HotFreeBooks.com
Memoirs of the Life of Rt. Hon. Richard Brinsley Sheridan Vol 2
by Thomas Moore
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"I have totally departed from my intention, when I first began this letter, for which I ought to apologize to you; but it may save much future talk: other less important matters will do in conversation. You will allow that I have placed in you the most implicit confidence—have the reasonable trust in me that, in any communication I may have with B. Wyatt, my object will not be to obstruct, as you have hastily expressed it, but bona fide to assist him to render his Theatre as perfect as possible, as well with a view to the public accommodation as to profit to the Subscribers; neither of which can be obtained without establishing a reputation for him which must be the basis of his future fortune.

"And now, after all this statement, you will perhaps be surprised to find how little I require;—simply some Resolution of the Committee to the effect of that I enclose.

"I conclude with heartily thanking you for the declaration you made respecting me, and reported to me by Peter Moore, at the close of the last meeting of the Committee. I am convinced of your sincerity; but as I have before described the character of the gratitude I feel towards you in a letter written likewise in this house, I have only to say, that every sentiment in that letter remains unabated and unalterable.

"Ever, my dear Whitbread,

"Yours, faithfully.

"P.S. The discussion we had yesterday respecting some investigation of the past, which I deem so essential to my character and to my peace of mind, and your present concurrence with me on that subject, have relieved my mind from great anxiety, though I cannot but still think the better opportunity has been passed by. One word more, and I release you. Tom informed me that you had hinted to him that any demands, not practicable to be settled by the Committee, must fall on the proprietors. My resolution is to take all such on myself, and to leave Tom's share untouched."

Another concession, which Sheridan himself had volunteered, namely, the postponement of his right of being paid the amount of his claim, till after the Theatre should be built, was also a subject of much acrimonious discussion between the two friends,—Sheridan applying to this condition that sort of lax interpretation, which would have left him the credit of the sacrifice without its inconvenience, and Whitbread, with a firmness of grasp, to which, unluckily, the other had been unaccustomed in business, holding him to the strict letter of his voluntary agreement with the Subscribers. Never, indeed, was there a more melancholy example than Sheridan exhibited, at this moment, of the last, hard struggle of pride and delicacy against the most deadly foe of both, pecuniary involvement,—which thus gathers round its victims, fold after fold, till they are at length crushed in its inextricable clasp.

The mere likelihood of a sum of money being placed at his disposal was sufficient—like the "bright day that brings forth the adder"—to call into life the activity of all his duns; and how liberally he made the fund available among them, appears from the following letter of Whitbread, addressed, not to Sheridan himself, but, apparently, (for the direction is wanting,) to some man of business connected with him:—

"MY DEAR SIR,

"I had determined not to give any written answer to the note you put into my hands yesterday morning; but a further perusal of it leads me to think it better to make a statement in writing, why I, for one, cannot comply with the request it contains, and to repel the impression which appears to have existed in Mr. Sheridan's mind at the time that note was written. He insinuates that to some postponement of his interests, by the Committee, is owing the distressed situation in which he is unfortunately placed.

"Whatever postponement of the interests of the Proprietors may ultimately be resorted to, as matter of indispensable necessity from the state of the Subscription Fund, will originate in the written suggestion of Mr. Sheridan himself; and, in certain circumstances, unless such latitude were allowed on his part, the execution of the Act could not have been attempted.

"At present there is no postponement of his interests,—but there is an utter impossibility of touching the Subscription Fund at all, except for very trifling specified articles, until a supplementary Act of Parliament shall have been obtained.

"By the present Act, even if the Subscription were full, and no impediments existed to the use of the money, the Act itself, and the incidental expenses of plans, surveys, &c., are first to be paid for,—then the portion of Killegrew's Patent,—then the claimants,—and then the Proprietors. Now the Act is not paid for: White and Martindale are not paid; and not one single claimant is paid, nor can any one of them be paid, until we have fresh powers and additional subscriptions.

"How then can Mr. Sheridan attribute to any postponement of his interests, actually made by the Committee, the present condition of his affairs? and why are we driven to these observations and explanations?

"We cannot but all deeply lament his distress, but the palliation he proposes it is not in our power to give.

"We cannot guarantee Mr. Hammersley upon the fund coming eventually to Mr. Sheridan. He alludes to the claims he has already created upon that fund. He must, besides, recollect the list of names he sent to me some time ago, of persons to whom he felt himself in honor bound to appropriate to each his share of that fund, in common with others for whose names he left a blank, and who, he says in the same letter, have written engagements from him. Besides, he has communicated both to Mr. Taylor and to Mr. Shaw, through me, offers to impound the whole of the sum to answer the issue of the unsettled demands made upon him by those gentlemen respectively.

"How then can we guarantee Mr. Hammersley in the payment of any sum out of this fund, so circumstanced? Mr. Hammersley's possible profits are prospective, and the prospect remote. I know the positive losses he sustains, and the sacrifices he is obliged to make to procure the chance of the compromise he is willing to accept.

"Add to all this, that we are still struggling with difficulties which we may or may not overcome; that those difficulties are greatly increased by the persons whose interest and duty should equally lead them to give us every facility and assistance in the labors we have disinterestedly undertaken, and are determined faithfully to discharge. If we fail at last, from whatever cause, the whole vanishes.

"You know, my dear Sir, that I grieve for the sad state of Mr. Sheridan's affairs. I would contribute my mite to their temporary relief, if it would be acceptable; but as one of the Committee, intrusted with a public fund, I can do nothing. I cannot be a party to any claim upon Mr. Hammersley; and I utterly deny that, individually, or as part of the Committee, any step taken by me, or with my concurrence, has pressed upon the circumstances of Mr. Sheridan.

"I am,

"My dear Sir,

"Faithfully yours,

"Southill, Dec. 19, 1811."

"SAMUEL WHITBREAD."

A Dissolution of Parliament being expected to take place, Mr. Sheridan again turned his eyes to Stafford; and, in spite of the estrangement to which his infidelities at Westminster had given rise, saw enough, he thought, of the "veteris vestigia flammae" to encourage him to hope for a renewal of the connection. The following letter to Sir Oswald Moseley explains his views and expectations on the subject:—

"DEAR SIR OSWALD,

"Cavendish-Square, Nov. 29, 1811.

"Being apprised that you have decided to decline offering yourself a candidate for Stafford, when a future election may arrive,—a place where you are highly esteemed, and where every humble service in my power, as I have before declared to you, should have been at your command,—I have determined to accept the very cordial invitations I have received from old friends in that quarter, and, (though entirely secure of my seat at Ilchester, and, indeed, even of the second seat for my son, through the liberality of Sir W. Manners), to return to the old goal from whence I started thirty-one years since! You will easily see that arrangements at Ilchester may be made towards assisting me, in point of expense, to meet any opposition, and, in that respect, nothing will be wanting. It will, I confess, be very gratifying to me to be again elected by the sons of those who chose me in the year eighty, and adhered to me so stoutly and so long. I think I was returned for Stafford seven, if not eight, times, including two most tough and expensive contests; and, in taking a temporary leave of them I am sure my credit must stand well, for not a shilling did I leave unpaid. I have written to the Jerninghams, who, in the handsomest manner, have ever given me their warmest support; and, as no political object interests my mind so much as the Catholic cause, I have no doubt that independent of their personal friendship, I shall receive a continuation of their honorable support. I feel it to be no presumption to add, that other respectable interests in the neighborhood will be with me.

"I need scarcely add my sanguine hope, that whatever interest rests with you, (which ought to be much), will also be in my favor.

"I have the honor to be,

"With great esteem and regard,

"Yours most sincerely,

"R. B. SHERIDAN."

"I mean to be in Stafford, from Lord G. Levison's, in about a fortnight."

Among a number of notes addressed to his former constituents at this time, (which I find written in his neatest hand, as if intended to be sent), is this curious one:—

"DEAR KING JOHN,

"Cavendish-Square, Sunday night,

"I shall be in Stafford in the course of next week, and if Your Majesty does not renew our old alliance I shall never again have faith in any potentate on earth.

"Yours very sincerely,

"Mr. John K.

"R. B. SHERIDAN."

