GEORGE HEATH’S DIARY
From 1866 to the day before his death in 1869 George Heath kept a diary. Whether this still survives somewhere I do not know. Hopefully one day it will turn up, but until then this partial reconstruction will have to suffice. The entries are taken from three main sources: Robert Buchanan’s article in Good Words, Francis Redfern’s Memoir, and the Rev. George Bird’s article in Great Thoughts. And a single entry for 1867 is quoted in the second edition (1886) of Francis Redfern’s History and Antiquities of the Town and Neighbourhood of Uttoxeter, with Notices of Adjoining Places.
Buchanan gives this description of the diary:
“ The stranger who first sent me George Heath’s poems, with a letter telling how tenderly some thoughts of mine had been prized by the poor boy in Staffordshire, and how, under God, I had been able to influence him for good, afterwards procured for me, at my particular request, the “Diary” from which I have quoted above, and from which I shall have occasion to quote again; and it lies now before me—four little volumes, purchased by Heath for a few pence, filled with boyish handwriting, in the earlier portions clear and strong, but latterly nervous and weak, and ever growing weaker and weaker. Every day, for four long years of suffering and disease, George Heath wrote his thoughts down here. However dim were his eyes with pain, however his wasting hand shook and failed, he managed to add something, if only a few words...”
“It is a curious record of his moods and feelings, of the almost daily aspect of Nature, which he loved so much to contemplate, and as seen by an ardent and imaginative person; of the visits and kindness of his friends, of his reading, his books and his studies; it affords a characteristic picture of its recorder, but not many details for a “Memoir.” It is most touching to trace his lingering hopes of life and amended health running through this “Diary;” to see how they gradually faded out, and then arising over those “hopes” the grander light of fortitude and submission to the will of God.”
And the Rev. George Bird:
“I have also, through the kindness of the poet’s brother, had the privilege of reading through his diaries which he began in 1866, and continued with undeviating regularity up to the day before his death. From these records—uneventful and sad for the most part—we are able to gather the main traits of a beautiful, finely-strung character. We cannot fail to notice, through the closely-written pages, a quick receptiveness of all that is beautiful in Nature or in human life, a soul keenly sensitive to eternal touch and influence, a resolute perseverance against difficulty, and an unfailing trust in the goodness of God.”
The Diary of George Heath
Monday, January 1
Thus, with the dawn of a new year, I commence to write down some of the most prominent features of my every-day life. Not that I have anything extra to write, but this is a critical period of my life. I may never live to finish this diary. On the other hand, should it please God to raise me up again, it wil1 be a source of pleasure in the future to read something of the thoughts and feelings, hopes and aspirations, that rise in the mind when under the afflicting hand of Providence; and its experience will help me to trust God where I cannot trace Him.
Thursday, January 4
Still feeling very unwell, with a bad cold and pain in my side, pursuing my studies much as usual, trying to get up the Latin verbs thoroughly. I have been my usual walk twice per diem across to Close Gate. The weather is still very unfavourable. I am sorry to hear that Mrs. S. Heath, sen., is very poorly. I am thinking much of a dear one far away. Praise God, He is good!
Sunday January 7
My esteemed friend, the Rev. J. Badnall came to see me. He has acted a noble part by me in giving all the instruction possible in my attempts to master Latin.
Saturday, January 13
How changeable is the weather: yesterday it was fine and frosty; to-day it is dark, damp, and cheerless. How like our earthly life! Sunshine and shadow, storm and calm, all the way through. I am scarcely so well in body, and somewhat depressed in spirits. I have not received the letter that is due to me, and that I have been looking so anxiously for, at present. Though I have been struggling hard the past week, yet I cannot see much that I have done. Courage!
Monday, January 15
Almost racked to death with a fearful cough and cold, but quite as hopeful as usual. To-day Miss D. Crompton called to see us, and my very kind friend Mrs. Dear sent me a bottle of wine.
Friday, January 19
I have with great difficulty finished writing out a poem of some three hundred lines in length, entitled, ‘The Discarded: a Reverie.’ It is my longest, and I think it will be almost my last.
Monday, January 22
It is quite a contrast to the gloom of yesterday; fine and sunny, calm and beautiful. I am feeling much better and more hopeful. I have been to look at the snowdrops which are coming out beautifully under the sycamore trees, and they whisper to me such sweet thoughts of spring. How I long to see it once more!
Thursday, January 25
I am feeling still better to-day, and lighter in heart. The weather is fine and mild, and early this morning the birds chirped and sang just as they do at the approach of spring, and the sun burst out in all his splendour. I could not remain in the house, but sauntered round the croft and down the lane. I have not yet heard from my friend.
Monday, January 29
I have been writing out a few lines on the ‘cattle plague.’ What an alarming visitation of Providence it is! It seems to be steadily on the increase. It has come within two miles of here. I tremble to think of the consequences should it visit our home; it would sweep away all our little subsistence.
I am quite as well as usual to-day. I have been working at my Latin with more than ordinary zeal this week, feeling quite determined to learn it if life lasts.
