Wentworth Dillon

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Dillon, Wentworth, Earl of Roscommon, poet and writer (belonging to a branch of the descendants of Sir Henry Dillon, different from preceding, whose honours are now dormant), was born in Ireland about 1633. He was the son of James, 3rd Earl of Roscommon, and of Elizabeth Wentworth, sister of the Earl of Strafford; his father was converted to Protestantism through the influence of Archbishop Ussher. He was educated principally in Yorkshire, and at Caen in Normandy. Travelling in Italy he acquired an almost perfect knowledge of the language, and according to Johnson, "amused himself with its antiquities, and particularly with medals, in which he acquired uncommon skill." After the Restoration he returned to England, and plunged into gaming and other excesses.

For a time he was Captain of the Guards in Ireland, but resigned his commission to a poor gentleman who had saved his life in a brawl, and returned to London, where he became Master of the Horse to the Duchess of York, and married Lady Frances, daughter of the Earl of Burlington. The latter part of his life was entirely devoted to literary pursuits. With his friend Dryden he contemplated the formation of a society for refining the English language, and fixing its standard. Johnson says of his writings : "We must allow of Roscommon that he is perhaps the only correct writer of verse before Addison; and that if there are not so many or so great beauties in his composition as in those of some cotemporaries, there are at least fewer faults. Nor is this his highest praise; for Mr. Pope has celebrated him as the only moral writer of King Charles's reign... His great work, his Essay on Translated Verse, though generally excellent, is not without its faults... Among his smaller works, the Eclogues of Virgil and the Dies Irae are well translated, though the best line in the Dies Irae is borrowed from Dryden... He is elegant, but not great; he never labours after exquisite beauties, 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."

On the point of retiring to live in Rome, he was carried off rather suddenly by an attack of gout in the stomach, 17th January 1684. Johnson says: "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 Irae:

"My God, my Father, and my Friend,
Do not forsake me in my end."

He was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey. Both Dryden and Pope have perpetuated his name in their poems.


198. Johnson's English Poets: Edited by Alexander Chalmers. 21 vols. London, 1810.

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