It’s believed that Margaret Rope’s closest relationship was with her brother Henry Rope (better known as Harry), who was two years her senior. Though he was a writer and she was an artist, similar attitudes and beliefs emerge in their works.
The ‘Soul’s Belfry’, a privately-printed collection of Harry’s early poems covering the decade 1909-19, is an interesting pointer as to the discussions they must have had.
This ‘slim volume’ as these subscription-only books were often dubbed, was published in Shropshire in 1919 – when Harry was 39 years old (see pic right). It consists of some fifty-plus short poems, many of which had already been featured in Catholic periodicals of the time; his poems about the fate of Ireland had also appeared in The Irish Monthly.
Although Harry himself clearly believes he had substantial literary talent, the fact is he was destined to be a minor footnote in the history of English poetry. (Sometimes, in his gloomier pieces, you get a feeling that he knows this is to be his future). However, he kept on writing right through his life – a plethora of essays, prose musings, short biographies, reflections on Catholicism, ‘belles-lettres’ etc – and put out more than twenty small books.
The years 1909-1919, the decade that all these poems come from, were tumultuous for Harry.
Though his mother and four of his siblings had formally converted to Catholicism in 1901, Harry delayed converting until 1907, at which time he was living in Germany, where he was much impressed by the culture he saw. He then decided to train for the Catholic priesthood, which he did in Rome, becoming ordained in 1915.
In the meantime, the Great War had come along (from 1914, through to 1918) – with four of his siblings volunteering for the war effort. The unsuccessful Irish (‘Easter’) Rising-Rebellion occurred in 1916, an event which seemed to have shaken Harry considerably.
It was probably at this time too that he started to flirt with Distribuism (aka Distributism), a left-leaning Christian political theory aiming for greater equality.
The Soul’s Belfry (see title poem, right) is not what you’d expect of a minor poet at the time. Usually, there would be dreamy nature poems and verses, composed with university-type skill, on events of the day. Yes, admittedly, the writing is post-Victorian – full of old-fashioned grandiosity (‘empurpled’ is a favourite word!) and there are jumbled sentences with the verb all over the place – and he does make himself stick to disciplines of rhyme and metre (the sonnet is one of this favourite forms), but there are also unexpectedly passionate outcries against what he sees as major issues of the time.
And the writing, in places, and in the context of its time, is not half bad. It would be worth a critic’s attention sometime.
There are four major themes for Harry: the creeping uglification and destruction of old, rustic England; a yearning for the return of the Catholic faith to England; an identification with Rome (as both his favourite city and as the home of Catholicism); and outspoken support for the cause of freedom for Ireland.
In a way, you could call this ‘poetry of argument’: the pieces usually move from a self-reflective musing in the first verse to a most definite point of view by the last!
The most surprising thing is that the Great War is never mentioned overtly – though there are oblique references. How did such a huge event not get his attention?
(It could be the war represented all he wanted to turn away from – the industrialisation of conflict, the way this war turned men into machines, not to mention that it was a reflection of the British Empire, an institution he detested. Maybe…). We do know that he was dismayed by the outbreak of war, and that he also claimed himself to be “too bookish” for conflict and without a “valiant heart”, but, it still seems odd not to mention the war directly at all.
One of the questions about Margaret Rope is: how much of a role did her brother Harry play in her life and thought? If Margaret was influenced by Harry, you can perhaps see it in that she very rarely depicts modern or industrial life in her work but stays rooted in the world of the old countryside. Also, the scenes in her windows often reflect the history of the Catholic faith in England post-1500, another interest of Harry’s.
However, the city of Rome only rarely appears in her windows, and Irish nationalism never.
Harry dedicated one poem to Margaret in this collection. The poem ‘Kerry’ seems to be about a trip they made to Ireland at some point (though it’s not entirely clear in the poem). In the poem, he rings out the Irish place-names like magical incantations, which surely points to the stirring effect the country had on him.
(In fact, we believe that Harry and Marga shared more than one trip abroad; as well as Ireland, they seemed to have also travelled to France together).
It is telling that Harry does dedicate quite a few of the poems to his siblings and friends; in fact, he dedicated the volume as a whole to his mother. Close relationships seem important to him.
An in-memoriam piece remembers his friend, the priest Charles Whitefoord (who died on the war’s frontline, where he was a chaplain to the forces); and there are quite a few tribute pieces to his sister Irene, who was serving in Serbia. (He is clearly in awe, and maybe envious too, of the courage that she shows).
Making a stand
We know that Harry was something of a stubborn and outspoken curmudgeon, so maybe it should be no surprise that he can also shock at times.
He dedicates one poem to the Irish rebel Patrick Pearse, who was executed by the British for his role in the 1916 Rising, and he compares Pearse to historic martyr saints. And, not only does Harry oppose the British colonisation of Ireland, he even decries the British Empire project as a whole, claiming it is underwritten by thousands of slaves who toil away under its yoke:
“Envy us (the British) not our riches sanspareil, / By myriad slaves upgather’d day by day, / To glut a few with surfeits unavail”.
For someone who was just starting his career as an English parish priest, all this is pretty strong stuff!
One might guess that the reason this collection was privately published, and only available by subscription, is that such views would have been seen as combative at least, perhaps even scandalous.
Controversialist to come
It’s interesting to read this slim volume, because the themes of most of his many later writings can be seen here already.
Within ten years of this publications, Harry would be recognised as a radical controversialist and yet also an accomplished stylist in his writing – and in these verses, he seems to have made his start.
For my comments on some of the poems in The Soul’s Belfry, see link (opens in a WORD document) :
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