Printer Friendly

Voltaire, Ovid, and La Pucelle D'Orleans.

VOLTAIRE'S love of Latin poetry finds its fullest expression in the use he made of Virgil and Horace (Wade 23-24). Third in importance is Ovid. Here Voltaire's interest was vital and enduring, and is manifested in various ways. For one thing, his library was well stocked with Latin editions of Ovid, which give evidence of having been used (Alekseev 666). Strewn throughout his works and correspondence are numerous references to the Roman poet. No less frequent are the quotations, which are invariably in the original Latin. Voltaire's interest, moreover, went beyond brief statements, and even resulted in an essay entitled D'Ovide (1756) (Moland 20:158-66). Although he was familiar with all Ovid's major works, it was the Metamorphoses, "son admirable ouvrage," "son livre charmant," that concerned Voltaire most (Voltaire 36:371; 69:396). He entitled chapter 29 of La Philosophie de l'histoire (1764): "Des metamorphoses chez les Grecs, recueillies par Ovide," and in the article "Figure" of the Questions sur l'Encyclopedie (1771) he quotes and discusses Ovid's text (Moland 19:139-40). Quotations from the Metamorphoses occur in Voltaire's correspondence as early as 1711 and 1716 (Voltaire 85:6, 52), reflecting the excellent knowledge of Latin and of Ovid in particular that he acquired at the College Louisle-grand (1704-1711). As Theodore Besterman remarked, "Cicero and the famous historians, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Phaedrus among the poets, were taught in depth, by reading, translation, retranslation, so that the works studied became rooted in the memories of the pupils" (Besterman 38).

Given Voltaire's close familiarity with the Metamorphoses, it is surprising that Ovid has received inadequate attention in Voltaire scholarship. This is especially true in the case of Voltaire's long burlesque poem on Joan of Arc, La Pucelle d'Orleans (1730), (1) a work influenced by Ariosto among others, and in which Ovid is mentioned four times (Vercruysse 518, 520, 564). (2) What has hitherto passed unnoticed is the full extent of Ovid's influence. This is an important matter, since an understanding of Voltaire's creative imagination hinges upon knowing what parts of his work are original and what parts derive from his sources. With this knowledge we can read his work in fuller perspective. An analysis of four passages from the Pucelle will bring out the different ways in which the text of the Metamorphoses has made itself heard in the French poem.

Let us begin with a typical metamorphosis. It has been pointed out that the adventure of Agnes Sorel in the convent of Soeur Besogne (Pucelle, X, 383-427) takes its origin in book IX of the Metamorphoses (Dubled 12:308; Keyser 161-62; Vercruysse 174). Beyond the mere mention of book IX, however, nothing more has been said. No precise investigation has been undertaken and the parallel has not even been identified. In the French text, Agnes Sorel, in order to ward off evil spirits, is induced to share a bed with Soeur Besogne only to experience a "metamorphose etrange" (v. 412): Soeur Besogne turns out to be "un bachelier" (v. 398) (Vercruysse 430-31). There is indeed a parallel here with the Latin poem, according to which the girl Iphis was from birth disguised as a boy. Betrothed to the young woman Ianthe, Iphis was, in answer to her mother's prayer, changed by the goddess Isis into a young man, and duly married Ianthe (Metamorphoses, IX, 666-797). Voltaire was familiar with the story of Iphis, and even refers to it in his article "Heureux" (1758) in the Encyclopedie (Voltaire 33:160). What he offers in the Pucelle is basically the same story as Ovid (one of two women becomes a man), under a new aspect.

