Alexander Smith Essay - Critical Essays

Smith, Alexander


Alexander Smith 1829(?)-1867

Scottish poet and essayist.

Smith is one of a small group of nineteenth-century writers recognized as Spasmodics, an affiliation that all but ended his poetic career. Spasmodic poets closely patterned their style after the Romantic poets, and were criticized for their excessive use of nature imagery and obscure allusions. This label plagued Smith for his entire life. Initially, Smith's combinations of urban and nature images in A Life Drama (1853) made him instantly popular. However, charges of plagiarism and criticisms of the Spasmodic style, along with a parody of his works, made him almost as instantly obscure. Once named a Spasmodic, Smith spent the rest of his life trying to disassociate himself from that group. After four failed attempts at poetry, he turned to writing essays, for which he received less attention but more favorable critiques. His essays and poems are recognized today as offering valuable insights into urban Victorian England.

Biographical Information

Smith was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland, and although the year is uncertain, it is generally stated as 1829 or 1830. Smith's family had hoped to school him for a career as a minister, but for unknown reasons, around the age of twelve he instead began work as a pattern designer with his father in Glasgow. Industrial Glasgow would prove to be a lasting positive influence on Smith's city poetry; the poem he later wrote about the city was considered by some critics to be one of his best pieces. Although his formal education ended at the primary level, Smith read a great deal while not at the factory. Byron and Shelley were his early favorites; later he turned to Keats and Tennyson. As a teenager he began writing his own poems, first publishing some little-noticed in 1850 in the Glasgow Evening Citizen under the name "Smith Murray." In 1851 Smith sent some poems to critic George Gilfillian, who was known for encouraging and critically supporting young poets. Gilfillian enthusiastically printed portions of Smith's poems in the Eclectic Review and the London Literary Journal, praising him for his "exquisite thoughts and imagery." After Gilfillian's review, readers were eager for more of Smith's works, and critics generally agree that this public demand, combined with pressure from Gilfillian, prompted Smith to fuse many of his smaller poems into a longer one, which he named A Life Drama. This was the major piece published along with shorter selections in his first collection, Poems (1853). Poems was an immediate success with the public, and many critics claimed that Smith had the potential to become the next great poet. Smith subsequently quit his job as a pattern designer and in 1854 was appointed Secretary of Edinburgh University, a position which allowed him to spend more time on his poetry. In July of that same year, W. E. Aytoun, one of the first critics to label Smith a Spasmodic, published Firmilian; or, The Student of Badajoz. A Spasmodic Tragedy, a parody of the Spasmodic school and its proponent, Gilfillian. Aytoun criticized the Spasmodics for over-use of nature images, inclusion of lengthy passages that did not relate to the themes of their works, and lax morals. Criticism, and then public opinion, rapidly turned against Smith. His second work, Sonnets on the War (1855), a joint effort with fellow Spasmodic Sydney Dobell, was not well received and did nothing to relieve Smith of his derogatory label. By this time Smith, who had been acclaimed just two years before, was virtually forgotten and the book was generally ignored. Slightly more successful was City Poems (1857), which contains the poem "Glasgow". However, several critics brought charges of plagiarism against Smith, comparing his works to those by Tennyson and Keats. His last attempt at poetry was Edwin of Deira (1861), a story of England's first Christian king. This work was initially accepted by critics and could have rid Smith of the Spasmodic label if it had not been published soon after Tennyson's epic, Idylls of the King. (Idylls of the King is also based on a historical background—the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table—and comments on social problems of the time.) Cries of plagiarism were renewed, even though Smith had been working on Edwin before Idylls was published. The plagiarism charges again focused negative attention on Smith and the poem was not popularly received. Smith had married Flora Macdonald from Skye in 1857, and, in order to supplement his income from the university and support his growing family, he now turned to writing essays, contributing to magazines such as Argosy, North British Review, Good Words, and West of Scotland. His income was more consistent from the publication of his prose than it had been with the publication of his poetry, although biographers agree that prose did not provide Smith with the same personal satisfaction as poetry had. His first prose collection was Dreamthorp (1863), in which he commented on the role of an essayist; A Summer in Skye (1865), his second, contains essays about the island where his family spent their vacations. Smith became ill in 1865 but continued to write even as his condition deteriorated. He died in 1867 and a year later, friend Patrick P. Alexander published Smith's final collection of poetry and essays, Last Leaves.

