1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ebenezer Elliott

George Gilfillan, "Ebenezer Elliott" Gallery of Literary Portraits (1845) 365-72.



We have sometimes wondered that the forge has not sooner sent forth its poetical representative. It is undoubtedly one of the most imaginative of the objects of artificial life, especially when standing solitary, and on the edge of a dark wood. Hear how a man of genius describes it:

"As I rode through the Schwarzald, I said to myself, That little fire, which glows across the dark-growing moor, where the sooty smith bends over the anvil, and thou hopest to replace thy lost horse-shoe, is it a detached separated speck, cut off from the whole universe, or indissolubly united to the whole? Thou fool! that smithy fire was primarily kindled at the sun; is fed by air that circulates from before Noah's Deluge — from beyond the dog-star, therein, with iron force, and coal force, and the far stronger force of man, are battles and victories of force brought about. It is a little ganglion or nervous centre in the great system of immensity. Call it, if thou wilt, an unconscious altar, kindled on the bosom of the All, whose iron smoke and influence reach quite through the All — whose dingy priest, not by word, but by brain and sinew, preaches forth the mystery of Force." A smith, surrounded by an atmosphere of sparkles — sending out that thick thunder which Schiller seems to have loved above all other music — presiding at the wild wedlock of iron and flame, and baptizing the progeny of the terrible Hymen in the hissing trough — so independent in his lonely stithy — lord of his hammer and his strong right arm — carrying back your imagination to the days when the hammer of Tubal-Cain awoke the virgin echoes of the antediluvian world. and made him a mythic one, by first bending the stiff neck of the iron and the brass — or to the bowels of Etna, and Vulcan — or to the groves and lucid streams of Damascus — or to Spain, and the Ebro, and Andrew Ferrara — while, perhaps, sweeps before the mind's eye a procession of the instruments of death, from the first shapeless mass of iron, fitted to the giant-hand of a son of Cain, down through the Grecian javelin; the Roman spear; the Persian scimitar; the Saracen blade, bright and sharp as the crescent-moon; the great two-handed sword of the middle ages; the bayonet, which bored a passage for the armies of Turenne; the pike; the battle-axe; the claymore of Caledonia: thus does imagination pile up a pedestal, on which the smith, and his dusky visage, and his uplifted hammer, and his patient, anvil, look absolutely ideal; and the wonder is excited why till of late no "Message from the Forge" has been conveyed to the ears of men beyond its own incessant and victorious sound. And yet the forge had wrought and raved for ages, and amid all its fiery products reared no poet till it was said, "Let Ebenezer Elliott be." And though he stands forward somewhat ostentatiously as the self-chosen deputy to Parnassus of the entire manufacturing class, it is easy to find, in the large rough grasp of his intellect, in the daring of his imagination, in the untameable fire of his uneven, yet nervous line, in his impatient and contemptuous use of language, traces of the special trade at which he has all along wrought; of the impression which a constant circle of fire has made upon his imagination; and of the savage power which has taught him to wield the hammer and the pen with little difference in degree of animal exertion and mental fury. We can never divest our minds as we read him of the image of a grim son of the furnace, black as Erebus, riving, tearing, and smiting at his reluctant words; storming now and then at the disobedient ends of sentences; clutching his broad nibbed quill, and closing the other and the other paragraph with the flourish of one, who brings down upon the anvil a last sure and successful blow.