What seems to have passed unnoticed, however, is three similar stories of a mutation of sex. In book III of the Metamorphoses (vv. 322-31) Ovid relates how the Theban seer Tiresias was transformed for seven years into a woman and then became once more a man--a story to which Voltaire again refers in his article "Heureux" in the Encyclopedie (Voltaire 33:160). In book XII of the Metamorphoses (vv. 169-209) Ovid recounts the tale of Caenis, a woman from Thessaly, who upon her request was changed by Neptune into the man Caeneus. Again, in book XIV (vv. 623-97, 765-71), he depicts the young god Vertumnus, who wooed the beautiful wood-nymph Pomona in the disguise of an old woman. Vertumnus then so dazzled her by his true appearance that she submitted to him. It would be fair to say that Voltaire's account of Soeur Besogne and the "metamorphose etrange" was influenced to some extent at least by his familiarity with all four of these stories. His treatment of his subject, however, is entirely his own.

Another example of Voltaire's indebtedness involves a striking image. Canto XXI of the Pucelle opens with the image of Cupid's two quivers, the first filled with arrows that produce a gentle, tender love, the second with arrows that result in a violent love, akin to rage:
 Mon cher lecteur sait par experience
 Que ce beau dieu qu'on nous peint dans l'enfance
 Et dont les jeux ne sont pas jeux d'enfants,
 A deux carquois tout a fait differents.
 L'un a des traits dont la douce piqure
 Se fait sentir sans danger, sans douleur,
 Croit par le temps, penetre au fond du coeur
 Et vous y laisse une vive blessure.
 Les autres traits sont un feu devorant
 Dont le coup part et brule au meme instant.
 Dans les cinq sens ils portent le ravage,
 Un rouge vif allume le visage,
 D'un nouvel etre on se croit anime,
 D'un nouveau sang le corps est enflamme,
 On n'entend rien, le regard etincelle.
 (Voltaire 7:573, vv. 1-15) (3)

This image is functionally integrated into the poem, since Dunois, who eventually robs Joan of her chastity, was struck by an arrow from the first quiver:
 ... ce heros, ce sublime Dunois
 Etait blesse d'une fleche doree
 Qu'amour tira de son premier carquois.
 (Voltaire 7:575, vv. 56-58)

What has been overlooked or misunderstood by editors of the Pucelle is that this image of the quiver(s) and arrows comes from book I of Ovid's Metamorphoses. (4) The Latin poet supplied the image ready to hand. He explains that Cupid took from his quiver two darts of opposite effect: the one, which kindles the flame of love, is of gold and has a sharp, gleaming point; the other, which puts to flight, is blunt and tipped with lead:
 eque sagittifera prompsit duo tela pharetra
 diversorum operum: fugat hoc, facit illud amorem;
 quod facit, auratum est et cuspide fulget acuta,
 quod fugat, obtusum est et habet sub harundine plumbum.
 (Ovid 1:34, vv. 468-71)

Voltaire adapted this image to his own use, suppressing some of Ovid's details and introducing some of his own, but retaining intact the basic image. One detail has particular significance. We note from the description of Dunois, quoted above, that Voltaire picks up Ovid's idea of the gold arrow from the first quiver ("une fleche doree," v. 57).

What is more, Voltaire comments on this image at length, confirming the fact that it was obviously his source. In his article "Figure" in the Questions sur l'Encyclopedie (1771) he reminds us of the Greek myth according to which Daphne, pursued by Apollo, was changed into a laurel tree, and relates it to the two arrows of opposite persuasion:

Apollon aime Daphne, et Daphne n'aime point Apollon: c'est que l'amour a deux especes de fleches, les unes d'or et percantes, et les autres de plomb et ecachees. Apollon a recu dans le coeur une fleche d'or, Daphne une de plomb. (Voltaire 19:139)

He then cites the four lines from Ovid, quoted above, and produces the following free translation:
 Fatal Amour, tes traits sont differents:
 Les uns sont d'or, ils sont doux et percants,
 Ils font qu'on aime; et d'autres au contraire
 Sont d'un vil plomb qui rend froid et severe.
 (Voltaire 19:140)

"Toutes ces figures sont ingenieuses," he continues. This image, with its concrete, picturesque details, impressed him and became lodged in his remarkable memory. (5) He used it again to good effect in the opening scene of his comedy Nanine (1749) (Voltaire 31B:78).

