Descriptions and writings about Joseph Skipsey

Extracts from Joseph Skipsey, His Life and Work by Robert Spence Watson (1909)

Amongst the many whom I have been so fortunate as to know who have achieved distinction in different walks of life, I do not think that I can recall one who struck me as distinguished in the same way as he was. Many have achieved far greater distinction; many have carried out useful and even invaluable work;but as an independent thinker, as a man of entirely original power, as one who was capable of careful and deep thought, and, at all events, in conversation of expressing its results, he stands to me alone. All that he has ever written taken all together can only give an inadequate idea of his infinite resources, and yet he was the very reverse of a man favoured by fortune, or it would seem so to our perhaps unwise method of weighing these things. What he actually did was perhaps rarely perfect, but it all bears the impress of the man's unique personality. He was a true poet, a seer as well as a maker. Of course many makers are not poets; no man is a true poet unless he is a maker, but, far beyond that, a seer. He must have the inward eye, he must be able to see the true meanings and relations of things. He may not have the deep poetic heart, the divine afflatus, or what you may choose to call it, and thus he may never be a great poet in any high sense. Skipsey was one of the elect who had this as the comparatively few true poets must have it. They may differ in the extent to which they have it, and on the power which they have to give body in words to their seeing. Some speak in a stammering tongue. The leaders in the undying republic of letters have insight and full voice; not in all, but in some respects, Skipsey had both. His poems of the life which was familiar to him are unique; they stand alone. No one else has touched them. The life of the pit which, at a distance, looks dark and gloomy and is hazardous and uncertain, has its own beauty, and we know it when that beauty is interpreted and shown to us by Joseph Skipsey. [pp 7-9]

Perhaps you saw most clearly Skipsey's unusual development and most intimately the man he really was when you heard him read or recite. It was not at all like the reading or recitation of other men. In the first place, he did not often do it, and that which he read or said was carefully selected. He often used to repeat to me his own poems before they were written out, but the ballad on the Hartley Pit accident we have frequently persuaded him to repeat to small gatherings of friends, and no one who heard hum repeat that or read Clarence Mangan's "Dark Rosaleen" or "Kathleen Ny-houlahan" will ever forget it. He waited quietly until he felt the spirit of that which he was about to do come upon him. Then he was as one possessed, everything but the poem was forgotten, but that he made live, or perhaps I should more truly say that he incarnated it; he actually became the poem himself. His features changed with every expression of the verse, his hands, nay, even his fingers, expressed the meaning of the words, and that meaning thoroughly revealed itself. It was far beyond what you had thought of, but it stood out clear for you ever afterwards. When, on rare occasions, he recited the "Hartley Pit Calamity" to a large audience, the emotion it awakened was almost painful to witness. I think I have never known a reader, reciter, or actor who could be compared with him for his power over words. They indeed became living things; they lived in him. [p110]

Looking back at him now that four years have passed since he left us, and taking him all in all, I think that I have never known a greater man. And yet I can well understand that that verdict would seem strange to many persons who knew him less intimately. I do not speak only of what he did, but far more of what he was. For more than forty years we were intimate friends, and I knew him more closely than most men. It may be to some extent I judge him by the facts of his life. It is difficult to remove them from the mind, but as a poet I do not think I have exaggerated him. He is a poet, a true poet, but not a great one, though with him the poetic faculty is real, not a common thing to find. But it is as a man of thought, of intellectual power, of quite marvellous insight, of strong and wide sympathy, that he dwells in my mind. He had his failings and shortcomings. He was too serious. He scarcely possessed humour. All his stories were of actual life, and generally of serious episodes in his own life. [p111]



Extract from Everyman Remembers (1931) by Ernest Rhys

Turning over some old letters, half afraid of what they might disclose, I came on one signed D. G. Rossetti and addressed to a poet unknown to most of you today. He counted to me, however, as a later skald in my mining days, and his name, Joseph Skipsey, must not be forgotten. My real debt cannot be counted, for without him and his love for his fellow poets I might never have become poet-mad, or ended by shouldering a thousand authors.

Rossetti's letter is dated November 16th, 1878, and speaks of sending on "this week's Athenaeum" with a review presulably of Skipsey's volume, Carols from the Coalfields. "I may as well say," writes Rossetti, "that the review is written by Theodore Watts, whose vigorous hand never fails to be recognized in his Athenaeum articles, and who has more influence at present than any other poetic reviewer." The letter ends with the pious hope, which sounds strange in this connex, that the book may be asked for at "Mudie's."

