Blacketts and poetry

Submitted by alkirtley on Thu, 11/21/2019 - 15:23

On 16 May 1811, while in Malta, Lord Byron wrote the following epitaph for Joseph Blackett (1785-1810) “late poet and shoemaker”:

STRANGER! behold, interr’d together,
The souls of learning and of leather.
Poor Joe is gone, but left his all:
You’ll find his relics in a stall.
His works were neat, and often found
Well stitch’d, and with morocco bound.
Tread lightly – where the bard is laid
He cannot mend the shoe he made;
Yet is he happy in his hole,
With verse immortal as his sole.
But still to business he held fast,
And stuck to Phobus to the last.

Then who shall say so good a fellow
Was only `leather and prunella*?’
For character – he did not lack it
And if he did, ’twere shame to `Black it.

[*A worsted fabric then used for the uppers of women’s shoes.]

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Byron apparently had a club foot, so it is tempting to suppose that Joseph must have been a pretty good shoemaker. He spent his early days in London, learning the technique of ladies’ shoemaking from his brother John Blackett, and began writing verse after the death of his wife in 1807. Some of his letters to Lady Byron, with verses, are held in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Lady Byron’s family, the Milbankes, had been patrons of Joseph, and his published work, “Remains”, was dedicated to “Her Grace the Duchess of Leeds, Lady Milbanke and Family, Benevolent Patrons of the Author.” Byron seems, however, not to have been impressed with Joseph’s poetry, and after Joseph’s death described him as “the laughing stock of purgatory”. Lady Milbanke’s daughter, whom Byron was later to marry, took Joseph under her wing. In 1809 she stated that Joseph’s poems “display a superior genius and an enlarged mind”. Moreover, Joseph could count Princes and Princesses amongst his patrons, as well as a number of other members of the nobility, quite an achievement for someone who was one of twelve children of a day labourer. However, as the Monthly chronicle of North-country lore and legend reported in 1891: “Poor Blackett’s fame was only a November sun; he still felt the shivers while he stood in the shine. He does not appear to have unduly neglected his trade, but he never emerged from a poverty which was soon aggravated by ill health.” He printed his “Specimens” in 1811 to help to pay off the arrears of maintenance of his infant child and “extricate himself from embarrassment occasioned by the very long sickness, death and burial” of his wife.

Byron’s low opinion of Joseph Blackett’s work was not expressed only by the poem written in Malta and on 28 June 1811, on board ship for England he wrote to his relative and literary agent, R. C. Dallas: “Yours and Pratt’s protégé, Blackett, the cobbler, is dead, in spite of his rhymes, and is probably one of the instances where death has saved a man from damnation. You were the ruin of that poor fellow amongst you: had it not been for his patrons, he might now have been in very good plight, shoe- (not verse-) making: but you have made him immortal with a vengeance. I write this, supposing poetry, patronage, and strong waters to have been the death of him.”

Joseph, who spelled his name “Blacket”, was born in Tunstall, Yorkshire in 1785 (some sources say 1786). For much of his short life he did not enjoy good health. He died at Seaham in County Durham in 1810, and is buried in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, Seaham. Examples of his poems, together with correspondence, etc. can be found at The remains of Joseph Blacket.

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Joseph was not the only Blackett with a connection to Lord Byron. While Byron was in Greece in 1824 fighting on the side of the Greeks during their war of independence he noted in his journal that he had “advanced to Mr. Blackett the sum of fifty dollars” and subsequently given him some of his pills for an illness, “and as the doctors have had no better success with him than with I, he goes to Argostoli sick of the Greeks and of a constipation.” [William Parry: Last Days of Lord Byron] The Blackett in question was Edward Blackett, a former Royal Navy midshipman and younger son of Christopher Blackett of Wylam (see Railway Blacketts). Edward Blackett died aged 26 on 19 July 1824, exactly three months after Byron’s death. [We are indebted to William E. G. Blackett for informing us of this connection.]

Eight years earlier the poet William Wordsworth had composed his poem “To___[Miss Blackett] On Her First Ascent to the Summit of Helvellyn”:

INMATE of a mountain-dwelling,
Thou hast clomb aloft, and gazed
From the watch-towers of Helvellyn;
Awed, delighted, and amazed!

Potent was the spell that bound thee
Not unwilling to obey:
For blue Ether’s arms, flung round thee,
Stilled the pantings of dismay.

Lo! the dwindled woods and meadows;
What a vast abyss is there!
Lo! the clouds, the solemn shadows,
And the glistenings—heavenly fair!

And a record of commotion
Which a thousand ridges yield;
Ridge, and gulf, and distant ocean
Gleaming like a silver shield!

Maiden! now take flight;—inherit
Alps or Andes—they are thine!
With the morning’s roseate Spirit,
Sweep their length of snowy line;

Or survey their bright dominions
In the gorgeous colours drest
Flung from off the purple pinions,
Evening spreads throughout the west!

Thine are all the coral fountains
Warbling in each sparry vault
Of the untrodden lunar mountains;
Listen to their songs!—or halt,

To Niphates’ top invited,
Whither spiteful Satan steered;
Or descend where the ark alighted,
When the green earth re-appeared;

For the power of hills is on thee,
As was witnessed through thine eye
Then when old Helvellyn won thee
To confess their majesty! (1816.)

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Helvellyn is a mountain in the Lake District, the area where Wordsworth was then living, but it is not known who the Miss Blackett in question was. Wordsworth had, however, courted his future wife Mary Hutchinson while staying at Sockburn, Co. Durham in 1799. Sockburn was owned by the Blacketts and a junior branch of the family occupied a small farmhouse there at the end of the 18th century. It is possible that the subject of the poem may have been a member of those Sockburn Blacketts. (See Sockburn Hall).