The Works of Lord Byron (ed. Coleridge, Prothero)/Poetry/Volume 4/Monody on the Death of the Right Hon. R. B. Sheridan
MONODY ON THE DEATH
THE RIGHT HON. R. B. SHERIDAN.
INTRODUCTION TO MONODY ON THE DEATH OF THE RIGHT HON. R. B. SHERIDAN.
When Moore was engaged on the Life of Sheridan, Byron gave him some advice. "Never mind," he says, "the angry lies of the humbug Whigs. Recollect that he was an Irishman and a clever fellow, and that we have had some very pleasant days with him. Don't forget that he was at school at Harrow, where, in my time, we used to show his name—R. B. Sheridan, l765—an honour to the walls. Depend upon it that there were worse folks going, of that gang, than ever Sheridan was" (Letter to Moore, September 19, 1818, Letters, 1900, iv. 261).
It does not appear that Byron had any acquaintance with Sheridan when wrote the one unrejected Address which was spoken at the opening of Drury Lane Theatre, October 10, 1812, but that he met him for the first time at a dinner which Rogers gave to Byron and Moore, on or before June 1, 1813. Thenceforward, as long as he remained in England (see his letter to Rogers, April 16, 1816, Letters, 1899, iii. 281, note 1), he was often in his company, "sitting late, drinking late," not, of course, on terms of equality and friendship (for Sheridan was past sixty, and Byron more than thirty years younger), but of the closest and pleasantest intimacy. To judge from the tone of the letter to Moore (vide supra) and of numerous entries in his diaries, during Sheridan's life and after his death, he was at pains not to pass judgment on a man whom he greatly admired and sincerely pitied, and whom he felt that he had no right to despise. Body and soul, Byron was of different stuff from Sheridan, and if he "had lived to his age," he would have passed over "the red-hot ploughshares" of life and conduct, not unscathed, but stoutly and unconsumed. So much easier is it to live down character than to live through temperament.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan (born October 30, 1751) died July 7, 1816. The Monody was written at Campagne Diodati, on July 17, at the request of Douglas Kinnaird. "I did as well as I could," says Byron; "but where I have not my choice I pretend to answer for nothing" (Letter to Murray, September 29, 1816, Letters, 1899, iii. 366). He told Lady Blessington, however, that his feelings were never more excited than while writing it, and that every word came direct from the heart" (Conversations, etc., p. 241).
The MS., in the handwriting of Claire, is headed, "Written at the request of D. Kinnaird, Esq., Monody on R. B. Sheridan. Intended to be spoken at Dy. Le. T. Diodati. Lake of Geneva, July 18th., 1816. Byron."
The first edition was entitled Monody on the Death of the Right Honourable R. B. Sheridan. Written at the request of a Friend. To be spoken at Drury Lane Theatre, London. Printed for John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1816.
It was spoken by Mrs. Davison at Drury Lane Theatre, September 7, and published September 9, 1816.
When the Monody arrived at Diodati Byron fell foul of the title-page: "'The request of a Friend:'—
'Obliged by Hunger and request of friends.'
"I will request you to expunge that same, unless you please to add, 'by a person of quality, or of wit and honour about town.' Merely say, 'written to be spoken at D[rury] L[ane]'" (Letter to Murray, September 30, 1816, Letters, 1899, iii. 367). The first edition had been issued, and no alteration could be made, but the title-page of a "New Edition," 1817, reads, "Monody, etc. Spoken at Drury Lane Theatre. By Lord Byron."]
Richard Brinsley Sheridan
from the picture in the possession of
Mrs. Horace Pym of Foxwold Chace.
MONODY ON THE DEATH
RIGHT HON. R. B. SHERIDAN,
SPOKEN AT DRURY-LANE THEATRE, LONDON.
When the last sunshine of expiring Day
In Summer's twilight weeps itself away,
Who hath not felt the softness of the hour
Sink on the heart, as dew along the flower?
With a pure feeling which absorbs and awes
While Nature makes that melancholy pause—
Her breathing moment on the bridge where Time
Of light and darkness forms an arch sublime—
Who hath not shared that calm, so still and deep,
The voiceless thought which would not speak but weep,10
A holy concord, and a bright regret,
A glorious sympathy with suns that set?
