Voltaire's School Days

THE boy remained at home three years after his mother’s death, with his father, sister, and elder brother, instructed in a desultory way by the Abbé Châteauneuf. The family lived liberally and with some elegance, enjoying, as documents attest, a large garden, a summer residence in a suburban village, with a farm adjacent, horses, vehicles, books, an ample income, consideration, and a circle of agreeable friends, whom these alone never command. " I wrote verses from my cradle,” Voltaire remarks more than once, and Duvernet adds that Armand Arouet also wrote them, even while both were boys at home. The family, he says, used to amuse themselves by pitting the brothers against one another in verse-making, and the verses of the younger were so good as at first to please and afterwards to alarm his father, who was a man of judgment, and dreaded the development of so unprofitable a talent.

Maitre Arouet, like a true French father, had a scheme of life for each of his sons. The elder, as a matter of course, would follow his father’s business of notary, and succeed by inheritance to his father’s offices. For his younger son he cherished more ambitious views : he designed to make a solicitor or an advocate of him. A notary, in such practice as he enjoyed, would be almost a sufficient patron to a young advocate, and it would be both convenient and advantageous to have a lawyer in the family. We still hear of solicitors in London, in large practice, bringing up a son or a nephew as a barrister, because it is solicitors who choose barristers for their clients. There were also places open to the legal profession in France, procurable by purchase, by interest, or by a blending of the two, which led to the higher magistracy, if not to the court and cabinet of the king.

This father, it is evident, had set his heart upon seeing his younger son enter a career in which he could push him on to fortune with advantage to himself; and to this end he took precisely the course which an opulent father of his rank would adopt at the present time: he sent him to the great school of the day, — the Eton of France, — the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, attended then by two thousand boys of the most distinguished families in the kingdom. This school, which still exists upon its ancient site in the Rue St. Jacques, in the heart of old Paris, presented almost every attraction which could weigh with a fond or an ambitious parent. The Jesuits were in the highest credit with king, court, and hierarchy, and this school was among their most cherished and important institutions. Years before, when Louis XIV. visited it in state to witness a play performed by the pupils, he let fall an expression which gave it the name it bore, and brought it into the highest fashion. A spectator said, “Everything is admirable here.” The king, hearing the remark, responded, “ Certainly, it is my college.” The next morning, before the dawn of day, the old name of “ College of Clermont ” had disappeared from the gate-way, and in its stead was placed a new name, “ Collège Louis-le-Grand.”

The urbane aud scholarly Jesuits held this king in firm possession. That plainspoken lady, Madame, mother of the Regent, tells us in her Memoirs that the priests had made the king believe all men damned except those whom Jesuits had instructed. If any one about the court, she adds, wished to ruin a man, he had only to call him a Huguenot or a Jansenist, and his business was done. Her son, the Duke of Orleans, desired to take a gentleman into his service who had been accused of Jansenism. “ Why, nephew,” said the king, “do you think of such a thing as receiving a Jansenist into your service ? ” The prince replied, “ I can positively assure your majesty that he is no Jansenist. It is rather to be feared that he does not even believe in God.” “ Oh,” said the king, “if that’s all, and you give me your word he’s no Jansenist, take him.” It is doubtful if Maitre Arouet thought better of the Jansenists than the king, since his son Armand had come from their teaching a narrow and cheerless devotee.

It was in the autumn of 1704, a few weeks after the battle of Blenheim, that François-Marie Arouet, aged ten years, was placed in this famous school. His home was within an easy walk of the miscellaneous aggregation of buildings belonging to the college in the Rue St. Jacques, on the southern side of the Seine; but his father, left a widower three years before, had given away his only daughter in marriage, and therefore entered his son among the boarders, five hundred in number.

