Wilfrid Gibson: Poetry, Family, History

Wilfrid Gibson, c 1913
Wilfrid Gibson, circa 1913

This article discusses Gibson (my grandfather) as poet in the family and poet of family, raising questions about the relationship between poetry and autobiography. It originates in a talk given to the Friends of the Dymock Poets, and was subsequently published in their journal:  Dymock Poets and Friends 2012, No. 11, pp. 5-20.

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Wilfrid Gibson: biographical information and timeline.
Wilfrid Gibson copyright information.

Other articles and information on Gibson and his family.

Keywords: autobiography, biography, family history, historiography,  history, methodology, poetry
Key People: Dymock Poets, Elizabeth Gibson, John Pattison Gibson, Michael Gibson, Wilfrid Gibson, Geraldine Townshend.

Wilfrid Gibson: poetry, family, history


Who was Wilfrid Gibson? Nowadays, many people would answer — ‘No idea!’ But he has never been completely forgotten, and when I started to look for an answer to this question, I found many versions of him.

There are a number of versions of who he was as a poet. Contemporaries saw him as the popular herald of a new generation of young poets in the 1910s, who achieved transatlantic fame and was in the running for poet laureateship in 1930. This version merges with that of ‘The People’s Poet’, remembered by his obituarists in the 1960s primarily for his poems in the voice of working men and women. Today he is best known as the author of war poetry and a few much anthologised poems such as Flannan Isle. He is also known by some as a poet of place, especially Northumberland. The Friends of the Dymock Poets may be most familiar with the poems he wrote between 1913 and 1916 when living near Dymock, and later ones, like The Golden Room, which look back at those happier times before the First World War: poems of place and poems of friendship, but also poems of family. 1

This paper will not discuss the different evaluations of his poetry. Instead, it will talk about him as poet in the family and poet of family, raise questions about biography, and in the process examine some of his less-known poems.

‘[M]y essential autobiography is told in my verse’, Wilfrid wrote to Walter de la Mare in 1934. 2 Years later there is a tantalizing suggestion that he had begun an autobiography, but no trace of it survives. Of his published poems, only a few are overtly autobiographical, and even those do not offer simple access to his life.

Any biographer has to try and evaluate sources. There is a sort of hierarchy of credibility, with official documents like birth certificates at the top, ranging on down through contemporary diaries and letters, newspaper reports and interviews, to memoirs, reminiscences and the ever fallible family stories. But all of these are unreliable in their own way, and the evidence they produce is often contradictory. And how does poetry fit this schema?

My own memories of my grandfather do not help much: I met him only a couple of times when I was a small child. He emerged briefly from his study to present me and my sister with a generous half-crown each — then went back in and shut the door. But my mother had his Collected Poems on her bookshelf, and (despite her discomfort with it) I tried to memorise the heavily sentimental A Garland for Jocelyn, about her life-threatening illness as a baby and her recovery to become ‘lively as a trout’. 3 So for me he was a public figure — Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Poet — but also someone whose poems gave an awkward, perhaps unreliable version of family history. Later, of course, I came to realize that none of the versions can be relied on.

Factual mistakes are relatively easily dealt with — for instance the mythical Gibson, often reincarnated online, who was once a social worker, and fought at the Front in World War One. But he never fought, and — as far as I have been able to find out — was never any kind of social worker. Such errors, given weight by repetition, presumably derive from the misconception that poetry can only be autobiographical.

More problematic are the conflicting accounts given by friends and family in letters, interviews, and reminiscences. For example, speaking of his character and personality, his friends describe a man of great charm, simplicity and integrity — while at least some of his family thought of him as a self-centred scrounger. His own version of himself evolves and changes: glimpsed in passing references in his letters; more fully elaborated in interviews; expressed, concealed or evaded in his poetry. Rather than try to provide my own definitive version from all of these, I will present some of the different voices and stories, hoping that the juxtapositions will suggest new possibilities and interpretations.

