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West Country Poets


Portrait of John Gregory

JOHN GREGORY (1831-)

THE POET-SHOEMAKER OF BRISTOL

The subject of the present sketch, though now, and for many years, resident at Bristol, is a native of Bideford, in Devon, where he was born July 14, 1831.  His father was a clerk in a merchant's office, and for fifty years he was a successful and popular preacher in the Wesleyan body.  He was held in high esteem, and a tablet to his memory was erected in the chapel at which he ministered.  John GREGORY's mother was the daughter of a peasant at Hartland, Devon, and she died in the year 1854.  John had but little schooling, but being a quick, intelligent lad, he made a better use of his limited advantages that most lads of his time.  He was apprenticed to the shoemaking in 1842, when he was eleven years of age, and served the orthodox seven years.  He then migrated to Bristol, and remained a few months, for trade being scarce in the winder, he returned to his home, and continued there until the spring of 1852.  He afterwards obtained work at Tenby, then at Aberavon, and eventually at Swansea.  Two or three subsequent removals were made, till, in 1856, he went to Bristol to assist a sick friend, who was going home to Devon.  Says he, 'I saw him off by train, and in the evening met my fate, this, as usual being in feminine form.'  The courtship was short.  In five weeks the couple were married, and their first home was at Cardiff.  The stay here extended to four years, when they returned to Bristol, where he has continued to reside.

During his apprenticeship at Bideford, Gregory made the acquaintance of Edward CAPERN, the postman-poet, and this was of great advantage to the young man, tending to quicken his taste as a writer.  His first literary contribution appeared in the North Devon Journal, a newspaper still in existence, which has helped many embryo poets and journalists into local fame.  From the first he espoused the cause of his fellow workmen, not confining his advocacy to his own branch, but equally the champion of all.  With full poetic license, he was been enabled to fight the battle of the working classes in a way which, to one outside the ranks of labour, would not be possible.  He has gained the sincere respect of his fellow working men, and there can be no more ample test of a man's worth than the relations he has with men of his own class.  He is connected with all sorts of trades societies, and has on several occasions acted as delegate to congresses and as a member of a deputation to Government.  But John Gregory has the respect of men outside his own class, and is treated as a friend by some of the most accomplished men of his adopted city.  He has a bright, intelligent face, and as he walks through the busy streets of Bristol he comports himself very much as the Village Blacksmith must have done.  Longfellow is our friend's favourite poet, the vigorous, inspiring sentiments of the American having won the sympathy of the English poet.

Were it our province to consider John Gregory in his everyday character, we might find abundant material for our essay, as he has a good store of anecdotes relating to his craft; but our business is chiefly with him as a poet, and there can be no doubt of the reality of his poetry.  True, he has cultivated the Muse under great difficulties, and it is difficult to say what he might have done had his lot been less hampered with the consideration of how to make both ends meet.  His personal struggles and difficulties find a loud echo in his poems, and the sacred cause of labour has inspired many of his best idyls.  His merits as a poet are much thought of in Bristol, and from time to time most flattering criticisms concerning his writings have appeared.  When, in 1883, his 'Idyls of Labour' were published, the Cliftonian, a local magazine, had a lengthy notice of his book, in which the following passage occurs:  'The book is full of treasure.  Mr. Gregory's is a teeming, luxuriant fancy; he could set up a score of poets with the mere filings of his gold . . . . It is quite certain that his book contains poetry, and a great deal of very fine poetry.'

Some of the finest poems in this little volume are those descriptive of love, of flowers, of spring; that tell us about children, and things that are not new, unless it be in the manner of the setting.  A poem on which he may safely rest his reputation is 'Easter Dreams,' referring to which one writer has said; No one who knows what poetry is can fail to recognise here the "coal from the alter."  Another volume of poems, entitled 'Song Streams' was published in 1877, the preface of which may be taken as a typical description of the man and his aims.  He says:  'Courteous Reader, by the dim light of a few bottled glow-worms I once saw a countryman reading the Bible.  This anecdote I pen that you may comprehend the extreme difficulty a toil drudge has to overcome, ere he accomplishes the feat of launching into the flood of literature such a volume as this.  Hope not, then, to find within the compass of my waif-fold the wonders of poesy.  Yet here shall you discover flowers you will not disdain, and among the leaves thoughts that shall not be forgotten.  Out on the sea of time I have floated my waifs away as urchins sail paper boats.  Here have I again gathered them in; and unto the grace of your indulgence, that they may not with the author soon pass down to greater obscurity, I respectfully commend them.'

John Gregory's last volume, 'Murmurs and Melodies', was published in 1886 by Arrowsmith, Bristol, and is worthy companion of the other two, abounding in exquisite touches, beautiful thoughts, beautifully expressed; and there are some which bear the stamp of unsatisfied aspirations, but not the less meritorious on this account.  'A Song to the Poor' is one of this class.  'Wellington, a Dirge.' was written at the time of the great General's death, but was unpublished , until its appearance in this volume.  His published poems do not by any means represent all that he has written.  It is a part of his life to write poetry, and when the Muse inspires he is obliged to obey her.  A few years ago an effort was made to secure for him a Civil List pension, similar to that bestowed upon his old friend and helper, Edward CAPERN, but although backed up by influential friends, it was unsuccessful.  A second attempt may, perhaps, prove more successful.  In the meanwhile, Gregory works away at his trade, and works away with his pen, not absolutely contented, as no man with his sensitive feelings could be under the circumstances, but happy in the knowledge that he is doing his share, however humble his capacity may be , in making those around him happier and better.

The subject of whom we write has a family of seven.  Richard, his second son, is now a sub-editor of Nature, a F.R.A.S., the author of several high-class scientific volumes, and the holder of a respected place among the front rank of scientific society in London.

The following pretty poem, entitled 'Sweetbriar,' was addressed to the compiler of 'West-Country Poets' many years ago.

SWEETBRIAR

You say you are coming to see me,
  And ask, with the grace of a king,
As if from all care you could free me:
  'Pray, what would you like me to bring?'
'Tis but a poor exile's desire,
  Whose life to its winterhood waves,
To bring up a sprig of sweetbriar
  To me from the dear Devon lanes.

I love all the flowers that throng them,
  Though far from their homes I have flown;
My memories revel among them,
  And fondly I call them mine own.
The hope of a soul may soar higher,
  For joys that are followed by bates,
But give me a sprig of sweetbriar,
  With love from the dear Devon lanes.

The past is a book I am reading,
  And, while in my sight it appears,
I scent the sweetbriar leaves bleeding,
  And freshen them up with my tears.
Ah! hope to its heaven sang nigher,
  And freer from though that profanes,
When I gathered a maiden sweetbriar
  Adown in the dear Devon lanes.

[. . . also quoted is THE SONG OF A REED in four verses]

Transcribed by Sandra Windeatt from: Wright, W.H.K., (1896) West-Country Poets:  Their Lives and Works. London: Elliot Stock, pp.211-214.

Last updated 22 Jul 2011 - Brian Randell.

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