1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Mackenzie

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 1:168-83.



The Edinburgh of Burns's day is a somewhat difficult study for the inquirer. It is represented by a number of notable persons, of whom there are, however, pictures so different that we scarcely know which to adopt. All the biographers of Burns represent him as seduced from the calm delights of a refined society, into the jovial undercurrent of tavern life, where third-rate men and vulgar joys swept him away out of a better career. And when we turn on one hand to the books and periodicals of the time, to the languishing periods of the Man of Feeling, and the weak Addison-and-water of the Mirror and the Lounger, this view of the situation has a certain support. But on the other hand Sir Walter Scott, and later, Lord Cockburn in his Recollections, unfold before us a society so outspoken and so homely, so tolerant of the easier vices, so ready to forgive everything that had fun and spirit involved in it, that we are bewildered and cannot tell what to think. Could Nicol and Carmichael and the Crochallan Club, to which several of Burns's biographers attribute all his dissipations, have been more riotous and merry than that assembly, periodical and unchanging, in which Councillor Pleydell was found at high jinks by Colonel Mannering? But then the "Man of Feeling" would have been as much out of place in such an assembly as the grave English soldier himself, who did not know what to make of it. Henry Mackenzie, the author of this book, was the representative of Edinburgh at that moment in the field of belles lettres. He was a poet after his kind; he had written tragedies, he was the author of the sentimental romance of the period, and he was also its favourite critic and essayist. Most curious is the picture he presents to us. Never was Edinburgh more individual, never perhaps was she so jovial. The town was full of remarkable men, whose names were known all over the world — and of scarcely less remarkable women, whose bon mots, and whose daring opinions and ways, were known at least over all Edinburgh. Lord Cockburn affords half-a-dozen sketches of old ladies, old in his time, who must have been in full bloom in the days of Burns, whose strong and racy individuality it would be hard to match anywhere. A more racy or less mim-mouthed society could scarcely be.

Perhaps the circles into which Burns fell, among men upon whom the gravity of age had stolen, the Robertsons and Blairs, the gentle blind poet Blacklock, so fluent in verse, with his little band of pupils — and even Dugald Stewart himself, the most suave of professors, a man who was good and gentle by temperament, and in whose presence we feel sure no riot could have been possible — had more seriousness, if not more culture than belonged to the strong and gay, and somewhat reckless and cynical humour of the Scotch capital. The latter indeed is the least Scotch of all his learned contemporaries. It is evident that he held an imposing position in Edinburgh. To enter his class was, as Lord Cockburn tells us, "the great era in the progress of young men's minds." Latterly his house was filled with pupils from more courtly circles; English youths with great names and a great future gazing with keen eyes and all the interest of novelty at the wonderful little metropolis, where intellectual interests were the chief occupation of men. Dugald Stewart, however, is far more like the ideal of an Oxford tutor than a Scotch professor, and good Scotsman as he was, has little of the characteristic national flavour of the time. But Henry Mackenzie has no national character at all — and the impression of Edinburgh which he leaves upon the reader's mind is curiously false and artificial. It would answer for "the Bath" or "the Wells," or any centre of provincial fashion and self-exhibition. The Mirror and the Lounger afford us no glimpses either of those alarming old ladies who spoke out their minds with such daring frankness and such broad Scotch, like that fine moralist, a clergyman's widow, who, at eighty, hearing how a lady's good fame had suffered from a prince's indiscretion, shook her shrivelled fist and cried out, "The damned villain! does he kiss and tell?" — or of the witty lawyers, so little scrupulous in words, so keen and sharp of wit, respectful of no shams nor of much else — or even of the historians and philosophers who gave the town its seal of distinction. Those quaint and venerable figures in their old dining-rooms, or perambulating their favourite walk in the Meadows, under the shadow of old George Heriot's Hospital, never make the slightest appearance in the supposed accounts of contemporary manners, by which the Lounger hoped to claim a place beside the more famous weekly records of English society. All that we get from it is a misty glimpse of fashions and dissipations, like, though at a long distance, the society sketches of the Spectator, petty and provincial, and many times watered. Mackenzie was the first to give a really generous and discerning criticism of Burns, putting him at once in his right place as a poet, which is infinitely to his credit; but though he was the recognised exponent of literature and society at the time, he gives us not a single indication of any society into which it could have been worth the ploughman's while to appear at all.

