Art. 26. Lives of Eminent Scotsmen, by the Society of Ancient Scots, re-established A. D. 1770. Parts I. II. and III. Poets. 12mo. 2s. 6d. each, sewed. Boys. 1821.
The first part or this work contains some account of James the First, Thomas the Rhymer, Barbour, Wyntoun, Douglas, Ramsay, Meston, Home, Beattie, and Burns. The different lives, we are told, were written by the members of a society which existed as long ago as the reign of James the First or England, and which, after a long intermission of its labours, was re-established in 1770. All the memoirs in No. I. are composed with considerable spirit, and form a very entertaining little volume; the whole are handsomely printed, and embellished with neat engravings. The degree of national partiality, which appears throughout, is not altogether unpleasant, and in some passages is amusing; as in the following comment on the improvement said to have been derived by James the First of Scotland from his residence in England:
‘James, we are told, was, on the score of mental improvement, rather a gainer than a loser by his captivity; the English monarchs are even said to have accomplished, in this respect, what went nigh to a full atonement for their unjust and lawless detention of this unfortunate prince. Vain apology! In his infant years, James had for his preceptor one of the brightest ornaments of the Scottish hierarchy of that period, Walter Wardlaw, Archbishop of St. Andrews; and the youth, who might have continued to enjoy the tuition of a Wardlaw, and such as Wardlaw, could have nothing to gain by being transferred to the care of all the doctors in England.’
James's vindictive measures, after his arrival in Scotland, and his conduct to the Regent,—than which nothing could be more unjust or more impolitic,—are by no means set in their true light. James was indeed an extraordinary man, and, considering the age in which he lived, in many respects a very noble character: but he was by no means perfect, and it is always mischievous to palliate and throw a gloss over the crimes of eminent persons.
The life of Ramsay is written with a full conception of his singular and humorous genius: but in our opinion the most accurate criticism in the number before us is the view of the prose as well as poetical productions of Beattie. The excellency of the Minstrel is universally acknowleged: but it is not always that the superiority of Beattie's miscellaneous essays and dissertations over his Essay on Truth is admitted, or that the latter is so justly appreciated as we find it in the following short passage.
‘The Essay on Truth, notwithstanding the great share which it had in contributing to his fame, may, with safety, be pronounced as among the least durable of his productions. The work was polemical, and there never yet was any thing polemical designed for immortality. As a piece of reasoning, it was more confounding than persuasive; difficult to answer, yet abounding in incongruities; right in most of its fundamental positions, but often ambiguous and incorrect in their application. It had neither the precision of expression nor clearness of idea necessary to give it a lasting place among philosophical compositions.’
In the Second Part are contained the lives of James the Fifth, Dunbar, Sir James Inglis, Blind Harry, Sir David Lindsay, Alexander Barclay, Montgomery, the Earl of Stirling, Drummond of Hawthornden, Thomson, and Oswald.—The life of James is a piece of high-coloured party writing throughout; in which his disgraceful courtship of the fair Vendome, and his immediately subsequent marriage of the Princess Magdalene, are changed into a romantic taleof the Princess falling in love with him at first sight.—The account of Drummond of Hawthorden is, both from the subject and from the manner in which it is written, the most interesting in this number: but the author is unjustly severe on Ben Jonson, and forgets to animadvert on the treachery of Drummond in noting down the confidential talk of a friendly visitor dwelling under his roof. We cannot agree with him, moreover, when he observes that in Drummond's sonnets, composed after the death of his mistress, we find considerable improvement in his versification, and more of simple and natural feeling than in any of his preceding productions: for we think that many of the sonnets written during his first courtship, and particularly that which is addressed to the Nightingale, (numbered 33 in the complete collection of his poems,) are fully equal, if not superior, to any that he afterward wrote.
We have considerable doubts whether Barclay was a Scot; and they ore not removed by a passage here given in his life as a quotation from one Dr. Bulleyn, which we extract for the amusement of our readers, under the impression, till it is better authenticated, that it is an ingenious imitation of the antique.
