THOMAS PARNELL, a very pleasing English poet, was descended from an ancient family, settled for some centuries at Congleton, in Cheshire. His father, of the same name, was attached to the republican party in the reign of Charles I.; and on the restoration found it convenient to go over to Ireland, carrying with him a large personal fortune, with which he purchased estates in that kingdom. These, with the lands he had in Cheshire, descended to the poet, who was born in 1679, in Dublin. In this city he was educated, and entered of Trinity-college, Dublin, at the age of thirteen. He became M.A. in 1700, and in the same year was ordained deacon, although under the canonical age, by a dispensation from the primate. Three years after he was admitted into priest's orders, and in 1705, Dr. Ashe, bishop of Clogher, conferred upon him the archdeaconry of Clogher. About the same time, he married miss Anne Minchin, an amiable lady, by whom he had two sons, who died young, and a daughter who long survived him.
He had by this time given some occasional specimens of his poetical talent, but his ruling passion led him to the enjoyments of social life, and the company of men of wit and learning; and as this was a taste he could gratify at home but in a very small degree, he contrived many excursions to London, where he became a favourite. From some letters published by his biographer, Dr. Goldsmith, we learn that he was admired for his talents as a companion, and his good nature as a man; but with all this, it is acknowledged, that his temper was unequal, and that he was always too much elevated, or too much depressed. It is added, indeed, that he was sensible of this; but his attempts to remove his spleen were rather singular. Goldsmith tells us, that, when under its influence, he would fly with all expedition to the remote parts of Ireland, and there make out a gloomy kind of satisfaction in giving hideous descriptions of the solitude to which he retired. Having tried this imaginary remedy for some time, he used to collect his revenues, and se out again for England to enjoy the conversation of his friends, lord Oxford, Swift, Pope, Arbuthnot, and Gay. With Pope he had a more than usual share of intimacy. Pope highly respected him, and they exchanged opinions on each other's productions with freedom and candour. He afforded Pope some assistance in his translation of Homer, and wrote the life prefixed to it; but Parnell was a very bad prose-writer, and Pope had more trouble in correcting this life than it would have cost him to write it. Being intimate with all the Scriblerus' tribe, he contributed the "Origin of the Sciences:" and also wrote the "Life of Zoilus," as a satire on Dennis and Theobald, with whom the club had long been at variance. To the Spectator and Guardian he contributed a few papers of very considerable merit, in the form of "Visions."
It seems probable that he had an ambition to rise by political interest. When the Whigs were ejected, in the end of queen Anne's reign, he was persuaded to change his party, not without much censure from those whom he forsook, and was received by the earl of Oxford and the new ministry as a valuable reinforcement. When Oxford was told that Dr. Parnell waited among the crowd in the outer room, he went, by the persuasion of Swift, with his treasurer's staff in his hand, to inquire for him, and to bid him welcome; and, as may be inferred from Pope's dedication, admitted him as a favourite companion to his convivial hours; but it does not appear that all this was followed by preferment. Parnell also, conceiving himself qualified to become a popular preacher, displayed his elocution with great success in the pulpits of London; but the queen's death putting an end to his expectations, abated his diligence, and from that time he, fell into a habit of intemperance, which greatly injured his health. The death of his wife is said to have first driven him to this miserable resource.
Having been warmly recommended by Swift to archbishop King, this prelate gave him a prebend in 1713, and in May 1716, presented him to the vicarage of Finglass, in the diocese of Dublin, worth £400 a-year. "Such notice," says Dr. Johnson, "from such a man, inclines me to believe, that the vice of which he has been accused was not gross, or not notorious." But he enjoyed these preferments little more than a year, for in July 1717 he died at Chester, on his way to Ireland, in his thirty-eighth year. Dying without male issue, his estate, but considerably embarrassed by his imprudence, devolved to his nephew, sir John Parnell, bart. one of the justices of the King's-bench in Ireland, and father to the Irish chancellor of the Exchequer, sir John Parnell, who died in 1801.
A collection of his poems was published in 1721 by Pope, with an elegant epistle to the earl of Oxford. The best of this collection, and on which Parnell's fame as a poet is justly founded, are, his "Rise of Woman;" the "Fairy Tale;" the "Hymn to Contentment;" "Health;" the "Vigil of Venus;" the "Night-piece on Death;" the "Allegory on Man," and "The Hermit." These have been respectively criticised by his biographers Goldsmith and Johnson, and have stood the test of nearly a century. "His praise," says Dr. Johnson, "must be derived from the easy sweetness of his diction; in his verses there is more happiness than pains: he is sprightly without effort, and always delights, though he never ravishes: every thing is proper, yet every thing seems casual."
In 1758, a volume was published, it is not known by whom, entitled "The Posthumous Works of Dr. Thomas Parnell." This, although it exceeded the volume published by Pope in bulk, appeared so far inferior in merit, that the admirers of Parnell questioned the authenticity of most of the pieces; and there are but a few of them indeed which can be ascribed to him without some injury to his character. Goldsmith refused to incorporate them with the collection he published in 1770; but they were afterwards added to the edition in Johnson's Poets, and apparently without his consent. He says of them: "I know not whence they came, nor have ever inquired whither they are going."