This curious deficiency is scarcely comprehensible, unless from the ambition Mackenzie had to spread his Lounger beyond Edinburgh, and the sense that Scotland was still a barbarous and unknown country to the larger minds of English readers. When we remember that he actually adds a glossary to the Address to a Mouse, quoted in his article on Burns, as if that "good broad Scotch" which was spoken by so many of the best people in Edinburgh was unknown to the delicate ears of his hearers, we feel that elegant fiction can go no farther; it is as odd as any other affectation of the "Precieuse" period. "Even in Scotland the provincial dialect which Ramsay and he (Burns) have used is now read with a difficulty which greatly damps the pleasure of the reader," he says. The natural result from this is that Mackenzie's sketches, professedly of Scotland, are as little like Scotland as they are like Germany. They are of no country under the sun. They are of that vague typical region invented by Addison, which is filled by examples of all the virtues and vices, and where a perpetual crusade against the fashion and its vagaries is the chief spur of existence. Marjory Mushroom comes to town; she has her head turned with new dresses and high tetes and feathers, is persuaded to paint, and meets a great many tempters to folly in the shape of fine ladies and fine gentlemen — and coming home again is wretched, and fills the heads of all the Misses Homespun with illegitimate longings. Or Mrs. Careful describes how, occupied like Virtue's self in teaching her little girls, she is interrupted by innumerable callers, who spoil her morning. Or it is the story of Eudocius and Clitander which edifies the reader; or Colonel Caustic, who is a weak imitation of Sir Roger de Coverley, represents chivalry and all the Graces, with a great many indignant and sarcastic remarks upon the inferiority of everything in the present to everything in the past. An Addison of Tunbridge Wells, doing all he can to ignore the fact that his assemblies and plays are not the real resorts of fashion, but yet with no more difference in his tone than the heavier atmosphere of Kent necessitated, might have written just such moralities. Here and there, with a breath of regret, he owns, indeed, that Edinburgh as a fashionable centre is not the chief of cities. "There is a sort of classic privilege in the very names of the places in London which does not extend to those of Edinburgh," he says. "The Canongate is almost as long as the Strand, but it will not bear the comparison upon paper; and Blackfriars Wynd can never vie with Drury Lane." The Canongate is one of the grandest old streets in Europe, and was still at that period, whatever its sanitary conditions may have been, the abode of the remnants of those great people for whom its stately houses were built, and it is amusing to hear that it is not to be compared to the Strand. This is very like Mrs. Hardcastle's speech in the play, when she asks, with regretful humility yet pride, How can any one have a manner who has never seen the Pantheon, the Grotto Gardens, the Borough, and such places, where the nobility chiefly resort?

Just so the Edinburgh critic sighs yet smiles, with an underlying consciousness that, after all, he is almost as fine a gentleman as those who flourished their canes in the Mall, or frequented the most classic of coffee-rooms. Yet those featureless and uncharacteristic fables were produced by Mackenzie and his coadjutors in the very heart of that merry, noisy, somewhat rough, profane, and convivial Edinburgh, which was, perhaps, the most individual of all local societies. They had their headquarters in Creech's shop, in the house once inhabited by Allan Ramsay, upon the brow of the hill, close to the spot once occupied by the old town cross, where in the afternoons all the town came out, to walk about the open space and listen to the bell-ringing, for want of a better entertainment; or rather to enjoy their jokes, which were more funny than refined, and their gossip, which was full of audacious freedom. To think that the Man of Feeling could have looked out daily upon this jovial crowd, and perhaps, gone afterwards for his dish of tea to the close on the Castle Hill, where Mrs. Cockburn received Burns with enthusiasm, and where there were dances and junketings "nine couples on the floor" of the small drawing-room, and "the bairns vastly happy;" and many an old Scotch song and new anonymous ditty, in cunning imitation of the old, was made and sung — and yet have nothing but Mushrooms and Homespuns to talk about in his commentary on society! Perhaps he shook hands, on his way, with John Clerk of Eldin or Henry Erskine, broad Scots and broad jokers both, or rubbed shoulders with old Miss Suph Johnstone, the amazon of the day, whose song, "Eh! quo' the tod, it's a braw licht nicht," proves what her dialect was. He could not move a step, indeed, this elegant disciple of Addison and Rousseau, without having his ears offended with the vigorous vowels and gutturals, the daring wit, and audacious talk, of a community as strong as unrestrained, as profane and as convivial as ever made a town merry; and yet he gives us a glossary of Burns, and sets before us a gallery of pastels, swains, and nymphs, and conventional rustles and fine ladies, as his contribution to the satirical and sentimental history of his time.

