Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/De Vere, Aubrey Thomas
DE VERE, AUBREY THOMAS (1814–1902), poet and author, born at Curragh Chase, Adare, co. Limerick, Ireland, on 10 Jan. 1814, was the third son of a family of five sons and three daughters of Aubrey Thomas Hunt, afterwards Sir Aubrey de Vere, second baronet [q. v.], by his wife Mary (d. 1856), eldest daughter of Stephen Edward Rice of Mount Trenchard, co. Limerick, and sister of Thomas Spring-Rice, first Lord Mont eagle [q. v.]. His elder brothers Vere and Stephen de Vere [q. v. Suppl. II] successively inherited their father's baronetcy. Save for a three years' visit to England between 1821 and 1824, Aubrey's boyhood was spent at his Irish home, where he was educated privately. While he was a boy a tutor encouraged an enthusiasm for English poetry, especially that of Wordsworth. In October 1832 he entered Trinity College, Dublin. 'Almost all the university course' was uncongenial and he devoted himself to metaphysics. In 1837 he won the 'first Downes premium' for theological essay-writing. He left college next year. To his father's wish that he should take orders in the established church he offered no objection and the idea was present to his mind for many years, but no active step was taken. His time was spent in travel or in literary and philosophical study. In 1838 he visited Oxford and there first met Newman, who after Wordsworth's death filled the supreme place in De Vere's regard, and Sir Henry Taylor [q. v.], who became his lifelong friend. Next year he visited Cambridge and Rome. He was introduced at London or Cambridge to the circle which his eldest brother Vere and his cousin, Stephen Spring Rice, had formed at the university; of this company Tennyson was the chief, but it included Monckton Milnes, Spedding, Brookfield, and Whewell. In 1841 De Vere, whose admiration of Wordsworth's work steadily grew, made in London the poet's acquaintance. In 1843 he stayed at Rydal. He regarded the invitation as 'the greatest honour' of his life, and the visit was often repeated. He came to know Miss Fenwick, Wordsworth's neighbour and friend, and he began a warm friendship, also in 1841, with the poet Coleridge's daughter, Sara Coleridge [q. v.]. In 1843-4 De Vere travelled in Europe, chiefly in Italy, with Sir Henry Taylor and his wife. In 1845 he was in London, seeing much of Tennyson, and in the same year he made Carlyle's acquaintance at Lord Ashburton's house. Later friends included Robert Browning and R. H. Hutton. After visits to Scotland and the Lakes, De Vere returned to Ireland at the beginning of 1846 to find the country in the grip of the famine. He threw himself into the work of the relief committees with unexpected practical energy.
De Vere had already begun his career as a poet by publishing in 1842 'The Waldenses and other Poems,' a volume containing some sonnets and lyrics which now have a place in modern anthologies. 'The Search after Proserpine and other Poems ' came out in 1843, the title-poem winning Landor's praise. Now in a poem 'A Year of Sorrow' he voiced the horrors of the winter 1846-7. Turning to prose, in which he showed no smaller capacity than in verse, he published in 1848 'English Misrule and Irish Misdeeds.' There he supported the union and loyalty to the crown, but betrayed intense Irish sympathy, criticised methods of English rule, and deprecated all catholic disabilities. Through all the critical events in Irish history of his time he maintained the same point of view. He always opposed concession to violent agitation, but when, after the Phoenix Park murders in 1882, he wrote a pamphlet on 'Constitutional and Unconstitutional Political Action.' he admitted no weakening in his love of his country.
Meanwhile the death of his father in July 1846 and the experience of the Irish famine deepened De Vere's religious feeling, and from 1848 his sentiment inclined towards the Roman catholic church. Carlyle and other friends warned him in vain against the bondage which he was inviting. But in Nov. 1851 he set out for Rome in company with Henry Edward Manning, and on 15 Nov. was received into the Roman catholic church on the way in the archbishop's chapel at Avignon (see his explanatory letter to Mrs. Coleridge written the same day in Wilfrid Ward, Aubrey de Vere, 1904, pp. 198, 199; and his own Religious Problems of the 19th Century, 1893).
