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MEMOIRS OF THE LIFE
THE RIGHT HONOURABLE
RICHARD BRINSLEY SHERIDAN.
Birth and education of Mr. Sheridan.-His first attempts in Literature.
RICHARD BRINSLEY' SHERIDAN was born in the month of September, 1751, at No. 12, Dorset Street, Dublin , and baplised in St. Mary's Church, as appears by the register of the parish, on the fourth of the following month. His grandfather, Dr. Sheridan, and his father, Mr. Thomas Sheridan, have attained a celebrity , independent of that which he has conferred on them, by the friendship and correspondence with which the former was honoured by Swift, and the competition and even rivalry which the latter so long maintained with Garrick. His mother, too, was a woman of considerable talents, and affords one of the few instances that have occurred, of a female indebted for a husband to her literature; as it was a pamphlet she wrote concerning the Dublin theatre that first attracted to her the notice of Mr. Thomas Sheridan. Her affecting novel, Sidney Biddulph, could boast among its warm panegyrists Mr. Fox and Lord North ; and in the Tale of Nourjahad she has employed the graces of Eastern fiction to inculcate a grave and important moral,- putting on a fairy disguise, like her own Mandane, to deceive her readers into a taste for happiness and virtue. Besides her two plays, The Discovery and the Dupe ,-the former of which Garrick pronounced to be one of the best comedies he ever read,"
-she wrote a comedy also, called the Trip to Bath, which was never either acted or published, but which has been supposed by some of those sagacious persons , who love to look for flaws in the
· He was christened also by thc uame of Butler, after the Earl of Lanesborough.
titles of fame, to have passed, with her other papers,
into the possession of her son, and after a transforming sleep, like that of the chrysalis, in his hands, to have taken wing at length in the brilliant form of The Rivals. The literary labours of her husband were less fanciful, but not, perhaps , less useful, and are chiefly upon subjects connected with education, to the study and profession of which he devoted the latter part of his life. Such dignity, indeed, did his favourile pursuit assume in his own eyes, that he is represented (on the authority, however, of one who was himself a schoolmaster) to have declared, that he would rather see his two sons at the head of respectable academies, than one of them prime minister of England, and the other at the head of affairs in Ireland.”
At the age of seven years , Richard Brinsley Sheridan was, with his elder brother, Charles Francis, placed under the tuition of Mr. Samuel Whyte, of Grafton Street, Dublin,-an amiable and respectable man, who, for near fifty years after, continued at the head of his profession in that metropolis. To remember our schooldays with gratitude and pleasure, is a tribute at once to the zeal and gentleness of our master, which none ever deserved more truly from his pupils than Mr. Whyle, and which the writer of these pages, who owes to that excellent person all the instructions in English literature he has ever received , is happy to take this opportunity of paying. The young Sheridans, however, were little more than a year under his care—and it may be consoling to parents who are in the first crisis of impatience, at the sort of hopeless stupidity which some children exhibit, to know, thal the dawn of Sheridan's intellect was as dull and unpromising as its meridian day was bright; and that in the year 1759, he who, in less than thirty years afterwards, held senates enchained by his eloquence and audiences fascinated by his wit, was, by common consent both of parent and preceptor, pronounced to be “a most impenetrable dunce."
From Mr. Whyte's school the boys were removed to England, where Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan had lately gone to reside, and in the year 1762 Richard was sent to Harrow-Charles being kept at home as a fitter subject for the instructions of his falher, who, by another of those calculations of poor human foresight, which the deity, called Eventus by the Romans, takes such wanton pleasure in falsifying, considered his elder son as destined to be the brighter of the two stars. At Harrow, Richard was remarkable only as a very idle, careless, but, at the same time, engaging boy, who contrived to win the affection, and even admiration, of the whole school , both masters and pupils, by the mere charm of his frank and genial manners, and by the occasional gleams of superior intellect, which broke through all the indolence and indifference of his character.
Harrow, at this time, possessed some peculiar advantages, of which a youth like Sheridan might have powerfully availed himself. At the head of the school was Doctor Robert Sumner, a man of fine talents, but unfortunately one of those who have passed away without leaving any trace behind, except in the admiring recollection of their contemporaries. His taste is said to have been of a purity almost perfect, combining what are seldom seen together, that critical judgment which is alive to the errors of genius, with the warm sensibility that deeply feels its beauties. At the same period, the distinguished scholar, Dr. Parr, who, to the massy erudition of a former age, joined all the free and enlightened intelligence of the present, was one of the under-masters of the school; and both he and Dr. Sumner endeavoured, by every method they could devise, to awaken in Sheridan a consciousness of those powers which, under all the disadvantages of indolence and carelessness, it was manifest to them that he possessed. But remonstrance and encouragement were equally thrown away upon the good-humoured but immoveable indifference of their pupil ; and though there exist among Mr. Sheridan's papers some curious proofs of an industry in study for which few have ever given bim credit, they are probably but the desultory efforts of a later period of his life, to recover the loss of that first precious time, whose susceptibility of instruction, as well as of pleasure, never comes again.
One of the most valuable acquisitions he derived from Harrow was that friendship, which lasted throughout his life, with Dr. Parr, -which mutual admiration very early began, and the “idem sentire de re publicá ,” of course, not a little strengthened.
