Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen was born, on the 30th day of December, 1792. He was the eldest son of John Wiffen, and of Elizabeth his wife, who were members of the Society of Friends, and were engaged in business as ironmongers. Here also their second son was born, Benjamin Barron Wiffen, who became in after-life the Spanish scholar. His name is known in connection with "The Reformistas Antiguos Espanoles," in the Libraries and Universities of England, and in those of the continents of Europe and America. Their two elder daughters, Mary and Sophia, died unmarried. The youngest daughter, Priscilla, herself a Poetess and writer, married the Poet Alaric A. Watts. There was also another son, John Joyce, who died in infancy.
John Wiffen was descended from the old family of Wimpffen, who settled in Norfolk. It is not known when this branch of the family became Friends, but the name occurs in the Quaker registers of Norwich monthly meeting, variously spelt (as Wiffen, Wifin, Wifen, Whiffen), back to 1736.
John Wiffen was an intelligent man, of great conversational powers and poetical taste. When travelling on his business journeys, he carried with him volumes of a miniature edition of the Poets, (Pope, Dryden, Akenside, Churchill, and translations of Homer and Virgil,) in saddle-bags slung across his horse, in the style of travellers of that day, when such a taste was not general, and usually restricted to the learned. He died at the age of forty years, at Woburn, leaving his six children to the care of his widow.
Elizabeth Wiffen (maiden name Pattison) was a woman of superior abilities, of devout spirit and religious mind, gifted with great industry and energy of character. Left a widow alone, with six children to bring up and educate, her spirit bravely rose to the emergency. She transmitted to her sons the principles which regulated her own daily life — self-reliance, unswerving honesty and integrity, and practical faith in the superintending providence of the all-seeing and Almighty God. They in their day and generation left this impress on the minds of their fellow-men! The noblest monument that can be raised to the memory of such a woman is this: "She was the mother of good and honourable sons."
From his earliest years, Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen evinced a predilection for poetry. He committed to memory, with ease, long poems, which, though exceedingly beautiful in themselves, could scarcely have been impressed on the mind of so young a child, had he not possessed intuitive perception of the melody and charm of song. This inclination was assiduously cultivated by his father, who, himself an admiring student of the great Poets, carefully fostered in his children a similar taste. His early death, however, when his eldest son was yet a child, left that taste to be developed under less favourable circumstances than the guiding influence of a father's mind.
J. H. Wiffen received the earliest rudiments of education in his native town, at Dame White's school. He also for a short time attended schools at Ampthill and at Hitchin.
Ampthill, a few miles distant from Woburn, is situated in the midst of a lovely sylvan neighbourhood: the undulating park is noted for its magnificent ancient oak trees, and Ampthill House is known to history as the residence for some years of the unfortunate Queen Catharine of Arragon.
To this period of his childhood, the poet afterwards refers, in the lines which he wrote on the occasion of Lord Holland planting the Alameda, or walk of lime trees, at Ampthill, for the recreation of its inhabitants.
Farewell! in childhood's careless prime
It soothed to list the hum of bees;
To pluck wild flowers and lisp wild rhyme,
Beneath thine immemorial trees, Sweet Ampthill.
When about ten years old, he was sent to the Friends' Public School at Ackworth, near Pontefract, in Yorkshire.... The school buildings, with eighty-four acres of land adjoining, were purchased in 1777 by Dr. John Fothergill, an eminent physician of London, a man of much influence in the Society of Friends, and a few of his friends. The property was afterwards transferred to trustees appointed by the Friends' Yearly Meeting, and the institution established as a public school.
Amongst the names of its scholars who have distinguished themselves in politics, science, and literature, are those of John Bright; James Wilson, late Financial Secretary of India; William Allen Miller, Vice-President of the Royal Society, Professor of Chemistry at King's College, etc.; William Howitt, the Poet and writer; and the brothers Jeremiah and Benjamin Wiffen.
Although in the present day, Ackworth School has greatly enlarged the range of its studies, in order to meet the requirements of the age, its routine originally comprised only the acquirements of an English education.
The qualities of the young poet's mind and disposition, soon developed themselves in the ardour and diligence which he displayed in the pursuit of knowledge, so as to attract the favourable notice of his masters, as well as the love and admiration of his fellow-pupils. Here he acquired that style of penmanship for which his autographs are remarkable, and which rendered his letters and MSS. specimens of clear and legible writing.
