The Poems of John Dyer/Introduction
JOHN DYER, 1701-1757.
John Dyer was born at Aberglasney, a considerable house, in the parish of Llangathen, in Caermarthenshire, in 1700 according to some, in 1701 according to others; more probably in 1701. The register which would have shown the date of his birth has been lost, and I can only learn that he was fifty-six years old when he died in 1757. He was the second son of a solicitor "of great reputation," and from father and mother had English blood. He was educated, first at a country school, then at Westminster School, under Dr Freind. Of his attainments we know nothing. It is likely that he painted and wrote verse at an early age; and he is said to have planned "Grongar Hill" when he was sixteen years old. Before he was ripe for a university, he was called from Westminster to his father's office. Having no taste for the law, he left it on his father's death, soon afterwards. His taste for painting led him to become a pupil of Jonathan Richardson, in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Richardson's written work inspired Reynolds, but his teaching would not seem to have matured Dyer's capacity to anything beyond a skilled mediocrity. According to one of his own published letters, the youth, on leaving Richardson, became "an itinerant painter "in South Wales and the neighbouring counties of England. He must have paid visits to London about this time. Savage and Aaron Hill were among his friends. From an epistle by the former, it appears that, like his master, he painted portraits. His character, gentle, amiable, independent and unworldly, endeared him to those whom he met, if it did not attract the literary world.
Probably in 1724, he went, still as a painter, to Italy. He spent two years in Rome and Florence and other cities that were a matter of course. Like some of the next century's poets, whom he faintly but certainly foreshadowed, he was delighted by the riches of Nature, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, and antiquity, which he saw. With a milder rapture than Shelley's, he was happy in sight of the Baths of Caracalla and the Coliseum. He is said to have been more successful with pen and ink sketches than with crayon and oils; but it may be conjectured that his work in colour and line had little but the indirect value of training his eye in a way that afterwards served him as a poet of Nature. To "Clio"—probably the "Clio" whom he is known to have painted—he addressed some trifling "Verses from Rome"; Clio sent back a set of verses of equal merit.
Savage's Miscellany of that date contained five pieces from Dyer's pen, viz.: "The Inquiry," an unimportant composition that proves his rural contentment; "To Aaron Hill," a complimentary epistle; "An Epistle to a Painter," i.e. to Richardson; "The Country Walk," and "Grongar Hill." As then published, "Grongar Hill" was not significant. In form "an irregular ode," divided into stanzas, it displayed some unattractive Pindarism and the antics of that day. "The Country Walk," the one wild flower of the collection, slender but unique, in manner suggested the turn which was given later to "Grongar Hill." He was again an itinerant painter.
In 1727, "Grongar Hill" appeared in its final shape. The revision had been happy, but somewhat imperfectly inspired. Thus the opening lines are negligent and vague, and "unhappy fate," etc., is indefensible. But when we consider the fitness of the metre, and the skilful presentation of a mood so uncommon in his day, breathing in the first lines, and gracefully completed in the last, we must grant to the poem a very special claim. If we exclude consideration of the age in which it appeared, it has still a charm, if only for the small number of readers who care for all the poetry of Nature. As a product of 1727, it must be allowed that it adds to the strength of a necessary link in the chain of English literature that deals poetically with Nature. It has been praised in English and Welsh, and in the last century was paraphrased in Welsh. The manner of Dyer's work, and the combination of personal fancy with accurate observation, make him a closer relative to Wordsworth than his bulky rival Thomson, who was in many ways far more richly gifted. It is necessary to add, since it has been wrongly located, that Grongar is in Caermarthenshire, and in sight of Aberglasney.
It is obvious that Dyer must have been much out of doors. He probably knew South Wales intimately. He had a short, practical experience of agriculture, and a love of animals. At the same time he was not a hearty out-door philosopher. His health was always indifferent, and the Campagna had injured it. He seems to have had an amiable, constitutional melancholy, and must have known the angrier moods of that "sweet enemy"; for, in 1729, he is said to have written his epitaph. He called himself "old and sickly" in middle age; for many years in later life he was deaf; yet remained true to the character which was given to him by Aaron Hill, who says,
"You look abroad serene
And marking both extremes, pass clear between."
