1897 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. David Macbeth Moir

Sir George Douglas, "D. M. Moir" in The Blackwood Group (1897) 94-107.



"After all, how precarious a thing is literary fame! Things to which I have bent the whole force of my mind, and which are worth remembering — if any things that I have done are at all worth remembering — have attracted but a very doubtful share of applause from critics; whilst things dashed off like Mansie Wauch, as mere sportive freaks, and which for years and years I have hesitated to acknowledge, have been out of sight my most popular productions." Thus wrote Moir, under date of April 12th, 1845 — six years before his life's labours closed — to his friend and biographer, Thomas Aird, author of The Devil's Dream. And in this instance posterity has taken its cue from contemporary popularity; for it is upon the homely and genial Mansie Wauch, and on that alone, that the once considerable literary reputation of "the amiable Delta" rests to-day.

David Macbeth Moir, born on the 5th January 1798, was the son of Robert Moir and Elizabeth Macbeth, whom Aird describes simply as "respectable citizens." His birthplace was Musselburgh, and to Musselburgh he remained faithful through life. Indeed, though lives of men-of-letters-from Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy — afford plenty of instances of local attachment, there can be few instances I should suppose of lives more closely associated with a single place. In Musselburgh Moir's life was spent; Musselburgh he served faithfully, both in his profession and as a public servant; and in the neighbourhood of Musselburgh he placed the scene of his most popular work. Gratifying is it, therefore, to know that Musselburgh has recognised him as her poet — a minor writer certainly, yet exclusively her own.

Having received his schooling in his native town, at the age of thirteen young Moir was bound apprentice to a physician in practice there. His apprenticeship lasted four years, during the latter part of which, as also during the year following, he studied medicine in the Edinburgh University. In 1816 he obtained his surgeon's diploma. In the following year he lost his father, and being then eighteen, became the partner of a Dr. Brown of Musselburgh, whose practice kept him so occupied that for more than ten years to come he is said not to have spent a single night out of the town.

Meantime, having a facile pen (too facile it has proved!) he had begun to compose as far back as 1812, about which year he sent two essays to a Haddington publication entitled The Cheap Magazine. In 1816 he contributed to the Scots Magazine, and, further, commemorated the exploit of Lord Exmouth by publishing anonymously The Bombardment of Algiers, and Other Poems. Despite pressure of work, he did not give up literature on entering the medical profession, but in time became a contributor to Constable's and Blackwood's Magazine — to the latter of which, over the signature [Delta], he came regularly to furnish not only jeux d'esprit but essays and serious verse as well, his contributions in all amounting to the large total of nearly four hundred. In this manner he became acquainted with John Wilson, for whose showy poetry he entertained an admiration which was doubtless less uncommon then than it would be now. Other periodicals to which he contributed were Fraser's Magazine and the Edinburgh Literary Gazette. Between medicine and literature, his life now went on busily but uneventfully. In the end of 1824 or the commencement of the next year, he published, under his pseudonym, a volume of verse to which he gave the title of the Legend of Genevieve, which he dedicated to the veteran author of the Man of Feeling. The titular poem is a sentimental story written in the manner of Byron's Tales, the remaining pieces being on miscellaneous subjects. About the same time the first installments of Mansie Wauch made their appearance in Blackwood's Magazine, the completed story, with additions, being published as a book in 1828. Moir was a man of an intensely domestic disposition, and having become affianced in this year, in the following summer he took to himself a wife in the person of Miss Catherine Bell of Leith, whom he espoused in the Church of Carham in Northumberland, celebrating the occasion by a series of Sonnets on the Scenery of the Tweed. By this lady he eventually became the father of eleven children. His literary reputation was now established, and in 1829 Mr. Blackwood made him an offer of the editorship of the Quarterly Journal of Agriculture, which, however, he declined. In remaining constant to the medial profession, he has been credited with purely philanthropic motives; but, without bating a jot of my respect for the man, the following (his own) explanation of the case seems to me the more reasonable one. "In early youth," says he, in a letter to David Vedder, the sailor poet of Orkney, "I had many aspiring feelings to dedicate my life to literature, and to literature alone; but I thank God — seeing what I have seen in Galt, in Hogg, in Hood, and other friends — that I had resolution to resolve on a profession, and to make poetry my crutch and not my staff. I have, in consequence, lost the name which, probably, with due exertion, I might have acquired; but I have gained many domestic blessings which more than counterbalance it, and I can yet turn to my pen, in my short intervals of occasional relaxation, with as much zest as in my days of romantic adolescence." This is the utterance of a sensible man who, having his way to make in the world, decides on the expediency of a certain course and adheres to it. Possibly Moir's estimate of his own powers was a juster one than that of many of his friends; at any rate it is satisfactory to learn that, "in spite of the common distrust of the literary character," he succeeded in making his way as a doctor even in that place where proverbially a prophet is apt to lack honour. Mr. Blackwood and others of his friends also urged him to leave Musselburgh and to set up in practice in Edinburgh, offering to use their interest in obtaining patients for him. But these offers he likewise declined. His next publication (1831) consisted of Outlines of the Ancient history of Medicine, and was intended as the first installment of a complete history of the subject, although increased pressure of professional duties, occasioned first by the events of the next year and then by the retirement of his partner in the year following, prevented his further execution of the design.

