Michael Bruce

George Eyre-Todd, in Scottish Poetry of the Eighteenth Century (1896) 2:64-67.

Loch Leven, the classic loch of Scotland, contains among its storied associations the memories of two conspicuous poets. Androw of Wyntoun, the author of the quaint Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, was prior of St. Serfs Inch in the fourteenth century. And in the eighteenth Michael Bruce was born and died in the little hamlet of Kinnesswood, at the foot of the Lomond Hills.

The son of Alexander Bruce, a weaver, the young poet of "Kinaskit" gave early evidence of ability, and, though one of a family of eight, was sent to Edinburgh University to study for the ministry. As in many a similar case in Scotland, however, the strain of study during winter, and school-teaching in summer, with the deprivations of narrow means, acting on a constitution never robust, threw him into a consumption, and in his twenty-first year he returned home to die.

After Bruce's death, John Logan, a fellow-student, obtained from Alexander Bruce the entire manuscripts and correspondence of the young poet, holding out the hope, it is said, that their publication would realize enough for the support of the little Kinnesswood household in years to come. Three years later, in 1770, Logan published a small volume Poems on Several Occasions, by Michael Bruce. The book contained only seventeen pieces, and in a preface by the anonymous editor it was stated that "to make up a miscellany, some poems, wrote by different authors, were inserted, all of them original, and none of them destitute of merit." The name of none of these writers was given. "The reader of taste," said the preface, "will easily distinguish them from those of Mr. Bruce without their being particularised by any mark." When the old Kinnesswood weaver looked through this volume he is said to have burst into tears, with the exclamation, "Where are my son's Gospel sonnets?" Six copies of the volume were all the return he ever received, and when he journeyed to Edinburgh to recover the MSS., he was told by Logan that the servants had singed fowls with them.

Eleven years later Logan, by that time one of the ministers of Leith, published a volume of poems under his own name, including nine hymns, of which several were at once recognised by the villagers of Kinnesswood as among certain "Gospel sonnets" or "paraphrases" which had been written by Bruce for their psalmody class, and of which they still possessed the original copies made for them by the poet. Logan also included as his own the Ode to the Cuckoo, which had been the most admired piece in the volume of 1770. From that time the authorship of the ode became a question of high literary dispute.

A year after Logan's publication of the piece as his own, the question might be held to have been decided by a court of law. A few admirers of Bruce in Stirling proposed to reprint the volume of 1770, and Logan applied for an interdict on the ground that he was himself "in a great measure the author of the collection of poems in question." The case, however, was finally decided against him, his alleged rights were set aside, and his statements held disproved.

Notwithstanding this decision, or rather, perhaps, in ignorance of it, Dr. Anderson, in his collection of British Poets, assigned the ode to Logan. On being taken to task for doing so by one of the Kinnesswood villagers, he cited the authority of Dr. Baird. In the year following Dr. Anderson's publication, however, Dr. Baird himself produced a new edition of Bruce's poems, in which he included the Ode to the Cuckoo without comment, having meanwhile, it appears, come upon a copy of it in Bruce's own handwriting.

Mrs. Hutcheson, it is true, Logan's cousin, stated that she had seen the ode in her kinsman's handwriting before it was printed; and Dr. Robertson, Logan's literary executor, in the Life prefixed to Logan's Sermons, averred that Logan had acknowledged to him his own authorship of the Cuckoo; also that the ode was handed about among Logan's literary acquaintance in East Lothian "probably, though not certainly," as early as 1767. On the other hand, the uncertainty of this reminiscence has been pointed out, and it has been noted that although the ode had actually been seen in Logan's writing as early as 1767, this would afford no evidence of Logan's authorship, for he received the MS. in that year from Bruce's father. There remain, moreover, on Bruce's side several points of testimony which, to say the least, must be taken as of equal weight with the statements of Mrs. Hutcheson and Dr. Robertson. In reply to Dr. Anderson's enquiries, David Pearson, the intimate friend and bedfellow of the poet, wrote that on going to visit Alexander Bruce a few days after his son's death, the old man brought out his son's "poem-book," and read the Ode to the Cuckoo and the Musiad to his visitor, being much overcome in the reading. The same witness also stated that he had repeatedly both heard and read the ode during the lifetime of the poet; and he averred explicitly "the Cuckoo, and the hymns in the end of Logan's book are assuredly Michael Bruce's productions." Again, John Birrell, another intimate friend of Michael Bruce, informed Dr. Mackelvie, Bruce's editor of 1837, how again and again he had seen Alexander Bruce take up the little volume of 1770, and, reading the Ode to the Cuckoo, the Elegy, and Lochleven, weep as he recalled the circumstances under which these pieces were composed by his son. Still further, Professor Davidson of Aberdeen stated to Dr. Mackelvie that his father, Dr. Davidson of Kinross, had told him he had seen a letter of Michael Bruce, in which the poet said, "You will think me ill employed, for I am writing about a gowk" (cuckoo); and that he himself (the professor) subsequently, on visiting in the neighbourhood of Kinnesswood, about the year 1786, had seen in the possession of a Mr. Bickerton a copy of the ode, written on a very small quarto page (exactly the shape of page upon which all extant letters of the poet are written), signed Michael Bruce, and with the single line below it, "You will think I might have been better employed than writing about a gowk." The handwriting, Mr. Bickerton assured the professor, was that of the poet.

