Alexander Smith

A shelf in my bookcase

When a man glances critically through the circle of his intimate friends, he is obliged to confess that they are far from being perfect. They possess neither the beauty of Apollo, nor the wisdom of Solon, nor the wit of Mercutio, nor the reticence of Napoleon III. If pushed hard he will be constrained to admit that he has known each and all get angry without sufficient occasion, make at times the foolishest remarks, and act as if personal comfort were the highest thing in their estimation. Yet, driven thus to the wall, forced to make such uncomfortable confessions, our supposed man does not like his friends one whit the less; nay, more, he is aware that if they were very superior and faultless persons he would not be conscious of so much kindly feeling towards them. The tide of friendship does not rise high on the bank of perfection. Amiable weaknesses and shortcomings are the food of love. It is from the roughnesses and imperfect breaks in a man that you are able to lay hold of him. If a man be an entire and perfect chrysolite, you slide off him and fall back into ignorance. My friends are not perfect—no more am I—and so we suit each other admirably. Their weaknesses keep mine in countenance, and so save me from humiliation and shame. We give and take, bear and forbear; the stupidity they utter to-day salves the recollection of the stupidity I uttered yesterday; in their want of wit I see my own, and so feel satisfied and kindly disposed. It is one of the charitable dispensations of Providence that perfection is not essential to friendship. If I had to seek my perfect man, I should wander the world a good while, and when I found him, and was down on my knees before him, he would, to a certainty, turn the cold shoulder on me—and so life would be an eternal search, broken by the coldness of repulse and loneliness. Only to the perfect being in an imperfect world, or the imperfect being in a perfect world, is everything irretrievably out of joint.

On a certain shelf in the bookcase which stands in the room in which I am at present sitting—bookcase surmounted by a white Dante, looking out with blind, majestic eyes—are collected a number of volumes which look somewhat the worse for wear. Those of them which originally possessed gilding have had it fingered off, each of them has leaves turned down, and they open of themselves at places wherein I have been happy, and with whose every word I am familiar as with the furniture of the room in which I nightly slumber, each of them has remarks relevant and irrelevant scribbled on their margins. These favourite volumes cannot be called peculiar glories of literature; but out of the world of books have I singled them, as I have singled my intimates out of the world of men. I am on easy terms with them, and feel that they are no higher than my heart. Milton is not there, neither is Wordsworth; Shakspeare, if he had written comedies only, would have been there to a certainty, but the presence of the five great tragedies,—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Lear, Antony and Cleopatra—for this last should be always included among his supreme efforts—has made me place him on the shelf where the mighty men repose, himself the mightiest of all. Reading Milton is like dining off gold plate in a company of kings; very splendid, very ceremonious, and not a little appalling. Him I read but seldom, and only on high days and festivals of the spirit. Him I never lay down without feeling my appreciation increased for lesser men—never without the same kind of comfort that one returning from the presence feels when he doffs respectful attitude and dress of ceremony, and subsides into old coat, familiar arm-chair, and slippers. After long-continued organ-music, the jangle of the jews-harp is felt as an exquisite relief. With the volumes on the special shelf I have spoken of, I am quite at home, and I feel somehow as if they were at home with me. And as to-day the trees bend to the blast, and the rain comes in dashes against my window, and as I have nothing to do and cannot get out, and wish to kill the hours in as pleasant a manner as I can, I shall even talk about them, as in sheer liking a man talks about the trees in his garden, or the pictures on his wall. I can’t expect to say anything very new or striking, but I can give utterance to sincere affection, and that is always pleasant to one’s self and generally not ungrateful to others.

First; then, on this special shelf stands Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales.”

