Letters concerning the English Nation

By Voltaire; Nicholas Cronk | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION VOLTAIRE: AN AUGUSTAN AUTHOR

A perfect Judge will read each Work of Wit
With the same Spirit that its Author writ.

( Pope, An Essay on Criticism)

Oliver Goldsmith in 1760 described Voltaire as 'the poet and philosopher of Europe'.1 By then in his mid-sixties, Voltaire was the most famous living author, and his estate at Ferney, close to Geneva, was becoming a place of pilgrimage for travellers on the Grand Tour. British visitors were especially favoured: he joked to one group that 'if ever I smell of a Resurrection, or come a second time on Earth, I will pray God to make me be born in England, the Land of Liberty'.2 The reported remark has all the more savour for being framed in Voltaire's own English. 'I addressed him in English . . . which he spoke with tolerable fluency,' wrote one visitor, while another recorded that: 'He affected to talk chiefly in English (which he speaks very tolerably).'3 Two visitors from the American colonies were more precise in their assessment of his linguistic abilities:

Although at a loss sometimes for an english Word, and that he used many Gallecisms, yet he took pains to articulate his words properly and accent them fully. In this he succeeded beyond what one might expect from his having been but only twelve Month in england and that so many years past as in 1726. We meet with few French men who pronounce english better.4

In fact, Voltaire had spent two-and-a-half years in England, and forty years later at Ferney he was still quoting Dryden

____________________
1
The Citizen of the World, Letter 43. (For full details of works cited in the notes, see the Select Bibliography.)
2
G. de Beer and A.-M. Rousseau, Voltaire's British Visitors, 73.

-vii-

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