HEXHAM’S ‘PEOPLE’S POET’: Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)
‘Heather land and bent-land,
Black land and white,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land of my delight.
Land of singing waters,
And winds from off the sea,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land where I would be.
Heather land and bent-land,
And valleys rich with corn,
God bring me to Northumberland,
The land where I was born.’
2018 marks the 140th anniversary of the birth in Hexham of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, author of poems like ‘Flannan Isle’, ‘The Ice Cart’, and ‘The Drover’s Road’. Born in Battle Hill House on October 2nd 1878, his mother was Elizabeth Judith Frances Gibson (née Walton) and his father, John Pattison Gibson, was a pharmacist with his own small business. Wilfrid was the youngest of seven children in a somewhat unhappy home. As he grew up, he helped out in the family shop, and assisted with his father’s photographic and antiquarian interests.
He was educated at private schools, all of which went bankrupt, and brought up under the wing of an elder sister, Elizabeth, who had published poetry and who took responsibility for much of his education.
Wilfrid penned his first poem aged 10 about a school bully. At 13, he started to have his work published in the local newspapers. In February 1901 one of his poems was inscribed on the fountain in Hexham Market Place.
His father, an expert on the Franco-Prussian War, added to the boy's education by taking him abroad several times to visit battlefields and historical sites so that Gibson saw Ypres and Gallipoli before the war.
A chance meeting in 1898 between Wilfrid, his elder sister and Sydney Cockerell, a friend of many literary figures, gave Wilfid introductions to W.B. Yeats, Laurence Binyon and others during occasional visits to London.
In 1902, his mother died, and he dedicated his book of poems, 'Urlyn the Harper' to her.
Not much is known about his early years except for a gift for language and a real desire to be a poet. An early poem of his appeared in ‘The Spectator’ in 1897 and his first book of poetry was published at the age of 24 under the title of‘The Golden Helm’.
This was followed, in 1907, by 'On the Threshold' and ‘Stonefields’ which depicted the strength and atmosphere of Northumberland and the Borders, and then ‘Daily Bread’, issued in 1910, which went into a third printing partly because of its down to earth style proving that there was a market for poems on everyday life which people could relate to. The subject matter of the urban poor caught the eye of a northern reviwwer who christened him the 'People's Poet'.
Gibson confessed that he had a 'horror of ultra-poetic words', believing that it was 'the poet's business to make poetry out of the life of his day'. He had once eaten 'confectionary', he felt, but was now a 'bread and cheese' poet.
He was also a bit of a playwright whose verse dialogues were frequently performed. His play ‘Womankind’ was staged in Birmingham and Glasgow, as well as at the Chicago Little Theatre.
He was not without his critics, like the poet Edward Thomas who said in 1906 that ‘Wilfrid Wilson Gibson had long ago swamped his small delightful gift by his abundance. He is essentially a minor poet in the bad sense, for he is continually treating subjects poetically, writing about things instead of creating them'. Of Gibson’s later verse narratives, Thomas was equally scathing: ‘Gibson has merely been embellishing what would have been more effective as pieces of rough prose. The verse has added nothing except unreality, not even brevity.’
Gibson first left the relative middle class security of his home in Hexham at the age of 34, living briefly in Glasgow where he reviewed books for the ‘Glasgow Herald’. He experienced life in the slums and visted mines and factories and was troubled by what he witnessed there.
He finally left his native Northumberland and moved to London in the summer of 1912 to work as an assistant editor for ’Rhythm’, a poetry magazine edited by John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield. His small wage was paid anonymously by arts patron Eddie Marsh and Marsh introduced him to poet Rupert Brooke on September 17,1912. Just three days later Gibson, at Brooke's invitation, attended the first meeting to discuss the publication of ’Georgian Poetry’. In November 1912 he moved into a little room over Harold Monro's Poetry Bookshop, two months before its official opening. It was there that he met his wife, Geraldine Townshend, who worked as Monro’s secretary. In December 1913 Gibson was married in Dublin. He moved to Dymock in Gloucestershire in 1914 to join a group of poets and his new bride went with him.
The Gibsons spent their honeymoon at 'The Gallows', while fellow poet Lascelles Abercrombie was away, and soon afterwards they moved to a thatched cottage called ‘The Old Nailshop’, two miles west of Abercrombie's cottage, on the road from Dymock to Ledbury.
