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Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

FOR a long time—I can hardly give a number to its years—I
have been haunted by a spectre of duty. Of late the visita-
tions of the haunter have recurred with increasing frequency and
added persistence of appeal ; and though, like Hamlet, I have long
dallied with the ghostly behest, like him I am at last compelled to
obedience. Ghosts, I believe, have a habit of putting themselves
in evidence for the purpose of demanding justice, and my ghost
makes no display of originality : in this respect he follows the
time-honoured example of his tribe, and if peace of mind is to
return to me the exorcism of compliance must needs be uttered.

Emerson in one of his gnomic couplets proclaims his conviction

” One accent of the Holy Ghost
This heedful world hath never lost “—

a saying which, shorn of its imaginative wings and turned into a
pedestrian colloquialism, reads something like this—” What de-
serves to live the world will not let die.” It is a comforting
belief yet there are times when Tennyson’s vision of the ” fifty
seeds,” out of which Nature ” often brings but one to bear,”
seems nearer to the common truth of things ; and all the world’s


                        122 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

heedfulness will not exclude Oblivion with her poppies from some
spot which should have been sacred to Fame with her amaranth
and asphodel. Still there will always be those who will stretch out
a hand to repel or evict the intruder—even as in Mr. Watts’s
noble allegory Love would bar the door against Death—and I
would fain play my little part in one not inglorious eviction.

I want to write of a wholly-forgotten prose-man (forgotten,
that is, by all save a solitary enthusiast here and there), but I
must first speak of a half-forgotten singer. Only people who are
on the shady side of middle-age can remember the intense
enthusiasm excited by the first work of the young Glasgow poet,
Alexander Smith. He had been discovered by that mighty hunter
of new poets, the Rev. George Gilfillan ; and in the columns of
Mr. Gilfillan’s journal The Critic had been published a number of
verses which whetted the appetite of connoisseurs in the early
fifties for the maiden volume of a bard who, it was broadly hinted,
might be expected to cast Keats into shadow. The prediction
was a daring one ; but the fifties, like the nineties, were a hey-day
of new reputations ; and when that brilliant though somewhat
amorphous work, A Life Drama, saw the light, a good many
people, not wholly indiscriminating, were more than half inclined
to think that it had been fulfilled. The performance of the new
poet, taken as a whole, might be emotionally crude and intel-
lectually ineffective, but its affluence in the matter of striking
imagery was amazing, and the critical literature of the day was
peppered with quotations of Alexander Smith’s ” fine passages.”
Very few people open A Life Drama now, though much time is
spent over books that are a great deal poorer ; but if any reader,
curious to know what kind of thing roused the admiration of
connoisseurs in the years 1853-4, will spend an hour over the
volume, he will come to the conclusion that it is a very remarkable


                        By James Ashcroft Noble 123

specimen of what may be called the decorated style of poetic

    ” An opulent soul
Dropt in my path like a great cup of gold,
All rich and rough with stories of the gods.”

” The sun is dying like a cloven king
In his own blood ; the while the distant moon,
Like a pale prophetess that he has wronged,
Leans eager forward with most hungry eyes
Watching him bleed to death, and, as he faints,
She brightens and dilates ; revenge complete
She walks in lonely triumph through the night.”

    ” My drooping sails
Flap idly ‘gainst the mast of my intent ;
I rot upon the waters when my prow
Should grate the golden isles.”

    ” The bridegroom sea
Is toying with the shore, his wedded bride,
And, in the fulness of his marriage joy,
He decorates her tawny brow with shells,
Retires a space to see how fair she looks,
Then, proud, runs up to kiss her.”

These and such things as these were what the admiring critics
loved to quote, and that they were indeed ” fine passages ” could not
be denied even by people whose tastes were for something a little
less gaudy. What was denied by those who were able to preserve
some calmness of judgment amid the storm of enthusiasm was
that this kind of fineness was the kind that goes to the making
of great poetry. The special fine things were ingenious, striking,


                        124 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

and sometimes beautiful conceits ; they were notable tours de force
of poetic fancy ; but they bore little if any witness to that illumi-
nating revealing imagination of which great poetry is all compact.
The young writer’s images were happy discoveries of external and
accidental resemblances ; not revelations of inherent and inter-
pretative affinity. Howsoever graceful and pretty in its way were
the figure which likened the sea and the shore to a bridegroom
and his bride, it gave no new insight into the daily mystery of the
swelling and ebbing tide—no such hint of a fine correspondence
between the things of sense and of spirit as is given in the really
imaginative utterance of Whitman :

” Surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall
As the water follows the moon silently with fluid steps anywhere
around the globe.”

