Monday, 10 March 2014

Meetings: Jean-Baptiste Rousseau and Voltaire (1722)

The lifelong enmity between Voltaire and the poet Jean-Baptiste Rousseau began on a carriage-ride in Brussels in 1722.....

The personalities:


Anonymous portrait of Rousseau.
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes  
In 1722 Jean-Baptiste Rousseau was 52 years old and recently arrived  in Brussels.

In 1712 he had been embroiled in a legal dispute over some defamatory verses and condemned to exile from France.  Permission to return had been offered in 1716 but, since it was not accompanied by  a complete rehabilitation, Rousseau had refused  and, apart from a brief clandestine visit in 1738,  was to spend the rest of his life abroad.  After some time in Solothurn (Soleure) in Switzerland under the patronage of Prince Eugene of Savoy he had settled in Vienna and now travelled to Brussels, which was at that time part of the Hapsburg Empire.

Rousseau enjoyed - and continued throughout the century to enjoy -  growing acclaim for his poetic accomplishment.  Even before he fled from Paris his still unpublished poems had won him enough renown for him to be referred to as a "Rousseau, famous poet".  

Early on at least, he was an ambivalent figure, for his brief association with the Temple and the undoubted violence of his youthful epigrams had saddled him with a powerful reputation as a satirist and libertine.  The notorious Moisade was often ascribed to him.  A manuscript of his works in Troyes, doubtless representative of those which circulated, contains various genuine poems but also the Moisade and no less than175 epigrams, about half of which are erotic or obscene, dealing above all with monks or nuns. Rousseau himself admitted to only thirty or so "épigrammes libres" which he regretted and none appear in his published works (see Grubbs, p.140-141)

Rousseau went to considerable lengths to get authorised versions of his works published and set the record straight.  He had a first edition of his collected works published in Solothurn in 1712 and  a second was shortly to appear in London in 1723.  Much of this verse, on which Rousseau's 18th-century reputation rested, consisted (according to Wikipedia)  of "formal and partly sacred odes and cantatas of the stiffest character", of which the most famous was the Ode to fortune. Rousseau hadn't entirely abandoned his biting wit, but he sought respectability and rehabilitation.  His correspondence with Brossette, the editor of Boileau, reveals a writer who aligned himself with such Catholic poets as Louis Racine and with the Jesuits of the Journal de Trévoux who were among his most devoted admirers.


In 1722 Voltaire was 27 years old and riding high on the wave of the recent success of his tragedy Oedipe.  Having taken on Sophocles to acclaim he was now seeking to rival Homer himself with his new epic poem the Henriade.

His acquaintance with Rousseau went back a long way -  to 1710 when at the end of his year of "rhetoric" at the College Louis-le-grand, the young Arouet had been awarded first prize for both Latin discourse and Latin verse.  At the prizegiving, his master, Father Tarteron introduced him to Rousseau, who was in the audience (see Rousseau's account below).

Following this first encounter, Voltaire had tried to cultivate Rousseau as his patron in lyric poetry.  In 1712 he had contributed to the collection made on the newly-exiled poet's behalf by Madame de Ferriol (the mother of his friend d'Argental).  Only his father's intervention had prevented him composing verses in Rousseau's defence.   He continued to correspond with him sycophantically in exile - it was to Rousseau that he first announced his change of name to "Voltaire" (sending Oedipe in 1719). The elder poet tried to warn him away from the composition of satirical verses, aware as he was that  "there is nothing more dangerous than to make yourself known in society before you understand its workings" (Letter of 1717 following Voltaire's youthful arrest and incarceration).

Comtesse de Rupelmonde by  Nicolas 
Largillière, Château de Versailles
In August 1722, the miseries the Bastille firmly behind him, Voltaire embarked for Holland, with a view to finding a Dutch publisher for the Henriade.   He did not travel alone.  With him was the delicious Marie-Marguerite de Rupelmonde, a pretty, pleasure-loving young widow in her early thirties, who conveniently had business of her husband's to settle in Holland. (Largillière painted her fetchingly; a "personnage de Watteau, ou de Marivaux" says Voltaire's biographer René Pomeau.)  

