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George Heath


The Moorland Poet

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(from Great Thoughts, August 1894)


          I bring my garland for thy head and feet,
          O child of Nature’s own—dear Moorland singer—
          I, who in dreams of boyhood loved to linger,
          Over the music of thy songs most sweet,
          Whose vernal notes bring thought of young lamb’s bleat.
          When in the woodland golden daffodils throng,
          And larks sing loud above the springing wheat,
          And merle and mavis wake the world with song.
          Ours are the tears. Alas, too brief they day!
          And yet not vainly to have swept the lyre—
          O with what tender touch, what lyric fire—
          For such short while. And now thy rapturous lay
          Is lifted high amid the happy choir
          Of those whose brows for ever wear the bay.

     It was in the glad springtime of 1889 that I had the privilege of visiting the grave of George Heath, the Staffordshire Moorland poet. He sleeps in Horton Churchyard, not far from Gratton, his birthplace, and in the midst of the lonely picturesque Moorlands of North Staffordshire where the whole of his brief life was passed. A recent visit to that same hallowed spot has wakened new feelings of sympathy and admiration for one whose name is inseparably linked with the scenery he loved so well, and whose peaceful beauty is so often mirrored in his verse.
     Some twenty years ago Mr. Robert Buchanan told George Heath’s story in the pages of “Good Words”; but it has struck me that an account of his life and work will bear a re-telling, and may not be uninteresting from the pen of one who knows something of the poet’s friends and of the district in which he lived and died.


     George Heath was born on March 9th, 1844, in the pleasantly situated homestead of a little hamlet called Gratton, midway between Endon and Horton. Being born of lowly parents, and the eldest son of a large family, the future poet was brought up in the simple ways and on the homely fare of a village child, and after passing through the National School at Horton he was put to farm work, and for some years lived the life of a humble plough-boy. Afterwards he was apprenticed to a joiner and builder at Gratton; and it was at this time that something touched a hidden spring in the young man's heart, and awoke in him the stirrings and feelings of a poet. Dim dawnings of the beautiful and good filled his soul; a new strange music swept through him; something impelled him to think of high and noble aims, and out of the chafe and ferment of this new experience his first poems were born. Just at this time, when the dream of the poet’s vocation was filling the youth’s mind with wild hopes, two sad events happened from whose shadows he never emerged. When only twenty years old his passionate love for a young woman was dashed to the ground by her cruel desertion of him; and soon after, while working in Horton churchyard, he caught a severe cold which never really left him, and whose effects, five years later, laid him in an early grave.
     It is hopeless to grieve over the “might have been”—just as hopeless in George Heath’s case as in those of his mightier brothers-in-song, Chatterton and Keats. It is enough for us to know something of the songs George Heath sang, necessarily immature as they are, and through them to catch the voice of one who had the making of a true lyric poet in him and who, if anything like poetic justice is to be done to his memory, will be ranked side by side with Kirke White and David Gray in the Poets’ Temple of Fame.


     He published his first volume in 1865, and some verses from a poem in that volume called “Rudyard” will give an idea of his earliest style.

            And above and all around me
            Stalwart trees bedeck the scene,
            Tendril-twined and ivy-mantled,
            All enrobed in richest sheen;

            Like a mighty host of giants,
            Armed and ready for the fight,
            With the lightning’s gleaming falchion,
            And the tempest’s awful might;

            And the sun in haze of beauty,
            Sinks in solemn peace to rest,
            ’Neath the bright and mystic curtain
            Of the crimson-glowing west.

            Fleecy mists of gorgeous splendour,
            Clouds of shapes and forms untold,
            Sail like argosies of tinsel,
            O’er a sea of burnished gold;

            Softly breaking up and parting,
            Gently gliding to and fro,
            Mirrored in the glassy bosom
            Of the peaceful lake below.

