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ART. I: The Life of the Right Honourable John Philpot
Curran, late Master of the Rolls in Ireland. By his Son, WILLIAM HENRY Curran, Barrister-at-Law. 8vo. 2 vols. pp. 970. London, 1819.
its moral, and general scope, than curious and interesting in its détails. It is a mixture of Biography and History-and avoids the besetting sins of both species of compositionneither exalting the hero of the biography into an idol, nor deforming the history of a most agitated period with any spirit of violence or exaggeration. It is written, on the contrary, as it appears to us, with singular impartiality and temper—and the style is not less remarkable than the sentiments: For though it is generally elegant and spirited, it is without any of those peculiarities which the age, the parentage, and the country of the author, would lead us to expect :- And we may say, indeed; of the whole work, looking both to the måtter and the manner, that it has no defects from which it could be gathered that it was written either by a Young man-or an Irishman-or by the Son of the person whose history it professes to record-though it has attractions which probably could not have existed under any other conditions. The distracting periods of Irish story are still almost too recent to be fairly delineated-and no Irishman, old enough to have taken a part in the transactions of 1780 or 1798, could well be trusted as their historian-while no one but à native, and of the blood of some of the chief actors, could be sufficiently acquainted with their motives and characters, to communicate that life and interest to the details which shine out in so many passages of the volumes before us. The incidental light which they throw upon the national character and state of society in Ireland, and the continual illustrations VOL. XXXII. NO, 66.
they afford of their diversity from our own, is perhaps of more value than the particular facts from which it results; and stamp upon the work the same peculiar attraction which we formerly ascribed to Mr Hardy's life of Lord Charlemont.
To qualify this extraordinary praise, we must add, that the limits of the private and the public story are not very well observed, nor the scale of the work very correctly regulated as to either; so that we have alternately too much and too little of both :--that the style is rather wordy and diffuse, and the extracts and citations too copious; so that, on the whole, the book, like some others, would be improved by being reduced to little more than half its present size--a circumstance which makes it only the more necessary that we should endeavour to make a manageable abstract of it, for the use of less patient readers.
Mr Curran's parentage and early life are now of no great consequence. He was born, however, of respectable parents, and received a careful and regular education. He was a little wild at college; but left it with the character of an excellent scholar, and was universally popular among his associates, not less for his amiable temper than his inexhaustible vivacity. He wrote baddish verses at this time, and exercised himself in theological discourses : for his first destination was for the Church, and he afterwards took to the Law, very much to his mother's disappointment and mortification-who was never reconciled to the change--and used, even in the meridian of his fame, to lament what a mighty preacher had been lost to the world, and to exclaim, that, but for his versatility, she might have died the mother of a Bishop! It was better as it was. Unquestionably he might have been a very great preacher; but we doubt whether he would have been a good parish priest, or even an exemplary bishop.
Irish lawyers are obliged to keep their terms in London ; and, for the poorer part of them, it seems to be but a dull and melancholy noviciate. Some of his early letters, with which we are here presented, give rather an amiable and interesting picture of young Curran's feelings in this situation, separated at once from all his youthful friends and admirers, and left without money or recommendation in the busy crowds of a colder and more venal people. During the three years he passed in the metropolis, he seems to have entered into no society, and never to have come in contact with a single distin. guished individual. He saw Garrick on the stage, and Lord Mansfield on the bench; and this exhausts his list of illustrious men in London. His only associates seem to have been a few of his countrymen, as poor and forlorn as himself. Yet the life they lived seems to have been virtuous and honourable. They contracted no debts, and committed no excesses. Curran himself rose early, and read diligently till dinner; and, in the evening he usually went, as much for improvement as relaxation, to a sixpenny debating club. For a long time, however, he was too nervous and timid to act any other part than that of an auditor, and did not find even the germ of that singular talent which was afterwards improved to such a height, till it was struck out as it were by an accidental collision in this obscure arena. He used often to give an account of this in after life himself; and as the following seems to have been taken down by the author from his own lips, we gladly take the opportunity of inserting it, both as the most authentic account of the fact, and as a specimen of that colloquial pleasantry for which he is here so lavishly commended.
• One day after dinner, an acquaintance, in speaking of his eloquence, happened to observe that it must have been born with him. * Indeed, my dear sir,” replied Mr Curran, “ it was not ; it was born three and twenty years and some months after me; and, if you are satisfied to listen to a dull historian, you shall have the history of its nativity.
“ When I was at the Temple, a few of us formed a little debating club-poor Apjohn, and Duhigg, and the rest of them ! they have all disappeared from the stage; but my own busy hour will soon be fretted through, and then we may meet again behind the scenes. Poor fellows ! they are now at rest; but I still can see them, and the glow of honest bustle on their looks, as they arranged their little plan of honourable association (or, as Pope would say, “gave their little senate laws,') where all the great questions in ethics and politics (there were no gagging.bills in those days) were to be discussed and irrevocably settled. Upon the first night of our assembling, I attended, my foolish heart throbbing with the anticipated honour of being styled the learned member that opened the debate,' or the very eloquent gentleman who has just sat down.' I stood up—the question was Catholic claims or the Slave trade, I protest I now forget which, but the difference, you know, was never very obvious-my mind was stored with about a folio volume of matter, but I wanted a preface, and for want of a preface the volume was never published. I stood up, trembling through every fibre; but remembering that in this I was but imitating Tully, I took courage, and had actually proceeded almost as far as · Mi Chairman,' when, to my astonishment and terror, I perceived that every eye was riveted upon me. There were only six or seven present, and the little room could not have contained as many more; yet was it, to my panic-struck imagination, as if I were the central object in nature, and assembled millions were gazing upon me in breathless expectation. I became dismayed and dumb; my friends cried hear him!' but there was nothing to hear: My lips, indeed, went through the pantomime of articulation, but I was like the unfortunate fiddler at the fair, who upon coming to strike up the solo that was to ravish every ear, discovered that an enemy had maliciously soaped his bow. So you see, sir, it was not born with me.
