1874 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Glen

Charles Rogers, Memoir in Glen, Poetical Works (1874) 16-23.



William Glen, the future poet, was second son of Alexander Glen and Jane Burns; he was born in Queen Street, Glasgow, on the 14th November 1789. During his boyhood he evinced uncommon precocity, and his father, who then occupied a position of opulence, proposed to endow him with the means of indulging his favourite tastes, apart from the concerns of business. A portion of every summer was spent at Renfrew, a royal burgh on the south bank of the Clyde, of which his maternal uncle, Mr James Burns, was for many years the chief magistrate. With this amiable and respected gentleman, the young poet was an especial favourite; he was the companion of his walks, and an eager listener to his tales of old Scottish life. Provost Burns discoursed of "Wallace wight," and of the Royal Stuarts, tracing their progress from their first home in Renfrewshire, on to the sad and bitter end. Young Glen was particularly moved by the story of Charles Edward, and his privations after the disastrous battle of Culloden. The cruel death of the patriot Wallace aroused a horror of oppression, and an enthusiastic admiration of those who struggled in the cause of liberty. Patriots and heroes were celebrated in youthful rhymes, and hopes were cherished that the generous rhymster might himself obtain a niche in the temple of fame. The young poet possessed a commonplace-book, in which he transcribed, in a distinct bold hand, his more polished effusions, together with reflections in prose, and some short prayers for the Divine guidance. An unexpected change in his father's circumstances gave a shock to his early aspirations, and upset his hopes of independence. By a disastrous fire at Trinidad, which destroyed his father's warehouses, the family finances were materially impeded; and it became obvious that the poet must exert himself to repair a shattered fortune.

William Glen entered a house of business at Glasgow, about the age of seventeen. He evinced a competent aptitude for mercantile concerns, and after a period of suitable training, was despatched to one of the West India islands, as the representative of his house. He remained abroad several years, and on his return to Glasgow prosecuted business on his own account. In 1814, he was elected one of the managers of the Merchants' House of Glasgow, and a Director of the Chamber of Commerce in that city. In the same year he experienced commercial reverses, and was compelled to relinquish the affairs of business. This contingency deeply affected his ardent temperament, and, exciting feelings of depression, led him to seek relief amidst the fascinations of society. In private he meditated on the instability of fortune, and recorded in his journal just sentiments respecting the vanity of human pleasures. But he could not resist the solicitations of those who, charmed with his agreeable manners and intelligent conversation, sought to persuade him that social intercourse was a panacea to the ills of life. He became a prominent member of the convivial clubs, and to his admiring colleagues submitted the latest efforts of his muse. Indulging a satiric vein, he composed harmless pasquinades on leading citizens, and jocularly depicted the peculiarities of his friends. An adept in extempore rhymes, he celebrated passing events with dramatic force and an overpowering humour. Some of his random compositions were acquired by the booksellers, and printed on broadsides. In 1815, he published a duodecimo volume under the title of Poems chiefly Lyrical. It was so eagerly sought after, that in a few months every copy disappeared. Not having been reproduced, it has many years been out of print.

On the occurrence of his commercial disaster, Glen was allowed a small annuity by one of his uncles, and was also assisted by his father, who had retired from business on a moderate competency. In 1818, he married Catherine, daughter of Mr John Macfarlane, merchant, Glasgow, who, conjunctly with a brother, rented a farm at Port of Menteith, Perthshire. The earlier years of the Poet's wife were chiefly spent at Port of Menteith, under the roof of her paternal uncle. He and Mr Campbell, the lessee of an adjacent farm, employed a schoolmaster who instructed the children of both families, and resided with each family in turn.

