The parents of Bruce were in an humble station of life; his father being a weaver at the little hamlet of Kinneswood, in Kinrossshire, near the banks of Lochleven. Their character, however, was such as their son might justly be proud of; the father being distinguished among his neighbours by "his piety, industry, and integrity," the mother by her "exemplary prudence and frugality, and the innocence and simplicity of her manners." In their religious tenets they were seceders of the Burgher class.
MICHAEL BRUCE, their fifth child, was born at Kinneswood, in the parish of Portmoak, on the 27th of March, 1746. While he was still in his childhood, two circumstances induced his parents to task their scanty means to the utmost, that he might receive such an education as would qualify him for becoming a minister of the gospel. These were his love of learning, which he early manifested, and the delicacy of his constitution, which unfitted him for bodily toil. He was first sent to school at Portmoak, and then at Kinross; and the hopes which he had inspired were justified by the rapidity of his progress.
Having acquired all that a country school could give, he went, in 1762, to the University of Edinburgh, where he pursued his studies during four years. In the course of that time he attained a critical knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages, and a considerable proficiency in metaphysics, mathematics, and moral and natural philosophy. Elegant literature was, however, his chief delight, and especially poetry. His predilection for poetry was not of recent origin. It had arisen long previously to his quitting Portmoak, and had been fostered by his friend Mr. David Arnot, whom he afterwards celebrated under the name of Agricola, who lent him the Paradise Lost, Thomson's Seasons, the dramas of Shakspeare, and the poems of Pope.
At Edinburgh, Bruce contracted an intimacy with several young men of abilities, but the person to whom he was, perhaps, the most strongly attached, was Logan, himself a poet. The friendship between Logan and Bruce was kept up with unabated warmth till the death of the latter, and, after that melancholy event, Logan, with pious care, snatched from oblivion the poetical relics of his departed friend, and paid an honourable tribute of praise to his genius, virtues, and social worth.
The mind of Bruce seems to have been of a pensive cast, and it is probable that this was increased, if not caused, by his constitutional predisposition to disease. In his letters from the university, he often indulged in a strain of plaintive reflection, he declares, in one of them, that "a kind of settled melancholy, for which he could not account, had seized upon his spirits." Yet his melancholy was not of that dark and oppressive kind which renders its victim a burthen to himself and to his associates. On the contrary, it rather tended to excite in his favour an affectionate interest. It more resembled the softening shade of twilight than the fear-inspiring gloom of the midnight hour. He was, besides, unaffectedly pious; so that, even when he had for a moment uttered the language of complaint, he always ended by expressing his firm trust in the benevolence of the Deity, and his perfect resignation to the Divine will.
Of the warmth of his friendship and the strength of his piety some idea may be formed from a part of a letter in which he laments to a friend the death of one whom he had recently lost, and likewise anticipates, too correctly, his own approaching fate. "I have not," he says, "many friends, but I love them well. Scarce one enjoys the smiles of this world in every respect; and in every friend I suffer. Death has been among the few I have. Poor Dryburgh! but he's happy. I expected to have been his companion through life, and that we should have slept into the grave together. But Heaven has seen meet to dispose of him otherwise. — What think you of this world? I think it is very little worth. You and I have not a great deal to make us fond of it. And yet I would not change my condition with the most wealthy unfeeling fool in the universe, if I were to have his dull hard heart into the bargain. Farewell, my rival in immortal hope! my companion (I trust) for eternity. Though far distant, I take thee to my heart. Souls suffer no separation from the obstruction of matter or distance of place. Oceans may roll between us, and climates interpose in vain. The whole material creation is no bar to the winged mind. Farewell, through boundless ages, fare thou well. Mayst thou shine when the sun is darkened. Mayst thou live and triumph when time expires. It is at least possible we may meet no more in this foreign land, this gloomy apartment in the universe of God. But there is a better world in which we may meet to part no more. Adieu!"
In the summer of 1765, Bruce was chosen teacher of the school at Gairny Bridge, near Kinross, at which were educated the children of some of the neighbouring farmers. For performing this office he was allowed his board and a trifling salary. While thus occupied, he amused his leisure hours by the composition of verse. The monody to the memory of William Arnott, the poem on the Last Day, and the pastoral of Alexis, were produced at this period. Love now lent its inspiration to his song. Among his scholars was the daughter of the person with whom he resided at Gairny Bridge, "whose modest beauty, and artless simplicity (says Dr. Anderson) had made an impression on his susceptible heart." In his poems, he often tenderly alludes to this young female, under the names of Peggy and Eumelia.
When the college session of 1765-1766 commenced, Bruce became a student of divinity; but how far he pursued his theological studies, or with what degree of success, has not been recorded.
