Sunday, 26 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Gerald Massey

Gerald Massey[1] was born in a hut at Gamble wharf on the canal near Tring, Hertfordshire, on 29th May 1828, was the son of William Massey, a canal boatman, and his wife, Mary. His father brought up a large family on a weekly wage of some 10s. in circumstances of extreme poverty and hardship. Massey said of himself that he ‘had no childhood’. After occasional attendance at the national school at Tring at the age of eight, he was put to work in a silk mill there. His hours were from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., and he earned from 9d. to 1s. 3d. a week. He then tried straw-plaiting, but the marshy districts of Buckinghamshire induced ague. He later recalled that it was his mother who supplemented his meagre education by acquiring for him the Bible, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Wesleyan tracts.

At fifteen, Massey went to London and worked as a clerk and later as an errand-boy. He read voraciously, devoting his leisure to a study of Cobbett’s French without a Master and of books by Tom Paine, the comte de Volney, and William Howitt. His first verses, on the sufferings of the poor and the power of knowledge to redeem these people, were published in provincial papers. In 1848, they were collected in his first volume, Poems and Chansons, at Tring, and he sold some 250 copies at 1s each to his fellow townsfolk. He became involved in the radical working-class politics of the day and joined the Chartists in February 1848. With John Bedford Leno, a Chartist printer from Uxbridge, he edited in 1849, at twenty-one, a paper written by working men called The spirit of freedom. The following year, he contributed some forcible verse to Cooper’s Journal, a venture of the Chartist Thomas Cooper. But Massey’s sympathies veered to the religious side of the reforming movement, and in the same year he associated himself with the Christian socialists under the leadership of Frederick Denison Maurice, who wrote of him at the time to Charles Kingsley as ‘not quite an Alton Locke’ but with ‘some real stuff in him’[2]. Massey acted as secretary of the Christian Socialist Board and contributed verse to its periodical, the Christian Socialist. Also in 1850, he brought out a second volume of verse, Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love, which showed genuine poetic feeling, though the style was rough and undisciplined. On 8th July 1850, he married Rosina Jane Knowles (d. March 1866); they had three daughters and a son.

Massey fully established his position as a poet of liberty, labour, and the people with his third volume, The Ballad of Babe Christabel and other Poems, which appeared in February 1854 and which was welcomed by a storm of critical acclaim. The book, which dealt with conjugal and parental affection as well as with democratic aspirations, passed through five editions within a year and was reprinted in New York, where Massey’s position was soon better assured than in London. Despite obvious signs of defective education and taste, his poetry deserved its welcome. Hepworth Dixon in The Athenaeum (4th February 1854) called him ‘a genuine songster’. Alexander Smith likened him to Robert Burns, and Walter Savage Landor in the Morning Advertiser compared him with John Keats, Hafiz, and Shakespeare as a sonneteer. Ruskin regarded Massey’s work ‘as a helpful and precious gift to the working classes’. Sydney Dobell, a warm admirer, became a close personal friend, and Massey named his first born son after him.

Babe Christabel was succeeded by five further volumes of verse: War Waits (1855, two editions), poems on the Crimean War; Craigcrook Castle (1856); Robert Burns, a Song, and other Lyrics (1859); Havelock’s March (1860), poems on the Indian mutiny; and A Tale of Eternity and other Poems (1869). Many of Massey’s ballads have intense martial and patriotic ardour, such as ‘Sir Richard Grenville’s Last Fight’ and his tribute to England’s command of the sea in ‘Sea Kings’. His narrative verse embodies mystical speculation and was less successful; his range and copiousness suffered from laxity of technique; but his reputation endured both in England and in the United States. In 1857, Ticknor and Field of Boston published his Complete Poetical Works, with a biographical sketch, and in 1861 a similar collection appeared in London with illustrations and a memoir by Samuel Smiles. In Self-Help (1859), Smiles set Massey high among his working-class heroes. After 1860, Massey gradually abandoned poetry for other interests which he came to deem more important, and his vogue as a poet declined. In 1899, his eldest daughter, Christabel, collected his chief poems in two volumes under the title of My Lyrical Life.

Massey had long sought a livelihood from journalism. For a time he worked with the publisher John Chapman, and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) who was also in Chapman’s employ (1851–3) afterwards based some features of her novel Felix Holt—the Radical (1866) on Massey’s career. From 1854, on the invitation of the editor, Hepworth Dixon, Massey wrote poetry reviews for The Athenaeum. He was also a contributor to The Leader, edited by Thornton Leigh Hunt. Charles Dickens accepted verse from him for All the Year Round, and he sent a poem on Giuseppe Garibaldi to the first number of Good Words in 1860. He also wrote for Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts and Hugh Miller’s The Witness in Edinburgh.

