Slightly Foxed (the real readers’ quarterly – buy a subsciption now!) has kindly allowed The Dabbler to dip into its rich archives. We have handpicked this gem for you from the Autumn 09 edition, in which Richard Platt looks at Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith: the best-loved, least-known book in the English language…
In 1938, with the gloriously musical literary voices of Victoria’s reign just fading from living memory, Oxford University Press published English Prose of the Victorian Era. The table of contents of this 1,700-page behemoth is a literary Who’s Who of the nineteenth century: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Mill, Ruskin, Thackeray, Arnold, T. H. Huxley, William Morris, J. A. Froude, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson. Though they are now seldom accorded the respect they deserve, they are familiar – though often, sadly, only in name. There is a single exception. One gentle soul has been forsaken. His name is Alexander Smith, and in 1863 he gave us a quiet masterpiece: Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country.
The village of Dreamthorp is the inner sanctuary of a man condemned by financial necessity to a city life, but whose heart and mind are never at ease until his foot sinks into the soft turf of the country, where he can ‘breathe freely as the first man’. It is a world made more real by the stone and mortar of his imagination than it could possibly have been made by the mason’s art. Here his muse can soar. Dreamthorp is an exquisitely melancholy book. It is not the moralizing, brooding melancholy of Hawthorne (whom Smith admired), nor the black abyss of Poe. It is delicate, warm and welcoming, only occasionally touching the threshold of darkness. It is poignant, looking wistfully to the past and hopefully to the future. It is the melancholy of a romantic.
The ruined chapel . . . is a mere shell . . . There are several tombs in the interior bearing knights’ escutcheons, which time has sadly defaced . . . There, on the slab, the white figures sleep; marble hands, folded in prayer, on marble breasts. And I like to think that he was brave, she beautiful; that although the monument is worn by time, and sullied by the stains of the weather, the qualities which it commemorates – husbandly and wifely affection, courtesy, courage, knightly scorn of wrong and falsehood, meekness, penitence, charity – are existing yet somewhere, recognizable by each other. The man who in this world can keep the whiteness of his soul, is not likely to lose it in any other.
Dreamthorp is less like reading than like holding a conversation with an old friend, for having once read Alexander Smith, you know him, and it seems you have always known him. Has anyone better described the passionate ache of an adolescent boy incandescent with impossible love?
To sit in the same room with her was like the happiness of a perpetual holiday; when she asked me to run a message for her, or to do any, the slightest, service for her, I felt as if a patent of nobility were conferred upon me. [She] had a lover . . . I was too much in love to feel the slightest twinge of jealousy . . . What I would have given my life to possess – being only fourteen, it was not much to part with after all – he wore lightly, as he wore his gloves or his cane . . . His self-possession appalled me.
In the only portrait that is used as a frontispiece in several editions of his works, Smith sits at an angle designed to conceal the unfortunate tendency of one eye to lean toward the bridge of the nose, as if seeking the other. He clasps his coat near the collar, self-consciously ill at ease under the gaze of the artist. His face is unexpectedly young and boyishly appealing in its vulnerability despite long, flowing whiskers. His voice, though, is old and weary, yet it is not artificially assumed. Alexander Smith was a fragile man, ill-suited to a coarse world. He was only 33 when he published his remarkable book. He would be dead at 37.
Few writers have suffered their growing pains more publicly. Born into a working-class family in Kilmarnock on New Year’s Eve, 1829, Alexander Smith began life as a bookish boy with a less-than-robust constitution. His family had hoped he would become a minister, but financial necessity forced him to leave school at an early age and enter an apprenticeship designing fabric patterns. It was tolerably remunerative work but uncongenial – he longed to be a poet. In his teens he began writing verse, some of which he sent to the influential critic George Gilfillan, who recognized his talent and encouraged him.
At the age of 22 he published his first book of poetry, A Life Drama, and, like Byron before him, woke to find himself famous. He was compared favourably to Wordsworth, Burns, even Shakespeare. He toured England, visited literary luminaries and returned home with an expectant world awaiting great things of him. New friends and old helped him to secure the position of Secretary to Edinburgh University, and he settled into the quiet life of a man of letters. Fortunately, he remained modest and humble, for his fortunes were about to turn.
Enter William Edmonstoune Aytoun, benevolent iconoclast, poet, wit and Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres at Edinburgh. Aytoun was unimpressed with Smith, his friend and one-time collaborator Sydney Dobell, and their imitators. Remarking on their youthful penchant for hyperbole, Professor Aytoun dubbed them the Spasmodic poets. The name stuck. In fact it stuck so well that some critics and literary historians have actually missed the joke, and still refer to them as poets of the Spasmodic school. Warming to his task, Aytoun published Firmillian: A Spasmodic Tragedy in 1854. Unfortunately for Alexander Smith, Aytoun’s highly amusing satire was hugely successful. Just two years after Smith had vaulted to fame he became a laughing-stock. He continued to write and publish poetry, which improved and matured and was acclaimed, but the damage was done. The final blow came with the publication of his poem Edwin of Deira in 1861, which unluckily coincided with the appearance of Tennyson’s thematically similar Idylls of the King, subjecting Smith to unfounded charges of plagiarism.