This is all the more curious that Henry Mackenzie was no impostor, but really knew society, and was himself an important figure, none better known in Edinburgh, where he lived to our own days, a highly respectable and respected townsman, bearing the romantic title of his principal work to his grave. The Man of Feeling, which is a very mild dilution of the sentimentalism of the time, with a good deal of Sterne in it, and a good deal of Rousseau, is not without some prettiness of composition, and even occasional just remark. Perhaps it was a certain pride in the thought that Scotland had here produced an elegant moralist of her own to rival her richer and greater neighbour, who up to this time had been unquestionably in advance of her in this as in most other departments of literature, which gave to the work its unusual popularity. However it may pique our patriotism to say so, it is no doubt true that Scotland, like every junior partner in a great historical union, has always had a most lively jealousy of her wealthy sister, and delighted in nothing so much as in the ability to hold her own in all peaceful contests of arts or letters. While neither Burns nor Scott existed, Henry Mackenzie was always something: and perhaps it pleased the jocund little capital all the better that he stood up to the adversary on his own ground, giving her a Lounger of her own in emulation of all the Spectators and Ramblers, than if he had struck out the fresh vein of her own humours and oddities, which was happily reserved for a more potent magician. There is nothing of what in these modern days of slang we call "bumptiousness" in the Man of Feeling. He is too well-bred to throw down his glove to the potentates over the Border. He prefers, with plausible elegance, to prove that there is no manner of difference between them. In early Youth, indeed, he was seduced into one or two attempts to copy the old Scotch ballad, that effort of industry being popular at the time. But his ballads have never been battled over, like Hardyknute and Sir Patrick Spens, and are very inferior productions — while the didactic verse, into which he flowed inevitably afterwards, is as full of reference to the ordinary subjects of "town," as if the poet had never issued from within the sound of Bow Bells. When he describes the houses of the great, it is a town mansion which is his model, with "giant knocker" and powdered footman; when he rhymes his harmless fable about Truth and Business, it is a cockney in "a neat-built country box"—

So near, that with an easy ride,
A man may breakfast in Cheapside—

Who is his model of the latter quality. The fashionable auction where "Sir Lappet " hurries in his "papillots," chattering politics and bric-a-brac—

The Queen of Denmark — there's a figured bowl,
The marquis writes me that the Tuesday's poll—
What gewgaw things! your glass, my lord: are these,
Oh miserably vulgar! not Chinese!

and all the Laelios and Lamias, the city turtle, the dissipations of the great, are all imitations and antiquated imitations, the fashion taking some time to travel from London to Edinburgh. The Man of Feeling has to deal with peasants of romantic nature and the finest sentiments, and with unfortunates upon the streets, who are as delicate and refined as any princess, and whose betrayal into vice has every machination of villainy to excuse it, who are, indeed, only the more immaculate and interesting from having sinned. The benefactor and hero is a gentle youth, who lives but to do good, and be loved, and who, after an unfortunate interval of doubt as to the affections of the matchless maiden whom he has chosen, dies of the joy of hearing that she loves him! This is indeed a superfine hero, and everything he says and does is equally delicate and irreproachable. The Man of the World which followed, and which is equally fine, but much more objectionable, has a mixture of Richardson in his worst peculiarities, the hairbreadth escapes of Pamela, over and over repeated — and not always escapes: with an absence both of wit and nature which takes all possible right of existing from such detestable complications. Julia de Roubigne is a poor little shadow from the other Julia of the Nouvelle Heloise. So sapless, imitative, and artificial were the productions which held the palm of literary achievement in the capital of Scotland, when Burns, eager, yet proud, distrustful, and suspicious, holding himself on his guard like some herald, or bearer of a flag of truce in an enemy's country, appeared to the wonder and admiration, yet doubt and alarm, of the old sovereigns of literature. The honour that remains to the Man of Feeling is that he had discrimination and sense enough to give his word of praise, and that with no stinted hand, to the ploughman poet.

The other correct and regular poet of the time was Dr. Blacklock, who also, to his great credit, at once recognised and applauded the new light. His poetry is of the same smooth and characterless description, but his story is a touching one; he was blind from his infancy, but was so kindly guarded and served both by relations and friends that, though without means of his own, he acquired a classical education, or at least enough of it to qualify him for the Church of Scotland, not much more exacting then than was the Church of England, when she received Crabbe with nothing but a little Latin into her bosom. He got a living, but his parishioners were not satisfied with their blind pastor, and after an interval of discomfort he left them in the hands of a substitute, reserving some portion of the stipend to live upon, and with this came to Edinburgh, where he received into his house young men attending the University, and was himself received into the genial society of the place. He got a good and tender wife notwithstanding his blindness, and a great deal of that respect mingled with compassion, which a man, so heavily burdened in the way of life, almost invariably inspires, but which perhaps is always a half-humiliating sympathy. Poems with such titles as Ode to Aurora on Melusa's Birthday, Ode to a Young Gentleman bound for Guinea, etc., sufficiently indicate the character of his verses. In the short memoir which we have of him, written by Mackenzie, there are a great many special quotations made, and lines selected, to show that, notwithstanding his blindness, he was capable of describing nature. This, of course, must have been simply in imitation of the lavish colours, the purple evenings and rosy mornings of the poets; but there is a pathetic correctness in his enumeration of the yellow crocuses and purple hyacinths, which touches the heart. He was a good man, and, considering his infirmity, prosperous and fortunate. But the consciousness of this disability appears to have kept him somewhat sad, and his later life seems to have been touched with melancholy from a very natural cause. "Some of his later poems express a chagrin, though not of an ungentle sort, at the supposed failure of his imaginative powers; or," the Man of Feeling adds, "at the fastidiousness of modern times, which he despaired to please." Poor gentle poet! — his "Muse," his gift of "Song," had been the sole ground upon which he had risen into local reputation; and there are few more moving occasions for at least a sentimental sympathy. We feel with him, even if we smile at the hot but weak indignation with which he stigmatises the new standards — standards, alas! which he could never come up to, and which settled his fate.

