1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Vedder

George Gilfillan, Memoir in Vedder, Poems, Lyrics, and Sketches (1855) xi-xxviii.



Scotland — confessedly one of the most romantic of countries — is also in its scenery one of the most diversified; and has raised and inspired Poets who have coped with almost every variety of its landscape, as well as with every phase of its curiously contrasted manners. We know not if any country in the wide world exhibits, in such a small compass, such diverse scenes. It is a miniature of the globe. We have Ayrshire with its flat fertility, redeemed from being insipid by its fine rolling rivers; by the background of heathy fells on the south, and the gigantic ridges of Arran on the west — the "Bonnie hills of Gallowa'" and green Dumfriesshire — the undulating and song consecrated precincts of the Border — Fife, with its rich, if tame, interior, and its picturesque shores — Stirling with its links of Forth and blue mountains — "Gowrie's Carse, beloved of Ceres, and Clydesdale to Pomona dear" — Straths Tay and Earn, with their two fine rivers, flowing from finer lakes, through cornfields, woods, and rocks, to melt in music into each others arms near the Fair City of Perth; the wilder and stormier courses of the Spey, the Findhorn, the Don and the Dee — the deep morasses and craggy sea boundary of Buchan and Banffshire, that transcendent mountain region stretching up along Lochs Linnhe, Etive, and Leven, between the wild torn ridges of Morven and Appin, uniting Ben Cruachan to Ben Nevis, and including in its sweep the lonely and magnificent Glencoe — a region unparalleled in wide Britain for its quantity and variety of desolate grandeur, where every shape is bold and almost every shape blasted, but blasted at such different angles as to produce endless diversity, and yet where the whole seems twisted into a terrible harmony-or if paralleled, it is by those regions which lie farther north still, including Skooroora, Loch Maree, Loch Carron, and the rude mountains of Assynt, leaning as it were on Cape Wrath — the Cape of Storms, not to speak of the Hebrides — "Placed far amid the melancholy main." — Iona, which being interpreted means the "Island of the Waves," the rocky cradle of Scotland's Christianity — Staffa, with grass growing above the grandeurs which lurk in the cathedral-cave below, and cows (as we saw it) peacefully feeding over the tumultuous surge which forms the organ of the eternal service — Skye, with that dreadful Glen Sligachan, with the slow tormenting progress and majestic bold surroundings of its pathway — the Coolin Hills, with their shivered minarets and bleached precipices — Blaavin, with his jagged ridges and brown masses of knotted crag Coruisk, with its inky waters, granite boulders, and shaggy over-hanging mountains, like fallen fragments of a ruined world; and the Quiraing, that Temple of the Demons, shattered by the lightnings of an avenging God — or, to close the list, the storm beaten Orcades, and the Ultima Thule of Shetland, seeming the step-children of ocean, so sternly are they regarded by her, so sparingly fed, and so terribly chastised.

For almost every one of these diversified scenes we have a separate poet, who, usually born among, has specially sung, their glories — a Thomson, a Macpherson, a Burns, a Scott, a Hogg, a Riddell, a Tennant, a Wilson, an Aird, a Campbell, a Lockhart, an Armstrong, and a hundred besides, who have made the banks of the Jed, of the Gala and Tweed, of the Yarrow and Ettrick, of the Ayr and Don, of the Nith and Solway Firth, of the Teviot and Tay, and Spey, and Cona, and Cart, and Liddell, and the myriad lochs both north and south, and the grey and restless ocean gleam with the light that never was on sea or shore — the light of poetry. Nor have the isles and seas of Orkney and Shetland been left without their fame; if their mother has been harsh, their sons have been kind. Not only has Scott lent them a portion of his magical glory, but they have themselves reared some poets of no little power and genius. We name at present only Malcolm and Vedder.

Without being a great or original Poet, John Malcolm had about him many real poetical qualities — a warm, almost feminine, sensibility — a sweet sustained melody of versification — fine occasional glimpses of fancy — a constant vein of tender feeling — and a perception of the beautiful rather than a command over the sublime. We met him once, and remember a pensive shade on his amiable and handsome face, and we suspect that this was produced by his early experiences as a soldier. A military life either permanently hardens or softens the temperament, and produces now a Hector MacTurk, and now a John Malcolm.