‘The Old Nail-Shop', published in ’New Numbers 4’, is one of several poems referring to the cottage and shows Gibson's feel for history and a genuine concern for the poor. However, the most significant poem about the cottage is 'The Golden Room'. It gives a strong sense of the atmosphere inside the house on a night when five of the six Dymock Poets (not John Drinkwater) met up. It was dedicated to his wife.
The evening the poets met was probably June 24, 1914 and the poem expresses Gibson’s anguished feelings about how war had destroyed so much.
Dymock's famous daffodils are featured strongly in another Gibson’s poem ‘Daffodils’ and in 'To John Drinkwater'. As with 'The Golden Room', war is blamed for bringing an end to their peaceful sense of community.
One of the Dymock Poets, the American Robert Frost, said of Gibson that ‘he is much talked of in America at the present time. He’s just one of the plain folks with none of the marks of the literary poseur about him'. The poet Rupert Brooke affectionately nicknamed him ‘Wibson’. Two volumes of Gibson's poems - ’Daily Bread’ (1910) and ’Fires’ (1912) - impressed Frost by showing that there was a market for poems about ordinary people and everydaylife.
After Frost had an awkward encounter with a gamekeeper in the woods behind Abercrombie's house, Frost wrote to a friend that he now had a better claim than Gibson 'to the title of the People's Poet'. D.H. Lawrence wrote to Eddie Marsh in November 1913 that 'I think Gibson is one of the clearest and most lovable personalities I know'.
By the start of the first world war, Gibson was seen as one of the most talented younger poets and more famous even than his friend and fellow poet Rupert Brooke. Gibson’s poems ‘Breakfast’, and ‘The Messages’ first published in October 1914, were among 32 poems about the war in his 1915 book ’Battle’.
He often criticised his own work as shown in a letter to Frost about ’Battle’: 'I had to publish it as I felt I must make my little protest, however feeble and ineffectual - so don't be too hard on me.'
News of the outbreak of war came to him 'like a thunderclap'. Yet he still believed that it was important to continue with poetry, to 'keep the flag flying in this triumph of barbarism' as he said, adding: 'I cannot think of war in terms of armies of contending nations: it it is to me a business of innumerable personal tragedies.'
During the winter of 1915-16 he was in ill health and down in spirits. He was greatly moved by the war deaths that year of his friends Rupert Brooke and Denis Browne and in November he attempted to volunteer for the army but was turned down three times because of poor health and bad eyesight. This allowed him in late 1916 and early 1917 to embark upon a successful two month reading tour of America.
However, he was finally accepted in October 1917, for duties in England only, and joined the army in January 1918 to work as a packer and loader and medical clerk in the Army Service Corps in south London. Later he was transferred to a clerkship in Sydenham and worked in the Medical Card Registry. He served until February 1919 and was glad to leave after a dispiriting experience when he discovered how 'hideously squalid' army life was which rendered him exhausted, with minor ailments and finding writing difficult.
Rupert Brooke had left a share in the income from copyright of his poems to Gibson which helped to ease the financially difficult post-war years. During the 1920s and after, Gibson continued to write, supplementing the family income with book reviewing and broadcasting.
The Gibsons had three children: Audrey, born in 1916; Michael, born in 1918, and Jocelyn, born in 1920. They also cared for their grandson, Roland, after Audrey was killed in an accident in 1939.
In 1920 the family moved to Saundersfoot in Wales, with subsequent moves to Letchworth in Hertfordshire, followed by London, Berkshire, and the Isle of Wight. After Geraldine died in 1950, Wilfrid moved with Roland to live with his son and daughter-in-law in Surrey.
Gibson averaged almost a book a year for all his adult life until 1950. He continued with lecture and reading tours around Britain but his work declined in popularity.
In his old age he becae something of a recluse and destroyed all of his papers. 'I am one of those unlucky writers whose books have predeceased him.... ‘I have no faith that posterity… will be likely to resuscitate them,’ he wrote to Robert Frost in 1939.
He was included in Edward Marsh's 'Georgian Poetry', had his poem 'Breakfast' in W.B.Yeats's 'The Oxford Book of Modern Verse' and featured six times in Philip Larkin's 'Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Verse' and was an influence on the young Auden.
As Gibson said himself: ‘We shall always have poets while we have lovers.’
In war and in peace, he tried to celebrate the lives of ordinary people and what he called ‘the heartbreak in the heart of things’.
‘Wibson’ continued to publish a selection of poems every two years or so until 1950, despite money problems and the aches and pains of rheumatism and fibrositis. However, his work declined greatly in popularity.
