1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ebenezer Elliott

S. C. Hall, "Ebenezer Elliott" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 97-107.



Though fellow-townsmen, there was little or no personal intercourse between James Montgomery and Ebenezer Elliott. It would be difficult to imagine any two persons more dissimilar: the one soft and pliable as virgin wax, the other hard and unbending as a slab of cast-iron; the one ever laden with milk and honey for his kind, the other fierce as a fierce northwester, that spares none-raging, sometimes, with indiscriminate wrath.

In 1837 I received this letter from Ebenezer Elliott — "I was born at Masbrough, in the parish of Kimberworth, a village about five miles from this place (Sheffield), on the 17th March, 1781; but my birth was never registered except in a Bible, my father being a Dissenter and thorough hater of the Church as by law established;" and not long afterwards he gave me some further particulars of his life. There can be no reason why I should not print them, although they were supplied to me as notes, out of which I was to write a memoir to accompany some selections of his poems in the "Book of Gems."

"Ebenezer Elliott — not ill-treated, but neglected in his boyhood, on account of his supposed inability to learn anything useful — suffered to go to school, or to stay away, just as he pleased, and employ, at his own sweet will, those years which often leave an impression on the future man that lasts till the grave covers him — listening to the plain or coarse, and sometimes brutal, but more often instructive and pathetic, conversation of workmen, or wandering in the woods and fields till he was thirteen years old — is altogether the poet of circumstances. The superiority, mental and bodily, of his elder brother — though Ebenezer never envied it — cast him into insignificance and comparative idiocy, and could hardly fail to throw a shade of sadness over a nature dull and slow, but thoughtful and affectionate. Sowerby's 'English Botany' made him a collector of plants, and Thomson's 'Seasons ' a versifier, in the crisis of his fate, when it was doubtful whether be would become a man or a maltworm; shortly afterwards, or about which time, the curate of Middlesmoor — a lonely hamlet in Craven — died, and left his father a library of many hundred valuable books, among which were Father Herepin's 'Travels of M. de la Salle in America,' the Royal Magazine, with coloured plates in natural history, Ray's 'Wisdom of God in the Creation,' Derham's 'Physico-Theology,' Hervey's 'Meditations,' and Barrow's Sermons,' which latter author was a great favourite with the future rhymer, he being then deeply shadowed over with a religion of horrors, and finding relief in Barrow's reasoning from the dreadful declamation which it was his misfortune hourly to hear. To these books, and to the conversation and amateur preaching of his father, an old Cameronian and born rebel, who preached by the hour that God could not damn him, and that hell was hung round with span-long children — to these circumstances, and to the pictures of Israel Putnam, George Washington, Oliver Cromwell, &c., with which the walls of the parlour were covered, followed by the events of the French Revolution and awful Reign of Terror, may be clearly traced the poet's character, literary and political, as it exists at this moment. Blessed or cursed with a hatred of wasted labour, he was never known to read a bad book through, but he has read again and again, and deeply studied, all the masterpieces of the mind, original and translated, and the masterpieces only — a circumstance to which, more than to any other, he attributes his success, such as it is. He does not now know, for he never could learn, grammar, but corrects errors in composition by reflection, and often tells the learned 'that the mouth is older than the alphabet.' There is not, he says, a good thought in his works that has not been suggested by some object actually before his eyes, or by some real occurrence, or by the thoughts of other men; but be adds, 'I can make other men's thoughts breed.' He cannot, he says, like Byron, pour out thoughts from within, for his mind is exterior, 'the mind of his own eyes. ' That he is a very ordinary person (who, by the earnest study of the best models, has learned to write a good style in prose and verse) is proved by phrenology, his head being shaped like a turnip, and a boy's hat fitting it. 'My genius,' he says, 'if I have any, is a compound of earnest perseverance, restless observation, and instinctive or habitual hatred of oppression.' He is thought by many to be a coarse and careless writer: but that is a mistake. He never printed a careless line. 'Moore himself, with his instinct of elegant versification, could not,' he says, 'improve my roughest Corn-Law Rhymes.' Of his political poems, 'They met in Heaven' is the best. The 'Recording Angel,' written on the final departure of Sultan George from the harem, is his best lyric. Of his long poems, 'The Exile' is the most pathetic. 'Withered Wild Flowers' is his favourite; it is a perfect epic in three books, and the idea of telling a story in a funeral sermon is new. But his masterpiece, both as a poem and as a character, is the 'Village Patriarch,' the incarnation of a century of changes and misrule, on which he has stamped his individuality. The critics say he succeeds best in lyric poetry; he thinks he ought to have written a national epic, and if he had time he would yet make the attempt. He thinks also there is merit in his dramatic sketch of 'Kehonab,' particularly in the character of Nidarius, and the dramatic introduction of the supposed executioner of King Charles."

