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William Diaper (1685–1717) was an English poet of the Augustan era. Little is known about his life. He was born in Bridgwater, Somerset and attended Balliol College, Oxford as a pauper, where he took his BA in 1702. In 1709 he was ordained a deacon at Wells and became a curate in the parish of Brent, which he describes in disparaging terms in a poem of the same name, calling it "nature's gaol". By 1712, he had made contacts in the London literary world and become a protégé of Jonathan Swift, who refers to the poet several times in his Journal to Stella. In March 1712, Swift writes:
Here is a young fellow has writ some Sea Eclogues, poems of Mermen, resembling pastorals of shepherds, and they are very pretty, and the thought is new. Mermen are he-mermaids; Tritons, natives of the sea. Do you understand me? I think to recommend him to our Society to-morrow. His name is Diaper. P— on him, I must do something for him, and get him out of the way. I hate to have any new wits rise, but when they do rise I would encourage them; but they tread on our heels and thrust us off the stage.
In December 1712, he continued his account of Diaper's progress:
This morning I presented one Diaper, a poet, to Lord Bolingbroke, with a new poem, which is a very good one; and I am to give him a sum of money from my lord; and I have contrived to make a parson of him, for he is half one already, being in deacon’s orders, and serves a small cure in the country; but has a sword at his a—— here in town. ’Tis a poor little short wretch, but will do best in a gown, and we will make Lord Keeper give him a living.
In another letter, Swift refers to Diaper's being ill:
I was to see a poor poet, one Mr. Diaper, in a nasty garret, very sick. I gave him twenty guineas from Lord Bolingbroke, and disposed the other sixty to two other authors, and desired a friend to receive the hundred pounds for poor Harrison, and will carry it to him to-morrow morning. I sent to see how he did, and he is extremely ill; and I very much afflicted for him, for he is my own creature, and in a very honourable post, and very worthy of it. I dined in the City. I am in much concern for this poor lad. His mother and sister attend him, and he wants nothing.
Thanks to Swift, Bolingbroke and Sir William Wyndham took up Diaper's cause and gave him material support. By 1714, Diaper had moved on to Dean, and there was a contemporary rumor that he was ordained in 1715. He dedicated Imitation of the Seventeenth Epistle of the First Book of Horace in 1714 to Swift. Swift's friend Alexander Pope was less impressed by Diaper's poetical abilities, including him in the 1728 version of The Dunciad (Book II, lines 277-78):
Far worse unhappy Diaper succeeds,
He searched for coral, but he gather'd weeds.
His last major work was a translation of Oppian entitled Halieuticks, which was published posthumously in 1722. He was again desperately ill in 1716, and the circumstances and date of Diaper's death the next year are unknown.
Diaper's most important original work is the Nereides, or Sea-Eclogues (1712), an ingenious attempt to breathe new life into the genre of pastoral poetry by moving it into the marine world. The speakers of the fourteen dialogues in heroic couplets are sea-gods and sea-nymphs. Later the same year, Diaper published Dryades, a topographical poem. Diaper also tried his hand at translation, producing an "imitation" of the seventeenth epistle of the first book of Horace and a version of part of the fourth book of Quillet's Callipaedia. His major work of translation is a rendering of the first two of the five books of the Halieutica, a didactic poem on sea-fishing by the Greek poet Oppian. Since it appeared posthumously, the remaining three books were translated by John Jones.
By the end of the eighteenth century, Diaper's work had sunk into obscurity. His reputation was revived in the mid-20th century by the poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson. Diaper's poetry is marked by its unusual sensitivity to nature, particularly the world of sea creatures.
- The Complete Works of William Diaper, edited with an introduction by Dorothy Broughton (London, 1952)
- Greene, Richard. "William Diaper," in Matthew, H.C.G. and Brian Harrison, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. vol. 16, p 21-2. London: OUP, 2004.