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A Poet and Novelist of the People: Thomas Miller

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A Poet and Novelist of the People:
Thomas Miller.

ON the roll of self-taught authors, Thomas Miller is entitled to a high place, and amongst Victorian men of letters he holds an honourable position. He enriched English literature with many charming works on country life and scenes. Although his career was not eventful, it is not without interest, furnishing a notable instance of a man surmounting difficulties and gaining distinction.

He was born on August 31st, 1808, at Gainsborough, a quaint old Lincolnshire town, situated on the banks of the river Trent. His father held a good position, being a wharfinger and shipowner; he died, however, when his son was a child, without making provision for his wife, who had to pass some years in pinching poverty. Young Thomas received a very limited education at school, and according to his own account he only learned “to write a very indifferent hand, and to read the Testament tolerably.” His playmate was Thomas Cooper, the Chartist and Poet, and[Pg 187] this notable man, in his autobiography, has much to say about the boyhood of our hero. Mrs. Miller, to provide for her family, had to sew sacks.

Says Thomas Cooper, “She worked early and late for bread for herself and her two boys; but would run in, now and then, at the back door, and join my mother for a few whiffs at the pipe. And then away they would go again to work, after cheering each other, to go stoutly through the battle of life.”

“They bent their wits, on one occasion,” continues Mr. Cooper, “to disappoint the tax-gatherer. He was to ‘distrain’ on a certain day; but beds, chairs, and tables were moved secretly in the night to blind Thomas Chatterton’s; and when the tax-gatherer came next day to execute his threat, there was nothing left worth his taking. The poor were often driven to such desperate schemes to save all they had from ruin, in those days; and the curse upon taxes and the tax-gatherer was in the mouths of hundreds—for those years of war were terrific years of suffering for the poor, notwithstanding their shouts and rejoicings when Matthew Guy rode in, with ribbons flying, bringing news of another ‘glorious victory.’”[Pg 188] “Sometimes,” adds Mr. Cooper, “Miller’s mother and mine were excused paying some of the taxes by appealing to the magistrates, a few of whom respected them for their industry, and commiserated their hardships. But the petition did not always avail.”

In spite of poverty, Miller’s childhood was not without its sunshine, and many days spent in the lanes and fields were not the least enjoyable of his pleasures. He was first engaged as a farmer’s boy at Thornock, a village near his native town. The trade of basket-making was subsequently learned, and when quite a young man he married. He migrated to Nottingham, and obtained employment as a journeyman at a basket-manufactory in the town.

“At this period,” says Dr. Spencer T. Hall, “the Sherwood Forester,” “he had a somewhat round but intelligent face, a fair complexion, full, blue, speaking eyes, and a voice reminding one of the deeper and softer tones of a well-played flute. Of all who saw him at his work, it is probable that scarcely one knew how befitting him was the couplet of Virgil, where he says:

‘Thus while I sung, my sorrows I deceived,
And bending osiers into baskets weaved.’”

[Pg 189]He had the good fortune to become known to Mr. Thomas Bailey, a man of literary taste, the writer of several works, and father of the more famous Philip James Bailey, author of “Festus.” Mr. Bailey recognised at once the merits of a collection of poems submitted to him by Miller, was the means of the pieces being printed, and did all in his power to obtain a favourable welcome for the volume. The book was entitled “Songs of Sea Nymphs;” it contained only forty-eight pages, and was sold at two shillings. In his preface the author stated: “I am induced to offer these extracts from unpublished poems in their present state solely because I cannot find any publisher who will undertake, without an extensive list of subscribers, the risk of publishing a volume of poetry written by an individual whose humble station in life buries him in obscurity.” He next explains that the object of the work is to elicit the opinion of his country-men as to the merits or demerits of his verses—which he terms “trifles.” Mr. Miller says, “Concerning the poems, I have only to add that the three first songs are extracts from an unpublished poem entitled, ‘Hero and Leander, a Tale of the Sea.’ The scene is chiefly confined to Neptune’s palace[Pg 190] beneath the waves. The other extracts are from ‘Adelaide and Reginald, a Fairy Tale of Bosworth Field.’ I am aware that the date is too modern for fairies; however, who can prove it? for so long as a barren circle is found in the velvet valleys of England, tradition will ever call it a fairy-ring. Having launched my little bark on the casual ocean of public opinion, not without anxiety, I leave it to its fate.—Thomas Miller, Basket-maker, Nottingham, August, 1832.” The volume was the means of making him many friends, and enabling him to start business on his own account. He had a work-room in the Long Row, and a stall on a Saturday in the market-place. Here is a picture of the stall from Spencer Hall’s graphic pen:—“There was poetry in his very baskets. A few coarser ones were there, but others of more beautiful pattern, texture, and colour, flung a sort of bloom over the rest; and the basket-maker and his wares well-matched each other, as he would take his cigar from his mouth, and ask some pretty market maiden, in his cheeriest tones, as she lingered and looked, if she would not like to purchase. As a youth, I was wont to stand there chatting with him occasionally, and to hear him, between customers, pour out the[Pg 191] poetry of Coleridge and other great minds, with an appreciance and a melody that such authors might themselves have listened to with pride and delight.”

