‘Infatuated to his ruin’: the fate of Thomas Dermody, 1775-1802

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), Volume 14

‘Infatuated to his ruin': the fate of Thomas Dermody, 1775–1802

‘Infatuated to his ruin’: the fate of Thomas Dermody, 1775–1802

Russell K. Alspach, in Irish poetry from the English invasion to 1798, wrote of The Harp of Erin (1807), a substantial, posthumously published anthology of Thomas Dermody’s verse, that one could go through it ‘without stumbling on anything that even faintly resembles poetry’. Dermody’s means deter-mined his themes; thus he wrote safe poems to flatter patrons, and kept his more interesting inclinations in check. His ‘precocious natural talents for poetry [. . .] were partly smothered by the wrong kind of patronage’, writes Donald Reiman. This was patronage of a very belated type, supplied by the polite reading classes in Dublin: the mildly patriotic and the patriotically mild connoisseurs of the theatrical and literary set. In London he found himself patronised by aristocratic types, while the great and the good of literature were increasingly independent of the already waning system of patronage.

‘Let loose from the restraints of discipline and morality’

James Grant Raymond’s The life of Thomas Dermody (1806) is generally hagiographical. The Edinburgh Review was critical, deeming it celebratory of the wrong kind of poet. The biography gave an account, it claimed, of ‘another Savage [a reference to Richard Savage, the subject of Samuel Johnson’s genre-defining poetic biography]—born in a lower rank of life, and earlier let loose from the restraints of discipline and morality’:

‘The common method has hitherto been, to encourage the immorality by indulgence, to repress the poetry by extravagant and pernicious applauses, and to exasperate the symptoms of poverty by thoughtless and unmeasured profusion, succeeded by desertion and neglect.

Jack B. Yeats's illustration of Dermody's poem ‘The Petition of Tom Dermody to the Three Fates in Council Sitting'. (Cuala Press Broadside, September 1911)

Jack B. Yeats’s illustration of Dermody’s poem ‘The Petition of Tom Dermody to the Three Fates in Council Sitting’. (Cuala Press Broadside, September 1911)

The case of the unhappy patient before us, appears indeed to have been very desperate; and it is but justice to his patrons to say, that many of them appear to have followed a very rational system of cure: it failed however entirely, partly through the original bad constitution of the subject, and partly through the mismanagement of certain of his romantic admirers.’

Raymond takes account of Dermody’s foibles but is himself caught up in the poet’s mismanagement. He became one of the poet’s benefactors, and by the time he came to write the biography he probably felt that support of one so troublesome should at least acquire him some degree of fame. People wished to be associated with Dermody, even though he was notoriously difficult, conceited and arrogant. Dublin’s ‘people of sensibility’ were intrigued by his general indifference, to the extent that they inadvertently subsidised his self-destruction.
The biography is generally more interesting than the body of work. A compelling cultural phenomenon rather than an influential literary figure, Dermody prefigures more substantial experiments in literary living such as James Clarence Mangan. Dermody wrote derivative, often dreadful, poems of sensibility; occasionally, very occasionally, he wrote poems of scabrous, honest wit. He found himself buffeted about, politically, by his patrons, to the extent that he had to retract some of his bolder statements, perhaps most scandalously his pamphlet on The Rights of Justice, which, in 1793, proved to be too radical for the tastes of the polite patriot set. For them, he was a show-and-tell child prodigy, a volatile young genius who could be produced into the public sphere as an occasion of self-congratulatory patronage. Not that he was entirely a blameless victim of politics beyond his ken. The ‘public sphere’ was, according to David Fairer, ‘much more contested and impolite than Habermas [Jurgen Habermas, who coined the concept] allows’, plagued as it was by ‘cheats, sneaks, and bullies’. Dermody was one such cheat, and sneaky with it. An alcoholic and a dreadful egomaniac, he was capable of writing poetry of shocking turgidity to pay for his drink.

