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But Phœbus, possibly intending
To show what all their hopes must end in,
"Who has not heard each poet sing
By all the rhyming crew of old.-
And strait you could both write and spell,
While such rhyme-giving pow'rs run through it,
A quart would make an epic poet." &c. &c.
A poem on the miseries of a literary drudge begins thus promisingly
"Think ye how dear the sickly meal is bought,
The rest is hardly legible; but there can be little doubt that he would have done this subject justice; for he had himself tasted of the bitterness with which the heart of a man of genius overflows, when forced by indigence to barter away (as it is here expressed) "the reversion of his thoughts," and
"Forestall the blighted harvest of his brain."
It will be easily believed that, in looking over the remains, both dramatic and poetical, from which the foregoing specimens are taken, I have been frequently tempted to indulge in much ampler extracts. It appeared to me, however, more prudent, to rest satisfied with the selections here given; for, while less would have disappointed the curiosity of the reader, more might have done injustice to the memory of the author.
His first Speeches in Parliament.-Rockingham Administration.-Coalition.-—India Bill.—Re-election for Stafford.
THE period at which Mr. Sheridan entered upon his political career was, in every respect, remarkable. severing and vindictive war against America, with the folly and guilt of which the obstinacy of the Court and the acquiescence of the people are equally chargeable, was fast
approaching that crisis, which every unbiassed spectator of the contest had long foreseen,—and at which, however humiliating to the haughty pretensions of England, every friend to the liberties of the human race rejoiced. It was, perhaps, as difficult for this country to have been long and virulently opposed to such principles as the Americans asserted in this contest, without being herself corrupted by the cause which she maintained, as it was for the French to have fought, in the same conflict, by the side of the oppressed, without catching a portion of that enthusiasm for liberty, which such an alliance was calculated to inspire. Accordingly, while the voice of Philosophy was heard along the neighbouring shores, speaking aloud those oracular warnings, which preceded the death of the Great Pan of Despotism, the courtiers and lawyers of England were, with an emulous spirit of servility, advising and sanctioning such strides of power, as would not have been unworthy of the most dark and slavish times.
When we review, indeed, the history of the late reign, and consider how invariably the arms and councils of Great Britain, in her Eastern wars, her conflict with America, and her efforts against revolutionary France, were directed to the establishment and perpetuation of despotic principles, it seems little less than a miracle that her own liberty should have escaped with life from the contagion. Never, indeed, can she be sufficiently grateful to the few patriot spirits of this period, to whose courage and eloquence she owes the high station of freedom yet left to her; never can her sons pay a homage too warm to the memory of such men as a Chatham, a Fox, and a Sheridan; who, however much they may have sometimes sacrificed to false views of expediency, and, by compromise with friends and coalition with foes, too often weakened their hold upon public confidence; however the attraction of the Court may have sometimes made them liberate in their orbit, were yet the saving lights of Liberty in those times, and alone preserved the ark of the Constitution from foundering in the foul and troubled waters that encompassed it.
Not only were the public events, in which Mr. Sheridan was now called to take a part, of a nature more extraordinary and awful than had often been exhibited on the theatre of politics, but the leading actors in the scene were of that loftier order of intellect, which nature seems to keep in reserve for the ennoblement of such great occasions. Two of these, Mr. Burke and Mr. Fox, were al
ready in the full maturity of their fame and talent,-while the third, Mr. Pitt, was just upon the point of entering, with the most auspicious promise, into the same splendid career;
"Nunc cuspide Patris Inclytus, Herculeas olim moture sagittas."
Though the administration of that day, like many other ministries of the same reign, was chosen more for the pliancy than the strength of its materials, yet Lord North himself was no ordinary man, and, in times of less difficulty and under less obstinate dictation, might have ranked as a useful and most popular minister. It is true, as the defenders of his measures state, that some of the worst aggressions upon the rights of the Colonies had been committed before he succeeded to power. But his readiness to follow in these rash footsteps, and to deepen every fatal impression which they had made;-his insulting reservation of the Tea Duty, by which he contrived to embitter the only measure of concession that was wrung from him; -the obsequiousness, with which he made himself the channel of the vindictive feelings of the Court, in that memorable declaration (rendered so truly mock-heroic by the event) that "a total repeal of the Port Duties could not be thought of, till America was prostrate at the feet of England;"-all deeply involve him in the shame of that disastrous period, and identify his name with measures as arbitrary and headstrong, as have ever disgraced the annals of the English monarchy.
The playful wit and unvarying good-humour of this nobleman formed a striking contrast to the harsh and precipitate policy, which it was his lot, during twelve stormy years, to enforce :—and, if his career was as headlong as the torrent near its fall, it may also be said to have been as shining and as smooth. These attractive qualities secured to him a considerable share of personal popularity; and, had fortune ultimately smiled on his councils, success would, as usual, have reconciled the people of England to any means, however arbitrary, by which it had been attained. But the calamities, and, at last, the hopelessness of the conflict, inclined them to moralize upon its causes and character. The hour of Lord North's ascendant was now passing rapidly away, and Mr. Sheridan could not have joined the Opposition, at a conjuncture more favourable to the excitement of his powers, or more bright in the views which it opened upon his ambition.
