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Alexander Smith And Alexander Pope
by [?]

Now, let it be fairly understood, Mr. Alexander Smith is not the object of our reproaches: but Mr. Alexander Smith’s models and flatterers. Against him we have nothing whatsoever to say; for him, very much indeed.

Very young, as is said, self-educated, drudging for his daily bread in some dreary Glasgow prison-house of brick and mortar, he has seen the sky, the sun and moon–and, moreover, the sea, report says, for one day in his whole life; and this is nearly the whole of his experience in natural objects. And he has felt, too painfully for his peace of mind, the contrast between his environment and that of others–his means of culture and that of others–and, still more painfully, the contrast between his environment and culture, and that sense of beauty and power of melody which he does not deny that he has found in himself, and which no one can deny who reads his poems fairly; who reads even merely the opening page and key-note of the whole:

For as a torrid sunset burns with gold
Up to the zenith, fierce within my soul
A passion burns from basement unto cope.
Poesy, poesy, I’d give to thee
As passionately my rich laden years,
My bubble pleasures, and my awful joys,
As Hero gave her trembling sighs to find
Delicious death on wet Leander’s lip
Bare, bald, and tawdry, as a fingered moth
Is my poor life; but with one smile thou canst
Clothe me with kingdoms. Wilt thou smile on me?
Wilt bid me die for thee? Oh fair and cold!
As well may some wild maiden waste her love
Upon the calm front of a marble Jove.

Now this scrap is by no menus a fair average specimen of Mr. Smith’s verse. But is not the self-educated man who could teach himself, amid Glasgow smoke and noise, to write such a distich as that exquisite one which we have given in italics, to be judged lovingly and hopefully?

What if he has often copied? What if, in this very scrap, chosen almost at random, there should be a touch from Tennyson’s “Two Voices?” And what if imitations, nay, caricatures, be found in almost every page? Is not the explanation simple enough, and rather creditable than discreditable to Mr. Smith? He takes as his models Shelley, Keats, and their followers. Who is to blame for that? The Glasgow youth, or the public taste, which has been exalting these authors more and more for the last twenty years as the great poets of the nineteenth century? If they are the proper ideals of the day, who will blame him for following them as closely as possible–for saturating his memory so thoroughly with their words and thoughts that he reproduces them unconsciously to himself? Who will blame him for even consciously copying their images, if they have said better than he the thing which he wants to say, in the only poetical dialect which he knows? He does no more than all schools have done, copy their own masters; as the Greek epicists and Virgil copied Homer; as all succeeding Latin epicists copied Virgil; as Italians copied Ariosto and Tasso; as every one who can copies Shakespeare; as the French school copied, or thought they copied, “The Classics,” and as a matter of duty used to justify any bold image in their notes, not by its originality, but by its being already in Claudian, or Lucan, or Virgil, or Ovid; as every poetaster, and a great many who were more than poetasters, twenty years ago, used to copy Scott and Byron, and as all poetasters now are copying the very same models as Mr. Smith, and failing while he succeeds.

We by no means agree in the modern outcry for “originality.” Is it absolutely demanded that no poet shall say anything whatsoever that any other poet has said? If so, Mr. Smith may well submit to a blame which he will bear in common with Shakespeare, Chaucer, Pope, and many another great name; and especially with Raphael himself, who made no scruple of adopting not merely points of style, but single motives and incidents, from contemporaries and predecessors. Who can look at any of his earlier pictures, the Crucifixion for instance, at present in Lord Ward’s gallery at the Egyptian Hall, without seeing that he has not merely felt the influence of Perugino, but copied him; tried deliberately to be as like his master as he could? Was this plagiarism? If so, all education, it would seem, must be a mere training in plagiarism. For how is the student to learn, except by copying his master’s models? Is the young painter or sculptor a plagiarist because he spends the first, often the best, years of his life in copying Greek statues; or the schoolboy, for toiling at the reproduction of Latin metres and images, in what are honestly and fittingly called “copies” of verses. And what if the young artist shall choose, as Mr. Smith has done, to put a few drawings into the exhibition, or to carve and sell a few statuettes? What if the schoolboy, grown into a gownsman, shall contribute his share to a set of “Arundines Cami” or “Prolusiones Etonienses?” Will any one who really knows what art or education means complain of them for having imitated their models, however servilely? Will he not rather hail such an imitation as a fair proof, first of the student’s reverence for authority–a more important element of “genius” than most young folks fancy–and next, of his possessing any artistic power whatsoever? For, surely, if the greater contains the less, the power of creating must contain that of imitating. A young author’s power of accurate imitation is, after all, the primary and indispensable test of his having even the capability of becoming a poet. He who cannot write in a style which he does know, will certainly not be able to invent a new style for himself. The first and simplest form in which any metrical ear, or fancy, or imagination, can show itself, must needs be in imitating existing models. Innate good taste–that is, true poetic genius–will of course choose the best models in the long run. But not necessarily at first. What shall be the student’s earliest ideal must needs be determined for him by circumstance, by the books to which he has access, by the public opinion which he hears expressed. Enough if he chooses, as Raphael did, the best models which he knows, and tries to exhaust them, and learn all he can from them, ready to quit them hereafter when he comes across better ones, yet without throwing away what he has learnt. “Be faithful in a few things, and thou shalt become ruler over many things,” is one of those eternal moral laws which, like many others, holds as true of art as it does of virtue.