LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism
John Sydney Taylor
Lord Byron and the late Rev. Charles Wolfe.
Morning Chronicle  No. 17,327  (29 October 1824)
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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No. 17,327. LONDON, FRIDAY, OCTOBER 29, 1824. Price Sevenpence.



Sir—If the fame of men of genius be worth any thing in a public point of view, it is of some consequence that it should be rightly appropriated. A character bold and splendid enough to command the admiration of men, often absorbs the just claims of more retiring merit. Anonymous poetry of a high order is ever attributed to one of the popular bards of the day, as every smart saying, however humble its origin, is readily ascribed to some celebrated wit. In The Chronicle of the 25th instant, copious extracts appeared from Captain Medwin’s Conversations of Lord Byron. Through that medium I became acquainted with the existence of an important error, which I feel it an act of justice to rectify as extensively as it has been circulated. The mistake into which Captain Medwin falls inspecting the Author of the Ode on Sir John Moore, affords a striking instance of the fallibility of literary inferences. In correcting that mistake, I discharge a duty so the memory of an individual, who, had his life been spared, would have been one of the ornaments of the age, which now does not know him; and at the same time, I think it of moment that public opinion should be set right on a subject which was important enough to interest the poetic sympathies of Byron.

The extract from Captain Medwin’s work, to which I allude, is as follows:—

Medwin, Conversations of Lord Byron

“The following is his Lordship’s opinion of Campbell:—

“The conversation turned after dinner on the lyrical poetry of the day, and a question arose as to which was the most perfect ode that had been produced. Shelley contended for Coleridge’s on Switzerland, beginning, “Ye clouds,” &c.; others named some of Moore’s Irish Melodies, and Campbell’s Hohenlinden; and, had Lord Byron not been present, his own Invocation to Manfred, or Ode to Napoleon, or on Prometheus, might have been cited.

“‘Like Gray,’ said he, ‘Campbell smells too much of the oil: he is never satisfied with what he does; his finest things have been spoiled by over-polish—the sharpness of the outline is worn off. Like paintings, poems may
be too highly finished. The great art is effect, no matter how produced.

“‘I will shew you an ode you have never seen, that I consider little inferior to the best which the present prolific age has brought forth.’ With this he left the table, almost before the cloth was removed, and returned with a magazine, from which he read the following lines on Sir John Moore’s burial, which perhaps require no apology for finding a place here:

“‘Not a drum was heard, nor a funeral note,
As his corse to the ramparts we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.
We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,—
By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light,
And the lantern dimly burning.
No useless coffin confined his breast,
Nor in sheet nor in shroud we bound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest,
With his martial cloak around him.
Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we stedfastly gazed on the face of the dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.
We thought, as we heap’d his narrow bed,
And smooth’d down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o’er his head,
And we far away on the billow!
Lightly they’ll talk of the spirit that’s gone,
And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him;
But nothing he’ll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.
But half of our heavy task was done,
When the clock told the hour for retiring;
And we heard by the distant and random gun,
That the foe was suddenly firing.
Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.’”

“The feeling with which he recited these admirable stanzas, I shall never forget. After he had come to an end, he repeated the third, and said it was perfect, particularly the lines
“But he lay like a warrior taking his rest,
With his martial cloak around him.”

“I should have taken,” said Shelley, “the whole for a rough sketch of Campbell’s.”

“No,” replied Lord Byron: “Campbell would have claimed it, if it had been his.”

“I afterwards had reason to think that the ode was Lord Byron’s;* that he was piqued at none of his own being mentioned; and, after he had praised the verses so highly, could not own them. No other reason can be assigned for his not acknowledging himself the author, particularly as he was a great admirer of General Moore.

“ * I am corroborated in this opinion lately by a lady, whose brother received them many years ago from Lord Byron, in his Lordship’s own hand-writing.”

The Ode which the Captain so hastily ascribes to the Noble Bard, and which Shelley was willing to appropriate to Campbell, was the production of no poet known to fame. Never did an instance occur in which the influence of the idolatry that men pay so established reputations, was more conspicuous. The first poet of the day reads an anonymous poem, in which he detects a genius kindred to his own. He recites it with enthusiasm to his friends—one of them names another distinguished poet as the author—he rejects the presumption, and the admiring circle instinctly discovers its writer in himself. If it be not Campbell, it must be Byron.
“’Tis Phœbus self, or else the Mantuan swain.”

In this manner is this unclaimed poem ascribed to Byron, although he could have on possible grounds for concealing his name; but, on the contrary, every reason that ought to induced him to avow it. The poem is one replete with condensed pathos and grandeur, and breathing all the fire of lyric inspiration. It is besides, evidently written under the generous impulse of redeeming from sordid obloquy the memory of a great man—the benefactor of his country, and the victim of a faction. It is the tribute of a true poet at the grave of departed worth, not ashamed to perform the obsequies of a fallen hero which the intrigue of party prevented the nation from rendering to one of her bravest and most accompanied soldiers. Here was every inducement why Byron should acknowledge himself the author of this Ode, had it indeed emanated from his pen. He was proud of vindicating the character of men whom the “vulgar great” traduced, and whom their country ought not to have forgotten. Whether he gratified a generous ardor in so doing, or whether an impatience of authority impelled him, it matters not; whatever his motive was for scorning the decrees of power, or the sentiments of illiberality, he had none to induce him to resort to subterfuge or concealment. Whether right or wrong, he took his stand openly in the face of his enemies, and threw down the gauntlet with the sternest action of defence.