He next moved to London, hoping to follow a literary career by contributing at the commencement to the monthly magazines. Writing gave Miller great pleasure, but put little money in his purse, and to obtain bread for his household he had to work at his trade in the metropolis. Friends at first were few, and he had none able to help him to literary employment. He had journeyed to London alone, and arrived there with seven-and-sixpence in his pocket, intending to send for his wife and family when brighter days dawned. Some time passed before there was a break in the dark clouds which hung over him. Here are particulars of the dawn of better times. “One day,” says Mr. Joseph Johnson, in Manchester Notes and Queries, “when bending over his baskets, he was surprised by a visit from Mr. W. H. Harrison, editor of Friendship’s Offering, who had fortunately read one of Miller’s poems, and had become impressed with the ability and original talent of the author. The result of the interview was a request that the basket-maker[Pg 192] would write a poem for the Offering. Miller, at the time, was so poor that he had neither paper, pens, nor ink, nor the means to buy these needful materials for his poem. He tided over the difficulty by using the whity-brown paper in which his sugar had been wrapped, and mixed some soot with water for his ink; the back of a bellows serving him for a desk, upon which he wrote his charming poem, entitled, ‘The Old Fountain.’ His letter to the editor of the Offering was sealed with moistened bread. The poem was accepted, and two guineas immediately returned. It is simply impossible to imagine the rapture which would fill the breast of the poor poet on receipt of so large a sum.” Says Miller, “I never had been so rich in my life before, and I fancied some one would hear of my fortune and try and rob me of it; so, at night, I barred the door, and went to bed, but did not sleep all night, from delight and fear.”

We reproduce the lines as a fair example of Miller’s poetry:—

The Old Fountain.

“Deep in the bosom of a silent wood,
Where an eternal twilight dimly reigns,
A sculptured fountain hath for ages stood,
O’erhung with trees; and still such awe remains
[Pg 193]Around the spot, that few dare venture there—
The babbling water spreads such superstitious fear.

It looks so old and grey, with moss besprent,
And carven imag’ry, grotesque or quaint;
Eagles and lions are with dragons blent
And cross-winged cherub; while o’er all a Saint
Bends grimly down with frozen blown-back hair,
And on the dancing spray its dead eyes ever stare.

From out a dolphin’s mouth the water leaps
And frets, and tumbles to its bed of gloom;
So dark the umbrage under which it sweeps,
Stretching in distance like a dreary tomb;
With murmurs fraught, and many a gibbering sound,
Gurgle, and moan, and hiss, and plash, and fitful bound.

Oh! ’tis a spot where man might sit and weep
His childish griefs and petty cares away;
Wearied Ambition might lie there and sleep,
And hoary Crime in silence kneel to pray.
The fountain’s voice, the day-beams faintly given,
Tell of that starlight land we pass in dreams to heaven.

There, lovely forms in elder times were seen,
And snowy kirtles waved between the trees;
And light feet swept along the velvet green,
While the rude anthem rose upon the breeze,
When round the margin England’s early daughters
Worshipped the rough-hewn Saint that yet bends o’er the waters.

And some bent priest, whose locks were white as snow,
Would raise his trembling hands and voice to pray;
All would be hushed save that old fountain’s flow
That rolling bore the echoes far away;
Perchance a dove, amid the foliage dim,
Might raise a coo, then pause to list their parting hymn.
[Pg 194]
That old grey abbey lies in ruins now,
The wild-flowers wave where swung its pond’rous door;
Where once the altar rose, rank nettles grow,
The anthem’s solemn sound is heard no more;
’Tis as if Time had laid down to repose,
Drowsed by the fountain’s voice, which through the forest flows.”

He wrote and worked at his trade; his poetry won for him many admirers, amongst them Lady Blessington, Thomas Moore, Samuel Rogers, the banker-poet, and others, and he was welcomed to their houses. He remarked, “Often have I been sitting in Lady Blessington’s splendid drawing-room in the morning, and talking and laughing as familiarly as in the old house at home; and on the same evening I might have been seen on Westminster Bridge, between an apple vendor and a baked-potato merchant, vending my baskets.”

In 1836, he wrote “A Day in the Woods,” consisting of a series of sketches, stories, and poems. The reading public welcomed the work, and the critical press recognised it as the production of a man of undoubted genius. He continued to make friends, including “L. E. L.,” the poetess, Campbell, Leigh Hunt, Jerrold, Disraeli and Thackeray. The merits and success[Pg 195] of his book caused Colburn to make him a tempting offer to write a three-volume novel, and in 1838 appeared “Royston Gower.” The work was so popular that the same publisher commissioned him to write two more novels, namely, in 1839, “Fair Rosamond,” and in 1840, “Lady Jane Grey.” He produced other novels, perhaps the best known is “Gideon Giles.” These works are now to be obtained in cheap form, and have been most extensively circulated.

