Samuel Sharpe, 18 August 1765

I must confess to you that I have yet seen nothing which has afforded me so much pleasure as that extraordinary genius Mons.Voltaire. My principal motive for passing the Alps, by the way of Geneva, was to visit that Gentleman. I knew him in the days of my youth, and had the honour to be sometimes with him when he was in London. I also saw him at Paris in 1749, and now that he is become the topic of conversation in almost every village in Europe, I could not think of going to Italy without granting myself the indulgence of seeing him once more. He lives about four miles from Geneva, in a most splendid and hospitable manner, keeping an open table, to which strangers of every nation find an easy introduction. Contiguous to his house is a small theatre, which holds about fifty people, but, when enlarged, will contain two hundred; the carpenters were beginning the alterations the day I dined with him. Perhaps he never had been more happy in any one period of his life than at the juncture I saw him. Mademoiselle Clairon, who has quitted the stage, was on a visit there, and had exhibited that week in two characters of his own writing. I unfortunately arrived at Geneva the night after she had performed for the last time. I had often seen her in 1749; but I found by Voltaire that, excellent as she was in those days, she had improved in the last sixteen years beyond all imagination. I cannot give you any idea of the ecstacies he was in, acting and representing, every now and then, a hundred passages, where she had been particularly happy in her expression. His eyes have such a brilliancy in those moments, that you forget he is about seventy­two. He had that morning written an Epistle to Mademoiselle Clairon, in verse, which he read to the company from the foul copy: there were some erasements in it, but not many. To perform a play, he is obliged to seize the opportunity, when any strolling comedians come into the neighbourhood of Geneva; some of these, and a niece who lives with him, he then entertains himself and his friends; but the visit of Mademoiselle Madame Clairon had given a perfection to this last spectacle which he had never hoped for.

I wish, for the honour of my country, it were possible that a Frenchman could taste the language of Shakespeare. I am persuaded, could Voltaire feel the energy of our poet's descriptions, he would talk no more of his barbarisms, and his some beauties. He who has so great a share of merit himself, would gladly pay the tribute due to the shrine of Shakespeare, and, possibly, grieve to have attempted those translations which he has presented to his countrymen as a specimen of Shakespeare's manner of writing. It is true, he apologises for the faintness of the execution; but still, had he felt the excessive inferiority of his imitations, had he known so well as Englishmen do, that they have not the least resemblance of the strength, spirit, and imagination of the original, he certainly would never have hazarded the publication. I remember to have heard him say, about the year 1726, that, before he learnt English, he had read the Spectator in French, and often wondered that such dull writing should please a polite nation; "but now", said he, "that I have acquired the tongue, I wipe my __ with Plutarch!" The phrase was too remarkable, and made too strong an impression on the ears of a young man, to be ever forgotten'.

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