Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Parnell, Thomas
PARNELL, THOMAS (1679–1718), poet, was the eldest son of Thomas Parnell of Congleton, Cheshire, and Anna, his wife. His great-grandfather, Thomas Parnell, was a mercer and draper at Congleton, of which he was alderman and mayor in 1620–1; he had sons, of whom the second, Tobias Parnell, a gilder and painter, was alderman, and the youngest, Richard Parnell, also alderman and mayor of Congleton in 1647–8. The Parnell family were strong supporters of the parliamentary cause in the civil wars, and intimate friends of John Bradshaw [q. v.], who was mayor of Congleton in 1637. Tobias Parnell refused to take the oath of allegiance to the king, and, dying in 1653, was buried at Astbury. He had ten children, of whom the second son, Thomas Parnell, was mentioned in Bradshaw's will. After the Restoration he went to Ireland and settled in Dublin. He is no doubt identical with Thomas Parnell of St. Michan's, Dublin, for whom a license was issued on 18 April 1674 to marry Anna Grice of St. John's, spinster. He died in 1685, leaving two sons, Thomas the poet, and John Parnell, afterwards judge of the Irish court of king's bench, and ancestor of Sir John Parnell [q. v.], Sir Henry Parnell, first lord Congleton [q. v.], John Vesey Parnell, lord Congleton [q. v.], and Charles Stewart Parnell [q. v.] A statement (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. viii. 509) that Thomas Parnell, goldsmith, of Dublin, who died in 1663, was great-grandfather of the poet is erroneous; he may be identical with Thomas Parnell, brother of Tobias and Richard Parnell, who received the king's pension in 1662 (see Robert Head, Congleton Past and Present, 1887, where the account of the Parnell family agrees with the papers still in the possession of the family).
Thomas Parnell, the poet, was born in Dublin in 1679, and attended a school kept by Dr. Jones, where he showed great powers of memory. In 1689 he was involved, with his mother (‘of Kilosty, Tipperary, widow’), in the attainder of the protestants (King, State of the Protestants of Ireland, 1691, pp. 287–9); but in 1693 he was admitted to Trinity College, Dublin, under Mr. Owen Lloyd, and there he took the degree of B.A. in 1697, and that of M.A. on 9 July 1700 (Stubbs, Hist. Univ. Dublin, p. 343). In 1700 Parnell was ordained deacon by Dr. William King [q. v.], bishop of Derry, after obtaining the dispensation required through his being under canonical age. He was ordained priest about 1703, was installed minor canon of St. Patrick's, Dublin, on 16 Aug. 1704, and was made archdeacon of Clogher on 9 Feb. 1706 by St. George Ashe, bishop of Clogher (Cotton, Fasti Ecclesiæ Hibernicæ, ii. 198, iii. 91). The parish of Clontibret was annexed to the archdeaconry. When Parnell informed Dr. King, now archbishop of Dublin, of his new appointment, King sent him an excellent letter (6 March 1705–6) of congratulation and advice (King MSS., Trinity College, Dublin). Soon afterwards Parnell married Anne, daughter of Thomas Minchin of Tipperary, by whom he had two sons, who died young, and a daughter, who is said to have been living in 1793 (Drake, Essays illustrative of the Tatler, &c., iii. 184). In 1709 his mother died, leaving to him lands in Armagh.
In 1709 the question of the conversion of the Roman catholics of Ireland was under discussion, and the lower House of Convocation in Ireland passed resolutions for printing the bible and liturgy in Irish, providing Irish preachers, &c. Parnell was chairman of the committee appointed to make recommendations, and he reported their resolutions to the house on 27 Aug. 1711. He also headed a deputation to the queen, when an address was presented; but nothing came of the proposals (Richardson, A Short History of the Attempts to convert the Popish Natives of Ireland, 1712, pp. 53, 58; King to Swift, 28 July 1711; Mant, History of the Church of Ireland, ii. 248–9).
