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William Dennis entered Trinity College in 1743 at the age of fourteen. The Matriculation book states that he was the son of one Barneby Dennis, and was born in Dublin and educated "sub ferula Magistri Butler." He was Burke's chum, sharing rooms with him in Trinity. From the pages of the Club Minute Book he, like Buck, appears to have been a man of considerable ability. He had literary tastes, and published some of his writings even when in college. As appears from the letter dated 12th March, 1746, from Burke to Shackleton, Dennis was the author of Brutus' Letter to the Town1. On 14th October, 1747, Dennis wrote a Panegyric Poem on the Rt Hon. Robert Jocelyn (Lord Chancellor)—"Thinking that those who wrote panegyrics should chuse the most worthy, and those who want help the most powerful.”
In the Proceedings of the Club Dennis plays, after Burke, the most important part. He received the honour of being elected first Censor, and on 26th May, 1747, we find it “Order'd that Mr Dennis be perpetual treasurer and that no one else intermeddle with the accounts or fines but the President or Censor." On the Second Lustrum, when Burke was Censor, on 26th June, he "examines the Treasurer's accounts and is satisfied concerning them." On the same night it is "Ordered that Mr Dennis be allowed 1d. per fortnight to supply the Society with paper quills and ink" and also that "whoever does not pay his debts to the Society in a week after Notice is admonished." It was the Secretary's business to give notice of a fine, for Burke was fined on two occasions for failing to notify Ardesoif of his fines. It was not, however, till a committee meeting of Monday 6th June, 1747, that we hear of any Club subscription. In the Minutes of that meeting it is ordained that "all Members who receive a Patent from the Club shall give sixpence English as a fine to the Society," and also that "all future members shall deposit sixpence English with the Treasurer for the use of the Society."
Dennis graduated B.A. in 1747, and received the degree of LL.D. in 1768. He took Holy Orders and became Rector of Dunmore in the Diocese of Tuam, and through Burke's influence was subsequently appointed to the parishes of Clane and Clonshambo, in the Diocese of Kildare.
On 3rd August, 1752, Dennis wrote from Clonmel to Shackleton2:
I have got sense enough to know my letters are of little worth and though they were equal to Voiture's, I have got such ties to the world and business
1 Ante pp. 119, 128.
? This correspondence is among the Shackleton MSS. in Mrs Pilgrim's possession.
that my span of life is quite filled. Since I saw you, I transplanted my wife into the more kindly soil of Munster and, thank God, my hopes have succeeded. She set up a Boarding School and has 4 boarders at £12 per. an. and a Guinea Entrance, with 9 Day Scholars at £2 and 10/- Entrance. I myself make about £34 per. an. so that between us we have £100 per. an. my diet and washing, and a prospect of much more. We left town £60 in debt, and by the sale of goods &c. since, we are now before the world.
After pressing Shackleton to come and visit him in Clonmel, he says
Oh! Dick, if you knew how much I feel the want of a friend like you or Ned, you'd wish yourself near me. I am forsaken. Our knot is dissolved and, like the company of a wrecked ship, we are all so busy in supporting ourselves through this sea of troubles we have no time to look much further.
Writing from Clonmel, 3rd January, 1757, to Shackleton, he adds a postscript "Is there any news of Ned? For I have not had a line from him this 3 years."
In the same year, 1757, he composed a poem on "Man's Redemption," "An Ode, inscribed to the Rt. Reverend Father in God, Michael, Lord Archbishop of Cashel, and with approbation of his Grace published by Wm. Dennis1."
On 6th May, 1757, he "laid these verses at the feet of his Grace in the hope that they might not prove unworthy of his attention." They appear not to have received much of it, for Dennis wrote some time afterwards to Shackleton that an event had occurred
unexpected and marvellous, what you and posterity will scarce will believe, what I scarce credited myself until reading over and over, I found it really what in truth it was, neither more nor less than a letter from his Grace of Cashel's Prime Minister (his secretary) acknowledging the receipt of the poem and signifying his consent to my publishing it!
