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Sheridan's wit is more sparkling, but does not go so deep as Fielding's. Neither is it so good-natured. There is little intimation of tenderness in it, or of the habitual consideration of anything but some jest at somebody's expense. The kindness of Sir Peter Teazle towards wife is but a sort of dotage, and mixed up with the selfishness of unequal years. It was not in Sheridan's nature to invent a Parson Adams, or Sir Roger de Coverley; much less to venture upon an heroical character in the shape of a footman.
The gaiety of success, and, some say, gratitude to the good actor who was substituted for the bad one in Sir Lucius O'Trigger, produced in the ensuing spring the farce of "St. Patrick's Day, or the Scheming Lieutenant," which turns upon an amusing trick à la Molière, and met with the like prosperity; and the author's animal spirits thus gaining triumph upon triumph, he devoted the summer to an opera ("The Duenna"), which, assisted by the sprightly and characteristic melodies of his fatherin-law, Mr. Linley, came out in the autumn and succeeded to admiration. The incidents are not new, but are very cleverly put together; the dialogue is smart and unsuperfluous, like all his comic writing; the more humorous characters are not very agreeable, and there is too much jesting upon personal defects, but they are very amusing; and if the poetry has little claim to that most abused term, it is very good town poetry,-full of pretty turns and epigrammatic points, and even as like earnestness of feeling, as such art well can be. It is clear that the heart is generally subordinate to the will, and the passion little but a restless, though elegant, sensuality. His table songs are always admirable. When he was drinking wine, he was thoroughly in
A passage in one of his letters at this period, shows a strange instance of that subjection of the greater to the less, of the universal to the conventional, which, as it is the very essence of the factitious importance of the leaders of artificial life, becomes the ruin of poetry in their worshippers. But here even wit was dismayed! "Ormsby," says he, has sent me a silver branch (candlestick) on the score of the Duenna.' This will cost me, what of all things I am least free of, a letter; and it should have been a poetical one too, if the present had been any piece of plate but a candlestick ! I believe I must melt it into a bowl, to make verse on it; for there is no possibility of bringing candle, candlestick, or snuffers, into metre. However, as the gift was owing to the muse, and the manner of it very friendly, I believe I shall try to jingle a little on the occasion; at least, a few such stanzas as might gain a cup of tea from the urn at Bath Easton." Poor victim of the prose of a candlestick!" Light itself, and the fire of Apollo, could do nothing for him! nor the wax of the bee, nor love, nor lucubration, nor even the Greek Anthology! We wonder what he thought of that pretty feminine speech of the lady in "The Merchant of Venice," when she is going home, and sees a light in her window:
How far that little candle throws its beams!
Or that other in "Romeo and Juliet," where Shakspeare, applying the word to the
very stars, seems to identify them with the artificial lights of our earthly night-time, in order to dismiss them with the better grace before the freshness and hilarity of day-light:
Night's candles are burn'd out, and jocund day
How wit itself seems to vanish, like a squalid reveller, before the coming of that happy god! But Sheridan, if we are not mistaken, was no great believer in Shak
Our author now became one of the proprietors of Drury Lane Theatre; how, nobody can tell-for nobody knew where the money came from; probably, as in the case of his friend Richardson afterwards, from some wealthy nobleman. This cunning and reserve, mixed with pride, does not sit well upon a jovial man of the town; nor did it do him good afterwards, out of whatever immediate necessities it helped him. It only seemed to tempt him into more; for, strangely enough, where such a quality was present, it was the only provident part of his character. Luxury and delay beset all the rest of it; so that his very wit ended in doing him no good, even as the proprietor of a theatre, but by affording him unwieldy, uneasy, and, finally, insufficient means of warding off debts, and encouraging the ruin it delayed.
Sheridan's animal spirits, however, which were also among the causes of his ruin— perhaps the chief cause, in a worldly sense,-had the good luck, or misfortune, whichever the reader pleases to call it, of making trouble and difficulty less painful to him than to most men. He doubtless extracted a great deal of pleasure from most of the days of his brilliant career, as long as it remained brilliant, and health and strength were not wanting. And we have now come to the moment when he was at the height of it, that of the production of "The School for Scandal," in the year 1777. It was preceded by the re-fashionment, not worth more than alluding to, of Vanbrugh's " Relapse," under the title of "A Trip to Scarborough." He was at this period six-and-twenty, an age at which many prose comic writers have produced their best, though Shakspeare himself could hardly have given us " Lear" and "Hamlet." But this apparent precocity has excited more admiration than it deserves; for the truth is, that the “ great world" of artificial society is a very little world to become intimate with, compared with Shakspeare's. Passions there, like modes, run very much in patterns, and lie on the surface; and folly, which is the object of satire, is by its nature a thing defective, and therefore sooner read through than the wisdom of the wise, or the universality of nature. A man, like Sheridan or Congreve, may very well know all that is to be known in the circles of conventional grace or absurdity, by the time he has spent more than half his life. Feeling he needs but little, imagination not at all. The stars might be put out, the ocean drunk up, almost everything which makes the universe what it is might vanish, including the heart of man in its largest and deepest sense, and if a single ball-room survived, like some foolish fairy corner, he might still be what he is. A little fancy and a good deal of scorn, a terseness, a polish, and a sense of the incongruous, are all the requisites of his nature,-admirable in the result, compared with what is inferior to them,--nothing (so to speak) by the side of the mighty waters, and
interminable shores, and everlasting truth and graces, of the masters of the dramatic art poetical.
