Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 8.

Light in a Dark Place.

So I made my first attempt at poetry — need I say that my subject was the beautiful Lillian? And need I say, too, that I was as utterly disgusted at my attempt to express her in words, as I had been at my trial with the pencil? It chanced also, that after hammering out half a dozen verses, I met with Mr. Tennyson’s poems; and the unequalled sketches of women that I found there, while they had, with the rest of the book, a new and abiding influence on my mind, were quite enough to show me my own fatal incompetency in that line. I threw my verses away, never to resume them. Perhaps I proved thereby the depth of my affection. Our mightiest feelings, are always those which remain most unspoken. The most intense lovers and the greatest poets have generally, I think, written very little personal love-poetry, while they have shown in fictitious characters a knowledge of the passion too painfully intimate to be spoken of in the first person.

But to escape from my own thoughts, I could not help writing something; and to escape from my own private sorrows, writing on some matter with which I had no personal concern. And so, after much casting about for subjects, Childe Harold and the old missionary records contrived to celebrate a spiritual wedding in my brain, of which anomalous marriage came a proportionately anomalous offspring.

My hero was not to be a pirate, but a pious sea-rover, who, with a crew of saints, or at least uncommonly fine fellows, who could be very manly and jolly, and yet all be good Christians, of a somewhat vague and latitudinarian cast of doctrine (for my own was becoming rapidly so), set forth under the red-cross flag to colonize and convert one of my old paradises, a South Sea Island.

I forget most of the lines — they were probably great trash, but I hugged them to my bosom as a young mother does her first child.

’Twas sunset in the lone Pacific world,

The rich gleams fading in the western sky;

Within the still Lagoon the sails were furled,

The red-cross flag alone was flaunting high.

Before them was the low and palm-fringed shore,

Behind, the outer ocean’s baffled roar.

After which valiant plunge in medias res, came a great lump of deception, after the manner of youths — of the island, and the whitehouses, and the banana groves, and above all, the single volcano towering over the whole, which

Shaking a sinful isle with thundering shocks,

Reproved the worshippers of stones and stocks.

Then how a line of foam appears on the Lagoon, which is supposed at first to be a shoal of fish, but turns out to be a troop of naked island beauties, swimming out to the ship. The decent missionaries were certainly guiltless of putting that into my head, whether they ever saw it or not — a great many things happening in the South Seas of which they find it convenient to say nothing. I think I picked it up from Wallis, or Cook, or some other plain spoken voyager.

The crew gaze in pardonable admiration, but the hero, in a long speech, reproves them for their lightmindedness, reminds them of their sacred mission, and informs them that,

The soldiers of the cross should turn their eyes

From carnal lusts and heathen vanities;

beyond which indisputable assertion I never got; for this being about the fiftieth stanza, I stopped to take breath a little; and reading and rereading, patching and touching continually, grew so accustomed to my bantling’s face, that, like a mother, I could not tell whether it was handsome or hideous, sense or nonsense. I have since found out that the true plan, for myself at least, is to write off as much as possible at a time, and then lay it by and forget it for weeks — if I can, for months. After that, on returning to it, the mind regards it as something altogether strange and new, and can, or rather ought to, judge of it as it would of the work of another pen.

But really, between conceit and disgust, fancying myself one day a great new poet, and the next a mere twaddler, I got so puzzled and anxious, that I determined to pluck up courage, go to Mackaye, and ask him to solve the problem for me.

“Hech, sirs, poetry! I’ve been expecting it. I suppose it’s the appointed gate o’ a workman’s intellectual life — that same lust o’ versification. Aweel, aweel — let’s hear.”

