Alexander Smith (poet)
Alexander Smith was the eldest of six children born to John Smith (fl. 1800–90) and Christina née Murray (fl. 1810–80), only two of whom outlived them. Alexander was born on 31 December 1830 in Kilmarnock, where his father designed printing blocks for calico and muslin. Shortly after the birth of a daughter the family moved to Paisley, where Smith's brief education commenced, and about 1838 they arrived in Glasgow.
Little is known about Smith's formal education except that by the age of eleven he had left John Street School, Glasgow, and was working alongside his father, learning the art of pattern drawing for the burgeoning muslin trade. He summed up his schooling as ‘reading, writing, arithmetic never could learn, and English Grammar imperfectly with a slight knowledge of Geography, and a considerable stock of Biblical History. Whatever the shortcomings of a parish-school education it must have provided Smith with the basic tool of literacy. His wide knowledge of English poetry in particular was commented on by many of the literary and academic figures whom he encountered in later life.
The next twelve years were spent working long hours in ramshackle premises in the centre of an early Victorian manufacturing city during the cotton boom of the 1840s. Smith later wrote evocatively about the highs and lows of growing up in such an environment. More about the working conditions as well as his annual trades fortnight, usually by paddle steamer, to a Clyde resort, can be gleaned from the largely autobiographical ‘A Boy's Poem’ (City Poems, 1857).
Smith was self-taught and he set about the task systematically. Along with a dozen or so young apprentices and others aspiring to middle-class mores he instituted and was the first secretary of the Glasgow Addisonian Literary Society. The minute book of this avowedly evangelical young men's improvement society has survived, showing that it met on a Saturday evening in the upstairs room of a Candleriggs coffee house between 1847 and 1852. It was here that Smith learnt to compose and deliver essays on such diverse topics as ‘Earnestness’ and ‘Whether has the poet or legislator the greater influence on the community?’.
On 24 April 1857 Smith married Flora Macdonald (1829/30–1873) at Ord House on the Isle of Skye, a part of the world he had been introduced to by Alexander Nicolson, and also by Horatio McCulloch who had painted a number of studies of the Cuillins, visible from the Macdonald house. Flora, related indirectly to the saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie, also had relatives in Edinburgh. The couple had to return to Edinburgh soon after the wedding (via a steamer trip to Oban), but it was to Skye that they would return every August for the nine remaining years of the poet's life. These visits, as well as providing the raw material for his best-known work, were to prove essential to sustaining his creativity.
The latter years of his life were characterized by extreme financial worry. A large house at Wardie, overlooking the Forth (bought for them by Flora's uncle, a Skye-dwelling nabob with an indigo works near Calcutta), must have been a drain and by 1866 Flora had borne four children. Smith began to complain of giddiness and spots before the eyes as his literary labours increased.
When Smith complained to some of his closest friends of feeling debilitated few believed him. David Masson described him in 1865: ‘Latterly he became stouter about the shoulders and more manly-looking, with a tendency to baldness over the forehead which gave a better impression of mental power. But the most remarkable thing about him was his wonderful quietness of demeanour’. Smith contracted diphtheria in November 1866 and, although he seemed to have recovered by Christmas, he was struck down by typhus that proved too much for his weakened constitution.
He died at home on 5 January 1867 at the very beginning of his thirty-seventh year, and was buried six days later in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh. His huge red sandstone cross stands close to the old East Gate (now sealed). It was designed by James Drummond (1816-1877) and stonework carved by John Rhind with a bronze head added by William Brodie.
Smith's first published poem (in Spenserian stanzas) appeared in James Hedderwick's Glasgow Citizen in 1850. By this time Smith had already fallen under the spell of the Reverend George Gilfillan, a Church of Scotland minister in Dundee and self-appointed herald of a new breed of young poets. Encouraged by the Addisonians, Smith sent poems to Gilfillan who encouraged him to weld them together into a long poem in semi-dramatic form. Thus was ‘A Life Drama’ born and subsequently heralded by Gilfillan in The Critic in 1851–2 with a series of extracts. By the time it appeared in book form as Poems in 1853 it was a sensation. Around this time Smith paid his one and only visit to London to be fêted by literati such as G. H. Lewes.