Elliott is unquestionably one of the most masculine men of our era. His poorest copy of verses; his wildest sins against good taste and propriety; his most truculent invective; and even the witless personalities by which it pleases him so often to poison his poetry and his prose, will not conceal the brawny muscle, the strong intellect, and the stronger passions of a man. Burns, in his haughtiest moment, never grasped the sickle with a sturdier independence. From the side of his furnace he speaks in a tone of authority; and stern, decisive, and oracular, are his sentences. Indeed, his dogmatism is so incessant and so fierce, that were it not backed by such manifest power and earnestness, it would excite no feelings but disgust or pity. But we defy you to pity a man who points his abuse by shaking such a strong fist in your face. You feel, too, that your pity were quite thrown away, since he would not feel it through his tough hide. Restraining therefore your pity, and biting down the lip of your disgust, you start back, and keep at a respectful distance from a customer so formidable. Glancing aesthetically at the inspired ironmonger, you see at once that strength is his principal characteristic; nor do you care to settle the question whether it be strength of intellect, or passion, or imagination, or a triple twist of all three. You are tempted, indeed, while looking at him, to believe that a really strong man is strong all around; and whatever fatal flaw may run through all his faculties, they must all support each other — intellect supplying the material, imagination the light, passion the flame, of the one conflagration. You say as you look at him, whether hammering at a steelyard or a sonnet, hewing his way through nervous verse or rugged prose, here is a workman that needeth not to be ashamed — a Demi-urgus, like those giant-muscled three in Raffaelle's Building the Ark, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, sawing at the massive timbers which are to swim the Deluge and rest on Ararat, with a force, a gusto, and a majesty suitable to the tenants of an undrowned world; or, like those "Vulcanian three, that in sounding caverns under Mongibello, wrought in fire — Brontes, and black Steropes, and Pyracmon." So stands, leans, labours, growls and curses at times, not loud but deep, with foot firmly planted, and down-bent flaming eye, this "Titan of the age of tools." You see, too, that he has the true vision of the poet — that mysterious eyesight which sees the spiritual as well as the material shadow which falls from off all things, and which to the bard alone is naked and bare. Be this penetrating and incommunicable glance a blessing or a curse; and, as in the case of of the second-sight, it is the one or the other, according to the objects presented — being, if a genial temperament show the unseen border of beauty which edges and flowers all things, one of the greatest of blessings; but if accident, or position, or a black bilious medium discover the halo of misery which invisibly surrounds every object in this strange world, one of the greatest of curses: be it the one or the other, it has, and for ever, unsealed his eye.

You regret to perceive, on more narrow inspection, that he has fixed his piercing gaze too much on the dark side of things — that his view is angular, not comprehensive — that passion has given his eye now a portentous squint, and now a ferocious glare — that he has seen through "shams," not in the sense of seeing what even they contain of good and true, but seen through them as through empty spaces into the vast, black, hollow, and hideous night.

You acknowledge, too, the presence of the "faculty" as well as the divine vision. His sight is not a struggling but an open sight. He has found, though a self-educated man, as it is called, fit and noble expression for his burning thoughts. His language is not rich, fluent, refined, or copious, but knotty, direct, and with a marrowy race and strength about it which are truly refreshing to those who are tired of reflection after reflection of a great native style, fading gradually away, (like those small faint segments of rainbows mimicking the bow of heaven,) till all is gloom. Elliott's language reminds you of the blue and nervous veins of a strong hand, so surcharged are his words with the blood of thought and passion. And when it rises to the breath of his indignation, like some "tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic," — when he mounts on the full whirlwind of his soul — you are irresistibly reminded of that impetuous prophet who gazed on the "terrible crystal," and stood below the shadow of the visionary wheels, and walked barefoot upon the stones of fire, and saw in the porch the "dark idolatries of the alienated Judah," and plucked down forks of the lightning for words to express the fury of his ire, and heaved up from his breast burdens that "made the pagan mountains shake and Zion's cedars bow." Elliott has unquestionably, as the spirit moves him, at times, if not all the inspiration, all the fury of the prophet — his forgetfulness of self — his beat of spirit — the contortions and spasms by which he was delivered of his message — as of a demon.

And yet, when it chooses him to "look abroad into universality," and instead of inveighing against a corn-law, to walk forth into the corn-fields — to pierce the shady solitude of the lane — to converse with "Cloud, gorse, and whirlwind on the gorgeous moor" — to spend his solitary Sabbath upon the mountain, — to bare his heated brow in the fresh breeze, as an act — as an altar of worship to the poor man's God, — what a delightful companion does the stern iron-worker become! You can scarcely believe that it is the same person, or that such bland and balmy accents could flow from the lips which, a little before, you saw white with foam, and writhen with denunciations. Striking, with large strides, through the silent suburbs of the morning city, he gets into the clear country, — selects, from some imaginative motive, one among the many quiet paths which would be proud of the presence and ennobling step of a poet, — absolutely shivers with the joy, springing from a sense of security and solitude, — enacts, in the fulness of his heart, a thousand wild vagaries, — leaps aloft, or throws himself down, at large, upon the green bank, or talks eloquently to himself, — or bespeaks the patient cow, or big-browed bull, in the pasture — or sits motionless upon the stile, "gazing himself away" at some point in the distant landscape — or prays aloud,plunges, at noon, into a wood, and lies dissolved in its shady coolness, — emerges and pursues his way, — reaches some "Kirk of Ulpha," with trees shadowing its horologe, and a river laving its church-yard wall — enters, with sturdy yet reverend step — bends his anointed head under the consecrated roof — amazes the simple worshippers, who see, from his eye and brow, that he is no common wanderer — climbs a hill behind, and has all the sublime savage re-born within him, at the sight of the far-off city, and heaves out, like an opened crater, some wild and angry breathings — returns wearied, yet heart-full, in the evening shadows — dreams it all over in his bed, and rises in the morning to his strong hammer and fierce philippics again.

