Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Apotheosis of Voltaire
By James Parton (18221891)
[Life of Voltaire. 1881.]
MONDAY evening, March 30th, he was to witness Irène at the theatre, after first having attended a session of the Academy. A crowd of people filled the two streets, at the corner of which the house of M. de Villette was situated. About four in the afternoon, he came out of the door, wearing the cloak of fine marten fur also given him by Catharine II., and took his place in the carriage; the body of which being blue and covered with stars, a jester in the crowd called it the Car of the Empyrean,the only word savoring of satire which reached the ears of his friends that day. The multitude, which was so dense that the coachman had great difficulty in getting a passage, gave him cheer upon cheer, and rushed after the carriage in a tumultuous body. A young man, a stranger in the city, was thrown by the crowd upon the shoulders of the patriarch, and got down, covered with powder from his wig, without having had the pleasure of seeing him. The court of the Louvre, where the Academy held its sessions, was already filled with people awaiting his arrival, who received him with cheers and clapping of hands. Even a crowd in Paris, in those days, had its sense of decorum, and shouted Vive Monsieur de Voltaire!
The Academy paid him the honor of gathering in a body to meet him in their outer hall,an honor never before conceded to any member, nor even to foreign princes invited to attend its sessions. Of the Forty, there were only twenty-one members present, including Voltaire, all the clergy being absent except two abbés, who, it was said, had nothing of their profession except its garb, and nothing to expect either from the court or the church. The patriarch was conducted to the presidents chair, and was elected, without a dissentient voice, to the next three months presidency, a distinction usually decided by lot. The essay of the occasion was a eulogy of Boileau, by DAlembert. The essayist did not deny himself the pleasure of alluding to their fellow-member, who seemed, by an absence of twenty-eight years, to have become their guest. In discoursing of the early masters of French poetry, he named Boileau, Racine, and Voltaire. I name the last, said he, although he is still living; for why should we refuse ourselves the pleasure of seeing in advance a great man in the place to which posterity destines him? He concluded an elegant passage by comparing the poetry of Boileau, correct, strong, and nervous, to the fine statue of The Gladiator; that of Racine, not less correct, but more marrowy and smooth, to the Venus de Medici; and that of Voltaire, easy, graceful, and always noble, to the Apollo Belvidere. Every allusion to Voltaire in the essay was received with enthusiastic applause, and the poet himself could not conceal his emotion. As soon as the essay was ended the company rose, and followed him to the hall where they had received him.
After a short visit to the office of DAlembert, the perpetual secretary of the Academy, time pressing, he again entered his carriage, which made its way with increased difficulty to the theatre, where he was met by the Villettes and other friends, anxious to prevent his being crushed by the crowd. The moment the carriage stopped, people climbed upon the box, and even upon the wheels, to get a nearer view. One man, as Wagnière relates, sprang over the others, upon the step, and asked to be permitted to kiss the poets hand. The man seized by mistake the hand of Madame de Villette, and said, after having kissed it, By my faith, that is a very plump hand for a man of eighty-four! The women were as excited as the men. As he passed into the theatre through a lane of ladies, very narrow and close, fair hands were thrust from it to snatch hairs from his fur cloak, worn to-day for the first time in public.
Upon his entrance the audience received him with the loudest acclamations. He made his way to the second tier, and entered the box assigned to the gentlemen of the kings chamber, which was directly opposite to that of the kings brother, the Count dArtois. Madame Denis and Belle-et-Bonne were already seated in the box, and the old man was disposed to hide himself behind them. To the front! To the front! cried the parquette; and he took his seat between the ladies, in view of a great part of the house. Another cry was distinguished: The crown! The crown! The actor Brizard, a man of grand presence, who was to play Léonce, entered the box bearing a laurel crown, which he placed on the poets head, the audience applauding with the utmost enthusiasm. Ah, Dieu! said the patriarch, you wish, then, to make me die of glory! He drew the crown from his head with modest haste and handed it to Belle-et-Bonne; upon which the crowd shouted to her to put it back. She tried to do so. He was unwilling to permit it; he resisted; he refused the homage; until, at length, the Prince de Beauvau, seizing the laurel, fastened it upon the brow of the poet, who saw that the struggle would be useless.