The child was not turned loose among this great crowd of boys, to make his way as best he could. There were privileges which wealth could buy, and Maitre Arouet provided for his son one of the most valuable of these. The price of board and tuition was four hundred francs ayear ; which entitled the pupil to no special care or comfort. A prince, or indeed any man who chose to pay the extra cost, could establish his son in a private room, and provide him with a servant and tutor; and there were usually thirty or forty boys in the college thus favored. The private rooms were in such request that it was necessary to speak for one of them years be fore it was wanted. There were thirty or forty larger rooms for groups of five, six, or seven pupils, each group under the care of a préfet, a priest who served them as father and tutor, aiding them in their lessons, and keeping them from harm. It was in one of these groups that Maitre Arouet placed his child, under the tutelage of Father Thoulier, a young priest (twenty-two in 1704) of noted family and attainments. What better could a generous father do for a promising, motherless boy of ten in the Paris of 1704? Clad in a scholar’s modest frock and cap, brown-haired, bright-eyed, not robust, already practiced in gay mockery of things revered, François Arouet took his place in that swarm of French boys of the Collège Louis-le-Grand. There he remained for seven years, and it was his only school.

We must think of it simply as a boy’s school, not a college ; a humming, bustling hive of boys, given to mischief, and liable to the most primitive punishments when detected in the same. It was while Voltaire was a pupil that the Duke de Boufflers and the Marquis d’Argenson conspired with other boys to blow a pop-gun volley of peas at the nose of the unpopular professor, Father Lejay, and were condemned to be flogged for the outrage. The marquis, a boy of seventeen, the son of a king’s minister, managed to escape; but the younger duke, though he was named “ Governor of Flanders,” and colonel of a regiment, was obliged to submit to the punishment. The discipline, however, was far from being severe, and there was evidently a friendly sympathy between pupils and teachers, which in the case of Voltaire survived school-days.

In no important particular did this school differ from a Jesuit school of the present moment, such as we may visit in Rome, Vienna, Montreal, New York. Sixty years after leaving it, Voltaire recalled to mind the picture, twelve feet square, which adorned one of its halls, of St. Ignatius and St. Xavier going to heaven in a resplendent chariot drawn by four white horses, the Father Eternal visible on high, wearing a beautiful white beard flowing to his waist, the V irgin and her Son by his side, the Holy Spirit beneath in the form of a dove, and a choir of angels waiting with joined hands and bowed heads to receive the illustrious fathers of the order. he remembered, too, that if any one in France had presumed to ridicule this childish legend, the reverend Père la Chaise, confessor of the king, would have had the scoffer in the Bastille with promptitude. Just such pictures still hang in many a school, and the general view of the universe intended to be inculcated by them is not materially changed. But the Bastille is gone, and the power of Père la Chaise is diminished.

The boy took his place in the lowest class, the sixth, and began his Rosa, la Rose, in the crabbed old Rudimenta of Despautères, written in Latin, and stuffed with needless difficulties of the good old - fashioned kind. At many schools a better book was used, written in French, and every way more suitable ; but no Jesuit of that generation would adopt it because it was written by the Fathers of Port Royal, odious Jansenists ! In Greek he was given a little book of easy sentences, by Jean Stobée, a compiler who lived in the fourth century ; and this was followed, in his second year, by a selection of Æsop’s Fables. Early in the course he was set to reading the Latin poems of Father Commire, who put into such hexameters as he could command the stories of Jonah, Daniel, and the Immaculate Conception, for the edification of youth ; also, some pompous eulogies of the Virgin Mary. And so he worked his way up through all the classes, meeting every day similar incongruities, at the recollection of which he laughed all his life : Epictetus one hour, and St. Basil’s Homilies the next; now Lucian. now St. Chrysostom ; Virgil in the morning, Commire in the afternoon ; Cicero alternating with Father Lejay’s Latin Life of Joseph ; Sallust followed by a Psalm of David, in what he calls “kitchen Latin;” the college course being that wondrous mixture of the two Romes — Cicero’s Rome and the Pope’s Rome, both imperial — which for ages constituted polite education. The teachers were amiable and worthy gentlemen, who did the best they knew for their pupils. It merely happened that they now had a pupil in whom the ingredients would not mix.