Before Dymock: Son and Brother

For the first 34 years of his life, Wilfrid lived in the family home in Hexham, Northumberland. He was the baby of the family, the last of eight surviving children born to John Pattison Gibson and his wife Elizabeth. The family was comfortably off. His father was a successful chemist and businessman, a prizewinning photographer and a keen antiquarian and archaeologist who played a key role in the excavation of Hadrian’s Wall.

John Pattison Gibson portrait photograph
John Pattison Gibson

He was also an amateur boxer and sportsman, and a Major in the Hexham Rifle Corps — a lot for a son to live up to.  Fortunately for Wilfrid, his older brother John would take on the family business, so the pressure to follow in his father’s footsteps was perhaps less than it might have been. 4 For reasons that are unclear, he had less formal schooling than his older siblings, and by all accounts his sister Elizabeth, herself a poet, took on most of the responsibility for his education and encouraged his own writing.

Wilfrid often repeated the story of his very first poem. As he told it, when he was a small boy he attended a village school where he and others were regularly beaten up by a ‘big rough farm lad’. One day Wilfrid wrote about this in a poem, which the teacher read to the class. The bully, shamed, never hit any of them again — Wilfrid’s first heady taste of the power of his pen. 5 In general, his accounts of these early years conceal more than they reveal. He wrote to his friend Walter de la Mare: ‘I was born into an unhappy household’. I don’t know the cause of this unhappiness; though unhappy marriages occur frequently in his work, there are no clear autobiographical clues. Though he tells de la Mare he was not ill-treated, ‘humanly speaking, the atmosphere was all wrong’, and it would feel wrong to write about the family with its ‘gallery of altogether unusual characters’ — ‘even in the guise of fiction’. 6

So what did he have to say about his family? He admired his father’s ‘proud and eager spirit’, and both shared a passion for the Northumberland countryside that would haunt Wilfrid’s imagination for the rest of his life. 7 ‘My mind inevitably turns North when I begin to write’. 8 If his father brought Northumberland to life with his photographs and excavations, Wilfrid wanted to do the same with his poetry. Several of his poems show a desire to match or outstrip his father’s achievements through his own success as a poet, a theme that would recur in relation to his own son.

His mother appears overtly only in one poem written late in his life, about her reading ‘Great Expectations’ to him as a child. 9 It is about his failure to live up to his own expectations; whether they were hers as well, is unclear. Her own grandfather John Adamson, had won a medal for his translations of the Portuguese poet Camoens, and she discussed poetry with Wilfrid and Elizabeth, making a ready audience for their own poems.

Photograph of Judith Gibson with some of Wilfrid's older siblings.
Judith Gibson (left) and family, 1880

Wilfrid stayed on good terms with most of his sisters, though as his letters tend to refer to a generic ‘sister’, it is often impossible to tell which one he means. His intense and mutually supportive relationship with Elizabeth was probably one of the most important of his life, but I can find no reference to it in any of his poems. 10 Initially, in early interviews, he acknowledges her support and influence; later he rarely mentions her.

The picture Wilfrid did draw of his early life is fairly consistent: an uncongenial family, in a rough and ready part of the world, and a lack of sympathetic or likeminded friends.

 In a country town like this one does not find many comrades … so that, on the rare occasion that I hear people talking of the things that matter, it seems so strange, that my breath fails me, and I appear even stupider than I am. 11

However, his talents were scarcely unrecognized in Hexham — his poems were published in local papers, and in 1901, when he was 23, one was inscribed on the town fountain. And he did receive encouragement from both parents. He was the only one of their children who never had to earn a wage. 12 His father provided him with an allowance, as well as subsidizing his and Elizabeth’s early publications. (Later, Elizabeth was given an allowance as well, after her health began to break down). Their siblings were perhaps less sympathetic — the tone of references to ‘poor Wilfrid and poor Elizabeth’ could indicate resentment as much as pity, as did the story that in later life Wilfrid would deliberately wear his shabbiest clothes when visiting relatives, hoping for a handout. 13  Wilfrid’s increasing public recognition was, it seems, met within the family with varying mixtures of pride, embarrassment and resentment.

