« ZurückWeiter »
clear to us, that Mr. Moore might have made a much more entertaining book, as well as have presented us with a more faithful view of Mr. Sheridan's character. We are not disposed, however, to complain of the way in which he has chosen to execute his undertaking, nor to blame bim for the oblivion in which he is willing to leave the infirmities of his friend. He has given us a graver book than we should expect from one wit writing the life of another, but very interesting withal, and quite sensible, as well as quite characteristic of the vivacity and activity of the writer's mind. It is a book of more than six hundred full octavo pages, but it never wearies us, except when the author obliges us to read some of Sheridan's long letters-a species of composition in which he did not excel-or the draft of sone contract relating to Drury-lane Theatre, about which we do not care to be informed. He has avoided, with great judgment, in our opinion, a practice into which biographers are too apt to fall. It is quite common with these ingenious persons, to interweave with the life of an eminent political man, the whole political history of the time and nation in which he lived. This is an easy way of making a book, and, unless executed with uncommon happiness and ability, a sure method of making a very dull one.
Its great misfortune, however, is, that it gives a false air to history. The hero of the book figures in it as the greatest man of his time—a sort of Colossus-under whose legs other men walk about, as if they came there on purpose to make his greatness morc ardent; and the prejudices of the biographer, instead of being confined to the incidents of his life, lavish themselves upon all the events of the age. Indeed, it may be questioned, whether Mr. Moore has not gone a little too far in the opposite extreme, We doubt whether some readers will not complain of the brevity of his allusions to many important events of that period; and we are pretty certain, that a large class of them would have been pleased with more comprehensive views of the policy of the different parties into which the nation was then divided, and a little more industry in tracing out the origin and tendency of those measures with which Sheridan and his friends had so much to do in the way of support or opposition. The reflections of the author on these subjects are, however, always exceedingly ingenious, and generally sufficiently impartial-more impartial, perhaps, than those of a professed politician, whose mind had become heated by party disputes.
One excellence in Mr. Moore's work is, that with all its tenderness to the blemishes of Sheridan's character, and all
the ideal colouring which he has spread over it, there is still enough of truth in bis delineation, to enable us to distinguish pretty clearly both the good and the evil ingredients of which it was compounded. At this distance from the country in which he flourished, we can consider his character almost as impartially as if we were not his contemporaries; and, with the materials furnished by Mr. Moore, it is not difficult to estimate it fairly. It was the misfortune of Sheridan, that his animal nature, if we may so speak, had so much the mastery over his intellectual. He not only loved pleasure with a more impetuous fondness, but suffered less from the excessive pursuit of her than most men. The strength of his constitution, the possession of high health, the excitability of his feelings, and his fine flow of animal spirits, all either seconded the temptations of the syren, or secured him from the immediate penalties which so often follow her gifts. In proportion to his love of pleasure was his hatred of labour. No man loves labour for its own sake—at least, not until long habit has made it necessary—but some seem originally to dread and hate it more vehemently than others. It is almost impossible to imagine any body more unwilling to look this severe step-mother of greatness and virtue in the face, than was Sheridan. This disposition showed itself while he was yet a school-boy, and seems to have lost no strength in his maturer years. He never had, he never would have, any regular pursuit-for neither his connexion with the theatre, nor his parliamentary career,
deserve this name.
He avoided all periodical industry; it was a principle of his conduct to delay every thing to the last possible moment; and his whole life seems to have been a series of expedients to escape, or, at least, to put off to another day that greatest of evils, labour. Yet he was capable, in a high degree, of intellectual exertion; and the instances in which he submitted himself to it, are so many successful experiments of the force of his genius. His political career was marked by the same unpersevering character as his private life. He was ambitious, but his was not that deep-seated ambition which broods long over its plans, and follows and watches them, year after year, with unexhausted patience. If a single blow could prostrate the party he opposed, Sheridan was the man to strike it—and with great force; but it was not for him to assail it with attacks, continually repeated, till it was overthrown. After a powerful effort, he would turn again to his pleasures and dissipations, until they palled upon him, or until the intreaties of friendship, or some sudden excitement of feeling, recalled him to the warfare.
That such a man should, notwithstanding, have exerted himself so far, as to produce those celebrated comedies and speeches, which were the admiration of his age, may be easily accounted for, upon these views of his character. His indolence was not of that dreamy kind which delights in visions of its own creation,--no man was less imaginative than Sheridan. It is true, that there are some attempts at fancy in his writings, but they do not seem to be the natural effusions of his mind. They were evidently written for display, and consist of broken images laboriously brought together. Indeed, it would probably have been fortunate for him
had he delighted more in reveries of the imagination, for it is the tendency of these to make us look with a kind of dissatisfaction on the world about us; but it was the error and the danger of Sheridan, that he loved that world, and its splendours and its pleasures, quite too well. He was not disposed to search for imaginary enjoyments, but to possess himself greedily and immoderately of those within his reach. He was the creature of society ; its light and changing excitements were the food of his mind; and to dazzle and astonish it, was a pleasure which he enjoyed with the highest zest. This is the secret of those irregular and brief, but for the time, vigorous sallies of industry. Every thing with him was planned for effect; his comedies, his operas, his speeches, are all brilliant, showy and taking. His more elaborate etsorts, however, were stimulated by the additional motive of necessity; the Rivals, and the Duenna, were written when he was forced to think of doing something for a livelihood; and the School for Scandal, though finished afterwards, was made up of materials collected at the same period. All his exertions respected some immediate advantage. He loved to shine--but thought not of laying up fame for future ages; just as he loved the enjoyments of wealth, but chose not to perplex himself with its accumulation and preservation. It was characteristic of Sheridan, that he was too economical of labour, ever to labour in vain. All the quips and jests and smart things which came into his head, he treasured up for the convivial meeting, or the floor of parliament. He came fresh from his stolen studies on subjects of which he was before ignorant, to make a splendid speech about them before the vividness of his new impressions had faded from his mind. Among the few papers left behind him, it should seem, from the extracts given us by Mr. Moore, that there was nothing on which much study had been expended, nor which was in itself capable of being made valuable.
