1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Dermody

Richard Ryan, in Biographica Hibernica. A Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland (1819) 2:76-87.



Often have we had to lament the union of talent with vice, but never more, perhaps, than in the present instance; for, if his biographer did not suffer partiality to guide his plume, never was there any individual whose knowledge was so intuitive, or whose profligacy was so precocious. He was the eldest of three sons, and was descended from a respectable family in the south of Ireland. Nicholas Dermody his father, was the sixth son of a substantial farmer, and received his education at Clonmel. At the age of twenty-two he went to Limerick, and from thence went as tutor to John Scott, Esq. a gentleman of large fortune in the county of Clare. In Mr. Scott's family he remained two years, at the end of which period he married, and settled as a classical teacher at Ennis, in the same county, where his son Thomas, the subject of the present memoir, was born, on the 17th of January, 1775. It is well known, that for some years after fixing his abode at Ennis, he lived in a state of tolerable comfort, but from some unknown cause, he grew uneasy in his mind, and flew for temporary relief to that successful deceiver — wine; and it is not unlikely, that from being exposed to the contagion of bad example, his son early imbibed a love for drinking and its concomitant vices. From Ennis he removed to Galway, where he established a seminary; but not being so successful as before, he once more returned to Ennis, where for many years he struggled with great difficulties; but that he was not wholly inattentive to the education of his son, may readily be imagined from the circumstance of placing him as Greek and Latin assistant in his school, when he had only attained his ninth year. A twelvemonth after, he commenced writing poetry, which art he acquired with great facility; and in a monody, entitled, Corydon, in which he laments the death of his brother, he fully establishes his claim to rank as a poet of great original genius. On the death of this beloved brother, which happened about the close of the year 1785, he formed the rash determination of quitting his home, which design was frustrated by the death of his mother. To endeavour to efface the recollection of this mournful event, a Mr. Hickman, a gentleman of great liberality, and who esteemed Dermody's talents as a man of literary attainments and a teacher, gave him and his son an invitation to his house at Newpark, which they accepted; and in this asylum of hospitality, young Dermody formed the plan, which he soon after executed, of flying from poverty, and viewing that epitome of the world — Dublin. Accordingly, without informing any one of his intention, with only a couple of shillings, the second volume of Tom Jones, (which he has often declared determined him on this adventure,) and a single change of linen in his pocket, he bade adieu to the house for ever, and launched boldly and fearlessly into the ocean of life. He strayed on, he knew not whither, with his senses bewildered in contemplating the various pleasures of the capital he was about to visit, till at length, looking around him, he perceived he had lost his way. This accident, however, far from discouraging him, he looked upon as a favourable interposition of Providence, and after the pause of a few minutes, he decisively took the road that lay before him, and casting a last, though not lingering look upon the village of his birth, which seemed fast sinking behind the neighbouring trees, a tear of regret stole down his youthful cheek, which was soon dried, and was suffused with smiles of ardent expectation. He had gone a considerable way, and night had cast her shadows round him, ere he thought of looking out for a lodging; but no token of any such retreat could he discover, except the languid glimmer of a low cottage standing in a dark corner; and to this he bent his weary footsteps, with the utmost speed. As soon as he entered the hut, where all around was wretchedness and misery, he saw before him in the middle of the floor — a corpse in a few unshaped boards, which were intended for its coffin, at the foot of which sat five children sobbing and weeping, while a female, pale and emaciated, hung over the head of it in silent grief. Dermody stood during some minutes, amazed and terrified, and was on the point of retiring from a spectacle which to him was alike distressing and mysterious, when the woman lifting up her eye from the deceased and fixing it stedfastly upon him, pointed to a seat near the hearth, where some expiring embers cast a bickering light and illumed faintly. She again sunk into her former melancholy state, and uttered several incoherent speeches in the agony of grief, from which he gathered, that she was grandmother to the little mourners, and that she had seen happy days, though now surrounded by poverty, and misery, and want; and that the deceased was her daughter. This dismal and distressful scene, deeply affected Dermody, who, wiping the tears from his eyes, put his hand into his pocket, and gave one of his shillings (the half of all he had in the world) to the female) and with many sighs, left her; but had not walked far from the door, before he returned with some trivial excuse, for the purpose of gratifying the finest feelings of humanity, by pressing his last shilling into the hands of the unfortunate and aged woman. He then sallied forth once more, and took the road, till he came to the ruins of an old monastery, within whose dilapidated walls he determined to await the dawn of day; and here it was he composed some stanzas pregnant with poetic beauties, for which we refer our readers to his life, vol. i. p. 14. He had not remained there long when he heard the antiquated air of Lillabullero chaunted most loudly; his curiosity was roused, and he instantly darted from the monastery and quickly overtook the minstrel, who proved to be the parish clerk returning from a neighbouring fair. Dermody courteously saluted him, and in a short time they became intimate, till on a sudden, in the midst of a copious harangue, he sprung down a narrow lane, wishing his companion a good night, and singing loudly as before. After this whimsical incident, he was once more relieved by the sound of another human voice, which fortunately proved to be a carrier's with whom he had a slight acquaintance, and who was now pursuing his journey to the metropolis. He candidly told his tale to his friend the carrier, who generously divided his homely morsel with the young adventurer, and by giving him a short ride now and then, enabled him to accomplish a journey of about one hundred and