It is difficult to explain why I like these short sketches and essays, written in the author’s early youth, better than his later, more finished, and better-known novels and romances. The world sets greater store by “The Scarlet Letter” and “Transformation” than by this little book—and, in such matters of liking against the judgment of the world, there is no appeal. I think the reason of my liking consists in this—that the novels were written for the world, while the tales seem written for the author; in these he is actor and audience in one. Consequently, one gets nearer him, just as one gets nearer an artist in his first sketch than in his finished picture. And after all, one takes the greatest pleasure in those books in which a peculiar personality is most clearly revealed. A thought may be very commendable as a thought, but I value it chiefly as a window through which I can obtain insight on the thinker; and Mr. Hawthorne’s personality is peculiar, and specially peculiar in a new country like America. He is quiet, fanciful, quaint, and his humour is shaded by a meditativeness of spirit. Although a Yankee, he partakes of none of the characteristics of a Yankee. His thinking and his style have an antique air. His roots strike down through the visible mould of the present, and draw sustenance from the generations under ground. The ghosts that haunt the chamber of his mind are the ghosts of dead men and women. He has a strong smack of the Puritan; he wears around him, in the New England town, something of the darkness and mystery of the aboriginal forest. He is a shy, silent, sensitive, much ruminating man, with no special overflow of animal spirits. He loves solitude, and the things which age has made reverent. There is nothing modern about him. Emerson’s writing has a cold cheerless glitter, like the new furniture in a warehouse, which will come of use by and by; Hawthorne’s, the rich, subdued colour of furniture in a Tudor mansion-house—which has winked to long-extinguished fires, which has been toned by the usage of departed generations. In many of the “Twice-Told Tales” this peculiar personality is charmingly exhibited. He writes of the street or the sea-shore, his eye takes in every object, however trifling, and on these he hangs comments, melancholy and humourous. He does not require to go far for a subject; he will stare on the puddle in the street of a New England village, and immediately it becomes a Mediterranean Sea with empires lying on its muddy shores. If the sermon be written out fully in your heart, almost any text will be suitable—if you have to find your sermon in your text, you may search the Testament, New and Old, and be as poor at the close of Revelation as when you started at the first book of Genesis. Several of the papers which I like best are monologues, fanciful, humourous, or melancholy; and of these, my chief favourites are “Sunday at Home,” “Night Sketches,” “Footprints on the Seashore,” and “The Seven Vagabonds.” This last seems to me almost the most exquisite thing which has flowed from its author’s pen—a perfect little drama, the place, a showman’s waggon, the time, the falling of a summer shower, full of subtle suggestions which, if followed, will lead the reader away out of the story altogether; and illuminated by a grave, wistful kind of humour, which plays in turns upon the author’s companions and upon the author himself. Of all Mr. Hawthorne’s gifts, this gift of humour—which would light up the skull and cross-bones of a village churchyard, which would be silent at a dinner-table—is to me the most delightful.

Then this writer has a strangely weird power. He loves ruins like the ivy, he skims the twilight like the bat, he makes himself a familiar of the phantoms of the heart and brain. He is fascinated by the jarred brain and the ruined heart. Other men collect china, books, pictures, jewels; this writer collects singular human experiences, ancient wrongs and agonies, murders done on unfrequented roads, crimes that seem to have no motive, and all the dreary mysteries of the world of will. To his chamber of horrors Madame Tussaud’s is nothing. With proud, prosperous, healthy men, Mr. Hawthorne has little sympathy; he prefers a cracked piano to a new one; he likes cobwebs in the corners of his rooms. All this peculiar taste comes out strongly in the little book in whose praise I am writing. I read “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and find it the first sketch of “The Scarlet Letter.” In “Wakefield,”—the story of the man who left his wife, remaining away twenty years, but who yet looked upon her every day to appease his burning curiosity as to her manner of enduring his absence—I find the keenest analysis of an almost incomprehensible act.

