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The Poet of the Fisher-Folk: Mrs. Susan K Phillips

by William Andrews

“The poet’s little span is done,
The poet’s work on earth goes on;
The hand that strikes the ringing chords,
The thought that clothes itself in words,
That chimes with every varying mood,
That gives a friend to solitude,
In flash or fire, in smiles or tears,
Wakes echoes for all coming years.”
Susan K. Phillips.


FROM the days of Cædmon, the first and greatest of the Anglo-Saxon poets, to the present time, Yorkshire has produced many singers of power, whose poetry has been read and appreciated far beyond the limits of England’s largest county. The lovely scenery, romantic legends, old-world tales, and noble lives of its sons and daughters have had a marked influence on the writings of its poets. We recognise this in the best work of Mr. Alfred Austin, our present Poet Laureate, the sisters Brontë, Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn Law Rhymer, and in a marked degree in Mrs. Susan K. Phillips, whose well-spent life has just closed, and whose contributions to literature have gained for her[Pg 177] an honourable place amongst the authors of the Victorian era. In the realm of poetry devoted to the joys and sorrows of the fisher-folk, she has not been equalled.

How true are the words of Sir Henry Taylor, “The world knows nothing of its greatest men,” and we may add, less, if possible, of its greatest women. Men have a better opportunity of becoming known, and their works appreciated, than women, for men take a more active part in public affairs which bring them in closer touch with the people. As a rule women are of a more retiring disposition, and the result is that their merits are not so readily recognised as those of men, yet their works are often more ennobling and lasting.

Mrs. Phillips’ best poems deal with various incidents in the lives of the fisher-folk of the Yorkshire coast. She was a frequent visitor to Whitby, and was beloved by the rough, but kind-hearted, fishermen. She was a true friend to them in their time of sorrow, and in the hard lot of those who are engaged on the perilous waters of the North Sea.

Before giving examples of the poetry of Mrs. Phillips, it may be well to present a few[Pg 178] details of her life. She was born in 1831 at Aldborough, theIsurium of the Romans, a village of great antiquity, not far distant from Boroughbridge. Her father, the Rev. George Kelly Holdsworth, m.a., was vicar of the parish.

In 1856 she was married to Mr. H. Wyndham Phillips, a celebrated artist, who has been dead some years. Mrs. Phillips resided for many years at Green Royd, Ripon, but usually spent the summer months at Whitby.

In 1865 her first volume of poetry appeared under the title of “Verses and Ballads,” and the welcome given to it induced her to issue, five years later, “Yorkshire Songs and Ballads.” A still more important volume was given to the world in 1878, from the well-known house of Messrs. Macmillan & Co., entitled, “On the Seaboard.” The critical press were not slow to recognise the sterling merits of this book, which soon passed into a second edition. On this work the reputation of Mrs. Phillips mainly rests. Some of the poems had previously appeared in the pages of Macmillan’s Magazine,All the Year RoundCassell’s Magazine, and other leading periodicals. They had been widely quoted in the press on both sides of the Atlantic.[Pg 179]“These poems,” said the reviewer, in a leading London daily, “suggest a recollection of Charles Kingsley, but the writer has a voice and song of her own, which is full of yearning pathetic sweetness, and a loving human sympathy with the anxious homes of the poor toiler of the sea. The poems evince a true simplicity of style which is only another word for sincerity.” It was stated by another critic that “This volume of verses stands out in bright relief from the average poetry of the day. All is pure, womanly, in a setting of most graceful and melodious verse.” Other notices were equally good. In 1884, Messrs. J. S. Fletcher & Co., Leeds, published “Told in a Coble, and other Poems.” Many of those relating to Whitby were warmly welcomed, and added not a little to her fame. This is her last volume of collected poems, but not a few have since been written and printed in the periodicals, and might, with advantage to the world of letters, be collected, and reappear in book form.

Mrs. Phillips was for a long period one of the honorary secretaries of the Ripon Home for Girls, and did much useful work for this excellent institution. Says one who knew her well, “She was extremely generous in disposition,[Pg 180] and her warm-hearted liberality and her kindly interest in those in distress endeared her to all classes.” On May 25th, 1897, she died at Sea Lawn, Torquay, having reached the age of sixty-six years.

Instead of giving brief quotations from several pieces, it will be perhaps the better plan to reproduce at length two or three of the author’s poems, and enable our readers to form their own conclusions. We may not quote the best of the writer’s work, but indicate her style. No one, we think, can read lines like the following without being moved, and his sympathy extended to the sorrowing fisher-folk:—

Lost with all Hands.

“‘Lost, with all hands, at sea.’
The Christmas sun shines down
On the headlands that frown o’er the harbour wide,
On the cottages, thick on the long quay side,
On the roofs of the busy town.

‘Lost, with all hands, at sea.’
The dread words sound like a wail,
The song of the waits, and the clash of the bells,
Ring like death-bed dirges or funeral knells,
In the pauses of the gale.

Never a home so poor
But it brightens for good Yule Tide,
[Pg 181]Never a heart too sad or too lone,
But the holy Christmas mirth ’twill own,
And his welcome will provide.

Where the sea-coal fire leaps
On the fisherman’s quiet hearth,
The Yule Log lies for his hand to heave,
While he hastes to his bride on Christmas Eve,
In the flush of his strength and mirth.

