The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

T. E. Brown: Poet and Schoolmaster

by A. M. Harris
Volume 12, 1901, pgs. 416-425

See also Thomas Edward Brown the Manx Poet: An Appreciation by George Simpson, 1906

The name of Thomas Edward Brown, the poet of the "Little Manx Nation," was known to comparatively few until the time of his death. To those who knew, however, knowledge meant enthusiasm; for his personality was of that sort which kindles friendship and admiration, illuminates literary work beyond its first outward meaning, and communicates itself gradually from a small to a wider circle of disciples.

His actual work as a poet was not perhaps great, but it was original; it was true. It was a significant circumstance that he found no place in any of those modern anthologies of minor poets which may be described as "Echoes from the Masters." He did not write echoes; he submitted to no conventions. If he felt a thing, he said it, even if you, I, and half the world thought that it was not a thing to be said in poetry. He was not, in fact, simply trying to be a poet according to the moment's laws; he was one according to his own innermost conviction. Take, for example, his lines to the blackbird, begun as if he were addressing one of his Clifton school-boys in the boys' own slang, and ending in a manner--musical, dramatic, and full of Celtic melancholy suggestion. It is called "Vespers."

O blackbird, what a boy you are!
How you do go it!
Blowing your bugle to that one sweet star--
How you do blow it!
And does she hear you, blackbird boy, so far?
Or is it wasted breath?
"Good Lord! She is so bright--
The blackbird saith.

Here we have, linked to the careless school-boy phraseology, which might occur to a schoolmaster taking his evening stroll, the suggestion of the yearning for the unattainable, and also of the beauty and the joy achieved through that vain yearning.

But it was not Brown's poetry that awakened a general interest in the man. It was the publication of two short volumes of his most original and delightful letters. In these we may study that garden of the poet's mind in which grew the flowers of his verse which will never, perhaps attain great popularity.

His friends tell us, "Oh, his letters are not so clever as his talk. They disappointed me." But to us who never knew him they are quite clever enough. It is not too much to say of their literary quality, that they did not suffer for being read after two volumes of Stevenson's and two volumes of Fitzgerald's letters. No one can say that the art of letter-writing was lost in the latter part of the nineteenth century, while we have the works of these three men to refer to.

And Brown was a schoolmaster. That his work was irksome to him we know--how could it be otherwise to a poet born, in spite of all his sympathy for boys and delight in boyhood? His verses on Clifton show us how he felt its trammels. But he did his work well; his school was proud of him, his boys loved him, his fellow-masters felt for him an enthusiastic and admiring friendship. He has become a proud tradition to the place in which he spent so many weary years. If we enquire into the secret of his great influence, we seem to find it in the fulness, the originality, the width of his character.

Mr. Horatio F. Brown says:--
"My recollection is that his was the most vivid teaching I ever received; great width of view and poetical, almost passionate, power of presentment."

And again:--
"I should say that his educational function lay in 'widening.' He was a 'widener.' . . . There was a whiff of the great world brought in by him."

Someone else remarked of him--"You never come to the end of Brown."

There indeed was the great power of the man. His nature spread itself in so many directions. His scholarship was great. He complained once that people supposed him to be an untutored Manxman, because he wrote in dialect; but he had taken a double first-class at Oxford, and been elected to a fellowship of Oriel. His love of Nature and comprehension of her various moods was marvellous, and not less marvellous his feeling for music and passionate expression of its beauty.

Take, for example, his description of a Crystal Palace Concert:--

"I have said nothing about the choral annexe to the ninth symphony. No circumstances could be more unfavourable to a choir; when your ears have been stung for upwards of an hour by the most delicious string poison, 'the human voice divine' is simply grotesque . . . Then you remember a chorus takes off suddenly, and leaves a quartet exposed in mid-field. This is a most exquisite machine, to my mind. It is as if a thunderstorm suddenly cleared away, and four stars shone out in a sweet quarternion of solitude. It ought to be that. A calm soft kiss on the forehead of retreating turbulence."

Surely nothing could be more expressive than the term "delicious string poison," more suggestive than the descriptive passage at the end; images crowd upon one another, but yet without confusion--striking back into the minds of all music-lovers vivid memories of exquisite moments in the past.

The width of his nature showed itself in his appreciation of many different races. He entered into the feelings of all with a dramatic instinct. The dwellers in Manxland had the firmer hold on his affections; but we find sympathy, observation, and laughter in his references to Ireland, "your sweet old mother," as he was humorously pleased to call her.

