Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by George A. Macmillan
Thomas Edward Brown (18301897)
[Born at Douglas in the Isle of Man on May 5, 1830. Took a Double First Class at Oxford, and became Fellow of Oriel. One of the original staff of masters at Clifton (from 1864), and on retiring in 1892 returned to the Isle of Man. Died suddenly at Clifton, October 29, 1897. Poems: Betsy Lee, a Focsle Yarn, 1873; Focsle Yarns (including Betsy Lee and others), 1881; The Doctor and other Poems, 1887; The Manx Witch and other Poems, 1889; Kitty of the Sherragh Vane and The Schoolmasters, 1891; Old John and other Poems, 1893; Collected Poems, 1900; Select Poems (Golden Treasury Series), 1908.]
THE VOLUME and range of Browns poetry is so great that it is hard to do it justice within the limits of such a selection as this. In the illuminating essay prefixed by his friend Mr. H. F. Brown to the selection in the Golden Treasury Series it is well said that in his spiritual moods Brown is constantly reminding us of George Herbert, Sir Thomas Browne, Wordsworth, Blake, yet it is one of the signatures of his genuineness as a poet that the note is never identical; it is always the note of Brown himself, in harmonyyes, but not in unison. That is eminently true of his lyrical and reflective poems, but these after all are small in bulk compared to the Focsle Yarns and other narrative poems, mainly in the Manx dialect, with which he first made his reputation. These are entirely his own and give him a distinctive place among our national poets.
The narrator in nearly all the tales is a fisherman, Tom Baynes, and many of the same characters recur. Brown used to say that he was himself Tom Baynes, and it is evident enough that through his lips, and in his racy speech, the poet was constantly giving utterance to his own ideas, though we may also detect the same unconsciously self-revealing note in his Pazon Gale (partly drawn from his own father) and in Doctor Bell. These two portraits from The Doctor are surely characteristic of Brown himself and of his attitude to his fellow men.
Man to manaye, that s your size,
That s the thing that ll make you wise
That s the plan that ll carry the day
Lovin is understandineh?
Lovin is understandin. Well,
Hed a lovin ould heart, had Docthor Bell.
The Pazon? Yes! aw, yes! well, maybe
Aw, innocent! innocent as a baby,
And good and true; but, for all, a man
Is a man, and I dont know will you understan,
But you know there s peoples goin that good
They havent a smell for the steam of the blood
That s in a man; or, if they have,
They houlds their noses, and makes belave
They havn. But the Pazonno!
True and kind; and the ebb and the flow
Of all mens hearts went through and through him
The sweet ould man, if youd only knew him!
This note of human sympathy runs through all these tales of the tragedies and humours of love, and amid the almost boisterous flow of the narrative breaks out now and again into passages of the utmost tenderness. As to the manner of telling, with its rapid twists and turns, its constant asides, its scraps of dialogue, the reader who would appreciate it must let himself go as the writer does, and will then be amply rewarded. To some the dialect will always be a bar, but there is no doubt that it adds to the raciness and dramatic force of the impression. At any rate, for those impatient of dialect the two touching stories of Mary Quayle and Bella Gorry, told in ordinary English, will reveal something of the poets narrative gift.
Even in the tales there are many indications of the poets sympathy not only with man, but with Nature in all her moods, and of his faith, amid all questionings, in the Divine Love which controls the universe. These feelings, however, find more definite expression in the lyrics, of which some examples follow, while it is all but impossible here to give extracts from the narratives which would really do them justice.
As to the lyrics, on the deeper theme of mans relation to his Creator light is thrown by the remarkable dialogue entitled Dartmoor, in which the boldness of treatment does not mar its essential reverence. In Aber Stations we have the prolonged hearts cry of a father who has lost a little son, ending on a note of pious resignation. In Old John is given a charming portrait of an old Scotchman, touched with special sympathy by the fact that the writer also had a root in Scottish ground (Browns mother was Scotch), and following it comes a companion portrait of a Manxman, Chalse A. Killey, full of tenderness and humour. In the delightful Epistola ad Dakyns we are told of the three places which had a special hold on the poets heart, Clifton, Derwentwater, and his beloved Isle of Man. These, and the exquisite Lynton Verses, are, alas! too long to quote, though I would fain have found room for the Symphony which closes the last-named series; but no one who wishes to appreciate Browns genius should forgo the pleasure of reading these and many more. Of the shorter lyrics I have done my best to give typical examples.
The poems as a whole reveal a man of strong personality, which found its readiest expression in poetry, for he seems to have been reserved in ordinary intercourse. Thus we are told by H. F. Brown that in his twenty-eight years at Clifton he left a deep imprint on the school, but the inner man was withdrawn into the sacred recesses of his family affections, his long and solitary musings on the downs, and the steady accumulations of his poems, about which I believe he seldom spoke, though the calm and assurance with which he forged ahead clearly indicate that in literature lay his true lifes work. He was eminently a scholar, with a deep love of the classics, and especially of Greek (Ah, sir, he said once, that Greek stuff penetrates), and this is shown in the careful finish of many of his lyrics.
It was in his beloved island that he spent the last five years of his life, but it was perhaps a happy fate which brought it to a sudden close when on October 29, 1897, he was in the act of delivering one of those stimulating addresses to the boys at Clifton which his old colleagues and pupils so vividly remember. For fuller estimates of Browns character and genius the reader is referred to W. E. Henleys Introduction to the Complete Poems, and to Mr. Horatio Browns preface to the Golden Treasury selections.