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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

The satirically curious Firmilian see below


Not

many writers, either in prose or poetry, give the impression of never having done what was in them more than William Edmonstoune Aytoun, who was born in 1813 and died in 1865. He was a son-in-law of "Christopher North," and like him a pillar of _Blackwood's Magazine_, in which some of his best things in prose and verse appeared. He divided himself between law and literature, and in his rather short life rose to a Professorship in the latter and a Sheriffdom in the former, deserving the credit of admirably stimulating influence in the first capacity and competent performance in the second. He published poems when he was only seventeen. But his best work consists of the famous _Bon Gaultier Ballads_--a collection of parodies and light poems of all kinds written in conjunction with Sir Theodore Martin, and one of the pleasantest books of the kind that the century has seen--and the more serious _Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers_, both dating from the forties, the satirically curious _Firmilian_ (see below), 1854, and some _Blackwood_ stories of which the very best perhaps is _The Glenmutchkin Railway_. His long poem of _Bothwell_, 1855, and his novel of _Norman Sinclair_, 1861, are less successful.

The _Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers_, on which his chief serious claim must rest, is an interesting book, if hardly a great one. The style is modelled with extreme closeness upon that of Scott, which even Sir Walter, with all his originality and genius,

had not been able always to preserve from flatness. In Aytoun's hands the flats are too frequent, though they are relieved and broken at times by really splendid bursts, the best of which perhaps are "The Island of the Scots" and "The Heart of the Bruce." For Aytoun's poetic vein, except in the lighter kinds, was of no very great strength; and an ardent patriotism, a genuine and gallant devotion to the Tory cause, and a keen appreciation of the chivalrous and romantic, did not always suffice to supply the want of actual inspiration.

If it had been true, as is commonly said, that the before-mentioned _Firmilian_ killed the so-called Spasmodic School, Aytoun's failure to attain the upper regions of poetry would have been a just judgment; for the persons whom he satirised, though less clever and humorous, were undoubtedly more poetical than himself. But nothing is ever killed in this way, and as a matter of fact the Spasmodic School of the early fifties was little more than one of the periodical outbursts of poetic velleity, more genuine than vigorous and more audacious than organic, which are constantly witnessed. It is, as usual, not very easy to find out who were the supposed scholars in this school. Mr. P. H. Bailey, the author of _Festus_, who still survives, is sometimes classed with them; but the chief members are admitted to have been Sydney Dobell and Alexander Smith, both remarkable persons, both failures of something which might in each case have been a considerable poet, and both illustrating the "second middle" period of the poetry of the century which corresponds to that illustrated earlier by Darley, Horne, and Beddoes.

Of this pair, Sydney Dobell had some, and Alexander Smith had others, of the excuses which charity not divorced from critical judgment makes for imperfect poets. Dobell, with sufficient leisure for poetical production, had a rather unfortunate education and exceedingly bad health. Smith had something of both of these, and the necessity of writing for bread as well. Dobell, the elder of the two, and the longer lived, though both died comparatively young, was a Kentish man, born at Cranbrook on 5th April 1824. When he was of age his father established himself as a wine-merchant at Cheltenham, and Sydney afterwards exercised the same not unpoetical trade. He went to no school and to no University, privations especially dangerous to a person inclined as he was to a kind of passionate priggishness. He was always ill; and his wife, to whom he engaged himself while a boy, and whom he married before he had ceased to be one, was always ill likewise. He travelled a good deal, with results more beneficial to his poetry than to his health; and, the latter becoming ever worse, he died near Cheltenham on 22nd August 1874. His first work, an "Italomaniac" closet drama entitled _The Roman_, was published in 1850; his second, _Balder_, in 1853. This latter has been compared to Ibsen's _Brand_: I do not know whether any one has noticed other odd, though slight, resemblances between _Peer Gynt_ and Beddoes' chief work. The Crimean War had a strong influence on Dobell, and besides joining Smith in _Sonnets on the War_ (1855), he wrote by himself _England in Time of War_, next year. He did not publish anything else; but his works were edited shortly after his death by Professor Nichol.


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