Billington, born at Samlesbury on April 3rd, 1827, was a son of Benedict
Billington and Ann (or Nancy) Billington. The maiden name of the
poet's mother was Bolton, and she had a brother named Robert Bolton, who,
under the nickname of "Foce Robin," was renowned throughout the
countryside, and also in Blackburn and Preston, for his "Pace-egg songs"
and his wit. Robin's verses—with a few exceptions—would be looked
upon as doggerel nowadays; but they were remarkable as the work of a man
who had received little or no schooling, and who had absolutely no
knowledge of general literature to guide him.
If Robert Bolton was crippled as a rhymer for lack of
education, his gifted nephew cannot be said to have been much more
favourably situated. For Benedict Billington died when his son
William was only seven years of age, leaving the poor mother with several
children, among whom were two boys named respectively Joseph and James,
both younger than William. Under such circumstances there was no
chance of any day-school education for the future poet. He was sent
to the Sunday School attached to Samlesbury Catholic Chapel, and his
brother Joseph told me that William also went a little to a similar Sunday
School at Osbaldeston. These two Sunday Schools were the only places
at which our poet got any learning until after the family's removal to
Blackburn in 1839. Then though working long hours in the factory, he
contrived to attend the old Mechanics' Institution in Back-lane.
Here, so early as 18 years of age, we find he was teaching grammar; and it
is said that he taught it to many young men who subsequently became very
successful in life.
No amount of hard work—between boyhood and middle age he had
been a "doffer," a "stripper and grinder," a weaver and a taper—could
quench his thirst for literary knowledge; and at the age of 26, as Mr.
Abram, who knew him well, testifies, "he had read and re-read Shelley,
Byron, Keats and Burns through," and "was well versed in the older poets,
Chaucer, Spencer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope." He had
also read "the later works of Scott, Coleridge, and Wordsworth."
It is impossible, in the course of a work like the present,
to give anything like a complete biographical sketch of Billington, and at
the same time find space for specimens of his poetry. And even if it
were possible, a detailed biography would not here be necessary; seeing
that so many previous local writers have dealt with the subject. On
the whole, Mr. Abram's article on
Billington—in "Blackburn Characters of a Past Generation"—contains
the most concise account, and the fairest estimate, of the poet and his
poetry that has yet appeared.
Mr. Abram's volume, to which I have alluded in previous
chapters, may be had at the Blackburn Free Library, and his account of
Billington's life and work should not be overlooked by any student of
The first five of the poems which follow are taken from the
earlier of Billington's two volumes, namely, his "Sheen
and Shade," published in 1861, when the poet was 34 years of age.
Many of these pieces appeared, during 1857-8, in the "Blackburn Standard,"
over the nom-de-plume of "Julian." Some, however, were
written much earlier, and among the earlier ones was the following,
commenced when the poet was 24 years of age:—
RECOLLECTIONS OF CHILDHOOD.
SUGGESTED BY BEING PRESENTED
WITH A HONEYSUCKLE
FROM MY BIRTHPLACE.
Inhabitant of mine own native vale,
Sweet-scented consort of the red wild-rose
Which pours its perfume on the summer's gale,
As thou dost upon every breeze that blows,
When morning smiles, or when the day doth close
In fiery grandeur flaming from the west,
O! how I long to drink the tide that flows
Like nectar-streams through thy ambrosial breast
With feelings such as once my infant heart possessed.
When in my father's cottage I did dwell,
Ere seven summers since my birth had fled,
Death's fatal summons broke the fairy spell
That bound my heart, and o'er my youthful head
A halo of enjoyment ever shed,
Inspiring hopes of bliss through future years:
Yes—laid a father sleeping with the dead,
And turned those hopes and joys to sighs and tears,
And taught how much an infant's heart unbroken bears.
For in that cot, of which I mention made,
The happiest hours of life's long day were spent;
The morning of existence there I played
Away in ceaseless joy and merriment;
And still the scenes, which I then did frequent,
Are truly mirrored in my memory's glass,
Though Fortune's ruthless hand hath long since rent
Me from their much-loved presence, and, alas!
Instilled the hopeless wish to be what then I was.
To wander in the woods, as once I did,
And listen to the music of the grove;
To view the towering pine, or pyramid
Of rocks, glassed in the torrent, from above
While heaven's blue to earth's deep centre drove
Its bending arch, and on my wandering eye
Flashed images of beauty—stars that move
In harmony through ether's realms on high,
Deep-tossing in the gulf of an inverted sky.
My heart beat with a sense of love and beauty
That dwelt in every sylvan sound I heard,
The woodland walk I made my daily duty,
And to all other pleasures, I preferred
To list and learn the song of every bird
Whose love-notes echoed from each flowery nook,
Till loud, hoarse bleatings of the lowing herd,
Mixed with the bubbling music of the brook,
Sang farewell to the day as Sol the west forsook.
Then to the top of an adjacent hill,
To watch the setting sun, when clouds of splendour
And fire-flushed light the western skies did fill,
And upward streams of sunbeams bright did render
Their skirts transparent, piercing them with slender
Sharp shafts of gold and flame, whose tints did seem
Than lovely Flora's cheeks more soft and tender—
They faded like the drapery of a dream,
When Ocean swallowed Phœbus
and his fiery team.
Then slowly down the steep hill's flowery side
With cautious steps the winding ways I wended,
To view the roses veil their blushing pride
And hang their heads as evening's dew descended—
Contract their petals, which had been extended
From morn till eve, to sip the solar ray,
Till, as dun Night her sable throne ascended,
All bathed in tears upon the thorny spray,
Seemed shrunk within themselves to mourn the absent
But scenes like these have vanished long ago
And other objects entered in their room,
My mirthful heart, a magazine of woe
Hath now become. The beauty and the bloom
Of boyhood now lie buried in the tomb
Of memory; and yet, I am but young!
My task is now to tend the labouring loom,
And work the woof, yet needs must ply my tongue,
Impelled by heart and head, and sorrow is my song.
"Sheen and Shade" was an attractive and well printed book of 160 pages,
containing "Lyrical Poems," "Poems for the People," Sonnets, Acrostics,
and "Epistles." It is worthy of note that Mr. Abram, writing so lately as
1893, stated that he estimated the book, on the whole, quite as highly
then as he did 32 years before, when it first appeared.
Of course the book is somewhat unequal; but then all books
are so, more or less. The Acrostics and Epistles might all have been
omitted without much loss, and the same remark would apply to perhaps one
or two poems in each of the other three sections. There are
metaphors and similes in some of the poems to which strong exception has
been taken by competent critics, and there is a certain amount of
redundancy. But when all has been said that criticism demands,
"Sheen and Shade" remains, as the work of a self-educated workman, a book
of marvellous power and almost boundless promise. It is impossible
to do justice to it within the space at my disposal; because some of the
finest pieces are far too long for quotation here, while mere extracts
would give little idea of their many merits and their sustained power.
The poem entitled "The Autumn Spirit," occupying eight pages of the book,
is an example of what I mean. Here is one of the shortest of the
lyrics, well worth committing to memory:—
ALL WILL BE WELL IN THE END.
This world is a world of glory and gloom,
Of opposites in the extreme,
Of mirth and of misery—toil and the tomb!
But things are not what they seem.
I dwelt in the vale of the Shadow of Death,
And its storms broke over my head,
With pitiless peltings, that robbed me of breath,
And I, coward-like, wished myself dead;
Yet I thought in my heart, as my spirit doth live,
The troubles, that o'er me impend,
Are ordered by Heaven, some lesson to give,
And right will be might in the end!
An Angel there came to my lattice one night,
Beautiful, bright, and bold,
And bade me look up at the heavens so bright,
All fretted with fire and gold,
And said there were worlds on worlds above,
And God was the God of them all,
That, wanting His will, not a world might move,
Nor even a sparrow might fall;
Then I said in my heart, as my spirit doth live,
The sorrows that on me descend
Are governed by God, some lesson to give,
And all will be well in the end!
Some of the sonnets are very fine. I would not like to
say that the one which follows this paragraph is the finest; but its
beauty has appealed strongly to me ever since the night—now nearly twenty
years ago—when I first heard it, from the lips of its author himself, as
we sat alone in his humble dwelling:—
O this fair world were dreary, dull, and dark,
But for the presence of the light of Love—
That Sun of Life—that quintessential spark
Which kindled worlds through Night's dark wilderness!
It is God's highest attribute no less
Than Man's most golden gift—his spirit—ark
That floats on Time's deep deluge, as a bark
Sits on the sleeping Ocean; 'tis the boat
That bears him to the haven of his hopes—
Truth's Land of Promise. Ever let him bless
God for the gift, and use it as he ought—
Plant groves of Bliss on Life's most barren slopes,
Till Earth in virtue vies with Heaven above,
And Love in every breast sits like the brooding dove!