So far his personal history is given in his letter to me.

The ancestors of Ebenezer Elliott were "canny Elliotts" of the Border, whose "derring deeds" were warning proverbs in the debatable land: border thieves they were, who "lived on the cattle they stole." His father — who, from his eccentricities and ultra "religious" views, was named "Devil Elliott" — had been apprenticed to an ironmonger at Newcastle-upon-Tyne, after which he became a clerk in the celebrated cannon foundry of Messrs. Walker, at Masbrough, near Rotherham. He soon left that situation, and went as a servant to the "New Foundry," in the same town; and there the poet was born, and baptized either by his father or by "one Tommy Wright," a Barnsley tinker and brother Berean. Ebenezer was one of seven children, three sons and four daughters, of a father bearing the same baptismal name. His first book lessons, after those of his mother, were with a Unitarian schoolmaster of the name of Ramsbottom, of whom he has made grateful mention in one of his poems. But he had the anxiety of a curious and ingenious child to see something of the world beyond the foundry and his teacher's garden.

"My ninth year," says he, in a letter I copy, "was an era in my life. My father had cast a great pan, weighing some tons, for my uncle at Thurlstone, and I determined to go thither in it, without acquainting my parents with my intention. A truck with assistants having been sent for it, I got into it, about sunset, unperceived, hiding myself beneath some hay which it contained, and we proceeded on our journey. I have not forgotten how much I was excited by the solemnity of the night and its shooting stars, until I arrived at Thurlstone about four in the morning. I had not been there many days before I wished myself at home again, for my heart was with my mother. If I could have found my way back I should certainly have returned, and my inability to do so shows, I think, that I really must have been a dull child. My uncle sent me to Penistone school, where I made some little progress. When I got home from school I spent my evenings in looking from the back of my uncle's house to Hayland Swaine, for I had discovered that Masbrough lay beyond that village; and ever when the sun went down I felt as if some great wrong had been done me. At length, in about a year and a half, my father came for me; and so ended my first irruption into the great world. Is it not strange that a man who from his childhood has dreamed of visiting foreign countries, and yet, at the age of sixty, believes that he shall see the Falls of Niagara, has never been twenty miles out of England, and has yet to see for the first time the beautiful scenery of Cumberland, Wales, and Scotland?

His dream of visiting America was never realised.

But school days with Elliott as with his more or less hopeful companions, came to an end; the iron-casting shop awaited him, and from his sixteenth to his twenty-third year he worked for his father, "hard as any day-labourer, and without wages."

According to his own account he had been a dull and idle boy, but poetry, instead of nourishing his faults, stimulated him to industry as well as thought. Thus, while his earlier days were spent amid the disheartening influences of an ascetic home and defective education, nature not only spoke to his senses, but worked within him,—

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

In all his sentiments and sympathies, from first to last, he was emphatically one of the people, illustrating his whole life long, by precept and example, "The nobility of labour, the long pedigree of toil."

How far, or whether at all, the tastes of the son were influenced in any way favourably by those of the father, who was spoken of under the above ugly appellation, does not appear; but it is worthy of remark that the elder Elliott himself was a rhymester. "In 1792," says Mr. Holland, in his "Poets of Yorkshire," "he published a 'Poetical Paraphrase of the Book of Job.'"

Long afterwards, Ebenezer, in writing of his father, says, — "Under the room where I was born, in a little parlour, like the cabin of a ship, which was yearly painted green, and blessed with a beautiful thoroughfare of light — for there was no window tax in those days — my father used to preach, every fourth Sunday, to persons who came from distances of twelve to fourteen miles to hear his tremendous doctrines of ultra-Calvinism. On other days, pointing to the aqua-tint pictures on the walls, he delighted to declaim on the virtues of slandered Cromwell and of Washington the rebel."

