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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by William Garrett Horder

Walter Chalmers Smith (1824–1908)

WALTER CHALMERS SMITH was born at Aberdeen on the 5th of December, 1824. He was educated at the grammar school and the university of his native city, and afterwards studied theology at Edinburgh. His first ministerial charge was in London, at the Free Scotch Church in Chadwell Street, Islington, where he was ordained in 1850. In 1858 he became minister of Orwell, Kinross-shire, where he remained three years, removing thence to the Free Roxburgh Church, Edinburgh, and three years later to the Free Tron Church, Glasgow. In 1876 he returned to Edinburgh, and became pastor of the Edinburgh Free High Church.

From 1860 to 1893 Dr. Smith published the following volumes of verse: “The Bishop’s Walk” (1860); “Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life” (1867); “Olrig Grange” (1872); “Borland Hall” (1874); “Hilda; among the Broken Gods” (1878); “Raban; or, Life Splinters” (1880); “North Country Folk” (1883); “Kildrostan” (1884); “Thoughts and Fancies for Sunday Evenings” (1887); “A Heretic and other Poems” (1891); “Selections from the Poems of Walter C. Smith” (1893).

The most popular of these works have been “Olrig Grange” and “Hilda; among the Broken Gods,” which have both passed through several editions.

Dr. Smith’s poetry is full of living interest, due to the fact that the problems discussed are those which reach down to the depths of our nature—in which therefore all who think must be interested. These are handled with ample knowledge, and in the main with great fairness, even to ideas with which the writer does not agree. There is not the deep psychological insight, nor the power of flashing light on obscure problems which arrest the reader of Robert Browning’s poetry; but there is some of that power of looking at things out of the eyes of others, which is probably the most wonderful characteristic of Robert Browning’s mind. But if Dr. Smith moves along lower levels, and does not tackle such subtle questions as Browning did, for the ordinary reader he has this great advantage, that all is written with absolute clearness. Browning’s name stands for hard thinking, Dr. Smith’s for pleasant reading, which leaves the reader with a deeper sympathy for, and better understanding of, the troubles and perplexities of men and women.

Dr. Smith and Dr. George MacDonald—both Aberdonians—have much in common in thought and feeling; but their manner of apprehending and of setting forth truth differs greatly. Dr. MacDonald’s way is that of the mystic—a quality of which I find none in Dr. Smith. His poems are “marked by richness of thought, creative imagination and lyrical charm, although unequal and not seldom careless in construction.” His longer poems would be more effective if the characters did not take so long in their self-revelations of thought and feeling. He sets forth vividly and often pathetically the inner struggles which form the real tragedies of these modern days. In the lyrics which are scattered over his longer poems there is the true poetic note.

Although Dr. Smith’s work has a claim to a place among that of the general poets, there is a certain fitness in his being placed among the sacred poets, since the strongest force in his poetry is the religious one, so that, even in what may be called his secular poetry, the most vital parts grow out of his theologic thought or religious feeling. In this respect he is like the other poet of Aberdeenshire, George MacDonald, who says himself, that he would not care either to write poetry or tell stories if he could not preach in them—but then there is preaching and preaching; and if all preaching were of the living sort we get from these two Aberdonians, the name would carry a higher meaning than it usually does.

Dr. Smith sees clearly enough that the springs of life lie in the religious part of man’s nature, so that even in “Kildrostan,” which is a crofter’s story, and deals with questions that are Social, the most powerful passages are concerned with religion. In “Olrig Grange,” which is a love story, there is no more effective portion than the picture of the mother, orthodox in doctrine, but utterly worldly at heart. Whilst in “Hilda; among the Broken Gods” religion is presented as it is seen out of many eyes—by Claud Maxwell, poet; Hilda, saint wife; Winifred Urquhart, materialist; Luke Spratt, evangelist; Rev. Elphinstone Bell, priest; just as in “The Ring and the Book,” by Robert Browning, the same tragedy is set forth as it appeared to all who were in any way connected with it. “A Heretic,” which, as its name implies, is concerned with the new movement of thought on religious questions so characteristic of our age, tells the story of one cast out from the Kirk for heresy, but whose beautiful Christian character demonstrated the vitality of his religion.