As this learned and estimable man has , within the last few weeks, left a void in the world which will not be easily filled up, I feel that it would be unjust to my readers not to give, in his own words, the particulars of Sheridan's school-days, with which he had the kindness to favour me, and to which his name gives an authenticity and interest too valuable on such a subject to be withheld :
« Dear Sir,
'Hatton , August 3, 1818. “ With the aid of a scribe I sit down to fulfil my promise about Mr. Sheridan. There was little in his boyhood worth communication. He was inferior to many of his school-fellows in the ordinary business of a school, and I do not remember any one instance in which he distinguished himself by Latin or English composition, in prose or verse'. Nathaniel Halhed, one of his school-fellows, wrote well in Latin and Greek. Richard Archdall, another school - fellow, excelled in English verse. Richard
' It will be seen, however, though Dr. Parr was not aware of the circumstance, ghat Sheridan did try his talent at English verse before he left Harrow..
Sheridan aspired to no rivalry with either of them. He was at the uppermost part of the fifth form, but he never reached the sixth, and if I mistake not, he had no opportunity of attending the most difficult, and the most honourable of school business, when the Greek plays were taught - and it was the custom at Harrow to teach these at least every year. He went through his lessons in Horace, and Virgil, and Homer well enough for a time. But in the absence of the upper master, Doctor Sumner, it once fell in my way to instruct the two upper forms, and upon calling up Dick Sheridan , I fouud him not only slovenly in construing, but unusually defective in his Greek grammar. Knowing him to be a clever fellow, I did not fail to probe and to teaze him. I stated his case with great good-humour to the upper master, who was one of the best tempered men in the world; and it was agreed between us, that Richard should be called oftener and worked more severely. The varlet was not suffered to stand up in his place; but was summoned to take his station near the master's table, where the voice of no prompter could reach him; and, in this defenceless condition he was so harassed , that he at last gathered up some grammatical rules, and prepared himself for his lessons. While this tormenting process was inflicted upon him, I now and then upbraided him. But you will take notice that he did not incur any corporal punishment for his idleness : his industry was just sufficient to protect him from disgrace. All the while Sumner and I saw in him vestiges of a superior intellect. His his countenance, his general manner, were striking. His answers to any common question were prompt and acute. We knew the esteem, and even admiration which, somehow or other, all his school-fellows felt for him. He was mischievous enough, but his pranks were accompanied by a sort of vivacity and cheerfulness, which delighted Sumner and myself. I had much talk with him about his apple-loft, for the supply of which all the gardens in the neighbourhood were taxed , and some of the lower boys were employed to furnish it. I threatened, but without asperity, to trace the depredators, through his associates , up to their leader. He with perfect good-humour set me at defiance, and I never could bring the charge home to him. All boys and all masters were pleased with him. I often praised him as a lad of great talents, often exhorted him to use them well; but
my exhortations were fruitless. I take for granted that his taste was silently improved, and that he knew well the little which he did know. He was removed from school too soon by his father, who was the intimate friend of Sumner, and whom I often met at his house. Sumner had a fine voice, fine taste, and, therefore, pronunciation was frequently the favourite subject between him and Tom Sheridan. I was present at many of their discussions and disputes; and sometimes took a very active part in them ,-but Richard was not present. The father, you know, was a wrong-headed, whimsical man, and, perhaps, his scanty circumstances were one of the reasons which prevented him from sending Richard to the University, He must have been aware, as Sumner and I were, that Richard's mind was not cast in any ordinary mould. I ought to have told you that Richard when a boy was a great reader of English poetry; but his exercises afforded no proof of his proficiency. In truth, he, as a boy, was quite careless about literary fame. 'I should suppose that his father, without any re
gular system, polished his taste, and supplied his memory with anecdotes about our best writers in our Augustan age. The grandfather, you know, lived familiarly with Swift. I have heard of him, as an excellent scholar. His boys in Ireland once performed a Greek play, and when Sir William Jones and I were talking over this event, I determined to make the experiment in England. I selected some of my best boys, and they performed the OEdipus Tyrannus, and the Trachinians of Sophocles. I wrote some Greek Iambics to vindicate myself from the imputation of singularity, and grieved I am that I did not keep a copy of them. Milton, you may remember, recommends what I attempted.
“I saw much of Sheridan's father after the death of Sumner, and after my own removal from Harrow to Stanmer. I respected him,-he really liked me, and did me some important services, but I never met him and Richard together. I often enquired about Richard, and, from the father's answers, found they were not upon good terms,—but neither he nor I ever spoke of his son's talents but in terms of the highest praise.”.
In a subsequent letter Dr. Parr says :
“ I referred you to a passage in the Gentleman's Magazine, where I am represented as discovering and encouraging in Richard Sheridan those intellectual powers, which had not been discovered and encouraged by Sumner. But the statement is incorrect. We both of us discovered talents, which neither of us could bring into action while Sheridan was a school-boy. He gave us few opportunities of praise in the course of his school-business, and yet he was well aware that we thought highly of him, and anxiously wished more to be done by him than he was disposed to do.
“I once or twice met his mother,--she was quite celestial. Both her virtues and her genius were highly esteemed by Robert Sumner. I know not whether Tom Sheridan found Richard tractable in the art of speak ing ,-and, upon such a subject, indolence or indifference would have been resented by the father as crimes quite inexpiable. One of Richard's sisters now and then visited Harrow, and well do I remember that, in the house where I lodged, she triumphantly repeated Dryden's Ode upon St. Cecilia's Day, according to the instruction given to her by her father. Take a sample
None but the brave,
None but the brave deserve the fair."
“In the later periods of his life Richard did not cast behind him classical reading. He spoke copiously and powerfully about Cicero. He had read, and he had understood, the four orations of Demosthenes read and taught in our public schools. He was at home in Virgil and in Horace. I cannot speak positively about Homer,--but I am very sure that he read the Iliad now. and then; not as a professed scholar would do, critically, but with all the strong sympathies of a poet reading a poet'. Richard
' It was not one of the least of the triumphs of Sheridan's talent, to have been