1909 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe

Florence MacCunn, in Sir Walter Scott's Friends (1909) 135-45.



In 1797 Walter Scott's best energies were given to the Edinburgh Light Horse. When, wearied but satisfied with the day's exertion, he used to return to his father's house, 25 George Square, an imp of a boy from a neighbouring window derided him because, forsooth, he was lame, and, being lame, was full of martial ardour. "I remember seeing from the window Walter limping home in a cavalry uniform, the most grotesque spectacle that can be conceived." So Sharpe told the story in days long after his friend was dead.

There is one misfortune greater than having no sense of the ludicrous, — seeing nothing but the ludicrous. "I believe you could not help laughing," said George Heriot to Sir Mungo Malagrowther, "if your best friend lay dying." And the character of Sir Mungo was, it has been supposed, suggested by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe.

A biting sense of the absurd, an irresistible attraction towards what is curious, morbid, entertaining, scandalous in history and literature, and a leaning towards gossip and fashion in social life, were all tendencies which withdrew Sharpe from serious life, from sympathy with common men, from the greatest literature, but they left him wit, a lively fancy, an excellent knowledge of genealogy and anecdotal history, a singular mastery of pencil and burin, some family affection, some good friends.

He himself held that the most interesting thing about a man was his pedigree: his own stands for much among the influences that shaped his life. His surname of Sharpe came by the accident of inheritance. His grandfather, a Kirkpatrick of Closeburne, took the name on inheriting the estate of Hoddam in Annandale. Both Sharpes and Kirkpatricks were high Tories. Two Sharpes were "out in the '15"; a Kirkpatrick had ridden at Grierson of Lag's bridle-rein in the bad old "killing times"; intermarriage or hereditary friendship connected the Kirkpatrick Sharpes with such persecuting families as the Jardines of Applegarth, the Griersons of Lag, the Maxwells of Springkell. Those who are active in repressing popular or national movements entail by perfectly natural consequence a sense of alienation on their descendants for more than one generation. High Tory as he was, Sir Walter knew the value of having ancestors who had been "outed for a persecuted covenant," as well as ancestors who had let their beards grow in sorrow for an exiled king. No phase of Scottish life was beyond his comprehension — sympathetic or humorous, generally both, — till indeed it came to Radical weavers in Hawick and Jedburgh.

Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe spent all his youth in Annandale. He loved every stone in the grey crumbling walls of Hoddam Castle, loved the Square Tower on the slope above the house with its mysterious inscription "Repentance," loved gardens and "policy," — himself planning the wallflower walk; but for the peasantry and the outdoor servants on the place he has no word of kindness or respect. The gross, the scandalous, the sordid side of the rustic life of Scotland was all he looked for; yet we know the type of men who lived on the land and were "kindly tenants" on the Hoddam estate. Carlyle's forbears had been settled for generations in the neighbourhood, though it was only in 1814 that his father, James Carlyle, became a tenant of the Sharpe family at Mainhill. At a later period, on a disagreement with General Sharpe, Charles's brother, old Carlyle dismissed his landlord from any jurisdiction over his peace of mind with the curt remark — "We can live without Sharpe and the whole Sharpe creation." This probably summed up pretty accurately the Annandale view of the family at the Castle.

On his mother's side Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe was descended from Susanna, the beautiful Countess of Eglinton who, at the age of ninety, captivated Dr. Johnson by her "high-bred manners, wide reading, and elegant conversation." By this hereditary beauty and charm her grand-daughter, Eleanore Renton, Mrs. Kirkpatrick Sharpe, captivated and held fast the heart and imagination of her son Charles. "You are my only treasure, my consolation in all the changes and chances to which mortality is heir," he writes to her from Oxford.

Gossip, derision of neighbours, jokes in the coarser fashion of an elder day, might be the staple of correspondence between Oxford and Hoddam, but at least everything was frankly shared between son and mother. His mother's high-breeding and feminine grace gratified the two strongest instincts in Charles — his pride of birth and love of beauty. There is a drawing of her from his brush. The tall, slight figure moves, in flowing skirts, almost as lightly as the clouds in the background of summer sky. One slender hand holds a feather fan, a soft ruffle frames the small delicate face and curling locks. As a drawing the portrait is charming, despite the fact that the proportion in the figure and character in the face have been sacrificed to an exaggerated air of high-breeding: it is probably unique as the impression made by a mother on the imagination of her seventh child, a son of over twenty.