What was most characteristic therefore in the verse of Alex-
ander Smith was a winning or arresting quality of fancy; and, in
poetry, fancy, though not to be despised, exercises a subordinate
sway—” she is the second, not the first.” It may be that Smith
came to see this : it is more probable that he came to feel it, as a
man feels many things which he does not formulate in a clearly
outlined thought : at any rate, after the publication of Edwin of
, his third volume of verse, he ceased almost entirely from
song, and chose as his favourite vehicle of expression a literary form
in which his special gift counted for more, and carried greater
weight of value, than it could ever count or carry in the poems
by which he first caught the world’s ear.

And yet, curiously enough, while Smith’s reputation as a poet
still lingers in a faint after-glow, the essays in which he expressed


                        By James Ashcroft Noble 125

himself with so much more of adequacy and charm cannot be said
to have won fame at all. They have had from the first their
little circle of ardent admirers, but it has never widened ; its
circumference has never touched, never even approximated to,
the circumference of that larger circle which includes all lovers of
letters. To be unacquainted with Lamb or Hunt, Hazlitt or
De Quincey, would be recognised as a regrettable limitation of
any man’s knowledge of English literature : non-acquaintance
with Alexander Smith as a writer of prose is felt to be one of
those necessary ignorances that can hardly be lamented because
they are rendered inevitable by the shortness of life and the
multiplicity of contending appeals. The fact that Smith as a
poet achieved little more than a succès d’estime may have pre-
judiced his reputation as an essayist ; but whatever theory be
constructed to account for it, recent literary history presents no
more curious instance of utter refusal to really admirable work of
deserved recognition and far-reaching fame.

For it must be noted and insisted upon that the essays of
Alexander Smith are no mere caviare literature. They have
neither the matter nor the manner of coterie performance—the
kind of performance which appeals to an acquired sense, and gives
to its admirer a certain pleasing consciousness of aloofness from
the herd. He is in the true line of descent from the great pre-
decessors just named ; and as they were his lineal forerunners, so
are Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mr. Richard Le Gallienne
his lineal descendants. Indeed the name of Mr. Stevenson
suggests, or rather re-suggests, a thought which is more or less
familiar to most of us—that in the world of letters there are
seasons uncongenial to certain growths of fame which in another
spring and autumn might have blossomed and borne much fruit.
Only by some such consideration is it possible to account for the


The Yellow Book—Vol. IV. H

                        126 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

curious fact that while Virginibus Puerisque and Men and Books
found their audience at once, Dreamthorp and Last Leaves are
still so largely unknown, and can now only be procured by diligent
search of the catalogues of the second-hand booksellers. The
fact is all the more curious because Alexander Smith may be
roughly described as a Stevenson born out of due time. Roughly,
of course, for the individuality of thinking and utterance which
is so important in all pure literature is, in the essay, not only
important but essential—the one thing needful, apart from which
all other things are, comparatively speaking, of no account ; and
in both Smith’s work and Mr. Stevenson’s the note of personality
always rings clear and true.

Their essays are what the essay in its purest form always tends
to be—the prose analogue of the song of self-expression, with its
explicit or implicit autobiography, that touches us as we are
never touched by external splendours of epic or drama. In Mon-
taigne, the father of the essay, the personal confession has an
almost boyish incontinence of frankness : in Smith, as in all the
modern men, it has more of reticence and reserve, but it is there
all the time ; and even when the thought seems most abstract
and impersonal the manner of its utterance has not the coldness
of disquisition, but the warmth of colloquy. We learn something
of the secret of this quality of the work from a few sentences in
which Smith discourses of his favourite craft and of his fellow-
craftsmen. Just as two or three of our best sonneteers—Words-
worth and Rossetti to wit—have written admirable sonnets in
celebration of the sonnet, so Alexander Smith is seldom seen to
greater advantage than in the pages where he magnifies his office
and makes himself the essayist of the essay.