Here also he commenced a practical acquaintance with the arts of etching and wood-engraving, cutting seals, and other small devices in wood. By his skill in wood-engraving at that early age, he obtained occasional supplies of pocket-money, which he laid out in the purchase of books; and the acquisition of this art enabled him afterwards, to appreciate the merit, and to direct the execution, of the beautiful woodcuts, designed by Corbould and Hayter, which adorn the pages of his Tasso.
There was a bookseller in the neighbouring town, whose literary stores were a great attraction to the young boy. On holidays he would walk over there, and the kind master of the shop, struck by the great interest he displayed, allowed him to look at and turn over his treasures, and aided him in the sale of his wood engravings.
On one occasion J. H. Wiffen was much taken by the title of one of the old-fashioned sensational romances, and wished to purchase it; but the worthy old bookseller, considering the moral tone of its melodramatic pages, filled with escapades of dark villains and murderous plots, to be very unsuitable for so youthful a mind, dissuaded him from this purpose. He showed him in its place a volume of Percy's Old English Ballads, especially recommending to his notice the fine old ballad of Chevy Chase. This was instantly seized, carried off in triumph, read and re-read with avidity. This circumstance doubtless laid the foundation for his love of ballads, and for the success with which, in after years, he wrote his own elegant ballad poems.
In the long summer twilight evenings; when the boys were accustomed to retire to rest before darkness fell, he would delight those in his room by reciting The Hermit of Warkworth, or other long ballad or poem. When the novelty of these wore off, he invented thrilling romances of his own, peopled with heroes of incredible valour, and heroines of impossible loveliness. These he would place in all kinds of adventures, and having worked up the attention of his auditors to the most thrilling point of interest, he would suddenly leave off, and no persuasion or entreaty could prevail upon him to continue further at that time. Thus night after night, he held them all entranced by his fascinating narrations, and boys from the other rooms would quietly steal in, to listen to these tales in the mysterious twilight. One romance in particular, which he called The Black Brigand of the Forest, excited great interest, and was listened to, through many nights, in speechless awe and admiration.
A schoolfellow, Isaac Candler, gives the following reminiscences of him at Ackworth School:—
"Jeremiah's fondness for poetry began at school. The old ballads about Robin Hood and his merrie men, and Chevy Chase pleased him much, but his especial favourite was Dr. Percy's Hermit of Warkworth, every line of which he could, I believe, repeat from memory. What, however, appeared to give him a desire to become a poet himself, was Dryden's Palamon and Arcite, a copy of which he for a long time carried in his pocket, and of which his first attempt, consisting, as near as I remember, of about fifty lines, was in imitation. I call this his first attempt, all his former ones being only those doggrel rhymes of which schoolboys are so fond, and I speak with some degree of confidence, as he was accustomed to show me whatever he wrote. At a later period, Campbell's Pleasures of Hope took that place in his estimation formerly occupied by Palamon and Arcite; and I remember remarking to him, on hearing him repeat one of his compositions, that it was too close an imitation of Campbell's style.
"Fond, however, as he was of poetry, he was not neglectful of his regular studies, in proof of which I may mention that he was the best penman in the school, and that few surpassed him in mathematics. He employed much of his time in wood-engraving, an art in which he attained so much skill, that some of his blocks were bought by a bookseller, I think at Leeds, for an edition of Aesop's Fables.
"The above are all the particulars which I deem it necessary to communicate, as his career in after-life is better known to others; but I may add that in my various interviews with him he always manifested amiability of disposition, and that when I was at Woburn, he bestowed his hospitality in the kindest manner."
When he left Ackworth School, at the age of fourteen, J. H. Wiffen apprenticed himself to Isaac Payne, schoolmaster at Epping. In this situation, he hoped to be able, in connection with his official labours, to promote his own intellectual improvement, and acquire a knowledge of foreign languages.
Many obstacles were, however, placed in his way, and his daily occupations, and the duties of his position, left him little opportunity for the cultivation of his mind. Nothing daunted, however, he did not give way to the disappointment, but with the steady perseverance and invincible determination which characterized him throughout his life, he rescued time from sleep; and he was thus induced to begin a practice of midnight study, which by long habit became natural to him; but there is too much reason to fear that it tended to undermine his constitution. In the depth of winter, even, it was his practice, whilst at Epping, to rise from his bed, and pace his chamber (a blanket wrapped round his shoulders), reciting the classical stores, he had been enabled to acquire at intervals during the avocations of the day.
