I’m pleased to host today a short piece by James Henry, a fellow member of Poetry I-D, on the life, times, and works of his namesake: James Henry, Irish poet (1798 – 1876.)
James Henry was a minor poet whose works were given a boost by the discovery of manuscripts and other materials in a Cambridge college, by the journalist Christopher Ricks, sometime around the second Millennium, and about 150 years after Henry’s death. The research done by Ricks led to the publication of Selected Poems of James Henry (2002.) He was born in Dublin just after the French Revolution, son of a woollen draper. Not much is known about his childhood and schooling, but he went up to Trinity College, Dublin, and won the Gold Medal for Classics. Henry became a doctor by profession, only giving up his practice when an inheritance enabled him to study and write full time.
Henry was married and had three children, only one survived into adulthood, a daughter. She pre-deceased him by four years. His wife died whilst on one of their numerous crossings of the Alps – on foot – in search of sources about Virgil’s Aeneid. They were a long way from Ireland, so he had her remains cremated in a tile oven, and subsequently kept in an urn.
None of Henry’s output was widely published in his lifetime; there are no contemporary critical reviews, and none of his work has appeared in national anthologies. His books were printed in Germany, on a wide range of subjects: education; the Irish protests against English domination; four volumes on the Aeneida (sic); the police force of Canton; and poetry.
At best, his poetry could be described as Keatsian; at worst, similar to the Scottish McGonegal. For me, there are three that stand out: My Stearine Candles, eulogising the benefits of the new technology in extending the day’s activities into night; Clever People, a rant against humanity; and the protest poem against the capitalism of the 1860s, when a coal mine disaster in Northumberland led to the deaths of 218 miners. In Henry’s view, the absence of a second shaft for rescue and air purposes was the cause of their deaths, blaming the mine owner for scrimping on infrastructure to keep the coal cheap.
//……./ He that enabled me to sit, the long / Midwinter nights, in study, by a light / Which neither flickers nor offends the nostrils, / ……… / But steady, cleanly, bright and inodorous, / …….. / Gives me just what I want, and asks back nothing.// My Stearine Candles
//Clever people are disagreeable, always taking advantage of you; / Stupid people are disagreeable, you can never knock anything into their heads; / ……. Clever People
Two hundred men and eighteen killed / For want of a second door! / Ay, for with two doors, each ton coal / Had cost one penny more / ……. / And should it occur [again*] – which God forbid!- / And stifle every soul / Remember well, good Christians all, / Not one whit worse the coal. //
* my insertion.
James Henry (1956-) is the nom-de-plume of a poet, a member of the Luton Poetry Society. Having used my middle names for the authorship of educational articles and letters whilst a serving teacher, I discovered it was also the name of a Luton Town footballer – and a relatively unknown Irish poet. The above article was prepared as a talk for a Luton Irish Forum cultural evening. As a semi-retired teacher, I spend my time on reading, writing and cultural activities, interspersed with seasonal work.
Ricks, C. (2002) Selected Poems of James Henry. Dublin: The Lilliput Press. ISBN 1 84351 011 1