1779 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Bruce

William Craig, in The Mirror No. 36 (29 May 1779) 141-44.



Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest.
GRAY.

Nothing has a greater tendency to elevate and affect the heart than the reflection upon those personages who have performed a distinguished part on the theatre of life, whose actions were attended with important consequences to the world around them, or whose writings have animated or instructed mankind. The thought that they are now no more, that their ashes are mingled with those of the meanest and most worthless, affords a subject of contemplation, which, however melancholy, the mind, in a moment of pensiveness, may feel a secret sort of delight to indulge. "Tell her," says Hamlet, "that she may paint an inch thick; yet to this she must come at last."

When Xerxes, at the head of his numerous army, saw all his troops ranged in order before him, he burst into tears at the thought, that, in a short time, they would be swept from the face of the earth, and be removed to give place to those who would fill other armies, and rank under other generals.

Something of what Xerxes felt, from the consideration that those who then were should cease to be, it is equally natural to feel from the reflection that all who have formerly lived have ceased to live, and that nothing more remains than the memory of a very few who have left some memorial which keeps alive their names, and the fame with which those names are accompanied.

But serious as this reflection may be, it is not so deep as the thought that even of those persons who were possessed of talents for distinguishing themselves in the world, for having their memories handed down from age to age, much the greater part, it is likely, from hard necessity, or by some of the various fatal accidents of life, have been excluded from the possibility of exerting themselves, or of being useful either to those who lived in the same age, or to posterity. Poverty in many, and "disastrous chance" in others, have "chilled the genial current of the soul," and numbers have been cut off by premature death in the midst of project and ambition. How many have there been in the ages that are past, how many may exist at this very moment, who, with all the talents fitted to shine in the world, to guide or to instruct it, may, by some secret misfortune, have had their minds depressed, or the fire of their genius extinguished!

I have been led into these reflections from the perusal of a small volume of poems which happens now to lie before me, which, though possessed of very considerable merit, and composed in this country, are, I believe, very little known. In a well-written preface, the reader is told, that most of them are the production of Michael Bruce: That this Michael Bruce was born in a remote village in Kinross-shire, and descended from parents remarkable for nothing but the innocence and simplicity of their lives: That in the twenty-first year of his age, he was seized with a consumption, which put an end to his life.

Nothing, methinks, has more the power of awakening benevolence, than the consideration of genius thus depressed by situation, suffered to pine in obscurity, and sometimes, as in the case of this unfortunate young man, to perish, it may be, for want of those comforts and conveniences which might have fostered a delicacy of frame or of mind, ill calculated to bear the hardships which poverty lays on both. For my own part, I never pass the place, a little hamlet skirted with a circle of old ash trees, about three miles on this side of Kinross, where Michael Bruce resided; I never look on his dwelling, — a small thatched house, distinguished from the cottages of the other inhabitants only by a sashed window at the end, instead of a lattice, fringed with a honeysuckle plant, which the poor youth had trained around it. I never find myself in that spot, but I stop my horse involuntarily; and looking on the window, which the honeysuckle has now almost covered, in the dream of the moment, I picture out a figure for the gentle tenant of the mansion; I wish, and my heart swells while I do so, that he were alive, and that I were a great man, to have the luxury of visiting him there, and bidding him be happy. — I cannot carry my readers thither; but, that they may share some of my feelings, I will present them with an extract from the last poem in the little volume before me, which from its subject, and the manner in which it is written, cannot fail of touching the heart of every one who reads it.

A young man of genius, in a deep consumption, at the age of twenty-one, feeling himself every moment going faster to decline, is an object sufficiently interesting; but how much must every feeling on the occasion be heightened, when we know that this person possessed so much dignity and composure of mind as not only to contemplate his approaching fate, but even to write a poem on the subject?

One of the most beautiful poems in any language is that of the Abbe de Chaulieu, written in expectation of his own death, to the Marquis la Farre, lamenting his approaching separation from his friend. Michael Bruce, who, it is probable, never heard of the Abbe de Chaulieu, has also written a poem on his own approaching death; with the latter part of which I shall conclude this Paper.

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 I 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!

I hear the helpless wail, the shriek of woe;
I see the muddy wave, the dreary shore,
The sluggish streams that slowly creep below,
Which mortals visit, and return no more.

Farewell, ye blooming fields! ye chearful plains!
Enough for me the Church-yard's lonely mound,
Where Melancholy with still Silence reigns
And the rank grass waves o'er the chearless 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.