Posted by Admin on 25 July 2011, 11:41 am

It was not until a write-up in a local paper, which mentioned that a house called Under Rock then on the market and located in Bonchurch, Isle of Wight, had been the home of Edmund Peel, that I became aware he had existed. The writer, connected with some estate agents, stated also that Sir Robert who, as Home Secretary (circa 1822), was the creator of the police service, had been his uncle. This, through further investigation on my part, proved to be an error. He and Sir Robert were first cousins, Edmund being the son of Robert’s Uncle Joseph who, according to Joseph Foster’s Pedigrees of County Families, had two sons connected with the Isle of Wight: Sir Lawrence, born in Ventnor, and Edmund who was a year younger.

Records show that in addition to being a prolific poet, like many Victorian men, Edmund was a fertile husband, who fathered nine children between 1822 and 1852, their mother being Maria, the daughter of Dominick Browne and his wife, the Hon. Emily. To an Isle of Wight genealogist, Bridget Lakin, I am indebted for the information that their names were Edmund, Joseph, Mary Ann (also recorded as Marianne), William, Robert, Idonea Alice, another Robert, Alexandrina Charlotte, and Susan who was born in Gibraltar.

At present I am unable to say when, or for how long, Under Rock was occupied by Edmund, and the only other knowledge I have of his residences is that he died in 1877, aged 79, at his home in Alexandra Terrace in Newport – a terrace no longer there*, and of which no trace could be found in the directories consulted. He was interred in the Carisbrooke Cemetery.

A photograph of Edmund shows a severe looking man with a rather large nose who might have posed as David Copperfield’s stepfather, which belies the fact that, by all accounts, he was kindly and sympathetic. That he was a God-fearing man is evidenced by his literary output, a great deal of which was of a religious nature and which included Echoes From Horeb, Salem Redeemed, and a lyrical drama, Judas Macabaeus. Other poems listed are The Christian Pilgrim, The Fountains of the Nile, Ode to the British Army, and The Fair Island, which the Hampshire Independent eulogised as a work that involved ‘great labour, extended research, and wide observation’. ‘In it’, the paper added, ‘felicitous and graphic presentments of all the more notable facts in our Island history are blended with charming pictures of natural scenery, and we assert without hesitation that the poem is the finest and most comprehensive description extant of the subject of which it so happily treats’. The Isle of Wight, still retaining much beauty despite its modern blemishes, must in Edmund’s time have been an earthly paradise.

With the works of Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson for criteria, it is not easy to assess just how far Edmund Peel’s poetry fell short of being emanations of genius. It has been admitted the quality of his work fluctuated, and the consensus of opinion seems to indicate that his sonnets represented the peak of his achievement. Leigh Hunt considered them equal to any in the language which, if we who are accustomed to today’s less decorative poetry make allowances for that period’s floridity, might not be the extravagant encomium of a friend it first appears to be. His To the Nightingale, for example, in the stanza of which he addresses the ‘Night-warbler, whose delicious springs out-gush’ ends beautifully with:

‘Then, or at noon, or in the twilight hush,
How have I hung amid the leafy way,
On the full notes of thy melodious lay,
Tones unattempted by the fluent Thrush.’

To the Primrose is equally lovely.

In keeping with many other writers of those more leisurely times, Edmund sometimes was guilty of prolixity and a lack of clarity, an instance of which is preserved in his dedication of Echoes From Horeb to his brother Lawrence which reads:

‘My dear Lawrence: Take the gleaning of an open field – ground of hope, home of joy; freehold of reaper and gleaner, who leave to the covering wings and the providing beak the brood of the lowly; who follow the rapture on high; pure rapture to gladden the pure!’

The six cantos of The Fair Island were dedicated to his friends James and Ada White of Bonchurch, ‘who’, he quoted, ‘find sermons in stones and good in everything, and to whom love and memory would utter thoughts that voluntarily move harmonious numbers’.

In his poem, Judge Not, Edmund attempted he said, ‘to dissuade from narrow views, shallow opinions, and hasty judgments; to comment charity in thought as in deed’.

Early in life Edmund joined the Army where he served as a lieutenant in His Majesty’s 25th Regiment of Foot, and Her Majesty’s 13th Light Infantry. In an obituary written by Lawrence for the Hampshire Independent it was stated that one of his last works, Captain Sword and Captain Pen, was composed to prove being a soldier was not incompatible with being a poet. ‘He was’, said his brother, ‘not only a Christian poet but also a Christian soldier’.

In Edwin Faulkner’s article published in C. J. Arnell’s Poets of the Wight we are told how the poet’s circle of friends comprised poets, novelists, and critics, among whom were Leigh Hunt, Keats, Tennyson, Dickens, the latter’s biographer John Forster, and Carlyle’s friend, John Sterling. With such associated frequently at hand, small wonder his intellectual qualities rapidly expanded, making him a poet, historian and philosopher, much respected in each capacity.

Between the two brothers strong affection existed, and in his letter to the Hampshire Independent Lawrence praised Edmund for being a servant of God, and said how, far from being idle, he venerated the family motto, ‘Industria’, and tried his utmost in spite of poor health to live up to it.

In a sermon preached soon after Edmund’s demise, the Vicar of Newport, the Rev. Canon G. H. Connor, M.A., said how proud the town should be for having possessed such a gifted, sensitive, and unpretending Christian gentleman who, if met when returning from one of his beloved country walks, would recite, presumably extemporaneously, a poem such as:

‘I have been in the meadows all day,
And gathered there the nosegay that you see,
Singing within myself as bird or bee
When such do field-work on a morn in May.’

As a final statement, after due consideration of the poet’s work, I think it may be said that if, contrary to that his champions would have us believe, it was not on par with that of Keats or Tennyson, it was well worth reading and calculated to give pleasure, and possibly turn the mind to higher things.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.


* A note received from Mr Sam Biles has confirmed that Alexandra Terrace does indeed still exist, but the mistake Mr Hudson made was in thinking that the name was that of a road or street. Alexandra Terrace is in fact a row of terraced houses in The Mall, Carisbrooke Road, Newport. It is the long row of rather grand properties on the right hand side as you leave Newport. The sign indicating “Alexandra Terrace” is situated high up on the façade, about midway along the Terrace. Our thanks go to Mr Biles for advising us of this error.


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