1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Dermody

Anonymous, Review of Raymond, Life of Dermody; Edinburgh Review 8 (April 1806) 159-67.



There is a celebrated sort of snuff, the name of which, we think, conveys a pretty exact idea of the hero of this extraordinary biography: but it is more polite to his patrons and admirers to say, that these volumes contain the history of another Savage — born in a lower rank of life, and earlier set loose from the restraints of discipline and morality.

It is lamentable to think how little the treatment of persons who labour under the complicated diseases of poverty, poetry, and want of principle, is yet understood in this country. The common method has hitherto been, to encourage the immorality by indulgence, to repress the poetry by extravagant and pernicious applauses, and to exasperate the symptoms of poverty by thoughtless and unmeasured profusion, succeeded by desertion and neglect. The case of the unhappy patient before us, appears indeed to have been very desperate; and it is but justice to his patrons to say, that many them appear to have followed a very rational system of cure: it failed however entirely, partly through the original bad constitution of the subject, and partly through the mismanagement of certain of his romantic admirers. We look upon the publication of these two thick volumes (with the threat of as many more,) and the style of bombastic encomium in which they are written, as a considerable impertinence in relation to taste, sense, and morality: but the story they contain is curious, and not altogether uninstructive. The symptoms are common enough in forward and ill educated youth; but they are so unusually violent in this particular case, as to render it an object of interest.

Thomas Dermody was the son of a tippling schoolmaster in the west of Ireland; and copied all his father's accomplishments with so premature an alacrity, that, before he was ten years of age, if we are to believe this minute chronicler, he was an excellent classical scholar — and a confirmed drunkard. At this early ago, be is said to have composed a monody on the death of a brother, which is inserted in this work, and certainly indicates an astonishing prematurity in the arts of composition and versification, although, in substance, it is little more than a cento from the Lycidas and other minor poems of Milton. As we think this nearly as good as any of the productions of his maturer age, we shall insert a few lines as a specimen of his infantine powers.

Ah! no: of simple structure was his lay;
Yet unprofan'd with trick of city art,
Pure from the head, and glowing from the heart,—
Thou dear memorial of a brother's love,
Sweet flute, once warbled to the list'ning grove,
And master'd by his skilful hand,
How shall I now command
The hidden charms that lurk within thy frame,
Or tell his gentle fame?
Yet will I hail, unmeet, his star-crown'd shade;
And beck his rural friends, a tuneful throng,
To mend the uncouth lay, and join the rising song.
Ah! I remember well yon oaken arbour gay,
Where frequent at the purple dawn of morn,
Or 'neath the beetling brow of twilight gray,
We sate, like roses twain upon one thorn,
Telling romantic tales, of descant quaint,
Tinted in various hues with fancy's paint:
And I would hearken, greedy of his sound,
Lapt in the bosom of soft ecstacy,
Till, lifting mildly high
Her modest frontlet from the clouds around,
Silence beheld us bruise the closing flow'rs,
Meanwhile she shed her pure ambrosial show'rs. p. 6-7.

Before he had compleated his eleventh year, this youthful minstrel determined to break from the bondage of his father's house, to seek for adventures and fame in the metropolis; and set out accordingly, with one shirt and two shillings in his pocket. As an example of the absurd style in which his biographer has chosen to deliver his narrative, and an apology for quoting no more from him as we proceed, we give the following minute account of his outset.

"He had painted to himself the pleasures of the capital in all the voluptuous tints of a warm and juvenile imagination: and was fully persuaded that it was the emporium of felicity; where the union of virtue, satisfaction, and useful amusement, was to be found. With his senses wrapt in this delightful reverie, he strayed many miles before he perceived that he had lost his way. However, looking on this as a favourable interposition of fortune, after a short pause, he broke off boldly towards the road; and casting a last look on his native village, which now seemed sinking behind the neighbouring trees, he shed a tear of affectionate regret, which was soon dried by a smile of fervid expectation. While pleasingly contemplating the scenes which his fancy suggested, he soon beguiled a great extent of ground, for desire gave additional vigour to his exertions. At last he recollected that it would be proper for him to look about for a lodging: but no token of any such retreat could he discover, except the languid glimmer of a lone cottage standing in a dark avenue and to this he turned with the utmost speed." Vol. 1. p. 11. 12.