Whatever the case, Wilfrid genuinely felt a sense of inferiority to people he imagined more cultivated and worldly than he was; he refers to himself repeatedly at this time as an undereducated ‘raw country lad’, ‘a little north country savage’ from ‘humble people’. 14 And when he did begin to make more congenial friends, one can see in some of them traces of patronizing attitudes which may have reinforced his insecurities. Sydney Cockerell, for example, visiting the Gibson family in Hexham, writes to one of his London friends of:

this border country … crammed with beauty and romance … the people are quite as foreign as the French, although they speak an English patois. 15

Wilfrid himself refers to his experience of living in border country: the debatable lands between Scotland and England, and later the boundaries between Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. This seems to relate to his feelings of being on the edge of things, with no secure place in life; it was in and through poetry that he sought life, passion, and a sense of belonging. His friends, however, were anxious:

 For an intelligent person not to make use of his utmost wits … to gain a livelihood seems to be like … playing with life … It is a great pity it’s not a life business, the poetizing: Wilfrid … thinks of nothing else. 16

But although he struggled to survive on his father’s allowance, he refused all suggestions that he should earn a living in some more practical manner. And he never did.

His friend Reginald Buckley describes him at this period: ‘He was fairly tall, rather red-faced, but shy rather than breezy [with] an attractive quality about his talk and manner.’ He was ‘unassuming’, and talked well about poetry and the countryside. ‘He was on good terms with our host’s little daughter. But he had no small talk.’ It was said that he would walk the Northumberland Fells all night long, accompanied by a friend, neither of them saying a word. 17

As his poems began to achieve wider recognition in the early years of the twentieth century, he expanded his horizons and friendships, envisaging a life where he and others practiced Art for Life’s sake. The years following his mother’s death in 1902 and his father’s re-marriage, were fraught with family crises. 18 Elizabeth married in 1911, and after his father died the following year there was nothing to keep Wilfrid in Hexham. His latest book Daily Bread was proving a success, and hoping to supplement this with his inheritance, he headed for London and the Poetry Bookshop, where he would begin a new phase of his life and meet his future wife.

Towards Dymock: Friend, lover, husband, father

It is now that Wilfrid’s life becomes most closely interwoven with those later known as the Dymock Poets and their friends. Those friendships, important as they were, have been written about elsewhere, and here I will just touch on those aspects most relevant to my themes.

Aged 34, the Wilfrid of 1912 is a more confident character than he used to be. More ‘manly’ too, thought Cockerell: ‘He has improved and strengthened over the years.’ 19 Far from being floored by criticism, as he would often be later on, he could write to John Drinkwater to say:

…Edward Thomas has consistently slated me from the first. Of The Web of Life he said ‘Mr Gibson touches nothing he does not destroy’. But I believe he is a delightful man, personally, and I hope to meet him soon. 20

And whereas in earlier years patron figures like Cockerell or older poets such as Binyon, had acted as his mentors and supporters, now he began to play his own part in encouraging others and making helpful introductions. 21 Both existing and new friends spoke warmly of ‘his many faculties and delightful nature’; he was ‘lovable’, with ‘singular integrity’, while Robert Frost praised him as ‘just one of the plain folks with none of the marks of the literary poseur about him’. 22

So this is the version of Wilfrid who meets Geraldine Townshend, or Gerald, as she was known. Wilfrid, his hopes of financial security dashed when he found his inheritance was only worth £20 a year (approximately £1000 in 2011 values) was lodging in the proverbial garret, at the top of the Poetry Bookshop. Gerald was working as secretary to Harold Monro, its proprietor. She had left Dublin some years earlier, attending Cambridge University, traveling in Europe where she had climbed the Matterhorn, visiting her brother in India where she went on a tiger hunt (and according to family legend had a love affair), eventually arriving in London where she attended suffragette meetings and began to work for Monro. 23

Wilfrid wrote a poem about their meeting:

The Stair

Dear, when you climbed the icy Matterhorn,
Or braved the crouching green-eyed jungle-night —
With heart exultant in the sheer white light
Of the snow-peak, or cowering forlorn
In the old Indian darkness terror-torn —
Had you no inkling on that crystal height,
Or in the shuddering gloom, how on a flight
Of London stairs we’d meet one winter’s morn?

