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ART. I. Memoirs of the Life of the Right Honourable Richard
Brinsley Sheridan. By Thomas MOORE. Fourth Edition, 2 vols. 8vo. London, Longman & Co. 1826.
W E are very glad to see this book-for the sake both of its
readers and of its author. To the former, it is calculated to afford more entertainment and instruction than most publications of the present day; and on the latter, it must confer, we think, a new character, and a still higher station than has
yet been assigned him, among the literary ornaments of the age.
Mr Moore has been hitherto most known for the least valuable perhaps of his talents. He has passed, we suspect, with most people, for little better than a mere poet-a man of glittering fancy and sweet verse—with boundless stores of splendid images and glorious expressions, and infinite powers of gorgeous description or pungent satire. From all this it has been naturally concluded, that he must be deficient in sound judgment and practical sagacity--that he can have no rational views of men and business—no knowledge of affairsno sober or deliberate opinions on grave questions of policy. His genius, like that of savages, has been supposed fit only for works of mere ornament or mere offence-for the elaboration of plumes, necklaces and idols—or of sculptured javelins and winged and polished shafts—but incapable of being applied either to useful manufactures or scientific pursuits. Those who best know the individual must always have dissented, we believe, from this conclusion :- and it must also have been disputed by the comparatively small number who were as well acquainted with his prose-writings as with his poetry. But the matter, we apprehend, must now be conclusively settled by VOL. XLV. NO. 89.
the appearance of the volume before us—which, with some omissions, and perhaps a few mistakes, some little faults of style, and some precipitate opinions, we do not hesitate to characterize as the best historical notice yet published of the events of our own times-going back, as persons of our antiquity naturally do in using such a phrase, to the earlier part of the late reign, and coming down pretty nearly to its termination. Without pretending to give—what this generation can scarcely yet need-a particular or connected detail of the transactions to which it refers, it exhibits the clearest and most intelligent account of all the great questions which were agitated during that momentous period—the best estimate of the great events by which it was distinguished-and not only the ablest exposition of the causes which led to them, and the principles they served either to establish or expose, but the most truly impartial, temperate, and dispassionate view of the merits of the individuals concerned in them—the actual value of their services or amount of their offendings, with the excuses which the times or circumstances should suggest for them, that we ever recollect to have met with, in the difficult and dangerous department of contemporary history.
This impartiality, which is the rarest of all virtues even in those who have to deal with ancient and remote transactions, is truly heroic, and in fact almost without example, in one who has to write under such circumstances as Mr Moore. Many of the distinguished individuals are still alive, of whose principles and conduct it is his business to speak. Their friends, at all events, and relations, and followers, still survive; and still govern public opinion and public affairs, in no small degree, on the credit of the maxims and example of their illustrious predecessors. The same great parties, in short, still divide the country of which they were so recently the leaders : and those by whom they are now conducted, feel, but too accutely, how much their present strength and reputation may still be affected by any grave impeachment, either of the champions in whom they glory, or of the measures on which their strength was most conspicuously tried. To add to the difficulties of his task, Mr Moore himself belongs to one of those parties :--and in dealing impartially with its history and that of its opponents, must occasionally have to condemn his political friends, and to approve of the proceedings of their adversaries. If all political friends were reasonable, and all political enemies generous, or even just, the task might have been less arduous; and the contemporary who was able to rise above transient animosities, and to anticipate the tone of history, might have gained nothing but honour and popularity
with both. This, too, we have no doubt, will be his ultimate, and not very
distant reward. But in the mean time, he must submit, we fear, to a less magnanimous reception. The irritable friends of his own party will say that he has needlessly acknowledged, or absurdly overstated their errors : while the illiberal, that is, the far greater, part of his opponents, will at once set down those candid acknowledgments as the imperfect admissions of a partial witness, and as proofs therefore of there being far more to admit than can yet be wrung from his partiality. He will be suspected, accordingly, of want of zeal, or courage, or intelligence, by the one party, and allowed no credit for his candour by the other !--so little encouragement is there ever to write contemporary history in a manly and upright spirit. The compensation is, that, when it is done in spite of those discouragements, the just and impartial will give it a proportional share of their admiration and applause—and that their number, which is always greater than it appears to be, may be safely reckoned on as perpetually on the increase, as the events which disturb ordinary judgments sink gradually into distance and obscurity--and that such a history of recent events is, of all human productions, the best calculated to enlighten the public mind on the points where light is most wanted—and both to narrow the reign of faction, and, in spite of themselves, to warn, and soften, and approximate the very parties whom its freedom had at first most offended.
Even from the little we have now said, it may probably be gathered, that we consider the public or political part of the work before us as of more interest than the personal or literary, and such is undoubtedly our opinion. Take it altogether, there is nothing very attractive, we think, nothing very valuable or instructive, in the personal history of Sheridan :not much that it can be gratifying to any one to see recorded and not a little which it would be pleasant for most people to be allowed to forget. We cannot say that we care much about his family history, discomforts, or alliances,—and certainly think it time that the ferocious duels and fraternal rivalries, which paved the way to his first marriage, should at length be buried in oblivion. Still less interest, if possible, can we now feel in the detail of his expedients and proceedings as a shareholder or manager of one of the Theatres ;-and least of all can we be gratified by the sad story of his improvidence and pecuniary embarrassments – the questionable shifts to which he sometimes descended to relieve them, or the lamentable excesses in which he sometimes tried to drown their recollection. Must the private failings of a public man be recorded, along with his services, for ever? Must the errors and weaknesses
of a man of genius be remembered as long as his writings ? Let him rest at last in his grave! A biographer, we are aware, cannot avoid touching on such themes :-and, while many of them are invested with adventitious interest by the graces of Mr Moore's pen, it is but fair to say that, in our humble judgment, he has treated the whole of these delicate matters with equal tenderness and truth. But the mischief is, that their mere discussion is apt to excite that depraved appetite for slander, which is the disgrace of the age in which we live, and to set in motion the malignant industry of the many who are ever ready to pander to it, either for the gratification of party rancour, or the baser purposes of gain.
The literary career of Sheridan has a better claim to notice, no doubt, than his private history. But though it was brilliant, it was short; and closed indeed at so early a period of his existence, that long before the end of his own life, his place might be considered as ultimately fixed among the Immortals, and the public opinion as finally made up on the character and merit of his productions. There are three things chiefly remarkable in their history. First, the author's great idleness and apparent dislike to study in his boyhood; secondly, the singularly early age at which his most finished performances were given to the world; and, lastly, the extraordinary care and laborious preparation with which even the most lively of his sallies are said to have been occasionally produced. As to the first, it seems quite true that he laboured as little as possible at Greek and Latin; and throughout life he seems to have been equally averse from all irksome and ungrateful application. But Dr Parr has recorded that his mind was even then eminently active;—and the fact of his having made various attempts at poetical and dramatic composition while at school, is evidence enough that he did not even then neglect the study of his native literature—which we have no doubt was then
oked upon, at Harrow, as very deplorable idleness. The fact of The Rivals'having been produced in the 23d, and · The School for Scandal' in the 26th year of his age,
is great deal more extraordinary; and incapable of being explained upon any ordinary principles. The gayety of Comedy may be congenial perhaps to the spirit of youth—but its satire, and the knowledge of character and manners, by which alone its loftier flights can be sustained, seem, more than kind of composition, to require the aids of observation and reflection. Mr Moore, we think, only accumulates occasions of wonder, by the instances and observations he has suggested in the following passage
• As this species of composition seems, more, perhaps, than any other,