He tells, however, that the Archbishop "had not desired to see him, or made any suggestion of defraying the expense of printing" the "Confutation of Atheism" contained in the stanzas on Man's Redemption. But he said this would not prevent him
sending the poem to the press soon as I hear from Ned Burke, whom I wrote to this post, about selling my copy in England. The subject is such as I shall be proud to subscribe my name to.
Four months afterwards Dennis writes to Shackleton
1 Michael Cox, Archbishop of Cashel, 1754–79.
5th, August 1757.
I should have answered your last queries if the openness of our friend Ned Burke had made me better acquainted with affairs than you are. I had a letter from him last Saturday, and as I never asked so he never revealed anything how he lived. There is a letter from him to you at Isaac Jackson's and one of his books, perhaps you will learn something by them more than we know. It slipped out of my mind whether I told you his wife's name was Nugent, daughter to a Popish physician in Bath of little or no fortune, handsome and sensible1. Ned, I fancy, writes pamphlets for the Great Ones, for he continues to visit Lord Egmont very constantly, as I hear from one who was his fellow student2. He is well known to Lord Granville, and, I hear further, is speedily to get £300 for a book he has in hands, whose title is unmentioned. He tells me poetry has utterly left him, but then he is a severe critick, and has put me out of sorts about the beginning and end of my Ode (ill judging Dennis that adopted your conclusion) so that you bear a part in his censure. He extolls greatly from the 14th to the 25th stanza. If I had ability for altering equal to his judgement, that piece would out-top you puny mortals like a Colossus, but it is not mine to make it adequate to his taste. However I have stopped the publication 'till I review it once more and try to rub the rust off all my antique stiff style.
1 His wife was Miss Jane Mary Nugent, daughter of Dr Christopher Nugent, an eminent physician, who practised in Bath and London. Her father was a Roman Catholic, but her mother a rigid Presbyterian who educated her daughter in the same tenets, which she strictly retained. (Prior, 5th ed., p. 49.)
2 This continued association of Burke as a writer of pamphlets for "the Great Ones" with Lord Egmont throws light on the probable inspiration of Egmont's speech on 22nd May, 1753, on the Jews Naturalization Bill, and Hazlitt's comments in vol. I, p. 521, of his Eloquence of the British Senate on the following passage in it: "Sir, it is not common sense, but downright madness, to follow general principles in this wild manner, without limitation or reserve; and give me leave to say one thing, which I hope will be long remembered and well thought upon by those who hear me, that those gentlemen who plume themselves upon their open and extensive understanding, are in fact the men of the narrowest principles in the kingdom. For what is a narrow mind? It is a mind that sees any proposition in one single contracted point of view, unable to complicate any subject with the circumstances and considerations that are, or may, or ought to be, combined with it. And pray, what is that understanding that looks upon naturalization only in this general view, that naturalization is an increase of the people and an increase of the people is the riches of the nation? Never admitting the least reflection, what the people are you let in upon us; how in the present bad regulation of our police, they are to be employed or maintained; how their principles, opinions, or practice may influence the religion or politicks of the State, or what operation their admission may have upon the peace and tranquillity of the country; is not such a genius equally contemptible and narrow with that of the poorest mortal upon earth, who grovels for his whole life within the verge of the opposite extreme?"
"This passage (writes Hazlitt) discovers more real depth of thought than anything else I have found in the course of these debates. There may be observations of equal value in Burke, but there is no single observation in any part of his works more profound, original, acute, and comprehensive, it may indeed be said to contain the germ of all his political reasoning (See his French Revolution, etc.). In this
Burke had sent Dennis a copy of The Sublime and Beautiful along with his criticism on the ode. Apparently Dennis did rub up his poem, for a copy of it is now in Trinity College, Dublin, and in the Bradshaw Collection, Cambridge.
In March, 1758, Dennis again wrote to Shackleton
Your liking my Ode is some amends for the World and the worldly Bishops neglecting it. The sale will not pay me unless you can dispose of two or three hundred, and yet you do not tell me whether you have received one yet. I have been engaged in a doughty contest with Sheridan lately, but know not yet how it will end. Why do not ye learned and virtuous assist in destroying this pretender to Science, who would graft Education on a playhouse and make mimic orators. I have lost my old ally Brennan, who went to London last January, thence never to return.