The period at which we have now arrived is one of those which have been rendered terribly memorable by a visitation of cholera, and in the commencement of 1832 the town of Musselburgh was attacked with special severity by the epidemic. So great was the terror prevailing throughout the country that many physicians are said to have fled from their posts, but now, as also during a later outbreak, was the time when Moir's character shone out with peculiar lustre. Rising to the height of the emergency, he was to be found night and day at his post, endeavouring both to lessen the sufferings of the sick by his medical skill, and to comfort the dying with the consolations of religion. His humane exertions on behalf of the poor were, in particular, remarkable. This is a period regarding which one would gladly supply further facts, for it is, no doubt, the most interesting in Moir's life, and it is consequently with regret that we find it passed over in a few lines in the accredited biography. When that was written, circumstantial details of his faithful labours might still have been collected, and these would have brought the man nearer to us than anything else could do. But Aird has given us nothing but generalities. During the outbreak, Moir held the post of Secretary to the Board of Health of Musselburgh, and it was as an answer to numberless enquiries addressed to him in this capacity that he now wrote and published a pamphlet, entitled Practical Observations on Malignant Cholera, which, says Aird, flew like wild-fire through the country, and which he shortly supplemented by Proofs of the Contagion of Malignant Cholera.

No doubt by way of recruiting after his labours, he this year attended the Meeting of the British Association, which was held at Oxford, and afterwards visited London, mainly in order to see Galt, with whom he had become friendly some years before, and who was now living in broken health at Brompton. On this occasion he had an interview with Coleridge at Highgate. The sage, who received him in bed, and treated him to "two hours of divine monologue," talked at first of his own early life, incidentally reciting part of his early-written Monody on the Death of Chatterton, and so far all went well. But Moir, who had a constitutional dislike of mysticism, and who ought to have known better, had the rashness to put a few questions to the poet, "relative to his peculiar speculations in philosophy," and from that moment, needless to say, he found himself involved in the intricacies of a labyrinth.

As that of a medical man in the full swing of a large practice, Moir's life now affords but little material to the biographer. In a letter to Robert Macnish, his dearly-loved friend and brother in medicine and the muses, he has himself described his daily existence. "Our business," says he, "has ramified itself so much in all directions of the compass — save the north, where we are bounded by the sea — that on an average I have sixteen or eighteen miles' daily riding; nor can this be commenced before three or four hours of pedestrian exercise has been hurried through. I seldom get from horseback till five o'clock; and by half-past six I must be out to the evening rounds, which never terminate till after nine. Add to this the medical casualties occurring between sunset and sunrise, and you will see how much can be reasonably set down to the score of my leisure." Still, such leisure as he had, he perseveringly devoted to literature. When driving upon his rounds, he would read in his carriage; but his chief time for study was after the house was shut up for the night, when all was quiet around him, and when he could, with some degree of comfort, sit down in his library to read and write. "Even then, however, from the uncertainty of his profession, he was never altogether sure of his own time. Often did he remark that, whether it was the contrariety of human nature, or his own peculiar sensitiveness to interruption at such a time, he was most liable to be broken in upon when he was most deeply engaged in writing." Under such circumstances we cannot wonder that his literary work lacks finish. The wonder is rather that he did not give up literature altogether; but we read that he loved it too well to do this, and that he never seemed so happy as when his mind was employed upon it. As a doctor of literary men, he exercised a beneficial influence. Shortly, before the death of Mr. Blackwood, that gentleman lay ill in Ainslie Place; whilst Galt, who was also in bad health, was living in lodgings close by. Relations between the two had been strained, and illness prevented their meeting. But it is pleasing to read that their mutual respect and esteem were now renewed, and that Moir, who was in attendance on both, carried kind messages between them.