David Vedder was made of sterner stuff, and "aye every inch a man" seemed inscribed on his whole idiosyncrasy, body and soul. When we first met him, he struck us at once as a strong-minded, clear-headed, and warm-hearted man, with commonsense commensurate with his genius. His appearance was rather that of a sea captain than a poet. He was tall, considerably above 6 feet, rotund, red-faced, and with a world of sagacity in his rugged features, and of warmth in his big heart. His conversation, like his face, was rough and racy, that of one who had mingled much with men, and observed them keenly, as well as faced many a nor'-easter, and had many a hairbreadth escape upon the waters. It was delightful to hear him, even when youth was past, possessing sympathies so generous, and enthusiasm so fresh. He was never weary speaking of Burns, Campbell, and Scott. He had had extensive correspondence with some of the most eminent of his contemporaries; and we remember him shewing us, with much lawful pride, an autograph letter to him, from the author of the "Pleasures of Hope," warmly commending some of his poems. Poet as he was, and possessed of no little share of the "mens divinior," we are not sure but his intellect was stronger than his imagination. It was comparatively uncultured, but was clear, decisive, and masculine, and was allied to great firmness and determination of character. Better still, he had a deep vein of unobtrusive piety in his composition. Being of the same religious denomination, mutual recollections of tent preaching, and early religious impressions, made up no small share our conversation in our few interviews; once especially, breakfasting at his house in Newhaven, our conversation ran almost the whole morning on Secession themes. He had been familiar with our father's papers in the Christian Magazine, signed "Lenmas," and, curious enough, had once been a member of the congregation in Dundee, of which we were then, and are still, minister. It was in the days, however, of our predecessor, George Donaldson, a remarkable man, whom Vedder knew well, and appreciated highly. This was in 1846, shortly after the publication of our earliest book — the First Gallery of Literary Portraits — which was indeed the first link between us. After that, we think, we met him only once or twice, but always regarded him with friendly feelings; heard of his illness with sympathy, and of his death with regret.

David Vedder was born in Deerness Parish, near Kirkwall, in Orkney, in the year 1790. His father was a small proprietor, and David received an ordinary education at the parish school. For his mother he always cherished a peculiar tenderness of affection and glow of gratitude, and attributed to her instructions much of his knowledge, and to her example and counsels much of his piety. Both his parents died when he was twelve years of age. He was left to his own resources, and was, as so many spirited boys are, attracted by the sea. He became first a cabin-boy, and was beat about as all Orkney cabin-boys we suppose are, between the rough usage of his superiors, and the wild tossing of the waves of the Pentland Firth. In his Orcadian Sketches, he supplies some lively pictures of his early experiences as a sailor, on various and often stormy oceans. When he was only eighteen, he was promoted to the rank of mate, and by twenty-two he became captain of a vessel, in which he made several voyages to Greenland and other places. Afterwards he entered the revenue service as first officer of an armed cruiser, which he left in 1820. From that time till 1852 he acted as tide-surveyor — first in Montrose, then in the "Langtoun" of Kirkcaldy, then in "Bonnie Dundee," and finally in Leith. His residence, latterly, was in Newington. During all this time he, not only faithfully discharged the duties of his office (we are assured, by a biographer, that no government ever had in their employ a more laborious, conscientious, self-denying, or faithful servant), but he was pursuing a course of self-culture of a varied and thorough description. He read extensively in his own language, and he seems to have mastered French, Italian, and German.

We find him in his earliest volume, published in 1828 — The Covenanters' Communion — translating from Petrarch. In his Pictorial Gift-book, he supplies various versions from the German; and, toward his closing days, he produced Reynard the Fox, in a new and very admirable translation. In his German studies, he was materially aided by his son-in-law — Mr Frederick Schenck, the engraver, who belongs to "Old Fatherland."

As Vedder's passion for the sea began to cool, his passion for literature and poetry increased. At the age of twenty-one, he commenced contributing to the magazines, but it was not till 1828, when he was thirty-eight years of age, that his first volume appeared. Both Vedder's biographer, in the U. P. Magazine, and Dr. C. Rogers, in his life of him in The British Minstrel, say that this volume was published in 1826. We prefer, however, to believe the title-page of the book itself, which lies before us, and which says, "William Blackwood, 1828." The volume, by the way, is dedicated to Dr. M'Crie, a divine, who enjoyed only a moderate repute in the Modern Athens, at least as a preacher, but who was absolutely adored in the provinces — as Hugh Miller's testimony, as well as this dedication of Vedder's, prove — and who certainly, as an honest, massive, and manly writer of history, has never been surpassed in Scotland. The Covenanters' Communion touches on a noble theme, although it is a theme the difficulties of which are increased by its interest. Professor Wilson is said to have written a long poem on the subject; but, when asked to publish it, he replied, "The fact is that the feeling that pervades Scotland, its every hill and strath, Highlands as well as Lowlands, about that stalwart and noble race, is itself a perpetual poem, humming through the Scottish land and the Scottish heart, and I should be afraid lest my effort should fall short of the national feeling." And probably these words may be found true, too, in reference to Vedder's poem. Still, it is written with a glowing pen, and its enthusiasm in reference to the subject is manifestly as sincere as ardent. After all, if we except The Cameronian's Dream, by Hyslope — a very beautiful strain — the best and most poetic treatment of Covenanters and their sufferings has been in prose: the prose of Sir Walter, in the better parts of Old Mortality, of Wilson in his Lights and Shades, and in passages sprinkled through the Noctes, of Galt in his Ringan Gilhaize, of Hogg in bits of his Brownie of Bodsbeck, of Pollok in his Helen of the Glen, and of Dr. Duncan of Ruthwell, in his William Douglas. Dr. M'Crie, too, has stoutly defended their character, and his son has supplied a sketch of their history, which, if not written with much eloquence or power, is accurate and sympathizing.