The most gifted boy, in the most favorable circumstances, can only make a fair beginning of education from ten to seventeen. Voltaire, at the end of his course, could not have entered such universities as Oxford, Cambridge, Berlin, and Harvard are now. He may have had Latin enough, but not half enough Greek ; no modern language but his own ; scarcely any tincture of mathematics ; no modern history ; no science ; not even a tolerable outline of geography . The school-books still held to the ancient theory that rivers were formed by the ocean running into deep caverns under the mountains ; and if any of the fathers had yet heard of the new astronomy of Professor Isaac Newton (adopted at Oxford in 1704, Voltaire’s first year at school), they had heard of it only to reject it as heresy. He did not learn the most remarkable events even of French history, unless he learned them out of class. “ I did not,” he intimates, “ know that Francis I. was taken prisoner at Pavia, nor where Pavia was ; the very land of my birth was unknown to me. I knew neither the constitution nor the interests of my country; not a word of mathematics, not a word of sound philosophy. I learned Latin and nonsense.”

We have a work upon education by Jouvency, a Jesuit father of that generation, in which no mention is made of geography, history, mathematics, or science. Much Latin, a little Greek, and plenty of what Voltaire called nonsense (sottises) made up the mental diet of the pupils of the Collège Louis-le-Grand.

The main strength of the worthy fathers was expended in teaching their pupils to use words with effect and grace. The nonsense (les sottises) was a necessity of their time and vocation. Grave and learned men could still gravely and learnedly discourse upon the grades of angels, the precise difference between a “ throne ” and a “ dominion,” the language employed by Adam and Eve, the parents of Melchisedech, and the spot whence Enoch had been translated to heaven. Boys could not escape such sottises; but in a fashionable school of the learned and courtly Jesuits they were taught with more of formality and routine than among Jansenist orders, who were rude enough to take such things seriously.

Literary skill was what this boy acquired at school, and scarcely any other good thing. He studied and loved Virgil, his “ idol and master.” He studied and loved Horace, the model of much of his maturest verse. He loved to recall, in later years, the happy hour when, as a school-boy, he came upon that passage of Cicero’s oration on behalf of the poet Archias, which has been a favorite sentence with school-boys for many a century : “ Studies nourish youth, cheer old age, adorn prosperity, console adversity, delight at home, are no impediment abroad, remain with us through the night, accompany us when we travel, and go with us into the country.” In a letter to Madame du Châtelet, written in the first warmth of their affection, he speaks of having often repeated to her those words, which, he says, he early adopted as his own. He speaks more than once, in his letters, of his boyish sensibility to the charms of poetry,— his first passion and his last. Hebrew he mentions having tried in vain to learn. In a letter of 1767, in repudiating the doctrine of the natural equality of minds, he adduces his own incapacities: “ As early as my twelfth year I was aware of the prodigious number of things for which I had no talent. I knew that my organism was not formed to go very far in mathematics. I have proved that I have no capacity for music. God has said to each man, Thus far shall thou go, and no farther. I had some natural power to acquire modern languages ; none for the Oriental. We cannot all do all things.”

His teachers seemed chosen to nourish his reigning tastes. Father Thoulier, his tutor, known afterwards as Abbé d’Olivet, was one of the most enthusiastic and accomplished Latinists in Europe, his translations of Cicero remaining classic to this day in France. He spent a long life in the study of Roman literature, his love for which had originally drawn him into the order, against the wishes of his family. “ Read Cicero ! Read Cicero ! ” he exclaimed in a public address ; and these words, as one of his biographers remarks, were the moral of his life. He could almost have added, “ Read nothing but Cicero ! ” He was a familiar, genial teacher, whom Voltaire, half a century later, used to address as “my dear Cicero ; ” and the abbé would return the compliment by telling his pupil that he was tired of men, and passed his days “ with a Virgil, a Terence, a Molière, a Voltaire.” In his latest years he became a kind of literary bigot, vaunting his favorite authors and reviling the favorites of others. He was in the ardor and buoyancy of youth when he breathed into this susceptible boy the love of Cicero, and gave him familiar slaps by way of amusement.

