Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Delap, John

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DELAP, JOHN, D.D. (1725–1812), poet and dramatist, son of John Delap, gentleman, of Spilsby in Lincolnshire, was originally entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, but migrated to Magdalene College, and was admitted pensioner on 15 March 1743. He took the degrees of B.A. in 1747, M.A. in 1750, and D.D. in 1762, being described on the last occasion as of Trinity College. On 30 Dec. 1748 he was elected to a fellowship at Magdalene, and on 4 March 1749 was admitted into its emoluments. He was ordained in the English church, and was once curate to Mason the poet. The united benefices of Iford and Kingston, near Lewes in Sussex, were conferred on him in 1765, and he became rector of Woollavington in the same county in 1774, but did not reside at either of his livings, as he preferred to dwell at South Street, Lewes, where he died in 1812, aged 87. Delap was the author of numerous works long since forgotten. The first of them was ‘Marcellus, a Monody,’ 1751, which was inspired by the death of the worthless eldest son of George II, and was inscribed to his widow the Princess of Wales. It was succeeded by a small bundle of elegies (1760), in which the hypochondriacal author is said to have ‘very feelingly lamented his want of health,’ and of which the two elegies still to be read in Pearch's ‘Collection of Poems,’ i. 77–84, and obviously imbued with the influence of Gray's pieces in the same line, are presumably specimens. His thesis for his divinity degree (12 April 1762) was published in 1763, and the subject of the paper was ‘Mundi perpetuus administrator Christus.’ Shortly before taking this degree he had appeared before the world as a tragedy writer, a branch of literature in which he made repeated attempts to obtain a success which always eluded his grasp. ‘Hecuba’ was produced at Drury Lane Theatre on 11 Dec. 1761, when the prologue, written by Robert Lloyd, was spoken by Garrick, and the epilogue was written by that great actor, but no external attraction could invest the piece with popularity, and it is coldly but fittingly described by Genest as ‘not void of merit, but cannot by any means be called a good play.’ It was printed anonymously in 1762, and dedicated to Thomas Barrett of Lee, near Canterbury, where the author, as appears from a letter to Garrick (Garrick Correspondence, i. 125), was living in 1761. At the close of that year he was in communication with Garrick on the production of a tragedy entitled ‘Panthea,’ but the piece did not meet with approval, and does not seem to have been produced either on the boards or in print. Undaunted by this failure Delap addressed a long epistle to him in 1762 in favour of a new composition, ‘The Royal Suppliants.’ It was accepted, but not acted until 17 Feb. 1781, when it ran for ten nights at Drury Lane, and was published with a dedication to the poetic Lord Palmerston. Many years previously he sent the unhappy manager a curt note couched in the usual strain of disappointed play-writers, announcing his intention of trying the other house, where Colman ruled, but in 1774 he returned to his old love with the tragedy of the ‘Royal Exiles,’ which poor Garrick was obliged to refuse. In the language of Genest a ‘moderate’ tragedy with the title of ‘The Captives’ was written by Delap, and represented on the stage of Drury Lane on 9 March 1786, but it was only acted three times, and, though published in the same year, was not more successful in print. Kemble, in a letter to Malone, is far more emphatic on both points: ‘The captives were set at liberty last night amidst roars of laughter. … Cadell bought this sublime piece before it appeared for fifty pounds, agreeing to make it a hundred on its third representation’ (Prior, Malone, pp. 125–6). An unacted play, called ‘Gunilda,’ pronounced as ‘on the whole doing the author credit,’ is said to have been published in 1786, but after that date the indefatigable author reverted to other kinds of poetic composition. These pieces were ‘An Elegy on the Death of the Duke of Rutland,’ 1788; ‘Sedition, an Ode occasioned by his Majesty's late Proclamation,’ 1792; and ‘The Lord of Nile, an Elegy,’ 1799. The last of his publications consisted of four unacted plays in one volume of ‘Dramatic Poems: Gunilda, Usurper, Matilda, and Abdalla,’ 1803, one of which, ‘Gunilda,’ had been issued to the world previously, and all are damned with the faintest praise by Genest. Delap used to visit the Thrales when they repaired to Brighton or Tunbridge Wells, and through this introduction became known to Johnson and Miss Burney. He came under the lash of the former for dwelling too much on his internal complaints, and is described by the latter as ‘commonly and naturally grave, silent, and absent, but when any subject is once begun upon which he has anything to say he works it threadbare. … He is a man of deep learning, but totally ignorant of life and manners.’ She was obliged to read one of his productions in manuscript, and found it better than, from her knowledge of the author, she had expected.

[Gent. Mag. January 1813, p. 89; Lower's Sussex Worthies, p. 328; Genest's English Stage, x. 224–6; Hayward's Mrs. Piozzi, i. 97, 152; Madame d'Arblay's Diary, i. 211, 213–19, ii. 182; Garrick Correspondence, i. 125–6, 150–2, 327–9, 627; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; Magdalene College Records.]

W. P. C.