Mr. MACNIELL, whose death has lately given much cause of regret to all the lovers of Scottish poetry, for in him they had found their chief consolation for the loss of Burns, was descended from a respectable family in the West Highlands, but born at Rosebank, on the classic banks of the Esk, near Edinburgh. He was sent, at an early age, to the grammar school of Stirling; where he had the benefit of the instructions of one of the most ingenious and learned teachers in all Scotland, the late Dr. David Doig. His education was liberal; but he possessed little fortune, and, as he tells us himself, none of the qualities which most ordinarily pave the way to it.
He ne'er can lout, I musing said,
To ply the fleeching, fawning trade;
Nor bend the knee, nor how the head,
To wealth or power;
But backward turn, wi' scornfu speed,
Frae Flatt'ry's door.
He'll never learn his bark to steer
Mid passions' sudden wild career;
Nor try at times to tack or veer
To Int'rest's gale:
But hoist the sheet, unaw'd by fear,
Tho' storms prevail.
The Scottish Muse.
He was of an ardent and susceptible temperament, like Burns, owed his first poetical inspirations to the tender passion.
To LAURA, beauteous, mild, and young,
His artless lyre, he trembling strong;
Close to his beating heart it hung,
While glen and grove,
And Craig and echoing valley, rung
Wi' fervent love.
Links o' Forth.
Of his amatory effusions, during this morning of delight, it is not clear that any have been preserved. All his most popular love-songs are in the Scottish dialect; but he did not begin to compose in that till several years after. The beautiful ballad of "the Wee Thing, or, Mary of Castle Cary," which Macneill ranked among his English productions, seems the only one which can with any probability be re(and to this period. When Mr. Macneill afterwards undertook the task of selecting such of his productions as he chose to acknowledge, "many with a sigh were consigned to oblivion"; (Preface to Collected Works,) and, no doubt, those of his earlier years were the greatest sufferers.
Like all poetical levers, he avoided the throng, and delighted in the solitary contemplation of the beautiful scenery, by which the place of his education . every where surrounded.
'Twas then, entranc'd in am'rous sang,
I mark'd you midst the rural thrang,
Ardent and keen, the haill day lang,
Wi' Nature ta'en,
Slip frae the crowd, and mix amang
Her simple train.
'Twas here, O Forth! for love o' thee,
Frae wine and mirth, and cards, he'd flee;
Here too, unskill'd, sweet Poesy!
He woo'd thy art.
Alas! nor skill nor guide had he,
Save warmth o' heart.
Yet, feckless as his numbers fell,
Nae tongue his peacefu' joys can tell,
Whan, crooning quietly by himsel,
He fram'd the lay
On Gowlands whin-beflower'd hill
And rocky brae....
Thus (blind to Prudence' warning light,)
Aft sigh'd and sang the pensive wight!
Reckless, alas! o' Fortune's blight,
Or worldly blame,
He'd muse and dream till dark midnight,
Then daunder hame!
Links o' Forth.
His first attempt beyond the line of song writing as "The harp; a legendary tale, in two parts." The composition of it was suggested by the following accidental circumstance. Mr. Ramsay, of Ochtertyre, well known for his researches into antiquity and national character, chancing, while on a tour to the Hebrides, to hear some person say, "I'll never burn harp for a woman," took occasion to ask the meaning of the proverb. He received for answer a simple unadorned tale; the singularity of which struck him so forcibly, that he committed it to writing. Mr. Graham, of Gartmore, had seen this manuscript, on receiving a visit from Macneill, he repeated the story to him, and with such a glow of colouring, as suggested an idea, that something might be made of it in verse. The first part of the tale was written by Mr. Macneill, almost immediately after; but before he could finish it, he was forced to lay aside his "Harp" for the active pursuits of life, and to embark for Jamaica. He did not, however, find circumstances there such as to induce his stay, and after a short time he returned to his native country. On his passage home he wrote the second part of the tale, and the whole was published at Edinburgh in the spring of 1789.
A promise being now made him of an advantageous settlement in the East Indies, he again left Scotland far a foreign shore. He had not been long in India, however, before a change in the administration at borne blasted all his fair prospects, and compelled his return. During his brief residence in the East, be found an opportunity of visiting the celebrated caves of Elephanta, Canary, and Ambola; and he thus records the consolation which he derived in the of misfortunes, from the contemplation of these other wonders of nature and art.
