Massey, Gerald (DNB12)
MASSEY, GERALD (1828–1907), poet, born in a hut at Gamble Wharf, on the canal near Tring, on 29 May 1828, was son of William Massey, a canal boatman, by his wife Mary. His father brought up a large family on a weekly wage of some ten shillings. Massey said of himself that he 'had no childhood.' After a scanty education at the national school at Tring, Massey was when eight years of age put to work at a silk mill there. His hours were from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m., and he earned from ninepence to one shilling and threepence a week. He then tried straw-plaiting. But the marshy districts of Buckinghamshire induced ague, and at fifteen he found employment as an errand-boy in London. Reading was an absorbing passion with him from childhood, and as a lad he developed poetical ambitions. He devoted his leisure in London to a study of Cobbett's ‘French without a Master,’ and of books by Tom Paine, Volney, and Howitt. As early as 1848 he published with a bookseller at Tring a first volume, ‘Poems and Chansons,’ and sold some 250 copies at a shilling each to his fellow-townsfolk. The revolutionary spirit of the times caught his enthusiasm, and joining the Chartists he applied his pen to the support of their cause. With one John Bedford Leno, a Chartist printer of Uxbridge, he edited in 1849, at twenty-one, a paper written by working-men called ‘The Spirit of Freedom.’ Next year he contributed some forcible verse to ‘Cooper's Journal,’ a venture of the Chartist, Thomas Cooper [q. v.] (cf. Cooper's Life, 4th edit. 1873, p. 320). But Massey's sympathies veered to the religious side of the reforming movement, and in the same year he associated himself with the Christian Socialists under the leadership of Frederick Denison Maurice, who wrote of him at the time to Charles Kingsley as ‘not quite an Alton Locke,’ but with ‘some real stuff in him’ (Maurice, Life of F. D. Maurice, ii. 36). Massey acted as secretary of the Christian Socialist Board and contributed verse to its periodical ‘The Christian Socialist.’ During the same year (1850) he brought out a second volume of verse, ‘Voices of Freedom and Lyrics of Love,’ which showed genuine poetic feeling, although the style was rough and undisciplined. Next year he welcomed Kossuth to England in a poem, and he enthusiastically championed the cause of Italian unity.
Massey fully established his position as a poet of liberty, labour, and the people with a third volume, ‘The Ballad of Babe Christabel and other Poems,’ which appeared in Feb. 1854. The book, which dealt with conjugal and parental affection as well as with democratic aspirations, passed through five editions within a year, and was reprinted in New York, where Massey's position was soon better assured than in London. Despite obvious signs of defective education and taste, Massey's poetry deserved its welcome. Hepworth Dixon in the ‘Athenæum’ (4 Feb. 1854) called him ‘a genuine songster.’ The best-known poets of the day acknowledged his ‘lyrical impulse and rich imagination.’ Alexander Smith likened him to Burns, while Walter Savage Landor in the ‘Morning Advertiser’ compared him with Keats, Hafiz, and Shakespeare as a sonneteer. Tennyson was hardly less impressed, although he thought that the new poet made ‘our good old English crack and sweat for it occasionally’ (Tennyson's Life, i. 405). Ruskin regarded Massey's work ‘as a helpful and precious gift to the working classes.’ Sydney Dobell, a warm admirer, became a close personal friend, and Massey named his first-born son after him.
To ‘Babe Christabel’ there succeeded five further volumes of verse, viz. ‘War Waits’ (1855, two editions), poems on the Crimean War; ‘Craigcrook Castle’ (1856); ‘Robert Burns, a Song, and other Lyrics’ (1859); ‘Havelock's March,’ poems on the Indian Mutiny (1860); and ‘A Tale of Eternity and other Poems’ (1869). The poem on Burns was sent in for the Crystal Palace competition at the Burns centenary in 1859, and although it failed to win the prize, was placed in the first six of the competing works. [See Knox, Mrs. Isa.] Other of the volumes include ballads breathing an admirable martial and patriotic ardour. Massey's ballad ‘Sir Richard Grenville's Last Fight’ is for its fine spirit worthy of a place beside Tennyson's ‘Revenge,’ which was written much later, and his tribute to England's command of the sea in ‘Sea Kings’ clearly adumbrates Rudyard Kipling's ‘Song of the Dead’ in ‘The Seven Seas’ (1896). Massey's narrative verse embodies mystical speculation and was less successful; his range and copiousness suffered from laxity of technique; but both in England and America he long enjoyed general esteem. In 1857 Ticknor & Field of Boston published his ‘Complete Poetical Works,’ with a biographical sketch, and in 1861 a similar collection came out in London with illustrations and a memoir by Samuel Smiles. In his lectures on ‘Self-help’ in 1859 Smiles set Massey high among his working-class heroes. After 1860 Massey gradually abandoned poetry for other interests which he came to deem more important, and his vogue as a poet decayed. In 1899 Massey's eldest daughter, Christabel, collected for her father his chief poems in two volumes under the title of ‘My Lyrical Life.’ This anthology goes far to justify the admiration of an earlier generation.
Meanwhile Massey sought a livelihood from journalism. For a time he worked with John Chapman [q. v. Suppl. I], the radical publisher in the Strand. ‘George Eliot’ who was also in Chapman's employ (1851–3) afterwards based on Massey's career some features of her ‘Felix Holt— the Radical' (1866). From 1854, on the invitation of the editor, Hepworth Dixon, Massey wrote occasionally for the 'Athenæum.' He was also a contributor to the 'Leader,' which Thornton Leigh Hunt edited. Charles Dickens accepted verse from him for 'All the Year Round.' To the first number of 'Good Words' in 1860 he sent a poem on Garibaldi, and Alexander Strahan, the publisher of that periodical, gave him valuable encouragement.
Yet despite his popularity and his industry, Massey, who was now married, found it no easy task to bring up a family on the proceeds of his pen. With a view to improving his position, he had in 1854 left London for Edinburgh, where he wrote for 'Chambers's Journal' and Hugh Miller's 'Witness.' There, too, he took to lecturing at literary institutes on poetry, Pre-Raphaelite art, and Christian socialism. His earnestness drew large audiences. In 1857 he moved from Edinburgh to Monk's Green, Hertfordshire, and then to Brantwood, Coniston, which was at the time the property of a friend, William James Linton [q. v. Suppl. I]; it was acquired by Ruskin in 1871. During four years' subsequent residence at Rickmansworth, Massey found a helpful admirer in Lady Marian Alford [q. v. Suppl. I], who resided with her son the second Earl Brownlow at Ashridge Park, Berkhamsted. Lord Brownlow provided him in 1862 with a house on his estate, called Ward's Hurst, near Little Gaddesden. There Massey remained till 1877. In 1867 the second Earl Brownlow died, and his brother and successor married next year. Both episodes were celebrated by Massey in privately printed volumes of verse. While at Ward's Hurst, Massey closely studied Shakespeare's sonnets, on which he contributed an article to the 'Quarterly Review' in April 1864. He argued that Shakespeare wrote most of his sonnets for his patron Southampton. He amplified his view in a volume called 'Shakespeare's Sonnets never before interpreted' in 1866. This he rewrote in 1888 under the title of 'The Secret Drama of Shakespeare's Sonnets.' Despite his diffuseness, self-confidence, and mystical theorising, Massey brings together much valuable Shakespearean research.
At Ward's Hurst, too, Massey developed an absorbing interest in psychic phenomena. In 1871 he issued a somewhat credulous book on spiritualism which he afterwards withdrew. Subsequently he made three lecturing tours through America. The first tour lasted from Sept. 1873 to May 1874, and extended to California and Canada. The second tour, which began in Oct. 1883 and ended in Nov. 1885, included Australia and New Zealand, as well as America. A third American tour opened in Sept. 1888, but the fatal illness of a daughter brought it to an early close. His lectures dealt with many branches of poetry and art, but they were chiefly concerned with mesmerism, spiritualism, and mystical interpretation of the Bible. He printed privately many of his discourses. His faith in spiritualistic phenomena was lasting, and monopolised most of his later thought.
Massey's resources, which were always small, were augmented in 1863, on Lord Palmerston's recommendation, by a civil list pension of 10l., to which an addition of 30l. was made by Lord Salisbury in 1887. On leaving Ward's Hurst he lived successively at New Southgate (1877–90), at Dulwich (1890–3), and from 1893 at South Norwood. His closing years were devoted to a study of old Egyptian civilisation, in which he thought to trace psychic and spiritualistic problems to their source and to find their true solution. 'A Book of the Beginnings,' in two massive quarto volumes, appeared in 1881, and a sequel of the same dimensions, 'The Natural Genesis,' appeared in 1883. Finally he published 'Ancient Egypt the Light of the World, in twelve books' (1907). Massey believed that these copious, rambling, and valueless compilations deserved better of posterity than his poetry.
Massey died on 29 Oct. 1907 at Redcot, South Norwood hill, and was buried in Old Southgate cemetery. He was twice married: (1) on 8 July 1850 to Rosina Jane Knowles (buried in Little Gaddesden churchyard on 23 March 1866), by whom he had three daughters and a son; (2) in Jan. 1868 to Eva Byron, by whom he had four daughters and a son. Two daughters of each marriage survived their father.
[Massey's Poetical Works, with memoir by Samuel Smiles, 1861; J. Churton Collins's Studies in Poetry and Criticism, 1905, pp. 142-67; A. H. Miles, Poets and Poetry of the Century, v. 347 seq.; Allibone's Dict. Engl. Lit.; The Times, 30 Oct. 1907; Athenæum, 9 Nov. 1907; Review of Reviews, Dec. 1907 (with. portrait); Book Monthly (by James Milne), July 1905 and Sept. 1907 (with portrait); private information from Miss Christabel Massey, the eldest surviving daughter.]