Blushing and trembling, I read my verses aloud in as resonant and magniloquent a voice as I could command. I thought Mackaye’s upper lip would never stop lengthening, or his lower lip protruding. He chuckled intensely at the unfortunate rhyme between “shocks” and “stocks.” Indeed, it kept him in chuckling matter for a whole month afterwards; but when I had got to the shoal of naked girls, he could bear no more, and burst out —

“What the deevil! is there no harlotry and idolatry here in England, that ye maun gang speering after it in the Cannibal Islands? Are ye gaun to be like they puir aristocrat bodies, that wad suner hear an Italian dog howl, than an English nightingale sing, and winna harken to Mr. John Thomas till he calls himself Giovanni Thomasino; or do ye tak yourself for a singing-bird, to go all your days tweedle-dumdeeing out into the lift, just for the lust o’ hearing your ain clan clatter? Will ye be a man or a lintic? Coral Islands? Pacific? What do ye ken about Pacifics? Are ye a Cockney or a Cannibal Islander? Dinna stand there, ye gowk, as fusionless as a docken, but tell me that! Whaur do ye live?”

“What do you mean, Mr. Mackaye?” asked I, with a doleful and disappointed visage.

“Mean — why, if God had meant ye to write aboot Pacifics, He’d ha’ put ye there — and because He means ye to write aboot London town, He’s put ye there — and gien ye an unco sharp taste o’ the ways o’t; and I’ll gie ye anither. Come along wi’ me.”

And he seized me by the arm, and hardly giving me time to put on my hat, marched me out into the streets, and away through Clare Market to St. Giles’s.

It was a foul, chilly, foggy Saturday night. From the butchers’ and greengrocers’ shops the gas lights flared and flickered, wild and ghastly, over haggard groups of slip-shod dirty women, bargaining for scraps of stale meat and frost-bitten vegetables, wrangling about short weight and bad quality. Fish-stalls and fruit-stalls lined the edge of the greasy pavement, sending up odours as foul as the language of sellers and buyers. Blood and sewer-water crawled from under doors and out of spouts, and reeked down the gutters among offal, animal and vegetable, in every stage of putrefaction. Foul vapours rose from cowsheds and slaughter houses, and the doorways of undrained alleys, where the inhabitants carried the filth out on their shoes from the back-yard into the court, and from the court up into the main street; while above, hanging like cliffs over the streets — those narrow, brawling torrents of filth, and poverty, and sin — the houses with their teeming load of life were piled up into the dingy, choking night. A ghastly, deafening sickening sight it was. Go, scented Belgravian! and see what London is! and then go to the library which God has given thee — one often fears in vain — and see what science says this London might be!

“Ay,” he muttered to himself, as he strode along, “sing awa; get yoursel wi’ child wi’ pretty fancies and gran’ words, like the rest o’ the poets, and gang to hell for it.”

“To hell, Mr. Mackaye?”

“Ay, to a verra real hell, Alton Locke, laddie — a warse ane than ony fiends’ kitchen, or subterranean Smithfield that ye’ll hear o’ in the pulpits — the hell on earth o’ being a flunkey, and a humbug, and a useless peacock, wasting God’s gifts on your ain lusts and pleasures — and kenning it — and not being able to get oot o’ it, for the chains o’ vanity and self-indulgence. I’ve warned ye. Now look there —”

He stopped suddenly before the entrance of a miserable alley —

“Look! there’s not a soul down that yard but’s either beggar, drunkard, thief, or warse. Write anent that! Say how you saw the mouth o’ hell, and the twa pillars thereof at the entry — the pawnbroker’s shop o’ one side, and the gin palace at the other — twa monstrous deevils, eating up men, and women, and bairns, body and soul. Look at the jaws o’ the monsters, how they open and open, and swallow in anither victim and anither. Write anent that.”

“What jaws, Mr. Mackaye?”

