Story type: Literature
Never had excitable Paris been more excited. Only one man was talked of, only one subject thought of; there was no longer interest in rumors of war, in political quarrels, in the doings at the king’s court; all admiration and all sympathy were turned towards one feeble old man, who had returned to Paris to die. For twenty-seven years he had been absent, that brilliant writer and unsurpassed genius, the versatile Voltaire. His facile pen had given its greatest glory to the reign of Louis XV., yet for more than a quarter of a century he had been exiled from the land he loved, because he dared to exercise the privilege of free speech in that land of oppression, and to deal with kings and nobles as man with man, not as reverent worshipper with divinity. Now, in his eighty-fourth year of age, he had ventured to come back to the city he loved above all others, with scarcely enough life left for the journey, and far from sure that power would not still seek to suppress genius as it had done in the past.
If he had such fears, there was no warrant for them. Paris was ready to worship him. The king himself would not have dared to interfere with the popular idol in that interval of enthusiastic ebullition. All Paris was prepared to cast itself at his feet; all France was eager to do him honor; all calumny, jealousy, hatred were forgotten; a nation had risen to welcome and honor its greatest genius, and the splendors of the court paled before the glory which seemed to emanate from that feeble, tottering veteran of the empire of thought, who had come back to occupy, for a brief period, the throne of his old dominion.
The admiration, the enthusiasm, the glory were too much for him. He was dying in the excitement of joy and triumph. Yet, with his wonderful elasticity of frame and mind, he rose again for a fuller enjoyment of that popular ovation which was to him the wine of life. The story of his final triumph has been so graphically told by an eye-witness that we cannot do better than to quote his words.
“M. de Voltaire has appeared for the first time at the Academy and at the play; he found all the doors, all the approaches, to the Academy besieged by a multitude which only opened slowly to let him pass, and then rushed in immediately upon his footsteps with repeated plaudits and acclamations. The Academy came out into the first room to meet him, an honor it had never yet paid to any of its members, not even to the foreign princes who had deigned to be present at its meetings.
“The homage he received at the Academy was merely the prelude to that which awaited him at the National theatre. As soon as his carriage was seen at a distance, there arose a universal shout of joy. All the curb-stones, all the barriers, all the windows, were crammed with spectators, and scarcely was the carriage stopped when people were already on the imperial and even on the wheels to get a nearer view of the divinity. Scarcely had he entered the house when Sieur Brizard came up with a crown of laurels, which Madame de Villette placed upon the great man’s head, but which he immediately took off, though the public urged him to keep it on by clapping of hands and by cheers which resounded from all parts of the house with such a din as never was heard.
“All the women stood up. I saw at one time that part of the pit which was under the boxes go down on their knees, in despair of getting a sight any other way. The whole house was darkened with the dust raised by the ebb and flow of the excited multitude. It was not without difficulty that the players managed at last to begin the piece. It was ‘Irene,’ which was given for the sixth time. Never had this tragedy been better played, never less listened to, never more applauded. The illustrious old man rose to thank the public, and, a moment afterwards, there appeared on a pedestal in the middle of the stage a bust of this great man, and the actresses, garlands and crowns in hand, covered it with laurels.
“M. de Voltaire seemed to be sinking beneath the burden of age and of the homage with which he had just been overwhelmed. He appeared deeply affected, his eyes still sparkled amidst the pallor of his face, but it seemed as if he breathed no longer save with the consciousness of his glory. The people shouted, ‘Lights! lights! that everybody may see him!’ The coachman was entreated to go at a walk, and thus he was accompanied by cheering and the crowd as far as Pont Royal.”
This was a very different greeting from that which Voltaire had received fifty years before, when a nobleman with whom he had quarrelled had him beaten with sticks in the public street, and, when Voltaire showed an intention of making him answer at the sword’s point for this outrage, had him seized and thrown into the Bastille by the authorities. This was but one of the several times he had been immured in this gloomy prison for daring to say what he thought about powers and potentates. But time brings its revenges. The Chevalier de Rohan, who had had the poet castigated, was forgotten except as the man who had dishonored himself in seeking to dishonor Voltaire, and the poet had become the idol of the people of Paris, high and low alike.
