1818 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hector Macneill

Anonymous, "Some Account of Hector Macneill" Blackwood's Magazine 4 (December 1818) 273-77.



HECTOR MACNEILL was descended from a respectable family, who possessed, for some centuries, a small hereditary estate in the southernmost district of Argyllshire. His father, after several vicissitudes of fortune, obtained a company in the 42d regiment of Scotch Highlanders, with whom he served several severe campaigns in Flanders. Having been seized with a dangerous pulmonary complaint, he disposed of his commission, and retired with a wife and two children, to that beautiful residence, Rosebank, near Roslin, where, on the 22d of October 1746, the subject of this memoir was born, who, to use his own words, "amidst the murmur of streams, and the shades of Hawthornden, may be said to have inhaled with life the atmosphere of a poet."

Captain Macneill possessed all the generosity of a soldier, and all the hospitality of a Highlander, so that, in no long time, he found himself in circumstances somewhat embarrassed, and was forced to sell the delightful spot to which he had become most strongly attached. He then retired to a farm on the banks of Loch Lomond, where, for several years, he enjoyed the calm pleasures of a rural life, with uninterrupted felicity to himself and his family. But having lost a considerable sum of money by the failure of one friend, and become involved in a lawsuit, in consequence of having been security for another, the latter part of his life was darkened by misfortune. An opulent relation in Bristol, having paid Captain Macneill a visit during his distresses, took a fancy for his little namesake, Hector, and promised to provide for him. Accordingly, after two years' preparatory education at a public seminary, the youth was sent, at the age of fourteen, to Bristol. The cousin, to whose charge he was committed, had been the Captain of a West India trader, and finally realised a considerable fortune, by various mercantile occupations. Ho was pleased with the diligence and ability of his ward, and determined that, like himself, he should became a merchant and a seaman. It was at first intended that he should be sent on a "trying voyage" to the coast of Guinea, in a slave-ship; but this plan was laid aside, and Hector Macneill was entered on board the Ruby, Captain Henderson, bound to St Christophers and Antigua, as ordinary, but was birthed with the second mate, gunner, and carpenter, in the steerage. If he liked the sea, something was to be done for him on his returning to port; if not, his cousin gave him introductory letters to some of his particular friends in St Christophers, together with one for his son, who had the charge of his father's store-houses in that island.

The voyage to St Christophers completely sickened young Macneill with the sea, and after a year's unsatisfactory residence on that island with his patron's son, he sailed for Guadaloupe, on an engagement of three years, in the employ of a merchant there, which had been represented to him as in all respects highly eligible. In this situation he met with nothing but insults and bad treatment, and Guadaloupe having been, in virtue of the treaty of peace between England and France, restored to the latter, the merchant with whom he lived departed for America, and left him, at the age of seventeen, to shift for himself, with only eight or ten pistoles in his pocket, and not a single friend who cared for him in the island. After many difficulties, he contrived to get a passage to St John's, Antigua, where he found the cousin with whom he had parted at St Kitt's, and immediately began to assist him as a clerk. Finding, however, that this person expected him to work day and night without any salary, he quitted his employment, and found himself once more set adrift, and at the mercy of the waves of fortune. It was not long, however, till he was recommended by a friend to the Provost-Marshal of Grenada, as a person qualified, by his general talents, and more particularly by his knowledge of the French language, to assist in his office, — and being chosen to the situation, he soon afterwards arrived at St George's Town in that island. Here he lived happily and usefully for three Years, discharging the duties of his office with great credit, and respected by all. Here too, had he been of a money-making disposition, ho might have realised some fortune, but unluckily for himself, he was not, and after six year's residence in the West Indies, his sole property was an unblemished reputation. At this time he heard that his mother and sister were dead, and upbraiding himself for having allowed his family to remain so long ignorant of his fate in life, he resolved to return to his father's house, and see what prospects might open up for him in his native country.

