George Dyer Introduction - Essay

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.