A most affectionate parent, Moir had sustained a succession of cruel bereavements by losing three of his children, who died in early childhood, within the space of about eighteen months, in the years 1838 and 1839. To relieve his feelings on these occasions, he wrote a series of elegies, which, after being circulated among his friends, were published, with a few other poems, in 1843, under the title of Domestic Verses. It is as an elegiac poet — if as a poet at all — that the author is now remembered, and one of these elegies — called by the self-conferred name of one of the babes, "Casa Wappy" — has enjoyed great popularity and is still included in anthologies, though in my own opinion a less meritorious composition than the the second of the three poems on the same subject, entitled Casa's Dirge:—

Now winter with its snow departs,
The green leaves clothe the tree;
But summer smiles not on the hearts
That bleed and break for thee:
The young May weaves her flowery crown,
Her boughs in beauty wave;
They only shake their blossoms down
Upon thy silent grave.

His elegiac muse is sweet and fluent, and breathes the consolations of Christianity. But, like Motherwell, he is apt to be over-lachrymose and to insist upon his grief, which is fatal to pathos. His touch, too, is uncertain. For instance, in one Sonnet we have this fine line, "The bliss that feeds upon the heart destroys," in near juxta-position with the ridiculous figure, "Joy's icicles melt down before Time's sun." Here as elsewhere, too, he freely repeats himself. Aird has named The Deserted Churchyard as Moir's highest imaginative piece. But Aird is no critic, and description was not Moir's forte. He multiplies touches — each perhaps good in its way — multiplies them, indeed, to excess; but to combine and compose them into a whole is beyond him. And the same defect — the mark either of an inferior talent, or of an untutored one — is noticeable in his critical portraits. Of his poetry generally, then, it must be confessed that it belongs to that class which, finding acceptance to-day, is without significance for the morrow. But, in justice, it must be remembered that in its own day it not only pleased the general reader, but also drew warm praises from such judges as Tennyson, Jeffrey, Wordsworth, and Lockhart. Moir's time, as we have seen, was not at his disposal, but besides — or perhaps because of this — he was an impatient composer. He chose — if such things be determined by choice-to write much rather than to write well. As a whole his poetry is inferior in style to that of his less prolific contemporary, Thomas Pringle. And certainly, if poetry is intended to endure, it must be moulded in some less pliant material than that which Moir employed.

Not much now remains to tell. In the year after the publication of his Domestic Verses, Moir contracted a serious illness by sitting all night in damp clothes by the bedside of a patient, and in 1846 his general health suffered further from the effects of a carriage accident, which also permanently lamed him. In 1848 he made an excursion, lasting two and a half days, and meditated during seven previous years, to the lake District with Mrs. Moir; and in the following year he visited the Highlands, with Christopher North, who was "in great force,' Henry Glassford Bell, and one or two others. In spring of 1851, he delivered a course of six lectures at the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, his subject being the Poetical Literature of the Past Halt Century. On appearing on the platform, he had a very warm reception, and his lectures, proving popular, were soon afterwards published; nor have they quite lost their interest yet Of course at the present day no one would be likely to turn to them for an estimate of the genius, say, of Byron or of Shelley, or for a summing up of the poetical achievement of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Keats. It is in the nature of things that truth in criticism, as in evidence, is arrived at by a slow process, and abler pens have dealt with these great writers since Moir's day. But should anyone wish to know the estimation in which they were held at the date in question, he will generally find a good indication of it here. And in so doing, as was inevitable, he will come across some curiosities of criticism — as, for instance, where the lecturer, speaking of Byron and Wilson together, as the two rising poetic lights of the year 1812, adds that "it is difficult even yet to say which of the two was most distinguished for general scope of mind, for imaginative and intellectual power." Also, should any student desire a sketch — descriptive rather than critical — of such half-forgotten literary figures as "Monk" Lewis and his followers, or of the "artistic artificial school" of Hayley, the "Swan of Lichfield," and the Della Cruscans, or seek for appreciative observations on the author of The Farmer's Boy, on Kirke White, or on Samuel Rogers, here he will find them. Besides these lectures and the works already mentioned, Moir's literary undertakings include an edition of the works of Mrs. Hemans, an Account of the Antiquities of the Parish of Inveresk, written for the Statistical Account of Scotland (1845), and a few occasional monographs.