In one respect Sharpe's youth resembled Walter Scott's: he was a ballad-collector from the day when he took down "The Douglas Tragedy" from the singing of a nursery-maid and wrote it out in half-text. There were milkmaids in the byres at Hoddam; tenants' daughters in Annandale, by immemorial habit, gave "the Leddy" stated days of spinning; an itinerant tailor came every year to the Castle to make ill-fitting garments for children and servants: from all these authorities Charles picked up ballads and songs, often only fragments. When the first volume of the Minstrelsy appeared he wrote to Scott and sent him the version of "The Douglas Tragedy" actually used in the Minstrelsy, a version of the "Queen's Maries" slightly different from the one Scott prints, and a priceless treasure, quite new to Scott, "The Twa Corbies." This, Sharpe's cousin, Miss Erskine of Alva, had written down from "the recitation of an old woman" — the universal authority. A fourth contribution was the beautiful, fragmentary ballad of "Lady Anne," the unfortunate lady who slew a new-born infant and then saw him, "a bonnie boy," singing and "playing at the ba'" with Peter and Paul. This he had copied from an old magazine. Of the genuineness of Sharpe's contributions the best proof is the tawdry and conventional quality of his own poems, two of which appear in the fourth volume of the Minstrelsy. He gave Scott the best of his collection. Later he himself published a small separate collection of just such ballads and songs as Burns redeemed from corruption into incorruptibility, as Scott was content to leave in the privacy of his volumes of MS. Ballads, as the peasant modesty of Leyden and Hogg would have "thought shame" to offer to the public.

Sharpe was destined for the Church, and in 1798 went up to Christ Church. In one of his letters he describes the place as "so full of noblemen at present that one's eyes require green spectacles to preserve them from the glare of the golden tufts among these peers. At Oxford he followed undisturbed the bent of his own genius. He ransacked the libraries, instinctively picking out historical memoirs, chiefly of the Stuart period, some in MS., some in obscure publications.

At one time he was attracted to the idea of writing the Life of the Duke of Monmouth, a character for whom he confesses a "womanish fondness." Again, he is drawn to Claverhouse, and noble families among his friends and kinsfolk rummage their family charter-chests for letters and memoirs. On either of these subjects he might have produced an unusual and indeed fascinating work, for though entirely incapable of large historical views — he complains that "such events as the Reformation, Revolution, and Union make me very uncomfortable" — no personal trait, no picturesque detail, no shadow of scandal, no crumb of gossip, would have escaped his search.

But the pen was not to be Sharpe's characteristic implement. His distinction rests on his drawing, and already at Oxford he had complete mastery of his pencil. The extreme elegance and high-breeding of his friends as he portrays them — with the usual sacrifice of anatomical proportion — partly reflect the fashion of the time, but are largely due to the value the artist placed on such characteristics.

The set with which Sharpe consorted did not court the society of the tutors. In 1812, writing to one who had been at college with him, he says: — "Things are much altered at Christ Church if tutors are admitted to the society of noblemen. The tufted set of my youth never thought, 'Dieu merci!' of such a thing. Their presence would have turned our wine and tea into tears, ... and our nobles did not like unpolished gems." It is difficult to recognise the Oxford of these later times in the life reflected in Sharpe's letters from Christ Church. The river is never mentioned. Those young gentlemen in silk stockings, pumps, muslin cravats, and fine blue coats did not row nor play games. It is odd that, though both an artist and antiquary, Sharpe never refers to the beauty of Oxford.

It is evident that he was the reigning wit in his circle. All his correspondents danced to his piping. To most of these young gentlemen one feels inclined to address the objurgation with which Carlyle adjured the world at large: "Above all things, oh be not witty." One of them admits the burden of the obligation. "It is the most difficult thing in the world to sit down with a determination of being witty. I have already made five unsuccessful attempts to answer your letter in that strain."

A pleasant exception to the prevailing echoes of Sharpe's shrill laughter are the letters of Lord Gower, which are full of kindness, sense, and genuine interests. His mother, the "great Lady of the Cat," the feudal chieftainess, the Countess-Duchess of Sutherland, was Sharpe's most interesting and kindliest correspondent. She discovered and had printed some invaluable family histories, and Sharpe's minute knowledge of history, bibliography, and portraiture made him a useful authority to consult. His curious — and indeed unique — stores of knowledge were at all times at the service of those who could make use of them. Chambers' Traditions of Edinburgh and Wilson's Memorials of Edinburgh were largely made up of picturesque materials generously poured out by this cranky antiquary.

