1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen

Anonymous, "Memoir of Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen, Esq." Imperial Magazine 6 (December 1824) 1073-82.



Amongst the various proofs of improvement in the taste and manners of the times in which we live, that cannot fail to strike every attentive observer, the encouragement afforded to polite literature, of late years, by the Society of Friends, is by no means the least remarkable. Half a century ago, and poor John Scott, of Amwell, was severely lectured and half unchristianized, by the strict sect to which be belonged, for devoting the leisure afforded him by an independent fortune, to the heathenish service of the Muses; let now we have all least two poets of considerable talent, who mingle in the very first of our literary circles, in the plain habiliments of the Quaker, unreproved and uncondemned by the religious community to which they belong. We allude to Bernard Barton, and the subject of the present brief notice, of whom it is no disparagement to his friend and brother poet to say, that he is incomparably this best scholar and most elegant genius which that community has hitherto produced

He was born on the 30th of December, 1792, at Woburn, in Bedfordshire, of parents, both of whom were members of this highly respectable sect of Christians. Taught to read by a most excellent mother, still living, as soon as he could speak, — from his earliest years he was seldom without a book about him; and his first attachments were poetical, — for, no sooner could he form letters and words, than he was continually writing out verses, Mallett's pathetic ballad of Edwin and Emma making the earliest and deepest impression on his mind. At seven years of age he was sent to a school at Hitchin, in Hertfordshire, conducted by Mr. G. Blaxland, a member of the Society of Friends; and, at the expiration of two years, was removed to Ackworth school, in Yorkshire, the public academical institution of this strictly moral, if somewhat singular, sect. Here he distinguished himself by the display if considerable aptitude for learning, and by a steady and uniform excellence in all the branches of education taught, there, bearing off, on most public examinations, the prizes proposed for successful competition in each of them. In an establishment where the greatest caution is used in the introduction of works of imagination, our embryo poet had little opportunity for gratifying his taste in reading; yet, in spite of the restrictions by which he was surrounded, he managed even there to procure Pope's translation of Homer, and soon became familiar with that noble poem, several books of which he committed to memory, as he also did the whole of Dryden's' Palemon and Arcite, and of Campbell's exquisite poem, the Pleasures of Hope. His imagination, naturally vivid, and fond of romantic incident. was thus cultivated and rendered fruitful; and numbers of his sohoolfellows still remember with interest, the tales which, for hours on the stretch, he was in the habit of relating to them; inventing, as he went along, the characters, incidents, plot, and catastrophe, and embellishing his narrative of the marvellous, the pathetic, and the humorous, (for of genuine humour he has no inconsiderable share, though displayed but to his friends,) with all the charms of language which he could bring to his assistance.

Whilst at Ackworth, he also learnt the art of engraving on wood, and executed several series of cuts for the booksellers of Pontefract and Leeds.

The love of poetry and reading, gradually settled down into a passion; and when it became necessary for him, at the usual period, to chuse his occupation in life, he fixed upon that of tuition, as affording the best opportunities for a continued application to his favourite literary pursuits. Immediately on leaving school, which he did between the age of thirteen and, fourteen, he was accordingly apprenticed to Mr. Isaac Payne, a member of the Society of Friends, at the head of a highly respectable academy at Epping, in Essex, who engaged to instruct him in Latin and French, with neither of which languages had his education, according to the strict and anticlassical notions of the religious persuasion to which he belonged, permitted him to form an acquaintance. For the acquisition of these, he soon found, however, that he must depend altogether upon his own exertions, and he accordingly applied himself to them with such unremitted assiduity, that he anxiously devoted to their pursuits every moment of leisure which he could command during the day, with the greater portion of the night; and by such exertions was soon able to read the Latin classics, and found no difficulty in mastering any of the French authors. He then applied with similar assiduity to the Greek, and succeeded so well, that, though self-taught, he translated, at the age of fifteen, with great spirit, the admirable ode of Sappho, known to most of our readers by Philips's translation, beginning with "Blest as the immortal gods is he."

