James Grahame was the first laureate of the Covenant. No poet hitherto had set the deeds of the Covenanters, "fanatics," as they had been called, to music. It was reserved for James Grahame, the author of the Sabbath, to sound the first key-note of those many, melodies of praise which have saluted their memories since.
This poet was a native of Glasgow, and studied at the University there. He then removed to Edinburgh, and became an advocate. From early life, however, he had entertained a dislike to the profession of the law, and aspired to that of a clergyman. In the year 1809, when he had already reached his forty-fifth year, he gained the desire of his heart, by entering holy orders as a clergyman of the Church of England. He went south, and occupied various curacies in that church. His health, however, failed; his hopes of happiness and of promotion in his profession were grievously disappointed, and, within two years of his ordination, he came back to his beloved Scotland, "a withered flower," and returned to die. In his native city, on the 14th of September, 1811, he breathed his last.
James Grahame was himself a remarkable man, and was fortunate, besides, in his circle of friends. Campbell, the poet, knew him intimately, as did Jeffrey; and both in their memoirs speak of him with great affection and esteem. Professor Wilson has poured out a most beautitul and melting monody over his grave. He is described as a man of magnificent presence, of mild manners, of amiable temper, of sensitive disposition, and of a piety the most ardent and sincere. Campbell mentions Grahame as returning with him (after having sat up all night) from an excursion to Arthur's Seat to see the sun rise, and ere going to bed, pouring out the devotion of his heart in an extempore hymn, of which the bard of hope "never heard any thing equal." His genius was of a mildly-pensive and elegantly-descriptive kind. He had little constructive or dramatic faculty, his powers of reflection were rather feeble, nor does he ever mount into the seventh heaven of invention. His qualities were warm-hearted enthusiasm, deep-toned piety, and a rare truth and beauty of description. In touches, equally forceful and felicitous, of natural painting, he is not surpassed by Cowper or Thomson. As if in mere absence of mind he drops the brush upon the canvass, and thus produces exquisite effects. His poetry is on the whole rough and bare — a Scottish moorland — but has bright pools like eyes sprinkled on it, and little clumps of golden gorse, making the solitary place glad.
But the poem which secures his fame, as well as justifies the introduction of his name into this volume, is unquestionably The Sabbath. This, like his other poems, is unequal, has little art, skill, or unity, and abounds in prosaic passages. All this, however, is not sufficient to counterbalance its pleasing and various merit. It is a poem which has moved Scotland to its depths. The title so suggestive to every Christian heart; the sweetness of the opening lines, beginning, "How still the morning of the hallowed day;" the fervour of the piety, unmingled with a particle of cant the fine catholicity of the spirit; the beauty of the natural descriptions, and the nice individual strokes of picturesque power, have combined to render it a first favourite with the religious classes. But even more has its popularity been owing to its pictures of the Covenanting days. Grahame found in this an untouched field, and he has ploughed it with great vigour and effect. The haunts of the persecuted, among hills,
Where rivers, there but brooks,
Dispart to different seas;
the fleld-preachings, where the Word was
By Cameron thundered, or by Renwick poured
In gentle stream;
the darker times, when the people dared no longer to meet in face of day, but had to shelter under the midnight canopy, are described in the most plaintive and powerful manner. It was the first, and remains the most beautiful, libation poured upon the tomb of the martyrs. What added to its gracefulness and power was that Grahame when he wrote it was a member, and soon after became a minister, in the Episcopalian communion. True genius never did, never can, and never shall, in reality, belong to any party. Grahame died in the prime of life, with a broken constitution and, probably, a broken heart. But even on his premature deathbed, it must have ministered deep consolation to his spirit, that he had linked together, by the tie of an imperishable poem, two subjects of paramount interest and peculiar charm to every Christian Scotchman, and to many in other lands — the Sabbath and the great struggle of the Covenant.