1850 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ebenezer Elliott

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 33 (February 1850) 214-17.



Dec. 1. At Argilt Hill, near Barnsley, in his 69th year, Mr. Ebenezer Elliott, "the Corn-Law Rhymer."

Ebenezer Elliott was born on the 17th of March, 1781, at Masborough, near Rotherham, where his father was a commercial clerk in the iron-works, with a salary of 70 a-year. Ebenezer was one of eight children, and, to quote his own words, "in childhood, boyhood, and youth, was remarkable for good-nature, as it is called, and a sensitiveness exceeded only by his extreme dulness, and inability to learn anything that required the least application or intellect." When he scarcely knew that two and one are three, he was put to work in the foundry, on trial whether hard labour would not induce him to learn his "counting," as arithmetic is called in Yorkshire. But families are chequered in brains, and Ebenezer had a bright brother, Giles, which so oppressed the future poet with a sense of his own deficiencies, that he often wept bitterly. When he came dirty out of the foundry, and saw Giles at the counting-house duties, or showing his drawings, or reading aloud to an admiring circle, Ebenezer's only resource was solitude; he would go and fly his kite, and he was the best kite-maker in the village; or he would saunter along the canal bank, swimming his ship, and he was a good ship-builder. His sadness increased; he could not post books, or write invoices, or master a sum in single division; yet, by this time, he discovered that he could do "men's work," for he could make a frying-pan. Labour, however, and the honour paid to his brother, at length led Ebenezer to make one effort more. He chanced to see in the hand of a cousin Sowerby's English Botany, and was delighted with its beautifully coloured plates, which, his aunt showed him, might be copied by holding them before a pane of glass. Dunce though he was, he found he could draw, and with such case, that he almost thought he was a magician. He became a botanist, or, rather, a hunter of flowers. He did not remember having ever read, or liked, or thought of poetry, until he heard his brother recite that passage in Thomson's Spring, which describes the polyanthus and auricula. His first attempt at poetry was an imitation in rhyme of Thomson's "Thunder-Storm," in which he describes a certain flock of sheep running away after they were killed by lightning! The miracle was made to fit the rhyme, but was criticised by the boy-poet's cousin with severity never forgotten.

Ebenezer's next favourite author was Milton, who slowly gave way to Shakspere. But Elliott described himself as altogether unimaginative, and derived all his literary likings from physical causes. There is not a good passage in his writings which he could not trace to some real occurrence, to some object actually before his eyes, or to a passage in some other author. He claimed as a merit the power of making the thoughts of other men breed; and he was fond of pointing to four or five passages in his poems, all imitated from two lines in Cowper's Homer.

When Elliott became a poet, he grew more and more ashamed of his deficiencies. He tried to learn French — could get his lesson with case, but could not remember it an hour. He began Murray's English Grammar at the wrong end (the Key), and never reached the first page. He never thoroughly understood a single rule of grammar; yet, by thinking, he could detect grammatical errors. He had a fondness for Greek and Latin quotations, which he begged of others, for his prefaces and notes. One of his earliest productions, a poem in blank verse, on the American Revolution, was full of this borrowed learning and other odd conceits: he sent it in manuscript to Mr. Whitbread, the brewer, who returned it with a flourishing compliment. Elliott's first publication was The Vernal Walk, written in his seventeenth year.

Elliott entered into business on his own account at Rotherham, but was unsuccessful. He removed to Sheffield in 1821, at forty years of age, and there made his second start in life. He used to relate that he here began business with a borrowed 100, with which he bought a stock of iron, which "tippled right over its head," or, in other words, he sold for twice as much as it cost. He was not unduly elated with such success, for, unlike his neighbours in those times of artificial prosperity, he saw that the bubble must soon burst. He therefore prudently kept his liabilities within the narrowest possible compass, and this saved him from embarrassment, and enabled him to take advantage of "the turn of the market." At one period so successful were his transactions that, as he told Mr. Howitt, "he used to sit in his chair, and make his 20 a-day, without ever seeing the iron he sold; for it came to the wharf, and was sold again thence, without ever coming into his warehouse or under his eye." Still this success was the result of years of laborious industry, of acute intelligence, and business habits.

At length, however, this golden tide turned, and he was glad to get out of the business of a bar-iron merchant with part of his earnings, the great panic of 1837 having swept away some three or four thousands at once. His first place of business was in Burgess-street. Removing thence, when business had increased, he established his business in Gibraltar-street, Shalesmoor. Shortly after he built a handsome villa in the suburb of Upper Thorpe, whence he could behold Sheffield smoking at his feet. The counting-house where Ebenezer Elliott made fame as well as fortune was strangely furnished — iron bars jostling Ajax and Achilles, — for the classic poets were great favourites with our rhymer, although he could enjoy them only through the medium of a translation.