” The essay, as a literary form, resembles the lyric, in so far as it


                        By James Ashcroft Noble 127

is moulded by some central mood—whimsical, serious, or satirical.
Give the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows
around it as the cocoon grows around the silkworm. . . . The essayist
is a kind of poet in prose, and if harshly questioned as to his uses, he
might be unable to render a better apology for his existence than a
flower might. The essay should be pure literature, as the poem is
pure literature. The essayist wears a lance, but he cares more for the
sharpness of its point than for the pennon that flutters upon it, than
for the banner of the captain under whom he serves. He plays with
death as Hamlet played with Yorick’s skull, and he reads the morals—
strangely stern, often, for such fragrant lodging—which are folded up
in the bosoms of roses. He has no pride, and is deficient in a sense
of the congruity and fitness of things. He lifts a pebble from the
ground, and puts it aside more carefully than any gem ; and on a nail
in a cottage door he will hang the mantle of his thought, heavily
brocaded with the gold of rhetoric.”

It may be remarked in parenthesis that the above sentences
were published in 1863, and they provide what is probably the first
statement by an English writer with any repute of the famous
doctrine ” Art for art’s sake ” to which Smith seems to have
worked his own way without the prompting of Gallican sugges-
tion. Indeed, even in 1869, when Mr. Patrick Proctor
Alexander edited Smith’s posthumous volume, Last Leaves, he
remarked in his introduction that he had thought of excluding
the essay entitled ” Literary Work,” in which the same doctrine
was more elaborately advocated, apparently on the ground that it
was a new heresy which might expose Smith to the pains and
penalties of literary excommunication. How curious it seems.
In ten years the essay which Mr. Alexander printed with an
apology became the accepted creed of all or nearly all the younger
men of letters in England, and now it is no longer either a


                        128 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

dangerous luxury or an article of orthodox faith, but one of those
uninteresting commonplaces which applied in one way is a truism,
in another a fatuous absurdity. So does fortune turn her wheel
for theories as well as for men and women.

In the passage just quoted Smith deals with the essay mainly as
simple literature, but he loves and praises it not as literature only,
but as autobiography ; not merely as something that is in itself
interesting and attractive, but as a window through which he can
peer in upon something more interesting still—the master who
built the house after his own design and made it an architectural
projection of himself.

” You like, to walk round peculiar or important men as you like to
walk round a building, to view it from different points and in different
lights. Of the essayist, when his mood is communicative, you obtain
a full picture. You are made his contemporary and familiar friend.
You enter into his humours and his seriousness. You are made heir
of his whims, prejudices, and playfulness. You walk through the
whole nature of him as you walk through the streets of Pompeii,
looking into the interior of stately mansions, reading the satirical
scribblings on the walls. And the essayist’s habit of not only giving
you his thoughts, but telling you how he came by them, is interesting,
because it shows you by what alchemy the ruder world becomes
transmuted into the finer. We like to know the lineage of ideas,
just as we like to know the lineage of great earls and swift race-
horses. We like to know that the discovery of the law of gravitation
was born of the fall of an apple in an English garden on a summer
afternoon. Essays written after this fashion are racy of the soil in
which they grow, as you taste the lava in the vines grown on the
slopes of Etna, they say. There is a healthy Gascon flavour in
Montaigne’s Essays ; and Charles Lamb’s are scented with the prim-
roses of Covent Garden.”


                        By James Ashcroft Noble 129

In the first of these passages Alexander Smith speaks of the
mantle of the essayist’s thought ” heavily brocaded with the gold
of rhetoric,” and he himself was a cunning embroiderer. It was
a gift of nature, but he did not learn at once how he could best
utilise it. He brocaded his poetry, and on poetry brocade even of
gold is an impertinence, just as is paint—pace Gibson—on the
white marble of the sculptured group or figure. In the essay he
found a form which relies less exclusively upon body of imagina-
tion and perfectness of pure outline—which is more susceptible to
legitimate adornment by the ornamentation of a passing fancy.
It is a form in which even the conceit is not unwelcome : to use
the language of science the conceit finds in the essay its fit
environment. Thus, in Smith’s pages Napoleon dies at St.
Helena ” like an untended watch-fire ” ; Ebenezer Elliot, the
Corn Law rhymer, is ” Apollo, with iron dust upon his face,
wandering among the Sheffield knife-grinders ” ; the solitary
Dreamthorp doctor has a fancy for arguing with the good simple
clergyman, but though ” he cannot resist the temptation to hurl a
fossil at Moses,” ” he wears his scepticism as a coquette wears her
ribbons—to annoy if he cannot subdue—and when his purpose is
served, he puts aside his scepticism—as the coquette puts her
ribbons.” When the black funeral creeps into Dreamthorp from
some outlying hamlet, the people reverently doff their hats and
stand aside, for, as Smith puts it, ” Death does not walk about
here often, but when he does, he receives as much respect as the
squire himself.” There is, in this last sentence, a touch of quiet
Addisonian irony ; and, indeed, Smith reminds us at times of
almost all his great predecessors in the art of essay-writing of
his prime favourites Montaigne and Bacon (” our earliest essayists
and our best ” is his own eulogium) ; and also of Addison, Steele,
Lamb, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt. But it is never a reminder


