Story, Robert (1795-1860) (DNB00)

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STORY, ROBERT (1795–1860), Northumberland poet, born at Wark on 17 Oct. 1795, was the son of Robin Story (d. 14 May 1809), a Northumbrian peasant, by his wife, Mary Hooliston, a native of Lauder. He was educated at Wark school under Mr. Kinton, with whom he made rapid progress, and then at Crookham, where he was tempted to play truant by a lame fiddler. About 1807 he commenced work as a gardener, but found more congenial service as a shepherd, an occupation commemorated in one of his best lyrics, ‘Pours the spring on Howdsden yet.’ In the summer of 1810 he began to teach the elements in a school at Humbleton, and studied with ardour the verses of Dr. Watts and Mrs. Barbauld. He subsequently served in various schools, where his accent excited derision. He was ambitious to follow the plough, like Burns, but after some intermittent field labour, in the intervals of which he corrected the proofs of his ill-conceived poem on ‘The Harvest’ (1816), he returned to teaching. In 1820 he eventually started a successful school on his own account at Gargrave in Yorkshire, his home for over twenty years. There, on 17 May 1823 (having discarded in turn several ‘rustic loves’ apostrophised in early poems), he married Ellen Ellison, by whom he had a large family. About 1825 he made the acquaintance of John Nicholson [q. v.], the Airedale poet, in emulation of whom he issued a small volume of verse entitled ‘Craven Blossoms’ (1826, 8vo). He augmented his income by acting as parish clerk and by contributions to the Newcastle papers. But about 1830 his prosperity was rudely interrupted. At the time of the reform agitation Story signalised himself by strong partisanship on the conservative side. His views were obnoxious to the parents of most of his pupils; on various pretexts the children were removed, and the schoolmaster was persecuted in numerous ways. His imprudent attempts at resistance involved him in debt. He met with some success in selling a volume of verse entitled the ‘Magic Fountain,’ written in 1829, and his hopes were wildly excited by the applause which attended his poetic rallying cry to the conservative party, entitled ‘The Isles are Awake’ (1834). In 1843 the conservative members of parliament for the West Riding obtained from Sir Robert Peel a small post for Story in the audit office. For two years he had depended mainly upon the help of his friends and the sale among them of his new volume entitled ‘The Outlaw’ (London, 1839 12mo). In 1842 he issued an autobiographic medley called ‘Love and Literature’ (London, 8vo), which again had a fair sale, mainly in the West Riding and in Northumberland, where he had found a warm friend in William Gourley, a self-taught mathematician. In London he had a struggle to make ends meet, and suffered greatly by the loss of four of his children; but his literary productiveness went on. In 1845 appeared a volume of ‘Songs and Lyrical Poems’ (London, 8vo; 3rd edit. 1849), and in 1852 a versified tale of the Heptarchy, ‘Guthrum the Dane.’ In 1854 he visited Paris and was presented to Napoleon III as a successor of Burns, and in 1857 the Duke of Northumberland issued at his own expense a sumptuous edition of his ‘Poetical Works’ (Newcastle, 1857, 8vo). The beauty of the volume seems to have disarmed the critics, for not only did Macaulay and Aytoun signify their approbation, but Carlyle in November 1857 detected in it ‘a certain rustic vigour of life, breezy freshness, as of the Cheviot Hills.’ This is notably the case in a few of the lyrics, intimately inspired by the localities of the poet's youth, such as ‘The wild thyme still blossoms in green Homil-heugh;’ but, broadly speaking, one is less impressed by the distinctive merit of Story's poems than by the courage and success with which he set about selling them with a view to relieve himself of the debts by which he was at all times encumbered. He died at Battersea on 7 July 1860, and was buried in Brompton cemetery. A short life was prefixed to a selection of his ‘Poems’ edited by John James in 1861.

[Story's Works, especially his Love and Literature; Memoir by John James, with an engraved portrait after R. Waller, 1861; Gent. Mag. 1860, ii. 313; Leeds Mercury, 10 July 1860; Athenæum, 1858, i. 176; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature.]

T. S.