Home  »  The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century  »  Henry Ellison (1811–1880)

Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alexander B. Grosart

Henry Ellison (1811–1880)

HENRY ELLISON was the third son of Richard Ellison of Bagolt, co. Flint, and was born there on the 12th of August, 1811. His father was M.P. for Hereford: his mother a Miss Maxwell. Henry was admitted to Westminster School on the 7th of October, 1824. He proceeded in his seventeenth year to the University of Oxford, matriculating at Christchurch on the 23rd of October, 1828. He is designated of Sudbrooke Holme, co. Lincoln. Throughout, his title-pages bear that he was “of Christchurch, Oxford”; but no degree is in any case appended. He must have been in feeble health while young, as one of his most characteristic poems is headed “On being told I could not live long.” Others betray despondency and even darker moods—the more noticeable in that he must have been under twenty-one years of age at the time. He appears as “student of Lincoln’s Inn” in 1833. This same year he must have been abroad, as many of his poems are dated from Florence and other Italian, Swiss, and German cities and villages. In 1833 he made his advent as a poet and author from the Malta press in the most noticeable of all his books, as follows:—

“Mad Moments, or First Verse Attempts, by a Born Natural, addressed respectfully to the light-headed of Society at large, but intended more particularly for the use of that World’s Madhouse, London. By Henry Ellison, of Christchurch, Oxford, 1833. 2 vols. Price 8s. 6d.” (A third volume is promised at the end of the “Siberian Exile’s Tale.”)

Had Dr. John Brown in his Horæ Subsecivæ given full recognition to the fact that the press was a foreign one, it would have saved him from his egregious blundering over the author’s supposed intentional running of words into those singular conglomerations on which he exercises his wit though not his wisdom. Besides, had the genial essayist’s knowledge of his author not been extremely superficial, he would have known of the later editions, wherein an English press puts right all these and innumerable other mistakes and misprints, not without objurgation and lamentation of the poet over his Maltese printer’s performances. His next book was entitled “Man and Nature in their Poetical Relations” (2 vols., 1838?), whereof he thus speaks in “Address to the Readers” in another volume that shall be described immediately:—

“These trifles are conceived in the same spirit, and for the same purpose as my larger work, entitled, ‘Man and Nature in their Poetical Relations.’… This larger work contains in two volumes as much as usually forms four, there being not less than 26,000 lines therein.”

Singularly enough, in no public library—from British Museum to the Bodleian and his own college of Christchurch—is a copy of this work to be found; while I have personally sought by agencies and advertisements over many years in vain for it. Was ever disappearance of a modern book more extraordinary? I have a strong impression that the entire edition lies somewhere in unappreciative hands id est that it fell (practically) still-born from the press, much as later did “Stones from the Quarry.”

Following this seeming-lost book came “Touches on the Harp of Nature, in the same key as Burns’ grand anthem (‘A Man’s a man for a’ that’). London: William Edward Painter, 342, Strand. 1839.” In 1844 he published “The Poetry of Real Life: A new edition, much enlarged and improved. (First Series.) By Henry Ellison. Nihil humani a me alienum puto. London. Published for the Author by John Lee, 440, West Strand. MDCCCXLIV.” It was reissued with simply a new title-page and with a motto from Wordsworth by “G. Willis, 42, Charing Cross, and Great Piazza, Covent Garden, 1851.” The latter edition consisted of unsold copies of the former, just as there are copies of “Mad Moments” with a London title-page substituted (“Painter, 342, Strand, 1839”—a new “Address” prefixed). The “Poetry of Real Life” consists substantially of the poems of “Mad Moments” carefully and critically worked over, but too often the revisions are as wooden as Wordsworth’s later readings and insertions. After a long interval, but undated, appeared the following pseudonymous work:—

“Stones from the Quarry; or, Modes of Mind.” By Henry Browne. London: Provost & Co., Henrietta Street, Covent Garden (pp. xix., 380).

