1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ebenezer Elliott

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 248-50.



The same may be said ["it rather excites expectation than fairly satisfies it"] with regard to a large portion of the poetry of Ebenezer Elliot. With much power, much graphic strength, it wants amenity; and he would have been allowed but trifling damages on that pleasant score by a railway-valuator critic. His landscapes abound with wild-roses and brambles, but both have prickles; his cherries resemble sloes, and his apples are generally crabs. You have the wallflower and the woodbine, but you have the foxglove and the nightshade intertwined with them; and while you listen to the linnet singing gaily from the blooming furze, you have somehow a notion that the subtle hawk is somewhere in ambush near him. His sky never shows the calm, clear, unclouded summer blue; some speck on the horizon, although no "bigger than a man's hand," ever predicates storm; and it is impossible to mistake Elliot's moorlands for the Elysian fields. As a depictor of the phases of humanity, his portraits are almost all of one class; and with that class are identified his entire sympathies. Hence it is that be seems deficient in that genial spirit which characterises more catholic natures; in those expansive feelings, which embrace society in all its aspects; in those touches which "make all flesh kin."

Ebenezer Elliot was a man of energetic powers; but it is absurd to mention him, as some have rashly ventured to do, in the same breath with Burns. They were utterly unlike each other in everything, save in one principle — intensity. Burns could ascend from "the Mouse's Nest" destroyed by the plough, up to the march that ushered Bruce to Bannockburn; from the Mountain Daisy gemming the sod, to the last star of that annual morn which recalled his thoughts To Mary in Heaven. He had the rough graphic power which could etch The Deil and Dr. Hornbook, and The Twa Dogs, and Tam O'Shanter; but he had also the touch which could pencil with fair delicacy the flowers fit "to be a posie for his ain dear May." It was otherwise with Elliot; and although his harp could not be said to be monotoned, it was much more unequivocally characterised by its chords of power than of tenderness. His history was strange and curious; and he manfully overcame many obstacles in his difficult, onward, and upward career, which would have dismayed a less ardent spirit in its aspirations after literary excellence. In his best productions, as The Village Patriarch, The Splendid Village; and The Ranter, as well as in several of his lyrics, he has attained this excellence in no ordinary — nay, in an uncommon degree; many of his portraits are redolent of breathing life, and not a few of his picturings true to nature. But his taste was the element at fault; and not unfrequently (like James Hogg and Allan Cunningham in their most unsuccessful moods, and when writing in despite "of gods, men, and columns,") Elliot is harsh and involved — nay, condescends to the very confines of doggrel. Of all the English poets who have gained a name — and none ever did so without in some measure deserving it — there are only two whom, I fear, I have never been able adequately to appreciate — and these are Young and Elliot — although to the better parts of both I think I am sufficiently alive; and there is something of unhewn power in each not dissimilar. My strictures on Elliot must, therefore, be taken "cum grano salis." Probably I have not been able to make sufficient allowances for the ever-recurring instances of false or indifferent taste conspicuous in both, and which has destroyed so much of the delight which their unquestioned vigour of fancy and intellect could not otherwise have failed to produce, — for that Ebenezer Elliot had excellencies of an uncommon kind has been proved by the hold which at least the better portion of his writings have taken of the public mind.