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 LITTELL’S

LIVING AGE

VOL.  XXVI
JULY, AUGUST, SEPTEMBER, 1850.
(Page 596)


From the Spectator.

WATKINS' LIFE OF EBENEZER ELLIOTT.


Life, Poetry, and Letters of Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn-law Rhymer.  With an Abstract of his Politics.  By his Son-in-law, John Watkins, Author of the " Life of James Myers," " George Chambers," &c.  Published by Mortimer.


WE never ranked among the vehement admirers of the "Corn-law Rhymer;" and the soundness of the distrust may rest upon fact instead of criticism.  From early manhood Elliott had been accustomed to write and publish poetry, some of it better in all points of view than his violent diatribes in verse.  Yet those productions fell still-born from the press, yielding him neither profit nor fame.  It was not till he took up a question ripe enough for political agitation, and addressed himself to the excited feelings and prejudices of party men, that he became a provincial lion, with sufficient name to induce the editors of Annuals to address him for contributions and notoriety-hunters to seek him out. 

    Elliott, however, had more genius, power, pathos, and delicacy, than any "poet from the people" except Burns.  Why he was not able to exhibit his genius to the best advantage, by bring­ing art to the aid of nature, can be traced in this volume, as well as the cause of the violence, one-­sidedness, and it may be said vulgarity of some of his poetry.  He wanted education in every sense of the word, and a more various knowledge of mankind.  He had no learning, and not much, reading: his domestic training was as bad as coarse {rather than homely} manners, religious bigotry, political violence in violent times, and a hard, ill-conditioned temper in his father, could make it.  His school acquirements were less than the common Yorkshire schools would have furnished to average application; and his early associates (smiths and founders in his father's employ) by no means improved his manners or ideas, while they inoculated him with a taste for tipple — he narrowly escaped being a confirmed drunkard.  Neither were his pursuits of manhood altogether compatible with high excellence in poetry.  As journeyman and master, his time was spent in the iron trade;—not in the mode of manufacturing princes, who delegate their affairs to a confidential representative, or even after the fashion of re­spectable tradesmen who in the morning seat themselves in their place of business for a few hours—but with close and laborious attention.  After realizing a competence, and losing it during the disastrous years of panic and ruin that followed the close of the French war, Elliott set to work again, and was enabled in less than twenty years to place out his sons in the world and to retire upon some eight thousand pounds.  The mental attention and bodily exertion which this required in a place like Sheffield—coupled with political agitation—rendered the pursuit of poetry as an art impossible, for that requires the devotion of a life.  Elliott, too, appears to have been fond of seeing himself in print; so that he would not be satisfied with selecting a few of his best poems, or take the time to finish those which correction might have improved, but kept continually throwing off verses and printing them.  Hence, in his longer pieces ill-chosen subjects, and in the mass of his poetry coarseness, crudity, and often a flat diffuseness.  When, however, the Averse circumstances of his life both in poverty and prosperity are considered, the wonder really is that he wrote so well, or found time to observe nature so much as he did.  Life in one of its wretched aspects was indeed familiar to him; and he was frequently amongst natural scenes on holydays, his taste for which he ascribed to an accidental stimulus to the study of botany.  Of his birth, no registry exists; for his father was a low Methodist, "who baptized me himself," writes the poet, "or employed his friend and brother Berean, Tammy Wright, to baptize me." But he was born in March, 1781; and he died on the 1st of December, 1849. 

    The life of Ebenezer Elliott, by his son-in-law, is better as a book than a biography.  It is not well planned; the narrative of the career is too much broken up by essays illustrative of features of the poet, by criticism on his works, or by extracts from them.  Besides this want of continuous connection, there is also a want of fulness as regards events and of distinctness in the chronology.  With the exception of the early period, in which Elliott appears as his own biographer, the book is a series of essays upon the life and character of the poet, rather than a narrative of the one and a delineation of the other. 

    It is, notwithstanding, an able book; though somewhat weakened by a tendency to fine writing, and a natural disposition to overrate the subject.  It contains a good many sketches of Elliott as he appeared at various times; together with extracts from his correspondence, which exhibit him on the whole to more advantage in prose than in poetry.  This picture is from Mr. Watkins' account of their first interview. 

    We arrived at his house with a good appetite for dinner; after which we resumed our table-talk over a bottle of claret.  He said he was very sorry to hear a man like me speak ill of Byron.  I told him there was no poetry that satisfied my mind more fully than his, but maintained my opinion of the man; for, being a public man, I said, he was all the more bound to lead a good private life.  Mrs. Elliott joined me.  He got up, and said he would leave us two to tear him to pieces.  He had once seen Byron, he said, in a bank at Sheffield, and thought that the noble poet looked at him with a sneer; for it was a time, he said, when I was in great distress!  He likened Byron's complexion to a marble bust. 

