William Motherwell

James Grant Wilson, in Poetry of Scotland (1876) 2:157-59.

WILLIAM MOTHERWELL, an antiquary, journalist, and poet, and the author of two Scottish ballads unsurpassed for tenderness and pathos, was born in Glasgow, October 13, 1797. His father was an ironmonger in that city, and came of a Stirlingshire family who for thirteen generations had possessed a small property named Muirmill on the banks of the Carron. His mother was the daughter of a prosperous Perthshire farmer, from whom she inherited a considerable property. The family removed to Edinburgh early in the century, and in 1805 William became a pupil of Mr. W. Lennie, in whose school he met the heroine of his beautiful song. The year following he entered the high-school, but was soon after sent to reside with an uncle at Paisley, where he completed his education at the grammar-school, with the exception of attending the Latin and Greek classes in the University of Glasgow during the session of 1818-19. He was placed as an apprentice in the office of the sheriff-clerk of Paisley, and his ability and diligence combined secured for him at the age of twenty-one the honourable position of sheriff-clerk depute of Renfrewshire.

While fulfilling the duties of this office Motherwell steadily pursued those literary occupations upon which his claims to public notice are founded. He early evinced a taste for poetry, and in his fourteenth year had produced the first draft of "Jeanie Morrison." In 1818 he contributed to a small work published at Greenock called The Visitor, and in the following year he edited an edition of the Harp of Renfrewshire, a valuable collection of songs. In 1827 he published his Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern, a work of great merit and research, which at once gave him rank and influence as a literary antiquary. In the introduction Motherwell exhibits a thorough acquaintance with the ballad and romantic literature of his native land. In 1828 he commenced the Paisley Magazine, the pages of which he enriched with some of his best poetical productions; and during the same year he assumed the editorship of the Paisley Advertiser, a Tory newspaper previously under the management of his friend William Kennedy. In January, 1820, he was appointed editor of the Glasgow Courier, an influential journal conducted on Tory principles. In his hands the journal maintained its high character as an able exponent of ultra-Tory opinions, and he continued its editorship up to the date of his death.

In 1832 there appeared from the press of his friend David Robertson a small volume of his best poetical compositions, entitled Poems, Narrative and Lyrical. With the publication of this little book, containing such lyrics as "Jeanie Morrison," "My Heid is like to read, Willie," and "Wearie's Well," compositions which for soft melancholy and touching tenderness of expression have never been excelled, William Motherwell at once took rank among Scotland's sweetest singers. Miss Mitford says, "Burns is the only poet with whom, for tenderness and pathos, Motherwell can be compared. The elder bard has written much more largely, is more various, more fiery, more abundant; but I doubt if there be in the whole of his collection anything so exquisitely finished, so free from a line too many or a word out of place, as the two great lyric ballads of Motherwell; and let young writers observe, that this finish was the result, not of a curious felicity, but of the nicest elaboration. By touching and re-touching, during many years, did 'Jeanie Morrison' attain her perfection, and yet how completely has art concealed art! How entirely does that charming song appear like an inexpressible gush of feeling that would find vent. In 'My Heid is like to read, Willie,' the appearance of spontaneity is till more striking, as the passion is more intense — intense, indeed, almost to painfulness."

In 1835, in conjunction with the Ettrick Shepherd [James Hogg], Motherwell edited an edition of Burns, to which he contributed the principal part of the biography, with copious notes; and he was collecting material for a life of Tannahill, when he was suddenly struck down by apoplexy, and died after a few hour's illness, Nov. 1, 1835, in the thirty-eighth year of his age. His remains were interred in the Glasgow Necropolis, where an elegant monument with a life-like bust has been erected to his memory.

As a poet Motherwell was happiest in pathetic and sentimental lyrics, though his own inclinations led him to prefer the chivalrous and martial style of the old minstrels. The translations of Scandinavian poetry which he produced are among the most successful and vigorous which have appeared. After his death a new edition of his poems was published, accompanied by a memoir written by his friend and physician James M'Conechy, who concludes with the following paragraph: — "Upon the whole his place as a minor poet is a distinguished one. He has undoubtedly enriched the language with many noble specimens of manly song; and when it is remembered that he prosecuted his poetical studies in silence and retirement, animated alone by the love of his art, and sustained through many long years of trial by the distant gleam of posthumous fame, it will not be disputed that his motives to action were exalted, and his exertions in the cause of human improvement disinterested." Another competent critic — Christopher North — said of Motherwell, "All his perceptions are clear, for all his senses are sound; he has fine and strong sensibilities, and a powerful intellect. He has been led by the natural bent of his genius to the old haunts of inspiration — the woods and glens of his native country — and his ears delight to drink the music of her old songs. Many a beautiful ballad has blended its pensive and plaintive pathos with his day-dreams, and while reading some of his happiest effusions we feel—

The ancient spirit is not dead,—
Old times, we say, are breathing there.

His style is simple, but in his tenderest movements masculine: he strikes a few bold knocks at the door of the heart, which is instantly opened by the master or mistress of the house, or by son or daughter, and the welcome visitor at once becomes one of the family."