Timothy Webb, ‘Coleridge and Robert Emmet’, in Irish Studies Review, Vol. 8, No. 3 (2000), pp.304-24.

‘Like his older brother, Robert Emmet rejected what he must have seen as his father’s compromise with the English administation.’ (p.304); complained of “the willingness of Government to deliver up the United Irishmen, tried neck and heels, to England”; Robert’s suspiciaon of the French was later confirmed by his brother who recorded with with disgust in 1805 that France was “now headquarters of fraud, deceit and despotism”. (Ref. to Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France, Yale UP 1982.)

Elliott writes: ‘Given the direction of Emmet’s thought, his desire to show the French that th eIrihs were not a force to be trifled with and his blind conviction that the country people would turn out if Dublin rose first, the decision to attempt a rising rather than risk the disocvery of their preparations was predictable.’ (p.308; here p.304.)

‘Emmet had not given orders for such bloodshed and later claimed that the killing of the humane Lord Kilwarden had “shocked his heart” (Letter from Wickham to Home Officer reporting deposition of a Mrs Palmer, Emmet’s landlady; printed in Michael MacDonagh, The Viceroy’s Post-bag: Correspondence Hitherto Unpublished of the Earl of Hardwicke First Lord Lieutenant of Ireland after the Union, John Murrary, 1904, p.338; here p.304.

Webb quotes a yeoman, Rainey, writing on the night of the trial: ‘it did not appear to him, further than as having let loose such Tygers, was to be imputed any of the savage atrocities which followed’, further writing of ‘that state of eternal anarchy and horror, nicknamed a free and independent Republic.’ (National Library of Ireland; here pp.304-05, and quoted more extensively on p.306, ending ‘[…] When the verdict was pronounced, he seemed to consider himself as rising into a Martyr’.)

Henry Grattan was affronted by the ‘stupidity and barbarity’ of the Rising, and Daniel O’Connell told his wife: ‘If he has been concerned in the late insurrenction … he merits and will suffer the severest punishment. For my part I think pity would be almost thrown away upon the contriver of the affair of 23rd July. A man who could coolly prepare for so much bloodshed, so many murders - and such horrors of every kind has ceased to be an object of compassion.’ (Corr., ed. M. R. O’Connell, p.99; here p.305.)

William Cobbett, ‘the feeling of horror against the bloody-minded wretches, who murdered the Lord Chief Justice, is, indeed, universal’ (Political Register, No. 4, 23-30 July, 1803; here p.305.)

J P Curran refused to defend Emmet on discovering how he had been compromised by his dg.’s behaviour.

Webb: ‘The romantic attachment of Emmet and Sarah Curran is not mentioned by any of the English Romantic poets but it was to play a major part in the mythology of Emmet’s insurrection and in sentimentalising of Irish Revolutionary history.’ (p.306.)

Thomas Moore’s ‘She is Far from the Land’ is on the subject of Sarah Curran.

Toler was created Lord Norbury in 1800.

‘For the Romantic poets, as for many of his admirers and sympathisers, Emmet achieved heroic definition not only by the tragic consequences of his failed conspiracy but by his performance in court.’ (p.306.)

‘Although [his] speech has long been a cherished example of Irish patriotic eloquence, recent researches have shown that both the emphases of Emmet’s address and the precise nature of the language and imagery which he employed are open to serious question. The worlds which have been handed down as canonical for perhaps more than 150 years represent the final stage in the establishment of a text which in its [306] very origins was vulnerable to the purposes of political propaganda. […] it was even suggested that the anti-French element in the speech had been fabricated in the interests of the government, a possibility which seemed to be given some weight not only by the conduct of government-influenced papers but also by the fact that William Ridgeway, who published the speech in Dublin, has appeared for the prosecution in the trial.’ (p.307.)

‘[…] it seems likely that the reaction of the first generation of Romantic poets, notably those of Southey and Coleridge, were based on newspaper reports, specifically perhaps on th e accounts in the Morning Post which were sympathetic to the government.’ (p.307.)

Webb quotes the version of Emmet’s speech given in the Morning Post (27th Sept.), following a precès on the preceeding day in which Emmet appears to denounce the French as military tyrants ‘to be rejected, or, if once established, […] overthrown as soon as possible.’: ‘I am charged with being an emissary of France; ‘’tis false! I am no emissary; I did not wish to deliver up my country to a foreign Power, and least of all, to France […] small would be our claims to patriotism and to sense, and palpable our affection of the love of Liberty, if we were to encourage the profanation of our shores by a people who are slaves themselves, and the unprincipled and abandoned instruments of imposing slavery on others. What I cannot do, I leave a legacy to my country, because I feel conscioues that my death were unprofitable and all hope to liberty extinct, the moment a French army obtained a footing in this island.’ (Here p.309.)

