Alfred H. Miles, ed. Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by John H. Ingram
Eliza Cook (18181889)
AN ALMOST contemptuous indifference has succeeded to the extensive popularity once enjoyed by Eliza Cook. The reaction, although not inexplicable, is to some extent undeserved. During the latter portion of her life her reputation was unduly depressed, owing to her lengthy withdrawal from the world through ill-health; but some of her lyrics are still familiar, and many of them are worthy of preservation.
It has been the fashion to weigh the merits of Eliza Cook by an unjust standard. She did not attempt to please poets or philosophersher audience was the people. Her muse, though homely in attire, could touch the hearts of those to whom the philosophy of Shelley, or the psychology of Browning, was incomprehensible. She had her mission, and fulfilled it honestly. She carried pathos and true sentiment into hearts and homes, where little but vulgarity and commonplaceness dwelt. Modern England is singularly deficient in poets who can touch the nations heart. She has poets, true and great, but they are only for the educated classes, the masses have but few minstrels now-a-days, whose lays are fit for their firesides. The songs of Béranger, Petöfi, Burns, can still excite the emotions of the labouring folks more than they can the high-strung feelings of the educated of their nationalities; but the English possess no such influential bards. Eliza Cook sang for the people, and was comprehended of the people and her influence was ever for their good. She inculcated independence, integrity, a love of home, and a sturdy patriotism; and although beauty rather than morality may be the truest theme for poetry, the class of readers Eliza Cook appealed to were better able to understand and profit by moral themes, especially when they were presented to them in a self-respective instead of in the usual mawworm manner. Eliza Cooks themes may be trivial, but they touch home, and have often caused the eyes to dim with tearsthe lips to quiver with emotionof those whose hearts have long been closed to any softening influence.
Adverse criticism notwithstanding, it may be confidently claimed for Eliza Cook that she was and is a poet of the people: a poet whose works are filled with sympathy for the downtrodden and helpless, the earth-weary and oppressed. Her works are characterised by purity of tone, clearness of expression, and an entire absence of straining for effect. In her verse, sound ever echoes sense, and rhyme is always accompanied by reason. No writer has been more national, without being narrow-minded, than Eliza Cook; and whilst in sympathy with the suffering of all humanity, she took pre-eminently to heart the precept, Poet, of thine own country sing. Naturally, several of her lyrics were only of transient interest, referring as they did to such contemporary events as the Lancashire Cotton Famine, the Shakespeare Tercentenary, Garibaldis Visit to England, and the like; but many of them strike those chords of the human heart, which are of ever-enduring vitality, and deal with thoughts and themes that age cannot stale, nor repetition dull.
As far as the outside world may know, her life was calm and uneventful. She was born in Southwark on December 24th, 1812. Her parents were enabled to afford her an education suited to the position of a respectable tradesmans daughter; but at a very early age her writings brought her into public favour. She sent some verses to a contemporary periodical, which attracted the notice of Jerdan, the editor. He published them, encouraged her to persevere, and in a very short time she found herself famous. In 1840 she collected her scattered pieces, and published them in a volume, which was warmly received by the public. In 1849 she started a weekly periodical entitled Eliza Cooks Journal, and carried it on until 1854, when her failing health caused its discontinuance. From time to time new volumes of her poetry appeared, and new editions of her former work were published, including some that were handsomely illustrated. Besides these volumes, she published a collection of prose sketches, styled Jottings from my Journal; and in 1865, at the present writers instigation, a collection of wise saws and modern instances, partly selected, but chiefly original, entitled Diamond Dust. It must not be forgotten that it is owing to her continuous exertions, and, above all, to her timely lines entitled Poor Hood, that Kensal Green Cemetery now contains a suitable memorial of one of our truest and noblest poets:
For some years previous to her decease, on September 23rd, 1859, Eliza Cooks state of health prevented her writing anything new, or revising her existing works; but in the home of her dear and best loved relatives she found that rest and care which, in her earlier years, she had given to others. Although for a lengthened period prior to her death she was compelled to relinquish her generous efforts on behalf of young and inexperienced writers, her past goodness and kindness have left memories which still thrill with gratitude those who were able to enjoy the benefit of her friendship and literary experience.