But the préfet only saw him safely to the door of the class-rooms. His chief professor of Latin was Father Porée, whose labor of love was to write Latin plays for the boys to perform, some of which are still occasionally presented in French schools.1 M. Pierrou declares that he shall not to his dying day forget the “ prodigious ennui ” that he endured in reading these productions, characterized, as he remarks, by inanity of conception, absence of interest, puerility of style, and jests in bad taste. They were, however, sufficient for their purpose, and gave the author a great reputation. He was a handsome, imposing, fluent, and agreeable man, who knew how to hold his classes attentive, and to adorn the platform on state occasions. Voltaire speaks of Father Porée with respect and fondness thirty years after leaving school, when his old master was at the head of the college.

It was Father Porée who said of the boy that “ he loved to weigh in his little scales the great interests of Europe; ” which calls to mind a remark of his own, written half a century later : “ In my infancy I knew a canon of Péroune, aged ninety-two, who was reared by one of the most infuriate commoners of The League. He always said [in speaking of the assassin of Henry IV.], ' the late Monsieur de Ravaillac.’ ” Being at a Jesuit college, he could not fail to hear something, from time to time, of the wondrous attempts of the Jesuits in Canada, made familiar to modern readers through the works of Dr. Francis Parkman. He even knew a M. Brébeuf, grand-nephew of that Father Brébeuf, martyr, bravest of the brave, whom Dr. Parkman has so nobly delineated in his Jesuits in North America. Voltaire heard from M. Brébeuf an anecdote that may have come from the missionary’s lips: “He told me that his grand-uncle, the Jesuit, having converted a pretty little Canadian boy, the tribe, much offended, roasted the child, ate him, and gave a choice portion [unefesse] to the reverend Father Brébeuf, who, to get out of the scrape, said it was a fast with him that day.”

From such slight indications as these we can infer that, little as the fathers may have formally taught him of modern history, he was not inattentive to the events of his time, and gained some knowledge of the heroic ages of France.

A comrade of Porée was Father Tournemine, an inmate of the Collège Louis -le-Grand, although not officially connected with it. He conducted a monthly magazine for the Jesuits, a kind of repository of historical memoirs and pious miscellany. He was a doting lover of such literature as he liked, a man of the world, a genial, easy companion to young and old, and held in high esteem in the college as literary ornament and arbiter. Between this editor and young Arouet there grew an attachment which lasted many years beyond the college course of the boy, and influenced both their lives. “ While his comrades,” says Duvernet, “ strengthened their constitutions, though thinking only of amusing themselves, in games, races, and other bodily exercises, Voltaire withdrew from the playground to go and strengthen his mind in conversation with Fathers Tournemine and Poréo, with whom he passed most of his leisure; and he was accustomed to say to those who rallied him upon his indifference to the pleasures natural to his age,

' Every one jumps and every one amuses himself in his own way.’”

It so chanced that Tournemine was as strenuous a partisan of Corneille as Abbé Châteauneuf was of Racine, whom the Jesuits held to be a Jansenist, and therefore neither poet nor Christian. “ In my infancy,” says Voltaire, in his edition of Corneille, “ Father Tournemine, a Jesuit, an extreme partisan of Corneille, and an enemy of Racine, whom he deemed a Jansenist, made me remark this passage [Agesilaus to Lysander], which he preferred to all the pieces of Racine.” The passage amply justifies the remark which the commentator adds : " Thus prejudice corrupts the taste, as it perverts the judgment, in all the concerns of life.” Nevertheless, that very prejudice of the amiable Jesuit may have served the pupil as a provocative ; and we can easily fancy this boy defending his favorite dramatist against the attacks of the fathers, aiming at them the arguments he had heard at home from his mentor, Abbé Châteauneuf.