Another Ovidian influence is of a more general nature. Near the beginning of canto III of the Pucelle occurs a long satirical excursus purporting to be a description of the Palace of Folly, the "palais de la Sottise" (vv. 50-228). The setting is that of a vast, cavernous region, cold and dimly lit:
 Devers la lune ou l'on tient que jadis
 Etait place des fous le paradis,
 Sur les confins de cet abime immense,
 Ou le chaos, et l'Erebe, et la nuit
 Avant les temps de l'univers produit
 Ont exerce leur aveugle puissance,
 Il est un vaste et caverneux sejour
 Peu caresse des doux rayons du jour,
 Et qui n'a rien qu'une lumiere affreuse,
 Froide, tremblante, incertaine et trompeuse:
 Pour toute etoile, on a des feux folets,
 L'air est peuple de petits farfadets.
 De ce pays la reine est la Sottise.
 (Voltaire 7:300-01, vv. 50-62)

It has never been pointed out that this gloomy description is the product of a literary tradition, and has a number of general sources which have been absorbed into the texture of the passage. Almost all of them share with Voltaire's text the idea of a cave. One recalls the vast cavern of the Cumaean sibyl in book VI of Virgil's Aeneid (vv. 236-81), the cave of Envy and the depiction of the underworld in Ovid's Metamorphoses (II, 760-64, IV, 432-63), Astolfo's entering hell by means of a mountain cave in Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1532) (XXXIV, 6-7), Satan's alighting on the outer edge of our universe, the future Paradise of Fools in Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) (III, 418-30), the cave of the sibyl Chicanery in

Boileau's Le Lutrin (1674, 1683) (V, 39-50), the cave of Acherontia in Fenelon's Telemaque (1699), beginning of book XIV, and the cave of Spleen in Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1714) (IV, 13-24). To these composite sources, with all of which Voltaire was familiar, we may add the description of hell in his epic poem La Henriade (c. 1716) (VII, 127-44). It is in these texts that Voltaire finds his background ready-made; they provide the essential elements of his description. Ovid's depiction of the cave of Envy may be quoted, since in its evocative terms and conformity of tone it anticipates at least as well as the others the atmosphere of our passage. The cave is situated in a deep valley, where no sun shines and no breeze blows; it is a gruesome place, full of a numbing cold and wrapped in a thick mist:
 protinus Invidiae nigro squalentia tabo
 tecta petit: domus est imis in vallibus huius
 abdita, sole carens, non ulli pervia vento,
 tristis et ignavi plenissima frigoris et quae
 igne vacet semper, caligine semper abundet.
 (Ovid 1:112, vv. 760-64)

Despite the general nature of this influence, there are two indications that Voltaire may well have had the Metamorphoses in mind in connection with his description. He speaks in line 53, above, of "le chaos, et l'Erebe, et la nuit," and Ovid, in book XIV of the Metamorphoses, uses these same three terms in the same line: Circe summoned to her aid Night and the gods of Night from Erebus and Chaos: "et Noctem Noctisque deos Ereboque Chaoque / convocat" (Ovid 2:328, vv. 404-05). In Voltaire's next line "le chaos" is said to have exercised its blind power "Avant les temps de l'univers produit" (v. 54)--a line which recalls Ovid's phrase "in chaos antiquum" from the same book of the Metamorphoses (book II) in which our quoted passage occurs (Ovid 1:80, v. 299). Moreover, as O. R. Taylor has pointed out, Voltaire, with Ovid's poem in mind, used the phrase "l'antique chaos" in the afore-mentioned description of hell in book VII of the Henriade (Voltaire 2:517, v. 130). (6) Such links increase the importance of Ovid's passage as a general influence on Voltaire's description of the "palais de la Sottise."