To The Covenanters' Communion were annexed a good many smaller pieces — chiefly on Scriptural subjects — all of considerable merit. The whole was well received, and the edition speedily exhausted, although no second one has since appeared. The U. P. Magazine writer informs us: "A few weeks before his death, Mr. Vedder amused himself composing a ballad, of much beauty and touching pathos, descriptive of the sufferings of the Covenanters, founded on a striking incident, relating to Andrew Grey of Chryston, in Ayrshire, who was banished for his adherence to the faith of his fathers. The Poet thus exhibited the ruling passion assuming its usual mastery in the wane of life." It is given afterwards, and forms a very striking poem indeed. In 1832, our late admirable friend, William Tait, published a volume for Vedder, entitled, Orcadian Sketches, and, we think, inserted in his magazine — then newly started — a genial notice of the book. It consisted of a melange of prose and poetry. It is in this work chiefly that Vedder is true to his mission as one of the Bards of Orkney. He commences the volume by a vigorous address to his native county. We quote two stanzas of it:

Land of the whirlpool — torrent — foam,
Where oceans meet in maddening shock;
The beetling cliff — the shelving holm —
The dark insidious rock:
Land of the bleak, the treeless moor —
The sterile mountain, sered and riven;
The shapeless cairn, the ruined tower,
Scathed by the bolts of heaven:
The yawning gulf-the treacherous sand —
I love thee still, my native land.

Land of the dark — the Runic rhyme —
The mystic ring — the cavern hoar;
The Scandinavian seer — sublime
In legendary lore:
Land of a thousand Sea-kings' graves —
Those tameless spirits of the past,
Fierce as their subject Arctic waves,
Or hyperborean blast;
Though polar billows round thee foam,
I love thee! Thou wert once my home.

The prose of this volume consisted of sketches of the traditions and ancient manners of Orkney, and of certain incidents and adventures, thinly disguised, of his own early history. These were all written with life, force, eloquence, and sometimes fun and humour, and were characteristic of the whole David Vedder, not merely of his poetic portion, which might be said to be a mere rib of the large and massive man. Yet the poems inserted in the volume shewed a vast improvement on his earlier effusions. They had a freedom of motion — a liveliness, and variety of subject and of tone — touched less on sacred and more on secular and amusing themes, and promised altogether to secure him an extensive popularity as a Poet. His Witch of Pittenweem, his Laird of Windlestraetown, his He would be a Soldier, were very clever and laughable ditties, while in his Lines on the Departing Year (1831) he rose to grave strength, and in his songs, especially The Gloaming Star is Gleaming, and some others, he was very musical and mellifluous. In 1839 he prefixed to the Poetical Remains of Robert Frazer an interesting memoir. Frazer hailed, we think, from Kirkcaldy, and was a young man of high promise, although his name can hardly be expected to live long, He was a contemporary of Robert Nicoll, and was, we believe, one of his intimates. Vedder, too, knew and loved that remarkable youth, and he and Nicoll and some others, who were all resident at the time in Dundee, formed a club which met at regular intervals, and kept up at once animated discussion and genial intercourse. Vedder survived most of these early associates long; they were beautiful poplars surrounding a sturdy oak, but the poplars speedily withered and died, and the oak remained strong, though not solitary, for other congenial spirits — such, as Robert Gilfillan, of Leith, Captain Charles Grey, &c., rallied round him in his later days. Leaning on none, not a few were willing and proud to lean on him. In 1829-30, David Vedder had an author's quarrel with Henry Glassford Bell, then editor of the Edinburgh Literary Journal. We forget, if indeed we ever knew, the "origo mali," but it issued in Vedder's getting up, in opposition to the Literary Journal, another periodical — the Edinburgh Literary Gazette which, supported by De Quincey and other celebrities, became a formidable rival. We remember hearing this act of our author's reported frequently as a proof of his determination and pluck, as well as of his organizing energy.