The two attempts that were made in the course of the year 1812—the one, on the cessation of the Regency Restrictions, and the other after the assassination of Mr. Perceval,—to bring the Whigs into official relations with the Court, were, it is evident, but little inspired on either side, with the feelings likely to lead to such a result. It requires but a perusal of the published correspondence in both cases to convince us that, at the bottom of all these evolutions of negotiation, there was anything but a sincere wish that the object to which they related should be accomplished. The Marechal Bassompiere was not more afraid of succeeding in his warfare, when he said, "Je crois que nous serons assez fous pour prendre la Rochelle," than was one of the parties, at least, in these negotiations, of any favorable turn that might inflict success upon its overtures. Even where the Court, as in the contested point of the Household, professed its readiness to accede to the surrender so injudiciously demanded of it, those who acted as its discretionary organs knew too well the real wishes in that quarter, and had been too long and faithfully zealous in their devotion to those wishes to leave any fear that advantage would be taken of the concession. But, however high and chivalrous was the feeling with which Lord Moira, on this occasion, threw himself into the breach for his Royal Master, the service of Sheridan, though flowing partly from the same zeal, was not, I grieve to say, of the same clear and honorable character.

Lord Yarmouth, it is well known, stated in the House of Commons that he had communicated to Mr. Sheridan the intention of the Household to resign, with the view of having that intention conveyed to Lord Grey and Lord Grenville, and thus removing the sole ground upon which these Noble Lords objected to the acceptance of office. Not only, however, did Sheridan endeavor to dissuade the Noble Vice-Chamberlain from resigning, but with an unfairness of dealing which admits, I own, of no vindication, he withheld from the two leaders of Opposition the intelligence thus meant to be conveyed to them; and, when questioned by Mr. Tierney as to the rumored intentions of the Household to resign, offered to bet five hundred guineas that there was no such step in contemplation.

In this conduct, which he made but a feeble attempt to explain, and which I consider as the only indefensible part of his whole public life, he was, in some degree, no doubt, influenced by personal feelings against the two Noble Lords, whom his want of fairness on the occasion was so well calculated to thwart and embarrass. But the main motive of the whole proceeding is to be found in his devoted deference to what he knew to be the wishes and feelings of that Personage, who had become now, more than ever, the mainspring of all his movements,—whose spell over him, in this instance, was too strong for even his sense of character; and to whom he might well have applied the words of one of his own beautiful songs—

"Friends, fortune, fame itself I'd lose, To gain one smile from thee!"

So fatal, too often, are Royal friendships, whose attraction, like the loadstone-rock in Eastern fable, that drew the nails out of the luckless ship that came near it, steals gradually away the strength by which character is held together, till, at last, it loosens at all points, and falls to pieces, a wreck!

In proof of the fettering influence under which he acted on this occasion, we find him in one of his evasive attempts at vindication, suppressing, from delicacy to his Royal Master, a circumstance which, if mentioned, would have redounded considerably to his own credit. After mentioning that the Regent had "asked his opinion with respect to the negotiations that were going on," he adds, "I gave him my opinion, and I most devoutly wish that that opinion could be published to the world, that it might serve to shame those who now belie me."

The following is the fact to which these expressions allude. When the Prince-Regent, on the death of Mr. Perceval, entrusted to Lord Wellesley the task of forming an Administration, it appears that His Royal Highness had signified either his intention or wish to exclude a certain Noble Earl from the arrangements to be made under that commission. On learning this, Sheridan not only expressed strongly his opinion against such a step, but having, afterwards, reason to fear that the freedom with which he spoke on the subject had been displeasing to the Regent, he addressed a letter to that Illustrious Person, (a copy of which I have in my possession,) in which, after praising the "wisdom and magnanimity" displayed by His Royal Highness, in confiding to Lord Wellesley the powers that had just been entrusted to him, he repeated his opinion that any "proscription" of the Noble Earl in question, would be "a proceeding equally derogatory to the estimation of His Royal Highness's personal dignity and the security of his political power;"—adding, that the advice, which he took the liberty of giving against such a step, did not proceed "from any peculiar partiality to the Noble Earl or to many of those with whom he was allied; but was founded on what he considered to be best for His Royal Highness's honor and interest, and for the general interests of the country."

The letter (in alluding to the displeasure which he feared he had incurred by venturing this opinion) concludes thus:—

"Junius said in a public letter of his, addressed to Your Royal Father, 'the fate that made you a King forbad your having a friend.' I deny his proposition as a general maxim—I am confident that Your Royal Highness possesses qualities to win and secure to you the attachment and devotion of private friendship, in spite of your being a Sovereign. At least I feel that I am entitled to make this declaration as far as relates to myself—and I do it under the assured conviction that you will never require from me any proof of that attachment and devotion inconsistent with the clear and honorable independence of mind and conduct, which constitute my sole value as a public man, and which have hitherto been my best recommendation to your gracious favor, confidence, and protection."

It is to be regretted that while by this wise advice he helped to save His Royal Master from the invidious appearance of acting upon a principle of exclusion, he should, by his private management afterwards, have but too well contrived to secure to him all the advantage of that principle in reality.

The political career of Sheridan was now drawing fast to a close. He spoke but upon two or three other occasions during the Session; and among the last sentences uttered by him in the House were the following;—which, as calculated to leave a sweeter flavor on the memory, at parting, than those questionable transactions that have just been related, I have great pleasure in citing:—

"My objection to the present Ministry, is that they are avowedly arrayed and embodied against a principle,—that of concession to the Catholics of Ireland,—which I think, and must always think, essential to the safety of this empire. I will never give my vote to any Administration that opposes the question of Catholic Emancipation. I will not consent to receive a furlough upon that particular question, even though a Ministry were carrying every other that I wished. In fine, I think the situation of Ireland a paramount consideration. If they were to be the last words I should ever utter in this House, I should say, 'Be just to Ireland, as you value your own honor,—be just to Ireland, as you value your own peace.'"

His very last words in Parliament, on his own motion relative to the Overtures of Peace from France, were as follow:—

"Yet after the general subjugation and ruin of Europe, should there ever exist an independent historian to record the awful events that produced this universal calamity, let that historian have to say,—'Great Britain fell, and with her fell all the best securities for the charities of human life, for the power and honor, the fame, the glory, and the liberties, not only of herself, but of the whole civilized world.'" In the month of September following, Parliament was dissolved; and, presuming upon the encouragement which he had received from some of his Stafford friends, he again tried his chance of election for that borough, but without success. This failure he, himself, imputed, as will be seen by the following letter, to the refusal of Mr. Whitbread to advance him 2000l. out of the sum due to him by the Committee for his share of the property:—

"DEAR WHITBREAD,

"Cook's Hotel, Nov. 1, 1812.

"I was misled to expect you in town the beginning of last week, but being positively assured that you will arrive to-morrow, I have declined accompanying Hester into Hampshire as I intended, and she has gone to-day without me; but I must leave town to join her as soon as I can. We must have some serious but yet, I hope, friendly conversation respecting my unsettled claims on the Drury-Lane Theatre Corporation. A concluding paragraph, in one of your last letters to Burgess, which he thought himself justified in showing me, leads me to believe that it is not your object to distress or destroy me. On the subject of your refusing to advance to me the 2000l.. I applied for to take with me to Stafford, out of the large sum confessedly due to me, (unless I signed some paper containing I know not what, and which you presented to my breast like a cocked pistol on the last day I saw you,) I will not dwell. This, and this alone, lost me my election. You deceive yourself if you give credit to any other causes, which the pride of my friends chose to attribute our failure to, rather than confess our poverty. I do not mean now to expostulate with you, much less to reproach you, but sure I am that when you contemplate the positive injustice of refusing me the accommodation I required, and the irreparable injury that refusal has cast on me, overturning, probably, all the honor and independence of what remains of my political life, you will deeply reproach yourself.

"I shall make an application to the Committee, when I hear you have appointed one, for the assistance which most pressing circumstances now compel me to call for; and all I desire is, through a sincere wish that our friendship may not be interrupted, that the answer to that application may proceed from a bona fide Committee, with their signatures, testifying their decision.

"I am, yet,

"Yours very sincerely,

"S. Whitbread, Esq.

"R. B. SHERIDAN."

Notwithstanding the angry feeling which is expressed in this letter, and which the state of poor Sheridan's mind, goaded as he was now by distress and disappointment, may well excuse, it will be seen by the following letter from Whitbread, written on the very eve of the elections in September, that there was no want of inclination, on the part of this honorable and excellent man, to afford assistance to his friend,—but that the duties of the perplexing trust which he had undertaken rendered such irregular advances as Sheridan required impossible:—

'MY DEAR SHERIDAN,

"We will not enter into details, although you are quite mistaken in them. You know how happy I shall be to propose to the Committee to agree to anything practicable; and you may make all practicable, if you will have resolution to look at the state of the account between you and the Committee, and agree to the mode of its liquidation.

