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

Chapter 9.

Poetry and Poets.

In the history of individuals, as well as in that of nations, there is often a period of sudden blossoming — a short luxuriant summer, not without its tornadoes and thunder-glooms, in which all the buried seeds of past observation leap forth together into life, and form, and beauty. And such with me were the two years that followed. I thought — I talked poetry to myself all day long. I wrote nightly on my return from work. I am astonished, on looking back, at the variety and quantity of my productions during that short time. My subjects were intentionally and professedly cockney ones. I had taken Mackaye at his word. I had made up my mind, that if I had any poetic powers I must do my duty therewith in that station of life to which it had pleased God to call me, and look at everything simply and faithfully as a London artizan. To this, I suppose, is to be attributed the little geniality and originality for which the public have kindly praised my verses — a geniality which sprung, not from the atmosphere whence I drew, but from the honesty and single-mindedness with which, I hope, I laboured. Not from the atmosphere, indeed — that was ungenial enough; crime and poverty, all-devouring competition, and hopeless struggles against Mammon and Moloch, amid the roar of wheels, the ceaseless stream of pale, hard faces, intent on gain, or brooding over woe; amid endless prison walls of brick, beneath a lurid, crushing sky of smoke and mist. It was a dark, noisy, thunderous element that London life; a troubled sea that cannot rest, casting up mire and dirt; resonant of the clanking of chains, the grinding of remorseless machinery, the wail of lost spirits from the pit. And it did its work upon me; it gave a gloomy colouring, a glare as of some Dantean “Inferno,” to all my utterances. It did not excite me or make me fierce — I was too much inured to it — but it crushed and saddened me; it deepened in me that peculiar melancholy of intellectual youth, which Mr. Carlyle has christened for ever by one of his immortal nicknames —“Werterism”; I battened on my own melancholy. I believed, I loved to believe, that every face I passed bore the traces of discontent as deep as was my own — and was I so far wrong? Was I so far wrong either in the gloomy tone of my own poetry? Should not a London poet’s work just now be to cry, like the Jew of old, about the walls of Jerusalem, “Woe, woe to this city!” Is this a time to listen to the voices of singing men and singing women? or to cry, “Oh! that my head were a fountain of tears, that I might weep for the sins of my people”? Is it not noteworthy, also, that it is in this vein that the London poets have always been greatest? Which of poor Hood’s lyrics have an equal chance of immortality with “The Song of the Shirt” and “The Bridge of Sighs,” rising, as they do, right out of the depths of that Inferno, sublime from their very simplicity? Which of Charles Mackay’s lyrics can compare for a moment with the Eschylean grandeur, the terrible rhythmic lilt of his “Cholera Chant”—

Dense on the stream the vapours lay,

Thick as wool on the cold highway;

Spungy and dim each lonely lamp

Shone o’er the streets so dull and damp;

The moonbeams could not pierce the cloud

That swathed the city like a shroud;

There stood three shapes on the bridge alone,

Three figures by the coping-stone;

Gaunt and tall and undefined,

Spectres built of mist and wind.


I see his footmarks east and west —

I hear his tread in the silence fall —

He shall not sleep, he shall not rest —

He comes to aid us one and all.

Were men as wise as men might be,

They would not work for you, for me,

For him that cometh over the sea;

But they will not hear the warning voice:

The Cholera comes — Rejoice! rejoice!

He shall be lord of the swarming town!

And mow them down, and mow them down!


Not that I neglected, on the other hand, every means of extending the wanderings of my spirit into sunnier and more verdant pathways. If I had to tell the gay ones above of the gloom around me, I had also to go forth into the sunshine, to bring home if it were but a wild-flower garland to those that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. That was all that I could offer them. The reader shall judge, when he has read this book throughout, whether I did not at last find for them something better than even all the beauties of nature.

But it was on canvas, and not among realities, that I had to choose my garlands; and therefore the picture galleries became more than ever my favourite — haunt, I was going to say; but, alas! it was not six times a year that I got access to them. Still, when once every May I found myself, by dint of a hard saved shilling, actually within the walls of that to me enchanted palace, the Royal Academy Exhibition — Oh, ye rich! who gaze round you at will upon your prints and pictures, if hunger is, as they say, a better sauce than any Ude invents, and fasting itself may become the handmaid of luxury, you should spend, as I did perforce, weeks and months shut out from every glimpse of Nature, if you would taste her beauties, even on canvas, with perfect relish and childish self-abandonment. How I loved and blessed those painters! how I thanked Creswick for every transparent shade-chequered pool; Fielding, for every rain-clad down; Cooper, for every knot of quiet cattle beneath the cool grey willows; Stanfield, for every snowy peak, and sheet of foam-fringed sapphire — each and every one of them a leaf out of the magic book which else was ever closed to me. Again, I say, how I loved and blest those painters! On the other hand, I was not neglecting to read as well as to write poetry; and, to speak first of the highest, I know no book, always excepting Milton, which at once so quickened and exalted my poetical view of man and his history, as that great prose poem, the single epic of modern days, Thomas Carlyle’s “French Revolution.” Of the general effect which his works had on me, I shall say nothing: it was the same as they have had, thank God, on thousands of my class and of every other. But that book above all first recalled me to the overwhelming and yet ennobling knowledge that there was such a thing as Duty; first taught me to see in history not the mere farce-tragedy of man’s crimes and follies, but the dealings of a righteous Ruler of the universe, whose ways are in the great deep, and whom the sins and errors, as well as the virtues and discoveries of man, must obey and justify.

