1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 35 (May 1851) 357-59.



March 17. At his house in Drummond-place, Edinburgh, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, esq. M.A. for nearly half a century a distinguished member of the literary circles of that city.

Mr. Sharpe sprung from a house which, in more than one generation, had been distinguished by a taste for literature. His grand-uncle, Matthew Sharpe of Hoddam, who died in 1769 at the age of seventy-six, was a correspondent of David Hume, who addressed to him one of the most characteristic letters to be found in the whole range of the historian's correspondence. It may be read in fac-simile in Mr. Burton's Life of Hume, vol. I. pp. 178-9. Matthew Sharpe had been "out in the Fifteen," and, escaping from the rout of Preston in the disguise of a pig-drover, made his way back to Scotland, whence he passed into France. After a long exile, spent chiefly at Boulogne, he returned to his native country to take possession of the paternal domain in Annandale, to which he succeeded on the death of his elder brother in 1740. Dying unmarried, he bequeathed his estate to his kinsman, Mr. Charles Kirkpatrick, a grandson of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick of Closeburne, the second Baronet of his line. Burns writing to this gentleman, about 1790, says, "You, I am told, play an exquisite violin, and have a standard taste in the belles lettres." To what he calls "a charming Scots air" of Mr. Sharpe's composition, the poet wrote a spirited set of verses.

Mr. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe was the second son of Burns' correspondent — the eldest being the late General Matthew Sharpe of Hoddam, who represented the Dumfries burghs in the House of Commons from the year 1832 to the year 1841. Unlike that gentleman, who was "a Whig, and something more," Mr. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe was a Tory of the old high Cavalier school of Church and King — a bias to which, doubtless, the years that he spent at Christ Church, Oxford, contributed not a little. He received the degree of M.A. from that university Jan. 28, 1806. His education was intended to qualify him for holy orders, but if he himself ever seriously contemplated that destiny, the thought was early laid aside, and before he had attained his thirtieth year he had fixed himself in the position which he kept to the last — that of a man of fashion, devoting his leisure hours to the successful cultivation of literature, music, and the fine arts.

His first appearance as an author, we believe, was in the Border Minstrelsy, edited by Sir Walter Scott, to which, in the year 1803, he contributed the Tower of Repentance, a ballad of no inconsiderable merit. Four years afterwards, he published a volume of Metrical Legends and other Poems. Speaking of this work in the Quarterly Review, a good many years after its appearance, Scott characterised the verse as "exhibiting talents not only for the heroic ballad, but for that arch and playful style of poetry which helps 'to add feathers' to the lightsome hours of pleasant society." He described the notes as "evincing extensive antiquarian research through the most wearisome and dull volumes, with the singular talent necessary for distinguishing and extracting from them whatever is interesting in point of manners, or curious as an elucidation of principles, and for seasoning the whole with a strong turn for humour seldom exhibited by professed antiquaries." This high praise of Mr. Sharpe's prose will not be disputed: but, upon the whole, perhaps, Scott more truly described his verses in a private letter written at the time of their publication. "Talking of fair ladies and fables," he wrote to Lady Louisa Stuart, "reminds me of Mr. Sharpe's ballads, which I suppose Lady Douglas carried with her to Bothwell. They exhibit, I think, a very considerable portion of imagination, and occasionally, though not uniformly, great flow of versification. There is one verse, or rather the whole description of a musical ghost-lady sitting among the ruins of her father's tower, that pleased me very much. But his language is too flowery, and even tawdry, and I quarrelled with a lady in the first poem, who yielded up her affection upon her lover showing his white teeth." But though not rating the Metrical Legends very highly, the author of the Lay of the Last Minstrel had such an opinion of Mr. Sharpe's general abilities and accomplishments, that we find him in the same year earnestly endeavouring to enlist the pen of the young Oxonian in the service of two works which Scott was then busy in projecting, the Quarterly Review and the Edinburgh Annual Register. We are not sure that Mr. Sharpe ever was a contributor to the former but he enriched the latter by several letters of David Hume and other literary men, drawn from the family archives at Hoddam.

