In late January 1873, some 400 people gathered at the Ely Reading Rooms to hear a lecture by a local solicitor William Marshall on “Our Fen Poet”. According to the account in the Cambridge Gazette of 1st February that year ‘Many could not gain admission or even find space to stand, the room being, “thoroughly crammed”. The Dean of Ely took the Chair and many august persons were reported as present to hear about the life and work of William Harrison.’ Today, 140 years after his death, it would be hard to find a great many people who have even heard of him let alone read any of his poems. I self published a book of them some 10 years ago to tie in with talks I was doing but this was not even the tip of the iceberg William deserves. Over the next few weeks readers of this blog will have chance to develop their own views. If all goes well I hope to get an eBook out before Christmas.
A clue to the reason for this sad state of non-awareness is found in the same newspaper account. It reports [with some edits by your scribe now] that ‘Mr Marshall, in preparing to give the lecture, obtained manuscripts of poems from his friend Mr Archer (presumably of the firm of solicitors in Ely) and from William’s son Alfred. Together with his own material, he then had in his possession about 12000 lines. He recounted to his audience how he had suggested to Harrison that he should publish his works and that he (Marshall) would edit them and “see them through the press”, but Harrison had replied that “there was rubbish enough already in the world and he would not be one to contribute to the heap”! After the lecture several people spoke up to urge that the poems be published before they were lost. It was generally agreed that “the works of Mr Harrison will find their proper place among the purest and choicest of the poets England has ever produced”
Sadly these good intentions never materialised and today we have only a fraction of the mass of work which he produced over the course of his life. However, with the help of this and other snippets published during his life we can piece together a picture of the man and his poetry.
Some of his poetry – and the story behind the words – will follow over the next few weeks.