“They faulding-doors o’ the gin shop, goose. Are na they a mair damnable man-devouring idol than ony red-hot statue o’ Moloch, or wicker Gogmagog, wherein thae auld Britons burnt their prisoners? Look at thae bare-footed bare-backed hizzies, with their arms roun’ the men’s necks, and their mouths full o’ vitriol and beastly words! Look at that Irishwoman pouring the gin down the babbie’s throat! Look at that rough o’ a boy gaun out o’ the pawn shop, where he’s been pledging the handkerchief he stole the morning, into the gin shop, to buy beer poisoned wi’ grains o’ paradise, and cocculus indicus, and saut, and a’ damnable, maddening, thirst-breeding, lust-breeding drugs! Look at that girl that went in wi’ a shawl on her back and cam’ out wi’out ane! Drunkards frae the breast! — harlots frae the cradle! damned before they’re born! John Calvin had an inkling o’ the truth there, I’m a’most driven to think, wi’ his reprobation deevil’s doctrines!”

“Well — but — Mr. Mackaye, I know nothing about these poor creatures.”

“Then ye ought. What do ye ken anent the Pacific? Which is maist to your business? — thae bare-backed hizzies that play the harlot o’ the other side o’ the warld, or these — these thousands o’ bare-backed hizzies that play the harlot o’ your ain side — made out o’ your ain flesh and blude? You a poet! True poetry, like true charity, my laddie, begins at hame. If ye’ll be a poet at a’, ye maun be a cockney poet; and while the cockneys be what they be, ye maun write, like Jeremiah of old, o’ lamentation and mourning and woe, for the sins o’ your people. Gin you want to learn the spirit o’ a people’s poet, down wi’ your Bible and read thae auld Hebrew prophets; gin ye wad learn the style, read your Burns frae morning till night; and gin ye’d learn the matter, just gang after your nose, and keep your eyes open, and ye’ll no miss it.”

“But all this is so — so unpoetical.”

“Hech! Is there no the heeven above them there, and the hell beneath them? and God frowning, and the deevil grinning? No poetry there! Is no the verra idea of the classic tragedy defined to be, man conquered by circumstance? Canna ye see it there? And the verra idea of the modern tragedy, man conquering circumstance? — and I’ll show you that, too — in mony a garret where no eye but the gude God’s enters, to see the patience, and the fortitude, and the self-sacrifice, and the luve stronger than death, that’s shining in thae dark places o’ the earth. Come wi’ me, and see.”

We went on through a back street or two, and then into a huge, miserable house, which, a hundred years ago, perhaps, had witnessed the luxury, and rung to the laughter of some one great fashionable family, alone there in their glory. Now every room of it held its family, or its group of families — a phalanstery of all the fiends; — its grand staircase, with the carved balustrades rotting and crumbling away piecemeal, converted into a common sewer for all its inmates. Up stair after stair we went, while wails of children, and curses of men, steamed out upon the hot stifling rush of air from every doorway, till, at the topmost story, we knocked at a garret door. We entered. Bare it was of furniture, comfortless, and freezing cold; but, with the exception of the plaster dropping from the roof, and the broken windows, patched with rags and paper, there was a scrupulous neatness about the whole, which contrasted strangely with the filth and slovenliness outside. There was no bed in the room — no table. On a broken chair by the chimney sat a miserable old woman, fancying that she was warming her hands over embers which had long been cold, shaking her head, and muttering to herself, with palsied lips, about the guardians and the workhouse; while upon a few rags on the floor lay a girl, ugly, small-pox marked, hollow eyed, emaciated, her only bed clothes the skirt of a large handsome new riding-habit, at which two other girls, wan and tawdry, were stitching busily, as they sat right and left of her on the floor. The old woman took no notice of us as we entered; but one of the girls looked up, and, with a pleased gesture of recognition, put her finger up to her lips, and whispered, “Ellen’s asleep.”

“I’m not asleep, dears,” answered a faint, unearthly voice; “I was only praying. Is that Mr. Mackaye?”

“Ay, my lassies; but ha’ ye gotten na fire the nicht?”

“No,” said one of them, bitterly, “we’ve earned no fire to-night, by fair trade or foul either.”

The sick girl tried to raise herself up and speak, but was stopped by a frightful fit of coughing and expectoration, as painful, apparently, to the sufferer as it was, I confess, disgusting even to me.

I saw Mackaye slip something into the hand of one of the girls, and whisper, “A half-hundred of coals;” to which she replied, with an eager look of gratitude that I never can forget, and hurried out. Then the sufferer, as if taking advantage of her absence, began to speak quickly and eagerly.

“Oh, Mr. Mackaye — dear, kind Mr. Mackaye — do speak to her; and do speak to poor Lizzy here! I’m not afraid to say it before her, because she’s more gentle like, and hasn’t learnt to say bad words yet — but do speak to them, and tell them not to go the bad Way, like all the rest. Tell them it’ll never prosper. I know it is want that drives them to it, as it drives all of us — but tell them it’s best to starve and die honest girls, than to go about with the shame and the curse of God on their hearts, for the sake of keeping this poor, miserable, vile body together a few short years more in this world o’ sorrow. Do tell them, Mr. Mackaye.”

“I’m thinking,” said he, with the tears running down his old withered face, “ye’ll mak a better preacher at that text than I shall, Ellen.”

“Oh, no, no; who am I, to speak to them? — it’s no merit o’ mine, Mr. Mackaye, that the Lord’s kept me pure through it all. I should have been just as bad as any of them, if the Lord had not kept me out of temptation in His great mercy, by making me the poor, ill-favoured creature I am. From that time I was burnt when I was a child, and had the small-pox afterwards, oh! how sinful I was, and repined and rebelled against the Lord! And now I see it was all His blessed mercy to keep me out of evil, pure and unspotted for my dear Jesus, when He comes to take me to Himself. I saw Him last night, Mr. Mackaye, as plain as I see you now, ail in a flame of beautiful white fire, smiling at me so sweetly; and He showed me the wounds in His hands and His feet, and He said, ‘Ellen, my own child, those that suffer with me here, they shall be glorified with me hereafter, for I’m coming very soon to take you home.’”

Sandy shook his head at all this with a strange expression of face, as if he sympathized and yet disagreed, respected and yet smiled at the shape which her religious ideas had assumed; and I remarked in the meantime that the poor girl’s neck and arm were all scarred and distorted, apparently from the effects of a burn.

“Ah,” said Sandy, at length, “I tauld ye ye were the better preacher of the two; ye’ve mair comfort to gie Sandy than he has to gie the like o’ ye. But how is the wound in your back the day?”

Oh, it was wonderfully better! the doctor had come and given her such blessed ease with a great thick leather he had put under it, and then she did not feel the boards through so much. “But oh, Mr. Mackaye, I’m so afraid it will make me live longer to keep me away from my dear Saviour. And there’s one thing, too, that’s breaking my heart, and makes me long to die this very minute, even if I didn’t go to Heaven at all, Mr. Mackaye.” (And she burst out crying, and between her sobs it came out, as well as I could gather, that her notion was, that her illness was the cause of keeping the girls in “the bad ivay,” as she called it.) “For Lizzy here, I did hope that she had repented of it after all my talking to her; but since I’ve been so bad, and the girls have had to keep me most o’ the time, she’s gone out of nights just as bad as ever.”

Lizzy had hid her face in her hands the greater part of this speech. Now she looked up passionately, almost fiercely —

“Repent — I have repented — I repent of it every hour — I hate myself, and hate all the world because of it; but I must — I must; I cannot see her starve, and I cannot starve myself. When she first fell sick she kept on as long as she could, doing what she could, and then between us we only earned three shillings a week, and there was ever so much to take off for fire, and twopence for thread, and fivepence for candles; and then we were always getting fined, because they never gave us out the work till too late on purpose, and then they lowered prices again; and now Ellen can’t work at all, and there’s four of us with the old lady, to keep off two’s work that couldn’t keep themselves alone.”

“Doesn’t the parish allow the old lady anything?” I ventured to ask.

