1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Millhouse

William Hone, "Robert Millhouse" The Table Book 2 (1828) 161-69.



— some monitor unseen,
Calls for the song — the call shall be obey'd;
For 'tis that silent monitor, I ween,
Which led my youth, to many a green-wood shade;
Show'd me the spring, in thousand blooms array'd,
And bade me look towards Heaven's immensity:
This is a power that schoolmen never made,
That comes all unsolicited and free,
To fire the youthful bard — lo this is Poesy!
THE SONG OF THE PATRIOT.

The talented author of the poem scarcely known to fame, and not at all from whence the motto is extracted is to fortune. His unostentatious little volume, entitled "The Song of the Patriot, Sonnets, and Songs," was thrown accidentally in my way; and its perusal occasions me to acquaint the readers of the Table Book with its uncommon merit. I do not know any thing concerning the poet beyond what I have derived from printed particulars, which I now endeavour to diffuse. That he is highly esteemed by a discriminating brother bard in his native county, is apparent by the following beautiful address to him in the Nottingham Mercury:—

STANZAS,
My thoughts are of a solitary place,
Where twilight dwells, where sunbeams rarely fall;
And there a wild-rose hangs in pensive grace,
Reflected in a fountain clear and small
Above them rise dark shadowy trees and tall,
Whilst round them grow rank night-shades in the gloom,
Which seem with noxious influence to pall
The fountain's light, and taint the flower's perfume;
As fainly they would mar what they might not out-bloom.

These, mind me, Millhouse! of thy spirit's light,
That twilight makes in life so dark as thine!
And though I do not fear the rose may blight,
Or that the fountain's flow may soon decline;
Hope, is there none, the boughs which frown malign,
High overhead, should let in heaven's sweet face;
Yet shall not these their life unknown resign,
For nature's votaries, wandering in each place,
Shall find their secret shade, and marvel at their grace.

It appears from a small volume, published in 1823, entitled "Blossoms — by Robert Millhouse — being a Selection of Sonnets from his various Manuscripts," that the Rev. Luke Booker, LL.D. vicar of Dudley, deemed its author "a man whose genius and character seemed to merit the patronage of his country, while his pressing wants, in an equal degree, claimed its compassion." The doctor "presumed to advocate his case and his cause" before the "Literary Fund," and a donation honourable to the society afforded the poet temporary relief. This, says Millhouse, was "at a time when darkness surrounded me on every side." In a letter to Dr. Booker, lamenting the failure of a subscription to indemnify him for publishing his poems, when sickness had reduced a wife and infant child to the borders of the grave, he says, "I am now labouring under indisposition both of body and mind; which, with the united evils of poverty and a bad trade, have brought on me a species of melancholy that requires the utmost exertions of my philosophy to encounter." About this period he wrote the following;—

TO A LEAFLESS HAWTHORN.
Hail, rustic tree! for, though November's wind
Has thrown thy verdant mantle to the ground:
Yet Nature, to thy vocal inmates kind,
With berries red thy matron-boughs has crown'd.
Thee do I envy: for, bright April show'rs
Will bid again thy fresh green leaves expand;
And May, light floating in a cloud of flow'rs,
Will cause thee to re-bloom with magic hand.
But, on my spring, when genial dew-drops fell,
Soon did life's north-wind curdle them with frost;
And, when my summer-blossom op'd its bell,
In blight and mildew was its beauty lost.

Before adducing other specimens of his talents, it seems proper to give some account of the poet; and it can scarcely be better related than in the following

MEMOIR OF ROBERT MILLHOUSE, BY HIS ELDER BROTHER, JOHN MILLHOUSE.

"Robert Millhouse was born at Nottingham the 14th of October, 1788, and was the second of ten children. The poverty of his parents compelled them to put him to work at the age of six years, and when ten he was sent to work in a stocking-loom. He had been constantly sent to a Sunday school, (the one which was under the particular patronage of that truly philanthropic ornament of human nature, the late Mr. Francis Wakefield,) till about the last-mentioned age, when a requisition having been sent by the rector of St. Peter's parish, Dr. Staunton, to the master of the school, for six of his boys to become singers at the church, Robert was one that was selected; And thus terminated his education, which merely consisted of reading, and the first rudiments of writing.

"When sixteen years old he first evinced an inclination for the study of poetry, which originated in the following manner. — Being one day at the house of an acquaintance, he observed on the chimney-piece two small statues of Shakspeare and Milton, which attracting his curiosity, he read on a tablet in front of the former, that celebrated inscription—

The cloud-capt towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And like the baseless fabric of a vision,
Leave not a wreck behind!