And when we met, dear, did you realise
That as I waited, watching you descend,
Glad in the sunlight of your eyes and hair,
And you the first time looked into my eyes,
Your wanderings were done, and on that stair
I too, O Love, had reached the journey’s end? 24

The end of wandering, the founding of his own home, ‘journey’s end’ — though there is a hint (perhaps unconscious) that marriage, for Gerald at least, would be something of a challenge.

I have found no evidence that Wilfrid had any previous love affairs, though there are a few early poems that speak of love in routine clichés, and some letters to male friends which express very strong attachment. 25 There is no doubt of his love for Gerald, and his happiness when she agreed to marry him. She also had a small amount of family money; between them they could afford to rent a cottage in Dymock, where they would join Lascelles Abercrombie and others in a new venture — the poetry journal New Numbers. With the notable exception of Harold Monro — furious at losing his secretary, fearing a rival to his own Poetry Review, and perhaps also feeling some more unspoken jealousies — Wilfrid’s immediate circle welcomed his marriage. None of them really knew Gerald, though their assessments of her as potential housekeeper and muse are generally positive if patronizing. As for Wilfrid: ‘What an absolutely perfect husband he should make!’ wrote D.H. Lawrence. And Eddie Marsh concurred: ‘the Wilfrids … seem flawlessly happy’. 26 Well, you might think twice about taking marital advice from either of those two, but the omens seemed good as Wilfrid began a new phase of his life as husband and father, first in Dymock and then in Great Malvern.

Wilfrid and Geraldine at the door of their cottage, 1914.
Wilfrid and Geraldine, the Old Nailshop, Dymock, 1914.

In such poems as Home, and For G., he paints an idyllic picture of domesticity and passion ‘[u]nder the brown bird-haunted eaves of thatch’:

Home (excerpt)

Against the curtained casement wind and sleet
Rattle and thresh, while snug by our own fire
In dear companionship that naught may tire
We sit — you listening, sewing in your seat,
Half-dreaming in the glow of light and heat,
I reading some old tale of love’s desire …

For G.

All night under the moon
Plovers are flying
Over the dreaming meadows of silvery light
Over the meadows of June
Flying and crying —
Wandering voices of love in the hush of the night.

All night under the moon
Love, though we’re lying
Quietly under the thatch, in the silvery light
Over the meadows of June
Together we’re flying —
Rapturous voices of love in the hush of the night. 27

Such images of contentment are reinforced by letters written by Wilfrid and friends in the early years of their marriage, perhaps the foundation for Linda Hart’s description of the Gibsons’ ‘domestic bliss’ in Dymock, and the claim in the Dictionary of National Biography (now dropped from the online version after I asked the editors for evidence) that they had a happy marriage. 28 But how do they tie in with his children’s bitter memories of a marriage marred by their father’s selfishness? Or the evidence in his own letters and poems from the 1920s onward of his sense of failure not just as a poet, but as a husband and a father?

In 1918, he transformed the tender eroticism of For G into images of loss and regret:

The Empty Cottage (excerpt)

Lonely and empty of all delight
It stands in the blind white night
And under the silvery thatch there is no-one to hearken
To the restless voices of plovers, flying and crying
Over the meadows of home
All night under the moon
Crying…. 29

The idyll has gone: life itself is empty of all delight. This is not just about the death of friends, the separations, destruction and desolation of war, but the death of a dream of happiness. The cottage in Dymock symbolises a place where friendship, family life, and poetry were once creatively entwined in a ‘Web of Life’ now ripped apart.

The War brought about an abrupt end to the poets’ colony in Dymock. The Gibsons were the last to leave. 1915 had been a dreadful year for them. In January, Gerald had a miscarriage. In February, Elizabeth’s husband died, and Wilfrid and Gerald offered the distraught widow a home, though in the end she stayed only briefly. In April the shattering loss of Rupert Brooke reverberated through the little group of friends — the golden boy and the golden years, gone forever. In June, another close friend, Denis Browne, was killed. That November, when Gerald was pregnant again, Wilfrid made his first attempt to enlist, and was turned down as unfit. (There are echoes of this situation in his poem The News, which has a young husband and wife talking over lunch but not getting round to telling each other their news — she that she is expecting their first child, he that he has decided to join up). 30

Their first child, Audrey, was born in May 1916 and given the middle name Greenway, after her birthplace. Wilfrid wrote a number of tender poems to his daughter.