You are impressed always, as you consider this strong man, with the respect — the almost awe, which perfect honesty inspires. Here, you say, is one who has trampled down the Python Falsehood — who loves truth with a passion, and all whose utterances come from the sincere and boiling heart within. Here is one who can bear all the charges of imprudence, recklessness, folly, or madness, with which an honest man is sure to be saluted, as he ploughs on his straight strong furrow, through the field of the world. Here is one who covets no other epitaph upon his sepulchre than the words, "Here lies one who, in an age of brazen-faced falsehood, of colossal cant, — cant moral, cant political, cant religious, lived and died an honest man."

Reverting to his poetical and literary character, you miss much that might complete the character of the accomplished artist. Not only have you no great work, but no conception of it — no panting after it — no spirit of design adequate to even its idea. There is much muscular power, but it is an Apollyon, not an artistic energy. What a rare "Architect of Ruin," you say, would he be in a work of uncreation; but no Amphion lyre does he, or can he sway. He is not one of the "kings of melody;" his song has no linked sweetness — no long reach of swelling power, — only transient touches, rude and sudden strokes, endangering the integrity of the instrument, — groans and half blasphemies instead of airs, wrung out from its chords as from a spirit in pain, confess the hand of the master. You discern, too, a concentration of interest, eddying round one egotistic centre, which renders his genius essentially undramatic, and his Kerhonah a failure. In that massed up midnight of the primeval forests, Elliott walks with infirm foot, and seems to miss the greensward of the English lane, the springy heath of the English upland, and the breezy clearness of the English day.

You are not surprised, in fine, to find him not only an original poet, but a generous and eloquent critic. His criticism is that of a fresh and fearless mind; never balancing his praise against his blame, in petty grocer-like scales — never checking a current of euloguim by some small jet of carping snarl — never doling out his praise in meagre modica — never passing, with the bound of malignant exultation, from drops of preliminary and extorted approbation to the more congenial work of wholesale detraction — never wrapping up his oracular praise or censure (as is becoming the fashion,) in mysterious and unmeaning slang — never determinedly praising a man for what he possesses not, but stamping, at once, either the broad arrow of his approbation, or the broad black seal of his disgust, upon the particular author or book, and there an end. His verdicts have all the gusto of a native mind unhackneyed in the ways of literature — uninitiated in the mystery of puffery, and in the darker mystery of slander. They are written out, too, with the flourishes and dashes of a poet's hand-writing, and remind us of Burns' frank and fire-blooded panegyrics.

His rhymes and hymns carry the seed of oblivion within themselves; but there is much in the Corn-law rhymer which the world will not so readily let die. Above all, it will cherish the memory of the man; as, when was a true man ever forgotten? Mists may, for a season, hide or exaggerate his proportions, — winds of abuse may blow him out of sight, — he may be riddled with calumny, or starved to death, — his ashes may fly, "no marble tells us whither;" but, sooner or later, (for "a man, in the long run, has, and is, just what he is and has,") he will be revealed in his proper dimensions, his contribution to the great stock of manly thoughts and utterances, accurately ascertained, — his niche settled and railed in, — his statue elevated, and set unalterably upon its own base. High prospect to the true and the manly, and to them alone. The earth has never yet had so many real men as to afford to be able to drop even one of them from its list; and Elliott, too, will feel, and, we believe, feels already, that "The Great Soul of the world is just."