John Dyer

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John Dyer (1699 – December 1757) was a painter and Welsh poet who became a priest in the Church of England[1] who maintained an interest in his Welsh ancestry. He was most recognized for Wordsworth’s sonnet, To The Poet, John Dyer, addressed to him, and for Grongar Hill, one of Dyer’s six early poems featured in Richard Savage’s Miscellaneous Poems and Translations by Several Hands (February 1726), a collection of works featuring ‘Hillarian’ circle verse.[2] His unsuccessful works include Ruins of Rome, The Fleece, Country Walk, An Epistle To A Friend In Town, To Aurelia and The Enquiry.

Although Dyer’s popularity was short lived after Grongar Hill, William Wordsworth and John Gray praised John Dyer’s imagination and style as having, “more of poetry in his imagination than almost any of our number, but rough and injudicious.”[1]

Life and career


John Dyer was the fourth of six children born to Robert and Catherine Cocks Dyer in Llanfynydd, Carmarthenshire five miles from Grongar Hill. His exact birth date is unknown, but the earliest existing record of John Dyer dates his baptism on the 13th of August 1699[3] – presumably within fourteen days after his birth as such was the tradition of the time – in a parish in Llanfynnydd, Carmarthenshire. His grandfather was Llanfynnydd’s churchwarden. His father was a highly successful solicitor in Llanfynnydd, where he owned several properties in the neighborhood. Presumably for financial opportunity and modest living space for six children, the family moved to Aberglasney, Carmarhenshire, once owned by Robert Dryer’s mother’s ancestors, into the nearby parish of Llangathen as tenants before gaining ownership of the parish.

Dyer attended elementary school in an unknown school in the countryside of Llanfynndd or Llangathen before attending Westminster School during Dr. Friend’s headmaster reign from 1711 to 1733.[4] Dyer’s dislike for Westminster was chronicled in his Journal of Escapes evidenced by the 1714 entry, “Ran from school and my father, on a box of the ear being given me strolled for three or four days – found at Windsor.” He retained little of what he learned, later in life, evidenced by his unfamiliarity with Latin authors despite the Latin author based grammar and courses taught in Westminster. After Westminster School, Dyer worked in his father’s office learning his father’s solicitor business well and displayed talent in the field of law evidenced by the lawsuits of which he was involved. He was the only one of our sons to have managed his property well.[5] John’s father who desired his son to pursue a career as solicitor subdued the poet’s longing to channel his creativity through painting and writing. Ralph M. Williams, on John’s state of mind upon returning to Aberglasney, writes, “It is here that we first begin to know something of his personality and see for the first time the conflict in him between the dreamy romantic and the practical man of business that runs through his life.”[6] Having grown up in the archaic monastic buildings of Aberglasney it was not surprising that Dyer had developed an interest in antiquities and his love with nature, as fostered in his 1716 Pindaric ode version of Grongar Hill.

Robert Dyer’s death on July 8, 1720[7] ended John’s apprenticeship of the law and was not named in his father’s will, relinquishing John from handling the lawsuit riddled estate bequeathed to his brother, Robert Dyer. John Dyer left Aberglasney for London in 1720 or 1721 to pursue painting and poetry.[8]

Painting and poetry

In London, Dyer apprenticed as a watercolor painter under artist Jonathan Richardson. Richardson’s fundamental principle of painting was that all aspects of learning, from reading, observing of nature, studying works by masters in painting to writing poetry were necessary as to provide inspiration that artists could cull for their work. As a result, Dyer retained such interests and translated his studies into verbal landscape art and saved quotes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in his commonplace book.[9] His first attempt in writing octosyllabic couplets from the young John Milton was in an epistle to the Famous Painter about his mentor. The second version of Grongar Hill was penned in octosyllabic couplets of four cadences. It was under Richardson that Dyer met his coffee group of friends, Thomas Edwards[disambiguation needed], Daniel Wray, George Knapton and Arthur Pond. Pond would later be referred to in The Fleece (IV. 265). Little is known about his paintings, for most have been lost, but his peers’ poems evidenced the praises pertaining to his paintings. He painted a portrait of Martha Fowke Sansom, (also known as Clio) who was a member of his expanding coffee group-cum-club.

Dyer, with Richardson’s blessing, sailed to Italy in 1724 to continue and further his studies. Upon landing in Italy, Dyer hastily made his way to Rome, where the Roman objects of antiquity and art, like he had been in Aberglasney, naturally attracted him. The Pantheon was a favorite building and preoccupied his time during the trip,[10] while the Colosseum and the Baths of Caracalla were also held in high regard.[11] Among sculptures and reliefs, he makes note the Hercules, the Apollo, the “Venus of Medicis,” the Laocoon, Trajan’s column], the temple of Pallas, the arches of Titus and Constantine and the Borghese Dancers.[12] Such were the inspirations or objects of interest in Dyer’s poem The Ruins of Rome, written in 1740. It was in Italy that Dyer penned the third version of Grongar Hill.

Dyer visited the Ocriculum ruins near the city of Otricoli. Here Dyer sketched and painted and found inspiration to pen the poem Written at Ocriculum in Italy, 1725, in the style of Milton’s Lycidas which served to foreshadow the Ruins of Rome. He then visited Florence, where his visits to museums and buildings instigated the shift from the classical to the Renaissance period to create one of his best paintings, a copy of Antonio da Correggio’s masterpiece, “Madonna Adoring the Christ Child.”