He was assisted and encouraged by Rogers, Lady Blessington and others, to commence as a publisher and bookseller, and was enabled by their kindness to purchase back from Colburn the copyrights of his novels. His place of business was 9, Newgate Street, opposite Christ’s Hospital, and from here he issued several of his own books besides works by well-known authors. Miller did not succeed in business, and gave it up to devote all his time to writing books and contributing to the periodicals and newspapers. He wrote for the AthenæumLiterary GazetteChambers’ Journal,Household WordsBoys’ Own Magazine, the Illustrated London News, and other monthlies and weeklies. Many leading articles from his facile pen appeared in the Morning Post. His[Pg 196] papers on the months in Chambers’ “Book of Days,” which describe the varied aspects of the country during the year, have been reproduced in an elegant volume bearing the title of “All Round the Year.”

Mr. J. Potter Briscoe, f.r.h.s., kindly supplies me with the following list of books by Thomas Miller:—“All Round the Year,” 1860; “Birds, Bees, and Blossoms,” 1867, 1869 (see also “Original Poems,” etc.); “British Wolf Hunter,” 1859; “Boys’ Own Library,” 6 vols., 1856; “Boys’ Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Books,” 1847, 1881; “Boys’ Own Country Book, Seasons, and Rural Rides,” 1867, 1868; “Brampton among the Roses,” 1863; “Child’s Country Book,” 1867; “Child’s Country Story Book,” 1867, 1870, 1881; “Common Wayside Flowers,” 1841, 1873; “Country Year book,” 2 vols., 1847, 1 vol., 1836; “Day in the Woods,” 1836; “Desolate Hall,” (in “Friendship’s Offering”) 1838; “Dorothy Dovedale’s Trials,” 2 vols., 1864; “English Country Life,” 1858, 1859, 1864; “Fair Rosamond,” 3 vols., 1839, 1 vol., 1862; “Fortune and Fortitude,” 1848; “Fred and the Gorillas,” 1869, 1873; “Fred Holdsworth” (In Illustrated London News), 1852, 1873; “Gaboon,” 1868;[Pg 197] “Gideon Giles, the Roper,” 1840, 1841, 1859, 1867; “Godfrey Malvern,” 1842, 1843, 1844, 1847, 1858, 1877; “Goody Platts and her two Cats,” 1864; “History of the Anglo-Saxons,” 1848, 1850, 1852, 1856; “Jack-of-All-Trades,” 1867; “Lady Jane Grey, a romance,” 3 vols., 1840, 1 vol., 1861, 1864; “Langley-on-the-Lea; or, Love and Duty,” 1858; “Life and [remarkable] Adventures of a Dog,” 1856, 1870; “Lights and Shades of London Life” (forming vol. 5 of Reynolds’ Mysteries of London); “Little Blue Hood,” 1863; “My Father’s Garden,” 1866, 1867; “No Man’s Land, etc.,” 1860, 1861, 1863; “Old Fountain” (in Friendship’s Offering, etc.); “Original Poems for my Children,” 1850 (see also “Birds,” etc.); “Our Old Town” (Gainsborough) 1857, 1858; “Old Park Road,” 1870, 1876; “Picturesque Sketches of London,” 1852 (in the Illustrated London News); “Pictures of Country Life,” 1846, 1847, 1853; “Poacher and other Pictures of Country Life,” 1858; “Poems,” 1841, 1848, 1856; “Poetical Language of Flowers,” 1838, 1847, 1853, 1856, 1865, 1869, 1872; “Royston Gower,” 3 vols., 1830, 1 vol. 1858, 1860, 1874; “Rural Sketches,” 1839, 1861; “Sketches of English Country Life”; “Songs for[Pg 198] British Riflemen,” 1860; “Songs of the Sea Nymphs,” 1857; “Songs of the Seasons,” 1865; “Sports and Pastimes of Merry England,” 1859 (?-56); “Summer Morning,” 1844; “Tales of Old England,” 1849, 1881; “Village Queen,” 1851, 1852; “Watch the End” (second edition of “My Father’s Garden”) 1869, 1871, 1873; “Year Book of Country Life,” 1855; “Year Book of the Country,” 1837; “Young Angler,” 1862.

The foregoing volumes are in the Nottingham Public Library, and the librarian, Mr. Briscoe is to be congratulated on bringing together Miller’s works in the city closely associated with his career. In Paxton Hood’s “Peerage of Poverty,” a fine estimate of Miller’s ability as an author is given, though very little about his life is recorded. On the 25th of October, 1874, he died at his residence, a small house in West Street, Kensington, leaving a son and two daughters. Shortly before his death an effort was made to get him placed on the Civil List. Mr. Disraeli was not able to include him at the time, but, with his well-known generosity, made him an allowance from some other fund. Miller only received one quarterly instalment before passing away.


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