1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Balfour

David Macbeth Moir, Memoir in Balfour, Weeds and Wildflowers (1830) iv-xciv.



ALEXANDER BALFOUR was born, on the first of March, 1767, in the parish of Monikie, Forfarshire. He was a twin; and was almost immediately adopted by a relative of the family, under whose roof he continued to reside; and from whom he experienced the endearing tenderness of a father. Of this kind parent he had many grateful recollections; and it is to him he refers (in a letter quoted in the course of this Memoir) as the friend to whom he was indebted for those lessons of piety and virtue which seem to have laid the foundation of his character in after life. It is evident, from several circumstances, that there was an inherent delicacy in his constitution; yet, in his early years, he was distinguished for his vivacity; and was a leader in the childish sports of his companions. One trait of the natural amiability of his disposition is preserved. Some depredations having been committed in the neighbourhood (then less common in the country than now) the circumstance took such hold of his imagination, that he never went to bed, for some time, save with nervous apprehension, except on Sunday — a day which he had been accustomed to regard with such reverence, that he considered it a time, when evil would either lay aside its purpose, or be foiled in its accomplishment.

His protector, as well as his parents, being in humble life, his education was necessarily very limited — a grievance which was rendered more peremptory in its restrictions, by the early loss of his father. As a necessary step, preparatory to his entering on the business of life, he was apprenticed to the trade of weaving. Between this time and his removing to Arbroath, notwithstanding the many disadvantages under which he had laboured, he had for some years taught a school in his native parish, under the auspices of the Reverend WILLIAM (latterly Dr) MAULE; that gentleman considering Monikie to be too extensive a district to be adequately supplied by one parochial teacher. He became a kind and assiduous friend, assisted with his best advice and direction, and had the agreeable retrospect in after years, of knowing how well his attentions were merited. This intercourse between the worthy clergyman and his protege continued unabated till the death of Dr MAULE, which took place a few years ago.

From a memorandum-book of the late Mr BALFOUR, we learn, that his first attempts at literary composition were made so early as his twelfth year he having recollection of some psalm-like verses, descriptive of the aspects of external nature, written about that age; and which he read to several of his school-fellows, doubtless with no small feelings of self-gratification. Maturer taste, however, afterwards shewed him the propriety of committing these, and some others of a shortly posterior date, to the flames.

At the age of twenty-six, he removed to Arbroath, where he was employed as clerk to a respectable merchant and manufacturer, in the business which he intended to follow; and married in the ensuing year.

While engaged in tuition in the parish of Monikie, Mr BALFOUR had made his debut as a scribbler for the press, in the British Chronicle, and he continued to send occasional contributions to that paper till the spring of 1793. These offerings were chiefly in verse, and some of them written in provincial Scotch. None of them were particularly remarkable; and, from being on subjects of temporary interest, were soon forgotten, although several of them were copied into the other periodicals of the day. About this period, he also contributed some pieces to The Bee, published in Edinburgh, under the editorial superintendence of Dr JAMES ANDERSON. Of these we have no correct list; but we believe most of them were also in verse.

His writings had now procured him some little literary notoriety; and, as might have been looked for, his correspondence was courted by different publishers of periodicals. To The Dundee Repository (1793) he contributed several pieces; and not a few to The Aberdeen Magazine, published by BURNET and RETTIE (1796.) Among the best of these, Mr BALFOUR considered his Scottish Eclogue On the death of BURNS, and The Genius of Caledonia; yet, that he put little value on the whole is evident, from his not deeming any of them worthy of a place in the volume of his Miscellaneous Poems, which he afterwards collected.

At the end of four years from his removing to Arbroath, he changed his situation; and, two years after, on the death of his first employer, he entered into partnership with his widow. On her retiring, in 1800, Mr BALFOUR assumed another partner; and the business was, soon after, considerably extended by the firm becoming Government Contractors for supplying the Navy with canvas.

His attention to business was assiduous and unremitting; and the little leisure he had was sweetened by his devotion to literary pursuits, — of themselves "their own sufficient great reward." These, however, he never allowed to obtrude on the duties of his mercantile situation; and, as a proof, not only that his exertions had been unremitting, but that they were crowned with success, he became, in 1806, the purchaser of property to a considerable amount. The extent of his correspondence about this time, shews that he was widely known and respected, both for his talents and his moral worth. Many of these letters also prove, that sorrow and misfortune never appealed to him in vain. He possessed the liberal heart and open hand; — "that ease that he knew not he searched into." Nor was he alone generous, in giving away part of the goods which his industry had accumulated. He was ever ready to patronize desert; and, wherever his influence could be unobtrusively used, he spared neither time nor trouble, in making his applications effective.

