A Black Country Radical: The Poetry of John Cornfield
By Paul McDonald
Many people will be aware that the most famous poet to have emerged from Bilston is Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) . The latter achieved an international reputation and, while he is out of favour nowadays, he is still a familiar name. Much less familiar is John Cornfield. Cornfield was born a short distance from Bilston in the Hurst Hill area of Coseley. Details are sketchy but his birth date seems to be 1827. He worked both as a brick-manufacturer and as a pawnbroker in his time, but struggled to make a success of either occupation. He does seem to have had a high profile in the community, however, and was very active in public affairs - he was a member of the Dudley Board of Guardians, and was heavily engaged local politics. He was also a committed Wesleyan. Religion and politics both feature heavily in Cornfield's principal publication: Allan Chace and Other Poems (1877). This is a very interesting little volume indeed and I'd like to briefly discuss it here.
The title poem is an epic narrative that relates the adventures of Allan Chace - a troubled idealist who is dismayed at the injustice he sees around him in England. He searches for answers in radical philosophy and revolutionary politics, encouraging the working classes to rebel. After accidentally killing a policeman, Chace attempts to flee to America, but is injured in a shipwreck. He is befriended by a young woman, Flora, and undergoes a religious conversion. He marries Flora and decides to make good his trip to the New World to preach. Unfortunately he is wounded en route once more and, this time, fails to recover. The poem is a very bleak one, though it ends with a celebration of the liberating potential of Wesleyan values, the hero is thwarted in his attempts to put them into practice. Cornfield's assessment of British society is pretty pessimistic also, the country is characterised by oppression, corruption and the exploitation of the working classes:
Debt! Thou art the honest poor man's hell
And want is thy inexorable devil,
That prowls where honest poverty doth dwell,
And in its utter ruin loves to revel
One of the things that impressed me about Cornfield is his apparent commitment to social reform. This is underpinned by an egalitarian spirit that is occasionally reminiscent of Shelley:
are brethren, and have equal share,
And should by all means equally possess
The earth, and all there is in sea and air;
Why then should a few tyrants grasp the whole,
And bind their brethren in the chains of fate
To toil for them incessant, while they dole
The bitter bread which daily they must eat?
These lines were written at a time when England was profoundly divided socially, and enthusiastically pursued its colonial interests overseas. Certainly in his fierce opposition to this, Cornfield showed that his politics were more progressive than Henry Newbolt's. He was a radical in other words and, indeed, some of his views must have seemed quite eccentric in the Black Country of the 19th Century. For instance, again like Shelley, Chace advocates vegetarianism:
beasts of prey that roam the deserts wild
Are harmless, save when hunger's stern command
Compels them to destroy; but man, 'spoiled child',
Though God has given him with unsparing hand
Fruits, roots, and grain, his best and proper food,
Drags to his den, the slaughter-house, the beasts
He should protect, and murders in cold blood,
To serve his sensual maw with bloody feasts
TK Fellows, in his 1928 account of Cornfield suggests that the writer was an extremely troubled individual, occasionally in conflict with members of the community - particularly authority figures. He wrote a number of pamphlets attacking the Vicar of Sedgley, for instance: one about the abuse of tithes, another criticising the vicar's statement that the people of the area were "living in gross darkness." It seems that Cornfield was quick to champion the interests of the ordinary man - certainly sentiments of this kind are reiterated throughout his book. He writes about the exploitation of workers, women, and slaves with a force of feeling that is often palpable. Though the verse is frequently clumsy and prosaic, his sense of outrage gives it an energy and, for me at least, an endearing quality. His passion and integrity compensate for his lack of polish and lyrical acumen.
John Cornfield seems to have been working on Allan Chace for many years before it was published. In one of his endnotes, for instance, he suggests that his anti-slavery remarks were written before 1865 when the institution was abolished in America. It is also clear that he lacked confidence in his abilities as a poet. In his introduction to the book he explicitly states that he is "dissatisfied" with the poems, and that he will leave it to the reader to judge whether he has a gift or not. If not, he says he will stop writing: "life is too short and it moments too precious to be spent in trying to improve that which I do not possess." Cornfield's obscurity as a poet would suggest that he was correct to be diffident about his art. Yet in many ways Allan Chase is a powerful little book, which deserves to be remembered. Also Cornfield himself is definitely a noteworthy character, albeit a tormented one. I have the impression that he let his sense of outrage get the better of him and, eventually, it consumed him. It seems to have contributed both to his difficulties in life, and his early death. According to Fellows he committed suicide by drowning himself in his own well - probably in 1890. This is a sad end for such a staunch and high-principled Black Country writer.
A few weeks after the article appeared in the magazine the following email arrived with some extra information. The email is produced below, if anyone wishes to contact the author please get in touch with me.
"I was delighted to read the article in the Autumn 2005
edition about the Coseley Poet John Cornfield. I have been researching
his life and was pleased that Paul McDonald captured the essence
of this troubled man. Your readers may be interested in a few
more facts about his life. He was, in fact, christened October
1820, the first child of his parents marriage a year earlier.
The dating of his birth as 1827 appears to stem from his first
published work "A Round Unvarnished Tale of the Exploits
of the Vicar of Sedgley", published in 1862, in which he
stated "I have lived in
the village half the years allotted as the period of man's existence on earth" suggesting he was 35 years old. He had, in fact, moved out of the village to live in Lower Tower Street, Birmingham for a period in the 1840s. The reason for this is not clear, but could be connected to his first child Ann
being born November 1842, barely a month after John's marriage in October of that year.
John was without doubt an eccentric with a vivid imagination. The "Round Unvarnished Tale" is an amazing 21 page tirade against the Vicar of Sedgley which at one point suggests the aforementioned less-than-Reverend gentleman must have imagined John to be living on the moon!
Though his work is quite frequently laborious and clumsy, he pours out his soul in his writing. This is nowhere more evident than in two poems in the "Allan Chace" collection:"To Jenny, in Heaven" and "To Jenny, on the second anniversary of her interment". These two are the agonised outpourings of his grief at the loss, in 1871, of his other daughter, Eliza Jane, after a six month battle against tuberculosis. She was just 21.
That he committed suicide in December 1890 there is no doubt.
His business was in severe financial difficulties and for several
months his family and friends had feared to leave him on his own,
so strange was his behaviour. On the night of 6 December 1890
he left the house at 11.15pm. His daughter Ann and wife tried
to follow but were delayed by a broken door handle.
By the time they got outside he had disappeared. Neighbours were called in to join the search but his body was not discovered until the next day in a well on property he had previously owned but had now sold. The opening to the well was very narrow and there was no way anybody could have fallen in accidentally. His getting into the well was, without doubt, a deliberate act.
His wife carried on his pawnbroking business until she died in 1893. There are no descendants. Their only surviving child, Ann, died unmarried in 1903.
Although he was a noteworthy character, his poetry in his life, as in death, was not highly rated; his obituary in the Dudley Herald December 13th 1890 was over seventy lines long. It was not, however, until line sixty-two that reference was made to his writing with the brief mention" He was also of a literary turn of mind, and published some of his productions in book form.".
Perhaps the time is ripe for a renewal of interest in the work of this forgotten anguished man."
Allison Gale, Waterlooville, Hampshire