Biography George Darley
- Time Period1795 - 1846
Associating only with a small, select number of friends, George Darley passed his life in a solitary world largely of his own making. When he is discussed in the surveys of English Romanticism, he is inevitably described as a "minor poet," but even that designation is more than he expected. In a 20 September 1822 letter to Marianne Neail, a family friend, he wrote of his frustrations and expectations:
I have done nothing in the Literary way-want of funds, of introductions, of speech & address, of worldly knowledge & dexterity--of (last but not least) brains, has kept me & will keep me, a poor author--in faculties, appearance, & life.... I confide this secret to you first because you are a woman--and secondly because you are one in whose affections the confession will not injure me, tho it may in your respect. Keep my secret, however, as close as you would sigh for the youth of your heart--lock it up, as you'd put his love-letter under your bodice--for if it once gets abroad into the atmosphere, tho I sing like a dying swan no one would hear me.
Such was Darley's own estimate of his gifts and achievement, and, while he is still sometimes described as the "Irish Keats," only advanced students of Romanticism now read any of his poetry. At some time before his final illness, Darley destroyed all the correspondence and manuscripts in his possession, including many notebooks which contained rough drafts of his various literary projects. Yet he spent his life in search of a reputation as poet, playwright, and man of letters. His work was praised by notable authors such as Charles Lamb and Thomas Carlyle, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was said to have been a great admirer of Darley's poetry. Yet the literary reviews of his day offered little praise in their cursory notices of his achievement.
Now often compared to John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Darley was critical of those poets, and of much of the poetry popular in his time. He once dismissed William Wordsworth as insipid and professed nothing but contempt for George Gordon, Lord Byron, whom he once addressed in one of his "Letters to the Dramatists of the Day" (1823) as "Lord Lucifer." Indeed, Darley thought that Byron's influence on the poetry and tastes of his time was the most pernicious ever to beset English literature. His efforts to write and inspire a type of poetry that was different from the "Byronism" of his time received only limited recognition, briefly summed up in a friend's tribute to his "noble spirit."
George Darley was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1795, to Arthur and Mary Darley. He was the eldest of seven children. Shortly after his birth, his parents went to America on some unspecified business venture, not returning until George was nearly four. The child was raised in the home of his paternal grandfather, George Darley. When the parents returned, they discovered that the child had developed a severe stammer. Darley likened his speech impediment to John Milton's blindness in its disastrous effects on his social life. For most of his life Darley was afraid to cultivate friends. He seemed unusually shy with his fellow students at Trinity College, Dublin, where he matriculated in July 1815. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1820, and in 1821 he went to London to make a career as a writer. He explained his move in his 20 September 1822 letter to Marianne Neail:
Distant as it is my fate to be from the home of my affections, the interval has not been sufficient to break the ties of family-union & friendship which bind me to my native land.... Then what should I do in Ireland? Why degenerate into one of those nameless characters, one of those useless appendages to the living world, who walk about in a threadbar[e] coat & a slouched hat, with nothing but their insignificance to secure them from the attempts of malice and nothing but their silence to recommend them to the toleration of society....
He soon began writing for the recently founded London Magazine, edited by John Taylor, and was often asked to serve as a reviewer of the London plays. When the London Magazine changed ownership in 1825, Darley continued to write for Taylor's publishing firm, which published seven books by Darley, including five textbooks, during the years 1826-1830. He made enough money to travel on the Continent for most of the period from late 1830 until early 1835. While in Italy he acquired a taste for Italian painting and became a correspondent for the Athenæum. He continued to write for that magazine until his death in 1846, during his first visit to Ireland since his leaving for London in 1821.
In spite of his chronic dislike for London, Darley believed that he must live there because he could not make a living in Ireland. With his friends and associates there, including Charles Lamb, Darley maintained somewhat strained relationships. Because of his chronic stammer, he seldom accepted invitations and avoided conversation. His two ventures beyond his self-imposed solitude were both disastrous. In 1827 he tried to obtain a professorship of English literature at London University and was rejected, and in 1844 he tried unsuccessfully to become a member of one of London's most exclusive men's clubs, the Athenæum.