    I had now an opportunity of studying him more closely.  When I had first seen him at his ware­house, he was dressed in a suit befitting the place; but now his appearance was that of the gentleman.  He wore a black surtout with a velvet collar, and bore eye-glasses suspended with a riband.  He walked with a rather jaunty air, or with a slight swing of the body from side to side, as one desirous to appear younger than he really was, though he did not disguise that he was fifty-eight.  He was somewhat nervous, and had got an idea that he would not live long; indeed, he said he had been dying four years of consumption.  His general look expressed a kind of severe benignity.  His head was not what phrenologists would term a good one; it was small, and of an oval shape, but his forehead was neither high nor broad.  He said his wife was his critic.  Her familiarly affectionate manner of addressing him as Ebby, or Eb, sounded rather oddly in my ears.  He could not write, he said, unless he was warm and comfortable; and generally sat near the oven, which was his muse. 

    He generally walked about while he talked; stopping when uttering anything particular.  His voice was deep and solemn, and had a kind of dying fail.  No one could read his poetry like himself.  It was as if he was reading scripture with all the fervor and unction, but at the same time some of the monotony, of a zealous preacher.  In reciting he was very vehement.  He startled me with a pas­sage from his speech at Palace Yard: "They poisoned Socrates—they crucified Jesus and they are starving you!" The climax he delivered with all the force of his stentorian lungs. 

    It was his habit to disparage himself, and to speak in a tone of hyperbole of the merits of others.  Thus he said, "I have one of the poorest intellects that God ever made.  I have no mind.  I cannot create.  I wish I could write like you; your prose is perfect.  If I were to read your play to you I would make you wonder at the merit of it!"  On giving him a few MS.  verses to read, he said, "They were beautiful as an expression of the writer's feelings, but were not poetry." I asked what was poetry?  And he answered, "It is the heart speaking to itself."

    He said, if you wish to know what human nature is, you should solicit subscriptions for a poem.  He had done so; and one man said, "Damn you, why don't you write something a gentleman can read?" Another, "Well, I suppose I must patronize your vanity, or what you please to call it!"

    The following passage from a letter to a young friend is, perhaps, a specimen of the mock-modest habit of self-disparagement that Mr. Watkins speaks of.  If given in good faith, it is one of the truest judgments that ever author passed upon himself. 

    Some of my speeches, however, are still readable; I can actually read them without falling asleep; and if you can select from all my poetry a poem like " Death and Dr.  Hornbook," combining humor with pathos or sublimity, I will believe that it may keep my book alive for a few years.  But the mere heaviness of my poetry will sink me.  I sat down to read it yesterday, beginning with the "Vernal Walk," and in ten minutes I was asleep, with the volume at my feet.  The strongest proof that it will not live is the fact that it is dead already.  What Sheffielder reads it except yourself and the doctor?  Are there fifty persons living who can truly say they have each read ten pages of my verse?  I once had an opportunity of examining a copy of my works presented by me to a "great admirer of my genius." He had commenced reading "The Ranter," a poem of some labored merit; but he stuck fast half-way.  All the pages except twenty-three were uncut; and I found that the " admirer of my genius" probably did not know by name "The Village Patriarch," "The Exile," "Bothwell," "Withered Wild Flowers," "They met in Heaven," "The Recording Angel," "Come and Gone," "The Splendid Village," &e. 

    It is not improbable that there was something in Elliott's father amounting to a monomania which descended to the post, and was displayed in the violence of his politics—for the religious fanaticism he got over.  When the corn-laws were put aside, he could judge the poor peasantry sternly enough. 

    I was aware, when I came hither, that the coun­try possesses no advantages except for him who loves it for its own sake; and that this situation possesses none over Sheffield, except cheaper and better fuel, sweeter water, purer air, and good roads, without toll-bars.  I did not expect to find here a paradise of cherubs praising God, though we have some strapping ones of that species.  I knew that if there is vice in towns there is crime in the country—crime of the blackest; for in crimes of violence, and in proportion to population, the village of Wombwell, four miles hence, exceeds the criminality of Sheffield one hundred per cent.  I knew that if we would fall in with a rogue able to cheat the devil, we have only to buy horses at a country fair; and that if we would know who they are that cheat railway companies, by getting into wrong carriages, or not paying at all, we shall find on inquiry that nineteen- twentieths of them are country people.



BIBLIOGRAPHY


Books:

The Vernal Walk; A Poem (1802);
The Soldier; and Other Poems (1810);
Night, A Descriptive Poem (1818);
Peter Faultless to his Brother Simon, Tales of Night, in Rhyme,
     and  Other Poems (1820);
Love, A Poem, in Three Parts.  To which is added, The Giaour,
    A Satirical Poem (1823);
Scotch Nationality: A Vision (1825);
The Village Patriarch: A Poem (1829);
Corn Law Rhymes.  The Ranter, Written and Published by
     Order of the Sheffield Mechanics; Anti-Bread Tax Society (1831);
The Splendid Village; Corn Law Rhymes; and Other Poems (1833);
An Address to the People of England, on the Corn Laws (1834);
The Village Patriarch, Love, and Other Poems (1834);
Kerhonah, The Vernal Walk, Win Hill, and Other Poems (1835).
 


Collections:

The Poetical Works of Ebenezer Elliot, 3 volumes (1844)
The Poems of Ebenezer Elliot (1844)
The Poetical Works of Ebenezer Elliot, 2 volumes (1876). 


Articles:

"Autobiographical Memoir," The Athenćum,  January 1850.

 


 

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