Henry Brooke, born 1706 — died 1783

Charles A. Read (Editor)
The Cabinet of Irish Literature
Volume 1

Henry Brooke, a Goldsmith in versatility if not in genius, was born at Rantavan, in the county of Cavan, in 1706. His father, a man of talent and amiability, was rector of four parishes, his mother was a Digby. The rudiments of his education he obtained from Dr. Sheridan, and he was sent for a short time to Trinity College. In his seventeenth year he was entered at the Temple, and soon became acquainted with every one in London worth knowing, Pope and Swift being of the number. “Swift prophesied wonders of him,” says a writer in The European Magazine; “Pope affectionately loved him.”

Returning to Ireland he was called to the bar, though he did not practise, and on the death of an aunt he became guardian to her only child, Catherine Meares, a beautiful girl. In a short time love sprang up between the young guardian and the still younger ward, and the two were secretly married while as yet the young lady was in her fourteenth year. Strange to say the match was a happy one, and remained so to the very end. In 1732, at the pressing solicitations of his friends, he went again to London, to continue his studies and enter regularly upon his profession. But poetry was as fatal to him there as love had been in Ireland.

Law was neglected for the Muses, and in the same year appeared his first poem, Universal Beauty, which Pope looked upon as a wonderful first production. Soon after he was obliged to return to Ireland, and there for some time he devoted himself to his profession as a chamber counsel.

In 1737 he went again to London, where he was received with enthusiasm by Pope, while Lord Lyttleton sought his acquaintance, and Mr. Pitt spoke of him and treated him with affectionate friendship. “Here,” says the writer already quoted, “flushed with ambition, glowing with emulation, and elevated with praise, his genius soared to its zenith, and snatched all its fire from the altar of Apollo, to animate the foremost production of human powers, his tragedy of Gustavus Vasa.” Before this he had published (in 1738) a graceful and spirited translation of the first three books of Tasso. Gustavus Vasa gave offence to the authorities, and its production was disallowed. This, however, only helped to add to his fame, for his friends rallied round him, the play was printed, and he sold 5000 copies at 5s. each, his pecuniary reward being more than it was likely to have been had the authorities not interfered.

When his success was at its highest Brooke was seized with a violent ague, and was given over by the doctors. As a forlorn hope he was ordered to Ireland, whither he went. In a short time he recovered, and was about to return to London, when his wife, who knew that party spirit then ran high there and that he was sure to take a side, implored him to remain at home. After long solicitation she not only prevailed on him to remain at home for the time being, but also to make her a promise that he would give up his connection with London altogether. In a short time he disposed of his house at Twickenham, dismissed his servants, and laid down his pen. Friend after friend pleaded with him against this suicidal act, but in vain; the wife was still the sweetheart, and his love for her overcame the ambition that still burned within him.

Soon after his return to Ireland he received the appointment of barrack-master from Lord Chesterfield, and while in this post resumed his pen to a certain extent. He wrote the Farmer’s Letters, something after the style of the Drapier Letters, and in the same year (1745) his tragedy The Earl of Westmoreland appeared.

In 1747 four fables by him were printed in Moore’s Fables for the Female Sex, and in 1748 his dramatic opera Little John and the Giants was performed in Dublin. In 1749 his tragedy The Earl of Essex was performed at Dublin with great success, and also afterwards at Drury Lane. After this for a long time he remained in retirement at his ancestral home, having clustered round him not only his own family, but the almost equally numerous family of his only and beloved brother. In 1762 he again appeared before the world with his plea for the repeal of the penal laws, under the title of The Trial of the Roman Catholics.

In 1766 he issued his first novel, The Fool of Quality, a work of unequal merit, but marked by wonderful flashes of genius in the midst of much that is mystical. In 1772 his poem Redemption appeared, and in 1774 his second novel, Juliet Greville.

In 1778 a great number of his works were published, most of which had evidently been written in the apparently blank years of his retirement. These were: The Last Speech of John Good; and Antony and Cleopatra, The Impostor, Cymbeline, Montezuma, The Vestal Virgin, five tragedies; The Contending Brothers, The Charitable Association, The Female Officer, The Marriage Contract, four comedies; and Ruth an oratorio. Finally, in 1779, appeared the Fox Chase, a poem. From the time of his wife’s death he completely secluded himself from society, and spent his remaining years with his beloved daughter Charlotte. On the 10th October, 1783, he passed away, leaving of a numerous family but two to mourn his loss.

As to Brooke as a man, the writer in The European Magazine says that his “feelings were even beyond those of female nature, soft, and exquisitely tender. His wife used often to conceal from him the death of a cottager, lest the grief of the survivors should affect him too much. His temper was meek almost to a fault; it was nearly impossible to provoke him to resentment. … Once, when asked what he thought of a humorous but false and malicious libel, in which he with several others were included, his answer was, ‘Why, sir, I laughed at the wit and smiled at the malice of it.’”

As to his works, no student of them can have any doubt that they are not nearly so well known as they ought to be. Gustavus Vasa still keeps the stage, it is true, and The Fool of Quality was lately reissued under the editorship and with a biographical preface by the Rev. Charles Kingsley; but except Juliet Greville, how few of his other works are known to the majority of readers even by name! Yet they are full of splendid passages, sufficient to start many a modern poet or writer on the road to fame. His plays, with scarce an exception, are marked by force and clearness.

His poems are not so brilliant as those of Pope, nor so sweet in diction as those of Goldsmith, but they are full of solid beauties and just sentiment. Hoole, in his preface to his own translation of Tasso, speaking of Brooke’s reproduction of the first three books, says, “Mr. Brooke’s in particular is at once so harmonious and so spirited, that I think an entire translation of Tasso by him would not only have rendered my task unnecessary, but have discouraged those from the attempt whose poetical abilities are much superior to mine.”

Brooke’s poetical works were collected by his daughter Charlotte, who added some few things not mentioned here, and published them at Dublin in 1792 in one volume 8vo. A new edition properly edited is urgently needed.