon Maupertuis. Whatever may have
been his motives, it is certain that he ordered the Prussian Resident in
Frankfort, which was Voltaire's next stopping-place, to hold the poet in
arrest until he delivered over the royal volume. A multitude of strange
blunders and ludicrous incidents followed, upon which much controversial
and patriotic ink has been spilt by a succession of French and German
biographers. To an English reader it is clear that in this little comedy
of errors none of the parties concerned can escape from blame--that
Voltaire was hysterical, undignified, and untruthful, that the Prussian
Resident was stupid and domineering, that Frederick was careless in his
orders and cynical as to their results. Nor, it is to be hoped, need any
Englishman be reminded that the consequences of a system of government
in which the arbitrary will of an individual takes the place of the rule
of law are apt to be disgraceful and absurd.

After five weeks' detention at Frankfort, Voltaire was free--free in
every sense of the word--free from the service of Kings and the clutches
of Residents, free in his own mind, free to shape his own destiny. He
hesitated for several months, and then settled down by the Lake of
Geneva. There the fires, which had lain smouldering so long in the
profundities of his spirit, flared up, and flamed over Europe, towering
and inextinguishable. In a few years letters began to flow once more to
and from Berlin. At first the old grievances still rankled; but in time
even the wrongs of Maupertuis and the misadventures of Frankfort were
almost forgotten. Twenty years passed, and the King of Prussia was
submitting his verses as anxiously as ever to Voltaire, whose
compliments and cajoleries were pouring out in their accustomed stream.
But their relationship was no longer that of master and pupil, courtier
and King; it was that of two independent and equal powers. Even
Frederick the Great was forced to see at last in the Patriarch of Ferney
something more than a monkey with a genius for French versification. He
actually came to respect the author of _Akakia_, and to cherish his
memory. 'Je lui fais tous les matins ma priere,' he told d'Alembert,
when Voltaire had been two years in the grave; 'je lui dis, Divin
Voltaire, _ora pro nobis_.'



[Footnote 6: October 1915.]


No one who has made the slightest expedition into that curious and
fascinating country, Eighteenth-Century France, can have come away from
it without at least _one_ impression strong upon him--that in no other
place and at no other time have people ever squabbled so much. France in
the eighteenth century, whatever else it may have been--however splendid
in genius, in vitality, in noble accomplishment and high endeavour--was
certainly not a quiet place to live in. One could never have been
certain, when one woke up in the morning, whether, before the day was
out, one would not be in the Bastille for something one had said at
dinner, or have quarrelled with half one's friends for something one had
never said at all.

Of all the disputes and agitations of that agitated age none is more
remarkable than the famous quarrel between Rousseau and his friends,
which disturbed French society for so many years, and profoundly
affected the life and the character of the most strange and perhaps the
most potent of the precursors of the Revolution. The affair is
constantly cropping up in the literature of the time; it occupies a
prominent place in the later books of the _Confessions_; and there is an
account of its earlier phases--an account written from the anti-Rousseau
point of view--in the _Memoires_ of Madame d'Epinay. The whole story is
an exceedingly complex one, and all the details of it have never been
satisfactorily explained; but the general verdict of subsequent writers
has been decidedly hostile to Rousseau, though it has not subscribed to
all the virulent abuse poured upon him by his enemies at the time of the
quarrel. This, indeed, is precisely the conclusion which an unprejudiced
reader of the _Confessions_ would naturally come to. Rousseau's story,
even as he himself tells it, does not carry conviction. He would have us
believe that he was the victim of a vast and diabolical conspiracy, of
which Grimm and Diderot were the moving spirits, which succeeded in
alienating from him his dearest friends, and which eventually included
all the ablest and most distinguished persons of the age. Not only does
such a conspiracy appear, upon the face of it, highly improbable, but
the evidence which Rousseau adduces to prove its existence seems totally
insufficient; and the reader is left under the impression that the
unfortunate Jean-Jacques was the victim, not of a plot contrived by
rancorous enemies, but of his own perplexed, suspicious, and deluded
mind. This conclusion is supported by the account of the affair given by
contemporaries, and it is still further strengthened by Rousseau's own
writings subsequent to the _Confessions_, where his endless
recriminations, his elaborate hypotheses, and his wild inferences bear
all the appearance of mania. Here the matter has rested for many years;
and it seemed improbable that any fresh reasons would arise for
reopening the question. Mrs. F. Macdonald, however, in a
recently-published work[7], has produced some new and important
evidence, which throws entirely fresh light upon certain obscure parts
of this doubtful history; and is possibly of even greater interest. For
it is Mrs. Macdonald's contention that her new discovery completely
overturns the orthodox theory, establishes the guilt of Grimm, Diderot,
and the rest of the anti-Rousseau party, and proves that the story told
in the _Confessions_ is simply the truth.

If these conclusions really do follow from Mrs. Macdonald's
newly-discovered data, it would be difficult to over-estimate the value
of her work, for the result of it would be nothing less than a
revolution in our judgments upon some of the principal characters of the
eighteenth century. To make it certain that Diderot was a cad and a
cheat, that d'Alembert was a dupe, and Hume a liar--that, surely, were
no small achievement. And, even if these conclusions do not follow from
Mrs. Macdonald's data, her work will still be valuable, owing to the
data themselves. Her discoveries are important, whatever inferences may
be drawn from them; and for this reason her book, 'which represents,' as
she tells us, 'twenty years of research,' will be welcome to all
students of that remarkable age.

Mrs. Macdonald's principal revelations relate to the _Memoires_ of
Madame d'Epinay. This work was first printed in 1818, and the concluding
quarter of it contains an account of the Rousseau quarrel, the most
detailed of all those written from the anti-Rousseau point of view. It
has, however, always been doubtful how far the _Memoires_ were to be
trusted as accurate records of historical fact. The manuscript
disappeared; but it was known that the characters who, in the printed
book, appear under the names of real persons, were given pseudonyms in
the original document; and many of the minor statements contradicted
known events. Had Madame d'Epinay merely intended to write a _roman a
clef_? What seemed, so far as concerned the Rousseau narrative, to put
this hypothesis out of court was the fact that the story of the quarrel
as it appears in the _Memoires_ is, in its main outlines, substantiated
both by Grimm's references to Rousseau in his _Correspondance
Litteraire_, and by a brief memorandum of Rousseau's misconduct, drawn
up by Diderot for his private use, and not published until many years
after Madame d'Epinay's death. Accordingly most writers on the subject
have taken the accuracy of the _Memoires_ for granted; Sainte-Beuve, for
instance, prefers the word of Madame d'Epinay to that of Rousseau, when
there is a direct conflict of testimony; and Lord Morley, in his
well-known biography, uses the _Memoires_ as an authority for many of
the incidents which he relates. Mrs. Macdonald's researches, however,
have put an entirely different complexion on the case. She has
discovered the manuscript from which the _Memoires_ were printed, and
she has examined the original draft of this manuscript, which had been
unearthed some years ago, but whose full import had been unaccountably
neglected by previous scholars. From these researches, two facts have
come to light. In the first place, the manuscript differs in many
respects from the printed book, and, in particular, contains a
conclusion of two hundred sheets, which has never been printed at all;
the alterations were clearly made in order to conceal the inaccuracies
of the manuscript; and the omitted conclusion is frankly and palpably a
fiction. And in the second place, the original draft of the manuscript
turns out to be the work of several hands; it contains, especially in
those portions which concern Rousseau, many erasures, corrections, and
notes, while several pages have been altogether cut out; most of the
corrections were made by Madame d'Epinay herself; but in nearly every
case these corrections carry out the instructions in the notes; and the
notes themselves are in the handwriting of Diderot and Grimm. Mrs.
Macdonald gives several facsimiles of pages in the original draft, which
amply support her description of it; but it is to be hoped that before
long she will be able to produce a new and complete edition of the
_Memoires_, with all the manuscript alterations clearly indicated; for
until then it will be difficult to realise the exact condition of the
text. However, it is now beyond dispute both that Madame d'Epinay's
narrative cannot be regarded as historically accurate, and that its
agreement with the statements of Grimm and Diderot is by no means an
independent confirmation of its truth, for Grimm and Diderot themselves
had a hand in its compilation.

