George Darley Analysis

Other literary forms

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

George Darley might be called a literary hack. The profession of writer in the early nineteenth century was a precarious one, and Darley tried his hand at most of the popular literary forms of his time. Although his work was usually unsigned, in keeping with the tradition of anonymous reviewing and publishing at the time, Darley can be credited with lyrical dramas, or masques, in the Elizabethan style, and a large number of reviews of art exhibits and current plays.

Among Darley’s major literary works were a series of “dramatic” poems, Sylvia: Or, The May Queen, a Lyrical Drama (pb. 1827); and two tragedies: Thomas à Becket: A Dramatic Chronicle in Five Acts (pb. 1840) and Ethelstan: Or, The Battle of Brunaburh, a Dramatic Chronicle in Five Acts (pb. 1841). The titles of Darley’s dramatic pieces suggest that they were written to be publicly staged, but none ever made it to the theater. Finally, Darley’s letters should be noted as a highly valuable commentary on the life of a professional writer at a critical phase in English literature. His letters, even more than his various essays on literature and art, provide a useful series of insights into the events and problems of the era. In spite of Darley’s shy disposition, he met many of the most famous poets and critics of his time, read widely in the literature of his day, and was a fair commentator on many pressing social issues.

It should be noted that Darley spent his last five years writing scientific textbooks for the use of students of secondary age. He may also have written a Life of Virgil, which is ascribed to him in the British Museum catalog.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

George Darley never attained the recognition for his poetry and dramatic works that he earnestly sought throughout most of his adult life, although he pretended to be indifferent to the poetic fame that invariably eluded him and demanded that his friends be unsparing of his feelings in making their comments on his work. In truth, his poetry was seldom reviewed or even noticed by anyone outside the immediate circle of his friends. It is difficult to find references to his ideas or to his poetry in anything but the most exhaustive surveys of English Romanticism. Still, within the circle of Darley’s friends, he was regarded as something of a poetic genius—the poet who would bring forth a new era of poetry. Charles Lamb, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, and John Clare were enthusiastic readers of his work and did their best to secure attention from the critical reviews. Even the proverbially churlish Thomas Carlyle remarked that Darley was one of the few poets of his day who really understood the spirit of Elizabethan tragedy, to the extent of being able to imitate it with any kind of success. Despite these favorable opinions, Darley never achieved more than a marginal place among the English poets of the early nineteenth century.

It was only some forty years after his death that readers took up Darley’s poetry with interest. Part of this interest derived from the Celtic renaissance, but part also derived from Darley’s ultimate claims to be read as a good minor poet.


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Abbott, Claude Colleer, ed. The Life and Letters of George Darley, Poet and Critic. 1928. Reprint. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1967. A rare biography of Darley, which presents him as a poet and critic of distinction. Includes a full analysis of Darley’s lyric poetry and of his major work Nepenthe. Notes the weakness in the structure of his work and suggests that it should be read as a series of lyric episodes expressing the theme of spiritual adventure. Includes a complete bibliography of works by Darley.

Bloom, Harold. The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. 1961. Rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971. This brief analysis is important because Bloom is one of the most influential of modern literary critics. He pays Darley a high compliment by including him in the “visionary company” of Romantic poets. Includes a reading of Nepenthe, which Bloom sees as a quest-romance in the tradition of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor (1816) and John Keats’s Endymion: A Poetic Romance (1818).

Brisman, Leslie. Romantic Origins. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978. The most extensive treatment of Darley by a modern critic, although it makes difficult reading. Brisman argues that Darley’s awareness of his rank as a minor poet provides him with a recurring theme: He deliberately cultivates a “myth of weakness.” This is particularly noticeable in Nepenthe, a poem in which Darley transforms the romantic quest “into a search for images of poetic diminutiveness.”

Heath-Stubbs, John F. The Darkling Plain: A Study of the Later Fortunes of Romanticism in English Poetry from George Darley to W. B. Yeats. 1950. Reprint. Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. Perhaps the best brief overview of Darley’s work, particularly Nepenthe. Heath-Stubbs links Nepenthe to works by Keats and Shelley, and also those by William Blake. Argues that in its “continuous intensity of lyrical music and vivid imagery” Nepenthe is unlike any other poem of similar length in English.

Jack, Ian. English Literature, 1815-1832. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1963. Brief assessment in which Jack argues that Darley was a better critic than he was poet. Of his poetry, Darley’s lyrics are superior to his long poems, although his diction was often flawed. He may, however, have had an influence on Alfred, Lord Tennyson. One of Darley’s weaknesses was that he did not have anything original to say.