Alexander Smith was the eldest of six children born to John Smith and his wife Christina Murray, only two of whom outlived them. Alexander was born on 31 December 1829 in Kilmarnock, where his father designed printing blocks for calico and muslin. Shortly after the birth of a daughter the family moved to Paisley and in around 1838 they arrived in Glasgow.
Little is known about Smith's formal education except that by the age of eleven he had left John Street School and was working alongside his father in the muslin trade. He was armed, at least, with the basic tool of literacy; after a severe childhood fever, which left him with a squint, he was largely self-educated.
The next twelve years were spent working long hours in the cotton industry. Smith later wrote evocatively about the highs and lows of such an environment – the working conditions and the annual trades fortnight holiday – in the largely autobiographical ‘A Boy's Poem’ (City Poems, 1857).
Along with a dozen or so others aspiring to middle-class mores Smith formed the Glasgow Addisonian Literary Society, acting as its first secretary. The minute book of this avowedly evangelical young men's improvement society has survived, showing that it met on a Saturday evening in the upstairs room of a Candleriggs coffee house between 1847 and 1852, and it was here that Smith learnt to compose and deliver essays.
On 24 April 1857 Smith married Flora Macdonald – who was related indirectly to the saviour of Bonnie Prince Charlie – at Ord House on Skye. Although they lived in Edinburgh it was to Skye that they would return every August, visits which provided the raw material for his best-known work and which were to prove essential to sustaining his creativity. The latter years of Smith's life were characterized by financial worry. A large house at Wardie, overlooking the Forth (bought for them by Flora's uncle) must have been a drain, and by 1866 Flora had borne four children. Smith contracted diphtheria in November 1866 and, although he seemed to have recovered by Christmas, was then struck down by typhus. He died at home on 5 January 1867 at the very beginning of his thirty-seventh year, and was buried in Warriston Cemetery.
Smith's first published poem (in Spenserian stanzas) appeared in James Hedderwick's Glasgow Citizen in 1850. By this time he was sending poems to the Reverend George Gilfillan, a Church of Scotland minister in Dundee and self-appointed herald of a new breed of young poets. Gilfillan encouraged him to weld the poems together into a long semi-dramatic form: thus was ‘A Life Drama’ born. It was publicised by Gilfillan in The Critic in 1851–2 with a series of extracts, and by the time it appeared in book form in Poems in 1853, it was a sensation. Around this time Smith paid his one and only visit to London, to be fêted by literati. With £100 in advance royalties from his publisher, Smith had given up the muslin warehouse; influential friends helped to secure him the post of Secretary to Edinburgh College (later University) in 1854, a job which allowed him a few spare hours in the day for writing, as well as the long summer vacation.
Alexander Smith was one of the Spasmodic School of poets. The label was intended to be derogatory, applied to writers mainly of an artisan background (others in the group were Sydney Dobell and Gerald Massey). Their writing was seen as outlandish in its imagery, daring in metrical experiment and shocking in subject matter. A parody by W.E. Aytoun in the form of a spoof Spasmodic poem, serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine and ridiculing the excesses of their style, hastened the school’s fall from favour.
In 1857 Smith's next collection, City Poems, showed that he had taken criticism to heart and lightened his poetic palette. It included some of his best works, including the memorable ‘Glasgow’, but there were negative reviews. The long narrative poem Edwin of Deira (1861) was immediately castigated as a pale shadow of Idylls of the King, and although he continued to write poetry Smith realized that he had to turn to prose to make a regular second income and support his growing family. He submitted work to Blackwood’s and Macmillan’s magazines and Good Words. Montaigne was the inspiration for many of these pieces and in particular for Dreamthorp: a Book of Essays Written in the Country (1863).
