Tuesday, 15 January 2019

"A Sigh for Devon" - Bicentenary of Edward Capern’s birth.


It was two hundred years ago, on 21st January 1819, that Edward Capern, Devon’s Postman Poet, was born into a poor, working-class family in Tiverton. His father, a baker, could not afford to educate his son and would never have dreamt that he would become nationally renowned as a poet, winning plaudits from the Prime Minister and support from the biggest literary names of the day.

The bicentenary of his birth would, perhaps, have gone unnoticed if his extraordinary story had not been brought back to public attention by Devon author Liz Shakespeare. She has written The Postman Poet, a novel based on the life of Capern, and has published 34 of his 600 poems in The Poems of Edward Capern. While writing the novel, Liz drew on historical research and details in the poems to tell the astonishing story through Edward’s eyes as he struggles to support his family, capturing the opportunities and inequalities of Victorian North Devon.

Edward Capern became a postman following the introduction of the Penny Post, walking the 13 mile round trip between Bideford and Buckland Brewer 364 days a year. He would jot down poems while he was walking and he often wrote on the envelopes he was about to deliver: “He had to ask the recipients if he could keep the envelopes because he’d written poems on them,” said Liz Shakespeare, whose own cottage was on Capern’s round.

He was entirely self-taught but he had a local benefactor, William Frederick Rock from Barnstaple, who saw Capern’s early poems in the North Devon Journal in the 1850s and supported the publication of the first volume of poems. The book was a national success, winning the support of Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Rowland Hill, the inventor of the Penny Post, as well as considerable local fame. Many people used to visit North Devon to see the Postman Poet set off on his round, at the same time as visiting the scenes made famous by Charles Kingsley’s book ‘Westward Ho!’ after which the seaside resort was named. Edward Capern was awarded a Civil List Pension by the Prime Minister for his services to literature and went on to write three further books of poems.

During her research, Liz found that some of his poems were intended to be sung, so collaborated with Devon musicians Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll who set them to music for their CD, The Songs of Edward Capern.

Most of his poems are happy and extol the beauties of the North Devon countryside, but he was also very aware of the darker side of life. Although he was careful not to upset the aristocracy who bought his work, Capern was keen to use his pen to champion the cause of the poor and he managed to slip in many reminders, amongst his happier verses, that the poor should not be forgotten, and that labourers should be paid fair wages.

One poem Nick and Becki have set to music is The Dinner Bell, a tale of the haves and have-nots in which Capern laments the plight of families who could hear the sound of distant dinner bells but had no food themselves.

In recognition of Capern’s commitment to social justice, £1 from each copy of the poetry collection sold is being donated to the Northern Devon Food Bank, and more than £500 has been raised so far.

Together, Liz Shakespeare, Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll have appeared at music festivals and book festivals to tell the story of Edward Capern through words and song.

On Monday 21st January Liz will be placing flowers on Edward Capern’s grave in Heanton Punchardon to commemorate the birth of Devon’s Postman Poet two hundred years ago. 

A Sigh for Devon
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Bright haunt of the daffodil, myrtle, and rose,
Of solitude sweet, and of pleasant repose,
Where a welcome waits all with a heart in its hand,
My Devon! dear Devon! my beautiful land!
Blest region of valley, hill, woodland, and river,
I love thee, dear land, and shall love thee for ever.
Edward Capern
Edward Capern portrait - Photo copyright Burton Art Gallery (All Rights Reserved)
Portrait of Edward Capern - Photo copyright Burton Art Gallery (All Rights Reserved)
Devon author, Liz Shakespeare with musicians Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll
Devon Author, Liz Shakespeare with musicians Nick Wyke and Becki Driscoll
The "Postman Poet" Edward Capern's Gravestone
Here lies The "Postman Poet" Edward Capern

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