Front Page Titles (by Subject) PRIOR; THAT SINGULAR POEM CALLED HUDIBRAS; AND DEAN SWIFT. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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PRIOR; THAT SINGULAR POEM CALLED “HUDIBRAS”; AND DEAN SWIFT. - 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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PRIOR; THAT SINGULAR POEM CALLED “HUDIBRAS”; AND DEAN SWIFT.
When Prior first came over to France as ambassador–plenipotentiary from Queen Anne to settle the terms of peace granted to Louis XIV. and previous to the arrival of Lord Bolingbroke, who signed the treaty; when this peer, I say, first came to France, no one imagined him to be at once a statesman and a poet. France has since paid England in her own coin; for Cardinal Du Bois sent our des Touches to London, who passed as little for a poet in England, as Prior did in France. Prior, the plenipotentiary, was originally a waiter in a tavern; the earl of Dorset, who himself was an excellent poet, and besides loved his bottle, found him one day reading Horace on a bench in the tavern, just as Lord Ilay found his gardener’s boy reading Newton. Ilay made his young gardener a great philosopher, and Dorset made a very pleasant poet of his waiter.
“Alma, or the History of the Soul,” written by this poet, is the most natural history that has been given till now, of that being, so well perceived, and so little understood. The soul has her residence at first in the extremities of the body, in the feet and hands of children; from there she insensibly places herself in the centre of the body at the age of puberty; afterward she takes possession of the heart, where she produces sentiments of love, gallantry, and heroism. In a still riper age, she mounts upward to the head, where she reasons in the best manner she is able; till at last, in old age, she retires the Lord knows whither, like the sap of an old tree, which evaporates, and is at last wholly lost. Possibly this work may be rather too prolix; all pleasantry ought to be concise, and perhaps the serious kind would hardly be the worse for a small spice of this quality.
The same Prior has composed a small poem on the battle of Höchstädt. This is by no means comparable to his “History of the Soul”; the only good thing in it is his apostrophe to Boileau.
Our plenipotentiary concludes with a paraphrase, consisting of five hundred verses on these words which are commonly ascribed to Solomon, “All is vanity.” It would have been no difficult matter to have written five thousand on the same topic. But woe to him that says all he is able to say.
Queen Anne being dead, and a change happening in the ministry, the peace of which Prior had sketched the first outlines, became the detestation of the people; and the political bard had no other resource left him but an edition of his works, published by a subscription set on foot by those of his own party, after which he died like a philosopher, that is as every honest Englishman dies, or at least is thought to die.
I should be glad now to give you a slight idea of the poetical writings of the earl of Roscommon and Dorset; but I am sensible this would make a little volume, and, after all, I should be able to give you but a very imperfect idea of so many different pieces. Poetry is akin to music, which must be heard, to form any judgment of its excellence. Even when I attempt to translate some passages of these foreign poets, I can at best but give you a very imperfect notion of their harmony or numbers; and I find it utterly impossible to convey to you the smallest notion of their cadences.
But, above all, the English poem called “Hudibras” is what puzzles me most to make you at all acquainted with. It is a piece wholly in the comic or burlesque style, though the subject is of no less consequence than the civil wars of Cromwell. This cruel war, which has been the occasion of so many tears, and which has caused such an ocean of blood to be shed, has notwithstanding, given birth to a poem, which I defy the gravest reader to peruse without laughing. There is something of this contrasted kind to be met with in our “Menippean Satire.” The Romans would certainly never have thought of writing a burlesque poem on the civil wars of Cæsar and Pompey, or on the proscriptions of Antony and Augustus. Whence then comes it to pass, that the dreadful disasters occasioned in France by the League, and those in England between the king and parliament, have given rise to so much pleasantry? It is undoubtedly true that those fatal broils had actually something exceedingly ridiculous at bottom. The citizens of Paris, at the head of the Faction of the Sixteen, mingled abundance of folly and impertinence with the horrors of faction. The intrigues of the women, the legate, and the monks had a droll aspect, notwithstanding those numberless calamities of which they were the occasion. The theological disputes, and the fanaticism of the Puritans in England, were fruitful fields for ridicule; and this source of ridicule, well laid open, was capable of affording large scope for pleasantry, after these tragical horrors, under which it lay concealed, were once removed. Although the bull Unigenitus has been the occasion of much bloodshed, yet is not the little poem of “Philotamus” the less adapted to the subject; and the only reproach that can, with any justice, be made him is, that he is not so merry and diverting, and so diversified, as he ought to be, and that he does not introduce in the course of the work, what he promises in the beginning.
The poem “Hudibras,” which I am now mentioning to you, seems to be a mixture of the “Menippean Satire” with Don Quixote,” with this double advantage, that it is written in verse, and that it is infinitely more witty. As for the “Menippean Satire,” it cannot stand in competition with it, and is really but a very middling performance. But his superabundance of wit is what has made him inferior to “Don Quixote.” Taste, pleasing simplicity, the art of narration, of properly disposing the different adventures, of checking the natural fertility of one’s genius, are, in my humble opinion, infinitely superior to mere wit. Hence it is, that “Don Quixote” is read by all the nations of Europe, while “Hudibras” affords entertainment only for those of his own country.
