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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 41

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 18 September 1767[41.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The worse things looked in general for the Italian theater at the beginning of this century, the greater was the applause and jubilation with which Maffei’s Merope was received.[41.2]

Cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Graii,

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0                         Nescio quid majus nascitur Oedipode [41.3]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 cried Leonardo Adami, who had only seen the first two acts of the play in Rome.[41.4] During all of Carnival in Venice in 1714 almost no other play but Merope was performed; the whole world wanted to see the new tragedy again and again, and even the opera stages found themselves abandoned because of it. It was printed four times in one year; and in the space of sixteen years (from 1714–1730) more than thirty editions of it were produced in and out of Italy, in Vienna, Paris, and London. It was translated into French, English, and German, and there were plans to have it printed with all of these translations together. It had already been translated into French twice when M. de Voltaire wanted to do it over again himself, in order to really bring it onto the French stage. But he quickly found that this could not be achieved through an actual translation, the reasons for which he elaborates in the letter to the Marquis that he later published as a preface to his own Merope.[41.5]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 “In the Italian Merope,” he says, “the tone is far too naïve and bourgeoise, and the taste of the French parterre is too refined and delicate to be pleased by nothing but simple nature. It does not want to see nature except under certain artistic conditions, and these conditions are of course quite different in Paris than in Verona.”[41.6] The whole letter is composed with the greatest politesse: Maffei has not erred in the least; all his oversights and shortcomings are attributed to the taste of his nation; these may even be considered beautiful, but beautiful, unfortunately, only for Italy. Surely one cannot criticize more courteously! But this damned courtesy! It even quickly becomes burdensome to a Frenchman when his vanity suffers in the least thereby. Courtesy makes us appear gracious, but not great, and the French wish to appear equally great and gracious.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 And what follows M. de Voltaire’s gallant dedication? The writing of a certain de la Lindelle, who writes as rudely of the good Maffei as Voltaire has been obliging.[41.7] This de la Lindelle has a style very much like that of Voltaire; it is too bad that such a good writer has not written more, and has remained so unknown besides.[41.8] But whether Lindelle is Voltaire, or in fact really Lindelle, anyone who wants to see a French Janus-head that smiles in the most flattering way in front and makes the most sneering of faces in back should read both letters in one sitting.[41.9] I should not wish to have written either, but least of all, both. Voltaire stands on this side of the truth out of courtesy, and Lindelle wanders far over to the other side out of a desire to denigrate. The former would have had to be more frank, and the latter more just, to avoid the suspicion that the same writer wanted to bring up again under a pseudonym what he had earlier forgiven under his own name.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Voltaire may give the Marquis as much credit as he pleases that he was one of the first Italians who had enough courage and ability to write a tragedy without gallantry, in which the entire intrigue rests on a mother’s love, and the greatest tenderness springs from the purest of virtues.[41.10] He may complain as much as he likes that the false delicacy of his nation will not allow him to make use of the easiest and most natural means offered by the circumstances for building the intrigue, or of the unaffected and honest dialogue that the situation itself hands to the characters.[41.11] The Parisian parterre is undoubtedly quite wrong when it refuses to hear of a ring on stage again, ever since Boileau mocked the royal ring in his satires,[*] and when it consequently forces its playwrights to resort to every other means of recognition, even the most unsuitable, rather than use a ring, which the whole world from time immemorial has associated with a form of recognition, a form of affirmation of a person.[41.12] The parterre is quite wrong when it refuses to allow a young person – who considers himself to be the son of common parents and roams the land alone in search of adventure, and who has just committed a murder – to be taken for a robber, because it already knows that he must be the hero of the play;[†] and it is wrong to be offended that no one in the play wants to believe that such a man is capable of owning a valuable ring, since there is not an ensign in the King’s army who does not possess “de belles Nippes.[41.13] The Parisian parterre, I say, is wrong on this and similar counts; but why, in cases where it is certainly not wrong, does Voltaire seem to wish to blame this parterre rather than Maffei? If French courtesy towards foreigners consists of agreeing with them even in those cases where they should be ashamed to be correct, then I do not know what is more offensive and rude to an independent individual than this French courtesy. The blather that Maffei puts into his trusty Polydorus’s mouth about merry weddings and magnificent coronations that he has attended in the past, and just at the moment when the interest is at its peak and the spectators’ imaginations are occupied by other things entirely: this Nestorian blather – Nestorian and misplaced, to boot – cannot be excused through differences of taste between differently cultivated peoples.[41.14] The taste for this must be the same everywhere, and the Italian does not have his own taste, but rather none at all, if he does not yawn and become just as irritated by it as the Frenchman. Voltaire says to the Marquis, “In your tragedy you took the liberty of translating and appending Virgil’s beautiful and moving comparison:

Qualis populea moerens Philomela sub umbra

Amissos queritur foetus . . .[41.15]