Such were his efforts, such his cold reward,
Whom once thy partial tongue pronounced a bard.
Excursive on the gentle gales of spring
He rov'd, while favour imp'd his timid wing,
Exhausted genius now no more inspires;
But mourns abortive hopes and faded fires.
The short-lived wreath, which once his temples graced,
Fades at the sickly breath of squeamish taste,
Whilst darker days his fainting flames immure
In cheerless gloom, and winter premature.

Again we say poor poet! He had as much right to call the new influences which condemned his old-fashioned rigid verse, "a squeamish taste," as they had to break up the, foundations and scatter the waning honours of that lingering, feeble superstructure, which had been elongated like a house of cards upon the system of Pope. He showed his insight above any of the other tuneful brethren by recognising that his day was over, and his laurels incapable of supporting that "sickly breath." These discontented verses are the swansong of the ending age. The Man of Feeling was conscious, for his own part, of no such failure.

At the same time there existed in old Edinburgh, in the very region where flourished the Mirror and the Lounger, and all their far-fetched conventionalisms, a true and generous little concert of songs rising from various quarters, which handed on a better tradition, from Allan Ramsay, whose pastoral strain, if not without affectation, had rung true and clear, down to Burns. They were chiefly women, ladies of the best blood and breeding, who performed this genial office, with little parade, and more enjoyment than fame. "The grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens," as Coleridge calls it, was, all authorities are now agreed in saying, an innocent forgery, and written by Lady Wardlaw, who was the author of several other mock-antique ballads which, however, were not mock poetry, but worthy the place they attained. Miss Jean Elliot produced one of the versions of the Flowers of the Forest, Mrs. Cockburn another: while Lady Anne Lindsay gave us the exquisite and pathetic little romance of Auld Robin Gray, a ballad so true to the soil, so pure and tender in sentiment, that its genuine truth and nature make all the artificial features of the surrounding literature look more false than ever—

Oh, lady nursed in pomp and pleasure,
Where gat ye that heroic measure?

How was it that art, so true yet so simple, could exist in so many obscure corners, while the false and bedizened artifice which took her place, sat in the high places, and was constituted the judge of everything? This is one of the curious circumstances in literary history which it is difficult to explain, except from the fact that the frost stiffens with a kind of desperation the moment before the south winds begin to blow, and the ice chains to melt away. Behind backs, out of the reach of the critics, Edinburgh no doubt laughed in her sleeve at the Man of Feeling. But Scotland has always cherished such songs as these in her heart. They breathed about the country far and wide, and were known and sung long before they were printed, the national genius for song having survived everything; and it was appropriate that through this homely channel the revival should come. What does Mr. Carlyle say: "The smallest cranny through which a great soul ever shone"? But when he said this, he forgot what we do not doubt he very well knows, all that song has been to Scotland since that speech was made about the making of laws and the making of ballads. Song, or rather Songs: the word in the plural has perhaps a somewhat different meaning, not that of a melody only, which might please the hearers almost as much if Do-re-mi were the syllables employed to give it utterance, but an art which was poetry, at least as much as music, and into which thousands entered with enjoyment for the sake chiefly of the beautiful "words." This distinction is perhaps worth the consideration of the student. Ballads like Auld Robin Gray, songs like the Flowers of the Forest, were a great deal more than music; the simple old tune "set" to each was little more than the breath which carried the poetry into many a melting heart. This mingled faculty, half one art, half the other, was never extinguished, and always independent of the verse-maker's elaborate rules. It was the breath of life in old Scotland. When the Man of Feeling reigned in artificial and tottering state, these collections of songs, unnoted messengers, flew about the country to which they were indigenous, keeping up in it a soul of fresh and natural sentiment when there was little else to do so — a fact which made it more appropriate than any one has cared to acknowledge that the new power in literature in the north, the new poet, should take by nature to this. national medium, the art his country has always loved.