Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Alexander (1830-1867)
SMITH, ALEXANDER (1830–1867), Scottish poet, was the son of Peter Smith, a lace-pattern designer in Kilmarnock, where he was born on 31 Dec. 1830 (Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 311). His mother, whose name was Helen Murray, was of good highland lineage. In his childhood the family removed to Paisley, and thence to Glasgow. After a good general education, and some hesitation as to whether he should not study for the church, Smith learned pattern-designing, at which he worked both in Glasgow and Paisley. His literary tastes quickly developed; his mind was usually busy with verse, and he proved apparently an indifferent designer of lace patterns. Some of his most intelligent Glasgow friends reckoned him also but a sorry poet, in spite of the distinction he gained in the local debating club, the Addisonian Society; and it was only after he had submitted some of his work to George Gilfillan [q. v.] that his characteristic individuality came to be recognised. Through Gilfillan's instrumentality specimens of his verse appeared in 1851–2 in the ‘Critic’ and the ‘Eclectic Review.’ From the first his work was the subject of keen controversy, and the appearance of his ‘Life Drama’ in 1853 provoked a literary warfare. Receiving 100l. for his book, Smith deserted pattern-designing, and visited London with his friend John Nichol, afterwards professor of English literature at Glasgow. Passing south they saw Miss Martineau at Ambleside, and Mr. P. J. Bailey at Nottingham. In London they made the acquaintance of Arthur Helps, G. H. Lewes (who strenuously upheld Smith's work in the ‘Leader’), and other persons of note. Returning, Smith was for a week the guest of the Duke of Argyll at Inverary. Here he met Lord Dufferin, whom he subsequently visited in Ireland. After editing for a short time the ‘Glasgow Miscellany’ and doing other journalistic and literary work in Glasgow, he was appointed in 1854 secretary to Edinburgh University.
Smith's official work occupied him daily from ten to four, and he gave his evenings to literature and society. He was perhaps the founder—he was at least a member—of the Raleigh Club, at which on occasional evenings men of letters and artists smoked together. His salary of 150l. as university secretary was increased to 200l. on his undertaking the additional duties of registrar and secretary to the university council. In the winter of 1854 he made the acquaintance of Sydney Dobell, then sojourning in Edinburgh, and they collaborated in a series of sonnets on the Crimean war. This co-operation emphasised the attitude of both writers, whose style as ‘spasmodic’ poets had just been caricatured in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ for May 1854. After his marriage in 1857 Smith passed his summer holidays in Skye, his wife's home. Skye influenced the literary production of his best days. Meanwhile his official and literary work went on, and as family demands increased he found prose more readily profitable than verse, and contributed to newspapers, magazines, and encyclopædias. Incessant labour overtaxed his strength. He became seriously ill in the late autumn of 1866, and he died on 5 Jan. 1867 at Wardie, near Granton, Midlothian; he was buried in Warriston cemetery, Edinburgh. His friends erected over his grave an Iona cross, having in the centre a bronze medallion with profile by the sculptor Brodie.
Smith married, in 1857, Flora Macdonald, of the same lineage as her famous namesake, and daughter of Mr. Macdonald of Ord in Skye. His wife, with a family, survived him. His eldest daughter, gracefully introduced into his Skye lyric, ‘Blaavin,’ died two months after him.
The ‘Life Drama and other Poems,’ published in 1853, reached a second edition that year, and passed into a third in 1854, and into a fourth in 1855. Marked by youthful inexperience, and extravagant in form and imagery, the poems (especially the title-piece) abound in strong gnomic lines and display fine imaginative power. In April 1853 John Forster elaborately reviewed the book in the ‘Examiner,’ prompting Matthew Arnold's opinion that Smith ‘has certainly an extraordinary faculty, although I think that he is a phenomenon of a very dubious character’ (Arnold, Letters, i. 29). ‘The latest disciple of the school of Keats,’ Clough called him in the ‘North American Review’ for July 1853. ‘The poems,’ said the critic, ‘have something substantive and lifelike, immediate and first-hand about them’ (Clough, Prose Remains, p. 358). The leading periodicals of the time were agreed as to the striking character of the poems, but they differed regarding their absolute merits. In May 1854 an ostensible review of a forthcoming volume to be entitled ‘Firmilian’ aroused attention and curiosity in ‘Blackwood,’ and in the course of the year there was published ‘Firmilian, or the Student of Badajoz: a Spasmodic Tragedy, by T. Percy Jones.’ It was so good that Mr. Jones was at first accepted as a new bard, but it presently appeared that the work was an elaborate jest by Professor Aytoun, who satirised in ‘Firmilian’ the extravagances of Mr. P. J. Bailey, Dobell, and Alexander Smith. ‘Spasmodic’ was so happily descriptive of the peculiarities ridiculed that it instantly attained standard value (Sir Theodore Martin, Memoir of Aytoun, p. 146).
