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Letters on England

20. On Such Of The Nobility As Cultivate The Belles
Lettres
There once was a time in France when the polite arts were cultivated by persons
of the highest rank in the state. The courtiers particularly were conversant in
them, although indolence, a taste for trifles, and a passion for intrigue, were the
divinities of the country. The Court methinks at this time seems to have given into
a taste quite opposite to that of polite literature, but perhaps the mode of thinking
may be revived in a little time. The French are of so flexible a disposition, may be
moulded into such a variety of shapes, that the monarch needs but command
and he is immediately obeyed. The English generally think, and learning is had in
greater honour among them than in our country--an advantage that results
naturally from the form of their government. There are about eight hundred
persons in England who have a right to speak in public, and to support the
interest of the kingdom; and near five or six thousand may in their turns aspire to
the same honour. The whole nation set themselves up as judges over these, and
every man has the liberty of publishing his thoughts with regard to public affairs,
which shows that all the people in general are indispensably obliged to cultivate
their understandings. In England the governments of Greece and Rome are the
subject of every conversation, so that every man is under a necessity of perusing
such authors as treat of them, how disagreeable soever it may be to him; and
this study leads naturally to that of polite literature. Mankind in general speak well
in their respective professions. What is the reason why our magistrates, our
lawyers, our physicians, and a great number of the clergy, are abler scholars,
have a finer taste, and more wit, than persons of all other professions? The
reason is, because their condition of life requires a cultivated and enlightened
mind, in the same manner as a merchant is obliged to be acquainted with his
traffic. Not long since an English nobleman, who was very young, came to see
me at Paris on his return from Italy. He had written a poetical description of that
country, which, for delicacy and politeness, may vie with anything we meet with
in the Earl of Rochester, or in our Chaulieu, our Sarrasin, or Chapelle. The
translation I have given of it is so inexpressive of the strength and delicate
humour of the original, that I am obliged seriously to ask pardon of the author
and of all who understand English. However, as this is the only method I have to
make his lordship's verses known, I shall here present you with them in our
tongue:-
"Qu'ay je donc vu dans l'Italie?
Orgueil, astuce, et pauvrete,
Grands complimens, peu de bonte
Et beaucoup de ceremonie.
"L'extravagante comedie
Que souvent l'Inquisition
 
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