During six weeks en route in Brussels and at the Hague Voltaire was fêted and enjoyed himself immensely; he was taken to a brothel (Marie-Marguerite notwithstanding), rode every day, played tennis, drank tokaji, and felt so well that he was astonished.  Madame Rupelmonde's  religious scruples - only increased by Voltaire's unseemly ridicule of a Mass they attended in Brussels prompted her companion to pen the daringly deistic Epître à Uranie.  in which the vengeful Christian god is abandoned in favour of a more comforting and forgiving "Father".


Voltaire spent several days in Rousseau's company on the outward journey to Holland, but the crucial encounter took place when they met up again on on the return journey. 

With Madame de Rupelmonde still in tow he stopped off again in Brussels and sought out out Rousseau.  It was at this point that everything was spoiled. Voltaire had begun to find the exiled poet something of a bore and was less patient with him than before. But he had still to comprehend Rousseau's conventional religious piety.

In the course of  a carriage journey in the environs of Brussels Rousseau began to read from his latest works, the Ode to posterity and The Judgment of Plutus, an allegory against the Parlement of Paris. Voltaire could not resist commenting that was not the work of "the great Rousseau" and that the poet had "lost his talent but conserved his venim".  He then offered up his latest  poem, the Epître à Uranie for the appreciation of "the father of Numa" (ie. the author of the Moisade, which Rousseau clearly was not) .  He did not get very far into the recitation before a petulant Rousseau asked be set down rather than listen to any more of this terrible blasphemy. They patched things up and went to the theatre together in the evening, only for Voltaire to ruin relations definitively with a vicious parting quip that the Ode to posterity was unlikely ever to meet its destination.

Henceforth, as Duvernet commented, the two poets remained "tout à fait brouillés".


Roger Pearson, Voltaire almighty (2005) p.57-61; 

René Pomeau, D'Arouet àVoltaire (1985) p.148-149.

Henry A. Grubbs, "The vogue of Jean-Baptiste Rousseau", PMLA (1940), p.139-66 [on JStor]

Duvernet, Vie de Voltaire, p. 42-44

It was at this time that Madame de Rupelmonde, daughter of the Maréchal d'Allegre, suggested a trip to Holland in 1722.  Voltaire arranged to stop over in Brussels.  For a long time he had desired to meet Rousseau who had been banished from France ten years previously.  He saw in him only a great poet and an unfortunate man.  He rushed straight to see him the moment he arrived in Brussels.  This first meeting was a occasion for heartfelt emotion and mutual respect; Voltaire called him his master and his judge and under that dual title, showed him his poem the Henriade....

On the return trip from Holland, they stopped off again in Brussels.  The two poets scarcely left each other's company. They visited company and went together to Mass and to the Comedy....

In one of their promenades, with Madame la Comtesse de Rupelmonde as the sole third party, Rousseau read his Ode to posterity and then the Jugement of Platus.  This last work was a violent satire against the Parlement of Paris...Interrogated on his satire, Voltaire replied that it was not worthy of "our master, the good and great Rousseau".

The amour propre of the elderly versifier was offended by this frankness.....Take your revenge, Voltaire said, here is a little poem that I submit to the judgment and correction of the "father of Numa"  Before the reading was finished, Rousseau, in an aggrieved tone said, "Spare yourself, Monsieur, the trouble of reading more.  It is a horrible impiety".  Voltaire put the poem back in his portfolio saying, "Let us go to the Comedy; I am sorry that the author of the Moisade hasn't warned the public that he has become a dévot".
After the performance, Voltaire spoke to him of his Ode to posterity, and in caustic tone said, "You know, master, I belief that this ode will never arrive at its destination..."

Thus a relationship which started off with mutual respect ended up in a bitter quarrel.

