WILLIAM JULIUS MICKLE was born on the 29th of September, 1734, at Longholm, in the county of Dumfries, of which place his father, Alexander Meikle, or Mickle, a minister of the church of Scotland, was pastor. His mother was Julia, daughter of Thomas Henderson, of Ploughlands, near Edinburgh. In his thirteenth year, his love of poetry was kindled by rending Spenser's Faery Queen. Two years after, his father, who was grown old and infirm, and had a large family to educate, by an unusual indulgence obtained permission to reside in Edinburgh, where Mickle was admitted a pupil at the High School. Here he remained long enough to acquire a relish for the Greek and Latin classics. When he was seventeen years old, his father unluckily embarking his capital in a brewery, which the death of his wife's brother had left without a manager, William was taken from school, and employed as clerk under the eldest son, in whose name the business was carried on. At first he must have been attentive enough to his employment; for on his coming of age, the property was made over to him, on the condition of paying his family a certain share of the profits arising from it. Afterwards, he suffered himself to be seduced from business by the attractions of literature. His father died in 1758; and, in about three years he published, without his name, Knowledge, an Ode, and a Night Piece, the former of which had been written in his eighteenth year. In both there is more of seriousness and reflection than of that fancy which marks his subsequent productions. Beside these, he had finished a drama, called the Death of Socrates, of which, if we may judge from his other tragedy, the loss is not to be lamented, and he had begun a poem on Providence. The difficulties consequent on his trusting to servants the work of his brewery, which he was too indolent to superintend himself, and on his joining in security for a large sum with a printer who failed, were now gathering fast upon him. His creditors became clamorous; and at Candlemas (one of the quarter days in Scotland) 1762, being equally unwilling to compound with them, as his brother advised him to do, and unable to satisfy their demands, he prevailed on them to accept his notes of hand, payable in four months. When the time was expired, he found himself, as might have been expected, involved in embarrassments from which he could devise no means of escaping. His mind was harassed by bitter reflections on the distress which threatened those whom his parent had left to his protection; and he was scared by the terrors of a jail. But they, with whom he had to reckon, were again lenient. He consoled himself with recollecting that his delinquency had proceeded from inadvertence, not from design, and resolved to be more sedulous in future: but had still the weakness to trust for relief to his poem on Providence. This was soon after published by Dodsley, and, that it might win for itself such advantages as patronage could give, was sent to Lord Lyttelton, under the assumed name of William More, with a representation that the author was a youth, friendless and unknown, and with the offer of a dedication if the poem should be again edited. This proceeding did not evince much knowledge of mankind. A poet has as seldom gained a patron as a mistress, by solicitation to which no previous encouragement has been given. It was more than half a year before he received an answer from Lyttelton, with just kindness enough to keep alive his expectations. In the meantime, the friendly offices of a carpenter in Edinburgh, whose name was Good, had been exerted to save his property from being seized for rent; but the fear of arrest impelled him to quit that city in haste; and embarking on board a coal vessel at Newcastle, he reached London, pennyless, in May, 1763. His immediate necessities were supplied by remittances from his brothers, and by such profits as he could derive from writing for periodical publications. There is no reason to suppose that he was indebted to Lyttelton for more than the commendation of his genius, and for some criticism on his poems; and even this favour was denied to the most beautiful among them, his Elegy on Mary, Queen of Scots. The cause assigned for the exclusion was, that poetry should not consecrate what history must condemn, a sacred principle if it be applied to the characters of those yet living, but of more doubtful obligation as it regards past times. When Euripides, in one of his dramas, chose to avail himself of a wild and unauthorized tradition, and to represent Helen as spotless, he surely violated no sanction of moral truth; and in the instance of Mary, Mickle might have pleaded some uncertainty which a poet was at liberty to interpret to the better part.
