The manufacturing town as well as the country has found its Burns. As Burns grew and lived amid the open fields, inhaling their free winds, catching views of the majestic mountains as he trod the furrowed field, and making acquaintance with the lowliest flower and the lowliest creatures of the earth, as he toiled on in solitude so Elliott grew and lived amid the noisy wilderness of dingy houses, inhaling smoke from a thousand furnaces, forges, and engine chimneys, and making acquaintance with misery in its humblest shapes as he toiled on in the solitude of neglect. The local circumstances were diametrically different, to show that the spirit in both was the same. They were men of the same stamp, and destined for the same great work; and therefore, however different were their immediate environments, the same operating causes penetrated through them, and stirred within them the spirit of the prophet. They were both of that chosen class who are disciplined in pain, that they may learn that it is a prevailing evil, and are stimulated to free not only themselves but their whole cotemporary kindred. Of poets, says Shelley: — "They learn in suffering what they teach in song;" and the names or Milton, Chatterton, Byron, and of Shelley himself, remind us how true as well as melancholy is the assertion. Burns and Elliott were to be great teachers, and they both had their appointed baptisms. The same quick and ardent passions; the same quivering sensibility; the same fiery indignation against tyranny and oppression; the same lofty spirit of independence, and power of flinging their feelings into song, strong, piercing, and yet most melodious, belong to them. They are both of the people, their sworn brethren and champions. For their sakes they defy all favour of the great; they make war to the death on the humbug of aristocratic imposition; to them humanity is alone great, and by that they stand unmoved by menace, unabashed by scorn, unseduced by flatterers. As messengers of God they honour God in man, and if they show a preference, it is for man in his misery. They are drawn by a divine sympathy to the injured and afflicted. The world knows its own, and they know it, and leave the world to worship according to its worldly instinct. For them the gaudy revel goes on, the chariot of swelling property rolls by, the palace and the castle receive or pour out their glittering throngs, unmarked save by a passing glance of contempt; for they are on their way to the cabins of wretchedness, where they have their Father's work to do. In their eyes, "the whole need not a physician but those that are sick." They leave the dead to bury their dead, and have enough to do to soothe the agonies of the living; of those who live only to suffer, the martyr mass of mankind who groan in rags, and filth, and destitution, under the second great curse-not that of earning their bread by the sweat of their brow, but of not being able to do it.
England owes a debt of thanks to a good Providence, who, affluent in his gifts of honour and beneficence, has raised up great men in every class and every location on her bosom, where they were most needed. In that magnificent work which England has assuredly to do in the earth — that of spreading freedom, knowledge, arts, and Christianity over every distant land and age, gross errors have been committed, and malignant powers have been developed, like pestilential diseases in her constitution; but these have not been suffered to stop, though they may have retarded her career. New infusions of health have been made, new strength has been manifested; out of the pressure of wretchedness new comfort has sprung; and when hope seemed almost extinct, new voices have been heard above the wailing crowd, that have startled the despairing into courage, and shed dismay into the soul of tyranny. As the population has assumed new forms and acquired new interests, out of the bosom of the multitude have arisen the poets who have borne those forms, and have been made familiar with those interests from their birth. Byron and Shelley, from the regions of aristocracy, denounced in unsparing terms its arrogant assumptions; Burns, beholding the progressing work of monopoly and selfishness, uttered his contempt of the spirit that was thrusting down the multitude to the condition of serfs, and haughtily returning glance for glance with pride of rank and pride of purse, exclaimed — "A man's a man for a' that!" But the work of evil went on. While war scourged the earth in the defence of the doting despotism of kingship, and monopoly shut out the food of this nation in defence of the domestic despotism of aristocracy, millions and millions of men were born to insufferable misery, to hunger, nakedness, and crime, the result of maddened ignorance; and that in a land teeming with corn and cattle, and the wealth that could purchase them; and in a land too that sent out clothing for a world. The work of selfishness had proceeded, but had not prospered; wealth had been accumulated, but poverty had been accumulated too, a thousand fold; rents had been maintained, but ruin looked over the wall; there was universal activity, but its wages were famine; there was a thunder of machinery, and a din of never-ceasing hammers; but amidst the chaos of sounds there were heard — not songs, but groans. It was then that Elliott was born, and there that he grew, in the very thick of this swarming, busy, laborious, yet miserable generation. He saw with astonishment that all that prodigious industry produced no happiness; there was pomp and pauperism; toil and starvation; Christianity preached to unbelieving ears, because there were no evidences of its operation on hearts that had the power to bless; and thus famine, ignorance, and irritation, were converting the crowd into a mass of ravenous and dehumanized monsters. There needed a new orator of the patriot spirit. There needed a Burns of the manufacturing district, and he was there in the shape of Elliott. Had Burns been born again there, and under those circumstances, he would have manifested himself exactly as Elliott has done. He would have attacked manfully this monstrous bread-tax, which had thus disorganized society, disputing the passage of God's blessings to the many, and stamping a horrible character on the few. He would have vindicated the rights of man and his labours, and have sung down with fiery numbers all the crowding bugbears that armed monopoly had gathered round the people to scare them into quiet. Elliott has done that exactly; done that and no less. In the unpresuming character of " A Corn-Law Rhymer," of "The Poet of the Rabble," he sent out right and left, songs, sarcasms, curses, and battle cries, amongst the people. His words, never-ceasing, fell like serpents amongst the multitude deadened by long slavery, and stung them into life. His voice once raised, never faltered, never paused; wherever the multitude met they heard it; wherever they turned, they saw it embodied in largest handwriting on the wall. "Up! bread-taxed slave! Up! our bread is taxed arise!" It was Elliott who sounded from day to day, and month to month, these ominous words in the nation's ears. He took the very form of Burns's patriot song, and instead of "Scots, wha ha' wi' Wallace bled," exclaimed—
"Hands, and hearts, and minds are ours
Shall we bow to bestial powers?
Tyrants, vaunt your swords and tower
Reason is our citadel.
With what arms will ye surprise
Knowledge of the million eyes?
What is mightier than the wise?
Not the might of wickedness.
Trust in force — So tyrants trust!
Words shall crush ye into dust;
Yet we fight, if fight we must—
Thou didst, Man of Huntingdon!
Heirs of Pym! can ye be base?
Locke! shall Frenchmen scorn a race
Born in Hampden's dwelling-place?
Blush to write it, Infamy!
What we are our fathers were;
What they dared their sons can dare:
Vulgar tyrants hush! beware!
Bring not down the avalanche.
By the death which Hampden died!
By oppression mind-defied!
Despots, we will tame your pride—
Stormily, or tranquilly!
These brave words were not uttered in vain. The Burns of Sheffield did not speak to the dead. The fire which he scattered was electric. It spread rapidly, it kindled in millions of hearts, it became the soul of the sinking multitude. It was slower to seize on the moist and comfortable spirits of the middle classes and master-manufacturers; but the progress of foreign competition soon drove even them into action against the landlord's monopoly. The League arose. The prose-men took up the cry of the poet, and with material and ground prepared by him, went on from year to year advancing, by force of arguments and force of money, the great cause, till at this moment it may be said to be won. The Prime Minister of England pronounced the doom of the Corn-Law, and fixed the date of its extinction. All honour to every man who fought in the good fight, but what honour should be shown to him who began it? To the man who blew, on the fiery trumpet of a contagious zeal, defiance to the hostile power in the pride of its strength, and called the people together to the great contest? In that contest the very name of Ebenezer Elliott has of late ceased to be heard. Others have prolonged the war-cry, and the voice of him who first raised it seems to be forgotten; but not the less did he raise it. Not the less does that cause owe to hint its earliest and amplest thanks. Not the less is it he who dared to clear the field, to defy the enemy, to array the host, to animate them to the combat, and proclaim to them a certain and glorious victory. And when the clamour of triumph shall have ceased, and a grateful people sit down to think, in their hours of evening or of holiday ease, of the past, they will remember the thrilling songs of their poet, and pay him a long and grateful homage.
