Gerald Massey: Poems and Ballads

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xix

A Biographic Sketch

Extract from an article in Eliza Cook's Journal, 1851,
written by
Dr. Samuel Smiles. 


THE reader of the miscellaneous literature of the day has doubtless met with the name of Gerald Massey attached to poems strikingly beautiful in language and intensely passionate in feeling.  These poems have heretofore been published chiefly in journals which are yet in a great measure tabooed in what are regarded as "respectable literary circles." The "Spirit of Freedom," a cheap journal, started in 1849, and written exclusively by working-men, contained a large number of them; and others have since appeared in the "Christian Socialist," a cheap journal conducted by Clergymen of the Church of England; and many others also, of great beauty, have been published in the "Leader," a remarkably able journal conducted by Thornton Hunt, the son of the poet.
    
    You see at once that the writer is a man of vivid genius, and is full of the true poetic fire.  Some of his earlier pieces are indignant expostulations with society at the wrongs of suffering humanity; passionate protests against those hideous disparities of life which meet our eye on every side; against power wrongfully used; against fraud and oppression in their more rampant forms; mingled with appeals to the higher influences of knowledge, justice, mercy, truth, and love.  It is always thus with the poet who has worked his way to the light through darkness, suffering, and toil.  Give a poor down-trodden man culture, and, in nine cases out of ten, you only increase his sensitiveness to pain: you agonize him with the sight of pleasures which are to him forbidden; you quicken his sense of despair at the frightful inequalities of the human lot.  There are thousands of noble natures, with minds which, under better circumstances, would have blessed and glorified their race, who have been for ever blasted—crushed into the mire-or condemned to courses of desperate guilt!—for one who, like Gerald Massey, has nobly risen above his trials and temptations, and triumphed over them.  And when such a man does find a voice, surely "rose-water" verses and "hot-pressed" sonnets are not to be expected of him: such things are not by any means the natural products of a life of desperate struggling with poverty.  When the self-risen and self-educated man speaks and writes now-a-days, it is of the subjects nearest to his heart.  Literature is not a mere intelligent epicurism with men who have suffered and grown wise, but a real, earnest, passionate, vehement, living thing-a power to move others, a means to elevate themselves, and to emancipate their order.  This is a marked peculiarity of our times; knowledge is now more than ever regarded as a power to elevate, not merely individuals, but classes.  Hence the most intelligent of working-men at this day are intensely political: we merely state this as a fact not to be disputed.  In former times, when literature was regarded mainly in the light of a rich man's luxury, poets who rose out of the working-class sung as their patrons wished.  Bloomfield and Clare sang of the quiet beauty of rural life, and painted pictures of evening skies, purling brooks, and grassy meads.  Burns could with difficulty repress the "Jacobin" spirit which burned within him; and yet even he was rarely, if ever, political in his tone.  His strongest verses, having a political bearing, were those addressed to the Scotch Representatives in reference to the Excise regulations as to the distillation of whiskey.  But come down to our own day, and mark the difference: Elliot, Nichol, Bamford, the author of "Ernest," the Chartist Epic, Davis the "Belfast Man," De Jean, Massey, and many others, are intensely political; and they defend themselves for their selection of subjects as Elliot did, when he said, "Poetry is impassioned truth; and why should we not utter it in the shape that touches our condition the mostly closely-the political?"  But how it happens that the writings of working-men now-a-days so generally assume the political tone, will be best ascertained from the following sketch of the life of Gerald Massey:—

    He was born in May, 1828, and is, therefore, barely twenty-five years of age.  He first saw the light in a little stone hut near Tring, in Herts, one of those miserable abodes in which so many of our happy peasantry—their country's pride!—are condemned to live and die.  One shilling a week was the rent of this hovel, the roof of which was so low that a man could not stand upright in it.  Massey's father was, and still is, a canal boatman, earning the wage of ten shillings a week.  Like most other peasants in this "highly-favoured Christian country," he has had no opportunities of education, and never could write his own name.  But Gerald Massey was blessed in his mother, from whom he derived a finely-organized brain and a susceptible temperament.  Though quite illiterate, like her husband, she had a firm, free spirit—it's broken now!—a tender yet courageous heart, and a pride of honest poverty which she never ceased to cherish.  But she needed all her strength and courage to bear up under the privations of her lot.  Sometimes the husband fell out of work; and there was no bread in the cupboard, except what was purchased by the labour of the elder children, some of whom were early sent to work in the neighbouring silk-mill.  Disease, too, often fell upon the family, cooped up in that unwholesome hovel: indeed, the wonder is, not that our peasantry should be diseased, and grow old and haggard before their time, but that they should exist at all in such lazar-houses and cesspools.
    