He meets with a funeral, a merry parish clerk, and a carrier, on this expedition; and, by the good offices of the latter, is safely deposited in the heart of the city of Dublin. There he is picked up by two stall booksellers, the one of whom wants to make him a sort of tutor to his son, and the other attempts to employ him as a shop boy; but his irritability, and love of drinking, render him unfit for either situation; and he fortunately attracts the notice of Dr. Houlton, who takes him into his house, furnishes him with books, and exhibits him to his friends as a prodigy of learning and ingenuity. He takes it violently amiss, however, that the good Doctor objects to his reading in bed, and mutters something heroic as to the horrors of dependence. The Doctor being forced to go to a different part of the kingdom, gives him much good advice, and a handsome sum of money, and leaves him again to his own discretion.

This money, though still under twelve years of age, he immediately spends in low debauchery, and then takes shelter with a painter whom he had seen at Dr. Houlton's house, and condescends to act as his errand-boy, and to wash the brushes and heat the size-pots of his master, when he was employed in painting some scenes at the playhouse. In this situation, he produced a poem on the performers which excited great attention in the green-room, and procured him, in particular, the patronage of Mr. Owenson, who charitably took him home to his own house, and exerted all his influence to procure him some permanent establishment. Dr. Young, Professor of Natural Philosophy in the College, undertook to superintend his studies; but he soon deserted his instructor, and went about idling, while he induced his benevolent patron to believe that he was diligent in his attendance. The detection of this duplicity occasioned a degree of disgust; and Mr. Owenson was glad to transfer his wayward pupil to the Rev. G. Austin, who now kindly undertook to board and instruct him. By this gentleman's interest, a subscription was set on foot for publishing a collection of his poems, before he was fourteen years of age; a considerable sum was collected, and the infant poet was introduced, like the Young Roscius of his day, into all the literary and fashionable circles of the metropolis. His inherent profligacy, however, was, if possible, still more wonderful than his early acquirements; and his partial biographer relates with regret, that neither the example of his benefactors, nor the dread Of their displeasure, could even at this early age, overcome his decided attachment to low company, and the most gross and brutal debauchery. To these strange and disgusting excesses, he seems to have added the practice of habitual falsehood. He was detected in a very barefaced imposition of this nature, and degraded for it by his patron from the parlour to the kitchen, where he wrote some libellous and ungrateful verses against him, which excited the resentment of that gentleman so excessively, that he returned all the subscriptions he had collected for him — burned his poems, and turned him out of his doors. He then made various applications for money, to those who had honoured him with their subscriptions, and, by the good offices of his friend Mr. Owenson, was taken into the protection of the Dowager Countess of Moira.

This lady, who seems to have been the most intelligent of all his patrons, removed him immediately from the metropolis, and placed him in the family of the Reverend Mr. Boyd at Killeagh, where, for a period of two years, she supported him in the most liberal manner, and endeavoured to reclaim him by the most earnest and appropriate advice. His partial biographer, however is forced to admit, that even in this retreat, he speedily gave way to his inherent propensities to intemperance and low company, and spent the greater part of his time carousing in the alehouse with the parish clerk, the village tailor, and all the dissipated rustics in the neighbourhood. The restraint under which he was held by the superintendance of his reverend tutor, appears to have disgusted him with the tranquil and secure life which he now lived; and, with the native restlessness of a vagrant and disorderly person, he began to hanker after the tumult and adventure of that precarious and mendicant existence from which he had just been rescued. He proceeded, accordingly, not only to scandalize his benefactress by new excesses of irregularity, but to fatigue and insult her by clamorous lamentations over the bondage in which he was held, and demands for the independence to which he had been taught to look forward. We have great pleasure in inserting the answer which this excellent and benevolent person returned to these turbulent effusions. Instead of the passion and pettishness of disappointed selfishness or romance, it indicates the steady justice of an enlightened and benevolent mind.