On the 22nd of June of this year, in dismounting from his horse at the door of a patient's house, Moir sustained further injuries to his already partially disabled leg. Failing to rally from the effects of this accident, and hoping to derive benefit from rest and change, about a week later he set out upon a short excursion. Mrs. Moir accompanied him, and they had reached Ayr, and had visited the cottage where Burns first saw the light, when the Doctor became seriously ill. Declining medical assistance, however, he struggled on to Dumfries, where he became so much worse as to be forced to take to his bed. It was soon evident that death was at hand. On hearing of his illness, several of his friends had hastened to his side, and surrounded by these and by members of his family, faithfully attended by his wife, and fortified by a firm religious faith, he passed away on the morning of Sunday, the 6th July. The inhabitants of the town in which he had laboured so indefatigably decreed him a public funeral, paying every mark of respect in their power to his memory, and shortly afterwards his statue, executed by a sculptor named Ritchie, who had been a pupil of Thorwaldsen, was erected in a commanding situation on the banks of the river Esk. Besides his professional labours, he had been a Member of the Council of his native town and of its Kirk Session, had attended the General Assembly as a Representative Elder, and had acted as Secretary to a local Reform Committee appointed on the eve of the passing of the great Bill. In fine, his life had been essentially that of the good citizen — an honourable part for which we have so high a respect that we should be glad to see it oftener adorned with literary distinction.

In person Moir was tall, well-formed and erect, of sanguine complexion and with hair tending to the "sandy" hue, his keen sense of humour, during friendly intercourse, being particularly manifest in his countenance. In private life, he was amiable and exemplary, and much beloved by many friends, including several distinguished writers — "a man," says the writer of his obituary in Blackwood's Magazine, who, we verily believe, never had an enemy, and never harboured an angry or vindictive thought against a human being.' Nor did this proceed from any lack of determination or force of character, of which he had plenty.

Did not one recognise the relation subsisting between humour and pathos, it would be a surprise to find the melancholy Moir — the mourner of a score of dirges — figuring as author of a succession of broadly and farcically comic episodes; for such, in the main, is the Life of Mansie Wauch, Tailor in Dalkeith. The book was conceived in avowed imitation of Galt; and, in general outline, the autobiographical tailor, with his unconscious self-revelation, is obviously suggested by the Provosts and Micah Balwhidders of that writer. For in literature Gait is as much the originator of the "pawky" Scotsman of the commercial or professional class as was the creator of Dinmont and Headrigg of the Scotsman living on the soil and racy of it. But if Delta borrowed the first idea of the story from his friend, the means by which he develops it owe little or nothing to that source. There, indeed, the sprightly little volume reminds us of a very different class of literature. In their frank appeal to those who are easily amused (happily a numerous body), and in the pleasant clownishness of their fooling, a large proportion of the scenes recall forcibly the ancient folk-tales, "drolls" and chap-books, or the more modern collections of local stories founded upon the same, and the peculiar style of humour associated with such time-honoured popular favourites as Lothian Tom and George Buchanan, the King's Jester. Incidents, for instance, like that of James Batter, the weaver, concealed in the closet during the visit of the Minister, and of his inopportune fall through the bottomless chair and imprisonment there, or of the big suit of clothes being sent home to the little man, and the little suit to the big man, belong to the primeval stock-in-trade of the rustic humourist; whilst as for the episode of Deacon Paunch and the cat — probably there are few parishes in the country boasting the possession of a phenomenally heavy man where some "variant" of this story is not current at the present day. The epigram — if I may so call it — of the book is also conceived after the popular model as, for instance, when the aggrieved collier-woman, taunting Cursecowl on the prominence of one of his features, declares that he has "run fast when the noses were dealing;" when it is observed, in reference to the various grades of society and their interdependence, that "we all hang at one another's tails like a rope of ingans;" or when the writer speaks of an "evendown pour of rain, washing the very cats off the house-tops," or remarks of hopes not quite likely to be fulfilled that "many a rottener ship has come to land." Some of these phrases may perhaps be proverbial, but at any rate into just such verbal moulds flows, or used to flow, the expression of the livelier fancy of the people. The Scotch, too, in which the book is written is singularly rich and racy.