"You will recollect the 5000l. pledged to Peter Moore to answer demands; the certificates given to Giblet, Ker, Ironmonger, Cross, and Hirdle, five each at your request; the engagements given to Ellis and myself, and the arrears to the Linley family. All this taken into consideration will leave a large balance still payable to you. Still there are upon that balance the claims upon you by Shaw, Taylor, and Grubb, for all of which you have offered to leave the whole of your compensation in my hands, to abide the issue of arbitration.

"This may be managed by your agreeing to take a considerable portion of your balance in bonds, leaving those bonds in trust to answer the events.

"I shall be in town on Monday to the Committee, and will be prepared with a sketch of the state of your account with the Committee, and with the mode in which I think it would be prudent for you and them to adjust it; which if you will agree to, and direct the conveyance to be made forthwith, I will undertake to propose the advance of money you wish. But without a clear arrangement, as a justification, nothing can be done.

"I shall be in Dover-Street at nine o'clock, and be there and in Drury-Lane all day. The Queen comes, but the day is not fixed. The election will occupy me after Monday. After that is over, I hope we shall see you.

"Yours very truly,

"Southill, Sept. 25, 1812.

"S. WHITBREAD."

The feeling entertained by Sheridan towards the Committee had already been strongly manifested this year by the manner in which Mrs. Sheridan received the Resolution passed by them, offering her the use of a box in the new Theatre. The notes of Whitbread to Mrs. Sheridan on this subject, prove how anxious he was to conciliate the wounded feelings of his friend:—

"MY DEAR ESTHER,

"I have delayed sending the enclosed Resolution of the Drury-Lane Committee to you, because I had hoped to have found a moment to have called upon you, and to have delivered it into your hands. But I see no chance of that, and therefore literally obey my instructions in writing to you.

"I had great pleasure in proposing the Resolution, which was cordially and unanimously adopted. I had it always in contemplation,—but to have proposed it earlier would have been improper. I hope you will derive much amusement from your visits to the Theatre, and that you and all of your name will ultimately be pleased with what has been done. I have just had a most satisfactory letter from Tom Sheridan.

"I am,

"My dear Esther,

"Affectionately yours,

"Dover-Street, July 4, 1812.

"SAMUEL WHITBREAD."

"MY DEAR ESTHER,

"It has been a great mortification and disappointment to me, to have met the Committee twice, since the offer of the use of a box at the new Theatre was made to you, and that I have not had to report the slightest acknowledgment from you in return.

"The Committee meet again tomorrow, and after that there will be no meeting for some time. If I shall be compelled to return the same blank answer I have hitherto done, the inference drawn will naturally be, that what was designed by himself, who moved it, and by those who voted it, as a gratifying mark of attention to Sheridan through you, (as the most gratifying mode of conveying it,) has, for some unaccountable reason, been mistaken and is declined.

"But I shall be glad to know before to-morrow, what is your determination on the subject.

"I am, dear Esther,

"Affectionately yours,

"Dover-Street, July 12, 1812."

"S. WHITBREAD.

The failure of Sheridan at Stafford completed his ruin. He was now excluded both from the Theatre and from Parliament:—the two anchors by which he held in life were gone, and he was left a lonely and helpless wreck upon the waters. The Prince Regent offered to bring him into Parliament; but the thought of returning to that scene of his triumphs and his freedom, with the Royal owner's mark, as it were, upon him, was more than he could bear—and he declined the offer. Indeed, miserable and insecure as his life was now, when we consider the public humiliations to which he would have been exposed, between his ancient pledge to Whiggism and his attachment and gratitude to Royalty, it is not wonderful that he should have preferred even the alternative of arrests and imprisonments to the risk of bringing upon his political name any further tarnish in such a struggle. Neither could his talents have much longer continued to do themselves justice, amid the pressure of such cares, and the increased indulgence of habits, which, as is usual, gained upon him, as all other indulgences vanished. The ancients, we are told, by a significant device, inscribed on the wreaths they wore at banquets the name of Minerva. Unfortunately, from the festal wreath of Sheridan this name was now but too often effaced; and the same charm, that once had served to give a quicker flow to thought, was now employed to muddy the stream, as it became painful to contemplate what was at the bottom of it. By his exclusion, therefore, from Parliament, he was, perhaps, seasonably saved from affording to that "Folly, which loves the martyrdom of Fame," [Footnote: "And Folly loves the martyrdom of Fame."

This fine line is in Lord Byron's Monody to his memory. There is another line, equally true and touching, where, alluding to the irregularities of the latter part of Sheridan's life, he says—

"And what to them seem'd vice might be but woe."] the spectacle of a great mind, not only surviving itself, but, like the champion in Berni, continuing the combat after life is gone:—

"Andava combattendo, ed era morto."

In private society, however, he could, even now, (before the Rubicon of the cup was passed,) fully justify his high reputation for agreeableness and wit; and a day which it was my good fortune to spend with him, at the table of Mr. Rogers, has too many mournful, as well as pleasant, associations connected with it, to be easily forgotten by the survivors of the party. The company consisted but of Mr. Rogers himself, Lord Byron, Mr. Sheridan, and the writer of this Memoir. Sheridan knew the admiration his audience felt for him; the presence of the young poet, in particular, seemed to bring back his own youth and wit; and the details he gave of his early life were not less interesting and animating to himself than delightful to us. It was in the course of this evening that, describing to us the poem which Mr. Whitbread had written and sent in, among the other Addresses, for the opening of Drury-Lane, and which, like the rest, turned chiefly on allusions to the Phenix, he said,—"But Whitbread made more of this bird than any of them:—he entered into particulars, and described its wings, beak, tail, &c.; in short, it was a Poulterer's description of a Phenix!"

The following extract from a Diary in my possession, kept by Lord Byron during six months of his residence in London, 1812-13, will show the admiration which this great and generous spirit felt for Sheridan:—

"Saturday, December 18, 1813.

"Lord Holland told me a curious piece of sentimentality in Sheridan. The other night we were all delivering our respective and various opinions on him and other 'hommes marquans,' and mine was this:—'Whatever Sheridan has done or chosen to do has been par excellence, always the best of its kind. He has written the best comedy, (School for Scandal,) the best opera, (The Duenna—in my mind far before that St. Giles's lampoon, The Beggar's Opera,) the best farce, (The Critic—it is only too good for an after-piece,) and the best Address, (Monologue on Garrick,)—and to crown all, delivered the very best oration, (the famous Begum Speech,) ever conceived or heard in this country.' Somebody told Sheridan this the next day, and on hearing it, he burst into tears!—Poor Brinsley! If they were tears of pleasure, I would rather have said those few, but sincere, words, than have written the Iliad, or made his own celebrated Philippic. Nay, his own comedy never gratified me more than to hear that he had derived a moment's gratification from any praise of mine —humble as it must appear to 'my elders and my betters.'"

The distresses of Sheridan now increased every day, and through the short remainder of his life it is a melancholy task to follow him. The sum arising from the sale of his theatrical property was soon exhausted by the various claims upon it, and he was driven to part with all that he most valued, to satisfy further demands and provide for the subsistence of the day. Those books which, as I have already mentioned, were presented to him by various friends, now stood in their splendid bindings, [Footnote: In most of them, too, were the names of the givers. The delicacy with which Mr. Harrison of Wardour-Street, (the pawnbroker with whom the books and the cup were deposited,) behaved, after the death of Mr. Sheridan, deserves to be mentioned with praise. Instead of availing himself of the public feeling at that moment, by submitting these precious relics to the competition of a sale, he privately communicated to the family and one or two friends of Sheridan the circumstance of his having such articles in his hands, and demanded nothing more than the sum regularly due on them. The Stafford cup is in the possession of Mr. Charles Sheridan.] on the shelves of the pawnbroker. The handsome cup, given him by the electors of Stafford, shared the same fate. Three or four fine pictures by Gainsborough, and one by Morland, were sold for little more than five hundred pounds; [Footnote: In the following extract from a note to his solicitor, he refers to these pictures:

"DEAR BURGESS,

"I am perfectly satisfied with your account;—nothing can be more clear or fair, or more disinterested on your part;—but I must grieve to think that five or six hundred pounds for my poor pictures are added to the expenditure. However, we shall come through!"] and even the precious portrait of his first wife, [Footnote: As Saint Cecilia. The portrait of Mrs. Sheridan at Knowle, though less ideal than that of Sir Joshua, is, (for this very reason, perhaps, as bearing a closer resemblance to the original,) still more beautiful.] by Reynolds, though not actually sold during his life, vanished away from his eyes into other hands.