Letter of Rousseau, "On the calomnies spread against him by the Sieur Arouet de Voltaire", .22  Mai 1736.
Lettres sur divers sujets (1750)  Vol. 5  p.235-261.

"Let me put you in a position to know, by a brief history, everything that has passed between Voltaire and myself since I have known him.....

Some ladies of my acquaintance took me to see a Jesuit tragedy in the month of August 1710.  At the prize-giving which followed, I noticed that they called up the same schoolboy twice, and I asked Father Tarteron who this young man was who so distinguished himself among his comrades.  He told me that it was a boy who had a surprising bent for poetry and he proposed to introduce me; to which I agreed.  He went to fetch him and I saw him return a moment later with a young scholar of about sixteen or seventeen, with  a rather unattractive face but a sharp, alert look in his eye, who greeted me with very good grace.

I heard nothing more from him after that, until two years later in Soleure, I received a letter asking my opinion of an Ode that he had composed for the Academy prize -  which I gave him with the sincerity owed to a young man that one likes....  He continued to write to me from time to time, always in exaggerated terms, calling me his master and his model, and sending me some occasional pieces which demonstrated his biting and bitter wit......

I was still in Vienna when he sent me his tragedy Oedipe...I replied to him in a manner which would have satisfied a more reasonable man ....He sent me some time afterwards a copy of his Poeme de la Ligue.

[A few months later Voltaire arrived] in the party of Madame de Rupelmonde whose domestic affairs called her to Holland. I cannot restrain  myself from recounting here the manner in which I learned of his appearance in Brussels.  Monsieur le Comte de Lanoy asked me who the young man was that he had just seen in the Eglise des Sablons, who had so scandalised everyone by his indecencies during the service that people had been on the verge of throwing him out. Moments later I received an announcement from Voltaire's that he had just arrived.

His stay lasted about three weeks, during which I suffered, for my sins, all kinds of importunity, extravagance and disputes...though I continued to shower him with every civility and kindness.  He showed me his Poeme de la Ligue....  I warned him as a friend to correct the satirical and passionate declamations, against the Roman church, the Pope, priests [etc],  advising him that an epic poem should not be treated as a satire and that he should take Virgil rather than Juvenal as his model.  At the same time I gave him the praise which his characterisations merited .....

I decided to restrain my feelings for the time he remained in Brussels and  everything was going well until one day he invited  me on a carriage ride out of town. He took it upon himself to recite his  Epître à  Julie, a poem filled with horrors against everything we hold sacred in religion, and against the person of Christ himself, who was qualified by an epithet that I cannot recall without shuddering. It was so marked with the blackest impiety that I felt I would have failed religion and the public if I had listened to any more of this  frightful work.  I finally interrupted and very seriously told him that I could not  understand why he had addressed to me such a detestable confidence.

He wanted to start reasoning and to demonstrate the proof of his principles.  I interrupted him again and I said I would get down from the carriage if he didn't change the subject.  He was quiet then and asked me only not to talk about this piece;  I promised him and I kept my word..... 

Note on a portrait of J.- B. Rousseau 
Rousseau by Nicolas de Largillière 1710
Uffizi Gallery Florence
This  portrait of Rousseau by Largillière, apparently dated 1710, is now in the Uffizi. It is splendid, much reproduced but with no accessible notes on provenance. 

I can find only one documented early portrait.
According to the correspondence with Brossette, in 1715 a wealthy patron of letters from Lyon by the name of Mazard requested a portrait of Rousseau for his study. The poet journeyed to Vienna to be painted by the  French-trained artist Jacob Van Schuppen (who also painted Eugene of Savoy).  Rousseau states categorically that this was the first time that he had sat for a portrait.  (Grubbs p.144)

The whereabouts of the Van Schuppen portrait is unknown.  

 There are two possibilities:

EITHER: For some reason didn't mention the (much earlier) portrait by Largillière.

OR: This is in fact the missing painting by Van Schuppen, an accomplished artist who had studied under Largillière.  But, of so, why should it be misidentified and how did it get to be in Florence?

No comments:

Post a Comment