[From Manx Quarterly #7 1909]
By SELWYN G. SIMPSON.
To the north-west of England, in the Irish Sea, lies an Island. An Island insignificant as regards size, and one which might be disregarded were it not that it still retains its ancient customs, laws, and habits. The British Parliament has no representative from the Isle of Man; and no laws passed by this assembly affect the Island unless special provision is made therein. The Island is ruled by a Governor, an Upper Chamber, and that historical House of Keys-one of the oldest legislative assemblies in the world. Even these facts would have but meagre interest for an outsider were it not that trey, as also the gradually disappearing traditions of the inhabitants, have been preserved in verse by one of her sons. If Browning be right when he contends that facts are only permanent when they are preserved in artistic way, then may we be sure that the Manx traditions will for ever live in the poetry of T. E. Brown. His verse has all the marks of true poetry, sincerity and vivacity, emotion and observation, metre and rhythm; and, above all, he is singing of a land and people, habits and customs, never before extolled in verse, and he is singing with a brilliance of originality that enhances and vivifies his theme.
His "Yarns" have been compared with Crabbe's Tales, but oh ! what a difference! The Manxman, with an observation just as penetrating as that of Crabbe, describes every scene in the daily life of his countrymen, and leaves us with a pleasant remembrance of them in our minds. Crabbe minutely paints the lives of the poor; but with so unrelenting a touch that we shiver and turn to some more pleasing subject. Brown has also been compared with Burns. He has much in common with the Scotch bard. In both a humour, pathos, observant knowledge, and sympathetic joy are to be discovered. Each poet has an abounding humanity and peculiar originality that leavens all his work. Then the Manxman, like the Scot, has to fight against the prejudices of readers who will not trouble to master a dialect. The Manx dialect, however, presents no real difficulty. His writing in dialect is no reason to condemn him unread. Who is there, who has any pretensions to literary taste, who does not prefer "Tam o' Shanter" to all the poems that Burns wrote to please an Edinborough aristocracy? It is just this use of Manx syntax and prosody that makes Brown's verse so living and true. He wrote ;n dialect because he was writing primarily for his own people. His first object in composing the " Yarns" was to " please his countrymen"
To unlock the treasures of the island heart;
With loving feet to trace each hill and glen,
And find the ore that is not for the mart
He saw the change that was coming over his beloved Island, and so tried to " fix upon the page" all that was left "of ancient heritage, of manners, speech, of humours, polity," of the Manx nation; so that " the coming age may see. as in a glass" all that their forefathers had held dear. He wrote in dialect because it was engraven on his heart and was bound up with every Earliest and dearest of his associations. Before turning to study his works we shall do well to review the outline of his life. .
Thomas Edward Brown, the third son (the sixth of ten children) of the Rev Robert Brown and Dorothy his wife, was born on the fifth of May, 1830, in New Bond-street, Douglas. His father was a stern evangelical clergyman, whose highest words of praise were " That will do, sir," or " Go on, sir." But though he was usually stern and undemonstrative, there was a sensitive tenderness, an allembracing humanity and a pathetic emotion in his character that especially shewed themselves in his dealings with his parishioners, and found vent in his sermons, as we learn from the words the poet puts into the mouth of Old John:Oh I tell him that you once to me confessed
That, all the varied modes of rhetoric trying,
You ever liked the maister's sermons best
When he was crying.
His mother was of Scotch extraction, though born in the Isle of Man. She was a great reader, and had an unusually strong and masculine wit, and humorous originality, restrained by a strong practical common sense. The influence of both his parents was very great on their son. From his father he gets a sobriety and classical exactitude; whilst his originality, wit, and racy humour came to him from his mother. But he was influenced even more by an old Scotch domestic who had been for many years in the family. It was to "Old John" that the poet owes his first love for Nature. Just at the moment when the " flexile aptness" of his years was most prone to be trained, "Old John" indexed for him the book of Nature. He did even more; by explaining Scott's tales to the imaginative boy, he grafted in his mind the wish to write and so preserve the fleeting traditions of his own land. Nor was that all that the poet learned from his intercourse with this "dear, brave, old Scotchman; he also learned
To look beyond convention's flimsy trammel,
And see the native tints, if anywise,
Of God's enamel.
When Brown was two years old, the family removed to Kirk Braddan. The house in which they lived has been pulled down and a new vicarage built in its place. But the natural surroundings remain, and we can picture the view of the fields, the sea, and Douglas Head that must have met the poet's gaze.
