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Essays - ‘George Heath’


From Good Words - March 1871.

(Reprinted in Master-Spirits (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1873).)




     It was one day in the late autumn of 1870, when the silvern light and the grey cloud were brooding over the windless waters and shadowy moors of Lorne, that I leant over a little rural bridge close to my home in the Highlands, and watched the running burn, where, in the words of Duncan Bàn of Glenorchy—

“With a splash, and a plunge, and a mountain murmur,
The gurgling waters arise and leap,
And pause and hasten, and spin in circles,
And rush and loiter, and whirl and creep;”

and on that day, as always when I stand by running water, I was thinking of the author of the “Luggie,” whose tale I have told to the world both in prose and verse; thinking of him and wondering at myself, for the very brightness of his face seemed to have faded into the dimness of dream, and I found it almost difficult to realise that David Gray had lived at all. The fair shape seemed receding further and further up the mysterious vistas, and the time seemed near when it would vanish altogether, and be invisible even to the soul that loved it best. The thought was a miserable one. It was so hateful that grief should grow dull so soon; that the inconsolable should find the fond habit of earthly perception obliterating memory; that passionate regret should first grow sweet, and then faint, and finally should fade away; and that, until a fresh shock came from God to galvanise the drowsy consciousness, the dead should be more or less forgotten—the mother by her child, the mistress by her lover, the father by his son, the husband by the wife; and all this though heaven might be thronging with dead to us invisible, with eyes full of tears and straining back to earth, with faces agonised beyond expression to see the bereft ones gradually turning their looks earthward, and brightening to forgetfulness and peace. While my mind was full of such thoughts, the Highland postman passed and handed me my letters, and the first packet I opened was a little volume, “Memorial Edition of the Poems of George Heath, the Moorland Poet.”* There was a portrait, a memoir, and some two hundred pages of verse. The portrait struck me first, for about lips and chin there was a weird reminiscence; and on the whole face, even in the somewhat rude engraving, there was a look seen only on the features of certain women, and on those of poets who die young—a look unknown to the face of Milton, or of Wordsworth, or of Byron, but faintly traceable in every likeness of Shelley that I have ever seen, and almost obtrusive in the one existing portrait of Keats. This look is scarcely describable—it may even be a flash from one’s own imagination; but it seems there, painful, spiritual, a light that never was on sea and land, quite as unmistakable on poor Kirke White’s face as on the mightier lineaments of Freidrich von Hardenburg. Next came the memoir, and then the verse. It was what I anticipated—the old story over again; the story of Keats, of Robert Nicoll, of David Gray; the old story with the old motto, “Whom the gods love die young.” Though it came like a rebuke, it illuminated memory. What had seemed to die away and grow into the common daylight was again shining before me—the face of the dear boyish companion who had died, the eyes that had faded away in divine tears, the look that had been luminous there, and was now dimly repeated in the little woodcut of George Heath. Out of almost the same elements, nature had wrought another tragedy, and through nearly the same process another young soul had been consecrated to the martyrdom of those who sing and die.
     Is it worth telling over again, this tale that nature repeats so often? Is it worth while tracing once more the look with which we are so familiar, the consecrated expression Death puts upon the eyes and mouth of his victims? Is not the world sad enough without these pitiful reminders? Genius, music, disease, death—the old, weary, monotonous tune, have we not heard enough of it? Not yet. It will be repeated again and again and again, till the whole world has got it by heart, and its full beauty and significance are apprehended by every woman that bears a son. At the present moment it comes peculiarly in season: for England happens to be infested at present by a school of poetic thought which threatens frightfully to corrupt, demoralise, and render effeminate the rising generation; a plague from Italy and France; a school æsthetic without vitality, and beautiful without health; a school of falsettoes innumerable—false love, false picture, false patriotism, false religion, false life, false death, all lurking palpable or disguised in the poisoned chalice of a false style. Just when the latter Della Cruscan school is blooming out in the full hectic flush of mutual admiration which is the due preliminary to sudden death, just when verse-writers who never lived are bitterly regretting that it is necessary to die, and thinking the best preparation is to grimace at God and violate the dead, it may do us good to read the old story over again, this time in the rude outline of a life which was even more than ordinarily conscious of poetic imperfection.
