Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dyce, Alexander

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DYCE, ALEXANDER (1798–1869), scholar, eldest son of Lieutenant-general Alexander Dyce of the East India Company's service, was born in George Street, Edinburgh, 30 June 1798. His mother was a daughter of Neil Campbell of Duntroon and Oib, Argyllshire, and a sister of Sir Neil Campbell, sometime governor of Sierra Leone. The year after his birth his parents sailed for India, leaving him in charge of two of his father's sisters at Aberdeen. He was educated at the Edinburgh High School, proceeded in 1815 to Exeter College, Oxford, and took his bachelor's degree in 1819. It was his father's wish that he should enter the service of the East India Company; but Dyce had no taste for this career, and accepted the alternative of taking orders. Between 1822 and 1825 he served two curacies, first at Llanteglos, a fishing village near Fowey, Cornwall, and afterwards at Nayland in Suffolk. In 1825 he abandoned clerical work, settled at Gray's Inn Square, and devoted himself to literary pursuits. So early as 1818, in his undergraduate days, he had edited Jarvis's dictionary of the language of Shakespeare, and in 1821, shortly before his ordination, he had published at Oxford a little volume of translations in blank verse of selected passages of Quintus Smyrnæus. In 1825 he published ‘Specimens of British Poetesses,’ and in 1827 he edited Collins's poems. Two volumes of his edition of George Peele appeared in 1828, and were republished in 1829; a third volume, containing rare works to which he had not had access when the earlier volumes were issued, followed in 1839. In 1830 he published, from a manuscript, ‘Demetrius and Enanthe’ (Fletcher's ‘Humorous Lieutenant’), and collected the works of John Webster in four volumes. His edition of the plays and poems of Robert Greene, in two volumes, appeared in 1831, and in 1833 he completed Gifford's edition of Shirley, editing a part of the sixth volume, and writing the memoir. Between 1831 and 1835 he contributed to Pickering's ‘Aldine’ series editions of Beattie, Pope, Akenside, and of Shakespeare's poems; and in 1833 he published ‘Specimens of English Sonnets.’ In 1836–8 he edited the works of Richard Bentley, in three volumes. It had been his intention to produce an exhaustive edition of Bentley; but ‘the indifference of general readers to classical literature,’ he wrote to John Forster, ‘prevented my carrying out the design.’ In 1840 he published an edition of the works of Thomas Middleton, in five volumes, which was followed in 1843 by an edition of Skelton's works, in two volumes. The first volume of his elaborate edition of Beaumont and Fletcher appeared in 1843, and the last volume (the eleventh) in 1846. In 1850 he issued an edition of Marlowe, in three volumes; in 1856 ‘Recollections of the Table Talk of Samuel Rogers;’ and in 1857 an edition of Shakespeare, in nine volumes. Dyce is best and most deservedly known by this edition of Shakespeare. Its textual criticism is of the highest value, and the brief annotations are always useful and to the point. The glossary is full and meets most of the difficulties. A vast number of Shakespearean students regard it as the most readable and satisfactory of all the editions of the dramatist. A second edition of Webster, carefully revised, was published in 1857, one vol.; Peele and Greene, one vol., were re-edited in 1858; Marlowe, one vol., in 1861; and Shakespeare, nine vols., in 1864–1867. His latest work was a revised edition, in three vols., of Gifford's Ford. The preface to that work is dated ‘15 Feb. 1869.’ At the close of June 1868 he wrote to his friend Forster that he was ‘unusually well;’ but at the beginning of August he declared himself to be, though free from pain, ‘ill, ill, ill, exhausted from inability to sleep and to eat, my nights intolerable, my days wearisome, because I cannot read, and when or how it is to end seems uncertain.’ In another letter to Forster, dated 4 Dec. 1868, he wrote: ‘I suspect that I am very gradually dying, and if such is the case, I certainly have no reason to make any childish lamentation, for I have lived a great deal longer than most people who are born into this world, and I look back on my past existence without much disapprobation.’ He was suffering from organic derangement of the liver. In the preface to his edition of Gifford's Ford he states that the ‘languor and weakness consequent on a very long and serious illness’ made it impossible for him to pursue any researches among the public records. But he continued working, though bedridden, to the end, preparing a third edition of his Shakespeare (which was posthumously published by the care of John Forster), and still busy with his unfinished translation (begun more than twenty years earlier) of Athenæus's ‘Deipnosophists.’ He died 15 May 1869, at 33 Oxford Terrace, where he had resided for the last ten years of his life. He bequeathed his valuable library, with his pictures and prints, to South Kensington Museum. The library contains many Elizabethan rarities, and is rich in classical and Italian literature.

For the Camden Society Dyce edited Kempe's ‘Nine Days' Wonder;’ for the Percy Society Porter's ‘Two Angry Women of Abingdon,’ Drayton's ‘Harmony of the Church,’ and ‘Poems’ of Sir H. Wotton; for the Shakespeare Society the old tragedy of ‘Timon’ and the tragedy of ‘Sir Thomas More.’ He also published ‘Remarks on Mr. J. P. Collier's and Mr. C. Knight's editions of Shakespeare,’ 1844; ‘A few Notes on Shakespeare,’ 1853; and ‘Strictures on Mr. Collier's new edition of Shakespeare,’ 1859. For many years he was on terms of cordial relationship with Payne Collier, to whom in 1840 he dedicated his edition of ‘Middleton;’ but the friendship was afterwards interrupted, and finally dissolved. The manuscript of Dyce's projected translation of ‘Athenæus’ is preserved at South Kensington. A translation of the ‘Deipnosophists’ was a formidable undertaking, and it is doubtful whether, under any circumstances, this labour of love could have been completed.

There have been editors more brilliant than Dyce, but his deep and varied learning, his minute accuracy, and his nice discrimination have very rarely been equalled. So long as the best traditions of English scholarship survive his name will be respected.

[Biographical notice by John Forster prefixed to Catalogue of the Dyce Library.]

A. H. B.