The book contains some weird mystical poems, such as "The
Angel's Tomb" and "The Coffin and the Shroud;" which are far too deep and
gloomy to suit ordinary readers; but are fraught with meaning for the
student. In striking contrast to those mystical pieces are such
poems as the one from which the following stanzas are taken, entitled—
MATE ME WITH CHILDREN OR LEAVE ME
The sapling more gracefully grows than the tree,
In purity, dewdrops excel the deep sea,
The morning, in beauty, outlustres the noon,
Maiden May is more lovely than leaf-mantled June.
The home of our childhood we never forget,
The first kiss of love is the sweetest kiss yet.
No rose is so chaste as the rose-bud unblown,
Then mate me with children or leave me alone!
They are haunted by angels, 'tis said, and it seems
That sweet fancy is true, for they smile in their dreams,
When their spotless young spirit strays thro' the blest bowers
Of the soul's inner Eden to gather God's flowers.
Where the angels may meet them, as doubtless they do—
What the heart holdeth good, let the reason hold true!
While Felicity reaps where Affection hath sown,
O mate me with children or leave me alone!
I care not for company, revel and rout,
'Mid the boisterous laugh and the Bacchanal's shout
Should I lucklessly linger, my spirit will roam
To brood o'er its own little Heaven at home.
Where I've two charming children—a boy and a girl—
A rose and a lily, a pink and a pearl—
In that palace of life, and their love fills its throne,
So mate me with children or leave me alone!
They scatter new gloss upon Time's hoary wings,
String the harp to the heart with more musical strings;
Sow the sunshine of youth in the furrows of age,
Making Spring greenly smile where grave Autumn looked sage;
Their love-litten laughter can pierce the dark pall
Settled Sorrow wraps round her, cause Care to let fall
His unbearable burden, still Misery's moan,
Then mate me with children or leave me alone!
Those readers—and at this date they must be the majority—whose
acquaintance with Billington's work is limited to the Lancashire Songs and
of his later volume, can have no idea of the beauty of his earlier lyrics,
of which the following is an example:—
A LIFE LYRIC.
My heart alway pure homage will pay
To its Empress Poesy,
And the tapers that shine in her palace divine
Will my load-star of life still be;
My soul, sleep-crossed by dreams of the lost
Life-treasures in Hope's wrecked barque,
Must borrow a ray from the sun of Youth's day,
To make Manhood's night less dark.
The loved resorts of childhood sports,
The spot where Thought first bloomed,
And blushed, and blew, and joy-buds out-threw,
Now blighted and entombed;
That glory-trance in Life's romance
Whose glow Time's gloom ne'er shrouds,
Through Memory gleams, as the sunset streams
Through a sea of golden clouds!
As in the shade of a hollow glade
Where greening forests gloom,
A lonely Tree transfigured may be
In the light of its golden bloom,
So I bask in the beams of my youthful dreams
When immured in the Castle of Care,
Like a star ringed with gloom, or a soul in the tomb,
Or a hope in the heart of Despair.
When, brooding and black as the thunder-rack,
Grief's world-waves o'er me close,
On Poesy's wings my spirit upsprings
From a surging sea of woes,
And I live in a world which Fancy hath furled
Like a Heaven around my heart,
Lit up by the beams of my youthful dreams
Whose lustre can never depart.
The glimmering nooks by the glassy brooks
Where Oaks shook hands o'erhead,
And wild strawberries, as red as cherries,
Looked up from their lush green bed,
The rush-isle dank, and the violet bank,
The poplar's palsied leaves,
The robin's red breast, and the swallows that nest
In the straw-thatched cottage-eaves;
The green hedge-rows, where the wild rose grows,
The daisy-dappled mead,
The cloud-like woods that follow the floods,
And the dawn-flushed mountain-head,
And all the range of greenery, grange,
Dim forest and flower-flushed field,
And wind-lashed trees, that surged like seas,
In Memory stand revealed!
The doves that cooed, and all birds that brood
In brake, bank, bush, or tree;
Like the lark that soars to Heaven's blue doors,
Seemed ministrant spirits to me;
Queen Fancy teems with youth's Eden-dreams,
Bewildering Sense and Thought,
And my spirit, in spite of Truth's blinding light,
Is back to my childhood brought;
For Time and Space have lost their place
On Reason's tear-dimmed chart,
And Sorrow and Hope are building a cope
O'er the tomb of a martyred Heart!
Yet I live in a world which Fancy hath furled
Like a Heaven around my soul,
Which lights Life's way from day to day,
And will gild its gloomy goal.
Twenty-two years elapsed between the publication of "Sheen and Shade" and
its author's second volume. The latter, issued in 1883, was entitled
"Lancashire Songs, with other Poems and Sketches." The "Lancashire Songs"
were nineteen in number; the "Lancashire Poems and Sketches" five—(with
only one of the sketches in prose); and the "Poems and Songs"
fifty-eight,—in all, eighty-two pieces, exclusive of the following very
To whom shall I with such a perfect grace
And pure delight, enthroned above all others
In my proud heart, this fitting tribute trace
In dedication, as to those twain brothers
Whose sweet companionship hath filled life's race
With peace and hope and happiness, nor place
For doubt or discord left; but when a mother's
Lone life was darkened, bravely battling for
Her orphaned children's welfare, shielded her
From dearth and danger's menace when grim want
Was grown familiar, labour scarce, and scant
Our Pittance. O! 'twas then, those golden chains,
The filial and fraternal fused, and there
The two were forged in one, which evermore remains.
It is on record that after the publication of "Sheen and Shade," when the
Cotton Panic made Lancashire people too poor to buy books, Billington
other counties, lecturing, often on the British poets, at Oddfellows'
Lodges and elsewhere, and selling copies of his book to some of those
in poetry he had thus stimulated. One can fancy the delight with which
some rapt young student here and there would peruse the glowing pages of
workman-poet's book; and how, in some homes far distant from his native
Lancashire, Billington's first volume would be treasured for a lifetime. But if,
twenty-two years later, a copy of our poet's second volume, with the
telltale title page torn out, had been placed in the hands of such a
student, I question
whether he would ever have discovered, unaided, that the 1883 volume was
the work of the author of "Sheen and Shade." It would not require the
poems and sketches to throw such a student off the scent: the Poems and
Songs which are not in dialect would amply suffice. I am well aware that
later volume contains poems, both in dialect and modern English, which
were written before "Sheen and Shade" was issued. For example, the poem
placed last in the later volume, "To George Salisbury," is dated 1856, and
one of the dialect pieces, "Where will t' Goose Come Fro'?" was written
back as 1852. Nevertheless, the Poems included in the 1883 volume are very
different, both in style and tone, from those published in 1861. "Blackburn as It Is" and "The Cry of the Crowd,"—two noble poems, born of
the Cotton Panic in 1862,—both breathe a spirit of sadness which is never
long absent from the pages of this later volume. Even the dialect poems,
though packed with homely philosophy and flashing with humorous phrases,
take mostly either a sorrowful or a sarcastic view of life. I know there
were sad songs in the first volume; but they did not suggest the "settled
sorrow" of the second. "Sheen and Shade" contained a cheerful poem
entitled "This Bad World is Better than Good Men Allow," and many another
written in similar strain; but there is a great contrast between those
hopeful songs and the almost despairing sarcasm of such dialect poems as "Heaw
to Ged Rich" and "Goo In to Win." From the strictly poetical point of
view,—and that is of course the point of view from which we are entitled
to consider them,—neither the dialect poems nor the others in the later
volume come anywhere near fulfilling the promise of "Sheen and Shade." But, when we have, in the interests of fair criticism, made this
admission, we must be careful not to overlook the fact that both kinds of
poems possess other claims on our attention. These later pieces are full
of truth; and if, in most of the dialect poems and in some of the others,
that truth is bitter and unpalatable, we ought not to grumble at the poet
who makes it known, but rather at the worldlings who occasion its
utterance. Take "Look Under t' Leeaves if yo want Ony Nuts"—one of the
best known pieces—for example. Its sixth stanza is indeed too blunt for
indiscriminate reading; but, when that is omitted, who can deny that every
other line of the piece is true enough to live as long as ever there are
Lancashire people to understand it. "Friends are Few when Fooak are
Poor"—another well-known poem—is a characteristic piece; as also—among
the non-dialect pieces—is the one (made up of two scathing sonnets coupled
FRAUD, THE EVIL OF THE AGE.
With what unutterable shame and scorn,
Humiliation and indignant rage.
