from Staffordshire Poets
(ed. C.H. Poole & R. Markland, publ. N. Ling & Co. 1928)
The short life-story of George Heath is uneventful, but the interest attached to his name is derived from his character and thoughts, as shown under the terrible affliction he suffered, an affliction rendered harder to conquer by his high aspirations and early ambitions for the future.
He was born on March 9, 1844, at Gratton, near Endon and Horton, in the moorlands of Staffordshire, and earned for himself the title of “The Moorland Poet,” for he spent his whole life in this part, from which he drew many a hope and poetic conception. The place of his birth was reminiscent of the picturesque surroundings of well-known native spots of rustic genius, and romantic enough in its way to have reared a Burns. After a scanty education, George Heath still followed in the footsteps of other lowly poets, and laboured on his father’s farm, but later was apprenticed to a joiner and builder, and about this time we learn of his realisation that, whatever his calling, at heart he was wholly a poet, and that one way or another he must find expression for his poetic imagination. With such hopes he found one congenial spirit in his friend, Herbert Foster.
But now the clouds descend on his life. First he developed consumption of the lungs, following on a severe cold caught during the restoration of Horton Church in 1864, and to make this illness even harder to bear came the sorrow of a broken faith and a discarded love by one whom he had loved very dearly, “a love that was once as life” to him. He gained some pleasure from his first published verses, Preludes (altered later to Simple Poems), which appeared in 1865. But he felt he must put all his thoughts and inspirations into a grand epic poem.
In 1866 appeared Heart Strains, which attracted some slight attention to his work, one or two of the poems being given at public readings at Stafford and Leek. His talent was now developing, and although he does not seem to have published any more himself, yet his Doom of Babylon, though too great a subject as yet for his pen in its demand for force of expression, shows a certain mystic power and the quick dawning of a true poetic genius, and in many poems (Icarus, for example) there is at times the full quality of fine poetry between inferior passages - the sun’s gleam seen through the trees. He also possessed a command of language remarkable under the circumstances.
Whenever possible he eagerly acquired a knowledge of literature and the classics, and owed much to the Rev. J. Badnall, of Endon, till at length he became well versed, and even able to translate Virgil into English verse.
During his lingering illness, friends were kind to him in many ways, bringing him books, circulating his poems, visiting him and writing, and there is no doubt he felt these kindnesses deeply, yet suffered a great loneliness at times; but even in these moments of utter hopelessness of an ultimate recovery he kept an unswerving faith. His last poem, Tired Out, shows clearly a realisation of the end of his sufferings, which came in 1869 at the age of 25. This Moorland Singer died in the Spring that he worshipped. (There is an entry in his diary - one of the four that were lent to Buchanan - dated the day before he died, into which the whole courageous spirit of the poet is concentrated. It is simply this: "Tuesday, May 4th. Praise God for one more day!" ) Over his grave in Horton Churchyard, marked by a runic cross designed by his friend, H. W. Foster, may be read his epitaph, with the following lines from some found among his papers: -
“His life is a fragment - a broken clue -
His harp had a musical string or two,
The tension was great, and they sprang and flew,
And a few brief strains - a scattered few -
Are all that remain to mortal view
Of the marvellous song the young man knew.”
George Heath’s best memorial is the edition of his poems edited by Francis Redfern, though there is much that could still be done. In the famous list of lowly born poets the name of George Heath deserves a higher place than has yet been accorded to it, for there is enough true inspiration in many of his lines to prove he only needed time to reach his rightful place. At present he is among those of whom Shelley wrote:
Robert Buchanan is one of the few who have realised the powers that George Heath possessed and the skill he was beginning to show, and his tribute to the poor poet is all the more valuable when the divergent ideas of the two, in certain matters, are compared. Perhaps Buchanan was thinking of his friend, David Gray, who died when quite young. Heath’s portrait made a great impression on Buchanan, who traced. in the lineaments a likeness to Keats and to Shelley - the immortals who died in youth, - and this is a striking fact well worth observing and remembering. Heath had a great love for some of Buchanan’s poems, and in the Moorland Poet’s lines to Edith occurs this sentence -
“I had read
One of Buchanan’s thrilling melodies.”
The keynote of Heath’s poetry is one of sadness, becoming certainly almost morbid at times, yet he can be felt shaking this off in many of his poems and fighting his way back to hopefulness and a deep and manly faith. The bitterness of disillusionment is strongly portrayed when he writes of his love that was discarded. This is the theme of his long poem, The Discarded, a New Year’s Eve reverie, akin to the agony of soul wrapped in the language of Poe’s Raven. But he even rises above this, and in such poems as Edith it is seen he retained his ideals of womanhood -
"The intercourse with true
And tender womanhood has been the one
Green grove of palms in all my desert life!”
In his hopeful moods he recurs to the time when be was able to enjoy the beauty of his surroundings and his thoughts:
"When music to me was a worship-breath,
A rapture, a -tongue, a power!"
This spirit is shown in A Chant of Praise, and in the following lines from A Country-Woman’s Tale: -
“The light and glory of the world and God,
Like a great deluge surged around me there,
And rose and rose, and burst into my soul,
And snatched it from its sordid shrine of clay,
And bore it up and up upon its tide,
And filled it so with worship of the good -
Spontaneous worship of the good - until
It seemed nigh bursting with unspoken praise.”
Icarus, his poem on “the life of poor String,” is partly his own story. The imaginary poet in these verses was -
“A lover of Nature, akin to her moods,
A power-spirit chained to a spirit that broods.”
The unfinished writings left by a poet, especially if he be one of "the inheritors of unfulfilled renown,” are strangely impressive. Those of Heath seem to image his poetry as a fine temple shattered ere it reached completion - these are the fragments. Some of them attached to Icarus display the dawning of a lyric beauty -
"And the nereid willow, coyly
Dips her tresses in the stream,
While the silken sensuous waters
Tremble downward in a dream.
Did I dream that Summer twilight
Was a crisis to my fate,
That the currents thence diverging
Led to issues strange and great?
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.
* * * * *
"Mid the air, the twittering swallows
Touch each other as they pass,
And a million things are kissing
As they sing amid the grass.
And the graceful poplar, bending,
Strokes the birch’s lady hair;
Lean the glowing flowers together;
There is moving everywhere.”
We can unfailingly grant the poet his wish in The Poet’s Monument -
“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.”
Much of his sadness and of his fight against it is seen in The Invalid Poet, and perhaps therein, though the title is repelling, appear his most sustained passages of poetical power. In other poems he appeals by his love of the scenery and legends of his county.
The last lines in a tribute by another Staffordshire poet, Elisha Walton, express a realisation of the little we can really know of all the Moorland Poet felt, of all he suffered, and of what heights he might have reached -
“And he passed from our sight, and his untold tale
Remaineth untold for ever.”