During his courtship of Lyttelton, he was fed at one time by hopes of being recommended in the West Indies; and, at another, of being served in the East; till by degrees the great man waxed so cold, that he wisely relinquished his suit. His next project was to go out as a merchant's clerk to Carolina; but some unexpected occurrences defeating this plan also, he engaged himself as corrector of the Clarendon Press, at Oxford. Here he published (in 1767) the Concubine, a poem, in the manner of Spenser, to which, when it was printed, ten years after, having in the meantime passed through several editions, he gave the title of Syr Martyn.
Early in life, his zeal for religion had shewn itself in some remarks on an impious book termed the History of the Man after God's own Heart; and in 1767, the same feelings induced him to publish A Vindication of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, in a Letter to Dr. Harwood; and, in the year following, Voltaire in the Shades, or Dialogues on the Deistical Controversy.
He was now willing to try his fortune with a tragedy, and sent his Siege of Marseilles to Garrick, who observed to him, that though abounding in beautiful passages, it was deficient in dramatic art, and advised him to model it anew; in which task, having been assisted by the author of Douglas, and having submitted the rifacciamento of his play to the two Wartons, by whom he was much regarded, he promised himself better success; but had the mortification to meet with a second rebuff. An appeal from the manager to the public was his unquestioned privilege; but not contented with seeking redress by these means, he threatened Garrick with a new Dunciad. The rejection which his drama afterwards underwent at each of the playhouses, from the respective managers, Harris and Sheridan, perhaps taught him at least to suspect his own judgment.
In 1772, being employed to edit Pearch's Collection of Poems, he inserted amongst them his Hengist and Mey, and the Elegy on Mary. About the same time he wrote for the Whitehall Evening Post. But his mind was now attracted to a more splendid project. This was a translation of the great Epic Poem of Portugal, the Lusiad of Camoens, which had as yet been represented to the English reader only through the inadequate version of Fanshaw. That nothing might hinder his prosecution of this labour, he resigned his employment at Oxford, and retired to a farm-house at Forrest-hill, about five miles from that city, the village in which Milton found his first wife, and where Mickle afterwards found his in the daughter of his landlord. By the end of 1775, his translation was completed and published at Oxford, with a numerous list of subscribers. Experience had not yet taught him wariness in his approaches to his patron; At the suggestion of his relative, Commodore Johnstone, in an unlucky moment he inscribed his book to the Duke of Buccleugh. This nobleman had declared his acceptance of the dedication in a manner so gracious, that Mickle was once more decoyed with the hope of having found a powerful protector. After an interval of some months, he learnt that his incense had not been permitted to enter the nostrils of the new idol, and that his offering lay, where he left it, without the slightest notice. For this disappointment he might have considered it to be some compensation that his work had procured him the kindness of those who were more able to estimate it. Mr. Crowe assisted him in compiling the notes; Lowth offered to ordain him, with the promise of making some provision for him in the church; and one, whose humanity and candour are among the chief ornaments of the bench on which Lowth then sate, Doctor Bathurst, soothed him by those benevolent offices which he delights to extend to the neglected and the oppressed. Nor were the public insensible to the value of his translation. A second edition was called for in 1778; and his gains amounted on the whole to near a thousand pounds, a larger sum than was likely to fall to the share of an author, who so little understood the art of making his way in the world. It was not, however, considerable enough to last long against the calls made on it for the payment of old debts, and for the support of his sisters; and he was devising further means of supplying his necessities by a subscription for his poems, when Commodore Johnstone (in 1779) being appointed to head a squadron of ships, nominated him his secretary, on board the Romney. Mickle had hitherto struggled through a life of anxiety and indigence; but a gleam of prosperity came over the few years that remained. A good share of prize-money fell to his lot; and the squadron having been fortunately ordered to Lisbon, he was there received with so much distinction, that it would seem as if the Portuguese had been willing to make some amends for their neglect of Camoens, by the deference which they shewed his translator. Prince John, the uncle to the Queen, was ready on the Quay to welcome him at landing; and during a residence of more than six months he was gratified by the attentions of the principal men of the country. At the first institution of the Royal Academy at Lisbon, he was enrolled one of the Members. Here he composed Almada Hill, an epistle from Lisbon, which was published in the next year; and designing to write a History of Portugal, he brought together some materials for that purpose.
