Study Guide

George Dyer

George Dyer Essay - Critical Essays

Dyer, George

Introduction

George Dyer 1755-1841

English essayist, historian, biographer, critic, and poet.

Dyer is principally known for his influence on important Romantic writers and from the comic portrait of him in the essays of Charles Lamb. His doctrine of benevolence advised a moral obligation to the poor during a time of burgeoning interest in the plight of the lower classes, and impacted the literature of contemporaries such as William Godwin. He also gave critical and moral support to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and other young writers. Though Dyer was regarded as a mediocre poet by these and other Romantic authors, recent scholarship highlights his contribution to their ideals.

Biographical Information

Dyer was born in 1755 in London's working-class Wapping District where his father was a shipwright. At seven he enrolled as a charity student at Christ's Hospital, the same school of a younger generation of writers whom he was to meet later—Coleridge, Lamb, and Leigh Hunt. Excelling in the classics, he attended Emmanuel College at Cambridge, earning his B.A. in 1778. As tutor to the children of a Cambridge Dissenter, Robert Robinson, he became part of a Unitarian circle with such liberal thinkers as William Frend, Joseph Priestley, and Anna Barbauld. From 1792 Dyer lived in Clifford's Inn, London, barely supporting himself by writing for periodicals like Leigh Hunt's Reflector, Robert Southey's Annual Anthology, and The Monthly Magazine. He wrote biographies, sketches, and histories as well as philosophical tracts in support of liberal causes. Influential in the radical circles of London that included such luminaries as Godwin and the young William Wordsworth and Coleridge, he was respected as a benevolent man of letters. Dyer had a lifelong passion for poetry, publishing his first volume in 1792. About the time Coleridge and Wordsworth were collaborating on Lyrical Ballads, Dyer was also thinking about the importance of poetry in its ability to teach humane values. He published occasional verse, odes, and critical articles in 1797, 1802, and 1812. His friend, Charles Lamb, made him into an unforgettable character in his Elia essays, creating Dyer's fame as a lovable but absentminded scholar. His strenuous studies contributed to Dyer going blind in his later years. A widow in his boarding house, taking pity on his condition, married him at the age of fifty-nine. He died in 1841 at the age of eighty-five.

Major Works

Dyer is best known for his radical tracts in the wake of the French Revolution. Inquiry into the Nature of Subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles (1789) condemned subscription as inconsistent with natural rights and the principles of the British constitution. He rejected a state church and argued that the education of youth is a natural right, later supporting a scheme for national education. Complaints of the Poor People of England (1793) is a humanitarian description of the plight of the poor and their rights in which he laid responsibility for their ignorance on the government. A sequel, A Dissertation on the Theory and Practice of Benevolence (1795), is an attempt to stimulate the spirit and practice of benevolence through various relief societies. Dyer's liberalism was criticized by contemporaries as being comparatively soft spoken and “sober,” as he called it, avoiding the more passionate outcries of fellow radicals who ended up in prison. Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Robert Robinson (1796) gave Dyer an opportunity to eulogize his Unitarian mentor, a preacher who was important to the Cambridge radical tradition. Dyers last attempts to espouse his political philosophy include An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Doctrine of Libels and the Office of Juror (1799) and Four Letters on the English Constitution (1812). An Address encourages a free press, while Four Letters reaffirms his stance against divine right and his belief in the primacy of universal reason and sovereignty of the people.

Dyer focused on poetry later in his career. He published his first volume of poetry, Poems, in 1792. The Poet's Fate: A Poetical Dialogue (1797) treats the plight of poets in a hostile society and is considered his most interesting poetic work. Dyer caused a stir with the publication of The Poet's Fate by praising Coleridge's and Southey's pantisocracy scheme, a commune-based social organization ideology that failed to materialize. Poems (1801) contains critical essays and lyrics, odes, miscellaneous and occasional poems. A reviewer of his Poems and Critical Essays (1802) in the British Critic claimed the poems “never rise to any extraordinary vigour … but [exhibit] a considerable share of taste, harmony, and feeling.” Poetics (1812) received a similar lukewarm response by a reviewer in The Gentleman's Magazine who thought the poetry “better than mediocre.” Dyer's voluminous and unremarkable poetry in an age that saw the rise of the major Romantic poets made him an old-fashioned figure to his younger contemporaries, such as Lamb and Coleridge. Dyer's scholarly output is represented by his History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge (1814), a description of his beloved Cambridge, particularly the dissenting community, and a study of its lifelong influence on his work and character.