Background

Dermody was from Ennis in County Clare, according to John Lloyd’s 1780 travelogue ‘a rich, inland, assizes town, and a borough, handsome and uniform’. His father was Nicholas Dermody, sixth son of a substantial farmer. Nicholas married on 14 November 1773 and became a teacher of the classics in Ennis, where he established a small school on Church Street. Before he took to the bottle, Nicholas was well respected as ‘an excellent Greek and Latin scholar’. Thomas, the eldest of his three sons, was born on 17 January 1775. At the age of nine Thomas became his father’s teaching assistant. Within a year young Tom had already composed a good deal of poetry and was a prodigious translator. However, the fact that he had also begun to mix with his father’s drinking clique suggests that he was equally prodigious in his drinking. Dermody, unsettled by dissolution at home after the death of his mother and brother, resolved to leave. He set off with volume two of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones under his arm. This may sound cloyingly romantic, but Dermody’s age should be remembered. His youthfully giddy temperament determined that he would be inspired in his travels to Dublin by a near-contemporary classic of the picaresque genre.
In Dublin, Dermody fell under the protection of actor Robert Owenson, who was not alone in admiring his premature literary prowess and his remarkable facility with Latin verse. Fêted as ‘a little being composed entirely of mind’, Dermody was initially encouraged in his friendship with Owenson’s similarly prodigious daughters, Sydney and Olivia. Revd Gilbert Austin, a clergyman who kept a reputable school in Dublin, was introduced to Dermody by Owenson. Together, they planned that his studies should be completed at Austin’s academy. Austin selected, printed and sought subscriptions for a small collection of Dermody’s poems. At the time of composition their author was not yet thirteen.
These were the 1789 Poems, deliberately printed for a small group of people who ‘might take an interest in the protection of our young poet’. The ‘Acknowledgments’ admit that there is a novelty value to Dermody, a dishevelled appeal in the artist that offset the merely trite in his poetry. An account of his unstable background is included to disarm potentially churlish readers. There is an appeal, too, to the more adventurous potential patron, for Dermody was a risky proposition, a rough stone who might reward investment. Perhaps most noteworthy in Dermody’s poetry are those pieces directly aimed at those who have assisted him, or those who might assist him again in the future.

Henry Grattan by Martin Shee- Dermody wangled the patronage of Grattan, who in turn introduced him to Henry Flood. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Henry Grattan by Martin Shee- Dermody wangled the patronage of Grattan, who in turn introduced him to Henry Flood. (National Gallery of Ireland)

There is a noticeable sense of ‘bardic self-fashioning’ at work in Dermody’s verse, particularly in the intimation that his gratitude towards those who have helped him or will help him in the future is all the more real for its coming from such a rustic source. In the introductory poem, too, Dermody signals this self-stylisation by dramatising the harsher aspects of his biography. His particular muse is, he writes, ‘to joyous scenes unknown’.

‘Blind to the happy prospects before him’

Gilbert Austin, meanwhile, had taken him into his own house, ‘but the ill-fated boy was blind to the happy prospects before him’, as Raymond records, and was ‘infatuated to his ruin’. Familial example had led him to seek the company of supposedly unsavoury characters, and Austin, wearied by the young poet’s repeated dishonesty, turned him out, aged thirteen. Being acquainted with this upsetting story, Gilbert White thought to remedy the situation by inviting men of letters, potential patrons all, to dinner, with the intention of having them duly impressed by the young genius. Unfortunately, Dermody did not show up, and the assembled dinner party showed signs of increasing impatience. A servant was dispatched to find him and remind him of his engagement. He was found with some of his ‘low’ acquaintance, and conveyed no apology back to White; he had not forgotten the engagement, he had merely lost interest in attending. White himself thought the non-attendance a great affront, but reckoned that there were so many other things to recommend Dermody that he might be forgiven.
Dermody knew that his patrons were losing patience the more erratic his behaviour became. But he also knew that potential new patrons were plentiful. Around this time he was recommended to the attention of Elizabeth Hastings, the dowager countess of Moira (1731–1808), under whose direction he was placed in the care of the Revd Mr Henry Boyd of Killeigh, King’s County (Offaly). Dermody remained in Offaly for two years, improving his Latin, French and Italian. Boyd noticed his licentious leanings: ‘while his talents placed him on an eminence among the great and the learned, his corrupted qualities sunk him to the low but sociable frequenter of a country alehouse’. As Dermody wrote of himself:

‘Thrice hail, thou prince of jovial fellows,
Tuning so blithe thy lyric bellows,
Of no one’s brighter genius jealous;
Whose little span
Is spent ’twixt poetry and alehouse,
’Twixt quill and cann!

Reckless howe’er the world may fadge,
Variety thy only badge:
Now courting Susan, Kate, or Madge,
Or black-ey’d Molly;
For living in one sullen lodge
Is downright folly.’

