Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Edward Capern, the Postman Poet

While browsing some Devon literature (a copy of the long-defunct Devonia magazine) I ran into the work of Edward Capern (1819-1894), the Bideford "postman poet".

There's a good biographical account - The Devonian 'Postman Poet', Edward Capern - at John Lerwill's Devon History site.  Capern was born in Tiverton, and after a difficult early life , he gained the position of Rural Postman of Bideford - not as deliverer, but as a messenger between Bideford and Appledore. These daily treks evidently gave him plenty of time to think, as he took up poetry. Contributions to local publications attracted the attention of the Barnstaple stationer and philanthropist William Frederick Rock, who helped him put together a subscription-based (i.e. benefactor-sponsored) anthology. This was highly successful, and the start of a career that brought him to national attention with a patriotic poem about the Crimean War, The Lion-Flag of England, earning the praise of the then Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, a Civil List pension, and a State funeral at the end of his long life.

The lion-flag of England!
Say, Britons, shall it wave,
The scorn of every base-born serf,
And jest of every slave;
A sign to tell them how they beat
The bravest of the earth,
And teach them by our England's fate
To magnify their worth
"Forbid it Heav'n," the nations cry,
In council gravely met;
"We'll send her aid across the seas,
And she shall conquer yet."

- stanza 1, The Lion-Flag of England

As to the rest of his poetry, most of it falls well into a category I mentioned a while back (see Let me count the ways ...) that is long out of vogue:

The Poem You Must Not Write
3. Let Me Tell You How It Is.
This poem states obvious truths or preaches a little sermon urging readers to accept what is already generally believed: God is good, death is deadly, good is better than evil, nature is lovely, etc. Commonplace and preachy poems are never successful

Capern's poems, while perfectly literate, are extremely trite by modern standards. Fields are green, flowers and the countryside are beautiful, summer and love and Christmas are joyful, winter and lost love and death are depressing, and so on. A sample.

Say, my little robins,
Singing on the bough,
Heralding the Autumn
With her yellow brow,
Why the woods are vocal
With your merry lays,
While our summer songsters
Sleep away their days ?

Lovingly I linger'd,
Listening to their tale,
When a gush of music
Answer'd through the vale;
Every hedge was vocal,
Every tree and bush,
Singing, Little Robin
Is October's thrush.

"When the Spring and Summer
Make all nature gay,
Other minstrels warble
Through the sunny day:
Tis their joy and pleasure,
But our office, know,
Is to carol comfort
In the hour of woe."

- The Robins' Chorus, Edward Capern, Wayside Warbles

Even in his lifetime and shortly after, opinion on his work was divided. WHK Wright, in his 1896 West-Country Poets: Their Lives and Works (section transcribed here) was hagiographic; and Capern was praised by writers such as the historian James Anthony Froude, who wrote 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
... and Walter Savage Landor, cited in the reviews for Capern's anthology Wayside Warbles, who called him "a noble poet". The Inquirer put him up with the greats:
There runs throughout these Poems that refined tone of thought, to the expression of which a metrical form is a necessary condition—we find rich tissues of imagery, playful fancy, plentiful invention, and above all that translation of thought into representative circumstances that ever characterizes the true Poet—such is the distinguished excellence of Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, and Alexander Smith, in all of whom the true poetical constitution has been pre-eminently visible.
Sabine Baring-Gould was in a minority with his very acerbic summary:
Postman Poet, Edward Capern, has been hailed as the Devonshire Burns, but he has no right to be so entitled. Burns, at his best, sang in the tones and intonation of his class and country, and it was at his worst that he affected the style of the period and of culture, such as it was. Now Capern aspired to the artificiality and smoothness of the highly educated and wholly unreal class of verse writers of the Victorian period, of whom John Oxenford may be thrust forward as typical, men who could turn out smooth and finished pieces, rhythm and rhyme correct, but without a genuine poetical idea forming the kernel of the "poem."
- from Edward Capern, Devonshire Characters and Strange Events, Sabine Baring-Gould
Reading the Fraser's review by Froude is worth reading in full, as it's very enlightening about the popularity of Capern. I think it's more than just poetic taste.
Our readers, however, must judge for themselves whether wo have over-estimated Capern's poems. When an English working man becomes conscious of genius, the effect of it is usually to throw- him into fierce hostility with the social system which depresses him, and, like Ebenezer Elliot or Gerald Massey, he boils over in fierce and stormy fury. We are not to complain of such men. Their anger often is but too keenly deserved, and they are Nature's instruments to avenge the world's injustice. Yet there is something higher, nobler, better, in rising superior to evils of which we cannot see a practicable remedy. It is a sign of a loftier nature, instead of repining at what Providence has refused, to catch with open hand the fair gifts which it offers to all alike,—the enjoyment of the beauty of nature, the indulgence of the rich emotions of humanity, which are the choicest treasures that God has bestowed upon our being.
- Poems, by Edward Capern, Fraser's Magazine, April 1856
There's a similar idea in the Eclectic Review, which notes that he wisely invested the income from his anthology, and is keen that he shouldn't get too rich from his poetry or be promoted.
It [his poetry] has evidently been to him " its own exceeding great reward ; it has soothed his afflictions ; it has multiplied and refined his enjoyments; it has endeared solitude ; and it has given him the habit of wishing to discover the Good and the Beautiful in all that meets and surrounds him." And " an exceeding great reward " it will continue to be to him as long as he keeps it to its present function as a grace and an ornament, and does not endeavour to convert it to a means of living. It has alreadyafforded him, we are glad to learn, substantial help, and we trust it will yield him a good deal more; but let him still regard it as an auxiliary, and not a main source of subsistence. His inspiration is from the fields and green lanes of Devon, and he should not, if he values his happiness, hope to find it in dingy towns, and at the " desk's dead wood." "We rejoice to see that the first edition of his book has produced him £150, which has been wisely invested in an annuity for the joint lives of himself and Mrs. Capern. The Post Office, too, has increased his salary to twelve shillings a week, and relieved him from his Sunday duties. This is better than making a nine days' wonder of him, and relegating him, when the excitement was over, to his old difficulties with a spirit less calculated to encounter them. It is better, too, than taking him out of his accustomed sphere, and placing him in a position where he would find none of those associations which have hallowed his life hitherto, and gilded with their happy radiance his ungenial fortunes.
- Poems, by Edward Capern, review, p559, Eclectic Review, Volume 1, 1857
It seems he was liked because he fitted into his role as a minor cog in the system; was happy with his lot and rocked no boats (unlike the political activist poets Elliott and Massey); was patriotic; was financially prudent; perpetuated belief in a English rustic idyll; and had made maximum use of his limited education, writing in standard English rather than dialect. He was, in short, a poster boy for the deserving poor: the obedient working class that the middle/upper classes wanted.  I believe that was his appeal.

The Internet Archive - see search - has his chief works online: Poems (1856), Ballads and Songs (1858), Wayside Warbles (1870), and Sungleams and Shadows (1881)

As reported in the Exeter Express & Echo, a modern biography is in print - Edward Capern: The Postman-poet, Ilfra Goldberg, Vanguard Press (2009). It was highly commended among contestants for the Devon History Society Book of the Year and Hoskins Award 2009.

- Ray

No comments:

Post a Comment