And then Mr. Hawthorne has a skill in constructing allegories which no one of his contemporaries, either English or American, possesses. These allegorical papers may be read with pleasure for their ingenuity, their grace, their poetical feeling; but just as, gazing on the surface of a stream, admiring the ripples and eddies, and the widening rings made by the butterfly falling into it, you begin to be conscious that there is something at the bottom, and gradually a dead face wavers upwards from the oozy weeds, becoming every moment more clearly defined, so through Mr. Hawthorne’s graceful sentences, if read attentively, begins to flash the hidden meaning, a meaning, perhaps, the writer did not care to express formally and in set terms, and which he merely suggests and leaves the reader to make out for himself. If you have the book I am writing about, turn up “David Swan,” “The Great Carbuncle,” “The Fancy Show-box,” and after you have read these, you will understand what I mean.

The next two books on my shelf—books at this moment leaning on the “Twice-Told Tales”—are Professor Aytoun’s “Ballads of Scotland,” and the “Lyra Germanica.” These books I keep side by side with a purpose. The forms of existence with which they deal seem widely separated; but a strong kinship exists between them, for all that. I open Professor Aytoun’s book, and all this modern life—with its railways, its newspapers, its crowded cities, its Lancashire distresses, its debates in Parliament—fades into nothingness and silence. Scotland, from Edinburgh rock to the Tweed, stretches away in rude spaces of moor and forest. The wind blows across it, unpolluted by the smoke of towns. That which lives now has not yet come into existence; what are to-day crumbling and ivied ruins, are warm with household fires, and filled with human activities. Every Border keep is a home: brides are taken there in their blushes; children are born there; gray men, the crucifix held over them, die there. The moon dances on a plump of spears, as the moss-troopers, by secret and desert paths, ride over into England to lift a prey, and the bale-fire on the hill gives the alarm to Cumberland. Men live and marry, and support wife and little ones by steel-jacket and spear; and the Flower of Yarrow, when her larder is empty, claps a pair of spurs in her husband’s platter. A time of strife and foray, of plundering and burning, of stealing and reaving; when hate waits half a lifetime for revenge, and where difficulties are solved by the slash of a sword-blade. I open the German book, and find a warfare conducted in a different manner. Here the Devil rides about wasting and destroying. Here temptations lie in wait for the soul; here pleasures, like glittering meteors, lure it into marshes and abysses. Watch and ward are kept here, and to sleep at the post is death. Fortresses are built on the rock of God’s promises—inaccessible to the arrows of the wicked,—and therein dwell many trembling souls. Conflict rages around, not conducted by Border spear on barren moorland, but by weapons of faith and prayer in the devout German heart;—a strife earnest as the other, with issues of life and death. And the resemblance between the books lies in this, that when we open them these past experiences and conditions of life gleam visibly to us far down like submerged cities—all empty and hollow now, though once filled with life as real as our own—through transparent waters.

In glancing over these German hymns, one is struck by their adaptation to the seasons and occurrences of ordinary life. Obviously, too, the writer’s religion was not a Sunday matter only, it had its place in week-days as well. In these hymns there is little gloom, a healthy human cheerfulness pervades many of them, and this is surely as it ought to be. These hymns, as I have said, are adapted to the occasions of ordinary life; and this speaks favourably of the piety which produced them. I do not suppose that we English are less religious than other nations, but we are undemonstrative in this, as in most things. We have the sincerest horror of over-dressing ourselves in fine sentiments. We are a little shy of religion. We give it a day entirely to itself, and make it a stranger to the other six. We confine it in churches, or in the closet at home, and never think of taking it with us to the street, or into our business, or with us to the festival, or the gathering of friends. Dr. Arnold used to complain that he could get religious subjects treated in a masterly way, but could not get common subjects treated in a religious spirit. The Germans have done better; they have melted down the Sunday into the week. They have hymns embodying confessions of sin, hymns in the near prospect of death: and they have—what is more important—spiritual songs that may be sung by soldiers on the march, by the artisan at the loom, by the peasant following his team, by the mother among her children, and by the maiden sitting at her wheel listening for the step of her lover. Religion is thus brought in to refine and hallow the sweet necessities and emotions of life, to cheer its weariness, and to exalt its sordidness. The German life revolves like the village festival with the pastor in the midst—joy and laughter and merry games do not fear the holy man, for he wears no unkindness in his eye, but his presence checks everything boisterous or unseemly,—the rude word, the petulant act,—and when it has run its course, he uplifts his hands and leaves his benediction on his children.