It was a common interest in "auld nick-nackets," ballads, broadsheets, trials for witchcraft, armorial bearings, and "histories marvail pleasant of frail Countesses" — as Surtees describes them — that were the bond between Sharpe and Scott. On Sharpe's side cordiality was always reluctant and intermittent. When Scott visited Oxford in 1803 under Heber's auspices, Sharpe makes a merit of having entertained him. "I very courteously invited him to breakfast. He is dreadfully lame, and much too poetical. He spouts without mercy, and pays highflown compliments." Scott did, as we all know, habitually overrate his contemporaries. To Scott's troublesome invitation to visit him at Lasswade Sharpe had replied with polite evasion. "I do think a little fib of this kind is a very venial sin." Since such were his views, one is relieved that he never was Scott's guest either at Lasswade or Abbotsford, and that he never accepted this alluring invitation from the gentle Surtees: "You shall have a warm room, a sunny garden, and perfect freedom in all things lawful."

In regard to another poet Sharpe is not to be blamed that he had no prescience of the question of posterity — "And did you once see Shelley plain?" His description of Shelley's style, "Moore burlesqued," was perhaps the current dictum of clever young Oxford; while that wicked wretch, Mr. Shelley, ... mad, bad, ... and trying to persuade people that he lived on arsenic and aquafortis," echoes the views of the authorities. In 1811 Shelley turned up in Edinburgh with a friend, Mr. Hutchinson. Sharpe took them to a party in Heriot Row with the introduction — "They are both very gentlemanly persons, and dance quadrilles eternally."

Sharpe never took orders. Either a patron was lacking or persistent disinclination took the place of decision. While his father lived he stayed on at Hoddam nursing a constant toothache over fires that constantly smoked. After his father's death he and his mother set up house together in 93 Princes Street. His health was indifferent, and a lawsuit with his brother concerning entails and jointures was a worse source of disquiet than the smoky chimneys of the old house he had left.

In Edinburgh he haunted picture-dealers. The mornings he spent with old books, picking up the scandals of forgotten generations; his evenings he gave to society, enjoying the article fresh and crude. "Strange," writes Scott in his journal, "that a man should be curious after scandal centuries old! Not but Charles loves it fresh and fresh also.... He is always master of the reigning report, and he tells the anecdote with such gusto that there is no helping sympathising with him." It was as if the soul of Sharpe had inhabited the persons of successive maiden ladies of quality for at least two centuries, and had retained the tittle-tattle hoarded up by each.

In December 1816 Scott writes to the Duke of Buccleuch: "Charles Sharpe projects the publication of original letters, from which I think much amusement will be derived. I know no man so deep in old genealogy and antiquated scandal; I fear he will destroy the honour of God knows how many of the great-grandmothers of our present noblesse."

His annotations to songs and memoirs would have been delightful had he known what to miss out. It is pleasant to learn that "Grace Macfarlane" — the "wandering darling" of the song — was an Edinburgh toast of ninety years earlier: but he must needs spoil the story by adding a clumsy misadventure of the lady.

The interchange of books, duplicates of rare pamphlets, and curios was constant and friendly between Scott and Sharpe. Sharpe had it, moreover, always in his power to gratify Scott and other friends by gifts of his graceful humorous etchings. In the most famous of these — Queen Elizabeth "dancing high and disposedly" — the merriment culminates in the charming boy-musician who, on his knees, fiddles an accompaniment, a very Puck of intelligent mischief.

Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe was too much "the gentleman born, like Crispinus," to turn his talents to account as he might have done. It is amusing to see how Scott — who in his own case maintained the "right of the bear to lick his own paws" — humoured this prejudice in his friend. When in 1808 he invited him to contribute to the Quarterly, the question of paying is airily referred to. "I retain so much the old habit of a barrister, that I cannot help adding that the fee is ten guineas a sheet, which may serve to buy an odd book now and then." It was characteristic of Sharpe's fine-gentleman way of doing business that when he condescended to traffic with Constable concerning the editing of an interesting but unsaleable reprint, he demanded an unreasonable sum. As a rule he preferred losing money on small editions of curious books, privately printed, which he presented to his friends.