The name of this extraordinary author is Butler; he was contemporary with Milton, and had an infinitely greater share of reputation than he, from the pleasantry and humor of his poem; whereas that of Milton is very dismal. Butler made the enemies of Charles II. the subject of universal ridicule, and had this for his sole recompense, that the king often did him the honor to quote his verses. The battles of the knight Hudibras were much better known than those of the angels and devils of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” But the court of England treated the witty and diverting Butler as ill as the court above did the grave Milton, for both were in a starving condition, or very near it.
The hero of Butler’s poem was no feigned personage, like the Don Quixote of Michael Cervantes; he was actually a knight–baronet, that had formerly been one of Cromwell’s enthusiasts, in whose service he bore the office of a colonel. His name was Sir Samuel Luke. In order to understand the spirit of this poem, which is wholly singular in its kind, there will be a necessity of retrenching, at least three–fourths of the passages we want to translate; for Butler is an author who never thinks he has said enough. I have therefore reduced to about fourscore verses, the first four hundred in his work, to avoid a disgusting prolixity.
A man whose imagination was capable of containing a tenth part of the vis comica, true or false, that predominates through every part of this work, would still be extremely diverting; but at the same time he would do well to have a care how he attempts to translate “Hudibras”; for how is it possible to excite laughter in readers who are foreigners, by means of the follies of persons long since forgotten in the very nation where they were once so famous? Dante is now no longer read in Europe, because his work is perpetually alluding to facts utterly unknown. The case is exactly the same with “Hudibras.” Most of the ridicule in this work falls on the theology and divines of his own time. A commentary is therefore wanted to every line. Humor that stands in need of being explained from that moment ceases to be such; and it is very rare to find an explainer of the wit of others, who has any of his own.
This is one reason why it will never be possible for the ingenious Dr. Swift to be understood in France, though he has justly acquired the title of “the English Rabelais.” He enjoys also the honor of the priesthood, while he laughs at the whole cloth. Rabelais, however, was in every respect superior to his age, though Swift is infinitely superior to Rabelais.
Our curate of Meudon, in his extravagant and unintelligible book, has diffused abundance of gayety, and a still greater quantity of impertinence. He was equally full of prolixity, order, and erudition. A good story, which fills two pages, is bought at the expense of whole volumes of nonsense. There are none but those of capricious taste, who pique themselves on understanding and relishing the whole of his performance. The rest of the nation laugh at the pleasantries of Rabelais, while they despise his work, and he passes with them for the chief of buffoons. People are sorry that a man with so much wit should make such a low use of it. In short, it is a drunken philosopher, who wrote only when he was unable to stand.
Dr. Swift is Rabelais in his right senses, but polished by frequenting the best company. It is true he has not the gayety of the former, but he is possessed of all that delicacy, judgment, proper choice of matter, and that exquisite taste which is wholly wanting in the curate of Meudon. His verses are of a singular caste, and almost utterly inimitable. True pleasantry is his talent in prose and verse; but to understand him fully it is necessary to take a short trip into his country.
In this country, which appears so extraordinary to the rest of mankind, nobody was much surprised to see the reverend Dr. Swift, dean of a cathedral, laughing in his “Tale of a Tub” at Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists. He alleges in his own vindication, that he left Christianity untouched. He pretends to have shown all manner of respect to the father, by giving a hearty drubbing to each of the three sons. Nice people will be apt to find this apology rather too slight for what passes with them for a flagrant enormity.
This famous “Tale of a Tub” is an imitation of the ancient tale of the “Three Invisible Rings,” which a certain father bequeathed to his three children. These three rings were the Jewish, the Christian, and the Mahometan religions. It is likewise an imitation of the “History of Mero and Enegu,” by Fontenelle. Mero was the anagram of Rome, and Enegu that of Geneva. These were two sisters, who pretended each to have the right of succession to the kingdom of their father. Mero was the first that mounted the throne. Fontenelle represents her as a sorceress, who was wont to steal bread, and who performed her enchantments by the help of dead bodies. She is exactly Lord Peter in Swift, while he is presenting a piece of bread to his two brothers, and tells them, “Friends, here is some excellent Burgundy, this partridge has a most exquisite flavor.” The same Lord Peter plays everywhere the part of Mero in Fontenelle.
Thus almost every composition is no more than an imitation. The hint of the “Persian Letters” is taken from the “Turkish Spy.” Boiardo has imitated Pulci, as Ariosto has imitated Boiardo. The most original geniuses borrow from each other. Michael Cervantes makes his Don Quixote a fool; but pray is Orlando any other? It would puzzle one to decide whether knight–errantry has been made more ridiculous by the grotesque painting of Cervantes, than by the luxuriant imagination of Ariosto. Metastasio has taken the greater part of his operas from our French tragedies. Several English writers have copied us, without saying one word of the matter. It is with books, as it is with the fires in our houses; one goes and lights his candle at his neighbor’s, and then lights one of his own; whence he communicates to his neighbors that want his assistance, so that it becomes absolutely the property of every one.