It must be remarked, as seriously damaging to the case of Logan, that he seems to have made small scruple in several different instances, in appropriating matter which was not his own. In his volume of 1781 he printed as original two paraphrases, the second and eighteenth in the authorised Scottish version, which, almost word for word had been published in the interim edition of the Scottish Paraphrases of 1745; one of them, O God of Bethel, being by Dr. Doddridge, and republished among that divine's posthumous hymns in 1755. These had been revised by Bruce for the local psalmody class, and Logan, unaware of their origin, appropriated them from his dead friend's MS. Another instance was pointed out by Professor Veitch in an article on The Dowie Dens of Yarrow in Blackwood's Magazine for June, 1890. In the ballad of Yarrow which Scott prized so much, and which, according to Veitch, sets its author higher than anything else he has written, Logan has taken a verse bodily from an ancient version of The Dowie Dens. It appears in the volume of 1770. "They sought him east, they sought him west," etc. This may be no very heinous offence, as it was a common practice with the ballad and song writers of the time. But the same thing cannot be said of a remaining charge. This appears in a volume on Muirkirk and Neighbourhood, by the Rev. Peter Mearns — "Having got possession of one of the MS. volumes on history of the Rev. W. Rutherford, D.D., afterwards minister of Muirkirk, Logan in the college session of 1779-80 read these lectures with much applause as professedly his own. Dr. Rutherford, however, in Logan's lifetime, afterwards published the lectures as his in a volume, and Logan did not, and dared not, dispute Dr. Rutherford's claim." In his sermons, as well, it has been pointed out, Logan made no scruple of appropriating the work of Sherlock and Blair.

In the best editions of Bruce's poems, those by Dr. Mackelvie in 1837, by the Rev. Alexander Grosart in 1865, and by the Rev. William Stephen in 1895, the case for the Lochleven poet is fully stated. The rival claims to the authorship of the Cuckoo have also been discussed at length by David Laing in a letter printed in 1873, and by Principal Shairp in an article in Good Words of the same year; and the authorship of the Paraphrases has been dealt with in articles by Dr. J. Small in the British and Foreign Evangelical Review in 1877, and by Mr. Cuthbert Hadden in the Scottish Review for October, 1893.

By some critics, like Sir George Douglas, who in his Scottish Minor Poets assigns the ode to Logan, it is urged that much of the evidence on both sides is hearsay, and that the tendency to assign the piece to Bruce has been rather out of sympathy for his amiable character and sad fate, than on the merits of the case. It cannot be said that the internal evidence of the piece helps much towards a decision either way. It was pointed out, however, by the editor of The Poetic Wreath of 1836 that "no one of Logan's unquestioned pieces makes the slightest approach to the ode in beautiful simplicity." In the edition of 1781 Logan made several alterations in the ode, but it remains doubtful whether these are improvements in more than one instance, and every editor is aware how possible it is, and how tempting sometimes to "improve" even classic productions. The reader must be left to form his own conclusion on the whole subject from such circumstantial proof as is available. This has been detailed here at length from a desire both to gather together some evidence hitherto unused, and to afford an example of a kind of literary question for which the eighteenth century, both in England and in Scotland, was notorious.

Besides his shorter pieces Bruce was the author of Lochleven, a descriptive poem in the blank verse of Thomson, and The Last Day, a composition which he was engaged in polishing when he died. Both of these contain beautiful passages of natural description, but as sustained works they do not show the poet at his best.