Alexander Smith Introduction

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,578 words.)