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How to tell a king he writes bad verse

Thursday, 12 September, 2019
Frederick II
The only portrait Frederick ever personally sat for (by Ziesenis, 1763).

In 1750, Voltaire travelled to the court of the Prussian king, Frederick II. There, one of his official duties would be to correct the king’s writings in French, in particular his poetry: to ‘bleach his dirty linen’, as Voltaire would later write in his epistolary half-fiction, Paméla, never published in his lifetime. However, at the outset, very willing, Voltaire wrote to the king around August of that year:

‘Si vous aimez des critiques libres, si vous souffrez des éloges sincères, si vous voulez perfectionner un ouvrage que vous seul dans l’Europe êtes capable de faire, votre majesté n’a qu’à ordonner à un solitaire de monter.
Ce solitaire est aux ordres de votre majesté pour toutte sa vie.’

The French poet knew how to be tactful, and though he sent back pages of corrections, he balanced them with flattery. Referring to Frederick’s Art de la guerre, he wrote the following summer: ‘Tout l’ouvrage est digne de vous, et quand je n’aurais fait le voyage que pour voir quelque chose d’aussi singulier, je ne devrais pas regretter ma patrie’. The corrected manuscript of l’Art de la guerre still exists and can be seen in Berlin at the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Unfortunately, the heavily marked up volumes of the king’s Poésies have disappeared, following the Allied bombing of the Monbijou Palace in Berlin during the Second World War. The latest volume of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire attempts to reconstruct those corrections, however, as part of its complement to the Russian-led publication of Voltaire’s marginalia, the Corpus des notes marginales, a final volume that assembles the known marginal notes housed outside the main collection of the writer’s library in the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg.

This volume, Notes et écrits marginaux conservés hors de la Bibliothèque nationale de Russie (OCV, vol.145), brings together a motley collection of such documents. Some, such as Frederick’s poetry, were intended for use by friends and were never part of Voltaire’s own collection. Another such case is that of the annotated copy of a work by Luc de Clapiers, marquis de Vauvenargues (also discussed by Sam Bailey), or the manuscript on the rights of French Protestants to marry by the future statesman Joseph-Marie Portalis. Other books, such as a volume of Rousseau’s Emile, or a volume of Le Vrai Sens du système de la nature, by pseudo-Helvétius, seem to have been distributed as gifts by Voltaire, and the notes within give hints of having been conceived for that very purpose. Others still may in fact have parted ways with Voltaire’s personal collection, either before it left France, or in Russia (two works, the first Fénelon’s Œuvres philosophiques, and the second an Essai général de tactique by Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte, comte de Guibert, were borrowed from the Hermitage library by Tsar Alexander I, and never returned).

But the largest component of the lot remains Voltaire’s corrections and comments on Frederick’s poetry. Given the absence of the original volumes, it is gratifying to see how much it has been possible to reconstruct. Of the two printed volumes from 1750, a copy with notes turned up in Belgium in 1979 thanks to the Voltaire Foundation’s longstanding contributor Jeroom Vercruysse. It turned out to be very literally a copy, that is, a painstaking piece of work in which Voltaire’s corrections, including those to his own comments, were reproduced by hand. While they have every characteristic of Voltaire’s style, there might have been doubts about the authenticity of the notes, had a German scholar, Hans Droysen, not published a couple of photographs in 1904 that exactly match the text and layout of the Belgium copy.

Droysen

‘Œuvres du philosophe de Sans-Souci’, vol.3 (1750), p.250, with corrections in the hands of Voltaire and Frederick II (reproduced by Hans Droysen, ‘Friedrichs des Großen Druckerei im Berliner Schlosse’, ‘Hohenzollern Jahrbuch’ 8, 1904, p.84).

Excitingly, one photograph shows a page with writing by both Voltaire and Frederick, thanks to which it was possible to tell which of the hand-copied notes were by which man, since the copyist went to the extreme of doing a passable imitation of the handwriting of each. But what of the second volume? In this case, another German scholar, Reinhold Koser, had published, two years after Droysen, a large number of Voltaire’s notes, though frustratingly in a thematic order of his own devising, and with precious little context for some of the comments. Thanks to a considerable team effort and a lot of patience (and special thanks go to my colleague Martin Smith), it was possible to identify the location of most of Voltaire’s corrections and remarks (sometimes relying on discussion of rhymes to pinpoint particular verses). Only a few notes remain unattached to a specific place in Frederick’s text.

We learn a lot about the minutiae of what was and was not admissible in eighteenth-century versification, but Voltaire makes other stylistic comments and, as ever, he strives for wit and elegance. For example, he marks four instances of the word ‘plat’ within the space of two pages, numbers them, and next to the fourth, notes: ‘voila plus de plats icy que dans un bon souper’.

Frederick’s verse includes pieces that were written in an epistolary context addressed to Voltaire himself, and some of the latter’s notes provide glimpses into his own literary past. In the margin of a reference to his play Sémiramis, he writes ‘je ne hazarday cet ouvrage que pour feu madame la Dauphine qui m’avoit demandé une trajedie a machines.’ Who knew that the thunderclaps, opening tomb and ghost in that tragedy were of royal inspiration?

Voltaire eventually tired of this work (and who can blame him?) and for this and other reasons, attempted to leave Prussia. He was stopped and searched in Frankfurt and kept under arrest for some days by an envoy of the king, since the latter wanted to keep strict control over the copies of his book, and would not countenance Voltaire leaving the country with a copy. But that is a whole other story…

– Gillian Pink

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