One of the most humiliating trials of his pride was yet to come. In the spring of this year he was arrested and carried to a spunging-house, where he remained two or three days. This abode, from which the following painful letter to Whitbread was written, formed a sad contrast to those Princely halls, of which he had so lately been the most brilliant and favored guest, and which were possibly, at that very moment, lighted up and crowded with gay company, unmindful of him within those prison walls:—

"Tooke's Court, Cursitor-Street, Thursday, past two.

"I have done everything in my power with the solicitors, White and Founes, to obtain my release, by substituting a better security for them than their detaining me—but in vain.

"Whitbread, putting all false professions of friendship and feeling out of the question, you have no right to keep me here!—for it is in truth your act—if you had not forcibly withheld from me the twelve thousand pounds, in consequence of a threatening letter from a miserable swindler, whose claim YOU in particular knew to be a lie, I should at least have been out of the reach of this state of miserable insult—for that, and that only, lost me my seat in Parliament. And I assert that you cannot find a lawyer in the land, that is not either a natural-born fool or a corrupted scoundrel, who will not declare that your conduct in this respect was neither warrantable nor legal—but let that pass for the present.

"Independently of the 1000l. ignorantly withheld from me on the day of considering my last claim. I require of you to answer the draft I send herewith on the part of the Committee, pledging myself to prove to them on the first day I can personally meet them, that there are still thousands and thousands due to me, both legally, and equitably, from the Theatre. My word ought to be taken on this subject; and you may produce to them this document, if one, among them could think that, under all the circumstances, your conduct required a justification. O God! with what mad confidence have I trusted your word,—I ask justice from you, and no boon. I enclosed you yesterday three different securities, which had you been disposed to have acted even as a private friend, would have made it certain that you might have done so without the smallest risk. These you discreetly offered to put into the fire, when you found the object of your humane visit satisfied by seeing me safe in prison.

"I shall only add, that, I think, if I know myself, had our lots been reversed, and I had seen you in my situation, and had left Lady E. in that of my wife, I would have risked 600l. rather than have left you so—although I had been in no way accessory in bringing you into that condition.

"S. Whitbread. Esq.

"R. B. SHERIDAN."

Even in this situation the sanguineness of his disposition did not desert him; for he was found by Mr. Whitbread, on his visit to the spunging-house, confidently calculating on the representation for Westminster, in which the proceedings relative to Lord Cochrane at that moment promised a vacancy. On his return home, however, to Mrs. Sheridan, (some arrangements having been made by Whitbread for his release,) all his fortitude forsook him, and he burst into a long and passionate fit of weeping at the profanation, as he termed it, which his person had suffered.

He had for some months had a feeling that his life was near its close; and I find the following touching passage in a letter from him to Mrs. Sheridan, after one of those differences which will sometimes occur between the most affectionate companions, and which, possibly, a remonstrance on his irregularities and want of care of himself occasioned:—"Never again let one harsh word pass between us, during the period, which may not perhaps be long, that we are in this world together, and life, however clouded to me, is mutually spared to us. I have expressed this same sentiment to my son, in a letter I wrote to him a few days since, and I had his answer—a most affecting one, and, I am sure, very sincere—and have since cordially embraced him. Don't imagine that I am expressing an interesting apprehension about myself, which I do not feel."

Though the new Theatre of Drury-Lane had now been three years built, his feelings had never allowed him to set his foot within its walls. About this time, however, he was persuaded by his friend, Lord Essex, to dine with him and go in the evening to His Lordship's box, to see Kean. Once there, the "genius loci" seems to have regained its influence over him; for, on missing him from the box, between the Acts, Lord Essex, who feared that he had left the House, hastened out to inquire, and, to his great satisfaction, found him installed in the Green-room, with all the actors around him, welcoming him back to the old region of his glory, with a sort of filial cordiality. Wine was immediately ordered, and a bumper to the health of Mr. Sheridan was drank by all present, with the expression of many a hearty wish that he would often, very often, re-appear among them. This scene, as was natural, exhilarated his spirits, and, on parting with Lord Essex that night, at his own door, in Saville-Row, he said triumphantly that the world would soon hear of him, for the Duke of Norfolk was about to bring him into Parliament. This, it appears, was actually the case; but Death stood near as he spoke. In a few days after his last fatal illness began.

Amid all the distresses of these latter years of his life, he appears but rarely to have had recourse to pecuniary assistance from friends. Mr. Peter Moore, Mr. Ironmonger, and one or two others, who did more for the comfort of his decline than any of his high and noble associates, concur in stating that, except for such an occasional trifle as his coach-hire, he was by no means, as has been sometimes asserted, in the habit of borrowing. One instance, however, where he laid himself under this sort of obligation, deserves to be mentioned. Soon after the return of Mr. Canning from Lisbon, a letter was put into his hands, in the House of Commons, which proved to be a request from his old friend Sheridan, then lying ill in bed, that he would oblige him with the loan of a hundred pounds. It is unnecessary to say that the request was promptly and feelingly complied with; and if the pupil has ever regretted leaving the politics of his master, it was not at that moment, at least, such a feeling was likely to present itself.

There are, in the possession of a friend of Sheridan, copies of a correspondence in which he was engaged this year with two noble Lords and the confidential agent of an illustrious Personage, upon a subject, as it appears, of the utmost delicacy and importance. The letters of Sheridan, it is said, (for I have not seen them,) though of too secret and confidential a nature to meet the public eye, not only prove the great confidence reposed in him by the parties concerned, but show the clearness and manliness of mind which he could still command, under the pressure of all that was most trying to human intellect.

The disorder, with which he was now attacked, arose from a diseased state of the stomach, brought on partly by irregular living, and partly by the harassing anxieties that had, for so many years, without intermission, beset him. His powers of digestion grew every day worse, till he was at length unable to retain any sustenance. Notwithstanding this, however, his strength seemed to be but little broken, and his pulse remained, for some time, strong and regular. Had he taken, indeed, but ordinary care of himself through life, the robust conformation of his frame, and particularly, as I have heard his physician remark, the peculiar width and capaciousness of his chest, seemed to mark him out for a long course of healthy existence. In general Nature appears to have a prodigal delight in enclosing her costliest essences in the most frail and perishable vessels:—but Sheridan was a signal exception to this remark; for, with a spirit so "finely touched," he combined all the robustness of the most uninspired clay.

Mrs. Sheridan was, at first, not aware of his danger; but Dr. Bain—whose skill was now, as it ever had been, disinterestedly at the service of his friend, [Footnote: A letter from Sheridan to this amiable man, (of which I know not the date,) written in reference to a caution which he had given Mrs. Sheridan, against sleeping in the same bed with a lady who was consumptive, expresses feelings creditable alike to the writer and his physician:—

"MY DEAR SIR,

"July 31.

"The caution you recommend proceeds from that attentive kindness which Hester always receives from you, and upon which I place the greatest reliance for her safety. I so entirely agree with your apprehensions on the subject, that I think it was very giddy in me not to have been struck with them when she first mentioned having slept with her friend. Nothing can abate my love for her; and the manner in which you apply the interest you take in her happiness, and direct the influence you possess in her mind, render you, beyond comparison, the person I feel most obliged to upon earth. I take this opportunity of saying this upon paper, because it is a subject on which I always find it difficult to speak.

"With respect to that part of your note in which you express such friendly partiality, as to my parliamentary conduct, I need not add that there is no man whose good opinion can be more flattering to me.

"I am ever, my dear Bain,

"Your sincere and obliged

"R. B. SHERIDAN."]—thought it right to communicate to her the apprehensions that he felt. From that moment, her attentions to the sufferer never ceased day or night; and, though drooping herself with an illness that did not leave her long behind him, she watched over his every word and wish, with unremitting anxiety, to the last.

Connected, no doubt, with the disorganization of his stomach, was an abscess, from which, though distressingly situated, he does not appear to have suffered much pain. In the spring of this year, however, he was obliged to confine himself, almost entirely, to his bed. Being expected to attend the St. Patrick's Dinner, on the 17th of March, he wrote a letter to the Duke of Kent, who was President, alleging severe indisposition as the cause of his absence. The contents of this letter were communicated to the company, and produced, as appears by the following note from the Duke of Kent, a strong sensation:—

Kensington Palace, March 27, 1816.