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 If I were to take such a liberty, I would be sent back to the epic poem. For you cannot believe how strict the master is whom we must try to please – I mean our public. They demand that in a tragedy it should always be the hero who speaks, and never the poet, and they think that in a crisis of affairs, in council gatherings, in a violent passion, or pressing danger, kings and ministers should never make poetical comparisons.”[41.16] But does this public demand something wrong? Doesn’t it mean that they care about the truth? Shouldn’t every public demand this and think exactly this way? A public that judges otherwise does not deserve this name: but does Voltaire have to turn the entire Italian public into such a public because he does not have enough candor to tell the poet straight out that he indulges himself more than once and sticks his own head out from behind the curtains? Moreover, even if we overlook the fact that it is very difficult to find a suitable place for extensive comparisons in a tragedy in general, he should have noted that this one from Virgil is totally misused by Maffei. In Virgil, it intensifies compassion, and is in fact suited to that purpose; in Maffei, however, it is uttered by the very person who triumphs over the unhappiness that it represents, and, in accord with Polyphontes’ sentiments, it would have to arouse more scorn than compassion. Voltaire does not shy away from blaming even more significant errors – some that have an even greater effect on the whole – on the taste of Italians in general, rather than on one single poet among them, and believes himself possessed of the finest manners when he offers Maffei the consolation that his whole nation does not understand this any better than he does. Apparently, his mistakes are the mistakes of his nation; however, the mistakes of a whole nation are not real mistakes, because it does not really matter what is actually good or bad, but rather what the nation holds to be good or bad. “How should I have dared,” he continues with a deep bow to the Marquis, and at the same time with a trick up his sleeve, “to let mere secondary characters speak with each other as you have? In your play they serve to prepare the interesting scenes between the main characters, they are the avenues to a beautiful palace; but our impatient public wants to be inside the palace immediately. We must keep in mind the taste of a people that has sated itself on masterpieces and is therefore quite spoiled.”[41.17] What does this say, other than: “My Herr Marquis, your play has many, many cold, boring, useless scenes. But far be it from me to reproach you for it! Heaven forbid! I am a Frenchman, I know the rules, I will never rub something unpleasant under someone else’s nose. Doubtless you wrote these cold, boring, useless scenes quite deliberately and with great effort, because they are exactly what your nation needs. I wish that I could get away just as cheaply, but unfortunately my nation is so, so very far ahead that I must go even further to satisfy my nation. On that account, I will not presume a great deal more about myself than you; but since my nation, which surpasses your nation so much…” I shall not continue my paraphrase, for otherwise,

Desinit in piscem mulier formosa superne:  [41.18]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 courtesy turns into persiflage (I use this French word because we Germans know nothing of this matter) and persiflage becomes stupid pride.[41.19]


14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 [*] Je n’ai pu me servir comme Mr. Maffei d’un anneau, parce que depuis l’anneau royal dont Boileau se moque dans ses satyres, cela semblerait trop petit sur notre théâtre.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 [†] Je n’oserais hazarder de faire prendre un heros pour un voleur, quoique la circonstance ou il se trouve autorise cette meprise.

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • [41.1] Actually published 22 December 1767.
  • [41.2] Lessing continues his discussion, which extends from [36] to [50], of Voltaire’s tragedy Mérope and its relationship to Maffei’s original. For the plot of Mérope, see Robertson 86–7.
  • [41.3] “Give way, Roman writers, give way, you Greeks / Something greater than Oedipus is being born.”
  • [41.4] This ode to Maffei’s Merope by Leonardo Adami (1690–1719) modifies a pair of lines from the Elegies (Book II, poem 34b, l. 41–2) by Sextus Propertius (c. 55–c. 16 BCE), elegiac poet of ancient Rome; Adami puts “Oedipode” (Oedipus) in the place of “Iliade” (Iliad).
  • [41.5] “Lettre à Monsieur le Marquis Scipion Maffei, auteur de la Mérope Italienne, et de beaucoup d’autres ouvrages célèbres” [“A Letter to the Marquis Scipio Maffei, author of the Italian Mérope and many other famous works”] (1744). See Vrooman and Godden 100–7, 159–62, 216–33.
  • [41.6] Here, and throughout this essay, Lessing loosely paraphrases from Voltaire’s preface. See “Lettre à Maffei” 225–6; “A Letter to Maffei” 255–6.
  • [41.7] Both the “Lettre de M. de La Lindelle à M. de Voltaire” [“A Letter from M. de La Lindelle to M. de Voltaire”] (1748) and the “Réponse de M. de Voltaire à M. de La Lindelle” [“The Answer of M. de Voltaire to Mr. de La Lindelle”] (1748) were published with Mérope.
  • [41.8] M. de La Lindelle was indeed a pseudonym employed by Voltaire in order to address criticism of Mérope; both letters listed above were written by Voltaire. See Vrooman and Godden 155–59, 234.
  • [41.9] The Roman god Janus was represented with two faces, one looking forward and the other back; the term “Janus-faced” now connotes insincerity or deceitfulness.
  • [41.10] “Lettre à Maffei” 216–17; “A Letter to Maffei” 244–5.
  • [41.11] “Lettre à Maffei” 225–6; “A Letter to Maffei” 256–57.
  • [41.12] Lessing provides the original French in his footnote; for an English translation see “Réponse de M. de Voltaire à M. de La Lindelle” 242–43, “The Answer of M. de Voltaire to Mr. de La Lindelle” 275. Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711): French poet and leading literary critic, author of the widely influential neoclassical treatise L’Art poétique (1674). Rather than use a ring, Voltaire uses armor as a recognition device. Voltaire also mentions Maffei’s use of a ring in his preface (see “Lettre à Maffei” 225; “A Letter to Maffei” 255).
  • [41.13] “Lettre à Maffei” 225; “A Letter to Maffei” 255–6. Belles Nippes: fancy clothes.
  • [41.14] Nestorian blather: in the Iliad, Nestor, elderly king of Pylos, counsels the Greeks with stories of his youth; “nestorian” now often implies a self-satisfied or senile prolixity.
  • [41.15] “As in the poplar-shade a nightingale / Mourns her lost young…” Virgil, Georgics 4. 511–12. (Maffei would deny that he used these lines in Merope.)
  • [41.16] “Lettre à Maffei” 229–30; “A Letter to Maffei” 261.
  • [41.17] “Lettre à Maffei” 230; “A Letter to Maffei” 261–2.
  • [41.18] Horace, Ars Poetica 4: “What is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates […] in an ugly fish below.”
  • [41.19] Persiflage: light, contemptuous mockery, ironic banter.
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Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/hamburg/essay-41/