Albert Francis Cross – Loughborough’s Forgotten Poet
19 March 2016
At the time when Thomas Hardy and D H Lawrence were busy writing about their local landscapes, a Leicestershire poet was doing the same in Charnwood. Sadly, the name of that poet has since fallen into obscurity.
Albert Francis Cross, otherwise known as A. F. Cross, was born in Loughborough in 1863, the son of William – a hosiery factory machinist born in Packington – and his wife Emma, formerly of Wymeswold. The 1871 census shows Albert living with his parents in King Street, Loughborough, along with brothers Ambrose (15) and John Henry (11). By 1881 Albert was contributing to the family finances as a 17-year-old Pupil Teacher.
Albert married Francis Emma Wheal in Loughborough in the last quarter of 1889, and by 1891 the couple were living in Carlton, Leicestershire. Here, Albert is listed as a playwright and journalist, with the word ‘author’ written lightly over the entry. By 1901 the couple were living in Stoke Golding with their children Frederick (11), Maria (7), Sylvia (6) and Frances (4).
A poet, playwright, and journalist, Cross founded several theatres in the East Midlands, as well as establishing the George Eliot Fellowship in 1930. He built the Empire Skating Rink in Nuneaton, and in Rugby he managed the Rugby Theatre. He wrote numerous volumes of poetry, including Songs and Sonnets (1884), Virginia, and Other Poems (1887), and The Tower of Harmony (1925), all now long out of print. But it is his 1928 volume, Charnwood Poems (Nuneaton: Chronicle Press), which provides the clearest local connection.
Cross spent much of his adult life in Nuneaton, where he died in March 1940, aged 76. There is a certain poignancy to Charnwood Poems – a nostalgia, if you like (the word ‘nostalgia’ literally means the pain of returning home). Charnwood Poems sees Cross returning to the land in which he was raised, revisiting childhood haunts and reliving childhood memories from those formative years spent in Loughborough and Charnwood.
Albert’s Charnwood Poems often treat local places, and the people who inhabit them, in a way that marks him out as an important though overlooked poet of the Midlands. One of the finest poems in Charnwood Poems is ‘In a Midland Meadow’, dated April 12th, 1918:
By almanac the golden sun to-day
Should bathe this meadow in translucent haze,
While mating song-birds blithely should upraise
Love’s canticles in tuneful roundelay:
But Nature sulks: a garb of hodden-gray
The landscape wears, untimely it displays
The livery of drab November days,
As though proud Pan himself owned Grief’s dull sway.
In other fields o’er-sea, convulsive agony
Still frightens Spring from earth’s unquiet breast;
But one who roamed this mead in boyish zest
Treks home each eve when milking-time draws nigh,
And in yon byre, by mystic union blest,
A mother’s love outsoars Death’s mastery.
The ‘mother’s love’ in the final line refers to the cows in the ‘byre’ (a cow-shed), and thus the poem celebrates life over death. The poem’s date is significant: the beginning of the poem’s ninth line takes the focus away from the medieval mood of the first eight lines (‘almanac’, ‘canticles’, ‘roundelay’, ‘hodden-gray’, ‘livery’) towards the contemporary world ‘o’er-sea’, at the Western Front, where thousands of men were dying every week. Note the focus on new life through motherhood: earth has an ‘unquiet breast’, which leads us to ‘milking-time’ and finally to the ‘mother’s love’ in that final line. Such poetry deals with the war, not from the position of the soldier fighting in the trenches, but the middle-aged man at home, watching the younger generation go off to war.
Charnwood Poems contains 85 verses, mostly short pieces such as sonnets and lyrics. Cross is at his best when dealing with the interaction between man and the natural world, between poet and landscape, the solitary figure and his surrounding environment. The horrors of WWI shake his faith and threaten his optimism, but his belief in the greater good, and his celebration of the heroism of those involved in the conflict, wins out – as does the beauty of the Charnwood landscape.
This article is based on a post on the Charnwood Poetry archive. You can read the full post and articles on other local poets here.