Selected Criticism

Smith, Alexander (ca. 1830–1867)
Cooper, Stephen A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

A minor Scottish poet, essayist, and lace-pattern designer (a profession learned from his father), Alexander Smith received little formal education. Born in Kilmarnock, Smith mainly educated himself by reading Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

In 1850 Smith published in the "Poet's Corner" of the Glasgow Evening Citizen. These short poems received little notice, but his A Life Drama and Other Poems (1853) attracted enough attention by 1855 to have run through several editions. Whitman took notice of A Life Drama in 1854, and while he was largely unmoved by the work, he nevertheless was excited by a passage announcing the advent of "a mighty poet whom this age shall choose / To be its spokesman to all coming times" (qtd. in Zweig 149). For the most part, Whitman learned from Smith and other nineteenth-century poets how not to write.

Critics dubbed Smith a "spasmodic" poet and attacked him throughout his career for producing ineffectively organized long poems and essays plagued by overwrought images, feverish emotions, and obscure meanings—labels Smith never overcame. Whitman learned from Smith's dubious example—he wished to write clearly and simply.


Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. 1980. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.

Scott, Mary Jane W. "Alexander Smith: Poet of Victorian Scotland." Studies in Scottish Literature 14 (1979): 98–111.

Smith, Alexander. The Poetical Works of Alexander Smith. Ed. William Sinclair. Edinburgh: Nimmo, 1909.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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