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Could you write a poem about this? John Crossley could. (Image from Sikachu!, Flickr)

Toast is well-known for its restorative powers; but is it the stuff of poetry? Well, according to John Crossley, it is:

There’s nothing much nicer for those who are ill,

Than plenty of tasty, well-Butter’d toast;

When it pleases the palate it very soon will

Refresh the weak system; this is no boast.

I think we can take it that Mr. Crossley liked his toast. He wrote lines of verse for several foods of which he approved, including celery, lentils, peas, eggs, cabbage, cauliflower, and, my personal favourite, the orange:

O, range where you will, the orange will still

Refresh the thirsty soul;

’Tis good for the healthy and sick,* poor or wealthy,

Where’er Time’s tide doth roll.

*When palatable.

Essayist, composer, health guru, and poet, Crossley was a man of many and varied talents. (Actually, “talents” may not be the right word. Let’s say, “interests”.) Over a period of about ten years towards the end of the nineteenth century, he produced a number of hymns, essays and poems, which have now all been catalogued by the Tower Project. Despite the fact that he never reached a wide audience – everything we have by him in the library was self-published – he was not exactly plagued by self-doubt: he declared of his pamphlet, How to live 1,000 years healthily, happily, & wisely (1888.5.167), that

The contents of this leaflet are a good and perfect benefaction to the human race; a Precious, Beautiful, and Brilliant Cluster of Mental Diamonds … For Variety, Brevity, Usefulness, and Sense combined there is probably no publication which surpasses it, except the Bible.

That’s … quite a claim. Apparently, if you want to live to be 1,000, you should “Perceive, Practise, Preach, and Propagate Purity Persistently”, and if you’re unmarried, then you “should use Sugar very moderately; as it is an extremely Amative food, and tends to make people impure and lustful”. To be fair to him, he realised that smoking was bad for your health, but his way of dissuading people from it was to remind them of the “vast variety of confectionery and sweets” on which they could spend their money instead. Which is fine, but surely inconsistent with his earlier tip to avoid sugar. (Whether he took his own advice and lived 1,000 years has not, alas, been documented.)

Reading through his work, I find myself feeling increasingly sorry for his wife. Not only did she (presumably) have to adhere to his healthy living plan, but when she tried her hand at writing herself, he was a ruthless editor. She contributed “a few lines of verse” to her husband’s Poetry, music & prose (1894.12.104), but he was disinclined to let her take much credit for them: in the poem ‘Memorial lines’, written for their late neighbour, Mr. Crossley noted at the end, “My wife composed the first six lines, and then I revised them and added the last two lines.” In other words: leave the poetry to the expert.

But then, perhaps Mrs. Crossley enjoyed his effusions. She may even have inspired some of them: after all, one of his hymn tunes is named ‘Gertrude’, which I’d like to believe is named for her; and he wrote a poem, ‘Love’, which one can only hope was dedicated to her. Though it really has to be read to believed. The first verse gives you a flavour of his flair for rhyme:

Love’s a passion and fiery,—

Chiding sin, with accents ir’y,

Rousing sinners from their miry

Sins; thus love is strong—untiry.

It hasn’t improved by the final verse: 

Love is gen’rous, never stinty;

Straight of vision—seldom squinty;

Uses money—does not love it;

Values Virtue much above it.

John Crossley is the kind of writer you often come across as a cataloguer on the Tower Project: someone whose work might have been lost entirely, were it not for the legal deposit system. I find it rather cheering that his writings have survived. After all, his poetry might not have much in the way of literary merit, but how often do you read a poem that defines love in terms of how “squinty” it is? Whatever else you could say about Mr. Crossley (and really, you could say a lot), he was certainly original.

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