Critical Reception

In the 1790s, during the English debate on the French Revolution, George Dyer was in the camp of Godwin and Paine, contributing to the republican cause through his writing and support of other writers. Wordsworth admired his biography of Robert Robinson as one of the finest in English. Outside his scholarly and philosophical output, however, Dyer was taken less seriously by his contemporaries as a poet and critic, and is known today as a minor writer in the Romantic circle. In fact, as Lamb's biographer E. V. Lucas has said, Lamb conferred immortality on Dyer, who would be unknown today without the Elia essays, “Oxford in the Vacation” and “Amicus Redividus.” His reputation as an altruistic but bumbling intellectual was set by Lamb's humorous portraits in essays and letters, and also by Coleridge's annotations ridiculing Dyer's literary criticism. Dyer's reputation in the field of poetry has not improved much with time. J. R. Watson concludes that Dyer's poems are no more than “traditional exercises in an eighteenth-century mode.” Robin Jarvis, on the other hand, while agreeing that Dyer is no more than a “bronze” poet, asserts that Dyer's Romantic radicalism is manifest in poems like those from his “Pedestrian Tour” of Scotland, published in 1798 in The Monthly Magazine. Dyer's reputation as a serious and influential liberal in Godwin's London was revived by M. Ray Adams. Adams investigates Dyer's political ideas in relation to the thinkers of the day and his influence on Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey. Nicholas Roe's chapter on Dyer in The Politics of Nature: Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries shows Dyer to have been an important model for Wordsworth and Coleridge in the way he brought politics to bear on the poetry of nature and imagination. Dyer's influence represents for Roe the answer to current historicists who believe that the Romantics turned their backs on history in their search for a transcendent nature.

Principal Works

An Inquiry into the Nature of Subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles (essay) 1789; revised edition, 1792

Poems (poetry) 1792

The Complaints of the Poor People of England (essay) 1793

A Dissertation on the Theory and Practice of Benevolence (essay) 1795

Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Robert Robinson (biography) 1796

The Poet's Fate. A Poetical Dialogue (poetry) 1797

An Address to the People of Great Britain on the Doctrine of Libels and the Office of Juror (essay) 1799

Poems (poetry) 1801

Poems and Critical Essays. 2 vols. (poetry and criticism) 1802

Poetics, or a Series of Poems and Disquisitions on Poetry (poetry and criticism) 1812

Four Letters on the English Constitution (letters) 1812

History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge. 2 vols. (history) 1814

Academic Unity (essay) 1827

Criticism

British Critic (review date August 1802)

SOURCE: Review of George Dyer's Poems. British Critic 20 (August 1802): 121-25.

[In the following anonymous review, the critic finds Dyer's poetry more noteworthy than his political sentiments.]

In p. 590, of our seventeenth volume, the reader will find an account of a first book of Poems by this author, of which these were to have been a continuation, and consecrated Divæ Libertati! Mr. Dyer has been induced, partly by the advice of friends, and partly by the hints of booksellers, who, as he truly says, are the best judges in these matters, to alter the arrangement of his plan. We are now presented with two volumes of Lyric Poetry,...

(The entire section is 1420 words.)

E. V. Lucas (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: Lucas, E. V. “George Dyer.” In The Life of Charles Lamb, Vol. 1, pp. 174-203. London: Methuen, 1920.

[In the following excerpt, Lucas discusses the circumstances surrounding Dyer's second volume of poetry, and the reworked preface for it, as well as other observations on Dyer's oeuvre.]

Dyer's principal work was scholarly or serious; but he had his lighter moments too, when he wrote verses, some of them quite sprightly, and moved socially from house to house. In the letter to Southey on page 172 we have seen something of George Dyer's attitude to poetry. The subject is continued in a letter to Wordsworth, some years later. “To G. D. a poem is a poem. His...

(The entire section is 2851 words.)

M. Ray Adams (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Adams, M. Ray. “George Dyer and English Radicalism.” In Studies in the Literary Backgrounds of English Radicalism, pp. 227-66. Lancaster, Pa.: Franklin and Marshall College Studies, no. 5, 1947.

[In the following excerpt, Adams corrects the image of Dyer as a lovable fool by investigating his religious and political ideals in relation to his contemporaries.]

To see the gentle George Dyer placed among even the milder radicals will surprise those acquainted with him only as the friend of Charles Lamb (and there are few who know him otherwise); for Lamb has immortalized him by dwelling almost exclusively upon the unconscious comedy of his outer life. The...

(The entire section is 9929 words.)

Kenneth Kendall (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Kendall, Kenneth E. “Other Contributors to the Reflector.” In Leigh Hunt's Reflector, pp. 123-58. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.