Lady Moira’s patience was, all the while, wearing thin:

‘Lady Moira warns him, that the waywardness of his nature, and the ill-founded degree of self-conceit he indulges himself in respecting his genius, will prevent his ever having friends, or arriving at success, through the course of his future life, unless he alters his conduct and his sentiments [. . .] Lady Moira informs him that the donation which accompanies this note, is the last attention or favour that he is ever to expect from lady [sic] Moira, or any of her family.’

For a while after, Dermody was supported by Owenson—‘his tried and constant friend’—for the essentials of food and clothing. Owenson lobbied to have Dermody’s poems published, and when they were he worked to make them profitable, selling them himself by relating the sympathetic tale of their author’s plight. Dermody himself wangled the patronage of Bishop Percy and Henry Grattan. Grattan introduced him to Henry Flood, who encouraged him to write a poem on the history of the British constitution, from the Norman Conquest to the accession of the House of Hanover. The antiquarian Joseph Cooper Walker also wrote, encouraging Dermody to pen a novel or romance set on the lakes of Killarney, perhaps on an ancient Irish subject, preferably bardic. ‘Historic novels are fashionable’, he advised; ‘besides, the scenes of novels or romances have rarely been laid in Ireland’.

Joined the British army

Dermody’s entreaties to the countess of Moira were disregarded. However, Lady Moira secretly instructed the bookseller Mercier to print at her expense anything that Dermody presented to him.

The murder of Lord Kilwarden by George Cruickshank-Kilwarden indulged Dermody, offering to take care of college expenses, and proposed to provide him with £30 a year to make him presentable. (National Library of Ireland)

The murder of Lord Kilwarden by George Cruickshank-Kilwarden indulged Dermody, offering to take care of college expenses, and proposed to provide him with £30 a year to make him presentable. (National Library of Ireland)

Unfortunately for him, he printed The Rights of Justice, or Rational Liberty, a pamphlet antagonistic to his patrons’ principles. Appended was a poem on The Reform, which lamented that Ireland alone was not in tune with the revolutionary song. Its publication was the last straw for Dermody’s supporters. When he realised that his revolutionary principles were going to starve him, he sought to re-establish equanimity by joining the British army.
In the meantime, he was wretched, writing begging letters to people of rank, generally too well informed to consider him as anything better than a profligate and a liar. He was relieved only by the offices of Arthur Wolfe, Lord Kilwarden, then attorney-general for Ireland, later murdered with his nephew on the night of Emmet’s 1803 rising (famously depicted by Cruickshank). Kilwarden indulged Dermody, offered to take care of college expenses, and proposed to provide him with £30 a year to make him presentable. Dermody turned his back on this offer, strangely, on the basis that it was ‘pointing out a palace to a wretch just drowning’. Dermody did not value money for advancement’s sake; he valued it primarily for its potential to occasion entertainments. He would visit potential patrons with verses, hoping for favour but not necessarily for long-term favouritism. Or else he would call to Raymond in Ranelagh in the middle of the night, tattered, drenched, inebriated, and pelting stones at the window.
A self-pitying and in many respects self-deluding alcoholic, Dermody decided on a number of occasions that his genius would be better recognised in England:

‘For London now happily bound,
For a while we are free from that damnable ground
Where merit is spurned, where virtue is lost,
And invention chok’d up with Hibernian frost.
So bidding farewell to each opulent rogue
Who murder’d our hearing with nonsense and brogue,
We go, the pure air of the muses to breathe,
And smile at dull envy and malice beneath.
Like birds, sir, of passage, from dullness we fly,
To warble and wing in a far brighter sky:
Where freedom and fancy are sweetly combin’d,
Where the body too feels the fine glow of the mind;
Where bounty, the sun of perfection, will blaze,
And ripen at once the full grape and the bays;
Where fortune and genius in amity shine,
And the true spark of poesy beams forth divine;
In short, where no son of St Patrick shall dare,
With a foul-mouthed huff, and a swaggering air,
Meek wisdom so gentle to thrust from the wall.—
Then welcome misfortune! We rise from our fall:
At least, we are certain to suffer no curse;
We here were neglected,—they can’t use us worse.’

