Perhaps the quintessential Yorkshireman as poet, Ralph Hodgson lived a quiet life that was remarkable for its seclusion and for its small but fine achievement. A newspaper draftsman and pressman, Hodgson did not publish any verse until The Last Blackbird, and Other Lines appeared in 1907, when he was thirty-six years old. This solid, mature work immediately moved him into the front rank of the Georgians, the school of poets most prominent in England just before World War I. Though they were without a formal program, all the poets commonly termed “Georgian” are alike in reacting against the trancelike rhythms and eccentric themes of Algernon Charles Swinburne and against the stuffy moralizing of much of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Poets as diverse as Hodgson, Lascelles Abercrombie, Gordon Bottomley, Rupert Brooke, W. H. Davies, Walter de la Mare, W. W. Gibson, John Masefield, James Stephen, Siegfried Sassoon, and (early in their careers) D. H. Lawrence and Robert Graves were alike in their efforts at this time to return to the roots of Romanticism, which they identified with the simplicities of such natural things as flowers, animals, and the rural scenes where these essentials could be experienced.
In all of his brief but firmly executed work, Hodgson shows a special affinity for animals, frequently using them so as to contrast their innocent integrity with the bestiality of those supposedly higher animals, humans. (Hodgson was a fancier and breeder of bull terriers, and he served frequently as a judge at dog shows.) Hodgson’s bird images in “Stupidity Street” became much more widely known than the name of the poem’s author. This work has been reprinted countless times in scores of anthologies, as have been “The Bull,” and “Eve.” Hodgson won the last William Polignac Prize given by the Royal Society for Literature in 1914 for his lyrics “The Bull” and “Song of Honour.”
All of his work is resolutely conventional, almost classically Romantic in its use of the lyric stanza patterned upon the ballad. Wordsworthian in theme and like the verse of Thomas Hardy in meter, his lyrics generally depict the decay of vitality and morality through urban industrialism, which is contrasted with the world of animals and rural simplicity.
Always interested in printing and editing, Hodgson founded a press, the “Sign of the Flying Fame,” with the painter Lovat Fraser and the historian Holbrook Jackson. He edited Fry’s Magazine from 1909 to 1911. During World War I, he served variously in the Royal Navy, the Royal Artillery, and the Labour Corps.
After the publication of Poems in 1917, Hodgson ceased to publish verse for forty years. The works that appeared after that hiatus in The Skylark, and Other Poems are often moving but they are cast in the same vein of lyric simplicity and have the same thematic elements as before. Seemingly unwilling to change with the world, Hodgson appeared to retire from its public aspects. He left England for Japan, where he lectured in English literature at Sendai University from 1924 until 1938. In 1933, while there, he married Aurelia Boliger, a missionary and schoolteacher from Canton, Ohio. His first marriage in 1896 had left him a widower in 1920; his second marriage had ended in divorce in 1927. In 1938, he received the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government, and eventually he came to reside on a small farm—half scholarly retreat and half bird sanctuary—in Minerva, Ohio, a few miles from Canton. There, this most authentic of the English Georgians spent the remaining twenty-four years of his life, almost unknown to the outside world. After World War II, when he was in his seventies, he returned to his twin avocations of poetry and typography, and issued, first in chapbooks and broadsides, the verses later collected in The Skylark. He received an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1946 and a gold medal from Queen Elizabeth in 1954. Hodgson died in Minerva in 1962 at the age of ninety-one.
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