A witty manuscript by Voltaire with an intriguing history

A witty manuscript by Voltaire with an intriguing history

Voltaire [François-Marie Arouet] (1694 – 1778). Épître à Monsieur Suard. Manuscript poem sent as a letter to Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard (1732 – 1817). Ferney, ca. 1766. One page, written on one side of a bifolium. Creases from old folds, wear to margins, later pencil annotations. Housed in an old clamshell case lined with felt and bound in quarter leather, now rather worn, into which previous owners have laid their research notes.


A charming manuscript by the great philosophe, once in the La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt collection, and a fascinating relic of what the literary historian Robert Darnton has described as the degeneration of the Enlightenment. 


Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard (1732 – 1817), the man honored by this witty poem was in Darnton’s estimation a “nonentity” whose career depended entirely on the patronage of social elites who rewarded charm and sycophancy over originality and brilliance. Many who met Suard were underwhelmed. His first biographer calls him lazy (“M. Suard triompha de sa paresse”) and shy, with a “faible voix et l’accent timide,” and having “mois de passions” than his contemporaries (Garat 1:120-21, 232, 332). Another, Antoine-Vincent Arnault wrote a biographical sketch dripping with disdain. In later life, in his role as censor, Suard would turn down Beaumarchais’s Le mariage de Figaro. And still later, when the Revolution came for his old friend Condorcet, Suard would refuse him safe harbor. As Darnton notes, with the death of the great generation of philosophes – Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, d’Alembert – 


the Enlightenment passed into the hands of nonentities like Suard: it lost its fire and became a mere tranquil diffusion of light, a comfortable ascent toward progress. The transition from the heroic to the High Enlightenment domesticated the movement, integrating it with le monde and bathing it in the douceur de vivre of the Old Régime’s dying years. (Darnton, 92-93)


Suard and his circle were “the high priests of the High Enlightenment,” but they had “remarkably little to say” (Darnton, 115).


suard.png

Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard (1732 – 1817), engraving by J.F. Cazenave, after François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard, ca. 1775-1800. National Portrait Gallery.



Suard had lucked into positions of literary power. Arriving in Paris in the 1750s, when he was in his 20s, he fell in among the cohort producing the Encyclopédie. He befriended the abbe Reynal, d’Holbach, Diderot, and the women who led the major salons – Mmes. Geoffrin, D’Houdetot, Lespinasse, Necker, and Saurin. In 1763 he and the Abbé François Arnaud were awarded the editorialship of a series of key publications – the Journal étranger, the Gazette littéraire de l’Europe and the Gazette de France. For these journals, he translated English texts, introducing John Wilkes, Laurence Sterne, David Hume, and Horace Walpole to French readers. In 1766, Suard married well. His wife Amélie Panckoucke was cultured and witty, born into a family of booksellers and publishers at the center of the Enlightenment. This no doubt helped him to further cultivate his friendships with influential figures in the literary establishment.


Suard's relationship with Voltaire serves as a barometer of his rise. When the younger writer was appointed editor of the Gazette littéraire in 1763, Voltaire expressed bewilderment: “Qui sont ces abbés Arnaud et Suard?” he asked the Comte d’Argental. In December 1764, Voltaire had occasion to ask a favor of the editors, asking them to publish a note denouncing a book fraudulently attributed to him by “a rascally bookseller from Holland,” but he wrote to them as strangers. But in 1766, Suard married the sister of Voltaire's friend Charles-Joseph Panckoucke (who would later found the Mercure de France) and published some articles that caught the older writer's attention, and the tenor of their relationship changed. On 5 July 1767 Jean-François de La Harpe would write to Suard from Ferney:


Vous n’êtes point du tout inconnu à M. De Voltaire, je lui ai lù l’article de Votre lettre qui le regarde, il en a été très satisfait, il m’a chargé de vous témoigner toute sa reconnoissance, et de vous dire qu’il vous croit un de plus éclairés et de plus ardens zélateurs de la bonne cause et de la bonne Littérature. (Boiteux, 28)


By 1774, Voltaire was one of Suard’s most enthusiastic champions. When Suard was elected to the French academy, Voltaire congratulated him in effusive terms: “Voilà, Dieu merci … Je vois enfin les véritables fruits de la philosophie, et je commence à croire que je mourrai content.” (Garat 1:342). Suard’s wife Amélie, herself a salonnière, visited Ferney in 1775; her letters offer a richly detailed description of Voltaire in his late years.


voltaire-10-francs-1963.jpg

Voltaire's portrait on the 1963 ten franc note is based on the 1775 portrait by Vivant Denon of the writer at Ferney


The present manuscript is Voltaire’s earliest surviving letter to Suard. It is an epistolary poem in response to an article by the young editor that blended flattery of Voltaire with a critique of his work. “I love praise and I forget it; / I remember the lesson,” replied the philosophe. “One pleased my coquetry, / and the other pleases my reason.” The editors of Voltaire’s correspondence date the letter to April 1766 on the basis of the reference in his postscript to a “bouffonnerie” he sent to the celebrated actress Mademoiselle Clairon, though it might well be earlier. That the two were not yet on close terms is suggested by the fact that Voltaire misspells Suard’s name. The text reads thus:


