ADVANTAGES

The volume closes with the famous poem which Voltaire wrote, in the year 1755, when he heard that an earthquake had destroyed between 30,000 and 40,000 people in Portugal. It was one of the chief festivals of the Catholic year, the Feast of All Saints (November 1), and the crowded churches were in the very act of worship, when the ground shook. In a few minutes 16,000 men, women, and children were slain, and as many more perished in the subsequent fires and horrors. Voltaire was at Geneva, and the horrible news threw him into the deepest distress. The poem into which he condensed his pain and his doubts is not a leisurely and polished piece of art. It has technical defects, and is unequal in inspiration. Should we admire it if it were otherwise? But it is a fine monument to his sincerity and just human passion, and it contains some phrases that became proverbial and some passages of great beauty. I have altered the structure of the verse—the original is in rhymed hexameters—only in order that I could more faithfully convey to those who read only English the sentiments and, as far as possible, the phrasing of Voltaire. One allusion that recurs throughout needs some explanation. Browning’s “All’s right with the world” was a very familiar cry in the eighteenth century. The English Deists, and J. J. Rousseau in France, held obstinately to this most singular optimism. Although Rousseau made a feeble and friendly reply to the poem, it proved a deadly blow to his somewhat fantastic teaching on that point.

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