In the midst of this extraordinary devotion to the acquisition of languages, without the assistance of any living teacher, he found time to cultivate his poetical taste; and many productions of this period of his life, indicative of the excellency to which he has since attained in his favourite art, are still in the possession of the friends and companions of his youthful days, with one of the earliest and most intimate of whom, long since diverted from the charms of poetry to the turmoils of the bar, he, even at this age, maintained a very voluminous correspondence on the subjects of poetry and criticism; many of their letters written in hours stolen from the slumbers of the night, filling ten or a dozen closely written sheets.

These, however, were bright spots in a cheerless and a lonely destiny; for, at Epping, he was any thing but happy; and, far from his friends, shut out from all sympathy, and often from common kindness, he was thrown upon his own resources, upon retirement, and the solaces of religion, for comfort. His Aspley Wood, the principal in his first volume of published poems, imbodies, indeed, much of the feeling which he at this period indulged, flying for refuge from the disappointment of his fondest expectations, to the vast forest there, and nourishing in its deepest recesses, the melancholy tone of mind which so often tends to form the poetical enthusiast.

With such feelings, it was with joy that he returned home to his native scenes and beloved family on the expiration of, his apprenticeship, in 1822, in the summer of which year he established, in his mother's house, a boarding-school, in the conduct of which, although but between nineteen and twenty years of age, he met with great encouragement, and gave universal satisfaction. — It was about the period of his coming of age, that he first ventured, as an author, beyond the pages of the magazines, in which his occasional pieces had for some years made their appearance; publishing, in 1813, in conjunction with the Rev. Thomas (now Dr.) Raffles, of Liverpool, and James Baldwin Brown, Esq. then a student of the Inner Temple, of which society he has for several years been a barrister, a small volume, under the title of "Poems by Three Friends." To these amusements of the leisure hours of himself and friends, in their earlier years, was prefixed a poetical dedication to the author of the Pleasures of Hope, the production of Mr. Wiffen's pen, and the means of introducing him to a personal acquaintance with a poet, whose master-piece had principally contributed to form and to cherish his own taste. With the kindness which distinguishes him, Mr. Campbell received this volume as the precursor of far better things to come; an expectation which the very different pursuits of some of its authors will perhaps render abortive, in as far as they are concerned, but which, in the instance before us, has been most abundantly realized. The approbation of such a man, added to the very favourable notice of the work by most of the periodical critics, excited in him a strong desire for the attainment of greater excellence in the art; but it was not until the year 1819 that he printed a volume of poems, called "Aonian Hours," of which the principal piece, entitled "Aspley Wood," (the delightful scenery of his boyish days, in the immediate vicinity of Woburn,) was composed in the course of a few weeks, in hours stolen from sleep, and the very few moments of leisure which could be snatched from the laborious work of tuition. Independent of the beauty of its descriptive scenery, and its general merit, which is considerable, this poem possesses the peculiar interest of developing a characteristic train of thought, and growth of taste and feeling, in the author, bearing a very close resemblance to the education of Beattie's fictitious Minstrel. Here, however, it was real, and drawn from life, whilst a striking episode, interwoven with the poem, is supposed to have reference to a singular and inauspicious event, which long tinged with the deep shade of melancholy the early life of the poet, whose habits and character at that period his friends will readily recognize in the following beautiful stanzas:—

A youth — he rarely mingled with the rest,
His chosen friend was solitude, among
Valleys, and woods, and waters, he was blest;
To him, earth, heaven, and ocean found a tongue
And told their mysteries — to them be clung,
Like a vine's tendril, till his spirit grew
Shy, silent, and reflective, and so hung
On what was wild, and wonderful, and new,
Till it seemed coloured all with their enchanting hue.

With this severe reservedness of mien
Was mixt a fervid and a gentle mood,
Which ever seemed to shun, yet charmed if seen.
By him the mossy rock, the wave, the wood,
Were peopled with affections, them he wooed
In every season; in the summer wind,
And snows of winter, it was joy to brood
On nature's volume, where the Almighty Mind
Pictures his awful face, magnificently kind.

The reception of Aonian Hours was favourable, and abundantly sufficient to encourage its author in the cultivation of his favourite pursuit, to ascertain the chance of his success in which, was his chief inducement in submitting it to the ordeal of public approbation. An elegant tribute, towards the close of the principal poem, to the acknowledged merits of "The Pleasures of Memory," was also the means of introducing him to Mr. Rogers, who has since evinced a most lively and uniform interest in its author's poetical and literary career. "Aspley Wood" was not, however, the first production of his muse, of any considerable length, as he had previously composed "The Death of Mungo Park," a very finished piece, but having offered in vain to one or two of the principal booksellers, this first poem of an unknown author, it was thrown aside for several years, until it found its way into the pages of The Investigator, a work edited by his former colleagues, Drs. Raffles and Brown, and their very early friend, Dr. Collyer.

