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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsLetters On England - LETTER XXIII - ON THE REGARD THAT OUGHT TO BE SHOWN TO MEN OF LETTERS
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Letters On England - LETTER XXIII - ON THE REGARD THAT OUGHT TO BE SHOWN TO MEN OF LETTERS Post by :hschager Category :Nonfictions Author :Voltaire Date :January 2011 Read :1205

Click below to download : Letters On England - LETTER XXIII - ON THE REGARD THAT OUGHT TO BE SHOWN TO MEN OF LETTERS (Format : PDF)

Letters On England - LETTER XXIII - ON THE REGARD THAT OUGHT TO BE SHOWN TO MEN OF LETTERS

Neither the English nor any other people have foundations
established in favour of the polite arts like those in France.
There are Universities in most countries, but it is in France only
that we meet with so beneficial an encouragement for astronomy and
all parts of the mathematics, for physic, for researches into
antiquity, for painting, sculpture, and architecture. Louis XIV.
has immortalised his name by these several foundations, and this
immortality did not cost him two hundred thousand livres a year.

I must confess that one of the things I very much wonder at is, that
as the Parliament of Great Britain have promised a reward of 20,000
pounds sterling to any person who may discover the longitude, they
should never have once thought to imitate Louis XIV. in his
munificence with regard to the arts and sciences.

Merit, indeed, meets in England with rewards of another kind, which
redound more to the honour of the nation. The English have so great
a veneration for exalted talents, that a man of merit in their
country is always sure of making his fortune. Mr. Addison in France
would have been elected a member of one of the academies, and, by
the credit of some women, might have obtained a yearly pension of
twelve hundred livres, or else might have been imprisoned in the
Bastile, upon pretence that certain strokes in his tragedy of Cato
had been discovered which glanced at the porter of some man in
power. Mr. Addison was raised to the post of Secretary of State in
England. Sir Isaac Newton was made Master of the Royal Mint. Mr.
Congreve had a considerable employment. Mr. Prior was
Plenipotentiary. Dr. Swift is Dean of St. Patrick in Dublin, and is
more revered in Ireland than the Primate himself. The religion
which Mr. Pope professes excludes him, indeed, from preferments of
every kind, but then it did not prevent his gaining two hundred
thousand livres by his excellent translation of Homer. I myself saw
a long time in France the author of Rhadamistus ready to perish for
hunger. And the son of one of the greatest men our country ever
gave birth to, and who was beginning to run the noble career which
his father had set him, would have been reduced to the extremes of
misery had he not been patronised by Monsieur Fagon.

But the circumstance which mostly encourages the arts in England is
the great veneration which is paid them. The picture of the Prime
Minister hangs over the chimney of his own closet, but I have seen
that of Mr. Pope in twenty noblemen's houses. Sir Isaac Newton was
revered in his lifetime, and had a due respect paid to him after his
death; the greatest men in the nation disputing who should have the
honour of holding up his pall. Go into Westminster Abbey, and you
will find that what raises the admiration of the spectator is not
the mausoleums of the English kings, but the monuments which the
gratitude of the nation has erected to perpetuate the memory of
those illustrious men who contributed to its glory. We view their
statues in that abbey in the same manner as those of Sophocles,
Plato, and other immortal personages were viewed in Athens; and I am
persuaded that the bare sight of those glorious monuments has fired
more than one breast, and been the occasion of their becoming great
men.

The English have even been reproached with paying too extravagant
honours to mere merit, and censured for interring the celebrated
actress Mrs. Oldfield in Westminster Abbey, with almost the same
pomp as Sir Isaac Newton. Some pretend that the English had paid
her these great funeral honours, purposely to make us more strongly
sensible of the barbarity and injustice which they object to us, for
having buried Mademoiselle Le Couvreur ignominiously in the fields.

But be assured from me, that the English were prompted by no other
principle in burying Mrs. Oldfield in Westminster Abbey than their
good sense. They are far from being so ridiculous as to brand with
infamy an art which has immortalised a Euripides and a Sophocles; or
to exclude from the body of their citizens a set of people whose
business is to set off with the utmost grace of speech and action
those pieces which the nation is proud of.

Under the reign of Charles I. and in the beginning of the civil wars
raised by a number of rigid fanatics, who at last were the victims
to it; a great many pieces were published against theatrical and
other shows, which were attacked with the greater virulence because
that monarch and his queen, daughter to Henry I. of France, were
passionately fond of them.

One Mr. Prynne, a man of most furiously scrupulous principles, who
would have thought himself damned had he worn a cassock instead of a
short cloak, and have been glad to see one-half of mankind cut the
other to pieces for the glory of God, and the Propaganda Fide; took
it into his head to write a most wretched satire against some pretty
good comedies, which were exhibited very innocently every night
before their majesties. He quoted the authority of the Rabbis, and
some passages from St. Bonaventure, to prove that the OEdipus of
Sophocles was the work of the evil spirit; that Terence was
excommunicated ipso facto; and added, that doubtless Brutus, who was
a very severe Jansenist, assassinated Julius Caesar for no other
reason but because he, who was Pontifex Maximus, presumed to write a
tragedy the subject of which was OEdipus. Lastly, he declared that
all who frequented the theatre were excommunicated, as they thereby
renounced their baptism. This was casting the highest insult on the
king and all the royal family; and as the English loved their prince
at that time, they could not bear to hear a writer talk of
excommunicating him, though they themselves afterwards cut his head
off. Prynne was summoned to appear before the Star Chamber; his
wonderful book, from which Father Le Brun stole his, was sentenced
to be burnt by the common hangman, and himself to lose his ears.
His trial is now extant.

The Italians are far from attempting to cast a blemish on the opera,
or to excommunicate Signor Senesino or Signora Cuzzoni. With regard
to myself, I could presume to wish that the magistrates would
suppress I know not what contemptible pieces written against the
stage. For when the English and Italians hear that we brand with
the greatest mark of infamy an art in which we excel; that we
excommunicate persons who receive salaries from the king; that we
condemn as impious a spectacle exhibited in convents and
monasteries; that we dishonour sports in which Louis XIV. and Louis
XV., performed as actors; that we give the title of the devil's
works to pieces which are received by magistrates of the most severe
character, and represented before a virtuous queen; when, I say,
foreigners are told of this insolent conduct, this contempt for the
royal authority, and this Gothic rusticity which some presume to
call Christian severity, what an idea must they entertain of our
nation? And how will it be possible for them to conceive, either
that our laws give a sanction to an art which is declared infamous,
or that some persons dare to stamp with infamy an art which receives
a sanction from the laws, is rewarded by kings, cultivated and
encouraged by the greatest men, and admired by whole nations? And
that Father Le Brun's impertinent libel against the stage is seen in
a bookseller's shop, standing the very next to the immortal labours
of Racine, of Corneille, of Moliere, &c.

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