ANDREW DONALD (for the Mac was an addition not originally prefixed to his name) was the son of George Donald, a gardener near Leith, and born about the year 1755. He received the rudiments of his education at the grammar-school of Leith, and afterwards studied at the University of Edinburgh, with a view to taking orders in the Episcopal Church, to which his father and family belonged. In 1775, he was admitted into deacon's orders, and it was on this occasion that, with the approbation of the bishop who ordained him, he changed his name to Macdonald.
About two years after, Mr. Macdonald was appointed to be pastor of the episcopal congregation at Glasgow. The emoluments of his living were not great; but, being a man of simple habits and cheerful disposition, they were for some time sufficient to enable him to live in a state of considerable ease. If the income was small, the duties were equally so; and he had ample leisure left to bestow on other agreeable if not profitable pursuits. Of music and poetry he was passionately fond; and to both he devoted a large share of attention. A musical club, of which he became one of the directors, was established in Glasgow; and at its meetings he spent many of his happiest hours. He not only played well on the violin, but was intimately conversant with the theory of musical composition. As a poet he was not publicly known till 1782, when be presented the world with "Velina," a poetical fragment, in imitation of Spenser, which at once established his claims to be regarded as a favourite of the muses.
Ere long, a marriage of affection brought Mr. Macdonald the additional burden of a wife and family to provide for; but, instead of increasing means, he found the little he had, every day less and less. The Episcopalians in Glasgow, never at any time, since the reformation, a numerous body, so dwindled away in the course of a few years, that his stipend, which arose entirely out of the seat-rents, became at last wholly inadequate to his support. He endeavoured to improve his income by the exercise of his pen; and produced, while at Glasgow, a novel, called "The Independent:" but partly from a want of interest in the work, and partly from the disadvantages incidental to provincial publication, it yielded him little or no profit. Conceiving, perhaps justly, that great success as an author was not to be expected while he remained at Glasgow, he resigned his charge there, and chose, at the same time, to relinquish his ecclesiastical functions altogether. He now resumed the dress of a layman, and, with no other hopes than those of a literary adventurer, removed to Edinburgh.
In the Scottish capital, however, he met not with the encouragement he had fondly anticipated. He wrote "Vimonda, a Tragedy," which was acted for the benefit of one of the players, and honoured with considerable applause; but to be talked of as a young man of promising genius was all the benefit which it brought to the author.
Mr. Macdonald now resolved to try his fortune in London; and walked hither "with no other fortune," says Mr. D'Israel, "than the novel of the Independent in one pocket, and the tragedy of Vimonda in the other." On his arrival here he met many friends, who received him with open arms, and for some time "he lived in all the bloom and flush of poetical confidence."
"Vimonda" was almost immediately brought out at the Haymarket Theatre, and performed several nights with applause. It made him favourably known to the English public, and his future productions were looked forward to with considerable interest. His taste for music induced him to make the composition of an opera his next dramatic attempt. In a letter to a friend in Scotland, dated Oct. 18, 1787, he says, "I shall soon be acquainted with the great musicians here. Shield has already undertaken to set an opera for me, of which you may perhaps hear before the winter campaign is finished." The winter campaign passed away, however, without any opera making its appearance, and Macdonald was, in the meanwhile, subjected to the greatest pecuniary straits. But summer returned, and brought with it new hopes. "Thank heaven," he says, in another letter, dated May 12, 1788, "my greatest difficulties are now over, and the approaching opening of the summer theatre will soon render me independent and perfectly at ease. In three weeks, as you will see by the public prints, I shall be flourishing at the Haymarket in splendour superior to last season." "Do visit," he adds, "Mrs. — this season. If she afford you a city lodging, make your country seat with me. I am fixed for the summer in a sweet retirement at Brompton, where I can give you a share of a poet's supper — sallads and delicious fruits (even Corri eats no better) from my own garden."
While these dramatic projects were in dependence, Macdonald contrived to earn something for present subsistence, by writing for the newspapers. To his principal contributions, which were mostly of a satirical cast, he affixed the signature of "Mathew Bramble;" and under this assumed name was so successful, as for a time to divide with Peter Pindar the applause of the town. The receipts from this source were however scanty and precarious; and the writer, who was daily furnishing amusement to thousands, was at length, through the miscarriage of his theatrical schemes, frequently without the means of providing for the wants of the passing hour. Even the "poet's supper, of sallads and fruits," was no longer the portion of poor Macdonald. He was forced to leave his comfortable retirement at Brompton, and to take shelter in a mean residence at Kentish Town. It was about this period that he came under the notice of Mr. D'Israeli, and furnished an affecting page to his "Calamities of Authors." "One evening," he says, "I saw a tall, famished, melancholy man enter a bookseller's shop, his hat flapped over his eyes, and his whole frame evidently feeble from exhaustion and utter misery. The bookseller inquired, How he proceeded in his new tragedy? 'Do not talk to me about my tragedy! Do not talk to me about my tragedy! I have, indeed, more tragedy than I can bear at home!' was the reply, and the voice faltered as he spoke. His tragedy was, indeed, a domestic one, in which he himself was the greatest actor, amongst a wife and seven children."
Macdonald's spirits, though naturally most buoyant, sunk at last under the pressure of accumulated hardships; and a deep melancholy, co-operating with the infirmities of a weak constitution, speedily brought him to an untimely grave. He died in August, 1790, aged thirty-three.
The personal character of Macdonald was in the highest degree amiable and engaging. His demeanour had an air of independence, bordering on haughtiness; but, in his familiar conversation, it relaxed into the utmost affability and even playfulness. He possessed a warm and generous heart; and it was among his worst faults to think too well of others.
A collection of his "Miscellaneous works" was published shortly after his death. Besides "Vimonda," it included "The Fair Apostate, a tragedy;" "Love and Loyalty, an opera;" "The Princess of Tarento, a comedy;" "Probationary odes for the Laureateship," &c. The range of his genius was comprehensive; embracing equally the simple and the grand, the ludicrous and the pathetic. His tragedies are deficient in plot and incident; but they contain many noble passages, and are uniformly remarkable for great elegance and force of diction. His comic humour is best displayed in "The Probationary Odes," and in the various effusions of Mathew Bramble; and these, though liable to the deductions always attendant on objects of temporary interest, may still be read with pleasure. Of all his performances, however, there is probably none which will give more delight to a poetical reader, than the fragment of "Velina." It displays a gaiety of fancy and delicacy of sentiment, which place it on a level with some of Spenser's happiest effusions. No person of taste can read such stanzas as the following, without recognizing in them the fire of genuine poetry.
If e'er thy heart has felt Love's subtle flame,
Thou mayest imagine, for I cannot tell,
How, o'er my soul, the mingled rapture came,
Of sweet sensation, which I could not quell;
How, through my trembling veins, a powerful swell
Of life rush'd forth, and bore me quite away.
Down on my knees, before the nymph, I fell,
Ask'd in what star of heav'n her mansion lay,
That, in fit terms, I might my adoration pay.
Rise, simple youth, the blushing virgin said,
No goddess I, of planet or of star,
A weak, poor, friendless, persecuted maid,
Whose hateful prison lies not distant far:
Where chiefs, whose sole delight is barb'rous war,
Bray'd from the clashing shield and rattling car;
But sounds before I never heard so clear,
So soft, as those which drew me wand'ring, heedless, here.