1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Dermody

James Grant Raymond, in Life of Thomas Dermody (1806) 2:337-42.



He was of a middle stature, well formed, and of a spare habit of body; he had a comprehensive forehead, full dark eyes, strongly marked eye-brows, and a countenance expressive of genius, but tinged with reflection and melancholy. He was ungraceful in his deportment, slovenly in his person, diffident in his address, and reserved in his conversation; he had a simplicity and a modesty that created esteem and even respect: when irritated, he was rather sullen than passionate: yet quick and inconsiderate in his resentment, sacrificing his interest to the impulse of imagined wrongs, and the attachment of his best friends on the slightest grounds of ideal offence. His poetical powers may be said to have been intuitive, for some of his best pieces were composed before he reached twelve years of age; at which period he united in the full vigour of manhood, the strongest judgment and most unbounded fancy. His language, when he could be drawn into argument (which was always a hard task), was nervous, polished, and fluent. His classical knowledge (which was indeed wonderful, and is on every proper occasion displayed in his writings), added to a memory uncommonly powerful and comprehensive, furnished him with allusions that were appropriate, combinations that were pleasing, and sentiments that were dignified.

He had an inquisitive mind, but could never resist the temptations which offered to seduce him from his studies. He was easily persuaded to forsake propriety: and paid as little regard to the character of his associates, as he did to the rules of prudence, the dictates of reason, or the opinion of the world; which last he at all times set at defiance. No one ever wrote with greater facility; his mind was stored with such a fund of observation, such an accumulation of knowledge gathered from science and from nature, that his thoughts, when wanted, rushed upon him like a torrent, and he could compose with the rapidity with which another could transcribe. On every occasion he discovers a clear judgment, a fancy filled with the richest ideas, and an intellect capable of delineating the grandest objects. He knew all the various shades of character; and a close observation of the world enabled him to describe the changes of human manners, and the involution of passions, with an energy that was pleasing, elegant, and instructive. His similitudes and his inferences are never spoiled by the glare of false thoughts; and though carelessness may sometimes be discovered, yet by a peculiar propriety of expression, and a nice adaptation of epithets, this fault is not always discernible.

There is scarcely a style of composition in which he did not in some degree excel. The descriptive, the ludicrous, the sublime; each, when occasion required, he treated with skill, with acute remark, imposing humour, profound reflection, and lofty magnificence. He delighted to wander through the romantic pages of antiquity: and had the happy talent of imitating the natural dignity and manly style of his poetical ancestors, with an effect which always gave to his productions the air and grace of originality: though his period, his stanza, and his thoughts, were modelled on the poet whose path he intended to follow. But in the height both of his imitation and of his fancy, the wildest excursions of his muse, he never forgets to make Nature his guide; and it may with confidence be said that no poet at such an early (if at any) period of life, ever copied her with more truth, or more keenly touched the hearts of his readers when his subject required the slumbering passions to be brought into action.

When the variety, the number, the beauty, and moral tendency, of his juvenile (they may almost be styled infantine) poems are considered; when their pretensions shall be examined, and their merits acknowledged; the follies of his youth will be forgotten or absolved; censure will be corrected with pity, while admiration is mingled with regret. What he had written before he arrived at the age of fourteen (portions of which have been laid before the reader in the course of this work) will surely justify these opinions; and will at the same time create astonishment when it is added, that the poetry which he had already composed at that period, would fill ten volumes of a moderate size. His translation of the Epitaphium Damonis of Milton, his Monody on the death of Chatterton, the Ode to Fancy, the Hymn to the memory of Thomson, the Dirge on Fidele in Cymbeline, the Elegy on himself (the last of which poems the reader has seen in the preceding sheets, and the others will form part of a future publication), with many pieces of equal merit, were produced before he had reached his twelfth year, and are monuments both of his learning and his genius. The early poems of Cowley, of Milton, and of Pope, bear no comparison with these; and will be found to possess less though, less fancy, and less nature.