                        130 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

that brings with it a suggestion of imitation. The methods and
graces of these distinguished forerunners are to be found in
Smith’s pages only by patient analysis, and then never in their
crude state, for his personality fuses them into a new amalgam
and stamps them with a new hall-mark.

Perhaps the most purely individual qualities of Smith’s work
are given to it partly by his remarkable aptitude for the presenta-
tion of his thought in simile and metaphor ; partly by his fine
feeling for colour, and, indeed, for all the elements of picturesque-
ness ; and partly by a native tendency to sombreness of reflection
which makes such a theme as that of the essay, ” On Death and
the Fear of Dying,” attractive rather than repellent, or—to
speak, perhaps, with greater accuracy—repellent, yet irresistibly
fascinating, as is the eye of the rattlesnake to its prey. The
image-making endowment makes itself manifest in almost every
passage that it would be possible to quote as characteristic ; and it
may be noted that the associative habit of mind betrays itself not
merely in the sudden simile which transfixes a resemblance on the
wing, but in the numerous pages in which Smith showed his love
for tracing the links of the chain that connects the near and the
far, the present and the past, the seen and the unseen. Thus he
writes in his Dreamthorp cottage :

” That winter morning when Charles lost his head in front of the
banqueting-hall of his own palace, the icicles hung from the eaves of
the houses here, and the clown kicked the snowballs from his clouted
shoon, and thought but of his supper when at three o’clock the red
sun set in the purple mist. On that Sunday in June, while Waterloo
was going on, the gossips, after morning service, stood on the country
roads discussing agricultural prospects, without the slightest suspicion
that the day passing over their heads would be a famous one in the
calendar. . . . The last setting sun that Shakspeare saw reddened the


                        By James Ashcroft Noble 131

windows here, and struck warmly on the faces of the hinds coming
home from the fields. The mighty storm that raged while Cromwell
lay a-dying, made all the oak-woods groan round about here, and tore
the thatch from the very roofs that I gaze upon. When I think
of this I can almost, so to speak, lay my hand upon Shakspeare
and upon Cromwell. These poor walls were contemporaries of
both, and I find something affecting in the thought. The mere
soil is, of course, full older than either, but it does not touch one in
the same way. A wall is the creation of a human hand ; the soil is

Smith’s picturesqueness is fully in evidence here, though the
passage was not quoted to illustrate it. Indeed, there are few
writers who satisfy so largely the visual sense of the imagination.
Even his literary appraisements—witness the essays on Dunbar
and Chaucer, and that charming paper ” A Shelf in my Book-
case “—have a pictorial quality, as if he must see something as
well as think something. Here is Dreamthorp where the essayist,
the transfigured Alexander Smith—” Smith’s Smith ” as the
Autocrat of the Breakfast-table would put it—lives his ideal life :

” This place suits my whim, and I like it better year after year.
As with everything else, since I began to love it I find it growing
beautiful. Dreamthorp—a castle, a chapel, a lake, a straggling strip
of grey houses, with a blue film of smoke over all—lies embosomed in
emerald. Summer with its daisies runs up to every cottage door.
From the little height where I am now sitting 1 see it beneath me.
Nothing could be more peaceful. The wind and the birds fly over
it. A passing sunbeam makes brilliant a white gable-end, and brings
out the colours of the blossomed apple-tree beyond, and disappears. I
see figures in the street, but hear them not. The hands on the church
clock seem always pointing to one hour. Time has fallen asleep in
the afternoon sunshine. I make a frame of my fingers and look at


                        132 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

my picture. On the walls of the next Academy’s exhibition will
hang nothing half so beautiful.”

