Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. IV. The Nineteenth Century: Wordsworth to Rossetti
Critical Introduction by Edward Dowden
Ebenezer Elliott (17811849)
[Born 17th of March, 1781, at the New Foundry, Masbro, near Rotherham, Yorkshire; wrote in his seventeenth year The Vernal Walk; worked in his fathers foundry until 1804; made trials of business in Sheffield, of which the first failed; published his first volume of verse, 1823; Village Patriarch, 1829; Corn Law Rhymer, 1831; retired from business, 1841; died 1st of December, 1849.]
MY feelings have been hammered until they have become cold-short, and are apt to snap and fly off in sarcasms. The betrayal of sensitiveness, the apology for anger in these words, might lead one to surmise that the writer, Ebenezer Elliott, steel-merchant and poet, was no broad-thewed forger of the weapons of revolution who took to his trade with a will. Had one met him, instead of the burly ironmonger described by an American visitor, one would have seen a man slender and of middle stature, with narrow forehead, bushy eyebrows under which gleamed the vivid fire of grey-blue eyes, sensitive nostrils, and a mouth apt to express love as much as scorn. It was not the bread-tax that first made him a poet, but the picture of a primrose in Sowerbys English Botany; this sent him to country lanes, the stream-side, and the moor, and he found his friends in the dragon-fly, the kingfisher, the green snake, and the nightingales of Basingthorpe Spring. Sensitiveness was more Elliotts characteristic than strength, and what strength he had was of an ardent, eager kind, less muscular than nervous.
Elliotts imagination was ambitious, and imperfectly trained: he accordingly dealt with large and passionate themes, entering into them with complete abandon; and he was hurried on to passages of genuine inspiration; real heights and depths were within his range; heavenly lights alternate with nether darkness. Few of his longer poems, however, possess imaginative ordonnance; from the sublime he could pass to the turgid; from the pathetic to the pseudo-romantic; and therefore few of these longer poems can be read with satisfaction in each as a whole. Nothing of worth that Elliott wrote was caught out of the air; each poem had its roots in fact; but the colouring in his earlier pieces is sometimes extravagant: as he matured, his imagination gravitated from the romantic to the real. There are not many figures in English poetry drawn from real life worthier of regard than the Ranter, Elliotts pale preacher of reform on Shirecliffe height, and his Village Patriarch, the blind lone father, with wind-blown venerable hair, still unbowed after his hundred years; though seeming coeval with the cliffs around, still a living and heroic pattern of English manhood.
The wild flowers and the free wild streams of Yorkshire never found a more eager and faithful lover than Ebenezer Elliott; but mere sunlight and pure air delight him. The silence or living sounds of the fields or the moor bring healing and refreshment to an ear harassed by the din of machinery; the wide peaceful brightness is a benediction to an eye smarting from blear haze of the myriad-chimneyed city. Animal refreshment rises, by degrees, to gratitude, exaltation, worship.
But from the wilderness his heart full of passionate tenderness drew him back to the troubled walks of men. His poetry could not be like
That gathers daisies from the lap of May,
With prattle sweeter than the bloomy wild.
The indignation of the workers of England against the injustice of their lot found a voice in the Corn Law Rhymer. His anger is that of a sweet nature perforce turned bitter; this strife, he feels, may for ever mar his better self, yet it cannot be abandoned:
My heart, once soft as womans tear, is gnarled
With gloating on the ills I cannot cure;
and still he wooes Contention, for in the end her dower is sure. The sorrows of oppressed toil were sung by Elliott with a sincerity which makes amends for some imaginative crudeness. His pathos is not hard and dry like that of Crabbe; it is not that of a student of human misery, but that of a loving fellow-sufferer. And his ideal of happiness for the working man is simple and refinedsome leisure, flowers, a good book, a neat home, a happy wife, and glad innocent children.