He died at Virginia Water in Surrey in a nursing home on May 26th 1962, aged 83. He had written to Robert Frost in 1939 that ‘I am one of those unlucky writers whose books have predeceased him.’
(as published in Hexham Historian, August 2018)
O YOU WHO DRINK MY COOLING WATERS CLEAR
FORGET NOT THE FAR HILLS FROM WHENCE THEY FLOW
WHERE OVER FELL AND MOORLAND YEAR BY YEAR
SPRING SUMMER AUTUMN WINTER COME AND GO
WITH SHOWERING SUN AND RAIN AND STORM AND SNOW
WHERE OVER THE GREEN BENTS FOREVER BLOW
THE FOUR FREE WINDS OF HEAVEN; WHERE TIME FALLS
IN SOLITARY PLACES CALM AND SLOW.
WHERE PIPES THE CURLEW AND THE PLOVER CALLS,
BENEATH THE OPEN SKY MY WATERS SPRING
BENEATH THE CLEAR SKY WELLING FAIR AND SWEET,
A DRAUGHT OF COOLNESS FOR YOUR THIRST TO BRING,
A SOUND OF COOLNESS IN THE BUSY STREET.
WILFRED WILSON GIBSON HEXHAM FEB -1901
Inscription on north side of Memorial Fountain in Hexham Market Place
N.B. ‘Wilfrid’ misspelt on Memorial!
THE GOLDEN ROOM
‘Was it for nothing that the little room,
All golden in the lamplight, thrilled with golden
Laughter from hearts of friends that summer night?’ (Wilfrid Gibson)
I’m as happy as a daffodil
sunshine flows around me
with the joy of my poetry.
I am Lord Pretty Field,
a tipsy aristocrat of verse,
become full of myself
and country booze
in the Beauchamp Arms.
Under branches frothy with blossom,
I carry a torch from Northumberland
for Wilfrid Gibson
and his old mates;
my Cheviot heart
in Gloucester ciderlight.
We can only catch
a petal from the slaughter,
to ease the melancholy
of a Dymock dusk;
over the gloomy murmurs
of distant wars.
A swirling rook cries out
across St Mary’s spire
as I climb
back to my White House room
to dream of an England gone,
and a flash of whisky
For Wilfrid you are still
‘a singing star’,
drenched in balladry;
and this I know:
I will keep your little songs alive
in this Golden Room in my heart
and, in my Hexham’s market place,
rant for you
all our love
with streaming daffodils.
(written after a visit to Dymock in 2003 as a guest of the Dymock Poets).
BOOKS REFERRED TO:
Keith Armstrong. The Town of Old Hexham, The People's History 2002.
Keith Clark. The Muse Colony, Redcliffe Press 1992.
Wilfrid Gibson. Homecoming, Wagtail Press 2004.
Linda Hart. Once They Lived in Gloucestershire: A Dymock Poets Anthology, Green Branch Press, 2011 reprint.
Dominc Hibberd. Harold Monro and Wilfrid Gibson: The Pioneers. Cecil Woolf, The War Poets Series 7, 2006.
Roger Hogg. Wilfrid Wilson Gibson : people's poet ; a critical and biographical study of W.W. Gibson 1878-1962, Newcastle University PhD thesis 1989
Sean Street. The Dymock Poets, Seren 1994.
FROM DOCTOR KEITH ARMSTRONG'S OWN WILFRID GIBSON ARCHIVE:
Wilfrid Gibson. Battle, The Cyder Press reprint 1999.
Wilfrid Gibson. Collected Poems 1902-1925, MacMillan 1926.
Wilfrid Gibson. The Golden Room, Poems 1925-1927. Macmillan 1928.
Wilfid Gibson. Whin, Leopold Classic reprint, undated.
Tyneside writer Dr Keith Armstrong was Year of the Artist 2000 poet in residence at Hexham Races.
Other commissioned work by Keith includes ‘Fire & Brimstone’ the story of Tynedale artist John Martin, and ‘The Hexham Celebration’, both for the Hexham Abbey Festival, and The Hexham Riot (publication and outdoor performance).
He also has also compiled and edited a local history book ‘The Town of Old Hexham’ and organised a mini-festival celebrating the life and work of Hexham born poet Wilfrid Gibson in 2003. He appeared again at the Hexham Abbey Festival in 2008 reciting the poetry of Gibson.
His poetry book ‘The Darkness Seeping’, based on the Prior Leschman Chantry Chapel in Hexham Abbey, was published in 1997.
Posted by keith armstrong at 8:23 am