It is not material, in this brief notice of the "Corn-Law Rhymer," to trace him from his father's foundry, at Masbrough, to his own shop, as a steel-seller, in Sheffield, nor to describe his earliest efforts in verse. His poem of "Love" attracted no attention from readers of any class; while his "Night" — the scene of which is the picturesque spot identified with the legend of "The Dragon of Wantley" — was declared by one reviewer to be "in the very worst style of ultra-German bombast and horror!" But his taste rapidly improved, and that — strange as it may appear — under the stimulus of the intensest Radical politics. There was, in fact, a touch of the morbid in his temperament — a dramatic taste for the horrible in fiction — as witness his own "Bothwell" — with a special dislike of hereditary pride or grandeur. But though almost insane in his denunciation of the aristocracy, and absolutely rabid at times, both in his conversation and his writings, there was in his heart an innate love of the graceful and the beautiful in nature; the fiercer passions evaporated in a green lane, and wrath was effectually subdued by the gentle breezes of the hill-side. His strongly-marked countenance bespoke deep and stern thought; his pale grey eyes, restless activity; his every look and motion indicated an enthusiastic temperament; his overhanging brow was stern, perhaps forbidding; but the lower portions of his face betokened mildness and benevolence; and his smile, when not sarcastic, was a most sweet and redeeming grace.

The meanest thing, earth's feeblest worm,
He feared to scorn or hale,
But honouring in a peasant's form
The equal of the great.

William Howitt describes him as "one of the gentlest and most tender-hearted of men;" yet his mind seemed incapable of reasoning when the higher orders of society were praised: he could not tolerate even the delicate hint of Mr. Howitt, that "among them were some amiable men." He at once "blazed up," exclaiming furiously, "Amiable men! — amiable robbers, thieves, murderers!"

Yes, on that subject he was absolutely insane. The stern, bitter, irrational, and unnatural hatred was the staple of his poetry — the greater part of it, that is to say; for many of his poems are as tender, loving, and pure as are those of his fellow-townsman, gracious James Montgomery.

I have quoted four lines from one of his poems: this passage is from another. He is describing some mountain scenery conspicuous for desolate sterility:—

I thank ye, billows of a granite sea,
That the bribed plough, defeated, halts below;
And thanks, majestic barrenness, to thee
For one grim region, in a land of woe,
Where tax-sown wheat and paupers will not grow.

Comparatively little was known of the vast poetical power of Ebenezer Elliott until 1831, when an article in the New Monthly Magazine (then under my editorship), from the pen of Lord Lytton, directed public attention to his genius.

It was Dr. Bowring who showed to Lord Lytton a mean-looking and badly-printed pamphlet called "The Ranter." He was struck with it, and sent to me a review of the work in a letter addressed to the Poet-Laureate, — directing his attention to the "mechanic" as one of the "uneducated poets" whom Southey had so often folded under his wings. Its publication gave the Sheffield poet a wider renown than he had previously obtained, but it did no more. Lord Lytton wrongly described him, as others had done, as "a mechanic:" he was not then aware that many years previously Elliott had been in correspondence with Southey, who fully appreciated the rough genius of the poet. Neither did Lord Lytton then know that Elliott had published several beautiful poems in certain periodical works — the Amulet among others, in which one of the most perfect of his compositions, "The Dying Boy to the Sloe-blossom," appeared in 1830.

Afterwards Elliott became a regular contributor to the New Monthly Magazine, and for that work he wrote many of his best poems.

His friend, Mr. Searle, describes him personally: — "Instead of being a true son of the forge — broadset, strong, and muscular as a Cyclops — he was the reverse. In stature he was not more than five feet six inches high, of a slender make, and a bilious, nervous temperament; his hair was quite grey, and his eyes, which were of a greyish blue, were surmounted by thick brushy brows. His forehead was not broad, but rather narrow; and his head was small. There was great pugnacity in the mouth, especially when he was excited; but in repose, it seemed to smile, more in consciousness of strength, however, than in sunny unconscious beauty. His nostrils were full of scorn, and his eyes — which were the true indices of his soul — literally smote you with fire, or beamed with kindness and affection, according to the mood he was in. In earnest debate his whole face was lighted up, and became terrible and tragic."

He describes himself, however, as five feet seven inches in height; slimly rather than strongly made; eyes dim and pale, mostly kind in their expression, but sometimes wild; his features harsh, but not unpleasing: "on the whole," he says, "he is just the man who, if unknown, would pass unnoticed anywhere."

He is thus graphically sketched by Southey: — "It was a remarkable face, with pale grey eyes, full of fire and meaning, and well suited to a frankness of manner and an apparent simplicity of character such as is rarely found in middle age, and more especially rare in persons engaged in what may be called the warfare of the world."