Despite his popularity and his industry, Massey found it no easy task to bring up a family on the proceeds of his pen. With a view to improving his position, he had in 1854 left London for Edinburgh, where he lectured at literary institutes on poetry, Pre-Raphaelite art, and Christian socialism. His earnestness drew large audiences. In 1857, he moved from Edinburgh to Monk’s Green, Hertfordshire, and then to Brantwood, near Coniston in the Lake District, which was at the time the property of a friend, William James Linton; it was acquired by Ruskin in 1871. During four years’ subsequent residence at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, Massey found a helpful admirer in Lady Marian Alford, who resided with her son, the second Earl Brownlow, at Ashridge Park, Berkhamsted. In 1862, Lord Brownlow provided him with a house on his estate, called Ward’s Hurst, near Little Gaddesden. In 1863, on Lord Palmerston’s recommendation, Massey received a civil-list pension of £70, which was augmented by Lord Salisbury in 1887. Lord Brownlow died in 1867, and his brother and successor married the following year; both episodes were commemorated by Massey in privately printed volumes of verse. In January 1868, two years after the death of his first wife, Massey married Eva Byron; they had four daughters and a son. While at Ward’s Hurst he closely studied Shakespeare’s sonnets. In his article to the Quarterly Review (April 1864), he argued that Shakespeare wrote most of his sonnets for his patron, the third earl of Southampton. He amplified his view in 1866 in a somewhat idiosyncratic volume called Shakespeare’s Sonnets Never before Interpreted, later rewritten as The Secret Drama of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1888).

At Ward’s Hurst, Massey also developed an absorbing interest in psychic phenomena, especially after the death of his first wife who had been a professional clairvoyant. In 1871, he issued a somewhat credulous book on spiritualism which he afterwards withdrew. Subsequently he made three lecturing tours through North America. The first tour (September 1873 to May 1874) included California and Canada, where he gained unenviable notoriety by the delivery of a lecture, ‘Why does not God kill the Devil?’ The second (October 1883 to November 1885) encompassed Australia and New Zealand as well. The third American tour began in September 1888, but the fatal illness of one of his daughters, brought it to an early close. His lectures dealt with many branches of poetry and art, but they were chiefly concerned with mesmerism, spiritualism, and mystical interpretation of the Bible. He printed privately many of his discourses. His faith in spiritualistic phenomena was lasting and monopolised most of his later years.

His last years were devoted to a study of the ancient Egyptian civilization, in which he thought to trace psychic and spiritualistic problems to their source and to find their true solution. A Book of the Beginnings, in two massive quarto volumes, appeared in 1881, and a sequel of the same dimensions, The Natural Genesis, appeared in 1883. His final publication was Ancient Egypt the Light of the World, in Twelve Books (1907), which he saw as ‘a work of reclamation and restitution’. In the preface he described this as the ‘exceptional labour which has made my life worth living’. Massey died on 29th October 1907 at his home Redcot, South Norwood Hill, South Norwood, London, and was buried in Southgate cemetery, Middlesex. Two daughters of each marriage survived their father.


[1] S. Smiles ‘Memoir’, in Massey’s poetical works, 1861, a biographical sketch of G. Massey, The ballad of babe Christabel: with other lyrical poems, 5th edition, 1855, The Times, 30th October 1907, C. Knight (ed.) The English cyclopaedia: biography, 6 volumes, 1856–8, supplement, 1872, Men of the time, 1856, Men of the time, 1875, J. C. Collins Studies in poetry and criticism, 1905, pages 42–67, The Athenaeum, 2nd November 1907, page 553, A. H. Miles (ed.) The poets and poetry of the century, 10 volumes, 1891–7, A. T. C. Pratt (ed.) People of the period: being a collection of the biographies of upwards of six thousand living celebrities, 2 volumes, 1897, The life of Frederick Denison Maurice, ed. F. Maurice, 2 volumes, 1884, Review of Reviews, volume 36, (1907), pages 576–7 and Book Monthly (September 1907). Archives: Huntingdon Library: letters mainly to James Thomas Fields; and, Royal Literary Fund, London: letters to the Royal Literary Fund.

[2] The life of Frederick Denison Maurice, ed. F. Maurice, 2 volumes, 1884, volume 2, page 236.

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