Thus far we are on firm ground. But what are the conclusions which Mrs.
Macdonald builds up from these foundations? The account, she says, of
Rousseau's conduct and character, as it appears in the printed version,
is hostile to him, but it was not the account which Madame d'Epinay
herself originally wrote. The hostile narrative was, in effect, composed
by Grimm and Diderot, who induced Madame d'Epinay to substitute it for
her own story; and thus her own story could not have agreed with
theirs. Madame d'Epinay knew the truth; she knew that Rousseau's conduct
had been honourable and wise; and so she had described it in her book;
until, falling completely under the influence of Grimm and Diderot, she
had allowed herself to become the instrument for blackening the
reputation of her old friend. Mrs. Macdonald paints a lurid picture of
the conspirators at work--of Diderot penning his false and malignant
instructions, of Madame d'Epinay's half-unwilling hand putting the last
touches to the fraud, of Grimm, rushing back to Paris at the time of the
Revolution, and risking his life in order to make quite certain that the
result of all these efforts should reach posterity. Well! it would be
difficult--perhaps it would be impossible--to prove conclusively that
none of these things ever took place. The facts upon which Mrs.
Macdonald lays so much stress--the mutilations, the additions, the
instructing notes, the proved inaccuracy of the story the manuscripts
tell--these facts, no doubt, may be explained by Mrs. Macdonald's
theories; but there are other facts--no less important, and no less
certain--which are in direct contradiction to Mrs. Macdonald's view, and
over which she passes as lightly as she can. Putting aside the question
of the _Memoires_, we know nothing of Diderot which would lead us to
entertain for a moment the supposition that he was a dishonourable and
badhearted man; we do know that his writings bear the imprint of a
singularly candid, noble, and fearless mind; we do know that he devoted
his life, unflinchingly and unsparingly, to a great cause. We know less
of Grimm; but it is at least certain that he was the intimate friend of
Diderot, and of many more of the distinguished men of the time. Is all
this evidence to be put on one side as of no account? Are we to dismiss
it, as Mrs. Macdonald dismisses it, as merely 'psychological'? Surely
Diderot's reputation as an honest man is as much a fact as his notes in
the draft of the _Memoires_. It is quite true that his reputation _may_
have been ill-founded, that d'Alembert, and Turgot, and Hume _may_ have
been deluded, or _may_ have been bribed, into admitting him to their
friendship; but is it not clear that we ought not to believe any such
hypotheses as these until we have before us such convincing proof of
Diderot's guilt that we _must_ believe them? Mrs. Macdonald declares
that she has produced such proof; and she points triumphantly to her
garbled and concocted manuscripts. If there is indeed no explanation of
these garblings and concoctions other than that which Mrs. Macdonald
puts forward--that they were the outcome of a false and malicious
conspiracy to blast the reputation of Rousseau--then we must admit that
she is right, and that all our general 'psychological' considerations as
to Diderot's reputation in the world must be disregarded. But, before we
come to this conclusion, how careful must we be to examine every other
possible explanation of Mrs. Macdonald's facts, how rigorously must we
sift her own explanation of them, how eagerly must we seize upon every
loophole of escape!

It is, I believe, possible to explain the condition of the d'Epinay
manuscript without having recourse to the iconoclastic theory of Mrs.
Macdonald. To explain everything, indeed, would be out of the question,
owing to our insufficient data, and the extreme complexity of the
events; all that we can hope to do is to suggest an explanation which
will account for the most important of the known facts. Not the least
interesting of Mrs. Macdonald's discoveries went to show that the
_Memoires_, so far from being historically accurate, were in reality
full of unfounded statements, that they concluded with an entirely
imaginary narrative, and that, in short, they might be described, almost
without exaggeration, in the very words with which Grimm himself
actually did describe them in his _Correspondance Litteraire_, as
'l'ebauche d'un long roman.' Mrs. Macdonald eagerly lays emphasis upon
this discovery, because she is, of course, anxious to prove that the
most damning of all the accounts of Rousseau's conduct is an untrue one.
But she has proved too much. The _Memoires_, she says, are a fiction;
therefore the writers of them were liars. The answer is obvious: why
should we not suppose that the writers were not liars at all, but
simply novelists? Will not this hypothesis fit into the facts just as
well as Mrs. Macdonald's? Madame d'Epinay, let us suppose, wrote a
narrative, partly imaginary and partly true, based upon her own
experiences, but without any strict adherence to the actual course of
events, and filled with personages whose actions were, in many cases,
fictitious, but whose characters were, on the whole, moulded upon the
actual characters of her friends. Let us suppose that when she had
finished her work--a work full of subtle observation and delightful
writing--she showed it to Grimm and Diderot. They had only one criticism
to make: it related to her treatment of the character which had been
moulded upon that of Rousseau. 'Your Rousseau, chere Madame, is a very
poor affair indeed! The most salient points in his character seem to
have escaped you. We know what that man really was. We know how he
behaved at that time. _C'etait un homme a faire peur_. You have missed a
great opportunity of drawing a fine picture of a hypocritical rascal.'
Whereupon they gave her their own impressions of Rousseau's conduct,
they showed her the letters that had passed between them, and they
jotted down some notes for her guidance. She rewrote the story in
accordance with their notes and their anecdotes; but she rearranged the
incidents, she condensed or amplified the letters, as she thought
fit--for she was not writing a history, but 'l'ebauche d'un long roman.'
If we suppose that this, or something like this, was what occurred,
shall we not have avoided the necessity for a theory so repugnant to
common-sense as that which would impute to a man of recognised integrity
the meanest of frauds?

To follow Mrs. Macdonald into the inner recesses and elaborations of her
argument would be a difficult and tedious task. The circumstances with
which she is principally concerned--the suspicions, the accusations, the
anonymous letters, the intrigues, the endless problems as to whether
Madame d'Epinay was jealous of Madame d'Houdetot, whether Therese told
fibs, whether, on the 14th of the month, Grimm was grossly impertinent,
and whether, on the 15th, Rousseau was outrageously rude, whether
Rousseau revealed a secret to Diderot, which Diderot revealed to
Saint-Lambert, and whether, if Diderot revealed it, he believed that
Rousseau had revealed it before--these circumstances form, as Lord
Morley says, 'a tale of labyrinthine nightmares,' and Mrs. Macdonald has
done very little to mitigate either the contortions of the labyrinths or
the horror of the dreams. Her book is exceedingly ill-arranged; it is
enormously long, filling two large volumes, with an immense apparatus of
appendices and notes; it is full of repetitions and of irrelevant
matter; and the argument is so indistinctly set forth that even an
instructed reader finds great difficulty in following its drift.
Without, however, plunging into the abyss of complications which yawns
for us in Mrs. Macdonald's pages, it may be worth while to touch upon
one point with which she has dealt (perhaps wisely for her own case!)
only very slightly--the question of the motives which could have induced
Grimm and Diderot to perpetuate a series of malignant lies.

