"At the end of July he [Frederick the Great] sent Voltaire a long letter of seduction, concluding with a poem which ended in an unmistakable sexual innuendo: 'I shall kiss a hundred times that mouth, so eloquent in seriousness and fun, whose touching voice covers the range from tragedy to comedy, always enchanting and always more charming.' It sounds as if Frederick was making an overtly homosexual overture to Voltaire; but was Frederick really homosexual? It is sometimes claimed that Frederick's supposed homosexuality was just a malicious canard, deliberately spread about by Voltaire to discredit Frederick. On the other hand, it seems clear that Frederick was in some sense gay, and that women were not welcome at his court.”
— Ian Davidson, Voltaire: A Life
'some sense gay' LOL
I will devote the rest of my future historian life to tracking down that letter.
You can find the letter in the Complete Correspondence of Voltaire (from where Davidson quotes it) - it’s not buried in an archive somewhere. On the downside, the Complete Correspondence of Voltaire is probably not very easily accessible. Oxford University has them available online I believe but you need to make a subscription. To buy them costs thousands of dollars (I’m not even overreacting).
So vfreie posted a super useful link of all of Frederick’s letters and such! You can look at the correspondences by volume, and there’s one for Frederick and Voltaire! So blah blah blah, end of story I found the letter! It’s dated July 29th, 1740, from Frederick to Voltaire. Here it is:
"Je vous envoie les seuls vers que j’aie eu le temps de faire depuis longtemps. Algarotti les a fait naître; le sujet est la Jouissance. L’Italien supposait que nous autres habitants du Nord ne pouvions pas sentir aussi vivement que les voisins du lac de Garde. J’ai senti et j’ai exprimé ce que j’ai pu pour lui montrer jusqu’où notre organisation pouvait nous procurer du sentiment. C’est à vous de juger si j’ai bien peint, ou non. Souvenez-vous au moins qu’il y a des instants aussi difficiles à représenter que l’est le soleil dans sa plus grande splendeur; les couleurs sont trop pâles pour les peindre, et il faut que l’imagination du lecteur supplée au défaut de l’art.
Je vous suis très-obligé des peines que vous voulez bien vous donner touchant l’impression de l’Antimachiavel. L’ouvrage n’était pas encore digne d’être publié; il faut mâcher et remâcher un ouvrage de cette nature, afin qu’il ne paraisse pas d’une manière incongrue aux yeux du public, toujours enclin à la satire. Je me prépare à partir, sous peu de jours, pour le pays de Clèves. C’est là que
J’entendrai donc les sons de la lyre d’Orphée;
Je verrai ces savantes mains
Qui, par des ouvrages divins,
Aux cieux des immortels placent votre trophée.
J’admirerai ces yeux si clairs et si perçants,
Que les secrets de la nature,
Cachés dans une nuit obscure,
N’ont pu se dérober à leurs regards puissants.
Je baiserai cent fois cette bouche éloquente
Dans le sérieux et le badin,
Dont la voix folâtre et touchante
Va du cothurne au brodequin,
Toujours enchanteresse et toujours plus charmante. “
Thank you for this! I did forget to mention this so very useful website!
I have made an attempt at translating the full letter for those like me, who aren’t that comfortable with French. So here it is:
My dear friend,
Those travelers who return from the banks of Frisch-Haff, read your charming works, which seemed to them an admirable restoration, and they had a great need to bring them to life. I will say nothing of yours verses that I would praise much, if I were not their subject; but a little less praise, and there would be nothing more beautiful in the world.
My large ambassador, with round belly
Lectures the Most Christian King
And people [with whom] he lives his life.
He will win the phthisis,
In very good rhetoric.
Fleury believes us to be a gossiper of his gang
Mutilated in three fingers, courteous a sailor.
I am silent about Camas, I know his practices,
And we will see if he’s one-armed
Camas’s letters are known only in Brussels; they love this subject: and, judging by their relations, they seem to have been sent to Voltaire, and not to Louis.
I will send you only those verses that I have had in the making for a long time. Algarotti provoked their birth; the subject is La Jouissance*. The Italian supposed that we, Northerners, are not able of feeling as strongly as our neighbours from Lac du Garde*. I felt and I told him that I was able to show him how our community can attain feelings. It is for you to judge if I painted it well or not. Remember that there are moments that are as difficult to describe as the sun in its splendor; the colours are too pale for painting, and the readers’ imagination is required to supplant the faults of the art.
I am very obliged for the trouble you’ve taken, concerning the impression of the Antimachiavel. The work is not very interesting. A work of this nature needs chewing and chewing, so it does not seem incongruous to the eyes of the public, always very prone to satire. I am making ready to leave in a few days for Clèves. It will be there that:
I will hear the sounds of the Lyre of Orpheus
I will see those hands
Which, by divine works,
Place your trophies on the Immortals’ Heaven
I will admire those eyes, so clear and so sharp,
That the secrets of nature,
Hidden in a obscure night,
Could not mask their powerful glances.
'I shall kiss a hundred times that mouth,
so eloquent in seriousness and fun,
whose touching voice covers the range from tragedy to comedy,
always enchanting and always more charming.’
Finally, I will find genuine joy in seeing the man I most love and esteem in the whole world.*
Forgive me my slips of pen and other faults. I am not yet tranquil. I must deal with my journey, after which I expect to find some time to myself.
Goodbye, charming, divine Voltaire; do not forget the poor mortals of Berlin who will work diligently to join you in the bit of heaven of Cirey. Vale.
*La Jouissance is of difficult translation. It means Enjoyment, Pleasure. It has a sexual connection, most of the times. Frederick is referring to the erotic poem he wrote to Algarotti and that was “discovered” a couple of years ago.
*Lac du Garde: It’s a reference to a lake in Italy, in the region of Lombardy, so he’s referring to people from Italy.
* This is written before the visit to Clèves where Frederick and Voltaire arranged to meet for the first time. I believe they were supposed to meet in Brussels but Frederick got ill and so Voltaire traveled to Clèves.