"I went up Snaefell the other day. On the top we were caught in a great hailstorm. It only lasted about ten minutes, but such a blackness! straight as a bound from Ireland--that was its track. Till then, Ireland had been under the thickest veil; but the veil vanished in this deluge, and we saw the Mourne mountains as clear as crystal, but black as night. A space there was of purest sky, but no sunlight; a space of dark gunpowder tint, from which your sweet old mother looked forth the most bewitching, fascinating vixen. Oh, how she hated us! A fixed, eternal, glaring stare of hate and implacable revenge. No, not us, poor little kind-hearted, goosey-gander Mona, but you, you English. How the hail-stones hissed hate! So it is that night and day these terribly 'naughty passions' pass over us in transition. We are in the line of fire, and we sometimes try to reconcile you. But what can we do? That day, for instance, we did put up the sweetest little kiss of a rainbow just over Barrule. But Ireland stared fierce and unmitigated, and your dear old bungling, well-meaning Britishers looked rather confused and flurried; but in five minutes had recovered the inevitable attitude of perfect self-complacency, and the Pharisee in excelsis. But sure, you're a noble people, and I allis said so."

Of a very different set of people he wrote--

'I have been into Lancashire and Yorkshire for about ten days, and had a pleasant time with an old bachelor vicar. This was quite in the country, up one of those innumerable dales which wind on either side of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. A big mill (silk) down in the bottom; boundless wealth, comfort, and stability all about. Everything emerald green, though this can't last long. Fine, hearty, well-behaved people. You could hardly imagine that they could turn into the Douglas tripper; but I suppose by some marvelous transmutation they do . . . The music in the church, too, was very good . . . A noble folk, if ever there was."

Again, he described the innate courtesy of the Highlanders whom he met as he crossed a river with a friend, both of them having their trousers tucked up:--

"Here at last, yes here, in this all but indecent state, we encountered two natives--an old man and a young woman. Charming Highlanders! How good they are! How truly polite! Not a smile; or, if so, so kindly, so sweetly tempered with gracious consideration for the forlorn and, I should say, apparently idiotic pair who stood before them.
. . . We came on the Spey at the boat-house, as it is called; nor is it a public house; that is, it has no license. But a girl of some twenty-three years keeps it, and give you tea. She lives alone! bless her! and cursed eternally be he that would make it unsafe for her thus to live! What a tea she gave us! and what comfort and quiet and gentleness and peace altogether!"

Perpetually, in his walks, alone or with friends, he met delightful people among the poor, women old and young, in whom he discovered deep-seated human sympathy. But perhaps those who had a touch of the Celt in them came nearest to his heart.

"St. Gurnard's? Yes, I have been there, and there I had a female guide to the Head-an extraordinary thing to happen, I suppose. Such a nice, good woman. We talked about families and so forth. And when we parted, she looked long and earnestly at me, and said, 'I should like to see your wife.' Was not that wholly beautiful?
No, Cornwall is not England."

Yes, the Celt touched his heart, but the friends of his intellectual manhood were, necessarily, for the most part English. He even complained that the cultivated English music had spoilt him for the wild notes of his native land. Yet he went back to live there when his years of rest came.

His human sympathies were so wide that some have thought he leaned at times to weakness in his judgment of others, though never in the high rectitude of his own life. But this width must have been a great help in his dealings with his pupils. He would be grieved that they did wrong, but not surprised--hardly shocked, perhaps; therefore they could look upon him as a friend who understood the enemies they had to fight in their own faults and weaknesses. He would help them through the troubles of their own nature with a passion of sympathy which could not be mistaken for indifference to wrong-doing.

There is a very remarkable letter which touches on this point. It was written to his friend Miss Graves--a Manx lady, born and bred--whose sympathies are wide, and view by no means conventional. If it had not been so, some of his most interesting letters would not have been addressed to her. Still she could not go so far as he did in giving her sympathy to the very wayward heroine of a Manx story, The Captain of the Parish.