This is the tout ensemble, but every detail has its own pictorial
charm. There is the canal—a prosaic unpicturesque thing is a
canal; but this particular canal has ” a great white water-lily
asleep on its olive-coloured face,” while to the picture-making eye
” a barge trailing up through it in the sunset is a pretty sight ;
and the heavenly crimsons and purples sleep quite lovingly upon
its glossy ripples. Nor does the evening star disdain it, for as I
walk along I see it mirrored as clearly as in the waters of the
Mediterranean itself.”

The sombreness of reflection noted as one of the characteristic
features of Smith’s work as an essayist gives to that work a
recognisable autumnal feeling. It is often difficult to think of
it as the work of a young man full of the ordinary buoyant life of
youth ; though when the difficulty presents itself one may remember
also that the young man was destined to die at thirty-seven—that
fatal age for the children of imagination—and it is, perhaps, not
too fanciful to indulge the thought that some presentiment of early
doom may have given to Smith’s meditative moods much of their
pensive seriousness. However this may be, it is certain that
Alexander Smith, with a constancy which the most careless reader
cannot fail to note, recurred again and again, both when oppor-
tunity offered and when opportunity had to be made, to the theme
of death, its mystery, its fear, and its fascination. In one of his
poems, which I quote from memory, he speaks of his life as a
highway which, at some unknown point, has his grave cut across ;
and even in the joyous ” Spring Chanson ” the poet, addressing the
singing merle, drops suddenly from the major into the minor key,
and ends upon the note by which the key is dominated :

                                                ” Men

                        By James Ashcroft Noble 133

” Men live and die, the song remains ; and when
    I list the passion of thy vernal breath
    Methinks thou singest best to Love and Death—
To happy Lovers and to dying Men.”

Autumn and death must needs be naturally allied in human
thought, though to the joyous-minded even autumn will be
associated with its present fruitage rather than with its presage of
dissolution ; but this intrusion of death into a celebration of the
life and growth of spring seems irrelevant, almost morbid : it may
even seem artificial, as if the poet were deliberately striving after a
strong literary effect by the expedient of an unnatural juxtaposition
of incongruous ideas. To a man of Smith’s mind and tempera-
ment it has certainly neither irrelevance nor artificiality ; whether
we can rightly call it morbid depends upon the meaning we
attach to a word to which the personal feeling rather than the
common reason gives a definition. Smith’s habit was to endeavour
to realise death that he might more fully and richly realise life.
” To denude death of its terrible associations,” he writes, ” were
a vain attempt, the atmosphere is always cold around an iceberg ” ;
and yet in imagination he loves to draw near the iceberg for some
shivering moments that he may enjoy more exquisitely the warmth
of summer sun or piled-up winter fire. To his constant thought

” There are considerations which rob death of its ghastliness, and
help to reconcile us to it. The thoughtful happiness of a human being
is complex, and in certain moved moments which, after they have gone,
we can recognise to have been our happiest, some subtle thought of
death has been curiously intermixed. And this subtle admixture it is
that gives the happy moment its character—which makes the difference
between the gladness of a child, resident in mere animal health and
impulse, and too volatile to be remembered, and the serious joy of a


                        134 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

man who looks before and after, and takes in both this world and the
next. Speaking broadly, it may be said that it is from some obscure
recognition of the fact of death that life draws its final sweetness.
…. This recognition does not always terrify. The spectre has
the most cunning disguises, and often when near us, we are unaware
of the fact of proximity. Unsuspected, this idea of death lurks in the
sweetness of music ; it has something to do with the pleasure with
which we behold the vapour of morning ; it comes between the
passionate lips of lovers; it lives in the thrill of kisses. ‘An inch
deeper, and you will find the emperor.’ Probe joy to its last fibre
and you will find death.”

To preserve always in the background of the mind some great
thought or momentous interest, tends to ensure a certain fine
justice in a man’s estimate of the relative proportions of smaller
things lying in the front of it, and Alexander Smith’s essays have
a restful quality of measure, balance, and sanity. In the ” Essay
on an Old Subject,” published in Last Leaves, the young man who
had but recently gone into the thirties writes with imaginative
prescience—or possibly from a premature experience—of the joys
and gains of middle-age (by which he means the forty-fifth year or
thereabouts) ; and there is in most of his essays, especially in the
Dreamthorp papers which came earliest, a middle-aged maturity
which charms and satisfies, and never disturbs. But it is not a
middle-age which has ossified into routine and become dead to
youth’s enthusiasms—witness the fine ardour of the concluding
sentence of the essay in which he ” memorises ” Carlyle’s appear-
ance at Edinburgh to deliver his Rectorial address : ” When I
saw him for the first time stand up amongst us the other day, and
heard him speak kindly, brotherly, affectionate words …. I am
not ashamed to confess that I felt moved towards him as I do not
think, in any possible combination of circumstances, I could have


