A while ago I was idly surfing through amazon.com when I decided to do a
search on my great-grandfather’s name: John Wellwood. He was a poet, writer,
biographer and Minister of the Church of Scotland who lived from 1853 to 1919.
I have in my possession a biography he wrote, that of Norman MacLeod, which was
published under the Famous Scot Series in 1897. Norman Macleod (1812–1872) apparently
was a Scottish clergyman and author. (Incidentally, John Wellwood’s brother-in-law,
Professor William Herkless, of Glasgow University, also wrote one of the books
in the series, a biography of Richard Cameron – an equally obscure Famous Scot).
I also knew that John Wellwood had written at least one book of poetry. I used to have a copy of that book, but it seems to have vanished during one of the many
house-moves we have pulled off over a period of thirty years. So I was
interested to know if he had written any other books.
Sure enough, what I came up with was a poetry book that John Wellwood had
written along with his best friend, Robert Kemp, entitled The Praise and Blame of Love. A good chunk of it is romantic poetry
of one kind or another. But, occasionally, there are daring little pieces that
must have been somewhat controversial at the time. For example, here is a poem
called “The Curate’s Resignation” which I can’t help quoting in full:
bishop, let me go I pray;
feel no longer fit
bear the burden of the day;
fact, I’m tired of it.
this is what I find indeed:
single item of the creed
some the whole receive
therefore, lonely in the Church,
seek some other sphere
by both parties in the lurch
but a stranger here
bishop, take it not amiss
not that I am broad
narrow: no, the mischief’s this:
That I believe in God.
It’s difficult to say, this far on, whether the criticism was of
clergymen in general or only of those who professed “high” religion. The poem
is addressed to a bishop so we can take it that the clergyman is not of the
Presbyterian persuasion like John Wellwood. The fact that the voice is that of a “curate” further
corroborates that view, since I think curates are usually to be found in Catholic or High
Anglican churches. In 19th-century Scotland it would most likely be
the Roman Catholic Church.
The poem is written using a strict rhyme scheme, which seems to break
only in the last stanza where “broad” is rhymed with “God.” In received
pronunciation they don’t rhyme exactly (“broad” having a long vowel sound and “God” a short one), but in
Scotland, especially in the north, this would be an exact rhyme since both
would be pronounced with a short vowel sound.
In any case, it is interesting that John Wellwood has the effrontery to
criticize men of the cloth, when he was one himself. It shows the strength of
feeling he had about his calling, which he sees as belief in God, rather than
adherence to any particular political or ideological view. (There are a few
other poems in the book on similarly truculent themes, e.g. “To the Makers of
Creeds,” and “The Heretic’s Dream.”)
The volume was published in 1880, when John Wellwood would have been 27
years old. Yet most of the poems show him to be a remarkably able technician,
with a facility for rhyme and meter and a command of
figurative language which is impressive.
John Wellwood later named one of his sons after his good friend Robert
Kemp. Two of his sons (including Robert Kemp Wellwood) died in action during the Great
War and John, their father, never really recovered from the loss. In essence,
he died of a broken heart at the young age of 66, in 1919.