Alexander Smith

Among the hosts of Kilmarnock people whose intellectual gifts have brought honour to the town, none is more praiseworthy or deserving of the posterity, than Alexander Smith, poet and essayist.

Born in Douglas Street in Kilmarnock in 1830, Alexander was the son of Peter Smith, a lace-pattern designer in a printwork. When work in the printing trade in Kilmarnock became scarce, the Smiths left the town for Paisley, although Alexander returned for a while later as a young man to work as a putter-on in a printwork. 

The family finally settled in Glasgow where Alexander obtained a good education before having to leave school aged 12 to help his family. He worked both in Glasgow and Paisley in his father's trade of lace-pattern designing. 

An avid reader of English prose and poetry, Alexander used his retentive memory to write poetry of his own. It was his custom in the evenings to compose verses on scrap paper which he brought home from the warehouse in Queen Street, Glasgow where he was employed. His poetry brought him some distinction as a member of his local debating club, the Addisonian Society. He was 20 years old when his first poem was published in the 'Eclectic Review' in 1850.

The following year he sent a collection of his manuscripts to a well-known critic, the Rev. George Gilfillan of Dundee. Almost immediately Smith was hailed by Gilfillan as the new poet of Glasgow and became established almost overnight. In 1853 he published his first work, 'A Life Drama', which ran to four editions, sold 10,000 copies in Britain and another 30, 000 overseas. In 1854, when still only 24, Alexander Smith was appointed as secretary to Edinburgh University. 

Continuing to indulge his love of poetry, Smith co-operated with Sidney Dobell in writing a series of sonnets on the Crimean War. In 1857, he married Flora Macdonald of Skye, a direct descendant of the Flora Macdonald who had aided in the escape from Scotland of Charles Edward Stewart following his defeat at Culloden. That same year he published 'City Poems', a selection which contained a personal tribute to Glasgow which is regarded as his greatest work. 

Smith soon gave up writing poetry after a charge of plagiarism was drawn against him. Soon after Tennyson published 'Idylls of the King', Smith had released a similar historical work 'Edwin of Deira', and although there is little similarity in the content of the two works, Smith's reputation as a poet was forever tarnished. 

Launching into essay-writing, Smith gained the highest recognition for his work. There was a great cultural quality to everything he wrote - humour, profound knowledge, and a passionate love of Nature. Smith published a delightful series of essays about Skye. He edited an edition of the woks of Robert Burns. His only prose tale, 'Alfred Hagart's Household', said to record his own childhood in Kilmarnock was published first as a magazine serial and finally as a book in its own right. 

Alexander Smith died in 1867 aged only 37. He is buried in Warriston Cemetery, Edinburgh. 

In winter, when the dismal rain 
Came down in slanting lines, 
And Wind, that grand old harper, smote 
His thunder-harp of pines
 - 'A Life Drama' 

It is not of so much consequence what you say, as how you say it. Memorable sentences are memorable on account of some single irradiating word - 'Dreamthorp'. 

Death is the ugly fact which Nature has to hide, and she hides it well  - 'Of Death and the Fear of Dying'. 

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