1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Henry Ireland

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 6:335-37.



William Henry Ireland (1777-1835) was articled to a conveyancer in New Inn, and, like Chatterton, began early to imitate ancient writings. His father was morbidly anxious to discover some scrap of Shakspeare's handwriting, and this set the youth to manufacture a number of documents, which he pretended to have accidentally met with in the house of a gentleman of fortune. "Amongst a mass of family papers," says the elder Ireland, "the contracts between Shakspeare, Lowine, and Condelle, and the lease granted by him and Hemynge to Michael Fraser, which was first found, were discovered; and soon afterwards the deed of gift the William Henry Ireland (described as the friend of Shakspeare, in consequence of his having saved his life on the river Thames), and also the deed of trust to John Hemynge, were discovered. In pursuing this search, he (his son) was so fortunate as to meet with some deeds very material to the interests of this gentleman. At this house the principal part of the papers, together with a great variety of books, containing his manuscript notes, and three manuscript plays, with part of another, were discovered." These forged documents included, besides the deeds, a Protestant Confession of Faith by Shakspeare, letters to Anne Hathaway, the Earl of Southampton, and others, a new version of King Lear, and one entire original drama, entitled Vortigern and Rowena. Such a treasure was pronounced invaluable, and the manuscripts were exhibited at the elder Ireland's house, in Norfolk Street. A controversy arose as to the genuineness of the documents, in which Malone took a part, proving that they were forged: but the productions found many admirers and believers. They were published by subscription, in a large and splendid volume, and Vortigern was brought out at Drury Lane Theatre, John Kemble acting the principal character. Kemble, however, was not to be duped by the young forger, being probably, as Sir Walter Scott remarks, warned by Malone. The representation of the play completely broke up the imposture. The structure and language of the piece were so feeble, clumsy, and extravagant, that no audience could believe it to have proceeded from the immortal dramatist. As the play proceeded, the rottent of ridiculous bombast swelled to such a height to bear down critical patience, and when Kemble uttered the line, "And when this solemn mockery is o'er," the pit rose and closed the scene with a discordant howl. We give what was considered the 'most sublime passage' in Vortigern:

O sovereign Death!
That hast for thy domain this world immense;
Churchyards and charnel-houses are thy haunts,
And hospitals thy sumptuous palaces;
And when thou wouldst be merry, thou dost choose
The gaudy chamber of a dying king.
Oh, then thou dost wide ope thy hony jaws,
And with rude laughter and fantastic tricks,
Thou clapp'st thy rattling fingers to thy sides;
With icy hand thou tak'st him by the feet,
And upward so till thou dost reach his heart,
And wrapt him in the cloak of lasting night.

So impudent and silly a fabrication was perhaps never before thrust upon public notice. The young adventurer, foiled in this effort, attempted to earn distinction as a novelist and dramatist, but utterly failed. In 1805, he published a confession of the Shaksperean forgery, An Authentic Account of the Shakspeare Manuscripts, in which he makes this declaration: "I solemnly declare, first, that my father was perfectly unacquainted with the whole affair, believing the papers most firmly the productions of Shakspeare. Secondly, that I am myself both the author and writer, and had no aid from any soul living, and that I should never have gone so far, but that the world praised the papers so much, and thereby flattered my vanity. Thirdly, that any publication which may appear tending to prove the manuscripts genuine, or to contradict what is here stated, is false; this being the true account." Several other novels, some poems, and attempts at satire, proceeded from the pen of Ireland; but they are unworthy of notice; and the last thirty years of the life of this industrious but unprincipled litterateur were passed in obscurity and poverty.