In a large school there must be, of course, the unpopular teacher, who is not always the least worthy one. Father Lejay, professor of rhetoric of many years’ standing, filled this “ rôle ” in the Collège Louis-le-Grand. He was a strict, zealous, disagreeable formalist; “a good Jesuit,” devoted to his order, who composed and compiled many large volumes, still to be seen in French libraries ; a dull, plodding, ambitious man, with an ingredient in his composition of that quality which has given to the word Jesuit its peculiar meaning in modern languages. He wrote a book of pious sentences for Every Day of the Week, and a discourse upon the Triumph of Religion under Louis IV. He translated and annotated the Roman Antiquities of Denys of Halicarnassus, compiled a vast work upon rhetoric, wrote upon the Duties of a Christian with Regard to Faith and Conduct, wrote tragedies and comedies in Latin and French, which were played at the college by the boys, with the " success ” that invariably attends such performances. These dramas of the professor of rhetoric, which were described by a French explorer as among the curiosities of inanity, reveal the interesting fact that Father Lejay had a particular antipathy to “ philosophers,” and knew very well how to flatter Louis XIV. by abusing them. He was indeed much given to politic flattery, each of his works being dedicated to some great man of the hour whom his order or himself was interested to conciliate.

Plays were often performed at this school. One of the first comedies presented after the entrance of François Arouet was Lejay’s Damocles, in which the friend of Dionysius is held up to scorn as a ‘‘philosopher,” and the tyrant is presented to the admiration of the auditors as an ancient Louis XIV. Damocles is remarkable for the flowing amplitude of his beard, in which his foolish soul delights, and his favorite saying is, “ Nations will never be happy until kings become philosophers, or philosophers kings.” The king says, at length, “ Very well, be it so ; reign in my place.” Damocles reigns. He commits every imbecile folly which the crude mind of Father Lejay could imagine or boys laugh at. The people rise against the “ philosopher,” and recall Dionysius, who tears the royal mantle from Damocles, and dooms him to lose his noble beard, more precious to him than life. The crowning scene is the last, in which a barber, with abundant ceremony and endless comic incident, cuts off the beard, amid applause that shook the solid walls of the college. It was only with Father Lejay that the young Arouet was not in pleasant accord during the seven years of his school life. The anecdote of their collision, vaguely related by Duvernet, came doubtless from Voltaire himself, even to some of the words which Duvernet employs in telling it: —

“ Among the professors, who were very much attached to him, Father Lejay, a man of mediocre ability, vain, jealous, and held in little esteem by his colleagues, was the only one whose goodwill Voltaire could not win. He was professor of eloquence, and, like most of those who plume themselves upon that gift, he was very little eloquent. He was regarded as the Cotin 2 of orators. Voltaire had with him some literary discussions; the master felt himself humiliated by his pupil, and this was the source of that antipathy which Father Lejay had for Voltaire, — a feeling which he could not conquer, nor even disguise. One day, the pupil, exasperated by the professor, gave him a retort of a certain kind, which ought not to have been provoked, and which it had been discreet in the instructor not to notice. Father Lejay, in his rage, descends from his platform, runs to him, seizes him by the collar, and, rudely shaking him, cries out several times, ' Wretch! You will one day be the standard-bearer of deism in France ! ”

Such a scene would not, in that age, have injured the audacious boy in the opinion of his comrades. It might even have made him the hero of a day ; for it was of that period that Madame of Orleans wrote when she entered in her diary, “ Religious belief is so completely extinct in this country that one seldom meets a young man who does not wish to pass himself off as an atheist. But the oddest part of it is that the very person who professes atheism in Paris plays the saint at court.”

All things pressed this boy toward the path he was to follow. Every influence to which he was subjected, whether within or without the college, stimulated the development of his peculiar aptitudes.

In the France of Louis XIV. there were five illustrious names that did not belong to men of rank in church or state, and they were all the names of poets : Corneille, Racine, Molière, Boileau, and J. B. Rousseau. These alone of the commoners of France could be supposed worthy to be guests at great houses, and sit with princes in the king’s presence. These five ; Corneille, a lawyer’s son ; Racine and Boileau, sons of small placemen ; Molière, the son of a Paris upholsterer; J. B. Rousseau, the child of the Arouet family’s shoemaker. The boy Rousseau may have carried home shoes to the. notary’s house ; but the proudest head in France was proud to bow to Rousseau the poet. The diaries of that generation attest the estimation in which the verse-making art was held, and the great number of persons who tried their hands at it. Verse was the one road to glory open to nameless youth, the career of arms being an exclusive preserve of feudal rank.

