EBENEZER ELLIOTT
Home Autobiography Biographical Biographical Corn Law Rhymes Misc Poems Main Index Site Search


 

I asked what was poetry?  And he answered . . .
"It is the heart speaking to itself."

"Poetry, is impassioned truth; and why should we not utter it in the shape that touches our condition the most closely — the political?"


"What is a Communist?  One who hath yearnings
 For equal division of unequal earnings,
 Idler or bungler, or both, he is willing
 To fork out his penny and pocket your shilling."


――――♦――――

EBENEZER ELLIOTT
(1781-1849)
Ironmaster, Activist and Poet

the "Corn Law Rhymer."

From
Dickens's "Household Words."
1850


THE name of EBENEZER ELLIOTT is associated with one of the greatest and most important political changes of modern times, with events not yet sufficiently removed from us, to allow of their being canvassed in this place with that freedom which would serve the more fully to illustrate his real merits.  Elliott would have been a poet, in all that constitutes true poetry, had the corn laws never existed. 

    He was born on 25th March, 1781, at the New Foundry,
Masborough, in the parish of Rotherham, where his father was a clerk in the employment of Messrs.  Walker, with a salary of £60 or £70 per annum.  His father was a man of strong political tendencies, possessed of humorous and satiric power, that might have qualified him for a comic actor.   Such was the character he bore for political sagacity that he was popularly known as "Devil Elliott."  The mother of the poet seems to have been a woman of an extreme nervous temperament, constantly suffering from ill health, and constitutionally awkward and diffident. 

    Ebenezer commenced his early training at a dame's school; but shy, awkward, and desultory, he made little progress; nor did he thrive much better at the school in which he was afterward placed.  Here he employed his comrades to do his tasks for him, and of course laid no foundation for his future education.  His parents, disheartened by the lad's apparent stolidity, sent him next to Dalton's school, two miles distant; and here he certainly acquired something, for he retained, to old age, the memory of some of the scenes through which he used to pass on his way to and from this school.   For want of the necessary preliminary training, he could do little or nothing with letters: he rather preferred playing truant and roaming the meadows in listless idleness, wherever his fancy led him.  This could not last.  His father soon set him to work in the foundry; and with this advantage, that the lad stood on better terms with himself than he had been for a considerable period, for he discovered that he could compete with others in work —sheer hard-labour—if he could not in the school.  One disadvantage, however, arose, as he tells us, from his foundry life; for he acquired a relish for vulgar pursuits, and the village alehouse divided his attentions with the woods and fields.  Still a deep impression of the charms of nature had been made upon him by his boyish rambles, which the debasing influences and associations into which he was thrown could not wholly wipe out.   He would still wander away in his accustomed haunts, and purify his soul from her alehouse defilements, by copious draughts of the fresh nectar of natural beauty imbibed from the sylvan scenery around him. 

    The childhood and youth of the future poet presented a strange medley of opposites and antitheses.  Without the ordinary measure of adaptation for scholastic pursuits, he inhaled the vivid influences of external things, delight­ing intensely in natural objects, and yet feeling an infinite chagrin and remorse at his own idleness and ignorance.  We find him highly imaginative; making miniature lakes by sinking an iron vessel filled with water in a heap at stones, and gazing therein with wondrous enjoyment at the reflection of the sun and skies over head;  and exhibiting a strange passion for looking on the faces of those who had died violent deaths, although these dead men's features would haunt his imagination for weeks afterward. 

