John Dyer

John Dyer was a Welsh painter and poet who is often seen as a naturalistic forerunner of Wordsworth. Although primarily known for one loco-descriptive poem, “Grongar Hill,” he is important for the careful and acurate observation evident throughout his works and for his linking of poetry and place in a way that Wordsowrth would praise in his sonnet “To the Poet John Dyer.” John Gray would commend Dyer for his “imaginative” style, while also calling the poetry “rough and injudicious,” the very characteristics that would go on to be seen, later in the 18th century, as elements of an emerging school known later as “Romantic.” Dyer traveled to Italy in the 1720s and became one of those earlier artistic travelers who praised not only the Pantheon for its architectural perfection but also the Colosseum, Trajan’s column, and the Baths of Caracalla, those vast and expansive Roman bath ruins in which Percy Shelley would draft his Prometheus Unbound almost a century later. Dyer published “The Ruins of Rome” in 1740, a poem of which Henry Fielding said, “This is one of those happy Poems that is founded on a Subject that carries Inspiration along with it . . . And it requires no great Courage to say, never Author did his Subject nobler Justice. — If the Image is sublime, the Language is equal, and the Measure every where accommodated to both” (The Champion 1 [8 March 1740]: 340-42, 347. Today, we might fond Dyer’s poem on Rome to be overly allusive, unnecessarily emotive, and hyperbolic throughout. In its own day, however, its syntax and diction produced a focus on place and detail that were consistently seen as praiseworthy:

Among the sleeky peebles, agate clear,
Cerulian ophite, and the flowery vein
Of orient jasper, pleased I move along,
And vases bossed and huge inscriptive stones,
And intermingling vines; and figured nymphs,
Floras and Chloes of delicious mould,
Cheering the darkness; and deep empty tombs,
And dells, and mouldering shrines, with old decay
Rustic and green, and wide-embowering shades,
Shot from the crooked clefts of nodding towers;
A solemn wilderness! (76-86)

Will Viney offers a valuable critical overview of Dyer’s Roman ruin lyric in Precipitate: Journal of the New Environmental Imagination 1.1 (Winter 201o):

John Dyer’s “The Ruins of Rome” (1740) gives a good example of how ruins seem to register transience and endurance, a commingling of past and present, a time in-between. Dyer’s poem follows a “solemn antiquarian” (304) through “Latium’s wide champain, forlorn and waste, / Where yellow Tiber his neglected wave / Mournfully rolls” (11–13). Lonely, silent, disorderly, the poem’s speaker clambers through the ruins of antiquity, affecting a sense of coherence by weaving a complex and self-referential series of narratives. The speaker codes his exploration of classical ruins by tracing a genealogy between Roman ruin and British Empire. Just as Volney would some fifty years later, Dyer utilises the space of ruins to discuss contemporary ethics, politics, commerce, and art. I won’t rehearse the speaker’s moralising arguments in too much detail, but suffice to say he warns his British readers not to go the same way as those decadent Romans: “O Britons, O my countrymen” implores Dyer’s traveller, “beware, / Gird, gird your hearts; the Romans once were free, / Were brave, were virtuous” (511 – 513), but, Dyer seems to argue, they soon fell into bad habits, leaving nothing but their ruins.

Dyer’s “The Country Walk” is a major transitional lyric in terms of the loco-descriptive writing of the 18th century.

Dyer links:

“John Dyer, the Poet, as Farmer,” by Edward A. Parker (Haileybury College, UK) and Ralph M. Williams (Trinity College, CT)

John Dyer (Welsh Biography Online)

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