Later life

In Rome, Dyer fell ill with malaria fever caught in the Campagna and his pursuits in painting were unsuccessful.[13] He began to contemplate his future, as documented in the poem Written at Ocriculum. It was written from the perspective of a seer who appears to Dyer in a vision and warns against Dyer’s ambitions of fame by alluding to the once grand architecture of Roman antiquity that now sits in ruins. With Dyer forced to take a third person perspective of the state of his own health, the poet mulled about his future in painting, while considering an alternative, pious lifestyle. He briefly returned to Aberglasney in 1727 after the year and half trip to Italy and estranged himself from his brother, Robert. The next several years were spent in London, where he was bestowed his mother’s inheritance after her death in 1735. He then moved to Mapleton, where he inherited and flipped a rundown farm into profitability.[14] It was during this period that he gained insight into the wool industry that inspired The Fleece. It was not until 1741 when he traveled to Worcester that he pursued a position in the Church of England and was ordained as an Anglican deacon in September of that year by the Bishop of Lincoln and a priest by October.[15] He married 26-year-old widow, Sarah Ensor Hawkins (said to be a descendant of Shakespeare) that same year with whom he had several children. He was then ordered by the Church of England to relocate to Catthorpe in Leicestershire then Belchford, Lincolnshire (1751) where he began writing The Fleece, which was published in March 1757. In 1752, he was made LL.B of Cambridge by royal mandate and moved to Coningsby the same year.[14] In 1756, he moved to Kirby-on-Bane also in Lincolnshire.[16]


He died in December 1757 of a consumptive disorder.[17] His poems were collected by Dodsley in 1770, and by Edward Thomas in 1903 for the Welsh Library, vol. iv.[16]


Grongar Hill

Grongar Hill was Dyer’s first published work originally appearing in Richard Savage’s Miscellaneous Poems and Translations by Several Hands 1726 written in irregular ode in Pindaric style about Dyer’s study of nature and as a tribute to his ancestral familial Wales estate. In the same year, after having received much acclaim, Dyer rewrote the 150-line piece in a loose measure of four cadences in octosyllabic couplets like Milton’s L’Allegro and like Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest. The rhymes and grammar in Grongar Hill are uncertain but this was his best and most recognized work that captured the style of Romanticism. Like his fascination and background in landscape paintings, Dyer worked outside of the trend of political oriented work and focused his concerns with the countryside landscape of his time – namely the colors and visual perspective as a trained painter, thus as a landscape poet.

"The Ruins of Rome"

"The Ruins of Rome" was a less successful descriptive poem in 545 lines of Miltonic blank-verse, chronicling the disappointing natural scenery of the naked Italian mountains and muddy rivers, as written in the opening lines. Dyer writes as a historical poet but lacks generality and emotion. Belinda Humfrey simplifies the structure of Grongar Hill and The Ruins of Rome relating the narrative structures of both poems. She writes, “There is a climb to the top of a hill with reflections on the way and then, on reaching the top, a survey of the scenery all around, accompanied by some crowning reflections.”[18]

The Fleece

The Fleece is a four-book blank-verse Georgic poem dealing with the tending of sheep, the shearing and preparation of the wool, weaving, and trade in woolen manufactures. The epic was written in a lofty manner, inclusive of a moral and patriotic material for the point is made that England has a respect for trade and consequently prospers. On a more personal level, he reflects on the benefits that trade will bring to him. The Fleece failed to gain recognition.

Other poems

  • “Written at Ocriculum”
  • “The Country Walk”
  • “The Happy Disappointment”
  • “To Aurelia”
  • “The Enquiry”
  • “To Clio, from Rome” (metrical exercise)
  • “Written at Ocriculum in Italy, 1725”
  • “Occasioned by the Behavior of some of the Hereford Clergy, 1728”
  • “A Epistle to a Friend in Town” (1729)
  • “Cambro-Briton” (1737, unfinished)


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  3. Williams, Ralph M. Poet, Painter and Parson the Life of John Dyer. New York: Bookman Associates, 1956. 21. Print.
  4. Williams, Ralph M. Poet, Painter and Parson the Life of John Dyer. New York: Bookman Associates, 1956. 25. Print.
  5. Williams, Ralph M. Poet, Painter and Parson the Life of John Dyer. New York: Bookman Associates, 1956. 30. Print
  6. Williams, Ralph M. Poet, Painter and Parson the Life of John Dyer. New York: Bookman Associates, 1956. 28. Print.
  7. Lloyd vs. Dyer, P.R.O. C.11.995/14 and Dyer vs. Dyer, P.R.O., C.33.349, fol. 504 verso.
  8. Williams, Ralph M. Poet, Painter and Parson the Life of John Dyer. New York: Bookman Associates, 1956. 33. Print.
  9. Humfrey, Belinda. Writers of Wales – John Dyer. Ed. Meic Stephens, R, Brinley Jones. Wales: University of Wales Press, 1980. 11. Print
  10. The Patrician, IV (1847), 266; Willmott, p.30.
  11. Willmott, p. 29.
  12. The Patrician, IV (1847), 266; Willmott, p.vii.
  13.  Stephen, Leslie, ed. (1888). [ "Dyer, John" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Dictionary of National Biography. 16. London: Smith, Elder & Co.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 14.0 14.1 Gerrard, Christine. "John Dyer (1699-1757)." Eighteenth-Century Poetry An Annotated Anthology (Blackwell Annotated Anthologies). 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Blackwell Limited, 2004. 239. Print.
  15. Brackett, Virginia. "Dyer, John." Facts on File Companion to British Poetry 17th and 18th Centuries. New York: Infobase, 2008. 136-37. Print.
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  17. Humfrey, John Dyer, 97; Williams, Poet, Painter and Parson, 139; Gerrard, Christine. "John Dyer (1699-1757)."
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