Appendix 1: the younger George Greenwell's reading
The Bard , as mentioned, lists twenty-four poets George Greenwell liked or admired to some extent. First into the dock is Milton, “prince of everlasting song”. To his credit, he has been a republican, and George isn't afraid to agree that this is his aspiration, too. His problem with Milton is a rather peculiar one, which is that he spent so much effort on the loss of paradise, strived
To crush that verdant bower of paradise,
Where each domestic fountain murmurs joy.
Shakespeare follows Milton into the dock. Well done, that man!
Lo! thy plastic hand
Wakes into act ion countless dreadful forms;
Or shapings of angelic beauties rise.
But George is torn. It is all very well to have depicted all human existence and power, including “feminine constancy”, but the puritan in George (who cannot have been much of a theatre-goer, given the strictures at Sans Street) baulks at the low-life:
O, why didst thou, philosopher and bard,
Jar all the melody of thy deep scenes,
By calling up distorted phantasms
Of mirth obscene, and filthy revelry.
Shazza has been a bit of a Belshazzar, then, and George has suffered, Bowdler-like, with the gags that rocked The Globe. Living in the East End of Sunderland, which was a hot-bed of prostitution, characters like Pompey the pimp and the porter at Macbeth's gate have given George the heeby-jeebies. As a result, he gives Byron - whose private life was hardly a model of Baptist morality - a better press. His “sullen grandeur” and “withering merriment” (at the expense of the monarchy, of course) earn him the palm, and also a rather grand monument, one that depicts Byron as rather more austere than one might have imagined:
Thou standest like some mighty ocean rock,
From which the ceaseless dashing of the waves,
Has washed away all life-sustaining power; -
Sublime, but ever bleak and verdureless.
Now comes Coleridge (then still alive), with his “wild and wizard power”. The Ancient Mariner has obviously impressed George Greenwell. It's just a pity about the drugs Coleridge dosed himself with. Otherwise.......
In fact, his favourite poets have a nasty habit of letting George Greenwell down. Shelley, for instance is a sublime writer, a genius, magnificent, enchanting - but cold, too cold! It must have been galling to George to have to admire an out-and-out atheist:
Poor Shelley: gulphed beneath the ruthless wave,
Thou knowest ere now, if God, and heaven, and hell,
Be solemn verities, or idle dreams.
The first poet to get an unqualified thumbs-up is William Cowper, whose posthumous memoir of his life had been published in the year George Greenwell was born. George admires his nature poetry, and announces, convolutedly, that he does not envy anyone who does not love Cowper. He may well have identified with Cowper's depressions, and with his fondness for evangelical Christianity. The man who wrote “God moves in a mysterious way” was a poet whom you could, as it were, take home. Two others were Henry White, born in 1785, but dead at the age of 21, who had been championed by Southey, and had written the hymn “Oft in danger, oft in woe”; and the Scot, Robert Pollok, born in 1799, who also died in his twenties. Pollok's poem The Course Of Time sold 12,000 copies, but he seems chiefly to be remembered by the unexceptionable quotation “Sorrows remembered sweeten present joy”. One critic comments that “there are passages in Pollok which a hasty, forgetful, or perhaps not very-well-read person might take for poetry.” He is read for his pious sentiments, or, by George Greenwell, as Henry White's “twin/ In genius, death, and immortality”. ( The Course Of Time opens with two figures approaching a bard who explains the significance of the place - Hell - through which they have just passed. Its influence on The Bard is also obvious in its tone and exhaustingly iambic rhythm).
Another early perisher who figures in the list of George Greenwell's great and good is Thomas Chatterton, to whom Keats dedicated Endymion , and who is Wordsworth's “marvellous Boy”. Poverty drove him to suicide by arsenic, or, as the Bard of Sunderland rather characteristically puts it
Maddened by cold neglect and penury,
Which his own passions harbingered and fixed,
Lifts to his head the deadly poison-cup,
And dies! - in dark and hopeless anguish dies!
I suppose what we are learning about George Greenwell is not that he is “not very-well-read” - he seems very well read indeed to me - but that he is rather drawn to the sentimental, to the idea of a tortured genius. Robert Burns is admired not just for his patriotism, his “thrilling pathos”, his “song so varied and so rich”, but also remembered for the suffering of his death:
With burning chains which Passion ever forged,
In scowling wrath or frenzied joy he raved,
Till Poverty his towering spirit broke,
And fell Disease consumed his iron frame.
What interests George Greenwell at this stage in his life is suffering. He is drawn to it and appalled by it. He reads in Chatterton and Burns the lesson
that, in the troubled souls,
Who wander far from Christian purity, -
From vestal chastity, and heavenly hope,
Reason, with all her keen, energic powers, -
Fancy, with all her bright imaginings, -
Wit, with the barbed arrows of her strength, -
Are but the meteors of a moonless night,
Though oft mistaken for the risen day.
As a poem, of course, The Bard isn't working at all. It is so steeped in depression that its emotional onslaughts on the causes of misery are pretty well suffocated in the process.
The majority of the remaining poets (who are more enthusiastically treated) show that George Greenwell is a subscriber to the competing literary magazines that had sprung up in Edinburgh in the first three decades of the nineteenth century - The Edinburgh Review (1802), The Quarterly Review (1809) and Blackwood's Magazine (1817). Sir Walter Scott, who was instrumental in the founding - and writing - of The Quarterly Review , and who declared that Edinburgh was the cultural capital of Britain, is given full honours by George Greenwell. (“What depths of pathos! what serenity! What chastened passion! - living - natural! What grasp of character! what streams of thought!”) Indeed, he goes so far to suggest that, since Scott's death a few years earlier, the literary world has gone downhill
Thou didst not leave thy mantle on the earth;
For, since thy flight, Romance has grown diseased;
And, in her fits of agony, belched forth
Phantoms of turbid passion, big with fate....