forty English miles. Nothing particular occurred on the road, except his reciting in majestic strains, the transports which he fancied he was to enjoy in his pilgrimage through the world. Arrived now in Dublin, he wandered from one street to another, and having disposed of all his extra wardrobe, he bent his steps towards the house of an eminent apothecary in College Green, to whom he had a recommendatory letter from a country acquaintance; but not meeting with the reception that he conceived himself entitled to, he bid adieu to the knight of the pestle, determining in his own mind never to honour him with a second visit. He now amused himself with strolling about the streets, and gratifying his curiosity at the bookstalls, and was observed by the owner of one of them with a book in his hand, who immediately ran up from the cellar in which he resided to watch his property, he found him earnestly, poring over a Greek author; and upon questioning him as to the substance of the book, and being satisfied that he understood it, he invited him down to dine in his cellar, which invitation Dermody accepted. They dined together with mutual satisfaction, and Dermody acceded to a proposal which his friend made, for teaching his son Latin. He, however, soon grew tired of his academic appointment in the cellar, and was recommended to another dealer in books, who kept a little second-hand shop in Stephen-street, and who took him in the capacity of shop-boy. With this man, whose name was Lynch, he remained but a short time, and soon after acquired the patronage of Doctor Houlton, who observed him in some book-shop in Dublin, reading Longinus, in the original Greek, in whose house he resided about ten weeks, giving astonishing proofs of his knowledge of the Greek and Roman classics, and producing poetical translations "ad aperturam libri." This gentleman, when obliged himself to leave Dublin, gave him some money, which he soon spent, and wandered through the streets by day, and begged the meanest shelter during the night. In his morning rambles he often called on a man of the name of Coyle, who resided in Dorset-street, and who was by profession a scene painter; to him he told the whole of his story, and lived with him for a short time, in a state of familiar servitude, going on messages for him, warming his size-pots at the theatre, telling merry tales, and writing verses on the walls with chalk; all of which he did with the greatest good-will and apathy imaginable. By Coyle he was introduced to the players, who laudably made several attempts to place him in a situation where he might prosecute his studies; he was introduced to Dr. Young, afterwards Bishop of Clonfert, and the Rev. Gilbert Austin, who selected and printed at his own expense, a volume of his poems, and the money produced thereby, together with a small subscription entered into by his friends, enabled them to place him as a boarder in a comfortable and commodious house in Grafton-street; and here it was the early depravity of his disposition began to evince itself; as he would often relinquish the invitations of his friends and patrons, for the society of depraved and vicious characters; and it was his misfortune at a meeting of this kind to become acquainted with one Martin, a drawing master. This person knowing Dermody's influence with Mr. Austin, and wishing to get the business of his academy, persuaded him to shew that gentleman the drawing of a flower, which he (Dermody) should say was done by himself, after receiving only three lessons. This he unhesitatingly agreed to, and immediately exhibited the flower, urging at the same time the recommendation as he had been desired. The stratagem thus daringly formed, carried its own failure along with it, for it was utterly impossible the most ready genius could execute a drawing in the same style within the period of instruction that he had specified. Mr. Austin, on seeing the flower, and hearing his story, instantly accused him of duplicity, and Dermody denied the charge; at last, however, he was desired to sit down and make a copy of the drawing, when to his disgrace the deception became evident. He was immediately ordered from the parlour to the kitchen, where, for a considerable time, he was kept in disgrace: to give vent to his feelings, he satirized his benefactors, and the lines were brought by his prying landlord to Mr. Austin, who immediately destroyed the poems he had collected for publication, returned the subscribers the money he had received from them for Dermody's support, and turned him out once more upon the world, friendless and forsaken. He continued to exist for some time on newspaper drudgery, and, by the interest of a Mr. Berwick, he was noticed, adopted, and patronized by the Dowager Countess of Moira, and at her expense was furnished with all suitable necessaries, and placed under the care of the learned and reverend Mr. Boyd, at Killeigh. In this situation he remained two years, during which time he greatly improved himself in the ancient languages, and acquired a competent knowledge of French and Italian; but neither kindness nor circumstances could efface those habits of imprudence and irregularity which seemed innate, and which to the latest period of his life he sedulously cultivated. At every ale-house in the neighbourhood, wherever low company was to be found, Dermody was there. He had, however, the art long to satisfy his benefactress; but by a tissue of conduct as infamous as it was ungrateful, he at length offended her, and was once more cast despised and friendless on the world. During his retirement at Killeigh, he wrote odes, epitaphs and elegies, on himself, all of which contain great poetic merit. He once more returned to Dublin, a journey which he performed with ease and comfort, having had ten guineas given him by his patroness, as a last donation, when be left Killeigh. He had not been, however, many days in Dublin, before his finances were entirely expended, and he applied to his friend Mr. Owenson, who treated him with his usual hospitality. He likewise wrote to the bishop of Dromore, and to the celebrated Henry Grattan, who so highly estimated the talents of Dermody, that in his zeal to serve him, he introduced many passages of a poem (enclosed by Dermody to him) in a celebrated speech in the House of Commons, and strongly recommended its author to the particular notice of persons of taste and fortune; and it was likewise through the kindness of this highly-gifted Patriot, to whom Ireland stands so deeply indebted, that Dermody was introduced to the celebrated Henry Flood, who honoured him with his particular friendship while he lived, and who suggested to him a plan for composing a poem on the British constitution.

