1903 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Struthers

George Eyre Todd, in The Glasgow Poets (1903) 132-33.



The author of The Poor Man's Sabbath is probably remembered now mainly by the fact that, at the instance of Joanna Baillie, Sir Walter Scott induced Constable to publish his poem. He was, however, of more than local note in his day, and his poetry is still well worth perusal. Born at East Kilbride, July 18, 1776, he was indebted for much sympathy and instruction in childhood to Mrs. Baillie and her two daughters — of whom the younger was still unknown to fame — who then resided in the neighbourhood. Mrs. Baillie read with him, and the young ladies made music for him on the spinet. In his grandfather's home, too, on the lonely Glassford Moor, where he spent three years as a boy, he found a store of histories and theological works of Reformation times which left a strong impression on his vein of thought. After serving an apprenticeship in Glasgow to his father's trade of shoemaking, and himself working at the same business in East Kilbride for some years, he married and moved into Glasgow as a working shoemaker. In 1804 he had his Poor Man's Sabbath printed, and sold a small edition to the local booksellers at sixpence a copy a few weeks before the appearance of Grahame's more famous poem, The Sabbath. As a result Grahame was charged in a London periodical, The Dramatic Mirror, with plagiarism, the charge being founded on the fact that a MS. copy of Struthers' poem, confided to a friend some time before publication, had disappeared. Struthers himself, however, emphatically absolved Grahame. A second edition of The Poor Man's Sabbath was produced in 1806, and followed in the same year by a sequel, The Peasant's Death.

In 1808 the poet's early friend, Joanna Baillie, paid him a visit in Gorbals, and it was the third edition of his poem which, at her instance, Sir Walter Scott induced Constable to publish. The references to Struthers, therefore, by Lockhart in his Life of Scott are not only incorrect, but unjust to the shoemaker-poet. The patronising tone of these references, indeed, has done the memory of the poet much harm. Contrary to Lockhart's statements, Grahame's poem was not the earlier published, and Struthers was never either at Ashestiel or Abbotsford, though he had repeated invitations to both. However, in his own words, "till he ceased to have any occasion to be in Edinburgh, he never was there without having an interview with Mr. Scott in his house in North Castle Street." The Edinburgh edition was very badly printed, but it brought its author 30.

Struthers' next poem, The Winter Day, was published in 1811, and in 1814 a collected edition of his pieces was produced in two volumes at Glasgow under the title of Poems: Moral and Religious. In 1816, during the time of depression after Waterloo, he published an Essay on the State of the Labouring Poor, deprecating the idea that all social ills are curable by Government. In the years 1817-1821 he edited The Harp of Caledonia, a collection to which songs were contributed by Scott, Mrs. Hunter, and Joanna Baillie, and in 1819 he finally laid aside the shoemaker's lapstone for the position of printer's reader to the firm of Khull, Blackie, & Co. In their employment he assisted in editing Wodrow's History, and other works. He also himself wrote a History of Scotland from 1707 to 1827, which was published in the latter year. In 1833 he was appointed Keeper of Stirling's Library, a position which he held till the reconstruction of the library in 1848. Of his later writings the chief was the descriptive poem of Dychmont, his longest piece, published in 1836, and an interesting autobiography prefixed to the complete edition of his poems in 1850. He died July 30, 1853.

The poet's muse was apt to assume a grave religious cast (Struthers was himself, in church matters, an Old Light Anti-Burgher), but his happiest vein was that of natural description. His finest piece is not the somewhat didactic Sabbath with which his name is chiefly associated, but the more purely descriptive Winter Day with its delightful successive pictures of rural life.