Wolfe And Gray's Elegy
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
MANY good people resent any review of the facts about a picturesque incident as a wanton attempt to lay sacrilegious hands on what they secretly fear is almost too good to be true. And I am well aware that, in this very matter of Wolfe and Gray's Elegy, I have been repeatedly held up to fond believers, on both sides of the water and the line, as a particularly cold, crafty and altogether heartless iconoclast. But if these believers will only read the present article they will see that I have really been fighting on their own side all along, and doing my best to find some solid facts for them to base their faith on. Indeed, I go farther than most of them ; for I think such incidents, when authentic, are very important from the strictly historical point of view. War is an art as well as a science, and every battle is a drama in the making. Personality is of the utmost consequence at critical moments ; and every personal touch adds to our knowledge of its influence. So there ire the most cogently scientific reasons for trying to find out the true version of what is a most characteristic episode in the great story of the whole Battle of the Plains.
Hundreds of writers have told millions of readers how Wolfe turned to Midshipman Robinson, who was steering the first boat down to the final attack on Quebec, and asked him how old he was. " Seventeen, Sir 1" Then follows whatever remark is supposed to be most appropriate to the occasion and to the respective positions of a midshipman and major-general. After this there is generally some local and temporary colour, with the inevitable purple patch duly worked in. And then Wolfe recites more or less of the Elegy, lays the strongest emphasis on the line—" The paths of glory lead but to the grave," and ends by assuring his audience, " I would rather have written those words than take Quebec to-morrow." There are plenty of minor variants of this current version. But the above contains the gist of them all.
Now, is it likely that any general would recite poetry at such a time ? In surprise attacks by night soldiers must keep silence, on pain of death. Would Wolfe, the strict disciplinarian, who always set his men the best example, be the first to break the rule ? He was sitting beside men who knew they were going on some desperate venture, and whom he naturally wished to encourage. Would he choose this opportunity for telling them that their own path of glory was sure to lead them to the grave ? And is it likely that he would distract the attention of the man on whose handling of the principal boat so much depended—especially after giving distinct orders that no one was to interfere with the naval officers in the execution of their duty ? Besides, would he use the word "to-morrow " when he knew he was going to fight on that very day, and within a very few hours of the time at which this recitation is supposed to have taken place ?
But, apart from all questions of mere likelihood, there is abundance of actual evidence against this theatrical perversion. " Midshipman Robinson" was not a midshipman. He was not even a naval officer. His name was not Robinson. He was not seventeen. And he was not in Wolfe's boat at all. There is no confusion of identity, as all accounts, false and true, agree upon the same individual as the original authority for the story. Yet this man never said he was a midshipman, or a naval officer of any kind, or seventeen years of age nor did he ever say he steered Wolfe's boat down to the attack, or heard Wolfe recite the Elegy in it ; nor did he ever claim to have been in any of the boats on that occasion. This evidence is fully substantiated by the original documents quoted by Professor E. E. Morris in The English Historical Review for January, 1900, by those given as references in the Dictionary of National Biography (vol. xlix, p. 57—John Robison, 1739-1805), and by those I am about to quote here.
It is not hard to see how the popular perversion arose and has flourished to the present day. The tale was a strikingly fine one in itself. The feat of arms which its hero performed has made his name immortal. What more natural than that the public, which never knew the facts, should presently blend both tale and feat of arms together ; for all myths have a tendency towards unifying time and place in relation to any crisis in their hero's life. Wolfe's case, however, involves no quarrel between history and literature, fact and imagination. On the contrary, it reconciles them ; for anyone can see now that the common version is bid history, and, in the light of the true version, equally bad art—the offspring of mere theatrical fancy and not of dramatic insight.
