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George Dyer

Along with Joseph Priestley, William Godwin and George Dyer (Figure 8.2) (all classically trained liberal Nonconformists, predominantly Unitarians), Barbauld entered the radical London set that centred around the courageous revolutionary bookseller Joseph Johnson (1738-1809). It was under Priestley’s influence that Johnson—raised as a Baptist—embraced Unitarianism, becoming the key publisher for the writers produced by the Warrington Academy. Dyer (1755-1841), the son of a Thames boatman, was himself educated under a scholarship at Christ’s Hospital and then as a sizar (student whose place is financed but who is required to earn it by doing jobs) at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. When tutoring in Cambridge, Dyer, via a disciple of Priestley named William Frend (on whom see below, p. 297), embraced the Unitarianism that would drive, in an unostentatious manner, his reformist writings.28 His political pamphlet Complaints of the Poor People of England (1793), which carried the legend Fiat Jnstitia (‘Let there be Justice’), stimulated by Paine’s Rights of Man (1791—1792), called for social change, drawing on Dyer’s own experience of poverty and expressing fellow-feeling for the poor of Britain. It is written accessibly, with only one Latin quotation, for which a translation is provided.29 But his lucid rhetoric, especially

‘George Dyer, with his dog, Daphne’ by Henry Hoppner Meyer. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

FIGURE 8.2 ‘George Dyer, with his dog, Daphne’ by Henry Hoppner Meyer. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

the anaphora, rhetorical questions (hypophora) and cultivated indignation, owe as much to Cicero as to the pulpits of the Dissenting divines:

I have seen the rich man pay with reluctance, what has been earned with hard labour; and insult, when he ought to have relieved. I have seen the poor man, after the toil of the day, return at night to behold nothing but want and wretchedness in a numerous family ... I have heard men plead for keeping slaves in the West-Indies, and treating them like beasts, by asking, Are they not as well off as many poor people in England?30

Dyer fulminates against the class stratification of society in all areas of British life, using transhistorical parallels and contrasts. Talented common soldiers’ careers were capped at the non-commissioned rank of sergeant-major, and Dyer protests, ‘How different was the policy of those nations, whose military glory has been the wonder of ages! I mean the ancient Spartans, the Athenians, the Romans, and our warlike ancestors the Saxons!’31

In the same breath, as he draws on ancient exempla, he looks to revolutionary America and France for contemporary inspiration:

The common people (so we call the poor) in America and France, understand the nature of government. Why? In those countries government is formed by the people, and made to serve their interest. This was also the case of some of the States of ancient Greece, particularly Athens and Argos. ... The English government is formed by the rich and great, and to them it is favourable, but to the poor it is highly injurious. ... No men understand the secrets of government but those who plan them. These men are enriching themselves and their families, and leave the common people to toil and beggary.32

Following the ferocious clampdown on the freedom of speech which Charles James Fox dated precisely to the 1798 trials for seditious libel of classicist Gilbert Wakefield (see below) and his associates, including Johnson,33 Dyer turned his primary attention to editing classical literature. His work on Abraham Valpy’s multi-volume edition (1819-1830; see above p. 28) damaged his eyesight.

Always an eccentric character with a dreamy disposition, Dyer’s poor eyesight added dangerously to his absent-mindedness. One day, he turned the wrong way from his friend Charles Lamb’s lodgings in Oxford and walked fully clothed into the river.34 Leigh Hunt relates that he once walked all the way home from a dinner in Hampstead before realising he had left one shoe underneath the dinner table.35 He was teased by contemporaries for being bookish and poorly turned out. Lamb described him as ‘busy as a moth over some rotten archive ... in a nook at Oriel’,36 and observed that Dyer’s ‘Nankeen Pantaloons ... were absolutely ingrained with the accumulated dirt of ages’.37 Given his grubby eccentricity, he was a candidate for our Chapter 15, on ‘ragged-trousered philologists’. But he was also, more significantly, a leading proponent of the Dissenting tradition and radical reform (and may have become more freshly attired after his marriage to Honour Mather in 1824). For Lamb, his classicism, piety, political views, social conscience and daydreaming were all of one inextricable piece:

For with George Dyer, to be absent from the body is sometimes (not to speak profanely) to be present with the Lord. At the very time when, personally encountering thee, he passes on with no recognition - or, being stopped, starts like a thing surprised - at that moment, reader, he is on Mount Tabor, or Parnassus, or co-sphered with Plato, or, with Harrington, framing “immortal commonwealths” - devising some plan of amelioration to thy country, or thy species.38

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