Part 7 out of 7
"RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN,
DIED, 7th JULY, 1816.
THIS MARBLE IS THE TRIBUTE OF AN ATTACHED
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
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
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
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
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
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:--
"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; 
'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
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! 
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.
To claim an exemption for frailties and irregularities on the score of
genius, while there are such names as Milton and Newton on record, were
to be blind to the example which these and other great men have left, of
the grandest intellectual powers combined with the most virtuous lives.
But, for the bias given early to the mind by education and circumstances,
even the least charitable may be inclined to make large allowances. We
have seen how idly the young days of Sheridan were wasted--how soon he
was left, (in the words of the Prophet,) "to dwell carelessly ," and with
what an undisciplined temperament he was thrown upon the world, to meet
at every step that never-failing spring of temptation, which, like the
fatal fountain in the Garden of Armida, sparkles up for ever in the
pathway of such a man:--
"Un fonte sorge in lei, che vaghe e monde
Ha l'acque si, che i riguardanti asseta,
Ma dentro ai freddi suoi cristalli asconde
Di tosco estran malvagita secreta."
Even marriage, which is among the sedatives of other men's lives, but
formed a part of the romance of his. The very attractions of his wife
increased his danger, by doubling, as it were the power of the world over
him, and leading him astray by her light as well as by his own. Had his
talents, even then, been subjected to the _manege_ of a profession,
there was still a chance that business, and the round of regularity which
it requires, might have infused some spirit of order into his life. But
the Stage--his glory and his ruin--opened upon him; and the property of
which it made him master was exactly of that treacherous kind which not
only deceives a man himself, but enables him to deceive others, and thus
combined all that a person of his carelessness and ambition had most to
dread. An uncertain income, which, by eluding calculation, gives an
excuse for improvidence, [Footnote: How feelingly aware he was of this
great source of all his misfortunes appears from a passage in the able
speech which he delivered before the Chancellor, as Counsel in his own
case, in the year 1799 or 1800:--
"It is a great disadvantage, relatively speaking, to any man, and
especially to a very careless, and a very sanguine man, to have possessed
an uncertain and fluctuating income. That disadvantage is greatly
increased, if the person so circumstanced has conceived himself to be in
some degree entitled to presume that, by the exertion of his own talents,
he may at pleasure increase that income--thereby becoming induced to make
promises to himself which he may afterwards fail to fulfil.
"Occasional excess and frequent unpunctuality will be the natural
consequences of such a situation. But, my Lord, to exceed an ascertained
and limited income, I hold to be a very different matter. In that
situation I have placed myself, (not since the present unexpected
contention arose, for since then I would have adopted no arrangements,)
but months since, by my Deed of Trust to Mr. Adam, and in that situation
I shall remain until every debt on earth, in which the Theatre or I am
concerned, shall be fully and fairly discharged. Till then I will live on
what remains to me--preserving that spirit of undaunted independence,
which, both as a public and a private man, I trust, I have hitherto
maintained."] and, still more fatal, a facility of raising money, by
which the lesson, that the pressure of distress brings with it, is evaded
till it comes too late to be of use--such was the dangerous power put
into his hands, in his six-and-twentieth year, and amidst the
intoxication of as deep and quick draughts of fame as ever young author
quaffed. Scarcely had the zest of this excitement begun to wear off, when
he was suddenly transported into another sphere, where successes still
more flattering to his vanity awaited him. Without any increase of means,
he became the companion and friend of the first Nobles and Princes, and
paid the usual tax of such unequal friendships, by, in the end, losing
them and ruining himself. The vicissitudes of a political life, and those
deceitful vistas into office that were for ever opening on his party,
made his hopes as fluctuating and uncertain as his means, and encouraged
the same delusive calculations on both. He seemed, at every new turn of
affairs, to be on the point of redeeming himself; and the confidence of
others in his resources was no less fatal to him than his own, as it but
increased the facilities of ruin that surrounded him.
Such a career as this--so shaped towards wrong, so inevitably devious--it
is impossible to regard otherwise than with the most charitable
allowances. It was one long paroxysm of excitement--no pause for
thought--no inducements to prudence--the attractions all drawing the
wrong way, and a Voice, like that which Bossuet describes, crying
inexorably from behind him "On, on!" [Footnote: "La loi est prononcee; il
faut avancer toujours. Je voudrois retourner sur mes pas; 'Marche,
Marche!' Un poids invincible nous entraine; il faut sans cesse avancer
vers le precipice. On se console pourtant, parce que de tems en tems on
rencontre des objets qui nous divertissent, des eaux courantes, des
fleurs qui passent. On voudroit arreter; 'Marche, Marche!'"--_Sermon
sur la Resurrection_.] Instead of wondering at the wreck that followed
all this, our only surprise should be, that so much remained uninjured
through the trial,--that his natural good feelings should have struggled
to the last with his habits, and his sense of all that was right in
conduct so long survived his ability to practise it.
Numerous, however, as were the causes that concurred to disorganize his
moral character, in his pecuniary embarrassment lay the source of those
blemishes, that discredited him most in the eyes of the world. He might
have indulged his vanity and his passions, like others, with but little
loss of reputation, if the consequence of these indulgences had not been
obtruded upon observation in the forbidding form of debts and distresses.
So much did his friend Richardson, who thoroughly knew him, consider his
whole character to have been influenced by the straitened circumstances
in which he was placed, that he used often to say, "If an enchanter
could, by the touch of his wand, endow Sheridan suddenly with fortune, he
would instantly transform him into a most honorable and moral man." As
some corroboration of this opinion, I must say that, in the course of the
inquiries which my task of biographer imposed upon me, I have found all
who were ever engaged in pecuniary dealings with him, not excepting those
who suffered most severely by his irregularities, (among which class I
may cite the respected name of Mr. Hammersley,) unanimous in expressing
their conviction that he always _meant_ fairly and honorably; and
that to the inevitable pressure of circumstances alone, any failure that
occurred in his engagements was to be imputed.