‘“Witty Chaucer, who sat in chair of gold covered with roses, writing prose and rhyme, accompanied with the spirits of many kings, knights, and fair ladies, whom he pleasantly besprinkled with the sweet water of the well, consecrated to the muses, named Aganippe. Near also sat old moral Gower, with pleasant pen in hand, commending honest love without lust, and pleasure without pride; holiness in the clergy without hypocrisy; no tyranny in rulers, no falsehood in lawyers, no busary in merchants, no rebellion in the commons, and unity among the kingdoms, &c. There appeared also Lydgate lamenting among the lilies, with his bald sconce, and a garland of willows about it. Booted he was after St. Burnet's guise; and a black stammel robe, with a monstrous hood, hanging backward; his body stooping forward, bewailing every state with the spirit of Providence; foreseeing the falls of wicked men, and the slippery seats of princes; the ebbing and flowing, the rising and falling of men in authority; how virtue advances the simple, and vice overthrows the most noble of the world. Skelton sat in the corner, with a frosty bitten face, frowning and scarcely yet cooled of the hot burning choler kindled against the cankered Cardinal Wolsey, writing many a sharp disticon with bloody pen against him, which he sent through the infernal Styx, Phlegeton, and Acheron, by the ferryman of hell, called Charon, to the said cardinall. Then Barclay, in a hooping russet long coat, with a pretty hood on his neck, and fine knees upon his girdle, after Francis's tricks. He was born beyond the cold river Tweed; he lodged upon a bed of sweet camomile, under the cinnamon tree; about him many shepherds and sheep, with pleasant pipes, greatly abhorring the life of courtiers.”’
John Oswald, whose nomme de guerre was Sylvester Otway, surely produced nothing that can justify his introduction among eminent Scotch poets.
Part III. presents the lives of James the Sixth, Sir Richard Maitland, Arthur Johnstone, Hamilton of Bangour, Hamilton of Gilbertfield, Samuel Colvil, Alexander Ross, Armstrong, Ogilvie, Macpherson, and Salmon. Though the subject is one of the least interesting, the best written memoir is that of James VI. The author takes nearly the same view of James's conduct and character which Harris entertained; the reflections interspersed are judicious; and the comments on the artifices employed by Hume in drawing his subtle apology and panegyric are excellent.
Among the rest of the lives, those of Johnstone, Armstrong, or Macpherson, could not be
expected to afford much that was new. Hamilton of Bangor is well known, and has been
long justly appreciated as standing high among those secondary poets who dribble
unmeaning love-songs: but it remained for the present biographer to expose the few
absurd extravagances into which he fell by selecting them for eulogy. For instance, the
“I'd be a miser too, nor give
An alms to keep a God alive,”
Colvil was a mere imitator of Butler.—Ogilvie was little known in his lifetime, and has since with great justice been nearly forgotten.—Hamilton of Gilbertfield and Charles Salmon never were known as poets, and never will be.—Sir Richard Maitland made a collection of the poems of others, but his own productions are very prosaic.
We mark some inconsistencies in these lives, which make us suspect interpolations in the MSS. by some reviser who entertains different political principles from the author For instance, in No. II. p. 119., when Drummond's History of the Five Stuarts has been termed ‘in fact a very partial history,’ a paragraph follows, intended to shew that the events passing when he wrote ‘are the best possible comment on its impartiality;” and this paragraph is accompanied by a note endeavouring to shew we know not what.—So again, in the life of Dunbar, (No. II. p. 29.) we are told that ‘James the Fourth had many failings, though strong in them all; but a disregard for the decencies of life was certainly none of the number.’
The Latin quotations are printed with but little accuracy. In Part II. p. 103. line 18., we find ‘mellit atque’ for mellitaque; and in Part III. p. 16. line 10., we have ‘munusculi prelium’ for munusculi pretium; and in the same page, line 16., ‘cœlibus’ for cœtibus.—Part IV. has just reached us.
Art. 13. Lives of Eminent Scotsmen. Parts IV. and V. 18mo. 2s. 6d. each, sewed. Boys. 1821.
We are sorry that this publication seems to decrease in interest as it proceeds; and we regret that ‘the Secretary of the ancient Scots Society,’ as the editor styles himself, has resolved to occupy six parts with the lives of poets, when memoirs of all the Scotch poets deserving to be recorded might well have been comprized in three parts. A more discriminating selection of the subjects of biography, though it would have diminished the extent, would have much enhanced the value of the work. Number IV. Contains the lives of Alexander Hume, John Bellenden, Mark Alexander Boyd, William Wilkie, Robert Fergusson, William Julius Mickle, Alexander Geddes, and James Grahame. The lives of the unfortunate Fergusson and of the amiable Grahame are written with much feeling: but perhaps the most interesting sketch is that of Dr. Geddes; who (though the sooner his poetry is forgotten the better) will ever be remembered and reverenced, notwith-standing his singularities, as a man of extraordinary learning, and of genius and sincerity still more uncommon. The account of Wilkie is given with fairness; and the author justly observes of the Epigoniad,—in which Hume, by the aid of national partiality, could discover “sublime beauties,” and which he unfortunately pronounced to be “one of the ornaments of our language,”—that it is ‘not altogether such a poem as persons will read who read with any other purpose than that of reading themselves asleep.’