After Sir Walter Scott's death, many seized their pens to write biographies of him, which might serve as the stars of dawn, ere Lockhart's Life should arise like the sun. Vedder was one of these, but his life had less of the catch-penny aspect than some of the rest; it seemed more the dictate of spontaneous enthusiasm, and so thought the public, for they bought it up with avidity. It is a very amusing and readable book.

In 1842 he gave to the world a collected edition of his Poems new and old, in an elegant duodecimo Volume. We remember well that year seeing this volume in the house of a gentleman in Edinburgh, where for the first time we met Dr. James Hedderwick, now the accomplished editor of the Glasgow Citizen. We. happened to take up the poems, to open them at the lines, "All Nature worships there," with which we were so much struck that we read them aloud to the company. We then heard from, we think, our host that Dr. Chalmers had more than once electrified his class-room by reading to them these verses, as the production, he told them, of "honest David Vedder, of Leith." Some years afterwards, when we met the author for the first time, we told him this story, to his great delight. We were astonished, indeed, that he had never heard it before. Chalmers' recitation, it will be remembered, though too rough and monotonous to satisfy a severe or refined elocutionary standard was exceedingly powerful in its rapid rush, abandonment and enthusiasm. He was very catholic too in his use of it. Now he brought tears to his own eyes and those of his audience by quoting Byron's pathetic lines at the close of Childe Harold — "Farewell, a word that must be and hath been," &c., now by giving one of Ralph Erskine's Gospel Sonnets, and now by repeating any fine copy of verses he had chanced to meet in the periodicals or newspapers of the day. Vedder's verses will be found in the after part of the volume, and are certainly very noble. In public lecturings they are frequently quoted, and they never fail to tell.

In 1848 Vedder published a large illustrated folio, entitled, Lays and Lithographs — the Lithographs by his son-in-law, Mr. Schenck, and the Lays by himself. It was a splendid volume, and proud were we, being then in the honeymoon of our critical authorship, to get and review a copy of it. We think we noticed it in Tait's Magazine. The lithographs were much admired, specially a portrait of Shakespeare, and a view of the Northern Lights, as seen in the Orkney Islands. Vedder's contributions consisted partly of translations from the German, executed, it was understood with much fidelity, and of some original pieces, written with more than his usual force. His verses on Frederick the Great might have been printed on the frontispiece of Carlyle's Life. They are remarkable for their felicitous and energetic condensation.

Some time after he published, along with some admirable illustrations, a translation of the old German immortality, The History of Reynard the Fox. There is no more delightful or amusing book in the whole compass of German literature, and how admirably the interest is sustained and the humour intensified by the aid of Mr. Schenck's illustrations is known to all who have seen the book — a book which lies on the drawing-room table a dream of beauty, and which, when lifted up, becomes a spring of unextinguishable laughter. During all this time, Vedder had been contributing extensively to periodicals — to Constable's Edinburgh Magazine, to the Edinburgh Literary Journal, to the Edinburgh Literary Gazette (his own bairn), to the Christian Herald, to Tait's Magazine, and to Chambers's Journal. He wrote, also, part of the letterpress to Geikie's volume of Etchings, and furnished songs for George Thomson's Melodies of Scotland, and for Blackie's Book of Scottish Song.

All acquainted with the last twenty years of Scottish literature remember the name "Whistle-Binkie," a charming collection of original Scotch songs and poems, published by the late amiable David Robertson, in Glasgow, but contributed to by writers from every quarter of the country. These productions did not pretend to high poetry, but they were very good as pictures of Scotch national or provincial manners, and were not so far inferior to the minor poems or songs of Burns as is generally supposed. The power of song writing and poetry possessed by James Ballantine, Alex. Rogers, Alexander MacLagan, Alex. Laing, William Miller (author of the exquisite Wee Willy Winkie), William Thom, and scores besides has been undervalued, because, possessed by so many, it has been thought a mere knack rather than a gift. Like the silver in Solomon's day, song writing has been so plentiful as to be held of little or no account. Still there is much excellent matter in these simple strains, which at least are ten times better than the common stilted or studiedly obscure imitations of Tennyson, Browning, and Shelley; which, if comparatively small, are intrinsically true, and which, if they do not always prove great genius in their authors, prove first transcendent genius in Burns, who has created a school so large and so natural, and very great peculiarity, beauty and interest in those national customs, national superstitions, and national scenery, of which they are undoubtedly faithful photographs. Although superior at once in culture and masculine force to the great majority of the "Whistle-Binkie " school, David Vedder fearlessly threw himself in among them, and contributed some racy verses, such as Rantin' Robin, and Duncan Dhu's Tribulations, to the agreeable medley.