Major Works

Although Smith often incorporated nature into his poetry, most of his poems contain urban backgrounds. His most popular poetic work, A Life Drama, is noted for its Spasmodic characteristics, including the autobiographical poet-hero who longs for fame. Additional Spasmodic elements, such as long allegorical digressions, oddly juxtaposed themes, and extreme emotional outbursts, are common in other works included in Poems, his first collection. From this point on, Smith, recognizing the negative effect that the Spasmodic label would have on his career, made efforts to tone down his poetic excesses in order to shake himself free of the title. City Poems, consequently, is simpler than previous works and includes the noted poem "Glasgow," which reflects the mixed feelings Smith had toward his hometown. This poem is often considered one of his best because of the balanced way in which he presents images he perceived as negative with those he found favorable. "Glasgow" also contains fewer nature allusions, reflecting his growing maturity as a poet. The nature references that he does include are thought to be appropriate and to reflect an accurate sense of living in urban Scotland. Other evidence of maturity in his writing at this time is his poetic voice, which critics have found distinctly less English and more Scottish, as Smith began drawing more from his own Scottish experiences and less from the styles of the English poets. Edwin of Deira, with a historical background, was seen by the public as a conscious effort to avoid the Spasmodic style. However, critics suggest that in his struggle to change his form of writing, Smith lost his poetic voice and individuality. By this time he was again a little-known poet and the piece received little attention, save the charges of plagiarism. Smith did not totally abandon his poetic style when he began writing essays. In Dreamthorp, he wrote that an essay writer is a "kind of poet in prose" and stressed that style is the most important element to a writer. An essay, he explained, is a work of art and must be able to stand on its own as such. This poet-prose style also emerges in A Summer in Skye, which Smith offered not as a travel guide, but as a reflection of his observations on the culture and customs of the inhabitants on the island. Smith also wrote a novel in installments for Good Words magazine, titled Alfred Hagart's Household (1865). This, too, was autobiographical and was popular enough for the editor to ask Smith to extend it to two volumes. The follow-up, Miss Oona McQuarrie: A Sequel to Alfred Hagart's Household, was published serially in 1866.

Critical Reception

Smith was initially acclaimed for the images of nature in his poems and his ability to combine natural and urban images. It was over-use of these same devices, however, that caused his downfall. Smith was highly criticized for his displaced references to nature and for poetic digressions within digressions as well as for his lack of form. Moreover, critics questioned the morality of Spasmodic poetry in general pointing in particular to the hero of Smith's A Life Drama, who rapes a girl who is in love with him. Smith also suffered from charges of plagiarism—although early critics praised the young poet for admiring Keats and following Keats' style, within months, and for the rest of his career, critics argued over whether Smith patterned his style after influential poets or simply stole their ideas and structure. This led to a debate among contemporary critics, who began questioning whether any writer can possibly have a completely original thought. In the early twentieth century, critics revisited Smith's work and praised him not only for his essays, but also for his roles as a proponent of the essay as its own genre, and as a critic. Author Herbert B. Grimsditch wrote, "Smith can enter in to the spirit of a writer, giving a good interpretation of his work and his point of view, fulfilling one of the primary aims of criticism by arousing the desire to read the books criticised." In the last half of the century, critics returned to examining Smith's poetry, focusing both on plagiarism charges and on Smith's use of personal experience. Today, his work is viewed as a window to urban nineteenth-century life.

Principal Works

*Poems (poetry) 1853

Sonnets on the War [with Sydney Dobell] (poetry) 1855

**City Poems (poetry) 1857

Edwin of Deira (poetry) 1861

Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (essays) 1863

Alfred Hagart's Household (novel) 1865

A Summer in Skye (essays) 1865

Miss Oona McQuarrie: A Sequel to Alfred Hagart's Household (novel) 1866

Last Leaves: Sketches and Criticisms (poetry and essays) 1868

The Poetical Works of Alexander Smith (poetry) 1909

*Includes A Life...

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George Gilfillian (essay date 1851)

SOURCE: "A New Poet in Glasgow," in The Critic, London, Vol. X, No. 256, December 1, 1851, pp. 567-68.

[Gilfillian is the critic credited with discovering and encouraging Smith. The following article, the second on Smith by Gilfillian, introduced Smith to about six thousand readers before he had even published a book of poetry, and caused Smith's first volume to be eagerly anticipated. Here, Gilfillian favorably compares Smith to Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, saying Smith has the potential to become a genius poet.]

Discoverers are often a much injured class of men. Sometimes the worth of their object is denied, sometimes their claim to the fact of finding it out is...