"The School for Scandal," with the exception of too great a length of dialogue without action in its earlier scenes, is a very concentration and crystallization of all that is sparkling, clear, and compact, in the materials of prose comedy; as elegantly elaborate, but not so redundant or apparently elaborate, as the wittiest scenes of Congreve, and containing the most complete and exquisitely wrought-up bit of effect in the whole circle of comedy-the screen scene. Yet none of the characters, hardly even Sir Peter, can be said to be agreeable; certainly not Charles Surface, unless performed with a flow of spirits perhaps beyond what the author intended. He is almost as selfish as his brother Joseph, and makes pretensions to generosity hardly less provoking. His inclusion of Lady Teazle among the objects of his mockery in the screen-scene, is particularly unhandsome and ungallant. But the author thought it necessary to the perfection of the joke, and therefore nobody was to be spared. Of Sir Peter we have said more in a former passage. It is painful to witness the depth of reverential silence with which the audience see him give his wife a bank-bill for two hundred pounds. The whole commercial heart of England seems to be suddenly on the spot, awed by seeing all that virtue going out of it.
1 The year 1779 produced "The Critic ;" and, after a long political interval, his contributions to the stage concluded in the years 1798 and 1799 with adaptations of other people's versions of "The Stranger" and "Pizarro." "The Critic," though in some of its most admired passages little better than an exquisite cento of the wit of satirists before him, is a worthy successor to "The Rehearsal" of the Duke of Buckingham, and even to Beaumont and Fletcher's " Knight of the Burning Pestle;" though the last has the far superior merit to both, of being at once their original, and the work of poetry as well as wit. (Sheridan must have felt himself emphatically at home in a production of this kind; for there was every call in it upon the powers he abounded in, wit, banter, and style, and none upon his good-nature. It is observable, however, and not a little edifying to observe, that when those who excel in a spirit of satire above everything else, come to attempt serious specimens of the poetry and romance whose exaggerations they ridicule, they make ridiculous mistakes of their own, and of the very same kind: so allied is habitual want of faith with want of all higher power. The style of "The Stranger" is poor and pick-thank enough; but “Pizarro,” in its highest flights, is downright booth at a fair-a tall spouting gentleman in tinsel.
We say little, in this sketch, of our author's political life; but it cannot be passed over, whenever his biography is at all concerned; and, indeed, every man's existence is more or less of a piece, and serves to elucidate the particular phases of it, however inconsistent they may appear. Sheridan seems to have become a Whig, as most men become anything, by accident, and by the circumstances of early connexion and introduction. He had not the cordial fellowship and overflowing good-nature of Fox. He did not become a partisan out of sympathy. Neither, on the other hand, had his egotism pride or passion enough, to be capable of the resentments and apostacies
He had a strong, a sensual, and therefore essentially coarse nature, none the less so for a veil of refined language, which was his highest notion of the dress of the heart; but his very animal spirits, and contentment with the pleasure of the moment, served to keep him from dishonest aims. He stuck to his party, as he did to the wine; and if he did not ultimately abide by it in its corporate sense, when its public virtue was put to a test apart from private considerations, he may still be said, in adhering to the Prince, to have stuck to the last man at the table, influenced by a certain jovial disinterestedness as well as conventional vanity. In the famous trial of Hastings, which produced his highest oratorical flights, (and extraordinary they certainly were, though ludicrously overrated by Burke,) it may be said of its three great conductors, that a sort of jealous hatred of wrong was the inspirer of Burke, the love of right that of Fox, and the opportunity of making a display at somebody's expense that of Sheridan, without any very violent care either for right or wrong. He had perhaps indeed never been thoroughly in earnest during his life, except in having his way at the moment, and making his case out somehow with his mistress, his wit, or his bottle, crowned by as much love for consistency and good-fellowship as is caught in maxims over the wine, and which is incomparably better than none.