Baby Audrey in cradle in booklined room in the Old Nailshop
Audrey in the Old Nailshop, 1916


Baby asleep on my arm,
Would that my heart could enfold you,
Cherish you, shelter you, hold you
Ever from harm.

Born in a season of strife
When warring with fire and thunder
Men wantonly shatter asunder
All that was life—

Into a world full of death
You come with a gift for the living
Of quiet grey eyes and giving
Of innocent breath.

Baby asleep on my arm,
Would that my heart could enfold you,
Cherish you, shelter you, hold you
Ever from harm! 31

This theme of father and baby is, I believe, unusual among war poems written by men at this time; a number of his later poems also deal with soldiers as parents of small children, thus undercutting the hypermasculinity of military life.

After Dymock: Family Misfortunes

Later that year the family moved to Great Malvern. The success of Georgian Poetry, and a legacy from Rupert Brooke, should have eased the Gibson’s chronic financial worries, though rampant inflation in these years must have added to their insecurity; the value of the pound more than halved between 1910 and 1920. Whatever the reason, by the end of 1916, Wilfrid decided to accept an invitation from his American publishers to tour the United States. Putting on, as he said, ‘a brazen face and brazen manner’ to cover his nerves, he set off, leaving Gerald and the new baby behind. 32 The trip was a great success from the poetry/publicity point of view, though he was homesick, and getting back again proved difficult, with Atlantic shipping increasingly vulnerable to attack.

After returning, he finally managed to enlist at the end of 1917. Soon after, Gerald, alone with the baby, fell downstairs and was badly hurt, eventually losing an eye. Over the years the growing family would be beset by accidents and illness, with medical bills adding to their financial worries.

Wilfrid was still away in the army when his son Michael was born in 1918. Altogether he spent a year and a half as a private, mainly doing clerical work. Though never leaving the country, he did once narrowly miss being posted abroad — an occasion remembered in The Fatigue, his only war poem written explicitly in his own voice as a soldier, ‘Private Gibson, [number] 381907’, where he speculates about the man sent in his place, ‘playing my hazard with death’. 33 He was miserable in the army, hating the monotony and drudgery, missing his family and friends, and finding it almost impossible to write. Given his lifelong practical incompetence, his discharge was probably a relief to everyone.

In 1920, the Gibsons’ third child Jocelyn was born in Great Malvern. As mentioned, she was seriously ill for some months, and although Wilfrid turned down Eddie Marsh’s offer of financial help he did ask him to be her godfather. Himself a non-believer, Wilfrid made sure that each of his children had at least one wealthy godparent: Marsh was also Audrey’s godfather, while Michael had Percy Withers, as well as Harriet Monroe and Lascelles Abercrombie for good measure. The idea was that however penurious the parents’ circumstances there would be someone who could help out the children, and Marsh and Withers did contribute generously to the Gibsons’ medical and school bills.

The Gibsons next moved to the Pembrokeshire coast, where the children played on the beach most of the year round. After Dymock, this was their happiest time as a family, especially for the children. Gerald encouraged their interest in nature, and taught them about the world around them. And Wilfrid was at his best with small children: playing with them, swimming, telling them stories, sharing his love of the outdoors. This fed directly into his poetry.

In the following poem he quotes directly from Michael.

