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I. KNow then thyself, presume not God to scan, | The proper study of Mankind is Man.
VARIATIONS. Ver. 2. Ed. 1st,
The only science of Mankind is Man.
Ver. I. Know then thyself.] Not content with the fame acquired by writing those fine tragedies, Zaire, Alzire, Merope, and Mahomet, Voltaire must needs descend to didactic poetry; for a descent it is ; out of an ambition to be a universal genius; and produced, in emulation of Pope, five Discourses on Man: the first is, on the Equality of Happiness in the different Conditions of Man ; the second, on the Freedom of man; the third, on the Mischiefs of Envy, and that it is the chief Obstacle to our Happiness; the fourth, to shew that, to be Happy, we must be moderate in all Things; the fifth, that Pleasure must proceed from God; the sixth, that Perfect Happiness cannot be attained in this Life, and that Men ought not to complain; the seventh and last is, to shew that Virtue chiefly consists in Acts of Beneficence to our Fellow-creatures. A close resemblance is visible in the following lines of the sixth discourse to the Essay on Man. Ep. i. v. 173.
“ Un vieux Lettre Chinois, quitoujours sur les bancs
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
Pourquoi suis-je en un jour si las de ses attraits?
Though there are many sensible and sprightly passages in these discourses, yet their inferiority to Pope is indisputable. As much as we may lament and reprobate the loose and libertine principles wantonly'scattered up and down in the writings of Voltaire, yet is it impossible not to admire the fertility of his genius, the brilliancy of his wit, and the variety of his talents P It is vain to think it possible to destroy and depreciate the man who, with such an unparalleled versatility of mind, could produce, not only thetragedies just mentioned, and some parts of the Henriade, but Comic Fales, a certain Mock-Heroic Poem, and Familiar Epistles in verse, equal to the facility and naiveté of La Fontaine; as well as such histories as that of Charles XII. Louis XIV. and the Essay on General History; which last work has had the great merit of giving a new turn to historical compositions, and carrying them from accounts of battles, and sieges, and negotiations alone, to investigations of the progress of manners, laws, and arts; and this in a style of marvellous perspicuity and precision: so that his prose is quite equal to his verse, perhaps superior. They who are fond of attributing the disorders and enormities in France to the influence of Voltaire's writings, ought in common justice to be reminded, that even in one of his most exceptionable works, the Dictionnaire Philosophique, are various passages, strongly pointed, against Atheism, Equality, and Democracy, and the very impious tenets of the Systeme de la Nature,
Ver. 3. on this isthmus] From Cowley, in the Ode on Life and Fame. As also line 205, in the 4th Epistle,
To Kings, or to the Favourites of Kings.
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
The glory, jest, and riddle, of the world !
Ver, 11. Alike in ignorance, &c.] i. e. The proper sphere of his reason is so narrow, and the exercise of it so nice, that the too immoderate use of it is attended with the same ignorance that proceeds from the not using it at all. Yet though, in both these cases, he is abused by himself, he has it still in his own power to disabuse himself, in making his passions subservient to the means, and regulating his Reason by the end of life. W.
Ver. 12. Whether he thinks too little, It was observed by Bayle above a hundred years ago, “that philosophy might be compared to certain powders, so very corrosive, that, having consumed the proud and spongy flesh of a wound, they would corrode even the quick and sound flesh, rot the bones, and penetrate to the very marrow. Philosophy is proper at first to confute errors, but if she be not stopped there, she attacks truth itself; and, when she has her full scope, she generally goes sofar that she loses herself, and knows not where to stop.” What would Bayle have said if he had seen the uses to which philosophy basibeen applied in the present times?
Go, wondrous creature mount where Science. guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides; 20
Observe how near he edges on our race;
Ver. 21. Ed. 4th and 5th.
Ver. 20. Go, measure earth, &c.] Alluding to the noble and useful labours of the modern Mathematicians, in measuring a degree at the equator and the polar circle, in order to determine the true figure of the earth; of great importance to astronomy and navigation; and which proved of equal honour to the wonderful sagacity of Newton. W.
Ver. 22. Correct old Time, &c.] This alludes to Newton's Grecian Chronology, which he reformed on those two sublime conceptions, the difference between the reigns of kings, and the generations of men; and the position of the colours of the equinoxes and solstices at the time of the Argonautic expedition. W.
As eastern priests in giddy circles run,
Ver. 29, 30. Go, teach Eternal Wisdom, &c.] These two lines are a conclusion from all that had been said from Ver. 18 to this effect: Go now, vain Man, elated with thy acquirements in real science, and imaginary intimacy with God; go, and run into all the extravagances I have exploded in the first epistle, where thou pretendest to teach Providence how to govern; then drop into the obscurities of thy own nature, and thereby manifest thy ignorance and folly. W.
Wer. 31. Superior Beings, &c.] In these lines the Poet speaks to this effect: “But to make you fully sensible of the difficulty of . this study, I shall instance in the great Newton himself; whom, when superior beings, not long since, saw capable of unfolding the whole law of Nature, they were in doubt whether the owner of such prodigious sagacity should not be reckoned of their order; just as men, when they see the surprising marks of Reason in an Ape, are almost tempted to rank him with their own kind.” And yet this wondrous Man could go no farther in the knowledge of himself than the generality of his species. M. Du Resnel, who understood nothing of all this, translates these four celebrated lines thus,
“Des celestes Esprits la vive intelligence
But it is not the pity, but the admiration, of those celestial Spirits which is here spoken of And it was for no slight cause they admired; it was to see a mortal man unfold the whole law of Nature. By which we see it was not Mr. Pope's intention to bring any of the Ape's qualities, but its sagacity, into the comparison. W. .