From Gairny Bridge, in the summer of 1766, he removed to a school at Forest Mill, near Alloa, in Clackmannanshire. It appears, however, that this removal was not as advantageous to him as he had expected that it would be. Nor was the deficiency of patronage compensated for by an increase of his social or menial pleasures. "I lead (said he) a melancholy kind of life in this place. I am not fond of company. But it is not good that a man be still alone. And here I can have no company, but what is worse than solitude. If I had not a lively imagination, I believe I should fall into a state of stupidity or delirium. I have some evening scholars; the attending on whom, though few, so fatigues me that the rest of the night I am quite dull and low spirited. Yet I have some lucid intervals, in the time of which I can study pretty well."
While at Forest Mill he undertook and completed his poem of Lochleven. "I have (says he in a letter to Mr. Arnot) written a few lines of a descriptive poem, cui titulus est, Lochleven; you may remember you hinted such a thing to me: so I have set about it, and you may expect a dedication. I hope it will soon be finished, as I every week add two lines, blot out six, and alter eight. You shall hear the plan when I know it myself."
Before he had put the last hand to the poem which he thus sportively mentions, his health began to decline. In the autumn of 1766, his naturally delicate constitution could no longer bear up against his daily toil, the privations which he suffered, and the rigour of a northern climate; and as winter approached, it was evident that he was sinking beneath the influence of incurable consumption. It was under these adverse circumstances that he wrote the concluding hues of the poem of Lochleven, in which he forcibly and pathetically alludes to his solitary situation and impending fate:
Thus sung the youth, amid unfertile wilds
And nameless deserts, unpoetic ground!
Far from his friends he stray'd, recording thus
The dear remembrance of his native fields,
To cheer the tedious night; while slow disease
Prey'd on his pining vitals, and the blasts
Of dark December shook his humble cot!
Those native fields which he regretted, he, however, once more beheld. Incapable of further exertion, and hopeless of relief, he returned to his home, to breathe his last in the arms of his parents. In his intervals of comparative ease he still corresponded with his friends, and exercised his powers in various kinds of composition. Among the pieces which he wrote during this trying period was a prose vision, of considerable merit, designed as an allegorical description of human life. The last poem which he lived to finish was the Elegy written in Spring. It is equally honourable to him as a poet and a man; and Lord Craig has justly remarked, that it "cannot fail of touching the heart of every one who reads it." Too much praise cannot be given to the collectedness and dignified resignation which were displayed by Bruce, on the eve of being torn from those whom he loved, and from those bright hopes of fame which, with the natural fondness of a favourite of the Muse, it is probable that he had sometimes cherished. Exhausted nature at length yielded to the efforts of disease, and he expired, in the twenty-first year of his age, on the sixth of July, 1767.
His character is well drawn by Dr. Anderson, a man fully capable of appreciating merit, and always anxious to do it ample justice. "It was (says he) truly amiable and respectable. In his manners, he was modest, gentle, and mild; in his disposition, he was friendly, affectionate, and ingenuous. He united an ardent and enlightened sense of religion with a lively imagination and a feeling heart. Tenderness, in every sense of the word, and piety, equally remote from enthusiasm and superstition, were his peculiar characteristics."
The poems of Bruce were published at Edinburgh in 1770, by Logan, who added some by himself and by other persons, for the purpose of enlarging the volume to what he deemed a proper size. The sale of this volume I believe to have been confined within a narrow circle. In 1779, however, an elegant paper written by Lord Craig, and inserted in The Mirror, called the public attention to the works of Bruce, and, in consequence of this, another edition of the poems was printed in 1754. Some years afterwards, a much enlarged edition was put forth in the Scotch metropolis, under the superintendence of the Rev. Dr. Baird, for the benefit of Bruce's mother, who lived to extreme old age, and who, amidst sorrow and poverty and decrepitude, felt a pride and consolation in having given birth to a son of so much virtue and talent.
It is impossible to peruse the poems of Bruce without regretting the untimely fate of an author whose early productions gave so fair a promise of excellence. His genius, though not of the highest order, rose far above mediocrity, and his taste was remarkably pure. In his style we find simplicity without meanness, and spirit without bombast. Among descriptive poems, the poem of Lochleven is entitled to hold a respectable place. The landscape is depicted with a skilful hand, and the story of Levina is told with an artless and pathetic sweetness. The Last Day is, perhaps, on the whole, superior to Lochleven. It has many fine passages, and even occasional touches of sublimity; nor, indeed, need it shrink from a comparison with the works of more practised writers on the same subject. These two pieces are in blank verse, which is animated, and sufficiently varied in its pauses, to gratify the ear. His Danish Odes, and Ode to Paoli, are vigorous lyrics; and the love of freedom, which glows throughout the latter, reflects honour on the memory of Bruce. Of his other poems, none of which however are contemptible, it is not necessary to notice particularly more than the ballad of Sir James the Ross, and the Elegy written in Spring. These may be classed among the best English compositions of the ballad and elegiac species. In the elegy I can perceive little or nothing to censure, except a repetition of the same or similar rhymes at too short a distance; and this fault is of so trifling a nature that, though I wish it had been avoided, it scarcely calls for the notice of criticism, especially when redeemed, as it is, by numerous beauties.