When he had returned to England, he was so much enriched by his agency for the disposal of the prizes which had been made during the cruise, and by his own portion of the prize-money, that he was enabled to discharge honourably the claims which his creditors still had on him, and to settle himself with a prospect of independence and ease. He accordingly married Mary, the daughter of Mr. Robert Tompkins, of Forrest-hill, and took a house at Wheatley, a little village about five miles from Oxford. Some interruption to his tranquillity occurred from the failure of a banker, with whom his agency had connected him, and from a chancery suit, in which he too hastily engaged to secure a part of his wife's fortune. He then resumed his intention of publishing his poems by subscription, and continued still to exercise his pen. His remaining productions were a tract, entitled The Prophecy of Queen Emma, an ancient Ballad, &c., with Hints towards a Vindication of the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian and Rowley (in 1782), and some essays, called Fragments of Leo, and some reviews of books, both which he contributed to the European Magazine. He died after a short illness, on the 25th of October, 1788, at Forrest-hill, while on a visit at the house of his father-in-law; and was buried at that place. He left one son, who was an extra-clerk in the India House, in 1806, when the Life of Mickle was written by the Rev. John Sim, a friend on whom he enjoined that task, and who, I doubt not, has performed it with fidelity.
Mickle was a man of strong natural powers, which he had not always properly under controul. When he is satisfied to describe with little apparent effort what he has himself felt or conceived, as in his ballads and songs, he is at times eminently happy. He has generally erred on the side of the too much rather than of the too little. His defect is not so much want of genius as of taste. His thoughts were forcible and vivid; but the words in which he clothed them, are sometimes ill-chosen, and sometimes awkwardly disposed. He degenerates occasionally into mere turgidness and verbosity, as in the following lines:
Oh, partner of my infant grief and joys!
Big with the scenes now past my heart o'erflows,
Bids each endearment fair at once to rise,
And dwells luxurious on her melting woes.
When his stanza forced him to lop off this vain superfluity of words, that the sense might he brought within A narrower compass he succeeded better. Who would suppose, that these verses could have proceeded from the same man that had written the well known song, beginning "And are ye sure the news is true," from which there is not a word that can be taken without injury, and which seems so well to answer the description of a simple and popular song in Shakspeare ?
—It is old and plain:
The songsters, and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their threads with bone,
Do use to chaunt it. It is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.
Syr Martyn is the longest of his poems. He could not have chosen a subject in itself much less capable of embellishment. But whatever the pomp of machinery or profuseness of description could contribute to its decoration has not been spared. After an elaborate invocation of the powers that preside over the stream of Mulla, a "reverend wizard" is conjured up in the eye of the poet; and the wizard in his turn conjures up scene after scene, in which appear the hopeful young knight, Syr Martyn, "possest of goodly Baronie," the dairy-maid, Kathrin, by whose wiles he is inveigled into an illicit amour, the good aunt who soon dies of chagrin at this unworthy attachment, the young brood who are the offspring of the ill-sorted match, his brother, an openhearted sailor, who is hindered by the artifices of Kathrin from gaining access to the house, and lastly, the "fair nymph Dissipation," with whom Syr Martyn seeks refuge from his unpleasant recollections, and who conspires with "the lazy fiend, Self-Imposition," to conduct him to the "dreary cave of Discontent," where the poet leaves him, and "the reverend wizard" (for aught we hear to the contrary) in his company. Mean and familiar incidents and characters do not sort well with allegory, which requires beings that are themselves somewhat removed from the common sphere of human nature to meet and join it a little beyond the limits of this world. Yet in this tale, incongruous and disjointed as the dream of a sick man, velut aegri somnia, he has interspersed some lines, and even whole stanzas, to which the poet or the painter may turn again and again with delight, though the common reader will scarce find them sufficient to redeem the want of interest that pervades the whole.