Whereas Ovid's influence on the Palace of Folly is general, the influence of his Palace of Fame on Voltaire's "palais de la Renommee" is specific. The occupant of Voltaire's palace, the goddess La Renommee, corresponds to the resident of Ovid's palace, the personification Fama, which in Latin can mean fame or rumor. The settings of the two palaces are remarkably similar. Here is Voltaire's passage, interposed between two narrations in canto VI of the Pucelle:
 Au haut des airs ou les Alpes chenues
 Portent leur tete et divisent les nues,
 Vers ce rocher fendu par Annibal,
 Fameux passage aux Romains si fatal,
 Qui voit le ciel s'arrondir sur sa tete
 Et sous ses pieds se former la tempete,
 Est un palais de marbre transparent,
 Sans toit ni porte, ouvert a tout venant.
 Tous les dedans sont des glaces fideles,
 Si que chacun qui passe devant elles,
 Ou belle ou laide, ou jeune homme ou barbon
 Peut se mirer tant qu'il lui semble bon.
 Mille chemins menent devers l'empire
 De ces beaux lieux ou si bien l'on se mire.
 (Voltaire 7:368-69, vv. 293-306)

We see that the tone and mood of the Pucelle have changed. Producing this change is Ovid's description, inserted into an account of the beginning of the Trojan war in book XII of the Metamorphoses:
 Orbe locus medio est inter terrasque fretumque
 caelestesque plagas, triplicis confinia mundi;
 unde quod est usquam, quamvis regionibus absit,
 inspicitur, penetratque cavas vox omnis ad aures:
 Fama tenet summaque domum sibi legit in arce,
 innumerosque aditus ac mille foramina tectis
 addidit et nullis inclusit limina portis;
 nocte dieque patet; tota est ex aere sonanti,
 tota fremit vocesque refert iteratque quod audit;
 atria turba tenet: veniunt, leve vulgus, euntque
 mixtaque cum veris passim commenta vagantur
 milia rumorum confusaque verba volutant;
 (Ovid 2:182, 184, vv. 39-47, 53-55)

This passage is of special note: for one thing, the depiction is original with Ovid (Ovidio 1400-02) (7) and was not, one might add, transmitted to Voltaire through an intermediary. Furthermore it seems to have been overlooked by scholars and editors alike. An analysis will bring out the marked resemblance between the French and Latin texts; it will show how ideas and phrases echo one another, how their sequence is similar, and how Voltaire transformed his material into his own poem.

The outline of Voltaire's description is patterned on the similar scene in Ovid. Both palaces are situated in a unique place, where mountain height and the sky are emphasized. Voltaire's palace is "Au haut des airs" (v. 293), where the Alps "divisent les nues" (v. 294), and from which one sees the sky "s'arrondir sur sa tete" (v. 297). Similarly Ovid's palace is at the central point of the world ("Orbe locus medio," v. 39), between land, sea and sky ("inter terrasque fretumque / caelestesque plagas," vv. 39-40), upon a high mountaintop ("summaque ... in arce," v. 43). Both palaces are readily accessible. A thousand paths ("Mille chemins," v. 305) lead to Voltaire's palace; Ovid's house has countless approaches ("innumerosque aditus") and a thousand apertures ("mille foramina tectis," v. 44). In keeping with this accessibility, both palaces are without doors: "ni porte" in Voltaire's text (v. 300) echoes "nullis ... portis" in Ovid (v. 45). Voltaire's palace is indeed open to all ("ouvert a tout venant," v. 300); likewise Ovid's house stands open day and night ("nocte dieque patet," v. 46). Also similar is the construction of the buildings. Voltaire's palace is of transparent marble ("de marbre transparent," v. 299) and covered with mirrors: "Tous les dedans sont des glaces fideles" (v. 301). In like manner Ovid's house is built all of echoing bronze ("tota est ex aere sonanti," v. 46). Here, in fact, is a parallel with Voltaire's mirrors, for it will be recalled that in Roman times mirrors were commonly made of bronze. The Latin poet stresses this idea of duplication: the whole place, he tells us, doubles what it hears (v. 47).

