Alexander Smith Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.