The “Lyra Germanica” contains the utterances of pious German souls in all conditions of life during many centuries. In it hymns are to be found written not only by poor clergymen, and still poorer precentors, by ribbon-manufacturers and shoemakers, who, amid rude environments, had a touch of celestial melody in their hearts, but by noble ladies and gentlemen, and crowned kings. The oldest in the collection is one written by King Robert of France about the year 1000. It is beautifully simple and pathetic. State is laid aside with the crown, pride with the royal robe, and Lazarus at Dives’ gate could not have written out of a lowlier heart. The kingly brow may bear itself high enough before men, the voice may be commanding and imperious enough, cutting through contradiction as with a sword; but before the Highest all is humbleness and bended knees. Other compositions there are, scattered through the volume, by great personages, several by Louisa Henrietta, Electress of Brandenburg, and Anton Ulrich, Duke of Brunswick,—all written two hundred years ago. These are genuine poems, full of faith and charity, and calm trust in God. They are all dead now, these noble gentlemen and gentlewomen; their warfare, successful or adverse, has been long closed; but they gleam yet in my fancy, like the white effigies on tombs in dim cathedrals, the marble palms pressed together on the marble breast, the sword by the side of the knight, the psalter by the side of the lady, and flowing around them the scrolls on which are inscribed the texts of resurrection.

This book contains surely one of the most touching of human compositions,—a song of Luther’s. The great Reformer’s music resounds to this day in our churches; and one of the rude hymns he wrote has such a step of thunder in it that the father of Frederick the Great, Mr. Carlyle tells us, used to call it “God Almighty’s Grenadier March.” This one I speak of is of another mood, and is soft as tears. To appreciate it thoroughly, one must think of the burly, resolute, humourous, and withal tender-hearted man, and of the work he accomplished. He it was, the Franklin’s kite, led by the highest hand, that went up into the papal thundercloud hanging black over Europe; and the angry fire that broke upon it burned it not, and in roars of boltless thunder the apparition collapsed, and the sun of truth broke through the inky fragments on the nations once again. He it was who, when advised not to trust himself in Worms, declared, “Although there be as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the house-tops, I will go.” He it was who, when brought to bay in the splendid assemblage, said, “It is neither safe nor prudent to do aught against conscience. Here stand I—I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.” The rock cannot move—the lightnings may splinter it. Think of these things, and then read Luther’s “Christmas Carol,” with its tender inscription, “Luther—written for his little son Hans, 1546.” Coming from another pen, the stanzas were perhaps not much; coming from his, they move one like the finest eloquence. This song sunk deep into the hearts of the common people, and is still sung from the dome of the Kreuz Kirche in Dresden before daybreak on Christmas morning.

There is no more delightful reading in the world than these Scottish ballads. The mailed knight, the Border peel, the moonlight raid, the lady at her bower window—all these have disappeared from the actual world, and lead existence now as songs. Verses and snatches of these ballads are continually haunting and twittering about my memory, as in summer the swallows haunt and twitter about the eaves of my dwelling. I know them so well, and they meet a mortal man’s experience so fully, that I am sure—with, perhaps, a little help from Shakspeare—I could conduct the whole of my business by quotation,—do all its love-making, pay all its tavern-scores, quarrel and make friends again, in their words, far better than I could in my own. If you know these ballads, you will find that they mirror perfectly your every mood. If you are weary and down-hearted, behold, a verse starts to your memory trembling with the very sigh you have heaved. If you are merry, a stanza is dancing to the tune of your own mirth. If you love, be you ever so much a Romeo, here is the finest language for your using. If you hate, here are words which are daggers. If you like battle, here for two hundred years have trumpets been blowing and banners flapping. If you are dying, plentiful are the broken words here which have hovered on failing lips. Turn where you will, some fragment of a ballad is sure to meet you. Go into the loneliest places of experience and passion, and you discover that you are walking in human footprints. If you should happen to lift the first volume of Professor Aytoun’s “Ballads of Scotland,” the book of its own accord will open at “Clerk Saunders,” and by that token you will guess that the ballad has been read and re-read a thousand times. And what a ballad it is! The story in parts is somewhat perilous to deal with, but with what instinctive delicacy the whole matter is managed! Then what tragic pictures, what pathos, what manly and womanly love! Just fancy how the sleeping lovers, the raised torches, and the faces of the seven brothers looking on, would gleam on the canvas of Mr. Millais!—

