Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Thomas Humphry Ward
Aubrey Thomas de Vere (18141902)
[Aubrey Thomas de Vere was born in January, 1814, at Curragh Chase, Limerick, the third son of Sir Aubrey de Vere, second Baronet, and of his wife who was a Spring Rice. He was educated privately at home, and after 1832 at Trinity College, Dublin. A few years afterwards he paid long visits to England and became intimate with Tennyson, Monckton Milnes, and many distinguished Cambridge men, and afterwards saw a good deal of Wordsworth, Sara Coleridge and Carlyle, while his chief friend from that time to the end of his life was Sir Henry Taylor. In 1842 he published The Waldenses, and other Poems, which was followed next year by The Search after Proserpine. He was deeply religious; and after witnessing the horrors of the Irish famine in 1846 he began to turn his thoughts to Roman Catholicism, and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1851, when he was on his way to Italy in company with H. E. Manning. For a few years he held a Professorship, under Newman, in the new Catholic University in Dublin, and in 1857 he published May Carols, and other volumes followed. He retired from the University in 1858, and afterwards lived for the most part at Curragh Chase, where in 1902 he died unmarried, at the age of eighty-eight. In 1897 he published a volume of Recollections, and after his death a Memoir of him was written by Mr. Wilfrid Ward.]
MANY people still remember with affection the venerable figure of Aubrey de Vere, most devout of Catholics and most amiably patriotic of Irishmen. His was an old age serene and bright, and at over eighty years of age he still retained the feelings and the instincts of a poet. But throughout the second half of his long life his two predominant passions were religion and Ireland; his poems written in these years, as he says in his Recollections, were almost exclusively intended to illustrate religious philosophy or early Irish history. And these poems may almost be regarded as interludes in a life greatly occupied with the Irish political and economic problems of the time, to the discussion of which he frequently contributed. But as a young man poetrypure poetryfilled a much larger place in his thoughts and activities; naturally enough, for he was a poets son who up to the age of twenty had lived in almost daily intercourse with his father Sir Aubrey, whose poetical style and outlook, moreoveras will be recognized by any one who reads his plays Julian the Apostate and Mary Tudorhad a marked affinity to his own. In the days of his early productiveness, too, Aubrey de Vere mingled with the world of London and Cambridge, especially with the men of letters, such as Tennyson and Monckton Milnes, and above all with his intimate friend Henry Taylor. The Lives of several of these men abound with references to him, implying the most cordial intellectual intercourse; in that of Tennyson there are many and in Henry Taylors Autobiography many more. Again, the three volumes of Critical Essays, which were written at many different dates though they were only collected in 18879, show how deeply he had been interested in poetry and how excellent a critic he was. He tells us in his Recollections that Byron was his first admiration, but was instantly displaced when Sir Aubrey put Wordsworths Laodamia into his hands. It was with him as with Tennyson, in whose Memoir it is recorded that he was dominated by Byron till he was seventeen, when he put him away altogether. Laodamia converted de Vere; from that moment he was a Wordsworthian, though not an imitator; on the contrary the charming little volume called The Search after Proserpine, and other Poems (1843) shows a gift more lyrical than philosophical, owing more to the influence of Shelley and the Greeks than to that of Rydal Mount.
Several of the extracts that follow are taken from that book, because it is hard to find in his later writings anything so spontaneous, so musical as the best of these poems, and because the volume shows Aubrey de Vere in the stage when poetry filled his soul, when he saw that there were bigger things in the world, in history, and in literature, than the political problems of the day, and when even Religion did not urge him to express her mysteries in verse. Seldom has the spell of Greece been exercised with greater effect than it was upon young de Vere, as he shows in the title-poem, and in Lines written under Delphi: poems which made old Landor, in 1848, beg him to reascend with me the steeps of Greece and to take no heed of Irelanda country of which the old man writes in terms unfit for ears polite. The curious thing is that this love for Greece and Greek tradition, which rings more true than anything in Childe Harold, seems to have clean passed away from Aubrey de Vere after he became possessed with the religious passion. There is not a single mention of the travels to Greece in the volume of Recollections, and in the well-known May CarolsMay being the month of Maryhe admits that even the descriptive pieces are an attempt towards a Christian rendering of external nature.
The Coleridge poem here quoted is interesting both as an emotional utterance and as a piece of criticism; and the sonnets deserve their place as an expression of de Veres intense love for his father, of his regard for his brother poets, and of his religious faith.