Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by William Garrett Horder
Walter Chalmers Smith (18241908)
WALTER CHALMERS SMITH was born at Aberdeen on the 5th of December, 1824. He was educated at the grammar school and the university of his native city, and afterwards studied theology at Edinburgh. His first ministerial charge was in London, at the Free Scotch Church in Chadwell Street, Islington, where he was ordained in 1850. In 1858 he became minister of Orwell, Kinross-shire, where he remained three years, removing thence to the Free Roxburgh Church, Edinburgh, and three years later to the Free Tron Church, Glasgow. In 1876 he returned to Edinburgh, and became pastor of the Edinburgh Free High Church.
From 1860 to 1893 Dr. Smith published the following volumes of verse: The Bishops Walk (1860); Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life (1867); Olrig Grange (1872); Borland Hall (1874); Hilda; among the Broken Gods (1878); Raban; or, Life Splinters (1880); North Country Folk (1883); Kildrostan (1884); Thoughts and Fancies for Sunday Evenings (1887); A Heretic and other Poems (1891); Selections from the Poems of Walter C. Smith (1893).
Dr. Smiths poetry is full of living interest, due to the fact that the problems discussed are those which reach down to the depths of our naturein which therefore all who think must be interested. These are handled with ample knowledge, and in the main with great fairness, even to ideas with which the writer does not agree. There is not the deep psychological insight, nor the power of flashing light on obscure problems which arrest the reader of Robert Brownings poetry; but there is some of that power of looking at things out of the eyes of others, which is probably the most wonderful characteristic of Robert Brownings mind. But if Dr. Smith moves along lower levels, and does not tackle such subtle questions as Browning did, for the ordinary reader he has this great advantage, that all is written with absolute clearness. Brownings name stands for hard thinking, Dr. Smiths for pleasant reading, which leaves the reader with a deeper sympathy for, and better understanding of, the troubles and perplexities of men and women.
Dr. Smith and Dr. George MacDonaldboth Aberdonianshave much in common in thought and feeling; but their manner of apprehending and of setting forth truth differs greatly. Dr. MacDonalds way is that of the mystica quality of which I find none in Dr. Smith. His poems are marked by richness of thought, creative imagination and lyrical charm, although unequal and not seldom careless in construction. His longer poems would be more effective if the characters did not take so long in their self-revelations of thought and feeling. He sets forth vividly and often pathetically the inner struggles which form the real tragedies of these modern days. In the lyrics which are scattered over his longer poems there is the true poetic note.
Although Dr. Smiths work has a claim to a place among that of the general poets, there is a certain fitness in his being placed among the sacred poets, since the strongest force in his poetry is the religious one, so that, even in what may be called his secular poetry, the most vital parts grow out of his theologic thought or religious feeling. In this respect he is like the other poet of Aberdeenshire, George MacDonald, who says himself, that he would not care either to write poetry or tell stories if he could not preach in thembut then there is preaching and preaching; and if all preaching were of the living sort we get from these two Aberdonians, the name would carry a higher meaning than it usually does.
Dr. Smith sees clearly enough that the springs of life lie in the religious part of mans nature, so that even in Kildrostan, which is a crofters story, and deals with questions that are Social, the most powerful passages are concerned with religion. In Olrig Grange, which is a love story, there is no more effective portion than the picture of the mother, orthodox in doctrine, but utterly worldly at heart. Whilst in Hilda; among the Broken Gods religion is presented as it is seen out of many eyesby Claud Maxwell, poet; Hilda, saint wife; Winifred Urquhart, materialist; Luke Spratt, evangelist; Rev. Elphinstone Bell, priest; just as in The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning, the same tragedy is set forth as it appeared to all who were in any way connected with it. A Heretic, which, as its name implies, is concerned with the new movement of thought on religious questions so characteristic of our age, tells the story of one cast out from the Kirk for heresy, but whose beautiful Christian character demonstrated the vitality of his religion.
In North Country Folk, one of the least known, but in our judgment one of the best pieces of work from his pen, there are three pictures of Parish Pastors belonging to different schools of Presbyterianism in Scotland. These are drawn with a masterly hand, and show how under the same creed and within the same ecclesiastical forms individual character and preference will assert themselves. We know not where to look for fresher or more delightful pictures in verse of Scottish life than in this volume.
In Kildrostanthe most dramatic of his workswith a striking plot there is a description, with both humorous and pathetic touches of a religious gathering of Crofters, of which Tremain, an unbelieving Cynic, thus speaks:
But to give a single speech like this is little better than offering a brick to represent a building. Here, however, a more extended attempt is made to represent the several volumes of the poet by characteristic selections.
Readers of Dr. Smiths works may not find the high ethereal spirit of the great Masters of Song, but they will find touching stories of lifemetrical novelettes, as Edmund Clarence Stedman calls themand descriptions of many types of character given with much of the insight of the poet.