    None of the children of this poor family were educated in the common acceptance of the term.  Several of them were sent for a short time to a penny school, where the teacher and the taught were about on a par; but so soon as they were of age to work, the- children were sent to the silk-mill.  The poor cannot afford to keep their children at school, if they are of an age to work and earn money.  They must help to eke out their parents' slender gains, even though it be only by a few pence weekly.  So, at eight years of age, Gerald Massey went into the silk-manufactory, rising at five o'clock in the morning, and toiling there till half-past six in the evening; up in the grey dawn, or in the winter before the daylight, and trudging to the factory through the wind or in the snow; seeing the sun only through the factory windows;  breathing an atmosphere laden with rank oily vapour, his ears deafened by the roar of incessant wheels;—

"Still all the day the iron wheels go onward,
     Grinding life down from its mark;
 And the children's souls, which God is calling sunward,
    Spin on blindly in the dark."

    What a life for a child!  What a substitute for tender prattle, for childish glee, for youthful playtime!  Then home shivering under the cold, starless sky, on Saturday nights, with 9d., 1s., or ls.  3d., for the whole week's work; for such were the respective amounts of the wages earned by the child labour of Gerald Massey.
    
    But the mill was burned down, and the children held jubilee over it.  The boy stood for twelve hours in the wind, and sleet, and mud, rejoicing in the conflagration which thus liberated him.  Who can wonder at this?  Then he went to straw-plaiting, —as toilsome, and perhaps, more unwholesome than factory work.  Without exercise, in a marshy district, the plaiters were constantly having racking attacks of ague.  The boy had the disease for three years, ending with tertian ague.  Sometimes four of the family, and the mother, lay ill at one time, all crying with thirst, with no one to give them drink, and each too weak to help the other.  How little do we know of the sufferings endured by the poor and struggling classes of our population, especially in our rural districts!  No press echoes their wants, or records their sufferings; and they live almost as unknown to us as if they were the inhabitants of some undiscovered country.

    And now take, as an illustration, the child-life of Gerald Massey.  "Having had to earn my own dear bread," he says, "by the eternal cheapening of flesh and blood thus early, I never knew what childhood meant.  I had no childhood.  Ever since I can remember, I have had the aching fear of want, throbbing heart and brow The currents of my life were early poisoned, and few, methinks, would pass unscathed through the scenes and circumstances in which I have lived; none, if they were as curious and precocious as I was.  The child comes into the world like a new coin with the stamp of God upon it; and in like manner as the Jews sweat clown sovereigns, by hustling them in a bag to get gold-dust out them, so is the poor man's child hustled and sweated down in this bag of society to get wealth out of it; and even as the impress of the Queen is effaced by the Jewish process, so is the image of God worn from heart and brow, and day by day the child recedes devil-ward.  I look back now with wonder, not that so few escape, but that any escape at all, to win a nobler growth for their humanity.  So blighting are the influences which surround thousands in early life, to which I can bear such bitter testimony."
    
    And how fared the growth of this child's mind the while?  Thanks to the care of his mother, who had sent him to the penny school, he had learnt to read, and the desire to read had been awakened.  Books, however, were very scarce.  The Bible and Bunyan were the principal; he committed many chapters of the former to memory, and accepted all Bunyan's allegory as bond fide history.  Afterwards he obtained access to "Robinson Crusoe" and a few Wesleyan tracts left at the cottage.  These constituted his sole reading, until he came up to London, at the age of fifteen, as an errand-boy; and now, for the first time in his life, he met with plenty of books, reading all that came in his way, from "Lloyd's Penny Times," to Cobbett's Works, "French without a Master," together with English, Roman, and Grecian history.  A ravishing awakenment ensued, —the delightful sense of growing knowledge,—the charm of new thought, —the wonders of a new world.  "Till then," he says, "I had often wondered why I lived at all,—whether

'It was not better not to be,
 I was so full of misery.'

