1846 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ebenezer Elliott

John Dix, in "The Two Montgomeries and Ebenezer Elliott" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 222-25.



"Have you ever heard Elliott, the Corn Law Rhymer, speak?" said a friend to me, when I was once visiting Sheffield.

"Never," I replied, "but I should much like to."

"Well, he lives some three miles from here, at Upperthorpe; but he is to speak to-night, at a Corn Law meeting, in Sheffield, and, if you like, after tea, we'll go and hear him."

At the time specified, we set out — the place where the lecture was to be delivered was situated in one of the most densely inhabited portions of the smoky town of Sheffield. As we entered the hall, groups of dark-looking unwashed artizans were seen, proceeding in the same direction as ourselves — all of them engaged in deep and earnest conversation on the then one great subject, THE CORN LAWS. Strong men, as they hurried by, clenched their hands, and knitted their brows, and ground their teeth, as they muttered imprecations on those whom they considered to be their oppressors. Here we would encounter a crowd of dusky forms, circling around a pale, anxious man, who was reading by the light of a gas lamp, a speech reported in the "Northern Star," or the last letter of Publicola, in the "Weekly Despatch" — and women, with meagre children in their arms — children drugged to a death-like sleep, by that curse of the manufacturing districts of England — laudanum, disguised as Godfrey's Cordial, were raising their shrill, shrewish voices, and execrating the laws which ground them to the dust — and there were fierce denunciations from mere boys, and treasonable speeches from young men — old men, with half-paralyzed energies, moaned and groaned, and said they had never known such times — all seemed gaunt and fierce, and ripe for revolt. It was an audience of working men — of such as these, that Ebenezer Elliott was to address that evening.

The lecturing hail was crammed with the working classes, and as the orator of the evening mounted the rostrum, a wild burst of applause rung from every part of the house. He bowed slightly, smiled sternly, and took a seat, whilst a hymn, which he had composed for the occasion, was roared forth by hundreds of brazen lungs.

He was a man rather under than above what is termed the middle height. Like the class from whence he sprung, and which he was about to address, he was attired in working clothes — clothes plain even to coarseness. He had a high, broad, very intellectual forehead, with rough ridges on the temples, from the sides and summit of which thick stubby hair was brushed up-streaks of grey mingling with the coarse black hair — his eyebrows were dark and thick, and shaded two large, deeply set, glaring eyes, which rolled every way, and seemed to survey the whole of that vast assembly at a glance. His nasal organ was as if it were grafted on his face, the mouth was thick-lipped, and the lines, from the angles of the nostrils to the corners of the mouth, were deeply indented-graven in. A very black beard, lately shaven, made his chin and neck appear as if it was covered with dots, and he had a thick, massive throat. His figure was indicative of great muscular strength, and his big horny fists seemed more fitted to wield a sledge hammer than to flourish a pen. Looking at him, the most casual observer would be impressed with the idea that no common man was before him.

He rose amidst great cheering, and for an hour and a half held that great audience in entire subjection by one of the most powerful addresses I ever listened to. With a terrible distinctness he painted the situation of the working man — he showed what he might have been, and contrasted his possible and probable situation with what it then was. On the heads of those who opposed Free Trade, the Corn Law Rhymer poured out all the vials of his wrath — but, vigorous and forcible as was his language, there was no coarseness; and frequently, over the landscape which he had painted with all the wild force of a Spagnoletti or a Caravaggio, he flung a gleam of sunshine, which made the moral wilderness he had pictured to rejoice and blossom as the rose. And there were passages in his speech of such extreme pathos, that strong men would bow down and weep, like little children — to these would succeed such sledge-hammer denunciations, that his hearers sat with compressed lips, and glaring eyes, and resolute hearts. When he sat down, after an appeal to the justice of the Law Makers, the whole audience burst forth into one loud cheer, and those near the speaker gripped his hand in fierce delight. I never saw such a scene, nor could I have conceived it possible that one working man should have so carried with him the passions and feelings of an audience, consisting entirely of those of his own class.