We have seen that the professors with whom this lad had most to do wrote plays in prose and in verse. The performance of those works on the great days of the school year absorbed such an amount of time and toil that we might suppose the college a training-school of actors. There was the little drama and the grand drama : the first consisting of farces and burlesques, in Latin or in French, or in both ; the second of tragedies, in Latin. The little drama was presented in one of the college halls a few days before the end of the school year, and was witnessed only by the inmates ; the plays being short, the comic effects simple, and the mounting inexpensive. The grand drama, reserved for the final day, when the prizes were given, — the solemn day of judgment of a French school, — was given in the great court of the college, converted for the occasion into a vast tent. The play was usually in five acts, and “entire months ” were employed in drilling the young performers, rehearsing the play, and preparing the scenes. The stage was set up at the further end of the court, opposite the great gate-way, and the interior was all gay with banners, flags, streamers, tapestry, emblems, devices, and mottoes. The families of the pupils were invited, and places of honor were reserved for the chiefs of the Jesuit order, for bishops and archbishops, and for members of the royal family ; the king himself being sometimes present. The five-act Latin play, on some subject of classic antiquity, was the prelude to the great event of the occasion, the distribution of the prizes; and, as the performers were generally the boys who were to receive prizes, it was a day of intoxicating glory to them, the applause bestowed upon the actor being renewed and emphasized when he stood up to receive the public recognition of a year’s good conduct. On some occasions there was a mock trial, and the reading of poems composed by the pupils. The acting of charades was also a part of the school festivities, and they were performed very much as we do them now at holiday times, although with more formality.

If these provocations to literature were not sufficient, there were literary societies in the institution, not unlike those of American colleges at the present time. These were styled, in the Jesuit schools of that period, “ academies ; ” and, as the Jesuits invented them, no reader needs to be told that the sessions were presided over by one of the father professors. In other respects, there was no material difference between the Academy for which François Arouet composed and declaimed and any Gamma-Delta society of an American college of the present time. The members debated, read poems of their own composition, declaimed those of others, and did all those acts and things which readers remember as part of their own joyous school experience. The tradition of the college is that the violent scene with Father Lejay, just related, occurred, not in class, as Duvernet has it, but during a debate in the Academy, Lejay presiding.

Thus stimulated to productivity, young Arouet soon became, and to the end of his course remained, the prodigy of the Collège Louis-le-Grand. Some of his early spurts of verse have been preserved.

It is not possible to fix the date of these poems, but we are sure of one thing: before he was eleven years of age, and before he had been at school a year, he was recognized and shown as a wonder of precocious talent. We are sure of this, because it was in the character of a wondrous boy-poet that Abbé Châteauneuf presented him to a personage still more wondrous, Mademoiselle Ninon de Lenclos, then in her ninetieth year, but still the centre of a brilliant circle.

She was “as dry as a mummy” when the little poet was taken to see her, — “ a wrinkled, decrepit creature, who had nothing upon her bones but a yellow skin that was turning black.” He says :

“ I had written some verses, which were of no value, but seemed very good for my age. Mademoiselle de Lenclos had formerly known my mother, who was much attached to the Abbé de Châteauneuf; and thus it was found a pleasant thing to take me to see her. She was then eighty-five [eighty-nine]. It pleased her to put me in her will ; she left me two thousand francs to buy books with. Her death occurred soon after my visit.”

This legacy, which, as Voltaire more than once records, was punctually paid, confirms the version of the Abbé Duvernet, who says that the aged Ninon was delighted with the boy. Her house, in the Rue des Tournelles, was, he assures us, “ a school of good breeding, and the rendezvous of philosophers and wits, whom she knew how to please and interest even in her decrepitude.” All pleased her in the lad, — his confidence, his repartees, and, above all, his information. She questioned him upon the topic of the day, — the deadly feud between the sincere, austere Jansenists and the politic, scholarly Jesuits, then approaching its climax in the destruction of Port Royal. Doubtless he had his little say upon that subject, and spoke in the “ decided tone ” which the abbé mentions. Ninon, he remarks, “ saw in him the germ of a great man ; and it was to warm that germ into life that she left him the legacy to buy books,—a gift at once the most flattering and the most useful to a young man whose sole passion was to instruct himself.”