"MY DEAR SHERIDAN,

"I have been so hurried ever since St. Patrick's day, as to be unable earlier to thank you for your kind letter, which I received while presiding at the festive board; but I can assure you, I was not unmindful of it then, but announced the afflicting cause of your absence to the company, who expressed, in a manner that could not be misunderstood, their continued affection for the writer of it. It now only remains for me to assure you, that I appreciate as I ought the sentiments of attachment it contains for me, and which will ever be most cordially returned by him, who is with the most friendly regard, my dear Sheridan,

"Yours faithfully,

"The Right Hon. R. B. Sheridan.

"EDWARD."

The following letter to him at this time from his elder sister will be read with interest:—

"MY DEAR BROTHER,

"Dublin, May 9, 1816.

"I am very, very sorry you are ill; but I trust in God your naturally strong constitution will retrieve all, and that I shall soon have the satisfaction of hearing that you are in a fair way of recovery. I well know the nature of your complaint, that it is extremely painful, but if properly treated, and no doubt you have the best advice, not dangerous. I know a lady now past seventy four, who many years since was attacked with a similar complaint, and is now as well as most persons of her time of life. Where poulticing is necessary, I have known oatmeal used with the best effect. Forgive, dear brother, this officious zeal. Your son Thomas told me he felt obliged to me for not prescribing for him. I did not, because in his case I thought it would be ineffectual; in yours I have reason to hope the contrary. I am very glad to hear of the good effect change of climate has made in him;—I took a great liking to him; there was something kind in his manner that won upon my affections. Of your son Charles I hear the most delightful accounts:—that he has an excellent and cultivated understanding, and a heart as good. May he be a blessing to you, and a compensation for much you have endured! That I do not know him, that I have not seen you, (so early and so long the object of my affection,) for so many years, has not been my fault; but I have ever considered it as a drawback upon a situation not otherwise unfortunate; for, to use the words of Goldsmith, I have endeavored to 'draw upon content for the deficiencies of fortune;' and truly I have had some employment in that way, for considerable have been our worldly disappointments. But those are not the worst evils of life, and we have good children, which is its first blessing. I have often told you my son Tom bore a strong resemblance to you, when I loved you preferably to any thing the world contained. This, which was the case with him in childhood and early youth, is still so in mature years. In character of mind, too, he is very like you, though education and situation have made a great difference. At that period of existence, when the temper, morals, and propensities are formed, Tom had a mother who watched over his health, his well-being, and every part of education in which a female could be useful. You had lost a mother who would have cherished you, whose talents you inherited, who would have softened the asperity of our father's temper, and probably have prevented his unaccountable partialities. You have always shown a noble independence of spirit, that the pecuniary difficulties you often had to encounter could not induce you to forego. As a public man, you have been, like the motto of the Lefanu family, 'Sine macula,' and I am persuaded had you not too early been thrown upon the world, and alienated from your family, you would have been equally good as a private character. My son is eminently so. * * *

"Do, dear brother, send me one line to tell me you are better, and believe me, most affectionately,

"Yours,

"ALICIA LEEANU."

While death was thus gaining fast on Sheridan, the miseries of his life were thickening around him also; nor did the last corner, in which he now lay down to die, afford him any asylum from the clamors of his legal pursuers. Writs and executions came in rapid succession, and bailiffs at length gained possession of his house. It was about the beginning of May that Lord Holland, on being informed by Mr. Rogers, (who was one of the very few that watched the going out of this great light with interest,) of the dreary situation in which his old friend was lying, paid him a visit one evening, in company with Mr. Rogers, and by the cordiality, suavity, and cheerfulness of his conversation, shed a charm round that chamber of sickness, which, perhaps, no other voice but his own could have imparted.

Sheridan was, I believe, sincerely attached to Lord Holland, in whom he saw transmitted the same fine qualities, both of mind and heart, which, notwithstanding occasional appearances to the contrary, he had never ceased to love and admire in his great relative;—the same ardor for Right and impatience of Wrong—the same mixture of wisdom and simplicity, so tempering each other, as to make the simplicity refined and the wisdom unaffected—the same gentle magnanimity of spirit, intolerant only of tyranny and injustice—and, in addition to all this, a range and vivacity of conversation, entirely his own, which leaves no subject untouched or unadorned, but is, (to borrow a fancy of Dryden,) "as the Morning of the Mind," bringing new objects and images successively into view, and scattering its own fresh light over all. Such a visit, therefore, could not fail to be soothing and gratifying to Sheridan; and, on parting, both Lord Holland and Mr. Rogers comforted him with the assurance that some steps should be taken to ward off the immediate evils that he dreaded.

An evening or two after, (Wednesday, May 15,) I was with Mr. Rogers, when, on returning home, he found the following afflicting note upon his table:—

"Saville-Row.

"I find things settled so that 150l. will remove all difficulty. I am absolutely undone and broken-hearted. I shall negotiate for the Plays successfully in the course of a week, when all shall be returned. I have desired Fairbrother to get back the Guarantee for thirty.

"They are going to put the carpets out of window, and break into Mrs. S.'s room and take me—for God's sake let me see you.

"R. B. S."

It was too late to do any thing when this note was received, being then between twelve and one at night; but Mr. Rogers and I walked down to Saville-Row together to assure ourselves that the threatened arrest had not yet been put in execution. A servant spoke to us out of the area, and said that all was safe for the night, but that it was intended, in pursuance of this new proceeding, to paste bills over the front of the house next day.

On the following morning I was early with Mr. Rogers, and willingly undertook to be the bearer of a draft for 150l. [Footnote: Lord Holland afterwards insisted upon paying the half of this sum,—which was not the first of the same amount that my liberal friend, Mr. Rogers, had advanced for Sheridan.] to Saville-Row. I found Mr. Sheridan good-natured and cordial as ever; and though he was then within a few weeks of his death, his voice had not lost its fulness or strength, nor was that lustre, for which his eyes were so remarkable, diminished. He showed, too, his usual sanguineness of disposition in speaking of the price that he expected for his Dramatic Works, and of the certainty he felt of being able to arrange all his affairs, if his complaint would but suffer him to leave his bed. In the following month, his powers began rapidly to fail him;—his stomach was completely worn out, and could no longer bear any kind of sustenance. During the whole of this time, as far as I can learn, it does not appear that, (with the exceptions I have mentioned,) any one of his Noble or Royal friends ever called at his door, or even sent to inquire after him!

About this period Doctor Bain received the following note from Mr. Vaughan:—

"MY DEAR SIR,

"An apology in a case of humanity is scarcely necessary, besides I have the honor of a slight acquaintance with you. A friend of mine, hearing of our friend Sheridan's forlorn situation, and that he has neither money nor credit for a few comforts, has employed me to convey a small sum for his use, through such channel as I think right. I can devise none better than through you. If I had had the good fortune to have seen you, I should have left for this purpose a draft for 50l. Perhaps as much more might be had if it will be conducive to a good end—of course you must feel it is not for the purpose of satisfying troublesome people. I will say more to you if you will do me the honor of a call in your way to Saville-Street to-morrow. I am a mere agent.

"I am,

"My dear Sir,

"Most truly yours,

"23, Grafton-Street.

"JOHN TAYLOR VAUGHAN.

"If I should not see you before twelve, I will come through the passage to you."

In his interview with Dr. Bain, Mr. Vaughan stated, that the sum thus placed at his disposal was, in all, 200l.; [Footnote: Mr. Vaughan did not give Doctor Bain to understand that he was authorized to go beyond the 200l.; but, in a conversation which I had with him a year or two after, in contemplation of this Memoir, he told me that a further supply was intended.] and the proposition being submitted to Mrs. Sheridan, that lady, after consulting with some of her relatives, returned for answer that, as there was a sufficiency of means to provide all that was necessary for her husband's comfort, as well as her own, she begged leave to decline the offer.

Mr. Vaughan always said, that the donation, thus meant to be doled out, came from a Royal hand;—but this is hardly credible. It would be safer, perhaps, to let the suspicion rest upon that gentleman's memory, of having indulged his own benevolent disposition in this disguise, than to suppose it possible that so scanty and reluctant a benefaction was the sole mark of attention accorded by a "gracious Prince and Master" [Footnote: See Sheridan's Letter, page 268.] to the last, death-bed wants of one of the most accomplished and faithful servants, that Royalty ever yet raised or ruined by its smiles. When the philosopher Anaxagoras lay dying for want of sustenance, his great pupil, Pericles, sent him a sum of money. "Take it back," said Anaxagoras—"if he wished to keep the lamp alive, he ought to have administered the oil before!"

