Parliamentarians and poetry: National Poetry Day 2013

On last year’s National Poetry Day our blog featured some celebratory verse from Harry Stephen Thompson, the newly elected Liberal MP for Whitby in 1859. ‘This is the Member for Whitby’, a pastiche of the nursery rhyme ‘The house that Jack built’, was written for his children, but Thompson was sufficiently proud of this election doggerel to read it aloud at the declaration of the poll.

Thompson’s verses were a light-hearted commemoration of his election victory, but other Victorian MPs were far more serious in their poetic endeavours. William Henry Leatham represented his native Wakefield as a Liberal briefly in 1859 (before being unseated for bribery) and again from 1865 until 1868. A Quaker banker, who was brother-in-law to John Bright, he perhaps seemed an unlikely versifier, but a European tour in 1835 ‘had awakened in his mind a love of poetry’. He published a number of poems and verse plays, inspired by both local and national history, which included Sandal in the Olden Time (1839) and Cromwell, a Drama (1843). Contemporary reviews of his works were sympathetic but not overly flattering. One suggested that he had ‘gifts that might be made something of by patient painstaking’, while his Selections from Lesser Poems (1855) were said to ‘do their author credit, but may not aspire to too much originality’.

Richard Monckton Milnes, MP and poet

Richard Monckton Milnes, MP and poet

The charge of lacking originality was also levelled at another politician-poet, Richard Monckton Milnes, who represented Pontefract for over 25 years (initially as a Conservative but then as a Liberal) before his elevation to the House of Lords as Baron Houghton. A review of two volumes of his verse published in 1838 suggested that he was ‘a poet more by circumstance, study, and imitation, than by native enthusiasm or original fancy’. Undeterred, he published numerous poetic works, often inspired by his overseas travels, as in his 1844 work Palm Leaves. He was a familiar figure ‘at the drawing rooms of ladies of fashion, at political assemblies, and in more select literary coteries’, and The Times argued that although he had ‘won a name as a poet’, he would be ‘remembered even more for his encouragement of genius than for the possession of it’. Those who benefited from his patronage included Alfred Tennyson, for whom he secured a pension in 1845. He also wrote the first major study of John Keats, considered by The Times to be Milnes’s ‘greatest service to literature’.

Milnes and Leatham were not the only MPs to be moved to poetry by their travels. Henry Gally Knight, who sat in the pre-Reform Commons for Aldborough (1814-15) and Malton (1831-2), and who was later Conservative MP for Nottinghamshire North, 1835-46, published several volumes of poems which drew on his experiences in the Eastern Mediterranean. These included Ilderim, a Syrian Tale (1816), Phrosyne, a Grecian Tale (1817), Alashtar, an Arabian Tale (1817) and Eastern sketches, in verse (1830). His works received mixed reviews, with The Spectator describing his 1839 poem Hannibal in Bithynia as ‘devoid alike of fire and strong interest’. His Cambridge contemporary Lord Byron was particularly scathing about Gally Knight’s literary failings, and mocked him in his Ballad to the Tune of Salley in our Alley (1818). On National Poetry Day, it seems fitting to let Lord Byron have the last word, so to conclude, here is his verdict on Henry Gally Knight:

He has a Seat in Parliament,

Is fat and passing wealthy;

And surely he should be content

With these and being healthy:

But Great Ambition will misrule

Men at all risks to sally,

Now makes a poet, now a fool,

And we know which of Gally.

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