Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd

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TALFOURD, Sir Thomas Noon (1795-1854), was at once eminent as a lawyer, as a writer, and as a member of a brilliant and polished society. He had the faculty of winning friendships; so sympathetic indeed was his nature that he unconsciously biassed many of the most acute among his acquaintances towards an estimate of his genius as an author—more especially as a dramatist—hardly commensurate with what more impartial criticism has decided to be his just meed of praise. But, though even his most excellent work in literature has now ceased to be generally cared for, his poetry must always be interesting to the literary student.

The son of a brewer in good circumstances, Talfourd was born on May 26, 1795, at Reading (not, as is sometimes stated, at Doxey, near Stafford). He received his early education, first at an institution near Hendon, and later at the Reading grammar-school under Dr Valpy. Here, it is said, he acquired his taste for dramatic poetry, presumably under the guidance of Dr Valpy. At the age of eighteen the lad was sent to London to study law under Mr Chitty, the special pleader. Early in 1821 he joined the Oxford circuit, having been called to the bar at the Middle Temple in February of that year. When, fourteen years later, he was created a serjeant-at-law, and when again he in 1849 succeeded Mr Justice Coltman as judge of the Court of Common Pleas, he attained these distinctions more perhaps for the zeal and laborious care which he invariably displayed in his conduct of the cases confided to him than on account of any brilliance of forensic talent or of any marked intellectual subtlety. A parliamentary life had always had an attraction for him, and at the general election in 1835 he was returned for Reading. This seat he retained for close upon six years, and he was again returned in 1847. In the House of Commons he was no mere ornamental member. Those efforts of his which have most interest for us of later date were made on behalf of the rights of authors, for whose benefit he introduced the International Copyright Bill; his speech on this subject was considered the most telling made in the House during that session. The bill met with strong opposition, but Talfourd had the satisfaction of seeing it ultimately pass into law in 1842, albeit in a greatly modified form.

At the period of his elevation to the bench he was created a knight, and thenceforward his life was, in the intervals of his professional labours, devoted to scholarly and literary pursuits. From his school days he had entertained dreams of attaining eminence as a writer; and to the last he remained a diligent student of literature, ancient and modern. During his early years in London Talfourd found himself forced to depend—in great measure, at least—upon his literary exertions. He was at this period on the staff of the London Magazine, and was an occasional contributor to the Edinburgh and Quarterly reviews, the New Monthly Magazine, and other periodicals; while, on joining the Oxford circuit, he acted as law reporter to The Times. His legal writings on matters germane to literature are excellent expositions, animated by a lucid and sufficiently telling, if not highly polished, style. Among the best of these are his article "On the Principle of Advocacy in the Practice of the Bar" (in the Law Magazine, January 1846); his Proposed New Law of Copyright of the Highest Importance to Authors (1838); Three Speeches delivered in the House of Commons in Favour of an Extension of Copyright (1840); and his famous Speech for the Defendant in the Prosecution, the Queen v. Moxon, for the Publication of Shelley's Poetical Works (1841).

But Talfourd cannot be said to have gained any position among men of letters until the production of his tragedy lon, which was privately printed in 1835, and produced in the following year at Covent Garden theatre. The tragedy was also well received in America, and it met with the honour of reproduction at Sadler’s Wells in December 1861. This dramatic poem, its author’s masterpiece, turns upon the voluntary sacrifice of Ion, king of Argos, in response to the Delphic oracle, which had declared that only with the extinction of the reigning family could the prevailing pestilence incurred by the deeds of that family be removed. As a poem Ion has many high qualities. The blank verse, if lacking the highest excellence, is smooth and musical, and the lines are frequently informed with the spirit of genuine poetry; the character of the high-souled son of the Argive king is finely developed, and the reader is affected throughout by that same sense of the relentless working and potency of destiny which so markedly distinguishes the writings of the Greek dramatists.

Two years later, at the Haymarket theatre, The Athenian Captive was acted with moderate success. In 1839 Glencoe, or the Fate of the Macdonalds, was privately printed, and in 1840 it was produced at the Haymarket; but this home drama is indubitably much inferior to his two classic plays. The Castilian (1853) did not excite a tenth part of the interest called forth by Ion. Before this he had produced various prose writings other than those already referred to,—among them his “History of Greek Literature,” in the Encyclopædia Metropolitana.

Besides the honour of knighthood and his various legal distinctions, Talfourd held the honorary degree of D.C.L. from the university of Oxford. He died in court during the performance of his judicial duties, at Stafford, on March 13, 1854.

In addition to the writings above-mentioned, Talfourd was the author of The Letters of Charles Lamb, with a Sketch of his Life (1837); Receollections of a First Visit to the Alps (1841); Vacation Rambles and Thoughts, comprising recollections of three Continental tours in the vacations of 1841, 1842, and 1843 (2 vols., 1844); and Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (1849–50).