1836 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen

T. D. Parry, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 6 (August 1836) 212-14.



May 2. At Woburn Abbey, aged 44, Jeremiah-Holme Wiffen, esq., the celebrated Quaker poet, and Librarian to the Duke of Bedford.

Mr. Wiffen was born of a respectable family, of the Society of Friends, and was brought tip to the profession of a schoolmaster, in which he was for some years actively engaged. His first publication was the Geographical Primer, for junior classes, 1812, 12mo. His earliest poetical effusions were contributed to a volume entitled Poems by Three Friends. These were succeeded by perhaps, his happiest and most spirited effort — a series of stanzas, in allusion to the portraits at Woburn Abbey, in the Rev. T. D. Parry's History of Woburn; which were afterwards reprinted, with the title of The Russells. A subsequent perusal of Clarendon induced him to take a wore favourable view of the character of Charles I.; and mature experience prompted him on a republication, whilst retaining the irrefragable praise of Lord William Russell, to soften some general rather anti-regal expressions. Mr. Wiffen was in his confirmed character, a liberal and candid Whig; a Reformer, but an attached friend of all our valuable and sterling established institutions.

In 1819, appeared his Aonian Hours, and other Poems. The "lilied banks" of Aspley Wood, which was often haunted by beauty and talent, formed the inspiring field of this poem; which is characterised by refined thoughts, ardent social feelings, and pleasing illustrations of literary survey and retrospect. It was intended for the first of a series, which should present the colouring of the scenes through which he passed.

A translation of the prince of Spanish poets, Garcilasso de la Vega, was his next work, completed in 1822. He has smoothly rendered the Spaniard's elaborate pastorals, and beautifully given his sonnets and miscellaneous pieces, particularly the ode to The Flower of Guide. This volume was elegantly printed, with a portrait of the author, and several wood vignettes.

Mr. Wiffen's miscellaneous Poems, at various periods, would fill two or three volumes: some of them were published in the Annuals, Time's Telescope, &c. &c. Among these are translations from Catullus, Propertius, and other Latin authors. Many of his own little early pieces were of an Anacreontic character, and would not have disgraced a Moore; but they were divested of all impropriety. The ballad of The Luck of Eden Hall is his happiest effort in that very attractive species of composition.

But these, and all his other works, including a poem on the pathetic fortunes of the devoted classical daughter, Julia Alpinula, were only subsidiary or introductory to his "magnum opus;" for, in the spirit of the Roman sophist, he had "dared and effected a great work, which should be for ever his own:" — his Tasso. By this he will live. It was the work of six or seven years; and the greater part of the hours devoted to the first half of the translation were stolen from sleep, and spent by the midnight-oil. His toils were, happily, cheered and encouraged by the society of sisters of finely cultivated minds, and an ingenious and attached brother.

After an elegant poetical dedication to the Duchess of Bedford, it is prefaced by an ample and excellently written biography of Tasso, which throws more light on the poet's career than any thing which had before appeared, for Mr. Wiffen was indefatigable in his researches on the subject. In his translation he has adopted the Spenserian stanza; to which, like Southey, he was much attached. He considered, that whilst it approached the form of Tasso's composition, it gave additional scope for an ample rendering of the ottava rima in English. If his translation has any fault, it consists in its being of rather too paraphrastic a character: he could not be satisfied with being a mere transmitter — he must add novel but consistent ornaments. His fidelity is, however, great; and the various characters have all the vividness and truth of the illustrious original.

The first edition was in two splendid royal octavo volumes, decorated with the best wood-vignettes to each canto. A second edition has been published, in foolscap octavo. Notwithstanding the high praise awarded, in all distinguished quarters, to this translation, including the private testimony of Sir Walter Scott, it has not yet obtained the general circulation it merits. Perhaps justice will be done to it by survivors.

