Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

DARLEY, GEORGE (1795–1846)

DARLEY, GEORGE (1795–1846), Irish poet, was born in Dublin in 1795. His parents, who were gentle folks of independent means, emigrated to America, leaving the boy in charge of his grandfather at Springfield, Co. Dublin. He was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1820; but an unfortunate stammer prevented him from going into the church or to the bar, and he established himself in London, where he published his first volume of poems, the Errors of Ecstasie, in 1822, and became a regular contributor to The London Magazine. He was intimate with Cary, the translator of Dante, and with Charles Lamb. In 1826 he published under the name of Grey Penseval a volume of prose tales and sketches, Labour in Idleness (1826), one of which, The Enchanted Lyre, is plainly autobiographical. Sylvia, or the May Queen (1827, reprint 1892), a fairy opera, met with no success, but about 1830 he became dramatic and art critic to the Athenaeum. His other works are: Nepenthe (1835, reprint 1897), his most considerable poem; introduction to the works of Beaumont and Fletcher (1840); with two plays, Thomas à Becket (1840), and Ethelstan (1841). He died in London on the 23rd of November 1846.

Selections from the Poems of George Darley, with an introduction by R. A. Streatfield, appeared in 1904. See also the edition by Ramsay Colles in the Muses’ Library (1906).

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& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

DARLEY, GEORGE (1795–1846) by David Stewart

George Darley quickly achieved a status he has never really relinquished or improved: that of a poet admired by a distinguished few. It may be that he would have relished the fact. His most important and ambitious poem, Nepenthe, was published in 1835 on shabby paper in an edition of 50 copies. Writing to his friend and fellow poet Allan Cunningham, he was keen to mark a distinction: Every milliner (he or she) can scribble greensick verses about love & melancholy & sentiment skin-deep, but I defy them to affect imagination . . . the world of Nepenthe would be a world apart—because in such a world does the author himself by necessity live, & is ignorant of all other. These twinned gestures—irritably lashing out against his age while claiming a lofty indifference to it—are characteristic. Darley’s poetry is marked by an extraordinary metrical facility. His admirers included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lady Morgan, Charles Lamb, Mary Russell Mitford, John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Leigh Hunt, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Alfred Tennyson.

George Darley
George Darley, by Richard Evans (1784-1871), portrait done 1834. Courtesy Kupferstich-Kabinett Museum (Dresden) Original image

Around the time of the publication of the 1910-1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, he remained little read, but he was nonetheless admired by George Saintsbury, Alice Meynell, Edmund Blunden, and Robert Bridges, all of whom valued him as a precursor of Victorian metrical experiment: even a magician, as the exacting historian of prosody Saintsbury put it. C. Colleer Abbott produced a Life and Letters in 1928, and Anne Ridler (like Darley a fine poet and verse dramatist) published a Selected Poems in 1979. There are a few twenty-first-century critics who have explored his work, most particularly as a feature of the hinterland between Romantic and Victorian eras. Donald J. Lange’s The Life and Poetry of George Darley (2020) offers an authoritative account of Darley and a rigorously edited selection of his work.

One reason that Darley felt himself at a distance from the world was a debilitating stammer. Like Charles Lamb and Leigh Hunt, his disability held him back from a career in public life, in the church, or at the bar, or—as seemed briefly possible in 1827—as the first professor of English at the University of London. He felt the effects much more painfully than either Lamb or Hunt. He described it as a mask to Mary Russell Mitford, an intriguing turn of phrase: a barrier to communication, but perhaps also a means of communication, a disguise that allows him to adopt different roles. Surveying the roles he took up in his career, one is struck not just by their range but also by the evidence they give of a close connection with a publishing world he said ignored him. He was part of the London Magazine circle in the 1820s and established himself as a fiery drama critic. It was here that he published a perceptive review of Byron’s Don Juan and an early appreciation of Thomas Lovell Beddoes. The London brought him into contact with a lively literary society. He published an introduction to dramatists Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, and he translated the first book of Virgil’s Aeneid. He published travel writing, criticism, poetry and what he called dramaticles (short dramatic set-pieces in verse) in magazines and literary annuals. He was an important art critic. Thomas Carlyle noted his considerable status as a mathematician; he published textbooks and claimed this cooling Study made his poetry possible by calming his mind.

One might divide these works for the press, works that brought in an income, from the poems on which he staked his reputation that made almost no money at all. But that would be too simple. Sylvia, or, the May Queen (1827) is a poem of great metrical subtlety that seems happy to leave a workaday world behind for fairyland. It is a separation it fails to enforce. Sylvia opens with Romanzo on the heights, / Who sings the song our Author writes. That little reminder that the reader is holding a printed poem (published by John Taylor, publisher of the London Magazine, John Clare, and John Keats) is typical. A pastoral idyll recalls a cit’s parterre, one of several comments on the instability of class demarcations, that great anxiety of the 1820s. Reform (the order of the day, as indeed it was in the newspapers) raises its head. Darley states in his preface that Sylvia began as a sketch in his 1826 essay collection The Labours of Idleness, and that he considered developing it as a play or an opera before it took the form of a lyrical drama. He remained fascinated by the stage throughout his career, and one reason for that is his curiously self-defeated obsession with reaching audiences.

In his final work, the play Ethelstan (1841), he outlines his hopes to create a cairn, a rude national monument, before lamenting that the busy world of wayfarers pass it by unseen. If that seems despairing, it also registers self-confidence: the monument is there should the busy world choose to look. In Barbara Pym’s novel Jane and Prudence (1953), a group of writers and critics feel their lonely isolation deepen after a night in the pub. Jane turns to Darley, murmuring lines from Syren Songs (first published in The Tribute in 1837): Jane almost forgot where she was supposed to be going and came to herself just as she reached the stop for the bus. It feels like an apt tribute to a poet who never forgot the pressure of a world he thought shunned him as he shunned it, and who, surely, found the meaning of his poetry in its strained relationship with that world.

The very short entry in Britannica has little to say of Darley. Its brevity might be taken as confirmation of his irrelevance to a posthumous audience in 1911 or today, an irrelevance that Darley can be seen to have courted. But the writer of the entry gives hints of Darley’s range as a writer and as a person that should give us pause: his disability, his Irish and American connections, his work across drama, poetry, prose essays, and criticism, his involvement in journalistic circles, his interest in music, his investigation of the English past. And, perhaps, there will always be a few who find companionship, like Pym’s Jane, in Darley’s quiet rhythms that lament With bosom-friends are others blest, / But we have none—but we have none.

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