Whan warfare ceas'd its wild uproar,
To Elephanta's far-fam'd shore,
I led ye, ardent to explore,
Wi' panting heart,
Her idol monuments o' yore,
And sculptur'd art.
Sweet flew the hours! (the toil your boast)
On smiling Salsett's cave-wrought coast,
Though Hope was tint — tho' a' was cross'd,
Nae dread alarms,
Ye felt-fond fool! in wonder lost,
And Nature's charms.
Of the caves of Elephanta, Canary, and Ambo he wrote a detailed account, which was published the eighth volume of the Archaeologia, and does credit to his learning and ingenuity.
On returning to Scotland once more, Mr. Macneill, for the first time, attempted song-writing in his native dialect, and succeeded so well, as to obtain, some have been inclined to regard as the highest of all poetical honors, that of having his songs adopted, sung, and admired, by all classes of the people. Among those which still preserve their popularity, and are long likely to preserve it, "The Lammie," "O tell me how for to woo," "I loo'd ne'er a laddie but ane," "Jeanie's black ee," and "Come under my plaidy," are of predominant merit.
All these songs were composed to existing pastoral and Gaelic airs; for Macneill agreed with those who think, that there can be no good song-writing where music has not a large share in the inspiration. "It occurs," says he, "to the author, that without a strong natural predilection for music, and a mind fully susceptible of its charms, it is unlikely, that any poet, however eminent otherwise, should be successful in song-writing. There is so close an union between these sister arts, that to separate them, in the present instance, is like the separation of mind from body. A plaintive, a tender, or a lively air, operating forcibly on a true musical mind and ear, produces wonderful effects on poetic composition; but, independently of this influence, a poet of real musical taste and feeling is necessarily, and, indeed, insensibly led by the particular cadences and expressive passages in an air to apply corresponding words and sentiments. If there be any truth in this remark, the impropriety of composing airs to words instead of words to airs, must he obvious."
While his songs were thus delighting every social circle, Macneill himself had fallen into so ill a state of health, that, for a long time, he could neither read nor write without distress. The muse, however, rejoined still his steadfast friend, and afforded him sources of consolation which no other friend could have supplied.
Kind leil companion! without thee,
Ah, well-a-day! what should I be
When jeer'd by fools wha canna see
My inward pain;
Aneath thy sheltering wing I flee,
And mak my mane.
There seated, smiling by my side,
For hours togither wilt thou bide,
Chanting auld tales o' martial pride,
And Luve's sweet smart;
Till, glowing warm, thy numbers glide
Straight to the heart.
'Tis their wi' powerfu' plastic hand
Thou wav'st thy magic working wand,
And, stirring up ideas grand
That fire the brain,
Aft whirlst me swift to fairy land,
'Mang Fancy's train.
Scar'd by disease, when balmy rest
Flees trembling frae her downy nest;
Starting frae horror's dreams opprest,
I see thee come
Wi' radiance mild, that cheers the breast
And lights the gloom.
Being deprived of the use of the pen, his practice was to compose by the help of memory alone; but so great was the power which be acquired in that respect, that he was able to compose longer poem than any which he bad yet written, without com mitting a single line to paper. "Scotland's Scaith or the History of Will and Jean;" the "Waes o' War;" the "Links o' Forth;" and the "Scottish Muse;" which now followed in quick succession were all composed in this manner.
The popularity of the tale of "Will and Jean" exceeded that of any thing which Macneill had yet produced. In less than seven weeks after its first publication, it went through five editions of fifteen hundred copies each; and, before the expiration of the year, it reached a fourteenth edition. The particular motives by which he was led to the composition of this tale do equal honor to his head and heart. They are thus avowed in a Dedication of the poem to his old friend, Dr. Doig, without whose "kind interference and friendly assistance," he acknowledges, that it would "in all likelihood never have been published."
"Impressed with the baneful consequences inseparable from an inordinate use of ardent spirits among the lower orders of society, and anxious to contribute something that might, at least, tend to retard the contagion of so dangerous an evil; it was conceived, in the ardour of philanthropy, that a natural, pathetic story in verse, calculated to enforce moral truths in the language of simplicity and passion, might probably interest the uncorrupted; and that a striking picture of the calamities incident to idle debauchery, contrasted with the blessings of industrious prosperity, might (although insufficient to reclaim abandoned vice) do something to strengthen and encourage endangered virtue."