In two important publications Sir Walter was almost a collaborator, so keen and personal was the interest he took in them.

In 1816 Scott published Old Mortality. It is astonishing to read that this noble romance and singularly fair historic narrative raised a storm of indignation in Scott's own country. The religious world was outraged, and in The Edinburgh Christian Instructor the learned Dr. M'Crie made vehement attacks on Scott's historical accuracy. Dr. M'Crie belonged to a school, common to all Churches, who write history for edification. He starts with the position that one party — Reformers, and later, Covenanters — were "in the right," and facts are emphasised or apologised for as they make for this position. In his account the Covenanters are patient, enlightened, evangelical saints. He knows nothing of that medium, dense with superstition, credulity, vengeful passions, quarrels, and suspicions, through which the authentic light of heaven did indeed reach the earnest, impetuous souls of Covenanting men and women. With a contrary but corresponding prejudice Sharpe saw in that light from heaven merely the medium in which motes and dust and earthly damps were floating. At an earlier date Joseph Ritson, in discussing Scottish historians, had said, with his usual curious insight, "I always prefer Jacobite or Tory writers.... You consult history for facts, not principles. The Whigs have the advantage in the latter, and this they labour to support by a misrepresentation of the former."

Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, a Tory and Jacobite writer, might be fundamentally wrong in his historic prejudices — one cannot call them "principles," so entirely were they the result of taste, not of thought, — but he had a way of getting hold of inconvenient facts. In 1807 he had received from Surtees an MS. History of the Church of Scotland by one James Kirkton, an outed minister in the reign of Charles II. Wodrow had used the MS., but with omissions. There was another MS. of Kirkton in the Advocates' Library, but when Scott hunted it up he found that Dr. M'Crie had removed it with another MS. — the narrative of one of Bishop Sharpe's murderers — "from their place in the Library, and deposited them in a snug and secret corner." Whether Scott meant to suggest that this was a "ruse de guerre" on the part of his reverend opponent or not, there is no doubt that the two parties were drawn up watching each other's movements, and Sharpe was Scott's sworn ally. In the course of the next year (1817) he published his edition of Kirkton. The text of this honest and readable Covenanter in its unconscious admission justifies the author of Old Mortality rather than his critic in The Edinburgh Christian Instructor. In a series of entertaining footnotes, drawn from Presbyterian pamphlets and sermons, Sharpe adds touches as grotesque as those which in the novel had given offence to Dr. M'Crie and his following. Sir Walter really was as far removed from Sharpe's blind and irritable impatience of the "puddle of Presbyterianism" as from M'Crie's obstinate prejudice, but the timely publication had given him sword and buckler in his controversy, and nothing draws men into more cordial intimacy than fighting on the same side.

Sharpe's other important publication — Law's Memorials — dealt with witchcraft and ghostly apparitions, subjects that at all times powerfully attracted Scott, and were even more akin to Sharpe's grotesque imagination.

When, in 1823, Sir Henry Raeburn died — with a portrait of Scott still wet on the easel, — Scott at once set all his friends in motion to secure the post of King's Limner for Scotland for Sharpe. In all questions of posts and patronage Scott's ideas were entirely eighteenth century, but the days of nepotism and sinecures were passing, and Lord Melville wrote good-humouredly but firmly: "I really think Wilkie ought to be the man."

As long as Scott was alive, eager to serve him, interested in all his undertakings, lending and borrowing rare publications, consulting Sharpe on questions of genealogies and antiquarianisms, his genial presence expelled the evil spirit of grudging and detraction — the instinct to "take down" another man which was the bane of Sharpe's character as it has been of other Scotsmen both distinguished and obscure. When Scott was gone and a younger generation turned eagerly to his surviving contemporary for an authentic report of the greatest of Scotsmen, his irritable criticism suggested — at least to Daniel Wilson — "at times a momentary jealousy, as of one who had once contemplated the possibility of competing with him in the race for fame." There was more spleen than deliberate judgment when he said of a new writer, Charles Dickens: "He is worth a hundred Sir W. Scotts, because he paints extravagantly real manners; Sir Walter what never was — is — or will be."

It is pleasanter to take leave of Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe on a kindlier note. He had a jealous love for the beauty and antiquity of Edinburgh. His exertions saved Holyrood from disfiguring reconstructions, and, had he had his will, no dull amorphous Mound, but an airy span of arches, would have bridged the valley between the Old Town and the New.