It is, doubtless, conceivable that Grimm, who was Madame d'Epinay's
lover, was jealous of Rousseau, who was Madame d'Epinay's friend. We
know very little of Grimm's character, but what we do know seems to show
that he was a jealous man and an ambitious man; it is possible that a
close alliance with Madame d'Epinay may have seemed to him a necessary
step in his career; and it is conceivable that he may have determined
not to rest until his most serious rival in Madame d'Epinay's affections
was utterly cast out. He was probably prejudiced against Rousseau from
the beginning, and he may have allowed his prejudices to colour his view
of Rousseau's character and acts. The violence of the abuse which Grimm
and the rest of the Encyclopaedists hurled against the miserable
Jean-Jacques was certainly quite out of proportion to the real facts of
the case. Whenever he is mentioned one is sure of hearing something
about _traitre_ and _mensonge_ and _sceleratesse_. He is referred to as
often as not as if he were some dangerous kind of wild beast. This was
Grimm's habitual language with regard to him; and this was the view of
his character which Madame d'Epinay finally expressed in her book. The
important question is--did Grimm know that Rousseau was in reality an
honourable man, and, knowing this, did he deliberately defame him in
order to drive him out of Madame d'Epinay's affections? The answer, I
think, must be in the negative, for the following reason. If Grimm had
known that there was something to be ashamed of in the notes with which
he had supplied Madame d'Epinay, and which led to the alteration of her
_Memoires_, he certainly would have destroyed the draft of the
manuscript, which was the only record of those notes having ever been
made. As it happens, we know that he had the opportunity of destroying
the draft, and he did not do so. He came to Paris at the risk of his
life in 1791, and stayed there for four months, with the object,
according to his own account, of collecting papers belonging to the
Empress Catherine, or, according to Mrs. Macdonald's account, of having
the rough draft of the _Memoires_ copied out by his secretary. Whatever
his object, it is certain that the copy--that from which ultimately the
_Memoires_ were printed--was made either at that time, or earlier; and
that there was nothing on earth to prevent him, during the four months
of his stay in Paris, from destroying the draft. Mrs. Macdonald's
explanation of this difficulty is lamentably weak. Grimm, she says, must
have wished to get away from Paris 'without arousing suspicion by
destroying papers.' This is indeed an 'exquisite reason,' which would
have delighted that good knight Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Grimm had four
months at his disposal; he was undisturbed in his own house; why should
he not have burnt the draft page by page as it was copied out? There can
be only one reply: Why _should_ he?

If it is possible to suggest some fairly plausible motives which might
conceivably have induced Grimm to blacken Rousseau's character, the case
of Diderot presents difficulties which are quite insurmountable. Mrs.
Macdonald asserts that Diderot was jealous of Rousseau. Why? Because he
was tired of hearing Rousseau described as 'the virtuous'; that is all.
Surely Mrs. Macdonald should have been the first to recognise that such
an argument is a little too 'psychological.' The truth is that Diderot
had nothing to gain by attacking Rousseau. He was not, like Grimm, in
love with Madame d'Epinay; he was not a newcomer who had still to win
for himself a position in the Parisian world. His acquaintance with
Madame d'Epinay was slight; and, if there were any advances, they were
from her side, for he was one of the most distinguished men of the day.
In fact, the only reason that he could have had for abusing Rousseau was
that he believed Rousseau deserved abuse. Whether he was right in
believing so is a very different question. Most readers, at the present
day, now that the whole noisy controversy has long taken its quiet place
in the perspective of Time, would, I think, agree that Diderot and the
rest of the Encyclopaedists were mistaken. As we see him now, in that
long vista, Rousseau was not a wicked man; he was an unfortunate, a
distracted, a deeply sensitive, a strangely complex, creature; and,
above all else, he possessed one quality which cut him off from his
contemporaries, which set an immense gulf betwixt him and them: he was
modern. Among those quick, strong, fiery people of the eighteenth
century, he belonged to another world--to the new world of
self-consciousness, and doubt, and hesitation, of mysterious melancholy
and quiet intimate delights, of long reflexions amid the solitudes of
Nature, of infinite introspections amid the solitudes of the heart. Who
can wonder that he was misunderstood, and buffeted, and driven mad? Who
can wonder that, in his agitations, his perplexities, his writhings, he
seemed, to the pupils of Voltaire, little less than a frenzied fiend?
'Cet homme est un forcene!' Diderot exclaims. 'Je tache en vain de faire
de la poesie, mais cet homme me revient tout a travers mon travail; il
me trouble, et je suis comme si j'avais a cote de moi un damne: il est
damne, cela est sur. ... J'avoue que je n'ai jamais eprouve un trouble
d'ame si terrible que celui que j'ai ... Que je ne revoie plus cet
homme-la, il me ferait croire au diable et a l'enfer. Si je suis jamais
force de retourner chez lui, je suis sur que je fremirai tout le long du
chemin: j'avais la fievre en revenant ... On entendait ses cris jusqu'au
bout du jardin; et je le voyais!... Les poetes ont bien fait de mettre
un intervalle immense entre le ciel et les enfers. En verite, la main me
tremble.' Every word of that is stamped with sincerity; Diderot was
writing from his heart. But he was wrong; the 'intervalle immense,'
across which, so strangely and so horribly, he had caught glimpses of
what he had never seen before, was not the abyss between heaven and
hell, but between the old world and the new.



[Footnote 7: _Jean Jacques Rousseau: a New Criticism_, by Frederika
Macdonald. In two volumes. Chapman and Hall. 1906.]


The new edition of Blake's poetical works, published by the Clarendon
Press, will be welcomed by every lover of English poetry. The volume is
worthy of the great university under whose auspices it has been
produced, and of the great artist whose words it will help to
perpetuate. Blake has been, hitherto, singularly unfortunate in his
editors. With a single exception, every edition of his poems up to the
present time has contained a multitude of textual errors which, in the
case of any other writer of equal eminence, would have been well-nigh
inconceivable. The great majority of these errors were not the result of
accident: they were the result of deliberate falsification. Blake's text
has been emended and corrected and 'improved,' so largely and so
habitually, that there was a very real danger of its becoming
permanently corrupted; and this danger was all the more serious, since
the work of mutilation was carried on to an accompaniment of fervent
admiration of the poet. 'It is not a little bewildering,' says Mr.
Sampson, the present editor, 'to find one great poet and critic
extolling Blake for the "glory of metre" and "the sonorous beauty of
lyrical work" in the two opening lyrics of the _Songs of Experience_,
while he introduces into the five short stanzas quoted no less than
seven emendations of his own, involving additions of syllables and
important changes of meaning.' This is Procrustes admiring the exquisite
proportions of his victim. As one observes the countless instances
accumulated in Mr. Sampson's notes, of the clippings and filings to
which the free and spontaneous expression of Blake's genius has been
subjected, one is reminded of a verse in one of his own lyrics, where he
speaks of the beautiful garden in which--

Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briers my joys and desires;

and one cannot help hazarding the conjecture, that Blake's prophetic
vision recognised, in the lineaments of the 'priests in black gowns,'
most of his future editors. Perhaps, though, if Blake's prescience had
extended so far as this, he would have taken a more drastic measure; and
we shudder to think of the sort of epigram with which the editorial
efforts of his worshippers might have been rewarded. The present
edition, however, amply compensates for the past. Mr. Sampson gives us,
in the first place, the correct and entire text of the poems, so printed
as to afford easy reading to those who desire access to the text and
nothing more. At the same time, in a series of notes and prefaces, he
has provided an elaborate commentary, containing, besides all the
variorum readings, a great mass of bibliographical and critical matter;
and, in addition, he has enabled the reader to obtain a clue through the
labyrinth of Blake's mythology, by means of ample quotations from those
passages in the _Prophetic Books_, which throw light upon the
obscurities of the poems. The most important Blake document--the
Rossetti MS.--has been freshly collated, with the generous aid of the
owner, Mr. W.A. White, to whom the gratitude of the public is due in no
common measure; and the long-lost Pickering MS.--the sole authority for
some of the most mystical and absorbing of the poems--was, with deserved
good fortune, discovered by Mr. Sampson in time for collation in the
present edition. Thus there is hardly a line in the volume which has not
been reproduced from an original, either written or engraved by the hand
of Blake. Mr. Sampson's minute and ungrudging care, his high critical
acumen, and the skill with which he has brought his wide knowledge of
the subject to bear upon the difficulties of the text, combine to make
his edition a noble and splendid monument of English scholarship. It
will be long indeed before the poems of Blake cease to afford matter for
fresh discussions and commentaries and interpretations; but it is safe
to predict that, so far as their form is concerned, they will
henceforward remain unchanged. There will be no room for further
editing. The work has been done by Mr. Sampson, once and for all.

In the case of Blake, a minute exactitude of text is particularly
important, for more than one reason. Many of his effects depend upon
subtle differences of punctuation and of spelling, which are too easily
lost in reproduction. 'Tiger, tiger, burning bright,' is the ordinary
version of one of his most celebrated lines. But in Blake's original
engraving the words appear thus--'Tyger! Tyger! burning bright'; and who
can fail to perceive the difference? Even more remarkable is the change
which the omission of a single stop has produced in the last line of one
of the succeeding stanzas of the same poem.

And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?

So Blake engraved the verse; and, as Mr. Sampson points out,'the
terrible, compressed force' of the final line vanishes to nothing in the
'languid punctuation' of subsequent editions:--'What dread hand and what
dread feet?' It is hardly an exaggeration to say, that the re-discovery
of this line alone would have justified the appearance of the present

But these considerations of what may be called the mechanics of Blake's
poetry are not--important as they are--the only justification for a
scrupulous adherence to his autograph text. Blake's use of language was
not guided by the ordinarily accepted rules of writing; he allowed
himself to be trammelled neither by prosody nor by grammar; he wrote,
with an extraordinary audacity, according to the mysterious dictates of
his own strange and intimate conception of the beautiful and the just.
Thus his compositions, amenable to no other laws than those of his own
making, fill a unique place in the poetry of the world. They are the
rebels and atheists of literature, or rather, they are the sanctuaries
of an Unknown God; and to invoke that deity by means of orthodox
incantations is to run the risk of hell fire. Editors may punctuate
afresh the text of Shakespeare with impunity, and perhaps even with
advantage; but add a comma to the text of Blake, and you put all Heaven
in a rage. You have laid your hands upon the Ark of the Covenant. Nor is
this all. When once, in the case of Blake, the slightest deviation has
been made from the authoritative version, it is hardly possible to stop
there. The emendator is on an inclined plane which leads him inevitably
from readjustments of punctuation to corrections of grammar, and from
corrections of grammar to alterations of rhythm; if he is in for a
penny, he is in for a pound. The first poem in the Rossetti MS. may be
adduced as one instance--out of the enormous number which fill Mr.
Sampson's notes--of the dangers of editorial laxity.

I told my love, I told my love,
I told her all my heart;
Trembling, cold, in ghastly fears,
Ah! she doth depart.

This is the first half of the poem; and editors have been contented with
an alteration of stops, and the change of 'doth' into 'did.' But their
work was not over; they had, as it were, tasted blood; and their version
of the last four lines of the poem is as follows:

Soon after she was gone from me,
A traveller came by,
Silently, invisibly:
He took her with a sigh.

Reference to the MS., however, shows that the last line had been struck
out by Blake, and another substituted in its place--a line which is now
printed for the first time by Mr. Sampson. So that the true reading of
the verse is:

Soon as she was gone from me,
A traveller came by,
Silently, invisibly--
O! was no deny.

After these exertions, it must have seemed natural enough to Rossetti
and his successors to print four other expunged lines as part of the
poem, and to complete the business by clapping a title to their
concoction--'Love's Secret'--a title which there is no reason to suppose
had ever entered the poet's mind.

Besides illustrating the shortcomings of his editors, this little poem
is an admirable instance of Blake's most persistent quality--his
triumphant freedom from conventional restraints. His most characteristic
passages are at once so unexpected and so complete in their effect, that
the reader is moved by them, spontaneously, to some conjecture of
'inspiration.' Sir Walter Raleigh, indeed, in his interesting
Introduction to a smaller edition of the poems, protests against such
attributions of peculiar powers to Blake, or indeed to any other poet.
'No man,' he says, 'destitute of genius, could live for a day.' But even
if we all agree to be inspired together, we must still admit that there
are degrees of inspiration; if Mr. F's Aunt was a woman of genius, what
are we to say of Hamlet? And Blake, in the hierarchy of the inspired,
stands very high indeed. If one could strike an average among poets, it
would probably be true to say that, so far as inspiration is concerned,
Blake is to the average poet, as the average poet is to the man in the
street. All poetry, to be poetry at all, must have the power of making
one, now and then, involuntarily ejaculate: 'What made him think of
that?' With Blake, one is asking the question all the time.

Blake's originality of manner was not, as has sometimes been the case,
a cloak for platitude. What he has to say belongs no less distinctly to
a mind of astonishing self-dependence than his way of saying it. In
English literature, as Sir Walter Raleigh observes, he 'stands outside
the regular line of succession.' All that he had in common with the
great leaders of the Romantic Movement was an abhorrence of the
conventionality and the rationalism of the eighteenth century; for the
eighteenth century itself was hardly more alien to his spirit than that
exaltation of Nature--the 'Vegetable Universe,' as he called it--from
which sprang the pantheism of Wordsworth and the paganism of Keats.
'Nature is the work of the Devil,' he exclaimed one day; 'the Devil is
in us as far as we are Nature.' There was no part of the sensible world
which, in his philosophy, was not impregnated with vileness. Even the
'ancient heavens' were not, to his uncompromising vision, 'fresh and
strong'; they were 'writ with Curses from Pole to Pole,' and destined to
vanish into nothingness with the triumph of the Everlasting Gospel.

There are doubtless many to whom Blake is known simply as a charming and
splendid lyrist, as the author of _Infant Joy_, and _The Tyger_, and the
rest of the _Songs of Innocence and Experience_. These poems show but
faint traces of any system of philosophy; but, to a reader of the
Rossetti and Pickering MSS., the presence of a hidden and symbolic
meaning in Blake's words becomes obvious enough--a meaning which
receives its fullest expression in the _Prophetic Books_. It was only
natural that the extraordinary nature of Blake's utterance in these
latter works should have given rise to the belief that he was merely an
inspired idiot--a madman who happened to be able to write good verses.
That belief, made finally impossible by Mr. Swinburne's elaborate Essay,
is now, happily, nothing more than a curiosity of literary history; and
indeed signs are not wanting that the whirligig of Time, which left
Blake for so long in the Paradise of Fools, is now about to place him
among the Prophets. Anarchy is the most fashionable of creeds; and
Blake's writings, according to Sir Walter Raleigh, contain a complete
exposition of its doctrines. The same critic asserts that Blake was 'one
of the most consistent of English poets and thinkers.' This is high
praise indeed; but there seems to be some ambiguity in it. It is one
thing to give Blake credit for that sort of consistency which lies in
the repeated enunciation of the same body of beliefs throughout a large
mass of compositions and over a long period of time, and which could
never be possessed by a, madman or an incoherent charlatan. It is quite
another thing to assert that his doctrines form in themselves a
consistent whole, in the sense in which that quality would be ordinarily
attributed to a system of philosophy. Does Sir Walter mean to assert
that Blake is, in this sense too, 'consistent'? It is a little difficult
to discover. Referring, in his Introduction, to Blake's abusive notes on
Bacon's _Essays_, he speaks of--

The sentimental enthusiast, who worships all great men
indifferently, [and who] finds himself in a distressful position
when his gods fall out among themselves. His case [Sir Walter
wittily adds] is not much unlike that of Terah, the father of
Abraham, who (if the legend be true) was a dealer in idols among
the Chaldees, and, coming home to his shop one day, after a brief
absence, found that the idols had quarrelled, and the biggest of
them had smashed the rest to atoms. Blake is a dangerous idol for
any man to keep in his shop.

We wonder very much whether he is kept in Sir Walter Raleigh's.

It seems clear, at any rate, that no claim for a 'consistency' which
would imply freedom from self-contradiction can be validly made for
Blake. His treatment of the problem of evil is enough to show how very
far he was from that clarity of thought without which even prophets are
liable, when the time comes, to fall into disrepute. 'Plato,' said
Blake, 'knew of nothing but the virtues and vices, and good and evil.
There is nothing in all that. Everything is good in God's eyes.' And
this is the perpetual burden of his teaching. 'Satan's empire is the
empire of nothing'; there is no such thing as evil--it is a mere
'negation.' And the 'moral virtues,' which attempt to discriminate
between right and wrong, are the idlest of delusions; they are merely
'allegories and dissimulations,' they 'do not exist.' Such was one of
the most fundamental of Blake's doctrines; but it requires only a
superficial acquaintance with his writings to recognise that their whole
tenour is an implicit contradiction of this very belief. Every page he
wrote contains a moral exhortation; bad thoughts and bad feelings raised
in him a fury of rage and indignation which the bitterest of satirists
never surpassed. His epigrams on Reynolds are masterpieces of virulent
abuse; the punishment which he devised for Klopstock--his impersonation
of 'flaccid fluency and devout sentiment'--is unprintable; as for those
who attempt to enforce moral laws, they shall be 'cast out,' for they
'crucify Christ with the head downwards.' The contradiction is indeed
glaring. 'There is no such thing as wickedness,' Blake says in effect,
'and you are wicked if you think there is.' If it is true that evil does
not exist, all Blake's denunciations are so much empty chatter; and, on
the other hand, if there is a real distinction between good and bad, if
everything, in fact, is _not_ good in God's eyes--then why not say so?
Really Blake, as politicians say, 'cannot have it both ways.'

But of course, his answer to all this is simple enough. To judge him
according to the light of reason is to make an appeal to a tribunal
whose jurisdiction he had always refused to recognise as binding. In
fact, to Blake's mind, the laws of reason were nothing but a horrible
phantasm deluding and perplexing mankind, from whose clutches it is the
business of every human soul to free itself as speedily as possible.
Reason is the 'Spectre' of Blake's mythology, that Spectre, which, he

Around me night and day
Like a wild beast guards my way.

It is a malignant spirit, for ever struggling with the 'Emanation,' or
imaginative side of man, whose triumph is the supreme end of the
universe. Ever since the day when, in his childhood, Blake had seen
God's forehead at the window, he had found in imaginative vision the
only reality and the only good. He beheld the things of this world 'not
with, but through, the eye':

With my inward Eye, 'tis an old Man grey,
With my outward, a Thistle across my way.

It was to the imagination, and the imagination alone, that Blake yielded
the allegiance of his spirit. His attitude towards reason was the
attitude of the mystic; and it involved an inevitable dilemma. He never
could, in truth, quite shake himself free of his 'Spectre'; struggle as
he would, he could not escape altogether from the employment of the
ordinary forms of thought and speech; he is constantly arguing, as if
argument were really a means of approaching the truth; he was subdued to
what he worked in. As in his own poem, he had, somehow or other, been
locked into a crystal cabinet--the world of the senses and of reason--a
gilded, artificial, gimcrack dwelling, after 'the wild' where he had
danced so merrily before.

I strove to seize the inmost Form
With ardour fierce and hands of flame,
But burst the Crystal Cabinet,
And like a Weeping Babe became--

A weeping Babe upon the wild....

To be able to lay hands upon 'the inmost form,' one must achieve the
impossible; one must be inside and outside the crystal cabinet at the
same time. But Blake was not to be turned aside by such considerations.
He would have it both ways; and whoever demurred was crucifying Christ
with the head downwards.

Besides its unreasonableness, there is an even more serious objection to
Blake's mysticism--and indeed to all mysticism: its lack of humanity.
The mystic's creed--even when arrayed in the wondrous and ecstatic
beauty of Blake's verse--comes upon the ordinary man, in the rigidity of
its uncompromising elevation, with a shock which is terrible, and
almost cruel. The sacrifices which it demands are too vast, in spite of
the divinity of what it has to offer. What shall it profit a man, one is
tempted to exclaim, if he gain his own soul, and lose the whole world?
The mystic ideal is the highest of all; but it has no breadth. The
following lines express, with a simplicity and an intensity of
inspiration which he never surpassed, Blake's conception of that ideal:

And throughout all Eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me.
As our dear Redeemer said:
'This the Wine, & this the Bread.'

It is easy to imagine the sort of comments to which Voltaire, for
instance, with his 'wracking wheel' of sarcasm and common-sense, would
have subjected such lines as these. His criticism would have been
irrelevant, because it would never have reached the heart of the matter
at issue; it would have been based upon no true understanding of Blake's
words. But that they do admit of a real, an unanswerable criticism, it
is difficult to doubt. Charles Lamb, perhaps, might have made it;
incidentally, indeed, he has. 'Sun, and sky, and breeze, and solitary
walks, and summer holidays, and the greenness of fields, and the
delicious juices of meats and fishes, and society, and the cheerful
glass, and candle-light, and fire-side conversations, and innocent
vanities, and jests, and _irony itself_'--do these things form no part
of your Eternity?

The truth is plain: Blake was an intellectual drunkard. His words come
down to us in a rapture of broken fluency from impossible intoxicated
heights. His spirit soared above the empyrean; and, even as it soared,
it stumbled in the gutter of Felpham. His lips brought forth, in the
same breath, in the same inspired utterance, the _Auguries of Innocence_
and the epigrams on Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was in no condition to chop
logic, or to take heed of the existing forms of things. In the imaginary
portrait of himself, prefixed to Sir Walter Raleigh's volume, we can see
him, as he appeared to his own 'inward eye,' staggering between the
abyss and the star of Heaven, his limbs cast abroad, his head thrown
back in an ecstasy of intoxication, so that, to the frenzy of his
rolling vision, the whole universe is upside down. We look, and, as we
gaze at the strange image and listen to the marvellous melody, we are
almost tempted to go and do likewise.

But it is not as a prophet, it is as an artist, that Blake deserves the
highest honours and the most enduring fame. In spite of his hatred of
the 'vegetable universe,' his poems possess the inexplicable and
spontaneous quality of natural objects; they are more like the works of
Heaven than the works of man. They have, besides, the two most obvious
characteristics of Nature--loveliness and power. In some of his lyrics
there is an exquisite simplicity, which seems, like a flower or a child,
to be unconscious of itself. In his poem of _The Birds_--to mention, out
of many, perhaps a less known instance--it is not the poet that one
hears, it is the birds themselves.