     George Heath was born at Gratton, a hamlet in the moorlands of Staffordshire, on the 9th of March, 1844. He was the eldest son of poor parents, who lived in an old weather-beaten cottage in a lonely part of the moors, and farmed a small piece of the adjoining ground. At the National School of Horton he learned to read and write, but at a very early age he was compelled to work as a farm-labourer in his father’s fields. For some reason unknown to me, but most probably because he was somewhat too frail for hard work out-of-doors, he was afterwards apprenticed to a carpenter, “Mr. Samuel Heath, of Gratton, joiner and builder;” and here some secret literary influence reached him—“fancy,” to quote his own words, “indulged in wildly beautiful dreams to the curl of the shavings and rasp of the saw”—and with  that, awoke the delicious hunger we all remember, the never-satisfied appetite for books. What he read, how and where he read, how his later thoughts were affected by what he read, cannot, of course, be determined by a stranger, though I shall not be far wrong in guessing that he was quite as eager to acquire knowledge of a useful sort as to gratify his as yet faint poetic tastes. Youths overdosed with school hate useful knowledge, but the poor half-starved ignoramus devours it, and finds it sweeter to his taste than honey. Heath’s best friend in those days, and all days after, seems to have been a young man named Foster, described in the memoir “as a young man of like mind with himself—one who had received a good education at the old grammar school of Alleyne’s, at Uttoxeter, and to whom a well-stocked library at home had always been accessible.” Foster could draw, and was ambitious to distinguish himself as an artist. The portrait of Heath is from his pencil, and is quite tenderly executed. The two lads loved each other, influenced each other, inspired each other, as only two such young souls can do, and the fellowship existed till the very last. Only a few months before his death George Heath wrote in his diary, “My dear old friend and fellow-toiler came up for just an hour. He is still as earnest and persevering as ever. He and I started together in the life struggle. We cannot be said to have fought shoulder to shoulder, for our paths have lain apart, and he, I believe, has, through my ill-health and one thing and another, gained upon me. But we have always been one in heart, and still we are agreed our motto must be steadily onward.
     The stranger who first sent me George Heath’s poems, with a letter telling how tenderly some thoughts of mine had been prized by the poor boy in Staffordshire, and how, under God, I had been able to influence him for good, afterwards procured for me, at my particular request, the “Diary” from which I have quoted above, and from which I shall have occasion to quote again; and it lies now before me—four little volumes, purchased by Heath for a few pence, filled with boyish handwriting, in the earlier portions clear and strong, but latterly nervous and weak, and ever growing weaker and weaker. Every day, for four long years of suffering and disease, George Heath wrote his thoughts down here. However dim were his eyes with pain, however his wasting hand shook and failed, he managed to add something, if only a few words; and let those who upbraid God for their burdens read these pages, and see how a poor untaught soul, stricken by the most cruel of all diseases, and tortured by the wretchedest of all disappointments, could, year after year, day after day, hour after hour, collect strength enough to say unfalteringly— “God, Thy will be done, for Thou art wiser than I.” When the hand is too weak to write more, a wild effort is made to say this much—“Another day; thank God! Oh, God is good!” There are men in the world—gifted men, too—who see no more in this than the submission of despair; but they err from lack of human knowledge. The gratitude is not that of despair, but of hope, of thanks for most heavenly consecration. It is born of the strange sense of beatification vhich only ensues after extreme physical pain, and still more, of the quiet feeling of security consequent on great spiritual vitality; both these deepening the sufferer’s conviction that he whose fondest hope was to sing living and be the chosen of man, may in all happiness sing dying and become the chosen of God. “God has love, and I have faith,” said David Gray, just before the final darkness. “Thanks to God for one more day,” wrote George Heath in his diary overnight; and he died peacefully in the morning. There it is, the one Word, the awful Mystery. Why do these poor lambs thank God? For what do they thank Him? Not through fear surely, for they are brave, more fearless than any men who fall in fight. Can it be that He communicates with them in His own fashion, and gives them the supreme assurance which, in us, causes nothing but amaze? Poor lambs! bleating to the Shepherd as they die!
     It was while assisting at the restoration of Hendon Church, “just before the close of his apprenticeship in 1864,” that Heath caught the complaint, a consumption of the lungs, to which he ultimately succumbed. The writer of the memoir adds that the “sorrow of a broken first love” had something to do with his disease, but the inference is doubtful. There are, indeed, clear evidences in the poems that Heath had been passionately in love with an object he afterwards found to be unworthy. One of his early pieces, entitled “The Discarded,” written on New-Year’s Eve, is addressed to the girl he loved, after she had played with his heart and wounded it cruelly. It is a boy’s production, with a man’s heart in it— strong, nervous, real, showing inherent dignity of nature, and full of a firm voice that could not whine. Those who are now familiar with the musical ravings of diseased animalism may find freshness even in some of these lines, bald as they are in form and cold in colour:—

“Ah! but think not, haughty maiden,
That I envy thee thy power,
Or the grand and lofty beauty
Which was all thy virgin dower;
Think not, either, that I would be
Unconcerned and gay and free;
Doff a love, and don another,
In a twilight, like to thee.
No! I sooner far would suffer
All the agony of heart—
Ay, an age of desolation—
Than be fickle as thou art.
For it proves to me, my spirit
Has not lost the stamp divine;
That my nature is not shallow,
Is not base and mean as thine.
Neither think thou that my being
Yearns towards thee even yet;
That a smile of thine would banish
All I never may forget;
That a look of thine would make me
All I dreamed I once might be;
That one gleam of love would chain me
Once again a slave to thee.
. . . . . .
Should the richest of the carver,
And the fairest of the loom,
And the choice of art and nature
Lustre round thy beauties’ bloom;
Ah! should all the gifts and graces
Gather round thee, and conspire
In thy form to fix their essence,
Flush thy face with spirit-fire;
Nay! should’st thou in tears, forgetting
Beauty-love is calm and proud,
Should’st thou humble thee, and bow thee
Where I once so meekly bowed:
Having once deceived me, never,
Never more, whate’er thy mien,
Could’st thou be to me the being
That thou mightest once have been.
No, alas! thy tears might give me
Less of pride, and less of scorn,
Deeper pity, deeper shadow,
Make me sadder, more forlorn.”

     These were the utterances of a lofty nature, capable of becoming a poet sooner or later; already indeed a poet in soul, but lacking as yet the poetic voice. That voice never came in full strength, but it was gathering, and the world would have heard it if God had not chosen to reserve it for his own ears. The stateliness of character shown in this little love affair was never lost from that moment, and is in itself enough to awaken our deepest respect and sympathy.
     In 1865 appeared a little volume by Heath, under the title of “Preludes,” consisting chiefly of verses written during the first year of his illness. These poems, like all he wrote, are most noteworthy for the invariable superiority of the thought over the expression. They are not at all the sort of verses written by brilliant young men. Their subjects are local places, tales of rude pathos like “The Pauper Child,” and religious sentiment. Here, as in the “Discarded,” there is too much of the old tawdry metaphor characteristic of the pre-Wordsworthian lyrists, and to some extent of Wordsworth himself; and we read with little pleasure about “blushing spring in her robe of virgin pride,” summer’s “gushing tide,” “Deception’s soulless smile,” “flower-enamelled glades,” and “halcyon glory,” hear too many allusions to the “zodiac” and the (most insufferable) “zephyr,” and note too many such words as “empyrean,” “amaranthine,” “lambling,” “fledgeling,” “glorious,” “gorgeous.” Nevertheless, there is truth in the verses. The poor boy is not composing, but putting his own experience into the form that seems beautiful to him, however unreal it seems to us. He had not read widely enough to be consciously guilty of insincerities of style.
     But as he lingered, confiding daily in the little diary as to a friend’s bosom, George Heath read more. He received lessons in Latin and Greek from the Vicar (Latin and Greek! for a poor soul going to speak the tongue of the angels!), and as if this was not enough, he studied arithmetic. It is sad to think of him greedily picking up any crumb of knowledge, and unconscious as yet of his approaching doom. His pen was most busy all the time, composing poetry more or less worthy of preservation. The disease was doing its work slowly, and the fated hand was never at rest for years. For four years—1866, 1867, 1868, 1869—he kept his diary; and even the entries made when the last hope had fled are very patient.
     Here are a few extracts from the diary for 1866; they tell his story with far more force and tenderness than I could hope to tell it:—