In comparing Ebenezer Elliott to Robert Burns, I do not mean to say that their poetry is at all points to he compared. On the contrary, in many particulars they are very different, but the great spirit and principles of them are the same. In the felicitous power of throwing a popular sentiment into a popular song, Elliott cannot come near Burns; nay, in the lyrical portion of his composition, we do not find the full stature and strength of Elliott; it is in his larger poems that he more completely presents himself, and no one can read them without feeling that he is not only a true but a great poet.
There are many people who have read only his corn-law effusions in newspapers and periodicals, who are at a loss to find the warrant for the high character assigned by others to his writings. These give them an idea of a fierce, savage, and often coarse demagogue. And when they add to the expression of these compositions that of the only portraits hitherto published of him, they are perfectly confirmed in the idea that he is a stern, hard-souled, impetuous, and terrible man of iron. Such are the false judgments derived from a one-sided knowledge, and the cruel calumnies of bad artists! Ebenezer Elliott is one of the gentlest, most tender-hearted of men; and, however strange it may sewn, it is this very character, this compassion for the unhappy, this lively and soft sympathy for human suffering, that has roused him to his loftiest pitch of anger, and put into his mouth his most terrible words. It is the noble and feeling soul, which creates the patriot, the saviour, and champion of men. It was Christ, who died for the world, and prayed for his enemies, and taught us to pray for ours, that uttered those awful and scarifying denunciations — "Wo unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" It is impossible that it should be otherwise. It is impossible that a feeling soul, endowed with power as well as feeling, should not rise into the battle attitude at the sight of oppression, and with the sledgehammer of a great indignation demolish the gates of cruelty, when the poor are crying within. But it must never be forgotten, that it is out of the excess of love that springs this excess of zeal. It is this that marks the great distinction between the tyrant and the saviour; the one is inspired by cruelty, the other by mercy.
Whoever sees Ebenezer Elliott, having first only seen the portrait prefixed to some of his works — a vile caricature — and having read only his Corn-law Rhymes, will see with wonder a man of gentle manners, and in all his tones, the expression of a tender and compassionate feeling. But those who have read the whole of his poetry, will not be surprised at this. It is what they will expect. Elliott, though born in a manufacturing town, and having lived there most of his life, displays, like Burns, the most passionate attachment to nature, and what is more, a most intimate acquaintance with her. He possesses a singular power of landscape painting; and what he paints, possesses all the beauty of Claude, and the wild magnificence of a Salvator Rosa, with the finest and most subtle touches of a Dutch artist. In his landscapes you are not the more amazed by the sublimity of the tempest on the dark and crag-strewn moorland mountains of the Peak, than you are by the perfect accuracy of his most minute details. In the woodland, on the vernal bank, and in the cottage garden, you find nothing which should not be there; nothing out of place, or out of season; and the simplest plant or flower is exactly what you would find; not nicknamed, as the poor children of nature so often are by our writers. There is one instance of Ebenezer Elliott's taste that meets you everywhere, and marks most expressively the peculiar, delicate, and poetic affection of his feelings. It is his preeminent love for spring, and its flowers and imagery. The primrose, the snowdrop, "the woe-marked cowslips," the blossom of the hawthorn and the elm, how constantly do they recur. In what favourite scene has be not introduced the wind-flower? Thus, in this admirable picture of a mechanic's garden—
Still nature, still he loves thy uplands brown—
The rock that o'er his father's freehold towers!
And strangers hurrying through the dingy town
May know his workshop by its sweet wild flowers.
Cropped on the Sabbath from the hedge row bowers,
The hawthorn blossom in his window droops;
Far from the headlong stream and lucid air,
The pallid alpine rose to meet him stoops,
As if to soothe a brother in despair,
Exiled from nature, and her pictures fair.
Even winter sends a posy to his jail,
Wreathed of the sunny celandine; the brief,
Courageous windflower, loveliest of the frail;
The hazel's crimson star, the woodbine's leaf,
The daisy with its half-closed eye of grief;
Prophets of fragrance, beauty, joy, and song. — P. 63.
Or in this passage, as remarkable for the sweet music of its versification as for its suggestive power, winging the imagination into the far-off woodland with the plover's cry—
When daisies blush, and windflowers wet with dew;
When shady lanes with hyacinths are blue;
When the elm blossoms o'er the brooding bird,
And wild and wide the plover's wail is heard;
When melt the mists on mountains far away,
Till morn is kindled into brightest day,
No more the shouting youngsters shall convene
To play at leap-frog on the village green, etc. — P. 87.
These are beautiful; but Elliott can he strong as beautiful, and sublime as strong; and the great charm of all his poetry is, that he makes his description subservient to the display of human life and passion, human joys, and sorrows, and struggles, and wrongs. He deals, as the poet of the people, with the life of the people. The thronged manufacturing town, — thronged with men, and misery, and crime, but not destitute of domestic virtues, nor precious domestic affections, — lives nowhere as it does in Elliott's pages. The village and the cottage, with its gardens, and their inhabitants, nil collie before us with their beloved characteristics, and also with their tales of trial and death.
Elliott has been said to have copied from Crabbe and Wordsworth, and heaven knows who. Every page of his tells that he has read and loved them, and been deeply impressed with their compositions; but he is no copyist. Like a fine landscape, he is tinted by the colours and harmonies of the sky, the sun, the season, and the hour; but like that, his features and lasting beauties are his own. In his earlier poems, he often reminds you, by the tone and rhythm of his verse, of Campbell and Rogers; but anon, and he has moulded his own style into its peculiar and native beauty, and like a river for a wink obstructed by rocks and mounds, he at length finds his way into the opera plain, and in his full growth and strength goes on his way vigorous, majestic, and with a character all his own. He delights in the heroic measure, varying and alternating the rhymes at his pleasure; and in this versification he exhibits a singular breadth of scope, and pours forth a harmony grand, melancholy, and thrilling. Beautifully as he clothes his themes with the pathos and the lanes of poetry, they are yet the stern themes of real and of unhappy life. They are, as he tells us, and as we feel and know from our own experience, all drawn from actual knowledge. He finds his fellow-men oppressed by the false growth of society, and he boldly and vehemently lays bare their calamities. He draws things as they are, and with the pencil of a giant. The misery that springs out of the corn-laws, and other measures of monopoly and unjust legislation, he denounces and deplores with unceasing zeal. He assaults and wrestles with the monster growth of injustice with undying and unappeasable hatred, He limns England as it was, and as it is; and asks the aristocratic and the millocrat if they are not ashamed of their deeds? If they do not blush at their philosophy; if they do not recoil from these scenes of woe, and crime, and ferocity, that they have created?
In every form and disguise, injustice and inhumanity — "Man's inhumanity to man" that "Makes countless thousands mourn," are the monster serpents that he seeks to crush beneath his relentless heel, and to fling forth from the dwellings of men. In delineating the consequences of crime, Ebenezer Elliott has few equals for masterly command of language. Byron never recorded the agonies of sin and passion with more awful vigour, nor the woes of parting spirits with more absorbing pathos. In the Exile, where two lovers meet in America — in the days when our settlements there were called the plantations, and they were penal colonies, — the woman as a convict, and that through her lover's errors and desertion, nothing can be more vividly sketched than the mental sufferings of both parties, or finer than the scene where the unhappy woman dies in her lover's arms on a night of awful tempest.