Awareness of mortality was early in Smith's thoughts. In the first stanza of ‘Glasgow’ (written in 1854) he seems to presage his own untimely death: ‘Before me runs a road of toil/With my grave cut across’. In the last two years of his life Smith completed A Summer in Skye (1865), which opens with a strikingly original prose portrait of Edinburgh; a novel serialised in eleven episodes in Good Words; the editing and introduction to the Golden Treasury edition of Burns; the introduction to Golden Leaves from the American Poets; as well as poems and essays for which there was now a ready periodical market. He was truly writing ‘in the shadow of the Shade’, as Henley wrote of Robert Louis Stevenson.
And whether crowned or crownless, when I fall
It matters not, so as God’s work is done.
I’ve learned to prize the quiet lightning-deed
Not the applauding thunder at its heels
Which men call Fame.
‘A Life-Drama’ sc.13
Simon Berry competently guides the reader through the varied phases of Alexander Smith’s life and work in this modestly produced volume, charting his progression from worker-poet to white-collar essayist. The literary work begins with the well-received ‘A Life-Drama’ which created great anticipation for the publication of his first volume of poems. These poems were passionate and a little risqué, the imagery of ‘A Life-Drama’ being, in the words of Berry, ‘startling, sometimes discordant, invariably profuse’, while the poem that came to be known as ‘Barbara’, about the death of his first sweetheart, had a ‘throbbing, overwrought quality’. When a critic in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine complained that there was too much ‘of the spasmodic and hysterical’ in Smith’s poetry the epithet stuck, as Smith and certain others were labelled ‘the spasmodic school’. Critics became scornful and dismissive; aspersions were cast on Smith’s level of education and — notably by Charles Kingsley — on his sensibility, which had supposedly been limited by ‘the dreary Glasgow prison-house of brick and mortar’ where he had grown up and still lived.
Alexander Smith began his working life as designer of embroidered muslin in Glasgow where he acquired the deceptively unprepossessing nickname ‘Daft Sandie’, probably due to a cast in his eye, his dour nature and solitary reading habits. Smith’s most frequently anthologised poem, ‘Glasgow’, represents that industrial city environment while ‘A Boy’s Poem’ recounts the additional misfortunes that compounded his modest beginnings, notably a ‘brain fever’ that resulted in the squint. In 1854 he obtained the post of college secretary at the University of Edinburgh, where he dealt with changing university administration and the student populace in Scotland. It was certainly a step up the social ladder but it turned out to be what one obituary described as ‘a laborious and — what is worse — a vexatious post’. The following summer Smith travelled to the Isle of Skye and there met Flora MacDonald whom he was to marry in 1857. This same year saw him accused of plagiarism in the columns of The Athenaeum in an article that superposed lines from ‘A Life-Drama’ with similar lines from Tennyson, Shelley, Keats, Leigh Hunt and even Spenser. Berry is strong on teasing out the plagiarism claims and counter-claims and in investigating the [End Page 152] possible motivations of William Allingham, the instigator of the accusations. Smith faced the controversy with equanimity and The Athenaeum’s method of comparing lines to establish precedence eventually petered out into parody in the pages of Punch.
For descriptions of Smith the man rather than the writer, Berry makes good use of material collated from obituaries, but generally the biography is much better at the broad strokes of the context of Edinburgh society in 1857, with its snuff and sedan chairs and the development of science and technology in Britain, than in evoking the details of Smith’s private life. We learn very little, for instance, of the tenor of his marriage beyond the somewhat bald observation that there occurred ‘a gradual falling out between him and Flora’.
With help from Flora’s uncle, the couple bought a large villa in Wardie with enough room to accommodate their growing family. This move placed Smith even more securely among the middle classes, but unfortunately he lacked the income to match and it became clear that he would have to reinvent his writing self if he was to supplement his salary as college secretary. No longer bankable as a poet, he was obliged to turn his hand to prose writing. This was a sound move because he subsequently excelled as an essayist; indeed The Encyclopedia of the Essay describes him as the greatest master of the personal essay in the Victorian period: ‘it is surprising how large a proportion of the successful personal essays of the Victorian period come from the gatherings of Smith’s essays in Last Leaves and Dreamthorp’ (Chevalier ed. 1997, p. 940). The persona adopted by Smith for the essays — that of a...