In the life of Mickle, mention is made rather too contemptuously of ‘a Dr. Harwood,’ and the author betrays his own ignorance by his comments on the controversy which passed between Mickle and that scholar. His eulogy both on Camoens and on his translator appears to us extravagant.
We remarked, in our comments on the former parts, some errors in the Latin quotations, which we were willing to attribute to the inadvertence of the printer: but similar mistakes occur in this part so often, and so closely, (see pages 32, 38, 34. 36.) that we seem impelled and authorized to doubt the learning of the worthy ‘Secretary.’
The fifth number, besides the lives of Henryson, Alexander Scot, Ogilby, Lord Glencairn, Mallet, Falconer, Blair, Granger, and Macneill, is occupied with memorials of Walter Kennedy, Alexander Pennycuick, Lord Gardenstone, Dr. Moore, James Græme, Caleb Whitefoord, and John Wilson. Among these last worthies, it is very true that Lord Gardenstone was a man of good shrewd sense, that Dr. Moore was an excellent Greek scholar, and filled the Professor's chair at Glasgow with great credit, and that Caleb Whitefoord was in his day the very model of humour and good nature: but, as to their poetry, it is as little worth preserving as that of the Wilsons or the Kennedies whose very names are now forgotten. Personal character may be of great service to a writer in his life-time, and national partiality may even do somewhat more: but the art of man must fail in attempting to embalm for ever the memory of mere versifiers. We presume that the following remark, in the life of Lord Gardenstone, was not very recently written: ‘The Scotch have not for a long time past been able to boast of many satirists of note. The want of Scotish writers in this class is, I am willing to believe, owing to the want in Scotland of occasion for them.’
With regard to the other minor poets whose poems still survive, the demerits of Ogilby are criticized with justice: but Mallet's talents are much over-rated by his biographer, though his conduct as a man is very properly condemned. We were sorry to observe some comments introduced in his life on the trial of Admiral Byng, and a palliation attempted of that judicial murder from which humanity recoils. The eulogy of Blair's “Grave” is in our opinion much too great: though the sombre cast of that poem, and the prejudices of early education, have produced for it in the north a degree of admiration in which southern readers can but little participate. The ground-work of the author's own plain thoughts and vulgar diction is so strangely intermixed with splen-did patches, caught up in his perusal of better writings, that we do not recollect a single paragraph in the whole in which some odd and repulsive discordance does not occur. Several passages, it is true, have pith and nerve; and many exhibit that pregnant abruptness which was at once the forte and the failing of our English moaner, Young.
Art. 12. Lives of eminent Scotsmen, Poets, by the Society of Ancient Scots. Part the Sixth. 12mo. 2s. 6d. Boys. 1822.
This number, which completes the Lives of the Scotch Poets, contains notices of the Earl of Ancram, Richard Lord Maitland, the Earl of Haddington, Lord Binning, Bruce, Blacklock, Logan, Macdonald, and Mercer; with an Appendix, a Supplement, and an Index. Of "the noble authors," the very names are now forgotten by the readers of poetry: of the others, Blacklock and Logan are the most generally known; and it is here justly observed that Blacklock's personal character gave a celebrity to his productions, which they could never have claimed from any intrinsic merit. We think that Logan's fame also, both as a poet and as a prose-writer, stands much higher with his countrymen than with others. As a specimen of Bruce's poetry, his biographer very judiciously selects his Elegy on the Return of Spring, written under the certain approach of an early death. The lines have always affected us as coming from the heart of an unfortunate sufferer, doomed to pine away in a lingering decline when only in the 21st year of his age.
|Now spring returns, but not to me returns|
The vernal joy my better years have known;
Dim in my breast life's dying taper burns,
And all the joys of life with health are flown:
|Starting and shiv'ring in th' inconstant wind,|
Meagre and pale, the ghost of what l was,
Beneath some blasted tree I lie reclin'd,
And count the silent moments as they pass.
|The winged moments, whose unstaying speed|
No art can stop, or in their course arrest;
Whose flight shall shortly count me with the dead
And lay me down in peace with them that rest.
|Oft morning dreams presage approaching fate,|
And morning dreams, as poets tell, are true:
Led by pale ghosts, I enter death's dark gate,
And bid the realms of light and life adieu!
|Farewell, ye blooming fields! ye cheerful plains!|
Enough for me the churchyard's lonely mound,
Where Melancholy with still silence reigns,
And the rank grass waves o'er the cheerless ground.
|There let me wander at the close of eve,|
When sleep sits dewy on the labourer's eyes,
The world and all its busy follies leave,
And talk with wisdom where my Daphnis lies.
|There let me sleep forgotten in the clay,|
When death shall shut these weary aching eyes,
Rest in the hopes of an eternal day,
Till the long night is gone and the last morn arise.