As a boy, Brown was timid and shy, and showed none o: that brilliant wit, vivacity and geniality that so distinguished him as a man. But notwithstanding his shyness, a shyness that never really left him, he lived, by choice, in the centre of the family. His early education was of a most unique character. Until the age of fourteen he was taught at home by his father and Lho village schoolmaster. His father, being partially blind, employed his son constantly in reading to him. In this way Brown read widely, grave and gay, from Moaheim's Church History to Byron's poems In 1845, when he was 15 years old, he entered King William's College, near Castletown, in his native Island. Two years later, he carried off the second prize for English verse; the first being taken by the late Dean Farrar. It was about this time that he began to write poetry. He did not join in the school games; but is spoken of, by his fellow-students, as being a " manly, vigorous boy." He devoted his holidays to long rambles with his companions, during which their lovely surroundings, literature, politics, history, or theology formed the subjects of their conversation. He had at this time, as throughout his life, a strong sense of humour, with a keen eye for any little peculiarity of voice or accent or manner. It is to be feared that he used his power of mimicry rather too freely. This keenness of observation renders his poems so true to life, and made it possible for Canon Wilson to say, in the obituary notice in the Times " The writer of this note has heard the most brilliant lecturers, from Faraday downwards, but could put none in the same rank with Brown." In October, 1849, Brown went " as a servitor," to Christ Church College, Oxford. In November, he was elected to a Boulter Scholarship; and in 1853 he was placed in the First Class in Litteris Humanioribus. In the following December he gained a First Class :n the Law and History School. This last success placed him in a unique position in the University. He occupied the same position-that of being the first Double First-with regard to the new system as Mr Robert Peel had done to the old. In 1854 he was elected Fellow of Oriel. in those days an Oriel Fellowship kept and conveyed a peculiar distinction; and at last the young scholar had the ball at his feet. But he did not like the University life; and refused Gladstone's offers of political work, in order to go back to his native Island. In 1856 he was appointed Vice-Principal of his old school-King William's College. His life, at this period, was not entirely taken up with his scholastic duties; be started night schools for the fisher lads, and tried to improve the singing in the various churches in the South of the Island. He also delivered instructive lectures in Castletown and the neighbourhood. In 1857 he married his cousin, Miss Stowell. He left Castletown in 1860, and was appointed to the Headship of the Crypt Grammar School, Gloucester. The school was at the lowest ebb when he came and he was expected to create a tradition. The governing body was against his innovations. The boys were of the stamp of the one who protested to the master in charge of the cricket, on being senit out to field, in these terms, " Look ere, sur, r hat I wants to know is, when'll it be my turn to knawk?" His stay at Gloucester has, at least, one predominant fact of interestMr W. E. Henley was his pupil. That great critic, who published most of Brown's later work in the " National Observer," opined that it was his teaching that opened to him ways of thought and speech; that coming like a call from the great, quick, living world, discovered hint the true materials and beginnings of himself. Brown did not stay long in this uncongenial atmosphere. He went to Clifton as second master in 1853. There he stayed for nearly thirty yeas; years strikingly void of incident for the chronologer, but a time of immense interest to his friends and pupils. The one fact that strikes the student of this period is that Brown, though happy in his home and work, was always looking forward to his final return to the Isle of Man. His heart was ever in the "in the Island in the sea." He voices his feelings in his poem untitled "Clifton," where he alternately expresses the dreariness of the life at Clifton and his thankfulness at the thought of the charms of has own sweet land. That these were no idle expressions is proved by the fact that, during all the twenty-nine years he was at Clifton, he never missed returning to the Isle of Man once, at least, in every twelve months. His life at Clifton was saddened by family bereavements. In 1876 his son died of scarlet fever. In 1886 his brother, Hugh Stowell Brown, died. And in 1888 he was called upon to bear the greatest of all blows-the death of his wife. He left Clifton in July, 1892, and went to his native land; not to take up any position -indeed he refused the office of Archdeacon in 1894-but to live a free life amongst the people and scenes he loved so well. He only enjoyed this peaceful freedom for five years. He died, whilst giving an address to the boys in one of the houses in Clifton, on October 29th, 1897. He was laid to rest in the Redland Green Churchyard, beside his wife and his boy Braddan. But though his body is buried in English ground, we may believe that his spirit still haunts the glades and glens of the Island so dear to him, or seeks the future Manx poet in " the bowers where Plato marked the virgin souls desiring the birth-call of the ripening hours."
Turning to his works, we find that the year 1873 is, as it were, a flowering time. The poet was then 43 years old-an age when many singers have nearly ceased to sing-but that year saw the publication of his first poem, "Betsy Lee," and also marks the commencement of a vein of letter-writing, absolutely natural and without self-consciousness, yet indicating a brilliant power of observation and a highly developed spirit of criticism.