By 1711 he had abandoned the political views of his early years, and was on friendly terms with Swift and other members of the tory party, then in power. He did not, however, desert his former acquaintances, and in 1712–13 he assisted Addison and Steele by contributing occasional papers of an allegorical nature to the ‘Spectator’ and ‘Guardian.’ The death of his wife, to whom he was much attached, in August 1711 was a severe blow. Nearly a year later Swift wrote: ‘He has been ill for grief of his wife's death, and has been two months at Bath’ (Journal to Stella, 1 July 1712). Parnell was made B.D. and D.D. by Dublin University in 1712, and towards the end of the year was preparing his poetical ‘Essay on the Different Styles of Poetry.’ It embodied compliments to Bolingbroke, which much pleased that statesman. Swift told Esther Johnson—who seems to have known both Parnell and his wife in Ireland—that Parnell ‘outdoes all our poets here a bar's length,’ and he spared no pains to obtain the interest of Oxford and Bolingbroke for his friend. ‘I value myself,’ he said, ‘on making the Ministry desire to be acquainted with Parnell, and not Parnell with the Ministry.’ Bolingbroke, who was greatly pleased by Parnell's complimentary references, helped the author to correct his poem. But the publication of the work was delayed owing to Parnell's illness. It appeared, however, on 24 March, and was ‘mightily esteemed, but poetry sells ill.’
When the treaty of Utrecht was signed, Parnell wrote a ‘Poem on Queen Anne's Peace,’ and on 30 April 1713 Swift, the new dean of St. Patrick's, asked King to transfer the prebend of Dunlavin, which he was vacating, to Parnell. The request was complied with. At the end of the year four poems by Parnell appeared in Steele's ‘Poetical Miscellanies,’ and their author became a member of the Scriblerus Club, which proposed to ridicule pedants and ‘all the false tastes in learning.’ Since 1706 Parnell had paid frequent visits to London, and had made the acquaintance of Erasmus Lewis, Charles Ford, George Berkeley, and others of Swift's friends. Pope, Arbuthnot, Swift, Gay, Atterbury, Congreve, and Oxford were members of the new club. Pope says that the ‘Essay concerning the Origin of Sciences,’ which aims at proving that all learning was derived from the monkeys in Ethiopia, was by Arbuthnot, Parnell, and himself. Swift complained that Parnell was too idle to contribute much to the Scriblerus scheme. His scholarship enabled him to lend Pope considerable aid in connection with his translation of the Iliad, and he contributed to the work an introductory ‘Essay on Homer.’ In June 1714 there was some talk of Parnell going as chaplain to Lord Clarendon, the new minister at Hanover, who had just appointed Gay as his secretary.
After Oxford's fall on 27 July 1714 and Queen Anne's death on 1 Aug., Parnell stayed for a time with Pope at Binfield. In September, Pope and Parnell were at Bath, the latter being in bad health. At the end of the year, or early in 1715, Parnell returned to Ireland, and Pope once more complained that he neglected to write to old friends. When Parnell's ‘Essay on the Life, Writings, and Learning of Homer’ appeared in the first volume of Pope's ‘Iliad’ in June 1715, Pope wrote gratefully, in public, of this work, ‘written upon such memoirs as I had collected;’ but, in private, said it was so stiff in its style that he was put to great pains in correcting it.
Charles Jervas, Gay, Pope, and Arbuthnot sent Parnell a long joint letter from a chophouse early in 1716, and in July Pope complained that he and Gay had written several times in vain, and alluded to Parnell's ‘splenetic hours.’ On 31 May the Archbishop of Dublin had presented Parnell—in succession to Dillon Ashe—with the vicarage of Finglas, worth 400l. according to Goldsmith, 100l. according to Swift's more probable estimate. On receiving this appointment Parnell resigned his archdeaconry (Cotton, Fasti Eccles. Hib. v. 217). Jervas on a visit to Ireland brought back a picture of the poet.
The only separate volume issued by Parnell during his lifetime, ‘Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice, with the Remarks of Zoilus, to which is prefixed the Life of the said Zoilus,’ was published about May 1717. The 16l. 2s. 6d. which Lintot gave for the copyright was paid, at Parnell's wish, to Gay. The prose portion of the book was a satire upon false critics, and was aimed especially at Lewis Theobald and John Dennis. Pope's ‘Poems’ were published in folio in June, with lines by Parnell prefixed to them. Parnell had placed his own pieces in Pope's hands for publication, with liberty to correct them where it seemed advisable. In the summer of 1718 he met his old friends in London, and once more exchanged doggerel verses with Lord Oxford. In October he left for Ireland, but was taken ill at Chester, where he died, and was buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church on the 24th (information supplied by the Rev. E. Marston). In December Pope inquired where Parnell was buried, and whether there was any memorial over his grave. He himself was erecting the best monument he could—the forthcoming edition of Parnell's ‘Poems.’ This volume, however, was not published until 11 Dec. 1721 (Daily Courant), when Pope prefixed to it a dedication to Lord Oxford, in which he called Parnell Oxford's ‘once-loved poet,’ ‘dear to the Muse, to Harley dear—in vain!’ Johnson and Goldsmith afterwards wrote epitaphs.
