THE STAFFORDSHIRE MOORLAND POET.
BY THE REV. GEORGE BIRD, M.A.
(from Great Thoughts, August 1894)
I bring my garland for thy head and feet,
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.
BIRTH AND EARLY LIFE
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.
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
Like a mighty host of giants,
And the sun in haze of beauty,
Fleecy mists of gorgeous splendour,
Softly breaking up and parting,
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,
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,
“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.”
THE POET'S DIARY
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 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—
* * *
The soul cannot rise from the base to the noble
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,
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
SONG TO THE SWALLOWS.
Thrice welcome to our homely sea-girt isle,
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;
’Neath coral eaves where sea nymphs twist their hair;
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,
I shall want thee to dream me my dream all through,
And, Edith, come thou in the blooming time,
And bend by the silently settling heap,
And look in thy heart circled up in the past,
Encirqued with the light of the pale regret,
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,
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.