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In search of lost rhymes

Thursday, 13 December, 2018

Volume 84 of the Œuvres complètes de Voltaire (to be published next year by the Voltaire Foundation) includes a section containing a large number of poems that have at one time or another been attributed to Voltaire. Many are clearly not by Voltaire; a few can be shown to be by him; some remain undecided. The search for evidence and information to help establish the facts can follow unexpected paths.

In 1757 Le Portefeuille trouvé published a sextain which it attributed to Voltaire:

               Vers envoyés à M. Sylva
Au temple d’Epidaure on offrait les images
Des humains conservés et guéris par les dieux,
Sylva, qui de la mort est le maître comme eux,
Mérite les mêmes hommages:
Esculape nouveau, mes jours sont tes bienfaits,
Et tu vois ton ouvrage en revoyant mes traits.

Jean-Baptiste Silva (1682-1742) was a celebrated physician with whom Voltaire had had some dealings, and whom he praises in the second Discours sur l’homme. Voltaire, though, in the Notes sur M. de Morza (1774),[1] denied having written these lines. Nevertheless editors have continued to attribute them to him. In 1833 the Beuchot edition gives a fuller explanatory title: Vers envoyés à M. Sylva, premier médecin de la reine, avec le portrait de l’auteur, where the sense of the first and last lines becomes clearer.

In August 1778, three months after Voltaire’s death, the Journal des savants published the poem with the sextain followed by a quintain:

Esculape français, recevez cet hommage
De votre frère en Apollon.
Ce Dieu vous a laissé son plus bel héritage,
Tous les dons de l’esprit et ceux de la raison;
Mais je n’ai que des vers, hélas! pour mon partage.

In March 1779 L’Esprit des journaux gave the same text. What is to be made of this? Has someone merely added a few lines, or is this based on a manuscript found among Voltaire’s papers? The quintain seems an unnecessary addition.

An answer comes from an unforeseen quarter. In June 1915 Sir William Osler, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, and Student (that is, Fellow) at Christ Church College, published an article, ‘Israel and medicine’, in The Menorah Journal. In this he states:

‘One of the special treasures of my library is a volume of the Henriade superbly bound by Padeloup, and a presentation copy from Voltaire to de Silva, given me when I left Baltimore by my messmates in ‘The Ship of Fools’ (a dining club). Voltaire’s inscription reads as follows:

A Monsieur Silva, Esculape François. Recevez cet hommage de votre frère en Apollon. Ce Dieu vous a laissé son plus bel héritage, tous les Dons de l’esprit, tous ceux de la raison, et je n’eus que des Vers, hélas, pour mon partage.”’

Voltaire, La Henriade

Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF.

The edition in question is the quarto ‘Londres, 1741’ edition, actually the 1728 edition with a new title page.

Here we have, presented as continuous prose, the added lines of the poem. Osler’s description is confirmed in Bibliotheca Osleriana: a catalogue of books illustrating the history of medicine and science (Montreal, 1969), p.497, no.5551:

‘Presentation copy; in a contemporary olive morocco binding, finely tooled, by Padeloup. The flyleaf bears the following autograph inscription by Voltaire to J. B. Silva, his friend and physician’.

There follow the five lines of verse.

Voltaire, La Henriade

Image supplied by the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University.

Christ Church has a copy of La Henriade in its special collection, but unfortunately it is not this volume. Osler’s library was bequeathed to McGill University, his alma mater, and there the volume resides. Despite the confidence of Osler and the catalogue, the inscription is not in Voltaire’s hand. At this period, 1741-1742, Voltaire had several secretaries and it is not currently possible to establish if this hand belongs to one of them. It may indeed have been transcribed by a clerk in a printer’s office. The standard of writing is not as might be expected for a presentation.

So we do not have absolute proof that either of these poems is by Voltaire, but the evidence does suggest that they were.

– Martin Smith

[1] Œuvres complètes de Voltaire, vol.76 (Oxford, 2013), p.544.

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