Book Review: The Extinguished Candle Re-Lit by John Harris

Posted: June 26, 2012 by Peter J in book review, poetry
Tags: , , , ,

O Troon ! A Trewoon ! Fortress Troon, Troon: down-farm, kennels and shafts, no relation of your namesake in western Scotland, cradle of Alan Kent’s Trelawny estate trilogy, bard Pol Hodge, choirs of curls, and replete with many other unsuspected wonders of talent – not least John Harris !

The Extinguished Candle – Re-Lit is a selection assembled by the John Harris Society in 2009, celebrating the work of the miner-writer, born 1820, died 1884, who went to bal aged 10, yes – 10, and worked the drifts and stopes for the following 27 years.

Then the darkness of the dangerous mine,
His daily, nightly tasks of tedious toil,
Where never star, or moon, or sunbeams shine,
But sulphur-wreaths around the caverns coil,
Which health, and strength, and mental might despoil,
Giving the feet of time a tardy pace,
Through heated hollows and rude rifts to moil,
When boyhood’s blossoms opened on his face,
And greenness clothed the tree which gave his being grace.

And what he saw, and what he suffered there,
by day and night, can never be expressed,
Where sulphur-fairies thronged the sickly air,
And Danger burrowed in the blackest vest,
Mid rocks which rent to aid his mineral-quest,
Exploding holes, and shafts dark as doom,
Where hollow echoes sink into the breast,
And solemn breathings hurry through the gloom,
Like those which wizards say are murmuring from the tomb.

Sometimes his arms were heavy with his task,
So that ’twas hard to lift them to his head,
His face like one who wore a dismal mask,
Of black, or white, or yellow, brown, or red.
Exhausted oft, he made the flints his bed,
And dreamt of groves of olives far away,
By dews divine and gales of gladness fed,
Where sunlight glitters all the livelong day,
And harpers mid the trees and falling waters play.

The heat, the cold, the sulphur and the slime,
The grinding masses of the loosened rock,
The scaling ladders, the incessant grime
From the dank timbers and the dripping block,
The lassitude, the mallet’s frequent knock,
The pain of thirst when water was so near,
The aching joints, the blasted hole’s rude shock,
Could not dash out the music from his ear,
Or stay the sound of song which ever murmured clear.

The cavern’s sides, the vughs of shining spar,
The roof of rock where scarce the candle gleams,
The hollow levels strangely stretching far
Beneath the mountains, full of mineral seams,
Were evermore to him befitting themes,
For meditation and his rustic lay;
While in the darkness his pale visage gleams,
To read rich sonnets on the furrowed clay,
And craggy slabs that jut the ladder’s lonely way.

Thus month by month, and tedious year by year,
This heavy mining darkness closed him round,
So far away from all he held most dear,
The rocky hillside and the lower ground,
Where the dear wild flowers blushed so sweetly round,
And taught him more than books, or learned men,
And all their creeds and axioms profound,
Although propounded by the page or pen;
A higher voice he heard in every glade and glen.

( Mining Toil )

Working as tributer (that is, bidding by dutch auction for the lowest % of the proceeds obtained, if any, like a sharecropper, then living without fixed pay and prospering only if by fortune, hard lowster and crafty scheming to chase the paying dirt), J Harris eventually moved from Troon Moor, to Falmouth, where his writing was sponsored and became more prolific, almost a full-time occupation. The Mine, The Moor and the Mountain was published while John was still working from his cottage on the croft above Bolenowe (Bos lynnow, “dwelling by pools”) – his appreciation of nature can be seen in varied verses on flora and fauna, as well as localities such as Treslothan (Tresulwedhen / tre wydhen (?), “tree farm”) down the hill from Troon, where his daughter had been buried, and where he too was laid to rest.