At this point Voltaire begins to repeat Ovid's ideas, if not his language. Similar are the two main occupants of the palaces. Both are communicative and omniscient. Voltaire's La Renommee is "cette vieille et bavarde deesse," "Qui [sait] tout et qui [parle] sans cesse" (vv. 314, 327). Fama, Ovid reports, "beholds all that is done in heaven, on sea and land, and searches throughout the world for news" (vv. 62-63). Both palaces moreover are much frequented. "Chacun y court," writes Voltaire, "et tandis que l'un grimpe, / Il en est cent qui se cassent le cou" (vv. 311-12). La Renommee is surrounded by courtiers, princes, pedants, warriors, and the devout (vv. 322-23), "Cohorte vaine et de vent enivree" (v. 324). In similar fashion Ovid observes that "Crowds fill the hall, shifting throngs come and go, and everywhere wander thousands of rumours" (vv. 53-55). Finally, both accounts conclude in the same way, with lists of negative human traits. Voltaire mentions several of his betes noires (vv. 344, 346), and comments on their "ardeurs indiscretes" (v. 329), their bigotry (v. 345), their fraudulence (v. 346), their venality and mendacity ("Qui vend sa plume et ment pour de l'argent," v. 347), their opprobrium ("ces marchands d'opprobre et de fumee," "Couverts de fange," vv. 348, 350), and their vanity (v. 350). Likewise the attendants of Ovid's deity include Credulity, heedless Error (v. 59), unfounded Joy, panic Fear (v. 60), sudden Sedition, and unauthentic Whisperings (v. 61). So many resemblances between two short descriptions could hardly be fortuitous. The voice of Ovid is umistakable.

It remains for us to try to explain why Voltaire turned to Ovid. In writing the Pucelle he would have recalled the Metamorphoses by reason of the form of his poem, its themes and narrative technique, and its philosophic import. The last three Latin passages we have considered are set-piece descriptions; they stand out from their contexts, could readily be recalled, and obviously agreed with Voltaire's imagination and taste. In their detachable nature they could easily be fitted into the loose structure of the Pucelle, and in each case the French passage is completely in key with its Latin counterpart. Both Voltaire and Ovid moreover were master storytellers. The lively narrative element of the Pucelle, the wit and humor, the many digressions, the graphic descriptions, the appeal to the reader's fancy and imagination, the numerous surprises and sudden changes of fortune would have brought to mind a work which sees life as a constant series of transmutations. Indeed, the diversity of episodes in the Pucelle is analogous to the variety of the metamorphoses recounted by Ovid. What is more, Voltaire used the Pucelle as a vehicle for his philosophic propaganda--a feature which would again have recalled the Metamorphoses, for he often drew parallels between the miracles of the Bible and the miraculous transformations recounted by Ovid. In this connection the "honnete homme" of the philosophical dialogue Catechisme de l'honnete homme (1763) speaks, in reference to the Bible, of "ce nombre prodigieux de fables qui semblent toutes plus absurdes que les Metamorphoses d'Ovide" (Moland 24:526). (8) Ovid was indeed a congenial author for Voltaire. It is thus no mystery that he drew upon the Metamorphoses, adapting certain passages to his own purpose and in so doing enhancing both the thought content and the poetic content of his burlesque poem. Oddly enough, Ovid has never been included among the classical sources of the Pucelle (Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Apuleius) (Vercruysse 159-60). For that matter, he has hardly been mentioned at all in any source study of the poem --a surprising fact since the congruity of the passages we have juxtaposed speaks for itself. Perhaps scholars have been so absorbed by the major influence of Ariosto as to have overlooked the Latin poem. (9) It would be fair to conclude that Ovid ought to be recorded as a noteworthy source of Voltaire's La Pucelle d'Orleans, which now can be read with a fuller appreciation of its Latin element.



Alekseev, M. P. and T. K. Kopreeva, eds. Bibliotheque de Voltaire. Catalogue des livres. Moscow and Leningrad: Editions de l'Academie des Sciences de l'URSS, 1961.

Besterman, Theodore. Voltaire. Third edition. Chicago: U of Chicago P / Oxford: Blackwell, 1976.

