Grave of Charles Wolfe

Asenath Nicholson
Chapter VIII

"Oh! could we from death but recover."

It was in the cottage of Dr. Power that unexpectedly the sweet strains of the "Soldier's Grave" were struck by Mrs. P., and awakened again those sensations which were stirred, when in the city of New York, a few days before sailing for Ireland, I heard them for the first time; and here was told that the author was sleeping in a humble burying-ground but two miles from the spot.

In two days Mrs. P. accompanied me to the strangers' churchyard adjoining an old crumbling ivy-covered ruin of a church, where sleep together in a rank grass-grown spot, the sailor and the soldier who dies from home, in this harbor, and where seldom a foot tramples on the wild weed that grows tall in the uneven inclosure where they sleep. Here and there a coarse monument tells that Captain M., or Lieutenant G. died in this harbor, Anno Domini, ——, but Charles Wolfe was not among them, his was a bed detached, and confined within the wall of one corner of the church, with a humble flat stone over his breast. The roof of the church is gone, and the entrance to his grave, when the sexton is not there to unlock it, is over the wall by climbing a ladder. A look through the key-hole showed that luxuriant weeds and stones from the crumbling wall had well-nigh concealed the epitaph, which told his age and death. His short story was easily rehearsed; for like all true merit, he was unostentatious, and asked not that the world should honor him. His birth-place was Dublin, in 1791, a descendant of the military hero Wolfe, who was slain at Quebec. He was sent to Bath, in England, in 1801, to school, where his mother removed at the death of his father, then to Dr. Evans's, then to Winchester, where his amiable disposition made him greatly beloved, and his classical attainments gained him great distinction without flattering his vanity. He never in one instance received a reprimand from a teacher, and his sister adds, that to her recollection he never acted contrary to his mother's wishes during his life. He cheerfully gave up the idea of a military profession, which he had imbibed, because he found it was unpleasant to his mother. In 1808 the family returned to Ireland, and in 1809 he entered Dublin College. He soon distinguished himself as a poet; his Jugurtha Incoraratus was written in the first year of college, the year when his mother died, an event which left a lasting impression in his heart. He soon after won a prize and became a college tutor, obtained a scholarship, and his talents for prose and verse, as well as oratory, soon manifested themselves.

The poem which gave him such deserved celebrity was published without his knowledge, and it originated in his mind by reading a paragraph, as follows. Sir John Moore had often said, that if he was killed in battle, he wished to be buried where he fell.

"The body was removed at midnight to the citadel of Corunna. A grave was dug for him on the rampart there, by a party of the 9th Regiment, the aide-de-camps attending by turns. No coffin could be procured, and the officers of his staff wrapped the body, dressed as it was, in a military cloak and blankets. The interment was hastened, for about eight in the morning some firing was heard, and the officers feared if a serious attack were made they should be ordered away, and not suffered to pay him that last duty. The officers of his army bore him to the grave—the funeral service was read by the chaplain, and the corpse was covered with earth."

Thus they buried him at dead of night, and—

"He lay like a warrior taking his rest,

With his martial cloak about him."

His biographer says, had he written no other poetry, this poem would have entitled him to the name of poet of poets. He had one peculiarity: in reading, he analyzed the subject to its origin, and there tarried so long, that he seldom perused it to the end—he digested thoroughly what he did read, but seldom read a book through. He was an enthusiastic admirer of the scenery of his own country. Lough Bray, Wicklow, and the Dargle, have been graphically portrayed by his pen.

He became pious, but humbly laid his attainments at the foot of the cross, and in November, 1817, he took an obscure country curacy in the North, where his indefatigable labors and affectionate heart won him the love of all his flock, especially the poor, but who could not appreciate his talents, nor "enter into the deep feelings of his soul."

Here he labored, and here he loved to labor; and would have died among the simple flock he loved for Christ's sake; but his friends removed him to the seaside at Cove. His sermons were but precepts of which he was a living example. His sickness and closing scene were replete with all that is lovely in the Christian character. To his relatives who stood round him, he said, "the peace of God overshadow them, dwell in them, and reign over them;" and to a relative who hung over him, he said, "Close this eye, the other is closed already—and now farewell."

Thus this poet and Christian died, and thus is he buried, in that lonely deserted place, among the dead of almost every clime, who have been huddled and housed here, apart from country and kindred, and where few but strangers' feet ever tread the way to their isolated resting-place.