"Lady Moira informs Thomas Dermody, that Mr. Berwick (who is in the country) has transmitted to her a letter which Dermody had written to him, and that she has also received that which Dermody had written to her; both letters intimating his desire and design to withdraw himself from Lady Moira's direction, and consequent protection. Lady Moira makes not the least objection to that determination, and has enclosed to Mr. Boyd ten guineas, that he may enter upon his future scheme, and follow his own pursuits, not totally in a destitute condition.

"Lady Moira had hoped, that from his residence with the Rev. Mr. Boyd, he would not only have acquired literary information, but also in the course of two years, from the influence of mature reason, have attained to the prudent reflection of how incumbent it was for him to practise an exact conduct, to efface the prejudices his former behaviour had impressed. What attainments he has made in literature, it is not in her power to decide: she is persuaded that it could only arise from his own negligence, if he has not profited from Mr. Boyd's instructions. That he has not received any benefit from reflection, the style of impropiety which runs through his letters plainly evinces. Lady Moira warns him, that the waywardness of his nature, and the ill-founded degree of self-conceit he indulges himself in respecting his genius, will prevent his ever having friends, or arriving at success, through the course of his future life, unless he alters his conduct and his sentiments. As Dermody has thought proper to withdraw himself from her direction and protection in a manner equally ungracious and absurd, Lady Moira informs him that the donation which accompanies this note, is the last attention or favour that he is ever to expect from Lady Moira, or any of her family." Vol. 1. p. 252-3.

Immediately upon receiving this note, the infatuated boy grasped the money with eagerness, indited a farewell ode to his friends at the alehouse, and rushed again into the miseries and profligacy of the metropolis. Here he was soon reduced to beggary; and begged: however, by the assistance of Mr. Owenson, he printed a volume of poems, and was patronized by Mr. Grattan, Mr. Flood, Mr. Monk Mason, and various other persons of notoriety; but his incurable propensities alienated all his protectors in succession, and indeed made all pecuniary assistance unavailing. Although he had written a foolish revolutionary pamphlet, the late Lord Kilwarden, then attorney-general, was pleased to interest himself in his behalf; and although, on the first visit, he was carried dead drunk from the table, carried his munificence so far as to engage apartments for him in the College, and make offer of defraying the whole of his expenses, besides allowing him 30 a year for pocket-money. This most liberal and generous offer he had the unpardonable folly to refuse, for no other reason that appears, but that he entertained an abhorrence of all regular application, sobriety, or polished society. The Attorney-General, of course, withdrew his patronage from so perverse a profligate and he had recourse again to beggary and occasional poetry.

He had not yet wearied out Irish indulgence. Mr. Smith and Mr. Emerson now undertook to provide for him; but because they ventured sometimes to remonstrate with him on his irregularities, he suddenly withdrew himself from their notice and "abandoned himself," as our author expresses it, "to the most depraved society, whose pursuits and enjoyments were both disreputable and pernicious." Deserted at least even by those base associates, he wandered about for many weeks without any habitation, or any means of subsistence, "but the casual donations which his wretched appearance extorted from the humanity of those to whom he presented mean petitions." In this situation he meditated a visit to London, and wrote some abusive and scurrilous verses upon that country which had so long tolerated and supported his vices by its liberal and long-suffering munificence. In his drunken fits he was twice enlisted by a crimping serjeant, and twice set at liberty by his friends but, upon falling into this scrape for the third time, it was judged proper by Lord Moira and his other patrons, that he should be allowed to remain, for some time at least, in the ranks, to try whether military discipline might not effect that reformation which bad proved impracticable by any other method.

