PhD Student Duncan Yeates on the Poetry of John Harris

Danielle interviews Duncan about Harris's poetry and the mystery of his death.

DBO: Tell us about your research.

DY: A labouring class Victorian poet who has received marginal critical attention after his death, John Harris is an enigma. In his lifetime he was praised by London literary periodicals and defeated no less than Alfred Lord Tennyson to win the Shakespeare tercentenary prize in 1864. However, strangely, Harris then disappeared without a trace.

I find Harris fascinating on a personal level due to the sheer scale of his ambition as a poet.

My research is an investigation into the historical events that engendered Harris’s disappearance and an evaluation of his idiosyncratic contributions to Victorian prosody. These, alongside his distinct treatment of industrialisation and mining, mark him out as a significant minor poet.

DBO: What are your qualifications and research background, broadly?

DY: I have a BA in English with Media Studies from Falmouth in 2001. My research background has been limited in as much as I have been working as a teacher for the last ten years. My research interests lie in Victorian poetics and prosody.

DBO: What made you choose to study John Harris?

DY: On one level, I feel a personal connection with Harris as I have lived in the Camborne-Redruth area for a large part of my life. I find Harris fascinating on a personal level due to the sheer scale of his ambition as a poet.

He was a man who, according to the law of natural averages, should have been dead by 30 due to his occupation as a miner. Instead, he was an autodidact who managed to combine his life initially as a miner and latterly as scripture reader in Falmouth with the production of fifteen volumes of poetry. He beat Alfred Lord Tennyson to win the Shakespeare Tercentenary prize in 1864. All of his work achieved positive attention from the national literary press.

DBO: Why did you choose to do your PhD at Falmouth?

DY: I came to Falmouth for two reasons. I had very positive experience of the teaching here when I completed my degree previously. Further to this, I thought it would be appropriate to focus this work on Harris in Cornwall's only university! It has also enabled me to strengthen links with the John Harris Society (of which I am a committee member) and hopefully begin the process of starting a John Harris collection at the University. 

Duncan Yeates is in his third year of his doctoral study. He is also a poet; you can find some of his work in the University library’s copy of Wave Hub: New Poetry from Cornwall (Francis Boutle).