1850 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen

Alaric Alfred Watts, in Alaric Watts, a Narrative of his Life, by his Son (1884) 1:78-83.



At the time to which my narrative is now to be taken up [ca. 1820], Jeremiah Holmes Wiffen ... had established himself as master of a private school, for sons of members of the Society of Friends, in Leighton Street, in his native town, his youngest sister, Priscilla, keeping his house; while his mother, with the assistance of his younger brother Benjamin, was carrying on business as I have described, her eldest daughters, Mary and Sophia, residing with her, at the corner of Park Street opposite. The family, however, though separated, were not divided. When the duties of the day were over in both houses, the young members of the family used to meet in Leighton Street, to read and discuss new books when they could get them, or old ones over again when they could not, as was, perhaps, more frequently the case. The poets were the especial favourites. Cowper, Langhorne, Falconer, and Macpherson's Ossian, of the old; and Campbell and Rogers among the moderns. Both the brothers wrote poetry. The elder had, indeed, already taken part with two friends in a published volume of verse. Benjamin Wiffen had contented himself, hitherto, with a more limited circle of readers. The usher in the school, also a member of the Society of Friends, as in duty bound, wrote poetry also, in the style, I have heard, of Mr. Southey's striking, but irregular, epic of Thalaba, and bore the soubriquet, in the circle, of "Gian-Ben-Gian," in consequence of the awe-inspiring character of his muse! I do not know that the sisters wrote original verse, at least at that time, though one of them did later; indeed, there would not appear to have been much opening for them; but they copied a great deal into books, and were valuable members of the little coterie, as auditors, and for general purposes of criticism and commendation.

It was at one of these evening gatherings, in the spring of the year 1819, that Jeremiah Wiffen produced a letter which he had received from no less a personage than the editor of the London New Monthly Magazine [Alaric Alexander Watts]. The writer had been much gratified by the perusal of a poem by Mr. Wiffen, introduced into a recent life of Howard the Philanthropist, by Mr. Baldwin Brown, which had led him to desire to know something more of the productions of its author, and, if agreeable, of the author himself. Hearing that he resided in the country, the writer would esteem himself happy in the opportunity of rendering him any service in his power in relation to literary matters in London. That this communication gave much pleasure, and excited some little curiosity, was suitably responded to, and gave rise to further correspondence, will be readily imagined. My father and his correspondent were of about the same age, of similar literary tastes, and, in some sort, even of professional experiences. It was natural that they should soon become friends. The literary circles of that day, and public opinion generally, had been much divided over the domestic disquietudes of "a certain noble poet" and his lady. The correspondents were rejoiced to find, and to be made even more one in the knowledge, that they agreed on this important question. They were both Byronists.

In politics they were not in such entire accord. Mr. Wiffen, as became a son of the soil of Woburn, and the librarian that was to be to one of the Dukes of Bedford, was a steady supporter of "the cause for which Hampden bled on the field, and Russell on the scaffold." He had, as was natural, composed a poem on the latter event; and was to have the honour, at a later period, of figuring, — as one of the judges, unfortunately, — in Sir George Hayter's well-known picture, painted for Woburn Abbey, of Lord Russell's trial. My father, on the other hand, was as staunch an advocate of "social order against the anarchists," and was vowed to the support of the "Throne and the Altar." Such were the grandiose phrases in which it was the custom, in that day, to express the difference in the opinions of those who hope and those who fear from political change. No embitterment, however, on the score of these political disagreements, arose between the two friends. It is not differences of opinion, but differences of feeling, that divide and estrange. It was not in the region of politics that their friendship originated or was to have its habitation.

The correspondence soon becomes intimate and animated. A lively interchange springs up of favourite books, new and old. Mr. Rogers's Human Life, Crabbe's Poems, and Mr. Peacock's Rhododaphne, among the moderns; and the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets, introduced by my father, and not hitherto much known in Friendly circles, among the older masters. Albums, not, however, known by that worldly name at Woburn, begin to pass to and fro; and poetry is exchanged, original and selected. The London correspondent is, or professes to be, skilful in reading characters by the handwriting, and, to that end, it is needful that he should possess suitable specimens of the autographs of the sisters. Everybody writes in everybody else's book, — with one exception. The youngest sister [Zillah] declines to participate in these amicable reciprocities. She has no idea of having her character read through her handwriting, or by any other process. "She is rather a haughty damsel," explains the brother to his friend, when they meet in London a little later. Indeed, when the sisters are mentioned in the correspondence, it is as "Mary," "Sophia," and "the Lady Priscilla," that they are referred to.