"Its beauty and solemnity excited in his mind the highest degree of admiration! At the first opportunity he related the occurrence to me with apparent astonishment, and concluded by saying, 'Is it not Scripture?' In reply, I told him it was a passage from Shakspeare's play of the 'Tempest,' a copy of which I had in my possession, and that he had better read it. For, although he had from his infancy been accustomed to survey with delight the beautiful scenery which surrounds Nottingham, had heard with rapture the singing of birds, and been charmed with the varied beauties of the changing seasons; and though his feelings were not unfrequently awakened by hearing read pathetic narratives, or accounts of the actions and sufferings of great and virtuous men, yet he was totally ignorant that such things were in any wise connected with poetry.

"He now began to read with eagerness such books as I had previously collected, the principal of which were some of the plays of Shakspeare, Paradise Lost, Pope's Essay on Man, the select poems of Gray, Collins, Goldsmith,Prior, and Parnell, two volumes of the Tatler, and Goldsmith's Essays, all of the cheapest editions. But, ere long, by uniting our exertions, we were enabled to purchase Suttaby's miniature edition of Pope's Homer, Dryden's Virgil, Hawkesworth's translation of Telemachus, Mickle's version of the Lusiad, Thomson's Seasons, Beattie's Minstrel, &c. These were considered as being a most valuable acquisition; and the more so, because we had feared we should never be able to obtain a sight of some of them, through their being too voluminous and expensive.

"In 1810 he became a soldier in the Nottinghamshire militia, joined the regiment at Plymouth, and shortly afterwards made an attempt at composition.

"It will readily be expected that now, being separated, we should begin to correspond with each other; and one day, on opening a letter which I had just received from him, I was agreeably surprised at the sight of his first poetical attempt, the 'Stanzas addressed to a Swallow;' which was soon after followed by the small piece written 'On finding a Nest of Robins.' Shortly after this the regiment embarked at Plymouth, and proceeded to Dublin; from which place, in the spring of 1812, I received in succession several other efforts of his muse.

"Being now desirous of knowing for certain whether any thing he had hitherto produced was worthy to appear in print, he requested me to transmit some of them to the editor of the Nottingham Review, with a desire that, if they met with his approbation, he would insert them in his paper; with which request that gentleman very promptly complied. Having now a greater confidence in himself, he attempted something of a larger kind, and produced, in the summer of 1812, the poem of 'Nottingham Park.'

"In 1814 the regiment was disembodied when he again returned to the stocking-loom, and for several years entirely neglected composition. In 1817 he was placed on the staff of his old regiment, now the Royal Sherwood Foresters; and in the following year became a married man. The cares of providing for a family now increased his necessities; he began seriously to reflect on his future prospects in life; and perceiving he had no other chance of bettering his condition than by a publication, and not having sufficient already written to form a volume, he resolved to attempt something of greater magnitude and importance than he had hitherto done; and in February, 1819, began the poem of 'Vicissitude.' The reader will easily conceive that such a theme required some knowledge of natural and moral philosophy, of history, and of the vital principles of religion. How far he has succeeded in this poem is not for me to say; but certain it is, as may be expected from the narrowness of his education, and his confined access to books, his knowledge is very superficial: however, with unceasing exertions, sometimes composing while at work under the pressure of poverty and ill health, and at other times, when released from his daily labour, encroaching upon the hours which ought to have been allotted to sleep, by the end of October, 1820, the work was brought to a conclusion."

To his brother's narrative should be added, that Robert Millhouse's "Vicissitude," and other poems, struggled into the world with great difficulty, and were succeeded by the volume of "Blossoms." The impression of both was small, their sale slow, and their price low; and nearly as soon as each work was disposed of, the produce was exhausted by the wants of the author and his family.

Fresh and urgent necessities have required fresh exertions, and the result is "The Song of the Patriot, Sonnets, and Songs," a four-shilling volume, "printed for the Author and sold by R. Hunter, St. Paul's Church-yard, and J. Dunn, Nottingham." The book appeared in the autumn of last year, after poor Millhouse had suffered much privation from the bad state of the times. It was published with a slender list of subscribers — only seventy-seven! — and, though intended to improve his situation, has scarcely defrayed the bills of the stationer and printer.

The author of "The Song of the Patriot" anticipated the blight of his efforts. In the commencement of that poem, he says:—

—'Tis difficult for little men
To raise their feeble pigmy heads so high,
As to attract the glance of passing ken
Where giant shoulders intercept the sky;
And ah I 'tis difficult for such as I,
To wake fit strains where mighty minstrels sing;
Perhaps, even this, shall but be born and die;
Not fated to enjoy a second spring,
But like some hawk-struck bird, expire on new-fledg'd wing.

In this poem there are stanzas expressed with all a poet's fire, and all a patriot's heartfelt devotion to his country.