The one great blemish of Elliott's poetry, in the estimation of general readers, is the frequent introduction of that subject which, with him, was more than a sentiment — an absorbing and overmastering passion — the direct theme of some of his most spirited lyrics, the topic of his common conversation no less than the spell of his genius, and in pursuance of which he adopted the significant appellation of the "Corn-Law Rhymer." This subject, it need scarcely be added, while it was the mainspring of his popularity with one party of political economists, including all the working men of his day, was, at the same time, still more powerful in exciting the dislike of other classes of the community, and especially all those connected with the agricultural interest. This position of personal as well as poetical hostility towards a large, wealthy, influential, and respectable section of his countrymen was rendered less enviable by the general bitterness of style and harshness of epithet by which his "rhymes" were but too commonly characterised. But "gentle arguments are not suited for stern work:" while, therefore, it is impossible to read many of his most powerful pieces without a mixture of admiration for the skill of the poet, and of regret for the violence of the partisan, it should not be forgotten that much of the interest of these compositions has passed away, by the signal triumphs of the doctrine which they originally illustrated and enforced. For, whatever may be the opinions entertained at this moment by any person or party in this country relative to the abolition of the Corn Laws, there can be no doubt that the popular and energetic struggle which issued in that event was effectually aided by the genius of Ebenezer Elliott.

On the other hand, let it not be imagined that Ebenezer Elliott was made a victim, or made himself a martyr, of the "bread tax," otherwise than in his "rhymes:" he was, in fact, a shrewd, active, and successful man of business; and notwithstanding he tells us, in terms which formed so long and so loudly the burden of his song, that

Dear sugar, dear tea, and dear corn,
Conspired with dear representation
To laugh worth and honour to scorn,
And beggar the whole British nation,

he was fortunate enough to outmatch the "four dears," as he calls them — to give up business — to leave Sheffield for the enjoyment of a country retreat, in a good house of his own at Hargot Hill, in the vicinity of Barnsley. But an insidious complaint was slowly, yet surely, arresting his vital powers. He "departed this life" on the 1st of December, 1849, and is buried in the churchyard of the beautiful little village of Darfield. The church may be seen from the house in which he died.

It was not by his own desire he was laid in consecrated ground. Not long before his death he pointed out to a friend a tree in one of the pleasant dells that environ black and busy Sheffield, and said, "Under this tree I mean to be buried. I shall sleep well enough here; and who knows but I may feel the daisies growing over my grave, and hear the birds sing to me in my winding-sheet?" He was dying, when his faculties were suddenly roused by a robin singing in the garden underneath his chamber window. He had strength enough to write these lines — they were his last:—

Thy notes, sweet robin, soft as dew,
Heard soon or late, are dear to me;
To music I could bid adieu,
But not to thee.
When from my eyes this lifefull throng
Has pass'd away, no more to be,
Then, autumn's primrose, robin's song,
Return to me.

His character is thus summed up by his friend, Mr. Searle: — "He was a far-seeing, much-enduring, hard-working, practical man; he had a stern love of truth, and a high and holy comprehension of justice; he appreciated the sufferings of the poor, and if he exaggerated, he thoroughly sympathised with, their wrongs." His life, indeed, seems to have been governed in conformity with one of his own lines: — "So live that then mayst smile and no one weep."

He was a good citizen and a good member of society; "there was not a blot or flaw upon his character;" he was regular at his business; careful of all home duties; a dutiful son, an attached husband, a fond, but considerate, father; and it is gratifying to record this his own testimony to his faith, "Having studied the evidence on both sides of the question, I am a Christian from conviction." It will hardly be expected that the religious character of any person which is merely announced in terms similar to those just quoted would find its practical expression in conformity with the creed of any sect or section of the Christian Church. The truth is, the best friends or worst enemies of the poet were never able to reckon among his ostensible virtues or prejudices a regular Sunday attendance at any place of public worship, nor even to report him as a casual hearer of his own exemplary "Ranter" preacher, with his favourite text—

Woe be unto you, Scribes and Pharisees!
Who eat the widows' and the orphans' bread,
And make long prayers to hide your villainies!

The religious as well as the political opinions of the poet are fully and fairly presented in his two principal works, "The Village Patriarch" and "The Ranter;" the former a witness and victim of a progressive and culminating "monopoly," the latter an out-door "preacher of the plundered poor." Whatever may be thought of the special and direct sentiments and design of these compositions, they both contain incidental descriptions of local scenery which may be said to be unsurpassed in truth and beauty of expression.

