(Staffordshire Worthies contains 32 chapters on the famous sons and daughters of the county, ranging from Izaak Walton to Jerome K. Jerome. The Moorland Poet is Chapter 25. The book is a reprint of a series of articles for the Staffordshire Chronicle, which originally appeared from May to December 1910.)
THE MOORLAND POET
from Staffordshire Worthies by Frederick Wm. Hackwood
Near Lake Rudyard, in the “Staffordshire Switzerland,” is the charming village of Horton, in the churchyard of which the most notable memorial is a fine Runic cross on which appears this inscription, the pathos of which is not a little enhanced by its simplicity:—
Erected in Memory
Although dying at so early an age, Heath wrote some sixty or seventy poems, which were collected and published in a book of 350 pages, and met with instant recognition. His death was hastened by a cold caught whilst engaged upon the restoration of Horton church, where he was working at his trade as a carpenter. His writings evinced a deep thoughtfulness, and were usually tinged with a shade of pensive sadness. How the scenes amidst which his brief span of life was spent influenced his pen is seen in a poem beginning:—
Glorious Rudyard, gorgeous picture,
Whether storms sweep grandly o’er thee
How sublimely grand the picture
Lies the Lake in tranquil beauty
Other verses carry the eye further afield to where—
Rugged cliffs of mouldering sandstone
and so the living eye of our “Moorland Poet” surveys in turn each scene of native beauty.
The humble life of the poet, brief as it was, was not without its element of romance; for there entered into it not only the shadowing foredoom of a hopeless disease, but the poignancy of a blighted affection. The broken vows of the loved one he sang at some length in a poem entitled “The Discarded;” and although the passion he had conceived for her was intense, it will be seen from the following lines, extracted from a poem written on his deathbed, and headed, “True to the Last,” that he fully forgave her:—
Prop me up with my pillows, sweet sister, and then
Then twine your arm round me to comfort and stay,
’Twas summer, sweet sister, bright summer, as now,
At twilight we met, ’neath the sycamore’s shade,
O God! how intensely and madly I loved!
You’ll see her perchance when affliction hath chased
Then tell her, sweet sister, that all was forgiven,
Such, briefly, was the sad but uneventful career of one whose name Staffordshire is now proud to preserve amongst its honoured worthies. And better far than any estimate of him we are capable of forming, is the critical appreciation expressed by a brother poet of recognised standing—Robert Buchanan, himself a native of Staffordshire, and one who had already carved for himself a niche in the national temple of fame.
It is within the range of possibility that the lesser poet may have been known to the greater; in any case it is certain that an early copy of the “Memorial Edition of the Poems of George Heath, the Moorland Poet,” was sent to Buchanan, and that the latter contributed an exceedingly interesting paper upon it to the Good Words for March, 1871. The little volume contained a portrait, a memoir, and 200 pages of verse. The face depicted on the engraving struck Buchanan as revealing “a look seen only on the faces of certain women—faintly traceable in every likeness of Shelley—and almost obtrusive in the one existing portrait of Keats—a look scarcely describable—but it seems there, painful, spiritual—quite as unmistakable as on poor Kirk White’s face. Next came the memoir—the old story with the old motto,’ Whom the Gods love die young.’
“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.’ It now lies 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; and let those who upbraid God for their burdens read these pages, and see how a poor untaught lad, stricken by the most cruel of all diseases, and tortured by the wretchedest of all disappointments, could year after year, day after day, hour after hour, collect strength enough to say unfalteringly, ‘God, thy will be done, for Thou art wiser than I.’ “One of his early pieces, entitled ‘The Discarded,’ written on New Year’s Eve, is addressed to the girl he loved, after she had played with his heart, and wounded it cruelly. It is a boy’s production with a man’s heart in it. Those who are now familiar with the musical ravings of diseased animalism may find freshness even in some of these lines. They were the utterances of a lofty nature, capable of becoming a poet, sooner or later.”
This was praise indeed, coming from so high a source. Further on, Robert Buchanan adds a further measure of commendation: “In 1865 appeared a little volume by Heath, under the title of ‘Preludes,’ consisting chiefly of verses written during the first year of his illness. These poems, like all he wrote, are most noteworthy for the invariable superiority of the thought over the expression. They are not at all the sort of verses written by brilliant young men. Their subjects are local places, tales of rude pathos like the ‘Pauper Child’—nevertheless there is truth in the verses. The poor boy is not composing, but putting his own experiences into the form that seems beautiful to him, however unreal it seems to us.”
Examining some of Heath’s pieces, the greater poet says: “The Poem ‘Icarus, or the Singer’s Tale,’ though only a fragment is more remarkably original than any published poem of David Gray’s, and in grasp and scope of idea it is worthy of any writer. . . . . Nothing is more amazing to me than to find George Heath, an unusually simple country lad. . . . . flashing such deep glimpses into the hearts of women. He had loved, and I suppose that was his clue.”
Enough has been written to show that the peasant poet of the Staffordshire moorlands was at least a writer of pure and lofty thoughts expressed in the simplest music of a mother-tongue. In some of its features the life-story of the Moorland Poet is not so very dissimilar from that of David Gray, the much beloved friend of Buchanan, of whom more in the next chapter.