Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Ebenezer Elliott

From volume VIII of the work.
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ELLIOTT, Ebenezer (1781–1849), the corn-law rhymer, was born at )lasborough, Yorkshire, on the 17th of March 1781. His father Ebenezer, a man of vigorous intellect but bigoted in his theological tendencies, exercised a power- ful sway over the mind of the future poet. At school Ebenezer was considered a dull pupil; and his childhood was solitary. A touching autobiographic fragment, which appeared after his death in the Athemrum. for 1850, and is republished in “'atkins’s life of the poet, gives a deeply in- teresting account of his early years. His imagination had an unhealthy craving for the horrible, and gloated over the faces of those who had died a violent death, till he was cured by the sight of a body floating in a canal, in an ad— vanced state of decomposition. A more pleasing part of the autobiography tells of his passion for making models of ships, kites, the. In a very important sense the child was father of the man in Elliott’s case, for “ even in those days,” he says, “ I was a free trader, though I knew it not." His father, exasperated at Ebcuezer’s persistent indolence at scho )l, put him into the foundry with which he was him- self connected, where the manufacturing processes interested him. The sight of some fine botanical plates in S-iwerby’s English Botany led him to love flowers, and to gather them as copies for drawing, although not to a taste for botany, “the classifications of which seemed to be like preparations for sending flowers to prison ” (Antol/iographg). 1n his Sunday rambles he encountered a snake, which fascinated him so much that he visited it weekly, and called it “ my first snake-love.” This is probably the new form his love for what is generally considered loathsome assumed. These walks, by bringing him in contact with the beauty and freshness of nature, proved the foundation of his passion for poetry, which was first gratified by his brother Giles reading Thomson’s Seasons aloud to him. Acting on his first impulse, he rushed out into the garden to verify the description of the polyanthus and auricula; and his earliest poetic etfusion was an imitation of Thomson. He now set about a systematic study of English grammar, but was greatly hindered by a memory singularly defective for rules and classifications, although so strong in other respects that he “almost knew the Bible by heart ” when he was twelve years old, and could repeat three books of the Paradise Lost when he was sixteen. About the end of Ebenezer’s fourteenth year, a poor curate called Firth bequeathed his library to Mr Elliott—a circumstance which had a great in- fluence on the development of the poet’s genius Barrow, Young, Shenstone, and Milton were special favourites ; and, after he had studied them thoroughly, Shakespeare, Ossian, J unius, Schiller’s Robbers, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall were eagerly read. Elliott’s first published poem, The Vernal Walk, was soon followed by Night, or the Legend of ll’harncl-zjfe, and the Tales of Night, embracing Both-welt and the Exile, dedicated respectively to Southey and Bulwer. Another volume contained Love, The Letter, T hey flIet Again, and ll'itherecl Wild Flowers. Then came the epic fragment entitled Spirits and Illen. The fruits of his thoughts on political subjects were seen in the It’anter and the Corn-Law It’hgmes, of which a third edition appeared in 183]. His other important poems are The Village Patriarch (1831), The Splendid Village, and the Corn Law Ilgmns. Many gems are to be found among his Aliscelv laneous Poems; but the dramas entitled Ii'erhonah and Tanrassdes are the least happy of his productions. After his death appeared fibre Prose and l'erse in two volumes. His chief works were published between 1830 and 1836. He carried on business as an iron—founder in Sheffield for 20 years (1821-41), in which he was so successful that he re- tired to an estate at Great Houghton, near Barnsley, in 1841, where he resided till his death, which took place on the 1st of December 1849. A few weeks before he died, his daughter was married to John Watkins, his future bio- grapher. Elliott lives in history by his determined opposl- tion to the “ bread-tax,” as he called the corn laws, the sad results of which he expressed in such terribly vivid lines as the following :—

“ I bought his coffin with my bed, My gown bought earth and prayer; 7 I pawn'd my mother’s ring for bread, I pawn'd my father’s chair.”

Even when he reached comparative aflluence himself, he re- mained the sturdy champion of the poor, whose representa- tive in the 13h gmes says :—

“ And workhouse bread ne’er crossed my teeth,— I trust it never will."

Elliott's poetry is stamped throughout by the grandeur of his personal character. Transparent sincerity and pass10n- ate earnestness meet us in every page. llis poems are beautifully described by Carlyle as “ hues of joy and harmony, painted out of troublous tears.” To be a reformer of the world was his ambition; and the purely literary Spirit, which looks at life mainly as affording materials for artistic conceptions, was utterly foreign to his nature. Crabbe’s genius cast a spell over Elliott 3 although it can scarcely be said that a man of such rugged originality was a slavish imitator of any one. His works reflect the joy with which a poet escapes from the smoke, glare, and noise of city life to drink in the sweet air of country lanes and fields. Yorkshire scenery especially is cmbalmed 1n IlIlS verse. Although Elliott had no great respect for theological dogma, there is a genuine religious vein in his poetry. HIS works have engaged the pens of men endowed wrth loftter I literary genius than his own, including Professor \\ ilson, n Southey, llulwer, and Carlyle.

In addition to the life bv \Vatkins, there is a biography by Januarv Scarle: and an edition of his poems has been issued by l his son; the lh-v. litluin Elliott of St John's, Antigua.