About eighteen months after Hector's return to Scotland, his father died, leaving him but a very slender patrimony. This he was advised to sink in an annuity; and for several years he contrived, on 80 per annum, not only to support himself, but also three other persons who had unfortunately become dependent on his justice and humanity. He had, fatally for his happiness and respectability, yet from circumstances originating in romantic generosity, formed a connexion which he found it impossible fur him to break off, and it was not, till the failure of the person from whom he had purchased his annuity startled him from his indolent and delusive life, that he saw the necessity of tearing himself away from his luckless family ties, and of getting into some employment to ward off the immediate approach of poverty and dependence. Through the interest of a friend in London, he was received as an assistant into the Secretary's-office, in the Victory, Admiral Geary's flagship, at that time commanded by the celebrated Captain Kempenfeldt, and made two cruises with the grand fleet, during which nothing of importance occurred; but seeing no prospect of advancement in a profession most uncongenial with his habits and dispositions, he gave up his equivocal and unproductive situation, and again turned his face towards Scotland. In Liverpool he was induced to remain for some months, by his friendship with Messrs Currie and Roscoe (men who afterwards became so illustrious), and with the benevolent and wise Rathbone, who most affectionately loved him; and while there, he received intelligence of his being appointed to the same kind of situation which he had formerly held, on board the flag-ship of Sir Richard Bickerton, appointed to take the chief command of the naval power in India, in the room of Sir Edward Hughes. After three years absence from Britain — during which he was in the last undecisive action with Suffrein, and encountered most of the difficulties and dangers incident to a sea-faring life — Hector Macneill returned as poor a man as before, fortune having never once smiled upon him — and that promotion which his acknowledged good conduct and excellent talents deserved, having been constantly retarded by some inauspicious event or other, till at last all Prospect of ultimate success was finally closed. In this seemingly hopeless situation he again revisited Scotland; and having raised a few hundred pounds on the security, such as it was, of his annuity, he retired to a farm-house near Stirling, and for a year or two gave himself up entirely to literary pursuits, and more especially to the study of poetry, for which he had in early life shewn both inclination and genius, although the hardships and vicissitudes of fortune had left him but little opportunity of cultivating those powers, and enjoying those Pleasures in manhood, which had been the delight and ornament of his early youth. In this retirement he seems to have enjoyed much happiness; for he possessed an elasticity and buoyancy of mind which kept him elate and cheerful under circumstances that would have depressed most men into utter despondency. It was then that he made his first appearance before the public as a poet; but though his poem, which was purely descriptive of local scenery, gained him some reputation among his own friends and with the inhabitants of the beautiful country therein described, this his first attempt was considered by the public as almost a complete failure, and sunk at once into oblivion. Perceiving that poetry was not likely to be a gainful trade, he once more resolved to enter into active life; and having procured some letters of introduction, to opulent and powerful persons in Jamaica, he set sail for that island on a voyage of adventure, being now in his thirty-eighth year, and as unprovided for as when he first embarked au the troubled sea of life.

On his arrival at Kingston, Hector Macneill became an assistant to the Collector of the Customs, a gentleman with whom he had formed acquaintance during the voyage. This worthy person, however, took the first opportunity that occurred of getting rid of him, as soon as he found that he could transact the business of his office without his assistance, and Macneill found himself once more, not only totally destitute of present, but hopeless of future employment. The letters of introduction, which he had brought to some eminent persons, were of no use to him; and in his emergency, he had no other resource than to accept, for a time, of the hospitality of a medical friend, at whose house, situated in a beautiful valley, he took up his temporary abode. He soon afterwards discovered that two of the dearest companions of his boyhood were settled in Jamaica, and from their friendship he received every kind of aid that his situation required, and promises, afterwards fully realized, of future encouragement and support, in case of the failure of those schemes which he was about to carry into execution. These, it would appear, were somewhat vague and indefinite; and a favourable opportunity having soon occurred of returning to Britain, Hector Macneill was prevailed on to embrace it, and to try his chance once more in his native country. Before he quitted Jamaica, he had the satisfaction of seeing his two boys, who had been sent out by a generous friend, comfortably settled; and having, through the interest of the governor's secretary, received a small sum of money as the pay of an inland ensigncy, now conferred on him, but antedated, he set sail in good spirit, and in a few months, found himself once more in Scotland.

During his homeward voyage, Macneill had finished a poem, which he had begun before he last left Scotland, and he now published it, under the patronage of Mr Grahame of Gartmore, who had long loved the Poet, and admired his genius. This poem, which is called The Harp, and founded on an interesting Highland tradition, was not very successful on its first publication, but became afterwards a favourite, and brought the author considerable reputation. For some years Hector Macneill resided with his friend in Stirlingshire, and became engaged to marry the sister of his wife, in the event of procuring any situation that could enable him to support a family. This attachment proved most distressing to both parties; for some unexpected circumstances having broken the ties of that friendship on which he chiefly relied, Macneill, seeing that nothing but misery could result from the marriage, felt himself imperiously called on, by a sense of honour, to tear himself away for ever from the object of his affections.

On the unfortunate termination of this affair, Hector Macneill retired into Argyllshire, and passed some time with his father's relations. He then visited Glasgow, and, through the generosity of a friend and namesake there, was on the eve of entering into a mercantile concern, when the events of the year 1793 overturned the commercial prosperity of that city. He accordingly took up his residence in Edinburgh, having been able again to raise some mosey on his annuity; but he was now attacked with a severe nervous complaint, and for six years suffered inexpressible wretchedness from pain of body and depression of mind. During this dismal night of darkness and disease, he retired to a solitary cottage near St Ninians, Stirlingshire and there tried to direct his faculties once more to poetry. It was there that he wrote his Will and Jean, a composition that instantly became popular, in the best sense of the word, and acquired for him that for which his soul had often panted — the reputation of a poet.

