A Neglected Poet: On James Henry’s ‘Pigeons’

A charming poem by a curious poet

How many people have heard of James Henry? The name Henry James (1843-1916) is rather more familiar – he was the American-born author who moved to England and is best-known for his short stories and novels. But the Irish poet James Henry (1798-1876) is somewhat less familiar to most readers.

This is hardly surprising: for over a hundred years after his death he was forgotten, but what makes James Henry unusual is that his poetry was pretty much completely ignored during his lifetime, too. Here is his poem about pigeons which begins with the delightful line ‘By what mistake were pigeons made so happy’. Why indeed?

By what mistake were pigeons made so happy,
So plump and fat and sleek and well content,
So little with the affairs of others meddling,
So little meddled with? say, a collared dog,
And hard worked ox, and horse still harder worked,
And caged canary, why, uncribbed, unmaimed,
Unworked and of its will lord absolute,
The pigeon sole has free board and free quarters,
Till at its throat the knife, and pigeon pie
Must smoke ere noon upon the parson’s table;
Say, if ye can; I cannot, for the life o’ me;
But, whersoe’er I go, I find it so;
The pigeon of all things that walk or fly
Or swim or creep, the best cared-for and happiest;
Ornament ever fresh and ever fair
Of castle and of cottage, palace roof
And village street, alike, and stubble field,
And every eye and volute of the minster;
Philosopher’s and poet’s and my own
Envy and admiration, theme and riddle;
Emblem and hieroglyphic of the third
Integral unit of the Trinity;
Not even by pagan set to heavier task
Than draw the cart of Venus; since the deluge
Never once asked to carry in the bill,
And by the telegraph and penny-post
Released for ever from all charge of letters.

Henry was known during his lifetime as a classical scholar; he privately printed his poetry in Dresden (probably at his own expense), but it was largely ignored. When he died in 1876, it was for his scholarly achievements that he was praised; his poetry barely got a mention. How many people actually read James Henry’s poetry when he was alive?

James Henry’s work was discovered (it may be that we cannot even describe it as a rediscovery) in the 1980s when Christopher Ricks, a critic and editor of poets including Tennyson and T. S. Eliot, was researching Victorian poetry for his The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (Oxford Books of Prose & Verse), and came upon several volumes of James Henry’s poems on the shelves of Cambridge University Library. Amused by the fact that the poet’s name was a reversal of Henry James, Ricks took down the books – only to discover that the pages had never been cut.

James Henry, at least in Cambridge Library, had never been read, let alone borrowed. Ricks took a knife to the pages and began reading. He then included a number of Henry’s poems in his Victorian poetry anthology, and also included a couple in The Oxford Book of English Verse, which he edited in 1999.

The name James Henry is still apt to be confused with his more famous reverse-namesake. The Amazon page for the Selected Poems of James Henry includes, under the ‘More About the Author’ section, a biography of the novelist Henry James. It would appear that James Henry is still eclipsed by Henry James, even on his own Amazon page.

‘Pigeons’ (if so we may title the untitled poem quoted above) is a wonderful example of James Henry’s way of looking at the world in his poetry. His poetry is, in the words of his rescuer from oblivion, ‘unaffectedly direct, sinewy, seriously comic’. It is apt that a poet whose poetry was overlooked or dismissed by even those who knew and respected the man as a scholar should have written a poem about an often-overlooked bird in the annals of poetry.

This makes James Henry a curiously modern poet. It’s difficult to imagine Tennyson composing a poem about pigeons; we have to wait until the twentieth century for that. (Philip Larkin, for instance, would have a go at writing a pigeon-poem.) A notable scholar of Virgil’s poetry, Henry leaned more towards paganism than Christianity; dislike of some of the more lamentable aspects of Christianity is found in a number of his poems.

James Henry’s poems – whether about pigeons or Christianity – and his late discovery over a century after his death give hope to all aspiring poets out there. As Robert Graves said, there’s no money in poetry (and no poetry in money, either), and few poets probably embark upon their vocation for wealth and fame. The writing of poetry is enough. James Henry very probably died without his poems having found an appreciative readership, but now they have a small club of devoted fans. There’s always hope, it would seem.

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