Patrick Regan has kindly shared the material from his George Heath site with readers of the Victorian Web, who may wish to consult the original. About this memoir of Heath, which appeared in Good Words in March 1871, he writes: "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."
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
of GEORGE HEATH, of Gratton,
Who, with few aids
Developed in these moorlands
Poetic powers of great promise;
But who, stricken with consumption,
After five years' suffering,
Fell a victim to that disease
May 5, 1869, aged 25 years.
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,
How I love to gaze on thee,
Ever fraught with sunny memories,
Ever beautiful to me.
Whether storms sweep grandly o'er thee
Light or gloom their charms impart,
Ever grand, sublime, majestic,
Ever beautiful thou art.
How sublimely grand the picture
Stretching out before my gaze,
Deluged with the glowing splendour
Of the sun's declining rays
Lies the Lake in tranquil beauty
Like a model mimic sea;
Like a brightly polished mirror
In a frame of ebony.
Other verses carry the eye further afield to where —
Rugged cliffs of mouldering sandstone
Break abruptly here and there,
Like a patch of coarsest fustian
On a robe of beauty rare —
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
Just open the casement, and, close the room door,
And let me look out on the landscape again,
And breathe the pure air of the summer once more.
Then twine your arm round me to comfort and stay,
And wipe the big tears from these deep mournful eyes,
And listen awhile; I have something to say
Ere I pass from this world to my home in the skies.
'Twas summer, sweet sister, bright summer, as now,
And earth wore a mantle of radiant sheen;
A wreath of pure roses encircled the brow
Of the queen of my bosom — you know who I mean.
At twilight we met, 'neath the sycamore's shade,
And there 'twas she whispered those words, 'Ever thine;'
Her beautiful head on my bosom was laid,
And her lily-white hand was clasped fondly in mine.
O God! how intensely and madly I loved!
How wildly I worshipped that beautiful one.
You know how inconstant and faithless she proved,
How basely she left me when summer was gone.
You'll see her perchance when affliction hath chased
The bloom from her cheek and the light from her eye;
When sorrow's dark signet hath silently traced
Deep lines on her forehead, once noble and high.
Then tell her, sweet sister, that all was forgiven,
And all was forgot, but the bliss of the past,
And tell her I wished her to meet me in heaven,
Where all who have loved are united at last.
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.'
"Is it worth while," continues Buchanan, "tracing once more the look with which we are so familiar, the consecrated expression Death puts upon the eyes and mouth of his victims? — Genius, music, disease, death — the old weary monotonous tune?"
After a characteristic tilt at the corrupt and demoralising school of poetic thought then threatening to overrun this country from Italy and France, the intrepid author of "The Fleshly School of Poetry" proceeds: —
"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.
Hackwood, Frederick Wm. Staffordshire Worthies. Stafford: "Chronicle" Press, 1911.
Last modified 3 September 2002