The bosom of the honest man is torn
Who contemplates the evils of this age—
Light weights, short measures, packing, paint and gloss—
One half the world kept by the other's loss—
Cheating, chicane, bankruptcy, liquidation,
Clayed-cloth, damped yarn, short counts, and watered weft,
With antiseptic's scientific theft—
All trades warm-eaten by adulteration!
What folly—what shortsightedness—what sin—
Enough to make the very Devil grin!
By cheating, one may gain some paltry pelf;
But, as a whole, the world can only cheat itself.
Commerce, thou hast much to answer for,
Cold, callous King of Trade's unconscion'd mart;
No bolt of Jove, no hammer stroke of Thor
Could singe or dint thine adamantine heart;
From morals, from religion far apart,
Thy God is gold, thy Gospel selfish gain;
Thy bastard twins, pale Poverty and Pain,
Foul imps by thee begotten upon Fraud,
Infest our cities, fill our cots, and fain
Would shrink from out existence, or have thawed
The heart of Avarice, blocking Pity's way.
When Rings and Corners—swindling guilds—hold sway—
When vices rise which pulpits fail to reach,
The poet, not the parson, then must claim to preach.
Billington did preach, with a vengeance, in this later volume; and for the
most part his poetic sermons are such as neither rich nor poor can deny. Speaking of the poor, one should never forget how constantly, throughout
his whole life, Billington pleaded their cause. This fact does indeed, far
more than anything else, link together his two otherwise widely-differing
volumes; and give them a real and unmistakeable unity of purpose. In
the second volume, as in the first, he was never tired of advocating the
claims of the toiler:—
My lot is cast amid the lowly masses
Whose joys and sorrows I full aft have sung,
And through the glooms which cloud the working classes
Some feeble gleams of sunshine may have flung;
But whether this be fact or fancy, lo!
Once more my lowly harp I humbly string
To teach them what they each full well must know,
But oft forget, that Time is on the wing!
The patient endurance of the Lancashire factory operative under the heavy
trials of the great Cotton Panic was surely never more truly pourtrayed
THE SPINNER'S HOME.
I can easily fling
Common cares to the wind,
For every heart hath its grief,
And merits the sting,
Every soul having sinn'd,
But mine may not hope for relief.
I am loth to complain,
Though I might have had cause,
For hunger is hard to endure;
Yet I will not arraign Either
Heaven or the laws
Of my country because I am poor.
I have battled with Want
For a terrible term.
And been silent, till silence seemed crime;
Yet I mean not to rant.
But will yield you a germ
Of plain truth in an unpolished rhyme.
My health—that is good;
Accustomed to labour withal,
'Tis a marvel we should.
Yet alas! it is true.
Either starve or be stinted—but call
At the cabin I live in
And see for yourselves;
The walls and the windows are there,
But the fire has ceased giving
Its light, and the shelves
And the table are foodless and bare.
These walls once were hung
With the triumphs of Art.
This pantry with plenty was stored,
And Happiness flung
Her rich light on the heart
Of the dear ones who sat at this board.
Those dear ones are dead—
Though it cost me a tear
To tell how they drew their last breath—
Be it so!—want of bread
Brought on fever—severe!
And fever and famine brought death.
And now my lone heart,
Like a plummet of lead
That is dropt in the sea's sullen wave,
Droopeth far, far apart
From its owner; its bed
Is down deep in our little ones' grave.
The loud-prattling tongue,
The sweet simple look,
Little feet patt'ring over the floor
To the past must belong,
And the heart that must brook
Their deep loss is indeed rendered poor!
Long years may roll on,
Good times may return,
And life seem as sweet as of yore;
But our loved ones are gone,
And their beauties will burn
In our desolate dwelling no more!
From the later dialect poems I have selected one, not
indeed typical of his best known pieces, but much more bright and
ROOAS O' T' RIVER SIDE.
Tune:—"When Molly an' Me Gets Wed."
Bi yon bonk side at t' nook o' t' wood
There runs a river clear,
An' theer a little, sweet rooasbud—
A bonny lass lives theer;
Hoo's th' owd mon's boast an' t' young men's toast—
Her mother's pet an' pride!
Her name's a slip o' poesy,
It's t' Rooas o' t' river side.
Her feyther swears an' carries on—
Aw monnud hev his lass!
For Rooasy awt to wed a mon
Ut's wo'th a bit o' brass;
But aw cud wark an' bring her brass,
An' som'at else beside—
A loyal heart brimful o' love
To bless mi bonny bride.
Wheer t' sun-forsaken alley lies—
I' th' factory among th' looms
True love con meek a Paradise
O' wheer id buds an' blooms;—
Nod daisies, pinks, nor daffodils—
Nod pansies prankt an' pied,—
Nor lilies fair con aw compare
To t' Rooas o' t' river side.
Aw've awlus Rooasy i' mi thowts,
I' th' mornin'; an' at neet,
Aw'm like to wander theerabeawts,
For th' air's so fresh an' sweet!
Theer t' gress is greener—t' skies moor blue—
An' t' fleawrs moor deeply dyed;
But nooan so deeply dints this heart
As t' Rooas o' t' river side.
When crossin' o'er bi th' hillock crest
Aw've skent at th' cottage dur;
Mi heart played skittles i' mi breast
To ged a glint a' hur;
An' when within thad lattice porch
Mi bonny lass aw spied,
Aw thowt o' wings—then wedding rings
An' Rooas o' t' river side.
Her een's like yon blue lift aboon;
Her locks are cleawdy gowd;
Mi pulse played music—beat a tune—
When fost mi love aw towd;
An' then when Rooasy smiled on me,
For joy aw cud ha' cried,
An' blessed the Peawer as formed thad fleawer,
Sweet Rooas o' t' river side.
Aw praised her name as t' prattiest name
As ever aw hed known;
Hoo hinted iv aw pressed mi claim
If Hoo'd swap id for mi own;
Sooa Rooas an' me ull soon be one,
As streoms together glide,
Then buds ull spreawt an' branch abeawt
This Rooas O' t' river side.
When care shall come; an' life look glum,
An' trouble's billows roll.
Her smile hes peawer to sheed a sheawer
O' sunshine i' mi soul!
So neaw for better or for woss,
Let weal or woe betide,
Aw'll buckle to an' link mi lot
Wi Rooas o t' river side.
Among the finest of the poems contained in this later volume are "The
Singer," "The Pilot Maxwell," "Duty," and the tender lyric—written only a
the publication of "Sheen and Shade"—entitled:—
THE BIRD'S NEST.
One moody April even,
That month of smiles and tears,
When Iris up to heaven
Her arch of raindrops rears;
By bright Apollo's gilding,
When shade and shower had gone,
Slant roof and slated building
Like sheeted silver shone.
The meads and groves more greenly
Were glowing after rain.
And Flora smiled more queenly
On hill and flowery plain;
My beautiful, my fairest,
My heart's own blooming bride,
My loveliest and dearest
Was walking by my side!
The muse with rapture glowing—
Brink full of boundless bliss,
My heart was overflowing
With maddening ecstasies;
I seized a sprig of ash
Which March winds off had torn,
And wielding it would dash
The raindrops from the thorn,—
When flash! and out there came
A parti-coloured bird—
A spirit wing'd with flame
Which my flush'd spirit stirred.
Like rustling harvest sheaves,
Shook many a leafy spray—
The queen her palace leaves
For danger threats her stay.
Deep, darkling in the shade.
By green leaves overgrown,
A dainty nest was made,
Of mingled moss and down;
And eggs warm, polished, bright,
Lay in that downy bed,
With shells of Parian white
Sprinkled with specks of red.
"Alas! alas!" said I,
"That men should still despair
With happiness hard by—
'Mong tenants of the air;
See all that luscious love,
Undashed by doubt or fear,
Which wedded hearts should prove
Sweetly secluded here!"
For there, in unison
With Nature's simple plan,
Life's brightest thread is spun
Nor soiled, except by man.
I looked upon my wife
With love too deep for words,
And sighed that human life
Should lessons learn from birds.
No account of Billington or his contemporaries would be complete or
appropriate without the inclusion of his characteristic and beautiful
WHERE ARE THE BLACKBURN POETS GONE?
I met an acquaintance a day or two since,
A friend of the reedmaker poet, JOHN PRINCE,
A man whose acquaintance with men and with books
Hath seldom been rivalled, 'twas Mr. CHARLES ROOKS,
The "Junius of Blackburn" named, once on a time,
A master of prose and a critic of rhyme;
Whilst a tear and a tribute were paid to old John,
He asked,—Where the poets of Blackburn had gone?
My answer was ready, if time for a walk
Were at his disposal, the toil by the talk
Would be doubly repaid; he endorsed the remark,
Took my arm, and we sauntered along through the Park.
