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World Poetry Day

This Wednesday 21st March, we celebrate the UN's World Poetry Day by looking at the famous and lesser-known poets that we've come across in the Deceased Online database

The United Nations designated 21 March World Poetry Day in 1999. Observing the day, according to UNESCO, encourages all of us to, "return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals, to promote the teaching of poetry, to restore a dialogue between poetry and other arts such as theatre, dance, music and painting, and to support small publishers . . . " In doing so, UNESCO recognises, "the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind." Like family history, poetry can reaffirm our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, across the world and across time, share the same questions and feelings.

Among the very famous poets in the database are the revolutionary William Blake and feminist pioneer and chronicler of the mid-Victorian period, George Eliot.

William Blake (1757-1827)
William Blake, painted in 1807 by Thomas Phillips
A little appreciated man of slender means in his lifetime, William Blake, would be celebrated after death as one of the most influential figures of the Romantic Age. Living in London almost all his life, Blake was born in Broad Street, Soho on 28th November 1757. His father, James, worked as a haberdasher and hosier. William was educated at home by his mother, Catherine, until the age of 10 when he was sent to Pars' drawing school near the Strand to develop his evident artistic talent. At 14, in 1772, William was apprenticed to an engraver, James Basire of Great Queen Street. In 1779, after working as a journeyman engraver, Blake began studying at the Royal Academy. 

Blake married Catherine Boucher in St Mary's Battersea on 18 August 1782. The couple had no children.

Raised as a dissenter, William Blake would be strongly influenced by the Bible in both his art and poetry. As a child he told his parents, Catherine and James, that he had seen visions of God and angels. Blake's visions and mystical sense later influenced his work, including his first book of poems, Poetical Sketches, which was published in 1783. In the late eighteenth century, a period of reveration of the rational mind, Blake's mysticism was little understood by contemporaries, leading to the artist being dismissed by many as insane. 

Like other dissenters and writers who lived through the period of Enlightenment, William Blake wanted to bring about social and political reform. Unlike most enlightenment figures, Blake prioritised imagination over reason. He sought to achieve his aims through engravings, poems and illuminated pamphlets. His written and etched work was prolific and included Songs of Innocence(1789), Songs of Experience (1794), The Book of Urizen (1794), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), Milton (1804-08), and Vala, or The Four Zoas (1797; rewritten after 1800).

Between 1800 and 1803, Blake lived by the sea in Felpham, Sussex, but returned to London after being tried (and acquitted) for treason. In his last years, Blake produced Jerusalem (1804-1820) and was working on illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy at the time of his death.


William Blake died at home in Soho on 12 August 1827, aged 69, and was buried at Bunhill Fields. The grave location was later lost in a headstone clearance. The current headstone was later erected near the spot of his burial. Blake's wife, parents, and two brothers are also buried at Bunhill and can all be found in the Deceased Online database.
William Blake's headstone in Bunhill Fields (photograph May 2014)
As a Londoner, Blake appreciated the city's small oases of calm. Today, Bunhill offers a sanctuary to 21st century visitors. Perhaps when visiting his grave, they take a moment to think on his lines of finding beauty and peace in nature:


Eternity

He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternities’ sunrise
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour

William Blake was one of five buried at Bunhill Fields on 17 August 1827

George Eliot (1819-1880), was buried in Highgate East Cemetery. 

Although she was baptised "Mary-Anne Evans", the novelist's later married name of "Mary Ann Cross" is inscribed on her headstone below that of her pen-name. George Eliot left a strong literary legacy, with Middlemarch being hailed by many as the most influential novel in the English language. Her poems are perhaps not as well-known, but they touch on themes Eliot explored in her novels.

Her poem "In a London Drawing Room" reflects the Victorian city life which she experienced at the heart of literary innovators. The poem begins:

The sky is cloudy, yellowed by the smoke. 
For view there are the houses opposite 
Cutting the sky with one long line of wall 
Like solid fog: far as the eye can stretch 
Monotony of surface & of form 
Without a break to hang a guess upon. 

Unlike Blake and Eliot, not all the poets in the database are known publicly or as well-remembered. Poignantly, the image below shows the memorial plaque at Kirkcaldy of eight year old Marjorie Fleming who was buried in 1811. From this, we learn that she was an "Author, poet and diarist". This is a beautiful memory of a young child and provides details that cannot be found in official burial records. Who knows what great poetry Marjorie may have produced has she lived beyond her eight years and eleven months?
Another lesser-known poet in the database is Robert Millhouse (1788-1839), who lies buried in Nottingham General Cemetery. A weaver by trade, Millhouse was a poet of the Spenserian style. He became relatively celebrated in his lifetime, but suffered problems of marriages, ill-health and (that common curse of writers) poverty. Perhaps his most famous work is Poetical Blossoms, edited by fellow Nottingham poet, the Rev. Luke Booker in 1823.




Poetry can also appear on the headstones of those whose records appear in Deceased Online's collections. There are well-known couplets and verses that appear on many headstones across the country. But perhaps the most personal poetic memorial inscription is that of the esteemed Alfred Noyes (1880-1958), whose lines from his most famous work, "Hiawatha", appear on this beautifully carved headstone over the grave of his dear friend, the composer and musician Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's grave in Bandon Hill. 
Headstone of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912)

The inscription contains the following lines, redolent of the feeling that as long as his music plays on, Coleridge-Taylor, too, remains alive. In many ways, poets also live on through their work. 

He lives while music lives
Too young to die -
his great simplicity,
his happy courage 
in an alien world,
his gentleness,
made all that knew him

love him.

We can be thankful for World Poetry Day in providing everyone around the globe with an opportunity to read, hear and discuss poems recited or written by those still living or others who are long dead.

We would love to hear from anyone with poet ancestors. They do not need to have been famous. If possible, we would like to feature examples of their work in a future blog. If you would like to tell us about your poet relatives, please get in touch in the Comments Box below or via or Twitter and Facebook pages.

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