Further, Morning Post gave this version of Emmet’s final words: ‘My lamp of life is nerealy expired; my race is finished; the grave opens to receive me, and I sink into its bosom. All I request then, at departing from the world, is the charity of its silence. Let no man write my epitaph, for as no man who knows my motives dares vindicate them, let not prejudice or ignorance asperse them: let them and me repose in obscurity and peace, and my tomb remain uninscribed, ‘till other times and aother men can do justice to my character.’ (Morning Post, 27 Sept. 1803, p.3; here p.310.

Webb quotes Norman Vance’s phrase ‘staccato’ to describe the rhythm of the version princes in the Courier.

The version in Walker’s Hibernian Magazine (Sept. 1803) introduces for the first time the additional phrases with their national reference: ‘when my country takes her place among th nations of the earth, then, and then only, may my epitaph be written: I am done.’ (‘Trial of High Treason of Robert Emmett [sic], Esq., accompanied by a full length portrait of that unfortunate gentleman, as he appeared in Court, together with his harnague on being found guilty’, Walker’s Hibernian Magazine; or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, Sep. 1803, p.679; here p.310).

Ridgeway’s transcript gives the phrase ‘I have now done’ immed. after ‘in charitable silence’ but not as the last words. (Webb, ftn. 23; p.323.)

Webb quotes the Morning Post at some extent in showing that the ‘epitaph’ prescribed for Emmet’s tomb by that paper had to do with his credit in uttering the ‘sincere conviction of his mind’ that the French were the ‘arch foe to the liberty and peace of mankind’. (here p.310.)

Webb: ‘Their [the English Romantics’] concern for, and ability to identify with, Emmet may also owe more than a little to the fact that, like them, he was the product of a middle-class background and of a university education. Emmet’s insurrect was the result of political factors which were specifically Irish, yet it was partly inspired by the momentum which had been generated during the French revolutionary period and it was premised on the hope of an intervention of the French themselves. For these English observers it might almost have seemed as if a chapter of the French Revolution had been translated into English.’ (p.311.)

‘There is some evidence to show that Emmet’s insurrection may have been associated with an underground revolutionary movement in England which achieved some notoreity through the ill-fated figure of Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, who was executed on 21 Feb. 1803.’ (p.311.)

Coleridge contrib. to The Watchman under pseud. Patrick O’Fleherty of Ballybooby nr. Tripperary; later contributed to the Courier under the signature ‘Irish Protestant’.

Coleridge’s notebook entries on Emmet include the following: ‘Emmet=mad Raphael painting Ideals of Beauty on the walls of a cell with human Excrement.’ (Notebooks, Vol. 1, p.1,522; here p.312.)

‘Extensive confirmation of the depth of this concern can be found in a lengthy letter which he wrote to Sir George and Lady Beaumont [1 Oct. 1803]. This letter is the most remarkable of the all the reactions of the English Romantic poets to the case of Emmert and an example of how richly and acutely expressive and how subtly self-scrutinising Coleridge can be in the course of his correspondence. […] his letter should be read […] as an examination of the role of the revolutionary hero and an extended dramatic monologue in which he internalises the fare of Emmet with great force and immediacy.’ (p.312.)

The letter calls Emmet ‘the poor young Enthusiast’ and ‘an empassioned Visionary’ [312] while characterising himself in youth as ‘very enthusiastic’. Webb shows that the contemporary Irish forensic accounts of Emmet repeatedly style him an ‘enthusiast’ while a letter between Viceroy and Home Secretary actually styles him ‘a visionary enthusiast’. Likewise, the Morning Post called the rising ‘this visionary undertaking’ while the Courier called Emmet ‘this unfortunate enthusiast’. (~p.313.)

Webb follows Coleridge (and Southey’s) account of Robespierre, in who they discover perverted enthusiasm on the basis that ‘the ardour of undisciplined benevolence seduces us into malignity, and whernver our hearts are warm, and our objects great and excellent, intolerance is the sin that does most easily beset us.’ Coleridge calls Robespierre ‘a Caligula with the cap of liberty on his head’.