Goldsmith says that Parnell ‘was the most capable man in the world to make the happiness of those he conversed with, and the least able to secure his own.’ He was always in a state either of elation or depression. His company was much sought by men of both parties, for he was agreeable, generous, and sincere. When he had a fit of spleen he withdrew to a remote part of the country, that he might not annoy others. He shared Swift's dislike of Ireland, and was consequently not popular with his neighbours. In spite of his considerable fortune, he seems to have often exceeded his income; but his chief weakness, according to Pope, was his inability to resist the general habit of heavy drinking. Pope ascribes the intemperance to dejection occasioned by the death of Parnell's wife. But the vice was apparently neither gross nor notorious. Parnell was fond of popular preaching, and was often heard in public places in Southwark and London in Queen Anne's time.
As a poet, Parnell's work is marked by sweetness, refined sensibility, musical and fluent versification, and high moral tone. There are many faulty lines and awkward expressions, and there would have been more had not Pope revised the more important pieces. Pope, his junior by nine years, gave him much good advice, and the twenty poems which Pope published contain all by which his friend will be remembered. The best are ‘The Hermit,’ ‘The Fairy Tale,’ ‘The Night Piece on Death,’ ‘The Hymn to Contentment,’ and ‘Hesiod, or the Rise of Woman.’ Parnell was a careful student of Milton, and his writings influenced Young and Blair in one direction, and Goldsmith, Gay, and Collins in another. Some manuscript poems by Parnell, partly unpublished, are in the possession of Lord Congleton.
The first collective edition of Parnell's poems was that published by Pope in December 1721. In 1758 the ‘Posthumous Works of Dr. Thomas Parnell’ appeared, with what purported to be a certificate by Swift of their genuineness. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the pieces in this volume, but they add nothing to Parnell's fame. They consist chiefly of meditative and devotional verses, and of long paraphrases of Old Testament history in rhymed couplets. In 1770 Goldsmith republished Pope's collection, with two additional pieces which had appeared in the ‘Dublin Journal’ for 4 June 1726, and prefixed to the volume the first life of the poet, based on information derived from Sir John Parnell, the poet's nephew. An edition published in Glasgow in 1767 contained a number of ‘Variations,’ showing to what extent Pope corrected Parnell's work. Foulis printed a handsome folio edition in Glasgow in 1786, and some additional poems were included in Nichols's edition of the ‘Poets’ (for which Johnson wrote his ‘Lives’) in 1779. An edition with woodcuts by Bewick was published with the works of Oliver Goldsmith, 1795, 4to. The original Aldine edition appeared in 1833, with an introduction by the Rev. John Mitford; and in 1854 the Rev. R. A. Willmott edited, with critical notes, the ‘Poetical Works of Gray, Parnell, Collins, Green, and Warton.’ The new Aldine edition, 1894, is edited by the present writer.
A mezzotint portrait of the poet was engraved by Dixon in 1771, and Basire executed a small engraving for the 1773 Dublin edition of the ‘Poems.’ Other engravings will be found in Bell's edition, 1786, and the Aldine editions of 1833 and 1894. There is a marble bust in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.
[Works cited; Swift's Works, ed. Scott; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope; Johnson's Lives, ed. Cunningham; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 558, viii. 162, 296, 300; Spence's Anecdotes; Boswell's Life of Johnson; Ward's English Poets, iii. 133; Aitken's Life of Steele, and Life and Works of Arbuthnot; Drake's Essays illustrative of the Tatler, &c., iii. 182–200; Noble's Cont. of Granger, i. 259; Smith's British Mezzotint Portraits, p. 1741; Gent. Mag. xxviii. 282, xlix. 599; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. i. 427, iii. 135, 2nd ser. x. 141, 5th ser. viii. 485, 6th ser. viii. 509, 7th ser. xii. 467; Goldsmith's Works, ed. Cunningham, i. 111, iii. 438; Lascelles's Liber Mun. Publ. Hiberniæ; Playfair's British Family Antiquity, vol. ix. pp. cxvii–cxx; information from Mr. B. V. Keenan and the Rev. A. W. Ardagh.]