This scene was once rural and rugged enough,
A quaint rustic valley called Pemberton Clough,
Where "Ribblesdale's" gooseberry garden once shone,
But alas! both the "bard" and the garden are gone.
The time had been short but the changes were vast,
Our thoughts and our sympathies turned to the past,
And, with fond recollection, flew back to those days
When we loitered up Longshaw, or strolled through Damheys
With a posse of poets, though local in name,
Whose merit might match some of national fame—
Some are dead, some have fled, some have ceased to sing on,
But the most of the poets of Blackburn are gone!
Since HODGSON, and BARON, and DUGDALE are dead;
Since CHADBURN, and WALKDEN, and DALY are fled;
Since CLEMESHA, BRADLEY, and STEWART, and HUGHES
Have vanished; since SALISBURY deserted the muse;
Since ABRAM, and WALKER, and RAWCLIFFE, and YATES
Seem to rest on their laurels, defying the fates,
There's JARDINE, there's WHITAKER, WALSH, LITTLE JOHN—
Why, why are these silent, and where have those gone?
I replied, being queried, which did I like best,
The singing of GRAHAM, the silence of WEST,
The language of LITTLETON, least understood,
Or CHIP'S single song, and his "goose"?—which was good,
Don't hide in a napkin your talent, like WEST,
Nor scruple to sing, lest you should not sing best:
The steps to the heavens that glitter up yon,
Each rests on one lower, and all upon one.
He meets retribution, and merits it quite,
Who under a bushel obscureth his light;
The God-given talent should not be confined
To a circle of friends, when 'twas meant for mankind;
Go, lay out your money, in trade or in trust;
Machines when left idle will ruin and rust;
Or reckon all reasons, the pro and the con,
For singing we've many, for silence we've none.
The spink and the sparrow will twitter in spring,
The swift or the swallow in summer will sing;
The thickets with music in May will abound,
But the lark and the linnet sing all the year round.
Then why should the bards of my own humble sphere,
The gifted and goad, wham I'm proud to revere,
Relinquish the lyre, while the least worthy one,
In sadness of heart singeth—"Where are they gone?"
We've climbed up the mountains and sailed on the sea;
On beauty we've banqueted, bounding and free,
Britannia's green valleys we've traversed by times,
Making many-voic'd echo give answer in rhymes;
And we read the sweet poets of many a land,
Ere Death and old Time had divided our band;
But soon the last scene will be closing upon
One more, to be gathered to where they are gone!
In fine, may the bards of this smoky old town
By their confluent gleams add a glow to its crown,
"Like stars in one sky let them mingle their blaze
Of light, nor be jealous of each other's rays";
Like flowers in one garden put forth their bright bloom,
Nor envy the fairest its tints or perfume;
The pipes of an organ all vary in tone,
Their sound must be several, their music is one.
Poets' Corner, Nab Lane, Blackburn,
May 2nd, 1882.
The closing couplet of the eighth stanza proved sadly prophetic, for
William Billington passed away on January 3rd, 1884, in his 57th year. By
Blackburn lost its foremost son of song, and the writer of these chapters
a friend whose kindness and wise literary counsel he will never forget.
[ED.—see also a more recent
biography of Billington,
by Michael I. Watson M. A.]
This modest and unassuming writer belongs to the list of those local poets
about whom I possess little or no biographical information. I only
know that he was a colleague of Billington, in the latter's vigorous
"Sheen and Shade" period; and that he afterwards removed from this
district to Stockport, where he was living not many years ago.
The first of our two examples of John Rushton's poems,
notwithstanding the author's humble apology for his "poor" and "untaught"
muse,—contains some noble lines; and forms altogether a sincere and worthy
TO THE FOUNDER OF THE BLACKBURN
Oft have Old England's lovely valleys rung
With the warm praise of some heroic name;
Oft have the nation cheer'd, the poet sung
Some chance-made hero up the mount of fame;
But there are other heroes 'mid life's throng
Who claim a nation's praise, and poet's song.
I've heard the people shout like madden'd men,
I've seen bright banners wave from spire and dome,
The joyous bells, and music mingling then
To welcome back some conqueror to his home;
But nation's cheering shout, and belfry's chime,
Are seldom for the conquerors of crime.
Give us the generous-hearted and the just—
The man of noble soul and truthful mind.
The school must rise upon the prison's dust,
We want the elevation of mankind;
We want the truly brave, the nobly great,
To lift us to a higher moral state.
Oh! I would sing of ever glorious things,
Could I but tune the poet's graceful lyre,
Whose thrilling tones ride forth on golden wings,
Setting a startled, wondering world on fire;
I'd sing of noble hearts, of moral worth,
Of generous spirits, patriots on the earth.
A sunny wreath far thee should then be twined,
I'd write thy name an truth's undying page,
I'd show thee forth a model of thy kind;
A grand example in this grovelling age;
But my poor muse is but an untaught one,
And I can only say—"Good heart go on!"
"Go on, brave soul!" no more my muse can say;
I do believe the angels from above
Are looking down to cheer thee on thy way,
So sweetly smiling on these works of lave;
Oh! that wealth and power had more such men,
We soon might tread o'er Eden's grounds again.
Our other example is a local piece, beautiful in thought and
diction; a tribute, full of sincerity, to a brother poet; and a true poem
from the first line to the last :—
MR. W. BILLINGTON'S
Some time ago I sought the heavenly nine
For inspiration, but I found them coy.
Dare I approach the maids, in life's decline,
Who look'd with coldness an the ardent boy?
Once more I take the long-neglected lyre,
But fail to tune it to my heart's desire.
My much-esteem'd and ever faithful friend,
I've read thy pleasing poem o'er and o'er,—
Where science, wit and humour strangely blend
And home-spun phrases mix with classic lore;
And, like a glutton at some banquet meal
I gulp'd the viands with Epicurean zeal.
Oh, I was taken back on fancy's wing
To life's delicious and unclouded May;
I heard the dear old Pendle Forest ring
With the sweet sounds that charmed my earlier day;
I heard the murmuring of my native stream,
As when life was a bright, enchanted dream.
There's not a scene that I remember'd not;
In ecstasy I seemed once more to bound
O'er hill and dale; and each endearing spot,
Like fairy objects came to memory's ground,
I heard the voices of the friends of yore—
The cherished ones who walk this earth no more,—
The loved companions of my boyhood's play,
Who climb'd with me the hoary mountain side,
With joyous hearts on many a summer's day;
Or rested there to muse at eventide
On the grey witches who, they say, did dwell
In olden times in that enchanted dell.
Before my vision one bright object stood
With golden hair and eyes of heavenly blue,
In all the glory of her maidenhood,
Who walked with me the flowery ranges through;
I saw the harbour, where we sat in youth
Breathing eternal vows of love and truth.
Thanks, thanks, old friend, for this delicious dream,
Amid life's cares, for this one taste of bliss.
I do admire thy strains, much more the theme
That gives a moment's joyous thrill like this.
A talisman thy poem seems to be
That brings back youth and summer days to me.
This writer was a resident in Blackburn at the time when Billington
published his first volume, and was a contributor to the "Blackburn Weekly
Times" and also (under a nom-de-plume) to the "Standard" and
"Patriot." The following poem is, I think, a fair example of his
serious work; but I have seen a delightful "farewell" poem of his,
addressed to a bombastic "brother bard," which shows how well he could
handle the weapon of ridicule when occasion demanded.
THE ANGEL OF THE COT.
I took her to my home and heart,
My humble lot to share,
And oh! what joys her tones impart—
Her smiles they banish care.
I found a heart that fondly beat
In unison with mine;
A woman's soul, with love replete,
Less human than divine.
We've drank of sorrow's bitter stream
And wrestled with the storm;
We've cherished hope's delusive dream
And fancy's fairy form;
We've been on "life's rough ocean driven,"
Yet still her love was true
And pure as yonder star of heaven
That guides the mariner through.
And when a sweet and lovely flower,
Which pure affection gave,
Was crushed by death's unbending power,
(We laid it in the grave),
We felt the pang of deep despair;
Amid the dismal gloom
She whisper'd, "'Tis not dead; 'tis where
Such flowers immortal bloom."
What though but humble be our home,
Within is love's bright ray,
Which cheers our hearts where'er we roam
On life's uneven way.
We envy not the miser's care,
We've better things in store;
Earth's joys and heaven's hopes we share,
What can we wish for more?
Blackburn, October 1st, 1861.
From the "Poetry of the Panic" (as John Baron phrased it) is
taken this local piece, written in 1861:—
THE VOICE OF WANT.