There was something to me quite forbidding in the associations that hung around the grave of Charles Wolfe, in that deserted corner:—

"O, breathe not his name, let him sleep in the shade,

Where cold and unhonored his relics are laid;

Sad, silent, and dark be the tears that we shed,

As the night dew that falls on the grass o'er his head."

The summer of 1848 was pleasant and unusually sunny, and the hopes of the poor peasant revived as he saw the potato looking up again, in freshness and strength; but alas! a few days laid all his prospects in the dust.

A brother of Theobald Mathew had planted a field of twenty-seven acres, in almost certain faith that they would not be blasted; for weeks they flourished, and promised to yield an abundant crop. The poor people in the neighborhood were blessing the good God for the beautiful patch of the "kind gintleman," and seemed as happy as though they were ripening for their own use. They have been known to go and look into the field, and take off their hats, and in humble adoration bless the name of God, for his great mercy in sending them the potato again. This was their usual practice when they saw a field looking vigorous. But in one night the spoiler came—this beautiful field in the morning had, in isolated spots, the withering touch of the fatal disease. In a few days the rich extensive crop would not pay the laborer for his toil in gathering it. All was over, and in silent despondency each one submitted to the stroke. The "still small voice" seemed to say, "Be still, and know that I am God." It was something for which man could not reprove his brother; and he dared not reproach his God. "And what," said an old woman, sitting by her vegetable stall, "would become of us miserable bodies, if God Almighty had sent the blast on us, and left the potato?"

This was in the autumn of 1845, when but a partial failure took place—the blast had not then fallen on man; but it did fall, and swept them down as grass before the mower's scythe, yet not one of the victims, through long months of starvation, was heard to murmur against God. They thanked his holy name, both when they saw the potato grow in luxuriance, and when they saw it dried, as by a scorching heat. It was one of the most touching, striking features of the famine, to see a family looking into a withered patch, which the day before looked promising, and hear the exclamations of wonder and praise, weeping and thanksgiving, mingled together, "He's sent the blast, blessed be his holy name!" "His blessed will be done—and we'll all die with hunger, and praise God we're all poor sinners," &c. They literally and practically carried out the principle of one in ancient days, who said, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him;" for though year after year they saw the root on which they and their fathers had lived, melt away, yet they would not be persuaded but that the good God would give them the potato again; and in 1846-7-8-9, when each successive year had produced the same if not worse effects, they yet persisted in saving, oftentimes by stealth, some part of a sound potato, to keep it from the hungry mouths of their children, that they might put it in the ground, and "Plaise God we will have the potato again," would be the persevering reply to all expostulation. So wedded are they to this root, that notwithstanding many know and deeply feel that it has been their rod of oppression, yet they emphatically "kiss the rod, and Him that hath appointed it;" and could a decree now go forth that the potato should be restored to its pristine soundness and health, and that the present generation and their posterity forever should feed on this root exclusively, and have work six days a-week, at fourpence or sixpence a-day, there would be a universal jubilee kept through mountain and glen, and bonfires would from hill-top to bog extinguish the light of moon and star, for many a joyful night.

And let it be expected by those who would do good to Ireland, and elevate her in the scale of being, that it will be many a long year before the sickle will be as joyfully and heartily worked as the spade. This spade has a thousand associations, entwining in and about the hearts of parent and child, which no other instrument of husbandry can claim; it has cut the turf that lighted up the mud-wall cabin, and boiled the "blessed potato;" it has dug the pit in front of the cabin for the duck-pond; it has piled the manure-heap at the corner, mountain high; it has planted the ridge which furnished their daily bread; it has made the ditch, and repaired the road; it has stood by the hearth or door through many a dark and stormy night, to guard the little stack for the cow against the tithe gatherer; it has been a fireside and field-companion; and above all, and over all, it has measured and hollowed out many a last sleeping bed for a darling child, a beloved husband or wife, and in the dark days of the famine it has often been the only companion to accompany the father, mother, husband, wife, or child, who has had the corpse of a hunger-stricken relative in a sack or tied to the back, to convey it to the dread uncoffined pit, where are tumbled, in horrid confusion, the starved dead of all ages.