In August 1792, he received a letter from his father, which found him as poor and dissipated as ever; and to such a distressful state was he reduced, that to avoid the importunities of those to whom he owed small sums, he wandered among the fields by day, and sought the meanest shelter by night; surrounded, as he then was, by both poverty and famine, he still retained a great portion of playful vivacity, which he displayed in various poetical compositions, particularly in a letter addressed to the Rev. Mr. Berwick, of Moira-House, in which he requests admittance once more to that mansion of hospitality. He also sent several letters, imploring assistance from the Countess of Moira, all of which were unanswered. He now commenced politician, and published a pamphlet on the subject of the French Revolution, entitled, The Rights of Justice; or, Rational Liberty; to which was annexed, a well-written poem, called, The Reform. At this time his biographer admits, that "his state became so desperate, that he would have undertaken to defend or promote any cause which promised to afford the least immediate supply." His condition now became insupportable, and he reflected on it with a poignancy, which, but for a sudden and unexpected relief, must inevitably have brought him to a speedy dissolution. The attorney-general being informed by his bookseller, that a panegyric possessing great poetic beauties, had been addressed to him, and printed in the Anthologia Hibernica, made some inquiries relative to the author, and obtained his address. He determined on paying him an immediate visit, and found him just risen. He heard his artless story, and being convinced that he possessed true genius, insisted on his going in his carriage to dine with him. He did so; and, as might be conjectured, was brought back in the carriage, not quite so sensible as at his first setting out. To the honour of the attorney-general be it recorded, that he actually engaged apartments for him in the College, and promised not only to furnish them, but to defray the whole of his expenses there, and allow him 30 a-year to enable him to appear in the world with respectability. Yet, incredible as it may appear, Dermody, in a mysterious epistle, rejected all this proffered liberality, and continued to live in a state of wretched obscurity, producing pieces of poetry of every description. In the midst of his distresses, he appealed once more to the liberality of Mr. Grattan, — a man who never closed his doors against the unfortunate. He received him with kindness, and treated him with respect, and at his departure, presented him with five guineas; this sum Dermody got rid of before he reached home; got drunk, and created a disturbance at Ranelagh, a village three miles from Dublin, where he was taken into custody, and corded down upon an empty bed. After this event he met with another patron, in the person of Mr. William Smith; and while he was labouring to advance his fortune, Dermody (as usual) abandoned himself to the most depraved society, whose pursuits were as disreputable as they were pernicious; lost to the esteem of the world, and deserted even by many of his low associates, he wandered about perfectly destitute, and without any other means of subsistence, than the donations which his wretched appearance extorted from the humanity of those to whom he presented petitions. In this state of misery and penury, he, with one Stewart, formed a design of visiting London, and met accordingly at a mean public house in Great George-street, which was the rendezvous of a recruiting party, who fixed on Dermody for their victim. He was easily seduced from propriety; he mixed in their low excesses; became speedily intoxicated, and was the same night carried down the River, and safely lodged in a tender which lay moored in the Bay. When he recovered his senses, his apathy of heart (of which he had a large stock) did not desert him, and he became familiarized to his situation, from which he was released by a Mr. Samuel White; he, however, soon after, got into a similar predicament, from which he was extricated by his active friend Mr. Emerson. A short time after this period, after idling away some weeks in a state of ruinous dissipation, he entered as a private in the 108th regiment, commanded by the Earl of Granard; and behaving with some decency, under the wholesome check of military discipline, he was progressively advanced to the ranks of corporal and sergeant; and on the 17th of September, 1794, in the nineteenth year of his age, embarked with the regiment for England. He accompanied it afterwards abroad in the expedition under the Earl of Moira, and behaved so well, that his lordship promoted him to a second-lieutenancy in the waggon corps, and he was in almost every considerable action, and received two wounds; one in the face, and the other in the left hand, a bullet having passed directly through it. On the reduction of the army, Dermody was put on the half-pay list.

