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Voltaire on How to Write Well and Stay True to Your Creative Vision

“Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose.”

Centuries before Ezra Pound’s rules for how to write poetry and Edward Hirsch’s treatise on how to read it, French Enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778), who invented social networking, set down some invaluable advice on how to write verse in a letter to his then-protégé — a gallant young man-about-town named Claude Adrien Helvétius. Two decades later, Helvétius would come to write the book De l’esprit; or, Essays on the Mind, the stark materialism of which would greatly put off Voltaire. But in his youth, he aspired to make a living as a poet. Having just published a book of poems on happiness and love, titled Epistles, which received rather unfavorable critical reception, Helvétius reached out to Voltaire for feedback and assurance, which his mentor readily supplied.

The letter, found in the 1919 volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection from His Correspondence (public library | IndieBound), is a masterwork of advice not only on how to write verse, or how to write well in general, but also, as Ursula K. Le Guin admonished three centuries later, on the perils of writing for commercial gain and to please an audience rather than out of true creative vision.

Cirey, February 25, 1739
My dear friend — the friend of Truth and the Muses — your “Epistle” is full of bold reasoning in advance of your age, and still more in advance of those craven writers who rhyme for the book-sellers and restrict themselves within the compass of a royal censor, who is either jealous of them, or more cowardly than they are themselves.

What are they but miserable birds, with their wings close clipped, who, longing to soar, are for ever falling back to earth, breaking their legs! You have a fearless genius, and your work sparkles with imagination. I much prefer your generous faults to the mediocre prettinesses with which we are cloyed. If you will allow me to tell you where I think you can improve yourself in your art, I should say: Beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose: only employ true similes: and be sure always to use exactly the right word.

Shall I give you an infallible little rule for verse? Here it is. When a thought is just and noble, something still remains to be done with it: see if the way you have expressed it in verse would be effective in prose: and if your verse, without the swing of the rhyme, seems to you to have a word too many — if there is the least defect in the construction — if a conjunction is forgotten — if, in brief, the right word is not used, or not used in the right place, you must then conclude that the jewel of your thought is not well set. Be quite sure that lines which have any one of these faults will never be learnt by heart, and never re-read: and the only good verses are those which one re-reads and remembers, in spite of oneself. There are many of this kind in your “Epistle” — lines which no one else in this generation can write at your age such as were written fifty years ago.

Do not be afraid, then, to bring your talents to a Parnassus; they will undoubtedly redound to your credit because you never neglect your duties; for them: they are themselves very pleasant duties. Surely, those your position demand of you must be very uncongenial to such a nature as yours. They are as much routine as looking after a house, or the housebook of one’s steward. Why should you be deprived of liberty of thought because you happen to be a farmer-general? Atticus was a farmer-general, the old Romans were farmers-general, and they thought — as Romans. Go ahead, Atticus.

But Helvétius was ultimately unwilling, or perhaps unable, to take his mentor’s advice and soon abandoned poetry for prose and profit. Twenty years later, On the Mind was burned by the public hangman, alongside Voltaire’s poem “On Natural Law.” Although Voltaire privately loathed and publicly denounced Helvétius’s book, he — a vocal opponent of censorship and proponent of the freedom of speech — immediately leapt to its defense. In doing so, he lived up to the famous paraphrasing of his philosophy that his official biographer and the editor of his letters, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, would later memorably write — a sentiment so evocative of Voltaire’s spirit that it is often misattributed to the philosopher himself:

I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.

Complement with the story of how Voltaire fell in love with a remarkable female mathematician and his spirited case for the rewards of reading.

Published November 21, 2014




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