Seven And Forty-Seven

I tear up weeds like fury,
And cram them in my bucket,
And crash them on the bonfire!
Sings out the lad of seven.
And seven-and-forty hankers
To feel again that fury
That flung life on the altar
To leap in flame to heaven. 34

Wilfrid with the eleven-year-old Michael on the deck of the Sea Swallow.
Wilfrid and Michael at sea, 1929

The note of loss here would intensify from this point on, as Wilfrid felt his physical and artistic energies dwindling. His reputation too was in decline. His income began to fall, and once again the question of whether and how to live by poetry alone came to the fore. 36 The problem, as Gerald and the children saw it, was that he had no other interests in life. And he was not prepared to do anything apart from giving poetry readings and lectures or — at a stretch — book reviewing, to supplement the family income. Nor did he help out at home. Gerald was responsible for everything: cooking, cleaning, making clothes (that shabby suit?), gardening, clearing drains, doing the accounts and dealing with publishers’ contracts. When she was ill, it was her relatives, or later on the children, who were expected to help out. What Wilfrid did do, apart from his one domestic task of cleaning shoes (presumably a skill learned in the army) was write letters to his friends and patrons which move by degrees from discussing his writing to begging for reassurance to giving heavy-handed hints about his need for money.

His wealthy patron Dorothy Una Ratcliffe sent cast-offs for Gerald to wear, and Gerald begged her to take Wilfrid on holiday on her yacht so that she could have a break. Eventually the family moved to a house in London big enough to take in paying guests — yet more drudgery for Gerald. Wilfrid’s beloved family was becoming increasingly alienated from him. In happier times they would tease the ‘Great Poet’, as they called him.

Now Wilfrid grew increasingly depressed and reclusive, his life governed by strict routine. Michael later wrote, ‘My father’s answer to a family problem … was to find it too awful to contemplate and retire to his study and his muse’. 37

In a poem published in 1930, Wilfrid acknowledges his own moodiness and harshness towards his children, claiming that nevertheless ‘in the bitterest hours he knew, /Trying to reconcile his heart to failure’, only they made his life worthwhile. 38 As they grew older, his relationships with them became more and more strained. The ambivalent relationship he had with his own father reappears in the several different poems called ‘To Michael’. In 1925, when Michael was 7, Wifrid wrote:

… I pray that you
May do what I set out to do,
Easily and happily attain
What I have striven for in vain …

Your song in all men’s hearts shall sing

And in that music clear and true
Even I at last attain through you. 39

A few years later, Michael age 12 wanted to be an airman, not a poet:

Dear little son, when you
Fulfil at last your heart’s desire to fly,
Forget not that of old your father flew
Before you through the sky.

On no mechanic wing
Your father soared, but on exultant words … 40

In the Michael Gibson collection in the Dymock Poets Archive, there is an undated scrap of paper, addressed to Michael and signed ‘Daddy’:

I’ve made my own way through life and so
If you don’t follow in my steps, dear [son]
But blaze your own trail …
At least you’re doing just what I have done. 41

In 1938, his children almost all grown up, Wilfrid published the ambivalent Children’.

Though all our dreams for them
Should come to naught,
Though children of our bodies prove
No children of our minds,
What matter, so each finds
Dream/worlds beyond our thought? 42

The evidence of his letters to friends is that he was — sometimes at least — proud of them, especially Michael, who wrote the first of many boys’ adventure stories while still a schoolboy, and in the 1940s did the cover art for several of Wilfrid’s books. Behind the scenes, Wilfrid and Gerald made efforts to help each of the children as they set out on their own paths. But what Wilfrid communicated to the children was his bitterness and disappointment — with them and with himself. And though he wrote to others about the life of drudgery which was wearing Gerald out, and a number of his poems show a keen awareness of the harsh reality of domestic labour, at home that awareness was not translated into practical assistance or even acknowledgement. Maybe the dynamics of their relationship were such that Gerald’s independence reinforced his dependence: it is impossible to tell. Sadly, I have found only a few letters from Gerald, and her voice, her version, is largely absent.

Then, in August 1939, catastrophe struck. A telegram arrived informing the Gibsons that Audrey, who was by then living in Italy with her German husband and their one year-old baby, had been swept into Lake Maggiore by a landslide. Her body was never recovered. Wilfrid and Gerald rushed out to collect Jocelyn, who had been there on a visit, and their grandson Roland, whose father was about to be conscripted into the German army. As the Second World War began, and their other children left home to embark on war work, the couple, now in their sixties, took on the care of their first grandchild.