'Tis hard to bear our spirits up
When Want stands at the door,
And when the monster enters in
To smite the honest poor;
When those we love—our little ones,
Are crying out for bread.
'Tis hard, alas! 'tis hard, we know,
To lift the drooping head.
'Tis hard—when we have able hands
And willing hearts to toil,
To tend the loom, the spindle, wheel,
Or till the fruitful soil—
That man, "our lordly fellow-worm,
Should our petition spurn,
Unmindful, though our weeping wives
And helpless offspring mourn."
'Twas hard to bear our spirits up
From sinking in despair,
When to avoid a pauper's brand,
We sold our "old arm chair";
When, to obtain our children bread,
The Bible passed away
That mother with her blessing gave
Upon our bridal day.
Oh ye who're nursed in luxury's lap,
Who live in regal state,
Remember now the suffering poor
Whose toils have made you great.
And as ye bear the Christian name,
Its fruits, oh, let us see,
Your Master then to you will say,
"Ye did it unto Me."
Alas, that man should lift his hand
To take his brother's breath,
And spread o'er this fair, fruitful earth
Want, Misery, and Death;
O Thou, who hast through fire and cloud
Thy people often led,
O hear our prayers, we Thee implore,
And give our children bread.
Mr. Little emigrated, many years ago, to the United States of
America, and I have been unable to ascertain whether he is still living.
Hugh Gardiner Graham.
Graham was born in the year 1832, at the farm at Ravenscleugh, in the
parish of Applegarth, Dumfriesshire, a county well known to all lovers of
the classical ballad as occupying a unique position in Border Minstrelsy.
He is a descendant of the Græmes of
Miskersa, mentioned in Grose's Antiquities of Scotland. According to
Sir Walter Scott, they subsequently built Græme's
Tower in Annandale, and established themselves there. They took part
in many of the events interwoven in Border history.
As a boy Mr. Graham attended in succession the schools at
Sibbaldiebie and Sandyholme (the latter four miles from his parents' home)
where the ordinary curriculum of these schools prepared him for a course
of instruction in Latin, Greek, and mathematics, later on at Dumfries
Academy. After this he removed to Edinburgh and studied under
Professor Pillans, who has obtained a niche in Byron's s immortal poem,
"English Bards and Scotch Reviewers." While attending the Humanity
Class, on one occasion one of Mr. Graham's fellow students, more
venturesome than discreet, revived the wrath and recollections of the
professor, by writing the passage, in Byron's satire, referring to Pillans,
on the desk in front of him. The professor's attention being drawn
to it, he gave the class an account of the affair of the Noble Lord and
his reviewers, differing from the impression conveyed by the allusion in
the poem. He pointed out that subsequently to the publication of
Byron's severe strictures, the latter had admitted his error in including
the professor's name amongst his obnoxious critics; and finally let the
student off with a fine or the alternative of expulsion from the class.
Mr. Graham also studied under Professor Blackie, the poet and
biographer of Burns, and still retains great esteem for his memory; having
received from him on more than one occasion kindly commendation and
Being fond of debate, after leaving Dumfries and before
proceeding to Edinburgh, he, together with about a dozen more—all
schoolmasters excepting another and himself—established a literary and
debating society, which met weekly at Cogrieburn Schoolhouse, near Moffat. This afterwards became a popular society, which numbered among its
associates Samuel Neil, author of "The Young Debater," etc. Professor
Charteris, of Glasgow University, was a contemporary member and secretary. Mr. Graham also became a contributor to the MS. magazines—"Treasury of
Thoughts " and "Delphian Echoes"—conducted by a small band of literary
aspirants in Glasgow. To the latter, Alexander Smith, author of "City
Poems," was a contributor.
At the end of 1853 Mr. Graham entered the service of the Lancashire and
Yorkshire and Midland Railway Companies, at their joint station, Colne. While at Colne he was a frequent contributor to the "Craven Pioneer," a Skipton weekly. He also attended a debating society held in the Old
Grammar School at Colne.
In the year 1863 he removed to Blackburn, and has resided here since that
date. While secretary for the Cobden Reform Club, Blackburn—when the club
occupied its Church Street premises—he, with other members, helped to
establish a debating society, held weekly in the club rooms, and open to
all who took
an interest in social and political questions. After a period of moderate
success, the society, with the assistance of Mr. John Walker (then
sub-editor of "'The Blackburn Times") and the editor of the "Blackburn
Standard," became transformed into the Parliamentary Debating Society,
which removed to more commodious premises. This society, for a time,
proved very successful, having over 600 members. Mr. Graham was elected
one of the Overseers of the Poor for Blackburn in the year 1873, and
continued in office for two successive years; since which time he has
taken no public part in the town's affairs.
In view of the interesting facts recorded in the first
paragraph of the above biography, I cannot do better than give, as my
first example of Mr. Graham's poetic work, the following stanzas on:—
A structure arose in a dream of my fancy,
A vision ancestral which flattered my pride;
The weed-covered ruins of Gillesbie Tower
Gave place to its battlements lofty and wide.
And broad was the fosse, overspanned by the drawbridge;
Emblazoned with legend of Heron and Ern
The archway—device of the Græmes
To friends they were suave, but to foes they were stern.
The voice of the sentinel rung from the watch-tower;
The hoof of the charger through gateway and arch
Re-echoed, as dauntless the warriors mustered
For feud or for foray in Midland or March.
Ah, vain was the vision where challenged the warder
The dust-covered trooper from raid or from fight
Who gave his brief tidings of joy or disaster,
Nor loitered, but urged his steed in his flight.
O, home of my fathers, where deeds as romantic
As bard ever sang of have deftly been done,
I grieve when I think of thy glory departed,
Their lineage reft of their lands, every one.
Foundations which shook to the clashing of armour,
Their pride once and pomp, now but tell their decline;
Though captives immured who have pined in thy dungeon
Have woven strange stories in annals of thine.
But deeds which were wrought in those times ironhanded,
Judge not with the rigour of these modern days;
Law then was a weakling, and broadsword and helmet
Oft shielded the helpless and merited praise.
For who can forget that the voice of tradition
Still speaks of their prowess in accents of fame;
The voice of the minstrel for long generations
Has sung of the "gallant" unfortunate Græme.
The hound, the mute witness of deed foul and bloody,
That watched by Sir David while life ebbed away,
In story still rivals the hound of Llewellwyn,
And draws forth a tear in the sorrowful lay;
The voice of the dove, with its cooing so tender,
Bodes grief to the lady who hears her complain;
To the forest away, see the hound guides thy footsteps,
O fly! Lady fly! there thy brave knight lies slain.
The skirt of the hamlet still fringes the brooklet,
And borders the fane where my forefathers sleep;
But gone is the shade of their fortified refuge,
Where chivalry flourished in bulwark and keep.
Oh, home of my fathers, how cruel the fate was
Which robbed their race of these scenes of their power;
Now heedless the river glides past thy green hillocks—
The river which imaged once turret and tower—
How vain was the boast that a diademed forehead
Once bent o'er the cradle which fostered our line;
For blood which was noble runs darkly unheeded:
But peace to their ashes, the sorrow is mine.
The man who can read "Græme's Tower"
without a thrill of sympathy can have little knowledge of either poetry or
history. Here is a shorter poem, in the same metre, reminiscent of
happy youthful days spent in the romantic Border-country:—
'Tis not for thy hills, lovely Dryfe, nor thy valleys,
The haunts of my boyhood by river and scar,
I turn to thee fondly, while Memory rallies
Endearments which cheered me when lonely and far.
Oh, fair are thy woodlands, and sweet are the flowers
That praise with their incense thy glorious sun;
The songsters still warble among thy green bowers
The notes which the ear of my childhood had won.
With beauty unfading blend shadows of sorrow
Alas! as I gaze on thy landscape and stream;
Past joys from thy presence no solace can borrow,
For much that endeared thee has passed as a dream.
For me all thy pleasance is robbed of its gladness
By absence of those who could welcome and cheer;
Yet only more fondly I seek thee in sadness,
And muse all the more on the lost and the dear.
Our next example brings us nearer home; for it is a
song (here published for the first time) in praise of the beautiful river
that is loved by all who know it; whether they be natives of or only
visitors to the valley through which it flows:—
O! Ribble's sylvan vales are sweet
Beneath the lofty hills so fair,
Where verdure pranks the sunny banks,
And summer fragrance fills the air.
When morning gleams or noonday flames
From massive Pendle's summit high,
Or evening streaks far Mona's peaks
With dreamy haze of brilliant dye.
When wide, from Nab to Fell, heaven's arch
Resplendent shines in cloudless blue;
When golden light crowns every height
As day declining smiles adieu.
When music swells from leafy groves
And streamlets mirror hill and sky—
When rocks between, or thickets green
The Ribble gently glances by.
'Mong glens and hills, and woods and rills,
And zephyrs fraught with rich perfume,
The mind forgets its workday frets,
And quaffs the jay of light and bloom.
The rush, the hush, the headlong haste
To rear the miser's glittering pile
Unknown, forgot in such a spot,
Let tortured nature breathe awhile.
'Tis there, in thought, I oft take wings
And leave the smoky town behind.
When slavish care and toil's despair
Again set free the buoyant mind.
O! give me but a rustic home
Far from the city's crazing din
Where warblers rove, where coos the dove
And streamlet's gush steals from the lynn.
Enough of wealth for me to feel
To-morrow's wants are well supplied,
With Friendship's face and wit and grace
And trusty Wisdom at my side.
Then let Ambition's restless brain
Relentless chase his bootless quest:
My days I'd spend, my days I'd end
There with Contentment for my guest.
Here is a beautiful poem,—a fitting companion to the one just
A SUMMER HOLIDAY.
When the earth pours forth her treasure to the Summer's gentle care,
And the fragrant blossom blushes to the balmy sighing air;
When the gleam of Heaven's beauty charms the vision like a dream,
When the pensive soul of music, murm'ring, woos the sylvan stream;
Let us haste from town and city, from their fev'rous life of pain;
Let us seek the rural quiet, where Peace welcomes us again;—
Where the foot is free to wander Paradisian glades among,
And the gladness of the spirit gushes in some sweet old song.
Then how sweet it is to linger where, from glade and bow'ry nook
Of the bosky dell beneath us, comes the prattling of the brook.
List'ning to the susurration, as of a quiescent bliss,
Who could long for sweeter music, or taste purer joy than this?
Let us wander by the streamlet, with its tiny wreath of foam:—
Watch the bubble dancing onward, like a ship returning home;
Sometimes dim beneath the shadow, sometimes glitt'ring in the sun.
Sparkling like the eye of woman when her thought and smile are one.
Let us linger, list'ning, watching, wrapt in ev'ning's dusky fold,
When the mountain tops are fading in their deep'ning haze of gold;
Till the dew distils from ether, till the woodland song is spent,
And the stars are brightly shining in the far-off firmament.
Oh! how much of life is treasured in one hour of silent thought,
When the Past comes like a garment on the soul with bliss unsought;
When the drapery of ev'ning hides the present from the sight,
Often, too, Hope, the enchanter, shows us all the future bright.
It is a terrible picture which rises before us as we peruse our
next-quoted poem; but one which,—like the sinner's timely vision of the
Last Judgment,—it is profitable to gaze upon, and to contemplate long and
A DREAM OF WAR.
I dreamt of war, and cities wrapt in flame
Did melt away to lonely, mouldering heaps,
Where ruin's votary—the gloomy owl—
Within the ivied crevice vigil keeps.
For cannon belched destruction fiercely forth,
And mangled masses marked its bloody flight;
The groaning heavens rained showers of sulphurous shells
Whose bursting entrails shook the deadly night.
And man, with livid visage steeped in wrath,
O'er shattered trunks and quivering limbs rushed on,
Till from his foeman's bosom streamed with gore
His steel, which lately as a mirror shone.
And then they lay—some dying—some were dead;
The low wind mingled with the piteous moan;
The chill dew bathed the thirsty lips of death,
And o'er the scene hung evening, cold and lone.
And passion in the agony of life,
Had to their faces strange expression given;
Some darkly moulded in the hell of strife,
Some smiled serenely, upward turned to Heaven.
Then came a 'wildered host of young and old
To seek the lifeless husband, sire, or son;
They, trembling, searched the faces of the dead,
Or groaning sank beside the loved one.
'Twas past:—on many hearths the fires were quenched,
And weeping orphans begged from door to door,
Till e'en the lauded warrior hung his head,
As if ashamed to own the wreaths he wore.
The sable robes of grief were soaked in tears,
And plenteous waved the mournful funeral yew,
Bedewed with blood, above the warrior's grave—
I woke and found, alas! Hell's vision true.
Let us turn now from this sad, but too true "Dream of
War," and listen to this noble sonnet on:—
I love thee, Morning, flooding field and fold,
With liquid gold of pure and dazzling ray.
Pouring the lustre of imperial day
Through ether's wide extent from times of old:
Semblance of thought which rose from mortal mould
Boundless of aim, not timed nor termed, to sway
Earth's virgin orb when from her passed away
Chaos; and Night her curtain first uprolled.
In symphony supernal, life and mind
With light in unison combined, for aye
Proclaim Creation's grand
The Apocalypse to prophets unconfined
The voice of Nature—God's own words, which say
Unutterable truths my soul to thee.
I have by me several pieces, of lighter texture, which
show a genuine sense of humour; but lack of space compels me to omit them.
Among other pieces passed over for the same reason, but which are worthy
of inclusion in any anthology, are the three entitled "A Whisper," "Such
is Life," and "The Truth Shall Make You Free." I am glad, however,
that I have already reserved space for the three lyrics which follow:—
Oh! sweetest child of that day's birth
Which we recall with feast and mirth,
To thee or me what matters it
That three old centuries have knit
Their beldam hands in magic rite,
That in the breeze stream thin and white
Their elf-locks, while the dance goes round,
With weird-like chant and charm profound,
Whence witchery and change are wrought
On form, on matter, life and thought.
There is no change in store for thee,
And still thy "woodnotes wild" for me
Are warbled with live melody.
Though many masters of the lyre
Emotions with each touch inspire.
None e'er like thee can leave behind,
A transcript of the world's great mind.
Time passing oft, on playful wings,
In Pleasure's lap drops lovely things,—
The sweets of sense, the thrills of soul,—
Delicious sips of nectar'd bowl;
When rapture clasps the happy hour
That woos her in Elysian bower.
But not alone the bliss of thought
Runs sparkling in thine artful note,
For hopeless Love and black Despair
Distress the soul and freeze it there;
There burning hate and deep remorse
In baleful strength pursue their course,
And all the moods men feel or know
With sweet illusive vigour flow.
So well dost thou the passions teach,
And utt'rance such thou givest each,
Their very wards impassion speech.
Oh! Fancy, should'st thou e'er eclipse
The deathless music of those lips
With sweeter, who could love the strain
Of life's dull harmony again?
THE HONEST POOR.
There's honour in the poor man's breast more dear to him than gold;
There's loving kindness in his heart; there's truth and courage bold.
Then tell me not his horny hand to friendship's grasp is dull;
No sweet affection in his heart life's rankling cares can lull.
There's resolution in his soul to brave life's toilsome way;
Help for the weak, and counsel sage for him who goes astray.
To ears polite his untaught lips no harmony convey;
But polished tongues most deeply wound, and honied words betray.
No fancied woes his slumbers break, and if he groaning lie,
'Tis when disease and want invade his home with agony.
No hoards of his entice the thief, but he has treasures rare—
His wife and child, more highly prized than gems which monarchs wear.
The cares which crowd the gay saloon haunt not the lowly cot,
Whose tenant, blest with toil's reward, has strength to bear his lot.
Begone, false lips, that would him brand Shame's patrimonial thrall;
That tempt him with your harlot art, and then proclaim his fall.
The humblest drudge that digs the mine, or hews the flinty stone,
May boast as great a mind as he who fills a peerless throne.
He recks no wreath from bloody fields, but shirks not toil or strife
When duty bids him die, or win the brave campaign of life.
For honour in the poor man's breast is more to him than gold;
There's loving kindness in his heart, there's truth and courage bold.
VERSES SUGGESTED BY A VISIT TO THE TOMB
Fain would I bring an unassuming lay
Of tribute which no critic's cankerous breath
Would wither, nor blind censure cast away
As unbecoming this proud shrine of Death;
Some poor return for the melodious chime
The sleeper left in trust to thee, O Time!
That Passion's child
In sweeter strains might sing his joys or mourn his hopes
No chisell'd heraldry of birthright fame,
Which marks the resting-place of titled dust,
Thou, nobler monument of worth, canst claim
Though keeping nobler, dearer earth in trust:
No laurel garland wreathes that statue fair,
But the attendant muse her mantle rare
Around it cast:
A drapery by Fancy wave, which evermore shall last.
A hundred years have passed the goal of Time
Since, coldly nestled on old Winter's breast,
The moorland winds, which sweep his northern clime,
First lullabied the new-born babe to rest.
A short eventful life, now past, he sleeps,
Lost like a dream in wonder and regret:
His follies grieves, his sterling worth in treasured mem'ry keeps.