  ‘For in may come my seven bauld brothers,
  Wi’ torches burning bright.’

It was about the midnight hour,
  And they were fa’en asleep,
When in and came her seven brothers,
  And stood at her bed feet.

Then out and spake the first o’ them,
   ‘We’ll awa’ and let them be.’
Then out and spake the second o’ them,
  ‘His father has nae mair than he.’

Then out and spake the third o’ them,
  ‘I wot they are lovers dear.’
Then out and spake the fourth o’ them,
  ‘They ha’e lo’ed for mony a year.’

Then out and spake the fifth o’ them,
   ‘It were sin true love to twain.’
‘Twere shame,’ out spake the sixth o’ them,
  ‘To slay a sleeping man!’

Then up and gat the seventh o’ them,
  And never word spake he,
But he has striped his bright-brown brand
   Through Saunders’s fair bodie.

Clerk Saunders he started, and Margaret she turn’d
   Into his arms as asleep she lay,
And sad and silent was the night
   That was atween thir twae.

Could a word be added or taken from these verses without spoiling the effect? You never think of the language, so vividly is the picture impressed on the imagination. I see at this moment the sleeping pair, the bright burning torches, the lowering faces of the brethren, and the one fiercer and darker than the others.

Pass we now to the Second Part—

Sae painfully she clam’ the wa’,
She clam’ the wa’ up after him;
Hosen nor shoon upon her feet
She had na time to put them on.

‘Is their ony room at your head, Saunders?
Is there ony room at your feet?
Or ony room at your side, Saunders,
Where fain, fain I wad sleep?’

In that last line the very heart-strings crack. She is to be pitied far more than Clerk Saunders, lying stark with the cruel wound beneath his side, the love-kisses hardly cold yet upon his lips.

It may be said that the books of which I have been speaking attain to the highest literary excellence by favour of simplicity and unconsciousness. Neither the German nor the Scotsman considered himself an artist. The Scot sings a successful foray, in which perhaps he was engaged, and he sings as he fought. In combat he did not dream of putting himself in a heroic position, or of flourishing his blade in a manner to be admired. A thrust of a lance would soon have finished him if he had. The pious German is over-laden with grief, or touched by some blessing into sudden thankfulness, and he breaks into song as he laughs from gladness or groans from pain. This directness and naturalness give Scottish ballad and German hymn their highest charm. The poetic gold, if rough and unpolished, and with no elaborate devices carved upon it, is free at least from the alloy of conceit and simulation. Modern writers might, with benefit to themselves, barter something of their finish and dexterity for that pure innocence of nature, and child-like simplicity and fearlessness, full of its own emotion, and unthinking of others or of their opinions, which characterise these old writings.

