Great men rarely come alone; large trees seem larger when they dominate a forest; there they are at home. There was a forest of minds around Voltaire; that forest was the eighteenth century. Among those minds there were summits, Montesquieu, Buffon, Beaumarchais, and among others, two, the highest after Voltaire Rousseau and Diderot.
Those thinkers taught men to reason; reasoning well leads to acting well; justness in the mind becomes justice in the heart. Those toilers for progress labored usefully. Buffon founded naturalism; Beaumarchais discovered, outside of Moliere, a kind of comedy till then unknown, almost the social comedy; Montesquieu made in law some excavations so profound that he succeeded in exhuming the right. As to Rousseau, as to Diderot, let us pronounce those two names apart; Diderot, a vast intelligence, inquisitive, a tender heart, a thirst for justice, wished to give certain notions as the foundation of true ideas, and created the Encyclopaedia. Rousseau rendered to woman an admirable service, completing the mother by the nurse, placing near one another those two majesties of the cradle. Rousseau, a writer, eloquent and pathetic, a profound oratorical dreamer, often divined and proclaimed political truth; his ideal borders upon the real; he had the glory of being the first man in France who called himself citizen. The civic fibre vibrates in Rousseau; that which vibrates in Voltaire is the universal fibre. One can say that in the fruitful eighteenth century Rousseau represented the people; Voltaire, still more vast, represented Man. Those powerful writers disappeared, but they left us their soul, the Revolution.
Voltaire alone, I repeat it, declared war against that coalition of all the social iniquities, against that enormous and terrible world, and he accepted battle with it.
And what was his weapon? That which has the lightness of the wind and the power of the thunder-bolt. A pen.
With that weapon he fought; with that weapon he conquered.
One of the characteristics which distinguish men of genius from ordinary minds is that they have a double reflection, just as the carbuncle, according to Jerome Cardan, differs from crystal and glass in having a double refraction….
This phenomenon of double reflection raises to the highest power in men of genius what rhetoricians call antithesis, that is to say, the sovereign faculty of seeing the two sides of things.
One of the characteristics of genius is the singular union of faculties the most distant. To draw an astragal like Ariosto, then to dive into souls like Pascal, such is the poet. Man’s inner conscience belongs to Shakespeare; he surprises you with it constantly. He extracts from conscience every unforeseen contingence that it contains. Few poets surpass him in this psychical re-search. Many of the strangest peculiarities of the human mind are indicated by him. He skilfully makes us feel the simplicity of the metaphysical fact under the complication of the dramatic fact.
A poet must at the same time, and necessarily, be an historian and a philosopher. Herodotus and Thales are included in Homer. Shakespeare, likewise, is this triple man. He is, besides, the painter, and what a painter! the colossal painter. The poet in reality does more than relate, he exhibits. Poets have in them a reflector, observation, and a condenser, emotion: thence those grand luminous spectres which burst out from their brain, and which go on blazing for ever on the gloomy human wall. These phantoms have life. To exist as much as Achilles would be the ambition of Alexander. Shakespeare has tragedy, comedy, fairyland, hymn, farce, grand divine laughter, terror and horror, and, to say all in one word, the drama. He touches the two poles. He belongs to Olympus and to the traveling booth. No possibility fails him.
The poet is only limited by his aim; he considers nothing but the idea to be worked out; he does not recognise any other sovereignty, any other necessity but the idea; for, art emanating from the absolute, in art, as in the absolute, the end justifies the means…. In art, above all, is visible the quid divinum. The poet moves in his work as providence in its own; he excites, astounds, strikes, then exalts or depresses, often in inverse ratio to what you expected, diving into your soul through surprise.
Shakespeare is fertility, force, exuberance, the over-flowing breast, the foaming cup, the brimful tub, the overrunning sap, the overflooding lava, the whirlwind scattering germs, the universal rain of life, everything by thousands, everything by millions, no reticence, no binding, no economy, the inordinate and tranquil prodigality of the creator. To those who feel the bottom of their pocket, the inexhaustible seems insane. Will it stop soon ? Never. Shakespeare is the sower of dazzling wonders. At every turn, the image; at every turn, contrast; at every turn, light and darkness.
The poet, we have said, is nature. Subtle, minute, keen, microscopical like nature; immense. Not discreet, not reserved, not sparing. Simply magnificent. Let us explain this word, simple.
Sobriety in poetry is poverty; simplicity is grandeur. To give to each thing the quantity of space which fits it, neither more nor less, is simplicity. Simplicity is justice. The whole law of taste is in that. Each thing put in its place and spoken with its own word. On the only condition that a certain latent equilibrium is maintained and a certain mysterious proportion preserved, simplicity may be found in the most stupendous complication, either in the style, or in the ensemble. These are the arcana of great art.