The following lines from this poem are at once an illustration of the truth they set forth and of the poet’s method:—

  • But one man like a tree shall stand,
  • Leafing and fruiting year by year,
  • And cling to his little patch of land,
  • And cast a shade for the lazy steer,
  • With no more change than the parsing breeze
  • Makes when it tosses the creaking bough;
  • And prosperous, plentiful, full of ease,
  • To-morrow he shall be the same as now.
  • Another shall flow like a freshening stream,
  • Flashing there where the sunbeam flies,
  • Eddying here in a brooding dream,
  • And all its life in its movement lies;
  • This the law of his being strange,
  • Ever he grows by flux and change.
  • What would you? Nature will have her way;
  • Will mend by night what you mar by day,
  • And laugh at the man who would say her Nay.
  • Tree cannot pluck up its roots and go,
  • Restless stream cannot cease to flow,
  • Each must obey the high Law given
  • To the things of earth by the Lord of Heaven.
  • In “North Country Folk,” one of the least known, but in our judgment one of the best pieces of work from his pen, there are three pictures of “Parish Pastors” belonging to different schools of Presbyterianism in Scotland. These are drawn with a masterly hand, and show how under the same creed and within the same ecclesiastical forms individual character and preference will assert themselves. We know not where to look for fresher or more delightful pictures in verse of Scottish life than in this volume.

    In “Olrig Grange” there are many incisive bits of character description. Here is one of Thorold—the hero of the poem:—

  • Trained for a priest, for that is still the pride
  • And high ambition of the Scottish mother,
  • There was a kind of priestly purity
  • In him, and a deep undertone of awe
  • Ran through his gayest fancies, and his heart
  • Reached out its sympathies, and laid fast hold
  • On the outcast, the unlovely, and alone
  • I’ the world. But being challenged at the door
  • Of God’s high Temple to indue himself
  • With armour that he had not proved, to clothe
  • With articles of ready-made Belief
  • His Faith inquisitive, he rent the Creed
  • Trying to fit it on, and cast it from him;
  • Then took it up again, and found it worn
  • With age, and riddled by the moth, and rotten.
  • Therefore he trod it under foot, and went
  • Awhile with only scant fig-leaves to clothe
  • His naked spirit, longing after God,
  • But more for knowledge panting than for faith,
  • The Priest was left behind; the hope of Glory
  • Became pursuit of Fame; and yet a light
  • From heaven kept hovering always over him,
  • Like twilight from a sun that had gone down.
  • In “Kildrostan”—the most dramatic of his works—with a striking plot there is a description, with both humorous and pathetic touches of a religious gathering of Crofters, of which Tremain, an unbelieving Cynic, thus speaks:—

  • “Why should I not
  • Enrich my soul with all experiences
  • Of life and passion to be moulded duly
  • Into pure forms of art? I came to see
  • The Christian superstition, where I heard
  • The thing was really living. Up in town
  • ’Tis but a raree show of surplices,
  • And albs and copes and silver candlesticks,
  • And droning repetitions; poor survivals
  • Of the old Pagan Cult; or else it is
  • A small dissenting shop where they retail
  • Long yards of worn-out logic, or an ounce
  • Of bitter morals with a syllabub
  • Of sentiment. But this is different.
  • I could almost have fancied I was back
  • With Cyril in the Abrandrian desert
  • And throngs of howling, unwashed monks who hunted
  • A Neo-Platonist: only your factor
  • Is no philosopher.”
  • But to give a single speech like this is little better than offering a brick to represent a building. Here, however, a more extended attempt is made to represent the several volumes of the poet by characteristic selections.

    Readers of Dr. Smith’s works may not find the high ethereal spirit of the great Masters of Song, but they will find touching stories of life—“metrical novelettes,” as Edmund Clarence Stedman calls them—and descriptions of many types of character given with much of the insight of the poet.