A BIOGRAPHIC SKETCH
The reader of the miscellaneous literature of the day has doubtless met with the name of Gerald Massey attached to poems strikingly beautiful in language and intensely passionate in feeling. These poems have heretofore been published chiefly in journals which are yet in a great measure tabooed in what are regarded as 'respectable literary circles.' The Spirit of Freedom, a cheap journal, started in 1849, and written exclusively by working men, contained a large number of them; and others have since appeared in the Christian Socialist, a cheap journal conducted by clergymen of the Church of England; and many others also, of great beauty, have been published in the Leader, a remarkably able journal conducted by Thornton Hunt, the son of the poet.
You see at once that the writer is a man of vivid genius, and is full of the true poetic fire. Some of his earlier pieces are indignant expostulations with society at the wrongs of suffering humanity; passionate protests against those hideous disparities of life which meet our eye on every side; against power wrongfully used; against fraud and oppression in their more rampant forms; mingled with appeals to the higher influences of knowledge, justice, mercy, truth, and love. It is always thus with the poet who has worked his way to the light [xiii] through darkness, suffering, and toil. Give a poor downtrodden man culture, and in nine cases out of ten, you only increase his sensitiveness to pain; you agonize him with the sight of pleasures which are to him forbidden; you quicken his sense of despair at the frightful inequalities of the human lot. There are thousands of noble natures, with minds which, under better circumstances, would have blessed and glorified their race, who have been for ever blastedcrushed into the mireor condemned to courses of desperate guilt!for one who, like Gerald Massey, has nobly risen above his trials and temptations, and triumphed over them. And when such a man does find a voice, surely 'rose-water' verses and 'hot-pressed' sonnets are not to be expected of him; such things are not by any means the natural products of a life of desperate struggling with poverty. When the self-risen and self-educated man speaks and writes nowadays, it is of the subjects nearest to his heart. Literature is not a mere intelligent Epicurism with men who have suffered and grown wise, but a real, earnest, passionate, vehement, living thinga power to move others, a means to elevate themselves, and to emancipate their order. This is a marked peculiarity of our times; knowledge is now more than ever regarded as a power to elevate, not merely individuals, but classes. Hence the most intelligent working-men at this day are intensely political: we merely state this as a fact not to be disputed. In former times, when literature was regarded mainly in the light of a rich man's luxury, poets who rose out of the working-class sung as their patrons wished. Bloomfield and Clare sang of the quiet beauty of rural life, and painted pictures of evening skies, purling brooks, and grassy meads. Burns could with difficulty repress the 'Jacobin' spirit which burned within him; and yet even he was rarely, if ever, political in his tone. [xiv]
His strongest verses, having a political bearing, were those addressed to the Scotch representatives in reference to the excise regulations as to the distillation of whiskey. But come down to our own day, and mark the difference: Elliot, Nichol, Bamford, the author of Ernest, the Chartist Epic, Davis, the Belfast Man, De Jean, Massey, and many others, are intensely political; and they defend themselves for their selection of subjects as Elliot did, when he said, 'Poetry is impassioned truth; and why should we not utter it in the shape that touches our condition the most closelythe political?' But how it happens that the writings of working men nowadays so generally assume the political tone, will be best ascertained from the following sketch of the life of Gerald Massey:
He was born in May, 1828, and is, therefore, barely twenty-three years of age. He first saw the light in a little stone hut near Tring, in Herts, one of those miserable abodes in which so many of our happy peasantrytheir country's pride!are condemned to live and die. One shilling a week was the rent of this hovel, the roof of which was so low that a man could not stand upright in it. Massey's father was, and still is, a canal boatman, earning the wages of ten shillings a week. Like most other peasants in this 'highly-favoured Christian country,' he has had no opportunities of education, and never could write his own name. But Gerald Massey was blessed in his mother, from whom he derived a finely-organized brain and a susceptible temperament. Though quite illiterate like her husband, she had a firm, free spiritit's broken now!a tender yet courageous heart, and a pride of honest poverty which she never ceased to cherish. But she needed all her strength and courage to bear up under the privations of her lot. Sometimes the husband fell out of work; and there [xv] was no bread in the cupboard, except what was purchased by the labour of the elder children, some of whom were early sent to work in the neighbouring silk-mill. Disease, too, often fell upon the family, cooped up in that unwholesome hovel: indeed, the wonder is, not that our peasantry should be diseased, and grow old and haggard before their time, but that they should exist at all in such lazar-houses and cesspools.
