Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by John Drinkwater
Alexander Smith (18301867)
[Born at Kilmarnock. For many years a pattern-designer and afterwards a journalist, he obtained the secretaryship to Edinburgh University at the age of twenty-five, and held the post until his death. His published books of poems were A Life Drama and other Poems, 1852; Sonnets on the War (in conjunction with Sidney Dobell), 1855; City Poems, 1857; Edwin of Deira, 1861. He also wrote and published prose, his book of essays, Dreamthorp, being the work by which he is most widely known.]
INTO a not very voluminous body of work, Alexander Smith managed to pack almost every known poetic vice and some that must surely have waited for him to discover. If extremes of badness alone could exclude a poet from consideration, Smith would have found no place in a collection such as this; he would, indeed, not have been even a name. His work is wild with an almost constant confusion of hysteria with passion; every story he tells, and narrative was his favourite medium, is destroyed by an entirely erratic psychologic sense; he drops easily from the most hectic manner to such flatness as
My heart is in the grave with her,
The family went abroad;
his imagery can achieve a falsity which is almost revolting, as in
As holds the wretched west the sunsets corpse;
and he writes habitually as though poetry should be a dissipation instead of a discipline. And yet, in spite of such cardinal and withering defects, which cannot but be allowed by the least susceptible judgment, it is impossible to leave a reading of Smiths collected poems without a friendly feeling for the poet, and a willing concession that, however sadly they are obscured, here are qualities of an admirable kind: qualities indeed that are as rare as poetry itself.
His defects are unfortunately of such a kind as to make it extremely difficult to give him any very gallant show by quotation, since he never flies clear of his bad habits for more than a few lines at a time, never even for one complete short poem; and they make it still more difficult to hope that his due reward will ever come from any considerable public reading his work in its entirety, since they must bring nine readers out of ten to desperation long before the end is reached. Thus inexorably does the fastidious art of poetry enforce its demand for nothing less than perfect service. Many poets with smaller natural endowment than Alexander Smith are and will be more carefully remembered, and to attempt to arrest judgment in these matters is futile. Nevertheless, it is pleasant to think a little of those finer strains in this strange energy, and to hope that in recording and illustrating them something may be done to preserve from too deep a neglect a gift that more happily organized would certainly have won durable and high honour.
Behind the undisciplined welter which earned for Smith and one or two of his contemporaries the name of spasmodics, is a genuine poetic emotion, which for all its failure to find any sustained adequate expression, breaks into continual notes of energetic and sometimes impressive beauty. The faults, heavy as they are, are always the faults of a fervent, delighted nature, never of dull formality. Smiths poetry is under-educated, which at worst is better than being over-educated. And in addition to these recurrent glimpses of an ardent nature truly making some gesture for itself, we find scattered through his work traces of a vivacious descriptive faculty, touched by a companionably racy humour. It is, perhaps, in such shrewd and deft pictures as those of the Abbot and the Crown Inn, here given: in such lines of rough poetic sense as
You shine through each disguise;
You are a masker in a mask of glass
and such quick-wittedness as
As gaily dight,
As goldfinch swinging on a thistle top
that his perception is most original and least clouded by poetic smother. Finally, he must be allowed something at least of the story-tellers art. He never carries a tale through without dulling prolixity, and, as has been said, his grasp of motive is always uncertain; but there are times, especially in the opening stages of Edwin of Deira, and in the single incident of the assassin-beggar later in the same poem, where he does absorb the attention in the movement of his narrative. I may say here, in opposition to the opinion of an eminent critic, that Edwin of Deira might, without much loss, have remained unwritten, that this poem seems to me easily to be Smiths nearest approach to sustained achievement. If in mere interest as a story the last two books had maintained the standard of the first two, the whole would have remained of a not very exalted kind, but in that kind quite notably good. The truth seems to be that Smith was chiefly ambitious to create poetry directly out of his emotional experience, to resolve his own soul into music, and that whenever he attempted to do this he was prostrated by a poetic excitement instead of being braced by poetic intensity, and that he was most successful when he was not too poignantly interested in some incident or image that left the balance of his own personality undisturbed.
To say that his poetry was under-educated is not to imply that he was unacquainted with the work of his fellow poets. On the contrary his knowledge of poetry has sometimes been held to show itself too emphatically in his own work. It is, rather, his art that is under-educated; it is too argumentative, too anxiously active. His expression is under-deliberated and under-wrought. As for the direct influence of other men on his work, little need be said of such occasional things as his
And in your heart a linnet sits and sings,
which recalls so closely Crashaws
Loves nightingales shall sit and sing.
These parallels are common enough in every poets work. But it is interesting to note that while Smith may confidently enough be said to have caught more than an accent at times from Tennyson, as he very honourably might do, it is not easy to point to particular passages that resemble the great Victorian poet, and yet it is very easy to find in Smith a strange likeness to another much later poet who also nourished his own rare if unfulfilled gift from Tennysons riches, very probably without ever having read a line of Smith. Such lines as
By hermit streams, by pale sea-setting stars
And by the roaring of the storm-tost pines;
And I have sought for thee upon the hills
In dim sweet dreams, on the complacent sea,
When breathless midnight
He clasped his withered hands
Fondly upon her head, and bent it back,
As one might bend a downward-looking flower
Are farewells said in heaven? and has each bright
And young divinity a sunset hour?
might in many ears miss anything characteristic of Tennyson, but they would hardly be challenged anywhere if they were set down as coming from Stephen Phillips. So obscurely do great influences assert themselves.