Such is the small sum of our biographic and bibliographic data concerning Henry Ellison, save that he was married to a Miss Wells, who predeceased him some years—childless, and that he died on the 13th of February, 1880, in his sixty-ninth year. He was buried at Boultham near Lincoln, in the family ground. I have searched fruitlessly all likely sources without happing upon a single memorial-word. He seems to have slipped out of life like a knotless thread through a needle (if the homely metaphor be permissible). Not only so, but congruous with all this is the absolute ignorance of him on the part of otherwise well-informed critics, so that nowhere does one come on any quotation from his relatively numerous volumes. To Dr. John Brown, therefore, belongs the distinction of having first called attention to the remarkable poetry of Henry Ellison; and it is pleasant to the lovers of both that, after every abatement—some of the abatements finical and unseeing—his verdict was high and unmistakable. He thus puts his final judgment:—

“Yet our Born-natural’s two thick and closely-printed volumes are as full of poetry as is an ‘impassioned grape’ of its noble liquor. He is a true poet.” If he owned any for Master it was Wordsworth.

That in all the known volumes of Henry Ellison there are grave faults and tantalising flaws even in the most consummate poems, audacities of eccentricity, violations of rhyme and rhythm, over-recurrence of the same rhyme-words, weak endings, carelessness of structure and construction, and sheer defiances of public opinion and sentiment, it were vain to deny. But whoso will take his five known volumes (whatever the lost ones may contain) and in patience of faith read on and on and through—pausing at times to ponder—will not lose his reward. He will find himself in contact with a singularly penetrative intellect, before which rose far more than the eyes see of the mysteries of God’s universe and nature and human nature, a wealth of high-thinking,—introspective and prescient,—bursts of lofty imagination, and hues of subtle fancy, and often and often felicities of wording and phrasing of the finest art. Nor was he without the salt of wit and humour, as the following hitherto unpublished lines by him, with which I have been favoured by a nephew of his, will show.

  • Europa on the Wrong Bull: Albert Memorial Sculpt.
  • You stall-fed ox! you, you Europa carry!
  • Go plough, dull brute, or some staid cow go marry!
  • Your tail should lash the air, your hoof strike fire;
  • Your eyeballs light the way with hot desire;
  • The wave from off your glowing flanks should hiss;
  • Your lolling tongue strain back to lick or kiss.
  • You marble sham! become again a stock,
  • Till hands of fire Europa’s form unlock.
  • Though one should kick behind, Europa pinch
  • And nudge above, thou’lt never budge an inch.
  • Get down, Europa! give the brute a kick,
  • He has no “go,” and wants a good sharp prick.
  • Go, mount an “Irish bull” (’twill profit more)
  • On two legs, than this stock upon all four.
  • Not such the Bull that thee off whilom bore,
  • And, spurning Asia’s, sought famed Europe’s shore;
  • The winner of such prize was worth his fee
  • (Not so the Sculptor-man), though but Bull he!
  • The hand of Phidias made dead stones live,
  • But this can only take life from, not give!
  • The poem “Season Changes” is one of the longer of his poems, and is of such quality as ranges it with the type of poems represented by some of the “higher strains” of Dr. Henry More and Henry and Thomas Vaughan, Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” and Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”—all of the imperishable stuff and touched with the light of the Neo-Platonists. To find room for this remarkable poem,—which it were treason to mutilate,—our extent of choice has been inevitably limited. But our second selection, “Nature,” will vindicate itself, whilst our third and fourth, “Two Odes to Psyche,” though not without specks, must surely henceforth take a high place in any intelligent Anthology. So too his ode to “Antinous in the Florence Fine Art Gallery”—“On a Greek Vase”—on “Ghiberti’s Gates to the Baptistery at Florence”—on “the Apollo Belvedere,” and on “an undeciphered Etruscan death-urn.” Ellison did so much of his poetic work in sonnets—sometimes like Palissy the Potter creating miracles of wonder out of clay, and sometimes like Benvenuto Cellini placing before us, as it were, flagon or casket of gold or silver-work,—that we include several representative ones. Perchance we might have chosen better; but those selected may perhaps tempt the reader to search out the volumes that contain the others. I should have liked to have spoken of “Emma, a Tale,” and of “Hearing an Old Time Song,” and several other of his longer pieces, and of his pregnant and pathetic addresses in prefaces and notes, and considerable expository prose; but my space is exhausted. And so I close my inadequate but heartfelt notice by deploring the inexplicable reticence of living Ellisons regarding Henry Ellison. He is a puzzle in many ways, but scarcely less is the unconcern of his representatives toward his memory.