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THE QUIVER.

Volume II, 1867 (pp.433-436)

ALEXANDER SMITH.


"LAST things" have always a tender and melancholy interest; and when it is death that has closed a series of accustomed and expected acts, the last becomes inexpressibly sad and sacred.  One of these "last things" is the beautiful "Autumn Homily" which appeared in these pages on the 1st of December, 1866, from the pen of Alexander Smith.  He died on the 5th of January, having just entered on his thirty-seventh year.  One reads the simple little homily now with deeper feeling; and therefore it gives out a deeper meaning.  With almost startling distinctness it wears the features of his mind, and marks the design of his life.  He is discoursing on autumn, and the time of life which it represents—a favourite subject with him.  He delights in the season—in its bounty, its fulfilment, its repose.  He holds its counterpart in human life happier than youth with its hopes, and better than manhood with its toils.  He paints just such an age as might have been his own—such an autumn as might have been confidently predicted for his spring of promise and his summer of steady sunshine; for his work was done in the sunshine of a serene temper and an affectionate heart.  But for him there is no harvest, and no winter.  We can but gather the summer fruits of a mind which was ripening to the last.  Those who knew him best owned that there was more in him than he ever expressed, of which they caught mere glimpses, and that he expressed more of his poetic nature in the intercourse of friendship than in anything he ever wrote.  He had a humour behind which there always seemed a depth of pathos which was not uttered, and a pathetic tenderness through which there was ever ready to break the smile of a happy humour, and neither of these was ever fully translated by his pen.  Neither did these qualities appear to the outer world, in which he moved a man much given to silence, of quick observation, and quiet unobtrusive manners, the very embodiment of common sense.


Alexander Smith (1830-67): Scots poet of the Spasmodic school.
Picture, Good Words (1867), from a photo by Moffat of Edinburgh.


    In 1852 the publication , of the "Life Drama" created "a sensation" in literary circles, and called its youthful author at once out of obscurity into fame.  It had been written several years earlier, in the leisure afforded by his profession, that of a pattern-designer, and, as the work of a mere lad, was, and is, one of the most remarkable productions of genius.  Every paper had its article headed "The New Poet."  His work was loaded with extravagant praise.  He himself was everywhere welcomed, flattered, and caressed.  Those who knew him in these early days can bear witness with what gentle dignity and perfect modesty he met the storm of applause.  He would submit to be lionised a little, with the amused air of a good-tempered man assailed by a troop of children, who want to finger his clothes and look at his watch.  To the writer of this paper he would sometimes say, with the same amused air, as if he were a mere observer, "I shall have to pay for this"—meaning the extravagant praise.  "They" (the critics) "will lash me yet."  He knew that they were praising him in the wrong place, and for the wrong qualities—for the qualities which would pass away as his mind matured.  And when his words came true, and undue depreciation followed unbounded laudation, he held on his way with the same self-respecting and manly dignity.  He was not indifferent.  He could weigh and give heed to discriminating criticism, even when adverse.  He was not callous even to that which was unworthy; for he was void of contempt, and of the mockery which is "the fume of little minds." But, though contemptuous words might sting him, the sweetness of his nature healed the wound at once: it never rankled.

    In his domestic relations he was beyond all praise.  As son and brother, as husband and father, he left no claim on his duty and affection unsatisfied.  He did not think that for the sake of a divine gift he might neglect a common need, and hence a life without reproach or stain, and as nearly approaching the perfection of dutifulness as man's life may.  In 1858 he married Miss Flora Macdonald, the daughter of Captain Macdonald, of Ord, in the Isle of Skye, who was buried on the same day as his son-in-law; thus leaving the daughter and wife doubly bereaved.  With her sorrow, in the midst of her little ones, it is not for the stranger to intermeddle.

    Above all, Alexander Smith had the faculty of friendship.  He made friends, and he kept them to the end.  He did not pick up people and drop them again, as the fashion is in our busy time, as if life were a railway journey, and his companions fellow-travellers for a single stage.  These friendships of his were something old-fashioned and idyllic as the loves of David and Jonathan.  His chivalrous admiration comes out in his appreciative criticism of his fellow-poet, Sydney Dobell.  In 1854 they published a volume of sonnets together, not distinguishing their separate work; and twelve years later, Mr. Smith is pleading fervently with a disregarding public in favour of his friend.  Another friend, of thirteen years' standing, who can say that he opened to him his whole mind, writes: "His was a heart very pure and simple, and I cannot hope to have such communion with the like again."  And as his heart was so was his life, and so also is his work.