His Elegy on Mary, Queen of Scots, is also a vision, but it is better managed, at once mournful and sweet. He has thrown a pall of gorgeous em broidery over the bloody hearse of Mary.
Wolfwold and Ella, of which the story was suggested by a picture of Mortimer's, is itself a picture in which the fine colouring and spirited attitude reconcile us to its horrors.
His Tragedy is a tissue of love and intrigue, with sudden starts of passion, and unprepared and improbable turns of resolution and temper. Toward the conclusion, one of the female characters puts an end to herself, for little apparent reason, except that it is the fifth act, and some blood must therefore be shed; Garrick's refusal, in all likelihood, spared him the worse mortification of seeing it rejected on the stage. Yet there is here and there in it a masterly touch like the following:
Either my mind has lost its energy,
Or the unbodied spirits of my fathers,
Beneath the night's dark wings, pass to and fro,
In doleful agitation hovering round me.
Methought my father, with a mournful look,
Beheld me. Sudden from unconscious pause
I wak'd, and but his marble bust was here.
Almada Hill has some just sentiments, and some pleasing imagery; but both are involved in the mazes of an unskilful or ambitious phraseology, from which it is a work of trouble to extricate them. It was about this time, that the laboured style in poetry had reached its height. Not "to loiter into prose," of which Lyttelton bade him beware, was the grand aim; and in their eagerness to leave prose as far behind them as possible, the poets were in danger of outstripping the understanding and feelings of their readers. It was this want of ease and perspicuity in his longer pieces, which prevented Mickle from being as much a favourite with the public, as many who were far his inferiors in the other qualities of a poet. When a writer is obscure, only because his reasoning is too abstruse, his fancy too lively, or his allusions too learned for the vulgar, it is more just that we should complain of ourselves for not being able to rise to his level, than of him for not descending to our's. But let the difficulty arise from mere imperfections of language, and the consciousness of having solved an involuntary enigma is scarcely sufficient to reward our pains.
The translation of the Lusiad is that by which he is best known. In this, as in his original poems, the expression is sometimes very faulty; but he is never flat or insipid. In the numbers, there is much sweetness and freedom: and though they have some what of the masculine melody of Dryden, yet they have something also that is peculiarly his own. He has in a few instances enriched the language of poetry by combinations unborrowed from any of his predecessors. It is doubtful whether as much can be said for Pope's translation of Homer. Almost all who have written much in the couplet measure, since Waller clipped it into uniformity, have been at times reduced to the necessity of eking out their lines in some way or other so as to make the sense reach its prescribed bound. Most have done it by means of epithets, which were always found to be "friends in need." Mickle either breaks the lines with a freedom and spirit which were then unusual, or repeats something of what has gone before, a contrivance that ought to be employed sparingly, and used chiefly when it is desirable to produce the effect of sweetness.
The preference which he sometimes claims in the notes for his author, above the other epic poets of ancient and modern times, is less likely to conciliate the good opinion than to excite the disgust of his readers. There is no artifice that a translator can resort to with less chance of success, than this blowing of the showman's trumpet as he goes on exhibiting the wonders of his original. There are some puerile hyperboles, for which I know not whether he or Camoens is responsible; such as—
The mountain echoes catch the bit, swoln sighs.
The yellow sands with tears are silver'd o'er.
Johnson told him that he had once intended to translate the Lusiad. The version would have had fewer faults, but it may be questioned whether the general result would have been as much animation and harmony as have been produced by Mickle.
In addition to the poems, which were confessedly his, there are no less than seventeen in Mr. Evans's collection of Ballads, of which a writer in the Quarterly Review some years ago expressed his suspicion that they were from the pen of Mickle. It has been found on inquiry, that the suggestion of this judicious critic is fully confirmed. One of these has lately been brought into notice from its having formed the groundwork of one of those deservedly popular stories, which have lately come to us from the north of the Tweed. It is to be wished that Mickle's right in all of them were formally recognized, and that they should be no longer withheld from their place amongst his other poetical writings, to which they would form so valuable an accession.