TO M. Helvetius
Cirey, February as, 1739
My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses your Epistle is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the booksellers and restrict them-selves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.
What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.
Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many if there is the least defect in the construction if a conjunction is for-gotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your Epistle lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.
Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demands of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.
CRITICISING A CRITIC
To M. Martin Kahle
I am very pleased to hear, sir, that you have written a little book against me. You do me too much honour. On page 17 you reject the proof, from final causes, of the existence of God. If you had argued thus at Rome, the reverend father and governor of the Holy Palace would have condemned you to the Inquisition: if you had written thus against a theologian of Paris, he would have had your proposition censured by the sacred faculty: if against a devout person, he would have abused you: but I have the honour to be neither a Jesuit, nor a theologian, nor a devotee. I shall leave you to your opinion, and shall remain of mine. I shall always be convinced that a watch proves a watchmaker, and that the universe proves a God. I hope that you yourself understand what you say concerning space and eternity, the necessity of matter, and preordained harmony: and I recommend you to look once more at what I said, finally, in the new edition, where I earnestly endeavoured to make myself thoroughly understood and in metaphysics that is no easy task.
You quote, apropos of space and infinity, the Medea of Seneca, the Philippics of Cicero, and the Metamorphoses of Ovid; also the verses of the Duke of Bucking-ham, of Gombauld, Regnier, and Rapin. I must tell you, sir, I know at least as much poetry as you do: that I am quite as fond of it: that if it comes to capping verses we shall see some very pretty sport: only I do not think them suitable to shed light on a metaphysical question, be they Lucretius’ or the Cardinal de Polignac’s.
Furthermore, if ever you understand anything about preordained harmony if you discover how, under the law of necessity, man is free you will do me a service if you will pass on the information to me. When you have shown, in verse or otherwise, why so many men cut their throats in the best of all possible worlds, I shall be exceedingly obliged to you.
I await your arguments, your verses, and your abuse: and assure you from the bottom of my heart that neither you nor I know anything about the matter.
For if morality is the aim of poetry, I do not apprehend why the poet should be forbidden to intersperse his descriptions with moral sentences and useful re-flexions, provided he scatters them with a sparing hand, and in proper places, either when he wants personages to utter those thoughts, or when their character does not permit them to speak in the behalf of virtue.
A poem, methinks, might subsist very well, without the help of mechanick, or anatomical descriptions. We rather require of an author, to excite our passions, to unfold the most intricate recesses of the soul, to describe the customs of the nations, to mark the differences which arise in the characters of men, from the different governments they are born under, in short to speak the language of the polite world; than to play the surgeon, the carpenter, or the joiner, though never so elegantly.