Friday, March 2
It is a gloriously fine day, but keen and frosty. I am feeling the benefit of the pure air. I am grieved to hear that Mr. W. Heath has lost all his milking cows through the ‘rinderpest.’ This morning I received a kind letter from my friend Mademoiselle J. M. It is a nice letter, but still somehow it has left a painful impression behind.
Wednesday, March 14
I am sitting by the fireside dreaming strange fantastic day-dreams! And why? I cannot tell. This dreaming seems to have become a part of my very nature. Perhaps it is wrong, but it is so sweet! Mother is gone to market, the orphan babe is in its cradle, all is quiet, and I am poorly and unable to study; so what can I do but dream?
Wednesday, April 11
Have been writing to the editor of the Staffordshire Advertiser, studying my Greek, reading the ‘History of Rome,’ and many odds and ends.
Tuesday, April 17
Feeling rather better to-day, pursuing my studies, making some progress in the composition of my new ‘piece.’ The trees are budding out so beautifully, the fields are growing green; bless God.
Thursday, April 26
Still fine and hot. The aspect of things is slowly but surely changing. Dame Nature, ’neath the sweet influences of spring, is putting on her glorious mantle! The lambs are frisking in the fields, the birds unite in sending forth one rich volume of praise to God, myriads of insects, long dormant, are waking into life! Praise God!
Monday, May 14
Very unwell. The sombre goddess Melancholy has gained almost the mastery of me. I feel quite alone in the world—a puerile, unloved thing; but I think that my earthly race is almost at a close, and then if I, through the blood and mediation of Christ, am enabled to reach that bright land, O how glorious will be the change!
Monday, May 28
O what an intense lover of Nature I am! How I delight to gaze on the beautiful world.
Monday, June 4
A hot sultry day. I feel so languid and listless; but can enjoy to the full the beautiful panorama spread out before me, and, indeed, it is beautiful! The scent of dewy foliage and nectar-filled flowers fills me with a dreamy, undefined pleasure; I love the world, I love every one in it, and its Maker.
Friday, June 15
I am very unwell and low-spirited; the house is dull and gloomy; outside the rain keeps falling incessantly. Mother and father are both very poorly. My kind friend, Mrs. B. Bayley, has sent me several books and magazines to look over; one especially interests me, ‘Punch’s collection of Leech’s cuts.’
Wednesday, July 4
Very wet. I am a prisoner; very poorly; forbidden by the doctor to do any close study. I am sadly low-spirited. Grieving foolishly enough that all my correspondents have forsaken me.
Saturday, August 4
Another week is calmly gliding away, and strange to say the period of the year that I dreaded most is passed away, and I am still alive, and, thank Heaven, as well as usual. Two years ago in July I was taken ill, and one year since in the same month I had an issue of blood from the lungs; but, praise God, I am still alive.
Thursday, August 9
I have been a walk to Close Gate, and had a game of ‘croquet.’ My spirits are better. There is a grand Choral Festival at Horton Church—one hundred and sixty performers; how I should like to hear them! It would waft me to heaven.
Wednesday, August 22
I have been out into the lanes and fields, watching the ‘shearers’ with their shiny hooks gathering the golden corn into sheaves; far and near the eye rests upon rich fields of grain, ‘white unto harvest.’
Tuesday, October 2
I am feeling somewhat sad-hearted to-day. I suppose the fading robe of nature affects me with its melancholy, yet it is an exceedingly fine and warm day; perhaps it is because I have been reading Tennyson, and the grandeur of his works disheartens me, showing me how low I am.
Thursday, November 8
Silently, slowly another day is gliding into eternity; wet, dark, and gloomy! I am, however, feeling some better to-day. Dr. White has been to see me, and informs me that my poems have had the honour of a public reading at Leek, and the knowledge of all this kindness has, in spite of the gloomy weather, cheered me up.
Monday, December 17
A damp, foggy, uncongenial day. I have not been doing much study, for I am feeling very unwell. I have heard of a terrible calamity which happened at Talk-o’-the-Hill on Thursday last—an explosion of fire-damp, by which eighty lives were lost, leaving some sixty widows and one hundred orphans. I have been round trying to collect something for them.
Monday, December 24
Bless God! another year has almost passed away, and He has preserved me. Even while I write I hear the sound of ‘Christmas singers,’ and though the sounds are not very melodious, yet they are sweet to me, for they remind me of Christ my Saviour, whom from the earnest depths of my soul I love and bless to-night.
How strangely ancient customs and superstitions are clung to by the humbler classes. Today the ‘Souls’ Cakes’ have been about, and to-night the children are all in a flutter of expectation, listening for the uncouth strains and bungling tramps of the geesers or
I am feeling poorly and sad at the dawn of another year, but will try to work contentedly, to hope, and, by God’s help, to do my duty.
To-day I have brought down and committed to the flames a batch of letters that I received from a love that was once as life to me—such letters—yet the writer in the end deserted me. Oh, the anguish I suffered! I had not looked at them for three years, and even to-day, when I came and fingered them, and opened the portrait of the woman I loved so much, I could scarcely keep back the bitter tears. Oh, Jenny, the bitterness you caused me will never be obliterated from my heart.
