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which illustrated or enforced his own views. Sheridan cared little for the impeachment, but cared much for the reputation of a brilliant speech. Posterity has dealt fairly with both. Burke has succeeded in fixing an ineradicable brand of guilt on the brow of an able and unprincipled public criminal, whose great capacity and great services seemed to overawe the world's moral judgment, and has consigned him to an immortality of infamy in orations as imperishable as literature. Sheridan has succeeded in gaining the reputation of an infinitely clever and dexterous speaker, the records of whose speeches are read only in a vain attempt to discover by what jugglery of action such ingenious combinations of words ever imposed upon an audience as the genuine language either of reason, imagination, or passion.
As an orator, Sheridan belongs to a peculiar class. He was certainly the most artificial of speakers, when his ambition led him to imitate Fox in impassioned declamation, or Burke in luminous disquisition and imaginative expression. Moore, in a strain of exquisite flattery, celebrates him as
“Whose eloquence, brightening whatever it tried,
Whether reason or fancy, the gay or the grave,
As ever bore Freedom aloft on its wave. Nothing, as Moore well knew, was more incorrect than the impression of spontaneousness which this eulogy conveys. The private memoranda of Sheridan's speeches show the exact place where the “Good God, Mr. Speaker," is to be introduced ; and exhibit painfully elaborated “bursts” of passion, into which it was his intention to be “hurried.” With regard to imagery, those figures which start up in the mind of the true orator in the excitement of the moment, instinct with the life of the occasion, were in Sheridan's case carefully fashioned out beforehand and bedizened with verbal frippery, cold and lifeless in themselves, but made to tell upon the audience by grace and
of manner. It has been repeatedly noticed, that in the notes of Burke's speeches nothing is observable but the outline of the argument and the heads of the information ; in the notes of Sheridan's, little is seen but images, epigrams, and exclamations. Sheridan has been often classed with Irish orators, that
is, with orators having more feeling and imagination than
Irish oratory, it is very certain, is not confined to Hibernians, neither does it comprehend all Irish speakers. Its leading characteristic is sensibility. But this sensibility is good or bad, according to the mental powers by which it is accompanied. In Burke, it appeared in connection with an understanding and an imagination greater than any other orator ever possessed, and second, if second at all, only to Bacon among statesmen. In Grattan, it took the form of fiery patriotism, stimulating every faculty of his intellect, and condensing the expression of thought and fancy by pervading both with earnest passion. In Curran, it quickened into almost morbid action one of the readiest and most fertile, though not comprehensive, minds ever placed in a human brain. In Shiel, it is seen in the rapidity, intensity, and intellectual fierceness given to the expression of blended argument and fancy. In all of these, sensibility is more or less earnest and genuine, penetrating thought with fire, and thus giving force to the will as well as persuasion to the understanding. In another class of Irish orators, of which Phillips was once considered the representative, this sensibility is little more than the boiling over of warm blood, without corresponding power of thought or imagination ; and it runs into all excesses of verbose declamation and galvanized commonplace. Execrable as it is, however, and doomed to instant damnation in a tempest of hisses as soon as it is printed, it is still not without effect upon uncultivated or excited audiences. This style of oratory is sometimes called imaginative, although its leading absurdities are directly traceable to a want of imagination. It is no more imaginative than Swift's mock reasoning to prove that Partridge was dead is argumentative.
Now to neither of these classes of Irish "orators does Sheridan belong ; for genuine sensibility, either in the expression of reason or nonsense, does not enter into the composition of his speeches. He feels neither like Burke nor like Phillips. In serious declamation, he simply attempts an imitation of intense and elevated feeling ; and his passion, as artificial and as much made up as the thunder of Drury Lane, finds suitable expression in a diction curiously turgid, in meretricious ornaments, and in a style of imagery plastered upon the argument, instead of growing out of it. If, as a speaker, he had used this florid style without stint, he must have failed. We believe that it did not please his contemporaries much more than it does posterity, and that it was generally held by them to bear about the same relation to the peculiar merits of his speeches which the fine talk of Falkland and Julia bears to the fun of Acres and the wit of Captain Absolute. What placed him by the side of Burke, Fox, and Windham, as an orator, was not his earnestness of feeling, but his equalling them in the felicity with which they exposed crime, corruption, sophistry, and hypocrisy to ridicule and contempt. His most successful imitations of Burke consist in the employment of verbal paradoxes and ironical fancies, in which the opinions and statements of an opponent are exaggerated into a kind of gigantic caricature and then scornfully eulogized. Pretence of all kinds soon collapses, when subjected to this ordeal of wasting ridicule. The bubble bursts at once, and " is resolved into its elemental suds.” As far as we can judge of Sheridan's great speech on the Begums, his most effective weapon of attack was a sarcastic mockery of Hastings's assignment of patriotic motives for his crimes, an epigrammatic expression of hatred and scorn for oppression and rapine, and a singular felicity in dragging down the governor of a vast empire to the level of the common herd of profligates and criminals, by connecting his greatest acts with the same motives which influence the pickpocket and the cutthroat. By bringing the large conceptions and beneficent aims which should characterize a ruler of nations into startling contrast with the small personal objects which animate the heroes of Hounslow heath, be had an opportunity to play the dazzling fence of his wit with the most brilliant effect. Many of his most swollen comparisons and strained metaphors are redeemed from absolute contempt only by the presence of this mocking spirit. That his great strength consisted in this power of viewing every thing under its ludicrous relations is seen in the rapidity with which he ever extricated himself from the consequences of failure in his florid flights. Mr. Law, the counsel for Hastings, very successfully ridiculed one of the hectic metaphors of his speech. “ It was the first time in his life," replied Sheridan,“ he had ever heard of special pleading on a metaphor, or a bill of indictment against a trope. But such was the turn of the learned counsel's mind, that when he attempted to be humorous, no jest could be found, and when serious, no fact was visible.”