Then with clasped hands, and fervent hearts dismayed,
That she might live for him, both mutely prayed.
But o'er their silence burst the heavy blast;
And, wrapped in darkness, the sky-torrent passed,
And down the giants of the forest dashed;
And pale as day the night with lightning flashed;
And through awed heaven, a peal that might have been
The funeral dirge of suns and systems crashed.
More dread, more near, the bright blue blaze was seen,
Peal following peal, with direr pause between.
On the wild light she turned her wilder eye,
And grasped his hands in dying agony,
Fast and still faster as the flash rushed by.
"Spare me!" she cried, "oh, thou destroying rod!
Hark! 'tis the voice of unforgiving God!
A mother murdered, and a sire in woe!
Alfred, the deed was mine! for thee, for thee,
I broke her heart, and turned his locks to snow.
Hark 'tis the roaring of the mighty sea!
Lo! how the mountain billows fall and rise!
And while their rage, beneath the howling night,
Lifts my boy's tresses to the wild moonlight,
Yet doth the wretch, the unwedded mother live,
Who for those poor unvalued locks would give
All save her hope to kiss them in the skies!
But see! he rises from his watery bed,
And at his guilty mother shakes his head!
There, dost thou see him, blue and shivering, stand,
And lift at thee his little threatening hand?
Oh, dreadful! — Hold me! — Catch me! — Die with me!—
Alas! that must not, and it should not be.
No — pray that both our sins may be forgiven;
Then come — and heaven will, will, indeed be heaven!"
Amongst the largest and best poems of Ebenezer Elliott, perhaps the Village Patriarch, the Splendid Village, and the Ranter, will always be the greatest favourites; not because they possess more passion or poetry than the vigorous drama of Bothwell and Kerhonah, but because they depict England as it has become in our day, and awaken our love for both country and people, while they make us weep for the desolation which aristocratic legislation has everywhere diffused. The Splendid Village, unlike the Deserted Village of Goldsmith, has not become released of its inhabitants by the change of times, but has become the scene of heartless wealth, of fine houses, where humble cottages stood, and of purse-proud cits and lawyers, who leave the workhouse, or the jail, as the only refuges of the once happy poor. The surly "Constable, publican and warrener," "Broad Jim the poacher," and in the Village Patriarch, the poor old Hannah Wray, whose cottage is unroofed by Mr. Ezra White, the farmer, and who is hanged for killing the savage with a stone, in the act, though it was really done by her half-sharp daughter, are sketches too sadly full of that lamentable life which has, of late years, distorted the fair rural face of England. They are things which cannot be too well pondered on by every man who desires the return of better days to this country: — But we turn for the present to the more attractive society of blind Enoch Wray.
In Enoch Wray, blind, and one hundred years old, Elliott has drawn one of those venerable village patriarchs, that every one can remember something of in his younger days. Men of hale and well developed powers, who, in a calm life, not devoid of its cares, yet leaving leisure for thought, have cherished the love of nature and the spirit of a pure wisdom in them, worthy of man's highest estate. Such men, who that has spent his youth in the country, has not known, and has not loved? Enoch Wray is one of these, old and blind, yet with a heart full as that of a child of the tenderness for nature, and the spirit of heaven. The author describes his strolls with him into the hills; and we will take our last extracts from these, because they are fine specimens of landscape painting, and show what a fresh charm the poet confers on his compositions, by the very names of the places he introduces. In this there is a striking difference between him and James Montgomery, Sheffield's other eminent poet, whose writings, beautiful as they are, and full as they are of the love of nature, might have been written anywhere. They do not localize themselves.
Come, father of the hamlet! grasp again
Thy stern ash plant, cut when the woods were young;
Come, let us leave the plough-subjected plain,
And rise with freshened hearts, and nerves restrung,
Into the azure dome, that proudly hung
O'er thoughtful power, ere suffering had begun.
Flowers peep, trees bud, boughs tremble, rivers run:
The redwing saith it is a glorious morn.
Blue are thy heavens, thou Highest! And thy sun
Shines without cloud, all fire. How sweetly borne
On wings of morning o'er the leafless thorn,
The tiny wren's small twitter warbles near!
How swiftly flashes in the stream the trout!
Woodbine! our father's ever-watchful ear
Knows by thy rustle that thy leaves are out.
The trailing bramble bath not yet a sprout;
Yet harshly to the wind the wanton prates,
Not with thy smooth lisp, woodbine of the fields!
Thou future treasure of the bee that waits
Gladly on thee, spring's harbinger! when yields
All bounteous earth her odorous flowers, and builds
The nightingale in beauty's fairest land.
The poet then enumerates the "five rivers, like the fingers of a hand," which so remarkably convene at Sheffield, and then gives one of the most characteristic features of Sheffield scenery, and a graphic notice of that extraordinary body of men, the Sheffield grinders, who perish early from the effects of their trade, yet pursue it with the most hardy indifference.
Beautiful rivers of the desert! ye
Bring food for labour from the fordless waste.
Pleased stops the wanderer on his way to see
The frequent weir oppose your heedless haste,
Where toils the mill by ancient woods embraced.
Hark, how the cold steel screams in hissing fire!
But Enoch sees the grinder's wheel no more.
Couched beneath rocks and forests, that admire
Their beauty in the waters, ere they roar
Dashed in white foam, the swift circumference o'er
There draws the grinder his laborious breath;
There, coughing, at his deadly trade he bends;
Born to die young, he fears nor man nor death;
Scorning the future, what he earns he spends:
Debauch and riot are his bosom friends.
He plays the Tory sultan-like and well:
Wo to the traitor that dares disobey
The Dey of Straps! as rattaned tools shall tell.
Full many a lawless freak by night, by day,
Illustrates gloriously his lawless sway.
Behold his failings! hath he virtues too?
He is no pauper, blackguard though he be.
Full well he knows what minds combined can do,
Full well maintains his birthright — he is free!
And, power for power, outstares monopoly!
Yet Abraham and Elliott, both in vain,
Bid science on his cheek prolong the bloom;
He will not live! he seems in haste to gain
The undisturbed asylum of the tomb,
And old at two and thirty, meets his doom!
Man of a hundred years, how unlike thee!
The Abraham and Elliott mentioned here were inventors of the Grinder's Preservative, which the grinders will not use! But of these strange men more anon.
The moors — all hail! ye changeless, ye sublime,
That seldom hear a voice save that of Heaven!
Scorners of chance, and fate, and death, and time,
But not of Him, whose viewless hand hath riven
The chasm through which the mountain stream is driven!
How like a prostrate giant — not in sleep,
But listening to his beating heart — ye lie!
With winds and clouds dread harmony ye keep,
Ye seem alone beneath the boundless sky:
Ye speak, are mute, and there is no reply.
Here all is sapphire light, and gloomy land,
Blue, brilliant sky, above a sable sea
Of hills like chaos, ere the first command,
"Let there be light!" bade light and beauty be....
Father! we stand upon the mountain stern,
That cannot feel our lightness, and disdains
Reptiles that sting and perish in their turn,
That hiss and die — and lo! no trace remains
Of all their joys, their triumphs, and their pains!
Yet to stand here might well exalt the mind;
These are not common moments, nor is this
A common scene. Hark, how the coming wind
Booms like the funeral dirge of wo, and bliss,
And life, and form, and mind, and all that is!
How like the wafture of a world-wide wing
It sounds and sinks, and all is hushed again!
But are our spirits humbled? No; we string
The lyre of death with mystery and pain,
And proudly hear the dreadful notes complain
That man is not the whirlwind, but the leaf,
Torn from the tree, to soar and disappear.
Grand is our weakness, and sublime our grief.