     In 1866 another slender volume of verse appeared under the title of “Heart Strains,” in the principal poem of which he gives us a history of his bitter disappointment in love. We note here at once the faults of redundancy, multiplication of adjectives and straining after pictorial effect, so common in most young poets; but the sonnet on “Sunrise,” from the same volume, is interesting as showing the fearless attack of an untried singer on a difficult metrical form.

          Slow creeps the light athwart the concave still,
          Steals a low whisper on the breathless calm,
          Bringing the scent of opening flowers, a balm;
          Breaks o’er the earth a grand, a rapturous thrill,
          The chant of waters and the song-bird’s trill;
          The clouds fold up their curtains snowy white;
          The sleepy stars fade noiselessly from sight.
          Bright Phoebus mounts above the crimson hill;
          The sheeted mists like baffled hosts retire,
          Wan Zephyr comes to wanton with the flowers,
          The stream meanders on, a string of fire,
          And light and music fill earth’s sylvan bowers;
          Bright dewdrops shine and tremble everywhere:
          O Sceptic, look and blush, for God is there!

     The publication of these verses, though they brought little pecuniary profit, earned for the poet many friends and a wide local recognition. On being laid aside from active manual work he had resolutely made up his mind to study, and had found a kind friend and tutor in the Rev. J. Badnall, vicar of Endon, who helped the youth greatly in his reading, and cheered him by many other acts of kindness. That reverend gentleman has allowed me to see George Heath's first letter to him, an extract from which may be interesting here:—

“Gratton, near Leek,         
“April 23rd, 1865.    

“Rev. Sir,

          “I sincerely hope you will kindly forgive my boldness in thus presuming to address one who is so far above me in station  .  .  .  I received but the merest rudiments of an education, and that was almost lost during the first three years of my apprenticeship to the somewhat laborious occupation of a joiner; after which time (I am happy to say) a decided change came over me, a strange love for the noble and beautiful, a thirst for knowledge, an insatiate longing for ‘something beyond’  .  .  .  I would like to learn the mystery of the ancient languages, so as to be able to read the old poets in their original purity and grandeur. I would like to dive deep into the well of general knowledge. I have longed for a friend who would take me by the hand of encouragement and benevolence, and point out the way I ought to go.”


     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. On January 22nd, 1866, he writes:—
     “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!”
     On April 17th of that year he writes:—
     “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.”
     On May 28th we have the characteristic confession:—
     “O what an intense lover of Nature I am! How I delight to gaze on the beautiful world.”
     The following extracts will show how keenly he applied himself to study, though constantly suffering bodily pain:—
     “February 22nd, 1866. 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.” And again:—
     “April 11th, 1866. Have been writing to the editor of the Staffordshire Advertiser, studying my Greek, reading the ‘History of Rome,’ and many odds and ends.”
     At the beginning of his diary for 1868, we find this pathetic entry:—
     “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.”
     From the records of such a life there is little else to note. Cheered by the kindness of friends and by gifts of books from various people; reading, writing and studying as well as failing strength and a distressing cough would allow, with an occasional visit to relatives, George Heath’s brief life passed and drew to its close. In the spring of 1869 he became worse, and rapidly sank. On April 29th he writes: “The easterly wind is cold and my throat is worse.” On May 4th, in feeble hand-writing, he says: “Praise God for one more day,” and on the morning of the next day he calmly passed—”to where, beyond these voices, there is peace.”


     It now only remains for me to say something of George Heath’s later verse, giving a few extracts from his most ambitious pieces which were found in MSS. after the poet’s death. Of these “Icarus” is the most remarkable, and shows a great advance of thought and style on his earlier and cruder efforts. The poem, under a slight story, is a portrayal of the poet’s own aspirations and misfortunes. In the stiffened hands of a dead poet some of his songs are found:—

          Ah me, for a mother’s fond hand for a little—
               That tender retriever;
          O, love for the soothing of woman to quiet
               This burning and fever.
          Ah, dying is bitter in darkness and hunger,
               When lonely I wis;
          I dreamed not in days that have summered and fallen
               Of coming to this!
          But patience, take courage, my spirit, trust calmly,
               Be firm in assurance:
          Learn bravely this last and most difficult lesson
               Of lofty endurance.
          The sin shadows shift and the mist films are breaking,
               The vision grows clearer;
          New gleams of the beautiful come, and for ever
               The wonder draws nearer!

                    *                    *                    *

          The soul cannot rise from the base to the noble
               By pausing and thinking,
          Nor grow to the triumph, and clasp the great mystery
               By suddenly drinking
          One draught of the pure. It must grow from a point, and
               With constant endeavour,
          Rise upwards in circles expanding and growing
               To Godward for ever.
          Ah, well! for my soul, if’t has strung every chord of
               The harp that was given;
          Ah, well! if each string will respond to my touch mid
               The quiring of heaven.

     There are some beautiful fragments scattered up and down this loosely-arranged poem, one other of which we may quote here:—

          There are moments when we tremble,
          When we pause amid the strife;
          When we feel our acts will influence
          All the tenour of our life.
          There are sudden branching currents
          In our being’s headlong force,
          Which, if entered, bear us softly
          To a milder, calmer course!
          To the realms where life is fullest,
          Where our hope with fruitage teems;
          Where our life sweeps grandly onward
          ’Neath the summer of our dreams—
          Which, if missed, are lost for ever,
          Chancing nevermore alack!
          Never agony, entreaty,
          Prayer, or fear can bring them back.

     Here, and in “Songs from the Shadows,” “The Doom of Babylon,” etc., a richer note is struck, and a greater firmness noticeable. As a favourable specimen of his blank verse, we may quote a


          Thrice welcome to our homely sea-girt isle,
          And to they tenant-right upon the beam,
          And to our fields and bowers, our homes and loves.
          I saw thee with thy tribe a while ago,
          Twittering a gay farewell, serenely glide
          Into the gold of morning's misty realm.
          I watched ye till ye faded from my sight,
          And then I bowed my head and wept, for ah!
          I never hoped to see ye birds again,
          Unless, indeed, to watch ye from above,
          Where never wing of yours may hope to soar.
          I wondered often as the days went by
          How far ye were, if any friendly tale
          Had chanced to chase your flight, if you had gained
          The wished-for port, all safe and well, and if
          Your wings were very tired with winging o'er
          So many hundred leagues of mottled waves.

     Imperfect, immature, and touched with sadness as these extracts are, no one can read them to-day without being struck with a certain lyric beauty illuminating their slight materials with an unexpected light. Such expressions excerpted at random from his poems as:

          I hear strange music in the trees;
          I see the mild melodious stir
          Of clouds and corn;


          ’Neath coral eaves where sea nymphs twist their hair;


                                                                  The calm
          Returning fond the sunset’s kiss of peace;

will give an idea of what I mean. Of his miscellaneous shorter pieces perhaps the most beautiful is “The Poet’s Monument,” the last verses of which may be quoted here:—

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

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

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

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

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

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

     In addition to the Poems already alluded to, many others, such as “The Invalid Poet” and “Fragments” are deserving of mention here, and may be found in the last memorial edition of the poet’s works.

        Quem Di diligunt, adolescens moritur;

and surely never were these words more true than as applied to the poet of the Staffordshire Moorlands. I think of him as one who had the voice of a singer, but never found the strength to lift it; as one who had gifts of a high order, but lacked the necessary equipment and opportunity to use them fully; as one who died, indeed, before he had barely lived. Happily, to use David Gray’s lovely lines:—

                          There is life with God,
        In other Kingdom of a sweeter air,
        In Eden every flower is blown.

     For those, at least, who know George Heath’s story, and the pleasant moorlands with which his name is imperishably linked, the meads which his feet trod wear a fresher green, the hills which he loved gather a softer light, and the churchyard where he sleeps breathes a holier calm.





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