This retort is worth a thousand such tropes as occasioned it.
Up to the impeachment of Hastings, Fox, Burke, and Sheridan were closely united ; but the illness of the king, which soon followed, brought a question before Parliament, which, while it seemed to promise the accession of the Whigs to power, resulted only in sowing the seeds of distrust among their leaders. George the Third became insane, and it devolved
upon the legislature to appoint or recognize a regent. The Prince of Wales, a selfish debauchee and spendthrift, was the person that would naturally be appointed; and the Prince, hating his father and hated by him, was a Whig. Mr. Pitt and the Tories were determined to restrict his prerogative ; the Whigs struggled to have him endowed with the full powers of majesty. A fierce war of words and principles was the consequence, in which Fox and Burke gave way to unwonted gusts of passion, and Burke, especially, indulged in some unwise allusions to the king's situation. Sheridan, who for a long time had been the companion of the Prince in his pleasures, and in some degree his agent in the House of Commons, was suspected by his friends of intriguing for a higher office than his station in the party would warrant. The king's recovery put an end to the debates, and to the hopes of each. A portion of the disappointment which Burke and Fox experienced was transmuted into dislike of each other, each feeling that the violence of the discussion had injured the party, and each placing the blame upon the other. Both were suspicious of Sheridan, also, and doubted his honorable dealing in the matter.
This slight feud would probably have been soon healed, if the breaking out of the French Revolution had not given an immediate occasion for all the discontent in the party to explode. Burke, from the first, looked upon that portentous event with distrust; Fox and Sheridan hailed it as an omen of good. The debate on the Army Estimates, in 1790, was the first public sign of the schism between the leaders of the Whigs. Sheridan, who seems to have foreseen that Fox and Burke must eventually dissolve their connection, took this opportunity, in an animated but indiscreet speech against Burke's views, to hasten the separation ; but he only succeeded in bringing Burke's wrath down upon his own head; and a public disavowal of their friendship. The progress of the Revolution, however, soon brought on the final division of the Whig party, upon which a majority of its most influential members went over with Burke to the support of the ministry. Fox and Sheridan, not on the most cordial terms themselves, were left to battle, in the House of Commons, both against their old enemies and a powerful body of their old friends.
There is no portion of Sheridan's political life which is more honorable than his services to freedom during the stormy period between 1793 and 1801. It was a time of extreme opinions. - The French Revolution had unsettled the largest intellects of the age, and seditious and despotic principles clashed violently against each other. The Tories, to preserve order, seemed bent on destroying freedom ; and the radicals, enraged at the attacks on freedom, or deluded by the abstract commonplaces of the French school, overlooked order in their struggle against oppression. Fox, Sheridan, Grey, Tierney, Erskine, were the nucleus of a legal opposition to the ministry, and, at the head of a small minority of Whigs, defended the free principles of the constitution against the court, the administration, and popular clamor. Sheridan adhered generally to his party, though he contrived to escape some of their glorious unpopularity by giving a hearty support to the government on a few trying occasions. His various speeches during this period display his usual brilliancy, with passagès here and there of powerful declamation. It is needless to say that his dissipation and debts were on the in
His patriotism was not allowed to dull the edge of his sensuality. In his habits of mystification, too, in the preparation of his speeches, he displayed his customary cunning. In 1794, when called upon, as one of the prosecutors of Hastings, to reply to Mr. Law, he spent two or three days in such close application to reading and writing, as to complain to a friend of having motes in his eyes. When he entered Westminster Hall, he was asked by one of his brothermanagers for his bag and papers. He answered, that he had none, and must get through with his speech as he best might ; -"he would abuse Ned Law, ridicule Plumer's long orations, make the court laugh, please the women, and, in short, go triumphantly through his task.” Much to the surprise of the managers, he succeeded admirably.