Lo! on this rock I shake off hope and fear,
And stand released from clay! — yet am I here,
And at my side are blindness, age, and wo.
Would any one imagine, after reading the poetry of Ebenezer Elliott, that that poetry could ever have found difficulty in struggling to the light of day? With our host of acute and infallible critics, would one think it possible that this noble poetry should not have been immediately discovered, and made universal in its acceptation? But what was the fact? For twenty years the poet went on writing and publishing, but in vain. Volume after volume, his productions fell dead from the press, or were treated with a passing sneer, or were "damned with faint praise." But living consciousness of genius was not to be extinguished, the undaunted spirit of Elliott was not to be frozen out by neglect. He wrote, he appealed to sense and justice — it was in vain. He became furious, and hurled a flaming satire at Lord Byron in the height of his popularity, in the hope that the noble poet would give him a returning blow, and thus draw attention upon him. It was in vain, neither lord nor public would deign him a look, and the case seemed desperate. But it was not so. Chance did what merit itself could not do. Chance led Dr. Bowring to Sheffield, and there some one put into his hands The Corn-Law Rhymes, and The Ranter. At once Bowring, a poet himself, recognised the singular merit of the compositions, printed as they were in four pamphlet sheets, on very ordinary paper. With his usual zeal, he began to talk everywhere of the wonderful poet of Sheffield, not Montgomery, but a new name. He talked thus at my house, and I instantly procured them. Wordsworth happened to be my guest at the time. He was as much struck with the wonderful power of these compositions as ourselves, and I begged him to convey them at once to Southey. He did so, and the laureate immediately gave a notice of them in the Quarterly, in an article on what he called, Uneducated Poets. But in the mean time, Dr. Bowring went on to London, and there continued talking of the Corn Law Rhymer, till falling in with Bulwer at a party, he showed those long-neglected poems to him, and the thing was done. Bulwer wrote an out-speaking article in the New Monthly Magazine, which told like the match put to the long-laid train. Wordsworth, on his way home, had made the poems known to Miss Jewsbury, at Manchester, and she gave a nearly simultaneous notice in the Athenaeum. At such decided and generous verdicts in such quarters, the scales fell from the eyes of the whole critic tribe — all cuckoo-land was loud with one note; and the poet, who had been thundering at every critical door in the kingdom in vain, now saw the gates of the land of glory at once expand, and was led in by a hundred officious hands, as if he were a new-born bard, and not of twenty years' growth.
Such a history awakes involuntarily some curious reflections. If Elliott had chanced to die before Bowring had chanced to visit Sheffield — what then? Where would now be the fame of the Corn Law Rhymer? I know that there is a very favourite doctrine in many mouths, that true genius is sure, sooner or later, to find its way — that it cannot be destroyed, and is never lost. This may be very consolatory doctrine for those who have wielded a merciless pen, and are visited by compunctions of remorse; but it is just as true as that untimely frosts never cut down buds and flowers, or that swords and cannons will not kill honest men, or that a really beautiful scene may not be ravaged and laid waste by bears or swine. If there be one thing that murders early genius, it is the bludgeon of critical unkindness; if there be one thing that gives life and spirit, it is encouragement. Kindness! encouragement! they are the sunshine of the mind, as necessary as the sunshine of heaven for the unfolding of earth's flowers and the ripening of earth's fruits. How many a bright soul has sunk in the frosty valleys of neglect; how many have shrunk hopelessly from the vile sneer of scorn; how many that have survived have reached only a partial development of their strength and beauty; being crippled in their youth by the blows of private malice, or enfeebled by the want of the cordial ailment of acknowledged merit. Honour then to the few sturdy souls that contempt has not been able to subdue! To those who have returned kick for kick to the insolent opposers of their progress; who have been able to keep alive self-respect in their souls, through a long dark career of frowns, and jeers, and cuffs, as the due award of a spiritual pauperism. Honour to those brave souls — they are the few victorious survivors in the great battle of fame, where thousands have fallen by butcher hands. The endurance of harsh treatment is no proof of genius — it is only a proof of a certain amount of power of resistance; but it is a lucky thing for the world that genius and endurance sometimes lodge in the same bosom. Byron knocked down his deriders on the spot; Elliott, like Wellington at Waterloo, stood out a whole long day of pitiless contest, and triumphed at the last.
And it was not a single fight only that he had to maintain. He waged a double contest against fortune — for life as well as for fame; and in both, with desperate odds against him, he came off victorious. Ebenezer Elliott is certainly one of the greatest "Curiosities of Literature." He has not only proved himself a poet in spite of twenty years of most dogged deafness to his claims, but a poet that has set fortune as well as the critics at defiance, and has at once won fame and wealth. I believe that on his settling in Sheffield he possessed nothing but a wife and three or four children, but he has managed to retire from trade with some eight or ten children, and a good round sum of thousands of pounds. He has bravely scorned all
The perils that environ
The man who meddles with cold iron;
and has set a glorious example to future genius — to rely on its own intimations, and not on reviews; to assert the rights of mind, and yet not to neglect business. In him stands a living proof that poetry and worldly prosperity can go hand in hand.
By his own statement to me, it appears that he was born the 17th of March, 1781, being one of eight children. His father was a commercial clerk in the iron works at Masborough, near Rotherham, with a salary of £70 a year, "and consequently," says he, "a rich man in those days."
There is no complete biography of Mr. Elliott published, nor ever written. There is one in manuscript written by himself, but only up to a certain period. Beyond that he has not been able to proceed, and has expressed doubts whether he ever shall. It no doubt relates to some crisis in his life, that from his desperate conflict with circumstances is recollected only with a horror that disables his pen; the bottom of that Jordan of affliction through which he passed, that he might become the interpreter of the sons of suffering. At the very memory of this stern baptism, that Herculean resolution which bore him through it falters; it is to be hoped, for the sake of posterity, one day, however, to collect itself again into a great effort, and to add another autobiography full of life's great lessons to those of Franklin and William Hutton. From a notice in a periodical some years ago, and which I believe from good authority to be correct, I extract the few particulars that are related of his early life.
"Ebenezer Elliott, 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. His good-nature made him rather a favourite in his childhood with servant girls, nurses, and old women. One of the latter was a particular favourite with him — Nanny Farr, who kept the York Keelman public-house, near the foundry at Masborough, where he was born. She was a walking magazine of old English prejudices and superstitions; — to her he owes his fondness for ghost stories. When he was about ten years old, he fell in love with a young girl, now Mrs. Woodcock of Munsber, near Greasborough, to whom he never to this day spoke one word. She then lived with her father, Mr. Ridgeway, a butcher and publican, close to the bridge on the Masborough side of the river Don. Such was his sensitiveness, that if he happened to see her as she passed, and especially if she happened to look at him, — which he now believes she never did, — he was suddenly deprived almost of the power of moving.
"His unconquerable dulness was improved into absolute stupidity by the help he received from an uncommonly clever boy, called John Ross, who did him his sums. He got into the rule of three without having learned numeration, addition, subtraction, and division. Old Joseph Ramsbotham seemed quite convinced, gave him up in despair, and at rule of three the bard jumped all at once to decimals, where he stuck. At this time he was examined by his father, who discovered that the boy scarcely knew that two and one are three. He was then 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. Now it happened that nature, in her vagaries, had given him a brother called Giles, of whom it will be said by any person who knew him, that never was there a young person of quicker or brighter talents; there was nothing that he could not learn, but the praise he received ruined him in the end. His superiority produced no envy in Ebenezer, who almost worshipped him. The only effect it produced on him was a sad sense of humiliation, and confirmed conviction that himself was an incurable dunce. The sense of his deficiencies oppressed him, and in private he wept bitterly. When he saw Giles seated in the counting-house, writing invoices, or posting the ledger; or when he came dirty out of the foundry, and saw him showing his drawings, or reading aloud to the circle, whose plaudits seemed to have no end, — his resource was solitude, of which from his infancy he was fond. He would go and fly his kite, always alone, and he was the best kite-maker of the place; or he would saunter along the canal bank, swimming his ships, or anchoring them before his fortresses — and he was a good shipbuilder.