    Of his industry he has left ample evidence.  In 1854, appointed Secretary to the University of Edinburgh, he discharged the duties of that office with scrupulous faithfulness.  It has been said that these duties were far from heavy, but they had gradually increased, without bringing any increase of remuneration, and, occupying him from ten to four daily, only gave him £200 a year.  All that he did, he did when the work of the day was over, or when other men were making holiday.  To take his prose-writing first: he was a constant contributor to one or two papers, and to several magazines.  In 1863 he produced a charming volume of essays, entitled "Dreamthorp,"*  full of quiet, reflective, dreamy poetry.  In 1865 he brought out an edition of Burns, with a memoir of the poet, which is one of the best things he ever wrote; and, in the same year, two bulky volumes of sketches, called "A Summer in Skye."  From these sketches his power as a prose-writer may best be estimated; and the estimate will be a very high one.  For clearness of outline and delicacy of colour his scene-painting could hardly be surpassed, and some of his portraits—such as Father M'Crimmon, the landlord, and McIan—live in the memory like people one has known.  His style is subdued and yet imaginative, and the rhythm of his sentences as musical as verse.  In 1866 he published a novel, "Alfred Haggart's Household."  The first volume of this domestic story is the best; the second was written in illness, and under the pressure of overwork.  Destitute of plot, and with the very scantiest materials—an ordinary young couple, who have made an improvident marriage, and are rather perplexed for ways and means, and their two very ordinary children—its interest depends entirely on the charm of its style and its simple fidelity to nature; and—especially in the first volume—these will be found more than sufficient to delight any reader whose taste is not depraved by the craving for sensation.

    Alexander Smith has left us three volumes of poetry, with popularity curiously the inverse of their worth.  The "Life Drama" was overlaid with an imagery brilliant to extravagance, and which, to a great extent concealed its finer qualities.  The "City Poems," which followed, in 1857, and fell comparatively flat, were much more sober in tone and colour, but showed far higher and more various power, and deeper insight into character and the play of human motives and passions.  In these poems his unlimited word-power, was placed under due restraint.  He had set himself not to utter fine sounding things that signified nothing, but to subdue his language, and exalt his thought.  "Edwin of Deira,"† his last and least known, and least valued work, is his best.  He laboured at it for four years; had laboured at it for two before the "Idylls of the King" were heard of, and yet when the work of the laureate appeared, it was still unfinished: he had other work to do.  When it did appear, it was set down as a mere imitation, and on the surface the resemblance is remarkable enough to justify the mistake.  In the "Idylls," the music of Tennyson's verse reaches its perfection, and the verse of "Edwin" is almost equally melodious, and with the same pauses and cadences.  That he admired Tennyson, and, to some extent, made him his model, is no doubt true; but he reached his own measure of excellence by an independent movement in the same direction, rather than by following his master.  The unlikeness of "Edwin of Deira" to the "Idylls of the King," leaving quality out of the question, is far deeper than the outward resemblance.  The greater poet, aiming at little, accomplished all his aim.  The younger and lesser poet aimed far too high, and accomplished but little of his loftier purpose.  A tale of happy and a tale of disappointed love; a court intrigue; a tragic passion and destiny, are the materials of the "Idylls."  No less a theme than the introduction of Christianity into England is the leading subject-matter of "Edwin."  Of course, the choice of a lofty theme may signify nothing but supreme self-conceit.  Such themes are handled and profaned by folly every day.  That "fools rush in where angels fear to tread" has passed into the stalest of proverbs; but the execution of this poem, though it does not fulfil, amply justifies the purpose of its writer.  In it the last trace of extravagance disappears, and gives place to a purity and simplicity of diction worthy of his subject and his thought.  A slight account of the poem will not be out of place.  Edwin, the son of Egbert, seeks shelter at the court of Redwald, the friend of his father, and like him, one of the Saxon kings, after having suffered defeat by Ethelbert.


                                "Fallen low,
 I see a new proportion in the world,"


says Edwin, relating his misfortunes, in words, giving a volume of meaning in a flash of thought.  Redwald has seven sons; the flower and firstborn, Regner, forms a sudden friendship for Edwin—


"The noble love that lives in noble men."