Darley's first volume of poetry, The Errors of Ecstasie: A Dramatic Poem. With Other Pieces, was published in 1822. Apart from the title poem, most of the book's contents are lyrics on subjects such as nature, love, wine, and flowers. The author was twenty-seven, but much of the poetry appears to have been written earlier. As much as in any of his later work, one can sense the vivid melancholy that had settled upon the poet and his efforts to escape, via poetry, to a happier place and time.
Beginning in July 1823 Darley published "Letters to the Dramatists of the Day," six review-essays, in The London Magazine under the pseudonym John Lacy. The "letters" are distinguished by their vigor of style and clarity of exposition. Darley had imbibed fully the spirit and tone of his contemporaries and was severe in his reviews of the tragic dramatists of his time. In those days duels were fought and men killed over literary arguments and rivalries. It is not true that a bad review brought on the death of John Keats, but that "myth," enshrined by Byron and Shelley, embodied an important fact. Reviews of books and plays were often harsh. Darley's judgments in his review-essays appear to have been more just than otherwise, however, since none of the tragedians of the Romantic era has survived in reputation. Their plays, in general, are filled with bombastic speeches and lifeless characters. Darley's attack on these playwrights earned him the nickname "Ajax Flagillifer," given to him by Barry Cornwall (Bryan Walter Procter), one of the offended playwrights.
Many of the prose-poems collected in The Labours of Idleness, or a Seven Nights Entertainment (1826) are set in that land of romance, Darley's native Ireland. It is not quite accurate to describe Labours of Idleness as a collection of short stories, though the sketches are definitely fiction. Darley was most successful with the lyric love poems scattered throughout the sketches, for his principal subject was youthful love, with the various women in the Labours of Idleness cast in the role of long-suffering women who rescue their often worthless lovers in distress. Labours of Idleness did nothing for Darley's reputation as a writer or as a poet, but it confirmed the general perception of him as a full-blown Romantic in the style of Shelley and Keats.
Darley's first play, Sylvia: or, The May Queen, was published the following year. In spite of its Christian overtones, it is set in pre-Christian times. A pastoral masque (a form that was quite popular throughout most of the nineteenth century), it relies almost exclusively on dialogue, and little in Sylvia will sustain the modern reader's interest, but even the more celebrated excursions in that genre, notably those of Ben Jonson and John Milton, are today read mainly by scholars. Darley hoped that the play would be adapted as a lyric opera, a move that might well have saved the play, since so much of its dialogue is unrealistic but suited for conversion into music. Despite the failure of Sylvia, Darley's determination to write a successful play was unshaken. In 1840 he published an edition of Beaumont and Fletcher's plays, and his last two published works, Thomas à Becket (1840) and Ethelstan (1841), are both plays, though neither was apparently intended for stage production. It is impossible to determine why Darley was so concerned to succeed with the popular audience, since he often condemned it for its bad taste, but he never succeeded.
As he was working on his plays, Darley continued to write lyric poems. In 1835 he privately published two cantos of his long poem Nepenthe. Though a third canto was promised, the poem was never completed. By this time in his life Darley seems to have abandoned any hope for serious consideration by his contemporaries. Convinced that the subject and the language of poetry ought to assist the reader to escape the trials of the moment, Darley owed his rich metaphorical language to William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and John Milton. He did not share Wordsworth's opinion that poetry ought to be written in "common language," but he certainly agreed with Wordsworth's idea that poetry should represent the overflowing of passion. The title of the poem was probably taken from book 4 of The Faerie Queene: "Nepenthe is a drink of souerayne grace, / Deuized by the Gods, for to assuage / Harts grief, and bitter gall away to chace." In Darley's version nepenthe is given a far greater power than the simple curing of melancholy. The drink may be said to restore life, and is perhaps a symbol of the ultimate power of poetry. The distinct note of escapism that characterizes most of Darley's poetry is especially present in Nepenthe.
