1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Henry Ireland

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 1:243-47.



MR. SAMUEL IRELAND. I became acquainted with this gentleman at the time when he produced the mass of papers, letters, dramas, &c. which he published upon the information of his son, who represented them as the genuine reliques of Shakspeare, chiefly in the hand-writing of the great poet. I was invited as one of a committee to examine all the documents, and to decide upon the question of their authenticity. As I was not conversant with old papers, I did not attend the meeting with any intention of joining in the decision, but to see the various articles that were brought forward as once the property of Shakspeare. After the company, consisting of many very respectable and intelligent characters, had looked at all the books which were said to have actually formed a portion of Shakspeare's library, as well as other matters, they waited for young Mr. Ireland, who had promised to develope the source of these valuable reliques. At length he appeared, and after some private conversation between him and Mr. Albany Wallace, an eminent solicitor at that time, the latter addressed the company, and told them that Mr. Ireland junior had not been authorized by the person from whom he had derived the matters in question, but that at a future meeting a full explanation should be given. Whether that meeting was ever convened I know not, but I remember that the previous meeting did not break up without manifest tokens of discontent on the part of several of the members.

During the time that this subject engrossed public attention, and it was understood that Shakspeare's manuscript play was to be represented, the elder Mr. Ireland invited the late John Gifford, Esq. the author of "The Life of Mr. Pitt," of "Letters to Lord Lauderdale," "The History of France," and many other works, a gentleman of the bar, and myself, to hear the tragedy of "Vortigern and Rowena" read by him, that we might form some judgment as to its merits and authenticity. Among the imputed reliques of the bard there was an old-fashioned long-backed chair on which the arms of Shakspeare were embossed. The chair, though antique in its form, was in perfect preservation. Tea was soon despatched, and the reading was about to commence, when I requested to sit in Shakspeare's chair, as it might contain some inspiring power to enlighten my understanding, and enable me the better to judge. They laughed at my whim, but indulged me with the chair. During the reading there appeared to be passages of great poetical merit, and of an original cast, but occasionally some very quaint expressions, upon which Mr. Gifford commented as often as they occurred. Mr. Ireland observed, that it was of course the language of the time, and that many of the words which were then probably familiar and expressive, had become obsolete. One passage, however, Mr. Ireland admitted to be so quaint and unintelligible, that it would not be suitable to the modern stage. He then referred to Mr. Gifford and the barrister, and asked them if they could suggest any alteration or re-moulding of the passage; and when they declined to propose anything, he asked me if I could suggest any modification of it. At this question I affected to start, and said, "God bless me, shall I sit in Shakspeare's chair, and presume to think I can improve any work from his unrivalled muse?" Mr. Ireland then calmly doubled down the page, observing that he was going into the country, and should have leisure to make any alteration. This observation first induced me to suspect that he was actually concerned in devising what was afterwards acknowledged to be a mere fabrication. Yet on a full consideration, I am inclined to think that Mr. Ireland really confided in the story of his son, and relied on the authenticity of all the imputed materials.

I was present at the representation of the tragedy, and perhaps a more crowded theatre was never seen. Mr. Ireland and his family occupied a conspicuous station in the front boxes. The play was patiently heard for some time, but at last the disapprobation of the audience assumed every vociferous mode of hostility, together with the more hopeless annoyance of laughter and derision. Mr. Ireland bore the storm for some time with great fortitude, but at last he and his family suddenly withdrew from the theatre, and the play ended in the tumult.

The elder Mr. Ireland afterwards published all these presumed documents in a large and expensive form, and in a well-written volume defended himself against the attacks of Mr. Malone. Mr. Malone had given him an advantage in refusing to look at these alleged remains of our great bard, and Mr. Isaac Reed also declined to inspect them. As I respect the memory of both of these gentlemen, I cannot but think that they displayed some degree of prejudice on the occasion. Mr. Malone, in particular, however well founded his doubts and suspicions might be, could only depend on rumour as to their nature and the quality of the materials. Yet he wrote a large volume on the subject, though his objections must necessarily have been chiefly conjectural. He was ably answered by my late friend Mr. George Chalmers, not that he believed in the authenticity, but to show that the believers had grounds to justify their opinions. He published a second volume on the same subject, which displayed great labour, assiduity, and perseverance, and brought forward many anecdotes and illustrations of our poetical history.

It is well known that Dr. Parr was at first a sincere believer in the authenticity of these documents, and that Mr. Boswell went upon his knees, kissed the imputed reliques, and expressed great delight that he had lived to see such valuable documents brought to light. It certainly was a bold attempt on the part of the fabricator, to bring forward such a mass of surreptitious productions, but the variety proved that he possessed talents and great ingenuity, as well as industry, for they must have taken up much time and labour in the composition. It is said that he at last acknowledged the whole to be a deception.

I met him one night at the theatre, and to show me with what facility he could copy the signatures of Shakspeare, of which there are but two extant, and they differ from each other, he took a pencil and a piece of paper from his pocket, and wrote both of them with as much speed and exactness as if he had been writing his own name. He gave the paper to me; I compared the signatures with the printed autographs of the poet, and could not but be surprised at their accuracy.

The elder Mr. Ireland must have been mad to incur so great an expense in preparing and printing these documents, if he was conscious of the deception; but I am still disposed to believe that he thought them genuine, notwithstanding the ease with which I have mentioned his avowed intention to alter the text of Shakspeare. Before this transaction took place, he was a remarkably healthy-looking man, with a florid complexion, and stout in his form; but afterwards he was so reduced in his body, and seemed to be so dejected in spirit, that I naturally inferred the disappointment, expense, and critical hostility which he had suffered, had made a powerful impression on his mind. He did not long survive this extraordinary attempt to delude the public.