It may possibly be asked whether stories such as those referred to above have much to gain from literary elaboration, brevity in this peculiar form of wit appearing perhaps even more than usually desirable. The answer is that the result has justified the experiment. For one thing, Mansie Wauch — which preceded the Pickwick Papers by some years — is one of the earliest classic specimens of broad humour which is entirely free from coarseness; and, secondly, in this instance, most of the farcical episodes — such as the mock duel, the Volunteering scene, the scenes in the watch-house or with the dumb spaewife, and the playhouse scene, where Mansie so artlessly mistakes feigning for reality — are made in a way to serve the purpose of illustrating character. In the case last named — even allowing for the tailor's native simplicity, for the fact that this is his first play, and for the "three jugs" of which he has partaken in the company of Glen, the farmer — a pretty strong call is made on humorous convention, or on the credulity of the reader. But, after all, in this style of writing, who would "consider curiously"? No! give the humourist his head is the rule, concede him a trifle of exaggeration, and let him make you laugh if he can. This book was never meant for closets and the midnight oil, but to be read aloud over the fire on winter's eves in the family circle.

Of course strokes of humorous portraiture somewhat subtler than the above are by no means wanting, as is shown for instance, in the same scene, in the fuddled tailor's preoccupation with the clothes worn by the actors — the good coat "with double gilt buttons and fashionable lapells," or "the very well-made pair of buckskins, a thought the worse of the wear, to be sure, but which if they had been cleaned, would have looked almost as good as new." But throughout the book little Mansie is equally "particular," especially in regard to clothes, — he has the loquacity of one occupied in a sedentary manual toil, and the abounding detail in description of minute occurrences which characterises dwellers in small towns. The scene of the stampede from the barn, following his reply to the players, is quite in the best manner of the humourists and caricaturists of that day, — when uncouth persons tumbling one over the other in their haste, coat-tails torn off, bull-dogs fastening teeth in human calves, and wigs flying to the winds, seem to have constituted a never-failing resource for "bringing down the house." Pity that, like Mercutio, we are become grave men since then. However by far the best scene of this sort — a classic of its kind — is that which paints the inroad of the gigantic butcher, infuriated at the misfit of his new killing-coat, into the tailor's shop, and the subsequent tussle between him on the one hand and Tommy Bodkin, the three 'prentices, Mansie, and James Batter on the other. Everywhere George Cruikshank, the illustrator of the book, is neck and neck with the author, hitting off the very spirit of his fun, and indeed sometimes adding a point to it; but in his delineations of this scene and of that with the spaewife he surpasses himself.

Of course the book would not be Moir's if it entirely lacked poetic and pathetic relief, which is supplied in the contents of the papers found in the Welshman's coat-pocket; in the episode of Mungo Glen, the apprentice from the Lammermoors, who dies of home-sickness and of a country boys hatred of the town, and in the story of the Maid of Damascus.

Of the character of Mansie — the keystone, so to speak, of the book — it cannot be said that it stands out with the firmness and clearness of Galt's best work in the kind, still less of one of Miss Ferrier's inimitable creations. Yet, if somewhat faintly limned, the little tailor — so eager, so busy, and so thrifty, such a queer mixture of guilelessness, shrewdness, and superstition, "a douce elder of Maister Wiggie's kirk," and abounding in Scriptural allusion accordingly, cautious, yet apt to be "overtaken" as well as overreached, but with his heart exactly in the right place — is a figure who in the long run wins and holds a place in our sympathy. In the course of his professional avocations, Moir may have had occasion to observe that tailors generally are a nervous race of men, and from the commencement of the narrative we are shown that Mansie is full of groundless fears and anxieties — terrified to discharge his musket when on parade as a Volunteer, and frightened out of his wits in the Kirk Session house by night. And yet in the hour of need, when house and home are in danger on the night of the fire, we see him brave as a lion and brimful of resource — saving "the precious life of a woman of eighty that had been four long years bed-ridden," and by well-directed efforts with his bucket accomplishing more than the local fire-engine had done. Such a contrast as this — at once effective and true to human nature — or as that where Mansie, finding the escaped French prisoner concealed in his coalhole, is divided between wrath against the enemy of his country and sympathy for a fellow-creature in distress, put the finishing touches to a genial figure, which in our Scottish national literature has a little niche of its own.