À M. Suart [sic]


J’ai lu ce que vous avez dit
De mes Lambeaux épistolaires ;
Les louanges ne me sont chères,
Que par la main qui les écrit.
Combien les vôtres sont légères !
Déjà l’amour propre aux aguets
Venoit me tendre ses filets,
Et me bercer de ses chimères ;
Soudain, avec dextérité,
Une critique délicate,
Et que j’approuve et qui me flatte,
Me vient offrir la vérité.
Que vous la rendez séduisante !
J’ai cru la voir dans sa beauté ;
Elle n’a jamais d’âpreté,
Quand c’est le goût qui la présente.
Sous nos berceaux l’arbre étalé
Doit sa vigueur à la nature ;
Mais il doit au moins sa parure
Aux soins de l’art qui l’a taillé.
J’aime l’éloge, et je l’oublie;

Je me souviens de la leçon.
L’un plut à ma coquetterie,
Et l’autre plait à ma raison.


Voudrez-vous bien vous charger de mes compliments pour Madame ? Je vous envoie une bouffonnerie que j’ai adressée à Mlle. Clairon. De grâce, ne nommez pas l’auteur. V.


Intriguingly, this poem was swiftly printed, though anonymously. Suard must have shown Voltaire's letter to Claude-Joseph Dorat, a wealthy patron of La Harpe, Chamfort and other writers. Dorat published Voltaire's verse in Mes fantaisies (1768) without attribution, breaking it into quatrains and retitling it "Billet à un Journaliste." Was Dorat's plagiarism one of the causes of his falling out with the philosophe party? By the 1770s, La Harpe was thoroughly disenchanted with Dorat, calling him an egotist, a madman, and a "scribbler of fans" (See, e.g., La Harpe I:306-308; Beaumarchais, letter 538, etc.).


Thus in addition to offering a superb display of Voltaire’s wit, this poem also captures in miniature the personal dynamics among the philosophes, and of the passing of the baton from one generation of writers to the next.


Provenance

The La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt collection ; Puttrick sale (London 28 June 1916), p. 36, no. 541 ; Anderson sale (New York, 8 November 1916), no. 295; Henkels sale (Philadelphia 8 June 1917), ii.36, no. 707; private collection (Massachusetts).


Publication

Dorat, Claude-Joseph. Mes fantaisies (Amsterdam : Jorry, 1768), pp. 207-208 (printed without attribution as "Billet à un Journaliste").

Nisard, Charles. Mémoires et correspondances historiques et littéraires inédits, 1726 à 1816, publiés par Charles Nisard (Paris : Michel Levy, 1858), p. 59.

Voltaire. Complete Works, vol. 114. Correspondence XXX: 1766, ed. Theodore Besterman (Oxford : Voltaire Foundation, 1973), D13258, p. 182.


Selected References

Arnault, Antoine-Vincent. “M. Suard,” Oeuvres. Paris: Bossange, 1824-1827, V : 443-461

Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin Caron de. Correspondence, ed. Brian Morton. Paris: Nizet, 1969.

Bédarida, Henri. "Voltaire, collaborateur de la Gazette Littéraire de l'Europe," in Mélanges d'histoire littéraire générale et comparée offerts à Fernand Baldensperger, Paris: Honoré Champion, 1930, 1: 24-38

Boiteux, Lucas-Alexandre, Au temps des cœurs sensibles. Paris : Plon, 1948.

-----. “Voltaire et le ménage Suard,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 1 (1955) : 19-109.

Darnton, Robert. “The high Enlightenment and the low life of literature,” Past & Present 51 (May 1971): 81-115.

Francalanza, Éric.  Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Suard: journaliste des Lumières, Paris, Honoré Champion, 2002.

Garat, Dominique-Joseph. Mémoires historiques sur le XVIIIe. siècle, sur les principaux personnages de la Révolution française, ainsi que sur la vie et les écrits de M. Suard, secrétaire de l'Académie. 2nd ed. Paris : Philippe, 1829.

Hunter, Alfred C. J.-B.-A. Suard: Un introducteur de la littérature anglaise en France. Paris : Édouard Champion, 1925.

La Harpe, Jean François de. Correspondance littéraire, adressée à Son Altesse Impériale Mgr le grand-duc, aujourd'hui Empereur de Russie, et à M. le Cte André Schowalow,... depuis 1774 jusqu'à 1789. Paris: Migneret, 1804-1807.

Nisard, Charles. Mémoires et correspondances historiques et littéraires inédits, 1726 à 1816, publiés par Charles Nisard. Paris : Michel Levy, 1858.

Popkin, Jeremy. “The Condorcet-Suard Correspondence,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 18 (1985): 550–557

Suard, Amelie. Lettres de Madame Suard. A son mari sur son voyage de Ferney, Suivies de quelques autres insérées dans le Journal de Paris. Dampierre, An X [1802].

-----. Essais de mémoires sur M. Suard. Paris : Didot l’ainé, 1820.

Suard, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine. Mélanges de littérature. Paris : Dentu, 1803-1805.



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    A witty manuscript by Voltaire with an intriguing history


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