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

By Critical and Biographical Essay by William Garrett Horder

Henry Septimus Sutton (1825–1901)

HENRY SEPTIMUS SUTTON was born at Nottingham in 1825. His father, Richard Sutton, was a bookseller and newspaper proprietor in that town. Thus the boy was surrounded from his earliest days with books, and needed no other library than his father’s shop—where he spent most of his leisure, and where he browsed on the ample fare—often totally oblivious of the flight of time. Arrived at the suitable age, he was articled to a surgeon, and for some years studied medicine; but the passion for literature at length drew him away from the study of the human body and the remedies for its ailments; he gave up all idea of the Physician’s calling, and turned to the Press as his life employment.

In 1847 he published a little book called “The Evangel of Love.” This was in prose. In the following year he issued his first poetical work—a tiny volume, which he dedicated to his father. One of his friends has said of this book: “It was not sent forth to the multitude. It was only a still, small voice intended for the ears of poets, and dreamers, and religious mystics. It fulfilled its mission. The world let it pass; but chosen souls, slowly and only here and there, caught it up, silently received its message, and placed it amongst their choicest treasures.”

In 1854 Mr. Sutton put forth a volume of philosophical theology called “Quinquenergia,” but in this was included a series of poems of rare quality called “Rose’s Diary,” on which more than on any others his fame as a poet will rest.

It was the publication of “The Evangel of Love” which probably determined both his life work and the place where it should be accomplished. This book fell under the eye of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and won from him high commendation, and led to a lifelong friendship. Emerson brought Mr. Sutton’s work under the notice of Alexander Ireland of Manchester, who induced him to accept employment upon one of the leading newspapers of that city, where he continued to reside, and where he followed the career of a journalist.

In 1886 he was persuaded to allow the two series of poems already named to be republished together, with a few written since. Emerson declared that this little volume contained pieces worthy of the genius of George Herbert. Its author has indeed been classed with the saintly poet of Bemerton and Henry Vaughan. There seems to me a certain truth in such classification; he is like those well-known poets, but I am not sure whether the points of difference are not more and greater than the points of likeness. Mr. Sutton is far more of the mystic, and his mysticism is of a deeper kind than these earlier poets. Bronson Alcott said of Mr. Sutton’s theological book already referred to: “This is truly an original and mystic book, the work of a profound religious genius, combining the remarkable sense of William Law with the subtlety of Behmen and the piety of Pascal. The author is one of the few Englishmen I would go far to meet.” There seems to me the clue to Mr. Sutton’s poetry. It has more that is akin to the great mystics than to poets of the quaint type of Herbert and Vaughan. I shall, I fear, astonish, and, perhaps, shock some readers when I say that Mr. Sutton had a deeper religious nature than either Herbert or Vaughan. No one doubts Herbert’s goodness; but too often his quaintness is mistaken for depth. Some of our editors of sacred anthologies seem willing to sacrifice nearly everything on the altar of quaintness—that is a quality not to be despised, but it is surely second to far-reaching vision of truth and passionate love to the Invisible God. For my part, I find far more points of likeness in Mr. Sutton’s poems to certain of Miss Rossetti’s; but even here there is a difference, accounted for by the fact that though both of them were mystics they were reared in vastly different schools of theological belief. But in spite of this I think I could put side by side poems from these two poets which at heart strike the selfsame note—another illustration of how the really mystic mind overleaps, through its clear vision of God, all sundering doctrines concerning His Nature.

It may here be added, as a proof of this, that Miss Rossetti greatly admired Mr. Sutton’s poems (and, indeed, introduced them to Professor Palgrave, who included some of them in his “Treasury of Sacred Song”), whilst another deeply religious man, and one of the profoundest thinkers of our age, Dr. James Martineau, though belonging to a school of theological thought widely separated both from Miss Rossetti and Mr. Sutton, said of “Rose’s Diary”: “It has long been to me as the presence of a tender and faithful friend. Nay, so sacred is my feeling towards it, that on learning of the promise of a new volume, I almost dreaded to see it, lest it should change by a single shade the complexion of a love so clear and warm, and am half relieved to find that the book now issued derives its main character from poems which have so long missed the permanent form and wide influence due to their rare beauty.”

But whilst Mr. Sutton was probably most at home in deeply religious verse, he also showed capacity of a high kind for descriptive verse. The little poem “The Daisy” is as accurate and quaintly picturesque as anything of the kind we possess. In “A Preacher’s Soliloquy and Sermon” he is far nearer Herbert than in the poems of “Rose’s Diary”; whilst the very brief poem “Sorrow” could scarcely be surpassed for conciseness and suggestiveness. “Ralph Waldo Emerson” is a noble tribute to a noble character. Some of the verses are not only finely descriptive of the man, but wrought with the strength of a master-hand. This is especially so in the second and seventh stanzas.

This is enough to introduce a little-known poet to the many readers of this series. I shall be surprised if the extracts given do not send many to the little volume from which they have been taken.

Henry Septimus Sutton died early in May, 1901.