The true story is this. The author of it is John Robison. The Rev. Morison Bryce, of Baldernock Manse, Milngavie, Glasgow, and minister of the parish in which Robison was born, says that the family name is pronounced with the i long, Robison. Now Robison, like his son, Sir John, who died in 1843, was a well-known Scottish worthy of high distinction. He was born in 1739, graduated at Glasgow in 1756, and came out to Quebec in 1759 as tutor to the young son of Admiral Knowles. Everyone has to be accounted for on board ship, either by holding actual or relative rank, and Robison was "rated as a midshipman "-a very different thing from being one. Thirteen years later he held the relative rank of colonel in Russia, while employed as professor of mathematics in the Sea Cadet Corps of St. Petersburg. But this no more implies the command of a Russian regiment than his local and temporary rating at Quebec implies the command of a British boat. He was a civilian, pure and simple, and no one familiar with the original facts ever mistook him for anything else. He was again employed at sea in 1762, when the Board of Longitude put him in charge of Harrison's chronometer for the voyage to Jamaica ; but this no more made him a naval officer than his previous service afloat had done. For almost the whole of the latter half of his life he was professor of natural philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. He was an intimate friend of the famous James Watt and many other men of science. But the most important point for us to know is that he was always recognized, in every relation of life, as a man of unblemished veracity. Therefore, we may presume that he would neither alter facts nor invent fictions about the most dramatic incident which ever befell him.
What was his own version of the story ? There can be little doubt; as we have three independent and credible witnesses, who all agree, and whose evidence is admirably marshalled by his own great. grandson, Father John Gerard, S.J., in the Scotsman for the 29th of June and the Atheneum for the 9th of July, both in 1904. The first is Sir Walter Scott, whose letter to Southey on the 22nd of September, 1830, was quoted from the original manuscript by Mr. Birrell in The Times Literary Supplement for the 27th of May, 1904. Scott says he heard the tale " at very first hand," Robison telling him that Wolfe, after reciting the Elegy, declared he would sooner have written those lines than win the battle " we are to fight to-morrow morning." The second is Professor Playfair, Robison's successor at Edinburgh University. Playfair's sketch of Robison is to be found at page 495, in Volume VIl of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh for the 20th of February, 1815 He refers to the story as one that Robison "used to tell" about Wolfe's saying he would rather have written the Elegy than . " have the glory of beating the French to-morrow." The third is William Wallace Currie, who gives his own version in a letter of the loth of February, 1804, which is printed on page 248, Volume II, of his life of his father, James Currie. He says he heard Robison tell the story himself only the week before. There is a slight variant here, as Currie understood that Robison was in another boat alongside Wolfe's. But the rest is practically the same as in the accounts of Scott and Playfair. "Mr. Robison heard him (Wolfe) say, ' I would rather be the author of that piece than beat the French to-morrow' ; and from his remark he (Robison) guessed that the attack was to be made the next day."
Such is the direct evidence on the subject. The circumstantial evidence points the same way. Young Knowles would not get much actual coaching while the siege was in progress. Robison, who was a good mathematician, was more often employed as an expert surveyor. In this capacity he would naturally be told off to map work, and so would have been a likely man to have accompanied Wolfe on the final reconnaissance of the 12th of September, the day before the battle. Now, we know that Wolfe reconnoitred from a boat, we know that he was a great reader and" fond of poetry, we know that a strain of melancholy ran through his character even as a younger man, we know that disease left him little hope of a long life, we know that the story of the Elegy became current at once and remained so throughout the lives of those present at Quebec who could best judge of its truth, we know that Robison's own version was never contradicted, we know his reputation for veracity, we know that he was not with the boats that took Wolfe's army down to the Foulon on the morning of the 13th of September, and we know that all authentic accounts of his version agree that Wolfe was in a boat when he recited the Elegy, and that he said he would sooner have written the poem than beat the enemy "to-morrow." The only possible conclusion is that Wolfe recited the Elegy when he was in a boat, reconnoitring the north shore of the St. Lawrence, above Quebec, on the 12th of September, the day before the Battle of the Plains. And this conclusion seems to be as near a moral certainty as any fact based upon the testimony of any single witness can ever be.
I wish we could go on to point out the exact spot. But there is little chance of finding such precise information. I am inclined to think the most likely place would be a few cables above Sillery Point and rather more than half channel over. In any case, the visitor to the Quebec battle-fields who looks upstream can be almost sure that his eye is resting on the very reach of the river where this famous incident really occurred. And what a satisfaction it is to know that, while the popular perversion is as weak and theatrical as it is unproved and improbable, the true version, on the other hand, is a strong, dramatic and altogether worthy episode in one of the world's great epic tales of war !