They dream together of being great kings, "giving peace" and "raising men."  One fair daughter has Redwald also, whose eyes "seem to look through the surfaces of things," and for her Edwin conceives a passion, which, in his fallen fortunes, "seems unnatural as winter breeding roses."  In the midst of a stag-hunt, which has swept on and left Bertha with Edwin, a little out of sight, the unexpected solitude surprises Edwin into uttering his love.  The scene, amid the murmuring wood, where he kisses her hand while she sits,


"Blinded and crimson as the opening rose,
 And every leaf seemed watchful eye and ear,"


is full of the most delicate charm of fancy and feeling.  Then Ethelbert, hearing where his defeated foe has found refuge, threatens Redwald with war, but offers, if he will deliver up Edwin, to share with him the dismembered kingdom.  While his fate is being determined within the palace, Edwin, aware of what is going on, and more than doubtful of the issue, is seated on a stone, a bow-shot from the gate, when a stranger comes to him, and acquaints him with his future success, laying on him a sign by which he is to know him again—the sign of the cross.  In the meantime, Bertha's tears and entreaties overcome the caution of her father, and the messenger of Ethelbert is sent away in wrath.  Then follows the open declaration of Edwin's love, and his betrothal to Bertha, before the hosts of Redwood, headed by Regner, set out to war with Ethelbert.  All the brothers go with the army, leaving the old king and Bertha to wait for tidings.  At length the tidings come—the field is won; but the flower of the host has perished.  Regner is dead.


                    "The long day waned,
 And, at the mournful setting of the sun,
 Up through the valley came the saddened files,
 With Regner's body borne on levelled spears;
 And, when they laid the piteous burden down
 Within the gate, with a most bitter cry
 The loose-haired Bertha on it flung herself,
 And strove in sorrow's passionate unbelief
 To kiss dead lips to life.   The sternest lids
 Were wet with pity then.   But when the king
 Was, like a child, led up to see his son
 With sense of woe in woe's own greatness drowned,
 With some obscure instinct of reverence
 For sorrow sacreder than any crown
 The weeping people stood round hushed as death."


    As picturesque as the above is pathetic is the return of Edwin to his ruined city, in the rebuilding of which he makes the first axe ring.  The people, following their king, fall to work like ants and repair the destruction into which the invader had trampled their homes.  In less than two months the town is rebuilt, with the palace in the midst of it.  And then, when Regner's grave


"Had grown a portion of the accustomed world,"


Edwin goes to bring his bride.  The parting and the welcome are both fine pieces of imaginative description.  Deira empties itself to meet Bertha, the people spreading "thick as daisies" over the fields through which she has to pass into the town.  Their domestic happiness; the birth of their child; the wise and gracious and severe rule of the king, and his sickness under a wound inflicted by a traitor, prepare the way for the reception which he gives to the Christian missionaries from Rome, with the result of his own baptism, and that of his whole people.  At the close, there is hardly the same proportion kept between the purpose of the story and its actors.  We hear too little of Bertha and her boy; too little even of the king.  He is mixed up with the mass in the sudden conversion.  Those who read the poem to its close, unless they read it for the purpose of criticism alone, long as it is, will wish it had been longer—that it had developed into the true epical proportion's to which its outlines point.  But then those who read epic poems to the end, and for their own sakes, are in a sad minority, and "Edwin of Deira" shorn as it is—an epic made easy—will never be widely popular.  Its writer did not reach the rank of the genius that commands the world, and only the genuine lovers of poetry can yield admiration to humbler though not less valid claims.  Among such this last poem of Alexander Smith will yet be valued at its true worth as one of the purest, sweetest, and loftiest productions of its day.

ISA CRAIG.


* See Gerald Massey's review for the Athenæum (1863) and the essay Dreamthorpe.

† See Gerald Massey's review for the Athenæum (1861).


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THE QUIVER.

VOLUME II, 1867 (pp. 168-171)

AN AUTUMN HOMILY.

BY ALEXANDER SMITH, AUTHOR OF "A LIFE DRAMA,"
"DREAMTHORPE," ETC. ETC.


THAT there is an analogy between the life of a man and the seasons of the year—that man has his spring, summer, autumn, and winter, and that the one flows into the other imperceptibly, just as the year has its seasons that succeed each other by gradations too exquisite for observation—is perhaps the most venerable of human discoveries.  Isaac could hardly help thinking about it when meditating in the fields at eventide: it is as old as the Book of Job and the "Iliad;" and if you take up the last published volume of poems, you are almost certain to find some trace of it.

