Wednesday, April 29th, 2015...3:03 pm

David Garrick’s “Inscription for Wolf[e]”

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Garrick, David. Inscription for Wolfe. MS Thr 21.1

Inscription for Wolf

 
[first four lines struck out: What Epitaph, or Monumental Pile,
Sacred to Gratitude, and Martial Fame,
Worthy of Wolf, & worthy of this Isle,
Shall tell his Actions, & record his name? ]
 
The Nation’s Glory is [struck out: the Wolf’s his] My Monument,
The Adamantine Pillars, Publick Good,
The Ample Base the *Western Continent,
The Epitaph is written in [struck: his] my Blood!
 
[struck out: the battle in which he was killed fix’d the Conquest of America:]
*America, the Conquest of which was fix’d by ye Battle where he lost his Life
 

These verses are in the bold hand of actor and part-owner of the theatre in Drury Lane, David Garrick (1717-1779). Garrick was known as a “prologue-smith” for his skill in crafting witty, appropriate prologues and epilogues for his actors, and these and other occasional poems by Garrick appeared frequently in contemporary newspapers and magazines. This undated draft of an “Inscription” memorializing British General James Wolfe shows Garrick revising his verse for heightened dramatic effect.

General James Wolfe died on 13 September 1759, having secured Britain’s victory over French forces led by Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham near Quebec. It was a decisive battle in the Seven Years’ War, and Wolfe was immediately lionized as a national hero in Britain.

The first, cancelled quatrain asks: what monument is meet for such a hero? It is not difficult to see why Garrick rejected this approach, which would bring into question the adequacy of any monument on which his verse was inscribed.

In the second quatrain, Garrick answers his own question: Wolfe’s true monument is Britain’s glory. But how best to say this? From the first line, Garrick eschews the impersonal, formal tone of most epitaphs, successively crossing out “the,” “Wolf’s,” and “his,” in favour of a first-person dramatic utterance made by Wolfe himself: “The Nation’s Glory is My Monument.” Likewise, the revised last line declares, “The Epitaph is written in my Blood!” The reader of Garrick’s inscription thus speaks in Wolfe’s voice. (Twentieth-century auctioneers found these lines indecorous or unsettling enough that they changed Garrick’s clear “my” for a more circumspect “thy” in their sale catalogue transcriptions of this manuscript.) Garrick now imagines Wolfe’s monument figuratively–the entire western continent at its base, the nation’s glory supported by pillars of public good—a portrayal that would surpass, yet not detract, from any physical monument on which the verses might appear.

There are two likely date ranges for the “Inscription’s” composition. The first is during the period immediately following Britain’s receipt of the news of Wolfe’s death. As one correspondent, “P.” wrote to the Universal Chronicle or Weekly Gazette in October 1759, “I would have all the brethren of the quill set their imaginations at work to compose an epitaph for General Wolfe, suitable to the dignity of the subject.” A flurry of epitaphs ensued, but Garrick seems not to have published his lines in the newspapers.

A second, more likely possibility, given the manuscript’s verso notation “Wolf’s Monument,” is that Garrick may have intended these lines to accompany a prospective monument for Wolfe designed by his friend and neighbour, the architect Robert Adam. After William Pitt called for the erection of a monument to Wolfe, Robert Adam, William Chambers, and Joseph Wilton all prepared designs; Wilton’s design was chosen. As David King writes in Unbuilt Adam (2001), “Adam designed at least six variants. There are finished drawings for three. . . [e]ach has a sarcophagus on whose front two consoles flank a space for an inscription. Above the sarcophagus, there is a relief panel showing . . . the moment when, being told that the French were in retreat, [Wolfe] raised himself and said ‘now I die contented'” (261-262).

Death of James Wolfe. Engraving by Angelo Zaffonato, after Benjamin West. MS Hyde 76 (5. 3. 146. 4)

Death of James Wolfe. Engraving by Angelo Zaffonato, after Benjamin West. MS Hyde 76 (5. 3. 146. 4)

Garrick’s four lines, had they been inscribed on Robert Adam’s unrealized monument, would have appeared to emanate from the heroic figure of Wolfe pictured in the central panel. Garrick’s metaphor of pillars of public good would have been materially represented by the monument’s flanking columns, and Wolfe’s glory affirmed by the surmounted figure of Victory holding a palm and a crown of laurels over vanquished enemies. Adam’s design shows Britain’s hero in classical drapery, not in the modern military dress which Benjamin West’s painting “The Death of General Wolfe” (1770; exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1771) later made iconic by means of its wide distribution in prints. Garrick’s draft verse and Adam’s draft monument, taken together, would have created a very different image of Wolfe in the popular imagination.

Despite the earlier outpouring of memorial verses to Wolfe, there was apparently some difficulty in securing an appropriate epitaph to accompany Wilton’s monument. The London Evening Post reported in its 21-23 July 1772 issue, “The monument of Lieutenant-General Wolfe in Westminster-Abbey, is finished to the highest perfection, but is not to be opened till a proper inscription can be fixed on to perpetuate the memory of that great man.” A correspondent to the Middlesex Journal or Universal Evening Post (1-4 August 1772) urged that “the Society for the Support of the Bill of Rights unite with the Constitutional Society in offering a premium for the best inscription for General Wolfe’s monument.” A second wave of memorial verses to Wolfe appeared in the newspapers.

Public reaction to the lines eventually placed on Wolfe’s monument was not universally sanguine. One discontent, “B.C.B.” wrote to the Middlesex Journal and Evening Advertiser, and in its December 2-4, 1773 issue dismissed the inscription as “the languid record of a mere news-paper paragraph, intended for plain matter of fact; there is nothing sublime—nothing pathetic in it; no characteristic lineaments of that individual warrior; no local allusions; nothing to emulate incitement; nothing of moral exclamation.”

Garrick’s dramatic “Inscription for Wolf[e]” would have answered many, if not all, of these objections!

 

Leslie Ritchie is Associate Professor of English at Queen’s University, Canada, and the Donald and Mary Hyde Fellow for the Study of Samuel Johnson and his Circle at the Houghton Library, Harvard (2015).

 

Acknowledgments

Sincere thanks to Dale Stinchcomb, Houghton Library, for bringing this manuscript to my attention.

 

References and Further Reading

King, David. The Complete Works of Robert and James Adam and Unbuilt Adam. Oxford: Architectural Press, 1991, 2001.

One version of Benjamin West’s painting, “The Death of General Wolfe” (1770; exhibited at the Royal Academy, 1771) now hangs at the National Gallery of Canada: http://www.gallery.ca/en/see/collections/artwork.php?mkey=5363

For a detailed description of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the death of General James Wolfe, see these notes prepared by Canada’s National Battlefields Commission: http://bataille.ccbn-nbc.gc.ca/en/

For images of Joseph Wilton’s monument of Wolfe in Westminster Abbey and the verses inscribed on it, see

http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/james-wolfe

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