Thomas Dermody, "On a Dead Negro" (1807)



ON A DEAD NEGRO

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AT length the tyrant stays his iron rod,
At length the iron rod can hurt no more;
The slave soft slumbers 'neath this verdant sod,
And all his years of misery are o'er.

Perchance, his soul was framed of finest mould,
His heart to goodness feelingly aspir'd;
Perchance, strong sense his every word controul'd,
And glow'd his breast with heat seraphic fir'd.

Perchance his deeds bely'd his sable hue,
And every sentiment deserv'd a throne:
But labour hid him from the general view,
And fell oppression mark'd him for her own.

O'er his low grave no tender parents weep,
Nor widow wails his loss, by all forgot;
No friends sincere their holy vigils keep,
Nor infant fingers deck the mournful spot.

Yet, far more honour'd his unsculptur'd tomb,
More sacred far than all the vaulted great;
Unwonted brightness clears his parting gloom,
And Heav'n approving smiles upon his state.

Nor thou with supercilious look deride
This votive strain, or his rough state despise;
How vain thy vaunting, impotent thy pride!
Behold him, thy superior in the skies.

Though learning fled his rude untutor'd mind,
And all the superfluities of art;
Though to his form the graces ne'er inclined,
His were the beauties of the head and heart.

Full oft the primrose courts the hawthorn shade,
And spreads her fragrance on the mean resort;
Full oft the cot receives the peasant's head,
Whose wond'rous merits had adorn'd a court.

Pass but some æras with a rapid flight,
Where then the splendours of this terrine ball?
Sunk in the bosom of oblivion's night;
And death, the ancient chronicler of all.

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Notes on the poem

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Introduction

A genius's life has always something uncommon and different from every other: so Thomas Dermody's brief life (1775-1802) is marked by many extravagances and unfortunate adventures. The period of his lifetime embraces many historical events that changed the face of Europe: the most agitated period of the abolition controversy (1788-1792), the French Revolution (1789) , and the Act of Union between England and Ireland (1801).
The revelation of Dermody's poetical talent began very early, at the age of nine, when he was Classics asistant in the same school ( in Ireland) where his father, an alcoholic, taught. While still a child the so called "Irish Chatterton" ran away to Dublin where he lived under the protection of several wealthy patrons, each of whom abandoned him in turn. Dermody spent most of his days in debt, walking the streets and intoxicated, a vexation to his patrons. Most disappointed of all, perhaps, was Rev. Austin, who published a collection of Dermody's poems in 1792. In 1793 Dermody exalted the ideals of the French Revolution through his pamphlet The Right of Justice or Rational Liberty. His enlistment in the army at the age of 19 seemed to mark a new turning point in his life. The enlistment brought him to England and gave him the satisfaction of a promotion as a second lieutenant. It also promised him, for the first time, a measure of independence from the yoke of patronage. Dermody, however, turned back to the abuse of alcohol which led in turn back to poverty. He returned to live in the streets where he died as a wretched beggar, ill and drunk, in 1802 at the age of twenty-seven. His memorable last words were:"I am vicious because I like it".

The date of publication of The Harp of Erin (1807), edited by James Grant Raymond, coincides with the approval of the Abolition Act prohibiting the slave trade. "On a Dead Negro" is a very touching anti-slavery poem that denounces the oppression suffered by slaves and compares the different destinies that the "seraphic" and noble soul of the "dead negro" and the "supercilious" soul of his tyrant will meet.The use of the article "a" in the title indicates that the subject of the poem is not a definite person but one "dead negro" like many others, without an identity, as many (beginning with the slave-traders) then believed. Dermody's reproach towards the owner of slaves is very strong: "How vain thy vaunting, impotent thy pride!" (23). Death, the "ancient chronicler of all", finally gives rest to the negro of the title, whose "years of misery are o'er" (4).

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Bibliographical note

Dermody, Thomas "On a Dead Negro", The Harp of Erin, containing the poetical works of the late Thomas Dermody, vol. 2 (London: Richard Phillips, 1807), pp.118-119.
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This hypertext was created on November 2, 1999, by Carmela Grillone.