    The analogy is so true that it has not become trite after the usage and fingerings of more than 3,000 years.  It is a thought familiar alike to the builder of the Pyramids and to the builder of the Houses of Parliament.  And this is not at all to be wondered at, for autumnal images—in these October days they are around every one—do, in the most singular manner, reflect the life of men who have aged, or who are beginning to age.  In a fine autumn there is a meek contentedness of sunshine, and a stainlessness of atmosphere, which we find at no other season; and in a happy age there is a settled repose of habit, an inclination to rest and be thankful, a mental vision unobscured and undistorted by passion.  In autumn the fields are bare, and the grain is stored up in barns—in age a man has done his work, and all that remains with him is the result of that work.  Autumn is the season of vintages, and the oozings of cider-presses; and in the meditativeness and retrospection of age you find something analogous.  Age, by quiet thinking, extracts the sweet juices from the raw materials of life; and this spiritual wine, when of good quality, is more cheering and consoling than any other.  It is always home made, too, and its maker is personally responsible for its flavour.  In autumn the roadways rustle with yellow tree leaves, caravans of birds take exercise in the sky preparatory to a flight to another latitude: and in one of the late mornings of the season, when you look out, the crest of the distant hill has whitened during the night; and in age, the pathways of the spirit rustle drearily with dead hopes and decayed ambitious, the delights of youth and manhood are preparing to depart, and through many an ache and ail, through blanching of the hair, dimming of the eye, stopping of the ear, you are reminded that another season—the last of all—is coming, and at hand.


"Four seasons fill the measure of the year,
 There are four seasons in the life of man,"


was an idea familiar to the old Orientals who built Babel, on the plains of Shinar, as it was to the English poet of half a century ago.  And autumn, when the leaf fades and the fig ripens, is perhaps the season of the year which reflects most faithfully its corresponding season of human life, when action departs and fruitful meditation comes, if it comes at all.

    If you walk out into the country in autumn, you are at once surrounded by images of exquisite repose.  The fields, which were a few weeks before filled with reapers, are swept and bare; and the large, comfortable-looking grain-stacks surround the farmhouses, high enough almost to hide the chimneys.  The earth is at rest after her travail of growth and ripening.  The autumn skies are the softest of all—pale blue, barred with peaceful strips of horizontal cloud, or of a misty, pearly grey, which gives you the idea of infinite rest and satisfaction.  And then, in the autumn season, the world is a feast of colours in which there is no garishness.  There is around you the "universal tinge of sober gold," which Keats speaks about.  The beech is russet, the elm yellow, the mountain-ash on fire with her clusters of scarlet berries, the ferns have rusted like old iron—everywhere there is a glory of colour, but with an indescribable sadness asleep at the heart of the glory.  Next to the heightened glow of trees and hedges, the thing that is most likely to strike the autumn wanderer is the unusual quietude.  If the season is splendid, it is silent.  Agricultural operations are for the time suspended, and there are fewer people—at all events, there seem to be fewer people—on the roads than at other times.  The dry gutters are filled with yellow leaves; and as you walk along, a red frond of the horse-chestnut which skirts the path comes wavering down through the stirless air to join its fellows.  Then you miss the voices of birds; the thrush and blackbirds have long been silent, you hear the lark only at intervals, singing like something out of place.  The redbreast perched on the topmost sprig of the yellowing beech, and pouring out notes which speak of the rain-drop and the falling leaf, is the only songster which October or November knows, or much cares to know.  You walk over leaves, with leaves falling down upon you, and when you return you see the early amber sunset burning over the top of the distant wood—a compact black bank against the light—and in the sunset the restless rooks wheeling as silent as gnats, and almost as minute.  They have been foraging far and near during the day, and are about to settle down for the night.  And the autumn evenings, how beautiful they are!  Not an April night, when the woods are swiftly and silently greening, and the nightingale is in full voice, the crescent moon and stars listening to her; not a clear, high-arched July night, after evening showers, when hay odours are rising from a thousand fields, are comparable for a moment with these balmy, yellow, large-mooned September and October ones.  What a cone of radiance the coming orb sends before her, above the low line of hill with its tufted trees!  How large her disc when she appears on a sudden! what shadows she throws! what affluence yet temperance of light! what a consciousness you have, walking home, that she is placidly shining behind you! and how much more you are inclined to be sentimental in your conversation at such a time than at any other season of the year!