In the year following the appearance of Aonian Hours, Mr. Wiffen printed a second and a larger volume, entitled "Julia Alpinula, and other Poems," in which may easily be traced his high admiration of the poetical talents of a noble lord lately deceased, the two principal tales in the collection, as well as several of its minor poems, being evidently Byronic, and ranking amongst the very best of the imitations of the highly gifted founder of that extraordinary school. It were needless, however, to add, that by a writer of Mr. Wiffen's high moral character, and strictly religious education, the imitation is altogether confined to his style, as the morality of Lord Byron's poetry had to him every thing the opposite of a charm.

But it was previous to this period that he had conceived the idea, to the successful execution of which he will mainly be indebted for his poetical immortality, — the translating anew the Jerusalem Delivered of Tasso, in the Spenserean stanza, which he very correctly thought the best adapted to the romantic character of his great original. Yet well knowing how far the influence of a name extends, he was laudably solicitous, by the poems already noticed, to prepare the public mind for receiving with some respect the translation which he contemplated, as to none but a poet would the capability be allowed, of transfusing the true spirit of a poet from one language to another. Undeterred by the length and difficulty of his undertaking, and animated perhaps by the secret, though delightful consciousness of having found a fit subject for the exercise of powers, which, though not suffered to lie dormant, had never been calied into full exertion, he set himself seriously to his task, — beginning Italian, and the translation of the greatest of the Italian poets, together, much in the manner which Sir William Jones is said to have adopted in acquiring languages. Soon becoming familiar with his author, when he had translated the first five cantos of his immortal epic, he resolved to publish a specimen of his labours, that he might ascertain the probable chance of success on their completion. This he accordingly did in the year 1821, prudently selecting the fourth canto for the purpose, and accompanying it by a prefatory dissertation, alike distinguished by the judiciousness and liberality of its remarks on existing translations. The reception which this specimen met with was by no means equivocal. It was noticed in the most flattering terms, both by our own and foreign journals. Hoole had long sunk into contempt, and the recent version of Mr. Hunt is rather verse than poetry; whilst Fairfax, although the dissertation just alluded to gave him full credit for his versification, his frequent poetical beauties, and fine old spirit, is fraught with the grossest absurdities, and abounds with passages not only in the worst taste, but at utter variance with the characteristic spirit of Tasso. Mr. Wiffen's promised translation was therefore hailed by the best judges as likely to supply, with credit to himself and to his country, this deficiency in our literature; and he was urged by Lord John Russell, the late Richard Payne Knight, Moore, Rogers, Roscoe, Sign. Ugolo Foscolo, the celebrated author of the patriotic letters of Jacopo Ortis, and other eminent literary characters, by all means to complete his version of this splendid poem. To this resistless recommendation was speedily added a fresh inducement, in the invitation which, in the summer of 1820, he received from his grace the Duke of Bedford, (whose younger sons he had for some time attended, for the purpose of tuition during their vacations,) to take up his residence at Woburn Abbey, in the character of his librarian, and occasional amanuensis; and, as no one had ever filled a similar situation in the family, it is reasonable to conclude that his grace, in his encouragement of rising merit, was laudably anxious, by this appointment, to give a young man, born, and residing, for the most part of his life, upon his large estate, greater facilities than be could otherwise enjoy for the completion of his important project. The offer thus liberally made was readily accepted, as Mr. Wiffen gladly availed himself of the prospect of literary leisure in the family of a nobleman, to the political principles of whose illustrious house he was warmly and decidedly attached. At his first interview with the Duke, he was informed that he was exempted from all but the common attention requisite to keep the library in order, and was at full liberty to devote the remainder of his time to his own literary pursuits.