He now came to London, and followed the impulse of his passions, as heretofore; and the supplies which Lord Moira had generously contributed, were dissipated in the same degraded vices he had indulged in in Ireland. He was at length arrested and lodged in the Fleet prison, from which situation Lord Moira released him, with a threat to withdraw his protection, unless he amended his conduct; but all admonition was vain, for his own sufferings had not taught him prudence. The donation that accompanied the admonitory epistle, he had squandered in the lowest haunts of vice, and in the pursuit of debauchery had spent his last shilling, when his resources being entirely exhausted, he took shelter in a garret in Strutton Ground, Westminster, and applied for assistance to his biographer Mr. Raymond, who relieved him on this occasion, and assisted him in the publication of a volume of poems, teeming with originality of genius, and beauty of description. "The zeal," says Raymond, "of the few friends who were now acquainted with his distresses, soon procured him a number of advocates. His story became extensively known, and among the arbiters of wit, and the admirers of poetical compositions, his talents and situation were frequent subjects of discourse. The force of his genius was universally acknowledged; and from many who interested themselves in his behalf, he reaped more solid advantages than praise and admiration; but neither poverty, experience, nor the contempt of the world, had yet taught him prudence; and he had no sooner excited their compassion, and profited by their generosity, than he neglected their advice." He now acquired the patronage of Sir James Bland Burges, who interested himself greatly in his behalf, and procured him relief from the Literary Fund. Him, however, he offended, by paying him a visit when in a state of intoxication, and creating a disturbance in his house. From Sir James he was patronised by Mr. Addington, and through his means, produced another volume of poems as beautiful as the former.

At length, after having run from one scene of low depravity to another, until his constitution was undermined, and "reason was beginning to totter on her throne;" worn with disease, the inevitable consequences of habitual intemperance, death seized his victim with one hand, and opening the portals of eternity with the other, commanded the soul to escape from the earthly tenement, which had so long disgraced it; dying at a wretched hovel near Sydenham, July 15, 1802, in the twenty-eighth year of his age.

He was one of those unhappy young men, who preferred a life of daring profligacy to the dull and unvariable sameness of virtue; and the time that should have been occupied in the cultivation of his talents, was uselessly spent in their display. He united a depth of poetic intellect, and a great harmony of versification rarely to be met with in the same individual; and could turn with equal facility "from grave to gay, from sullen to serene;" but if we thus praise his excellence in poetry, how shall we extol his classical attainments? Horace and Homer he was alike acquainted with, and could unabashed, before a large company, read a passage in either; then put the book in his pocket, and give a fine poetic translation of the passage he had just delivered; and likewise to his credit be it recorded, that before he had attained his fifteenth year, he had acquired a competent knowledge of the Greek, the Latin, the French, and Italian languages, and knew a little of the Spanish.

We have now filled up the sun-light of the picture, and there remains nothing but the odious task of enumerating the dark and disgusting shades that deformed it. He was an epitome of every variety of vice, and unblushingly avowed it, without even making those excuses that most of her votaries do; such as — "it was against my consent, but I was led into it; — it was unfortunate, but we are all the victims of circumstances:" — Excuses, in reality, as frivolous as they are despicable, but which have some weight in the charitable eye of the world. Dermody despised this mental hypocrisy, and setting his arms a-kimbo, laid his hand upon his heart, and said fearlessly, "I am vicious, because I like it."