None of the children of this poor family were educated, in the common acceptance of the term. Several of them were sent for a short time to a penny school, where the teacher and the taught were about on par; but so soon as they were of age to work, the children were sent to the silk-mill. The poor cannot afford to keep their children at school, if they are of an age to work and earn money. They must help to eke out their parents' slender gains, even though it be only by a few pence weekly. So, at eight years of age, Gerald Massey went into the silk manufactory, rising at five o'clock in the morning, and toiling there till half-past six in the evening; up in the grey dawn, or in the winter before the daylight, and trudging to the factory through the wind or in the snow; seeing the sun only through the factory windows; breathing an atmosphere laden with rank oily vapour, his ears deafened by the roar of incessant wheels:
'Still all the day the iron wheels go onward,
Grinding life down from its mark;
And the children's souls, which God is calling sunward,
Spin on blindly in the dark.'
What a life for a child! What a substitute for tender prattle, for childish glee, for youthful playtime! Then home, shivering under the cold, starless sky, on Saturday nights, with 9d., 1s., or 1s. 3d., for the whole week's work, for such were the [xvi] respective amounts of the wages earned by the child-labour of Gerald Massey.
But the mill was burned down, and the children held jubilee over it. The boy stood for twelve hours in the wind and sleet, and mud, rejoicing in the conflagration which thus liberated him. Who can wonder at this? Then he went to straw-plaitingas toilsome, and, perhaps, more unwholesome than factory-work. Without exercise, in a marshy district, the plaiters were constantly having racking attacks of ague. The boy had the disease for three years, ending with tertian ague. Sometimes four of the family, and the mother, lay ill at one time, all crying with thirst, with no one to give them drink, and each too weak to help the other. How little do we know of the sufferings endured by the poor and struggling classes of our population, especially in our rural districts! No press echoes their wants, or records their sufferings; and they live almost as unknown to us as if they were the inhabitants of some undiscovered country.
And now take, as an illustration, the child-life of Gerald Massey. 'Having had to earn my own dear bread,' he says, 'by the eternal cheapening of flesh and blood thus early, I never knew what childhood meant. I had no childhood. Ever since I can remember, I have had the aching fear of want, throbbing in heart and brow. The currents of my life were early poisoned, and few, methinks, would pass unscathed through the scenes and circumstances in which I have lived; none, if they were as curious and precocious as I was. The child comes into the world like a new coin with the stamp of God upon it; and in like manner as the Jews sweat down sovereigns, by hustling them in a bag to get gold-dust out of them, so is the poor man's child hustled and sweated down in this bag of society to get wealth out of it; and even as the [xvii] impress of the Queen is effaced by the Jewish process, so is the image of God worn from heart and brow, and day by day the child recedes devilward. I look back now with wonder, not that so few escape, but that any escape at all, to win a nobler growth for their humanity. So blighting are the influences which surround thousands in early life, to which I can bear such bitter testimony.'
And how fared the growth of this child's mind the while? Thanks to the care of his mother, who had sent him to the penny school, he had learnt to read, and the desire to read had been awakened. Books, however, were very scarce. The Bible and Bunyan were the principal; he committed many chapters of the former to memory, and accepted all Bunyan's allegory as bonβ fide history. Afterwards he obtained access to Robinson Crusoe, and a few Wesleyan tracts left at the cottage. These constituted his sole reading, until he came up to London, at the age of fifteen, as an errand-boy; and now, for the first time in his life, he met with plenty of books, reading all that came in his way, from Lloyd's Penny Times, to Cobbett's Works, French without a Master, together with English, Roman, and Grecian history. A ravishing awakenment ensuedthe delightful sense of growing knowledgethe charm of new thoughtthe wonders of a new world. 'Till then,' he says, 'I had wondered why I lived at allwhether
It was not better not to be,
I was so full of misery.