However, though my friends, even Apjohn, the most sanguine of them, despaired of me, the cacoethes loquendi was not to be subdued without a struggle. I was for the present silenced, but I still attended our meetings with the most laudable regularity, and even ventured to accompany the others to a more ambitious theatre, < the Devils of Temple Bar;' where truly may I say, that many a time the Devil's own work was going forward.
“ Sucli was my state, the popular throb just beginning to revisit my heart, when a long'expected remittance arrived from Newmarket: Apjohn dined with me that day, and when the leg of mutton, or rather the bone, was removed, we offered up the libation of an additional glass of punch for the health and length of days (and heaven heard the prayer) of the kind mother that had remembered the necessities of her absent child. In the evening we repaired to the Devils. One of them was upon his legs'; a fellow, of whom it was impossible to decide, whether he was most distinguished by the filth of his pera son, or by the flippancy of his tongue ; just such another as Harry Flood would have called the highly gifted gentleman with the dirty cravat and greasy pantaloons.
I found this learned personage in the act of calumniating chronology by the most preposterous anachronisms, and (as I believe I shortly after told him) traducing the illustrious dead by affecting a confidential intercourse with them; as he would with some nobleman; his very dear friend, behind his back; who, if present, would indignantly repel the imputation of so insulting an intimacy. He descanted' upon Demosthenius, the glory of the Roman forunt; spoke of Tully as the famous cotemporary and rival of Cicero; and in the short space of one half hour, transported the straits of Marathon three several times to the plains of Thermopylæ. Thinking that I had a right to know something of these matters, I looked at him with surprise ; and whether it was the money
in my pocket, or my classical chivalry, or most probably the supplemental tumbler of punch; that gave my face a smirk of saucy confidence, when our eyes met there was something like wager of battle in mine; upon which the erudite gentleman-instantly changed his invective against antiquity into an invective against me, and concluded by a few words of friendly counsel (horresco referens) to orator mum,' who he doubted not possessed wonderful talents for eloquence, although he would recommend him to show it in future by some more popular method than his silence. I followed his advice, and I believe not entirely without effect ; for when, upon sitting down, I whispered my friend, that I hoped he did not think my dirty anta gonist had come
quite clean off?' • On the contrary, my dear fellow,' said he, 'every one around-me is declaring that it is the first
time they ever saw him so well dressed.' So, sir, you see that to try the bird, the spur must touch his blood. Yet, after all, if it had not been for the inspiration of the punch, I might have continued a mute to this hour ; so for the honour of the art, let us have another glass. I. pp. 41-47.
Now this is certainly lively and good humoured; but it is not, according to our notions, by any means the best style of wit, or of talk, that we have met with. It is too smart, snappish, and theatrical—and much more like the practiced briskness of an actor of all work, or an itinerant lecturer on heads, than the polite and unobtrusive pleasantry of an agreeable companion. We suspect, indeed, from various passages in these volumes, that the Irish standard of good conversation is radically different from the English; and that a tone of exhibition and effect is still tolerated in that country, which could not be long endured in good society in this. A great proportion of the colloquial anecdotes in this work, confirm us in this belief-and nothing more than the encomium bestowed on Mr Curran's own conversation, as abounding in those magical transitions from the most comic . turns of thought to the deepest pathos, and for ever bringing a tear into the
before the smile was off the lip.' In our more frigid and fastidious country, we really have no idea of a man talking pathetically in good company,—and still less of good company sitting and crying to him. Nay, it is not even very consonant with our notions, that a gentleman should be 5 most comical.'
As to the taste and character of Mr Curran's oratory, we may have occasion to say a word or two hereafter.--- At present, it is only proper to remark, that besides the public exercitations alluded to in the passage just quoted, he appears to have gone through the most perşovering and laborious processes of private study, with a view to its improvement-not only accustoming himself to debate imaginary cases alone with the most anxious attention, but, reciting perpetually before a mirror,' to acquire a graceful gesticulation, and studiously imitating the tone and manner of the most celebrated speakers. The authors from whom he chiefly borrowed the matter of these solitary declamations, were Junius and Lord Bolingbroke--and the poet he most passionately admired was Thomson. He also used to declaim occasionally from Milton-but, in his maturer age, came to think less highly of that great poet. One of his favourite exercises was the funeral oration of Antony over the body of Cæsar, as it is given by Shakespeare; the frequent recitation of which he used to recommend to his young
friends at the Bar, to the latest period of his life.