Knowles, Herbert (DNB00)

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KNOWLES, HERBERT (1798–1817), poet, was born at Gomersal, near Leeds, in 1798. His parentage is said to have been very humble, but it is also stated that he was the brother of J. C. Knowles, subsequently Q.C. He lost both parents at an early age, and was about to enter a merchant's office at Liverpool when his talents attracted the notice of three benevolent clergymen, who raised 20l. a year towards his education on condition of his friends contributing 30l. more. He was sent to Richmond grammar school, Yorkshire, ‘totally ignorant,’ he tells Southey, of classical and mathematical literature. It had been hoped that he might obtain a sizarship at St. John's College, Cambridge, but the inability of his relations to fulfil their engagements seemed likely to put an end to the project, when Knowles conceived the idea of applying to Southey, sending him at the same time the poem of ‘The Three Tabernacles,’ which he had composed on 7 Oct. 1816. Southey, with his usual generosity, entered warmly into the matter, promised 10l. a year from his own means, and procured 20l. more by application to Earl Spencer and Rogers. Knowles was actually elected a sizar on 31 Jan. 1817, but he was already in a hopeless decline, and died on 17 Feb. following, at Gomersal. A letter from him to Southey, dated 28 Dec. 1816, conveys the most favourable impression of his modesty, candour, and good sense. He deprecates all extravagant expectations of his academical success, but undertakes to ‘strive that my passage through the university, if not splendid, shall be respectable.’ Verses from his pen were printed in the ‘Literary Gazette’ for 1819 and 1824, and the ‘Literary Souvenir’ for 1825 (reprinted in the ‘Saturday Magazine,’ vol. xvi.); and a correspondent of ‘Notes and Queries’ states himself to be in possession of several unpublished pieces. His reputation, however, entirely rests on the poem sent to Southey, entitled by himself ‘The Three Tabernacles,’ but better known as ‘Stanzas in Richmond Churchyard,’ which had a large circulation on a separate sheet, and first appeared in book form in Carlisle's ‘Endowed Grammar Schools.’ It would be difficult to overpraise this noble masterpiece of solemn and tender pathos, exquisite in diction and melody, and only marred by the anticlimax of the last stanza, fine in itself, but out of keeping with the general sentiment of the poem. If this had been omitted and the two preceding stanzas transposed, the impression would have been one of absolute perfection. Even as they stand the stanzas are unparalleled as the work of a schoolboy for faultless finish and freedom from all the characteristic failings of inexperience. This extraordinary maturity discriminates Knowles from other examples of precocious genius, such as Keats, Blake, and Chatterton, and insures him a unique place among youthful poets. His intellect must have been as active as his emotional nature; and even had the poetical impulse deserted him, he could not have failed to achieve distinction in some manner.

[Southey's Life and Correspondence, iv. 221–227; Quarterly Review, vol. xxi.; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vol. viii.; Carlisle's Endowed Grammar Schools.]

R. G.