Now I began to think that the crown of all desire, and the sum of all existence, was to read and get knowledge.  Read I read I read!  I used to read at all possible times, and in all possible places; up in bed till two or three in the morning,-nothing daunted by once setting the bed on fire.  Greatly indebted was I also to the bookstalls, where I have read a great deal, often folding a leaf in a book, and returning the next day to continue the subject; but sometimes the book was gone, and then great was my grief!  When out of a situation, I have often gone without a meal to purchase a book.  Until I fell in love, and began to rhyme as a matter of consequence, I never had the least predilection for poetry.  In fact, I always eschewed it; if I ever met with any, I instantly skipped it over, and passed on, as one does with the description of scenery, &c., in a novel.  I always loved the birds and flowers, the woods and the stars; I felt delight in being alone in a summer-wood, with song, like a spirit, in the trees, and the golden sun-bursts glinting through the verdurous roof; and was conscious of a mysterious creeping of the blood, and tingling of the nerves, when standing alone in the starry midnight, as in God's own presence-chamber.  But until I began to rhyme, I cared nothing for written poetry.  The first verses I ever made were upon 'Hope,' when I was utterly hopeless; and after I had begun, I never ceased for about four years, at the end of which time I rushed into print."
    
    There was, of course, crudeness both of thought and expression in the first verses of the poet, which were published in a provincial paper.  But there were nerve, rhythm, and poetry; the burthen of the song was, "At eventime it shall be light." The leading idea of the poem was the power of knowledge, virtue, and temperance, to elevate the condition of the poor,—a noble idea, truly.  Shortly after he was encouraged to print a shilling volume of "Poems and Chansons," in his native town of Tring, of which some 250 copies were sold.  Of his latter poems we shall afterwards speak.
    
    But a new power was now working upon his nature, as might have been expected,—the power of opinion, as expressed in books, and in the discussions of his fellow-workers.
   
    "As an errand-boy," he says, "I had of course, many hardships to undergo, and to bear with much tyranny; and that led me into reasoning upon men and things, the causes of misery, the anomalies of our societary state, politics, &c., and the circle of my being rapidly out-surged.  New power came to me with all that I saw, and thought, and read.  I studied political works,-such as Paine, Volney, Howitt, Louis Blanc, &c., which gave me another element to mould into my verse, though I am convinced that a poet must sacrifice much if he write party-political poetry.  His politics must be above the pinnacle of party zeal; the politics of eternal truth, right, and justice.  He must not waste a life on what to-morrow may prove to have been merely the question of a day.  The French Revolution of 1848 had the greatest effect on me of any circumstance connected with my own life.  It was scarred and blood-burnt into the very core of my being.  This little volume of mille is the fruit thereof."
    
    But, meanwhile, he had been engaged in other literary work.  Full of new thoughts, and bursting with aspirations of freedom, he started, in April, 1849, a cheap journal, written entirely by working-men, entitled, "The Spirit of Freedom:" it was full of fiery earnestness, and half of its weekly contents were supplied by Gerald Massey himself, who acted as editor.  It cost him five situations during the period of eleven months,—twice because he was detected burning candle far on into the night, and three times because of the tone of the opinions to which he gave utterance.  The French Revolution of 1848 having, amongst its other issues, kindled the zeal of the working-men in this country in the cause of association, Gerald Massey eagerly joined them, and he has been recently instrumental in giving some impetus to that praiseworthy movement,—the object of which is to permanently elevate the condition of the producing classes, by advancing them to the status of capitalists as well as labourers.

    A word or two as to Gerald Massey's recent poetry.  Bear in mind that he is yet but a youth;—at twenty-three a man can scarcely be said fairly to have entered his manhood; and yet, if we except Robert Nichol, who died at twenty-four, we know of no English poet of his class, who has done any thing to compare with him.  Some of his most beautiful pieces originally appeared in the columns of the "Leader."  They give you the idea of a practised hand-one who has reached the full prime of his poetic manhood.  Take, for instance, his "Lyrics of Love," so full of beauty and tenderness.  Nor are his "Songs of Progress" less full of poetic power and beauty.

    Gerald Massey is a teacher through the heart.  He is familiar with the passions, and leans towards the tender and loving aspect of our nature.  He takes after Burns more than after Wordsworth, Elliot rather than Thomson.  He is but a young man, though lie has had crowded into his twenty-three years already the life of an old man.  He has won his experience in the school of the poor, and nobly earned his title to speak to them as a man and a brother, dowered with "the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn, the love of Love."

 



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