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West Country Poets


It is a somewhat remarkable fact that the majority of English people are lacking in interest in the poetical writers of their country.  A recent writer, commenting o the long delay in the appointment of a Poet Laureate to succeed the late Lord Tennyson, refers to us as a prosaic nation, and argues that although we produce as large an amount of the finest poetry as any other European people, we consume but little, the gap that separates our artists from the public being profound and incomprehensible.  'England', he says, 'is divided in this matter into a handful who write verse, a scattered few who love it, and a vast inert mass who utterly ignore and could never understand it.'*

It would be difficult to find two counties in England which have produced more poets of standing that Devon and Cornwall.  The vigour of the people of this West Country and the beauty of the district may be held to account for this pre-eminence in poetic culture and expression; we can almost trace a flavour of the air and scenery of the country in many of the writings of its sons.

For many yeas it has been my pleasant duty to collect the works of the authors of Devon and Cornwall, and I have thus been led to the discovery of many comparatively unknown versifiers, as well as to a better knowledge of the works of the more popular poets of this favoured corner of England.

When I commenced compiling this volume I found myself confronted with a rather formidable undertaking; and during the progress of the necessary researches I have examined and passed under review the works of some six or seven hundred writers.  My greatest difficulty has been in the abundance of material and in the work of judicious selection and condensation, it being practically impossible to include and to deal fairly with so large a number of writers in the comparatively restricted area of a single volume, even though that volume has grown to nearly twice the size originally contemplated.

The work covers a period of nearly seven centuries, and includes many long-forgotten writers, as well as those who have made their names familiar to the English-speaking race the world over.  From the days of Joseph Iscanus in the twelfth century to the present time there have been a multitude of minor poets connected with the counties of Devon and Cornwall, many of whose names are quite unknown to the literary student of to-day.

But standing out clearly  from this mass of mediocrity are the names of others who are good representatives of our national literature:  Andrew Barclay (author of 'The Shippe of Fooles'), Sir Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gifford, George Peele, John Ford, Thomas Carew, William Browne, Sidney Godolphin, Nicholas Rowe, Tom D'urfey, John Gay, Robert Herrick, John Wolcot (better known as 'Peter Pindar'), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir John Bowring, Winthrop Mackworth Praed, and Carrington (the poet of Dartmoor), while in more recent years we find Charles Kingsley, Mortimer Collins, Edward Capern, Henry Sewell Stokes, Hawker of Morwenstow, and such living writers as Austin Dobson, Baring Gould, Ernest Radford, John Gregory, F. B. Doveton, At. T. Quiller Couch, and others , whose writings find a place in our periodical literature as well as in the more solid volumes which emanate from the press.

Besides all these celebrities of past and present ages who claimed one or other of the Western counties as their birthplace, many others are included in the present volume who by long residence or other circumstances seemed to possess the requisite qualifications to be considered as West-Country poets.  Some four hundred writers have been included in this work, which, although it contains a great deal of mediocre verse, has yet a large proportion of sterling poetry which has stood the test of time.

It must not be supposed that this is the first attempt to bring together the poets of the Western counties, Devon and Cornwall; but this is probably the most exhaustive and comprehensive work that has yet appeared.

In the seventeenth century there was issued from the Oxford Press a quarto volume entitled 'Threni Oxoniensium in Obitum Illustrissimi Viri D. Jo. Petrei Baronis de Writtle, etc.,' 4to., Oxon, 1613.  This is the title of  a collection of poems in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and other languages, by members of the University of Oxford; among the authors are the names of GRENVILLE,  PRIDEAUX, PETRE, GALE, CONANT,  POLWHELE, GLANVILLE, FORTESCUE, COTTON and VIVIAN.  This was probably the earliest collection of poems by Western writers ever brought together.

