Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


ELLIOTT, EBENEZER (1781–1849), English poet, the corn-law rhymer, was born at Masborough, near Rotherham, Yorkshire, on the 17th of March 1781. His father, who was an extreme Calvinist and a strong radical, was engaged in the iron trade. Young Ebenezer, although one of a large family, had a solitary and rather morbid childhood. He was sent to various schools, but was generally regarded as a dunce, and when he was sixteen years of age he entered his father’s foundry, working for seven years with no wages beyond a little pocket money. In a fragment of autobiography printed in the Athenaeum (12th of January 1850) he says that he was entirely self-taught, and attributes his poetic development to long country walks undertaken in search of wild flowers, and to a collection of books, including the works of Young, Barrow, Shenstone and Milton, bequeathed to his father by a poor clergyman. At seventeen he wrote his Vernal Walk in imitation of Thomson. His earlier volumes of poems, dealing with romantic themes, received little but unfriendly comment. The faults of Night, the earliest of these, are pointed out in a long and friendly letter (30th of January 1819) from Robert Southey to the author.

Elliott’s wife brought him some money, which was invested in his father’s share of the iron foundry. But the affairs of the firm were then in a desperate condition, and money difficulties hastened his father’s death. Elliott lost all his money, and when he was forty years old began business again in Sheffield on a small borrowed capital. He attributed his father’s pecuniary losses and his own to the operation of the corn laws. He took an active part in the Chartist agitation, but withdrew his support when the agitation for the repeal of the corn laws was removed from the Chartist programme. The fervour of his political convictions effected a change in the style and tenor of his verse. The Corn-Law Rhymes (3rd ed., 1831), inspired by a fierce hatred of injustice, are vigorous, simple and full of vivid description. In 1833–1835 he published The Splendid Village; Corn-Law Rhymes, and other Poems (3 vols.), which included The Village Patriarch (1829), The Ranter, an unsuccessful drama, Keronah, and other pieces. He contributed verses from time to time to Tait’s Magazine and to the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent. In the meantime he had been successful in business, but he remained the sturdy champion of the poor. In 1837 he again lost a great deal of money. This misfortune was also ascribed to the corn laws. He retired in 1841 with a small fortune and settled at Great Houghton, near Barnsley, where he died on the 1st of December 1849. In 1850 appeared two volumes of More Prose and Verse by the Corn-Law Rhymer. Elliott lives by his determined opposition to the bread-tax, as he called it, and his poems on the subject are saved from the common fate of political poetry by their transparent sincerity and passionate earnestness.

An article by Thomas Carlyle in the Edinburgh Review (July 1832) is the best criticism on Elliott. Carlyle was attracted by Elliott’s homely sincerity and genuine power, though he had small opinion of his political philosophy, and lamented his lack of humour and of the sense of proportion. He thought his poetry too imitative, detecting not only the truthful severity of Crabbe, but a slight bravura dash of the fair tuneful Hemans. His descriptions of his native county reveal close observation and a vivid perception of natural beauty.

See an obituary notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine (Feb. 1850). Two biographies were published in 1850, one by his son-in-law, John Watkins, and another by January Searle (G. S. Phillips). A new edition of his works by his son, Edwin Elliott, appeared in 1876.

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& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

ELLIOTT, Ebenezer (1781-1849) by Scott McEathron

At first glance, the entry on Ebenezer Elliott in the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica seems evergreen, if thin: the chronology it lays out, and the notes it sounds, are consistent with the basic ways in which Elliott is still referenced, at least offhandedly, by literary historians. But this is partly a matter of luck, for there is possibly no Romantic-era poet featured in the Britannica who has generated less scholarship in the last century than Elliott, and this is true even with a mini-rush of excellent work appearing in the last two decades.

Ebenezer Elliott
Unknown. Ebenezer Elliott. 1847, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

The reasons for this scholarly lack are, not coincidentally, intertwined with the sorts of things that the entry on Elliott leaves out, or doesn’t fully register. The most vexing problem is that Elliott’s body of thought and work is more multivalent than one would assume of someone who flaunted his monomaniacal obsession with the evils of the Corn Laws. As the Britannica entry rightly underscores, there is a dramatic stylistic difference between his highly derivative, often tedious early verse and his post-1830 political poetry. But it is not quite the binary separation the Britannica entry implies and, more to point, there are complexities even within the later work, both in terms of poetic voice and in the class politics and economic theory from which it emerges.