The legacy was indeed most flattering. “What a stimulus to a susceptible boy of eleven, already conscious of his powers, and living in the midst of a society who assumed that the composition of good French verse was among the most glorious of all possible feats of the mind ! The next year, being in the fifth class, he began a tragedy upon the story, told in Livy, of Amulius, king of Alba, the wicked uncle of those babes in the woods, Romulus and Remus. He called his play Amulius and Numitor. He kept it many years among his papers, but threw it at length into the fire.

“While still in the fifth class his fame reached the court. An invalid soldier, who had served under the immediate command of the king’s only son and heir, came to the college one day, and asked the regent to write for him a petition in verse to the prince for aid in his sickness and poverty. The regent referred him to Arouet, who wrote twenty lines for him in half an hour. He made the old soldier address the prince as “ the worthy son of the greatest of kings,” his love, the people’s hope, “who, without reigning over France, reigned over the hearts of the French.” “ Will you permit me,” ran the petition, “ to present a new year’s gift to you, who only receive them from the hand of the gods ? At your birth, they say, Mars gave you valor, Minerva wisdom, Apollo beauty ; but a god more powerful, whom in my anguish I implore, designed to bestow new year gifts upon me in giving you liberality.” The petition brought a few golden louis to the soldier, and made some little noise at Versailles and Paris. It is said also to have renewed the alarm of his father, lest so much flattery bestowed upon a casual exertion of his son’s talents should lure him from the path which leads to rich clients and liberal fees. This versifled petition was the best of his school poems that has been preserved, and was really turned with much elegance and ingenuity. For a boy of twelve to devise a compliment for Louis XIV. or his race, after half a century of incense, that should attract a moment’s attention from king or court must certainly be accounted a kind of triumph.

He did not neglect the ordinary studies of the school. At the close of his sixth year, in August, 1710, on the day of the distribution of prizes, he enjoyed extraordinary honors. Prize after prize, crown after crown (if we may believe tradition), was awarded him, until he was covered with crowns and staggered under the weight of his prize books. Among the guests in the grand pavilion was the poet J. B. Rousseau, then in the prime of manhood, the lustre of his fame undimmed. The name of François Marie Arouet caught his ear, and he asked one of the fathers if the lad were the son of Maitre Arouet, of the Chamber of Accounts, whom he knew. The professor said he was, and that he had shown for some years a marvelous talent for poetry. Then the professor took the boy by the hand, all covered with crowns and laden with glory, and presented him to the poet. Rousseau kissed him on both cheeks, as the French do at such times, congratulated him warmly upon the honors he had received, and foretold for him a brilliant future. The scholar, with equal enthusiasm, threw his arms around the poet’s neck, amid the emotion and applause of the assembly.

And so he went on, triumphantly and happily, to the end of his seven years’ course,—a good scholar, a favorite of his teachers, admired by all his companions, and by some of them beloved. His friends at school remained his friends as long as they lived, and some of them lived to witness and to solace his last days. The warmest, tenderest, and longest friendships of his life were formed at the Collège Louis-le-Grand, and his instructors followed his career with interest and pride, despite the human foibles and the French faults that marred it. There is no question that his life at school was happy and honorable, and both in a high degree. He made the most of his chances there, such as they were.