In the year 1792, Sheridan lost his first wife, whom we can never help fancying to have been of a nature too truly refined for him; and in 1795, being then in his fortyfourth year, he married his second, Miss Ogle, daughter of a Dean of Winchester, a lady "young and accomplished, and ardently devoted to him; "-so fascinating is fame and wit, and the power of enlivening the present moment. Miss Ogle brought him a fortune, also, of five thousand pounds; and with this sum, and fifteen thousand more, " which he contrived," says his biographer, "to raise by the sale of Drury Lane shares," an estate was bought in Surrey, where he was to live in love and happiness, till drink and his duns could endure it no longer. For, alas! he had long been in difficulties, but knew not how to retreat. A certain show of prosperity seemed to be necessary to him, to convince his unspiritual soul of the presence of any kind of happiness; and thus, through perpetual show and struggle, and every species of ingenious, eloquent, and, it is feared, degrading shift,-helping his party occasionally with a promising effort, but gradually degenerating into a useless though amusing speaker,—familiarly joked at by the public, admired but disesteemed by his friends, seeing his theatrical property come to worse than nothing in his hands, without energy or perhaps power to retrieve himself by his pen, secretly assailed by disease, and at last threatened by every kind of domestic discomfort,--this unhappy and brilliant man dragged out a heavy remainder of existence between solaces that made him worse, and a loyalty to his Prince which did him no good. He died near a dying wife, amidst the threats of bailiffs, and forsaken by that prince, and by all but his physician and a few poetic friends, (God bless the imagination that leaves men in possession of their hearts!) on Sunday the 7th July, 1816, in Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, and in the sixtyfifth year of his age. When his accounts were settled, it was a surprise to everybody to find for how small a sum, comparatively speaking, improvidence had rendered him insolvent. His death should never be mentioned without adding the names of
his physician, Dr. Bain, Mr. Rogers, Mr. Thomas Moore, and Lord Holland, as those of his last and, we believe, only comforters. It is a remarkable and painful instance of the predominance of the conventional and superficial in his feelings, even when they were most strongly and deeply excited, that after going through life with apparently a laughing carelessness as to troubles far more humiliating, he burst into tears, and complained of his "person" being "degraded," because a bailiff had touched him! That word "person" expresses all.
Sheridan was above the middle size, and of a make robust and well-proportioned In his youth, his family said, he had been handsome; but, in his latter years, he had nothing left to show for it but his eyes. "It was, indeed, in the upper part of his face," says Mr. Moore, "that the spirit of the man chiefly reigned; the dominion of the world and the senses being rather strongly marked out in the lower." He had a brother, Charles Sheridan, who took office in Ireland, and appears to have deviated neither into the vices nor the virtues of Richard. His sisters, Mrs. Lefanu and another, seem to have been more amiable, resembling, both in that respect and in talents, their excellent mother, the authoress of "Sidney Biddulph." Yet we do not find that Sheridan took much notice of them, or returned the regard which they fondly showed him at a distance. His son, by his first wife, Thomas, who died in the prime of life, is said to have inherited the mother's sweetness of nature as well as the father's wit. He also partook of her beauty, and he thus became the fortunate means of perpetuating the best distinctions of both families, the Sheridans and Linleys, in the persons of his children. The Sheridans, indeed, may be added to the list of Boyles, Bernouillis, and other families, as one in which intellect has been hereditary; for Dr. Sheridan, the grandfather, though he preferred his jest, and his fiddle, and his stockings down at heel, to a more solid reputation and prosperity, (first germ, perhaps, and excuse of his grandson!) was a really learned and able man. The father (the actor and elocutionist) was a man of abilities also, in spite of his pedantry and pragmaticalness; (he thought to advance the national morals by the diffusion of his "Art of Speaking!") and what he wanted towards augmenting the intellectual celebrity of his race, was abundantly supplied by his wife. Their son was the author of "The Rivals" and "The School for Scandal." He married a "charmer " for beauty and for song; and, to say nothing of the collateral branches, all clever and witty, seldom, indeed, have "God Almighty's nobility" come in a cluster so dazzling as in the present fair representatives of the direct Linley and Sheridan line—the three graces of Dufferin, Norton, and Seymour.
We have omitted to mention one circumstance in the composition of Sheridan's plays, highly characteristic of the mistrusting and artificial habits of his mind; namely, the extreme and constant care with which they were elaborated, and brought to their final state of terseness and polish. He kept memorandums of his wit, for use; pickled and potted up the sentences in which it was expressed; and now and then gave them a new turn, to improve the relish. Since writing our criticism, we have met with a striking remark on Sheridan and Congreve, in a masterly article on "Machiavelli" in the Edinburgh Review, (short only of perfection, as it seems to us, in not paying quite