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Charles Kingsley (review date 1853)

SOURCE : "Alexander Smith and Alexander Pope," in Fraser's Magazine for Town & Country, Vol . XLVIII, No. CCLXXXVL , October, 1853, pp. 452-66.

[In the following excerpt, Kingsley derides Smith's works by saying that the shortcomings of Poems are the fault of Smith imitating too closely the works of other writers.]

On reading this little book, [Poems, by Alexander Smith] and considering all the exaggerated praise and exaggerated blame which have been lavished on it, we could not help falling into many thoughts about the history of English poetry for the last forty years, and about its future destiny. Great poets, even true poets, are becoming more and...

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Arthur Hugh Clough (review date 1853)

SOURCE: "Review of Some Poems by Alexander Smith and Matthew Arnold," in Prose Remains of Arthur Hugh Clough, edited by Mrs. Clough, Macmillan and Co., 1888, pp. 355-78.

[Clough was an author, poet, and critic who wrote in both England and America during the late nineteenth century. Letters to his fiancé show that Clough originally liked Smith's work, especially A Life Drama, but lost enthusiasm for it before his first review of Smith was printed. The following excerpt is from a joint review of Matthew Arnold's and Smith's works, originally published in the North American Review, July, 1853. In it, Clough contends that despite "imperfections of style and taste," Smith's...

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W. E. Aytoun (review date 1854)

SOURCE: "Alexander's Smith's Poems," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. LXXV, No. CCCCLXI, March, 1854, pp. 345-51.

[In the review below, Aytoun became one of the first to label Smith a "Spasmodic" poet, a term that would remain with Smith his entire life. The critic characterized Spasmodic poetry as unoriginal and profane. In this essay, he criticizes Smith for using an excessive amount of imagery that does not further the thematic development of his poems. Several months after publishing this piece, Aytoun continued his attack on the Spasmodic poets by writing a parody of a Spasmodic tragedy (see following essay).]

Some time ago a volume of poems...

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W. E. Aytoun (essay date 1854)

SOURCE: "Firmilian: A Tragedy," in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. LXXV, No. CCCCLXIII, May, 1854, pp. 533-51.

[Here, Aytoun continues his criticism of the Spasmodic poets. Claiming to have discovered a Spasmodic tragedy, The Firmilian, written by a hitherto unknown author. T. Percy Jones, Aytoun provides extensive quotes from the tragedywhich is in fact his own satire of the Spasmodic styleinterspersed with an ironic commentary. While the essay does not mention Smith by name, by this time Aytoun had identified the few writers he considered Spasmodic, of which Smith was one. This parody further damaged Smith's reputation, and he was unable to shake the...

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The Athenœum (essay date 1857)

SOURCE: A review of City Poems, in The Athenaeum, No. 1556, August 22, 1857, pp. 1055-57.

[Here, the anonymous critic claims that ideas in Smith's City Poems were taken from works of other authors, and that Smith has neither the "vision nor the faculty divine" to be a great poet.]

A strange poetical propaganda came in a few years ago, with Apollodorus or Somebody Conqueror. The young gentlemen who followed his banner appeared to be by birth flighty, by education ungrammatical, by transmutation poets. They were all more or less subject to ethereal prospects, opinions, and starry influences. They saw strange visions and dreamt impossible similitudes. In...

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David Mason (essay date 1867)

SOURCE: "Alexander Smith," in Macmillan's Magazine, Vol. 15, February 15, 1867, pp. 342-52.

[In the following excerpt, written soon after Smith's death, Mason eulogizes Smith's writing career and refutes common criticisms of his work.]

On the 5th of last month Alexander Smith died in his house at Wardie, near Edinburgh, at the age of thirty-six. The degree of feeling evoked by this event in different quarters has varied, of course, with the different estimates that had been formed of the worth of the deceased—his place and likelihood in that portion of the British literature of our time to which he was a contributor, but the other contributors to which have been, and...

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Thomas Brisbane (essay date 1869)

SOURCE: "In Edinburgh," in The Early Years of Alexander Smith, Hodder & Stoughton, 1869, pp. 177-203.

[In the following excerpt, Brisbane recounts the effects that criticismparticularly W. E. Aytoun's satire Firmilian—had on Smith both professionally and personally.]

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Stephen Henry Thayer (essay date 1891)

SOURCE: "Alexander Smith," in The Andover Review, Vol. 15, No. LXXXVI, February, 1891, pp. 163-72.