The despondency, however, under which he had long laboured, instead of being lightened by applause, deepened at last into despair, and, with a view of trying the effects of a tropical climate, he determined to revisit Jamaica. He there found one of those friends who had formerly been so kind to him, possessed of affluence, and, in consequence of his brother's death, disposed to return to his native country. This generous man insisted on settling a small annuity on his friend, in obedience to wishes often expressed by his deceased brother; and in a few months they set sail together for Britain, where Macneill arrived with improved health and spirits, and with the prospect of passing the remainder of his days in serenity and comfort. During his absence too, his poetical fame had greatly increased, for he was looked on at his departure as a dying man, and his poems had been read with that kind of pathetic interest which breathes from the memorials of departed genius. The booksellers now became his friends, and he received a moderate sum for the copy-right of his various poetical productions. His medical friend in Jamaica, who died about this time, bequeathed to him one half of his little property, and he soon afterwards, by the death of his son, acquired a farther addition to his fortune. His circumstances were now easy, and he continued, till the day of his death, free from those distressing embarrassments, in which, spite of all his talents and activity, he had been almost constantly involved, till he was upwards of fifty years of age. His residence was fixed, for the last fifteen years of his life, at Edinburgh; and he enjoyed, in its enlightened society, the respect and friendship of all who knew him — and, though he wrote but little poetry, continued assiduously to pursue, in serene retirement, those elegant studies, which he had never lost sight of in the most turbulent and distracting scenes of an adventurous and checkered life. He died the 15th of March 1818, having, for a considerable time, suffered much from a general decay of the primary powers of nature.

From this sketch of the life of Hector Macneill, it will be seen that, from early boyhood, till that season when the imagination, in some measure, is deadened or decays, he had but few intervals of undisturbed leisure and serenity, during which he could devote himself to the impulses of his poetical genius. Indeed, his whole life, till he was far advanced in years, was a ceaseless struggle with adversity; and a mind which unquestionably was framed by nature for the enjoyment of all liberal pursuits, was kept too constantly filled and agitated by anxiety and care. In estimating, therefore, his poetical character, and the merit of his writings, it is necessary that we hold in view the many unfavourable circumstances under which that poetical character grew, and those writings were composed. When we do so, we feel at once that Macneill was a man of genius. We perceive the flashings — the outbreakings of a true poetical spirit, through those clouds that so long enveloped it — and, independently of their intrinsic beauty, which is often very great, his productions have a strong charm about them, as the effusions of an original and feeling mind escaping gladly from the necessities of life into the delightful world of the imagination.

The poem on which his reputation chiefly rests is Scotland's Skaith, or the History of Will and Jean. It took at once a strong hold on the affections and feelings of the people of Scotland, and will, without doubt, retain its place among our national poetry, in the same rank with the best compositions of Burns. It is indeed a most beautiful narrative ballad, finely and delicately conceived — simply and gracefully expressed. Nothing can be better than the picture there drawn of the happy life and interesting character of the Scottish peasantry — and great skill is shewn in describing, without the slightest coarseness or vulgarity, the degradation of that life and character by wretchedness and vice. A ballad so true to nature, and so full of instruction, cannot be unimportant to the cause of morality — and, as it has an existence in the hearts of the people, there can be no doubt that it has often joined its influence with other causes to guard the young from the insidious approaches of that vice, whose ruinous effects it so pathetically describes and deplores. The praise of this poem is not now, perhaps, much heard in book-shops or literary coteries — but it lives in the memory of many thousand virtuous hearts, who feel, ignorant and poor though they may be, the sanctity of their own small household — and cherish, with enthusiastic love, that poetry, in which are recorded their own simple annals. This is a kind of poetry in which Scotland is rich — which springs out of that impressive system of domestic life which her population alone enjoys — and which, in the works of Ramsay, and Burns, and Fergusson, and Macneill, and the Ettrick Shepherd, serves to connect the moral being of the lower ranks of society with that of the very highest in the land, by the bonds of a deep and common sympathy.

The genius of Hector Macneill also shone with peculiar beauty in his various little lyrical compositions, and songs breathed to the touching music of his country. Many of these songs have become part of our nationally lyrics, and it would not be easy to find any superior to some of them in simplicity and tenderness, and, above all, In that unity of feeling which is essential to such poetry. There are exhibited in them many specimens of that mingled gayety and pathos which seems to mark the passion of love in all simple states of society; they are distinguished from the songs of real shepherds, only by the ornaments of Art working in the spirit of Nature — and have often been sung by the maiden at her wheel, as songs of former days framed by some bard in lowly life. Our limits prevent us from quoting any of them at present, but we refer our readers to Donald and Flora, Mary of Castle Cary, The Rose of Kirtle, The Lammie, Come under my Plaidy, O tell me how for to woo, Jeanie's Black Ee, &c.

Of Hector Macneill we have now shortly spoken as a Poet — we could also with pleasure speak of him as a Man. His high sense of honour — his unbending integrity — and his unostentatious spirit of independence, were well known to all who enjoyed his friendship. It may be, that he was occasionally proud and fastidious overmuch, and that his temper had slightly felt the fretful influence of disappointments and misfortune — but these were faults easily overlooked and forgiven in one of so much sterling worth, so many accomplishments, and so fine a genius. He was a sincere friend, and a fascinating companion; and when his mind was perfectly serene and happy, in the absence of those nervous complaints to which he was always subject, he delighted all companies by the liveliness of his illustrations, the originality of his remarks, and a boundless fund of curious and characteristic anecdote.