"His sadness increased; — he could not post books, — he could not write invoices, — he could not learn to do what almost everybody could learn, namely, to do a sum in single division; yet, by this time he had discovered that he could do 'men's work,' for he could make a frying-pan. It ought to be observed here, that the assistance he received from John Ross accompanied him, like his double, to every school to which his parents, in their despair, had sent him; and they sent him to two, besides Mr. Ramsbotham's. When it was found that he could not do decimals, he was put back to the rule of three, and then pronounced incurable. Labour, however, and the honour paid to his brother, at length made him try one effort more. He had an aunt at Masborough, one of whose sons was studying botany. He was buying, in monthly numbers, a book called Sowerby's English Botany, with beautiful coloured plates. They filled him with delight; and she showed him that by holding the plates before a pane of glass, he might take exact sketches of them. Dunce though he was, he found he could draw, and with such ease, that he almost thought he was a magician. He became a botanist, or rather, a hunter of flowers; but, like his cousin Ben, though not Greek-learned like him, he too had his Hortus Siccus. He does 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 described a certain flock of sheep running away after they were killed by lightning. Now this came to pass because the rhyme would have it so. His critic, cousin Ben the learned, though the bard most imploringly told him how the miracle happened, nevertheless exercised the critic's privilege, and ridiculed him without mercy. Never will he forget that infliction. His second favourite author was Shenstone, whose translations of passages from the classics, prefixed to his elegies, produced an effect on his mind and heart which death only can obliterate. His next favourite was Milton, who slowly gave way to Shakspeare. He can trace all his literary propensities to physical causes. His mind, he says, is altogether the mind of his own eyes. A primrose is to him a primrose, and nothing more; for Solomon in his glory was not more delicately arrayed. There is not a good passage in his writing, which he cannot trace to some real occurrence, or to some object actually before his eyes, or to some passage in some other author. He has the power, he says, of making the thoughts of other men breed; and he is fond of pointing out four or five passages in his poems, all stolen from one passage in Cowper's Homer. We will give the original, and one of the imitations. He made the thought his own, he says, by substituting the word 'hymn' for the word 'trumpet;' and the imitation will show his power of making other men's thoughts breed; they describe poetically and philosophically the reflection of light from the heavenly bodies:—
The earth beneath them trembled, and the heavens
Sang them together with a trumpet's voice.
Oh, Light, that cheer'st all worlds, from sky to sky,
As with a hymn to which the stars reply.
When he became a poet, he became also more and more ashamed of his deficiencies. He actually tried to learn French, and could with ease get his lesson, but could never remember it an hour. Nor could he ever write correctly till he met with Murray's Grammar, which he learned at the wrong end, namely, the Key, — and never reached the beginning. To this day he does not thoroughly know a single rule of grammar; yet, by thinking, he can detect any grammatical errors. If he errs, it is in the application of words derived from the Latin or Greek, which, although he has a strong propensity to use them, he now avoids, unless they are very melodious, or harmonize with his Saxon, and seldom without consulting his dictionary, that he may guess at their meaning. He has more than once shown his fondness for learned words by begging Latin and Greek quotations, for his prefaces and notes, of the writer of this article. But his propensity to use fine words will be still better elucidated by the following anecdote, of the truth of which the reader may be assured. Having written a sonorous poem in blank verse, on the American Revolution, he wished for a learned title. He wished to call it 'Liberty,' so his learned cousin baptized it in Greek by the name of 'Eleutheria;' but the bard having found out that Eleutheria also signifies fire, humbled himself to Latin, expunged the Greek, and wrote in place of it, 'Jus Triumphans.' He then read Johnson's Dictionary through, and selected several dozen words — fifty-three, we believe — of six or seven syllables, which he wrote on slips of paper, and pasted over his verses where they would occur and read grammatically! In this state the manuscript was sent to Whitbread, the brewer, who returned it with a flourishing compliment; and, if it be in existence, certainly it is a curiosity that a bibliographer would place in his cabinet.
"One of Mr. Elliott's early companions was a youth of cultivated mind, with whom he read much, and conversed more, Joseph Ramsbotham, the son of his schoolmaster, who was educated for the ministry. This excellent young man, who died too soon, used to recite Greek to him; and the poet, without knowing anything of that language, was so delighted with the music of Homer, that he committed to memory the introductory lines of the Iliad, and could repeat them when the writer of this article first became acquainted with him. In the opening of his poem, Withered Wild Flowers, Elliott pays a tribute to these two excellent men, father and son.
"Mr. Elliott's memory is very retentive, and he does not easily forget what he has once learned. Translations have made him familiar with the classic poets of Greece and Rome. Amongst the tragedians, Aeschylus is his favourite; whom he admires as the most original and sublime of the Athenian dramatic writers. His reading is extensive, and it has not been confined to poetry. History and political economy seem to have been his favourite studies; the latter has inspired some of his most admired productions. He writes prose as well as verse, and the style of some of his Letters on the Corn Laws has the condensed fire and energy of Junius; less polished, indeed, but equally pointed and severe. In conversation he is rapid and short; his sentences, when he is animated by the subject on which he is speaking, have all the force and brevity of Spartan oratory; they are words of flame; and in his predictions of calamity and woe — as, in his opinion, a necessary consequence of adhering to the present system of politics — it may be truly said, in his own language, 'his gloom is fire.' in argument every muscle of his countenance is eloquent; and when his cold blue eye is fired with indignation, it resembles a wintry sky flashing with lightning; his dark bushy brows writhing above it like the thunder-cloud torn by the tempest. You see at once, in his strongly-marked features, how much he has suffered; like Dante, he looks as if he had gone through his own hell! His voice, when reading his own verses — and no man can give them so much effect — is the most melancholy music that ever was heard; and his whole manner, expression, and appearance, irresistibly impress you with the conviction that he has dwelt with disappointment, and too long experienced the sickness of the heart which arises from 'hope deferred.' This is the fact. In his mercantile pursuits he has not always been fortunate; and his literary career, till lately, was unattended with one cheering circumstance. He has endured cold neglect for years, and had to struggle with difficulties of every kind. The firm and proud spirit which he manifested in contending with these, hurling back unmerited censure with scorn, and relying fully on his own powers for final success, is, next to his works, the strongest proof of his possessing intellectual superiority, however much it may indicate a want of the milder graces of the Christian character. His was not the weak spirit that sinks under misfortunes; his strong and powerful genius rose above them. He boldly grasped and eventually strangled the serpents that have stung so many others to death. Timid in his youth, as the modest flower that hides its beauty from all the world in some rural retirement, he was no sooner trampled upon than he became bold; and when storms roared around his head, he stood in the midst of them like the gnarled oak, battling with tempests, and laughing at their impotent rage. To whomsoever else adversity has been fatal, to him it was of essential service: it called forth his powers, it roused him to the contest, it strengthened him for victory. Where thousands would have despaired, he held up with undaunted resolution; and he has, at length, surmounted every obstacle that opposed his rising. His triumph is a glorious proof of what mind can effect, and we hail and exhibit it as a great moral lesson to the world."