In the mean time, the clamors and incursions of creditors increased. A sheriff's officer at length arrested the dying man in his bed, and was about to carry him off, in his blankets, to a spunging-house, when Doctor Bain interfered—and, by threatening the officer with the responsibility he must incur, if, as was but too probable, his prisoner should expire on the way, averted this outrage.

About the middle of June, the attention and sympathy of the Public were, for the first time, awakened to the desolate situation of Sheridan, by an article that appeared in the Morning Post,—written, as I understand, by a gentleman, who, though on no very cordial terms with him, forgot every other feeling in a generous pity for his fate, and in honest indignation against those who now deserted him. "Oh delay not," said the writer, without naming the person to whom he alluded—"delay not to draw aside the curtain within which that proud spirit hides its sufferings." He then adds, with a striking anticipation of what afterwards happened:—"Prefer ministering in the chamber of sickness to mustering at

'The splendid sorrows that adorn the hearse;'

I say, Life and Succor against Westminster-Abbey and a Funeral!"

This article produced a strong and general sensation, and was reprinted in the same paper the following day. Its effect, too, was soon visible in the calls made at Sheridan's door, and in the appearance of such names as the Duke of York, the Duke of Argyle, &c. among the visitors. But it was now too late;—the spirit, that these unavailing tributes might once have comforted, was now fast losing the consciousness of every thing earthly, but pain. After a succession of shivering fits, he fell into a state of exhaustion, in which he continued, with but few more signs of suffering, till his death. A day or two before that event, the Bishop of London read prayers by his bed-side; and on Sunday, the seventh of July, in the sixty-fifth year of his age, he died.

On the following Saturday the Funeral took place;—his remains having been previously removed from Saville-Row to the house of his friend, Mr. Peter Moore, in Great George-Street, Westminster. From thence, at one o'clock, the procession moved on foot to the Abbey, where, in the only spot in Poet's Corner that remained unoccupied, the body was interred; and the following simple inscription marks its resting-place:—

"RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN,

BORN, 1751,

DIED, 7th JULY, 1816.

THIS MARBLE IS THE TRIBUTE OF AN ATTACHED

FRIEND,

PETER MOORE."

Seldom has there been seen such an array of rank as graced this Funeral. [Footnote: It was well remarked by a French Journal, in contrasting the penury of Sheridan's latter years with the splendor of his Funeral, that "France is the place for a man of letters to live in, and England the place for him to die in."] The Pall-bearers were the Duke of Bedford, the Earl of Lauderdale, Earl Mulgrave, the Lord Bishop of London, Lord Holland, and Lord Spencer. Among the mourners were His Royal Highness the Duke of York, His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex, the Duke of Argyle, the Marquisses of Anglesea and Tavistock; the Earls of Thanet, Jersey, Harrington, Besborough, Mexborough, Rosslyn, and Yarmouth; Lords George Cavendish and Robert Spencer; Viscounts Sidmouth, Granville, and Duncannon; Lords Rivers, Erskine, and Lynedoch; the Lord Mayor; Right Hon. G. Canning and W. W. Pole, &c., &c. [Footnote: In the train of all this phalanx of Dukes, Marquisses, Earls, Viscounts, Barons, Honorables, and Right Honorables, Princes of the Blood Royal, and First Officers of the State, it was not a little interesting to see, walking humbly, side by side, the only two men whose friendship had not waited for the call of vanity to display itself—Dr. Bain and Mr. Rogers.]

Where were they all, these Royal and Noble persons, who now crowded to "partake the gale" of Sheridan's glory—where were they all while any life remained in him? Where were they all, but a few weeks before, when their interposition might have saved his heart from breaking,—or when the zeal, now wasted on the grave, might have soothed and comforted the death-bed? This is a subject on which it is difficult to speak with patience. If the man was unworthy of the commonest offices of humanity while he lived, why all this parade of regret and homage over his tomb?

There appeared some verses at the time, which, however intemperate in their satire and careless in their style, came, evidently, warm from the heart of the writer, and contained sentiments to which, even in his cooler moments, he needs not hesitate to subscribe:—

"Oh it sickens the heart to see bosoms so hollow, And friendships so false in the great and high-born;— To think what a long line of Titles may follow The relics of him who died, friendless and lorn!

"How proud they can press to the funeral array Of him whom they shunn'd, in his sickness and sorrow— How bailiffs may seize his last blanket to-day, Whose pall shall be held up by Nobles to-morrow!"

The anonymous writer thus characterizes the talents of Sheridan:—

"Was this, then, the fate of that high-gifted man, The pride of the palace, the bower, and the hall— The orator, dramatist, minstrel,—who ran Through each mode of the lyre, and was master of all.

"Whose mind was an essence, compounded, with art, From the finest and best of all other men's powers;— Who rul'd, like a wizard, the world of the heart, And could call up its sunshine, or draw down its showers;—

"Whose humor, as gay as the fire-fly's light, Play'd round every subject, and shone, as it play'd;— Whose wit, in the combat as gentle as bright, Ne'er carried a heart-stain away on its blade;—

"Whose eloquence brightened whatever it tried, Whether reason or fancy, the gay or the grave, Was as rapid, as deep, and as brilliant a tide, As ever bore Freedom aloft on its wave!"

* * * * *

Though a perusal of the foregoing pages has, I trust, sufficiently furnished the reader with materials out of which to form his own estimate of the character of Sheridan, a few general remarks may, at parting, be allowed me—rather with a view to convey the impressions left upon myself, than with any presumptuous hope of influencing the deductions of others.

In considering the intellectual powers of this extraordinary man, the circumstance that first strikes us is the very scanty foundation of instruction, upon which he contrived to raise himself to such eminence both as a writer and a politician. It is true, in the line of authorship he pursued, erudition was not so much wanting; and his wit, like the laurel of Caesar, was leafy enough to hide any bareness in this respect. In politics, too, he had the advantage of entering upon his career, at a time when habits of business and a knowledge of details were less looked for in public men than they are at present, and when the House of Commons was, for various reasons, a more open play-ground for eloquence and wit. The great increase of public business, since then, has necessarily made a considerable change in this respect. Not only has the time of the Legislature become too precious to be wasted upon the mere gymnastics of rhetoric, but even those graces, with which true Oratory surrounds her statements, are but impatiently borne, where the statement itself is the primary and pressing object of the hearer. [Footnote: The new light that as been thrown on Political Science may also, perhaps, be assigned as a reason for this evident revolution in Parliamentary taste. "Truth." says Lord Bacon, "is a naked and open daylight, that doth not show the masques, and mummeries, and triumphs of the present world half so stately and daintily as candle-lights;"—and there can be little doubt that the clearer and important truths are made, the less controversy they will excite among fair and rational men, and the less passion and fancy accordingly can eloquence infuse into the discussion of them. Mathematics have produced no quarrels among mankind—it is by the mysterious and the vague, that temper as well as imagination is most roused. In proof of this while the acknowledged clearness almost to truism, which the leading principles of Political Science have attained, has tended to simplify and tame down the activities of eloquence on that subject. There is still another arena left, in the science of the Law, where the same illumination of truth has not yet penetrated, and where Oratory will still continue to work her perplexing spells, till Common Sense and the plain principles of Utility shall find their way there also to weaken them.] Burke, we know, was, even for his own time, too much addicted to what falconers would call raking, or flying wide of his game; but there was hardly, perhaps, one among his great contemporaries, who, if beginning his career at present, would not find it, in some degree, necessary to conform his style to the taste for business and matter-of-fact that is prevalent. Mr. Pitt would be compelled to curtail the march of his sentences—Mr. Fox would learn to repeat himself less lavishly—nor would Mr. Sheridan venture to enliven a question of evidence by a long and pathetic appeal to Filial Piety.

In addition to this change in the character and taste of the House of Commons, which, while it has lowered the value of some of the qualifications possessed by Sheridan, has created a demand for others of a more useful but less splendid kind, which his education and habits of life would have rendered less easily attainable by him, we must take also into account the prodigious difference produced by the general movement, at present, of the whole civilized world towards knowledge;—a movement, which no public man, however great his natural talents, could now lag behind with impunity, and which requires nothing less than the versatile and encyclopaedic powers of a Brougham to keep pace with it.

Another striking characteristic of Sheridan, as an orator and a writer, was the great degree of labor and preparation which his productions in both lines cost him. Of this the reader has seen some curious proofs in the preceding pages. Though the papers left behind by him have added nothing to the stock of his chef-d'oeuvres, they have given us an insight into his manner of producing his great works, which is, perhaps, the next most interesting thing to the works themselves. Though no new star has been discovered, the history of the formation of those we already possess, and of the gradual process by which they were brought "firm to retain their gathered beams," has, as in the instance of The School for Scandal, been most interestingly unfolded to us.