                        By James Ashcroft Noble 135

felt moved towards any other living man.” And yet, though he has
not lost youth’s ardour, he has freed himself from youth’s arrogant
impatience ; he can be moved by enthusiasms, but not driven help-
lessly before them ; he can project himself from himself and survey
his own thought ” in the round ” ; he has learned the lessons of
Clough’s pregnant words, ” and yet—consider it again.” At the
same time his manner it never that tantalising, irritating manner
of explicit guards, reserves, limitations—the manner of the writer
who is always making himself safe by the sudden ” but ” or
” nevertheless ” or ” notwithstanding.” The due limitation is con-
veyed implicitly, in the primal statement of the thought—in the
touch of irony or humorous extravagance which hints with
sufficing clearness that this or that is not to be interpreted au pied
de la lettre
. The delightful essay ” On Vagabonds,” at the close of
the Dreamthorp volume, might be described roughly as a glorifica-
tion of the life of Bohemia, and an impeachment, or at any rate a
depreciation of commonplace Philistine respectability. In dealing
with such a theme with such a bent of mind, the temptation to
force the note, to overcharge the colour, would be to most men—
to all young men, impatient of restricting conventions—well-nigh
irresistible ; but Smith resists it with no apparent effort of
resistance. There is no holding of himself in lest he should speak
unadvisedly with his tongue ; on the contrary, he lets himself go
with perfect abandonment. The ” genuine vagabond,” he says,
” takes captive the heart,” and he declares it ” high time that a
moral game law were passed for the preservation of the wild and
vagrant feelings of human nature ” ; but just when we expect the
stroke of exaggeration there comes instead the light touch of saving
humour, and we know that the essayist is in less danger even than
we of losing his head, or, as the expressive cant phrase has it,
” giving himself away.”


                        136 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

Some of the few (and if I could succeed in increasing their
number I should be greatly content) who know Alexander
Smith’s prose well, and love it even as they know, have probably
favourite papers or favourite groups. Some may feel especially
drawn to the essays of pure reflection, such as ” Death and the
fear of Dying ” and ” The Importance of a Man to Himself ” ;
others to that delightful group in which the familiar simplicities
of nature supply texts for tranquil meditation—” Dreamthorp,”
” Christmas,” and ” Books and Gardens,” in which last there is
also some delightful character-portraiture in the vignettes of the
village doctor and clergyman ; others to the essays in literary
appreciation, such as ” Dunbar,” ” Geoffrey Chaucer,” ” Scottish
Ballads,” and ” A Shelf in my Bookcase.” In the words applied
by Charles Lamb, with a certain free unscrupulousness to the
whole world of books, I must say with regard to Alexander
Smith’s essays, ” I have no preferences.” To me they all have a
charm which somewhat dulls the edge of discrimination, for the
writer rather than the theme is the centre of interest ; he is the
hero of the play, and he is never off the stage. Still in some
torture chamber of inquiry certain names might be extracted from
me, and I think they would be ” Dreamthorp,” ” Books and
Gardens,” and ” A Lark’s Flight.” This last study, which has
not been previously named, is one of the most noteworthy of
Smith’s essays, and will be grateful to the more lazy readers
inasmuch as it tells a story. It is the story of a murder and an
execution, the murder vulgar and commonplace enough—a crime
of brutal violence, the execution a sombrely picturesque function,
with one striking incident which seized and held the imagination
of the boy who witnessed it ; and the story is told with an arrest-
ing vividness to which I know only one parallel in English
literature, the narrative appendix to De Quincey’s famous essay,

                                                ” On

                        By James Ashcroft Noble 137

” On Murder, considered as one of the Fine Arts.” The execu-
tion took place, after the old custom in Scotland, on the spot
where the crime had been committed—a lonely stretch of grass-
land, some distance outside the city of Glasgow. The criminals
were Irish navvies, members of a large gang employed in the
neighbourhood, and as there were some rumours of a rescue, a
detachment of cavalry, supplemented by field-pieces, surrounded
the scaffold. Of the scene itself, and the one occurrence round
which its latent pathos crystallised, Smith gives the recollections
of boyhood. The men were being brought in a cart to the place
of execution, and when they reached the turn of the road where
they could first see the black cross-beam with its empty halters,
the boy noted the eager, fascinated gaze the doomed men cast
upon it. At last the place was reached, and Smith writes :

” Around it a wide space was kept clear by the military ; the cannon
were placed in position ; out flashed the swords of the dragoons ;
beneath and around on every side was the crowd. Between two brass
helmets I could see the scaffold clearly enough, and when in a little
while the men, bareheaded and with their attendants, appeared upon
it, the surging crowd became stiffened with fear and awe. And now it
was that the incident, so simple, so natural, so much in the ordinary
course of things, and yet so frightful in its tragic suggestions, took
place. Be it remembered that the season was early May, that the day
was fine, that the wheatfields were clothing themselves in the green
of the young crop, and that around the scaffold, standing on a sunny
mound, a wide space was kept clear. When the men appeared
beneath the beam, each under his own proper halter, there was a dead
silence,—every one was gazing too intently to whisper to his neighbour
even. Just then, out of the grassy space at the foot of the scaffold, in
the dead silence audible to all, a lark rose from the side of its nest,
and went singing upward in its happy flight. O heaven ! how did


                        138 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

that song translate itself into dying ears ? Did it bring, in one wild
burning moment, father and mother, and poor Irish cabin, and prayers
said at bedtime, and the smell of turf fires, and innocent sweet-
hearting, and rising and setting suns ? Did it—but the dragoon’s
horse has become restive, and his helmet bobs up and down and blots
everything ; and there is a sharp sound, and I feel the great crowd
heave and swing, and hear it torn by a sharp shiver of pity, and the
men whom I saw so near but a moment ago are at immeasurable
distance, and have solved the great enigma,—and the lark has not yet
finished his flight : you can see and hear him yonder in the fringe of
a white May cloud. . . . . There is a stronger element of terror in
this incident of the lark than in any story of a similar kind I
can remember.”

Gasps of admiration are amateurish, provincial, ineffective, but
after reading such a passage as this, the words that come first—at
any rate to me—are not in the least critical but simply exclama-
tory. It is wonderful writing ! Then comes a calmer and more
analytical moment in which one discovers something of the secret
of the art in what has seemed at first not art at all but sheer nature.
Mr. Pater, in one of his most instructive essays, has shown that
the ” classical ” element in art is ” the quality of order in beauty,”
and that ” it is that addition of strangeness to beauty that con-
stitutes the romantic character,” romantic art at its best being
moreover distinguished by a fine perfection of workmanship.
This surely then is an impressive miniature example of romantic
art with its combination of strangeness and beauty, and its flaw-
less technique—its absolute saturation of the vehicle of expression
with the very essence of the thing, the emotion that is to be
expressed. Note the directness and simplicity of the early
narrative sentences ; they are a mere recital of facts, and their
very baldness only mitigated by a single emotional phrase, ” the


                        By James Ashcroft Noble139

surging crowd became stiffened with fear and awe,” prepares the
mind for what is to follow. And then, the sudden break in the
second sentence beginning ” Did it,”—how perfectly natural it
seems, and yet how dexterous it really is ; how it renders perfectly
and at a single stroke what the best-chosen words of narrative
would have rendered jumblingly, the brevity of the interval
between the lark’s rising and the consummation of doom—the
sharp bewildering suddenness of the end. Then, lastly, the
curious in these things may notice a certain peculiarity in the
construction of the concluding sentence of the story—the penulti-
mate sentence of the quotation. There are in the volume barely
nine lines, and in these lines the word ” and ” occurs eleven times.
All frequent and close repetitions of a single word are generally
avoided by good writers, and the repetition of an insignificant
conjunction such as ” and ” is, as a rule, something to be specially
avoided. Smith habitually avoided as carefully as any of us, but
here he had to give the feeling of impetuosity, of eager hurry to
get the ghastly story told, and the ” and ” which rapidly accumu-
lates detail upon detail recurs as naturally and inevitably as in the
voluble speech of a little child bursting into her mother’s room
with some marvellous recital of adventure encountered in her
morning walk. This is the high literary art which instinctively
and perfectly adapts the means of language—of word, sound, pause,
and cadence—to the end of absolute expression.