A. H. Flint, Verses on Sir J. Moore
H. Marshall, Ode on the Burial of Moore

This being the case, supposing the writer of the poem for ever unknown, it would not be reasonable to presume Lord Byron was its author; not even although as many ladies as would equal the number of the Muses and the Graces conjoined, had each seen a copy of it in his Lordship’s own hand-writing; but how would the literary conclave have been astonished, had Byron been enabled to inform them that this poem, so long unclaimed, so much admired, was the production of one who was totally unknown to fame—one who had never been talked of in any periodical, whose name had not even been whispered in Albemarle-street or the Row. This person was Charles Wolfe. His talents were only known to the private circle of his associates. He was one of my earliest and dearest friends. We were cotemporaries of equal standing in the University of Dublin. Similarity of pursuit created intimacy. Though sometimes competitors for the same academic honours, [nothing] impaired our sense of mutual esteem. Wolfe was equally distinguished in the severe sciences and in polite literature. Emulation, I believe, led him to excel in the former, but the latter had all his intellectual affection. I well recollect the expression of mingled diffidence and enthusiasm with which he communicated to me his tribute to the memory of Sir John Moore. He had then written but the first and last verses, and had no intention of adding any others. The thought was inspired while reading an account of the death of the Marcellus of Corunna in some periodical work; the approbation which these two verses received from the few fellow-students to whom he shewed them, among whom were the Rev. J. Sullivan, now Vicar of St. Catherines, Dublin, the Rev. Mr. Dickenson, and, I believe, Mr. Grierson, of the Irish Bar, and one or two more, induced him to extend the design, and finish the Ode in the form, though not exactly worded, as it came into Lord Byron’s hands. When he shewed it to me completed, which, I think, was some time In the year 1814, I did not take a copy of it, but the verses impressed themselves indelibly on my recollection. I heard, a few years afterwards, when we separated for different pursuits in life, that a copy of them, without the participation of Wolfe, had got into an Irish newspaper, whence they were copied into a Magazine. I did not see them published until they re-appeared within the last year in The Devizes Gazette, under a title of “The Dead Soldier.” They had, I presume been all this time circulating about from one Journal to another, and the author never took the pains of correcting the errors which have been perpetuated from the first imperfect copy to that which Capt. Medwin has given to the public. These errors detract greatly from the spirit & beauty of the original. I shall correct them, & restore the Ode to the state in which it came from the hands of the author, as my memory has always been tenacious of every syllable of it. The fame of Sappho is realised by a solitary fragment. The existence of Wolfe will be remembered by one of the shortest but one of the most impressive odes in the language. It would be matter of regret if a work, though so small, yet bearing the impress of immortality, should not go down to future times with all the excellence which the genius of the author conferred on it. When volumes of verses that enjoy the popularity of a season shall have disappeared, this little ode, which its author never ventured to publish, will take its place among whatever is classic and enduring in the literature of our day.

The two first verses are without error except the word “nor” for “not” In the first line.

The third verse has an alteration of the word bound for wound, as it was originally written, and which Is more appropriate. In the fourth verse, the third line is altered in sense and expression—
“We stedfastly gazed an the face of the dead,”
It should be,
We stedfastly gazed on the face that was dead.
The expression as it has been printed is common place, that for which it was ignorantly substituted is original and affecting. The poet did not merely mean to tell us the fact that the comrades of Moore gazed upon the fate of their dead Chief, but he meant to convey an idea of the impression which that form of death made upon them. They gazed on the face that was dead gives not merely the fact but the sentiment of death. It is like some of those fine Scriptural expressions where the simplest terms are exuberant with imagination. It intimates the awful contrast between the heroic animation which kindled up that countenance just before in action, and its now cold, ghastly, and appalling serenity.

In the fifth verse, the first line, by an abbreviation of the proper quantity, is turned into prose, while the sense is lost.
“We thought, as we heap’d his narrow bed,”
should be
“We thought, we hollow’d his narrow bed.”

Of the seventh verse sad havoc has been made. The third and fourth lines, which Captain Medwin has given thus—
“And we heard by the distant and random gun,
That the foe was suddenly firing,
were originally written
“And we heard the distant and random gun
Of the enemy sullenly firing.”

I need scarcely point out to any reader of the least poetic taste, the incomparable superiority of this passage to the fictitious one. The statement of the foe being suddenly firing, implies a new and vigorous attack, which was contrary to fact. The lines, as Wolfe wrote them, are better poetry, and more agreeable to truth. They represent the enemy, who had come on with the flash of anticipated victory, now sullen in defeat, firing rather from vain irritation than useful valour, keeping up a shew of hostilities by “the distant and random gun” but not venturing on any fresh and animated onset. In this way the passage becomes as picturesque as it is concise & energetic.