Now I began to think that the crown of all desire, and the sum of all existence, was to read and get knowledge. Read! read! read! I used to read at all possible times, and in all possible places; up in bed till two or three in the morning[xviii] nothing daunted by once setting the bed on fire. Greatly indebted was I also to the bookstalls, where I have read a great deal, often folding a leaf in a book, and returning the next day to continue the subject; but sometimes the book was gone, and then great was my grief! When out of a situation, I have often gone without a meal to purchase a book. Until I fell in love, and began to rhyme as a matter of consequence, I never had the least predilection for poetry. In fact, I always eschewed it; if I ever met with any, I instantly skipped it over, and passed on, as one does with the description of scenery, etc., in a novel. I always loved the birds and flowers, the woods and the stars; I felt delight in being alone in a summer-wood, with song, like a spirit, in the trees, and the golden sunbursts glinting through the verdurous roof; and was conscious of a mysterious creeping of the blood, and tingling of the nerves, when standing alone in the starry midnight, as in God's own presence-chamber. But until I began to rhyme, I cared nothing for written poetry. The first verses I ever made were upon 'Hope,' when I was utterly hopeless; and after I had begun, I never ceased for about four years, at the end of which time I rushed into print.'
There was, of course, crudeness both of thought and expression in the first verses of the poet, which were published in a provincial paper. But there was nerve, rhythm, and poetry; the burthen of the song was, 'At even-time it shall be light.' The leading idea of the poem was the power of knowledge, virtue, and temperance, to elevate the condition of the poor,--a noble idea truly. Shortly after he was encouraged to print a shilling volume of Poems and Chansons, in his native town of Tring, of which some 250 copies were sold. Of his later poems we shall afterwards speak.
But a new power was now working upon his nature, [xix] as might have been expectedthe power of opinion, as expressed in books, and in the discussions of his fellow-workers.
'As an errand-boy,' he says, 'I had, of course, many hardships to undergo, and to bear with much tyranny; and that led me into reasoning upon men and things, the causes of misery, the anomalies of our societary state, politics, etc., and the circle of my being rapidly out-surged. New power came to me with all that I saw, and thought, and read. I studied political workssuch as Paine, Volney, Howitt, Louis Blanc, etc., which gave me another element to mould into my verse, though I am convinced that a poet must sacrifice much if he write party-political poetry. His politics must be above the pinnacle of party zeal; the politics of eternal truth, right, and justice. He must not waste a life on what tomorrow may prove to have been merely the question of a day. The French Revolution of 1848 had the greatest effect on me of any circumstance connected with my own life. It was scarred and blood-burnt into the very core of my being. This little volume of mine is the fruit thereof.'
But, meanwhile, he had been engaged in other literary work. Full of new thoughts, and bursting with aspirations for freedom, he started, in April, 1849, a cheap journal, written entirely by working men, entitled, The Spirit of Freedom: it was full of fiery earnestness, and half of its weekly contents were supplied by Gerald Massey himself, who acted as editor. It cost him five situations during a period of eleven monthstwice because he was detected burning candle far into the night, and three times because of the tone of the opinions to which he gave utterance. The French Revolution of 1848 having, amongst its other issues, kindled the zeal of the working-man in this country in the cause of association, Gerald Massey eagerly joined [xx] them, and he has been recently instrumental in giving some impetus to that praiseworthy movementthe object of which is to permanently elevate the condition of the producing classes, by advancing them to the status of capitalists as well as labourers.
A word or two as to Gerald Massey's recent poetry. Bear in mind that he is yet but a youth;at twenty-three a man can scarcely be said fairly to have entered his manhood; and yet, if were except Robert Nichol, who died at twenty-four, we know of no English poet of his class, who has done any thing to compare with him. Some of his most beautiful pieces originally appeared in the columns of the Leader. They give you the idea of a practised handone who has reached the full prime of his poetic manhood. Take, for instance, his Lyrics of Love, so full of beauty and tenderness. Nor are his Songs of Progress less full of poetic power and beauty.
Gerald Massey is a teacher through the heart. He is familiar with the passions, and leans towards the tender and loving aspect of our nature. He takes after Burns more than after Wordsworth, Elliot rather than Thomson. He is but a young man, though he has crowded into his twenty-three years already the life of an old man. He has won his experience in the school of the poor, and nobly earned his title to speak to them as a man and a brother, dowered with 'the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn, the love of love.'