Alas! I am afraid Skipsey's poems (he published five books in all) were never asked for at Mudie's. But a small group of his lyrics survive in Victorian repertory. Four or five you will find in the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, notable one that may remind you of a song by his muse's master, William Blake, called "Infant Sorrow," beginning:
My mother groaned, my father wept;
Into the dangerous world I leapt.

But Skipsey's song is quite his own: 
[Here, Rhys quotes the full text of Skipsey's Mother wept]


I must first have met him in the North at Newcastle-on-Tyne, the mining metropolis, early in the eighties. He looked the skald, tall, with stalwart shoulders, too tall for a pitman, with grizzled dark hair and beard, and the deepest of deep-set black eyes under shaggy eyebrows. His speech was rough Northumbrian, not easy for a southerner to follow, and he read or recited his verses with kindling force, very affecting to hear. A version he had written of the old song, Willie comes not from the Fair, was, as he said or intoned it, a haunting thing:
Oh dear, what can the matter be?
Oh dear, what can the matter be?
Willie comes not from the Fair.

He was a little younger than D. G. Rossetti, and his first book of Poems (1859) is so rare I have never seem a copy. A later book printed at Bedlington* contained a ballad of "The Hartley Calamity," crude and direct, with a true ballad opening. because of my mining days and experience at Black Horse Pit, it rang clear in the repertory:
The Hartley men are noble:
I tell a tale of woe,
That tells the death of the Hartley men,
In the year of fifty-two.**

How impressive the old skald looked standing up to declaim this dire death song. Lady Burne-Jones, after a visit he paid them in London, said he was "noble looking," with extremely gentle courteous manners, and Dante Rossetti had caught the same impression of him and his artless mien. These famous London acquaintances he owed to a friend, Thomas Dixon, to whom Ruskin wrote the letters collected in the book Time and Tide by Wear and Tyne. Thus by his slow smouldering muse, his balladry and his uncouth northern speech he got hold of other poets' imaginations and became a legend.

Strangest episode of all, the Burne-Joneses and other friends got him elected - unlucky choice as it proved! - to the post of custodian at Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon. He was quite unfitted for it by his candour and his Doric dialect. He could have said with Shakespeare's Percy:
By God, I cannot flatter: I do defy
The tongues of soothers.

He only kept the post a few months. Henry James may have heard of the Stratford fiasco from the Burne-Joneses, for he adopted the motive for a prose comedy, not one of his best, which he called The Birthplace. The hero is not the least but like Skipsey, who suffered extremely in the post. He could not dissembler and play the showman's part for the American tourist, or produce a hair of the Great Cham out of his waistcoat pocket. At times he was even rude to the inquisitive tormentors who put silly questions. before the Stratford fiasco, the North-country publisher, Walter Scott, had been inspired, or say instigated, to start the Canterbury Poets Series with Skipsey as general editor. One of the early volumes was William Blake's Poems, in the preamble to which he stated his faith as a lyric poet.

The volume bears many signs of its editor's inexperience; but it's a rarity worth having. The sequel to the story of SKipsey's brief career as editor is in a degree the introduction to mine, as my first book was the volume of George Herbert's Poems he asked me to edit for him.

Ernest Rhys: Everyman Remembers (1931) pp224-7
Rhys counted Skipsey as 'one of the four or five most impressive ... figures among all the poets I have known' (ib p90n) - the others were George Macdonald, William Morris, Walt Whitman, Rabindranath Tagore and Rupert Brooke.

Ernest Rhys (1859-1946) was a writer of essays, stories, poetry, novels and plays, who is best remembered as the founding editor of  the Eveeryman's Library of affordable classics. Rhys persuaded the publisher, J M Dent, to embark upon the project which, by the time of Rhys's death in 1946 had produced 983 titles. He grew up in Newcastle and in 1876 took up an apprenticeship as a mining engineer. He later turned to writing, and was employed as an editor by the Walter Scott Publishing Co in Newcastle.

* this refers to A Book of Miscellaneous Lyrics, printed for the author by George Richardson, Bedlington, 1878.
** Rhys mis-quotes the poem. The first verse, as given in the book he refers to, is:
The Hartley men are noble, and
Ye'll hear a tale of woe;
I'll tell the doom of the Hartley men - 
The year of sixty-two.

The Hartley calamity took place on January 16, 1862.

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