There cannot, indeed, be a stronger exemplification of the truth, that a
want of regularity [Footnote: His improvidence in every thing connected
with money was most remarkable. He would frequently be obliged to stop on
his journies, for want of the means of getting on, and to remain living
expensively at an inn, till a remittance could reach him. His letters to
the treasurer of the theatre on these occasions were generally headed
with the words "Money-bound." A friend of his told me, that one morning,
while waiting for him in his study, he cast his eyes over the heap of
unopened letters that lay upon the table, and, seeing one or two with
coronets on the seals, said to Mr. Westley, the treasurer, who was
present, "I see we are all treated alike." Mr. Westley then informed him
that he had once found, on looking over this table, a letter which he had
himself sent, a few weeks before, to Mr. Sheridan, enclosing a ten-pound
note, to release him from some inn, but which Sheridan, having raised the
supplies in some other way, had never thought of opening. The prudent
treasurer took away the letter, and reserved the enclosure for some
Among instances of his inattention to letters, the following is
mentioned. Going one day to the banking-house, where he was accustomed to
receive his salary, as Receiver of Cornwall, and where they sometimes
accommodated him with small sums before the regular time of payment, he
asked, with all due humility, whether they could oblige him with the loan
of twenty pounds. "Certainly, Sir," said the clerk,--"would you like any
more--fifty, or a hundred?" Sheridan, all smiles and gratitude, answered
that a hundred pounds would be of the greatest convenience to him.
"Perhaps you would like to take two hundred, or three?" said the clerk.
At every increase of the sum, the surprise of the borrower increased.
"Have not you then received our letter?" said the clerk;--on which it
turned out that, in consequence of the falling in of some fine, a sum of
twelve hundred pounds had been lately placed to the credit of the
Receiver-General, and that, from not having opened the letter written to
apprise him, he had been left in ignorance of his good luck.] becomes,
itself, a vice, from the manifold evils to which it leads, than the whole
history of Mr. Sheridan's pecuniary transactions. So far from never
paying his debts, as is often asserted of him, he was, in fact, always
paying;--but in such a careless and indiscriminate manner, and with so
little justice to himself or others, as often to leave the respectable
creditor to suffer for his patience, while the fraudulent dun was paid
two or three times over. Never examining accounts nor referring to
receipts, he seemed as if, (in imitation of his own Charles, preferring
generosity to justice,) he wished to make paying as like as possible to
giving. Interest, too, with its usual, silent accumulation, swelled every
debt; and I have found several instances among his accounts where the
interest upon a small sum had been suffered to increase till it outgrew
the principal;--"_minima pars ipsa puella sui_."
Notwithstanding all this, however, his debts were by no means so
considerable as has been supposed. In the year 1808, he empowered Sir R.
Berkely, Mr. Peter Moore, and Mr. Frederick Homan, by power of attorney,
to examine into his pecuniary affairs and take measures for the discharge
of all claims upon him. These gentlemen, on examination, found that his
_bona fide_ debts were about ten thousand pounds, while his apparent
debts amounted to five or six times as much. Whether from
conscientiousness or from pride, however, he would not suffer any of the
claims to be contested, but said that the demands were all fair, and must
be paid just as they were stated;--though it was well known that many of
them had been satisfied more than once. These gentlemen, accordingly,
declined to proceed any further with their commission.
On the same false feeling he acted in 1813-14, when the balance due on
the sale of his theatrical property was paid him, in a certain number of
Shares. When applied to by any creditor, he would give him one of these
Shares, and allowing his claim entirely on his own showing, leave him to
pay himself out of it, and refund the balance. Thus irregular at all
times, even when most wishing to be right, he deprived honesty itself of
its merit and advantages; and, where he happened to be just, left it
doubtful, (as Locke says of those religious people, who believe right by
chance, without examination,) "whether even the luckiness of the accident
excused the irregularity of the proceeding." [Footnote: Chapter on Reason]
The consequence, however, of this continual paying was that the number of
his creditors gradually diminished, and that ultimately the amount of his
debts was, taking all circumstances into account, by no means
considerable. Two years after his death it appeared by a list made up by
his Solicitor from claims sent in to him, in consequence of an
advertisement in the newspapers, that the _bona fide_ debts amounted
to about five thousand five hundred pounds.
If, therefore, we consider his pecuniary irregularities in reference to
the injury that they inflicted upon others, the quantum of evil for which
he is responsible becomes, after all, not so great. There are many
persons in the enjoyment of fair characters in the world, who would be
happy to have no deeper encroachment upon the property of others to
answer for; and who may well wonder by what unlucky management Sheridan
could contrive to found so extensive a reputation for bad pay upon so
small an amount of debt.
Let it never, too, be forgotten, in estimating this part of his
character, that had he been less consistent and disinterested in his
public conduct, he might have commanded the means of being independent
and respectable in private. He might have died a rich apostate, instead
of closing a life of patriotism in beggary. He might, (to use a fine
expression of his own,) have 'hid his head in a coronet,' instead of
earning for it but the barren wreath of public gratitude. While,
therefore, we admire the great sacrifice that he made, let us be tolerant
to the errors and imprudences which it entailed upon him; and,
recollecting how vain it is to look for any thing unalloyed in this
world, rest satisfied with the Martyr, without requiring, also, the Saint.