    He did not, indeed, at this period, possess the elements of an ordinary education.  A very simple circumstance sufficed to apply the spark which fired his latent energies, and nascent poetical tendencies: and he henceforward became a different being, elevated far above his former self.  He called one evening, after a drink­ing bout on the previous night, on a maiden aunt, named Robinson, a widow possessed of about £30 a year, by whom he was shown a number of "Sowerby's English Botany," which her son was then purchasing in monthly parts.  The plates made a considerable impression on the awkward youth, and he assayed to copy them by holding them to the light with a thin piece of paper before them.  When he found he could trace their forms by these means his delight was unbounded, and every spare hour was devoted to the agreeable task.  Here commenced that intimate acquaintance with flowers, which seems to pervade all his works.  This aunt of Ebenezer's, (good soul!  would that every shy, gawky Ebenezer had such an aunt!) bent on completing the charm she had so happily begun, displayed to him still further her son's book of dried specimens;  and this elated him beyond measure.   He forthwith commenced a similar collection for himself, for which purpose he would roam the fields still more than ever, on Sundays as well as week days, to the interruption of his attendances at chapel.   This book he called his "Dry Flora," (Hortus Siccus) and none so proud as he when neighbours noticed his plants and pictures.   He was not a little pleased to feel himself a sort of wonder, as he passed through the village with his plants;  and, greedy of praise, he allowed his acquaintance to believe that his drawings were at first hand; and made by himself from nature.   "Thomson's Seasons," read to him about this time by his brother Giles, gave him a glimpse of the union of poetry with natural beauty;  and lit up in his mind an ambition which finally transformed the illiterate, rugged, half-tutored youth into the man who wrote "The Village Patriarch," and  the "Corn Law Rhymes."

    From this time he set himself resolutely to the work of self-education.  His knowledge of the English language was meagre in the extreme;  and he succeeded at last only by making for himself a kind of grammar by reading and observation.  He then tried French, but his native indolence prevailed, and he gave it up in despair.  He read with avidity whatever books came in his way; and a small legacy of books to his father came in just at the right time.  He says he could never read through a second rate book, and he therefore read masterpieces only; "after Milton, then Shakespeare;  then Ossian; then Junius; Paine's 'Common Sense;' Swift's 'Tale of a Tub;' 'Joan of Arc;' Schiller's ' Robbers;' Burger's 'Lenora;' Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall;' and long afterward, Tasso, Dante, De Staël, Schlegel, Hazlitt, and the 'Westminster Review.'" Reading of this character might have been expected to lead to something;  and was well calculated to make an extraordinary impression an such a mind as Elliott's; and we have the fruit of this course of study in the poetry which from this time he began to throw off. 

    He remained with his father from his sixteenth to his twenty-third year, working laboriously without wages, except an occasions shilling or two for pocket money.  He afterward tried business on his own account.  He  made two efforts at Sheffield;  the last com­mencing at the age of forty, and with a borrow­ed capital of £150.  He describes in his nervous language the trials and difficulties he had to contend with;  and all these his imagination embodied for him in one grim and terrible form, which he christened "Bread Tax." With this demon he grappled in desperate energy, and assailed it vigorously with his caustic rhyme.  This training, these mortifications, these misfortunes, and the demon "Bread Tax" above all, made Elliott successively despised, hated, feared, and admired, as public opinion changed toward him. 

    Mr. Howitt describes his warehouse as a dingy, and not very extensive place, heaped with iron of all sorts, sizes, and forms, with barely a passage through the chaos of rusty bars into the inner sanctum, at once, study, counting-house, library, and general receptacle of odds and ends connected with his calling.  Here and there, to complete the jumble, were plaster casts of Shakespeare, Achilles, Ajax, and Napoleon, suggestive of the presidency of literature over the materialism of commerce which marked the career of this singular being.  By dint of great industry he began to flourish in business, and, at one time, could make a profit of £20 a day without moving from his seat.  During this prosper­ous period he built a handsome villa-residence in the suburbs.  He now had leisure to brood over the full force and effect of the Corn Laws.  The subject was earnestly discussed then in all manufacturing circles of that district.   Reverses now arrived.   In 1837, he lost fully one third of all his savings, getting out of the storm at last with about £6,000, which he wrote to Mr. Tait of Edinburgh, he intended, if possible, to retain.  The palmy days of £20 profits had gone by for Sheffield, and instead, all was commercial disaster and distrust.   Elliott did well to retire with what little he had remaining.   In his retreat he was still vividly haunted by the demon "Bread Tax."