Dubled, J. "L'Orlando furioso et la Pucelle de Voltaire," Bulletin italien, 11 (1911), 287-315; 12 (1912), 50-73, 299-303; 13 (1913), 37-47.

Keyser, Sijbrand. Contribution a l'etude de la fortune litteraire de l'Arioste en France. Leiden: Dubbeldeman, 1933.

Longchamp, S. G. and J. L. Wagniere. Memoires sur Voltaire, et sur ses ouvrages. 2 vols. Paris: Aime Andre, 1826.

Moland, Louis, ed. Oeuvres completes de Voltaire. 52 vols. Paris: Garnier, 1877-85.

Ovid. Metamorphoses, with an English translation by Frank Justus Miller. Third edition. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP / London: Heinemann, 1977.

Ovidio. Opere, edizione con testo a fronto, traduzione di Guido Paduano, introduzione di Alessandro Perutelli, commento di Luigi Galasso. Turin: Einaudi, 2000. Vol. 2.

Tsien, Jennifer. Voltaire and the Temple of Bad Taste: a Study of "La Pucelle d'Orleans," in SVEC 2003:05.

Vercruysse, Jeroom, ed. Voltaire, La Pucelle d'Orleans. Vol. 7 of Les Oeuvres completes de Voltaire. Geneva: Institut et musee Voltaire, 1970.

Voltaire, Francois Marie Arouet de. Les Oeuvres completes de Voltaire. Ed. Theodore Besterman et al. 135 vols. Geneva: Institut et musee Voltaire / Toronto: U of Toronto P / Banbury: The Voltaire Foundation / Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1968- .

Wade, Ira O. The Intellectual Development of Voltaire. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.

(1) Voltaire began writing the Pucelle in 1730 and worked on it over the next thirty years (Vercruysse 13-21).

(2) On the sources of the poem, historical, topical, and literary, see Vercruysse 152-76; on the present state of research on the Pucelle, see Tsien 300-01.

(3) Voltaire was fond of this passage and repeats it in the long variant to his poem known as the Chant de Corisandre (Voltaire 7:602-03).

(4) Vercruysse, in his critical edition, overlooks the image completely (573); Moland misunderstood the Latin passage, if he read it at all, stating briefly that Ovid speaks only of arrows and not of a quiver (9:326); cf. pharetra, above, v. 468.

(5) His secretary Wagniere wrote: "La memoire de M. de Voltaire etait prodigieuse. Il m'a dit cent fois: Voyez dans tel ouvrage, dans tel volume, a peu pres a telle page, s'il n'y a pas telle chose? et il arrivait rarement qu'il se trompat, quoiqu'il n'eut pas ouvert le livre depuis douze ou quinze ans" (Longchamp 1:53). See also Voltaire 81:268, note 3, and 103:218.

(6) Again, in Le Philosophe ignorant (1766), sec. XIV, Voltaire writes: "Le Chaos n'a jamais ete que dans nos tetes, et n'a servi qu'a faire composer de beaux vers a Hesiode et a Ovide" (Voltaire 62:48).

(7) Quite different is Virgil's depiction of the goddess Rumor (Aeneid, IV, 173-97).

(8) See also Voltaire 36:371-72; 62:230; and 81-82:174-75, 523-24.

(9) Vercruysse writes apropos of the Orlando furioso: "l'influence du poeme italien est importante, abondante: il est vraiment la source la plus importante du poeme de Voltaire" (Voltaire 7:173).
COPYRIGHT 2004 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Romance Languages
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Nablow, Ralph A.
Publication:Romance Notes
Date:Sep 22, 2004
Previous Article:Hamartia in Cervantes' La Numancia.
Next Article:The duality of the male other in the poetry of Avellaneda: aspects of his nature and utility.

Related Articles
Goran V. Stanivukovic, ed. Ovid and the Renaissance Body.
Metamorphosis: The Changing Face of Ovid in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.
Voltaire's satire on Frederick the Great: Candide, his Pothumous Memoires, Scarmendado, and Les Questions sur l'Encyclopedie.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |