Poetic Reactions of Voltaire and Le Franc de Pompignan to the Lisbon Earthquake

© 2003 by Theodore E. D. Braun

As the 250th anniversary of the great Lisbon earthquake approaches, it seems fitting to consider reactions to the event. In this article I intend first to describe the incomprehensible destruction the tremors and the tsunamis accompanying them caused, not only in Lisbon but over a wide geographical area. This will help establish a basis for our understanding the reactions of the people of Europe to this seismic event, and help us understand why this earthquake remained for nearly a century engraved in the minds of millions of people. I will then examine two very different reactions to the tremors, both of them expressed in verse. One of these reactions is a well-known poem by Voltaire, the Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne; indeed, this poem needs little new commentary, and what I will do is rather situate it with reference to the second poetic reaction, a poem and the book of odes in which it is contained, by Le Franc de Pompignan. Two views of Providence are developed in these works, both views are powerfully and convincingly stated, and-given the religious orientation of the authors-both reach quite opposite conclusions.

All Saints Day, 1755

There must be very few eighteenth-century scholars who do not know that, on 1 November 1755, an earthquake devastated Lisbon, then a city of 275,000 and the fourth largest city in Europe (after London, Paris, and Naples). About 30,000 people died in Lisbon, and possibly 100,000 were injured. The quake affected a very broad area extending as far south as Morocco, where a large number of mosques, synagogues, churches, and other public buildings collapsed in Asilah, Rabat, Larache, Agadir, and Meknesh; the toll could easily be set at 60,000 dead and 200,000 injured overall, with widespread destruction in the Atlantic coastal regions of Portugal, Spain, and Morocco, and with the tsunamis moving westward as far as the Caribbean. The tremors were felt as far away as Switzerland, Italy and France.

The devastating event brought about scientific inquiries into the nature and causes of earthquakes, sympathetic and charitable reactions, and in what concerns us here, religious and philosophical questions into the matter. Are earthquakes a scourge of God sent to punish sinful people? A simple act of nature resulting from the necessary imperfection of matter? a particular evil making possible the general good? a temporal event that is part of an eternal Divine Providence?

This seismic event created the greatest natural disaster of the eighteenth century, an event that was to remain in the European imagination for over a century. We know today that it was one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history. According to Jan T. Kozak et Charles D. James, (1) in an article placed in a Web site, "Although not the strongest or most deadly earthquake in human history, the 1755 Lisbon earthquake's impact, not only on Portugal but on all of Europe, was profound and lasting." The earthquake that hit Lisbon and its inhabitants that day was truly and literally awesome. Centered in the Atlantic Ocean some 200 km west-southwest of Cape Saint Vincent, the quake began at 9:30 a.m. and lasted 10 minutes, with three distinct waves. (By contrast, the Tokyo quake of 1923 lasted perhaps only 4 minutes; the 1994 Northridge quake, which brought about such vast destruction, lasted only 8 seconds!) Although Lisbon was the hardest hit of the cities, there were a great number of dead in Fez and Mequinez. Algiers and the south-west coast of Spain suffered severe damage as well. The destruction was caused not only by the earthquake itself, but also by the widespread fires and the enormous tsunamis (or "tidal waves") it generated. The event is estimated to have been a magnitude 9. The Tokyo quake measure between 7.9 and 8.2, and swept away 140,000 lives; in Kobe in 1995, a 6.9 magnitude quake claimed 5400 lives and tens of thousands of wounded; the Northridge incident was measured at 6.7, causing 57 deaths and 5000 wounded victims; the magnitude 7.4 1999 Izmit quake, in Turkey, although it lasted but 45 seconds, took more than 30,000 lives and caused catastrophic damage. All of these pale before the force of Lisbon, where fire, spread naturally or by thieves trying to cover up their crimes, that destroyed the greatest amount of property and took the greatest toll in human lives. The fires raged for five days in the city.

The "tidal waves" were also a major force. The effects of the tsunamis were felt as far away as Ireland and Holland, North Africa and the Azores, and even in America. Many people in Lisbon had taken refuge in boats moored in the port on the Tagus river. But, a half hour after the first tremor had struck, a 7-meter wave carried off all the boats. Two similar waves followed the first one. In Tangiers, 10-meter waves killed many people. It seems that along the Portuguese coast, some regions were struck by waves almost 30 meters! Cadix, in Spain, Huelva, and even Seville were terrorized by the waves. In the Antilles, 12 hours later, Antigua, Martinique and Barbados were hit by a meter-high rise in the sea and flooding by high waves.

So even if there was exaggeration at first concerning the loss of life, in Lisbon alone 30,000 people were killed; and overall, the damage covered a huge territory. The earthquake itself, estimated to have been a magnitude 9 event, was probably worse in its total effects than we can imagine. The extremely long tremors, the fires that followed, the triple tsunami, all this devastation was far more severe than that described, for instance, in Voltaire's Candide, and it is easy to understand the powerful effect it had on religious faith and on philosophical systems. Images drawn during the aftermath of the quake and within a few months document the damage. Imagine Kobe and Tokyo and Izmit and Northfield rolled up together in one big quake: Lisbon was even worse than that.

Immediate Poetic Reactions to the Earthquake

Among the many reactions to the quake we will consider very briefly only two, one deistic and the other very Catholic. We hope to demonstrate how or at least to what degree it can be said that the Enlightenment and Christianity affected the authors of these works, Voltaire and Le Franc de Pompignan, and in what manner the two responses reflect attitudes towards life that are if not exactly contradictory at least contrary.

Voltaire's deism, we should remember, is unimaginable unless we recall the specifically Catholic religious culture in which he grew up and received his education. His enlightenment springs from his struggle against what he saw as the obscurantism and obfuscation of the Catholicism that he saw all around him in his youth, at home, in school, in daily life. He was surrounded by priests, abbés, and believers, by censors and zealots, and with constant reminders of the dominance of Catholicism in his life: theatrical seasons built around religious holidays, even names of streets and schools, and crucifixes in courtrooms. Everything around him dripped of Christianity. Fighting what he called l'infâme meant fighting religious institutions, the Catholic Church in particular, its doctrines, dogmas, practices, traditions. But by an irony he would have enjoyed seeing in an enemy, the harder he fought against l'infâme the harder it was to drive it from his mind. Voltaire's enlightenment can thus be seen as inseparable from Christianity. The choice of subject of his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne (2) confirms the truth this paradox, as does the extremely strong emotion perceptible throughout. In this poem, Voltaire is curiously let down by the very faith he has lost. When he needs it, he feels its lack more than ever.

In the Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, Voltaire proposes to examine the very Christian concept of Providence, but from the point of view of humanity and of the individual. He specifically mentions Leibnitz, Pope, Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke in the text of his "Préface" and makes allusion to "une foule de théologiens de toutes les communions"] who have attacked this belief (465-6). In particular, he is disturbed by the proposition that all is well: the fatalism inherent in the idea of Providence, taken in an absolute sense and without hope for a future, is the real target of his satirical attack here (468), as it is at least in parts of Candide, where his second major response to the destruction of Lisbon takes its place in the narrative of the eponymous hero's tale; but Candide is not the subject of this article: we are concentrating on Voltaire's poetic reaction to Lisbon. On the one hand, the axiom that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds seems to rob humankind of free will and as a result of all personal responsibilities for our actions; on the other hand this action seems to add "une insulte aux douleurs de notre vie". The emotion contained in this reaction is easy to see; the poem develops this emotion in a way that makes us share the author's deepest feelings.

From the point of view of reason, Voltaire believes that predeterminism leads ineluctably to unorthodox and heretical conclusions: if indeed all is for the best, human nature cannot be thought of as corrupted (Adam and Eve had no choice but to sin), and therefore a Redeemer would be unnecessary: if this world is the best of all possible worlds, we cannot hope for a better one. And if all individual evils exist only for the universal good, philosophers are wasting their time looking for the origin of physical and moral evil, because everything that is is necessary. Such a vision of the world would lead necessarily to atheism in all who opposed it (cf. note 2, 465-7). But Voltaire could not long remain at this level of abstraction: in order to avoid falling into the absurdities of metaphysics he had to particularize every moral and philosophical consideration. In the objective circumstances of the destruction of Lisbon, how can one bend, become resigned, to the dictates of Providence, as if God had wanted to make innocent people suffer? Should we say to the victims of this disaster:

Tout est bien; les héritiers des morts augmenteront leurs fortunes; les maçons gagneront de l'argent à rétablir des maisons; les bêtes se nourriront des cadavres enterrés dans les débris; c'est l'effet nécessaire des causes nécessaires; votre mal particulier n'est rien, vous contribuez au bien général. (468)

This is how Voltaire poses the problematic of the Lisbon disaster in his preface, thoughts he develops in the body of the poem.

Le Franc de Pompignan published two verse reactions, one direct and the other indirect, to the Lisbon earthquake. We will discuss, in a moment, the longer and later indirect reaction, which is less a response to the event itself than to Voltaire's poem. But first, a few words about the more immediate reaction of Le Franc, an ode (3) he addressed to his friend Louis Racine, author of poems entitled La Grâce and La Religion, who was the son of Jean Racine, the author not only of tragedies but also of some beautiful Christian odes. Louis Racine's son and daughter-in-law had been killed by a tsunami while on their honeymoon in Lisbon. Interestingly, in this ode, Le Franc remains calm in the face of disaster. He neither sheds tears nor appears to be emotionally shaken up by the event, nor does he set about to question Providence. His goal was very simple: to console a friend over a loss which is difficult to imagine for anyone who has never been a parent. Le Franc's ode upholds a thesis quite contrary to that of Voltaire in his poem: we must accept our individual fate, bow down before the dictates of Providence, precisely because we cannot understand them. The almost total lack of personal emotion one senses in this ode, despite its heart-rending subject matter and the fact that it appears to have been written shortly after the events became known, is striking. Le Franc, who could not have failed to be deeply moved by the young man's death, must have decided that to console Racine it would be better not to aggravate the pain in his heart, but rather to appeal to the deep faith of his Jansenist friend.

Whenever he attempted to combine Enlightenment (or Philosophy, as he called it) and Christianity, Le Franc would, as Pascal had done a century earlier, stop short if his explorations began to lead him to disturbing conclusions. (4) In this instance, he refused to expose himself to the danger of questioning the nature or the very existence of God. This attitude is of a piece with the sentiments he had expressed in his "Epître à Damon," which he published in the first book of Epîtres:

Soyons de notre esprit les seuls législateurs.
Vivons libres du moins dans le fond de nos coeurs:
C'est le trône de l'homme, il règne quand il pense.
L'âme est un être pur, fait pour l'indépendance.
Jugeons, examinons, c'est là notre appanage.
Cherchons la vérité dans son épais nuage;
Mais que par la raison nos doutes soient bornés
Aux objets que le ciel nous a subordonnés.
Qu'ils ne s'élèvent pas jusqu'au Maître suprême. (5)

He proposes a program of investigation in all fields (the Enlightenment part of his thought and practice), but in every case subordinated to Faith, to his Christian religion. His nineteenth-century publisher, Gobet, stated that Le Franc wanted to put a leash on our independence, to limit it to the study of humans and their environment, to establish boundaries that we must never go beyond. (6) Le Franc quite clearly applied this principle to his ode to Louis Racine. In addition, as we have indicated, he wishes to console his Jansenist-leaning friend for the death of his son, he wants him to confront the doctrine of Divine Providence head on. He does not need to convince this man of the truth of Catholicism by way of reason; he wants to touch his heart by an appeal less to the emotions than to Racine's religious sentiment. Thus, the lack of both personal emotions and logical reasoning can be explained and understood.

In this poem, Le Franc uses an octosyllabic line and six-line stanzas with a light and rather lyric rhyme scheme, aabccb, a good choice for a poet appealing to the spirit or the intuition of a friend. In his poem, Voltaire, looking for an explanation rather than offering consolation, makes use of the traditional rhyming couplet alexandrine line (12 syllables, with a caesura in the middle); this choice corresponds to his appeal to the intellect. This difference in form establishes a noticeable difference in tone in the two poems.

Voltaire asks, near the beginning of his poem (p. 470):

Direz-vous, en voyant cet amas de victimes, 
"Dieu s'est vengé, leur mort est le prix de leurs crimes?"
Quel crime, quelle faute, ont Direz-vous, en voyant cet amas de victimes, 
"Dieu s'est vengé, leur mort est le prix de leurs crimes?"
Quel crime, quelle faute, on commis ces enfants
Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglangts commis ces enfants
Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglants?

He will pick up on this line of thought when he critiques the Leibnizian theme of the best of all possible worlds:

Leibnitz ne m'apprend point par quels noeuds invisibles,
Dans le mieux ordonné des univers possibles,
Un désordre éternel, un chaos de malheurs,
Mêle à nos vains plaisirs de réelles douleurs,
Ni pourquoi l'innocent, ainsi que le coupable
Subit également ce mal inévitable.

A few years later, in chapter 20 of Candide, Voltaire will illustrate this notion in depicting a ship sinking with a total loss of the crew and passengers. He will call divine justice into question while rejecting the doctrine of philosophical optimism.

If Le Franc sees the same devastation and the same horrors as Voltaire, he responds to it not by Voltairean doubt but by an act of faith (164):

O Lois saintes! Ô Providence!
C'est bien souvent sur l'innocence
Que tombent tes coups redoutés.
Un enfant du siècle prospère;
L'homme qui n'a que Dieu pour père,
Gémit dans les adversités.

It is true, however, that the two poets are not speaking of precisely the same thing, for they do not donsider the problem with the same eye. Voltaire demands justice in the here and now, whereas Le Franc accepts that rewards and punishments await us after death (164-165). Obviously, this response to the event in Lisbon, addressed to a practicing and convinced Catholic, could not satisfy a non-believer.

Still, Voltaire does not ask God for reasons or justifications. Instead, he draws up a list of possible explanations of the origin of physical and moral evil in the world (475). He finds all of them unacceptable, but can find no other explanations; this is a source of considerable anxiety for him. Le Franc draws up such a list only by implication. For instance, he seems to believe that non-believers would not even ask if "C'est peut-être la vengeance / D'un Dieu qu'irritent nos forfaits" (166). And we have already seen Le Franc's response to Voltaire's questions: God has willed it, we cannot understand his motives. He sees only Providence, only the divine presence, in natural phenomena like the Lisbon earthquake. Thus he says, speaking of the materialist philosophers (166):

Ils écartent ces lois suprêmes,
Ils s'efforcent par leurs problèmes
D'anéantir le vrai moteur:
Recherches pleines d'impostures,
Qui trouvent tout dans la nature
Hors le pouvoir de son Auteur.

But Voltaire, rejecting the determinism implicit in the notion of Providence, seeks a response the can justify the existence of an infinitely good God. Perhaps that is why, in this poem, he expresses admiration for Bayle, who "enseigne à douter" (476): for no one has ever been able to explain by means of human reason an explanation for the origin and the continued existence of moral and physical evil. That is why Voltaire knows only how to "souffrir, et non pas murmurer" against Providence (478). The Christian, by contrast, finds in his faith a sure and comforting response, that is unknown by and unavailable to the incredulous. Therefore Le Franc can permit himself to be ironic when he considers the fate of these philosophers before inviting Racine to take refuge in his faith:

Laissons-les, ces mortels sublimes,
Traiter d'essais pusillanimes
Les traits de nos humbles crayons.
Qu'à leur essor ils s'abandonnent.
Ce sont des sages, qu'ils raisonnent;
Nous, esprits vulgaires, croyons.

We do not know if Le Franc succeeded in consoling his friend; but it is certain that it would be difficult indeed to imagine a more concise contrast between the faith of Christians and the reasoning powers of philosophers. 

This contrast points out forcefully the limits of the Enlightenment in a Christian philosopher on the one hand and a deistic philosopher on the other. Voltaire learns that human reason has its limits. Le Franc wants to impose limits on the subjects of research. Neither man finds an answer to the problem in Nature. We see in Le Franc a calm, a serenity, an assurance of an afterlife, which come from his unconditional belief. We see the painful search for truth, for knowledge, for understanding in Voltaire; we also see doubt and anxiety. If such is the price of the quest after truth, the believer does not feel free to permit the application of reason to all domains; in this way, the certitude in the face of the questions posed by the deists costs the believer dearly.

Le Franc de Pompignan's Reaction to the Poème of Voltaire

Like nearly all his writings relating or alluding to Voltaire in the decades following the virulent attacks of the philosophes which, from 1760 to 1763, destroyed his literary reputation and the public judgment on his character, Le Franc de Pompignan's response to the patriarch of Ferney was hidden, in this case in a book of poetry published in the second volume of his Oeuvres complètes in 1784, the year of his death and six years after Voltaire's death. The fourth book of his Odes, the Odes chrétiennes et philosophiques, contains the ode to Louis Racine. These poems seem to be arranged in such a way as to respond to certain passages of Voltaire's Poème. (7) The titles of the Odes chrétiennes et philosophiques are:

1. La poésie chrétienne (pp. 143-9)
2. Retour à Dieu (150-5)
3. Saint Augustin (155-63)
4 A M. Racine, sur la mort de son fils (163-9)
5. Etablissement, utilité et nécessité du culte extérieur (167-75)
6. La Providence, et la Philosophie (176-86)
7. Le Triomphe de la Croix (187-9)
8. Le Triomphe de la Religion, aux Carmélites de Saint-Denys (189-93)
[9.] Paraphrase de l'Oraison dominicale (194-6) [unnumbered]

It is not difficult to see the basic Palladian structure of this book of poems. It begins with an introductory section in which the role and the duty of a Christian poet are explored, a confessional poem in which he acknowledges his past sins and indiscretions, and an exposé of the life and teachings of Saint Augustine, including the pivotal place of divine Providence in Augustinian thought. The second section, also consisting of three poems, is the heart of the poet's discussion of the central theme, Providence. I t consists of the ode to Louis Racine, followed by a poem in which the need for an established Church and for established places of worship is clearly stated, and finally a poem entitled "La Providence, et la Philosophie." The third panel of this triptych consists of three poems flowing from the preceding discussions, two acts of faith and a paraphrase of the Our Father. The most important of these nine odes as responses to Voltaire's poem are those to Racine and on Providence.

Le Franc begins the Fourth Book of Odes with a poem ("La poésie chrétienne") in which he reclaims the rights of religious poetry, which he avers is inspired not by the Muse Erato but directly by God. (8) He boldly orders profane poets to harken to the music of David (143-144):

    Rougissez, s'il se peut, du fruit de vos délires,
    Brisez vos foibles lyres,
    David a pris la sienne, il chante; taisez-vous.

For him, not only does Christian poetry surpass ancient Greek poetry; Judeo-Christian wisdom has a far greater intrinsic value than what he calls "Un bizarre assemblage /De spectacles honteux & d'infâmes leçons!" (145). He thus establishes, from the very first poem in the book and in opposition to Voltaire's poem, the authority and the superiority of Christian thought over deistic or pagan thought.

He begins his second ode ("Retour à Dieu") by alluding to his own youthful life in Paris where, tempted by the devil, he had sought pleasure with actresses, and to the attacks against him by Voltaire, who is here associated with the demon (150):

    Fuis, malheureux ange du crime,
    Esprit rebelle et séducteur.
    Fuis, laisse en paix une victime,
    Que t'arrache un Dieu protecteur.

He goes on to call Voltaire a "citoyen futile / De ce monde tumultueux" (154), and he declares that God will protect him, Le Franc.

At this moment, in the third ode ("Saint Augustin"), he finds in the life of the saint a parallel with his own, and prepares the reader for what he has to say, in his ode to Racine, about Providence, given the importance of Providence in Augustinian theology (158-159):

Seigneur, que ta grâce est pressante
Pour les âmes de tes élus!
Contre sa force bienfaisante
Augustin ne combattra plus.
Guéri de ses erreurs premières,
Détestant ses fausses lumières,
Tout son esprit est dans sa foi,
Et ne connoît plus de science
Que l'humble & docile croyance
Qui l'attache à ta sainte loi.

It is at this point that the fourth ode ("A M. Racine, sur la mort de son fils") appears, accompanied by two other poems ("Etablissement, utilité et nécessité du culte extérieur" and "La Providence, et la Philosophie." Together these three odes, right at the center of the book, occupy about 20 pages. Their central theme is also the central theme of Voltaire's Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, Divine Providence, and a subject closely connected to that, the impossibility of our ever knowing the mind of God and the reasons he acts as he does. We will not comment here on the ode to Racine, since we have discussed it at some length above, but we do wish to underline its importance in the structure of the book. If we think of the first three poems as serving as the introduction to the themes, the middle three poems are the full elaboration of the doctrine and of Christian belief in this matter. Indeed, seen in this light, the Ode to Racine is more than just an expression of Christian humility in the face of the vastness and the incomprehensibility of the universe (we are reminded here of Racine's father's Jansenist contemporary, Blaise Pascal, who stated in one of his Pensées, "Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m'effraie"), it is more than just a Christian consolation for a frightening loss, it is an expression of a doctrine at the very heart of Christian beliefs.

Le Franc recalls, at the beginning of his fifth ode ("Etablissement, utilité et nécessité du culte extérieur") that he had rebuilt the chapel on the grounds of his château in Pompignan (which helps establish the dating of these poems, since the church was erected about 1763). (9) The physical existence of a church is symbolically important to inculcate and retain the faith of the parishoners. Le Franc notes that the "plus beaux tabernacles / Sont bâtis dans nos coeurs" (167), but he adds that to be sure of the fidelity of men, a visible altar and temple had to make an effect on our minds and eyes:

Il falloit qu'un autel & qu'un temple visible
Fît un effet sensible
Sur l'âme & sur les yeux. (168)

Pompignan tries to show that God wanted to establish both the material edifice of a church ("un temple," "un autel") and the spiritual edifice, the institution (l'Eglise) charged with interpreting God's word to humanity. In this poem, he combats Voltairean deism even if he does not name his adversary explicitly; Voltaire seems to be "l'impie," "l'insensé," one of the "fameux mortels, prodiges des sciences," "le blasphémateur" that he attacks repeatedly (170, 171, 172, 175).

In the next ode, the third of these central poems ("La Providence, & la Philosophie"), he develops further the ideas he has already set out; but here he addresses Voltaire directly, and as always with epithets of disdain: "esprit volage, / Toi, qui prétends au nom de sage" (176), "faible mortel" (179). The attack could not be more direct in the early stanzas (176):

Et qui ne sait que la nature 
A des loix qu'elle suit toujours.
Qui doute que le seul prestige
D'un instinct superstitieux,
Ne métamorphose en prestige
Tout objet qui surprend nos yeux?

Le Franc continues without respite his attack on Voltaire (177):

Quoi! ce Maître, à présent esclave
De nos calculs et de nos loix,
Quand sa créature le brave,
Sur elle a perdu tous ses droits!

He has his philosopher reply thus (179-180):

Non, réponds-tu, je n'ai pu naître
Que par l'oeuvre d'un créateur;
Je reconnois ce premier Etre
Qui de l'univers est l'auteur.

The Christian responds:

Tu reconnois! vaines paroles,
Quand tes opinions frivoles
Gênent sa force & son vouloir.
Est-ce avouer son existence,
Que de nier sa providence,
Et de combattre son pouvoir?

Before offering a long quotation from Lucretius, to show how close Voltairian thought is to the Roman poet's atheism, Le Franc makes a rather clear allusion to Lisbon (180):

Tu ne veux pas que le ciel tonne,
Que les murs tombent, s'il l'ordonne,
Ni que les flots changent de lieu.

No, for Le Franc, the only philosopher worthy of the name is the docile Christian (178):

Il n'est que le Chrétien docile
Qui soit philosophe avec fruit.

The docile Christian is a philosopher because he is "resigned," that is, because he has submitted to the will of Providence, which he loves. Someday, he insists (186) the false wise men will learn

qu'il est un trône suprême,
Où par la sagesse elle-même
Les philosophes sont jugés.

If we had to choose a single poem in this collection that is the most important one from the point of view of a direct response to Voltaire's reaction to the Lisbon catastrophe, this poem on Providence would stand out from the rest. The message is especially strong when "La Providence" is coupled with the poem to Louis Racine.

The book ends with its third part, consisting like the others of three poems: an act of faith ("Le Triomphe de la Croix"), presenting the paradox of the death of Jesus and his ultimate resurrection; a declaration of the final triumph of Religion over atheism and deism, which is in effect a second act of faith ("Le Triomphe de la Religion, aux Carmélites de Saint-Denys"); and a prayer ("Paraphrase de l'Oraison dominicale"). Given what we have seen above, it is no surprise that Le Franc de Pompignan should have concluded his response to Voltaire in this manner: everything he had written in the first six poems of this book points, through submission to Providence, to a public avowal of his faith in God, and in Jesus in particular, and therefore to a final prayer. He is able to reunite the words Throne and Altar in the ode on religion dedicated to the Carmelites of Saint Denis (we recall that the French monarchs were traditionally buried in the basilica in this city north of Paris, just as they were traditionally crowned in the cathedral of Rheims); he is credited with having been the first to use the expression "le Trône et l'Autel" in another work. The paraphrase of the prayer of Our Lord, or the Our Father, is a Christian response to the deist's prayer with which Voltaire ended the Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne. It is also of note that this is a prayer that Jesus (seen as one of the three persons of God) taught to his disciples, in the circumstances a perfect counterbalance to the deist's prayer (a human as opposed to a divine prayer) that Voltaire used to end his poem. (10)

Shortly after the earthquake, Le Franc had tried to console his friend Racine, whose son had died in Lisbon, by encouraging him to submit to the will of divine Providence. If that poem is a quickly written composition intended to be read by only one person and his family, Book Four of Odes is a more public work, a response to the deism that Voltaire expressed in his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne. Probably because of the aftermath of his reception speech upon his election to the Académie Française in 1759, in which Pompignan had tried to defend the faith by attacking the philosophes head on, he decided to frame his definitive response to Voltaire more indirectly, and to wait until after Voltaire's death and the end of his own life before making it known to the public.


1. Jan T. Kozak, Institute of Rock Mechanics, Czech Academy of Science, and Charles D. James, National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering, "Historical Depictions of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, http://nisee.berkeley.edu/lisbon/index.html . Our descriptions of the earthquake are based on their study. Images of the Lisbon earthquake, from the Jan T. Kozak collection in Berkeley, may be viewed at http://nisee.berkeley.edu/kozak/index.html .

2. Voltaire, Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, ou Examen de cet axiome: Tout est bien, in Oeuvres complètes de Voltaire, éd. Moland (Paris, 1877-1885), IX.465-480. The Poème was first published in 1756.

3. .Jean-Jacques Le Franc de Pompignan, Ode Quatrième, "A M. Racine, sur la mort de son fils," Oeuvres (Paris: Nyon l'aîné, 1784), II, 163-166. The poem seems to have been written immediately after the terrible events, and is therefore contemporaneous with the Voltaire piece. It does not appear to have been published until 1784, however, perhaps because it was a private document addressed to a living person.

4. See Harcourt Brown, "Pascal philosophe," SVEC 55 (1967), 309-320. We are following rather closely here the argument we presented in our brief article, "'Soyons de notre esprit les seuls législateurs,'" SVEC 303 (1992), 196-200.

5. Le Franc de Pompignan, Oeuvres, II, 213.

6. Oeuvres choisies de Le Franc de Pompignan, éd. Gobet (Paris 1813), I, 35. Gobet says that Le Franc believed that the human mind must limit its independence "aux sciences humaines, fixer les limites que, selon lui, elle ne doit jamais franchir."

7. Oddly, no one up to now appears to have noted the importance of this book to the contemporary criticism of Voltaire's poem. I have been a victim of this oversight, too. Neither in my book nor in my articles and conference papers on Pompignan's poetry or his relations with Voltaire have I ever seen the connections, which nevertheless are obvious once the two works are juxtaposed. An on-line bibliography of Le Franc de Pompignan can be found at http://www.c18.rutgers.edu/biblio/lefranc.html  .

8. In this regard, we remind our readers that Le Franc had published in 1751 the first edition of his  Poésies sacrées, the first three books of which (Odes, Cantiques, Prophéties) are translations or paraphrases of biblical texts, more particularly of Old Testament. See the Poésies sacrées de Monsieur L*F****, divisées en Quatre Livres, Et ornées de Figures en taille douce (Paris: Chaubert, 1751).

9. See Theodore E. D. Braun, Un ennemi de Voltaire. Le Franc de Pompignan. Sa vie, ses oeuvres, ses rapports avec Voltaire (Paris: Lettres Modernes Minard, 1972), 49-55.

10. We might see in the use of this prayer a subtle refutation of charges made by Voltaire, Morellet and others that Le Franc's translation of Pope's "Universal Prayer" proved that he was a deist. See Braun, Un ennemi de Voltaire, 185-190, and Theodore E. D. Braun and Judy Celano Celli, "Eighteenth-century French translations of Pope's Universal Prayer," SVEC 256 (1988), 297-323.

Last updated 6 March 2003