His literary career in London would have to wait, however, for Dermody to return from a self-regulating spell in the British army. After a couple of drink-related false starts, Dermody at last joined the 108th regiment, with which, aged nineteen, he set sail. His conduct in the army seems to have been exemplary. In France he sustained several facial wounds and lost movement in his left hand when a bullet passed through it. After the army returned to Britain, Dermody was put on half-pay and released. He went to London, idealistic about the possibility of literary fame.
The better part of his story soon spread, and he gained new advocates whom he just as quickly alienated, among them Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, then chancellor of the exchequer, and Sir James Bland Burges. Burges gathered subscribers for another volume of poetry and lobbied a sum of £10 from the Literary Fund to properly clothe him. Within a week he reappeared at Burges’s house, scrapping with two of his servants in the hall, dressed in rags, covered in mud, black-eyed, wounded to the head, and so drunk that he was barely able to stand. Inevitably, he had pawned his new clothes. He had been arrested and taken to a spunging-house, where he had been drinking with the bailiffs and writing a poem for Burges (which became The Extravaganza, one of his more substantial works). Burges sent him back to the spunging-house and promised to bail him out the following morning, which he did. The more Dermody got out of Burges, the more he sought, until 1802, when he began to send mysterious, terse notes, which seem to suggest a particularly fraught relationship between the older and the younger man:

‘If you have ever befriended me, or wish to befriend me, you will do it at the present moment by sending me two or three pounds, by the bearer. In case you cannot find it convenient, I leave the manuscript in your hands; but of the author you hear no more’ [2 May 1802].

And, undated [3 May?]:

‘THOMAS DERMODY would not have written to sir [sic] James Bland Burges, but on a great occasion. Hopes he will indulge him with two guineas: of Dermody he hears no more.’

Burges wrote on 4 May, chastising Dermody for writing too much in the ‘romantic’ manner: ‘but I am not to be moved by menaces of losing your acquaintance, nor am I much inclined to attend to any one who seems to prize my regard so slightly’. Dermody was moved to respond on 6 May:

‘The situation in which I now reside, has been long productive of mischief to my affairs; in particular, an unavoidable association with the lowest of the human race has induced me to be too frequently guilty of that most detestable vice, ebriety [. . .] I confess, I was not quite capable of reflection when I addressed you, sir, in a style so incoherent and even ridiculous; yet my purpose must still remain unaltered.’

Burges was not impressed:

‘Of this you will do well for your own sake to consider: that however the favourers of literary talents may wish to support a man possessed of them, they will draw back when they find them unsupported by morality or decency of conduct; and that the bounty which is liberally bestowed upon merit struggling with adversity, will be withheld from him who, having received a more than ordinary share of it, makes new demands in a manner which may not improperly be termed menacing.’

All of Dermody’s subsequent entreaties were greeted with silence.

Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, then chancellor of the exchequer-among the new advocates Dermody gained, whom he just as quickly alienated.

Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, then chancellor of the exchequer-among the new advocates Dermody gained, whom he just as quickly alienated.

Death

In the summer of 1802, poverty drove Thomas Dermody from Portpool Lane in London to a ruined cottage in Sydenham in Kent, from where he wrote on 9 July to his old supporter Raymond that he was all but dead and in need of assistance, possibly the last he would need. Raymond and Allingham, another patron, found him in a dilapidated hovel, leaning over a feeble fire. They arranged for him to be transported across town the following morning to a more commodious lodging, and to be attended by a nurse. Dermody died that evening, on 15 July 1802, aged 27 years and 6 months. Former patrons supplied his funeral expenses. He was buried in Lewisham, under a monument inscribed with an extract from his poem, ‘The Fate of Genius’:

‘Now a cold tenant does he lie
Of this dark cell, all hush’d his song:
While Friendship bends with streaming eye,
As by his grave she wends along;

On his cold clay lets fall a holy tear,
And cries, “Though mute, there is a poet here”.’

Even the poem that ends up on his headstone is unashamedly derived from Thomas Gray. Though his work is derivative, his life story offers a glimpse into some of the illusions and delusions of late eighteenth-century cultural life in Dublin (and London) and a precarious, outmoded system of patronage unable to produce a literary figure of substance to match the minor cult it had generated around young Tom Dermody.

Michael Griffin teaches English Studies at the University of Limerick.

Further reading:
T. Burke, Vagabond minstrel: the adventures of Thomas Dermody (London/New York/Toronto, 1936).
T. Dermody, The Harp of Erin, containing the poetical works, 2 vols (London, 1807).
J. Lloyd, A short tour of the County Clare (Whitegate, 1986).
J.G. Raymond, The life of Thomas Dermody: interspersed with pieces of original poetry, many exhibiting unexampled prematurity of genuine poetical talent, and containing a series of correspondence with several eminent characters, 2 vols (London and Dublin, 1806).

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