A PERSONAL NOTE
I first became aware of George Heath around six months ago, while I was researching another website about writers from Stoke-on-Trent. I’d already drifted beyond the strict boundaries of the City in search of likely candidates, turning up Robert Buchanan in Caverswall and then T.E. Hulme in Horton, at which point I came across George Heath, the Moorland Poet. An old Staffordshire guidebook gave me the bare bones of the story and a fragment of his poetry; the epitaph on his grave. I visited Horton churchyard to take a photo of the monument and as I was leaving, I noticed someone else rooting around in the same area. Having found the grave and knowing six lines of his work I felt somewhat of an authority on George Heath and so asked the woman if she too had come in search of the poet. It turned out she was a member of the Heath family, doing genealogical research of her own. I asked her if she’d ever read any of her ‘famous’ ancestor’s poetry but she said no. I think it was at that point that I decided to do a separate website for George Heath and bring his poetry and his life story back into the public domain.
I then went in search of his poetry (six lines and a photograph of a gravestone do not a website make), and eventually got hold of a battered copy of the 1870 Memorial edition from the British Library. In the course of my research into the literary heritage of Stoke-on-Trent I had come across several poets whose work would probably be best forgotten (the lines of the Rev. William Fernyhough spring immediately to mind, ‘Here shines the pewter, on the shelf,/And here besides are Plates of Delph’), and so I was aware of the possibility that George Heath’s epitaph could have been the only decent thing he wrote.
I have to admit that it was the life story which first caught my attention. The ‘peasant poet’, struck down in his youth by consumption and then lying forgotten in a country churchyard, beneath a memorial stone with that particularly touching epitaph, is a perfect Romantic image. And the other elements in his brief life (the failed love affair, the death of his two sisters, the fact that he caught the chill which led to his illness while renovating Horton church) just served to confirm this. I did, in fact, have doubts about whether this website was a good idea. In order to maintain the ‘Romantic image’, surely the poet must remain forgotten and his memorial must be allowed to disappear under a blanket of weeds. Then I read the poems, with their relentless themes of failed ambition, frustration and death.
I would not claim that George Heath is a great poet. He doesn't sit at the High Table alongside Milton and Wordsworth, or his own contemporaries, Browning and Tennyson. He is not unique in the circumstances of his background, or the tragic brevity of his life. He is no John Clare, and certainly no John Keats. Rather, he is off in some dark corner of the hall, sitting with the other forgotten scribblers like Robert Buchanan, a man who wrote too much and whose few gems have been thrown out with the dross. In Heath’s case he wrote too little and under extreme circumstances which bore down on everything he produced. In the end, as with the poets of the First World War, it is impossible to separate the poetry from the subject matter; the circumstances in which the poems were written.
My own response to the poems was of course tempered by the project in hand. Scanning the poems into the computer, then correcting the scans, then transfering them to the program to create this website, and correcting them again, brought me a lot closer to the text. Add to that the fact that I’ve visited Horton churchyard, have stood by the grave and wandered around the area where George Heath lived; maybe I’m too close to him now to offer an unbiased opinion. For what it’s worth, my favourite poem is ‘Minnie, Edith And Lizzie’. One of his best poems, ‘The Old Blind Man’ opens the collection, and I’d also recommend the three ‘fragments’ on the Selected Shorter Poems page of the site. If you do attempt to read the entire text of the Memorial Edition in order, and you find the relentless misery getting too much then I’d suggest skipping to ‘April Fools’, which is a rare example of George Heath in a lighter mood. Personal prejudices are bound to intrude, of course. I’m not that taken with the religious aspect of much of Heath’s work, and there is one poem, ‘Isn’t It So?’ which offends my political beliefs (although I like to think he was being ironic). But I do like those passages in some of the longer poems where he seems to take flight and the lines flow like a great jazz improvisation; George Heath as John Coltrane. And I’m sure he must have shared my own enthusiasm for the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, there’s a definite influence there. Finally there’s ‘Icarus’. Another tale of a frustrated, forgotten writer, whose poems are rediscovered by a later generation and given a second chance at fame (yes, the hairs on the back of my neck did stand up when I read that one for the first time).
As Francis Redfern states in his Memoir, the Memorial edition is merely a selection of George Heath's poems. At the moment I do not know where the others are, or what happened to his diary, so there's still a lot of work to be done. However I decided to put the website online in this unfinished state because I reckoned George Heath had waited long enough. What happens now I don't know. A computer screen is not the best medium for reading poetry, perhaps the site will generate enough interest to persuade some local publisher that there's a profit to be made in releasing an edition of the poems. Or perhaps the internet is the best way we have to preserve the memory of such minor figures in English Literature. At the very least, the next time someone comes across the story of George Heath and gets bewitched by that Romantic image, they won't have to look too far to find his poetry.
(aka Sir Hodge Poyson)