O thou summer's harmony,
I have lived and mourned for thee;
Each day I mourn along the wood,
And night hath heard my sorrows loud.

In his other mood--the mood of elemental force--Blake produces effects
which are unique in literature. His mastery of the mysterious
suggestions which lie concealed in words is complete.

He who torments the Chafer's Sprite
Weaves a Bower in endless Night.

What dark and terrible visions the last line calls up! And, with the aid
of this control over the secret springs of language, he is able to
produce in poetry those vast and vague effects of gloom, of foreboding,
and of terror, which seem to be proper to music alone. Sometimes his
words are heavy with the doubtful horror of an approaching thunderstorm:

The Guests are scattered thro' the land,
For the Eye altering alters all;
The Senses roll themselves in fear,
And the flat Earth becomes a Ball;
The Stars, Sun, Moon, all shrink away,
A desart vast without a bound,
And nothing left to eat or drink,
And a dark desart all around.

And sometimes Blake invests his verses with a sense of nameless and
infinite ruin, such as one feels when the drum and the violin
mysteriously come together, in one of Beethoven's Symphonies, to predict
the annihilation of worlds:

On the shadows of the Moon,
Climbing through Night's highest noon:
In Time's Ocean falling, drowned:
In Aged Ignorance profound,
Holy and cold, I clipp'd the Wings
Of all Sublunary Things:
But when once I did descry
The Immortal Man that cannot Die,
Thro' evening shades I haste away
To close the Labours of my Day.
The Door of Death I open found,
And the Worm Weaving in the Ground;
Thou'rt my Mother, from the Womb;
Wife, Sister, Daughter, to the Tomb:
Weaving to Dreams the Sexual strife,
And weeping over the Web of Life.

Such music is not to be lightly mouthed by mortals; for us, in our
weakness, a few strains of it, now and then, amid the murmur of ordinary
converse, are enough. For Blake's words will always be strangers on this
earth; they could only fall with familiarity from the lips of his own

above Time's troubled fountains,
On the great Atlantic Mountains,
In my Golden House on high.

They belong to the language of Los and Rahab and Enitharmon; and their
mystery is revealed for ever in the land of the Sunflower's desire.



[Footnote 8: _The Poetical Works of William Blake. A new and verbatim
text from the manuscript, engraved, and letter-press originals, with
variorum readings and bibliographical notes and prefaces._ By John
Sampson, Librarian in the University of Liverpool. Oxford: At the
Clarendon Press, 1905.

_The Lyrical Poems of William Blake._ Text by John Sampson, with an
Introduction by Walter Raleigh. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1905.]


The shrine of Poetry is a secret one; and it is fortunate that this
should be the case; for it gives a sense of security. The cult is too
mysterious and intimate to figure upon census papers; there are no
turnstiles at the temple gates; and so, as all inquiries must be
fruitless, the obvious plan is to take for granted a good attendance of
worshippers, and to pass on. Yet, if Apollo were to come down (after the
manner of deities) and put questions--must we suppose to the
Laureate?--as to the number of the elect, would we be quite sure of
escaping wrath and destruction? Let us hope for the best; and perhaps,
if we were bent upon finding out the truth, the simplest way would be to
watch the sales of the new edition of the poems of Beddoes, which
Messrs. Routledge have lately added to the 'Muses' Library.' How many
among Apollo's pew-renters, one wonders, have ever read Beddoes, or,
indeed, have ever heard of him? For some reason or another, this
extraordinary poet has not only never received the recognition which is
his due, but has failed almost entirely to receive any recognition
whatever. If his name is known at all, it is known in virtue of the one
or two of his lyrics which have crept into some of the current
anthologies. But Beddoes' highest claim to distinction does not rest
upon his lyrical achievements, consummate as those achievements are; it
rests upon his extraordinary eminence as a master of dramatic blank
verse. Perhaps his greatest misfortune was that he was born at the
beginning of the nineteenth century, and not at the end of the
sixteenth. His proper place was among that noble band of Elizabethans,
whose strong and splendid spirit gave to England, in one miraculous
generation, the most glorious heritage of drama that the world has
known. If Charles Lamb had discovered his tragedies among the folios of
the British Museum, and had given extracts from them in the _Specimens
of Dramatic Poets_, Beddoes' name would doubtless be as familiar to us
now as those of Marlowe and Webster, Fletcher and Ford. As it happened,
however, he came as a strange and isolated phenomenon, a star which had
wandered from its constellation, and was lost among alien lights. It is
to very little purpose that Mr. Ramsay Colles, his latest editor,
assures us that 'Beddoes is interesting as marking the transition from
Shelley to Browning'; it is to still less purpose that he points out to
us a passage in _Death's Jest Book_ which anticipates the doctrines of
_The Descent of Man._ For Beddoes cannot be hoisted into line with his
contemporaries by such methods as these; nor is it in the light of such
after-considerations that the value of his work must be judged. We must
take him on his own merits, 'unmixed with seconds'; we must discover and
appraise his peculiar quality for its own sake.

He hath skill in language;
And knowledge is in him, root, flower, and fruit,
A palm with winged imagination in it,
Whose roots stretch even underneath the grave;
And on them hangs a lamp of magic science
In his soul's deepest mine, where folded thoughts
Lie sleeping on the tombs of magi dead.

If the neglect suffered by Beddoes' poetry may be accounted for in more
ways than one, it is not so easy to understand why more curiosity has
never been aroused by the circumstances of his life. For one reader who
cares to concern himself with the intrinsic merit of a piece of writing
there are a thousand who are ready to explore with eager sympathy the
history of the writer; and all that we know both of the life and the
character of Beddoes possesses those very qualities of peculiarity,
mystery, and adventure, which are so dear to the hearts of subscribers
to circulating libraries. Yet only one account of his career has ever
been given to the public; and that account, fragmentary and incorrect as
it is, has long been out of print. It was supplemented some years ago
by Mr. Gosse, who was able to throw additional light upon one important
circumstance, and who has also published a small collection of Beddoes'
letters. The main biographical facts, gathered from these sources, have
been put together by Mr. Ramsay Colles, in his introduction to the new
edition; but he has added nothing fresh; and we are still in almost
complete ignorance as to the details of the last twenty years of
Beddoes' existence--full as those years certainly were of interest and
even excitement. Nor has the veil been altogether withdrawn from that
strange tragedy which, for the strange tragedian, was the last of all.

