1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Bruce

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 1:442-43.



MICHAEL BRUCE, a tender and ingenious poet, the fifth son of Alexander Bruce, weaver, was born at Kinnesswood, in the parish of Portmoak, Kinross-shire, March 27, 1746. His mother belonged to a family of the same name and humble rank in the neighbourhood. Both parents were Burgher-Seceders, and were remarkable for their piety, industry, and integrity. He early discovered superior intelligence, which, with his fondness for reading and quiet habits, induced his father to educate him for the ministry. In his younger years he was employed as a herd on the Lomond Hills. He received the usual course of instruction at the village school of Portmoak, and the neighbouring town of Kinross. In 1762 he was sent to the University of Edinburgh, where he applied himself, during the four succeeding years, with no less assiduity than success, to the study of the several branches of literature and philosophy. Before leaving home, he had given evident signs of a propensity to poetry, in the cultivation of which he was greatly encouraged by Mr. David Arnot, a farmer on the banks of Loch Leven, who directed him to the perusal of Spencer, Shakspeare, Milton, and Pope, supplied him with books, and acted as the judicious guide and friendly counsellor of his youthful studies. Mr. David Pearson, of Easter Balgedie, a village in the neighbourhood of Kinnesswood, a man of strong parts, and of a serious and contemplative turn, also contributed, by his encouragement and advice, to lead him to the study of poetry; and the names of these two unpretending individuals, for their disinterested kindness to the friendless Bruce, are worthily recorded in all the memoirs of his life.

Soon after his coming to Edinburgh, he contracted an acquaintance with Logan, then a student at the same university. A congenial feeling and a similarity of pursuits, soon led these two poets to become intimate companions. When not at college, Bruce endeavoured to earn a scanty livelihood by teaching a school. In 1765 he went to Gairney Bridge, near Kinross, where he taught the children of some farmers in the neighbourhood, who allowed him his board and a small salary. This he quitted in the summer of 1766, in which year he entered as a student in the divinity hall of the Burgher Synod, and removed to a school at Forrest Mill, near Alloa, in which he appears to have met with less encouragement than he expected. At this place he wrote his poem of Lochleven. In the autumn of that year, "his constitution," says Dr. Anderson in his British Poets "which was ill calculated to encounter the austerities of his native climate, the exertions of daily labour, and the rigid frugality of humble life, began visibly to decline. Towards the end of the year, his ill health, aggravated by the indigence of his situation, and the want of those comforts and conveniences which might have fostered a delicate frame to maturity and length of days, terminated in deep consumption. During the winter he quitted his employment at Forrest Mill, and with it all hopes of life, and returned to his native village, to receive those attentions and consolations which his situation required from the anxiety of parental affection and the sympathy of friendship." He lingered through the winter, and in the spring he wrote the well-known and deeply pathetic elegy on his own approaching death; beginning—

The 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.

This was the last composition which he lived to finish. By degrees his weakness increased, till he was gradually worn away, and he expired July 6, 1767, in the twenty-first year of his age.

Soon after his death his poems, which are not numerous, were revised and corrected by his friend Logan, who published them at Edinburgh in 1770, with a preface; but in this edition several other poems were injudiciously inserted to fill up the volume, which afterwards led to much uncertainty as to which were really Bruce's. The beautiful Ode to the Cuckoo, the episode of Levina, in the poem of Lochleven, the Ode to Paoli, and the Eclogue after the manner of Ossian, which are clearly ascertained to have been the composition of Bruce, were subsequently claimed by Logan's biographer as his. Logan himself, it seems, put forth some pretensions to being the author of the Ode to the Cuckoo, and in July 1782 applied for an interdict in the court of session against John Robertson, printer in Edinburgh, and William Anderson, bookseller, and afterwards provost of Stirling, who were about to bring out an edition of Bruce's works, containing the poems mentioned; which interdict was removed in the succeeding August, Mr. Logan not being able to substantiate his pleas. The attention of the public was called to Michael Bruce's poems by Lord Craig, in a paper in the Mirror in 1779, and they were reprinted in 1784. In 1795 Dr. Anderson admitted the poems of Bruce into his excellent collection of the British poets, and prefixed a memoir of the author. In 1797 a new edition, including several of Bruce's unpublished pieces, was published by subscription, under the superintendence of the venerable principal Baird, for the benefit of the poet's mother, then in her ninetieth year. In 1837 appeared a new edition of Bruce's poems, with a life of the author, from original sources, by the Rev. William Mackelvie, Balgedie, Kinross-shire, which contains all the information that can now be collected regarding the poet. In Dr. Drake's Literary Hours, there is a paper written with a view of recommending the works of Bruce to the admirers of genuine poetry in England, as Lord Craig, in the Mirror, had long before recommended them to readers of taste in Scotland. In 1812 an obelisk, about eight feet high, was erected over Bruce's grave in Portmoak churchyard, bearing as an inscription merely the words — "Michael Bruce, Born March 27, 1746. Died 6th July, 1767."

Bruce's characteristics as a poet are chiefly simplicity and tenderness. He possessed in a high degree judgment, feeling, and sensibility; and without much imagination or enthusiasm, he is always graceful, elegant, and pleasing. His Lochleven, the longest and most elaborate of his poems, is in blank verse, and shows considerable strength and harmony. His Sir James the Rose contains all the attributes of the historical ballad. His two Danish odes possess the true fire of poetry, and appear to have been modelled upon the Norse odes of Gray. His song of Lochleven no more is full of a sad and touching pathos which goes directly to the heart. The Ode to the Cuckoo, has been characterised by no less a judge of literary merit than Edmund Burke, as "the most beautiful lyric in our language."