During the four winters another and I were in Edinburgh, we never entered any but Free churches. This seems to have been less on account of a scorn for other denominations than because we never thought of them. We felt sorry for the "men" who knew no better than to claim to be on the side of Dr. Macgregor. Even our Free kirks were limited to two, St. George's and the Free High. After all, we must have been liberally minded beyond most of our fellows, for, as a rule, those who frequented one of these churches shook their heads at the other. It is said that Dr. Whyte and Dr. Smith have a great appreciation of each other. They, too, are liberally minded.
To contrast the two leading Free Church ministers in Edinburgh as they struck a student would be to become a boy again. The one is always ready to go on fire, and the other is sometimes at hand with a jug of cold water. Dr. Smith counts a hundred before he starts, while the minister of Free St. George's is off at once at a gallop, and would always arrive first at his destination if he had not sometimes to turn back. He is not only a Gladstonian, but Gladstonian; his enthusiasm carries him on as steam drives the engine. Dr. Smith being a critic, with a faculty of satire, what would rouse the one man makes the other smile. Dr. Whyte judges you as you are at the moment; Dr. Smith sees what you will be like to-morrow. Some years ago the defeated side in a great Assembly fight met at a breakfast to reason itself into a belief that it had gained a remarkable moral victory. Dr. Whyte and Dr. Smith were both present, and the former was so inspiriting that the breakfast became a scene of enthusiasm. Then Dr. Smith arose and made a remark about a company of Mark Tapleys—after which the meeting broke up.
I have a curious reminiscence of the student who most frequently accompanied me to church in Edinburgh. One Sunday when we were on our way up slushy Bath Street to Free St. George's he discovered that he had not a penny for the plate. I suggested to him to give twopence next time; but no, he turned back to our lodgings for the penny. Some time afterward he found himself in the same position when we were nearing the Free High. "I'll give twopence next time," he said cheerfully. I have thought this over since then, and wondered if there was anything in it.
The most glorious privilege of the old is to assist the young. The two ministers who are among the chief pillars of the Free Church in Edinburgh are not old yet, but they have had a long experience, and the strength and encouragement they have been to the young is the grand outstanding fact of their ministries. Their influence is, of course, chiefly noticeable in the divinity men, who make their Bible classes so remarkable. There is a sort of Freemasonry among the men who have come under the influence of Dr. Smith. It seems to have steadied them—to have given them wise rules of life that have taken the noise out of them, and left them undemonstrative, quiet, determined. You will have little difficulty, as a rule, in picking out Dr. Smith's men, whether in the pulpit or in private. They have his mark, as the Rugby boys were marked by Dr. Arnold. Even in speaking of him, they seldom talk in superlatives: only a light comes into their eye, and you realize what a well-founded reverence is. I met lately in London an Irishman who, when the conversation turned to Scotland, asked what Edinburgh was doing without Dr. Smith (who was in America at the time). He talked with such obvious knowledge of Dr. Smith's teaching, and with such affection for the man, that by and by we were surprised to hear that he had never heard him preach nor read a line of his works. He explained that he knew intimately two men who looked upon their Sundays in the Free High, and still more upon their private talks with the minister, as the turning-point in their lives. They were such fine fellows, and they were so sure that they owed their development to Dr. Smith, that to know the followers was to know something of the master. This it is to be a touchstone to young men.
There are those who think Dr. Smith the poet of higher account than Dr. Smith the preacher. I do not agree with them, though there can be no question that the author of "Olrig Grange" and Mr. Alexander Anderson are the two men now in Edinburgh who have (at times) the divine afflatus. "Surfaceman" is a true son of Burns. Of him it may be said, as it never can be said of Dr. Smith, that he sings because he must. His thoughts run in harmonious numbers. The author of "Olrig Grange" is the stronger mind, however, and his lines are always pregnant of meaning. He is of the school of Mr. Lewis Morris, but an immeasurably higher intellect if not so fine an artist: indeed, though there are hundreds of his pages that are not poetry, there are almost none that could not be rewritten into weighty prose. Sound is never his sole object. Good novels in verse are a mistake, for it is quite certain they would be better in prose. The novelist has a great deal to say that cannot be said naturally in rhythm, and much of Dr. Smith's blank verse is good prose in frills. It is driven into an undeserved confinement.
The privilege of critics is to get twelve or twenty minor poets in a row, and then blow them all over at once. I remember one who despatched Dr. Smith with a verse from the book under treatment. Dr. Smith writes of a poet's verses, "There is no sacred fire in them, Nor much of homely sense and shrewd;" and when the critic came to these lines he stopped reading: he declared that Dr. Smith had passed judgment on himself. This is a familiar form of criticism, but in the present case it had at least the demerit of being false. There is so much sacred fire about Dr. Smith's best poetry that it is what makes him a poet; and as for "homely sense and shrewd," he has simply more of it than any contemporary writer of verse. It is what gives heart to his satire, and keeps him from wounding merely for the pleasure of drawing blood. In conjunction with the sacred fire, the noble indignation that mean things should be, the insight into the tragic, it is what makes "Hilda" his greatest poem. Without it there could not be pathos, which is concerned with little things; nor humor, nor, indeed, the flash into men and things that makes such a poem as "Dr. Linkletter's Scholar" as true as life, as sad as death. If only for the sake of that noble piece of writing, every Scottish student should have "North-Country Folk" in his possession. The poem is probably the most noteworthy thing that has been said of northern university life.