No more that life-deep sympathetic thrill,
So oft inspired by Nature's matchless voice,
Makes song birds, flowery fields, and whispering rills—
All Nature's joy—in human speech rejoice,
Ruling our minds with native royalty—
Whose laws are songs charming to loyalty—
Oh, wond'rous notes!
Now melts to love, now wakes to war, low in despair now floats.
Hush'd is the voice which sung with manly pride
"A man's a man," untitled though he be;
That voice with revelry too oft allied—
Too oft repeated bacchanalian glee.
"Untimely crushed beneath the furrow's weight,"
The bard prophetic saw, in helpless strait,
Relentless whelm his heart's last hope; and bowed his head to
In Misery's shower his rainbow genius shed,
Hover'd around the avalanche of woe,
Circling with sevenfold beauty o'er his head
The mountain load which, falling, laid him low.
Ah! see those flashes of despairing thought,
Like lightning through night's ocean tempest shot,
Piercing the gloom,
Casting a bright but mournful gleam around the yawning tomb.
Come, Censor, stand beside the work of Death,
And read that life-page, every sin and blot;
He sinned, repented in life's latest breath;
Great though he was, he sinned; and who has not?
He was a fellow-mortal, after all.
Speak softly now, and drop affection's tear
Upon his pall:
Was ever manhood sorer tried? did ever nobler fall?
True, all his follies in the flash of fame
Start forth gigantic, startling; God forbid
That we should hide them, but a humbler name,
Much less of worth and more of vice, has hid;
And when Temptation's fascinating train,
Folly and Riot, strive such prize to gain—
A soul of fire
Then Passion beets the flame, then Wisdom's rays expire.
The fire of Genius was a fatal gift,
Blasting the gifted, while it lit mankind;
And cares like arrows quivered in his heart,
Such cares as harmless touch a meaner mind.
The wheel of fortune, with unequal run,
Perplexed the brain of Scotia's darling son.
But chide not Fate,
Who crowds into an hour life's joys, or all its sorrow's weight.
Oh, mighty one! where'er in "blissful rest,"
With Mary's sainted shade thy spirit sings,
May this poor tribute find thee doubly blest
Beyond the fondest wish or hope it brings;
The chosen symbol of thy life thus strawn
Around thy resting-place is thine alone—
Wild daisy fit,
Better than all the marble forms e'er shaped to, worth or wit.
Through time a glory crown of love shall cling
Around thee; kindred hearts shall thee adore,
Chiming thy melodies with voice and string
In every land which Freedom watches o'er.
Nature will bless her bard, while ages roll;
Through thee her voice diffuse with mellow heat,
Warming the soul;
Bursting in twain the iron link of cold reserve's control.
"MONARCHS AND STATESMEN, or the Claims of Freedom,"—the longest poem, by
our present author, that I have seen,—was Printed at Blackburn in 1879,
by Mr. James Bennett, of Barton-street. The booklet, which ran to 32
pages, was dedicated "To the admirers of 'a spirited', but not specious
and dishonourable 'foreign policy'," and it contains many stanzas worthy
to be for ever remembered. The poem, however, is not one which lends
itself readily to such fragmentary quotation as is inseparable from a
brief notice like the present. It needs to be read in its entirety to be
thoroughly understood; and it can be so read in the Reference Department
of the Blackburn Free Library, where a copy of it is included in the
valuable collection of local book, and pamphlets gathered by the care of
successive librarians. Here are the opening stanzas:—
Heaven's voice, immortal Freedom, Men have heard with thrilling wonder,
Call them round her sacred banner; bid them break their chains asunder.
Which have cramped their souls and crushed them with the Helot's abject
Doomed their hopes to death, and wound them in the shrouding of despair.
Myriads untold have fallen, life of little moment deeming,
In the sacrifice of duty, Hope's bright star upon them beaming;
For above the roar of battle clearly sounds the joyous call,
And their faith in coming triumph blesses death to those who fall.
Still the vultures of oppression overshadow Right's dominion:
May some patriot Tell or Wallace then uncage her eagle pinion:
Voice of Freedom, rouse! awaken! sleep and slothfulness supine;
Stir men's souls with thy bold music,—none can cheer the heart like
Evermore in strife and struggle; Right and Wrong at war unending,
Truth and Falsehood, Light and Darkness, Life and Death are seen
Evil protean, like the fairy, vanquished, shapes itself anew,
Fresh for battle, in all ages, all creation's circuit through.
In the gloom of times primeval, Force usurped the throne of Error;
Built his forts and gave his edicts, ruling with the aid of Terror.
These, progenitors of tyrants, Freedom are thy direst foes:
How the knaves exchanged their pottage, let the pen of truth disclose.
Ranging, as the fourth and fifth stanzas lead us to expect, through "all
ages", the poem goes on to describe the battles of Freedom from "the
gloom of times primeval" to our own day. We are reminded how—
Brazen gaud and pompous glitter win the eye of witless wonder,
And the drum's percussive rolling seems to fools as Heaven's thunder:
Cunning brain and nimble finger, oft their art in common plying,
One prefereth secret filching, and the other public lying.
"Politics, thou splendid juggle!" prize of the professor's art,
While the cut-purse tries the pocket, thou dost steal the simple heart.
Among the many vivid scenes
brought before us in this poem, we see the Reign of Tyranny succeeded by
the Reign of Terror, when—
Opened are the prison portals; from the gorgèd dungeons pour
Wrecks of men with wrecks of reason, into glare of noontide's hour.
Mercy! vain the cry for mercy, to those breasts which never knew it
Solace in the hour of trouble, from the tongue of him who slew it.
What avails that speechless horror? Shame with statue cheeks unmated
Never tinges them; the lion can you scare ere hunger's sated?
Liberated desperado, courtesan and debauchee!
Sooner tame the wild hyena, sooner hush the raging sea.
The author of "Monarchs and Statesmen" deals fearlessly with many themes
upon which honest men differ strongly. Personally, for instance, I should
like the poem no worse if the pictures of such tyrants as "Macedonia's
arch-butcher" were contrasted with portraits of such noble rulers as Canute and Alfred; and if Bede and Anselm were pourtrayed, as well as
those political clerics of the past whom the author so strongly and
rightly condemns. Were his review extended in order to include these
brighter pictures, I should say that the poem would have its chances of
immortality immensely increased. Even as it stands, however, the great
number of striking stanzas which it contains makes one wonder why it has
not already attracted wider notice. Take these for instance:—
Deep in every human bosom Nature's law, the hand of Heaven,
Graveth, as were Sinai's tablets graven, once to Israel given;
Never since the world's beginning was the thief of birthright blest;
Retribution tracks the villain, plants her sting within his breast.
Earth, thy history has been written with thy children's tears; all ages
Were baptised with blood and fire; throughout time's terrific pages
Runs the calendar of outrage, Crime's inevitable doom,—
Warp and woof together woven in Fate's everlasting loom.
Reckon manhood not in coinage; Virtue is not donned with dresses;
Crime may hide in wigs and ermine, Sin show sanctity's impresses:
Avarice robs the richest regions; Slavery makes the fairest vile;
Freedom clothes the rock with verdure; Freedom makes the desert smile.
But I am only writing a chapter; while "Monarchs and Statesmen" is a book
in itself. I must therefore conclude,—as the poem itself concludes,—with
the three following stanzas:—
War aggressive, rapine, bondage, in the book of judgment written,
Stand uncancelled, unforgiven, till at length with vengeance smitten:
Final victor Wrong is never, though the fight be fierce and long;
Baffled Wrong is cursed for ever, Right, triumphant, lives in song.
For Hope's iridescent archway spans, prophetic, 'time's procession,
Welcoming the march of manhood, Fate forbidding retrogression;
Not more sure the solar orbit bends to Heaven's eterne control,
Than the march of human Freedom tends resistless to its goal.
Tune, O God, the hearts of all men to the jubilation swelling,
Where the liberated bondsman builds up Freedom's ruined dwelling;
Guard her home, and holy pathway, wheresoever she is found,
For her fingers scatter blessings, and her footprints bless the ground.
("LITTLE JOHN THE POET.")
"Jonathan can't help thinking that there were giants in the earth in those
days when Hodgson, Dugdale, Durham, Clough, and others of equal calibre
and similar kidney lived, moved, and had their being amongst us."
Thus wrote William Billington in the introduction to the
"Recollections of Local Celebrities," which, under a homely
nom-de-plume, he contributed to the old "Blackburn Standard" in 1883,
and which he concluded only a very few months before his death.
