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Voltaire’s Early Life and Works

In the same year that he coined his new name, Voltaire enjoyed his first major literary success when his tragedy Œdipe was staged by the Comédie Française. Meanwhile he was working on an epic poem which had as its protagonist Henri IV, the much-loved French monarch who brought France’s civil wars to a close, and who, in Voltaire’s treatment, becomes a forerunner of religious toleration: La Ligue (later enlarged to become La Henriade) was first published in 1723. His reputation as a poet and dramatist was now comfortably established, and he decided to travel to England to oversee the publishing of the definitive edition of La Henriade. His departure for London was precipitated when he unwisely became involved in a humiliating argument with an aristocrat, who had him briefly interned in the Bastille.

Voltaire arrived in London in the autumn of 1726, and what had begun partly as self-imposed exile became a crucially formative period for him. He learned English and mixed with a number of figures prominent in England’s political and cultural life. An old saw has it that Voltaire ‘came to England a poet and left it a philosopher’. In truth, he was a philosopher before coming to England, and it would be more accurate to say that Voltaire came to England a poet and left it a prose writer. Voltaire thought of himself first and foremost as a poet, and during his long life he would never abandon the writing of verse, for which he had a remarkable facility (many of his letters are sprinkled with seemingly spontaneous passages of verse). In England, however, he came into contact with models of prose unlike those to which he was accustomed in France: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example, which Voltaire read on first publication, or Addison’s Spectator, a periodical he used in order to learn to read English. It is hardly coincidental, therefore, that before returning to France in 1728, Voltaire began writing his first two major essays in prose: a history, the Histoire de Charles XII, and a book about the English, which is now best known under the title Lettres philosophiques, but was first published in English translation (London 1733) as the Letters Concerning the English Nation.

The furore created by the publication in France in 1734 of the Lettres philosophiques led Voltaire to leave Paris and take refuge in the château of his mistress, Mme du Châtelet, at Cirey-en-Champagne. From 1734 until Mme du Châtelet’s death in 1749, this was his haven from the world. During this period, he studied and wrote intensively in a wide variety of areas, including science (Eléments de la philosophie de Newton, 1738), poetry (Le Mondain, 1736), drama (Mahomet, 1741), and fiction (Zadig, 1747). In the 1740s, Voltaire was briefly on better terms with the court: he was made royal historiographer in 1745, and the following year, after several failed attempts, he was finally elected to the Académie Française. He had turned fifty and was now the leading poet and dramatist of his day; perhaps even Voltaire did not imagine that the works which would make him even more celebrated still lay in the future.

An initially idyllic interlude was provided by Voltaire’s stay at the court of Potsdam (1750-1753), and in 1752 he published both Le Siècle de Louis XIV and Micromégas. Throughout his career, however, Voltaire was prone to involvement in literary quarrels, and his time in Berlin was no exception; his attack on Pierre-Louis de Maupertuis, president of the Berlin Academy, caused Frederick II to lose patience with him. Voltaire left Berlin in a flurry of mutual recriminations, and although these were later forgotten, Voltaire’s dream of having found the ideal enlightened monarch were definitively shattered. His correspondence with Frederick, which had begun in 1736 when the latter was still crown prince, survived, and, after a hiatus, it continued until Voltaire’s death. They corresponded on literary and philosophical matters, and Voltaire sent Frederick many of his works in manuscript. Their exchange of more than seven hundred letters remains as an extraordinary literary achievement in its own right.

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