Saturday, September 20, 2008

they are few

Voltaire to Mme. . . . .

Les Delices,
June 20, 1756.

I am only an old invalid, mademoiselle, and my not having answered your letter before, and now replying only in prose to your charming verses, prove that my condition is a serious one.

You ask me for advice: your own good taste will afford you all you need. Your study of Italian should further improve that taste which was born in you, and which nobody can give you. Tasso and Ariosto will do much more for you than I can, and reading our best poets is better than all lessons; but, since you are so good as to consult me from so far away, my advice to you is--read only such books as have long been sealed with the universal approval of the public and whose reputation is established. They are few: but you will gain much more from reading those few than from all the feeble little works with which we are inundated. Good writers are only witty in the right place, they never strive after smartness: they think sensibly, and express themselves clearly. Now, people appear to write exclusively in enigmas. Everything is affected--nothing simple: nature is ignored, and everyone tries to improve on the masterpieces of our language.

Hold fast, mademoiselle, by everything which delights you in them. The smallest affectation is a vice. The Italians, after Tasso and Ariosto, degenerated because they were always trying to be witty: and it is the same with the French. Observe how naturally Mme. de Sevigne and other ladies write: and compare their style with the confused phrases of our minor romances--I cite writers of your own sex because I am sure you can, and will, resemble them. There are passages of Mme. Deshoulieres which are equalled by no writer of the present day. If you wish examples of male authors--look how simply and clearly Racine invariably expresses himself. Every reader of his works feels sure that he could himself say in prose what Racine has said in verse. Believe me, everything that is not equally clear, chaste, and simple is worth absolutely nothing.

Your own reflections, mademoiselle, will tell you all this a hundred times better than I can say it. You will notice that our good writers--Fenelon, Bossuet, Racine, Despreaux--always use the right word. One gets oneself accustomed to talk well by constantly reading those who have written well: it becomes a habit to express our thoughts simply and nobly, without effort. It is not in the nature of a study: it is no trouble to read what is good, and to read that only: our own pleasure and taste are our only masters.

Forgive this long disquisition; you must please attribute it to my obedience to your commands.

I have the honour to be very respectfully yours.

-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. 156-58.

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