The first of those articles was entitled "The Bard of
Ribblesdale," and from it we have already gleaned some valuable and
interesting information about both Richard Dugdale and John Critchley
Prince; while the article on John Baron has been scarcely less
The subject of another of these papers was the homely singer
whose name heads this chapter. From Billington's account of Charlton
I extract the following passages:—
"He resided for years in the close of
Shorrock-fold, in close proximity to the Market Place. His habits
were social; his manners pleasing; his voice musical. . . . He was a
cobbler, and was in the habit of frequenting public-houses, where wags and
witlings most do congregate; and his mode of publication was reciting his
poems for the pastime and pleasure of those that happened to be then and
"He would sing songs by the dozen, and reel off by the ream
his own poems on a vast variety of subjects. "The Mayor of Mellor,"
"Yar Margit's Sister," "The Poet Prince," "The Miser Landlord," "The
Brewer's Coachman" (though, by the way, this last-named was a plagiarism,
but let that pass). These and other stock pieces formed an
inexhaustible store, from which Little John furnished fun and amusement
for many a bar-parlour.
"We are not aware that he ever had any of his poems printed,
but he kept a considerable number in manuscript; and these are or were
mostly poems of the affections; secondly, descriptive pieces, and lastly,
personal satires. . . .
"Like most other workmen poets, Charlton had a deep sympathy
with human suffering, and a burning hatred of all tyranny and slavery,
whether political or social; and it breaks out fitfully in some of his
later poems like the sheet-lightning of an autumnal evening as if sent to
ripen the grain ere 'twas gathered and garnered in.
"Take one instance—
What care the great for menial slave!
How little sympathy they have
For those that drudge below!
More care is shown by them for brutes—
One ray of pity never shoots
For man—this truth we know!
"One more, his sympathy with suffering—
But should it ever be thy lot
To need a friend—I hope 'twill not—
Fly thou to me—.
"Of his personal qualities, as far as known to the writer, it
may be averred that "Little John stood six-feet-one, all but an inch when
his shoes were on"; that he had a manly bearing, and was fairly well
proportioned in feature and limb; that he was a pleasant companion, a
gentle and genial acquaintance, a firm and trustworthy friend, a kind and
peaceful neighbour, and last and best, an honest workingman.
Charlton never pretended to wit, though he relished a good joke or a jest
as well as most men, and at times was capable of manifesting a
considerable share of sly humour, which was as harmless as it was
pleasant; but he was proud of the name of poet, and aimed at nothing more
and nothing less than to be one."
For a long time the article, from which the above passages
are quoted, was the only account of Charlton that I could find.
Quite recently, however, I have received from Mr. H. G. Graham a
manuscript, in Charlton's handwriting, containing some very interesting
poems. A perusal of this manuscript,—which Mr. Graham rescued from
impending destruction,—proves, that although Charlton's grammar and rhyme
are both frequently defective, he possessed genuine poetic gifts, which,
had they been better aided by education, would have enabled him to leave
behind him a goodly number of songs worthy of permanent preservation.
As his poems stand, however, most of them are unsuitable for inclusion in
a work of the present kind. There are, however, a few very pleasing
exceptions; and it is from these that our present selections are taken.
The following lines form part of a rather long poetic address
THE OLD OAK IN BLACKBURN PARK.
One morning as I took a stroll
In Blackburn Park to spend an hour,
The air with misty vapours charg'd,
And black'ning clouds around did low'r,—
I cross'd a rippling, silver stream,
Where snowdrops then bedeck'd the dale;
Where stood an aged, leafless oak,
Whose limbs betoken'd many a gale.
Upon a wither'd, blighted bough,
A thrush was chanting morning lays,
As 't were in praise of that old oak,
That bore his young in other days.
The barkless trunk, by lightning struck,
Caus'd roots and sap and boughs decay,
"Thy heart," I thought within myself,
"Sound will remain for many a day."
I thought upon our noble Fleet,
And Jolly Tars of bygone days;
How British oak withstood the shot,
While Heroes' brows were deck'd with bays.
Thy limbs are wither'd, brave old oak,
For centuries on this spot thou'st stood;
Although thou ne'er hast cross'd the deep,
Or sail'd upon the briny flood;
When young, and in thy foliage clad,
The birds at morning dawn would sing
Upon thy boughs; at dewy eve
Thou shelteredst pilgrims an the wing.
The ivy green thou long caress'd,
That wanton climb'd thy royal stem,
The primrose modest at thy foot,
And violet's blushing purple gem.
When pearly dews dropt from thy leaves,
And gentle zephyrs fann'd the dale,
Fond lovers met beneath thy shade,
To breathe the soft and tender tale.
Beneath thy branches, then, old oak,
The Muse would spread her hovering wing,
The Poet then might strike the harp,
And at thy hallow'd foot might sing.
But now thou'rt doom'd unto decay,
And I've nigh run my wearied round;
When thy heart fails, no more of thee;
But I must live, if faithful found,
Beyond this transitory world
My soul may bask in heavenly bliss,
No storms of life nor winter blasts
In those bright worlds as 'twas in this.
Full three-score years I've travell'd on,—
This rugged, thorny path have trod;
And every day am more convinc'd
All nature's ruled by nature's God.
"On the 17th of March, 1860," writes Charlton, "John
Critchley Prince sent for me to the 'Blue Bell.' I spent four hours
with him; went home; and composed the following lines:—
The Muse in distant days of yore to Chaucer gave the
Charg'd him to break the seal forthwith of British Poetry.
He sang his Testament of Love; gave Woodstock classic fame;
When other Poets caught the fire and kindled at the flame.
Fam'd Scotland boasts her Fergusson, the Muse's artless child.
And Robert Burns, his brother-twin, chanted his "wood notes wild."
The Muse then grasp'd her sacred lyre, and never lent it since.
Until she gave her ancient fire to her own Critchley Prince.
He sings old England's hills and dells; her fountains, shades and
And weeds that creep beneath the stem of her sweet-scented flowers.
He sings her warbling little birds in clustering boughs among,
He sings of rocks, brooks, rivers, floods, dashing the surge along.
He sings the vivid lightning's flash, and pealing thunder's roar,
He sings the source from whence they spring, the Godhead to adore.
O long may that great Heavenly Power, Divine Omnipotence,
Bless him with health and sweet content,—our own dear Critchley
All this (and much more, that space compels me to omit) is
very complimentary to Prince; though rather hard on the poets who came
between him and Burns. Charlton has two eulogistic poems on Dugdale
(who seems, in spite of occasional misunderstandings, to have been a
favourite with his brother-bards); several pieces on the Lancashire Cotton
Famine of 1862 and kindred subjects; and a rousing "Song composed and sung
by me at the Shoemakers' Crispin Feast, celebrated at the Vulcan Inn,
Blackburn, a 25th October, 1866." This last, though marred by the
defects already indicated, must have been,—like many of Charlton's other
songs,—very enjoyable, when sung by its author with all that geniality and
fervour which characterised him.
Billington stated, in the article already mentioned, that he
thought "Little John" was a native of Kendal, in Westmoreland; but, from a
note affixed to one of his poems, in the manuscript now before me, I find
that Charlton was born in the village of Lymm, Cheshire; and that so far
back as September 22nd, 1804. He lived to be almost an octogenarian;
pre-deceasing Billington himself by a very short period. I conclude
with a song which, though reminiscent, in parts, of an earlier poem, is a
very good example of Charlton's poetic efforts:—
'TIS WINTER WITH ROBIN.
The cold winter wind whistles o'er the wild moor,
In heaps the snow's drifted, and blocks up my door;
The robin sits pensive, with hoar on his wing,
That charmed us so lately with song in the spring.
He comes to my window in hopes of a crumb,
And he shall share with me while e'er I have one;
Though I may be scanted, I'll spare one for thee,
'Tis winter with robin, and winter with me.
The lakes are all frozen, the icicles hang
In crystals transparent my cottage around;
The trees are now naked,—their foliage have cast,—
And through the dark firs raves the deep northern blast.
The larks are now winging to same friendly shore,
By instinct directed to where there is store:
No emigrant thou to the sands of the sea,
'Tis winter with robin, and winter with me.
The fields are all bare, and are candied with white,
All nature lies dormant by winter's cold blight;
The big sleety clouds thickly gath'ring around,
The fountains. and rivers too, ice-girt are bound.
Thou art welcome, poor bird, unto my lonely cot,
Though comforts that many enjoy I have not.
For the little I have I still grateful will be,
Tis winter with robin, and winter with me.
The winter of life is now fast setting in,
My locks are grown frosty, my body worn thin;
My limbs became feeble, my time's ebbing fast,—
How vain were the days of my youth, that are past!
The scene is now changing, but hope still remains,—
Eternity's summer will deck the dark plains:
In the deep, yawning grave not a sorrow will be,
Beyond it there's summer for robin and me.