    This, then, was the period of the Corn Law Rhymes, and these bitter experiences lent to them that tone of sincerity and earnestness—that fire and frenzy which they breathed, and which sent them, hot, burning words of denunciation and wrath, into the bosoms of the working classes—the toiling millions from whom Elliott sprang.   "Bread Tax," indeed, to him was a thing of terrible import and bitter experience: he uses no gentle terms or honeyed phrases when dealing with the obnoxious impost.  Sometimes coarse invective and angry assertion take the place of convincing reason and calm philosophy.  At others, there is a true vein of poetry and pathos running through the rather unpoetic theme, which touches us with its Wordsworthian feeling and gentleness.  Then he would be found calling down thunders upon the devoted heads of the monopolists, with all a fanatic's hearty zeal, and in his fury he would even pursue them, not merely through the world, but beyond its dim frontiers and across the threshold of another state.  Take them, how­ever, as they stand—and more vigorous, effective, and startling political poetry has not graced the literature of the age.

    Of his verse, it was discovered that he was something more than a mere political party song writer.  He was a true poet, whose credentials, signed and sealed in the court of nature, attested the genuineness of his brotherhood with those children of song who make the world holier and happier by the mellifluous strains they bring to us, like fragments of a forgotten melody, from the far-off world of beauty and of love. 

    Elliott will not soon cease to be distinctively known as the "Corn Law Rhymer;" but it will be by his non-political poems that he will be chiefly remembered by posterity as the Poet of the People; for his name will still be, as it has long been, a "Household Word," in the homes of all such as love the pure influences of simple, sensuous, and natural poetry.  As an author he did not make his way fast: he had written poetry for twenty years ere he had attracted much notice.  A genial critique by Southey in the "Quarterly," another by Carlyle in the "Edinburgh," and favorable notices in the "Athenæum" and "New Monthly," brought him into notice;  and he gradually made his way until a new and cheap edition of his works, in 1840, stamped him as a popular poet.  His poetry is just such as, knowing his history, we might have expected; and such as, not knowing it, might have bodied forth to us the identical man as we find him. 

    As we have said, Nature was his school; but flowers were the especial vocation of his muse.  A small ironmonger—a keen and successful tradesman—we should scarcely have given him credit for such an exquisite love of the beautiful in Nature, as we find in some of those lines written by him in the crowded counting-room of that dingy warehouse.  The incident of the floral miscellany; the subsequent study of " The Seasons;" the long rambles in meadows and on hill-sides, specimen-hunting for his Hortus Sic­cus, sufficiently account for the exquisite sketch­es of scenery, and those vivid descriptions of natural phenomena, which showed that the coinage of his brain had been stamped in Nature's mint.  The most casual reader would at once discover that, with Thomson, he has ever been the devoted lover and worshiper of Nature—a wanderer by babbling streams—a dreamer in the leafy wilderness—a worshiper of morning upon the golden hilltops.  He gives us pictures of rural scenery warm as the pencil of a Claude, and glowing as the sunsets of Italy. 

    A few sentences will complete our sketch, and bring us to the close of the poet's pilgrimage.  He had come out of the general collapse of commercial affairs in 1837, with a small portion of the wealth he had realized by diligent and continuous labour.  He took a walk, on one occasion, into the country, of about eighteen miles: reached Argilt Hill, liked the place, returned, and resolved to buy it.  He laid out in house and land about one thousand guineas.  His family consisted of Mrs. Elliott and two daughters; a servant maid; an occasional helper; a Welch pony and small gig; "a dog almost as big as the mare, and much wiser than his master; a pony cart; a wheel barrow; and a grindstone—and," says he, "turn up your nose if you like!"