“They used to allow half-a-crown for a bit; and the doctor ordered Ellen things from the parish, but it isn’t half of ’em she ever got; and when the meat came, it was half times not fit to eat, and when it was her stomach turned against it. If she was a lady she’d be cockered up with all sorts of soups and jellies, and nice things, just the minute she fancied ’em, and lie on a water bed instead of the bare floor — and so she ought; but where’s the parish’ll do that? And the hospital wouldn’t take her in because she was incurable; and, besides, the old’un wouldn’t let her go — nor into the union neither. When she’s in a good-humour like, she’ll sit by her by the hour, holding her hand and kissing of it, and nursing of it, for all the world like a doll. But she won’t hear of the workhouse; so now, these last three weeks, they takes off all her pay, because they says she must go into the house, and not kill her daughter by keeping her out — as if they warn’t a killing her themselves.”

“No workhouse — no workhouse!” said the old woman, turning round suddenly, in a clear, lofty voice. “No workhouse, sir, for an officer’s daughter!”

And she relapsed into her stupor.

At that moment the other girl entered with the coals — but without staying to light the fire, ran up to Ellen with some trumpery dainty she had bought, and tried to persuade her to eat it.

“We have been telling Mr. Mackaye everything,” said poor Lizzy.

“A pleasant story, isn’t it? Oh! if that fine lady, as we’re making that riding-habit for, would just spare only half the money that goes to dressing her up to ride in the park, to send us out to the colonies, wouldn’t I be an honest girl there? — maybe an honest man’s wife! Oh, my God, wouldn’t I slave my fingers to the bone to work for him! Wouldn’t I mend my life then! I couldn’t help it — it would be like getting into heaven out of hell. But now — we must — we must, I tell you. I shall go mad soon, I think, or take to drink. When I passed the gin-shop down there just now, I had to run like mad for fear I should go in; and if I once took to that — Now then, to work again. Make up the fire, Mrs. — — please do.”

And she sat down, and began stitching frantically at the riding-habit, from which the other girl had hardly lifted her hands or eyes for a moment during our visit.

We made a motion, as if to go.

“God bless you,” said Ellen; “come again soon, dear Mr. Mackaye.”

“Good-bye,” said the elder girl; “and good-night to you. Night and day’s all the same here — we must have this home by seven o’clock tomorrow morning. My lady’s going to ride early, they say, whoever she may be, and we must just sit up all night. It’s often we haven’t had our clothes off for a week together, from four in the morning till two the next morning sometimes — stitch, stitch, stitch. Somebody’s wrote a song about that — I’ll learn to sing it — it’ll sound fitting-like up here.”

“Better sing hymns,” said Ellen.

“Hymns for ———?” answered the other, and then burst out into that peculiar, wild, ringing, fiendish laugh — has my reader never heard it?

I pulled out the two or three shillings which I possessed, and tried to make the girls take them, for the sake of poor Ellen.

“No; you’re a working man, and we won’t feed on you — you’ll want it some day — all the trade’s going the same way as we, as fast as ever it can!”

Sandy and I went down the stairs.

“Poetic element? Yon lassie, rejoicing in her disfigurement and not her beauty — like the nuns of Peterborough in auld time — is there na poetry there? That puir lassie, dying on the bare boards, and seeing her Saviour in her dreams, is there na poetry there, callant? That auld body owre the fire, wi’ her ‘an officer’s dochter,’ is there na poetry there? That ither, prostituting hersel to buy food for her freen — is there na poetry there? — tragedy —

“With hues as when some mighty painter dips

His pen in dyes of earthquake and eclipse.

“Ay, Shelley’s gran’; always gran’; but Fact is grander — God and Satan are grander. All around ye, in every gin-shop and costermonger’s cellar, are God and Satan at death grips; every garret is a haill Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained; and will ye think it beneath ye to be the ‘People’s Poet?’”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44