'Tis not harsh sorrow, but a tenderer woe,
Nameless, but dear to gentle hearts below,
Felt without bitterness—but fall and clear,
A sweet dejection—a transparent tear,
Unmixed with worldly grief or selfish stain—
Shed without shame, and secret without pain.
Even as the tenderness that hour instils
When Summer's day declines along the hills,20
So feels the fulness of our heart and eyes
When all of Genius which can perish dies.
A mighty Spirit is eclipsed—a Power
Hath passed from day to darkness—to whose hour
Of light no likeness is bequeathed—no name,
Focus at once of all the rays of Fame!
The flash of Wit—the bright Intelligence,
The beam of Song—the blaze of Eloquence,
Set with their Sun, but still have left behind
The enduring produce of immortal Mind;30
Fruits of a genial morn, and glorious noon,
A deathless part of him who died too soon.
But small that portion of the wondrous whole,
These sparkling segments of that circling Soul,
Which all embraced, and lightened over all,
To cheer—to pierce—to please—or to appal.
From the charmed council to the festive board,
Of human feelings the unbounded lord;
In whose acclaim the loftiest voices vied,
The praised—the proud—who made his praise their pride.
When the loud cry of trampled Hindostan41
Arose to Heaven in her appeal from Man,
His was the thunder—his the avenging rod,
The wrath—the delegated voice of God!
Which shook the nations through his lips, and blazed
Till vanquished senates trembled as they praised.
And here, oh! here, where yet all young and warm,
The gay creations of his spirit charm,
The matchless dialogue—the deathless wit,
Which knew not what it was to intermit;50
The glowing portraits, fresh from life, that bring
Home to our hearts the truth from which they spring;
These wondrous beings of his fancy, wrought
To fulness by the fiat of his thought,
Here in their first abode you still may meet,
Bright with the hues of his Promethean heat;
A Halo of the light of other days,
Which still the splendour of its orb betrays.
But should there be to whom the fatal blight
Of failing Wisdom yields a base delight,60
Men who exult when minds of heavenly tone
Jar in the music which was born their own,
Still let them pause—ah! little do they know
That what to them seemed Vice might be but Woe.
Hard is his fate on whom the public gaze
Is fixed for ever to detract or praise;
Repose denies her requiem to his name,
And Folly loves the martyrdom of Fame.
The secret Enemy whose sleepless eye
Stands sentinel—accuser—judge—and spy.70
The foe, the fool, the jealous, and the vain,
The envious who but breathe in other's pain—
Behold the host! delighting to deprave,
Who track the steps of Glory to the grave,
Watch every fault that daring Genius owes
Half to the ardour which its birth bestows,
Distort the truth, accumulate the lie,
And pile the Pyramid of Calumny!
These are his portion—but if joined to these
Gaunt Poverty should league with deep Disease,80
If the high Spirit must forget to soar,
And stoop to strive with Misery at the door,
To soothe Indignity—and face to face
Meet sordid Rage, and wrestle with Disgrace,
To find in Hope but the renewed caress,
The serpent-fold of further Faithlessness:—
If such may be the Ills which men assail,
What marvel if at last the mightiest fail?
Breasts to whom all the strength of feeling given
Bear hearts electric—charged with fire from Heaven,90
Black with the rude collision, inly torn,
By clouds surrounded, and on whirlwinds borne,
Driven o'er the lowering atmosphere that nurst
Thoughts which have turned to thunder—scorch, and burst.
But far from us and from our mimic scene
Such things should be—if such have ever been;
Ours be the gentler wish, the kinder task,
To give the tribute Glory need not ask,
To mourn the vanished beam, and add our mite
Of praise in payment of a long delight100
Ye Orators! whom yet our councils yield,
Mourn for the veteran Hero of your field!
The worthy rival of the wondrous Three!
Whose words were sparks of Immortality!
Ye Bards! to whom the Drama's Muse is dear,
He was your Master—emulate him here!
Ye men of wit and social eloquence!
He was your brother—bear his ashes hence!
While Powers of mind almost of boundless range,
Complete in kind, as various in their change,110
While Eloquence—Wit—Poesy—and Mirth,
That humbler Harmonist of care on Earth,
Survive within our souls—while lives our sense
Of pride in Merit's proud pre-eminence,
Long shall we seek his likeness—long in vain,
And turn to all of him which may remain,
Sighing that Nature formed but one such man,
And broke the die—in moulding Sheridan!
"As 'twere the twilight of a former Sun."