Little as is the amount of biography contained in these passages I have quoted, I presume that it is all that we are to expect during the poet's life. It will be sufficient to add that, having thus triumphed over all resistance, both literary and mercantile, Mr. Elliott has now retired from business, to enjoy the calm evening of his days in the country. We will anon follow him to his retreat; but first we must pay a visit to his haunts in and around Sheffield, where the greater portion of his life has been spent, and where his poetry has left its stamp on a thousand objects.
They who class Ebenezer Elliott with poets of the working class, or look upon him as a poor man, are amazingly mistaken. It is true that he commenced life as a working man. That he came to Sheffield, under the circumstances already related, and, as I have heard, some hundred and fifty pounds worse than nothing; and, after suffering and enduring much like a man of iron, he struck into the right track; and, such was the prosperity of the town and trade of Sheffield, that he says he used to sit in his chair, and make his twenty pounds a-day, without even seeing the goods that he sold; for they came to the wharf, and were sold again thence, without ever coming into his warehouse or under his eye. The Corn Laws, he says, altered all this, and made him glad to get out of business with part of what he had got; the great panic and revulsion of 1837, sweeping away some three or four thousands at once. The trade in which Ebenezer Elliott made his money at Sheffield, was that of a bar-iron merchant. He first began this business in Burgess-street. The house is pointed out at the right-hand corner, at the top as you go up. Here prosperity first visited him, and the place becoming too small for his growing concerns, he removed his warehouse to Gibraltar-street, Shalesmoor; and took or built quite a handsome villa, in a garden of an acre in extent, inclosed with a high stone wall. This pleasant retirement was in the pleasant suburb of Upper Thorpe; whence, by a footpath over the hills at the back of the house, he could soon mount and see all Sheffield smoking at his feet, and then dive down at the back of the hills into his favourite haunt, the valley of the Rivelin.
Before, however, following the poet into these haunts, we will make a call at his place of business. Gibraltar-street, Shalesmoor, I found in the lower part of the town, almost every place thereabout bearing the old name of moor, although no trace of a moor could there be seen, but, on the contrary, crowded houses, reeking chimneys, and the swarming of human beings. Here I soon caught sight of a lowish, humblish sort of building, with "ELLIOTT AND Co.'s IRON AND STEEL WAREHOUSE," painted in large letters along the front. This was the place where the Corn-Law Rhymer had at once pursued trade and poetry, with equal success. The business is now in the hands of two of his sons. On entering the front door, which, however, you are prevented doing, till a little iron gate in the doorway is first opened for you, you find yourself in a dingy place, full of bars of steel and iron, of all sorts and sizes, from slenderest rods to good massy bars, reared on almost every inch of space, so that there is but just room to get amongst them; and, in the midst of all, stands aloft a large cast of Shakspeare, with the Sir Walter Raleigh ruff round his neck, and moustaches. Your eye, glancing forwards, penetrates a large warehouse behind, of the like iron gloom and occupation. On the left hand is a smallish room, into which you directly look, for the door is open, if door there be, and which is, properly, the counting-house, but is nearly as crowded with iron bars all round as the rest.
The son of Mr. Elliott, whom I found there, showed me the place with great good-nature, and seeing me look into this room, he said, "Walk in, Sir; that is the Corn-Law Rhymer's study; that is where my father wrote most of his poetry." We may safely assert that there is no other such poetical study in England, if there be in the world.
The centre of the room is occupied by a considerable office-desk, which, to judge from its appearance, has for many a year known no occupation but that of being piled with the most miscellaneous chaos of account-books, invoices, bills, memorandum-books, and the like, all buried in the dust of the iron age through which they have accumulated. To be used as a desk appears to have ceased long ago; it is the supporter of old chaos come again; and a couple of portable desks, set on the counter under the window, though elbowed up by lots of dusty iron, and looked down upon by Achilles and Ajax in wonder, seem to serve the real purposes of desks.
But Achilles and Ajax, says some one, what do they here? All round the room stand piles of bars of iron, and amid these stand, oddly enough, three great plaster casts of Achilles, Ajax, and Napoleon. The two Grecian heroes are in the front, on each side of the window, and Napoleon occupies an elevated post in the centre of the side of the room, facing the door. Such was at once the study and the warehouse of Ebenezer Elliott!
Surely, never were poetry and pence united together in such a scene before! You may imagine Robert Bloomfield stitching away at ladies' shoes, and tagging rhymes at the same time, in great peace and bodily comfort; being a journeyman for a long time, and when he had got his work from his master, being liable to very little interruption. You may imagine him thumping away on his last in poetic ardour, and in the midst of his enthusiasm hammering out a superior piece of soling leather and a triumphant verse at the same instant; but imagine Ebenezer Elliott, in the midst of all this iron wilderness, in the midst of bustling and clanging Sheffield, and the constant demands of little cutlers and the like — for constant they must have been for him to accumulate a fair fortune out of nothing, — imagine him in the midst of all this confusion of dusty materials, and the demands of customers, and the din and jar of iron rods and bars, as they were dragged out of their stations for examination and sale, and were flung into the scales to be weighed; imagine this, and that the man achieved a fortune and a fame at the same time — weighed out iron and ideas — took in gold and glory — cursed corn-laws, and blessed God, and man, and nature; established a large family, two sons as clergymen of the Church of England — three in trade — two of them his successors in steel, though not in stanzas, in iron, though not in irony; and then retired to his own purchased land, built his house on a hill top, and looked down on the world in philosophical ease, at little more than sixty years of age; and you may look a good while for a similar man and history.
Quitting this singular retreat of the Muses, under the guidance of my worthy friend Mr. John Fowler, an old friend of the poet's, I proceeded to visit the Rhymer's haunts in the country round. And first we ascended the hills to the east of the town, above Pittsmoor and Shirecliffe hall, to the place where Elliott makes his most interesting field-preacher, Miles Gordon, the Ranter, go to his last Sabbath service of the open air. As we went, all the beautiful imagery of that exquisitely pathetic poem came before me. The opening of the poem breathing such a feeling of Sabbath rest to the weary, such a feeling of the actual life of the pious poor in the manufacturing towns.
Miles Gordon sleeps; his six days' labour done,
He dreams of Sunday, verdant fields, and prayer.
Arise, blest morn, unclouded! Let thy sun
Shine on the artizan, thy purest air
Breathe on the bread-taxed labourer's deep despair!
Poor sons of toil! I grudge them not the breeze
That plays with Sabbath flowers, the clouds that play
With Sabbath winds, the hum of Sabbath bees,
The Sabbath walk, the skylark's Sabbath lay,
The silent sunshine of the Sabbath day.
The stars wax pale, the morn is cold and dim;
Miles Gordon wakes, and grey dawn tints the skies:
The many-childed widow, who to him
Is as a mother, hears her lodger rise,
And listens to his prayer with swimming eyes.
For her and for her orphan poor he prays,
For all who can the bread they daily eat;—
Bless them, O God, with useful, happy days,
With hearts that scorn all meanness and deceit:
And round their lowly hearths let freemen meet!
This morn betimes she hastes to leave her bed,
For he must preach beneath the autumnal tree:
She lights her fire, and soon the board is spread
With Sabbath coffee, toast, and cups for three.
Pale he descends; again she starts to see
His hollow check, and feels they soon must part
But they shall meet again — that hops is sure;
And oh! she venerates his mind and heart,
For he is pure, if mortal o'er was pure!
His words, his silence, teach her to endure.
And then be helps to feed her orphans five!
O God! thy judgments cruel seem to be!
While bad men linger long, and cursing thrive,
The good, like wintry sunbeams, fade and flee—
That we may follow them, and come to thee.
That lovely passage, where the widow wakes her eldest son, who wishes to accompany the preacher, one of the most beautiful things in poetry, recurred with fresh vividness:—
Like sculpture, or like death, serene he lies;
But no, that tear is not a marble tear!