From his earliest youth, Mr BALFOUR had exerted himself to diffuse a literary taste among his companions; and, in all subjects of a co-relative interest with this, we find him an active and enthusiastic supporter. While yet at Arbroath, he had been a member of a Debating Society, consisting of such of its principal inhabitants as had any pretensions to literature or talent. Of the library there formed, he gratuitously accepted the office of treasurer, a situation involving its principal management and trouble, and which he retained for many years, until the pressure of other avocations compelled him to resign it. As an unequivocal proof of his attention to its interests, the institution had very much improved under his auspices....

In March 1814, he removed to Trottick, within two miles of Dundee, to assume the management of a branch of a London house, which had long transacted business on a large scale; and which, for many years, had been extensively connected with Mr BALFOUR'S firm. In the disastrous summer of 1815, so well remembered in the commercial world, this house, like many others of long established respectability, was suddenly involved in bankruptcy. From the unfortunate extent of his connexion with it, Mr BALFOUR shared the same fate; and, from a situation of comparative affluence, from which he could look forward to the realization of such a competency as might enable him ultimately to relinquish business, and spend his old age "in the chimney-nook of ease," he was reduced to the miseries of dependence. To add to his misfortunes, it was at this very time that typhus fever broke out in his family, and continued its ravages among his children for no less a period than three months, threatening daily to sweep off some of its victims to the grave.

The sudden blight of all his worldly prospects, united to the agonizing suspense occasioned by the mournful situation of those who were nearest and dearest to him, exerted a depressing influence over his mind, which he felt it his duty, as a father and as a christian, to repel. It was now that he bethought him of the literature which had lent a charm to his former hours of relaxation, and to rouse himself from his mental ennui, he began filling up the outlines of his Campbell, or the Scottish Probationer, a work which had for some time lain past him. It was between the period of his retiring from business, and his again resuming his active duties, that this interesting and highly creditable work was written. He devoted himself to its composition with a steady industry, and it was his custom to read aloud to his family in the evening, chapter after chapter, as it proceeded from his pen.

Such was the shock produced by this dreadful reverse of fortune, that Mr BALFOUR, although urged by many of his most zealous friends, and proffered the warmest assistance, could not be induced to undertake the hazard of business again, on his own account. His general knowledge and attention to mercantile concerns, however, did not escape notice, and he preferred accepting the superintendence of a manufacturing establishment at Balgonie, in Fifeshire. In this situation, the emoluments of which were barely sufficient to support a family consisting of a wife, two sons, and three daughters, he remained for nearly three years, when he removed to Edinburgh, principally on account of his children, who were now arrived at that age when it was necessary to fix them in the particular walks of life which might be deemed most suitable.

Mr BALFOUR arrived in Edinburgh in October 1818, where, for a short time, he filled a situation in the counting-house of our present most distinguished bookseller. But, although willing thus to bury in obscurity talents, whose exercise fitted him for a different sphere, even this was not permitted to his finely principled and well-regulated mind. About the beginning of the ensuing year, he began to experience, although in a slight degree, the approach of those symptoms of paralysis which ultimately produced such melancholy ravages on his frame. Accustomed for many years to a life of activity, he was now confined to the desk, from morning till night; and, instead of the free air of the country, his short intervals of relaxation were breathed out amid the city wilderness of buildings.

The symptoms of paralysis were at first slight, and shewed themselves only in rigidity and weakness of the limbs, which gradually went off by exercise. Matters, however, got worse by degrees, slow but steady; and a drag was observable in his gait, which was before remarkable for its springiness and elasticity

Early in spring he was seized with a peculiar sensation in the head; his speech began to be affected, and he articulated with difficulty. All these symptoms continued almost imperceptibly to increase, and in such a degree, that, by the month of May, he was incapable of walking on the streets without assistance. Electricity, galvanism, and then the tepid and warm-baths were tried, but without producing any sensible good effects.

