« PreviousContinue »
In 1792, Mrs. Sheridan died. She was a woman of fine mind, warm heart, and uncommon beauty, entering with zeal into her husband's interests, and making his home as happy as the home of a libertine could be, who was gifted with goodnature rather than principle, with affectionate sensations rather than a heart. In 1795, Sheridan married again. The lady was Miss Ogle, daughter of the Dean of Winchester, and represented as young, accomplished, and thoroughly in love. Sheridan's powers of fascination neither dissipation nor the reputation of a roué could weigh down.
During this stormiest period of English politics, Sheridan preserved the same virtue in his speeches and the same selfindulgence in his conduct which characterized his whole life. When Pitt resigned, and the Addington ministry was formed, in 1801, he, following the example of a few other Whigs, gave that feeble government, with its toothless Toryism, a kind of support. But the inflated incapacity of that adıninistration could not fail to draw laughter from him, the prince of laughers. Addington was nicknamed “ The Doctor.” When one of his measures was suddenly opposed by the Scotch members, usually loyal to ministers, Sheridan set the House of Commons in a roar by addressing the premier, from Macbeth,
“ Doctor, the thanes fly from thee!” On the return of Pitt to power, Sheridan went again into opposition. Of all his later speeches, his most celebrated is one which he made in 1805, on his motion for repealing the Defence Act. It was written during the debate, at a coffee-house near Westminster Hall, and was full of the fiercest attacks upon the premier. Pitt, commonly so insensible, is said to have writhed under its declamatory sarcasm ; and many who were present thought they discerned' at times in his countenance an intention to fix a personal quarrel upon his flashing adversary. After the death of Pitt, in 1806, and the formation of the Fox and Grenville ministry, Sheridan was appointed Treasurer of the Navy, an office which he deemed altogether below his deserts, and which indicated that his position in the party had not advanced since 1789. The administration was dissolved shortly after the death of Fox, owing to the determination of Lord Grenville to push the Catholic claims. Sheridan, though an Irishman himself, and with every feeling of nationality arrayed on the side of Catholic emancipation, was still vexed at the ministry for committing itself to the measure,
from his selfish fear of losing office. He knew the king would not consent to it, and he had not the high Roman feeling of Lord Grenville, who was indisposed to shape his course according to the path marked by the bigotry of the monarch. “ He had heard,” Sheridan said, “ of people knocking out their brains against a wall; but never before knew of any one building a wall expressly for the purpose.”
After his loss of office, Sheridan's efforts in Parliament were not frequent. He became engaged in various intrigues regarding the formation of new administrations, in which he lost the confidence of his political friends. His intimacy with the Prince of Wales, and his declining health and reputation, seem equally to have hurried him into dishonorable tricks and insincerities. ' At last, in 1812, rendered desperate by the loss of his theatrical property, embarrassed in purse and almost bankrupt in character, be closed a brilliant political life by an act of treachery which will ever stain bis name. On the death of Mr. Perceval, great difficulty was experienced in forming an administration. There was a probability of the Whigs again coming into power ; overtures were made to Lords Grey and Grenville to form a ministry. They would not accept, unless the household were dismissed. Lord Yarmouth, one of this number, requested Sheridan to convey to the two Whig lords their intention to resign, rather than be an obstacle to the formation of a ministry. Had Sheridan done this, the political history of England might have been essentially different, and measures of reform might have dated from 1812, instead of 1832. But he betrayed his trust, partly because he was aware that the Prince Regent did not really desire the accession of the Whigs, and partly because he disliked the inflexible character of the lords who would bave been at the head of affairs. He not only did not communicate the offer of Lord Yarmouth, but, when a rumor of it had transpired, offered to bet five hundred guineas that it was not in contemplation. His treachery was discovered too late to be repaired. Lord Liverpool, “ commonplace and loving place,” obtained the premiership, and held it during fifteen years of Tory rule.
Closely following this shipwreck of character, Sheridan lost his seat in Parliament. This was almost equivalent to a loss of his personal liberty, for he was no longer safe from arrest. From this time to his death, he gathered in the harvest of
long years of indolence, extravagance, and vice. Disease was secretly wearing away his originally powerful constitution. His face, once so full of intelligence and beauty, had become deformed and bloated with intemperance. His old friends ·looked coldly upon him. Brilliant powers of conversation and fascinating address no longer characterized the faded wit and shattered debauchee. The Prince Regent, for whom he had so often sacrificed his interest and honor, left him naked to his enemies." All the mortifications which could result
from wounded pride and vanity, and the sense of decaying in· tellect, thickened upon him. His ruin was swift and sure.
