“We should not forget that true woman of genius, Esther Nelson. Often I think of her, and her early doom; and Bride seems to me a shrine of splendid promise and aspirations unfulfilled save in God… My father thought very highly of her poems. Some he thought worthy of Milton. And that was all breathed in and bred from your Bride hills, and the long stretches of the Ayre.”
The brilliance of Esther Nelson’s only book of poetry, Island Minstrelsy, was enough to have T. E. Brown call her “that true woman of genius,” and yet her life is something of an enigma. Superficially it suggests the sedate and unremarkable life of a Victorian spinster, but the poetry she wrote points towards something much more dark and interesting lying beneath the surface.
Born in 1810 in Jurby, where her father was the parish vicar, Nelson moved with her family to the Parish church at Santon at the age of eight, before moving back to Bride when aged twenty. It was here that she was to die of tuberculosis at the age of only 33 on the 21 March 1843, at her home in the Bride Rectory.
However, there is reason to believe that there is a great deal more to Nelson’s seemingly uneventful life story. Her poetry published in the Manks Advertiser show her to be living in Douglas for as much as a year in 1838, and she even undertook a trip to Paris, apparently for health reasons, in 1841. But far more significant in suggesting a hidden depth to her life lies in her poetry itself.
One cannot read many of her poems without emerging with the belief that she suffered heartbreak at the hands of an apparently indifferent man, leaving her looking forward only to the grave. This theme reappears in many guises throughout Island Minstrelsy but one of the most succinct statements of it comes in ‘The Worshipped One’:
And she — she worship’d him too much; —
Oh! there is death and doom for such!
With a heart so ravaged in love and a life broken by heartache, it is hard not to see an element of fate in her early death at the age of 33 to tuberculosis, the disease that appears so often, like a morbid fascination, throughout Island Minstrelsy.
I have strange dreamings of an early grave,
As if I soon should pass to its repose, —
Wild, vagrant musings of an aching heart;
Yet, when these balmy zephyrs gently fan
The fevered glow of my poor burning cheek —
My head reclined upon this peaceful mound —
I feel ’twere sweet to die, to lay me down
Within the shrining of an early grave.
Esther Nelson’s grave, Bride.
Works by Esther Nelson