"Do consider what you are thinking of. Evidently, as in fact you admit, 'an ordinary good and decent girl.' Lizzy is meant to be nothing of the sort. It does not follow that she is to be an extraordinary indecent girl. Oh dear no: just a divil. But about devils I can see the difference in our conceptions is radical. Until you can look upon such a creature, breathless and alarmed for her, loving her, yearning over her, blaming her, slapping her, in an awful state as to what is going to become of her-the young wretch, the Divil (giving her a capital!), I respectfully decline to discuss the question further . . .
As you threaten to strike, I see the face of Mrs. Grundy. Yes, Mrs. Grundy, a modified but clearly perceptible Mrs. Grundy. She's been there all along. I didn't like to mention it; but excuse me, ladies, let me introduce you--'Mrs. Grundy, Miss Graves; Miss Graves, Mrs. Grundy.' And to think it's come to this--aw dear!"

On this subject he says again, writing of his father, the Manx clergyman:--

"Yes, the man was right. I do love the poor wastrels, and you are right; I have it from my father.
. . . Extraordinary, though, was it not? To think of a Pawn respecting men's vices even; not as vices, God forbid! but as parts of them, very likely all but inseparable from them; at any rate, theirs. Pitying with an eternal pity, but not exposing, not rebuking . . ."

Deep indeed was his yearning over those who walked with stumbling feet. Never would he have desired to turn aside and leave such a one to his fate. Like a kindly physician who shrinks from no loathsome disease, who looks on no patient with disgust and horror, to whom no man is afraid to reveal his worst symptoms, so was this man to the faults of his fellow-creatures. Wide indeed was his nature, since it included the highest ideals for himself, the most indulgent sympathies for those who erred and fell. In a lecture on "Manners" he is reported by Archdeacon Wilson to have characteristically said,--

"I am certain God made fools for us to enjoy, but there must be an economy of joy in the presence of a fool: you must not betray your enjoyment."

His literary appreciations were as intense as the rest of him. He had the gift of putting a soul into all he touched. We might quote his own phrase concerning Sir Walter Scott:--

"The inexhaustible streaming and bubbling up of the great old heart of him, his own boundless enjoyment of it all."

Such indeed was his outlook on all life--a thing with good in it everywhere. He possessed the rare qualities--the love, the laughter, the tears--that reveal to others the hidden heart of things, that show the great pulse of divine and beautiful life throbbing all incongruities. As he himself said in the poem on "Pain,"--

To him the sorrows are the tension-thrills
Of that serene endeavour
Which yields to God for ever and for ever
The joy that is more ancient than the hills.

Nature was very dear to him. He felt her moods as if they were living things; yet the sense of her great silence was in all he wrote of her.

"The lake was very quiet: only from time to time there passed over it towards me the softest imaginable shudder, and the moon between two stars sat just above the Rigi."

Sometimes, but rarely, he found fault with Nature and scolded her.

"Chalk, chalk, chalk--that is the coast, and such coasts have, to me, always a blank and idiot look. The cliffs seem to have no intelligent appreciation of where they are, or what is expected of them; the very sea has got tired of buffeting their poor pasty fronts--no struggle, no defiance, no grim repose, 'no nothink.'"

But of the same place he writes,-

"Our beach is the most sparkling one I ever saw. It is chiefly composed of fine shingle--flint is the great thing, but such flint, exquisitely coloured, and with such a dewy gleam always on it. Even the dry stuff, above high-water mark, is never dull or dim: it seems to have a radiance in itself-bless it!"

But, praised or scolded, she was a living reality to him. There were three places, Keswick, Clifton, and the Isle of Man, where he said his spirit would linger longest.

The first is by the Avon's side,
Where tall rocks flank the winding tide.
. . . . .
The next is where a hundred fells
Stand round the lake like sentinels.
. . . . .
The next is where God keeps for me
A little island in the sea.

The island was the dearest of all. He describes her as seen suddenly through the mists on Skiddaw:--

Dark purple peaks against the sun,
A gorgeous thing to look upon!
Nay, darling of my soul! I fear
To see your beauty come so near--
I would not have it! This is not your rest--
Go back, go back, into your golden West!

When we touch upon his religious feelings we find that they are most perfectly expressed in many of his short, quaint, and most original poems. He was a modern George Herbert, not in intricacy and richness of ornament, but in homely and unwonted, though not irreverent, treatment of sacred things; as in "Planting":--

Who would be planted chooseth no the soil
Or here or there,
Or loam or peat
Wherein he best may grow,
And bring forth guerdon of the planter's toil-
The lily is most fair,
But says not "I will only blow
Upon a southern land;" the cedar makes no coil
What rock shall owe
That springs that wash his feet;
The crocus cannot arbitrate the foil
That for it purple radiance is most meet-
Lord, even so
I ask one prayer,
The which if it be granted,
It skills not where
Thou plantest me, only I would be planted.