Some time after her marriage, Mrs Glen induced her husband, whose health was considerably impaired, to retire from the city of Glasgow to that romantic district of Perthshire in which she had been educated, and of which the salubrious atmosphere was likely, she believed, to relieve his complaints. A cottage home was established at Reinagour, in the parish of Aberfoyle, and there the Poet indulged his favourite pastime of angling in the lakes and rivers, and cherished the pastoral muse. A life of retirement became congenial, and he who had electrified the Glasgow clubs and social re-unions, was content in the society of his wife, and a few intelligent neighbours, to pass his time in comparative seclusion. For the active business of life, his delicate frame became wholly unsuited. He occasionally deplored that he was unable to act his part on the stage of business, but he was on the whole content and happy. He died at Edwin Place, Gorbals, Glasgow, in December 1826, aged thirty-seven; his remains were interred in the Ramshorn Churchyard of that city.

Glen possessed a handsome and commanding presence. Tall in stature, he was in youth of slender form, but he afterwards became portly. He dressed carefully, wearing garments of a dark hue. His complexion was fair, and his countenance generally wore a smile. Of pleasing manners, he was attractive in society; he excelled in conversation, but was unobtrusive in expressing his sentiments. He was subject to occasional melancholy. A zealous patriot, he joined the Volunteer Sharp-Shooters of Glasgow, on the formation of that corps in 1803. He was afterwards an active member of the Renfrewshire Yeomanry. A few years of his life were spent foolishly, but the earnest impressions of his youth latterly gained force, and amidst the mountain solitudes of Loch Ard and Aberfoyle, he reflected seriously.

Since the period of his death, the present is the first attempt which has been made to collect his compositions into a separate volume. At his death, his MSS. fell into the hands of different persons, who were careful to preserve them; but as each in his turn bid adieu to time, the contents of their repositories were scattered. From the late Mr Gabriel Neil of Glasgow, an ingenious antiquary, who died in 1862, the writer of this Memoir obtained a loan of a volume of Glen's MSS. — a commonplace-book — in the year 1855, and from its pages transcribed the greater number of the Poet's compositions which afterwards appeared in the "Modern Scottish Minstrel." An attempt made lately to obtain a further inspection of the commonplace-book has failed — Mr Neil's own MSS. having disappeared like those of his friend. The discovery of the Poet's printed compositions has also proved a work of difficulty. His nearest relatives were found not to possess copies of any of his writings. None were preserved in the public libraries, or the best private collections of the West of Scotland. A request made for copies in several of the best circulated Glasgow newspapers proved fruitless. At length, through the good offices of Mr Thomas S. Hutcheson of Glasgow, the writer was placed in communication with Mr Alexander Gardyne of Hackney, whose collection of the works of Scottish Poets is probably unequalled. Mr Gardyne found that he possessed Glen's volume, entitled Poems chiefly Lyrical, also his publication entitled The Star of Brunswick, an Elegiac Poem on the Death of the Princess Charlotte of Wales. These publications were most courteously placed by Mr Gardyne in the hands of the writer for reproduction in the present work.

It will not be expected that we should offer any critical estimate of Glen's poetry. He composed his verses for his contemporaries, not for posterity; and it is nearly certain that he did not contemplate posthumous fame. Yet it would be unjust to assign him a rank only among Scottish minor poets — that is, if the word minor is to be applied to the quality of his verses. Had he simply composed Wae's me for Prince Charlie, he would have been entitled to a place with Mrs Grant of Carron, Mrs Agnes Lyon, James Hislop, Thomas Lyle, Alexander Carlile, and William Laidlaw, who, as authors of single songs, have each obtained remembrance. He has not written much, and it cannot be averred that all his compositions are equally meritorious. But it may surely be affirmed that The Battle-Song, and The Battle of Vittoria, are not inferior in roll of numbers to martial odes that are more celebrated. In the whole range of Jacobite minstrelsy, pathetic and touching as it often is, there is no composition which has more evoked the tear of sympathy than the lay of The wee bird; while Mary of Aberfoyle is in sweetness of expression equal to Jessie, the Flower of Dumblane, and excels that song in force of sentiment. But it is useless to expatiate. Glen's compositions are at length placed before his countrymen in a collected and convenient form, and he will no doubt be assigned his proper place among the minstrels of his country....