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West Country Poets

Portrait of Edward Capern

EDWARD CAPERN (1819-1894)

Devonshire has produced more famous poets, but no sweeter singer, than the Bideford postman-poet.  Edward CAPERN was born at Tiverton on January 21, 1819, where his father carried on business as a baker.  When about two years old his family removed to Barnstaple, and his mother becoming bedridden, young Edward, then about eight years old, found employment at a local lace factory, toiling often, for a very small wage, twenty out of twenty-four hours.  This was before the passing of Lord Ashley's Act.  Here he remained for some years, and the trying nature of the work and the long hours injured his sight to such an extent that it greatly affected his after-life.  It would take more space than we can afford to give the details of the numerous callings at which he tried his hand.  Suffice it to say that ultimately he found his way to Bideford.  It was in the famine of the year 1847, when flour sold at the rate of three pounds for a shilling.  Every man's life is a romance, but some are more romantic than others, and Edward Capern's belongs to the latter class, the particulars of which he has again and again been asked to give to the world, but at the age of seventy-one he had little ambition for such an undertaking.  Of course all the reading public has heard of 'The Rural Postman' of Bideford, and how he warbled his songs by the wayside in his daily round from the old historic town to Buckland Brewer and back; of his spirit being roused to patriotic heat by the Crimean war; of his writing his famous battle-song, 'The Lion Flag of England'; of that leading to the publication, with the kindly aid of his friend, the late Mr. W. F. ROCK, of 'Poems' in 1855, which proved a success in every way; of Lord Palmerston giving him £40 a year from the civil list, 'quite unsolicited,' according to what the Baroness Burdett-Coutts wrote the poet; also his lordship sending for him to meet him by appointment at Cambridge House and saying to him, 'Mr. CAPERN, your "Lion Flag" and your other patriotic poems gave me heart and hope in the day of England's greatest trials; and of his afterwards increasing Mr. CAPERN's pension to £60 per year; of James Anthony FROUDE, the historian of the Tudors, writing in Fraser's Magazine:  'CAPERN is a real poet, a man whose writings will be like a gleam of summer sunshine in every household which they enter'; of a whole host of literati sending their congratulations to him, and of what must perhaps be considered his crowning triumph - Walter Savage LANDOR pronouncing him to be 'a noble poet,' and dedicating his 'Anthony and Octavius' to him.  His 'Poems' went through several editions, and was followed by 'Ballads,' 'The Devonshire Melodist', 'Wayside Warbles.' and lastly, 'Sungleams and Shadows,' all of which have been most favourably received both by the press and the public.  It remains for us now to say that in 1866 Mr. CAPERN left Bideford for Birmingham, where he remained until 1884, employing his time in wiring for the magazines, and lecturing on his darling theme,  Nature, when he returned to his native county full of honours and rich in friends, who presented him on his leaving with a purse containing a hundred sovereigns, and numerous other valuable presents.

The poet spent the closing years of his life in a delightful cottage at Braunton, not far from Barnstaple, and the last time we saw him was hale and hearty, indulging now and then in a warble with the same old merry ring in it of half a century ago, singing as he laboured in his garden, of which he was immensely fond:

'There's a little green mound at the end of it all,
And rest for us under the daisies.'
But death came to him, and he has reached the 'end of it all', and found rest ' under the daisies'.

CAPERN lost his wife in February, 1894, and felt her loss severely, she having been a real helpmeet to him.  To her devotion and kindly nature Mr. CAPERN attributed most of his poetic inspirations.  It was quite touching to note the tender solicitude and thorough sympathy which existed between these two old people.  His 'blithe and bonnie Janice was a true poet's wife.  The poet did not long survive her, for he died on June 4, 1894, at the ripe old age of seventy-six.  The West-Country papers teemed with panegyrics upon him, and related over again all the most interesting incidents in his career.  He was buried in the charmingly situated churchyard of Heaton Puncherdon, near Braunton, and although his funeral was marked with the greatest simplicity, there was abundant evidence of the fact that he was universally beloved, and as universally lamented.  The Baroness Burdett-Coutts asked to be allowed to defray the expenses of the poet's funeral. It will be remembered that CAPERN, as a rural postman, dedicated his 'Ballads and Songs' to her ladyship.

Some of Mr. CAPERN's poems have been translated into several languages, and his songs set to music by many eminent composers.  There is a musical ring about them which makes them especially adapted for vocal treatment, and they seldom fail to elicit prolonged applause when appropriately declaimed.  He was an intimate friend of the celebrated American blacksmith Elihu BURRITT, and with him took those walks, both in the West of England and in the Black Country, which formed the subjects of two of the most interesting volumes of home-travels ever written.

The following piece selected from Mr. CAPERN's last published volume is a worthy representative of the long array of poems and songs which have flowed like a rippling river from his facile pen.


Soft are the winds that kiss the South,
  And bright her sun that shines on high;
A rich carnation is her mouth,
  And blue as April bells her sky.
But softer are the perfumed gales,
  That wanton waft across thy breast,
My homeland, with thy pleasant vales,
  Sweet crown and beauty of the West.

[five more verses in this vein then finally . . .]

And while I hold, where duties lead,
  That every man should play the brave,
Although they make his heartstrings bleed,
  And promise him a foreign grave -
Yet all-supreme are Nature's charms,
  And I of beauty am possest;
So take me, Devon in thy arms,
  And fold me to thy loving breast.

Transcribed by Sandra Windeatt from: Wright, W.H.K., (1896) West-Country Poets:  Their Lives and Works. London: Elliot Stock, pp.71-73.


Last updated 22 Jul 2011 - Brian Randell.

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