Or again in "Specula":--

When He appoints to meet thee, go thou forth
It matters not
If south or north,
Bleak waste or sunny plot.
Nor think, if haply He thou seek'st be late,
He does thee wrong:
To stile or gate
Lean thou thy head and long!
It may be that to spy thee He is mounting
Upon a tower,
Or in thy counting
Thou has mista'en the hour.
But, if He come not, neither do thou go
Till Vesper chime;
Belike thou then shalt know
He hath been with thee all the time.

The most noticeable feature of his religious feeling was his sense of submission to the Divine will, his perception of beauty in the Divine work, his constant expectation of the Divine presence. Even concerning the question of the immortality of the soul, he is content to bow to the Divine edict, if he has imperfectly understood it. He wrote to J. A. Symonds in 1892:

But, if the prochain numéro is never to be issued, and our story breaks off quite suddenly and incomplete, I am quite satisfied; I would not trouble with Omnipotens et Sempiterne about such a trifle.

There is a very remarkable contrast between this serene submission and Huxley's passionate desire for life after death, as recently revealed to us. The one believed in it, but was content either way; the other did not believe, yet revolted from the idea of annihilation.

When Brown was questioned concerning his later religious beliefs and his earlier difficulties he refused to go back on these.

Must I always be breaking stones upon the road to heaven? Examining and re-examining every inch of the way? Proving every rung of the Jacob's ladder? Well, no, I have other things to do.

There was something so good, so strong, so real about this man, that it is possible to feel, after reading his letters, a touch of that final satisfaction which he himself expresses for another reason; a feeling that the century which has just left us held to the full all that was good in the human race, and that our best ideals were not lost nor our best experiences buried before its close. Then, as ever before, were strong hearts and true, strong brains and clear, to carry on the highest traditions of humanity to their final issue.

If the century runs out upon this final chord, what more do I want? . . . It is enough; nunc dimittis, Domine. You will go on to other joys: the coming century will bring them to you. But to me--well, well, all right.

His resignation was not that of weariness or sadness, rather that of gratitude and the fulness of content. He says elsewhere:--

All these things I shall never see again. "I cannot but remember such things were." Well never mind; what they have been to me, they are and will be to others. Keep up the cultus.

How different is this from Byron's

I do believe
Though I have found them not, that there may be
Words which are things--hopes which will not deceive,
And virtues which are merciful, nor weave
Snares for the failing.

Brown did not go on to "other joys," but while he lived in the world he helped to make it a little gladder and a little better for the rest of us. And to us who are left to begin the new century--and with it so soon a new era, since we have lost her whose name is linked with all the splendours of the last--to us who have the unknown future to face, we may count among the good things assured, that this man, so little known in his life-time, was one among the healthy agencies of the past--that he helped to train and teach the generation which is now doing the work of the world.

It is for those who follow him in his work to follow him also in his "widening" influence, to link the old with the new, to carry on the best traditions of the past while developing the discoveries of the present. That he did not always find his task easy or congenial may be some encouragement to others in their moments of difficulty and despondency; and we know that this was so from his poem called "Clifton":--

I'm here at Clifton, grinding at the mill
My feet for thrice nine barren years have trod;
But there are rocks and waves at Scarlett still,
And gorse runs riot in Glen Chass--thank God!

Alert, I seek exactitude of rule,
I step, and square my shoulders with the squad;
But there are blaeberries on old Barrule,
And Langness has its heather still--thank God!

There is no silence here: the truculent quack
Insists with acrid shrieks my ears to prod,
And, if I stop them, fumes; but there's no lack
Of silence still on Carraghyn--thank God!

Pragmatic fibs surround my soul, and bate it
With measured phrase that asks the assenting nod;
I rise, and say the bitter thing, and hate it,
But Wordsworth's castle's still at Peel--thank God!

Oh, broken life! oh, wretched bits of being,
Unrhythmic patched, the even and the odd!
But Bradda still has lichens worth the seeing,
And thunder in her caves--thank God! thank God!

This is perhaps his most popular poem, but more practical is that on "Preparation":--

Hast thou a cunning instrument of play,
'Tis well, but see thou keep it bright,
And tuned to primal chords, so that is may
Be ready day and night.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, July, 2010