Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dyer, Samuel
DYER, SAMUEL (1725–1772), translator, born in 1725, was the son of a rich jeweller in the city of London. His parents were dissenters, and he was intended for the ministry. With this object he was removed from a private school kept by Professor Ward near Moorfields, and was sent to Dr. Doddridge's academy at Northampton. Thence he proceeded to Glasgow, and afterwards to Leyden, where he matriculated 16 Sept. 1743 and remained two years. He returned to England an excellent classical scholar, a good mathematician, master of French, Italian, and Hebrew, and a student of philosophy. He refused, however, to become a minister, or to take to any regular work, preferring to spend his time in literary society. He was an original member of the club formed by Dr. Johnson in the winter of 1749, which met weekly at the King's Head in Ivy Lane. Through the influence of Dr. Chandler he obtained the work of translating into Latin a number of tracts left by Dr. Daniel Williams, the founder of the library; but he soon tired of his task. After a visit to France he resolved to translate Toussaint's ‘Les Mœurs,’ but after the first sheets were printed refused to go on with it. Dyer's means at this time were very limited, his father having died and left the bulk of his property to his widow and eldest son and daughter. Dr. Johnson and Sir John Hawkins vainly pressed Dyer to write a life of Erasmus, but he consented to revise an old edition of Plutarch's ‘Lives.’ For this edition (that published by Tonson in 1758) he translated the lives of Pericles and Demetrius, and revised the whole work, receiving 200l. in payment. He had also acted as tutor in Greek to Richard Gough. In 1761 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1766 was put on the council. He joined the ‘Literary Club’ on its formation in 1764, and was a constant attendant at its meetings; the other members had ‘such a high opinion of his knowledge and respect for his judgment as to appeal to him constantly, and his sentence was final’ (Dr. Percy, quoted by Malone in Prior, Life of Malone, p. 425). Through this club Dyer first formed the acquaintance of Burke, with whom he afterwards became extremely intimate. Chamier, another member, obtained for Dyer an appointment in connection with the war office. By the death of his mother and brother Dyer came into possession of 8,000l., which he invested in India stock, wishing to become a director of the company. Failing in this, he speculated with his fortune, at the suggestion of Dr. Johnson, in annuities on Lord Verney's estate, and lost the whole of it, not without damage to his reputation as a man of honour. Immediately after his loss he was seized with an attack of quinsy, from which he died 15 Sept. 1772. It was hinted that he had committed suicide. The money he left was insufficient to pay for his funeral.
According to Sir John Hawkins, Dyer wilfully neglected the opportunities of his life, and was by his own choice and determination a sensualist of the worst type. Malone declared that Hawkins's character of Dyer was ‘greatly overcharged and discoloured by the malignant prejudices of that shallow writer who, having quarrelled with Burke, carried his enmity even to Burke's friends’ (Prior, Life of Malone, p. 419). Dr. Percy agreed that it was on the whole a gross misrepresentation. Burke wrote the following notice of Dyer in one of the London papers (not, however, as Malone ‘believed,’ for the ‘Chronicle’): ‘He was a man of profound and general erudition, and his sagacity and judgment were fully equal to the extent of his learning. His mind was candid, sincere, and benevolent, his friendship disinterested and unalterable. The modest simplicity and sweetness of his manners rendered his conversation as amiable as it was instructive, and endeared him to those few who had the happiness of knowing intimately that valuable and unostentatious man.’
Sir Joshua Reynolds and Malone both believed that Dyer was the author of ‘Junius's Letters.’ The evidence on which they formed this opinion was of the weakest circumstantial kind, and was chiefly built up on the fact that immediately after Dyer's death, Reynolds, who was one of his executors, entered his rooms in Castle Street, Leicester Square, and found William Burke destroying a large quantity of manuscript. On Reynolds asking for an explanation, Burke answered that the papers were of great importance to himself, and of none to anybody else (Peter Burke, Public and Domestic Life of E. Burke, p. 68, ed. 1853).
Dyer's portrait was painted by Reynolds, and a mezzotint was engraved from it. Many years after Dyer's death Dr. Johnson bought a copy to hang in the little room which he was fitting up with prints (Croker, Boswell, p. 269). Bell, the publisher, had a small engraving done from the mezzotint, and prefixed it to a volume containing the poems of John Dyer [q. v.][Hawkins's Life and Works of S. Johnson, i. 220–32; Prior's Life of E. Malone, pp. 419–26; J. C. Symons's William Burke the Author of Junius, p. 118; Peacock's Leyden Students (Index Soc.), p. 32; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix. 261; Boswell's Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, 1887, i. 28, 478, ii. 17, iv. 11; Piozzi's Letters, ii. 339; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, vi. 266; Royal Society's Lists.]