With a mind thus thirsting for knowledge, and alive to all the intellectual interests of the day, eager to see and criticise each new book that came forth, he taught by day, the dull routine of elementary school knowledge, to ordinary schoolboy minds, and learnt by himself at night. He not only wrote letters of gentle and kindly sympathy to his mother, and young sisters, and brother at home, and kept up a correspondence with some of his old schoolfellows and friends; but he began to write short poems, which were favourably received by the editors of several of the magazines of the day.
Ossian's Poems had made great impression on his youthful fancy, and on the second of the first month, 1808, he sends to his schoolfellow, Isaac Candler, the copy of Address To The Evening Star, Versified From Ossian's Poems.... "This address I sent to the editor of the European Magazine; it appeared in that publication for October. I composed an Ode to Meditation, which was sent to the Political Review, published monthly by B. Flower; it made its appearance in print last month. Lines on Epping Forest is in the hands of the editor of the Monthly Magazine, and I suppose will come out next month, with an account and engraved plate of Broxbourne Church, in the Gentleman's Magazine, by J. H. Wiffen. "The charade in the Minor's Pocket Book, signed J. H. W——n, is mine, and others of my productions that may have appeared in similar publications. I am quite become an author, and have thoughts of publishing a Key to Homer. I am afraid, however, that thou wilt think I am possessed of too great a portion of egotism, so shall forbear saying anything more on that head.
"Had I known what it was, to be apprentice to a schoolmaster, I never should have entered into that situation." ... In March of the same year, 1808, his Address to an Early Violet appeared in the Political Review....
In the year 1811, at the age of nineteen, J. H. Wiffen left Epping, and returned to Woburn. Here he took a house on the Leighton Road, and opened a school for the sons of Friends. It was a comfortable house, with a pleasant garden at the back, and the view from it, and from the windows on that side, stretched away over a green plain of fields, to the belts of dark pine trees, and the feathery beechen glades of the distant Brickhill woods. In this responsible position, he won the regard and esteem of his pupils. He worked hard day and night, unceasingly and unremittingly. In the day-time, his energies were devoted to the instruction and oversight of his scholars, whilst far on into the midnight, and early dawn, his student lamp was constantly burning. He prosecuted his classical studies, and attained considerable proficiency, not only in Latin and Greek, but also in Hebrew, and in the French, Italian, and subsequently the Spanish and Welsh languages.
Yet still, throughout these sterner studies, and amidst the increasing cares of the business of life, Poetry flung over her spell-bound votary, the magic of her divine mantle. He possessed also great taste for music. He acquired some knowledge of it, and several of his songs were set to music. He enjoyed mathematics, and drawing had always a great interest for him. Many of his delicate pencil sketches from Nature, attest the tenderness of his feeling for her beautiful traceries. To him, with the keen, inner, spiritual eyesight of poetic temperament, the beautiful was everywhere, and the constant feeling of his heart arose in aspiration to Heaven....
In 1812 he united with his friends, James Baldwin Brown, Esq., of the Inner Temple, and the Rev. Thomas Raffles, of Liverpool, in publishing a volume entitled Poems by Three Friends, which was favourably reviewed.... Aspley Wood, is the principal poem, in a volume containing several, published by J. H. Wiffen in 1819, under the title, Aonian Hours, a second edition of which was called for the following year. It is dedicated to his brother.... In 1820, appeared the volume of poems containing Julia Alpinula, The Captive of Stamboul, The Russel, some smaller pieces, sonnets, etc., which also passed into a second edition. This volume he dedicated, in some pleasing stanzas, to his brother-in-law, Alaric A. Watts, then Editor of the New Monthly Magazine.
In the summer vacation of 1819, the brothers took a long anticipated journey together, to the English Lakes.... In the summer of 1821, J. H. Wiffen was appointed Librarian, at Woburn Abbey, by the Duke of Bedford.