In 1854 he was appointed by the rector, Newman, to be professor of political and social science in the new Dublin catholic university (cf. Wilfrid Ward, Cardinal Newman, i. 359, 1912). He discharged no duties in connection with the post, but he held it in name until Newman's retirement in 1858. At Pope Pius IX's suggestion he wrote 'May Carols,' hymns to the Virgin and saints (1857; 3rd edit. 1881), with an introduction explaining his conversion.
Thenceforth he lived chiefly in his beautiful Irish home, exchanging visits and corresponding with his friends and publishing much verse and prose. Tennyson had spent five weeks with De Vere at Curragh in 1848, and De Vere from 1854 onwards constantly visited Tennyson at Farringford and Aldworth. Always interested in Irish legend and history, De Vere published in 1862 'Inisfail, a Lyrical Chronicle of Ireland,' illustrating the Irish annals of six centuries, and after another visit to Rome in 1870 set to work on 'The Legends of St. Patrick,' his most important work of the kind, which appeared in 1872. He made a first attempt at poetic drama in 'Alexander the Great' (1874), which was followed by 'St. Thomas of Canterbury' in 1876. The two dramas were designed to contrast pagan and Christian heroism.
Death of friends saddened his closing years. He published a volume of 'Recollections' in 1897, and next year he revisited the Lakes and other of his early English haunts. He died unmarried at Curragh Chase on 21 Jan. 1902, and was buried in the churchyard at Askeaton, co. Limerick. A coloured drawing of De Vere at twenty, showing a handsome countenance, and an oil portrait also done in youth by Samuel Laurence, are at Curragh Chase. An oil painting by Elinor M. Monsell (now Mrs. Bernard Darwin) when De Vere was eighty - seven is in her possession.
De Vere was a charming conversationalist; his grace of thought and expression was said to shed 'a moral sunshine' over the company of hearers, and he told humorous Irish stories delightfully. His verse is intellectual, dignified, and imaginative, but somewhat too removed from familiar thought and feeling to win wide acceptance. A disciple of Wordsworth from the outset, he had a predilection for picturesque and romantic themes. He was at his best in the poems on old Irish subjects, and in his sonnets some of which like 'The Sun-God' and 'Sorrow' reach a high standard of accomplishment. Sara Coleridge said of him that he had more entirely a poet's nature than even her own father or any of the poets she had known. His poetry enjoyed much vogue in America. An accomplished writer of prose, De Vere was judged by R. H. Hutton to be a better critic than poet. His critical powers are seen to advantage throughout his 'Critical Essays' (3 vols. 1887-9), but his correspondence with Sir Henry Taylor contains his best literary criticism.
Besides the volumes of verse cited De Vere wrote:
- 'The Infant Bridal and Other Poems,' 1864; 1876.
- 'Antar and Zara, an Eastern Romance,' 1877.
- 'The Foray of Queen Meave,' 1882.
- 'Legends and Records of the Church and Empire,' 1887.
- 'St. Peter's Chains, or Rome and the Italian Revolution,' 1888.
- 'Mediæval Records and Sonnets,' 1893.
Other prose works are:
- 'Picturesque Sketches of Greece and Turkey,' 2 vols., 1850.
- ' The Church Settlement of Ireland,' 1866.
- 'Ireland's Church Property and the Right Use of it,' 1867.
- 'Pleas for Secularization,' 1867.
- 'Ireland's Church Question,' 1868.
- 'Proteus and Amadeus: a Correspondence about National Theology,' 1878.
- 'Ireland and Proportional Representation,' 1885.
[Wilfrid Ward, Aubrey de Vere, a memoir based on his unpublished diaries and correspondence, 1904 (with two portraits in youth and age); Recollections of Aubrey de Vere, 1897; The Times, 22 Jan. 1902; Stopford A. Brooke and T. W. Rolleston, A Treasury of Irish Poetry, 1900, pp. 311-14; Hallam, Lord Tennyson's Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1897, and his Tennyson and his Friends, 1911; Sir Henry Taylor, Autobiography, 1885; Mary Anderson, a Few Memories, 1896; private information.]