1800 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. James De La Cour

Thomas Dermody, "Biographical Notice of the Rev. James Delacour" in Raymond, Life of Dermody (1806) 2:268-74.



Raising the remains of genius from obscurity, is no undelightful task to a contemplative and benevolent mind. I confess myself charmed with the slightest discovery of this nature; and were I sure of sitting by the little hillock which covers the dust of Henry Fielding, who lies in the Factory's burying-ground at Lisbon, I would not grudge the fatigue or expence of journeying thither. When in Canterbury some months ago, while my companions were admiring the height and magnificence of its cathedral, or decyphering the inscriptions on the tombs of lazy monks and lethargic friars, I was more jocundly employed in ruminating on the fallen state of the old Chequer inn, where honest Geoffrey Chaucer revelled with his train of pilgrims, knights, clerks, and Oxford scholars. This pleasing propensity has excited me often towards inquiries which others would disdain as trivial; and the following sketch, imperfect as it is, is one vein of intelligence traced by my curiosity.

The reverend JAMES DELACOUR was an inhabitant of Cork; and much caressed for his sprightly wit and moral conduct, beauties which are very rarely united. His first published poem was entitled the Prospect of Poetry, inscribed to Boyle earl of Orrery, and introduced by complimentary verses from several respectable writers of the day. Though rather too impetuous and fiery (a sad prediction of his future destiny), it contains some passages surprisingly beautiful and sublime; the measure is harmonious, the design uniform though not new, and altogether it is a performance of infinite merit. His description of the birth of Love is replete with tender and elegant conception. Mr. Bell, in his compilation of fugitive poetry, has very judiciously retained, indeed I may say revived, this piece.

His Progress of Beauty (which is, I suppose, very scarce in this kingdom) is far superior to lord Lansdowne's verses on that subject and with the same title. His Epithalamium also has all the delicacy and sweetness of Catullus. But, alas! all human endowments are variable; and the sage of this day has often been the ideot of the next.

Poor Delacour, at an earlier age than his unrivalled countryman Swift, was a a member of society no more. All his once vivid faculties had fled, and all his myrtles were blasted. I assign him the myrtle, because like Lee, who too lost his reason, his chief talent lay in chaste amorous description. The person from whom I received my small information, has frequently seen him in the open street with a mob of boys round him, pouring forth extempore lines, chiefly satirical; and has not unfrequently remarked some bright but evanescent flashes of fancy amidst his wildest delirium.

Even during the long period of Delacour's insanity, the light of the poet was not totally extinguished. I have seen a manuscript copy of verses on the earthquake at Lisbon, composed in some serener moment, full of lofty but extravagant conception. From what I can learn, he produced about the same time some little pieces which appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, then the repository of wit and genius; and in particular some lines to the author of the Seasons (which inspired even the leaden pen of old Dennis the critic), and an humorous epitaph on a tallow-chandler who bequeathed ten pounds to reward the best tribute to his memory.

When expatiating on the productions of a poetic mind while labouring under the horrors of actual derangement, I cannot pass in silence the disastrous fate of Christopher Smart. Who that has perused his prize-essays on the Attributes of the Deity (scarcely inferior to the hymns of the Divinity's own minstrel, the divine Milton); his picturesque description of the hop-garden; or his Hilliad, a most admirable burlesque on sir John Hill, the botanist, and editor of the Inspector; but must deplore the melancholy destruction of such combined erudition and talent? Who could imagine that such a person would allow his name to an insipid prose translation of Horace; or degrade his fame by a metrical version of Phaedrus, unworthy of a school-boy's pen? While in confinement for his malady, he likewise versified the Book of Psalms; and it is remarkable that though many illustrious writers have chosen that task, none succeeded much better than Sternhold and Hopkins, whose tuneful excellence may rest in peace without any injury to their palms of honour.

I should be very sorry to hint that every good poet should not be as good a Christian; nay, he should more particularly exert his abilities to the glory and praise of that benignant Being who deigned to bestow them: but certain it is, that when once a refined intellect (as too frequently occurs) is haunted by the terrible phantoms of superstition as well as by the delusive shadows of fancy, both unite their force, and overturn the throne of reason. A mind thus distracted may be compared to the ruins of an ancient monastery; through whose stained glass, and fantastic portals, even the blessed light of heaven enters only to checker the gloomy aisles with imaginary forms, and strew the dun walls and mutilated pavement with sombre apparitions of terror. Poetry, being in itself of an enthusiastic nature, requires not to be inflamed by any adventitious means: its own mental source is sufficiently replete with informing spirit; and the writer who, in a wild luxuriance of imagination, oversteps the limits of rational devotion, will, unless a miracle should interpose in his behalf, die either an infidel, a fanatic, or a fool.