High on the little shelf
The tall Yule candle stands,
For the ship is due ere the Christmas night,
And it waits to be duly set alight,
By the coming father’s hands.

Long has the widow spared
Her pittance for warmth and bread,
That her sailor boy, when he home returns,
May joy, that her fire brightly burns,
Her board is so amply spread.

The sharp reef moans and moans,
The foam on the sand lies hoar;
The ‘sea-dog’ flickers across the sky,
The north wind whistles shrill and high
’Mid the breakers’ ominous roar.

But on the great pier head,
The grey-haired sailors stand,
While the black clouds pile away in the west,
And the spray flies free from the billow’s crest
Ere they dash on the hollow sand.

Never a sail to be seen
On the long grim tossing swell;
Only drifting wreckage of canvas and spar,
That sweep with the waves o’er the harbour bar,
Their terrible tale to tell.
[Pg 182]
Did a vision of Christmas pass
Before their drowning eyes?
When ’mid rent of rigging and crash of mast,
The brave ship, smote by the mighty blast,
Went down ’neath the pitiless skies.

No Christmas joy I ween
On the rock-bound coast may be.
Put token and custom of Yule away,
While widows and orphans weep and pray
For the ‘hands lost out at sea.’”

Still in the pathetic strain we will give another poem. In quoting this we feel we are not doing full justice to Mrs. Phillips, but it at all events shows her deep devotion to the race she greatly helped in their many trials.

The Fisherman’s Funeral.

“Up on the breezy headland the fisherman’s grave they made,
Where, over the daisies and clover-bells, the birchen branches swayed;
Above us the lark was singing in the cloudless skies of June,
And under the cliffs the billows were chanting their ceaseless tune;
For the creamy line was curving along the hollow shore,
Where the dear old tides were flowing that he would ride no more.

The dirge of the wave, the note of the bird, and the priest’s low tone were blent
In the breeze that blew from the moorland, all laden with country scent;
[Pg 183]But never a thought of the new-mown hay tossing on sunny plains,
Or of lilies deep in the wild wood, or roses gemming the lanes,
Woke in the hearts of the stern bronzed men who gathered about the grave,
Where lay the mate who had fought with them the battle of wind and wave.

How boldly he steered the coble across the foaming bar,
When the sky was black to the eastward and the breakers white on the scar!
How his keen eye caught the squall ahead, how his strong hand furled the sail,
As we drove through the angry waters before the raging gale!
How cheery he kept the long dark night; and never a parson spoke
Good words like those he said to us when at last the morning broke!

So thought the dead man’s comrades, as silent and sad they stood,
While the prayer was prayed, the blessing said, and the dull earth struck the wood;
And the widow’s sob, and the orphan’s wail, jarred through the joyous air;
How could the light wind o’er the sea blow on so fresh and fair?
How could the gay waves laugh and leap, landward o’er sand and stone,
While he, who knew and loved them all, lay lapped in clay alone?

But for long, when to the beetling heights the snow-tipped billows roll,
[Pg 184]When the cod, and the skate, and dogfish dart around the herring shoal;
When gear is sorted and sail is set, and the merry breezes blow,
And away to the deep-sea harvest the stalwart reapers go,
A kindly sigh and a hearty word, they will give to him who lies
Where the clover springs, and the heather blooms beneath the northern skies.”

We regard the following lines on a well-known division of East Yorkshire, as a successful effort on the part of Mrs. Phillips. An August day spent in rambling amongst the leafy lanes of Holderness cannot easily be forgotten. There is a lack of romantic and rugged scenery, but the old farmsteads nestling amongst the trees and the fields of golden grain have a beauty not surpassed in many parts of old England:—

In Holderness.

“The wind blew over the barley, the wind blew over the wheat,
Where the scarlet poppy toss’d her head, with the bindweed at her feet;
The wind blew over the great blue sea, in the golden August weather,
Till the tossing corn and the tossing waves showed shadow and gleam together.

The wind blew over the barley, the wind blew over the oats,
The lark sprung up in the sunny sky, and shook his ringing notes;
Over the wealth of the smiling land, the sweep of the glittering sea,
‘Which is the fairest?’ he sang, as he soared o’er the beautiful rivalry.
[Pg 185]
And with a fuller voice than the wind, a deeper tone than the bird,
Came the answer from the solemn sea, that Nature, pausing, heard,—
‘The corn will be garnered, the lark will be hushed at the frown of the wintry weather,
The sun will fly from the snow-piled sky, but I go on for ever!’”

It would be a pleasure to reproduce some of her poems dealing with the romantic legends of her native shire, but the space at our disposal does not permit this; they may, however, be found in her published works. We close with some pretty lines on the bells she loved so well:—

The Whitby Bells.

“The Whitby bells, so full and free,
They ring across the sunny sea,
That the great ocean god, who dwells
’Mid coral groves and silvery shells,
Wakes to the summons joyously.

O’er the purpling moors and ferny dells
Sound the sweet chimes, and bird and bee
Pause, hearing over land and lea
The Whitby bells.

And as the mellow music swells
One listener to the Whitby bells
Feels all the days that used to be,
Speak in the blended harmony;
They shrine life—death—and their farewells,
The Whitby bells.”