He names in sleep his father's injuries;
And now in silence wears a smile severe.
How like his sire he looks, when drawing near
His journey's close, and that fair form bent o'er
His darkening cheek, still faintly tinged with red,
And fondly gazed, — too soon to gaze no more!—
While the long tresses o'er the seeming dead
Streamed in their black profusion from the head
Of matron loveliness — more touchingly,
More sadly beautiful, and pale, and still—
A shape of half-divine humanity,
Worthy of Chantry's steel, or Milton's quill,
Or heaven-taught Raphael's soul-expressing skill!
And must she wake that poor o'erlaboured youth?
Oh yes, or Edmund will his mother chide;
For he this morn would bear the words of truth
From lips inspired on Shorecliffe's lofty side,
Gazing o'er tree and tower on Hallam wide.
I seemed then to hear the trumpet-voice of the poet exclaiming:—
Up, sluggards, up! the mountains, one by one,
Ascend in light, and slow the mists retire
From vale and plain. The cloud on Stannington
Beholds a rocket — no! 'tis Morthen spire!
The sun is risen cries Stanedge, tipped with fire:
On Norwood's flowers the dew-drops shine and shake;
Up, sluggards, up and drink the morning breeze.
The buds on cloud-left Osgathorpe awake;
And Wincobank is waving all his trees
O'er subject towns, and farms, and villages,
And gleaming streams, and woods, and waterfalls.
Up! climb the oak-crowned summit! Hoober Stand
And Keppel's Pillar gaze on Wentworth's halls,
And misty lakes, that brighten and expand,
And distant hills that watch the western strand.
Up! trace God's footprints where they paint the mould
With heavenly green, and lines that blush and glow
Like angel's wings; while skies of blue and gold
Stoop to Miles Gordon on the mountain's brow.
Behold the Great Unpaid! the prophet lo!
Sublime he stands beneath the Gospel-tree,
And Edmund stands on Shirecliffe at his side.
This striking scene is on the ridge of the hill, about the highest point, and the gospel-tree is an ash-tree standing there. From this point, the view all round the country is most extensive. The poet has finely described it:—
Behind him sinks, and swells, and spreads a sea
Of hills, and vales, and groves: before him glide
Don, Rivelin, Loxley, wandering in their pride,
From heights that mix their azure with the cloud;
Beneath his spire and grove are glittering;
And round him press his flock, a wo-worn crowd.
To other words, while forest echoes ring—
"Ye banks and braes of bonny Doon," they sing;
And far below, the drover, with a start
Awakening, listens to the well-known strain,
Which brings Shihallian's shadow to his heart,
And Scotia's loneliest vales; then sleeps again,
And dreams on Lockley's banks of Dunsinane.
The hymn they sing is to their preacher dear:
It breathes of hopes and glories grand and vast:
While on his face they look with grief and fear;
Full well they know his sands are ebbing fast:
But hark! he speaks, and feels he speaks his last!
Such was the view to the eye of the poet; to that of the stranger, there are features in it that give it a peculiar picturesqueness. Below you, the town of Sheffield, on one hand, partly stretching along the valley of the Don, partly stretching upwards towards the Mount; its various churches, and its multitude of tall engine chimneys, rearing themselves above the mass of houses, as poplars ascend above the rest of the wood; and from these chimneys, and from innumerable shops and forges, volumes of smoke and steam poured forth in clouds over the whole wilderness of brick, and with the distant sounds of forge hammers, and roar of the forge bellows and fires, give you a lively feeling of the stir of industry. In the other direction, you look into far-off plains, over many a distant ridge, and upon fine and broad masses of wood dotting the bold hills. Wincobank and Keppel's column in the more remote woods of Wentworth, and church spires at vast distances, attest the truth of the poet's lines; and in a third direction, you look down into the converging valleys of the Don, the Loxley, and the Rivelin, running between high, wide-lying, and round hills, on which the whole country is mapped out as in many parts of Lancashire, or the Peak. With their very green fields, scattered, thinly scattered trees, with clumps of copse, or a long range of black fir wood here and there; their grey, flag-roofed houses, and a good portion of stone walls, the similarity is striking. From the valleys, full of woods, shine out winding waters, and peep forth tall chimneys, and roll up volumes of smoke, betraying the busy life of industry where all looks, from the distance, wooded silence; while some manufacturer's great stone house stands amid its flourishing woods and fronting open lawns, in stately solemnity of cutler-aristocracy.
On the topmost centre of this unique scene, has Elliott fixed his Ranter on the Sunday morning; and on the piece, of tableland fenced in with woods, over whose heads you still for the most part look, has congregated his flock, gathered from the cottages of the neighbouring hamlets, and the smoky wilderness of the great city of knives and hammers below. The tree stands now in the line of a stone wall, and upon a little precipice of sandstone, four or five feet high, so that it would really be — as it no doubt has been, for Elliott, as he tells us, draws from the life — a capital position for a preacher. Into the tree Elliott has driven a nail, about four feet from the ground, so that any of his friends who visit the spot can at once identify it. He advises you to climb to the top of the tree, on account of the splendid uninterrupted view, an exploit not likely to be very often performed, and which yet has been done more than once, and was done by poor Charles Pemberton, the Miles Gordon of social improvement.
Close by, on the hill, two or three men were working in a stone "quarrel," as they called it, where huge blocks of freestone seemed to have been dug for many and many a year. I asked them why people visited this tree. They said they could not conceive, except "it was for th' view." I asked them if they never heard that Thomas a Becket preached under it in Henry VIII.'s time; at which they set up a perfect shriek of delight at the joke. A Sheffield quarrel man is not to be mystified like a Jerry Chopstick.
Our next visit was to the valley of the Rivelin, so often named in Elliott's poetry. The Rivelin is one of the five rivers that run from the moorland hills and join near Sheffield; and the scenery is very peculiar, from the singular features which art and trade have added to those of nature. The river is one of those streams that show their mountain origin by their rapid flow over their rugged beds, scattered with masses of stone. It has a tinge of the peat-moss, and is overhung by woods and alternate steep banks of sandstone rock, clothed with the bilberry-plant. But what gives to a stranger the most striking character, are the forges and grinding-wheels, as they call them, scattered along them. Formerly these stood chiefly out amongst the neighbouring hills, being turned by the streams that descend from them, and you still find them in all the neighbouring valleys, the rivulets and rivers which run along them being dammed up into a chain of ponds, which give a peculiar character to the scene. These ponds look dark brown, as from the rust of iron, which is ground off with the water, and are generally flanked by dark alders, or are overhung by the woods which clothe the side of the valleys: and you now come to a forge where the blast roars, and the flame glances out from the sooty chimney-tops, and the hammers resound and tinkle in various cadences from within; and now to low mill-like buildings, with huge wheels revolving between two of them, or beside one of them; and these are the grinding-mills, or wheels, as they are termed. Formerly, they were all turned by those streams, which are conveyed in channels cut for them, and spouts, and let fall on those great wheels; but now, steam is applied, as to everything else; and large grinding-wheels, as they are still called, that is, mills, meet you along all the lower parts of the town, as they still require a good supply of water for their engines and for their wet-grinding, that is, to keep their grind-stones wet for some particular articles. Owing to this introduction of steam, as you advance farther up amongst the moorland hills and streamlets, you find the old and picturesque grinding-wheels falling to decay. Such is the scenery of Rivelin. Far up, solitude and falling wheels give a pleasing melancholy to the scene; but as you return nearer to Sheffield, you see the huge hammers of forges put in motion by stream or steam, thumping away at the heated bars of iron, while water is kept trickling upon their great handles to keep them cool.