Readers of Miss Edgeworth's letters may remember that her younger sister
Anne, married a distinguished Clifton physician, Dr. Thomas Beddoes.
Their eldest son, born in 1803, was named Thomas Lovell, after his
father and grandfather, and grew up to be the author of _The Brides'
Tragedy_ and _Death's Jest Book_. Dr. Beddoes was a remarkable man,
endowed with high and varied intellectual capacities and a rare
independence of character. His scientific attainments were recognised by
the University of Oxford, where he held the post of Lecturer in
Chemistry, until the time of the French Revolution, when he was obliged
to resign it, owing to the scandal caused by the unconcealed intensity
of his liberal opinions. He then settled at Clifton as a physician,
established a flourishing practice, and devoted his leisure to politics
and scientific research. Sir Humphry Davy, who was his pupil, and whose
merit he was the first to bring to light, declared that 'he had talents
which would have exalted him to the pinnacle of philosophical eminence,
if they had been applied with discretion.' The words are curiously
suggestive of the history of his son; and indeed the poet affords a
striking instance of the hereditary transmission of mental qualities.
Not only did Beddoes inherit his father's talents and his father's
inability to make the best use of them; he possessed in a no less
remarkable degree his father's independence of mind. In both cases, this
quality was coupled with a corresponding eccentricity of conduct, which
occasionally, to puzzled onlookers, wore the appearance of something
very near insanity. Many stories are related of the queer behaviour of
Dr. Beddoes. One day he astonished the ladies of Clifton by appearing at
a tea-party with a packet of sugar in his hand; he explained that it was
East Indian sugar, and that nothing would induce him to eat the usual
kind, which came from Jamaica and was made by slaves. More extraordinary
were his medical prescriptions; for he was in the habit of ordering cows
to be conveyed into his patients' bedrooms, in order, as he said, that
they might 'inhale the animals' breath.' It is easy to imagine the
delight which the singular spectacle of a cow climbing upstairs into an
invalid's bedroom must have given to the future author of _Harpagus_ and
_The Oviparous Tailor_. But 'little Tom,' as Miss Edgeworth calls him,
was not destined to enjoy for long the benefit of parental example; for
Dr. Beddoes died in the prime of life, when the child was not yet six
years old.

The genius at school is usually a disappointing figure, for, as a rule,
one must be commonplace to be a successful boy. In that preposterous
world, to be remarkable is to be overlooked; and nothing less vivid than
the white-hot blaze of a Shelley will bring with it even a distinguished
martyrdom. But Beddoes was an exception, though he was not a martyr. On
the contrary, he dominated his fellows as absolutely as if he had been a
dullard and a dunce. He was at Charterhouse; and an entertaining account
of his existence there has been preserved to us in a paper of school
reminiscences, written by Mr. C.D. Bevan, who had been his fag. Though
his place in the school was high, Beddoes' interests were devoted not so
much to classical scholarship as to the literature of his own tongue.
Cowley, he afterwards told a friend, had been the first poet he had
understood; but no doubt he had begun to understand poetry many years
before he went to Charterhouse; and, while he was there, the reading
which he chiefly delighted in was the Elizabethan drama. 'He liked
acting,' says Mr. Bevan, 'and was a good judge of it, and used to give
apt though burlesque imitations of the popular actors, particularly Kean
and Macready. Though his voice was harsh and his enunciation offensively
conceited, he read with so much propriety of expression and manner, that
I was always glad to listen: even when I was pressed into the service as
his accomplice, his enemy, or his love, with a due accompaniment of
curses, caresses, or kicks, as the course of his declamation required.
One play in particular, Marlowe's _Tragedy of Dr. Faustus_, excited my
admiration in this way; and a liking for the old English drama, which I
still retain, was created and strengthened by such recitations.' But
Beddoes' dramatic performances were not limited to the works of others;
when the occasion arose he was able to supply the necessary material
himself. A locksmith had incurred his displeasure by putting a bad lock
on his bookcase; Beddoes vowed vengeance; and when next the man appeared
he was received by a dramatic interlude, representing his last moments,
his horror and remorse, his death, and the funeral procession, which was
interrupted by fiends, who carried off body and soul to eternal
torments. Such was the realistic vigour of the performance that the
locksmith, according to Mr. Bevan, 'departed in a storm of wrath and
execrations, and could not be persuaded, for some time, to resume his

Besides the interlude of the wicked locksmith, Beddoes' school
compositions included a novel in the style of Fielding (which has
unfortunately disappeared), the beginnings of an Elizabethan tragedy,
and much miscellaneous verse. In 1820 he left Charterhouse, and went to
Pembroke College, Oxford, where, in the following year, while still a
freshman, he published his first volume, _The Improvisatore_, a series
of short narratives in verse. The book had been written in part while he
was at school; and its immaturity is obvious. It contains no trace of
the nervous vigour of his later style; the verse is weak, and the
sentiment, to use his own expression, 'Moorish.' Indeed, the only
interest of the little work lies in the evidence which it affords that
the singular pre-occupation which eventually dominated Beddoes' mind
had, even in these early days, made its appearance. The book is full of
death. The poems begin on battle-fields and end in charnel-houses; old
men are slaughtered in cold blood, and lovers are struck by lightning
into mouldering heaps of corruption. The boy, with his elaborate
exhibitions of physical horror, was doing his best to make his readers'
flesh creep. But the attempt was far too crude; and in after years, when
Beddoes had become a past-master of that difficult art, he was very much
ashamed of his first publication. So eager was he to destroy every trace
of its existence, that he did not spare even the finely bound copies of
his friends. The story goes that he amused himself by visiting their
libraries with a penknife, so that, when next they took out the precious
volume, they found the pages gone.

Beddoes, however, had no reason to be ashamed of his next publication,
_The Brides' Tragedy_, which appeared in 1822. In a single bound, he had
reached the threshold of poetry, and was knocking at the door. The line
which divides the best and most accomplished verse from poetry
itself--that subtle and momentous line which every one can draw, and no
one can explain--Beddoes had not yet crossed. But he had gone as far as
it was possible to go by the aid of mere skill in the art of writing,
and he was still in his twentieth year. Many passages in _The Brides'
Tragedy_ seem only to be waiting for the breath of inspiration which
will bring them into life; and indeed, here and there, the breath has
come, the warm, the true, the vital breath of Apollo. No one, surely,
whose lips had not tasted of the waters of Helicon, could have uttered
such words as these:

Here's the blue violet, like Pandora's eye,
When first it darkened with immortal life

or a line of such intense imaginative force as this:

I've huddled her into the wormy earth;

or this splendid description of a stormy sunrise:

The day is in its shroud while yet an infant;
And Night with giant strides stalks o'er the world,
Like a swart Cyclops, on its hideous front
One round, red, thunder-swollen eye ablaze.

The play was written on the Elizabethan model, and, as a play, it is
disfigured by Beddoes' most characteristic faults: the construction is
weak, the interest fluctuates from character to character, and the
motives and actions of the characters themselves are for the most part
curiously remote from the realities of life. Yet, though the merit of
the tragedy depends almost entirely upon the verse, there are signs in
it that, while Beddoes lacked the gift of construction, he nevertheless
possessed one important dramatic faculty--the power of creating detached
scenes of interest and beauty. The scene in which the half-crazed
Leonora imagines to herself, beside the couch on which her dead daughter
lies, that the child is really living after all, is dramatic in the
highest sense of the word; the situation, with all its capabilities of
pathetic irony, is conceived and developed with consummate art and
absolute restraint. Leonora's speech ends thus:

... Speak, I pray thee, Floribel,
Speak to thy mother; do but whisper 'aye';
Well, well, I will not press her; I am sure
She has the welcome news of some good fortune,
And hoards the telling till her father comes;
... Ah! She half laughed. I've guessed it then;
Come tell me, I'll be secret. Nay, if you mock me,
I must be very angry till you speak.
Now this is silly; some of these young boys
Have dressed the cushions with her clothes in sport.
'Tis very like her. I could make this image
Act all her greetings; she shall bow her head:
'Good-morrow, mother'; and her smiling face
Falls on my neck.--Oh, heaven, 'tis she indeed!
I know it all--don't tell me.

The last seven words are a summary of anguish, horror, and despair, such
as Webster himself might have been proud to write.