Alexander Smith himself is never wearisome ; and it would ill
become me to weary those whom I would fain interest by sur-
plusage of comment ; but I should like to add a word or two con-
cerning those essays in which he appears as a critic of literature.
Mr. Oscar Wilde has said that all good criticism is simply auto-
biography—that is, I suppose, a statement of personal pre-
ferences. I accept the definition if I may enlarge it by saying


                        140 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

that criticism is not merely a statement of personal preferences
but of justifications for such preferences presented with a view to
persuasion. Of course even with this rider the definition still
leaves autobiography the main element in criticism, and of such
autobiographical appraisement Smith was a master. Whether he
formulated the rule never to write of any authors whose work he
did not enjoy I cannot say : he certainly acted upon it with the
most delightful results. So keen in his gusto, so adequate and
appetising his expression of it, that one may dare to say the next
best thing to reading Montaigne, Bacon, Chaucer, and the
Scottish Ballads, is to read what Alexander Smith has to say about
them. His talk about books is always so human that it will
delight people whom one would not think of calling literary. He
discourses on The Canterbury Tales not as a man weighing and
measuring a book, but as a wayfarer sitting in the inn-yard of the
Tabard at Southwark, watching the crowd of pilgrims with the
eye of an acute and good-natured observer, taking notes of their
appearance, and drawing from it shrewd inferences as to habit and
character. He has certain favourite volumes upon which he ex-
patiates in the essay entitled ” A Shelf in my Bookcase ” ; and the
principle of selection is obvious enough. They are books full of
a rich humanity ; beneath their paragraphs or stanzas he can
feel the beating heart. The literary vesture is simply a vesture
which half reveals and half conceals the objects of his love—the
man or woman who lives and breathes behind. He reveals in the
old Scotch ballads and German hymns, for in them the concealing
veil is thin, and the thoughts and loves and pains of simple souls
in dead centuries are laid open and bare. He prefers Hawthorne’s
Twice-told Tales to his longer and more elaborate works, such as
Transformation and The Scarlet Letter, because he finds more of
the man in them, the solitary author who had no public to think


                        By James Ashcroft Noble 141

of, and who wrote because he must. He has a genuine catholicity,
but it is not that uninteresting catholicity which lacks defined
circumferences ; and his general sensibility to excellence is em-
phasised by frank confession of his limitations. The author of
Paradise Lost evidently lies a little outside the reach of Alexander
Smith’s tentacles of sympathy.

” Reading Milton is like dining off gold plate in a company of
kings ; very splendid, very ceremonious, and not a little appalling.
Him I read but seldom, and only on high days and festivals of the
spirit. Him I never lay down without feeling my appreciation
increased for lesser men—never without the same kind of comfort that
one returning from the presence feels when he doffs respectful attitude
and dress of ceremony, and subsides into old coat, familiar arm-chair,
and slippers. After long-continued organ-music the jangle of the
ew’s harp is felt as an exquisite relief.”

There is a trace of Philistinism here—the Philistinism which is
not ashamed but rather complacent ; and it may seem a strange whim
on the part of one who loves Smith’s work to choose as a final sample
of it a passage which, some of the elect may think, does not show
him at his best. But Danton’s commendation of audacity, though
not universally valid, is a word of wisdom to the advocate with a
strong case. Alexander Smith’s best is good with such a rare and
delightful quality of goodness that his appreciator shows no great
temerity in abandoning all reserves and concealments. He is not
afraid of painting the wart, because it is overpowered by strength
of feature and charm of expression. Alexander Smith, as he shows
himself in his prose—in Dreamthorp, in Last Leaves, and in that
entrancing book A Summer in Skye—is one of those writers con-
cerning whom even a lover may tell not only the truth, but the
whole truth. For myself, I read his essays when I was young and


The Yellow Book—Vol. IV. I

                        142 Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner

found them full of stimulation ; I have read them again since I
have become middle-aged, and have found them satisfyingly rest-
giving. At no time have they been found wanting in something
of rare and delicate delight. If criticism be indeed autobiography,
no verdict upon the essays of Alexander Smith could well be at
once more critical or more praiseful than this confession. I love
Mr. Stevenson and my later contemporaries ; but I think I must
confess that I love my early contemporary, Mr. Stevenson’s
countryman and forerunner, better still.

MLA citation:

Noble, James Ashcroft. “Mr. Stevenson’s Forerunner.” The Yellow Book, vol. 4, January 1895, pp. 121-142. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.