Aytoun had not foreseen the damage his satire would do, but he was a good-natured man and he attempted to make amends by befriending the young poet and helping him secure writing commissions, notably for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (his article on Cowper was retained for the great eleventh edition) and for Blackwood’s Magazine, where Aytoun was a contributing editor. In doing so, Aytoun unknowingly nudged his new colleague toward the genre to which he was perfectly suited. Alexander Smith suffered growing pains as a poet. As an essayist he soon found the voice of a master.
There are several biographical introductions attached as prefaces to Alexander Smith’s works, as well as a warm, book-length reminiscence by the Reverend Thomas Brisbane, his friend from adolescence, who said that ‘to know him, you required to have him for a while by himself’. In Dreamthorp, we do. He has distilled his essence on to the printed page, surely one of the hallmarks of literary greatness. Beyond the essential facts of his life, no one has revealed more of him than we can learn in a single essay of his own exquisitely wrought prose.
Like the other great writers of his age, Alexander Smith hears the melody in language. His voice thus provokes condescension in the modern tone-deaf reader who is inclined to sniff at ‘purple’ passages. To be sure, there is purple aplenty, yet there is also blue and scarlet, indigo, violet and gold. It is a palette of great depth and artistry. It is the palette of a man awake, alert and alive.
As an artist, winter can match summer any day. The heavy, feathery flakes have been falling all the night through, we shall suppose, and when you get up in the morning the world is draped in white. What a sight it is! . . . How purely divinely white when the last snowflake has just fallen! How exquisite and virginal the repose! It touches you like some perfection of music. And winter does not work only on a broad scale; he is careful in trifles. Pluck a single ivy leaf from the old wall and see what a jeweller he is! How he has silvered over the dark green reticulations with his frosts . . . and behold on the black boughs his glories of pearl and diamond – pendant splendours that, smitten by the noon-ray, melt into tears and fall but to congeal into splendours again. Nor does he work in black and white alone . . . he begins to adorn his west, sticking his red hot ball of a sun in the very midst; and a couple of hours later, when the orb has fallen, and the flaming crimson has mellowed into liquid orange, you can see the black skeletons of trees scribbled upon the melancholy glory.
As he says, style is the immortal thing in literature. Purple? Well, I suppose. I like purple.
Like all men of a fine and noble nature, Alexander Smith is a bibliophile. An astute and accomplished reader, he is on easy conversational terms with his books and takes ‘the greatest pleasure in those books in which a peculiar personality is revealed’. As to their imperfections, ‘It is one of the Charitable dispensations of Providence that perfection is not essential to friendship’ because ‘It is from the roughness and imperfect breaks in a man that you are able to lay hold of him.’ In his bookcase, we meet his friends. Charles Lamb’s essays ‘are scented with the primroses of Covent Garden’. Milton is like ‘dining off gold plate in the company of kings; very splendid, very ceremonious, and not a little appalling’. Bacon’s table of contents ‘is like reading a roll of peers’ names’, but Montaigne’s is ‘like a medley, or a catalogue of an auction . . . When he presents you with a bouquet, you notice that the flowers have been plucked up by the roots, and to the roots a portion of the soil adheres.’ On Geoffrey Chaucer: ‘He is so fond of fun that he will drink it out of a cup that is only indifferently clean.’ I love that one.
Alexander Smith later wrote two novels and a charming recollection of his travels in Scotland, A Summer in Skye, and friends published a final collection of his essays, Last Leaves, after his death, but it is in Dreamthorp that he offers us his soul. It is, to steal a phrase from Dreamthorp itself, a book which ‘as with everything else, since I began to love it I find it gradually growing more beautiful’.
As Christopher Morley wrote in the introduction to the Doubleday Doran edition of 1934, Dreamthorp is ‘the best-loved, least-known book in the English language’. It deserves to be better known. It is worthy of a place on the short shelf that houses Montaigne, Hazlitt and Lamb. I have spent many happy hours in Alexander Smith’s company. He is a good man to know, and an easy man to love. In his essay ‘Books and Gardens’, he writes, ‘With books are connected all my desires and aspirations . . . I care for no other fashion of greatness . . . To be occasionally quoted is the only fame I care for.’
How glad I am to accommodate you, my friend.
From Slightly Foxed Issue 23.