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A History of Nineteenth Century Literature (1780-1

Was more seriously taxed with crudity which was just


Alexander

Smith, like so many of the modern poets of Scotland, was born in quite humble life, and had not even the full advantages open to a Scottish "lad o' pairts." His birthplace, however, was Kilmarnock, a place not alien to the Muses; and before he was twenty-one (his birth year is diversely given as 1829 and 1830) the Rev. George Gilfillan, an amiable and fluent critic of the middle of the century, who loved literature very much and praised its practitioners with more zeal than discrimination, procured the publication of the _Life Drama_. It sold enormously; it is necessary to have been acquainted with those who were young at the time of its appearance to believe in the enthusiasm with which it was received; but a little intelligence and a very little goodwill will enable the critic to understand, if not to share their raptures. For a time Smith was deliberately pitted against Tennyson by "the younger sort" as Dennis says of the faction for Settle against Dryden in his days at Cambridge. The reaction which, mercifully for the chances of literature if not quite pleasantly for the poet, always comes in such cases, was pretty rapid, and Smith, ridiculed in _Firmilian_, was more seriously taxed with crudity (which was just), plagiarism (which was absurd), and want of measure (which, like the crudity, can hardly be denied). Smith, however, was not by any means a weakling except physically; he could even satirise himself sensibly and good-humouredly enough; and his popularity had the solid
result of giving him a post in the University of Edinburgh--not lucrative and by no means a sinecure, but not too uncongenial, and allowing him a chance both to read and to write. For some time he stuck to poetry, publishing _City Poems_ in 1857 and _Edwin of Deira_ in 1861. But the taste for his wares had dwindled: perhaps his own poetic impulse, a true but not very strong one, was waning; and he turned to prose, in which he produced a story or two and some pleasant descriptive work--_Dreamthorpe_ (1863), and _A Summer in Skye_ (1865). Consumption showed itself, and he died on 8th January 1867.

It has already been said that there is much less of a distinct brotherhood in Dobell and Smith, or of any membership of a larger but special "Spasmodic school," than of the well-known and superficially varying but generally kindred spirit of periods and persons in which and in whom poetic yearning does not find organs or opportunities thoroughly suited to satisfy itself. Dobell is the more unequal, but the better of the two in snatches. His two most frequently quoted things--"Tommy's Dead" and the untitled ballad where the refrain--

Oh, Keith of Ravelston, The sorrows of thy line!

occurs at irregular intervals--are for once fair samples of their author's genius. "Tommy's dead," the lament of a father over his son, is too long, it has frequent flatnesses, repetitions that do not add to the effect, bits of mere gush, trivialities. The tragic and echoing magnificence of the Ravelston refrain is not quite seconded by the text: both to a certain extent deserve the epithet (which I have repudiated for Beddoes in another place) of "artificial." And yet both have the fragmentary, not to be analysed, almost uncanny charm and grandeur which have been spoken of in that place. Nor do this charm, this grandeur, fail to reappear (always more or less closely accompanied by the faults just mentioned, and also by a kind of flatulent rant which is worse than any of them) both in Dobell's war-songs, which may be said in a way to hand the torch on from Campbell to Mr. Kipling, and in his marvellously unequal blank verse, where the most excellent thought and phrase alternate with sheer balderdash--a pun which (it need hardly be said) was not spared by contemporary critics to the author of _Balder_.

Alexander Smith never rises to the heights nor strikes the distinct notes of Dobell; but the _Life Drama_ is really on the whole better than either _Balder_ or _The Roman_, and is full of what may be called, from opposite points of view, happy thoughts and quaint conceits, expressed in a stamp of verse certainly not quite original, but melodious always, and sometimes very striking. He has not yet had his critical resurrection, and perhaps none such will ever exalt him to a very high prominent position. He seems to suffer from the operation of that mysterious but very real law which decrees that undeserved popularity shall be followed by neglect sometimes even more undeserved. But when he does finally find his level, it will not be a very low one.


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