     “January, 1866.—Thus, with the dawn of a new year, I commence to write down some of the most prominent features of my every-day life. Not that I have anything extra to write, but this is a critical period of my life. I may never live to finish this diary. On the other hand, should it please God to raise me up again, it wil1 be a source of pleasure in the future to read something of the thoughts and feelings, hopes and aspirations, that rise in the mind when under the afflicting hand of Providence; and its experience will help me to trust God where I cannot trace Him.
     “Thursday, January 4.—Still feeling very unwell, with a bad cold and pain in my side, pursuing my studies much as usual, trying to get up the Latin verbs thoroughly. I have been my usual walk twice per diem across to Close Gate. The weather is still very unfavourable. I am sorry to hear that Mrs. S. Heath, sen., is very poorly. I am thinking much of a dear one far away. Praise God, He is good!
     “Saturday, January 13.—How changeable is the weather: yesterday it was fine and frosty; to-day it is dark, damp, and cheerless. How like our earthly life! Sunshine and shadow, storm and calm, all the way through. I am scarcely so well in body, and somewhat depressed in spirits. I have not received the letter that is due to me, and that I have been looking so anxiously for, at present. Though I have been struggling hard the past week, yet I cannot see much that I have done. Courage!
     “Monday, January 15.—Almost racked to death with a fearful cough and cold, but quite as hopeful as usual. To- day Miss D. Crompton called to see us, and my very kind friend Mrs. Dear sent me a bottle of wine.
     “Friday, January 19.—I have with great difficulty finished writing out a poem of some three hundred lines in length, entitled, ‘The Discarded: a Reverie.’ It is my longest, and I think it will be almost my last.
     “Thursday, January 25.—I am feeling still better to-day, and lighter in heart. The weather is fine and mild, and early this morning the birds chirped and sang just as they do at the approach of spring, and the sun burst out in all his splendour. I could not remain in the house, but sauntered round the croft and down the lane. I have not yet heard from my friend.
     “Monday, January 29.—I have been writing out a few lines on the ‘cattle plague.’ What an alarming visitation of Providence it is! It seems to be steadily on the increase. It has come within two miles of here. I tremble to think of the consequences should it visit our home; it would sweep away all our little subsistence.
     “Friday, March 2.—It is a gloriously fine day, but keen and frosty. I am feeling the benefit of the pure air. I am grieved to hear that Mr. W. Heath has lost all his milking cows through the ‘rinderpest.’ This morning I received a kind letter from my friend Mademoiselle J. M. It is a nice letter, but still somehow it has left a painful impression behind.
     “Wednesday, March 14.—I am sitting by the fireside dreaming strange fantastic day-dreams! And why? I cannot tell. This dreaming seems to have become a part of my very nature. Perhaps it is wrong, but it is so sweet! Mother is gone to market, the orphan babe is in its cradle, all is quiet, and I am poorly and unable to study; so what can I do but dream?
     “Thursday, April 26.—Still fine and hot. The aspect of things is slowly but surely changing. Dame Nature, ’neath the sweet influences of spring, is putting on her glorious mantle! The lambs are frisking in the fields, the birds unite in sending forth one rich volume of praise to God, myriads of insects, long dormant, are waking into life! Praise God!