Then, in a happy day, I fell on Alfred Tennyson’s poetry, and found there, astonished and delighted, the embodiment of thoughts about the earth around me which I had concealed, because I fancied them peculiar to myself. Why is it that the latest poet has generally the greatest influence over the minds of the young? Surely not for the mere charm of novelty? The reason is that he, living amid the same hopes, the same temptations, the same sphere of observation as they, gives utterance and outward form to the very questions which, vague and wordless, have been exercising their hearts. And what endeared Tennyson especially to me, the working man, was, as I afterwards discovered, the altogether democratic tendency of his poems. True, all great poets are by their office democrats; seers of man only as man; singers of the joys, the sorrows, the aspirations common to all humanity; but in Alfred Tennyson there is an element especially democratic, truly levelling; not his political opinions, about which I know nothing, and care less, but his handling of the trivial every-day sights and sounds of nature. Brought up, as I understand, in a part of England which possesses not much of the picturesque, and nothing of that which the vulgar call sublime, he has learnt to see that in all nature, in the hedgerow and the sandbank, as well as in the alp peak and the ocean waste, is a world of true sublimity — a minute infinite — an ever fertile garden of poetic images, the roots of which are in the unfathomable and the eternal, as truly as any phenomenon which astonishes and awes the eye. The descriptions of the desolate pools and creeks where the dying swan floated, the hint of the silvery marsh mosses by Mariana’s moat, came to me like revelations. I always knew there was something beautiful, wonderful, sublime, in those flowery dykes of Battersea Fields; in the long gravelly sweeps of that lone tidal shore; and here was a man who had put them into words for me! This is what I call democratic art — the revelation of the poetry which lies in common things. And surely all the age is tending in that direction: in Landseer and his dogs — in Fielding and his downs, with a host of noble fellow-artists — and in all authors who have really seized the nation’s mind, from Crabbe and Burns and Wordsworth to Hood and Dickens, the great tide sets ever onward, outward, towards that which is common to the many, not that which is exclusive to the few — towards the likeness of Him who causes His rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and His sun to shine on the evil and the good; who knoweth the cattle upon a thousand hills, and all the beasts of the field are in His sight.

Well — I must return to my story. And here some one may ask me, “But did you not find this true spiritual democracy, this universal knowledge and sympathy, in Shakspeare above all other poets?” It may be my shame to have to confess it; but though I find it now, I did not then. I do not think, however, my case is singular: from what I can ascertain, there is, even with regularly educated minds, a period of life at which that great writer is not appreciated, just on account of his very greatness; on account of the deep and large experience which the true understanding of his plays requires — experience of man, of history, of art, and above all of those sorrows whereby, as Hezekiah says, and as I have learnt almost too well —“whereby men live, and in all which, is the life of the spirit.” At seventeen, indeed, I had devoured Shakspeare, though merely for the food to my fancy which his plots and incidents supplied, for the gorgeous colouring of his scenery: but at the period of which I am now writing, I had exhausted that source of mere pleasure; I was craving for more explicit and dogmatic teaching than any which he seemed to supply; and for three years, strange as it may appear, I hardly ever looked into his pages. Under what circumstances I afterwards recurred to his exhaustless treasures, my readers shall in due time be told.

So I worked away manfully with such tools and stock as I possessed, and of course produced, at first, like all young writers, some sufficiently servile imitations of my favourite poets.

“Ugh!” said Sandy, “wha wants mongrels atween Burns and Tennyson? A gude stock baith: but gin ye’d cross the breed ye maun unite the spirits, and no the manners, o’ the men. Why maun ilk a one the noo steal his neebor’s barnacles, before he glints out o’ windows? Mak a style for yoursel, laddie; ye’re na mair Scots hind than ye are Lincolnshire laird: sae gang yer ain gate and leave them to gang theirs; and just mak a gran’, brode, simple, Saxon style for yoursel.”

“But how can I, till I know what sort of a style it ought to be?”

“Oh! but yon’s amazing like Tom Sheridan’s answer to his father. ‘Tom,’ says the auld man, ‘I’m thinking ye maun tak a wife.’ ‘Verra weel, father,’ says the puir skellum; ‘and wha’s wife shall I tak?’ Wha’s style shall I tak? say all the callants the noo. Mak a style as ye would mak a wife, by marrying her a’ to yoursel; and ye’ll nae mair ken what’s your style till it’s made, than ye’ll ken what your wife’s like till she’s been mony a year by your ingle.”

“My dear Mackaye,” I said, “you have the most unmerciful way of raising difficulties, and then leaving poor fellows to lay the ghost for themselves.”

“Hech, then, I’m a’thegither a negative teacher, as they ca’ it in the new lallans. I’ll gang out o’ my gate to tell a man his kye are laired, but I’m no obligated thereby to pu’ them out for him. After a’, nae man is rid o’ a difficulty till he’s conquered it single-handed for himsel: besides, I’m na poet, mair’s the gude hap for you.”

“Why, then?”

“Och, och! they’re puir, feckless, crabbit, unpractical bodies, they poets; but if it’s your doom, ye maun dree it; and I’m sair afeard ye ha’ gotten the disease o’ genius, mair’s the pity, and maun write, I suppose, willy-nilly. Some folks’ booels are that made o’ catgut, that they canna stir without chirruping and screeking.”

However, æstro percitus, I wrote on; and in about two years and a half had got together “Songs of the Highways” enough to fill a small octavo volume, the circumstances of whose birth shall be given hereafter. Whether I ever attained to anything like an original style, readers must judge for themselves — the readers of the same volume I mean, for I have inserted none of those poems in this my autobiography; first, because it seems too like puffing my own works; and next, because I do not want to injure the as yet not over great sale of the same. But, if any one’s curiosity is so far excited that he wishes to see what I have accomplished, the best advice which I can give him is, to go forth, and buy all the working-men’s poetry which has appeared during the last twenty years, without favour or exception; among which he must needs, of course, find mine, and also, I am happy to say, a great deal which is much better and more instructive than mine.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56