30 April 2014

Irene Wiltshire: William Gaskell's Poetry and Poetry Lectures (2005)

This booklet is a reprint of an article that originally appeared in the 2005 issue of the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, and the front cover shows G. W. Swynnerton's bust of William Gaskell (1805–84) from the Portico Library in Mosley Street, Manchester.

The writings of William Gaskell – who was minister of the Cross Street Chapel from 1828 to 1884 – have been greatly overshadowed by those of his wife Elizabeth Gaskell. Wiltshire's sources are mainly Barbara Brill's 1984 biography and the two volumes of Elizabeth's letters (1966 and 2000).

Wiltshire writes about William's poetry lectures and his poetry, first mentioning his more canonical favourites such as Wordsworth – considered an understandable choice for his optimism and his representation of humble characters; and also Crabbe – considered a more unusual influence because of his lack of optimism, but perhaps appreciated by William for his realism.

William knew some noted poets: Wordsworth (who read William Gaskell's Temperance Rhymes with 'much pleasure'), Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Rogers, etc. He had a great love of language in general and also loved dialect and the dialect poetry of such working-class writers as Samuel Bamford and Ebenezer Elliott, both of whom appear in Elizabeth Gaskell's writings.

William's own poetry expresses his personal concern for the social injustices and abuses around him. In the long, later Cottonopolis (1882) – not mentioned by Brill – Wiltshire sees the influence of Crabbe in its emphasis on the brutality and squalor in which many of the working class lived. But unlike the impartial observation of Crabbe, Gaskell points an accusatory finger at the 'city fathers' and the clergy.

Interestingly, Wiltshire sees William's descriptions of poverty as markedly different – much stronger, more violent – than Elizabeth's.

And on another interesting note, Wiltshire states that it is hard to find a secondhand copy of William Spalding's A History of English Literature and Samuel Rogers's Pleasures of Memory, although it couldn't be simpler to find copies of the books today: many booksellers have PODs available of both, and they are also available via archive.org for anyone to download freely.

Below is the grave of William and Elizabeth Gaskell in Knutsford, Cheshire, which was taken by me in  in 2009:

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