A mind, actuated by such benevolent views, must have derived a gratification from the extraordinary success of the work, far nobler and purer than any which can ever belong to mere literary ambition. To have been so much read, it must have struck and pleased; and it could not have done so without leaving many serious impressions of the excellent precepts which it inculcated.
In the story of "Will and Jean," as it stands in "Scotland's Scaith," they are left overwhelmed with ills, the consequence of their debauched habits.
In the cauld month o' November,
(Claise, and cash, and credit out;)
Couring o'er a dying ember,
Wi 'ilk face as white's a clout.
Bond and bill, and debts a' stopped,
Ilka sheaf selt on the bent;
Cattle, beds, and blankets roup'd,
Now to pay the laird his rent.
No another night to lodge here
No a friend, their cause to plead
HE ta'en on to be a sodger,
She wi' weans to beg her bread.
It having been suggested to the author, that a reformation from habits of vice to the paths of virtue, through the chastening influence of hardships and calamities; would be more gratifying to the benevolent mind, than to leave matters in the state thus described, he was induced to write "the Waes of War, or the upshot of the History of Will and Jean." In executing this task, it naturally occurred to him, that the fittest way to depict the distresses which the guilty pair had brought on themselves, would be to introduce the disastrous events incident to the profession of a soldier during a severe winter campaign in a foreign country and the struggles and miseries of a woman reduced to beg her bread from door to door, with three helpless infants. For the first object, the author made choice of the unfortunate events, connected with our then recent expedition to Holland, in preference to imaginary scenes and descriptions, which were unlikely to leave such lively impressions on the mind of the reader; but, from the general ferment which that volume of disasters had excited, numbers were led to conceive, that the "Waes of War" was meant as a satire on our Dutch Campaign; and such sticklers were the majority of the people of Edinburgh at that period, for even the worst measures of government, that the prejudice actually affected the sale of the poem considerably. It is scarcely necessary to say, that nothing of the kind occurred any where else. Mr. Macneill was induced, however, by a desire of conciliating these fierce loyalists of the north, to expunge some stanzas, which, he was informed, were particularly offensive: although, for his own part, he confessed that he could "discover nothing in them the least objectionable." The expunged stanzas were restored in a subsequent edition, and on perusing them, every reader will be disposed to agree with their author, that they shew not only "the harmlessness of his views in composing them, but are a striking instance of party zeal on some occasions." They were as follow:
Battle, fast, on battle raging.
Wed our stalwart youths awa';
Day by day, fresh faes engaging,
Forc'd the weary, back to fa'!
Driven at last frae post to pillar,
Left by friends wha ne'er prov'd true;
Trick'd by knaves wha pouch'd our siller,
What could worn-out valour do?
Myriads dark, like gathering thunder,
Bursting spread owr land and sea;
Left alane, alas! nae wonder
Britain's sons were forc'd to flee.
Cross the Waal and Yssel frozen,
Deep through bogs and driven snaw;
Wounded, weak, and spent! our chosen
Gallant men now faint and fa!
Such were the verses, which only about twenty years ago could not be tolerated by the loyal zeal of our northern metropolis!
In 1796, Mr. Macneill, with the view of trying the effects of a tropical climate on his malady, was induced to pay a second visit to Jamaica. When on the eve of his departure, he wrote the "Links o' Forth," and under the impression that he should never see them more, thus closed his strain:
Ye classic fields, where valour bled!
Whar patriots fell, but never fled!
Ye plains, wi' smiling plenty clad,
A lang adieu!
A dark'ning cloud, wi' ills ow'rspread,
Obscures the view.
A warning voice, sad owre the main,
Cries, "Haste ye! — haste! — break aff the strain:
STREVLINA'S towers and peerless plain,
Ye'll ne'er review!"
Dear haunts o' youth, and love's saft pain,
A last adieu!
Although written before his departure, this poem did not make its public appearance till some years after (1799); and when he was still absent from his native country.
While in Jamaica, Mr. Macneill resided with Mr. John Graham, of Three-Mile River, and received from him every kindness and attention which the most zealous friendship could devise, to alleviate his sufferings. In "the Scottish Muse," which he composed under the hospitable roof of this gentleman, he takes a poetical retrospect of the events of his chequered life; and, towards the conclusion, thus records the kindness which he experienced on "the Carib Shore."
