Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alexander B. Grosart
Henry Ellison (18111880)
HENRY ELLISON was the third son of Richard Ellison of Bagolt, co. Flint, and was born there on the 12th of August, 1811. His father was M.P. for Hereford: his mother a Miss Maxwell. Henry was admitted to Westminster School on the 7th of October, 1824. He proceeded in his seventeenth year to the University of Oxford, matriculating at Christchurch on the 23rd of October, 1828. He is designated of Sudbrooke Holme, co. Lincoln. Throughout, his title-pages bear that he was of Christchurch, Oxford; but no degree is in any case appended. He must have been in feeble health while young, as one of his most characteristic poems is headed On being told I could not live long. Others betray despondency and even darker moodsthe more noticeable in that he must have been under twenty-one years of age at the time. He appears as student of Lincolns Inn in 1833. This same year he must have been abroad, as many of his poems are dated from Florence and other Italian, Swiss, and German cities and villages. In 1833 he made his advent as a poet and author from the Malta press in the most noticeable of all his books, as follows:
Mad Moments, or First Verse Attempts, by a Born Natural, addressed respectfully to the light-headed of Society at large, but intended more particularly for the use of that Worlds Madhouse, London. By Henry Ellison, of Christchurch, Oxford, 1833. 2 vols. Price 8s. 6d. (A third volume is promised at the end of the Siberian Exiles Tale.)
Had Dr. John Brown in his Horæ Subsecivæ given full recognition to the fact that the press was a foreign one, it would have saved him from his egregious blundering over the authors supposed intentional running of words into those singular conglomerations on which he exercises his wit though not his wisdom. Besides, had the genial essayists knowledge of his author not been extremely superficial, he would have known of the later editions, wherein an English press puts right all these and innumerable other mistakes and misprints, not without objurgation and lamentation of the poet over his Maltese printers performances. His next book was entitled Man and Nature in their Poetical Relations (2 vols., 1838?), whereof he thus speaks in Address to the Readers in another volume that shall be described immediately:
These trifles are conceived in the same spirit, and for the same purpose as my larger work, entitled, Man and Nature in their Poetical Relations. This larger work contains in two volumes as much as usually forms four, there being not less than 26,000 lines therein.
Singularly enough, in no public libraryfrom British Museum to the Bodleian and his own college of Christchurchis a copy of this work to be found; while I have personally sought by agencies and advertisements over many years in vain for it. Was ever disappearance of a modern book more extraordinary? I have a strong impression that the entire edition lies somewhere in unappreciative hands id est that it fell (practically) still-born from the press, much as later did Stones from the Quarry.
Following this seeming-lost book came Touches on the Harp of Nature, in the same key as Burns grand anthem (A Mans a man for a that). London: William Edward Painter, 342, Strand. 1839. In 1844 he published The Poetry of Real Life: A new edition, much enlarged and improved. (First Series.) By Henry Ellison. Nihil humani a me alienum puto. London. Published for the Author by John Lee, 440, West Strand. MDCCCXLIV. It was reissued with simply a new title-page and with a motto from Wordsworth by G. Willis, 42, Charing Cross, and Great Piazza, Covent Garden, 1851. The latter edition consisted of unsold copies of the former, just as there are copies of Mad Moments with a London title-page substituted (Painter, 342, Strand, 1839a new Address prefixed). The Poetry of Real Life consists substantially of the poems of Mad Moments carefully and critically worked over, but too often the revisions are as wooden as Wordsworths later readings and insertions. After a long interval, but undated, appeared the following pseudonymous work:
Such is the small sum of our biographic and bibliographic data concerning Henry Ellison, save that he was married to a Miss Wells, who predeceased him some yearschildless, and that he died on the 13th of February, 1880, in his sixty-ninth year. He was buried at Boultham near Lincoln, in the family ground. I have searched fruitlessly all likely sources without happing upon a single memorial-word. He seems to have slipped out of life like a knotless thread through a needle (if the homely metaphor be permissible). Not only so, but congruous with all this is the absolute ignorance of him on the part of otherwise well-informed critics, so that nowhere does one come on any quotation from his relatively numerous volumes. To Dr. John Brown, therefore, belongs the distinction of having first called attention to the remarkable poetry of Henry Ellison; and it is pleasant to the lovers of both that, after every abatementsome of the abatements finical and unseeinghis verdict was high and unmistakable. He thus puts his final judgment:
That in all the known volumes of Henry Ellison there are grave faults and tantalising flaws even in the most consummate poems, audacities of eccentricity, violations of rhyme and rhythm, over-recurrence of the same rhyme-words, weak endings, carelessness of structure and construction, and sheer defiances of public opinion and sentiment, it were vain to deny. But whoso will take his five known volumes (whatever the lost ones may contain) and in patience of faith read on and on and throughpausing at times to ponderwill not lose his reward. He will find himself in contact with a singularly penetrative intellect, before which rose far more than the eyes see of the mysteries of Gods universe and nature and human nature, a wealth of high-thinking,introspective and prescient,bursts of lofty imagination, and hues of subtle fancy, and often and often felicities of wording and phrasing of the finest art. Nor was he without the salt of wit and humour, as the following hitherto unpublished lines by him, with which I have been favoured by a nephew of his, will show.
Europa on the Wrong Bull: Albert Memorial Sculpt.
You stall-fed ox! you, you Europa carry!
Go plough, dull brute, or some staid cow go marry!
Your tail should lash the air, your hoof strike fire;
Your eyeballs light the way with hot desire;
The wave from off your glowing flanks should hiss;
The poem Season Changes is one of the longer of his poems, and is of such quality as ranges it with the type of poems represented by some of the higher strains of Dr. Henry More and Henry and Thomas Vaughan, Miltons LAllegro and Il Penseroso, and Wordsworths Intimations of Immortalityall of the imperishable stuff and touched with the light of the Neo-Platonists. To find room for this remarkable poem,which it were treason to mutilate,our extent of choice has been inevitably limited. But our second selection, Nature, will vindicate itself, whilst our third and fourth, Two Odes to Psyche, though not without specks, must surely henceforth take a high place in any intelligent Anthology. So too his ode to Antinous in the Florence Fine Art GalleryOn a Greek Vaseon Ghibertis Gates to the Baptistery at Florenceon the Apollo Belvedere, and on an undeciphered Etruscan death-urn. Ellison did so much of his poetic work in sonnetssometimes like Palissy the Potter creating miracles of wonder out of clay, and sometimes like Benvenuto Cellini placing before us, as it were, flagon or casket of gold or silver-work,that we include several representative ones. Perchance we might have chosen better; but those selected may perhaps tempt the reader to search out the volumes that contain the others. I should have liked to have spoken of Emma, a Tale, and of Hearing an Old Time Song, and several other of his longer pieces, and of his pregnant and pathetic addresses in prefaces and notes, and considerable expository prose; but my space is exhausted. And so I close my inadequate but heartfelt notice by deploring the inexplicable reticence of living Ellisons regarding Henry Ellison. He is a puzzle in many ways, but scarcely less is the unconcern of his representatives toward his memory.