     “Monday, May 14.—Very unwell. The sombre goddess Melancholy has gained almost the mastery of me. I feel quite alone in the world—a puerile, unloved thing; but I think that my earthly race is almost at a close, and then if I, through the blood and mediation of Christ, am enabled to reach that bright land, O how glorious will be the change!
     “Monday, June 4.—A hot sultry day. I feel so languid and listless; but can enjoy to the full the beautiful panorama spread out before me, and, indeed, it is beautiful! The scent of dewy foliage and nectar-filled flowers fills me with a dreamy, undefined pleasure; I love the world, I love every one in it, and its Maker.
     “Friday, June 15.—I am very unwell and low-spirited; the house is dull and gloomy; outside the rain keeps falling incessantly. Mother and father are both very poorly. My kind friend, Mrs. B. Bayley, has sent me several books and magazines to look over; one especially interests me, ‘Punch’s collection of Leech’s cuts.’
     “Wednesday, July 4.—Very wet. I am a prisoner; very poorly; forbidden by the doctor to do any close study. I am sadly low-spirited. Grieving foolishly enough that all my correspondents have forsaken me.
     “Saturday, August 4.—Another week is calmly gliding away, and strange to say the period of the year that I dreaded most is passed away, and I am still alive, and, thank Heaven, as well as usual. Two years ago in July I was taken ill, and one year since in the same month I had an issue of blood from the lungs; but, praise God, I am still alive.
     “Thursday, August 9.—I have been a walk to Close Gate, and had a game of ‘croquet.’ My spirits are better. There is a grand Choral Festival at Horton Church—one hundred and sixty performers; how I should like to hear them! It would waft me to heaven.
     “Wednesday, August 22.—I have been out into the lanes and fields, watching the ‘shearers’ with their shiny hooks gathering the golden corn into sheaves; far and near the eye rests upon rich fields of grain, ‘white unto harvest.’
     “Tuesday, October 2.—I am feeling somewhat sad-hearted to-day. I suppose the fading robe of nature affects me with its melancholy, yet it is an exceedingly fine and warm day; perhaps it is because I have been reading Tennyson, and the grandeur of his works disheartens me, showing me how low I am.
     “Thursday, November 8.—Silently, slowly another day is gliding into eternity; wet, dark, and gloomy! I am, however, feeling some better to-day. Dr. White has been to see me, and informs me that my poems have had the honour of a public reading at Leek, and the knowledge of all this kindness has, in spite of the gloomy weather, cheered me up.
     “Monday, December 17.—A damp, foggy, uncongenial day. I have not been doing much study, for I am feeling very unwell. I have heard of a terrible calamity which happened at Talk-o’-the-Hill on Thursday last—an explosion of fire- damp, by which eighty lives were lost, leaving some sixty widows and one hundred orphans. I have been round trying to collect something for them.
     “Monday, December 24.—Bless God! another year has almost passed away, and He has preserved me. Even while I write I hear the sound of ‘Christmas singers,’ and though the sounds are not very melodious, yet they are sweet to me, for they remind me of Christ my Saviour, whom from the earnest depths of my soul I love and bless to-night.”

