"Up Hill and Down Dale"

The Poetry of Kenneth H Ashley

The George in Market Deeping

Kenneth Herbert Ashley (1885-1969) is one of England's lesser known poets, but in one slim book of verse, "Up Hill and Down Dale", published in 1924 by Bodley Head, he has penned a number of beguiling poems.

Little is known of Ashley other than the brief entries in public records and what he shares about himself in his poetry. Subsequent to "Up Hill and Down Dale" he went on to write two novels: "Creighton the Admirable" in 1926 and "Death of a Curate" in 1932. Thereafter there is no record of him publishing anything, although several of his poems have subsequently appeared in anthologies.

In "Up Hill and Down Dale" Ashley states that, at the time of publication, "About half of the poems in this collection have already appeared in 'The London Mercury’, 'The Nation and Athenaeum' or 'The Spectator.'". ('The Nation and Athenaeum' was subsequently absorbed into the New Statesman). From what records of publication I have found, "Wild Geese" and "To a Thrush in Winter" were published in 1921 in "The London Mercury"; the former was also published in "The Living Age" in 1921 (and, later, the US "Child Library Readers" series book 7 in 1929), whilst the latter appeared in "The Living Age" in 1923. "Who's There" also appeared in "The Living Age" in 1924. His poem "Rudkin" was published in a book entitled "The Best Poems of 1923" alongside poems by, amongst others, Laurence Binyon, Walter de la Mare, e.e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Victoria Sackville-West and Osbert Sitwell. Additionally "The Owl at 'The Swan'", "Goods Train at Night" and "Cow and Seed Stack" featured in "The Mercury Book Of Verse" (1931); the latter also in "Animals All: An Anthology for Schools" in 1940.

A new audience seems to have rediscovered Ashley in the current century. "Norman Church: New Coalfield" was featured in "A Pitman's Anthology" in 2004, "Close of Play" is in "Tommy Rot: WWI Poetry They Didn't Let You Read" (2013), and "Out of Work" is in "Poems that make Grown Men Cry" (2014) - selected by Felix Dennis after he found "Up Hill and Down Dale" in the library of J. B. Priestley. Several online sources have also published poems by Ashley, but I believe this site is the first to bring all of his published poetry to a contemporary audience.

Ashley appears to be a self-taught writer, earning a living from artisanal work in the Mansfield area of Nottinghamshire where he lived and died. He was born in Mansfield Woodhouse and died, aged 83, in nearby Southwell. From Census records we know he was the youngest of the three sons born to Herbert and Mary Ashley, living at 24 Woodhouse Road, Mansfield. Herbert's employment was listed variously as stonemason, contractor manager, railway contractor and contract manager for public works of civil engineering, and his sons listed as civil engineers, contractors and as assistants to their father. The household seemed to be sufficiently well-paid to have a residential servant according to the 2001 Census. Ashley married Bertha Raithby (1888-1981) in 1917 in Mansfield. There is some evidence that they had children, but the records are not conclusive.

Ashley's poetry suggests that, at the time he wrote it, he was living near Mansfield in the English East Midlands county of Nottinghamshire. Judging by one poem, "Coming Home from Kirton", he may well have lived in Ollerton, and 'The Plough' in New Ollerton was his local pub - it features in two poems of his. As well as name checks on places between Kirkton and Ollerton, several other poems make reference to local features, for example, "The Camp" seems to refer to Clipstone Camp and "The 'Owl' at the Swan" refers to a famous hostelry in Mansfield itself.

Ashley also spent some time in neighbouring Lincolnshire, possibly for work. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century these areas were largely agricultural and Ashley captures both the beauty and hardship of the rural setting he inhabited as well as the emerging impact of industry and technology. There is nothing to suggest Ashley was called up in World War One, but the war casts a shadow over some of his poems. Stylistically, he owes much to the Georgian Poets, and to Hardy and Housman. What distinguishes him, however, is the depth of his affinity to the countryside - from the point of view of one who lived and worked there, rather than with an outsider's bucolic view. In Ashley's world, there is the struggle to find agricultural work outside the harvest season, the annual cycle of work in the fields, the central role of the village pub and glimpses of a world co-mingling with the rural landscape, whether it is military training camps, a new coal mine, the railways, driving in a 'two-seater' or the lure of the cities with their trams and cinemas.

"Up Hill and Down Dale" is divided into four sections: