John Harris: “I Too Found the Inner Chamber”

Photographers Unknown, I Too Found the Inner Chamber

The Government hated
all secret rites and ceremonies,
for they hinted at treason.

And so, in Catholic households,
there would be an innermost room,
behind a hidden door,
where the family knelt for Mass,
hoping they wouldn’t be burned alive
by agents and spies of the King.
Victimae paschali
the countertenors would sing,
their strange, angelic voices weaving through
the settings of William Byrd.

I too
found the inner chamber.
With my high, forbidden voice,
How could I not?

When your ears are opened
you hear the secret music.

And soon you are singing.

John Harris, Listening to William Byrd (d. 1623)

Born in Bolenowe in October of 1820, John Harris was a Cornish poet. The eldest of nine children, he was raised in a two bedroom cottage situated on the slopes of his village located in the historic and ceremonial county of Cornwall, one of the Celtic nations. 

At the age of twelve, Harris followed his father into the Dolooath copper and tin mine where they both worked as miners. This became his occupation for twenty years, during which he endured heavy labor and  began to produce poetry celebrating his native landscape. Not able to afford pen and paper, Harris’s poems describing the villages and peninsular landscapes of southern-most Cornwall were written on grocery wrapping paper with blackberry ink. 

In the 1840s, John Harris married Jane Rule, with whom he had two daughters and two sons. After one of his poems was published in a magazine and received favorable notice, he was able in 1853 to publish his first poetry collection. Following the early death of his second-born daughter Lucretia during Christmas of 1855 and through the assistance of a friend, Harris found an occupation as a traveling Bible-reader and comforter at southern Cornwall’s coastal parish of Falmouth where he would spend the remainder of his life.

While living in Falmouth, Harris produced several volumes of poetry and, in 1863, wrote what is considered his most important work, “A Story of  Carn Brea”. This descriptive poem expressed the special childhood link Harris had with the ancient Celtic site, home to Carn Brea Castle and the Bassett Monument. Through the Earl of Beaconsfield, Harris received a two-hundred Pound grant from the Royal Bounty Fund, which was followed in September of 1881 by a one-hundred Pound grant from the prime minister for service to the state. John Harris died in Falmouth on the 7th of January of 1884, at the age of sixty-three. As to his dying request, he was buried at Treslothan Chapel at the foot of Carn Brea hill. 

Notes: A biography entitled “John Harris, the Cornish Poet: The Story of His Life” was written by his son John Howard Harris and published by Oxford University in 1884; this biography was republished by Franklin Classics in 2018. Harris’s poems can be found in the 1977 collection entitled “ Songs from the Earth: Selected Poems of John Harris, Cornish Miner, 1820-24”, published by Lodenek Press. 

Several poems by John Harris can be found at the John Harris Society’s online site located at:  https://www.johnharrissociety.org.uk/poetry

Many thanks to a great source of LBGTQ literature and biographies,The Gay and Lesbian Review (G&LR), for John Harris’s poem “Listening to William Byrd (d. 1623)”.

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