     It would serve no purpose to multiply my extracts. What does the world care whether this poor boy was better or worse on such a day, whether the weather was good or bad, whether his sweetheart was true or false, whether he himself lived or died? For two more complete years George Heath kept the same simple memoranda, fluctuating all the time between hope and despair, and suffering extreme physical pain. The most pregnant entry in the whole diary is that made on 26th February, 1868:—

     “February 26th, 1868.—To-day I have brought down and committed to the flames a batch of letters that I received from a love that was once as life to me—such letters—yet the writer in the end deserted me. Oh, the anguish I suffered! I had not looked at them for three years, and even to-day, when I came and fingered them, and opened the portrait of the woman I loved so much, I could scarcely keep back the bitter tears. Oh, Jenny, the bitterness you caused me will never be obliterated from my heart.”

     According to the memoir, nearly all the poems Heath left in manuscript were written in 1867; but after that—after the miserable 26th February, 1868—he wrote little, and all he wrote was sad. The year 1869 opened dark and gloomy, and Heath still lived, still sadly striving to pick up knowledge.

     “Wednesday, January 6.—Have been writing to my sister, reading English History, &c., and poring over the old, tough Latin Grammar. I have been much interested with the plotting and counter-plotting for and against the liberties of poor Mary Queen of Scots; and now the darkness is coming down over valley and hill, and another day has gone to the eternal.
     “Saturday, January 16.—Still the dreary, dead damp. Have been reading some of the myths in Smith’s smaller Mythological Dictionary—some of the accounts of the heroes and demigods. Have been much interested with Newman Hall’s paper in the Broadway, ‘My Impressions of America,’ in which he describes some of the most magnificent river, lake, and mountain scenery.
     “Tuesday, January 26.—The dense fog is over all things. I am unwell, having passed almost a sleepless night from anxiety on account of poor John; for at midnight there was an alarm raised. John was taken suddenly worse. They feared he was dying. Our people were sent for. But he survived, thank God! Doing a little light reading, a little grammar, &c. ‘Better rub than rust,’ so says Ebenezer Elliot.
     “Friday, February 5.—Fine and mild as April. Have been all about the fields, and my heart has been thrilled beyond measure by the appearance of several beautiful and only-just-peeping daisies. The hyacinths, too, are actually springing, and the celandine is out in leaf. How magnificent are the snowdrops! These flowers seem to my barren and often sadly yearning spirit like my own children—something I have a right to love and cherish.
     “Saturday, February 13.—No better inside. My chest feels feverishly hot, while cold shivers run all over my  exterior. I half expect that some of these attacks will prove too much for the force of nature. It feels as though my vitality were burning and washing away within me. Ah! how shall I support this weary, fluctuating life of mine? I feel almost a yearning to fly away and be at rest! My Father, be still my strength!
     “Thursday, February 18.—I am still a prisoner. The worry and fret of life and ambition seem quite to have left me. I have no more a recognised hope of standing amongst the glorious, the renowned in song. I have no hope of winning that for which I have toiled all these years—a wide range of knowledge, a mind imbued with great and noble thoughts, and a grand power of expressing. I shall sing still, but ’twil be to soothe myself.
     “Thursday, February 25.—No better—worse, if anything. I can do little but lay my head down in quiet, or watch the clouds gliding turbulently over the patch of sky seen through the window, while the trees rock their arms, toss, and gesticulate. I wonder what particular lessons I should learn here. If those of patience, trust, and fortitude? ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’
     “Tuesday, March 9.—Here is my birthday once more. My twenty-fifth year has passed off into the eternity of the past. My twenty-sixth dawns over me. I am filled with strange thoughts; things look very dark about me now. My health is bad. Shall I, as I half expect, go down to the grave, or shall I again awake to life and energy? My God! Thou only knowest! Help me to do my duty well in any case!
     “Wednesday, March 10.—Little Harriet has to-day brought into the house a little bunch of the celandine flower. I dare say there are lots of various sorts of flowers beginning to show themselves. The beautiful anemones will soon be  out, and I cannot go to see them! I seem to drift further and further down, am doing just nothing. A great shadow of weariness is upon me. Sent a letter—written at a many sittings—to my sister Hannah.
     “Tuesday, March 23.—Most deeply ill all day—utterly prostrated in mind and body. My affliction seems to have laid hold of my whole system with an iron grasp which nothing can shake off. Have read a very little of English History. It seems to me there is quite a danger of my sinking down into stupor, if not imbecility even.
     “Thursday, April 8.—To-day Dr. Heaton has visited me, and, as far as he is concerned, has left me without a shadow of hope. I had tried before, and believe I had earnestly said, ‘My God, Thy will be done!’ but when you come to find that your doom is really fixed, the pang of bitterness is none the less. But the bitterness is past, and I can trust in God.
     “Friday, April 23.—The day has been a beautiful one. Outside the green foliage is beginning to sheet the landscape, and some of the trees are hung with blossoms. It has been a very quiet day with us, and I am trying to look homeward. How good is the Lord!
     “Thursday, April 29.—How beautifully the thought of my far-off home—that home whose wonder none may guess —comes to me through the glory of the sun-radiance that falls through the windows! The easterly wind is cold, and my throat is worse. Bless God!
     “Monday, May 3.—It is the gloomiest day there has been for some time past. The rain is dripping down, doing wonders of good. I am very ill—sinking. My cough is almost continuous. But in God is my trust.
     “Tuesday, May 4.—Praise God for one more day!”