Churchill's Grave, line 26, vide ante, p. 48.]
- [Sheridan's first speech on behalf of the Begum of Oude was delivered February 7, 1787. After having spoken for five hours and forty minutes he sat down, "not merely amidst cheering, but amidst the loud clapping of hands, in which the Lords below the bar and the strangers in the Gallery joined" (Critical ... Essays, by T. B. Macaulay, 1843, iii. 443). So great was the excitement that Pitt moved the adjournment of the House. The next year, during the trial of Warren Hastings, he took part in the debates on June 3, 6, 10, 13, 1788. "The conduct of the part of the case relating to the Princesses of Oude was intrusted to Sheridan. The curiosity of the public to hear him was unbounded.... It was said that fifty guineas had been paid for a single ticket. Sheridan, when he concluded, contrived ... to sink back, as if exhausted, into the arms of Burke, who hugged him with the energy of generous admiration" (ibid., iii. 451, 452).]
- [The Rivals, The Scheming Lieutenant, and The Duenna were played for the first time at Covent Garden, January 17, May 2, and November 21, 1775. A Trip to Scarborough and the School for Scandal were brought out at Drury Lane, February 24 and May 8, 1777; the Critic, October 29, 1779; and Pizarro, May 24, 1799.]
- [Only a few days before his death, Sheridan wrote thus to Rogers: "I am absolutely undone and broken-hearted. They are going to put the carpets out of window, and break into Mrs. S.'s room and take me. For God's sake let me see you!" (Moore's Life of Sheridan, 1825, ii. 455).
The extent and duration of Sheridan's destitution at the time of his last illness and death have been the subject of controversy. The statements in Moore's Life (1825) moved George IV. to send for Croker and dictate a long and circumstantial harangue, to the effect that Sheridan and his wife were starving, and that their immediate necessities were relieved by the (then) Prince Regent's agent, Taylor Vaughan (Croker's Correspondence and Diaries, 1884, i. 388-312). Mr. Fraser Rae, in his Life of Sheridan (1896, ii. 284), traverses the king's apology in almost every particular, and quotes a letter from Charles Sheridan to his half-brother Tom, dated July 16, 1816, in which he says that his father "almost slumbered into death, and that the reports ... in the newspapers (vide, e.g,. Morning Chronicle, July, 1816) of the privations and want of comforts were unfounded."
Moore's sentiments were also expressed in "some verses" (Lines on the Death of SH—R—D—N), which were published in the newspapers, and are reprinted in the Life, 1895, ii 462, and Poetical Works, 1850, p. 400—
"How proud they can press to the funeral array
Of one 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.······
Was this, then, the fate of that high-gifted man,
The pride of the palace, the bower, and the hall,
The orator—dramatist—minstrel, who ran
Through each mode of the lyre, and was master of all?"]
Abandoned by the skies, whose beams have nurst
Their very thunders, lighten—scorth, and burst.[MS.]
- Fox—Pitt—Burke. ["I heard Sheridan only once, and that briefly; but I liked his voice, his manner, and his wit: he is the only one of them I ever wished to hear at greater length."—Detached Thoughts, 1821, Letters, 1901, v. 413.]
- ["In society I have met Sheridan frequently: he was superb!... I have seen him cut up Whitbread, quiz Madame de Staël, annihilate Colman, and do little less by some others ... of good fame and abilities.... I have met him in all places and parties,... and always found him very convivial and delightful."—Ibid., pp. 413, 414.]
- ["The other night we were all delivering our respective and various opinions on him,... and mine was this:—'Whatever Sheridan has done or chosen to do has been, par excellence, always the best of its kind. He has written the best comedy (School for Scandal), the best drama (in my mind, far before that St. Giles's lampoon, the Beggar's Opera), the best farce (the Critic—it is only too good for a farce), and the best Address ('Monologue on Garrick'), and, to crown all, delivered the very best Oration (the fomous Begum Speech) ever conceived or heard in this country.'"—Journal, December 17, 1813, Letters, 1898, ii. 377.]
- [It has often been pointed out (e.g. Notes and Queries, 1855, Series I. xi. 472) that this fine metaphor may be traced to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, The subject is Zerbino, the son of the King of Scotland—
"Non è vu si bello in tante altre persone:
Natura il fece e poi ruppe la stampa."
Canto X. stanza lxxxiv. lines 5, 6.]