Brown's poems may be divided into two classes. His poems in English, which are chiefly subjective expressions of natural, philosophical, or religious ideas; and his verse in the Anglo-Manx dialect, which is in the form of tales collected under the title of the " Fo'c's'le Yarns," and contains a complete picture of Manx life.
Let us deal with his English verse first. Our author treats his subjects-God, Man, and Nature from his own special point of view, which' is a threefold one, as he expresses in the last three verses of his poem "Pain." To understand his works completely, we must understand the man himself from this threefold point of view -moral, intellectual, and spiritual. In Brown, the spiritual life governs the other two. He is, however, a moralist. We may see how his spiritual side shows itself in the impressionist picture he gives us of the transmutation of sin, evil, and ugliness to the loveliness and light of another life in the poem entitled "The Schooner"- `
Just mark that schooner westward far at sea
'Tis but an hour ago
When she was lying hoggish at the quay,
And men ran to and fro,
And tugged, and stamped, and shoved, and pushed, and swore,
And ever and anon, with crapulous glee,
Cringed homage to viragoes on the shore.
So to the jetty gradual she was hauled
Then one the tiller took,
And chewed, and spat upon his hand, and bawled;
And one the canvas shook
Forth like a mouldy bat; and one, with nods
And smiles, lay on the bowsprit-end, and called
And cursed the harbour-master by his gods.
And, rotten from the gunwale i o the keel,
Slime-slobbered, horrible, I saw her reel, and drag her oozy flank,
And sprawl among the deft young waves that laughed,
And leaped, and turned in many a sportive wheel,
As she thumped onward with her lumbering draught.
And now, behold ! a shadow of repose Upon a line of grey,
She sleeps, that transverse cuts the evening rose -
She sleeps and dreams away, Soft-blended in a unity of rest,
All jars, and strifes obscene, and turbulent throes,
Neath the broad benediction of the west
Sleeps; and methinks she changes as she sleeps,
And dies, and is a spirit pure.
Lo ! on her deck an angel pilot ke ps
His lonely wstch secure; And at the entrance of heaven's dockyard waits,
Till from night's leash the fine-breath'd morning leaps,
And that strong hand within unbars the gates.
His treatment of Nature is very real and personal. He has a Wordsworthian interest in x).11 that belongs to her; and he rivals Scott in vividness of natural colouring and description. Three aspects are particularly in evidence
1. The personality of Nature.
2. The silence of Nature.
3. The grandness of Nature.
1. Brown had a " kind and degree of sympathy with external nature that separated him from other men," said one of his friends. This is largely shewn in his poems. He seems to see in his natural surroundings a living and pervading spirit. They are not to him merely streams or trees; but the stream contains a living feeling centre, and every branch of the tree represents a separate being, forming a part of the whole. The lines in which he tells of the short-lived Irish burn are tinged with sadness; and his description of a bough of May is brightly realistic in its portraiture of the arrogance of the graceful tree:
I bended unto me a bough of May,
That I might see and smell
It bore it in a sort of way.
It bore it very well.
But, when I let it backward sway,
Then were it hard to tell
With what a toss, with what a swing,
The dainty thing
Resumed its proper level,
And sent me to the devil.?
I know it did-you doubt it
I turned, and saw them whispering about it.
2. The silences of Nature are often to be found ;n his Letters and Poems, causing us a tender melancholy. The poem entitled "The Dhoon" gives us one view of this stillness, and the mere lyrical sigh, "Weary Wind of the West," skews us another.
3. The grandness of Nature also finds many expressions in his poetry. " Triton Esuriens" and many other of the poems shew this feature in a marked way. In reading Brown, one gets the idea that his inner life was of a larger mould than those of ordinary mortals. Great forces had an especial attraction for him-the illimitable sea, the generating sun, forgiveness and. love.
But now to turn to the "Yarns," for it is here that we get the, national poet; it is by them that his fame will live; to them will men look in future years when they want a picture of the bygone habits and customs of the Manx people. They are called " F'o'c's'le Yarns" because they are told by an old sailor-Tom Baynes. Brown only uses the old sailor for descriptive purposes. As he says: " Tom Baynes -that is myself. I never stopped for a moment to think what Tom Baynes would say-he simply is I " This old salt tells the ten stories to an imaginary audience of sailors in the fo'c's'le, whose presence is made known to us by the narrator stopping for an instant to correct or argue with one of the otherwise silent and invisible auditors. Readers of the Yarns will soon be delighted with their insight into Manx life.