Extract from Eliza Cook's Journal, 1851. [xxi]
I do not like to write a preface. I do not think a volume of verse should need one. But, as my book has reached a third edition, and as almost as much has been said about myself as about my book, perhaps I may be excused, even by the preface-hater, if I do take this opportunity of saying a few words. I have been considerably censured for the political opinions which it containsas I expected to be. Before printing, I was advised not to include the political pieces, as, it was urged, they would prove an obstacle to the success of my Poetry, and close the drawing-room door against me. And if I had looked on the success of my Book in a poetical light alone, I should not have printed the greater portion of the political verses. But that was not the sole point of view. Those verses do not express what I think and feel now, since they were written some five or six years ago: yet they express what I thought and felt then, and what thousands beside me have thought and felt, and what thousands still think and feel. They were the outcome of a peculiar and marked experience. I printed the Memoir, so that they might be read in the light, or gloom, of that experience, and the Book contain its own excuse. They have not read me aright, who have not so interpreted it. I have been blamed for the rebellious feelings to which the political pieces give utterance; [xxiii] but they were perfectly natural under the circumstances. Indeed, I look upon those same rebellious feelings as my very deliverance from a fatal slough. There are conditions in which many of the poor exist, where humanity must be either rebel or slave. For the slave, degradation and moral death are certain; but for the rebel there is always a chance of becoming conqueror; and the force to resist is far better than the faculty to succumb.
It is not that I seek to sow dissension between class and class, or fling firebrands among the combustibles of society; for when I smite the hearts of my fellows, I would rather they should gush with the healing waters of love, than with the fearful fires of hatred. I yearn to raise them into loveable beings. I would kindle in the hearts of the masses a sense of the beauty and grandeur of the universe, call forth the lineaments of divinity in their poor worn faces, give them glimpses of the grace and glory of Love and the marvellous significance of Life, and elevate the standard of Humanity for all. But strange wrongs are daily done in the land, bitter feelings are felt, and wild words will be spoken. It was not for myself alone that I wrote these things: it was always the condition of others that so often made the mist rise up and cloud my vision. Nor was it for myself that I have uncurtained some scenes of my life to the public gaze, but as an illustration of the lives of others, who suffer and toil on, 'die, and make no sign;' and because one's own personal experience is of more value than that of others taken upon hearsay.
So I keep my political verses as memorials of my past, as one might keep some worn-out garment because he had passed through the furnace in it, nothing doubting that in the future they will often prove my passport to the hearts and homes of thousands of the poor, when the minstrel comes to their door with something better to bring them. [xxiv]
They will know that I have suffered their sufferings, wept their tears, thought their thoughts, and felt their feelings; and they will trust me.
I have been congratulated by some correspondents on the uses of suffering, and the riches I have wrung from poverty: as though it were a blessed thing to be born in the condition in which I was, and surrounded with untoward circumstances as I have been. My experience tells me that poverty is inimical to the development of Humanity's noblest attributes. Poverty is a never-ceasing struggle for the means of living, and it makes one hard and selfish. To be sure, noble lives have been wrought out in the sternest poverty. Many such are being wrought out now, by the unknown heroes and martyrs of the poor. I have known men and women in the very worst circumstances, to whom heroism seemed a heritage, and to be noble a natural way of living. But they were so in spite of their poverty, and not because of it. What they might have been if the world had done better by them, I cannot tell; but if their minds had been enriched by culture, the world had been the gainer. When Christ said, 'Blessed are they who suffer,' he did not speak of those who suffer from want and hunger, and who always see the Bastille looming up and blotting out the sky of their future. Such suffering brutalizes. True natures ripen and strengthen in suffering; but it is that suffering which chastens and ennoblesthat which clears the spiritual sightnot the anxiety lest work should fail, and the want of daily bread. The beauty of suffering is not to be read in the face of hunger.
Above all, poverty is a cold place to write poetry in. It is not attractive to poetical influences. The Muses do not like entertainment which is not fit for man or beast. Nor do the best fruits of poetry ripen in the rain, and shade, and wind alone: they [xxv] want sunshine, warmth, and the open sky. And should the heart of a poor man break into song, it is likely that his poverty may turn into hailstones that which might have fallen on the world in fructifying rain. A poor man, fighting his battle of life, has little time for the rapture of repose which poetry demands. He cannot take poetry like a bride to his heart and home, and devote a life to her service. He can only keep some innermost chamber of his heart sacred for her, from whence he gets occasional glimpses of her wondrous beauty, when he can steal away from the outward strife, like some child who has found a treasure, and steals aside to look on it in secret and alone, lest rude and importunate companions should snatch it from the possessor's hands. Considering all things, it may appear madness for a poor man to attempt poetry in the face of the barriers that surround him. So many hearts have been broken, so many lives have been wasted, so many lions are in the way of the Gate Beautiful, and so many wrecks lie by the path! And so it isa diseased madness, or a divine one. If the disease, then there is no help for a man; if the divine, then there is no hindrance for him.