After the publication of "Grongar Hill," he continued to write verse. Italy lived impressively in his memory. He probably took many notes during his tour, and certainly made a preparatory sketch of "The Ruins of Rome," which was published in its final shape in 1740. Portions of it have been praised by Johnson, Hervey, Wordsworth and others. It is, indeed, a dignified and impassioned meditation. Like "Grongar Hill," it hints at the ampler manner of the next century. In execution it is sometimes tame, and the poet here uses Miltonisms for the first time; but the conception, and some of the thoughts, might well remind us of Shelley. Here, again, Dyer is to be respected as an interesting link, though "The Ruins of Rome" appears less like a finished poem than a first draft by a powerful hand.
In 1740, or at about that time, he married a Miss Ensor; and failing health and, we may surmise, an aptitude of temperament, led him into the Church. He was presented by "one Mr Harper" to the living of Catthorpe in Leicestershire, in the following year. In 1751, he left Catthorpe for Belchford in Lincolnshire, to which he was appointed by Lord Hardwicke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the recommendation of Daniel Wray, Deputy Teller; and in the same year, Sir John Heathcote presented him to the living of Coningsby in Lincolnshire, and in 1755 to Kirky-on-Bane in the same county, in place of Belchford. He became LL.B., Cantab., by royal mandate, in 1752.
Coningsby Rectory was then his home, which he left seldom and unwillingly. He was probably careful in the performance of his duties, preached fair sermons, and built part of the present rectory. He kept his registers with singular neatness. His poems are more or less clearly impressed by reminiscences of such writers as Spenser, Drayton, Milton, Gray, Appollonius Rhodius, Theocritus, Lucretius and Virgil; he quoted from Columella and Janus Vitalis, and in his leisure must have been mainly occupied with books. There seems to be no reason for believing that he understood Welsh. His letters do not lead us to suppose that he was often afield in his later years: he was unable to tell Duncombe when the swallows had appeared, but was "told they had been skimming about his garden this fortnight." Perhaps Lincolnshire was not altogether consoling to one who had known the Towy valley. His last work was full of reminiscences of Wales. At Coningsby, he was busy with his longest poem, "The Fleece." He composed laboriously; and Akenside, who was giving him medical advice, helped him in the work. It is his biggest effort, and when we consider the subject, his greatest success. A very large proportion of dulness is to be expected from Dyer on wool; but it does not obscure the excellence of his design; even where his thought is rustic, the style is pure; in some places he is nearly grand; in many, felicitous. These isolated lines are characteristic of Dyer at his best:
"Or the tall growth of glossy-rinded beech,"
"No prickly brambles, white with woolly theft,"
"Rolling by ruins hoar of antient towns,"
"Long lay the mournful realms of elder fame
In gloomy desolation. . . ."
"Nor what the peasant, near some lucid wave,
Pactolus, Simoïs or Meander slow,
Renowned in story, with his plough upturns."
Wordsworth found parts of the poem "dry and heavy," and parts superior to any writer in verse since Milton, for imagination and purity of style. It was praised, among Dyer's contemporaries, by Dr James Grainger, a verse-writer in The Monthly Review, and by Gray.
I do not think it necessary to add much size and no light to this volume, by commenting on the numerous proper names of men and places in "The Fleece." I have retained Dyer's spelling—e.g. "Mincoy" for "Minikoi"—almost as it was in the first edition. His abbreviations—as "ev'n" for "even"—have been as carefully as possible preserved, as illustrating Dyer's (and his century's) preferences in rhythm. In Book I. the 72nd and 89th lines have been changed in accordance with Dyer's directions to the printer. In former editions, these lines have been:
" Or marl with clay deep mixed, be then thy choice,"
"At a meet distance from the upland ridge."
These unimportant changes, and possibly others, had been suggested, as we learn from Duncombe's correspondence, to Dodsley the publisher; but without effect, because the poet died of a consumptive malady in the year of publication, 15th December, 1757, "aged 56," says the register at Coningsby. There he was buried and remains without memorial.
Postscript.—I thank Mr John Jenkins ("Gwili"), the Rev. Arthur Wright, Rector of Coningsby, and the Rev. J. Alex. Williams, Vicar of Llangathen, for their answers to my enquiries concerning the poet.
Note by the Publisher.
The portrait which appears as a frontispiece to this volume is taken from an Edition of Dyer's Poems, bearing the date 1779. There is, however, some doubt as to its being an authentic likeness of the poet.