Sheridan was a man of quick, but not deep feelings; of sudden, but not lasting excitements. He was not one of those who suffer a single passion to influence the whole course of their
lives. Even the desire to dazzle by his wit, great as was its power over him, was not always awake, for we are told that he would sometimes remain silent for hours in company, too lazy to invent a smart saying for the occasion, but idly waiting for the opportunity to apply some brilliant witticism already in his memory. His writings themselves show that he never dwelt long enough on any particular feeling to analyze it; the few attempts at sentimentalism they contain are excessively false and affected; their excellence lies wholly in a different way. His romantic love for the beautiful, amiable and accomplished woman who became his first wife, though his biographer would have us believe that it continued unabated to the end of her life, seems to have operated on his mind only at intervals, for it is hinted in this very book, that it was not steady enough to secure his fidelity. Her death, and that of the little daughter, who soon followed her, deeply as they affected him at the time, threw no cloud over his after life. His griefs might have been violent, but they were certainly brief, and he quickly forgot them when he came to look again at the sunny side of things. Even his political disappointments do not seem in the least to have soured his temper, or abated his readiness to adopt new hopes and new expedients. Indeed, it seems not improbable, from some appearances of pliancy in his political character, that had not his daily habits enfeebled the vigour of his mind, and shortened a life which great robustness of constitution seemed to have marked out for a late old age, he might have long continued a favourite with the present sovereign of England.
Some of the excellencies of Sheridan's character were such as could not easily suffer by this disposition to indolence and pleasure. That a man possessing an abundant flow of agreeable animal sensations, determined to make a matter of enjoyment of every thing, and to avoid every thing in the shape of care, should have possessed likewise an engaging good nature, is by no means extraordinary. That he who had no solitary pleasures, but all whose happiness was in some way connected with that of those about him, should be obliying, generous and humane, is almost a natural consequence. The man who lives only among and by his friends, is naturally led to study the art of making friendships. Nor is the frankness and openness of Sheridan's disposition any less in harmony with the rest of his character. It is not among men of his temperament, that we are to look for the habit of dissimulation, for concealed designs, and the weaving and carrying on of frauds and artifices. The labour and perplexity of falsehood was with him a sufficient objection, had no other existed, to the practice of it; the anxious and persevering watchfulness, and the continual tergiversations
necessary to provide against detection, he left to those who were more steadily diligent than himself. Had the practice of deceit been as eas as that of integrity, we are not sure that Sheridan would not have fallen into it, induced by the prospect of immediate and present advantages which it always holds out for it seems that he had not sufficient firmness of principle to resist the temptations of many other vices.
We do not intend to give an abstract of Sheridan's life from the book before us. The work itself will probably come to the hands of most of our readers; the entertaining nature of the subject, and the great reputation and fine talents of the writer, we doubt not, will make it generally popular here, as in England. Indeed, we suspect that most readers of newspapers in the United States, (and this description includes large majority of our population,) have already seen portion of the contents of this volume. Divers large extracts were made some time since from the London copy, by the editors of certain gazettes, into whose hands it happened to fall, and were duly copied from them into others. It is a common practice with these ingenious and watchful persons, when there is a scarcity of accidents, murders, and executions, of news from South America and Greece, of governor's messages and journals of legislatures, of new canals and coal mines, to fill up a column or two from the pages of some amusing publication that happens to lie in their way. Nobody complains of this practice, which is generally as much for the ease of the reader, as for that of the editor. It saves the looking over of a great deal of trash ; and as the selections are generally from some English book, or magazine, not reprinted in this country, a variety of the most agreeable samples of the modern literature of England are put into the hands of multitudes, who have no means of access to the sources from which they are drawn. As the papers have made pretty free in this manner with the work before us, we cannot but feel ourselves excused froin giving a regular analysis of it in the present article, and shall confine ourselves only to those parts of it, which we think particularly worthy of remark.
The two duels between Sheridan and Matthews, which followed the stolen marriage of the former with Miss Linley, one would almost imagine to have been got up by the parties, as a kind of burlesque upon all those things which go by the cant name of atfairs of honour. It seems that Matthews, a married man, had undertaken to make love to Miss Linley, a step which had the misfortune of not meeting with Sheridan's approbation, who had remonstrated with him respecting his conduct, and, on eloping with her to the continent, had written him a letter of