     The whole story was now complete, and the morning after making that last entry—“Thank God for another day”—Heath passed away, “peacefully,” writes the author of the memoir. He was buried in Horton churchyard, and a Runic cross, designed by his friend Foster, is about to be raised over his grave, with this inscription:—

Erected in Memory
Of GEORGE HEATH, of Gratton,
Who, with few aids,
Developed in these Moorlands
Poetic powers of great promise,
But who, stricken by consumption,
After five years’ suffering,
Fell a victim to that disease,
May 5, 1869, aged 25 years.


“His life is a fragment—a broken clue—
His harp had a musical string or two,
The tension was great, and they sprang and flew,
And a few brief strains—a scattered few—
Are all that remain to mortal view
Of the marvellous song the young man knew.”

     I have left myself little or no space to speak of George Heath’s poetry, the fragments of which already given were selected less for their intrinsic merit than for their value as autobiography. What struck me first when I read the little book of remains was the remarkable fortitude of style, fearlessly developed in treating most unpromising material, and the occasional intensity of the flash of lyrical emotion. There is nothing here of supreme poetic workmanship, perfect vision in perfect language, like those four lines of David Gray:—

“Come, when a shower is pleasant in the falling,
Stirring the still perfume that wakes around,
Now that doves mourn, and in the distance calling
The cuckoo answers, with a sov’reign sound!

Nothing quite so overpowering as Gray’s passionate cry:—

“O God, for one clear day! a snowdrop! and sweet air!

No descriptions of nature as loving, as beautiful as those in the “ Luggie,” and no music as fine as the music of Gray’s songs and sonnets.** But there is something else, something that David Gray did not possess, with all his marvellous lyrical faculty, and this something is great intellectual self-possession combined with the faculty of self-analysis and a growing power of entering into the minds of others. The poem “Icarus, or the Singer’s Tale,” though only a fragment, is more remarkably original than any published poem of Gray’s, and in grasp and scope of idea it is worthy of any writer. How the journal called the Lynx contained the obituary notice of a certain Thomas String, “a power-spirit chained to a spirit that broods,” but almost a beggar; how Sir Hodge Poyson, Baronet, deeply moved by the notice in the Lynx, visited the room where String had lived,—

“In the hole where he crept with his pain and his pride,
Mournful song-scraps were littered on every side;
I read the damp slips till my eyes were tear-blind.
Near the couch where he wrestled with hunger and died,
In a dirty, damp litter of mouldering straw,
Stood a rude alder box, which, when opened, supplied
Such proofs of a vastly superior mind,
As filled me with anguish and wonder and awe!”

and how Sir Hodge determined to bring out the works in two volumes, with a portrait and prefatory essay,—all this is merely preliminary to the Singer’s own Tale, which was to have been recorded in a series of wonderfully passionate lyrics, ending with this one:—

“Bless thee, my heart, thou wert true to me ever:
Soft while I weep o’er thee, kiss thee, and waken
All the sad, sweet things that murmur and quiver!
True to me still, though of all else forsaken!
No more I strike for the far generations,
Lost to the hope of fame, glory, or pelf;
And the wild songs that I sang for the nations
Now in my sadness I wail to myself.”

After that women come and find the singer dead, and uplift him, saying:—

“Soft—let us raise him, nor yield to the shrinking;
Ah! it is sad to have never a dear one;
Sad to depart in the night, to my thinking,
Up in a garret, with nobody near one!
Have we no feelings as women and mothers?
Aren’t we, from Adam, all sisters and brothers?
. . . . . .
Stay, what is this ’neath his hand on his breast?
How stiff the long fingers! ’Tis rumpled and creased
Long lines all awry, blotted, jumbled, and stark!
Poor fellow! ay, true, it was done in the dark:—
‘Ah me, for a mother’s fond hand for a little—
That tender retriever!
Oh, love, for the soothing of woman to quiet
This burning and fever.
Ah, dying is bitter in darkness and hunger,
When lonely, I wis;
I dreamed not in days that have summer’d and fallen
Of coming to this!’”