The eighteenth century must ever remain the most brilliant and interesting period of English literary history. It is interesting not only on account of its splendour, but because it is so well known. We are familiar with the faces of its great men by portraits, and with the events of their lives by innumerable biographies. Every reader is acquainted with Pope’s restless jealousy, Goldsmith’s pitted countenance and plum-coloured coat, Johnson’s surly manners and countless eccentricities, and with the tribe of poets who lived for months ignorant of clean linen, who were hunted by bailiffs, who smelt of stale punch, and who wrote descriptions of the feasts of the gods in twopenny cook-shops. Manners and modes of thought had greatly changed since the century before. Macbeth, in silk stockings and scarlet coat, slew King Duncan, and the pit admired the wild force occasionally exhibited by the barbarian Shakspeare. In those days the Muse wore patches, and sat in a sumptuous boudoir, and her worshippers surrounded her in high-heeled shoes, ruffles, and powdered wigs. When the poets wished to paint nature, they described Chloe sitting on a green bank watching her sheep, or sighing when Strephon confessed his flame. And yet, with all this apparent shallowness, the age was earnest enough in its way. It was a good hater. It was filled with relentless literary feuds. Just recall the lawless state of things on the Scottish Border in the olden time,—the cattle-lifting, the house-burning, the midnight murders, the powerful marauders, who, safe in numerous retainers and moated keep, bade defiance to law; recall this state of things, and imagine the quarrels and raids literary, the weapons satire and wit, and you have a good idea of the darker aspect of the time. There were literary reavers, who laid desolate at a foray a whole generation of wits. There were literary duels, fought out in grim hate to the very death. It was dangerous to interfere in the literary mêlée. Every now and then a fine gentleman was run through with a jest, or a foolish Maecenas stabbed to the heart with an epigram, and his foolishness settled for ever.

As a matter of course, on this special shelf of books will be found Boswell’s “Life of Johnson”—a work in our literature unique, priceless. That altogether unvenerable yet profoundly venerating Scottish gentleman,—that queerest mixture of qualities, of force and weakness, blindness and insight, vanity and solid worth,—has written the finest book of its kind which our nation possesses. It is quite impossible to over-state its worth. You lift it, and immediately the intervening years disappear, and you are in the presence of the Doctor. You are made free of the last century, as you are free of the present. You double your existence. The book is a letter of introduction to a whole knot of departed English worthies. In virtue of Boswell’s labours, we know Johnson—the central man of his time—better than Burke did, or Reynolds,—far better even than Boswell did. We know how he expressed himself, in what grooves his thoughts ran, how he ate, drank, and slept. Boswell’s unconscious art is wonderful, and so is the result attained. This book has arrested, as never book did before, time and decay. Bozzy is really a wizard: he makes the sun stand still. Till his work is done, the future stands respectfully aloof. Out of ever-shifting time he has made fixed and permanent certain years, and in these Johnson talks and argues, while Burke listens, and Reynolds takes snuff, and Goldsmith, with hollowed hand, whispers a sly remark to his neighbour. There have they sat, these ghosts, for seventy years now, looked at and listened to by the passing generations; and there they still sit, the one voice going on! Smile at Boswell as we may, he was a spiritual phenomenon quite as rare as Johnson. More than most he deserves our gratitude. Let us hope that when next Heaven sends England a man like Johnson, a companion and listener like Boswell will be provided. The Literary Club sits forever. What if the Mermaid were in like eternal session, with Shakspeare’s laughter ringing through the fire and hail of wit!