How alter’d are thy features, Quietude,
Since erst upon thy lap at eventide,
Or in the cot of Hospitality,
Or by the margin of thy infant rill,
I swept the poets lyre ! A change has come:
Thy mead a burial-ground, where friend and foe
Lie slumbering ‘neath thine ivy-shining walls.
How alter’d are thy features, Quietude !
Change has been revelling with thy rustic robes, –
Not as she does in ruin-rented halls,
shaking the turrets with her gusty blast,
And gnawing down the iron battlement
As easily as one can crop a flower:
Not as she does upon my mountain’s head,
Tearing the heath-locks from its wrinkled pate,
To decorate the spirit of the blast,
Raving and roaring round my crumbling cot.
No; not like this, but clothing thee in smiles,
With pencillings as fair as Art can give,
And tricking thee as for thy bridal-hour.

( from Treslothan )

If anyone in Cornwall today doubts that people of J Harris’ hard-pressed type and time wrote poetry, let them look back at their long-gone relatives’ recitation prizes, their sweetheart verses sent to & from mining camps an ocean and half a continent away… John Harris learned to read, before and after beginning mine work, aided by a crippled miner, a dame and a Sunday School class – he shares this background with composer Thomas Merritt, born into the same milieu a couple of miles further downstream on the Red River and a few decades later, and in the work of each of them a practical sense of awe is laced throughout. John Harris had benefit of ordained clergy in his education, which probably blunted any recriminatory reproaches he may have had for the social systems of the time, but which probably also gave him a long view over the rapidly developing mini-metropolis of mines:


Time chisels out the foot-prints of the Past,
Planing away old hieroglyphic scars,
Gnashing strange notches in his calendar,
And raising, in the ashes of an hour,
New wonders, to be wondrous and decay.

How like a thing of magic hast thou rose
Out of the copper-caverns of the earth,
Graceful and plain, poetically neat, –
The cottage homes of those that work below,
Where Sun, or star, or silver margin’d cloud,
Or tree, or flower, or bird, or murmuring brook,
Or chiming breeze or tuneful waterfall,
Is never seen or heard ! How like a thing
That leap’d into existence at a nod,
Art thou, my native Camborne ! girded round
With mead, and meadow-land, and shady grove,
And boundary-lines of sweetest earthly bliss !

(from Camborne)

J Harris’ verses and writing are socially uncontentious – in fact despite a strong lyrical culture in Cornwall and chronically inequitable conditions, I can’t think of any Cornish equivalent of, say, Ebenezer Elliot. But his poems sometimes consisted of conventional pieties for the poor (and, with his family, he was pressed by the crushing reality of poverty like his neighbours) and condemnations of harmful vices. Published in the 1870s, when John and family had moved to Falmouth and were conversing with quakers there, was The Strong Smith By The Sea, after a decade of short but bloody wars in Europe and the Americas :

In the peaceful days to be
Worked a strong smith by the sea,
Chanting thus, with bosom bare,
“The sword I change to the shining share.”

Heaps of spears in his smithy lay,
Blades gore-dyed in the fearful fray,
And the sparks rose high on the morning air
As the sword was changed to the shining share.

And loud the monster bellows roared,
Reddening many an ancient sword.
“This is the way” sang the strong smith there,
“To change the spear to the shining share.”

The great wind came from the northern moor,
And shook the walls from roof to floor;
But that steady smith, in the forge’s glare,
Still changed the sword to the shining share.

And ever that strong man laboured he,
Summer and winter beside the sea,
With heavy hammer and bosom bare,
Till the swords were changed to the shining share.

(The Strong Smith by the Sea)

The Extinguished Candle – Re-Lit contains poetry and prose (including the short story Uncle Will and the Extinguished Candle, and also well-informed background detail from the John Harris Society, whose web site has details of a recent short film). Not being knowledgeable on J Harris’ body of work, I can’t judge the skill of selection overall, but I suspect it to be a good choice, and I will say that the poems, though some of them seem wearily laboured to ears grown accustomed to poetry pushing the envelope of styles, are generally thought-provoking. The tone, the adherence to metre, and usually to rhyme, of these poems you can, hopefully, judge from these excerpts.

The Extinguished Candle – Re-Lit was subscribed to by about 30 persons and published by Palores Publications, Redruth, in 2009.

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