‘Sonnets on the Crimean War,’ by Smith and Dobell, appeared in 1855. They are forgotten. As a sonneteer, while he was thoughtful and readable, Smith lacks fluency and harmony of movement. In 1857 he issued ‘City Poems,’ in which he touches a high level with ‘Glasgow,’ ‘The Boy's Poem,’ and especially ‘Squire Maurice,’ probably his most compact and impressive achievement in verse. The ‘Athenæum,’ No. 1056 (December 1857), found evidence in the ‘City Poems’ of ‘mutilated property of the bards,’ and there arose a sharp discussion over charges of plagiarism freely laid against Smith. Even ‘Punch’ (probably by the hand of Shirley Brooks) was stirred to active interference, and entered for the defence. The charge was at once as valid and as futile as a similar accusation would be against Milton, for example, and Gray, and Burns. The question is discussed with adequate fulness in an appendix to ‘Last Leaves,’ a posthumous volume of Smith's miscellanies, edited with memoir by his friend, P. P. Alexander. In ‘Edwin of Deira’ (Cambridge and London, 1861, 8vo), Smith writes an attractive and spirited poem, exhibiting commendable self-restraint and a chastened method. Unfortunately, the poem challenged attention almost simultaneously with Tennyson's ‘Idylls of the King,’ and it is surprising that, under such a disadvantage, it reached a second edition in a few months. Still, Smith did not escape the old charge of plagiarism and imitation. He was even blamed for utilising Tennyson's latest work, though his poem was mainly, if not entirely, written before the ‘Idylls’ appeared (Alexander, Memoir, p. lxxxii). Envious comparisons thus instituted were inevitably detrimental, and a fine poem has probably never received its due.
Smith wrote the life of Cowper for the eighth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ 1854. To a volume of ‘Edinburgh Essays,’ 1857, he contributed a sympathetic and discriminating article on ‘Scottish Ballads’ (republished in ‘Last Leaves’). This essay Thomas Spencer Baynes characterised at the time as ‘beautiful,’ adding, ‘His prose is quite peculiar for its condensed poetic strength’ (Table Talk of Shirley, p. 53). Although Aytoun enjoyed the fun of ridiculing the excesses of the ‘Spasmodic School,’ he had (like Blackie and the other university professors) a real admiration for Smith, whose work he introduced to ‘Blackwood.’ Other outlets were also found—‘Macmillan,’ the ‘Museum,’ Chambers's ‘Encyclopædia,’ various newspapers—and in 1863 appeared ‘Dreamthorp: a Book of Essays written in the Country.’ Occasionally florid in style, nor wholly destitute of trivial conceits, these essays embody some excellent descriptive and literary work. In 1865 he published ‘A Summer in Skye,’ a delightful holiday book, vivacious in narrative, bright and picturesque in description, and overflowing with individuality. For Messrs. Macmillan's ‘Golden Treasury Series’ he edited, in two volumes, in 1865, the ‘Poetical Works of Burns,’ prefixing a memoir which is second only to Lockhart's in grasp and appreciative delineation. A graphic but somewhat unequal story of Scottish life, largely autobiographical, and entitled ‘Alfred Hagart's Household,’ with sequel, ‘Miss Dona M'Quarrie,’ was republished from ‘Good Words,’ in two volumes, 12mo, 1866, and 8vo, 1867. In 1866 he edited Howe's ‘Golden Leaves from the American Poets.’ In 1868 appeared ‘Last Leaves,’ edited by Patrick Proctor Alexander.
[Brisbane's Early Years of Alexander Smith, 1869; Alexander's Memoir in Last Leaves; Memorial notice in Scotsman of 8 Jan. 1867; James Hannay's Reminiscences in Cassell's Mag. 1867; Sheriff Nicolson's Memoir in Good Words, 1867; Gilfillan's Gallery of Literary Portraits, 3rd ser.; Life and Letters of Sydney Dobell; Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Kenyon, 1897, vol. ii.; Macmillan's Mag., February 1867.]