In order to evince his grateful sense of the attention shewn to him by the head of the house of Russell, our poet determined to translate, and dedicate to his grace, some author of celebrity, and his choice fixed upon Garcilaso, as a novelty in our language, in which we had not before a perfect translation of any Spanish poet. He accordingly commenced the study of the language and his translation together, as he had done with the Italian, and completed, in time for publication in the winter of 1822, a version of a poet little known in England, which tended very greatly to increase his reputation both as a scholar and a poet. A copy was immediately forwarded to the Spanish academy; but the unsettled state of the peninsula renders it extremely doubtful whether it ever reached its destination. The ambassador by whose kindness it was forwarded, cordially thanked the translator, however, in the name of his country, for the service which he had thus rendered to its literature; and he had the satisfaction of receiving the same well-merited acknowledgment from several of the most distinguished members of the Cortes, on their taking refuge in England, and, amongst them, from the celebrated Arguelles, on being introduced to him by Lord John Russell.

This version was begun, however, continued, and completed, but as a relaxation from his longer and more laborious work, which, by daily and constant application, was ready for the press in the summer of 1823. Resolved to spare neither pains nor expense, in producing a book, which, by its execution, might do credit to a numerous and, an illustrious list of subscribers, at the head of which be was authorized to place the name of his Majesty, the printing was entrusted to Moyes, from whose elegant and accurate press, issued, in the summer of the present year, the first volume of the Translation, accompanied by some of the most exquisite wood-cuts ever produced in this country, and presenting altogether a specimen of typographical beauty never perhaps excelled. This portion of the work has, however, hitherto been confined to subscribers, its author prudently determining not to issue it to the public until the whole translation is completed. This circumstance has necessarily prevented the volume from being generally known, as but few of the periodical journals of the day can hitherto have noticed it, although those which have done so, speak of it in the terms of high approbation, which it so richly deserves. Already has its reputation reached a foreign shore, and the Revue Encyclopedique de Paris does no more than justice when it declares, that it is both elegant and faithful, and has throughout all the magic and charm of the original Tasso. It is, indeed, beyond all comparison, the best translation that has appeared; and when the assiduous attention bestowed upon it by the author, for five entire years, his unremitting study of our older English poets, the better to qualify him for the task, and his reputation as an original poet of singularly harmonious versification, are taken into consideration, it is difficult to conceive that it will ever be excelled. The generous present, by Mr. Roscoe, of an original painting of Tasso, has enabled Mr. Wiffen to prefix to his volume a very interesting likeness of the Author, of whom he has also given an admirably-written Life, throwing much new and important light upon the unfortunate attachment of the poet to the Princess Leonora.

The second and concluding volume of a translation thus carefully and beautifully executed and illustrated, was drawing fast to a conclusion, when, in the month of July last, a destructive fire unfortunately broke out upon the premises of the printer, and consumed nearly the whole impression. This was certainly discouraging, but a duplicate copy of the MS., and the engravings having been preserved, the work will, in all probability, speedily be resumed.

Such are the particulars of the life of this interesting writer, which we have been able to collect. The period is, we trust, far distant, when it would be proper to delineate his character, of which nothing more need now be said, than that it is as amiable in private, as it has been unblemished in his public life. Of his poetical talents the world will judge from the ample proofs of it before them. To his extraordinary application, the acquisition, without any assistance but what he derived from books, of the Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese languages, besides some acquaintance with the German and the Welsh, bears a testimony the most honourable and decided. He has, however, not only taught himself languages, but made himself friends amongst the most highly-gifted of his brother poets, and the literati and artists of his country, — Campbell, Rogers, Sir Walter Scott, Moore, Southey, Wordsworth, Bowles, Lloyd, Payne Knight, Barry Cornwall, Bernard Barton, Lockhart, Ugolo Foscolo, Blanco White, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Westmacott, and others, being of the number of the acquaintances and correspondents, to whom he has been introduced by his short but successful literary career; whilst he still numbers amongst the most intimate of his friends, those companions of his youth, who have earned, like himself, a name and a station, not only in the republic of letters, but in the professions to which they have devoted themselves.

Mr. Wiffen is unmarried, but his mother is still living near him, a widow, since the death of his father which happened when he was very young; and to her early and judicious care, and to the guarded education which she procured for him, his filial affection very justly ascribes the seeds of whatever may be valuable in his character, or honourable and successful in his progress through life. He has also a brother and three sisters; one of whom is married to Alaric A. Watts, Esq, the author of "Poetical Sketches, &c."