Charles Kingsley: Divine Love, Divine Order

By Derbyshire, John | New Criterion, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Charles Kingsley: Divine Love, Divine Order


Derbyshire, John, New Criterion


My mother, when vexed by some family misfortune, was wont to console herself by murmuring: "Men must work, and women must weep, and the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep." It never occurred to me, until I was fully grown, to seek out the original of those words. They come from a poem, "The Three Fishers," by a Victorian country parson, Charles Kingsley. The poet had spent his late childhood in the little fishing hamlet of Clovelly in North Devon, where his father, also a country parson, was rector of the church. Fishing was perilous work, and it was not unusual for men of the village to be lost at sea.

In the poem, three fishermen go sailing "away to the West," but are drowned in a storm. The last stanza reads:

   Three corpses lay out on the shining sands
      In the morning gleam as the tide went down,
   And the women are weeping and wringing
        their hands
   For those who will never come home to the
        town;
   For men must work, and women must weep,
   And the sooner it's over, the sooner to sleep;
      And good-bye to the bar and its moaning.

A few other lines of Kingsley's verse also survive, I think, at some very low level in our literary culture: "Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever"; "When all the world is young, lad"; "Across the sands of Dee." The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations also credits Kingsley with "More ways of killing a cat than choking her with cream," though that looks like a folk saying to my suspicious eye.

Kingsley's poems still showed up in British anthologies well into the later twentieth century. Michael Turner's indispensable I967 anthology of melodramatic verse, Parlour Poetry: A Hundred and One Improving Gems, has one, and Kingsley Amis, perhaps in a spirit of onomastic solidarity, included four in The Faber Popular Reciter (I978). Kingsley must have been known in the U.S. too: Hazel Felleman's 1936 anthology Best Loved Poems of the American People has a Kingsley poem, and Mary McCarthy mentions one of Kingsley's books en passant in Birds of America.

In fact Kingsley went on a lecture tour of the U.S., as famous British writers did, and still do. He sailed to New York at the end of January 1874, aged fifty-four, and returned to Britain at the end of July. During his visit he met Longfellow, Whittier, and Twain, dined with President Grant at the White House, and was introduced to Charles Sumner just an hour before the latter's fatal heart attack in the Senate chamber. The letters Kingsley wrote home to his wife gratefully acknowledged the kindnesses he received from Americans, but he seems otherwise not to have liked the country much. New England in early March was "hideous, doleful barren." The Midwest was "a flat, dreary., aguish, brutalizing land." By June he was finding American food "more & more disgusting," and in his last letter home he declared that the trip "has taught me many things--especially, to thank God that I am an Englishman, & not an--well, it is not the fault of the dear generous people, but of their ancestors & ours."

It was not only, nor even mainly, as a poet that Kingsley was celebrated in his own time. He was also the author of seven novels, a play, two books popularizing science, and eight other books of essays, sermons, travelogue, and popular history. One of the novels, The Water-Babies, was numbered among children's classics well into the 1950s; I knew the name of Kingsley from it long before I looked up my mother's favorite couplet. The verses beginning "When all the world is young, lad" first appeared in The Water-Babies. That is also the book Mary McCarthy knew, and references to Kingsley by twentieth-century writers usually carried the epithet "author of The Water-Babies."

Another of Kingsley's novels, Westward Ho!, has the remarkable distinction of having a town named after it (causing that town to have the equally remarkable distinction of being the only place in the British Isles with an exclamation mark in its name), thanks to a group of speculators in the Victorian leisure industry, who built a cluster of lodging-houses on the Devon coast near the novel's opening locale. …

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