VOLTAIRE (1694–1778) was the wittiest of the Deists, a courageous and ribald lampooner of the authorities, and an indefatigable champion of the oppressed. His oftquoted “Écrasez l’infâme!” was directed against all persecutors. He preached incessantly the freedom of thought, the encouragement of arts and sciences, religious toleration, mild laws, sound finance, avoidance of war, and above all a spirit of humanity. But these were the commonplaces of European liberalism; he was not the discoverer of new ideas but rather the destroyer of the old shams. His blazing wrath roared through the forests of the night, sparing nothing, not even the Bible.
Blake told Crabb Robinson (CR 267) that God had commissioned Voltaire to “expose” the literal sense of the Bible; and the Holy Ghost truly operated in him. “I have had much intercourse with Voltaire, and he said to me I blasphemed the Son of Man, and it shall be forgiven me. But they (the enemies of Voltaire) blasphemed the Holy Ghost in me, and it shall not be forgiven them”—a very apt application of Matthew xii:32, which has proved true. But, as Blake said of Irving, “they who are sent sometimes go further than they ought” (CR 259). When in Candide (Chap. xxv) Voltaire ridiculed the idea of the Creator’s using compasses, Blake made one of his strongest pictures on that very subject (Eur, frontis.).
Characteristically, Blake took Voltaire’s genius for granted and proceeded to attack him unsparingly for his errors. He began with his superficiality. An Island in the Moon opens with a quarrel over Voltaire between Etruscan Column and Inflammable Gass, both of whom are right. The former complains: “Voltaire was immersed in matter, & seems to have understood very little but what he saw before his eyes”; the latter counters with “I wish I could see you write so. . . . He was the Glory of France” (K 44–46). Also, Voltaire was “as intolerant as an Inquisitor” ( LJ, K 615); his wit was “a wracking wheel” (J 52:6). As a Deist he taught doubt and attacked the visionaries as hypocrites (EG h, K 756). Blake retorted the charge. “Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, Hume, charge the Spiritually Religious with Hypocrisy . . . Voltaire! Rousseau! You cannot escape my charge that you are Pharisees & Hypocrites, for you are constantly talking of the Virtues of the Human Heart and particularly of your own, that you may accuse others, & especially the Religious, whose errors you, by this display of pretended Virtue, chiefly design to expose” (J 52). Like the other Deists, he was also a materialist: “Voltaire insinuates that these Limits [Satan and Adam] are the cruel work of God, mocking the Remover of Limits & the Resurrection of the Dead, setting up Kings in wrath, in holiness of Natural Religion” (J 73:29).
Blake constantly linked Voltaire and Rousseau as the heralds of the Revolution. “Seeing the Churches at their Period [i.e., end] in terror & despair, Rahab [the spirit of ribaldry] created Voltaire, Tirzah [the spirit of prudery] created Rousseau” ( Mil 22:41). “How is this thing, this Newtonian Phantasm, this Voltaire & Rousseau . . . this Natural Religion . . . ?” ( Mil 40:11). They are the two wings of the Spectre (J 54:18). They are the two Covering Cherubs of Vala, “afterwards named Voltaire & Rousseau, two frowning Rocks on each side of the Cove & Stone of Torture, frozen Sons of the feminine Tabernacle of Bacon, Newton, & Locke” ( J 66:12). The monks are “driven out of the abbeys, their naked souls shiver in keen open air, driven out by the fiery cloud of Voltaire and thund’rous rocks of Rousseau” (FR 275). Over Lafayette’s head “the soul of Voltaire shone fiery; and over the army Rousseau his white cloud unfolded” (FR 282). When the Revolution is ready to break forth, “Clouds roll heavy upon the Alps round Rousseau & Voltaire” (SoL 4:18).
One can only guess which of Voltaire’s voluminous works Blake read. In the Reynolds annotations (K 445) he copied a passage from the Moeurs des Nations in the original French. He could not have missed Candide, a passage in which may have inspired the frontispiece to Europe, as we have said. David Erdman (Erd 98) traces the influence of Le Philosophe Ignorant on An Island in the Moon. Voltaire’s poem about the Lisbon earthquake mocked the optimistic commonplace that the misfortune of one is the benefit of another: “Quand la mort met le comble aux maux que j’ai soufferts, | Le beau soulagement d’être mangé des vers!” The Cloud answers this couplet when he tells Thel: “Then if thou art the food of worms, O virgin of the skies, how great thy use, how great thy blessing! Every thing that lives lives not alone nor for itself” (Thel 3:25).