Dillon, Wentworth, Karl Of Roscommon

, an English poet, was born in Ireland about 1633, while the government of that kingdom was under the first earl of Strafford, to whom he was nephew; his father, sir James Dillon, third earl of Roscommon, having married Elizabeth the youngest daughter of sir William Wentworth, of Wentworth-Woodhouse, in the county of York, sister to the earl of Stratford. Hence lord Roscommon was | christened Wentworth.*


These circumstances were first pointed out by Mr. Nichols, in a note on his “Select Collection of Poems,” vol. VI. p. 54. It had been generally said by preceding biographers, that the earl sent for him “after the breaking out of the civil wars.” But, if his lordship sent for him at all, it must have been at some earlier period; for he himself was beheaded before the civil war can properly be said to have begun. No print of lord Roscommon is known to exist; though Dr. Chetwode, in a ms life of him, says, that the print prefixed to his Poems (some edition probably about the end of the last century) was very like him; and that he very strongly resembled his noble uncle. It is not generally known that all the particulars of lord Roscommon, related by Fenton, are taken from this Life by Clietwode, with which he was probably furnished hy Mr. T. Baker, who left them with many other Mss. to the library of St. John’s college, Cambridge. The Life of lord Roscommon is very ill-written, and full of common-place observations.

He was educated in the protestant religion, his father (who died at Limerick in 1619) having been converted by archbishop Usher from the communion of the church of Rome; and passed the years of his infancy in Ireland. He was brought over to England by his uncle, on his return from the government of Ireland*, and placed at that nobleman’s seat in Yorkshire, under the tuition of Dr. Hall, erroneously* said to have been afterwards bishop of Norwich. The celebrated Hall was at this time a bishop, and far advanced in years. By this Dr. Hall, whoever he was, he was instructed in Latin; and, without learning the common rules of grammar, which he could never remember, attained to write that language with classical elegance and propriety. When the cloud began to gather over England, and the earl of Strafford was singled out for an impeachment, he was, by the advice of Usher, sent to finish his education at Caen in Normandy, where the protestants had then an university, and studied under the direction of the learned Bochart; but at this time he could not have been more than nine years old. After some years he travelled to Rome, where he grew familiar with the most valuable remains of antiquity, applying himself particularly to the knowledge of medals, which he gained to perfection; and he spoke Italian with so much grace and fluency, that he was frequently mistaken there for a native.

Soon after the restoration, he returned to England,* where he was graciously received by Charles II. and made captain of the band of pensioners. In the gaieties of that age, he was tempted to indulge a violent passion for gaming; by which he frequently hazarded his life in duels, and exceeded the bounds of a moderate fortune. A | dispute with the lord privy seal, about part of his estate, obliging him to revisit his native country, he resigned his post in the English court; and, soon after his arrival at Dublin, the duke of Ormond appointed him to be captain of the guards. Mrs. Catharine Phillips, in a letter to sir Charles Cotterel, Dublin, Oct. 19, 1662, styles him “a very ingenious person, of excellent natural parts, and certainly the most hopeful young nobleman in Ireland.” However, he still retained the same fatal affection for gaming; and, this engaging him in adventures, he was near being assassinated one night by three ruffians, who attacked him in the dark; but defended himself with so much resolution, that he dispatched one of them, while a gentleman coming up, disarmed another; and the third secured himself by flight. This generous assistant w r as a disbanded officer, of a good family and fair reputation, but whose circumstances were such, that he wanted even cloaths to appear decently at the castle. Lord Roscommon, on this occasion, presenting him to the duke of Ormond, obtained his grace’s leave to resign to him his post of captain of the guards: which for about three years the gentleman enjoyed; and upon his death the duke returned the commission to his generous benefactor.

The pleasures of the English court, and the friendships he had there contracted, were powerful motives for his return to London. Soon after he came, he was made master of the horse to the duchess of York; and married the lady Frances, eldest daughter of the earl of Burlington, and widow of colonel Courtney. He began now to distinguish himself by his poetry; and about this time projected a design, in conjunction with his friend Dryden, for refining and fixing the standard of our language. But this was entirely defeated by the religious commotions that were then increasing daily; at which time the earl took a resolution to pass the remainder of his life at Rome, telling his friends, “it would be best to sit next to the chimney when the chamber smoked,” a sentence of which, Dr. Johnson says, the application seems not very clear. Amidst these reflections, being seized with the gout, he was so impatient either of hindrance or of pain, that he submitted himself to a French empiric, who is said to have repelled the disease into his bowels. At the moment in which he expired he uttered, with an energy of voice that | expressed the most fervent devotion, two lines of his own version of “Dies Iræ:

"My God, my Father, and my Friend,

Do not forsake me in my end."

He died Jan. 17, 1684; and was buried with great pomp in Westminster-abbey.

His poems, which are not numerous, are in the body of English poetry collected by Dr. Johnson. His “Essay on Translated Verse,” and his translation of “Horace’s Art of Poetry,” have great merit. Waller addressed a poem to his lordship upon the latter, when he was 75 years of age. *‘ In the writings of this nobleman we view,“says Fenton,” the image of a mind naturally serious and solid; richly furnished and adorned with all the ornaments of art and science; and those ornaments unaffectedly disposed in the most regular and elegant order. His imagination might probably have been more fruitful and sprightly, if his judgment had been less severe but that severity (delivered in a masculine, clear, succinct style) contributed to make him so eminent in the didactical manner, that no man, with justice, can affirm he was ever equalled by any of our nation, without confessing at the same time that he is inferior to none. In some other kinds of writing his genius seems to have wanted fire to attain the point of perfection; but who can attain it? He was a man of an amiable composition, as well as a good poet; as Pope, in his ‘Essay on Criticism,’ had testified in the following lines:

‘——— Roscommon not more learn’d than good,

With manners generous as his noble blood;

To him the wit of Greece and Rome was known,

And every author’s merit but his own.’ "

We must allow of Roscommon, what Fenton has not mentioned so distinctly as he ought, and, what is yet very much to his honour, that he is perhaps the only correct writer in verse before Addison; and that, if there are not so many or so great beauties in his compositions as in those of some contemporaries, there are at least fewer faults. Nor is this his highest praise; for Pope has celebrated him as the only moral writer of king Charles’s reign

"Unhappy Dryden! in all Charles’s days,

Roscommon only boasts unspotted lays."

Of Roscommon’s works,” says Dr. Johnson, “the judgment of the public seems to be right. He is elegant, | but not great; he never labours after exquisite beavities, and he seldom falls into gross faults. His versification is smooth, but rarely vigorous, and his rhymes are remarkably exact. He improved taste, if he did not enlarge knowledge, and may be numbered among the benefactors to English literature.” Nor ought it to be forgot, that he was the first critic who had the taste and spirit publicly to praise the “Paradise Lost” with a noble encomium on which, and a rational recommendation of blank verse, he concludes his “Essay on Translated Verse,” though this passage was not in the first edition. 1


Biog. Brit.—Life by Johnson.—Nichols’s Poems vol. VI.