William Preston

1753-1807, b. Dublin; ed TCD, Bar, Judge of Appeals; poetry and plays, including Offa and Ethelbert, or the Saxon Princess (1791); his Poems (1793) published by subscription of 276 names; favoured Catholic Emancipation; well represented in Ellis’s Songs of Ireland and Edkin’s collections of 1789-90. ODNB PI DIW RAF.


Offa and Ethelbert or The Saxon Princes, based on Hume’s History of England; Messene Freed (Crow St., 12 Jan 1792), based on Abbé Bathelemy’s Travels of Anarcharsis and Rosamunda or The Daughter Revenge, taken from story of Alboinus, in An Ancient Universal History; a song for a unprinted trag., The Adopted Son; also The Democratic Rage or Louis the Unfortunate (Crow St. June 1793 1793, applauded; The Siege of Ismail, unacted trag.(1794). [See Peter Kavanagh, The Irish Theatre (Tralee: The Kerryman 1946).]

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William Smith Clark, The Early Irish Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1955; Connecticut 1973), cites William Preston of Dublin’s play, Democratic Rage; or, Louis the Unfortunate (Dublin, June; Cork, August, 1793) in Irish Stage in Country Towns, p. 290.

W. B. Stanford, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (1984), p.170: William Preston ‘grabbled manfully with the Hellenistic complexities of Apollonius Rhodius in his Argonautica (1811).

Patrick Rafroidi, Irish Literature in English, The Romantic Period, 1789-1850, Vol 1 (1980), William Preston, Poetical Works (1793) [includes pref. lamenting that there is no statute in Ireland for the protection of ‘literary property’, p.xv.]; ALSO, William Preston , Reflections on the Peculiarites of Style and Manner in the Late German Writers Whose Works have appeared in English, and on the Tendency of their Productions (Dublin 1801). ‘Having drawn the articles of my poetical belief from Aristotle ... I must own it has moved my bile to marke the growth and prevalence of the strange and preposterous partiality for the Gothic productions of the German school ... &c; condemns German theatrical output ‘with its trains of ghosts, goblins, fiends and enchanters.’ He ends, ‘Is not this revolution ... a prelude to other revolutions; a small skirth of the cloud, like a man’s hand, ushering in the blackening tempest?’ [3-4]. 32 poems by him appeared in Edkin’s anthology under the title A Very Long Tale about Nothing, from the German [J. Edkins, A collection of Poems, 1801, III, p.262.] Rafroidi remarks on the intuitive knowledge that forms of power and of literature interact. ‘After all, a colonist know where his best interests lie and does not play the sorcerer’s apprentice.’ [5]

Further: William Preston, Democratic Rage, or Louis the Unfortunate, a tragedy acted successfully at Crow St. June 1793), it includes tirade against a Royalist, Kersain, ‘Tice happy Britain!/There the mild genius of her virtuous sons/Insures the temp’rate rule of equal laws/Justice and decent order; pure alike/From eastern softness, and from gothic fury,/That fill th’unhappy Frank. Alike they shun/The tyranny of democratic rage/That levels all distinction; and more hateful,/Tho’, sure, less noxious, of despotic power.’ (London ed. 1793, Act. I.v, p.20.) [15] FURTHER, William Preston, defender of the Rule, came out nonetheless in favour of the irregular over the Pindaric ode. ‘Thoughts on Lyric Poetry’, in The Poetical Works, 1793, vol. 2. [n.p.] Equally contradictorily, his violent opposition to German romantics is balanced by a note preceeding his poem ‘Myrrha’, and justifying an enexpected conclusion, ‘it may be objected that scenes of horror, like the subject of the following little poem, ought rather to be covered with a veil ... For my justification, I shall resort to the authority of the old Greek tragedians, who thought the dreadful stories of Oedipus and Medea, not unfit for represtentat on the public stage. The mind loves to have her feelings roused. (p.16) ‘Myrrha’ had appered without this note, in Edkin’s anthology of 1790. [57]. BIBL., Rafroidi, op. cit. (1980), Vol II, ‘a strong partisan of the established order ... he was hostile to the Union and favoured Catholic Emancipation’. Works, [A Congratulatory Poem on the Last Successes of the British Arms, Dublin, 1776]; A Heroic Epistle to Mr. Twiss (1776); The Court Mirrors, or the Age of Loyalty, an hist. panegyric (1776); 1777; or A Picture of the Manners and Characters of the Age (Dublin 1777); Heroic epistle from Mr. Manly (1778); The Female Congress, or the Temple of Cottyto (1779); The Contract, poem (1780); Poems on Several Occasions (1781). Work after 1789 include Offa and Ethelbert, or the Saxon Princes, trag (Archer, Dublin 1791); Messene Freed, or the Cruel Virtue, trag (Dublin 1793); Democratic Rage, or Louis the Unfortunate, trag. (1793); Rosamunda, or the Daughter’s Revenge, trag (Dublin 1793); The Siege of Ismail, or A Prospect of War, trag. (1794); Reflections on the Peculiarites of Style and Manner in the Late German Writers whose works have appeared in English ... (1801); Some Considerations on the History of Ancient Amatory Writers (1801); [The Argonotics, verse trans., 1803); [Epistle to Robert Anderson M.D. Edinburgh, 1806]; The Posthumous Poems of William Preston, Esq., late One of the Judges of Appeal ... (Dublin 1809). Other works include poems in Edkins, J., ed. A Collection of Poems (1789), and in Poetical Register and Repository of Fugitive Poetry for 1806-07 (1811). ALSO, William Preston, Poetical Works (1793), includes pref. lamenting that there is no statute in Ireland for the protection of ‘literary property’, p.xv; see Patrick Rafroidi, Irish Literature in English, Vol 1 (1980).

