Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

for the purpose of facilitating his progress in life; but this generous offer Wolfe gratefully but steadily declined. With a chivalry of feeling which always distinguished him, he determined to endeavour to win his way by the exertion of his own talents. With this view he undertook the duties of a college tutor, and, as Mr. Russell observes, “ discharged the task with such singular devotedness, and disinterested anxiety, as materially to entrench upon his own particular studies. He was, indeed, so prodigal of his labour and of his time to each pupil, that he reserved little leisure for his own pursuits or relaxations. At the usual period, he obtained a scholarship, with the highest honour, upon which he immediately became a resident in college. A new theatre of literary honour was opened to him, at the commencement of the same year, where his genius for composition in prose and verse, and his natural powers of oratorical excellence, had more ample sphere for exercise and cultivation. In the Historical Society, of which he was now admitted a member, they were encouraged and expanded by the stimulus of generous competition, and by constant mental collision with the most accomplished and enlightened of his fellow-students. He soon obtained medals for oratory, and for compositions in prose and verse; and was early appointed to the honorable office of opening the sessions, after the summer recess, by a speech from the chair; the grand post of distinction to which the most successful speakers in the society continually aspired.”

On this occasion, however, the indolence and procrastination which at times accompany and impede great talents, prevented Mr. Wolfe from achieving all that he might otherwise have accomplished. Although he had three months in which to collect and arrange his materials, he deferred doing so until the very last moment. Passages of his speech, indeed, he composed, and committed to memory; intending to fill up the chasms before the time when he would be called upon to make the expected display; but that time

arrived, and found him still imperfectly prepared. His intimate associates, who were aware of his neglect, trembled for him. He himself, when he took the chair, was evidently in a state of great trepidation. Excited, however, by the stimulus of having to address so numerous and intellectual an assembly, he soon convinced his well-wishers that their apprehensions were in a great measure groundless.

AIthough his speech was necessarily somewhat deficient in unity and connexion, parts of it were exceedingly eloquent ; and it was received with the highest applause, and obtained the gold medal. A gentleman who was present observed, that it reminded him of those fine fragments of Phidias or Praxiteles, the beauty of which made the spectator lament the loss of the entire statue.

It was about this period, also, that among other poems of considerable beauty, Mr. Wolfe wrote his “Ode on the Burial of Sir John Moore;” the simplicity, pathos, and sublimity of which, place it in the highest rank of lyrical compositions, and insure immortality to its author. The history of this exquisite little production is extraordinary; and proves how much accident has sometimes to do not merely in eliciting works of genius, but in establishing their subsequent fame. In Captain Medwin's “ Conversations of Lord Byron," published in October 1824, the following passage occurs:

“ The conversation turned after dinner on the lyrical poetry of the day, and a question arose as to which was the most perfect ode that had been produced. Shelley contended for Coleridge's on Switzerland, beginning • Ye clouds, &c.,' others named some of Moore's Irish Melodies, and Campbell's Hohenlinden; and had Lord Byron not been present, his own Invocation in Manfred, or the Ode to Napoleon, or on Prometheus, might have been cited.

6 • Like Gray,' said he, · Campbell smells too much of the oil: he is never satisfied with what he does: his finest things have been spoiled by over-polish. Like paintings, poems may be too highly finished. The great art is effect; no matter

how produced. I will show you an ode you have never seen, that I consider little inferior to the best which the present prolific age has brought forth.'

“ With this he left the table, almost before the cloth was removed, and returned with a Magazine, from which he read the following lines on Sir John Moore's burial :

(The Ode, as quoted by Captain Medwin, being very inaccurate, is omitted here: it will be found in the sequel in its original and authentic form.)

“ The feeling with which he recited these · admirable stanzas I shall never forget. After he had come to an end, he repeated the third, and said it was perfect, particularly the lines

• But he lay like a warrior taking his rest,
With his martial cloak around him.'

[ocr errors]

"" I should have taken the whole,” said Shelley, for a rough sketch of Campbell's.'— No,' replied Lord Byron, Campbell would have claimed it, if it had been his.'

