A London Street Author, or Poet

This extract from Henry Mahew’s “London Labour and the London Poor” does not describe McGonagall, but it does offer a further illustration of the life of an impoverished poet in nineteenth century Britain.

I called upon one on the recommendation of a neighbouring tradesman, of whom I made some inquiries. He could not tell me the number of the house in the court where the man lived, but said I had only to inquire for the Tinker, or the Poet, and anyone would tell me.

I found the poor poet, who bears a good character, on a sick bed; he was suffering, and had long been suffering, from abscesses. He was apparently about forty-five, with the sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and, not pale but thick and rather sallow complexion, which indicate ill-health and scant food. He spoke quietly, and expressed resignation. His room was not very small, and was furnished in the way usual among the very poor, but there were a few old pictures over the mantelpiece. His eldest boy, a lad of thirteen or fourteen, was making dog-chains; at which he earned a shilling or two, sometimes 2s. 6d., by sale in the streets.

“I was born at Newcastle-under-Lyne,” the man said, “but was brought to London when, I believe, I was only three months old. I was very fond of reading poems, in my youth, as soon as I could read and understand almost. Yes, very likely, sir; perhaps it was that put it into my head to write them afterwards. I was taught wire-working, and jobbing, and was brought up to hawking wire-work in the streets, and all over England and Wales. It was never a very good trade– just a living. Many and many a weary mile we’ve travelled together,– I mean, my wife and I have: and we’ve sometimes been benighted, and had to wander or rest about until morning. It wasn’t that we hadn’t money to pay for a lodging, but we couldn’t get one. We lost count of the days sometimes in wild parts; but if we did lose count, or thought we had, I could always tell when it was Sunday morning by the look of nature; there was a mystery and a beauty about it as told me. I was very fond of Goldsmith’s poetry always. I can repeat Edwin and Emma now. No, sir; I never read the Vicar of Wakefield. I found Edwin and Emma in a book called the Speaker. I often thought of it in travelling through some parts of the country.

“Above fourteen years ago I tried to make a shilling or two by selling my verses. I’d written plenty before, but made nothing by them. Indeed I never tried. The first song I ever sold was to a concert-room manager. The next I sold had great success. It was called the Demon of the Sea, and was to the tune of The Brave Old Oak. Do I remember how it began? Yes, sir, I remember every word of it. It began:

‘Unfurl the sails
We’ve easy gales;
And helmsman steer aright,
Hoist the grim death’s head-
The Pirate’s head-
For a vessel heaves in sight’

That song was written for a concert-room, but it was soon in the streets, and ran a whole winter. I got only 1s. for it. Then I wrote the Pirate of the Isles, and other ballads of that sort. The concertrooms pay no better than the printers for the streets.

“Perhaps the best thing I ever wrote was the Husband’s Dream. I’m very sorry indeed that I can’t offer you copies of some of my ballads, but I haven’t a single copy myself of any of them, not one, and I dare say I’ve written a thousand in my time, and most of them were printed. I believe 10,000 were sold of the Husband’s Dream. It begins:

‘O Dermot, you look healthy now,
Your dress is neat and clean;
I never see you drunk about,
Then tell me where you’ve been.

Your wife and family– are they well?
You once did use them strange:
0, are you kinder to them grown,
How came this happy change?’

“Then Dermot tells how he dreamed of his wife’s sudden death, and his children’s misery as they cried about her dead body, while he was drunk in bed, and as he calls out in his misery, he wakes, and finds his wife by his side. The ballad ends:

‘I pressed her to my throbbing heart,
Whilst joyous tears did stream;
And ever since, I’ve heaven blest,
For sending me that dream.’

“Dermot turned teetotaller. The teetotallers were very much pleased with that song. The printer once sent me 5s. on account of it.

“I have written all sorts of things– ballads on a subject, and copies of verses, and anything ordered of me, or on anything I thought would be accepted, but now I can’t get about. I’ve been asked to write indecent songs, but I refused. One man offered me 5s. for six such songs.-‘Why, that’s less than the common price,’ said I, ‘instead of something over to pay for the wickedness.’–All those sort of songs come now to the streets, I believe all do, from the concert-rooms. I can imitate any poetry. I don’t recollect any poet I’ve imitated. No, sir, not Scott or Moore, that I know of, but if they’ve written popular songs, then I dare say I have imitated them. Writing poetry is no comfort to me in my sickness. It might if I could write just what I please. The printers like hanging subjects best, and I don’t. But when any of them sends to order a copy of verses for a ‘Sorrowful Lamentation’ of course I must supply them. I don’t think much of what I’ve done that way. If I’d my own fancy, I’d keep writing acrostics, such as one I wrote on our rector.” “God bless him,” interrupted the wife, “he’s a good man.” “That he is,” said the poet, “but he’s never seen what I wrote about him, and perhaps never will.” He then desired his wife to reach him his big Bible, and out of it he handed me a piece of paper, with the following lines written on it, in a small neat hand enough:

“Celestial blessings hover round his head,
Hundreds of poor, by his kindness were fed,
And precepts taught which he himself obeyed.
Man, erring man, brought to the fold of God,
Peaching pardon through a Saviour’s blood.
No lukewarm priest, but firm to Heaven’s cause;
Examples showed how much he loved its laws.
Youth and age, he to their wants attends,
Steward of Christ– the poor man’s sterling friend.”

“There would be some comfort, sir,” he continued, “if one could go on writing at will like that. As it is, I sometimes write verses all over a slate, and rub them out again. Live hard! yes, indeed, we do live hard. I hardly know the taste of meat. We live on bread and butter, and tea; no, not any fish. As you see, sir, I work at tinning. I put new bottoms into old tin tea-pots, and such like. Here’s my sort of bench, by my poor bit of a bed. In the best weeks I earn 4s. by tinning, never higher. In bad weeks I earn only 1s. by it, and sometimes not that– and there are more shilling than four shilling weeks by three to one. As to my poetry, a good week is 3s., and a poor week is 1s.– and sometimes I make nothing at all that way. So I leave you to judge, sir, whether we live hard; for the comings in, and what we have from the parish, must keep six of us– myself, my wife and four children. It’s a long, hard struggle.” “Yes, indeed,” said the wife, “it’s just as you’ve heard my husband tell, sir. We’ve 2s. a week and four leaves of bread from the parish, and the rent’s 2s. 6d., and the landlord every week has 2s.,- and 6d. he has done for him in tinning work. Oh, we do live hard, indeed.”

As I was taking my leave, the poor man expressed a desire that I would take a copy of an epitaph which he had written for himself. “If ever,” he said, “I am rich enough to provide for a tombstone, or my family is rich enough to give me one, this shall be my epitaph” [I copied it from a blank page in his Bible]:

“Stranger, pause, a moment stay,
Tread lightly o’er this mound of clay.
Here lies J– H–, in hopes to rise,
And meet his Saviour in the skies.
Christ his refuge, Heaven his home,
Where pain and sorrow never come.
His journey’s done, his trouble’s past,
With God he sleeps in peace at last.”

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