Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wolfe, Charles

WOLFE, CHARLES (1791–1823), poet, was born at Blackhall, co. Kildare, on 14 Dec. 1791. He was one of a family of eleven children and the youngest of eight sons of Theobald Wolfe of Blackhall, first cousin to Arthur Wolfe, first viscount Kilworden [q. v.] Theobald Wolfe died when his son was but eight years old, and the poet was brought up in England by his mother, Frances, daughter of Rev. Peter Lombard, and was educated first at Bath, and afterwards at the Abbey high school, Winchester. In 1809 he matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he obtained a scholarship in 1812, and graduated B.A. in 1814; and it is within the eight years between his entrance at the university and his ordination in 1817 that the period of his poetical activity is almost exclusively comprised. He also attained great distinction in the college historical society. It was in competition for the medals of this society that Wolfe's talent for versification was first employed, and his poem on ‘Patriotism,’ and a more important one, ‘Jugurtha,’ written for the vice-chancellor's prize, show considerable merit. Though his academic career was distinguished, Wolfe declined to read for a fellowship, because he was unwilling to pledge himself to celibacy. In November 1817 he took orders, being ordained for the curacy of Ballyclog, co. Tyrone, which after a few weeks he exchanged for the more important one of Donoughmore, in co. Down. Here he laboured assiduously and successfully for three years; but the disappointment at the rejection of his addresses by the lady for whose sake he had abandoned the prospect of an academic career, acting on a constitution never robust, quickly sowed the seeds of consumption. In 1821 he was compelled to abandon his work. After two years passed in a vain quest of health he removed to the Cove of Cork, where he died, aged 31, on 21 Feb. 1823. He was buried in the ruined church of Clonmel outside the Cove of Cork.

Wolfe is remembered almost solely for his famous lines on the burial of Sir John Moore. Their origin, and the many spurious claims put forward to their authorship, form an interesting chapter in literary history. Originally published in the ‘Newry Telegraph’ on 19 April 1817, they had been for many years forgotten when the praises bestowed on them by Byron in January 1822—‘such an ode as only Campbell could have written,’ as reported by Medwin in his ‘Conversations’ (ed. 1824, pp. 164–6)—drew general attention to the elegy. Byron's regretful repudiation of their authorship, and Medwin's hints that the stanzas were really by his hero, brought forward friends to justify Wolfe's title and establish his fame. It was clearly proved that the lines were written in 1816 in the rooms of Samuel O'Sullivan, a college friend, their suggestion being immediately due to Wolfe's perusal of Southey's account in the ‘Edinburgh Annual Register’ of Sir John Moore's death. After being handed about among Wolfe's college friends the lines were, through the Rev. Mark Perrin, published in the ‘Newry Telegraph,’ whence they were transferred to various journals, and printed in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ in June 1817 (i. 277). Notwithstanding O'Sullivan's testimony, confirmed by that of other friends, several fictitious claims to the authorship of the poem were put forward. A curious account of one of them, which ultimately proved to be a hoax, may be found in Richardson's ‘Borderer's Table Book,’ vol. vii. In 1841 the claim of one Macintosh, a parish schoolmaster, was put forward in the ‘Edinburgh Advertiser’ and strongly supported. On this occasion the indignant remonstrances of Wolfe's friends were reinforced by the discovery by Thomas Luby [q. v.], late vice-provost of Trinity College, Dublin, among the papers of a deceased brother who had been a college friend of Wolfe, of an autograph letter from Wolfe containing a copy of the stanzas. This letter was made by John Anster [q. v.], who was a friend of the poet, the subject of a communication to the Royal Irish Academy which set all discussion as to the authenticity of Wolfe's claim finally at rest.

The poetical achievements of Wolfe fill but a few pages in the memorial volumes, mainly composed of sermons, published in 1825 by his friend John Russell, archdeacon of Clogher. Exclusive of some boyish productions, they number no more than fifteen pieces, all of them written almost at random, without any idea of publication, and preserved almost by accident. These, however, present the potentials of a poet of no mean order. The testimony of many contemporaries, afterwards eminent, confirms the impression which his other lyrics convey, that the lines on the burial of Sir John Moore are not, as has been represented, a mere freak of intellect, but the fruit of a temperament and genius essentially poetic.

[Russell's Remains of the Rev. Charles Wolfe, 2 vols. 1825, 12mo, 4th edit. 1829, with a portrait engraved by H. Meyer from a drawing by J. J. Russell; College Recollections, 1825 (anon., by the Rev. Samuel O'Sullivan, with sketch of Wolfe under the name of ‘Waller’); Taylor's University of Dublin; Brooke's Recollections of the Irish Church, 1st ser.; Trans. Royal Irish Academy, vol. vii.; letter published in New Zealand Tablet, March 1877, by the Rev. Mark Perrin; article in New Ireland Review May 1896, by C. Litton Falkiner; Dublin Univ. Mag. November 1842; Blackwood's Mag. March 1826; Notes and Queries, 7th and 8th ser. passim; Burke's Landed Gentry.]

C. L. F.