Mr BALFOUR, however, still persevered in fulfilling the duties of his situation; but, in the month of June, his infirmities had increased so much as to compel him to relinquish them. During the summer he continued to take exercise out of doors, with the assistance of Mrs BALFOUR, or some other of his family; and his favourite resort was the Meadows. Towards autumn, it was with great difficulty that he could be assisted up and down stairs; and his nervous debility was so great, that it was only on the smoothest path he could attempt to walk, — even when leaning on the arm of a friend. Before the end of October, his locomotive powers were gone, and his foot had for the last time touched the ground, — the natale solum which he so much loved.

Although, from that period, his disorder must have in a considerable degree increased, it was by steps so gradual and gentle, as to be almost imperceptible to those immediately about him. For a short time after being totally confined to the house, Mr BALFOUR could walk from one apartment to another with support; but even this was soon found to be too much, and he was reduced to the necessity of making use of a wheel-chair. In this he sat during the livelong day, except when, for change of position, he raised himself up, to look for a few minutes from the window, to the centre of which a transverse bar was affixed, on which he might lean his arms.

When Mr PRINGLE undertook the conducting of Constable's Magazine in 1818, Mr BALFOUR had been pointed out to him as a person likely to contribute some valuable knowledge, regarding the Scottish peasantry, and the modes of life amid the people, in the general mass of society. This augury Mr BALFOUR amply fulfilled, in a series of Essays, viz. on Scottish Scenery and Manners, and afterwards on Scottish Customs and Superstitions....

Towards the end of the summer of 1824, Mr BALFOUR was carried to the village of Libberton, where he remained about a month. Lodgings had fortunately been procured in a house situated in the midst of an extensive garden, in the enjoyment of whose long unaccustomed sweets he delighted to pass the greater part of the day, being occasionally wheeled along the walks by his wife and daughter who accompanied him, or placed under the green canopy of a tree to protect him from, the sunshine.

On a mind constituted like our author's, this change operated with an almost magical influence. To the "captive long in city pent," whose only aspect of nature has been but a glimpse of sunshine, and a patch of sky, the sight of the green pastures, and the sound of the running brooks, possess a beauty and a music which they lack to other eyes and ears. But if he, who has been so long debarred from them, possesses that sensibility inherent in the finer clay of Nature's moulding, how doubly dear the restoration! The Elegy by an Invalid, written under the influence of these feelings, and shortly after published in CONSTABLE'S Magazine, powerful as it certainly is, can convey to the reader but a very imperfect idea of their intensity; for, when emotions pass beyond a certain range, they transcend the powers of utterance, and the poet can only exclaim, with BYRON,

Oh! what can idle words avail,
Unless the heart could speak.

In May 1826, the family removed to Lauriston Place, principally on Mr BALFOUR'S account; and he used frequently to speak of the difference of feeling with which he gazed upon the Pentland Hills, and the yet more remote mountains which bounded his now somewhat extensive view, from that he experienced when shut out, by the walls of the opposite street, from a single glimpse of Nature's general features, save

A scanty plot of sky,
With its small patch of stars.

There was collected for him, in his sitting-parlour, a rather extensive assortment of house-plants and exotics, in which he took a lively interest, and paid great attention to their progress. WORDSWORTH says of his many-wived potter Peter Bell, that

—a primrose by the river's brim,
A yellow primrose was to him;
And it was nothing more.

It was very different with the susceptible and sensitive mind of our poet. Associations were woven around his heart too tenderly to be ever untwined. In the delicate blossoms beside him he beheld a reflection of his own tenderness, and inability to brave the free atmosphere as he had once done, and preferred to them all the common garden rose, for it spoke to him of the dews and sunshine, the free winds, and the open sky. Under the impression of these feelings he composed his stanzas To a Florist.

The unimpaired vigour of Mr BALFOUR'S intellectual faculties, amid the seemingly general wreck of his frame, afforded a very striking exception to the popular belief in these matters. While his judgment remained clear and sound as in the days of his greatest physical energies, his feelings were sensitive, even to a degree of morbidity; and he had little or no command over their outward expression. His memory was capacious, and exceedingly retentive, and most of his senses very acute. His eye-sight, although so much tried by the ordeals of reading and writing, was so good, that, in his sixty-third year, he used the same spectacles which he had done in his forty-ninth by candle-light. Indeed, with the exception of extreme locomotive debility, his general health could not be considered otherwise than fair; and during the many years in which he remained confined to his chair, it is said by his family that he was not, perhaps, a dozen times prevented from joining them at breakfast. He suffered, in general, little or no pain, except from spasmodic twinges in his muscles during the night; yet had sleep for from four to five hours, although always light, and frequently disturbed by disagreeable dreams. This, however; did not make him in the least drowsy during the day, by which, on an average, he read or wrote from twelve to fourteen hours....