The same marks of labor are discoverable throughout the whole of his Parliamentary career. He never made a speech of any moment, of which the sketch, more or less detailed, has not been found among his papers—with the showier passages generally written two or three times over, (often without any material change in their form,) upon small detached pieces of paper, or on cards. To such minutiae of effect did he attend, that I have found, in more than one instance, a memorandum made of the precise place in which the words "Good God, Mr. Speaker," were to be introduced. These preparatory sketches are continued down to his latest displays; and it is observable that when from the increased derangement of his affairs, he had no longer leisure or collectedness enough to prepare, he ceased to speak.

The only time he could have found for this pre-arrangement of his thoughts, (of which few, from the apparent idleness of his life, suspected him,) must have been during the many hours of the day that he remained in bed,—when, frequently, while the world gave him credit for being asleep, he was employed in laying the frame-work of his wit and eloquence for the evening.

That this habit of premeditation was not altogether owing to a want of quickness, appears from the power and liveliness of his replies in Parliament, and the vivacity of some of his retorts in conversation. [Footnote: His best bon mots are in the memory of every one. Among those less known, perhaps, is his answer to General T——, relative to some difference of opinion between them on the War in Spain:—"Well, T——, are you still on your high horse?"—"If I was on a horse before, I am upon an elephant now." "No, T——, you were upon an ass before, now you are upon a mule."

Some mention having been made in his presence of a Tax upon Milestones. Sheridan said, "such a tax would be unconstitutional,—as they were a race that could not meet to remonstrate."

As an instance of his humor, I have been told that, in some country-house where he was on a visit, an elderly maiden lady having set her heart on being his companion in a walk, he excused himself at first on account of the badness of the weather. Soon afterwards, however, the lady intercepted him in an attempt to escape without her:—"Well," she said, "it has cleared up, I see." "Why, yes," he answered, "it has cleared up enough for one, but not for two."] The labor, indeed, which he found necessary for his public displays, was, in a great degree, the combined effect of his ignorance and his taste;—the one rendering him fearful of committing himself on the matter of his task, and the other making him fastidious and hesitating as to the manner of it. I cannot help thinking, however, that there must have been, also, a degree of natural slowness in the first movements of his mind upon any topic; and, that, like those animals which remain gazing upon their prey before they seize it, he found it necessary to look intently at his subject for some time, before he was able to make the last, quick spring that mastered it.

Among the proofs of this dependence of his fancy upon time and thought for its development, may be mentioned his familiar letters, as far as their fewness enables us to judge. Had his wit been a "fruit, that would fall without shaking," we should, in these communications at least, find some casual windfalls of it. But, from the want of sufficient time to search and cull, he seems to have given up, in despair, all thoughts of being lively in his letters; and accordingly, as the reader must have observed in the specimens that have been given, his compositions in this way are not only unenlivened by any excursions beyond the bounds of mere matter of fact, but, from the habit or necessity of taking a certain portion of time for correction, are singularly confused, disjointed, and inelegant in their style.

It is certain that even his bon-mots in society were not always to be set down to the credit of the occasion; but that frequently, like skilful priests, he prepared the miracle of the moment before-hand. Nothing, indeed, could be more remarkable than the patience and tact, with which he would wait through a whole evening for the exact moment, when the shaft which he had ready feathered, might be let fly with effect. There was no effort, either obvious or disguised, to lead to the subject—no "question detached, (as he himself expresses it,) to draw you into the ambuscade of his ready-made joke"—and, when the lucky moment did arrive, the natural and accidental manner in which he would let this treasured sentence fall from his lips, considerably added to the astonishment and the charm. So bright a thing, produced so easily, seemed like the delivery of Wieland's [Footnote: See Sotheby's admirable Translation of Oberon, Canto 9.] Amanda in a dream;—and his own apparent unconsciousness of the value of what he said might have deceived dull people into the idea that there was really nothing in it.

The consequence of this practice of waiting for the moment of effect was, (as all, who have been much in his society, must have observed,) that he would remain inert in conversation, and even taciturn, for hours, and then suddenly come out with some brilliant sally, which threw a light over the whole evening, and was carried away in the memories of all present. Nor must it be supposed that in the intervals, either before or after these flashes, he ceased to be agreeable; on the contrary, he had a grace and good nature in his manner, which gave a charm to even his most ordinary sayings,—and there was, besides, that ever-speaking lustre in his eye, which made it impossible, even when he was silent, to forget who he was.

A curious instance of the care with which he treasured up the felicities of his wit, appears in the use he made of one of those epigrammatic passages, which the reader may remember among the memorandums for his Comedy of Affectation, and which, in its first form, ran thus:—"He certainly has a great deal of fancy, and a very good memory; but, with a perverse ingenuity, he employs these qualities as no other person does—for he employs his fancy in his narratives, and keeps his recollection for his wit:—when he makes his jokes, you applaud the accuracy of his memory, and 'tis only when he states his facts that you admire the flights of his imagination." After many efforts to express this thought more concisely, and to reduce the language of it to that condensed and elastic state, in which alone it gives force to the projectiles of wit, he kept the passage by him patiently some years,—till at length he found an opportunity of turning it to account, in a reply, I believe, to Mr. Dundas, in the House of Commons, when, with the most extemporaneous air, he brought it forth, in the following compact and pointed form:—"The Right Honorable Gentleman is indebted to his memory for his jests, and to his imagination for his facts."

His Political Character stands out so fully in these pages, that it is needless, by any comments, to attempt to raise it into stronger relief. If to watch over the Rights of the Subject, and guard them against the encroachments of Power, be, even in safe and ordinary times, a task full of usefulness and honor, how much more glorious to have stood sentinel over the same sacred trust, through a period so trying as that with which Sheridan had to struggle—when Liberty itself had become suspected and unpopular—when Authority had succeeded in identifying patriotism with treason, and when the few remaining and deserted friends of Freedom were reduced to take their stand on a narrowing isthmus, between Anarchy on one side, and the angry incursions of Power on the other. How manfully he maintained his ground in a position so critical, the annals of England and of the Champions of her Constitution will long testify. The truly national spirit, too, with which, when that struggle was past, and the dangers to liberty from without seemed greater than any from within, he forgot all past differences, in the one common cause of Englishmen, and, while others "gave but the left hand to the Country," [Footnote: His own words] proffered her both of his, stamped a seal of sincerity on his public conduct, which, in the eyes of all England, authenticated it as genuine patriotism.

To his own party, it is true, his conduct presented a very different phasis; and if implicit partisanship were the sole merit of a public man, his movements, at this and other junctures, were far too independent and unharnessed to lay claim to it. But, however useful may be the bond of Party, there are occasions that supersede it; and, in all such deviations from the fidelity which it enjoins, the two questions to be asked are—were they, as regarded the Public, right? were they, as regarded the individual himself, unpurchased? To the former question, in the instance of Sheridan, the whole country responded in the affirmative; and to the latter, his account with the Treasury, from first to last, is a sufficient answer.

Even, however, on the score of fidelity to Party, when we recollect that he more than once submitted to some of the worst martyrdoms which it imposes—that of sharing in the responsibility of opinions from which he dissented, and suffering by the ill consequences of measures against which he had protested;—when we call to mind, too, that during the Administration of Mr. Addington, though agreeing wholly with the Ministry and differing with the Whigs, he even then refused to profit by a position so favorable to his interests, and submitted, like certain religionists, from a point of honor, to suffer for a faith in which he did not believe—it seems impossible not to concede that even to the obligations of Party he was as faithful as could be expected from a spirit that so far outgrew its limits, and, in paying the tax of fidelity while he asserted the freedom of dissent, showed that he could sacrifice every thing to it, except his opinion. Through all these occasional variations, too, he remained a genuine Whig to the last; and, as I have heard one of his own party happily express it, was "like pure gold, that changes color in the fire, but comes out unaltered."

The transaction in 1812, relative to the Household, was, as I have already said, the least defensible part of his public life. But it should be recollected hove broken he was, both in mind and body, at that period;—his resources from the Theatre at an end,—the shelter of Parliament about to be taken from over his head also,—and old age and sickness coming on, as every hope and comfort vanished. In that wreck of all around him, the friendship of Carlton-House was the last asylum left to his pride and his hope; and that even character itself should, in a too zealous moment, have been one of the sacrifices offered up at the shrine that protected him, is a subject more of deep regret than of wonder. The poet Cowley, in speaking of the unproductiveness of those pursuits connected with Wit and Fancy, says beautifully—

"Where such fairies once have danc'd, no grass will ever grow;"

but, unfortunately, thorns will grow there;—and he who walks unsteadily among such thorns as now beset the once enchanted path of Sheridan, ought not, after all, to be very severely criticised.