Almost contemporaneously with his appearance as a poet, Mr. Sharpe gave proof of a much higher skill in the fine arts. Many of our readers must have seen, either in the copper etching, or in the original drawing at Abbotsford, his Queen Elizabeth "dancing high and disposedly" before the Scotish envoy Sir James Melville, who had excited her jealousy by commendations of the exquisite grace with which Mary Stuart led the dance at Holyrood or Linlithgow. On this admirable sketch Scott was accustomed to expatiate with a delight which will be shared by every one who is able to appreciate the humorous. A scarcely less felicitous effort of Mr. Sharpe's pencil is his "Marriage of Muckle-Mou'd Meg," illustrating a well known incident in Border history, the subject, if we mistake not, of a ballad by Hogg. The original of Mr. Sharpe's sketch is, it is believed, at Abbotsford. It has been etched, like the "Feast of Spurs," and many other things of the same kind which his ready pencil was ever throwing off. A pen and ink sketch of himself, copied from a half-length portrait by Frazer, is in the possession of Mr. Watson, bookseller, in Edinburgh, to whom it was presented by the original.

Mr. Sharpe was not only a successful amateur in art, but a highly accomplished musician. He has left, we hear, much that will be curious and interesting to the lovers of melody.

The catalogue of his literary labours is a long one. Beside the early works of which we have spoken, he edited, in 1817, Kirkton's History of the Church of Scotland, appending a series of notes, which, if not very appropriate to the Covenanting gravity of the text, are at least irresistible in their piquancy. Scott honoured this work with a long criticism in the Quarterly Review for January, 1818, which has been reprinted in his Prose Works, vol. xix. In 1820 Mr. Sharpe edited the Rev. Robert Law's Memorialls, from 1638 to 1684, consisting of Tales of Witchcraft and Wizardy. In 1823 he produced his Ballad Book, a small collection of Scotish ballads, inscribed to the editor of the Border Minstrelsy. In 1827 he edited the Life of Lady Margaret Cunninghame, and a narrative of the Conversion of Lady Warristoun. The next year beheld his publication of the Letters of Lady Margaret Kennedy. In 1829 he edited the Letters of Archibald Earl of Argyll, and, in 1830, superintended the printing of old Sir Richard Maitland's Genealogy of the House of Setoun. A small collection of his characteristic etchings appeared in 1833, under the title of Portraits by an Amateur. In 1837 he edited Minuets and Songs by Thomas sixth Earl of Kelly; and Sargundo, or the Valiant Christian, a Romanist song of triumph for the victory of the Popish Earls at Glenlivat in 1594. Of these works the impressions were, for the most part, very limited: and they are probably not much known, except to antiquaries and bibliographers.

When Sir Walter Scott began to keep a diary, in Nov. 1823, almost the first portrait he inscribed in it was that of the gentleman whose death we are now commemorating. The fidelity of the sketch will be universally admitted. "Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe," it begins, "is another very remarkable man. He was bred a clergyman, but never took orders. He has infinite wit, and a great turn for antiquarian lore, as the publications of Kirkton, &c. bear witness. His drawings are the most fanciful and droll imaginable — a mixture between Hogarth and some of those foreign masters who painted temptations of St. Anthony, and such grotesque subjects. As a poet he has not a very strong touch. Strange that his finger-ends can describe so well what he cannot bring out clearly and firmly in words. If he were to make drawing a resource it might raise him a large income. But though a lover of antiquities, and, therefore, of expensive trifles, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe is too aristocratic to use his art to assist his purse. He is a very complete genealogist, and has made many detections in Douglas and other books on pedigree, which our nobles would do well to suppress if they had an opportunity. Strange that a man should be so curious after scandal of centuries old! Not but that Charles loves it fresh and fresh also; for being very much a fashionable man, he is always master of the reigning report, and he tells the anecdote with such gusto that there is no helping sympathizing with him — a peculiarity of voice adding not a little to the general effect. My idea is, that Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, with his oddities, tastes, satire, and high aristocratic feelings, resembles Horace Walpole — perhaps in his person also in a general way." The resemblance hinted at by Scott might have been carried a point further — if Horace Walpole filled Strawberry Hill with curiosities, his Scotch miniature had a library and museum scarcely less interesting or grotesque. Mr. Sharpe's collection of antiquities is among the richest which any private gentleman has ever accumulated in the north. His paintings, prints, china, and books are exceedingly curious — we trust that what we have heard of the last may prove true, that their margins are profusely annotated by their late owner in his most characteristic manner. Otherwise it is to be feared that with Mr. Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe — himself the type of an obsolete generation — there has perished a world of anecdote of the Scotch noblesse and gentry of the last age. There is no hope, we suppose, of his posthumous memoirs — one of the great houses in the Row offered him a large sum for his autobiography, but, as might have been expected, he spurned the temptation.

Edinburgh Courant.