The scene at this moment has perhaps never been paralleled in a theatre. The whole house was upon its feet: the aisles, passages, lobbies, anterooms, all were crowded to suffocation: and even the actors, dressed to begin the play, came out in front of the curtain to join in the glorious tumult. It was observed that several ladies, unable to get a sight of him from their boxes, had ventured even into the parquette, regardless of the usage that usually excluded them. Baron Grimm mentions that he saw people in the parquette under the boxes going down upon their knees, despairing of getting a sight in any other way. The theatre was darkened by the dust caused by the movement of the excited multitude. The delirium lasted more than twenty minutes, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that silence could be restored and the performance begun.
As it was the sixth representation of the play, the audience was able to anticipate the passages most characteristic of the author, which were applauded more with reference to their Voltairean significance than their dramatic merit. When the curtain fell upon the fifth act, the tumult was renewed, and the author was about to utter a few words expressive of his gratification, when the curtain rose once more, and revealed to the spectators a striking scene. Upon a pedestal in the middle of the stage was the bust of the poet, familiar to the public as a recent addition to the lobby of the theatre. Around it, in a semicircle, the actors and actresses were ranged, each holding a garland of flowers and palm. Behind them were a number of persons who had crowded from the front of the theatre and witnessed the play from the stage, as of old; while at the back were posted the guards who had figured in the piece. This tableau had been hastily arranged, but the effect was pleasing and picturesque. The audience burst into new acclamations. Baron Grimm remarked a fact without precedent in the history of the French theatre, that not one dissentient nor derisive cry was heard amid the shouts of applause. For once, said he, envy and hate, fanaticism and intolerance, dared not murmur, except in secret, and, for the first time, perhaps, in France, public opinion was seen enjoying with éclat all its empire. Brizard, still wearing his priestly dress, was the first to place upon the bust the wreath which he carried in his hand; prophetic of the time, now not distant, when the class represented by Léonce will recognize Voltaire as their deliverer from a false position. All the company followed his example, to the sound of drums and trumpets, often drowned by the cheers of the spectators.
During this scene, the poet, abashed and confounded, had remained in the back part of his box. When all the crowns had been placed upon the head of the bust, covering it with flowers and palms, M. de Villette, in response to the universal demand of the audience, drew him forward again, and he stood for a moment bending almost to the edge of the box. Then he rose, his eyes filled with tears, and sat by the side of Belle-et-Bonne. Madame Vestris, who had played Irène, advanced to the front of the stage, holding a paper in her hand, from which she read some lines written for the occasion by the Marquis de Saint-Marc:
Aux yeux de Paris enchanté,
Reçois en ce jour un hommage
Que confirmera dâge en âge
Le sévère postérité.
Non, tu nas pas besoin datteindre au noir rivage,
These verses, well delivered by the actress, renewed the transports of the audience, who demanded their repetition. Madame Vestris recited them again. The curtain fell. A few moments after, it rose again for the performance of Voltaires comedy of Nanine, during which the bust was visible on one side of the stage. When the curtain fell for the last time, the author rose, and made his slow descent to the street between the same compact lines of ladies, all beaming and radiant with joyous emotion. As soon as he had mounted the carriage, a cry arose for torches, that the whole crowd might see him. There was so much difficulty in starting the vehicle that it was proposed to detach the horses. The coachman, however, at length contrived to begin the journey homeward, moving at a very slow pace, and followed by a multitude of excited people, crying Vive Voltaire! As soon as he had gained his own room, he was relieved by a flood of tears. If I could have foreseen, said he, that the people would have committed so many follies, I would not have gone to the theatre.