Soon after the publication of his Vernal Walk appeared Night, of which only a portion is republished in his works, as the Legend of Wharncliffe. It was severely criticised by the Monthly Review and the Monthly Magazine. At that time, however, Elliott was much cheered by Southey, who delighted in taking up "uneducated poets." Next appeared a volume of poems, with a preface of defiance to the critics. It had no success; though Southey prophetically consoled the poet by writing, — "There is power in the least of these tales, but the higher you pitch your tone the better you succeed. Thirty years ago they would have made your reputation; thirty years hence the world will wonder that they did not do so."

Elliott's next essay, was the poem of Love, to which he prefixed The Giaour, a vehement satire upon Lord Byron, who Elliott fancied had looked scornfully at him in adversity. The attack, however, did not provoke reply, which was the object of the assailant.

He next appeared as the fierce opponent of the laws relating to the importation of corn, in Corn-Law Rhymes, printed in 1828 with The Ranter, in one volume. In 1829 came The Village Patriarch. In 1830-31 Dr. Bowring first saw him, and introduced him to Wordsworth and William Howitt. The Doctor also showed Elliott's poems to Mr. Bulwer, then editor of the New Monthly Magazine, wherein they were noticed in A Letter to Dr. Southey, &c. &c. Poet Laureate, respecting a remarkable Poem by a Mechanic, with commendation of their "extraordinary energy," and "the beauty and skill visible in the phraseology." Following up this good opinion, Elliott contributed to the New Monthly Magazine for Dec. 1831 a Spenserian poem, entitled Byron and Napoleon; or, they Met in Heaven.

Elliott now collected his poems, and they reappeared, in three volumes, in 1833, 1834, and 1835; and in 1840 another edition was printed in one volume, with additions, which has had a large sale. The favourite vehicle for the poet's new productions for many years was Tait's Magazine; and the "Poets' Corner" of the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent has often been enriched by his contributions.

The great object of Elliott's political life was the abolition of the corn laws. In 1838 commenced the agitation of the Corn Law League, and also that for the Charter. Of the success of the latter measure Elliott at first had greater hopes than of the former, principally from some influential Birmingham Reformers taking part in the movement. In Sept. 1838 he attended a conference in London; and in the same mouth he presided at a public meeting in Sheffield, when the Charter was brought forward. In the succeeding January, however, when the Chartists put themselves in opposition at an anti-corn law meeting, he had to act on the defensive. He did not, however, completely separate himself from them until the events of the winter of 1839-40 satisfied him that the Chartist cause was in wrong hands.

In 1841 Mr. Elliott retired from business, and from active interference in politics, to spend his last years at Great Houghton, near Barnsley, where he built a house upon a small estate of his own. After this he wrote and published little. His last illness was of several weeks duration. He was anxious that the marriage of his daughter with John Watkins, esq. of Clapham, should be solemnised during his life; it therefore took place on the 17th Nov. though it had been fixed for Christmas day. As the newly-married pair passed Argilt-hill, Mr. Elliott was raised up in bed to see them pass the window, when he desired that he might be buried at Darfield church, where they had been married. His wish was fulfilled on the 6th of December. He has lost a wife and five sons and two daughters. Of the former two conduct the steel business of their father, and two are clergymen of the Church of England.

The writer of a memoir of Elliott in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent (which we have chiefly followed in the present memoir), has been favoured with a letter from the venerable poet James Montgomery, in which he bears this testimony to Elliott's poetic talent: — "I am quite willing to hazard any critical credit, by avowing my persuasion, that in originality, power, and even beauty, when he chose to be beautiful, he might have measured heads beside Byron in tremendous energy, Crabbe in graphic description, and Coleridge in effusions of domestic tenderness; while in intense sympathy with the poor, in whatever he deemed their wrongs or their sufferings, he excelled them all — and perhaps everybody else among contemporaries, in prose or verse. He was, in a transcendental sense, the poet of the poor, whom, if not always wisely, I at least dare not say, he loved too well. His personal character, his fortunes, and his genius would require, and they deserve, a full investigation, as furnishing an extraordinary study of human nature."

Elliott has been aptly designated the poet of Yorkshire; and his descriptions of its heights and dales, its woods and streams, and "broad towns," will long be fondly cherished. His modesty and sincerity are conveyed in a preface, dated 1835, wherein he expresses himself as "sufficiently rewarded if my poetry has led one poor despairing victim of misrule from the ale-house to the fields; if I have been chosen of God to shew his desolated heart that, though his wrongs have been heavy and his fall deep, and though the spoiler is yet abroad, still in the green lanes of England the primrose is blowing, and on the mountain top the lonely fir is pointing with her many fingers to our Father in Heaven."

A portrait of the poet (which was taken about twenty years ago), is in the possession of Thomas Badger, esq. of Rotherham, and is engraved in the Illustrated London News of the 18th December.