Joseph Leersson, Mere Irish & Fíor Ghael (1986), Bibl., William Preston, An heroic epislte from Donna Teresa Pinna y Ruiz, of Murcia, to Richard Twiss, Esq., FRS (Dublin 1776); An heroic answer from Richard Twiss, Esq. FRS, at Rotterdam, to Donna Teresa Pinna y Ruiz, of Murcia (Dublin 1776).

Gerry Smyth, Decolonisation and Criticism: The Construction of Irish Literature, London: Pluto Press 1998, pp.58-60, quoting ‘Thoughts on Lyric Poetry’ (paper before RIA, 11 Dec., 1787): ‘To the several advantages which Europe has within these later centuries experienced from the cultivation of science and polite literature, this kingdom unfortunately remained in aa great measure a stranger. As no Irishman’s partiality will deny this, so mno man’;s prehjudice should be suffered to make it an occasion of illiberal imputation on the capacity of Irishmen, while in the state of the country so many local peculiarities may be found fully sufficient to account for it.’ (RIA Transactions, MDCCLXXXVII, 1787, p.ix; Smyth, p.58); ‘The mere regular return of an uniform stanza, if that stanza does not afford a copious interchange of melodious sounds, is not a work of much difficulty in the execution, or merit in the perusal; neither can it be said to impose any very strong, at least it does not impose any very useful curb, on the wayward imagination; nor will it, I presume, be found a very effectual means of excluding compositions wild and jejune: In truth, I am inclined to doubt whether this desirable end can be obtained by the adoption of strophe, antistrophe, and epode. It would be invidious to quote particular instances, but any one who will take the trouble of turning over some of our miscellaneous collections, and other books of modern poetry, will find things called odes, which are at once wild and jejune, though trimmed and laced up in the straight waistcoat of strophe, antistrophe, and epode, according to all the severities of the Greek masters.’ (ibid., p.60; Smythe p.59); ‘A correspondence of the sound with the sentiment is certainly a very great beauty, and the poet should endeavour to obtain it, whenever it may be had, without sacrificing more important things [...]. Now, I believe it cannot be denied [...]that a free stanza, which may be varied at will, and made light and airy, slow and plaintive, or swelling and sonorous, according to the subject matter, will give the poet a much better chance of attaining this excellence, whatever may be its value.’ (ibid., p.71; Smythe, p.58)’ ‘I have not a doubt within my mind of the irregular ode being the first form of composition adopted by mankind, in their first wild attempts at literature. Poetry has ever been the delight of men in the first stages of society: the earliest recitals of events among them have been in verse [...]. The first literary production, in an unpolished nation, where the pure dictates of nature prevailed, was a poem, and that poem an irregular ode . .. and I am confrmed in my opinion, by finding that several specimens of the antient poetry of uncivilised nations bear this form.’ (ibid., p.73; Smythe, idem.) NOTE, Smyth comments: ‘There is a tension between wishing to disown the badge of subordination (Irishman) and desiring to demonstrate their ability for cultural and political leadership by trafficking in valuable cultural currency to which they, as particular kinds of (Anglo-) Irishmen, have access.’ (ibid., p.59); Further, ‘the Anglo-Irishman Preston, on the other hand, argues for irregularity, accusing those who adhere to the clasical code of “pedantry” and “servile imitation”.’ [idem].

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D. J. O’Donoghue, Poets of Ireland (Dublin: Hodges Figgis 1912), The Contract, a poem (1780), Poems on Several Occasions (1781) The Female Congress (1777), The Saxon Princes, trag. (1793), and other works, all published in Dublin; Democratic Rage, trag. (Lon. 1793), The Siege of Ishmael (1794); Poetical Works, 2 vol. (Dublin 1793);

Dictionary of National Biography, calls him a poet and dramatist; b. St. Michan’s Parish, Dublin; ed. TCD; Middle Temple, and Irish Bar, 1777; founder member of Dublin Library Soc., , and Royal Irish Academy, 1786, holding the post of secretary during his life; occasional poems in United Irishmen, Press, and contrib. to Pranceriana, and anthologised by Joshua Edkins; his play, Democratic Rage, Dublin 1793, was a success. Died of over-work. SEE also WEBB.


‘The Irish, with a number of good qualities, are yet, collectively taken, an unlettered people. We have few readers among us, and, of the few that do read, a very small proportion are capable of thinking, or of judging for themselves.’ (Preface to his Poems, 1793; cited in Richard Cargill Cole, Irish Booksellers and English Writers, 1740-1800, 1986, p.16.)

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