The melody, and charm, of Italian Poetry, had early seized on the fancy, and imagination, of the young poet. The idea was first suggested to him, by his brother, to translate into English verse, La Gerusalemme Liberata, the great Epic, "Which sainted Tasso writ with pen inspired." To resolve, was to achieve. Inspired by the grandeur of the Poem, and its subject, he pursued the work, with the ardour, and perseverance which distinguished him through life. As he proceeded, his interest increased, until the enchanting poem became for the time the delight of his life.... His delight in the Poem itself, in its heroes, in the researches for the Life of Tasso, his interest in the engravings, and designs, for the embellishment of the work, the hours it occupied, the untiring labour which he bestowed upon it, that all should be as complete, and perfect, as possible, now occupied his thoughts for some few years.
In the period between the commencement, and completion, of his Tasso, J. H. Wiffen, also rapidly advanced, in the study of the Spanish language, and gave to the world, his translation of the Works of Garcilasso de la Vega, surnamed the Prince of Castilian Poets, with a Critical and Historical Essay on Spanish Poetry, and a Life of the Author....
When on the eve of completion, a fire broke out at the printing office; the copies of Tasso were consumed, and the labours of years, in an hour, destroyed....
In the Noctes Ambrosianae, the Ettrick Shepherd says, after praising the Howitts, Bernard Barton, etc., "The best scholar among a' the Quakers, is Friend Wiffen, a capital translator, Sir Walter tells me, o' poets wi' foreign tongues, sic as Tasso, and wi' original vein, too, sir, which has produced, as I opine, some verra fine ones."
Over the night of desolation, which enshrouded the author, when the completion of Tasso, ended the entrancing occupation of years, arose the star of hope and "the dawning of new day."
Especially fitted, by his sensitive nature, and affectionate disposition, for domestic happiness, the charm of life, "conjoined and kindred to the sound of home," early attracted him. But his ideal Love married another, and the disappointment weighed heavily upon his spirit. She died! and after her death, when time had assuaged his sorrow, J. H. Wiffen found in Mary Whitehead (who became his wife,) the realization of his youthful hopes, and poetic aspirations. In the L'Envoi to the first edition of Tasso, in 1824, he apostrophises her as Ida.... On the 28th day of November, 1828, Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen, was married to Mary Whitehead, at the Friends' Meeting House, in Leeds.... To her, as "Ida," he addressed many of his sweetest verses. On the 16th day of September, 1829, came the first little daughter, to gladden the peaceful home at Froxfield. She was named, Ida Margaret, and inherited her father's poetic talent, and literary taste. Like him, her sun was destined to set at noonday.... Two other daughters, afterwards completed the family circle.
In the midst of the disappointment, and delay, involved in the conflagration of the Tasso, J. H. Wiffen commenced, The Historical Memoirs of the House of Russell, which occupied eight years in arranging, writing, and completing. The preparation for this, included a journey into Normandy, and the adjacent provinces of France — the examination of Records, and Libraries, there, an occupation fully congenial to the poet, and which he described, in great fullness, in his correspondence....
The Pale Messenger, bearing the banner inscribed "Nunc dimittis," was nearing with rapid strides the peaceful home of the Poet. No foreshadowing cloud darkened the air. No spell of illness came as precursor to the event. To his brother, he had, at times, complained of difficulty of breathing; but considering it merely a temporary feeling, and not wishing to bring, even the shadow of anxiety, over his Wife, to her, he had not spoken.... J. H. Wiffen died suddenly, in the night of May 2nd, 1836, in his forty-third year.... The end was so sudden, and without any previous apparent illness, so altogether unlooked for, that at first many of his friends (especially those at a distance) would not credit the report of his death. When the sad truth was realized beyond doubt, the sorrow was universal. Expressions of heartfelt sympathy, and affectionate regret, came alike from all classes to the sorrow-laden home at Froxfield, so lately the abode of domestic happiness.
How distinctly do I, even now, recollect the funeral! the brilliance of that May morning, as it passed across Woburn Park; and how, along the entire length of the road, from Woburn, to the Friends' Burial Ground at Woburn Sands, (a distance of two miles,) each side of the road, was thronged with people, who had come forth, from far, and near, to pay the last tribute of affection and regret. For he was greatly respected, and much beloved.
There in his last resting-place, he was laid, in the sunshine of the Sabbath morn, May 8th, 1836. The poet, and scholar, — the true son, brother, friend — the loving husband — the tender father.
His brother, B. B. Wiffen, passed away in March, 1867, having completed his life-work, the republication of the "Reformistas Antiguos Espagnoles."
Side by side, with the rest of the family, lie the two brothers.