_The Brides' Tragedy_ was well received by critics; and a laudatory
notice of Beddoes in the _Edinburgh_, written by Bryan Waller
Procter--better known then than now under his pseudonym of Barry
Cornwall--led to a lasting friendship between the two poets. The
connection had an important result, for it was through Procter that
Beddoes became acquainted with the most intimate of all his
friends--Thomas Forbes Kelsall, then a young lawyer at Southampton. In
the summer of 1823 Beddoes stayed at Southampton for several months,
and, while ostensibly studying for his Oxford degree, gave up most of
his time to conversations with Kelsall and to dramatic composition. It
was a culminating point in his life: one of those moments which come,
even to the most fortunate, once and once only--when youth, and hope,
and the high exuberance of genius combine with circumstance and
opportunity to crown the marvellous hour. The spade-work of _The Brides'
Tragedy_ had been accomplished; the seed had been sown; and now the
harvest was beginning. Beddoes, 'with the delicious sense,' as Kelsall
wrote long afterwards, 'of the laurel freshly twined around his head,'
poured out, in these Southampton evenings, an eager stream of song. 'His
poetic composition,' says his friend, 'was then exceedingly facile: more
than once or twice has he taken home with him at night some unfinished
act of a drama, in which the editor [Kelsall] had found much to admire,
and, at the next meeting, has produced a new one, similar in design, but
filled with other thoughts and fancies, which his teeming imagination
had projected, in its sheer abundance, and not from any feeling, right
or fastidious, of unworthiness in its predecessor. Of several of these
very striking fragments, large and grand in their aspect as they each
started into form,

Like the red outline of beginning Adam,

... the only trace remaining is literally the impression thus deeply cut
into their one observer's mind. The fine verse just quoted is the sole
remnant, indelibly stamped on the editor's memory, of one of these
extinct creations.' Fragments survive of at least four dramas,
projected, and brought to various stages of completion, at about this
time. Beddoes was impatient of the common restraints; he was dashing
forward in the spirit of his own advice to another poet:

Creep not nor climb,
As they who place their topmost of sublime
On some peak of this planet, pitifully.
Dart eaglewise with open wings, and fly
Until you meet the gods!

Eighteen months after his Southampton visit, Beddoes took his degree at
Oxford, and, almost immediately, made up his mind to a course of action
which had the profoundest effect upon his future life. He determined to
take up the study of medicine; and with that end in view established
himself, in 1825, at the University at Goettingen. It is very clear,
however, that he had no intention of giving up his poetical work. He
took with him to Germany the beginnings of a new play--'a very
Gothic-styled tragedy,' he calls it, 'for which I have a jewel of a
name--DEATH'S JEST-BOOK; of course,' he adds, 'no one will ever read
it'; and, during his four years at Goettingen, he devoted most of his
leisure to the completion of this work. He was young; he was rich; he
was interested in medical science; and no doubt it seemed to him that he
could well afford to amuse himself for half-a-dozen years, before he
settled down to the poetical work which was to be the serious occupation
of his life. But, as time passed, he became more and more engrossed in
the study of medicine, for which he gradually discovered he had not only
a taste but a gift; so that at last he came to doubt whether it might
not be his true vocation to be a physician, and not a poet after all.
Engulfed among the students of Goettingen, England and English ways of
life, and even English poetry, became dim to him; 'dir, dem Anbeter der
seligen Gottheiten der Musen, u.s.w.,' he wrote to Kelsall, 'was
Unterhaltendes kann der Liebhaber von Knochen, der fleissige Botaniker
und Phisiolog mittheilen?' In 1830 he was still hesitating between the
two alternatives. 'I sometimes wish,' he told the same friend, 'to
devote myself exclusively to the study of anatomy and physiology in
science, of languages, and dramatic poetry'; his pen had run away with
him; and his 'exclusive' devotion turned out to be a double one,
directed towards widely different ends. While he was still in this state
of mind, a new interest took possession of him--an interest which worked
havoc with his dreams of dramatic authorship and scientific research: he
became involved in the revolutionary movement which was at that time
beginning to agitate Europe. The details of his adventures are unhappily
lost to us, for we know nothing more of them than can be learnt from a
few scanty references in his rare letters to English friends; but it is
certain that the part he played was an active, and even a dangerous one.
He was turned out of Wuerzburg by 'that ingenious Jackanapes,' the King
of Bavaria; he was an intimate friend of Hegetschweiler, one of the
leaders of liberalism in Switzerland; and he was present in Zurich when
a body of six thousand peasants, 'half unarmed, and the other half armed
with scythes, dungforks and poles, entered the town and overturned the
liberal government.' In the tumult Hegetschweiler was killed, and
Beddoes was soon afterwards forced to fly the canton. During the
following years we catch glimpses of him, flitting mysteriously over
Germany and Switzerland, at Berlin, at Baden, at Giessen, a strange
solitary figure, with tangled hair and meerschaum pipe, scribbling
lampoons upon the King of Prussia, translating Grainger's _Spinal Cord_
into German, and Schoenlein's _Diseases of Europeans_ into English,
exploring Pilatus and the Titlis, evolving now and then some ghostly
lyric or some rabelaisian tale, or brooding over the scenes of his
'Gothic-styled tragedy,' wondering if it were worthless or inspired, and
giving it--as had been his wont for the last twenty years--just one more
touch before he sent it to the press. He appeared in England once or
twice, and in 1846 made a stay of several months, visiting the Procters
in London, and going down to Southampton to be with Kelsall once again.
Eccentricity had grown on him; he would shut himself for days in his
bedroom, smoking furiously; he would fall into fits of long and deep
depression. He shocked some of his relatives by arriving at their
country house astride a donkey; and he amazed the Procters by starting
out one evening to set fire to Drury Lane Theatre with a lighted
five-pound note. After this last visit to England, his history becomes
even more obscure than before. It is known that in 1847 he was in
Frankfort, where he lived for six months in close companionship with a
young baker called Degen--'a nice-looking young man, nineteen years of
age,' we are told, 'dressed in a blue blouse, fine in expression, and of
a natural dignity of manner'; and that, in the spring of the following
year, the two friends went off to Zurich, where Beddoes hired the
theatre for a night in order that Degen might appear on the stage in the
part of Hotspur. At Basel, however, for some unexplained reason, the
friends parted, and Beddoes fell immediately into the profoundest gloom.
'Il a ete miserable,' said the waiter at the Cigogne Hotel, where he was
staying, 'il a voulu se tuer.' It was true. He inflicted a deep wound in
his leg with a razor, in the hope, apparently, of bleeding to death. He
was taken to the hospital, where he constantly tore off the bandages,
until at last it was necessary to amputate the leg below the knee. The
operation was successful, Beddoes began to recover, and, in the autumn,
Degen came back to Basel. It seemed as if all were going well; for the
poet, with his books around him, and the blue-bloused Degen by his
bedside, talked happily of politics and literature, and of an Italian
journey in the spring. He walked out twice; was he still happy? Who can
tell? Was it happiness, or misery, or what strange impulse, that drove
him, on his third walk, to go to a chemist's shop in the town, and to
obtain there a phial of deadly poison? On the evening of that day--the
26th of January, 1849--Dr. Ecklin, his physician, was hastily summoned,
to find Beddoes lying insensible upon the bed. He never recovered
consciousness, and died that night. Upon his breast was found a pencil
note, addressed to one of his English friends. 'My dear Philips,' it
began, 'I am food for what I am good for--worms.' A few testamentary
wishes followed. Kelsall was to have the manuscripts; and--'W. Beddoes
must have a case (50 bottles) of Champagne Moet, 1847 growth, to drink
my death in ... I ought to have been, among other things,' the gruesome
document concluded, 'a good poet. Life was too great a bore on one peg,
and that a bad one. Buy for Dr. Ecklin one of Reade's best
stomach-pumps.' It was the last of his additions to Death's Jest Book,
and the most _macabre_ of all.

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