T E Brown was born at Douglas, Isle of Man. His father, the Rev. Robert Brown, shared with the parish schoolmaster in tutoring the clever boy until, at the age of fifteen, he was entered at King William’s College.
Here his abilities soon declared themselves and he proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford, where his position as a servitor cost him much humiliation, which he remembered to the end of his life. He won a double first, however, and was elected a fellow of Oriel in April 1854, Dean Thomas Gaisford having refused to promote him to a senior studentship of his own college, on the ground that no servitor had ever before attained to that honour.
So he obtained the highest academic honour, that of a Fellowship at Oriel, although Brown never took kindly to the life, but, after a few terms of private pupils, returned to the Isle of Man as vice-principal of his old school. He had been ordained deacon, but did not proceed to priest’s orders for many years.
In 1857, he married his cousin, Miss Stowell, daughter of Dr Stowell of Ramsey, and soon afterwards left the island once more to become headmaster of the Crypt School, Gloucester, a position which in no long time he found intolerable due to the burden of administration. From Gloucester he was summoned by the Rev. John Percival (afterwards bishop of Hereford), who had recently been appointed to the struggling young foundation of Clifton College, which he soon raised to be one of the great public schools.
Percival wanted a master for the modern side, and made an appointment to meet Brown at Oxford. “There,” he writes, “as chance would have it, I met him standing at the corner of St Mary’s Entry, in a somewhat Johnsonian attitude, four-square, his hands deep in his pockets to keep himself still, and looking decidedly volcanic. We very soon came to terms, and I left him there under promise to come to Clifton as my colleague at the beginning of the following term.”
Brown remained at Clifton College from September 1863 to July 1892 when he retired, to the great regret of boys and masters alike who had long since come to regard “T.E.B.’s” genius, and even his eccentricities, with a peculiar pride. He spent the rest of his days on the island he had loved from childhood and often celebrated in song.
His poem “Betsy Lee” appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine (April and May 1873), and was published separately in the same year. It was included in Fo’c’s’le Yarns (1881), which reached a second edition in 1889. This volume included at least three other notable poems–“Tommy Big-eyes,” “Christmas Rose,” and “Captain Tom and Captain Hugh.” It was followed by The Doctor and other Poems (1887), The Manx Witch and other Poems (1889), and Old John and other Poems–a volume mainly lyrical (1893).
Since his death all these and a few additional lyrics and fragments have been published in one volume by Messrs Macmillan under the title of The Collected Poems of T. E. Brown (1900). His familiar letters (edited in two volumes by an old friend, Mr ST Irwin, in 1900) bear witness to the zest he carried back to his native country, although his thoughts often reverted to Clifton.
In October 1897 he returned to the school on a visit. He was the guest of one of the house-masters, and on a Friday evening, he gave an address to the boys of the house. He had spoken for some minutes with his usual vivacity, when his voice grew thick and he was seen to stagger. He died in less than two hours. He was buried at Redland Green, Bristol.
Brown’s more important poems are narrative, and written in the Anglo-Manx dialect, with a free use of pauses, and sometimes with daring irregularity of rhythm. A rugged tenderness is their most characteristic note; but the emotion, while almost equally explosive in mirth and in tears, remains an educated emotion, disciplined by a scholar’s sense of language. They breathe the fervour of an island patriotism (humorously aware of its limits) and of a simple natural piety. In his lyrics he is happiest when yoking one or the other of these emotions to serve a philosophy of life, often audacious, but always genial.
Time however has not dealt well with T.E.Brown – although highly regarded, especially on the Island, at the turn of the Century, he is now little read. Samuel Norris accounts for this by Brown’s use of the Anglo-Manx Dialect and his rather late start as a Poet.
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