    Most people affect certain seasons, and it is odd, at the first flash of it, that youth should prefer autumn to spring, and middle age spring to autumn.  Hard-headed persons despise these sentimental preferences, but there is reason in them notwithstanding.  The truth is, spring is the alter ego of youth; autumn the alter ego of middle age: and the young man and the middle-aged man seeks relief from themselves in contrast.  The young fellow of twenty, in whose breast hope is singing as cheerfully as a thrush from a sunny tree-top, whose nature is yet in leaf and bud, whose life is merely promise and a dim reaching after the unknown—what does he care for the budding and leafing spring-time, for the season of unfulfilment?  The young man who has April and the singing of birds in his heart may be excused if he does not care much for April and the singing of birds out of doors.  October's gorgeous view appeals to his imagination far more powerfully than the tender grace of the earlier season.  The waning of autumn is a foil to his own exuberant happiness, and brings it into keener relief.  He can afford to revel in gloomy images, for he is yet far removed from what they symbolise.  Uncertainty, mutability, death even, are only the dim backgrounds against which his own future, and the face of his sweetheart, shine out the fairer.  He is spring-time, and autumn is but a picture which pleases by its melancholy and its novelty.  In like manner, the middle-aged man prefers spring, because it is so far removed from him, and he can look back upon it through the wistfulness of reminiscence.  In his heart the leaves have fallen in the rain; and in the rain and fallen leaves out of doors he cannot escape from himself.  He prefers the primrose to the holyhock, not from considerations of form or colour, but simply because the primrose is associated with youth, with the happy budding time, "with the days which are no more," or which exist for him only in recollection.  The song of the redbreast on the yellowing beech is the echo of his own spirit, and to the melancholy cadence he prefers the note of the vernal thrush from the emerald-twinkling tree.  The reason of these sentimental preferences is, that young and old seek relief from themselves.  The young man looks forward to what the years will give, the old man looks back to what the years have taken away.  Grey hairs are never so reverent as in the eyes of noble youths who are eager to run their career; and it is only age that recognises the full beauty and gracefulness of childhood.  Perhaps the purest affection on this earth is the affection of grandfathers and grandmothers for their grandchildren.

    But, sentimental considerations and preferences apart, it will be found that to most men autumn is one of the pleasantest seasons.  In the lives of all who are not compelled to earn their living by the practice of a handicraft, a summer holiday, shorter or longer, makes an annual hiatus in the monotonous round of occupation; and to these persons, autumn is the season when they get again into harness.  And, perhaps, the next pleasantest thing to throwing off the shackles of business, and getting away to the mountains for a holiday, is the getting back from the holiday, and the resumption of business.  Out of nothing in this world does a man extract so much happiness as out of his work.  The manufacturer, the artist, the lawyer, the literary man, the clergyman, the physician, have all been running about seeking health and recreation, and by the close of autumn, if not earlier, they have returned, and are busy in the pursuit of their several avocations.  Nothing wearies so much as pleasure-seeking; and the classes of men which I have mentioned are very glad when holiday season is over, and they can relapse into their former selves.  And the animal spirits of most healthy men are higher during autumn than during any other season of the year.  In our sophisticated existence we learn to take a peculiar delight in artificial comforts—in fire-light, gas-light, the long-lighted evenings which are entirely one's own, when the parlour or study shutters are shut.  The first time a man dines at his own table by gaslight is exhilarating, like a glass of champagne.  The man has the long winter before him: he thinks he will be able to accomplish so much before summer comes round again; and being strengthened by the sea-breeze, or the bracing air of the hill-side, he exults in the work before him like a runner preparing to run a race.

    But to go back once more to the analogy which exists between the seasons and human life.  A fine October is, perhaps, the most perfectly delightful month in the entire circle of the year.  During no other month have we the same calmness of pensive air, the same exquisiteness of coloured repose.  It is a windless month, the most silent of all months, a month of well-earned rest after toil; and the October of life very frequently bears the same contentful character.  We do wrong in our crude, giddy suppositions that age must necessarily be associated with misery, and pain, and unsatisfied longing.  It is often much more happy than the previous youth and manhood.  Just as there are some faces that are never so beautiful as in wrinkles and silver hairs, so there are some natures that never become perfectly happy till they grow old.  To these the fairies did not bring presents when they lay in their cradles; more fortunate, the years are the fairies that bring them gifts as they sit in their arm-chairs by the chimney nook, with grandchildren around their knees.  These old men and women are full of charity, of tenderness, of love; they are waited upon by pleasant memories; their souls are filled by the odours of good actions as of withered rose-leaves.  They have had their life's harvest home, and their barns are full.  They have outlived action, and the need for action; and with a fair past spread before them, pleasant to look upon, they sit at the door of heaven waiting till the Master shall be pleased to send his messenger Death to bid them enter.  And to them Death comes gently—gently, often as his brother Sleep—for he venerates the venerable.

    There is only one difference between the fine October of the year and the happy October of life, and in the difference the moral of this homily lies.  A fine month of October may come, so far as we can see, almost by chance; it may succeed a wintry, blustering spring, and an unfruitful summer, and smile blandly over scanty sheaves.  But the happy October of life of which I have been speaking cannot do this; it is a link in a chain; its beauty, its contentment, its patient trustful repose, are the strict result of the foregone spring and summer.  "Men do not gather grapes from thorns, nor figs from thistles."


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