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A Life-Drama

August 3, 2010

Yesterday, at the Alameda Flea Market, I came across this book. It is A Life-Drama by Alexander Smith. I had never heard of Alexander Smith. The book was sitting on a $1 table with other random items, none of them books. The book was the best value by far, and I liked its cover.

Inside, it is signed by a John G Lacey, 1887, which for some reason blew my mind. I know that there are other, older books around, but why would this one, so old, be on sale now, here, for such a little sum? I tried to imagine the path this book took from Mr. Lacey 123 years ago to me now.

On the second page, the book is embossed with “Wells & Wright, Druggists & Booksellers, Oskaloosa, Iowa.” I like the idea of a store that sells drugs and books. I wonder if they ever explored pairings; a little morphine with Life-Drama, some ether and Das Kapital? The embossing threw my imagined book-path from Mr. Lacey to me completely off–I didn’t imagine the book had ever come anywhere near Oskaloosa, Iowa. How wrong I apparently was.

I flipped through the book and read some of the verse. It is a book of poetry, and I found a few that I liked. Some are a little corny, but charming in their corniness. Others are just bad:

“When violets came and woods were green,
And larks did skyward dart,
A Love alit and white did sit
Like an angel on his heart.”

“And larks did skyward dart” kind of makes me feel a little embarrassed just for reading it. But I quite like a verse on the previous page:

“In winter when the dismal rain
Comes down in slanting lines,
And Wind, that grand old harper, smote
His thunder-harp of pines.”

A thunder-harp of pines! What a great image. And points for the word “smote.” All this ridiculous poetry comes from the lips of WALTER, a character who, as best I could tell on a cursory reading, is trying to seduce LADY. I flipped through a few other pages. Soliloquy after soliloquy are filled with descriptions of the sky and the sun and the weather, some of them better than others. At any rate, it was well worth the price, so I handed the man a dollar bill.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to read this book front to back–seems like it might be intolerable that way–but I’ve been enjoying opening it to random pages and taking in a few verses. Here is one, recited by WALTER as he wanders down a rural lane. He is describing the dusk and the arrival of Night, who mounts her chariot, pulled by “wingéd swimming steeds.”

“Brainful of dreams, a summer-hive with bees;
And round her in the pale and spectral light
Flock bats and grisly owls on noiseless wings.
The flying sun goes down the burning west,
Vast night comes noiseless up the eastern slope,
And so the eternal chase goes round the world.”

Indeed it does. Brainful of dreams, it does.

I was hoping that Alexander Smith was a real nobody. I was hoping that a Google search would turn up nothing, that I’d made a little discovery. But apparently he was somebody before he was ridiculed and mocked and possibly wished that he had been a real nobody. Smith was a Scottish poet, born on the last day of 1830, and the publication of A Life-Drama in London was apparently met with some hype. In fact, the New York Times states, “It is hard to realize now the enthusiasm with which this new writer was greeted. The London press was almost unanimous in his praise.” A page in the back of the book containing “Notices from the London Press”confirms this. It states: “Since Tennyson, no poet has come before the public with the same promise as the author of this volume.”

Smith was part of the Spasmodic school of poetry. According to Wikipedia, Spasmodic poetry frequently took the form of verse drama, and often featured the protagonist delivering long soliloquies. Spasmodic poetry was popular during the 1840’s and 1850’s, then fell so quickly out of fashion that it, and the poets, became the butt of jokes, I assume by other poets. But here I am, and I am here, sitting 123 years later, flipping through a book of Smith’s words, not theirs. And so the eternal chase goes round the world.

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