The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 6. Alexander Smith
Alexander Smith and Sydney Dobell are persons and poets of what we may call more substantive character than those whom we have been mentioning after Bailey. It is true that, in both cases, pleas in arrest of definite judgment—things troublesome to the critic but not negligible by him—exist. Both suffered from bad health, and, though fortune, in the more vulgar sense of the term, was kind enough to Dobell, it was not till rather late, and in a very moderate fashion, that she was kind to Smith. Yet, these external circumstances cannot, as in the case of the Joneses, be allowed to leave historical judgment uncertain. Both Smith and Dobell had sufficient opportunities of showing the best that was in them; and they must be presumed to have shown it. It is a “best” which, sometimes, has undoubted, and not unplentiful, good in it; it has flashes of a quality to which Southey’s ingenious glovemaker must have allowed his most complimentary label, “the real best”; but it never holds this quality for long, and it is full of the “spasmodic” flaws—extravagance of conception and diction, a sort of Byronism metamorphosed, imitation of other poets which, sometimes, goes near to plagiarism, an inequality which exceeds the large limits allowed to poets and, worst of all, that suggestion of ineffective and undignified effort—of the “gingerbeer bottle burst,” to borrow a phrase from Smith himself—which is the universal mark of the spasmodic beast.
Alexander Smith, though the younger of the two, deserves, for more reasons than one, the earlier mention. His Life Drama appeared in the same year as Dobell’s Balder; and was, perhaps, the last book which profited—if the result can be called profit—by that depression in poetry itself and in criticism of poetry which had characterised the second quarter of the century. It was greeted at first with the wildest hosannas; and men now old, but not old enough to have shared in, or refused, the welcome, may remember how the bookcases of friends ten or twenty years older than themselves contained the volume with obvious marks of those friends’ youthful admiration. But fortune was just about to turn her wheel. The far greater poetic powers of Tennyson and Browning were, at last—the former in all but actual possession, the latter in comparatively near expectance, of recognition. The new criticism was cutting its teeth and—in the somewhat ill-conditioned fashion of youthful animals—was ready to fix them in something. Smith was accused of plagiarism from Tennyson himself and others; City Poems, his second book, containing some of his very best work, was a failure; and Edwin of Deira (1861), though rather better received than City Poems might, without much loss, have remained unwritten. In his later years, Smith wrote some excellent prose, especially of the miscellaneous kind, collected in books called Dreamthorp and A Summer in Skye. But he died early, and it is more than doubtful whether, if he had lived longer, he would have done much more in verse.
It is evident that he had early absorbed a great deal of the new poetry from Wordsworth to Tennyson, and that he was returning it in a fashion sufficiently, if not masterfully, dissimilated. Hence, the charge of plagiarism, from which he can be victoriously cleared on almost every point—not least so on the famous passage about “the bridegroom sea toying with the shore,” on which Kingsley founded a not very clear-sighted diatribe against what was then modern poetry. It is evident, likewise, that he had taken pretty severely the “spasmodic” measles—the nineteenth-century joint revival of fifteenth-century “aureation” and seventeenth century “metaphysicalism”—with a fresh neurosis of Weltschmerz, and so forth. But he could write beautiful passages, if not a beautiful poem, and he had a real lyrical gift. He might sue for citizenship in poetry on the strength of Barbara alone; and no fairly selected jury of poets or critics could deny it him. Perhaps he has nothing else so solidly good; but he has other pieces not far inferior in the lyric way, and the small blank verse passages, above referred to, would, if collected, make a notable sheaf. In substance, fable, matter, as well as in poetic temper, A Life Drama resembles Festus and Balder; but it has the advantage of being infinitely shorter than the former and infinitely less pretentious than either.