The last verse is free from error, excepting the omission of the word “and” in the middle of the third line.

A Lady, The Ode on Sir J. Moore

It would no doubt be interesting to the public to know the fortunes and the fate of one so qualified for distinction, but whose name accident alone seems to have rescued from total obscurity. His tale is simple and melancholy. He was, I believe, a native of the County Kildare, in Ireland, and had been sent over to this country early, by some of his friends, and educated as Winchester College, preparatory to his entrance in the University of Dublin. His classical attainments distinguished him when very young. The facility and elegance with which he wrote Latin verse excited admiration. With most boys it is a mechanical labour, and it is indeed absurd to make it a general practice at our schools. But the mind of Wolfe was keenly sensitive of the charms of the Augustan Age of Composition. He was such a master of Latin expression, and had so much of the spirit of the Bard in him, that his thoughts shaped themselves with a grace and vigour, like those of his native tongue, into the language of the Roman Muse. But he only wrote to comply with the forms of an examination. He had also oratorical powers in an eminent degree. His style was original, imaginative, and vigorous, and he was voted the gold medal, which was the highest honour for eloquence in the Historical Society of Trinity College—that institution which trained such as Grattan, Hood, Burgh, Curran, and Plunkett, for the contentions of public life, and which the intolerance of a Minister, and the bigotry of a Provost, conspired to destroy, to prevent the diffusion of too much liberality among the educated youth of Ireland. In the exact sciences Wolfe made the very first character in his under-graduated course. On taking his degree, he had no prospect so inviting to look to in the world as that which was likely to arise from academic promotion. His friends pressed him to secure an independence by reading for a fellowship. No doubt was entertained that a moderate period of steady industry would carry him with eclat through the very severe examination which the candidate for that office must undergo in the College of Dublin, where the course extends to every branch of moral and mathematical science. He commenced his studies, and gave them for some time the intense application which is absolutely requisite, and by which the most vigorous constitutions are often impaired. Wolfe seemed to be endowed with both strength and talent to ensure the most brilliant success, yet, after a time, his industry visibly relaxed. His books were only taken up at intervals; read with something like distaste, and laid aside without regret. It was soon understood, or imagined, that the mind of the mathematician had been subdued by the heart of the poet. He was said to give himself up to softer inspirations than those of science. He was observed to enjoy a moonlight walk more then the calculation of the lunar mountains, and to derive more pleasure from the perusal of the romantic devotion of Abelard and Eloise, than he ever received from the philosophy of Reid or the fluxions at Newton. His health declined; his spirits became depressed, it was suspected that he indulged a passion, which, though of the most honourable nature, was likely to lead to hopeless disappointment. However that may he, he lost all taste for a fellowship, which according to the absurd and monastic statutes of the University, is incompatible with the matrimonial state, though not with that of concubinage, which such laws seem expressly framed to encourage, and thereby prevent the seats of learning from the fame of too high a character for morality. Wolfe renounced the unsocial obligation; he closed his books, which might lead to wealth and distinction, but not to happiness, and never returned to the path of academic ambition. He soon after entered the church, and accepted a curacy in the North of Ireland, in a poor and populous neighbourhood, where he devoted himself with the most singular assiduity to the duties of his ministry, unlike many who enjoy the fruits of the vine-yard without contributing to its cultivation. He partook of none of the luxuries, sat in none of the sunshine of the modern Sion; but, wherever there was sorrow to be assuaged, misery to he relieved, consolation to be administered, there he was to be found. His zeal, unaffected benevolence, and freedom from every thing like clerical ambition, made him realize Goldsmith’s clergyman, in all but the internal happiness which the latter is said to have enjoyed. Labouring for the welfare of the poor and friendless who were under his charge, and continually traversing the bogs and mountains of a dreary region in the pursuit of the objects of his charity, his frame, naturally vigorous and robust, at length bore the visible traces of the wasting of deep and silent sorrow, and incessant exertion. Residing in another country, I had not seen him for some time; but every account which I heard of him bore testimony to the life of active usefulness, but gradual martyrdom, which he had chosen. The melancholy predictions of his friends were too soon accomplished; about two years ago I heard that death had closed the story of his misfortunes, his talents, and his virtues. I could not omit this opportunity of vindicating the name of a man so deserving of honour and regret-of giving to his memory the fame so justly his due—I could not allow the one solitary but everlasting laurel which ought to ornament his urn to be torn from the tomb of his departed genius; what could enhance the reputation of Byron, would be capable of conferring distinction an any Poet. It is also right that the Public should know who it really was that visited, with the homage of the finest inspiration, the neglected grave of the gallant Moore, and consecrated it with Poetic glory.—I am, Sir, your humble servant,


1, Garden-court, Middle Temple, Oct. 27, 1824.