[Here, Thayer chronicles the development of maturity in Smith's writing, from his first labeling as a spasmodic poet, to the complex issues addressed in his essays. ]

When rare men die young, such as mark their way with presagings of genius, we cherish their work as we do the visions of the upland, while yet are denied to us the grander reaches from mountain heights. Much as we prize the impulse of these potential minds, age alone gives to their thought that ripe distinction and maturity which shall make them indisputable masters; hints of power, of resources, open...

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James Ashcroft Noble (essay date 1895)

SOURCE: "Mr. Stevenson's Forerunner," in The Yellow Book, Vol. IV, January, 1895, pp. 121-42.

[In the following essay, Noble examines the autobiographical elements in Smith's prose as well as his use of picturesque detail.]

For a long time—I can hardly give a number to its years—I have been haunted by a spectre of duty. Of late the visitations of the haunter have recurred with increasing frequency and added persistence of appeal; and though, like Hamlet, I have long dallied with the ghostly behest, like him I am at last compelled to obedience. Ghosts, I believe, have a habit of putting themselves in evidence for the purpose of demanding justice, and my ghost makes...

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Hugh Walker (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: Introduction to Dreamthorp: With Selections from "Last Leaves," by Alexander Smith, Oxford University Press, 1914, pp. v-xxv.

[In the essay below, Walker proposes that Smith should be considered among the greatest English prose writers. ]

Alexander Smith, the author of Dreamthorp, was born at Kilmarnock in Ayrshire on the last day of the year 1830, and died near Edinburgh on January 5, 1867. His whole life, therefore, covered little more than half the allotted span, and what we may call his effective life—deducting the years of immaturity—was considerably less than half of what is normal. Yet in these thirty-six years Smith touched almost the...

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Herbert B. Grimsditch (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: "Alexander Smith: Poet and Essayist," in The London Mercury, Vol. XII, No. 69, July, 1925, pp. 284-94.

[In the following essay, Grimsditch argues that while Smith's poetry is noteworthy because of its imagery, Smith deserves high regard as a prose writer because of the personal nature of and the humor found in his essays.]

In literature, as in life, there is no fixed ratio between merit and reward, whether reward be taken to mean popularity and pecuniary gain or posthumous renown. Posterity, it is true, does sort out the authors who were undeniably great and relentlessly eliminates those who were undoubtedly little; but between these two extremes are placed a...

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Richard Murphy (essay date 1948)

SOURCE: "Alexander Smith on the Art of the Essay," in If by Your Art: Testament to Percival Hunt, edited by Agnes Lynch Starrett, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1948, pp. 239-50.

[Here Murphy praises Smith for his work as an essayist and as "an illuminator of the essay as a literary genre."]

Should you look up Alexander Smith's biography, as Christopher Morley once threatened to do in prefacing an edition of Dreamthorp,1 you discover he was a "Scottish poet, one of [the] chief representatives of the spasmodic school,"2 who lived from 18303 to 1867. So has the author of Dreamthorp been tagged and stored away...

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Mary Jane W. Scott (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Alexander Smith: Poet of Victorian Scotland," in Studies in Scottish Literature, Vol. XIV, 1979, pp. 98-111.

[Below, Scott maintains that Smith used his personal experience in mid-Victorian Scotland as the basis for his poetry.]

"It ought .. . to be distinctly recognised that, whatever he is by birth, Mr. Smith is not a Scottish poet, if we understand by that a poet of a certain supposed national type. It is not Scottish scenery, Scottish history, Scottish character, and Scottish social humours that he represents or depicts," wrote David Masson in 1853.1 Scots critic Masson must have held a very narrow definition of that "supposed national...

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Richard Cronin (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Alexander Smith and the Poetry of Displacement," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 129-45.

[In the following essay, Cronin asserts that A Life Drama reflects the life-long despair Smith felt at not being part of the exclusive poetic circle of England.]

Bound up with A Life Drama in Alexander Smith's first volume is a poem called "An Evening at Home."1 The title with its promise of cozy domesticities is glumly ironical. Forty miles to the South is Ayrshire where Smith was born, and a lost dream of peasant community, "The Cotter's Saturday Night."2 Even farther away, is another dream, an evening...

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Further Reading


"Alexander Smith's Last Leaves'.' London Quarterly Review XXXI, No. 61 (October 1868): 142-59.

Pays homage to Smith, concentrating on his posthumously published Last Leaves.

Hadden, J. Cuthbert. "A Forgotten Poet." The Argosy 70, No. 2 (February 1900): 196-206.

Recounts Smith's personal life from 1851 to his death in 1867 in conjunction with his publications.


Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. "The Spasmodic School." In The Victorian Temper: A Study in Literary Culture, pp. 41-65....

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