On one hand, the Elliott of the Corn-Law period appears to be forceful, direct, and unafraid. He tells us that he knows his own mind, that poetry is impassioned truth (Preface to The Splendid Village, 1833), and that he will deliver us the unvarnished goods. His tone is one of utter, almost contemptuous, self-certainty. Britannica remarks on this, describing his verse as vigorous, simple, and full of vivid description and praising its passionate earnestness. But what it leaves out the more complicated parallel truth: this later verse, no matter how emphatic its tone, can also be mystically apocalyptic, sometimes to the point of opacity.

On the matter of his politics, it would help if the entry would identify Elliott as a Free-Trader, which is how he understood himself, and not simply as the Corn-Law Rhymer. For while he is relentless in decrying the suffering of the poor, and slathers on pathos and fury in thick tranches, he always has in mind a sociological superstructure that is less focused on suffering individuals than on capital and its movement. Elliott’s anger was not directed at the fact that money existed—he was decidedly more a capitalist than a proto-socialist—but at the fact that corrupt politicians refused to understand how money functioned. The free flow of goods in particular, he insisted, would benefit both tragically cash-strapped workers and, crucially, owners of businesses like himself.

Our understanding of Elliott’s career as a small-scale but ultimately successful industrialist remains imperfect. The account of Elliott’s business ventures in Britannica is one that has been recapitulated by virtually every biographical sketch that has followed, and includes mentions of his early involvement with two foundries, a period of work as an iron-monger, and a period running a successful cutlery business. But there is a distinct shortage of detail here, a problem that has persisted in subsequent accounts. It is not simply that we face blank spots, but that the chronicle of Elliott’s periodic rises and falls isn’t quite convincing, as it implies that he faced repeated setbacks before suddenly making a healthy fortune within a very short window, and then promptly retiring.

Elliott is still viewed overwhelmingly as a radical poet and champion of the poor, and one of the best pieces of recent criticism, found in Tim Fulford’s Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1815-1845 (2019), makes a compelling, wholly original argument that Elliott’s Corn Law Rhymes so powerfully engaged the Wordsworth of the Lyrical Ballads era that Wordsworth was dragged, almost unwillingly, into a public poetic engagement with an earlier, more radical version of himself. The galvanizing power of Elliott’s verse that Fulford elaborates in this single example was part of a broader pattern of reception, though several recent critics have detected a divide between Elliott’s rhetoric and his policy positions. So, for example, while he was a fierce advocate of the working man, he concurrently wanted to instill an ethic of self-improvement within the working classes; he saw suffrage as something that should be earned, not universally given. Mark Storey, in his introduction to Selected Poetry of Ebenezer Elliott (2008), sees some strategizing in Elliott’s rhetorical posturing, saying It can certainly be argued that Elliott’s political position was not as radical as he might have wanted it to appear. Donald Reiman, in his introduction to Elliott’s The Vernal Walk / Peter Faultless (1978), takes the strongest alternative position regarding the nature of Elliott’s apparent radicalism, saying it represents not philosophical altruism but laissez-faire capitalism at its self-centered purest.

There are also unexpected ambiguities to be found in Elliott’s later poetry. Storey is excellent on the pungency of what he calls Elliott’s pared-down style, and several of the later poems are so pithy and blunt they seem almost to subvert themselves, as in Elliott’s shorthand crystallizations of his putative philosophical heroes: Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, and the French economic theorist Turgot (1727-1781). His two-line On a Rose in December (1850) evokes another of his heroes, Robert Burns, but with a sense of portent that attributes cruelty both to the world and, possibly, the speaker: Stay yet, pale flower, though coming storms will tear thee, / My soul grows darker, and I cannot spare thee. The vaguely Blakean Oh, Tell Us! is existentially terrifying, with Elliott’s certainty about the dire terrestrial workings of the Corn-Laws abandoned for a glimpse into the Void:

Companion’d each by all and none,
A mob of souls, yet each alone,
We journey to the dread Unknown.

In nothing found, in all things shown,
In all life living, yet alone,
Where may it be, that dread Unknown?

Oh, who, or what, so dreadly shown,
And world-attended, yet alone,
Is that all-sought, all-known Unknown?

The totality of this great Unknown is usefully juxtaposed with the confident declarations that drove Elliott’s poetry forward through the decade of the 1830s. Indeed, it is at least worth considering the idea that Elliott’s poetry is as fully haunted by death as it is by the Corn Laws. For much of his career, death is described as the inevitable product of a system of economic slavery. But as he approaches his own end, it emerges as a thing unto itself, something that weirdly elevates his poetry even as it darkens it further.

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