[In the following excerpt, Kendall asserts that Dyer was not the naïve man of Lamb's essays, and that his writing in the Reflector is pedantic but reveals social criticism on par with Leigh Hunt's. Dyer's major articles in that publication are listed and summarized.]

Dr. Aikin and George Dyer were the oldest of the several contributors to the Reflector, both belonging to a generation older than that of Lamb and Hunt. Both were minor men of letters who were ready at all times to break into print, so that a new...

(The entire section is 2061 words.)

P. M. Zall (essay date January 1974)

SOURCE: Zall, P. M. “Epitaph for George Dyer.” Charles Lamb Bulletin 5 (January 1974): 104-09.

[In the following essay, Zall explains how Dyer learned benevolence firsthand, overcoming his own working-class heritage through charitable aid, and by watching his mentor, Robert Robinson, preach to the rural poor.]

If the essence of an immortal comic hero is a compound of humor, irony, and pathos, George Dyer should live forever. From his shrine in Elia's pantheon he still sheds his grace across the years—reaching for his hat but picking up the coal scuttle, sparkling in conversation with the bust of Diana in mistake for Anna Letitia Barbauld, striding directly out...

(The entire section is 2960 words.)

Donald Reiman (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Reiman, Donald H. Introduction to The Poet's Fate, by George Dyer. In Odes and The Poet's Fate, pp. v-xii. New York: Garland, 1979.

[In the following introduction, Reiman summarizes Dyer's life and discusses his poetry, concluding that the poet was one of the bright lights of the era, if not its best poet.]

George Dyer (1755-1841), friend of Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth and beloved by Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, was one of the great “originals” of his age—a man who, had Thomas Love Peacock known him, would certainly have graced one of his novels of talk as a lovable eccentric. Anecdotes about Dyer fill the letters and essays of Lamb,...

(The entire section is 2577 words.)

Harriet Jump (essay date April 1987)

SOURCE: Jump, Harriet. “‘Snatch'd Out of the Fire’: Lamb, Coleridge, and George Dyer's Cancelled Preface.” Charles Lamb Bulletin 58 (April 1987): 54-66.

[In the following excerpt, originally presented as a lecture on March 1, 1986, Jump speaks in detail about the fate and revisions of Dyer's cancelled preface, using the perspective of Lamb's and Coleridge's amused and critical comments.]

Born in Wapping, the son of a watchman, in 1755, Dyer was twenty years older than Lamb, seventeen years older than Coleridge. In other words, he belonged to an earlier generation—a fact which becomes obvious when one starts to examine the style of his poetry and the tenor of...

(The entire section is 6589 words.)

Nicholas Roe (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Roe, Nicholas. “‘Unremembered Kindness’: George Dyer and English Romanticism.” In The Politics of Nature: Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries, pp. 17-35. London: Macmillan, 1992.

[In the following essay, Roe suggests how the doctrine of benevolence in Dyer's writings foreshadows Wordworth's morality of benevolence in “Tintern Abbey.”]

His kind heart most warmly sympathised at all times with the cause of civil and religious liberty, which he uniformly espoused by his writings

The Gentleman's Magazine, NS 15 (1841), 545

...

(The entire section is 8076 words.)

Robin Jarvis (essay date summer 1998)

SOURCE: Jarvis, Robin. “Poetry in Motion: George Dyer's Pedestrian Tour.” Wordsworth Circle 29, no. 3 (summer 1998): 142-51.

[In the following excerpt, Jarvis discusses one of Dyer's poems about a walking tour with his friend Arthur Aikin, arguing that at least some of his poetry was at the forefront of Romantic and revolutionary sentiment.]

It is the fate of George Dyer, at least among scholars working outside the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, permanently to be confused with the author of The Fleece and “Grongar Hill.” John Dyer (1699-1757), anthologised in popular volumes like The Norton Anthology of Poetry, is reputedly—to...

(The entire section is 8958 words.)

J. R. Watson (essay date October 1999)

SOURCE: Watson, J. R. “‘My Benevolent Friend’: George Dyer and His 1800 Preface.” Charles Lamb Bulletin 108 (October 1999): 170-77.

[In the following essay, Watson examines the dual perception of Dyer as both benevolent and irritating, asserting that the author's poetry and preface are tiresome and old-fashioned compared to his contemporaries.]

Readers of Charles Lamb will be familiar with the figure of George Dyer, whose eccentric person appears in ‘Oxford in the Vacation’ and in ‘Amicus Redivivus’ (after falling into the river outside Lamb's house at Islington). He was an endless source of delight (as well as inconvenience) to Lamb, as he is to the...

(The entire section is 4393 words.)