Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE EARL OF ROCHESTER AND MR. WALLER. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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THE EARL OF ROCHESTER AND MR. WALLER. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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THE EARL OF ROCHESTER AND MR. WALLER.
The earl of Rochester’s reputation is universally known. M. de St. Évremond has taken great notice of him; but he has only made us acquainted with the celebrated Rochester as a man of pleasure and intrigue. I propose to distinguish him as the man of genius and the poet. Among other works that are fraught with that lively imagination which he alone possessed, he wrote some satires on the same subjects as our celebrated Despréaux. I know nothing more useful toward perfecting true taste, than comparing the works of great men who have exercised their talents on the same subject. Observe in what manner Despréaux speaks against human reason in his “Satire on Man”:
Observe likewise how very nearly Lord Rochester expresses himself on the same subject in his “Satire on Man”; but let the reader always remember that mine are free translations of the English poets, and that the curb of our versification and the delicate decorum of our language will never form an equivalent for the impetuous flow of the English style.
Be these ideas true or false, it is certain that they are expressed with that energy which constitutes the poet. I shall guard against examining them as a philosopher, and not quit the pencil for the compass: my only end in this letter is to make known the genius of the English poets; and to this point I shall continue to adhere.
The celebrated Waller has been much talked of in France. La Fontaine, St. Évremond, and Bayle, have made his eulogium; but little more is known of him than his name. He had very near the same degree of reputation in London, that Voiture had in Paris; and I think he merited it more. Voiture lived at a time when the people were just bursting the bands of barbarism, and were yet in a state of ignorance. Everyone wanted genius, but none had it at that time. Witticisms were sought after instead of ideas: false stones are much easier found than diamonds.
Voiture, born with an easy but frivolous genius, was the first who made a figure in this dawn of the French literature. Had he come after those great men who have adorned the age of Louis XIV. he would have been under a necessity of possessing something more than mere wit. His compositions might do well enough to amuse a private family, but are by no means worthy of being transmitted to posterity. It is true, Boileau praises him; but it is only in his first satires, that is to say, before his taste was completely formed; he was then but young, and of an age when we form our opinions of men rather by the reputation they have acquired, than by their real merit. And besides, Boileau was often very unjust both in his praises and in his censures. He extolled Ségrais, whom nobody reads; he censured Quinault, whom everyone repeats by heart; and he speaks not a syllable of La Fontaine.
Waller, though a better poet than Voiture, was yet short of perfection. His compositions, which are full of gallantry, breathe an air of easy gracefulness; but his negligence makes them often languid, and besides his pieces are extremely disfigured with false thoughts. The English understood not in his time the secret of writing with purity and correctness. His serious works are manly and vigorous, a circumstance no one would have looked for from the persual of his other performances. His funeral panegyric on Oliver Cromwell, with all its faults, passes for a masterpiece. To understand this poem it is necessary to know that Cromwell died on the same day on which a prodigious storm happened. It begins in this manner:
It was on occasion of this panegyric on Cromwell that Waller made Charles II. that famous answer, recorded in Bayle’s dictionary. The king, whom Waller, according to the old custom between kings and poets, had waited upon, in order to present him with a poem stuffed with praises, reproached him with having written a better for Oliver. Waller answered, “Sir, we poets succeed much better in fiction than in truth.” This answer was not so sincere as that of the Dutch ambassador, who, on the same king’s complaining that his nation had showed less respect for him than for Cromwell, made answer, “Ah! Sir, Cromwell was quite a very different sort of a man.” There are courtiers even in England, and Waller was certainly one in the truest sense of the word; but I consider men, after their death, by their works only: all the rest is with me wholly buried in oblivion. I will only remark, that Waller, born in a court, with a fortune of three thousand pounds a year, had neither the silly pride nor the stupidity to abandon the talent with which nature had endowed him. The earls of Dorset and Buckingham, Lord Halifax, and many others, did not think they derogated from their high rank and quality in becoming excellent poets, and illustrious writers. Their works certainly do them more honor than their titles. They have cultivated letters, as if the making of their fortunes had depended on their studies. They have, moreover, rendered the arts and sciences respectable in the eyes of the people, who in everything stand in need of being guided by the great, and who, notwithstanding, are less influenced by their example in England than in any other country in the universe.