Friday, September 19, 2008

clearly and correctly

Voltaire to M. Helvétius

June 20, 1741.

I greatly reproach myself for my laziness, my dear friend, but I have been for a whole month so unworthily occupied in prose that I hardly dare write to you of verse. My imagination is weighed down by studies which are to poetry what dark and dusty old furniture is to a gaily-lit ballroom. I must shake off the dust to reply to you.

You have written to me a letter in which I recognise your genius. You find Boileau fairly clever: I agree with you that he has neither sublimity nor a very brilliant imagination; but he has done exceedingly well what he could do, and what he set out to do. He has put good sense into melodious verse; he is clear, logical, easy, and agreeable in his transitions; he never soars high, or falls low. His subjects are not suitable for the dignified treatment yours deserve. You have realised what your talent is, just as he realised his. You are a philosopher, you see everything life-size, your brush is bold and big. So far, nature has made you (I say it in all sincerity) greatly Despreaux's superior: but your talents, fine as they are, will be nothing without his. You have so much the more need of his correctness because the breadth of your thoughts is less tolerant of circumstriction. It is no trouble to you to think, but much to write. I shall therefore never cease to preach to you that art of writing which Despreaux knew and taught so well, the respect for our language, the sequence of ideas, the easy manner in which he carries his reader with him, the naturalness which is the result of art, and the appearance of ease which involves such hard work. A word out of place spoils the finest thought. Boileau's ideas--I confess it once more--are never fine, but they are never ill set out: so, to be better than he is, it is essential to begin by writing as clearly and correctly.

No false steps can be permitted in your stately measure: in a little minuet they would not matter. You sparkle with precious stones; his dress is simple but well made. Your diamonds must be in good order lest your diadem shame you. Send me then, dear friend, something which is as well worked out as it is nobly conceived: do not disdain to be at once the owner of the mine and the gold digger. You know, by my writing to you thus, how great an interest I feel in your reputation, and that of the arts. Your last visit has doubled my regard for you. It really looks as if I should stop writing verses, and content myself with admiring yours. Mme. du Chatelet, who has written to you, sends kindest regards. Goodbye, yours for ever.

-from Voltaire in his Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence / translated with a preface and forewords by S. G. Tallentyre (New York: G. P. Putnam's, 1919] pp. 68-70.

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