With £100 in advance royalties from his publisher, Smith had given up the muslin warehouse. ‘A Life Drama’ catapulted him from total obscurity to being talked of in the same breath as Tennyson and Arnold. He was now one of the most notable names in a loose group headed by Sydney Dobell. The florid diction and sensational subject matter that typified this group (the so-called Spasmodics) in the mid-1850s also influenced Tennyson's Maud. Smith had no rich patron; luckily one or two influential figures helped to secure him the post of secretary to Edinburgh College (later University) in 1854. The job allowed him a few spare hours in the day for writing, as well as the long summer vacation, but it was no sinecure, especially when he also took on the duties of registrar and secretary to the university council in 1858. Through the university connection Smith met eminent academics such as John Stuart Blackie, professor of Greek and early Scottish nationalist, and William Aytoun, professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres and noted parodist. But in general he preferred the company of freelance writers and artists such as Horatio McCulloch.
In 1854 Sydney Dobell (pseudonym Sydney Yendys) was staying in Edinburgh and he and Smith collaborated on Sonnets on the War (1855), an unashamedly jingoistic contribution on the Crimean War, based mainly on newspaper reports but also possibly on first-hand accounts by William ‘Crimean’ Simpson, a Glaswegian lithographic artist who had covered the campaign for the Illustrated London News. While this project was being jointly created both were parodied by Aytoun in Blackwood's Magazine (May 1854) in a spoof review of a long narrative poem ‘Firmilian, or, The Student of Badajoz: a Spasmodic Tragedy’ by T. Percy Jones. Further extracts were to follow from Aytoun's wickedly inventive pen: the Spasmodics and Gilfillan were effectively deflated but Smith's original Poems continued to reprint.
In 1857 Smith's next collection, City Poems, showed that he had taken the criticism to heart and lightened his poetic palette. Nonetheless there was unfavourable criticism. It included some of his best works, including the memorable ‘Glasgow’, an early example of city poetry. An anonymous letter (now known to be from William Allingham) in The Athenaeum had accused Smith of wholesale plagiarism and there was a furious correspondence over several issues contributed by detractors and supporters. The campaign was effectively orchestrated by The Athenaeum's literary editor, Henry Chorley, and it set the tone for negative reviews of City Poems which Smith had hoped would bring him a useful supplement to his secretary's income.
Smith's long narrative poem Edwin of Deira (1861) was immediately castigated as a pale shadow of Idylls of the King, and although he continued to write poetry Smith realized that he had to turn to prose to make a regular second income and support his growing family. He became a frequent contributor to Blackwood's Magazine,Macmillan's, and Alexander Strahan's Good Words, producing work that was personal, characterized by a distinctive persona. Montaigne was Smith's inspiration and model for many of these pieces and in particular for Dreamthorp: a Book of Essays Written in the Country, published by Strahan in 1863. One of the themes that runs through the individual essays in the collection is an understanding that human finiteness contributes to our awareness of joy and beauty in the everyday. This paradox is powerfully conveyed in ‘A Lark's Flight’, an episode based on the public hanging of two Irish navvies which took place in the east end of Glasgow where Smith spent his boyhood. A moment before the trap is sprung both the silent crowd and the condemned men are assailed by the spiralling notes of a lark ‘out of the grassy space at the foot of the scaffold, in the dead silence audible to all’.
Awareness of mortality was early in Smith's thoughts. In the first stanza of ‘Glasgow’ (written in 1854) he seems to presage his own untimely death: ‘Before me runs a road of toil/With my grave cut across’. In the last two years of his life he completed A Summer in Skye (1865) which comprised some earlier pieces done for Blackwood's Magazine and Temple Bar. He also completed a strikingly original prose portrait of Edinburgh; a novel serialized in eleven episodes in Good Words; the editing and introduction to the Golden Treasury edition of Burns; the introduction to Golden Leaves from the American Poets; as well as poems and essays for which there was now a ready periodical market. He was writing ‘in the shadow of the Shade’, as Henley wrote of Robert Louis Stevenson, aware that he must leave an inheritance for his dependants.
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- Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh, by Gifford McWilliam and Walker
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Smith, Alexander". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Cousin, John William (1910). " Smith, Alexander". A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource
- Short biography (parts 1 and 2)
- Alexander Smith, Patrick Proctor Alexander, Last leaves. Sketches and criticisms. Edinburgh, W.P. Nimmo, 1868
- Rev. Thomas Brisbane, The Early Years of Alexander Smith, Poet and Essayist. Hodder & Stoughton, 1869
- Alexander Smith, Dictionary of Literary Biography (Detroit: Gale,. 1984)
- Simon Berry, 'Applauding Thunder: life, work and critics of Alexander Smith' (FTRR Press 2013)
- Special issue on the Spasmodics, ed. Jason R. Rudy, Victorian Poetry 42.4 (2004). West Virginia University Press
- Contemporary reviews of Smith's work can be found online by using Google Book Search.
- Applauding Thunder: Life, times and critics of Alexander Smith (www.fortherightreasons.net) 2013
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