For a considerable time there seemed to be good ground for hoping that this experiment would prove successful; — he was promooted to be a serjeant for good behaviour, and at last, upon the sailing of the English army for Flanders, was appointed by Lord Moira second lieutenant to a waggon corps, and served abroad, with no discredit or remarkable irregularity, for the long period of four years. On the reduction of this army he was put upon half- pay, which secured him a regular annuity of 32.

The beneficence of the Earl of Moira now induced him to provide for his accommodation, and put him in the way of literary advancement; but he squandered the liberal supplies of his protector, and returning to the pursuits of low debauchery, was very soon reduced to prison, from which he was only released by the kindness of his patron. He was no sooner at liberty, than all thoughts of reformation vanished; — he mortgaged his half-pay, boarded himself with a drunken Irish cobler in Westminster, and spent his days and nights in the most offensive intemperance with him and his associates. Lord Moira, though he never deserted him entirely, was now forced to abandon the idea of bringing him forward to public notice.

In 1800 he published a collection of his poems; but he was now twenty-five years of age; and the public, that had clapped and shouted the infant poet, did not find any subject for rapturous admiration in the improved production of the man. He was soon naked and destitute again, and then applied to Sir James Bland Burges. Sir James gave him a draught on his banker for ten pounds; and as soon as he bad got home, Dermody wrote a letter stating that he had lost the draught by the way, and requesting to have another of equal value. On sending to the banker, Sir James found that the first draught had been presented and paid to the poet, who makes a most awkward apology for the imposition, and is again received into favour. By the intercession of this new patron, he was now recommended to the consideration of the Literary Fund; and received a supply of money and clothes, that seemed to put him, for a time at least, beyond the reach of exposure. Our readers, however, will perceive, from the following extract, how greatly his misconduct exceeded all ordinary calculation.

"As he was now well drest, apparently relieved from his embarrassments, and with favourable prospects opening to him, his friends entertained a hope that he would have discretion enough to make a good use of his prosperity. But this expectation was very short-lived. Within a week after he had appeared in his new clothes, as Sir James Burges was sitting in the evening in his library, he heard a loud noise and a violent altercation in his hall. On going out to inquire the cause of such an unusual tumult, he found Dermody struggling with two of his servants, who endeavoured to prevent him from forcing his way into the house. And, indeed, his appearance was such as completely to justify them; for he was literally in rags, was covered with mud (in which it appeared that he had been just rolled,) bad a black eye, and a fresh wound on his head from which the blood trickled down his breast; and to crown the whole, was so drunk as to be hardly able to stand or speak. As soon as Sir James could recognize him, he released him from the hands of his servants; and conducting him into his library, inquired the reason of his appearing in such a condition. Dermody accounted for his being so ill drest, by saying that he had pawned his new clothes. As for his dirt and wounds, he said he had been arrested and carried to a spunging-house, where he had been drinking with the bailiffs, and writing a poem which he wished to take to Sir James, but they would not let him; so that he had watched his opportunity, and slipped off; but had been overtaken by them, and obliged to fight his way." II. 169-70.

The compassion of Sir James withstood this exhibition; and he persisted in his attention to this devoted bacchanal, till his repeated misconduct and shameless solicitations at last wearied out his benevolence, and shut his ears to his entreaties. The way in which he now lived, may be judged of from the following passages.

"At one time he might be seen in his garret in company with his hosts the cobler and his wife, and some attic lodger of equal consequence, regaling on a goose which his industry had roasted by a string in his own apartment: while the pallet-bed, which stood in a corner was strewed with various vegetables: the fire-side decorated with numerous foaming pots of porter: and the cobler's work-stool, boot-leg, lap-stone, &c. were commodiously placed as seats. On another occasion, in some neighbouring alehouse, entertaining the same personages with the various rarities which resorts of this description generally afford; where, as the astonished guests, enveloped in clouds of smoke, sat listening with rapture to the eloquence of Dermody, the host was to be discovered in the back ground applauding with one hand, while his other dexterously scored an additional item to the bill." II. 223-4.

"At another time, his biographer having occasion to call for him, on entering the house his ears were assailed by violent plaudits and huzzas, which appeared to issue from the attic story. Having little curiosity to inquire into the cause of these extraordinary rejoicings, he only requested to see Dermody. The good woman of the house quickly despatched a messenger to give the proper information; and the author was soon ushered into a room, at the top of which sat Dermody in a new suit of clothes, surrounded by half a score of the landlord's smoking acquaintances; the table strewed with tobacco, pipes, and a plentiful flow of wine and spirits; and the sideboard loaded with bottles, the late contents of which had left the members of this elevated society in a state of equal jollity and confusion." II. 225-6.

We add but one trait more.

"A few days previous to writing this letter, Dermody had dined its Piccadilly; when the author, perceiving his shoes and stockings to be in a very had condition, sent and purchased a pair of each, which Dermody put into his pocket with the intention of wearing them the following morning. The next evening, however, he made his appearance without either shoes, stockings, hat, neckcloth, or waiscoat; and in a state of intoxication not to be endured. He had pledged the shoes and stockings, got drunk with the money, and in a fray in the streets had lost his other necessaries. He entered the house in this state, told his tale, threw on the floor the duplicate of the articles he had pledged, demanded other apparel, was refused, swore a few oaths, threatened to destroy a sideboard of glass, alarmed the whole family, was turned out of doors, and during the remainder of the night took shelter in a shed fitted up for some cattle in one of the fields leading from Westminster to Chelsea." Vol. II. Note, p. 229-30.

His last patron was Lord Sidmouth, who enabled him to bring out another volume of poetry in 1802, and contributed liberally to his comfort and relief. But no admonitions could withhold Dermody many hours from the pot-house, and no money could keep him many days from the goal. His constitution at last gave way under the pressure of so many irregularities; he ran from his creditors and benefactors, to a miserable cottage in the village of Sydenham, where he expired in July, 1802, at the age of 27.

Such is the history of Thomas Dermody; whose adventures are chronicled in these volumes with as much minuteness as if he had been a paragon of worth and accomplishment, and whose genius is trumpeted forth as if it had outshone that of all his poetical predecessors. We confess that we do not perceive the utility of such a publication; and that we look with some degree of disapprobation on the patronage and indulgence which was lavished upon such a wretch as Dermody. Of his poetical productions we know nothing more than is contained so these volumes; but they are sufficient to satisfy us that his talents were of an inferior description. He has considerable sweetness of versification and a copious and easy flow of expression; but we find little original in his conceptions; he is a great copyist; and, where he does not give way to a vein of puerile parody, or vulgar mock heroic, seems generally contented with amplifying, in loose and declamatory language, the ideas which he borrows from our most popular authors. After all, it is by no means so difficult to write tolerable poetry, as the world appears to imagine; nor is the merit of this kind of labour so great, in our apprehension, as to atone for the want of common decency, or to monopolize the charity on which virtuous misfortune has so much stronger a claim. There are quantities of poetry as good as most of Dermody's, which pass quietly to oblivion every six months, without ever being missed by the world; and when his name ceases to be heard of, which will happen, we doubt not, in four or five years, in spite of the stir occasioned by his eccentricities, we rather think that the state of our poetical readers will be more gracious than that of the present generation. In short, we cannot help suspecting that it is more to our national vanity, and our taste for monsters of all descriptions, than to any tender sympathies for the sufferings of genius that we should ascribe the profuse and unmerited bounty which was poured into the purse of this prodigy of verse and debauchery. For our own parts, we think it would have been quite as well for the world, and much better for himself, if he had been allowed to follow out his natural progress, from the house of correction to the gallows; or, at any rate, if he had been left under the wholesome discipline of the sergeants and drummers in the ranks of Lord Granard's regiment of foot.