It is impossible to represent this fragment by extracts, its whole tone being most remarkable. Of the same character, strong, simple, and original, are the love-poem called “Edith:”

“Her face was soft, and fair, and delicate,
And constantly reminded me of music;”

and the wonderful little idyl called “How is Celia to-day?” in which a smart “sprightly maiden” and a “thin battered woman” embrace passionately on the roadside and soften each other. In all these poems, and even in the “Country Woman’s Tale” (which should never have been published in its present distorted shape), there seems to me the first tone of what might have become a great human voice; and nothing is more amazing to me than to find George Heath, an unusually simple country lad, marvellously content with the old theology and old forms of thought, flashing such deep glimpses into the hearts of women. He had loved; and I suppose that was his clue. The greatness he could show in his love would have been the precursor, had he lived, of a corresponding greatness in art. Both need the same qualities of self-sacrifice, fortitude, and self-faith.


     I shall conclude this slight sketch with a little piece, as slight in subject as it is tender in treatment, The readers of George Heath’s posthumous book will find many such poems, and every one they read, even when it does not excite their admiration as art, will deepen their respect for the writer’s stateliness of character and nobility of mind.


Sad are the shivering dank dead leaves,
To one who lost love from his heart unweaves,
Who dreams he has gathered his life’s last sheaves,
And must find a grave under wintry eaves!

Dead! dead! ’mongst the winter’s dearth,
Gone where the shadows of all things go,
Stretch me full length in the folding earth,
Wind me up in the drifting snow;

None of the people will heed it or say,
“He was a singer who fainted there,
One who could leaven with fire, or sway
Men’s hearts to trembling unaware.”

No one will think of the dream-days lost,
Of the ardours fierce that were damped too soon;
Of the bud that was nipped by the morning’s frost,
And shrivelled to dust in the sun ere noon.

No one will raise me a marble, wrought
With meaning symbol, and apt device,
To link my name with a noble thought,
A generous deed, or a new-found voice.

My life will go on to the limitless tides,
Leaving no trace of its current-flow,
Like a stream that starts when the tempest rides,
And is lost again in the evening’s glow.

The glories will gather and change as of yore,
And the human currents pass panting by,
The ages will gather their wrinkles more,
And others will sing for a day and die.

But thou, who art dearer than words can say,
My more than all other of earth could be;
Such a joy! that the Giver I thank alway
With a glowing heart, that He gave me thee.

I shall want thee to dream me my dream all through,—
To think me the gifted, the Poet still,
To crown me, whatever the world may do,
Though my songs die out upon air and hill.

And, Edith, come thou in the blooming time,—
Thy world will not miss thee for just one hour;—
I’d like it best when the low Bells chime,
And the earth is full of the sunset’s power,—

And bend by the silently settling heap,
While the Nature we loved is a May all round,
While God broods low on the blue arched sweep,
And the musical air is a-thrill with sound;

And look in thy heart circled up in the past,
And if I am perfectly graven there,
Unshaded by aught, save the anguish cast
By the parting clasp, and the death despair;

Encirqued with the light of the pale regret,
Of a “might have been,” of a day-dream lent,
With a constant hope of a meeting yet,—
Oh! I shall not want for a Monument.


                                                                                                                     ROBERT BUCHANAN.


* London: Bemrose and Sons, Paternoster Row.

** Mr. Algernon Charles Swinburne, author of “Atalanta in Calydon,” went some years ago far out of his way to call David Gray a “dumb poet”—meaning by that a person with great poetical feeling, but no adequate powers of expression. So many excellent critics have resented both this impertinence and the unfeeling language in which it was expressed, that Mr. Swinburne is doubtless ashamed enough of his words by this time; but would it not have been as well if, before vilifying a dead man, he had first read his works, which, if they possess any characteristic whatever, are noticeable for crystalline perfection of poetic form, unparalleled felicity of epithet (witness the one word “sov’reign” as applied to the cry of the cuckoo), and emotion always expressed in simple music? When Mr. Swinburne and the school he follows are consigned to the limbo of affettuosos, David Gray’s dying sonnets will be part of the literature of humanity.



Review: Robert Buchanan and the Magazines



Before embarking on this website about Buchanan I did a (much) smaller one about George Heath, which contains all of his published poetry as well as other items.

George Heath Website



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