The sickle has not that claim to the affections of what is genteelly called the "lower order." It is more aristocratic in its station and occupation. It has been used in the hands of the poor, to reap down the fields of the rich "for naught;" it has cut the wheat and the barley for the tax-gatherer, the landlord, and the surpliced "hireling," who "reaps where he sowed not," and "gathers where he has not strewed."

With all these considerations, it must be expected that this instrument will be approached with caution, if not suspicion; and wonder not if they feel like David, when the armor of Saul was put on him, to go out and meet Goliath: "I cannot go with these, for I have not proved them." He who would reform, must not only know what is to be done, but how it is best to do it effectually. The Irish will never be laughed or preached out of their relish for the potato, neither should it be attempted; let them love it—let them cultivate it, but let it not be like the grass of the field for the bullock, who is adapted entirely to that food, and which has never failed to give him a supply. Learn the Irish by use that they need not relish the potato less, but they may love the bread and other esculents more, that should one fail, they may turn to another with convenience. Give them good healthy food as substitutes, and cast the musty, sour Indian meal, with the "black bread" away—frighten them not with sickening dangerous food, and tell them it is because they are dainty and savage that they do not relish it. If what is given them be "good enough for kings," then let kings eat it; for if God has "made of one blood all the nations of the earth," he may have made the palate, too, somewhat similar. If bread will strengthen John Russell's heart, it will the "bog-trotter's" also; if a fine-spun broadcloth, with gilt buttons, becomes the backs of the Queen's ministers, then surely a coarser texture, without patch or rent, would not sit ungracefully on the shoulders of Paddy. Let him, if made in the image of God, be a man too; and let him not be thought presuming, if he be one of the Queen's subjects, should he aspire to mediocrity among the humblest who call themselves so. If the Irish say most heartily, "Long live the Queen," let the Queen respond heartily, and "while I live I will do good to my Irish subjects." If the sixty-two mud-wall huts to each hundred in the worst parts, and twenty-three in the best, as Mr. Bright asserts, look a little untidy in an isle where castles and rich domains dot the green surface, why not substitute the comely cottage? and if the manure-heap be unseemly to the eyes and unsavory to the nose, plant in its stead the vine and the rose—for be assured, in no isle of the sea will they bloom fairer.

England has held this pretty gem of the ocean by the cable of king and queenship for centuries, floating and dashing alternately in the vascillating uncertain waves of hope and desperation, casting in oil when the tempest runs highest—pulling the cord gently, and whispering "Sister," when she finds her loosening her holdings to make for a more open sea; and then promises to repair her breaches, and make her to "sing as in the days of her youth." But there she is, rocking and floating still, her wild tresses disheveled, her head uncovered, and her feet still bare. One hundred and thirty years ago, she had one hundred and sixty families that had no chimneys in their hovels; now she has sixty-two in one hundred not fit for man to inhabit in one part, and on an average of something like forty-four or forty-five through the whole island, from which the beaver and woodchuck might blush to be found peeping. Why, in the name of all that is common sense or common decency, if she cannot be remodeled, if she is rooted and grounded in her everlasting filth, her disgusting tatters, and frightful rags, is she not cut loose and left to sink or swim, as best she can manage? If she can be transformed into anything like comeliness, why is she hung out a never-fading, never-dying scarecrow to all the world beside? If the last four years have not turned her inside out, and shown her, in the face of heaven, to the nations of the earth—if any deformity remains which is yet to be served up, for one, I pray, "have me excused." If England by this time do not know of what sort this her "sister island" is, if she do not understand either her disease or her cure, all may be given up as lost, for until "the elements shall melt with fervent heat," the earth disclose her slain, and the "sea give up her dead," can any more that is forbidding, revolting, and even terrific, be held out to the world, than has that island presented for ages gone by; and if she is loved, why not cherish her? if hated, why not wholly cast her off?

To the words of the faithful, fearless, warm-hearted John Bright, let the philanthropist respond—"Abolition of primogeniture for underived property—registry of property—reduction of the enormous charges for stamps for the sale and purchase of land—security of tenure for the practical laborers of the soil—abolition of the Established Church in Ireland—extension of the suffrage—and reinforcement of the representature in the Imperial Parliament.

"If the aristocracy of the United Kingdom have heaped evils unnumbered upon Ireland, why should not the people of the United Kingdom make ample restitution?" And let all the people rise, and say in one united doxology, "Amen, so let it be."