Then follows a criticism of The Sublime and Beautiful which is interesting as coming from the chum of Burke who shared his rooms in Trinity, when the book was conceived and partly written and who must often have discussed with him the philosophy of its basis.
I have heard nothing from Ned since October but have twice read and am now reading his Book, which I sincerely think a masterly performance and in a manner entirely new. I wonder at your little curiosity not to read a friend's performance before now. You ask about Hutchinson's book and what is the difference. A great deal, my friend. One is a moral, the other a critical work. The moral piece corrupts and the critical enlarges the understanding. Hutchinson's treatise is an establishment of morals from the Beauty, order, fitness and rectitude of actions, and this indirectly saps religion by representing virtue independent of it; but our friend anatomizes our passions and the objects of them, and thus teaches by sound logical principles how the arts are to be judged, and how the Artist or Writer is to operate if he would affect the soul with sublimity and beauty. A work indeed immaterial to the Crowd, but highly valuable to men of taste.
In April, 1758, he wrote again to Shackleton
I neither hear from Ned nor write to him. I believe what you say of selling my Ode, for religious writings, like religion itself, must be crammed into peoples mouths before they will swallow them and even then will not rest on their disordered stomachs.
As to my combat with Sheridan, I doubt whether either of my pamphlets came to your hand. One is a Second Oration to the Hibernian Society," and another "An Address to the Hibernian Society with a Plan of Education speech we find the first denunciation of the intrusion of abstract theorems and metaphysical generalities into the science of politics."
Burke is far more likely to have schooled Egmont in political philosophy than Egmont Burke.
See also Payne's Introduction to Burke, Select Works (Clarendon Press, 1876), vol. I, p. xix.
in a Letter to the University." You will find it a hardy attempt of more truth perhaps than prudence. I am singular in my sentiments of players and teachers, so that it is a doubt whether the world or they will be of my opinion, If without vanity I might say it, my case is like Cato's in the Civil War, Pompey and the Senate on one side, Caesar and the Commons on the other, and in the middle the Republic Liberty and Cato.
Burke's letter, 10th August, 1757, to Shackleton says, when sending him The Sublime and Beautiful:
This letter is accompanied by a little performance of mine which I will not consider as ineffectual, if it contributes to your amusement. It lay by me for a good while, and I at last ventured it out. It has not been ill received, so far as a matter on so abstracted a subject meets with readers. Will you accept it as a sort of offering in atonement for my former delinquencies? If I would not have you think that I have forgot you, so neither would I have your father, to whom I am under obligations that I neither can nor wish to shake off. I am really concerned for the welfare of you all, and for the credit of the school where I received the education that, if I am anything, has made me so1. I hear with great satisfaction the account of Kearney's being chosen a Fellow in our college. My brother Dick is now with me, and joins me very sincerely in the sentiments I have for you, your father, and your mother; and, shall I add for Mrs Shackleton? for I will not suppose myself a stranger to one who is so nearly related to you. I am now a married man myself; and therefore claim some respect from the married fraternity2.
From Clonmel, where Dennis was apparently teaching in a school, he removed to the parish of Durrow in Co. Carlow. There Burke visited him, as appears from a letter from Burke to Shackleton in August, 17663.
Rev. W. Dennis to Shackleton.
6th Oct. 1759.
So long is it since I have heard from the triumvirate, I have most valued these fifteen years. Ned, like a Colossus, strides above us wrapped in his own sublimity he cannot look down on his humble friends. Brennan has strayed to London, and is lost amid the crowd of new wits and new faces and forgets those who valued him most; and you enveloped in shades,
1 In the copy Burke wrote
"To Mr. Richard Shackleton from the Author.
"Accipe et haec manuum tibi quae monumenta mearum sint et longum testantur amorem."
2 The marriage was a most happy one and his beautiful description of The Idea of a Wife which he left for her on the morning of the thirteenth anniversary of their marriage is one of the most perfect pieces of prose in the English language.
She survived Burke and died on 2nd April, 1812, aged 78. There were two children of the marriage, Richard, born in February, 1758, who died 2nd August, 1794, unmarried; and Christopher, born in December, 1758, who died in infancy.
3 Fitz. Cor. 1, 108.