Voltaire was not the only great man in Paris at this period. There was another as great as he, but great in a very different fashion,–Benjamin Franklin, the American philosopher and statesman, as famous for common sense and public spirit as Voltaire was for poetical power and satirical keenness. These two great men met, and their meeting is worthy of description. The American envoys had asked permission to call on the veteran of literature, a request that was willingly granted when Voltaire learned that Franklin was one of the number. What passed between them may be briefly related.
They found the aged poet reclining on a couch, thin of body, wrinkled of face, evidently sick and feeble; yet his eyes, “glittering like two carbuncles,” showed what spirit lay within his withered frame. As they entered, he raised himself with difficulty, and repeated the following lines from Thomson’s “Ode to Liberty,” a poem which he had been familiar with in England fifty years before.
“Lo! swarming southward on rejoicing suns,
Gay colonies extend, the calm retreat
Of undisturbed Distress, the better home
Of those whom bigots chase from foreign lands;
Not built on rapine, servitude, and woe,
And in their turn some petty tyrant’s prey;
But bound by social Freedom, firm they rise.”
He then began to converse with Franklin in English; but, on being asked by his niece to speak in French, that she and others present might understand what was said, he remarked,–
“I beg your pardon. I have, for the moment, yielded to the vanity of showing that I can speak in the language of a Franklin.”
Shortly afterwards, Dr. Franklin presented him his grandson, whereupon the old man lifted his hands over the head of the youth, and said, “My child, God and liberty! Recollect those two words.”
This was not the only scene between Franklin and Voltaire. Another took place at the Academy of Sciences at one of the meetings of that body. The two distinguished guests sat side by side on the platform, in full view of the audience.
During the proceedings an interruption occurred. A confused cry arose, the names of the two great visitors alone being distinguishable. It was taken to mean that they should be introduced. This was done. They rose and acknowledged the courtesy by bowing and a few words. But such a formal proceeding was far from enough to satisfy the audience. The noise continued. Franklin and Voltaire shook hands. This gave rise to plaudits, but the confused cries were not stilled; the audience wanted some more decided demonstration.
“Il faut s’embrasser, a la Francoise” [“You must embrace, in French fashion”], they cried.
John Adams, who witnessed the spectacle, thus describes what followed: “The two aged actors upon this great theatre of philosophy and frivolity, embraced each other by hugging one another in their arms, and kissing each other’s cheeks, and then the tumult subsided. And the cry immediately spread through the whole kingdom, and, I suppose over all Europe, ‘How charming it was to see Solon and Sophocles embrace.’”
A month later Voltaire lay dead, his brilliant eyes closed, his active brain at rest. The excitement of his visit to Paris and the constant ovation which he had received had been too much for the old man. He had died in the midst of his triumph, vanished from the stage of life just when his genius had compelled the highest display of appreciation which it was possible for his countrymen to give. As for the church, which his keen pen had dealt with as severely as with the temporal powers, it could not well forget his incessant and bitter attacks. That he might obtain Christian burial, he confessed and received absolution from the Abbe Gaultier; but, with his views, this was simply a sacrifice to the proprieties; he remained a heathen poet to the end, a born satirist and scoffer at all tradition and all conventionality.
Voltaire was deistic in belief, in no sense atheistic. Among his latest words were, “I die worshipping God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, but detesting superstition.” Despite the admiration of the people, the powers of the state could not forget that the man so enthusiastically received was the great apostle of mockery and irreverence. The government gave its last kick to the dead lion by ordering the papers not to comment on his death. The church laid an interdict on his burial in consecrated ground,–an hour or two too late, as it proved. His body, minus the heart, was transferred in 1791 to the Pantheon, and when, in 1864, the sarcophagus was opened with the purpose of restoring the heart to the other remains, it was found to be empty. In the stirring days of France the body had by some one, in some way, been removed.