He made his first speech in Parliament on the 20th of November, 1780, when a petition was presented to the House, complaining of the undue election of the sitting members (himself and Mr. Monckton) for Stafford. It was rather lucky for him that the occasion was one in which he felt personally interested, as it took away much of that appearance of anxiety for display, which might have attended his first exhibition upon any general subject. The fame, however, which he had already acquired by his literary talents, was sufficient, even on this question, to awaken all the curiosity and expectation of his audience; and accordingly we are told in the report of his speech, that “he was heard with particular attention, the House being uncommonly still while he was speaking." The indignation, which he expressed on this occasion at the charges brought by the petition against the electors of Stafford, was coolly turned into ridicule by Mr. Rigby, Paymaster of the Forces. But Mr. Fox, whose eloquence was always ready at the call of good-nature, and, like the shield of Ajax, had "ample room and verge enough," to protect not only himself but his friends, came promptly to the aid of the young orator; and, in reply to Mr. Rigby, observed, that "though those ministerial members, who chiefly robbed and plundered their constituents, might afterwards affect to despise them, yet gentlemen, who felt properly the nature of the trust allotted to them, would always treat them and speak of them with respect."
It was on this night, as Woodfall used to relate, that Mr. Sheridan, after he had spoken, came up to him in the gallery, and asked, with much anxiety, what he thought of his first attempt. The answer of Woodfall, as he had the courage afterwards to own, was, "I am sorry to say I do not think that this is your line-you had much better have stuck to your former pursuits." On hearing which, Sheridan rested his head upon his hand for a few minutes, and then vehemently exclaimed, "It is in me, however, and, by G―, it shall come out."
It appears, indeed, that upon many persons besides Mr. Woodfall the impression produced by this first essay of his oratory was far from answerable to the expectations that had been formed. The chief defect remarked in him was a thick and indistinct mode of delivery, which, though he afterwards greatly corrected it, was never entirely removed.
It is not a little amusing to find him in one of his early
speeches, gravely rebuking Mr. Rigby and Mr. Courtenay* for the levity and raillery with which they treated the subject before the House,-thus condemning the use of that weapon in other hands, which soon after became so formiIdable in his own. The remarks by which Mr. Courtenay (a gentleman, whose lively wit found afterwards a more congenial air on the benches of Opposition) provoked the reprimand of the new senator for Stafford, are too humorous to be passed over without, at least, a specimen of their spirit. In ridiculing the conduct of the Opposition, he observed:
"Oh liberty! Oh virtue! Oh my country! had been the pathetic, though fallacious cry of former Oppositions; but the present he was sure acted on purer motives. They wept over their bleeding country, he had no doubt. Yet the patriot "eye in a fine frenzy rolling" sometimes designed to cast a wishful squint on the riches and honours enjoyed by the minister and his venal supporters. If he were not apprehensive of hazarding a ludicrous allusion, (which he knew was always improper on a serious subject) he would compare their conduct to that of the sentimental alderman in one of Hogarth's prints, who, when his daughter is expiring, wears indeed a parental face of grief and solicitude, but it is to secure her diamond ring which he is drawing gently from her finger."
"Mr. Sheridan (says the report) rose and reprehended Mr. Courtenay for turning every thing that passed into ridicule; for having introduced into the house a style of reasoning, in his opinion, every way unsuitable to the gravity and importance of the subjects that came under their discussion. If they would not act with dignity, he thought they might, at least, debate with decency. He would not attempt to answer Mr. Courtenay's arguments, for it was impossible eriously to reply to what, in every part, had an infusion of ridicule in it. Two of the honourable gentleman's similes, however, he must take notice of. The one was his having insinuated that Opposition was envious of those who basked in court sunshine; and desirous merely to get into their places. He begged leave to remind the honourable gentleman that, though the sun afforded a genial warmth, it also occasioned an intemperate heat, that tainted and infected every thing it reflected on. That this excessive heat tended to corrupt as well as to cherish; to putrefy as well as to animate; to dry and soak up the wholesome juices of the body politic, and turn the whole of it into one mass of corruption. If those, therefore, who sat near him did not enjoy so genial a warmth as the honourable gentleman, and those who like him kept close to the noble Lord in the blue ribbon, he was certain they breathed a purer air, an air less infected and less corrupt."
This florid style, in which Mr. Sheridan was not very happy, he but rarely used in his speeches afterwards.
*Feb. 26.--On the second reading of the Bill for the better regulation of his Majesty's Civil List Revenue.