William Motherwell

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 3:210-11.

WILLIAM MOTHERWELL, a highly gifted poet, was born in Glasgow, October 13, 1797. His family originally belonged to Stirlingshire, where for several generations they resided on a small property of their own, called Muirmill. At an early age he was placed under the care of an uncle in Paisley, and after receiving a good education, was apprenticed to the sheriff-clerk of the county, with the view of following the legal profession. On the termination of his apprenticeship he was employed for some time by Dr. Robert Watt, in assisting in the compilation of that valuable and useful work, the Bibliotheca Britannica, in which occupation he displayed a passionate love of antiquarian lore, that characterized all his after years. Having early begun to "try his 'prentice hand" on poetry, he about the same time contributed some pieces to a small periodical published at Greenock, called The Visitor. At the age of twenty-one he was appointed deputy to the sheriff-clerk at Paisley, which office he held for about ten years. In the year 1819 he contributed an Essay on the Poets of Renfrewshire, to a collection of Songs and other poetical pieces published at Paisley, entitled The Harp of Renfrewshire, in which a few of his own productions also appeared. He subsequently became editor of a work of a somewhat similar nature, but of higher pretensions and greater merit, being a valuable collection of ballads, published in parts, and completed in 1827, under the title of Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern, illustrated by a most interesting historical introduction and notes, which exhibited his extensive acquaintance with the ballad and romantic literature of Scotland.

In 1898 Mr. Motherwell became editor of the Paisley Advertiser, a paper of conservative politics, which he conducted with spirit and success for nearly two years. At the same time he edited the Paisley Magazine, a monthly periodical, which, though it displayed much talent and liveliness, only existed for a year. In the beginning of 1880, on the retirement of Mr. MacQueen, the able and at that period well-known advocate, of the West India interests, from the Glasgow Courier, Mr. Motherwell was engaged as editor of that journal, and he continued to conduct it till his death. He entered upon the editorship at a period of great public excitement, when the principles he supported, those of conservatism, were, for the time, exceedingly unpopular, but he advocated the cause which he conscientiously believed to be the true one with signal intrepidity, unflinching zeal, and consummate ability, and for upwards of five years sustained with distinction the character of the newspaper under his charge. Of Motherwell it may be truly said that "he gave up to party what was meant for mankind," for politics, in a great measure, thus withdrew him from the more congenial pursuits of literature. He did not, however, wholly forsake poetry, for, in 1832, a volume of his Poems, Narrative and Lyrical, was published at Glasgow, and was most favourably received. A few months previously he had furnished his friend, Mr. Andrew Henderson, with an able and interesting preface for his collection of Scottish Proverbs, in which he showed a thorough acquaintance with the "saws" and sayings of his countrymen.

The same year he contributed a number of pieces in prose and verse to The Day, a periodical then published at Glasgow. His Memoirs of Peter Birnie, a Paisley bailie, formed one of the most amusing papers in that publication. In 1834-5 he superintended with Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, an elegant edition of the works of Burns, in five volumes, published by Messrs. A. Fullarton & Co. A large amount of the notes, critical and illustrative, was supplied by him.

Mr. Motherwell was of short stature, but stout and muscular. The engrossing and exciting nature of his duties, combined with other causes, gradually undermined his health, and he was latterly subject to occasional attacks of illness. On the evening of 31st October 1835, he was seized with an apoplectic fit, and though medical aid was speedily procured, in less than three hours, during which he scarcely spoke, he died, November 1, in his 39th year. He was never married. A monument to his memory was erected in Glasgow Necropolis, where he was buried.

He was very fond of the poetry of Norway, and in his Poems, Narrative and Lyrical, he has introduced three remarkable pieces, thoroughly embued with the character of the Norse legends. With regard to these, he says, in his dedication to a brother poet, William Kennedy, author of a volume of Lyrics, they "are intended to be a faint shadowing forth of something like the form and spirit of Norse poetry; but all that is historical about them is contained in the proper names. The first, Sigurd's Battle Flag, does not follow the story as given in the Northern Sagas, but only adopts the incident of the Magic Standard, which carries victory to the party by whom it is displayed, but certain death to its bearer. Jarl Egill Skallagrim's Wooing Song is entirely a creation, and nothing of it is purely historical, save the preserving of the name of that warrior and Skald. From the memorials, however, he has left us of himself, I think he could not well have wooed in a different fashion. As for Thorstein Raudi, or the Red, that is a name which occurs in Northern history; but, as may well be supposed, be never said so much in all his life about his sword or himself, as I have taken the fancy of putting into his mouth."

As a poet, Mr. Motherwell possessed considerable genius and originality. His principal characteristics are purity of spirit and depth of feeling. His ballad compositions are simple, but full of truth and pathos. His most exquisite productions are Jeanie Morrison, and My head is like to rend, Willie, which, especially the former, no one possessing any sensibility can read without being deeply affected. There is a touching tenderness about them both which appeals at once to the best sympathies of our nature, and they approach nearer to the sweetness and simplicity of some of the songs of Burns than any poems of the kind in the language. His Sword Chant of Thorstein-Raudi, and similar pieces, are distinguished by a spirit of warlike enthusiasm which stirs the heart like the blast of a trumpet. Personally he was endeared to his friends by many admirable qualities. Kindness of heart, generosity of disposition, and urbanity of manner, were not the least striking features of his character. He left various manuscripts, finished and unfinished, among which was a prose work, embodying the wild legends of the Norsemen, a department of literature to which he was much devoted. A new edition of his poems, containing a selection from these manuscripts, was published in 1846, with a memoir by Mr. M'Conechy, his successor in the Courier, and a personal friend of his own.