1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Tait

Charles Rogers, in Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855-57) 1:70-71.



JOHN TAIT was, in early life, devoted to the composition of poetry. In Ruddiman's Edinburgh Weekly Magazine for 1770, he repeatedly published verses in the Poet's Corner, with his initials attached, and in subsequent years he published anonymously the Cave of Morar, Poetical Legends, and other poems. The Vanity of Human Wishes, an Elegy, occasioned by the Untimely Death of a Scots Poet, appears under the signature of J. TAIT, in Poems on Various Subjects by Robert Fergusson, Part II., Edinburgh, 1779, 12mo. He was admitted as a Writer to the Signet on the 21st of November 1781; and in July 1805 was appointed Judge of Police, on a new police system being introduced into Edinburgh. In the latter capacity he continued to officiate till July 1812, when a new Act of Parliament entrusted the settlement of police cases, as formerly, to the magistrates of the city. Mr Tait died at his house in Abercromby Place, on the 29th of August 1817.

The Banks of the Dee, the only popular production from the pen of the author, was composed in the year 1775, on the occasion of a friend leaving Scotland to join the British forces in America, who were then vainly endeavouring to suppress that opposition to the control of the mother country which resulted in the permanent establishment of American independence. The song is set to the Irish air of Langolee. It was printed in Wilson's Collection of Songs, which was published at Edinburgh in 1779, with four additional stanzas by a Miss Betsy B—s, of inferior merit. It was re-published in The Goldfinch (Edinburgh, 1782), and afterwards was inserted in Johnson's Musical Museum. Burns, in his letter to Mr George Thomson, of 7th April 1793, writes — "The Banks of the Dee is, you know, literally Langolee to slow time. The song is well enough, but has some false imagery in it; for instance — 'And sweetly the nightingale sung from the tree.' In the first place, the nightingale sings in a low bush, but never from a tree; and, in the second place, there never was a nightingale seen or heard on the banks of the Dee, or on the banks of any other river in Scotland. Creative rural imagery is always comparatively flat."

Thirty years after its first appearance, Mr Tait published a new edition of the song in Mr Thomson's Collection, vol. iv., in which he has, by alterations on the first half stanza, acknowledged the justice of the strictures of the Ayrshire bard. The stanza is altered thus:

'Twas summer, and softly the breezes were blowing,
And sweetly the wood-pigeon coo'd from the tree;
At the foot of a rock, where the wild rose was growing,
I sat myself down on the banks of the Dee.

The song, it may be added, has in several collections been erroneously attributed to John Home, author of the tragedy of Douglas.