By the strangest freak of chance or liking, the next book on my shelf contains the poems of Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn-law Rhymer. This volume, adorned by a hideous portrait of the author, I can well remember picking up at a bookstall for a few pence many years ago. It seems curious to me that this man is not in these days better known. A more singular man has seldom existed,—seldom a more genuine. His first business speculation failed, but when about forty he commenced again, and this time fortune made amends for her former ill-treatment. His warehouse was a small, dingy place, filled with bars of iron, with a bust of Shakspeare looking down on the whole. His country-house contained busts; of Achilles, Ajax, and Napoleon. Here is a poet who earned a competence as an iron-merchant; here is a monomaniac on the Corn-laws, who loved nature as intensely as ever did Burns or Wordsworth. Here is a John Bright uttering himself in fiery and melodious verse,—Apollo with iron dust on his face, wandering among the Sheffield knife-grinders! If you wish to form some idea of the fierce discontent which thirty years ago existed amongst the working men of England, you should read the Corn-law Rhymes. The Corn-laws are to him the twelve plagues of Egypt rolled together. On account of them he denounces his country as the Hebrew prophets were wont to denounce Tyre and Sidon. His rage breaks out into curses, which are not forgiveness. He is maddened by the memory of Peterloo. Never, perhaps, was a sane human being so tyrannised over by a single idea. A skeleton was found on one of the Derbyshire hills. Had the man been crossed in love? had he crept up there to die in the presence of the stars? “Not at all,” cries Elliott; “he was a victim of the Corn-laws, who preferred dying on the mountain-top to receiving parish pay.” In his wild poem all the evil kings in Hades descend from their thrones when King George enters. They only let slip the dogs of war; he taxed the people’s bread. “Sleep on, proud Britoness!” he exclaims over a woman at rest in the grave she had purchased. In one of his articles in Tait’s Magazine, he seriously proposed that tragedies should be written showing the evils of the Corn-laws, and that on a given night they should be performed in every theatre of the kingdom, so that the nation might, by the speediest possible process, be converted to the gospel of Free-trade. In his eyes the Corn-laws had gathered into their black bosoms every human wrong: repeal them, and lo! the new heavens and the new earth! A poor and shallow theory of the universe, you will say; but it is astonishing what poetry he contrives to extract out of it. It is hardly possible, without quotation, to give an idea of the rage and fury which pervade these poems. He curses his political opponents with his whole heart and soul. He pillories them, and pelts them with dead cats and rotten eggs. The earnestness of his mood has a certain terror in it for meek and quiet people. His poems are of the angriest, but their anger is not altogether undivine. His scorn blisters and scalds, his sarcasm flays; but then outside nature is constantly touching him with a summer breeze or a branch of pink and white apple-blossom, and his mood becomes tenderness itself. He is far from being lachrymose; and when he is pathetic, he affects one as when a strong man sobs. His anger is not nearly so frightful as his tears. I cannot understand why Elliott is so little read. Other names not particularly remarkable I meet in the current reviews—his never. His book stands on my shelf, but on no other have I seen it. This I think strange, because, apart from the intrinsic value of his verse as verse, it has an historical value. Evil times and embittered feelings, now happily passed away, are preserved in his books, like Pompeii and Herculaneum in Vesuvian lava. He was a poet of the poor, but in a quite peculiar sense. Burns, Crabbe, Wordsworth, were poets of the poor, but mainly of the peasant poor. Elliott is the poet of the English artisans,—men who read newspapers and books, who are members of mechanics’ institutes, who attend debating societies, who discuss political measures and political men, who are tormented by ideas,—a very different kind of persons altogether. It is easier to find poetry beneath the blowing hawthorn than beneath the plumes of factory or furnace smoke. In such uninviting atmospheres Ebenezer Elliott found his; and I am amazed that the world does not hold it in greater regard, if for nothing else than for its singularity.

There is many another book on my shelf on which I might dilate, but this gossiping must be drawn to a close. When I began, the wind was bending the trees, and the rain came against the window in quick, petulant dashes. For hours now, wind and rain have ceased, the trees are motionless, the garden walk is dry. The early light of wintry sunset is falling across my paper, and, as I look up, the white Dante opposite is dipped in tender rose. Less stern he looks, but not less sad, than he did in the morning. The sky is clear, and an arm of bleak pink vapour stretches up into its depths. The air is cold with frost, and the rain which those dark clouds in the east hold will fall during the night in silent, feathery flakes. When I wake to-morrow, the world will be changed, frosty forests will cover my bedroom panes, the tree branches will be furred with snows; and to the crumbs which it is my daily custom to sprinkle on the shrubbery walk will come the lineal descendant of the charitable redbreast that covered up with leaves the sleeping children in the wood.

(1863)

MLA Citation

Smith, Alexander. “A shelf in my bookcase.” 1863. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 11 Sep 2007. 22 May 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/smith_a/shelf_in_my_bookcase/>.

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