He was educated at Cowden Clarke's school at Edmonton, with Tom Keats, the younger brother of the poet, and with RH Horne. He became acquainted with John Keats, and was the friend who sent me some roses, to whom Keats wrote a sonnet on June 29, 1816: "When, O Wells! thy roses came to me, My sense with their deliciousness was spelled; Soft voices had they, that, with tender plea, Whisperd of peace and truth and friendliness unquelled."
Unfortunately, Wells soon afterwards played a cruel practical joke on the dying Tom Keats, and reappears in the elder poet's correspondence as "that degraded Wells." Both with Keats and Reynolds, Wells was in direct literary emulation, and his early writings were the result of this. In 1822 he published Stories after Nature--or rather, in the manner of Boccaccio, tempered by that of Leigh Hunt--a curious little volume of brocaded prose. At the close of 1823, under the pseudonym of HL Howard, appeared the Biblical drama Of Joseph and his Brethren (dated 1824). For the next three years Wells saw Hazlitt, as he said, every night, but in 1827 the two men were estranged. When Hazlitt died, in September 1830, Wells took Horne to see his dead friend, and afterwards raised a monument to the memory of Hazlitt in the church of St Annes, Soho.
His two books passed almost unnoticed, and although Hazlitt said that Joseph and his Brethren was more than original, aboriginal, and a mere experiment in comparison with the vast things Wells could do, he forbore to review it, and even dissuaded the young poet from writing any more. Wells was now practising as a solicitor in London, but he fancied that his health was failing and proceeded to South Wales, where he occupied himself with shooting, fishing and writing poetry until 1835, when he removed to Broxbourne, in Hertfordshire.
In 1840 he left England, never to set foot in it again. He settled at Quimper, in Brittany, where he lived for some years. A story called Claribel appeared in 1845, and one or two slight sketches later, but several important tragedies and a great deal of miscellaneous verse belonging to these years are lost. Wells stated in a letter to Horne (November 1877) that he had composed eight or ten volumes of poetry during his life, but that, having in vain attempted to find a publisher for any of them, he burned the whole mass of manuscripts at his wife's death. The only work he had retained was a revised form of Joseph and his Brethren, which was praised in 1838 by Wade, and again, with great warmth, by Horne, in his New Spirit of the Age, in 1844. The drama was then once more forgotten, until in 1863 it was read and vehemently praised by DG Rossetti.
The tide turned at last; Joseph and his Brethren became a kind of shibboleth--a rite of initiation into the true poetic culture but still the world at large remained indifferent. Finally, however, Swinburne wrote an eloquent study of it in the Fortnightly Review in 1875, and the drama itself was reprinted in 1876. The old man found it impossible at first to take his revival seriously, but he woke up at length to take a great interest in the matter, and between 1876 and 1878 he added various scenes, which are in the possession of Mr Buxton Fornian, who published one of them in 1895. After leaving Quimper, Wells went to reside at Marseilles, where he held a professorial chair.
From RH Horne, the author of Orion, the present writer received the following account of the personal appearance of Wells in youth. He was short and sturdy, with dark red hair, a sanguine complexion, and bright blue eyes; he used to call himself "the cub," in reference to the habitual roughness of his manners, which he was able to resolve at will into the most taking sweetness and good-humour. Wells's wife who had been a Miss Emily Jane Hill, died in 1874. Their son Charles Deville Wells, after his father's death, achieved a notoriety which was unpoetical, although recorded in popular song, for he was the once-famous "man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo."
The famous Joseph and his Brethren, concerning which criticism has recovered its self-possession, is an overgrown specimen of the pseudo-Jacobean drama in verse which was popular in ultra-poetical circles between 1820 and 1830. Its merits are those of rich versification, a rather florid and voluble eloquence and a subtle trick of reserve, akin to that displayed by Webster and Cyril Tourneur in moments of impassioned dialogue. Swinburne has said that there are lines in Wells "which might more naturally be mistaken, even by an expert, for the work of the young Shakespeare, than any to be gathered elsewhere in the fields of English poetry." This may be the case, but even the youngest Shakespeare would have avoided the dulness of subject-matter and the slowness of evolution which impede the reader's progress through this wholly undramatic play. Joseph and his Brethren, in fact, although it has been covered with eulogy by the most illustrious enthusiasts, is less a poem than an odd poetical curiosity.
In 1909 a reprint was published of Joseph and his Brethren, with Swinburne's essay, and reminiscences by T Watts-Dunton.