It would be unjust to all the parties concerned, — for it is alike honourable to all, to withhold the circumstance of our author having received, in 1827, through the Lords of the Treasury, the donation of a hundred pounds from our gracious SOVEREIGN, in consideration of his talents and misfortunes. This originated in the generous intercession of a distinguished Member of the House of Commons, who had presented several of the works of Mr BALFOUR to Mr CANNING, when Premier. The result was as might have been anticipated; and, while we cordially embrace this opportunity of recording a trait so honourable to the feelings of that lamented statesman, who forwarded a letter, expressive of his regret in not having it in his power to do more, — we almost grudge that we are not at liberty to mention the name of one, who has for many years exerted his influence in every way, by which he could be serviceable to our author's family, and manifested the sincerity of his friendship by the most unequivocal proofs. Few, indeed, there are, who, thus doing good in secret, yet "blush to find it fame"....

Until within twelve days before his death, Mr BALFOUR remained in nearly his usual state of health, — pursuing his ordinary amusements and avocations. Several compositions, among which were pieces entitled Novelty, Style, Village Tales, and Castle Building, were written a short time before that event. The last, which has been since published in The Edinburgh Literary Gazette, was transcribed, and communicated to that work, at his request, only a few days before he died.

On the first of September last he felt worse than usual; but some days thereafter elapsed ere he was confined to bed. Medical advice was then taken; but the disorder, heightened no doubt by the previous peculiar state of the system, soon assumed an unfavourable appearance. It was not, however, till within a few days of his death that any serious apprehensions were entertained of fatal result.

From Mr BALFOUR'S usual difficulty in articulating being increased by the pressure of his distemper, it was latterly impossible for him to make himself understood by those around his dying bed. For some time he was able to trace a few words by means of an alphabet, which he had sometimes used before, but the effort became latterly too much, — even when his hand was supported, in the vain attempt to convey the feelings of his mind, as the shades of the dark valley were encompassing him around, and he was about to be separated from those, whose attentions had been, and were, so kind and unremitting. But, if his friends were tempted to repine at this aggravation to his and their sufferings, the meek submission, and uncomplaining patience, with which he bore the most severe physical agony; and the serene composure with which he anticipated his awful change (for he was able to express his consciousness of its being near), forbade these repinings to be indulged in.

For some time before his death, his bodily sufferings appeared in some degree abated, and he departed as in a sleep. His countenance retained the aspect of repose; and betokened to the gazer, that that day had indeed been to him "the last of danger and distress." He expired at his house in Lauriston Place, at eight o'clock on the morning of Saturday the 12th of September; and his remains were interred, on the Tuesday following, in the burying-ground of the West Church....

During the years 1827-8-9, Mr BALFOUR contributed to The Literary Souvenir, The Forget-Me-Not, and the Friendship's Offering.

Having given an outline of the life of the late Mr ALEXANDER BALFOUR, the reader may glean his general character from it, without much difficulty, If, as SENECA observes, a good man struggling with adversity be a sight worthy the admiration of superior intelligences, the latter years of Mr BALFOUR afford a noble moral lesson. From the time that palsy deprived our author of his locomotive powers, crippled his handwriting, and. nearly deprived him of speech, he composed four volumes of poetry, of which two were published; sixteen volumes of prose, of which thirteen were published; besides pieces in a variety of periodicals, which would fill a nearly equal number. Let it be recollected, that, before this unfortunate son of genius commenced in earnest his literary career, the heyday of life was past, and his spirit damped, not only by the sudden overcasting of his worldly hopes, but by the pressure of adversity. A mind constituted like his is keenly alive to joy, and consequently equally alive to the sorrows which chequer existence, — and of the latter he had his share. When, added to his being shut out from the ever-varying aspects of that fair creation, which for him had so many charms, we find long years of adverse fortune, — with the innumerable evils directly or indirectly following in its train, — and yet, that he bore up with cheerful hope and pious resignation, unweariedly exerting the faculties which were left him, — we may be able to form some idea of the noble strength of his character. Instead of becoming sullen, morose, and envious of the felicity of which he could be only a spectator, his countenance wore a perpetual smile; and the benignity of his heart continued to divulge itself, in the lenient judgments he passed upon men and their actions. He entered cordially into the society of the young and happy; and never lost his relish for innocent amusements.

Day after day, for a tedious series of years, afforded only the alternate amusements of writing and reading; with the additional recreation of listening to the conversation in which it was only with the aid of an interpreter that he could take a part, — for his handwriting was perfectly unintelligible to strangers; and, with the exception of his letters to one or two of his correspondents, it was uniformly transcribed by a member of his family.

As a striking proof of the illegibility of his handwriting, it may be mentioned, that frequently, in making out a second copy from a rough draught, he was himself under the necessity of seeking the assistance of his amanuensis in decyphering it, she, from long practice, being the only person, even in his own family, capable of reading it correctly.

Mr BALFOUR was not only regular, but strictly temperate, in all his habits, and this, conjoined with the sedulous and unremitting attention of his affectionate wife and children, tended to prolong his blameless and useful life. He was rather above the middle height; of a spare habit; and, in his cap, bore a striking resemblance to the portraits of the poet COWPER.

Considered in any point of view, the late Mr BALFOUR was, as a writer, far above the common level, — when the peculiar circumstances of his case are taken into account, he was an extraordinary one. His imagination was ever kept in subservience to correct taste; and, consequently, his works appear rather sensible than sparkling. He never comes short of good sense and shrewd observation; and, although he often surpasses expectation by the penetration of his judgment, he never falls below it, either in laxity of style, or frivolity of remark.

As a novel writer, he could not be said to belong to any particular school. He had looked on life and manners with an observant eye; and he described them in his pages in a manner at once pleasing and natural. He was a decided enemy to all exaggeration of sentiment; and his narratives are characterized by their solid sense and simplicity. As a poet, he seemed alive to merit of all kinds; although, probably from early associations, he had a preponderating veneration for the styles of POPE and GOLDSMITH. Among the cotemporary poets of his youth he had early the discrimination to prefer CRABBE to DARWIN; and he hailed the advent of BURNS as the brightest star in the peculiar literature of Scotland.

Of the moral character of the late Mr BALFOUR, we have said enough for the reader to form his opinions. Generous in prosperity, and resigned in adversity, he bore no malignity to those who had shared with him in the one, but who had forsaken him in the other. Nor did these violations of friendship generate that misanthropical feeling towards mankind in general, which reiterated disappointments are apt to produce in the sensitive mind. These things he nobly forgave, and wished to forget for ever. They only taught him to appreciate more highly the unwavering attachment of the more estimable few, who, knowing him in his brighter days, still continued to know him under the shadow of affliction; and who could find no just grounds for neglecting a man of sterling worth and talent, in his being forsaken by fortune, or in his suffering under the dispensations of an all-wise Providence. Of these early and constant friends he always felt and wrote with becoming pride; and also of those, who, knowing him only as an unfortunate man of talent, by their kind attention to the gratification of that interest which he still felt in literature, soothed and enlivened many hours, that must have otherwise passed heavily.

Of his religious opinions and belief Mr BALFOUR spoke but seldom. His life was the best evidence, that they were formed on the only one sure foundation, — Christianity. He was equally opposed to narrow-minded bigotry, and high-sounding profession, yet held in supreme contempt that falsely-named liberality, which upholds man as not accountable for his belief, and would impose no trammels, moral or religious, against the dictates of inclination. Many memoranda left behind breathe that spirit of humility and pious resignation, inculcated nowhere but in the Gospels.

Of the political views of our author it is merely necessary to mention, that, although warmly alive to the interests and prosperity of his country, he was uniformly an enemy to the virulence of party-spirit, wherever and by whomsoever exhibited. He early saw through the false philosophy of those views, with which the French Revolution for a while dazzled society; and continued an unshaken supporter of the Constitution in Church and State, as handed down to us from our forefathers. Without a parade of sentiment, no man was more alive to the best interests of his countrymen, or the general welfare of the human race.

Little else remains to be noticed of a life, which, although sufficiently eventful to its possessor, and those connected with him by the closest and tenderest of human ties, had little to recommend it to the attention of readers who delight in enterprize and bustle. It is more to be regarded as a history of mind, — of a mind, unsubdued by the wreck of a bodily frame, and almost heroically persevering in its daily exercise. Let it also be remembered, that that exercise wad always in defence of virtue, and that he disdained to pander to the taste of the vicious. To his grave Mr. BALFOUR carried the admiration of many, — the respect of all who knew him; and, of his writings, it may be affirmed, with equal truth as of those of THOMSON, that he left "no line, which dying he could wish to blot."