    From his own papers we learn that he had one son a clergyman, at Lothedale, near Skipton; another in the steel trade, on Elliott's old premises at Sheffield; two others unmarried, living on their means; another "druggisting at Sheffield,  in a sort of chimney called a shop;" and another, a clergyman, living in the West Indies.  Of his thirteen children, five were dead, and of whom he says, 'They left behind them no memorial—but they are safe in the bosom of Mercy, and not quite forgotten even here!"

    In this retirement he occasionally lectured and spoke at public meetings; but he began to suffer from a spasmodic affection of the nerves, which obliged him wholly to forego public speaking.  This disease grew worse; and in December, 1839, he was warned that he could not continue to speak in public, except at the risk of sudden death.   This disorder lingered about him for about six years; he then fell ill of a more serious disease, which threatened speedy termination.  This was in May, 1849.  In September, he writes, "I have been very, very ill."  On the first of December, 1849, the event, which had so long been impending, occurred and Elliott peacefully departed in the sixty-ninth year of his age. 

    Thus, then, the sun set on one whose life was one continued heroic struggle with opposing influences—with ignorance first, then trade, then the corn laws, then literary fame, and, last of all, disease: and thus the world saw its last of the material breathing form of the rugged but kindly being who made himself loved, feared, hated, and famous as the" CORN LAW RHYMER."


――――♦――――
 

On the Death of of Ebenezer Elliott.


A
NOTHER Poet dead!   And who will care
    That he hath gone from Life's tumultuous stage?
Ten thousand toiling, thinking men, who share
    The encumbered meed of Labour's heritage;—
Men for whose minds
HE wrote inspiring thought,
    Tinged with stern glory, as the storm appears—
For whom, with whom his fearless spirit fought;
    These will not fail, 'mid sorrows, struggles, fears,

To guard his grave, and write his epitaph in tears.


No trifling, tinkling, moon-struck Bard was he,
    Chanting a love-lay in his lady's bower;
His words, like mountain winds, were fresh and free,
    And, like the lightnings, winged with withering power;
Like the sharp clang of tried and stubborn steel,—
    Like furnace blast,—like hammers tramping strong;
Like deafening drum-roll, startling trumpet-peal,—
    Like bruit of battle-cries—'gainst social wrong

His fall and fervid soul leapt out in living song.


Yet do not deem, because he stood alone,
    The proud, unpensioned Laureate of the Poor,
Recording, echoing every grief and moat:
    That hourly issued from the cottage door,—
Oh! do not deem that in his earnest rhyms
    (Albeit their virtues he could not forsake)
He veiled their vices, or concealed their crimes;
    No! with a champion's well-won right he spake,

And with reproving truth made rudest bosoms quake.


Haply, sometimes, his too indignant mind,
    With an impetuous torrent's headlong force,
Rushed with too fierce an energy to find
    Pleasure and peace along its troublous course;
But then, the hideous evils which he saw
    Flung from the fingers of Oppression dire,
Opened his eyes to many a tyrant law,—
    Disturbed his soul, and woke its wildest fire,

As falling stones uprouse the Geyser's slumbering ire!


But he had gentler moods—(and who has not?
    Life, though discordant, is not all unrest)—
Moments of pensive calm, when he forgot
    The outward world, and all that it possessed;
Then would his harp-strings, with serener strain—
    A sad voice calling from his proud heart's core—
Thrill to the memory of some placid pain,
    Stir the sweet springs of feeling, shut before,

And make the listener's eyes with tenderest tears run o'er.


No more shall haughty Stanege, bleak and bold,
    Clasp him in cloud robes, as the steep he scales;
No more Win Hill to his rapt gaze unfold
    The quiet beauty of his subject-vales;
No more shall Don and Rother, as they flow,
    Nor Riviliu, reflecting all that's fair,
Murmur responsive to his joy or woe;
    Yet there he reigns! and many a Child of Care,

From Sheffield's crowded glooms, shall seek his spirit there!


John Critchley Prince

 

 


 

[Home] [Autobiography] [Biographical] [Biographical] [Corn Law Rhymes] [Misc Poems] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be sent to Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk