Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Anderson, Alexander
ANDERSON, ALEXANDER (1845–1909), labour poet writing under the pseudonym of 'Surfaceman,' born on 30 April 1845, in the village of Kirkconnel in Upper Nithsdale, was sixth and youngest son of James Anderson, a Dumfriesshire quarryman, by his wife Isabella Cowan. When the boy was three, the household removed to Crocketford in Kirkcudbright, and at the village school there Anderson got all his schooling; there too he began to make rhymes. At sixteen he was back in his native village working in a quarry; some two years later (1862), he became a surfaceman or platelayer on the Glasgow and South-western railway there. While performing his long day's task on the line he found opportunity of an evening or at meal times on the embankment to read Shelley, Wordsworth, and Tennyson; and by help of 'Cassell's Educator' and an elementary grammar, acquired French enough to puzzle out Racine and Molière. Later he managed in like manner to read Goethe, Schiller, and Heine in German, learnt a little Italian, and acquired a smattering of Spanish and Latin. In 1870 he began to send verses to the 'People's Friend' of Dundee, whose sub-editor, Mr. A. Stewart, brought Anderson's work under the notice of George Gilfillan [q. v.] and advised the publication of a volume of collected pieces, 'A Song of Labour and other Poems' (1873). This Gilfillan reviewed very favourably; and to a second volume, 'The Two Angels and other Poems' (Dundee, 1875), the friendly critic prefixed an appreciative memoir of the 'Surfaceman,' whose verse now appeared from time to time in 'Good Words,' 'Chambers's Journal,' 'Cassell's Magazine,' and the 'Contemporary Review.' A wealthy Glasgow citizen, Mr. Thomas Corbett, sent Anderson to Italy with his son (Archibald Cameron Corbett, afterwards Lord Rowallan). But the sonnet series 'In Rome' does not record the impressions made by Italian experiences; they are the imaginings of the railway labourer who, when he published them (1875), had hardly been out of his native county. Before the surfaceman returned to his labours on the rail he had made personal acquaintance with Carlyle, Roden Noel, Lord Houghton, Miss Mulock (Mrs. Craik), and Alexander Macmillan. His next venture, 'Songs of the Rail' (1878; 3rd edit. 1881), was largely composed of railway poems from the two earlier collections. 'Ballads and Sonnets' (1879), published by Macmillan, also contained a selection from the earlier volumes with new pieces. In 1896 all the volumes were out of print.
In October 1880 Anderson passed from the exhausting twelve hours a day with pick and shovel at 17s. a week to the lighter appointment of assistant librarian in Edinburgh University. Learned leisure failed to stimulate his poetic impulses; henceforward he wrote little but occasional verses, mainly when on holiday amongst old friends at Kirkconnel. For private circulation he printed some translations from Heine; and from time to time he revised, amended, or extended a long blank verse poem on the experiences of Lazarus of Bethany in the world of spirits, and after restoration to life. In 1883 he left the university to become secretary to the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, a library and lecture society. But in 1886 he returned to the university library, where at his death on 11 July 1909, he had for five years been acting chief librarian. He was unmarried. In Edinburgh he conciliated respect and affection, not less by the native dignity and force of his character than by his geniality and social gifts, although in later years ill-health made him much of a recluse.
Anderson's poetical work shows lyrical power, generous feeling, and vivid vision, as well as a command of metre and a literary equipment that would be note-worthy in a writer of liberal education and in a cultured environment. He had no faculty for prose writing. His most characteristic achievement was as laureate of the rail (after the manner of the 'Pike County Ballads' or Bret Harte) and of child life in humble Scottish homes. In his best-known poems the vernacular of the south-west of Scotland is employed with verve and discretion. Few anthologies of Scots poems now lack one or two of Surfaceman's, and several of the railway and child poems are popular recitations.
In 1912 a modest memorial was erected in Anderson's native village; his scattered and unpublished pieces were collected for issue; and the publication of the Lazarus poem was contemplated.
[Dundee Advertiser, 6 Jan. 1896; Frank Miller, The Poets of Dumfriesshire, 1910; private information; personal knowledge.]