Thomas Parnell was an Irish born poet and clergyman who became known as one of the so-called “Graveyard Poets”. His clerical appointments included the post of archdeacon in the diocese of Clogher in 1705, a small parish in County Tyrone, now part of Northern Ireland.
He was born on the 11th September 1679 in Maryborough, Queen’s County. Nowadays the town is known as Port Laoise and sits in the Irish midlands region called County Laoise. His father, a wealthy landowner, had been a staunch supporter of the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. This continued, even after the restoration of the monarchy when he moved back to Ireland. Thomas received a good education, entering Trinity College, Dublin at the age of fourteen.
It is not known whether it was his own, or his father’s ambition, to enter the church but he was a deacon of the Episcopal Church by his 20th year. Following his appointment to archdeacon six years later he was soon married but, alas, this was a short-lived affair. His wife died only five years later.
He had a keen interest in literature and, when he moved to London, he was soon enjoying the company of famous satirical writers such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. The three men were members of a literary group called the Scriblerus Club, a collection of august writers which also included Henry St John, John Gay and John Arbuthnot. The group only existed for a little over 30 years, running from 1714 to 1745.
Parnell was a contributor of articles to The Spectator magazine and was a keen assistant to Pope who was working on a major translation of Homer’s ancient Greek epic poem, The Iliad. Parnell actually wrote the introduction to this translation. His “graveyard” poetry included one called A Night-Piece on Death which many literary historians have considered to be the first of its genre. Here is a three-verse extract from this sombre poem:
It was never published during Parnell’s short life time though. In fact, the only poetry of Parnell’s that was published while he was alive was seen in a variety of periodicals. Pope included A Night-Piece on Death in his own collection, Poems on Several Occasions, which was published in either 1721 or 1722. Other writers described Parnell’s poetry as
His work could never be described as memorable though and he may have been more or less forgotten had he not had his biography written by Samuel Johnson, included in his collection of biographies called Lives of the Poets. Even this was not published during the author’s lifetime and it was left to Pope to ensure its publication.
His life was cut short on a journey from England back to Ireland in the autumn of 1718. He was returning home to take up an appointment as vicar of Finglass and, while staying in Chester, it is believed that he over indulged in his alcoholic intake and died. Having already lost his wife and children his estate in County Laoise passed to his brother John.
Thomas Parnell died on the 24th October 1718 at the young age of only 39.