These seven years, so brilliant and so fortunate for him in the safe seclusion of a school, were the darkest France had known since the time of Jeanne Dare; for it was then that the French people had to pay large installments of the penalty of enduring for half a century an ignorant and incompetent king. The defeat of Blenheim, in Arouet’s first year at school, was followed by that of Ramilies in 1706, while he was writing his tragedy upon the bad uncle of Romulus and Remus. Defeat followed defeat, until in 1709 occurred the crowning disaster of Malplaquet. There were times, as this boy remembered, when Paris itself dreaded the victor’s approach; and he never forgot the famine of 1709, when, besides the catastrophe of Malplaquet, the olives failed, the fruit trees were nipped by frost, the harvest was ruined, the British fleet captured the grain ships coming from the East, and the cold of the winter was extreme. His father had to pay a hundred francs extra for him at the college that year, and yet he had to eat brown bread. Probably he meant oaten bread, which Madame de Maintenon set the example of eating at Versailles. The king sent to the mint that year four hundred thousand francs’ worth of gold plate, and there was a general melting of silver plate from great houses.

The old king had his share of sorrow and humiliation. It was in April, 1711, young Arouet’s last year at school, that the series of deaths began in tlie royal family, the mere recollection of which, many years after, brought tears to susceptible French eyes. The king’s only son, the Dauphin, died of small-pox in that month. The next February his son, the new Dauphin, died ; and three weeks after, his son, leaving to France only a boy of two years, “ within two fingers of death,” who became Louis XV. Paris saw father, mother, and son all borne to the tomb in the same hearse. The hardest hearts, the wisest heads, forgave the stricken king for the woes unnumbered he had brought upon his country through his subservience to priests. Our young student, when he came, half a century later, to treat of these events, in his Age of Louis XIV., wrote, “ This time of desolation left in the hearts of men an impression so profound that, during the minority of Louis XV., I knew several persons who could not speak of these losses without tears.”

He remembered, also, that at the period when Marlborough seemed about to come thundering at the gates of Paris the minds of men were distracted by what seem to us trifling religious disputes. But at that time nothing was trifling that savored of religion, for behind it all there was the dungeon, the torture-chamber, the bayonet, the axe, the wheel, the fagot. He remembered that, about the time when he was crowned and applauded in the presence of Rousseau, a Jewess and her daughter were burned at Lisbon for some trivial act of eating lamb at the season when priests said meat must not be eaten. The story circulated in the school that the girl was ravishingly beautiful, but he declares that it was not her beauty that drew the tears from his eyes when he heard the tale.

And at that very time, perhaps at the moment when the young poet heard his name called in the splendid pavilion, the light of victory may have gleamed in the eyes of every Jesuit in Paris on account of the destruction of the convent of Port Royal, near Versailles.

The fundamental article of religion with Louis XIV. was the royal authority, and hence he regarded heresy as rebellion. Long he hesitated before proceeding to extremities with the Jansenist ladies of Port Royal in the Fields, so renowned were they for piety and good works, so revered by the solid men of Paris. But his confessor, Tellier, gave him no peace, and the bewildered old king sent a confidential servant of his household to the convent to see what manner of persons its inmates were. “ By my faith, sire,” said the man on his return, “ I saw there nothing but saints, male and female.” The king sighed, and said nothing. The confessor, divining his thought, assured him that there is nothing in the world so dangerous as the virtues with which the poison of heresy was frequently covered. The fatal order was given. The ladies were distributed among the convents of the kingdom, and their abode was utterly destroyed, so that not one stone remained upon another.

Young Arouet could not escape a knowledge of these events, so dear to every Jesuit. In the very street in which his college was situated there was the Abbey of Port Royal of Paris, a kindred establishment to the one near Versailles. He lived close to these events, and was old enough to feel the infinite frivolity of the dispute which a priest could use as a pretext for such atrocities. During his last year at school, 1711, he may have seen men digging up the bones of the eminent persons buried near the destroyed convent, and conveying them to a village church-yard near by; and, during his whole school life, the soldiers of the king were hunting Protestants in the mountains of Cévennes for magistrates to break upon the wheel, to hang upon gibbets, to put to the torture, and burn at the stake.

James Parton.

  1. One of the Latin plays of Father Porée was performed at Boston, Mass., at the Commencement of Boston College, June 27, 1877.
  2. A pompous, arrogant court preacher of Louis XIII.’s time, satirized hy Boileau and Molière.