The Rev. Mr. Badnall, my dear old tutor, has paid me a visit, has spoken many kind encouraging words, and has spoken very graciously of the progress I have made; I am much cheered though sorely afflicted.
Wednesday, January 6
Have been writing to my sister, reading English History, &c., and poring over the old, tough Latin Grammar. I have been much interested with the plotting and counter-plotting for and against the liberties of poor Mary Queen of Scots; and now the darkness is coming down over valley and hill, and another day has gone to the eternal.
Saturday, January 16
Still the dreary, dead damp. Have been reading some of the myths in Smith’s smaller Mythological Dictionary—some of the accounts of the heroes and demigods. Have been much interested with Newman Hall’s paper in the Broadway, ‘My Impressions of America,’ in which he describes some of the most magnificent river, lake, and mountain scenery.
Tuesday, January 26
The dense fog is over all things. I am unwell, having passed almost a sleepless night from anxiety on account of poor John; for at midnight there was an alarm raised. John was taken suddenly worse. They feared he was dying. Our people were sent for. But he survived, thank God! Doing a little light reading, a little grammar, &c. ‘Better rub than rust,’ so says Ebenezer Elliot.
Friday, February 5
Fine and mild as April. Have been all about the fields, and my heart has been thrilled beyond measure by the appearance of several beautiful and only-just-peeping daisies. The hyacinths, too, are actually springing, and the celandine is out in leaf. How magnificent are the snowdrops! These flowers seem to my barren and often sadly yearning spirit like my own children—something I have a right to love and cherish.
Saturday, February 13
No better inside. My chest feels feverishly hot, while cold shivers run all over my exterior. I half expect that some of these attacks will prove too much for the force of nature. It feels as though my vitality were burning and washing away within me. Ah! how shall I support this weary, fluctuating life of mine? I feel almost a yearning to fly away and be at rest! My Father, be still my strength!
Thursday, February 18
I am still a prisoner. The worry and fret of life and ambition seem quite to have left me. I have no more a recognised hope of standing amongst the glorious, the renowned in song. I have no hope of winning that for which I have toiled all these years—a wide range of knowledge, a mind imbued with great and noble thoughts, and a grand power of expressing. I shall sing still, but ’twil be to soothe myself.
Thursday, February 25
No better—worse, if anything. I can do little but lay my head down in quiet, or watch the clouds gliding turbulently over the patch of sky seen through the window, while the trees rock their arms, toss, and gesticulate. I wonder what particular lessons I should learn here. If those of patience, trust, and fortitude? ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.’
Tuesday, March 9
Here is my birthday once more. My twenty-fifth year has passed off into the eternity of the past. My twenty-sixth dawns over me. I am filled with strange thoughts; things look very dark about me now. My health is bad. Shall I, as I half expect, go down to the grave, or shall I again awake to life and energy? My God! Thou only knowest! Help me to do my duty well in any case!
Wednesday, March 10
Little Harriet has to-day brought into the house a little bunch of the celandine flower. I dare say there are lots of various sorts of flowers beginning to show themselves. The beautiful anemones will soon be out, and I cannot go to see them! I seem to drift further and further down, am doing just nothing. A great shadow of weariness is upon me. Sent a letter—written at a many sittings—to my sister Hannah.
Tuesday, March 23
Most deeply ill all day—utterly prostrated in mind and body. My affliction seems to have laid hold of my whole system with an iron grasp which nothing can shake off. Have read a very little of English History. It seems to me there is quite a danger of my sinking down into stupor, if not imbecility even.
Thursday, April 8
To-day Dr. Heaton has visited me, and, as far as he is concerned, has left me without a shadow of hope. I had tried before, and believe I had earnestly said, ‘My God, Thy will be done!’ but when you come to find that your doom is really fixed, the pang of bitterness is none the less. But the bitterness is past, and I can trust in God.
Friday, April 23
The day has been a beautiful one. Outside the green foliage is beginning to sheet the landscape, and some of the trees are hung with blossoms. It has been a very quiet day with us, and I am trying to look homeward. How good is the Lord!
Thursday, April 29
How beautifully the thought of my far-off home—that home whose wonder none may guess—comes to me through the glory of the sun-radiance that falls through the windows! The easterly wind is cold, and my throat is worse. Bless God!
Monday, May 3
It is the gloomiest day there has been for some time past. The rain is dripping down, doing wonders of good. I am very ill—sinking. My cough is almost continuous. But in God is my trust.
Tuesday, May 4
Praise God for one more day!
From Francis Redfern’s Memoir :
“On the fourth of May he was but just able to scrawl in his Diary, “his thanks to God for one more day,” acknowledge the receipt of “such a kind letter from Mrs. Brindley,” and in the evening he dictated a few farewell lines to his young companion and friend, H. W. Foster; on the morning of the following day he peacefully passed away from the scenes of his earnest struggles, his painful affliction, and blighted hopes, ‘to his far-off home of perfection and peace.’”