A similar work appeared towards the close of the eighteenth century, complies by the Rev. Richard POLWHELE, and published at Bath in 1792, in two volumes, its title being 'Poems chiefly by Gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall.'  I have been able to identify nearly all the writers in this interesting collection, and have included notices of the m and extracts from their writings in the present volume.  In fact, I am indebted to these volumes for a number of very typical examples which I have not met with elsewhere, as well as information which I have freely used, and suitable acknowledged.  Another work often referred to in this volume i 'The West-Country Garland,' selected from the writings of the poets of Devon and Cornwall from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, by R..N.WORTH, F.G.S., London, 1875.  This work consisted of 175 pages and dealt with seventy-four writers, and as far as it goes it is a very reliable, work.  Mr. WORTH, however, limits his biographical references to two or three lines, but his selections are most judicious, and the whole work ins most useful, his introductory chapter being full of interesting information concerning West-Country bibliography.

The latest work of this class with which I am acquainted is a volume published at Exeter in 1884, entitled 'Devonshire Scenery: its Inspiration on the Prose and Song of Various Authors,' edited by the Rev. William EVERETT, Rector of St. Lawrence's, Exeter.  Although this work embraces a number of prose extracts, it has yet a fair proportion of poetical descriptive pieces, but is wanting in biographical information.  The late Mr. J. R. CHANTER, of Barnstaple, devoted much time and attention to the study of Devonshire literature, and contributed several valuable papers thereon to the Transactions of the Devonshire Association.  One of these, read in 1874, was entitled 'The Early Poetry of Devonshire,' with a calendar of Devonshire poets, and notices of forgotten and obscure versifiers from the eleventh to the seventeenth century.  Mr. CHANTER includes thirty-three names in his list, and most of these appear in this volume.  The same gentleman wrote 'Sketches of Literary History of Barnstaple,' 1866, which by the author's permission I have also placed under contribution.  The initials J.R.C. are appended to several sketches from his pen.

Dr. T..N. BRUSHFIELD, in his address as President of the Devonshire Association in 1893, dealt at great length with the subject of Devonshire Literature, but he did not extend his researches beyond the year 1640, when the meeting of the Long Parliament created a definite and distinct turning-point in our printed literature.  In a table at the end of his paper he gives a list of one hundred and twenty-one writers in all branches of literature; and of these less than twenty were writers of poetry.

Although in the present volume I have included the most prominent of our West-Country poets, there are many others for whom I have not been able to find a place, and in the further prosecution of my researches I shall doubtless find others who may claim to be included in a Western Anthology.  Should the present work be favourably received, I shall hope to continue my labours at no distant date, and to issue a supplementary volume, in which not only shall the poets of Devon and Cornwall be represented, but also those of Somerset and Dorset.

I need scarcely say, in bring the work to a conclusion, that I have received great assistance from many of those whose names appear in this volume, and wherever practicable, I have placed myself in communication with the writers themselves, in order to obtain the greatest possible accuracy in the brief biographical sketches given.

To all these I would tender my most hearty thanks, and especially to those who have permitted me to use original poems or have sent portraits to be reproduced.  My thanks are especially due to Mr. George C. BOASE, one of the compilers of that invaluable work,. 'Bibliotheca Cornubiensis.' who has assisted me most materially by revising the proofs and editing many items of information respecting the writers of his native county, Cornwall.

I am also greatly indebted to the Rev. J. Ingle DREDGE for his valuable notes respecting early clerical writers, and to Mr. John SHELLY, for permission to use his critical essays on RALEIGH, William BROWNE and others.  Also to Dr. T. N. BRUSHFIELD, Mr. R. N. WORTH, and the late Mr. J. R. CHANTER for permission to utilize their writings.  My thanks to the Publisher must not be forgotten; he has from the first entered into the work con amore, and has spared no expense in making the volume acceptable to the student and man of letters.  To Mr. J. H. KEYS, publisher, of Plymouth, we are indebted for the loan of a number of portrait-blocks to illustrate the work.

Finally, I must tender a word of thanks to those subscribers who have so patiently waited year after year for the completion of the work, and who will rejoice with me that it is now fairly placed before the reading public in so presentable a form.

May, 1896

Last updated 22 Jul 2011 - Brian Randell.

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