Soon after the appearance of Mr. Wiffen's Aonian Hours, the attention of the Duke of Bedford, a steady and well-informed patron of talent and the arts, was excited towards this accomplished native of his own domain, and he made him a liberal offer of becoming his private secretary and librarian. Mr. Wiffen's bark was now anchored in a delightful and princely harbour, secure from all the storms of life. That cruel annoyance of literature, the "res angusta domi," was banished, even in imagination; and he was free to expand his talents. The congeniality of a free indulgence in a rich and constantly increasing library, with the household presence of splendid collections of statuary, painting, and "vertu," to his tasteful mind, need not be enlarged upon. The Duke's allowance was liberal; and, on his marriage, he furnished him with a pleasant house and grounds contiguous to his park. Here the Poet enjoyed full content; and speaks with sincere pleasure of

His peaceful home — his garden, where the bee
Hums of Hymettus.

The Duke's patronage — which was accompanied by a high degree of confidence, not unattended by esteem, on the part of Lord John Russell, who appreciated Mr. Wiffen's talents, may be said to have been truly Augustan, and it is earnestly to be wished that it may not be forgotten as an example to others

Sint Mecaenates, non deerunt, Flacce,
Marones.

After resting on his oars for a short time, he commenced his History of the Russell Family. On this, as well as his Tasso, he bestowed the application of several years; and the same result was produced, viz. a fulness, a richness of polish, and a mass of recondite illustrations. He personally searched the most curious records of Normandy; and has succeeded in establishing for this family a high and ancient origin, — having traced them to heathen chiefs three hundred years previous to the conquering Rollo; thence accompanied them in their distinguished stations in Neustria, and related their exploits in the Crusades; and subsequently brought them with William to "merry England." Their history, up to the present time, is enriched with many curious documents, not only of immediate interest to, one connected with the family, but having a very extensive bearing upon the general history of England (see our review of the work in vol. ciii. ii. 136.)

One feature of Mr. Wiffen's mind was an interest in the lineaments of hoar antiquity — a lingering respect for "the days of old, and the years that are past." In fact, this quality is almost inseparable from a mind of any thought and tenderness. He had some skill in architectural, feudal, and ballad lore; and in a pedestrian excursion which he once made to the Lakes, &c. brought back several sketches of ancient relics. In addition to the accomplishment of a draughtsman, he possessed considerable taste for music; he had some knowledge of astronomy and botany, and was a tolerable though not perfect classical scholar. He had also studied Hebrew; and, latterly, gave his attention to Welsh, from which he translated some of the "Triads" and pieces of the old bards. The happiest is entitled, To the Cuckoo, in the Vale of Cuag, by Llywarch Hen.

Mr. Wiffen, after having been by no means unacquainted with the speculations of various theorists, settled in a firm and cheerful belief in Christianity. He returned to the place from which he had started, but which he had not lost sight of; esteeming it the best on which to build his tower of rest and observation of the skies, and the most satisfactory for the foot of erring and wearied man to repose in. He was also an enlightened student of natural religion. An admirer of all that was beautiful in the magazines of creation, he cordially turned to the contemplation of that "unseen Almighty" who is not far from any one of us. At one period of his life he had an inclination to take a degree at one of the universities; but he subsequently attached himself more closely to the sentiments of his own Society, in which he held an office of trust. But he was a very liberal man. The caustic asperity of a Howitt was very alien to the milder spirit of Wiffen. He had a great respect for the Established Church, and was all admirer of its choral services — those beautiful and soothing things, which are alike pleasing in cheerfulness and grief, and almost always improving to the heart; and which, we trust, will long survive the acerbity of a Lord Mountcashell, and others of that class, which Chateaubriand has, with curious felicity, designated as "cold enthusiasts."

The distinguishing feature of Mr. Wiffen's mind was suavity; and it is his highest praise that this will always be the leading circumstance of recollection amongst his friends.

Though not precisely holding the office of almoner, he was always ready to point out cases of merit in distress to the answering hand of the Duke of Bedford. His counsel was always diligently given when he thought it might serve; and he took much interest in furthering the career of younger and more inexperienced authors. His friendship and kindness of heart always shone pre-eminently in his epistolary correspondence.

On the night of his death Mr. Wiffen retired to bed in perfect health and spirits, but in a few minutes he was a corpse, leaving all amiable wife and three children to mourn his premature death. His sister is the wife of Mr. Alaric A. Watts, another distinguished poet, and herself well known by her elegant writings, and as the editress of the Juvenile Forget-Me-Not.