Posterity missed a trick when it allowed Chichester-born poet William Hayley to slip through its fingers.
Paul Foster, emeritus professor of English at the University of Chichester, is now doing his bit to reclaim Hayley as a fascinating and worthy subject of study.
Paul has been instrumental in the publication of two new books: William Hayley (1745-1820) – Poet, Biographer and Libertarian: A Reassessment, the latest in the university’s series of Otter Memorial Papers, and William Hayley (1745-1820): England’s Lost Laureate – Selected Poetry, both available from the university at http://store.chi.ac.uk/
Their release was timed to coincide with the unveiling of a blue plaque in his memory at Great Ballard School, Eartham, once Hayley’s family home.
Born the grandson of a dean of Chichester cathedral, Hayley lost his father when he was three years old, his sole brother when he was five, his first wife when he was 52. His only son died aged 19, and his second wife stayed with him for barely three years before returning to London.
Such misfortune has also attended his poetry. Despite the public success of The Triumphs of Temper, and despite successful associations with many of the leading cultural figures of his time, his work was omitted entirely from Roger Lonsdale’s The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse – a volume containing work by around 250 poets.
Paul sees the two new publications as due acknowledgement of a forgotten, but important literary figure.
“Everybody knows that William Blake was tried for sedition in Chichester. It was Hayley who paid for his defence. Everybody knows the beautiful memorial to William Collins in Chichester Cathedral. It was organised by Hayley.
“Everybody in Chichester knows about John Marsh who wrote 39 symphonies and 350 works altogether. The house that Hayley was born in in North Pallant was sold to John Marsh. Everybody knows the first person to be killed by the railway was Chichester MP William Huskisson, by Stephenson’s Rocket. When Hayley left Eartham, he sold it to Huskisson.”
But Hayley’s merits aren’t simply his associations. As Paul says, when Hayley was offered the poet laureateship in 1790, he declined: “He didn’t want to write poems for George III. He was very prolific as a poet. He also wrote the first biography of William Cowper. And he also wrote the first biography of (the painter) George Romney.
“And if you speak about Hayley’s contemporary world, he was an enormous defender of free speech.”
Hayley lived through the days of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, times when all sorts of people were charged with treason for simply saying what they thought. Hayley was their supporter.
Hayley wrote a poem in praise of the prison reformer John Howard; he also dedicated a poem to Thomas Erskine, one of the most important barristers of the period who defended people against charges of high treason.
Hayley saw his poetry as medicinal: “That’s the word he uses. He saw it as cleansing the mind of, on the one hand, religious fervour and, on the other, political cant…”
William Hayley (1745-1820) – Poet, Biographer and Libertarian: A Reassessment costs £16 and contains essays by 11 scholars, determined to show the continued relevance of Hayley’s kind of poetry.
William Hayley (1745-1820): England’s Lost Laureate –Selected Poetry, £8, selected by Diana Barsham, is very much a taster of Hayley’s work. Extending to 96 pages, it comprises extracts from Hayley’s major poems, together with several illustrations in colour, including two by Romney (one of Hayley, one of Edward Gibbon to whom Hayley addressed his Essay on History (1780), and two by William Blake.