De Vere, Aubrey Thomas (1814–1902), poet and author, was born 10 January 1814 at Curragh Chase, Co. Limerick, the third son in a family of five sons and three daughters of Aubrey Thomas Hunt, afterwards Sir Aubrey de Vere (qv), 2nd baronet, and his wife, Mary Spring Rice (d. 1856), eldest daughter of Stephen Edward Rice of Mount Trenchard, Co. Limerick, and sister of Thomas Spring Rice (qv), 1st Lord Monteagle. His elder brothers, Vere and Stephen de Vere (qv), successively inherited the baronetcy. Except for a brief sojourn in England between 1821 and 1824, Aubrey grew up in his family's beautiful home at Curragh Chase, where he was educated by private tutors. One of these questioned his student's intellectual capacity, calling him ‘an idiot’, though he later revised his opinion. Another tutor, Edward Johnstone, had higher hopes and introduced Aubrey to English poetry, which became a lifelong passion; like his father, the younger Aubrey began to write poetry, composing his first poetic work in 1832, the year he entered TCD at the age of eighteen. At Trinity the young man was greatly influenced by William Rowan Hamilton (qv), the mathematician and astronomer; he devoted himself to the study of metaphysics, paying particular attention to Kant and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but neglected the undergraduate course, though he won a Downes premium in 1837 for a theological essay. Upon leaving Trinity a year later, de Vere considered taking orders in the established church, but did not pursue this possibility seriously. Instead he spent his time in travel and literary study. In 1838–9 he visited Oxford, Cambridge, Rome, and Switzerland. At the height of the Tractarian movement in 1838, he met John Henry Newman (qv) in Oxford, and also Sir Henry Taylor, a poet and public servant, who became his lifelong friend. His elder brother Vere and his cousin Stephen Spring Rice introduced Aubrey to their friends in the celebrated Apostles club at Cambridge, an elite intellectual and literary coterie that included Alfred Tennyson and Richard Monckton Milnes. De Vere's visit to Italy sparked a great love of the city of Rome.
He was a lifelong devotee of William Wordsworth, and in 1841 met him in London. They became friends, and in 1843, he was invited to stay at the poet's residence at Rydal Mount in Cumberland, where he came to know Wordsworth's neighbours and friends, and began an important friendship with Coleridge's daughter Sara. While visiting Tennyson in London in 1845 he also met Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Robert Browning, and Richard Holt Hutton. Hutton was of a prominent Dublin unitarian family and was the nephew of John Hutton (qv) (d. 1830); he was interested in theology and was the editor of The Spectator from 1861 to 1897. In early 1846 de Vere returned to Ireland and witnessed the ravages of the potato famine, which he tried desperately to alleviate by becoming involved with the work of the relief committees. He tried to raise money by appeals to his friends and neighbouring gentry families, helped to distribute grain, and investigated emigration as a possible escape route for the people. His brothers also made heroic efforts to help the poor people around Curragh Chase; the close sympathy between Stephen and Aubrey led to an almost daily correspondence throughout their lives.
Aubrey came from a literary family, and it is as a poet that he is best known. Although he had been writing verse since 1832, his first publication, The Waldenses and other poems, did not appear until 1842. The famine inspired the poem ‘A year of sorrow’ (published as part of Inisfail in 1861), which spoke of the misery of the winter of 1846–7, and a prose work, English misrule and Irish misdeeds (1848); this criticised British rule in Ireland and revealed de Vere's understanding of the social and economic complexities of the Irish situation, informed by his experiences of practical philanthropy in the famine years. His poetry deals with supernatural and religious themes as part of an exploration of the role of spirituality in the construction of national identities, particularly in Ireland. Graceful lyrics such as ‘The children of Lir’ and The legend of St. Patrick (1872) reveal his imaginative and pioneering interest in the myths and legends of Ireland. Some unsympathetic twentieth-century critics claim that de Vere merely exploited his homeland for material, but allowance should be made for the fact that his view of Ireland was not that of a political nationalist; rather he saw Ireland's destiny as something to be achieved on a spiritual plane. Ambitious and solemn dramatic works in blank verse, Saint Thomas of Canterbury (1876) and Alexander the Great (1874), brought him wide renown in his lifetime but, like most contemporary efforts of the sort, are not now much read.
His father's death in 1846 coupled with the horrors of the famine deepened de Vere's religious feeling. Despite the opposition of Carlyle and other friends, on 15 November 1851 he converted to Roman catholicism at the archbishop's chapel at Avignon in France, in the company of Henry Edward Manning, later cardinal archbishop of Westminster. For someone of de Vere's background this was a most unusual step. In 1854 Newman, by now rector of the Catholic University in Dublin, appointed de Vere professor of political and social science. He wrote and later published some lectures, but he had few students and a bout of scarlatina prevented him from fulfilling his duties, so he resigned the post in 1858.
After 1860 de Vere lived chiefly at his family home at Curragh Chase, exchanging visits and correspondence with friends and fellow writers. His interest in Irish legend and history led to his versification of six centuries of Irish history in Inisfail: a lyrical chronicle of Ireland (1861), which was probably the work of his that received most critical respect. In 1898 Lady (Augusta) Gregory (qv) wrote to him requesting financial support for her proposed Irish theatre; he was the first person she approached, and afterwards she always valued his encouraging reply, regarding it as a blessing from the older generation on the new project. De Vere outlived many of his closest friends, and nostalgia filled his final years. In 1897 he published Recollections, and the following year he revisited the Lake District and early haunts such as Rydal, and Tintern Abbey in the Wye valley. He died unmarried at Curragh Chase 21 January 1902, and was buried in a cemetery attached to the Church of Ireland at Askeaton, Co. Limerick.
Aubrey Thomas de Vere had a singularly charming personality, and was of tall and slender physique, dignified and graceful in manner. His poetry, though accomplished and still accorded classic status, is too much of its time to be easily enjoyed by later generations. His travel book Picturesque sketches of Greece and Turkey (1850) is of some interest. Many of his contemporaries thought him a better critic than poet, and perhaps his Recollections and two volumes of essays on literature and ethics (1887 and 1889), in which he wrote of his friends Sir Henry Taylor and Wordsworth, and of other writers, many of whom he had known, are his most lasting and important works.