Thus writes Montgomery of his "brother poet:" — "I am willing to hazard my critical credit by avowing my persuasion that in originality, power, and even beauty — when he chose to be beautiful — he might have measured heads beside Byron in tremendous energy, Crabbe in graphic description, and Coleridge in effusions of domestic tenderness; while in intense sympathy with the poor, in whatever he deemed their wrongs or their sufferings, he excelled them all, and perhaps everybody else among his contemporaries in prose or verse."

He was, "in a transcendental sense, the poet of the poor:" he (the lines are those of Walter Savage Landor)—

asked the rich
To give laborious hunger daily bread.

According to the testimony of one who knew him well, Elliott's attempts at oratory were failures. Sententious, rugged, sarcastic, and loud, his hearers were more entertained with his excitement than either instructed by his statements or convinced by his reasoning. In a word, his oral declamations generally lacked that charm of orderly arrangement and those well-tuned, not to say exquisite, graces of style, which so largely characterise his poetical essays, even when wilfully dashed and marred by vile epithets or coarse personalities. In his private conversation, when crossed and excited by opposition, these faults would sometimes break out; otherwise he was mild and amiable, always frank and unselfish, admitting his own faults, or those of his partisans, as freely as those of his opponents.

I print the following as one of the few of his characteristic letters I have had the good fortune to preserve

"SHEFFIELD, 9th December, 1836.

I have a great favour to ask of you, a favour which, on my knees, I implore you to grant. If you do not grant it, you will miss an opportunity of honouring the New Monthly, by taking an entirely new view of the most important subject that ever agitated the public mind. My like 'the Manchester manufacturer' can be induced to write books on any subject. When they do so, it is important that they be encouraged, because their experience and knowledge almost always enable them to write well. Mr. Ibbotson has demonstrated by facts that the Corn Laws are the cause of agricultural distress, and that free trade would raise rents, and permanently keep up agricultural prices, and that nothing else can do so. It is desirable that the article appear in the forthcoming number, to give the well-timed book a shove, and prevent the discouraging of an author from whom great things may be expected. You will soon perceive that Mr. Ibbotson is not used to composition; but his book, in my opinion, is the most important ever published on the subject, although the view he takes of it is opposed to mine. I shall be in most painful suspense until you inform me that you will publish the article, or write one from the documents inclosed. Unless you are false to yourself, and deficient for once in good strategy, you cannot, as a friend of the agricultural interest, refuse the favour I request.

I am, dear Sir, yours very truly,

EBENEZER ELLIOTT."

John Holland, the friend of James Montgomery, who knew Elliott intimately, writes, "Than whom a truer poet did not breathe the air or enjoy the sunshine among the masses of fermenting intellect in England at this period; but a tone of political bitterness, in the occasional use of the coarsest terms of party vituperation, too often tended to mar the beauty of compositions otherwise rarely surpassed for their truth, for their power, or their tenderness, by the strains of his most richly-gifted contemporaries."

His Corn-Law Rhymes are now probably forgotten, but they did much of the work which the reformers of 1830-35 achieved; they prepared the ground for the harvest; nay, they did more — they planted the seed.

These poems were, indeed, what the trumpets were by the walls of Jericho.

So far back as 1809, Southey (to whom Elliott had submitted a MS. poem) wrote to him thus: — "There are in this poem unquestionable marks both of genius and the power of expressing it." "I have no doubt you will succeed in attaining the fame after which you aspire;" adding, "Go on, and you will prosper."

Notwithstanding their many faults — and they are many — we must class the poems of Ebenezer Elliott with those of the highest and most enduring of British poets. Among them there are many glorious and true transcripts of nature, full of pathos and beauty, vigorous and original in thought, and clear, eloquent, and impassioned in language. If his feelings, though at times kindly and gentle, are more often dark, menacing, and stern, they are never grovelling or low. He had keen and burning sympathies. Unhappily he forgot that the high-born and wealthy claim them and deserve them as well as the poor, and those who are more directly "bread-taxed" — that suffering is common to humanity.

Although it was my lot to differ from him upon nearly every subject on which we corresponded or conversed, I honour the name of Ebenezer Elliott as that of an earnest and honest man, and I have greeted with fervid homage the statue of the poet they have erected to his memory — on the site of the old Corn Market-in the town of Sheffield.