Land of my fathers may thy rocky coast
Long be the bulwark of thy free-born race;
Long may thy patriots have just cause to boast
That mighty Albion is their native place;
Still be thy sons unequall'd in the chase
Of glory, be it science, arts, or arms;
And first o'erweening conquerors to disgrace;
Yet happier far, when Peace in all her charms,
Drives out from every land the din of war's alarms.

Potent art thou in poesy — Yet there still
Is one thing which the bard hath seldom scann'd;
That national, exalting local thrill,
Which makes our home a consecrated land:
'Tis not enough to stretch the Muses' wand
O'er states, where thy best blood has purchas'd fame;
Nor that thy fertile genius should expand
To cast o'er foreign themes the witching flame:
This hath thy lyre perform'd, and won a glorious name.

Me every hill and dale, where childhood wanders,
And every grove and nook, the lover knows,
And every stream, and runlet that meanders,
And every plain that covers freedom's foes
The dwelling-place of Song, — and where repose
The great immortal worthies of our isle
Be hallow'd ground-and when the pilgrim goes
To hail the sacred dust, and muse awhile,
Be heard the free-born strain to blanch the tyrant's smile.

The patriotism of that people, traces of whose victories are observable in many of our customs, has been well discriminated. "In the most virtuous times of the Roman republic their country was the idol, at whose shrine her greatest patriots were at all times prepared to offer whole hecatombs of human victims: the interests of other nations were no further regarded, than as they could be rendered subservient to the gratification of her ambition; and mankind at large were considered as possessing no rights, but such as might with the utmost propriety be merged in that devouring vortex. With all their talents and their grandeur, they were unprincipled oppressors, leagued in a determined conspiracy against the liberty and independence of mankind." Every English patriot disclaims, on behalf of his country, the exclusive selfishness of Roman policy; and Millhouse is a patriot in the true sense of the word. His "Song of the Patriot" is a series of energetic stanzas, that would illustrate the remark. At the hazard of exceeding prescribed limits, two more are added to the specimens already quoted.

A beacon, lighted on a giant bill;
A sea-girt watch-tower to each neighbouring state;
A barrier, to control the despot's will;
An instrument of all-directing fate
Is Britain; for whate'er in man is great,
Full to that greatness have her sons attain'd;
Dreadful in war to hurl the battle's weight;
Supreme in arts, in commerce unrestrain'd;
Peerless in magic song, to hold the soul enchain'd.

In wealth and power stupendous is our islet
Obtain'd by Labour's persevering hand:
And heaven-born Liberty extends her smile
To the remotest corners of our land:
The meanest subject feels her potent wand;
Peasant and peer are by one law controll'd;
And this it is, that keeps us great and grand:
This is the impulse makes our warriors bold,
And knits more close the bond our fathers seal'd of old.

The prevailing feature in Robert Millhouse's effusions is of a domestic nature. He loves his country, and deems his birthplace and the hearth of his family its brightest spots. One of his sonnets combines these feelings:—

HOME.
Scenes of my birth, and careless childhood hours!
Ye smiling hills, and spacious fertile vales!
Where oft I wander'd, plucking vernal flowers,
And revell'd in the odour-breathing gales;
Should fickle Fate, with talismanic wand,
Bear me afar where either India glows,
Or fix my dwelling on the Polar land,
Where Nature wears her ever-during snows;
Still shall your charms my fondest themes adorn;
When placid evening paints the western sky,
And when Hyperion wakes the blushing Morn,
To rear his gorgeous sapphire throne on high.
For, to the guileless heart, where'er we roam,
No scene, delight us like our much-lov'd Home.

A man so humble, with such acquirements as have been here exemplified, and so unfortunate as to have derived little from their exercise but pain and disappointment, may be imagined to have penned the following address in distress and despondency:—

TO GENIUS.
O born of heaven, thou Child of magic Song?
What pangs, what cutting hardships wait on thee,
When thou art doom'd to cramping Poverty;
The pois'nous shafts from Defamation's tongue,—
The jeers and tauntings of the blockhead throng,
Who joy to see thy bold exertions fail;
While Hunger, pinching as December's gale,
Brings moody dark Despondency along.
And, should'st thou strive Fame's lofty mount to scale,
The steps of its ascent are cut in sand;
And half-way up, — a snake-scourge in her hand,
Lurks pallid Envy, ready to assail:
And last, if thou the top, expiring, gain,
When Fame applauds, thou hearest not the strain.

In this sheet there is not room to further make known, or plead at greater length, the claims of Robert Millhouse to notice and protection. I should blush for any reader of poetical taste, with four shillings to spare, who, after perusing the preceding extracts, would hesitate to purchase the poet's last little volume. I should more than blush for the more wealthy, who are reputed patrons of talent, if they decline to seek out and effectually succour him. I am, and am likely to remain, wholly unacquainted with him: my only wish is to induce attention to a talented and estimable individual, who is obscure and neglected, because he is unobtrusive and modest.

August 8, 1827.