Slaughtered by the critics – Frank McNally on a 19th-century actor’s fatally bad review

An Irishman’s Diary

John Keats was not unique in his time for being the suspected victim of a fatally bad review (Irishman's Diary, February 18th). Nor was he the only person presumed to have been killed by the words of Galway-born writer and MP, John Wilson Croker. If a Dublin gravestone from 1805 is to be believed, Croker had struck before.

His target on that occasion had been an English actor, John Edwin (circa 1768-1805), who married an Irishwoman and was performing here at the time of his death. A child star, Edwin had made his London debut aged nine in a play by Beaumont and Fletcher (the same Elizabethans who would give Keats the idea for his "writ in water" epitaph).

Some admirers thought he would become a star in his own right eventually.

In the meantime, he was overshadowed both by his namesake father, a great English comedian of the 1780s, and by his wife, the Dubliner Elizabeth Richards, an actress famous on both sides of the Irish Sea.


Those were the twin prongs of Croker’s attack on Edwin jnr, which like the later one on Keats, and in keeping with journalistic convention then, was unbylined.

Whereas it was his prose that allegedly killed the poet, it was with a poem that Croker supposedly felled the actor. He established his satirical theme – the mutual dependency of opposites, including darkness and light – in the opening verse: “No human good’s without alloy,/Pain treads upon the heels of joy,/And, as philosophers remark,/Each other cause, like light and dark.”

For there he moved to the marriage of actor and actress: “So Heaven that dooms to equal fate/The Thespian and the human state,/With Mrs Edwin blessed our vows/But cursed us with her lubbard spouse.”

Finally, the poem turned to father and son: “Yet let us spare him for a name/High on the rolls of comic fame,/And on degeneracy take/Compassion, for the parent’s sake.”

If it was Croker’s intention to “spare” Edwin jnr, however, he had not sufficiently pulled his punch.

After reading the poem, the actor sent an invitation to a drinking friend, as follows: “Come and help me to destroy myself with some of the most splendid cogniac (sic) that I have ever exported to cheer a broken heart.”

No that doesn’t quite like a suicide note, more a plan for a wild night.

A coroner’s court might also have suspected that Edwin started destroying himself long before then. His father being an alcoholic too would also seem relevant.

But the actor did indeed drink himself to death on February 22nd, 1805 (16 years and a day before Keats’s demise in Rome). And his wife was in no doubt as to the cause. When she raised a monument over his grave in St Werburgh’s Churchyard, near Dublin Castle, she set the record straight, while playing both widow and coroner.

“Here lie the remains of Mr John Edwin of the Theatre Royal,” the epitaph began. “His death was occasioned by the acuteness of his sensibility. Before he was sufficiently known to the public of this city to have his talents properly appreciated, he experienced an illiberal and cruel attack on his professional reputation from an anonymous assassin.

“This circumstance preyed on his mind to the extinction of life. While he apparently enjoyed bodily vigour, he predicted his approaching dissolution. Consciousness of a brain rending with agony accounts for that prescience and incontrovertibly establishes the cause of death.”

Her diagnosis anticipated the one made by Shelley and others in 1821. Indeed, an Irish writer of the later 19th century, Elizabeth Owens Blackburne, noted the similarities between the Dublin grave and Keats’s.

One of her novels begins in a tenement building on Werburgh Street, overlooking the churchyard “in the midst of which conspicuously stands an upright slab, upon which is inscribed an epitaph upon ‘One John Edwin, an actor, of Fishamble Street Theatre, who, like Keats, the third among the sons of light,’ was done to death by the poisoned arrows of adverse criticism.”

That “third among the sons of light” is a line from Shelley’s Adonais, which placed his friend alongside Homer and Dante on the all-time Olympic podium of poets. But it’s not clear what if anything else Owens Blackburne is quoting between her inverted commas, unless it was a later addition to the grave’s editorial.

And yet recalling Edwin’s death in 1912, a theatrical historian in the Evening Herald wrote that the gravestone “for many years […]stood” in St Werburgh’s, implying that it was no longer standing then.

There is no suggestion as to what had happened it in the meantime. Croker was himself long dead. It can hardly have been sued for defamation.