The family’s grief remained unspoken, unwritten about, by any of them — perhaps private tragedy was overwhelmed by the public catastrophe of the war; perhaps it was too painful. Yet despite everything, Wilfrid and Gerald found time to enjoy having a small child in the house again. As Roland grew older Wilfrid read to him and taught him about birds and wildflowers, while Gerald passed on family stories. Though Wilfrid began to write again, he would never regain his early success. His later poems are full of nostalgia for the Northumbria of his youth, and he often gives those early memories to characters in his poems. The happy days in Dymock seemed almost unimaginable now.

As I was writing this piece, I had an email from Roland, describing his memories of Wilfrid at work, sitting:

… in his armchair with a board across the arms to support [a small…] typewriter which sat on a felt pad to dampen the noise. He usually sat close to a portable electric fire, and I can remember him singeing his trousers…

For as long as I can remember, the ‘T’ key didn’t work … He had to go through all his typescripts filling in the ‘T’s’ by hand.

I have not tried to cross the Ts and dot the Is in this paper. Sometimes gaps and spaces in the stories can tell us as much as an accumulation of detail might do. ‘My real self’ Wilfrid wrote ‘broods alone /And inarticulate, to all unknown’ — but, he says, that hidden self is found in some of his poems voiced through others.

Tongue and Pen (excerpt)

For I in lives of others truly live
My own life, and most surely can express
Through theirs my own heart’s grief or happiness,
When, self forgot, I mingle in the stress
And struggle of my brothers’ lives that give
My rhymes their life, however fugitive. 43

Judy Greenway


This article is dedicated to the late Helen Lowe, whose constant encouragement and sharp critical eye are irreplaceable. Thanks to Roy Palmer, Jeff Cooper and the Friends of the Dymock Poets for inviting me to write it. I am indebted to the family members who shared memories and stories with me: Penny Dedman, the late Michael Gibson, Pauline Gibson, Angela Harris, the late Jocelyn Hicks, Roland Huebsch, and Dorothy Talbot.

Unpublished Sources

Cockerell, Sydney, Diaries, British Library.
— letters to and from Thomas Rooke, British Library.
Gibson, Wilfrid, letters to Laurence Binyon, British Library.
— letters to Sydney Cockerell, British Library.
— letters to John Drinkwater, Marquette University, Milwaukee.
— letters to Walter de la Mare, Bodleian Library, Oxford.
— letters to Jack Haines, Dymock Poets Archive, University of Gloucestershire.
— letters to Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.
— letters to Percy Withers, Somerville College, Oxford.
— unpublished poems, Gibson collection, Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.
Hogg, Roger, 1990, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, People’s Poet: a critical and biographical study of W.W.Gibson 1878-1962, PhD thesis, University of Newcastle.

Books and Articles

Gibson, Wilfrid, 1926, Collected Poems 1905-1925, Macmillan, London.
— 1920, Home, Beaumont Press, Westminster.
— 1925, I heard a Sailor, Macmillan, London.
— 1928, The Golden Room and other poems 1925-27, Macmillan, London.
— 1930, Hazards, Macmillan, London.
— 1938, Coming and Going, Oxford University Press, London.
— 1945, Solway Ford and other poems, Faber, London.
Hart, Linda,  ‘Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962)’  online article.
Greenway, Judy, 2004, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder: Wilfrid and Elizabeth Gibson’, in Dymock Poets and Friends, No.3:23-33,
Hassall, Christopher, 1959, Edward Marsh, Patron of the Arts, Longmans, London.
Lawrence, D.H., 1982, The Letters of D.H. Lawrence 1901-30: Vol.2, ed. James T. Boulton, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