His social qualities were, unluckily for himself but too attractive. In addition to his powers of conversation, there was a well-bred good-nature in his manner, as well as a deference to the remarks and opinions of others, the want of which very often, in distinguished wits, offends the self-love of their hearers, and makes even the dues of admiration that they levy a sort of "Droit de Seigneur," paid with unwillingness and distaste.

No one was so ready and cheerful in promoting the amusements of a country-house; and on a rural excursion he was always the soul of the party. His talent at dressing a little dish was often put in requisition on such occasions, and an Irish stew was that on which he particularly plumed himself. Some friends of his recall with delight a day of this kind which they passed with him, when he made the whole party act over the Battle of the Pyramids on Marsden Moor, and ordered "Captain" Creevey and others upon various services, against the cows and donkeys entrenched in the ditches. Being of so playful a disposition himself, it was not wonderful that he should take such pleasure in the society of children. I have been told, as doubly characteristic of him, that he has often, at Mr. Monckton's, kept a chaise and four waiting half the day for him at the door, while he romped with the children.

In what are called Ver de Societie, or drawing-room verses, he took great delight; and there remain among his papers several sketches of these trifles. I once heard him repeat in a ballroom, some verses which he had lately written on Waltzing, and of which I remember the following:

"With tranquil step, and timid, downcast glance, Behold the well-pair'd couple now advance. In such sweet posture our first Parents mov'd, While, hand in hand, through Eden's bowers they rov'd; Ere yet the Devil, with promise foul and false, Turn'd their poor heads and taught them how to Walse. One hand grasps hers, the other holds her hip— * * * * * For so the Law's laid down by Baron Trip."

[Footnote: This gentleman, whose name suits so aptly as legal authority on the subject of Waltzing, was at the time these verses were written, well known in the dancing circles.]

He had a sort of hereditary fancy for difficult trifling in poetry;—particularly for that sort, which consists in rhyming to the same word through a long string of couplets, till every rhyme that the language supplies for it is exhausted, [Footnote: Some verses by General Fitzpatrick on Lord Holland's father are the best specimen that I know of this sort of Scherzo.] The following are specimens from a poem of this kind, which he wrote on the loss of a lady's trunk:—

"MY TRUNK!

"(To Anne.)

"Have you heard, my deer Anne, how my spirits are sunk? Have you heard of the cause? Oh, the loss of my Trunk! From exertion or firmness I've never yet slunk; But my fortitude's gone with the loss of my Trunk! Stout Lucy, my maid, is a damsel of spunk; Yet she weeps night and day for the loss of my Trunk! I'd better turn nun, and coquet with a monk; For with whom can I flirt without aid from my Trunk! * * * * * Accurs'd be the thief, the old rascally hunks; Who rifles the fair, and lays hands on their Trunks! He, who robs the King's stores of the least bit of junk, Is hang'd—while he's safe, who has plunder'd my Trunk! * * * * * There's a phrase amongst lawyers, when nune's put for tune; But, tune and nune both, must I grieve for my Trunk! Huge leaves of that great commentator, old Brunck, Perhaps was the paper that lin'd my poor Trunk! But my rhymes are all out;—for I dare not use st—k; [1] 'Twould shock Sheridan more than the loss of my Trunk!"

[Footnote 1: He had a particular horror of this word.]

From another of these trifles, (which, no doubt, produced much gaiety at the breakfast-table,) the following extracts will be sufficient:—

"Muse, assist me to complain, While I grieve for Lady Jane. I ne'er was in so sad a vein, Deserted now by Lady Jane. * * * * * Lord Petre's house was built by Payne— No mortal architect made Jane. If hearts had windows, through the pane Of mine you'd see sweet Lady Jane. * * * * * At breakfast I could scarce refrain From tears at missing lovely Jane, Nine rolls I eat, in hopes to gain The roll that might have fall'n to Jane," &c.

Another written on a Mr. Bigg, contains some ludicrous couplets:—

"I own he's not fam'd for a reel or a jig, Tom Sheridan there surpasses Tom Bigg.— For lam'd in one thigh, he is obliged to go zig- Zag, like a crab—for no dancer is Bigg. Those who think him a coxcomb, or call him a prig, How little they know of the mind of my Bigg! Tho' he ne'er can be mine, Hope will catch a twig— Two Deaths—and I yet may become Mrs. Bigg. Oh give me, with him, but a cottage and pig, And content I would live on Beans, Bacon, and Bigg."

A few more of these light productions remain among his papers, but their wit is gone with those for whom they were written;—the wings of Time "eripuere jocos."

Of a very different description are the following striking and spirited fragments, (which ought to have been mentioned in a former part of this work,) written by him, apparently, about the year 1794, and addressed to the Naval heroes of that period, to console them for the neglect they experienced from the Government, while ribands and titles were lavished on the Whig Seceders:—

"Never mind them, brave black Dick, Though they've played thee such a trick— Damn their ribands and their garters, Get you to your post and quarters. Look upon the azure sea, There's a Sailor's Taffety! Mark the Zodiac's radiant bow, That's a collar fit for HOWE!— And, then P—tl—d's brighter far, The Pole shall furnish you a Star! [1] Damn their ribands and their garters, Get you to your post and quarters, Think, on what things are ribands showered— The two Sir Georges—Y—— and H—-! Look to what rubbish Stars will stick, To Dicky H——n and Johnny D——k! Would it be for your country's good, That you might pass for Alec. H——d, Or, perhaps,—and worse by half— To be mistaken for Sir R——h! Would you, like C——, pine with spleen, Because your bit of silk was green? Would you, like C——, change your side, To have your silk new dipt and dyed?— Like him exclaim, 'My riband's hue Was green—and now, by Heav'ns! 'tis blue,' And, like him—stain your honor too? Damn their ribands and their garters, Get you to your post and quarters. On the foes of Britain close, While B——k garters his Dutch hose, And cons, with spectacles on nose, (While to battle you advance,) His 'Honi soit qui mal y pense.'" * * * * * [Footnote 1: This reminds me of a happy application which he made, upon a subsequent occasion, of two lines of Dryden:—

"When men like Erskine go astray, The stars are more in fault than they."]

It has been seen, by a letter of his sister already given, that, when young, he was generally accounted handsome; but, in later years, his eyes were the only testimonials of beauty that remained to him. It was, indeed, in the upper part of his face that the Spirit of the man chiefly reigned;—the dominion of the world and the Senses being rather strongly marked out in the lower. In his person, he was above the middle size, and his general make was, as I have already said, robust and well proportioned. It is remarkable that his arms, though of powerful strength, were thin, and appeared by no means muscular. His hands were small and delicate; and the following couplet, written on a cast from one of them, very livelily enumerates both its physical and moral qualities:—

"Good at a Fight, but better at a Play, Godlike in giving, but—the Devil to Pay!"

Among his habits, it may not be uninteresting to know that his hours of composition, as long as he continued to be an author, were at night, and that he required a profusion of lights around him while he wrote. Wine, too, was one of his favorite helps to inspiration;—"If the thought, (he would say,) is slow to come, a glass of good wine encourages it, and, when it does come, a glass of good wine rewards it."

Having taken a cursory view of his Literary, Political, and Social qualities, it remains for me to say a few words upon that most important point of all, his Moral character.

There are few persons, as we have seen, to whose kind and affectionate conduct, in some of the most interesting relations of domestic life, so many strong and honorable testimonies remain. The pains he took to win back the estranged feelings of his father, and the filial tenderness with which he repaid long years of parental caprice, show a heart that had, at least, set out by the right road, however, in after years, it may have missed the way. The enthusiastic love which his sister bore him, and retained unblighted by distance or neglect, is another proof of the influence of his amiable feelings, at that period of life when he was as yet unspoiled by the world. We have seen the romantic fondness which he preserved towards the first Mrs. Sheridan, even while doing his utmost, and in vain, to extinguish the same feeling in her. With the second wife, a course, nearly similar, was run;—the same "scatterings and eclipses" of affection, from the irregularities and vanities, in which he continued to indulge, but the same hold kept of each other's hearts to the last. Her early letters to him breathe a passion little short of idolatry, and her devoted attentions beside his death-bed showed that the essential part of the feeling still remained.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9     Next Part
Home - Random Browse