- Applauding Thunder: Life, Work and Critics of Alexander Smith by Simon Berry
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...