Who would not pity the poor versifier at the outset of his career? But who would not also rejoice with him in the end, when the world crowns him a poet with paeans of acclaim? And, in spite of all things, there will be poetry in the midst of poverty. Even as there is scarcely a space in the world so barren but some plot of natural richness will be running all to flowerssome type of loveliness will be starting up from Earth's inner Sea of Beauty, even in waste and wilderness, on rock and ruin, in Alpine snows and sandy solitudesso is it with poetry, the Flower of Humanity. It will continually be springing, in its own natural way, in the most bleak and barren byways of the [xxvi] world, as well as in the richest and most cultivated pastures. The winds of heaven, or the birds of God, will drop the seed, and the flower will follow, even though sown amid the bushes and brambles of the obscurest hamlet, or in the crevices of the city pavement. Not that the wilderness, or the rock, or the snows, are the fittest places to rear flowers of most exquisite fragrance and beauty; neither are poverty and penury, with their hell of torture, and daily wrestle with grim death, the fittest soil to grow and perfect the flower of poetry. The greatest original Genius can only develop itself according to the circumstances which environ it. It needs food to nourish it, and time and opportunity to unfold it. If it lack these, it must remain dwarfed and stunted, and perhaps wither and die.
Besides, it is not while the fight is raging, and the struggle is sore, that the poet can sing. He must first do battle and overcome, climb from the stir and strife, and be able to watch from his mountain where he dwells apart. The fullest and rarest streams of poetry only flow through a mind at peace. The mirror of the poet's soul must be calm and clear: else it will give forth distorted reflections and false imagings.
Had I known, when I began to write verses, what I know now, I think I should have been intimidated, and not have begun at all. So many and so glorious are the luminaries already up and shining, that one would pause before hoisting a rushlight. But I was ignorant of these things. And as I have begun, and conquered some preliminary difficultiesas I have been sweated down to the proper jockey-weight at which I can ride Pegasus with little danger of spraining his wingsand as a purpose has gradually and unconsciously grown upon meI dare say I shall go on, making the best of my limited materials, with the view of writing some songs that may become dear [xxvii] to the hearts of the people, cheering them in their sorrows, voicing their aspirations, lighting them on the way up which they are groping darkly after better things, and saluting their triumphs with hymns of victory!
I cannot conclude without thanking those critics who have given me so generous a welcome. And I would also thank those who have not spared my faults, or dwelt tenderly on my failings. They, also, have done me good, and I am grateful for it. Friendly praise is somewhat like a warm bathapt to enervate, especially if we stay in too long; but friendly censure is like a cold bath, bracing and healthful, though we are always glad to get out of it. Some of the critics have called me a 'poet;' but that word is much too lightly spoken, much too freely bandied about. I know what a poet is too well to fancy that I am one yet. It is a high standard that I set up myself, and I do not ask it to be lowered to reach my stature; nor would I have the poet's awful crown diminished to mete my lesser brow. I may have that something within which kindles flame-like at the breath of love, or mounts into song in the presence of beauty; but so have many who are not poets. If I were a critic, I should be savagely severe on this subject. The dearth of poetry should be great in a country where we hail as poets such as have been crowned of late.
For myself, I have only entered the lists, and inscribed my
name: the race has yet to be run. Whether I shall run it, and win the poet's
crown, or not, time alone will prove, and not the prediction of friend or foe.
The crowns of poetry are not in the keeping of critics. There have been many who
have given some sign of promisejust set a rainbow of hope in the dark cloud
of their lifeand never fulfilled their promise; and the world has wondered
why. But it might not [xxviii] have been matter of
wonder if the world could have read what was written behind the cloud. Others,
again, are songful in youth, like the nightingales in Spring, who soon cease to
sing, because they have to build nests, rear their young, and provide for them;
and so the songs grow silentthe heart is full of cares, and the dreamer has
no time to dream. I hope that my future holds some happier fate. I think there
is a work for me to do, and I trust to accomplish it.
This page last updated: 28/11/2007