1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Bruce

Edgar, "Michael Bruce" Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 1 (26 April 1823) 403-05.



Doubtless there are many of our readers who have never before heard the name mentioned which we have prefixed to the present article; but all have heard of the amiable and accomplished Henry Kirke White, and it is impossible to present any stronger inducement to peruse these pages, than to state, that Michael Bruce was, in many respects, the counterpart of that very interesting individual. To both of them may, with equal propriety, be applied those beautiful lines of Wordsworth:—

Thou soul of God's best earthly mould,
Thou happy soul, and can it be
That these
Are all that must remain of thee?

I have felt keenly the force of this beautiful burst of heartfelt lamentation, after reading again and again the very small volume which contains his poems, and the few epistolary remnants of his elegant mind, which have been collected by the industry of those who possess taste and sensibility enough for so pleasing yet melancholy a task.

The biography of Bruce is soon discussed. He was born in Kinross, a town in Fifeshire, and the humble cottage where he first drew breath I have in earlier and happier days often passed. His parents were quite in the lower walk of life, and altogether unable to command the pecuniary means of aiding their son in his wishes to cultivate those talents fully, which began at an early period of life to develope themselves. Genuine worth and real modesty generally accompany each other; and painful indeed is it to reflect that their path through life should so often be "unnoticed and unknown," when the sheer impudence of the shallow and assuming will so frequently carry them triumphantly onwards. Comparatively few were the friends of Michael Bruce. He went through a course of study but very little above what was common enough in the North even to those in the humblest station: but his mind was of no common order. Possessed of an imagination as elevated as it was correct, and a judgment sound as it was strong, he availed himself fully of whatever advantages he possessed; but alas! for the mind that is cast in a finer mould than ordinary, a man of genius is very often the envy of those who, do what they may, are destined never to rise above mediocrity; but they know not the annoyances which far more than counterbalance its advantages. What can compensate for the morbid sensibility which compels them to view with disgust the commonplace events, and the common-place personages, with which they continually come in contact? What can the most splendid genius bestow as an equivalent for the agonizing wretchedness of the disappointment, the neglect, perhaps the sarcasm of the worthless and unfeeling — matters which to minds differently constituted would be nothing, but to them are overwhelming and distracting to a degree that is almost inconceivable? Under this torturing but indescribable state of feeling did poor Chatterton flee to that tremendous resource of despair — suicide; and a similar lot was Kirke White's, as he writhed under the inhuman and, causeless malice of a cold-blooded reviewer, with such an acuteness of misery as to hasten his progress to a premature grave.

The subject of our brief memoir had his disappointments, and we know how deeply he felt them. The struggle of existence was too much for him — the heart knoweth its own bitterness — his health was, at the most interesting time of life, observed to decline gradually, but surely — consumption, with her wan, livid look and hectic flush, had marked him for her victim; and having drank but very slightly, and with much distaste, of the cup of life, it fell from his lip, and was "as water spilt upon the ground, which cannot be gathered up again."

"Heaven gives its favourites an early death," as some poet says; and to such an one as our hero, the pale horse and his rider must have come in any character but that of the King of Terrors. Bruce's death-bed must have been a scene of singular and deep interest. There was indeed the fainting and the weakness of humanity; but there were also the deep, strong consolations of religion to cheer him.

His soul had indeed (like the ark of Noah) floated over the waters of Desolation, but it rested at length on the ararat of Comfort, and the rainbow of Hope was distinctly visible to his eye of faith, ere it closed for over on all terrestrial objects.

The extract subjoined is part of a beautiful poem which he composed shortly before his death, as he reclined on the banks of Lochleven, his mind enfeebled by misfortune, and his frame shattered by the disease which put a period to his woes, and introduced his unshackled spirit to scenes more congenial with its pure and lofty aspirations.

Now Spring returns — but not to me returns
The vernal joy my bettor years have known;
Dim in my breast life's dying taper burns,
And all the joys of life with health are flown!

Wasting and shiv'ring in the inconstant wind;
Meagre and pale, the ghost of what I was,
Beneath some blasted tree I lie reclin'd,
And count the silent moments as they pass.

The winged moments, whose unstaying speed
No art can stop, or in their course arrest;
Whose flight shall shortly count me with the dead,
And lay me down in peace with them that rest.

Oft morning dreams presage approaching fate—
And morning dreams, as poets tell, are true;
Led by pale ghosts, I enter Death's dark gate,
And bid the realms of life and light adieu!

I hear the helpless wail, the shriek of woe—
I see the muddy wave, the dreary shore—
The sluggish streams that slowly creep below,
Which mortals visit and return no more.

Farewell, ye blooming fields, ye cheerful plains—
Enough for me, the church-yard's lonely mound—
Where melancholy with still silence reigns,
And the rank grass waves o'er the cheerless ground.

There let me wander at the shut of eve,
When sleep sits heavy on the labourer's eyes
The world and all its busy follies leave,
And talk with wisdom where my Daphne lies!

There let me sleep, forgotten In the clay,
When death shall shut these weary aching eyes;
Rest in the hope of an eternal day,
Till the long night is gene, and the last morn arise!

"I have not many friends," observes Bruce, in a letter to Mr. Pearson, on the decease of his former school-fellow, Dryburgh, dated November 20, 1766, "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 is 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 heart in the bargain. Farewell, my friend — 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! — may'st thou shine when the sun is darkened — may'st thou live and triumph when time expires. It is at least possible we may meet no more in this foreign land — this gloomily apartment of the universe of God; but there is a better world, in which we shall meet to part no more!"