The external appearance of the great steam grinding-wheels in the town is very singular. Amid the other swarthy buildings these look tawny with sand, which has flown out through the numerous windows, and coated the whole of the walls, and even roof; and the windows, which are often, I believe, of paper, are broken in, just as if the mills had been stormed by a mob.
No person who has read Elliott's description of the reckless race of grinders, or the account of them in the Report of the Commissioners to inquire, in 1841, into the condition of the people in mines and factories, can see these places without a lively interest. At this deadly trade the workmen sit at work astride of rounded blocks of wood, which they call grinding-horses, in front of their grindstones, which are fixed on axles or spindles turned by the steam or water; and fixing the knife, or other steel article, in a sort of case which covers the upper side of it, and enables them to grind it more regularly as it cannot give way unequally, — they make the most brilliant posies of sparks stream from them at every pressure on the stone. Others polish the articles ground, by holding them to the edges of small wooden wheels covered with leather.
Grinders never live long; but the dry grinders perish soonest, because the particles of sandstone are driven in whole clouds from the grindstones, and fill the whole air and the grinder's lungs. Five minutes in a dry-grinding room is quite sufficient to satisfy you of its nature and effects. We have seen Ebenezer Elliott's character of the grinder:—
There draws the grinder his laborious breath,
There coughing at his deadly trade he bends;
Born to die young, he fears nor man nor death;
Scorning the future, what he earns he spends;
Debauch and riot are his bosom friends.
The Commissioners state, on the authority of Dr. Knight of Sheffield, that a dozen years ago the number of grinders was 2500; the life of a wet grinder seldom reached forty-five years; that of the dry grinder not more than thirty-five. The number is now larger, and the average of life, according to other evidence, is shorter. Table-knife grinders work on wet stones, and are the longer lived; the fork-grinders work on dry stones, and are the short-lived ones. Children are put to this fatal trade at fourteen years old usually, but to some lighter branches as early as eight or nine years of age. They who have good constitutions seldom experience much inconvenience till they are about twenty years old, when the symptoms of their peculiar complaint begin to show themselves. They are affected with a terrible species of asthma, followed by a train of physical sufferings, which drag them piecemeal to the grave. Flues to carry off the dust have been introduced into the wheels, but the men refuse to use them, and often kick them down and tread upon them. They get high wages, and think that if the trade were made innoxious, there would be more to enter it, and prices would fall. They are for a short life and a merry one. Those who drink most are often the longest lived, owing to their more frequent absence from their work. The doctors often say to those who come to consult them, "Now, if you go back to this trade you go back to die;" but this never had the effect of deterring them from going back, nor from apprenticing their children to the same fatal trade.
Inquiring in Sheffield where Ebenezer Elliott now resided, I was told by five different persons five different places. One said it was near Rotherham, another near Barnsley, another near Tickhill, another near Wakefield, and another near Pontefract. It turned out to be near Darfield, on the railroad between Rotherham and Wakefield. Getting out at the Darfield station, I found that I had a pleasant walk of three miles to his house, at some distance beyond the village of Great Houghton. The country is very different to that about Sheffield, in which Elliott seems to have taken such great delight. It is a fine farming country. The lanes have all a foot causeway of one row of stones, like those of Derbyshire; and, like it, the fields are rich with grass, and corn, and hedge-row trees. The village of Houghton, the only one that I saw, is a regular old farming village, with one large old stone hall standing, about a hundred yards from the road, and falling evidently to decay, while the great stone wall which separates its grounds from the road, massy as it is, is equally dilapidated. Elliott's house, which he has built, is a good stone house in the style of the country, with a flag roof, and is fit for gentleman or farmer. It occupies the top of a hill on the edge of a common. It has a good garden lying round it; the views from it are fine and very extensive, including distant towns and villages, and here and there a great mass of wood. There is a fine airiness about the situation; but the prospect of suitable society is not so easy to be perceived. One naturally connects the idea of Ebenezer Elliott and the brisk movements of a populous town; but he complains that the constant political excitements of a town had wearied him, and gave too much interruption to his literary enjoyments. Here certainly he has withdrawn to complete leisure for books and the country; and yet, if he need the intercourse with towns, the various railroads put half a dozen within the speediest access. He says that time, instead of hanging heavily, never went so fast with him.
I found Ebenezer Elliott standing at his porch, with his huge Newfoundland dog beside him. I merely introduced myself as an admirer of his poetry, who had a desire in passing to pay my respects to him. He gave me a very cordial welcome. We entered his room, and were soon deep in conversation. And we were soon, too, high in conversation; for our talk, amongst other things, turning on a certain class of society, I happened to say that, "spite of all their faults as a class, many of them, as individuals, were very amiable people." This was a little too much for him. The latent fire of the Corn Law Rhymer blazed up; he started from his chair, and pacing to and fro with his hands at his back, exclaimed, "Amiable men! amiable robbers! thieves! and murderers! Sir! I do not like to hear thieves, robbers, and murderers, called amiable men! Amiable men indeed! Who are they that have ruined trade, made bread dear, made murder wholesale, put poverty into prison, and made crimes of ignorance and misery? Sir! I do not like to hear such terms used for such men!"
I laughed, and said, "Well, Mr. Elliott, you and I shall certainly not quarrel about any such people; and I ought not to sit talking thus as a perfect stranger — it creates a false position and false conclusions." I then mentioned my name. He sprang across the room, caught hold of my offered hand with both his, gave it a great shake, and then hastened out to call Mrs. Elliott. Very soon Mrs. Elliott and a daughter appeared, and we were speedily afloat on an ocean of talk. When people of the same tastes meet for the first time, and especially on a rainy day in the country, what a multitude of themes present themselves! Books, people, poetry, mesmerism, and heaven knows what, leave not room for silence to show his little finger in. Mrs. Elliott, a tall, good-looking woman, I soon found as lady-like, sensible, and well-informed as any poet could desire for his companion. Miss Elliott, a fine-grown and comely, but very modest young lady, was the only one who did not act the part rather of talker than listener. For six hours, the time I stayed, it was one long uninterrupted talk. The hearty host declared that I should not leave for a week; but England, Scotland, and Ireland lay before me, and only a limited time to traverse a good deal of them in. Yet what greater pleasure could one command it, than a week with such a man — far from the tone and spirit of coteries, in the heart of fresh and pure nature, with books, and woods, and flowery fields fanned by the purest breezes, to wander through, and compare the impressions of men and things, of great thoughts, great deeds, and great projects for the good of society, as they come before you unbiassed and uncoloured by the world as it shows its protean shapes in cities — in the refined sneer, the jealous thought, the weary indifference of over stimulated tastes? Were I at liberty to pen down the dialogue of that one afternoon, in all its freedom of remark, it would make the brightest but most startling chapter of these volumes. But that cannot be, and I must add nothing more to this article than simply to say, that in a strange place I should never have recognised Ebenezer Elliott by his portrait. There is no good one of him. He is somewhat above the middle height. He is sixty-five, but not old-looking for his years. His hair is white, and his manner and tone, except when excited by those topics that rouse his indignation against cruelty and oppression, mild, soft, and full of feeling. Perhaps no man's spirit and presence are so entirely the spirit and presence of his poetry. Unlike many who could be named, who, drilled from youth into the spirit and tone of the gay circles that they frequent, present that spirit and tone there, and reserve the spirit and tone of the poet for the closet — men of two worlds, in the world of the world, in the closet of the world of mind — Ebenezer Elliott has conversed too much with nature, and with men in their rough unsophisticated nature, to have merged one jot of his earnestness into conventionalism of tone or manner. In society or out of it he is one and the same — the poet and the man.