Eliza Cook 1818-1889

Eliza Cook was born in London, the youngest of eleven children of a brass worker. When she was nine her father retired and the family moved to a small farm in St Leonard’s Forest, near Horsham in Sussex. Her mother encouraged her interest in literature and the leader of the Sunday School she regularly attended encouraged her to publish her poetry. At the age of fifteen she was already writing verses for several major newspapers and magazines.

She published her first volume of poetry, Lays of a Wild Harp, when she was seventeen but it was her poem The Old Armchair that made her a household name both in England and the United States. Other collections followed, the most important of which were Melania and Other Poems in 1838 and New Echoes and Other Poems in 1864. She also produced a weekly periodical, Eliza Cook’s Journal, which ran for five years from 1849 and wrote a prose work, Jottings From My Journal, in 1860.

She was a Chartist, a body of political reformers advocating better social and industrial conditions for the working classes and several of her poems deal with their plight, in particular A Song for the Workers and Our Father. She wore masculine clothing and was more attracted to women than men, conducting a relationship at one time with the famous but fickle American actress, Charlotte Cushman, to whom she addressed a number of her poems.

She was the recipient of a Civil List pension in 1863 but her later years were plagued by ill health and she largely withdrew from the world, dying in Wimbledon in 1889. She was a prolific poet who wrote about love, nature, the poor and political freedom for women and her works are characterised by purity of tone, sincerity and clarity of expression.

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