His creditors seized upon every thing which the pawnbroker had not already taken. Even Reynolds's portrait of his first wife as Saint Cecilia passed from his possession. In the spring of 1815, he was arrested and carried to a sponginghouse, where he was retained two or three days. His life sufficiently shows that his sense of shame was not quick, but he was deeply humiliated at this arrest, feeling it as “ a profanation of his person.” And now came the misery of his last scene.
He appeared to feel that his life was drawing to a close. To some sharp remonstrances from his wife on his continued irregularities, he replied in an affecting letter. “Never again,” lie wrote, " 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 spared to us.” His last illness soon followed. Even his dying bed was not free from the incursions of writs and sheriffs. He was arrested, and would have been taken away in his blankets, had not his physician threatened the officer with the consequences of committing murder. At last, on the seventh of July, 1816, in his sixty-fifth year, he died.
Then came the mockery of a splendid burial. Dukes, royal and noble, bishops, marquesses, earls, viscounts, right honorables, emulously swelled the train of his funeral. said a French journalist at the time, “is the place for an author to live in, and England the place for him to die in.” In the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, the only spot remaining unoccupied was reserved for the body of him whose death-bed was not safe from the sheriff's writ. Tom Moore, in a fine strain of poetical indignation, published just after Sheridan's death, thus cuttingly refers to the noble lords who " honored the funeral :
“ How proud they can press to the funeral array
Of him whom they shunned 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 task of lightening the misery of Sheridan's last hours was left to such commoners as Samuel Rogers, Thomas Moore, and good Doctor Bain.
The moral of Sheridan's life lies on the surface, and we shall not risk any commonplaces of ethical horror in commenting upon its hollowness and its sins. The vices for which he was distinguished are generally reprobated, and their position in the scale of wickedness is sufficiently marked ; but they are not the darkest kind of vices. We are not of that number who select him from his contemporaries, and expend upon his follies and errors the whole strength of their indignation. Allowing him to have been as bad as his nature would allow, we believe he was a much better man than many of his contemporaries who are commonly praised as virtuous. The man who brings misery upon himself and his family by intemperance and sloth is justly condemned, but he is innocent compared with one who, from bigotry or lust of power, would ruin or injure a nation. George the Third is praised as a good king ; but the vices of Sheridan's character were mere peccadilloes compared with the savage vices which raged and ruled in the heart of his Majesty. In a moral estimate which included all grades of sin, Sheridan would compare well even with Lord North, William Pitt, or Spencer Perceval, with all their social and domestic merits. The American war and the war with France originated, or, at least, were continued, in a spirit which approaches nearer to the diabolical than the sensuality of Sheridan ; and we feel little disposed to chime in with that morality which passes over all the rats and liberticides, the servile politicians and selfish statesmen, the bad and bigoted spendthrifts of blood and treasure, during a whole generation, to hurl its heaviest anathemas upon one poor, weak, volatile, brilliant, and hard-pressed roué.
But while we thus remember that there are natures which have continued to indulge darker passions than he ever dreamed of, without coming under the ban of either historian or moralist, and while we therefore have little sympathy with one class of Sheridan's judges and critics, we do not join in the absurd sentimentality of another class, who strive hard to VOL. LXVI.- NO. 138.
class his case among the infirmities and calamities of genius. The sources of his errors were not those which have sometimes hurried large and unregulated minds into evil, and there is something ridiculous in placing him by the side of the Otways, the Savages, the Chattertons, the Burnses, and the Byrons. With regard to his calamities, there is hardly another instance in literary history of a man who enjoyed so much fame with such moderate powers, and who was enabled to run so undisturbed a career of sensuality from manhood to within three years of his death. What commonly goes under the name of enjoyment of life he had in full measure, not only without the check which comes from means limited by honest scruples, but almost without the remorse with which conscience usually dashes unhallowed pleasure. And with respect to the desertion of which he complained in the last years of his life, it was, as far as regarded his political connections, the result of his political treachery; and as his personal friendships sprang from the fellowship of vice rather than feeling, he had no right to expect that the rakes and good-fellows, his companions of the bottle and the debauch, would be the bankers of his poverty, or the consolers of his dying hours.
Art. IV. - Modern Painters. By a Graduate of Oxford.
First American from the third London Edition, revised by the Author. New York : Wiley & Putnam. 1847. . 12mo. pp. 422.
This is a book written by a well-educated man, a close and intelligent observer of nature, familiar with the best works of art, and himself a practical, though, as we understand him, not a professional, artist; thus seeming to combine qualifications for writing well on this difficult subject, which are not often found united. That he is not a professional artist does not the less entitle him to our attention ; such persons being very apt to become too much absorbed in the mere difficulties of their pursuit to preserve the breadth of mind necessary to comprehend the whole subject. The best works on art that were ever written are Sir Joshua Reynolds's desultory Notes