We see sometimes in papers and magazines, where better things, might be expected, sneers at what are called "minor poets" — Longfellow, for instance, called a "minor poet." Such language is discouraging to bards, who do not sufficiently feel how delusive it is. All is comparative. Burns himself is a minor poet compared to Shakespeare, and Browning to Milton. The great question should be — Is a poet true? Is he a genuine singer of the groves, or is he a mere mocking bird? There are those who prefer the nightingale to the eagle, and the robin redbreast to the roe. The cicada and the aziola are very minor songstresses, and yet how sweetly Anacreon sings of the one and Shelley of the other. And we all remember how poetically Claud Halcro, in The Pirate, repels the charge of being an "imber-goose." David Vedder, in comparison with some thoroughbred artists like Tennyson, or fiercely inspired Titans like Byron and Wilson, might be called a minor poet, but he was in our judgment a true one — he spake from a touched heart and a glowing fancy. He had got, too, a capital poetical training in his early days; had kindled his genius at the midnight lightning, as it revealed the ocean in her wrath, like a flash of fire discovering the face, of a secret murderer; had learned the rhythm of his verses from the roaring thunder and the bursting tempest; and we find, in some of his loftier verses, the result of meditations pursued by him upon the solitary deck, now under the wild lustre of the Northern Aurora, and now under the skies of the south, bending under their vast and weighty burden of stars like camels under loads of gold.

In 1852, Vedder retired from his position as a tide surveyor, and spent the rest of his life in Newington, Edinburgh. He seemed, as some have said of Professor Wilson, "built to last for 150 years," and yet, even earlier than Wilson, broke down and died in 1854, in his grand climacteric. We wish we could transfer to our pages the whole of the interesting picture given by his biographer in the U. P. Magazine for May 1854, of his closing days. He died in great peace, a meek and humble disciple of Jesus Christ. His speculative intellect, if it ever gave him any trouble, was now entirely quiescent. His awe of God was indeed very great, he dwelt often on the idea of meeting alone after death with that "Tremendous Being." But, latterly, the image of the Lamb seemed to arise more forcibly on his mind, and to form a veil between him and the ineffable glory—

The Living Throne, the Sapphire blaze,
Where angels tremble as they gaze.

His daughter gives the following pleasing little incident of his death-bed:—

"When the 23rd Psalm was repeated to him, my mother reminded him that it was Charlotte's psalm (his youngest and most beloved child, who died at four years of age, and whose intelligence and extraordinary piety evinced on her death-bed were remarkable), the tears gushed from his eyes, and, clasping his hands, he exclaimed: 'Aye! Charlotte's psalm — mine too, mine too,' and then followed an inarticulate strain of prayer, for he was so weakened by disease that he spoke with great difficulty, and sometimes a pressure of the hand or pointing of the finger was the only mode of conveying his wishes."

Vedder died at Newington on the 11th of February 1854. His remains were transferred to the Southern Cemetery, and were followed to their last resting place by a large company, consisting of most of the literary men then resident in Edinburgh, and by many sympathizing friends from a distance. He lies within a short distance of Dr. Chalmers — a man whom he knew privately as well as admired in his public capacity to enthusiasm, and who, as we have seen, recognized the value of his poetry and the worth of his character. We may add that, besides such friends who were exceedingly attentive to him ere death, and to his memory after it — as Mr. Schenck and Mr. William H. Macfarlane — he enjoyed the visitations and kind sympathies of the late Dr. John Brown of Broughton Place, of whose church he was a member, and of the Rev. James Robertson, U. P. minister, Newington.

Ever ready to acknowledge rising merit, he was immediately attracted by the genius of the late lamented Alex. Smith, and with him almost "in articulo mortis" he formed a friendship which, had life permitted, might have borne valuable fruit to both.

When we heard of his death we thus, after a brief and imperfect attempt to estimate his character, as we do again now, bade him farewell.

"David Vedder, farewell! We shall miss hereafter for evermore thy burly form, thy rugged kindly face, thy hearty salute, the warm grasp of thy hand we were wont to see and feel when stepping ashore at the Newhaven pier! Thou art gone elsewhere, and we trust art employed in a loftier worship than Nature. But we shall never forget thy kindness to us personally, nor the many excellencies and virtues of thy manly and Christian character, any more than the pleasing hours we have enjoyed in perusing thy vigorous and true-hearted poetry."