Brown's Character Studies.
Brown's poems are, as it were, the abridged type of the entire Manx nation. His keen intellectual observation and his inherent sympathetic understanding gave him a searching power of analysis, which enabled him to make living portraits. His characters are not types. They are not human summaries or intuitive perceptions of types; but people we know; whose whole biography lies open before us. This is an excellent criterion to know it a character has been drawn with power. His characters, however, though not originally types, become types, because they are true, and because the public is able to know them sufficiently well for them to enter into its daily life.
Brown had an amazing power of undewstanding other people from their own positions. He feels the ever-raging battle that is the justification of each indivi duality. He grasps the reality of the various points of view held by the different classes that form mankind. He realises that all persons have their own points of -view and separate individualities. Consequently, his creations bear the stamp of truth in the highest degree. He saw the person he described from the reality, with such perfect clearness, that he continued to live in his brains as a living picture. The poet, therefore, never has to shew us the secret springs that are at work behind his creation. He continued to regard his character and the person continued to act in accordance with the movements the author had observed in the reality. This conformity of the character with the reality makes his portraits absolutely true. For this reason, Brown gives no moral analyses. His characters move and speak just as those we meet every day. He leaves the work of analysis to the reader and the critic. It is just this that one calls having " le sens de la vie." The reason that se manv writers fail to draw living portraits is because they read men and women from their own book. Many writers can create mental figures, very few figures that really live. This is the consequence of their endeavouring to make their creations individual as individuals and nothing more, instead of making them the expression of an individuality as affected by age, time, sex, environment, and all the other forces that go to form the impersonal complexity of manhood or womanhood. Then Brown's characters are affected not only by their daily surroundings, but also by the part of the Island in which they live. The people in the North differ considerably fronn those who dwell in the South. Brown was a Southerner. His early works were pictures of the habits and the customs of the South. When he returned to the Island in later life, he was living in the North. This fact explains the difference between the characters in his earlier and later works. One has but to read " Betsy Lee" and "Job the White" to realise the distinction. Certain characteristics are to be found in all his portraits. Manliness is their keynote. Sentimentalism, effeminacy, sham, are abhorred by him. Unreality and hypocrisy, in every form, meet with his sternest condemnation. These few preliminary remarks will have placed before you in outline Brown's system of character study.
It will be well to examine a few of his figures in the light of their actual existence, so as to see, by tracing their development, how our author has read the tangled scroll of complex humanity-to obtain, by following their instinctive and natural evolutions, an insight into his observation of the surrounding reality. Then, such a study is advisable in order to grasp the sense of atmosphere that ought to pervade and colour the picture. It is, of course, true that such a rapid examination, as this must be, will but imperfectly fulfil this purpose, but it may serve to bring to light the general qualities of Brown's portraits. The difficulty of selection has, however, to be faced. To which portrait, in the noble gallery contained in the "Yarns," ought the preference to be given? Each has its own individuality, and is notably true to it.-elf; but is not typical of the poet's aims. Characters such as " Pazon Gale," `Tom Baynes," " Tommy Big Eyes," "Captain Tom and Captain Hugh" are all fascinating. and are all living representatives of various phases of everyday life. Or again, "Jack Pentreath and Harry Creer," in the "Manx Witch," are excellent in the true vivacity of their Manx character and feelings. But none of these are typical of his aim. Perhaps the most suitable figures for this purpose are--as the hero-" The Doctor," and--as the villain-".Cain." These two seem the best suited to represent our author's general grasp of personality in the midst of the many problems that surround it from day to day.
The " Yarn " entitled " The Doctor " must be recognised as Brown's master piece. Max Muller spoke of it " as if not one of the best hundred books of the world, yet as one in which the vividness of imagination and language and of sympathy surprised him." The " Yarn" was first published in 1885 in the "Isle of Man Times." It belongs, therefore, to his later poems, and contains a note of sadness not to be discovered in his earlier efforts. We feel that the poet has passed through sorrow; that he regards the world as knowing the underlying sadness of life The keynote of the whole poem is the powerlessness of intellect to save a man, and the might of love. Throughout, the ability and learning of "The Doctor" are treated as most precious and most salutary; but we are shown their impotence to sustain him when overtaken by trouble and despair; and just as the abrupt end of his first love affair drives him to ruin, so the love for his daughter Kitty saves him and enables him to regain some of his lost manliness. We can follow the Doctor's career through all its varying stages. We find him a young practitioner in London. A certain baronet takes a fancy to him and has him daily to attend at his house. The baronet has an only daughter, with whom Dr Bell falls in love. At a ball in Sir John's ...