As Harold Bloom has observed, Darley "is very nearly the popular archetype of a Romantic poet in his deliberate rejection of a harsh actuality and his desperate adherence to more ideal realms than experience." Darley was an escapist. His letters are silent on the economic and social problems, as well as the religious controversies, confronting Victorian England. Keats and Shelley expressed the need to transcend and escape from religious, social, and political conventions by creating a new mythology for their times, but Darley's poetry shows no inclination to create a new religion. Yet the impulse to create a new truth and a new beauty is as evident in his writing as in that of his more gifted contemporaries. Like Keats, Shelley, and perhaps John Keble, but in his own independent way, Darley sought escape from the horrors of the present by an invocation of seemingly more innocent and happier times in history. His poetic creed may be summed up in his introduction to The Works of Beaumont and Fletcher: "Every true poet has a song in his mind, the notes of which, little as they precede his thought--so little as to seem simultaneous with them--do precede, suggest and inspire many of these, modify, and beautify them." Nepenthe reflects just that spirit and is for many critics Darley's greatest poem. Its rich, sonorous diction tends toward exaggeration and is a choice example of what C. S. Lewis called the "Golden" tradition of English poetry. The poem's greatest weakness is its frequently obscure allegory, of which the poet was acutely aware. In a letter to R. Monckton Milnes, Darley explained that "Canto I means to shew the deleterious effects of ultra-natural joy, tho' imbibed from heaven itself; Canto II, those of ultra-natural melancholy, imbibed from the regions whose comfort is darkness & consolation bewailment." He went on to describe the never-completed third canto as "exhibiting the advantageous results of the mingled joy and melancholy imbibed the native fountain of humanity." In an essay written in 1906 and later revised for inclusion in volume 4 of his Collected Essays, Papers &c. (1930), Robert Bridges contrasted the "excessive joy of the more animal sphere" depicted in the first canto with the "ideal pleasure ... the ecstasy of mental life" described in the second.
In early 1834 Darley began to write art criticism for the Athenæum. His principles of art criticism were derived from Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses (1769-1791). William Blake, William Hazlitt, and others had attacked some of the principles in the Discourses, and Darley's first essay (written in Rome and dated January 1834), and subsequent essays as well, were, in effect, answers to such critics. Darley believed Samuel Johnson in his insistence that all art ought to present the ideal in every subject. As Darley said, "the primary law of the Fine Arts consists in Beauty" (Athenæum, 8 October 1836). Only by a deliberate invocation of the ideal present in each subject could the artist achieve his desired end. Intellect was necessary for the technical advancement of the artist, but what mattered most was the blend of passion with intellect in the painter.
Darley's enthusiasm for the Italian painters of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance masters anticipates the work of John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and John Addington Symonds. Darley's greatest praise was bestowed on the works of acknowledged masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Da Vinci, according to Darley, was the greatest intellect who had ever lived. No painter had ever succeeded so well as he, said Darley, at "painting the soul upon the face under its various modifications." As might be expected, Darley was the sworn and inveterate enemy of facile imitation of other painters, a quality that he found in most of the English painters of his time. He never mentioned the paintings of John Constable, and his judgments of other contemporaries may have been somewhat unfair. Yet, Darley's essays on art and artists for the Athenæum formed an important element in the development and the profession of art criticism in England.
Almost all that has been written about George Darley begins and ends with somber observation that he was ultimately a failure, a conclusion with which Darley himself agreed. He often remarked in letters on his failure to achieve recognition, and his poetical works frequently include characters who are engaged in quests that invariably end with failure and death. Despite the obscurity of Darley's poems, they often reveal a fine lyrical style, akin to that of poets such as Thomas Carew. In fact one of his best poems, "It is not beautie I demand," is an imitation of Carew and was attributed to that poet when it was first published in the April 1828 issue of Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres. Notwithstanding his apparent failure, Darley did enrich the canon of British lyric poetry with several nearly perfect contributions, most notably "Beauty's Triomphe (An Olden Song)" and "It is not beautie I demand." Though he was often critical of the major Romantic poets, Darley-with his concern for love, nature, death, and loneliness-has a significant but minor place among them.