1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ebenezer Elliott

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 64.



EBENEZER ELLIOTT was born on the 17th of March, 1781, at Masbro, a village near the town of Sheffield; where he has since resided, and where he follows the calling of an Ironmonger. His birth, he informs me, was registered only in the family Bible; his father being "a dissenter, and a thorough hater of the Church as by Law established." The boyhood of the Poet was neglected, in consequence of his supposed inability to learn any thing useful; and he was left, for the most part, to his own guidance during the years which generally form the character of the future man. His nature was dull and slow, but thoughtful and affectionate. Happily, his "idle time" was not "idly spent;" his wanderings in the woods and fields laid the foundation of his after-fame; and Thomson's Seasons made him a versifier:

His books were rivers, woods, and skies,
The meadow and the moor.

When at the age which determines destiny, or, — as he quaintly expresses it, "while it was doubtful whether he would become a man or a malt-worm," a country curate bequeathed to his home a library of valuable Theological Works. To this new source of profit and enjoyment, tinctured though it was with gloom, and to the conversation and amateur-preaching of his father, "an old Cameronian and born rebel," whose religion was of the severest kind, and whose "dreadful declamations it was his misfortune to hear," may be traced the character, literary and political, of the future Corn-Law Rhymer. Blessed or cursed with a hatred of wasted labour, he was never known to read a bad book through; but he has read again and again, and deeply studied all the master-pieces of the mind, original and translated; and the master-pieces only: a circumstance to which he attributes his success. "There is not," he says, "a good thought in his works that has not been suggested by some object actually before his eyes, or by some real occurrence, or by the thoughts of other men," — "but," he adds, "I can make other men's thoughts breed." His genius, according to his own view of it, is a compound of earnest perseverance, restless observation, and instinctive or habitual hatred of oppression. He protests against being considered a coarse and careless writer; and asserts that he has never printed a careless line.

So far my notice is indebted to the Corn-Law Rhymer himself. For the rest, I learn that he is indefatigable in application to his unpoetic business; a most kind husband and father, a pleasant associate, and a faithful friend; energetic to an extreme in conversation; roughly but powerfully eloquent; and that his "countenance bespeaks deep thought, and all enthusiastic temperament; his overhanging brow is stern to a degree, while the lower part of his face indicates mildness and benevolence."

I may state, with natural and pardonable pride, that while Editor of the NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE, it was my fortunate privilege to direct to this extraordinary and highly-gifted man the public attention he had long, but vainly, courted. in April, 1831, a letter reviewing his poetry was addressed to Dr. Southey, by one of the most accomplished writers of the age, and published in that Periodical. From the day of its appearance, the world wondered what strange fatality had hitherto obscured his genius; it was at once acknowledged, and his "earliest perseverance" recompensed. His Poems have been recently collected into three volumes.

It is impossible to avoid some comment on the harsh, ungenerous, and we must add, un-English, political principles, which so continually influence, so thoroughly saturate, and so essentially impair the Poetry of the Rhymer. In his Corn-Law Rhymes, and the Poems avowedly political, we look for and pardon his strong and ungentle opinions; but he can rarely ramble through a green lane, climb the mountain's brow, or revel amid the luxuries of nature, without giving them expression. He has wooed Liberty with an unchaste passion. His fancy is haunted by images of tyrant-kings, tax-fed aristocrats, and bigotted oppressors.

Still, with the highest and the most enduring of British Poets, we must class Ebenezer Elliott. Among his Poems there are many glorious and true transcripts of nature; full of pathos and beauty, vigorous and original in thought; and clear, eloquent, and impassioned in language. His feelings, though at times kindly and gentle, are more often dark, menacing, and stern; but they are never grovelling or low. He has keen and burning sympathies; but unhappily he forgets that the high-born and wealthy claim them and deserve them, as well as the poor, and those who are more directly "bread-taxed;" — that suffering is the common lot of humanity.