1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. David Macbeth Moir

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 198-99.



As there is an M, in Monmouth and in Macedon, so there is a [Delta] in Egypt and in Edinburgh, — at least, if by this latter is understood the magazine of old Ebony, whose pages for thirty long years and more, — from the period when a lad of 19 he committed his first verses to the press,— "Delta, triangular bard," — as some one styles him, — continued to enrich with a supply of poetical contributions, — the last, The Lament of Selim, leaving his hand little more than a fortnight before his death.

This eminent physician, poet, and critic was born January, 1798, at that ancient borough whose antiquity in the past, and proud continuance in the future, is announced in the prophetic quatrain.—

Musselburgh it was a burgh
When Edinburgh was nane
And Musselburgh will be a burgh
When Edinburgh is gane.

The long series of poems which he contributed to Blackwood is uniformly distinguished by command of language, piety of tone, delicacy of fancy, and purity of thought. "Delta," says Professor Wilson, "has produced many original pieces, which will possess a permanent place in the poetry of Scotland." Jeffrey wrote to him, thanking him for the gratification which he had received from his poems, and ascribing to them "more genuine pathos than anything almost that he had ever read in verse;" and Dr. Butler, the Bishop of Lichfield, singled out his lines on Mount St. Bernard, as worthy of a Latin version, which forms one of the happiest pieces in the Arundines Cami.

It was also in Blackwood that was commenced one of the most felicitous pieces of Scotch humour that has ever appeared, — the Life of Mansie Wauch, Tailor in Dalkeith. This admirable imaginary biography was subsequently completed, dedicated to Galt, "by his sincere friend and admirer," and issued by Blackwood in 1828. In the depiction of Scottish character in the humbler walks of life, — in quiet, refined humour, — in simple pathos, — I know nothing superior to it, and rank it with The Cottagers of Glenburnie of Miss Hamilton, the Castle Rackrent of Miss Edgeworth, and the Cranford of our own Mrs. Gaskell. Regarding this as an original creation, I consider that it alone is sufficient to obtain for its author a high place among those authors who, like Scott and Galt, have used fiction as a vehicle for the delineation of national character; while it is, as Maginn truly observes, "admirably descriptive of a class of persons fast wearing out even in that land of originals, Scotland, as well as of manners that are no longer common."

The position of Dr. Moir as a critic depends upon his Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-century (Blackwood, 8vo. 1851). This is a reprint of six lectures, originally delivered at the Edinburgh Philosophical Association, in the session of 1850-1. A notice of it forms the subject of an essay in Gilfillan's Literary Portraits, where its merits and demerits are fairly pointed out. His definition of poetry, — "Objects or subjects seen through the mirror of imagination, and descanted on in harmonious language," he admits to be imperfect. So is that of Aristotle, Dr. Johnson, and Leigh Hunt; and we still await a satisfactory explanation. The book, however, is genial, eloquent, and enthusiastic; but erroneous in classification, and mistaken as to the fate of poetry and its necessary declension, in an era of science and discovery.

Dr. Moir also edited the poems of Mrs. Hemans, the greatest female poet that this country has yet produced, wrote a Life of John Galt; and was author of Outlines of the Ancient History of Medicine, being a View of the Progress of the Healing among the Egyptians, Greek, Romans, and Arabians (1831), a work of great erudition and research.

In private life, the subject of this brief notice was greatly and deservedly beloved. "The world," says Fraser, "has but the moiety of a notion of a little part of his worth, when it thinks that his poetry comprehends all the merit which entitle him to the praise and goodwill of our courteous readers."

It was when visiting his old and valued friend Thomas Aird that he was attacked with peritonitis. Dr. Christison, of Edinburgh, was called in; but he grew worse, and died on the Sunday morning, three days after his attack, July 6th, 1851, aged 53. On the 11th of July he was buried at Musselburgh, where he had so long practised, and was interred near to that fondly loved boy whose early fate he had sung in his well-known Casa Wappy, a poem hardly less true and pathetic than Cowper's lines On the Receipt of my Mother's Picture.

His poetical works have been collected and published by his friend Thomas Aird, — himself a poet of rare poetical genius, — who has prefaced the volumes with a Life, which in power of language and generosity of feeling may be pronounced a model of appreciative biography.