- I afterwards had reason to think that the Ode was Lord Byron's * ; that he was piqued at none of his own being mentioned; and, after he had praised the verses so highly, could not own them. No other reason can be assigned for his not acknowledging himself the author; particularly as he was a great admirer of General Moore.”

This passage produced a very able and animated letter, inserted in the Morning Chronicle of the 29th of October 1824, from John Sydney Taylor, Esq. one of Mr. Wolfe's 16 earliest and dearest friends;" in which that gentleman, justly observing that “ if the fame of men of genius be worth any thing in a public point of view, it is of some consequence that it should be rightly appropriated,” successfully asserts the right of Mr. Wolfe to the celebrity which the beautiful

« * I am corroborated in this opinion lately by a lady whose brother received them many years ago from Lord Byron, in his lordship’s own hand-writing.”

poetical effusion in question is so well calculated to confer. The following is an extract from Mr. Taylor's letter:

“ The Ode which the captain so hastily ascribes to the noble bard, and which Shelley was willing to appropriate to Campbell, was the production of no poet known to fame. Never did an instance occur in which the influence of the idolatry that men pay to established reputations was more conspicuous. The first poet of the day reads an anonymous poem, in which he detects a genius kindred to his own. He recites it with enthusiasm to his friends

one of them names another distinguished poet as the author – he rejects the presumption, and the admiring circle instantly discover its writer in himself. If it be not Campbell, it must be Byron;

" 'Tis Phæbus' self, or else the Mantuan swain.'

- In this manner is this unclaimed poem ascribed to Byron, although he could have no possible grounds for concealing his name; but, on the contrary, every reason that ought to induce him to avow it. The poem is one replete with condensed pathos and grandeur, and breathing all the fire of lyrical inspiration. It is, besides, evidently written under the generous impulse of redeeming from sordid obloquy the memory of a great man -- the benefactor of his country, and the victim of a faction. It is the tribute of a true poet at the grave of departed worth; not ashamed to perform the obsequies of a fallen hero, which the intrigue of party prevented the nation from rendering to one of her bravest and most accomplished soldiers. Here was every inducement why Byron should acknowledge himself the author of this Ode, had it indeed emanated from his pen. He was proud of vindicating the character of men whom the vulgar great traduced, and whom their country onght not to have forgotten. Whether he gratified a generous ardour in so doing, or whether an impatience of authority impelled him, it matters not. Whatever his motive was for scorning the decrees of power,

or the sentiments of illiberality, he had none to induce him to resort to subterfuge or concealment. Whether right or wrong, he took his stand openly in the face of his enemies, and threw down the gauntlet with the sternest action of defiance.

“ This being the case, supposing the writer of the poem for ever unknown, it would not be reasonable to presume Lord Byron was its author ; not even although as many ladies as would equal the number of the muses and the graces conjoined, had each seen a copy of it in his lordship's own handwriting But how would the literary conclave have been astonished had Byron been enabled to inform them that this poem, so long unclaimed, so much admired, was the production of one who was totally unknown to fame - one who had never been talked of in any periodical, whose name had not even been whispered in Albemarle Street or the Row. This person was Charles Wolfe. His talents were known only to the private circle of his associates. He was one of my earliest and dearest friends. We were cotemporaries of equal standing in the University of Dublin. Similarity of pursuit created intimacy. Though sometimes competitors for the same academic honours it impaired, not our sense of mutual esteem. Wolfe was equally distinguished in the severe sciences, and in polite literature. Emulation, I believe, led him to excel in the former; but the latter had all his intellectual affection. I well recollect the expression of mingled diffidence and enthusiasm with which he communicated to me his tribute to the memory of Sir John Moore. He had then written but the first and last verses, and had no intention of adding any others. The thought was inspired while reading an account of the death of the Marcellus of Corunna in some periodical work; the approbation which these two verses received from the few fellow-students to whom he showed them, among whom were the Rev. J. Sullivan, now vicar of St. Catherine's, Dublin, the Rev. Mr. Dickenson, and, I believe, Mr. Grierson, of the Irish bar, and one or two more, induced him to extend the design, and finish the ode in the form, though not exactly

« ForrigeFortsæt »