  1. Wilfrid was one of a small group of poets who in 1912-13 went to live near one another in Gloucestershire, at what later became called the Dymock Poets Colony. Those who stayed there included John Drinkwater, Lascelles Abercrombie, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. Rupert Brooke was a close friend and frequent visitor. By 1916 the First World War brought an end to the colony.
  2. Wilfrid Gibson to Walter de la Mare, 10/11/1934, cited in Hogg.
  3. ‘A Garland for Jocelyn’, Collected Poems 770-71. Given her love of swimming, this metaphor was more apposite than it might seem.
  4. John also became an antiquarian and photographer like his father.
  5. see MS poem ‘The First Rhyme-Writing’ in Brotherton Library.
  6. Gibson to de la Mare, 14/11/1934, cited in Hogg.
  7. ‘John Pattison Gibson’, The Golden Room 166.
  8. Gibson to Haines, 16/10/17.
  9. ‘Great Expectations’, MS poem, Brotherton Library.
  10. And although there is plenty of drama — or melodrama — in his work, it is generally silent on the theme of mental illness, which afflicted Elizabeth, and possibly also another sister, Clara
  11. Gibson to Binyon, 13/12/1900.
  12. His sister Clara took on the role of family housekeeper. Wilfrid did assist his father with his archaeological work and photography, and is listed in the 1901 census as ‘photographic printer’.
  13. Details from author’s interviews with family members.
  14. See, for example, Gibson to Cockerell, 3/6/1898; Gibson, ‘The Three Poets’, Solway Ford 73. Such self-belittlement would be a lifelong habit, particularly in regard to his poetry, which he often misleadingly described as ‘little rhymes’ without conscious technique , which ‘just arrived’ and were transcribed without much work — far from the reality of his laborious practice of endless rewriting.
  15. Cockerell to Rooke, 7/5/1900. Wilfrid, it seems, later dropped his Northumberland accent.
  16. Rooke to Cockerell, 15/7/1901.
  17. Reginald R. Buckley, T.P.’s Weekly, November 28 1914.
  18. I discuss this more fully in Greenway, Shoulder to Shoulder.
  19. Cockerell Diaries, 11/5/1906, 19/9/1912.
  20. Gibson to Drinkwater, 6/9/1912.
  21. He performed this role for John Drinkwater and Robert Frost, among others.
  22. Rooke to Cockerell, n.d. 1901. Other quotes cited by Hart, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.
  23. The 1911 census shows her living at a boarding house for professional ladies and employed as a private secretary.
  24. ‘The Stair’, Collected Poems 518.
  25. The absence of evidence does not, of course, mean that there were no such relationships. Wilfrid rarely kept letters, and late in life destroyed most of those he had kept.
  26. D. H. Lawrence to Eddie Marsh, 28 October 1913, in Letters: Vol. 2 92. Marsh to Rupert Brooke, February 1914, in Hassall, Edward Marsh 268.
  27. ‘Home’, Collected Poems 345; ‘For G.’, Collected Poems 344.
  28. Hart, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.
  29. Gibson, 1918, MS, in Haines.correspondence. This version differs from the one published in Home 27.
  30. ‘The News’, Collected Poems 376-382.
  31. ‘One-Day-Old’, Home 26. The version in Collected Poems 316 is dated 1916.
  32. Gibson to Drinkwater, 2/12/1916.
  33. ‘The Fatigue’, Coming and Going 42-44.
  34. ‘Seven and Forty-Seven’ The Golden Room 154. See Gibson to Withers, 9/12/1925.
  35. ‘the little boy who…made up his bunk efficiently … and then went over to Wilfrid (in a confusion of sheets and blankets) and loudly whispered, “Oh! Daddy, you had better leave it to me.”’ (Dorothy Una Ratcliffe memoir)
  36. According to Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, Gibson received more income from his share of the Rupert Brooke royalties than from his own writing. By the thirties the Brooke royalties were in decline. See Gibson to Dorothy Una Ratcliffe, 31/7/1934, 24/1/1935, and Ratcliffe, 9/3/1958.
  37. Michael Gibson, private communication, 1999.
  38. ‘In After Years’, Hazards 46.
  39. ‘’To Michael’, I heard a Sailor 88.
  40. ‘To Michael’, Hazards 44.
  41. A modified version appears as yet  another ‘To Michael’ in Hazards 42.
  42. ‘Children’, Coming and Going 53
  43. ‘Tongue and Pen’, Hazards 68.