In his letter to the Beaumonts, Coleridge compares Emmet to himself at 24, at which age he was retiring from revolutionary politics ‘fully awake to the inconsistency of my practice with the speculative Principles’: ‘Alas! Alas! unlike me, he did not awake! the country, in which he lived, furnished far more plausible arguments for his active Zeal than England could do […] and in this mood the poor young Enthusiast sent forth that unjustifiable Proclamation,one sentence of which clearly permitted unlimited assassination - the only sentence, beyond all doubt, which Emmett [sic] would gladly have blotted out with his Heart’s Blood […] This moment it was a few unweighed words of an empassioned Visionary, in the next it became the foul murder of Lord Kilwarden! […] I was preserved from Crimes that it is almost impossible not to call Guilt!’ (Earl Leslie Griggs, ed., Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols., Clarendon Press, 1956-71, vol. 2, pp.998-1,005; here p.315.)

Webb comments: ‘How sharply Coleridge was touched by the very thought of the two courses so nearly parallel is indicated by the cumulative energy of the comparison and by the intensity with which he identifies with the fate of Emmet, and with his presumed repudiation of violence […]’.

Robert Southey, poem ‘Written Immediately after Reading the Speech of Robert Emmet’ [see Poetical Works, 1871]

Webb further documents Coleridge’s sense of culpability as English girds itself to defend its soil against the French expected invasion. Coleridge also writes to the Beaumonts of ‘the unwise & unchristian feelings with which at poor Emmet’s age I contemplated all persons of your rank in Society’ [317]

Emmet suffered the death of his mother shortly before his own execution and purportedly ‘expressed a firm confidence of meeting her in a state of eternal bliss, where no separation could take place’, while other accounts represent him as a Deist to the end. (~p.318)

In the version of the dock-speech printed by T. D., A. M. & D. B. Sullivan (Speeches form the Dock, M. H. Gill 1909), Emmet is given the phrases: ‘I appeal to the Immaculate God’; ‘I swear by the Throne of Heaven’; ‘Those martyred heroes who have shed their blood on the scaffold and in the field in the defence of their country and of virtue’; ‘O God’; ‘I do not fear to approach the Omnipotent Judge’’ - all of which Webb regards as indicative of the ability of Catholic readers to find (or place) an Emmet to their liking in the speech. [~See ftn.51, p.324.)

The Morning Post’s account of Emmet’s speech includes an anti-French strand that culminates in a proposed act of self-immolation: ‘if you are driven to the centre of your country, collect your provisions, your property, your wives and daughters, form a circle around them - fight until two men are left, and when but one remains let thatman set fire to the pile, and release himself and the families of his fallen countrymen from the tyranny of France!’ (Morning Post, 27 Sept. 1803; here p.320.)

Coleridge on Emmet’s death sentence: ‘O if our Ministers had saved him and taken his oath and word of honor, to have remained in America or some of our Colonies for the next 10 years of his Life, we might have had in him a sublimely great man, we assuredly sh[ould] have had in him a good man, & heart & soul an Englishman!’ (Letters, Vol. 2, p.1,002; here p.320.)

Webb: ‘Coleridge was profoundly sympathetic to Emmet, yet, under the pressure of contemporary political events as experienced from an English perspective, he translated the Irish revolutionary into an English loyalist. So the troubling alien was encountered, engaged with, and ultimately assimilated into a pattern which was expressive not so much of otherness but of the familiar, if disturbing, problems of self.’ [End]

Pearse on Robert Emmet: ‘It is the memory of a sacrifice Christ-like in its perfection’ (cited in Robert Kee, The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism, Quartet Books 1976, p.169n.; quoted in Tim Webb, op. cit., 2000, p.324 [n.52].)

Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (Yale UP 1982).
Michael MacDonagh, The Viceroy’s Post-bag: Correspondence Hitherto Unpublished of the Earl of Hardwicke First Lord Lietuenant of Ireland after the Union (London: John Murrary, 1904)
R. B. McDowell, Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution, 1760-1801 (Clarendon Press, 1979).
Patrick Rafroidi, Irish Literature in English: The Romantic Period, 1789-1850 (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1980).
F. S. Bourke, The Rebellion of 1803: An Essay in Bibliography (Bibl. Soc. of Ireland 1933).
R. N[orman] C. Vance, ‘Text and Tradition: Robert Emmet’s Speech from the Dock’, Studies, Vol. 71 (1982), pp.185-91.
R. R. Madden, The United Irishmen, p.456.
Thomas Addis Emmet and W. J. MacNeven, Pieces of Irish History: Illustrative of the Conditions of the Catholics of Ireland, of the Origin and Progress of the Political System of the United Irishmen; and of their Transactions with the Anglo-Irish Government ([NY: Dormin 1867).

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