What is intriguing is that dissenting, republican George ignores his hero's Tory credentials entirely. Scott was politically opposed to the extension of the franchise that took place in the last year of his life, 1832. Where George has struck out at others, he leaves Scott alone - which confirms the essentially romantic attitude he has to the world . George Greenwell is torn between his radical, anti-Mammon stance, and his desire to be associated with the literati who were enjoying heaping scorn on each other (Blackwood's Magazine had larruped Keats, amongst others, as a feeble writer of the “Cockney School”, which is probably why George describes Keats, another favourite, as “Too delicately beautiful to bear/ The ruthless blow of critic's iron mace.”). At twenty-three, George Greenwell is testing his Baptist invective on literature, although he reserves the right to disagree with some of the spats. One of the leading lights in Blackwood's was James Hogg, who had died in 1835. The Bard briefly defends Hogg, a former shepherd who had become a widely respected poet, against some posthumous barracking, almost certainly from London:
‘Tis strange that they who took such great delight
In honouring the bard from Ettrick's vale,
Should strive to soil his laurels!
Hogg, who was known as “The Ettrick Shepherd”, had in fact been the prime mover behind a particularly vicious and famous satire in Blackwood's first issue, known as the “Chaldee Manuscript”, which had incurred libel damages for its owner, and hugely boosted the circulation at the same time. The Chaldee manuscript laid into liberal Scots writers in pseudo-Biblical language. Its notoriety persisted, and it might be thought surprising that George Greenwell enjoyed the work of its inventors. That he did is shown by his giving one of the two top seats at his literary table to the poet John Wilson (whose journalistic pseudonym was “Christopher North”, and who had written much of the Chaldee manuscript). At the time The Bard was written, Wilson's star was high - not least because of the recent deaths of Scott and Hogg. And this is how large and querulous George Greenwell saw the large, imposing and assertive Wilson, by that time a veteran of the Edinburgh literary scene:
Who is it with unrivalled melody, With force and fire that cannot be surpassed,
That sings the pleasures of reviving hope?
Overshadowing with wings of radiancy,
The sick, the sea-begirt, the pure in heart;
Reluming fading eyes and drooping minds.
Nor are majestic force and harmony
His only praise; for oft in shorter flights,
Glimpses of terrible sublimity
Burst on our spirits with an awful grasp: -
And then again ‘tis still. Hail! Wilson, hail!
I love thee as I see thine "Isle of Palms,"
In florid beauty rise; and oft, at even,
I view the solemn grandeur of that scene;
"The City of the Plague." The time will come -
Is coming rapidly, when public thought,
Expanded and refined by spreading light,
Will value sacredly the glowing power, -
Creative thought and glorious imagery,
Which opulently blazon in thy page.
The caustic Tory wit might well have greeted this kind of effusion with some disdain. It seems at least probable, too, that George - or at least, his publisher, Richmond - would have sent this to Blackwood's for review. Edinburgh must have seemed particularly exciting to the budding preacher-poet in Sunderland.
George also praises three of the most influential eighteenth century poets - Goldsmith, Gray (one of whose most successful poems had been called The Bard ) and William Collins - and adds in brief plaudits for Barry Cornwall (1787-1874), Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) and Richard Savage (1697-1743). Savage's poem The Wanderer is certainly one of the models for George's The Bard (which mentions the poem by name). Written in five cantos, its central, eponymous character is given the message that affliction is good for the soul by a hermit he chances upon. (The structure of the poem is also notoriously chaotic). He admires in particular Mark Akenside (1721-1770), a Newcastle poet, who had studied in Edinburgh, as had his other soulmate, James Thomson (1700-1748) - “two with whom I long have walked/ In sweet communion”. All these poets share a love of imagination and landscape, of the “sublimity” of the world, which inspired the development of Romanticism (although the Romantics, biting the hands that fed them, generally dismissed them because of their extravagance of language). George praises Thomson in particular for his
sublimer eye, and soul
Of deeper melody, with lightning key [which] Unlocked Imagination's gorgeous caves
It seems likely that George has been introduced to many of these writers by his father.
One other associate of Blackwood's, the poet laureate Robert Southey, is praised as the “most accurate of nature's pencillers”, although Southey has bitten the wrong bullet, and has been
transformed into the willing slave,
Of royal puppetry and priestly guile,
Thy muse has strayed ‘mid wild mythologies,
Rearing up piles of monstrous phantasy -
Distorted, heavy, crumbling to decay.
George finally puts in a word for Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849), a Sheffield writer known as “The Corn-Law Rhymer”, a highly successful political poet who attacked the parliamentary landowners as “tax-fed drones”, and whose “People's Anthem” contains lines with which George Greenwell could not fail to identify:
When wilt thou save the people?
Oh, God of mercy! when?
The people, Lord of the people!
Not thrones and crowns, but men.
God save the people! thine they are,
Thy children, as thy angels fair,
Save them from bondage and despair.
God save the people!
Such direct and forceful verse was beyond the more prolix and highly-strung Bard of Sunderland, alas. The Bard is nevertheless a remarkable outpouring for a young man in his twenties, every word scrumped out of an excitable imagination undaunted by long days at work. Its energy alone is truly remarkable - after all, many of his heroes were full-time writers, and some of them fairly wealthy as well. It shows us a mind struggling to reconcile political and aesthetic concepts. And it also reveals how powerful an influence his father had been.