Ane, too's at hand, to wham ye fled
Frae Britain's cauld, frae misery's bed,
Owre seas tempestuous, shivering sped,
To Friendship's flame,
Whar kindling warm, in sun-beams clad,
She hails her GRAHAM.
In 1800, Mr. Macneill returned to Scotland, far from convalescent, yet considerably improved in health by his residence. He found that all his works were still in general request, but that several of his most popular and important pieces had been for some time out of print, while surreptitious editions of most of his songs, set to music, were commonly exposed to sale in the music shops. The booksellers urged him by repeated solicitations to supply what was greatly wanted, a complete collection of his works, printed under his own superintendence; and this he was at length, though not without reluctance, induced to undertake. The collection made its appearance in 1801, in two volumes. On the subject of selection, he thus modestly expresses himself in a brief preface to the work. "I am apprehensive I have been influenced more by a gratification of my own taste, than an anxiety to gratify that of others. There are certain events in the early stages of life, which, on a retrospect, interest and charm, perhaps, beyond any other. Among these, scenes and circumstances annexed to youth and passion cannot fail to be remembered with peculiar pleasure; while the occasional and unpremeditated effusions which commemorate the joys that are past, and the friends that are no more, become, even with their faults, the children of our affection. These, however, have been examined with some care, and, I would fain hope, with some impartiality. Many, with a sigh, have been consigned to oblivion; but, on a general review of my poetical offspring, I cannot deny, that while I fancied some puny and unpromising, I was incapable of excluding them from the last and only protection I had to offer. If in this parental weakness I have been in fault, it is hoped that the error will be attributed, to no other cause. The 'cacoethes carpendi' cannot sorely attach to one who has so long resisted solicitations to collect, far less the silly sanity of exhibiting to the world, what diffidence has so long taught him to conceal." Notwithstanding the doubting opinion which the author here expresses of some of the pieces admitted into the collection, it would be difficult to name one which readers of taste could wish to see suppressed. To a third edition, indeed, which came out in 1812, Mr. Macneill added a war song, entitled "the Battle of Barrosa," which might, with advantage to his reputation, have been left out; but the collection, as originally published, appears to have been made with considerable severity of judgement, and is far from betraying any marks of "parental weakness."
In 1811-12, Mr. Macneill again attracted the notice of the public, as the author of a series of works, of a somewhat different character from any which he had yet published. Two of these, entitled "Bygane Times, and late-come Changes," and "Town Fashions," were poetical; and the third, and last, was a historical tale or novel, entitled "the Scottish Adventurers, or the Way to Rise." All these volumes appear to have been directed to one object; to shew that, with "bygane times," much good sense and morality had departed the land, and that with "late-come changes," nothing but folly and corruption had been introduced. Such sweeping censures of the past have always ranked among the privileges of age; and when, as in the present case, there is reason to suspect that the canker of disease has helped to give an amiable mind a distempered view of things, we are naturally disposed to extend to its errors a more than usual portion of tender respect. It seems to have been with something of this feeling, that the appearance of these volumes of Mr. Macneill, was regarded by the Edinburgh public, to whom they were more particularly addressed. That they contained much good sense, and a still greater portion of good feeling, no one could deny; but it was obvious to all who had not lost the gift of correct vision, that most of the pictures were caricatures, and some of them mere daubs. What should we think of a person who would try to persuade us, that in education and habits of life, the working classes of the capital of the best informed country in the world, are every way inferior to those of Little Britain or Spitalfields? And yet this is what Mr. Macneill, in his "Scottish Adventurers," wants to establish. The preference which he gives to London artists, he extends to London wives, London houses, and every thing London. It is evident that he must have founded his comparison on a very superficial view of the state of society in this country, or rather on no view at all of the reality. An ingenious Essayist has lately favoured the world with a "Vindication of Scottish Character," to which those who have the least doubt on any of the points of comparison, would do well to refer; and with one brief quotation from this essay, we may dismiss the subject.
"The middling classes in Scotland," says the writer, "evince, at this moment, as much taste in their houses, as persons of the same class in England; and, everywhere, in proportion as their circumstances are improved, the people are fast assimilating to the manners of their wealthier neighbours. If they are still a little behind them in epicurism and the refinements of cookery, we regard this as a fortunate circumstance, and trust they will long continue in the same happy ignorance. For certainly, to adopt an expression from Burns, nothing sooner 'sinks the man and elevates the beast,' than too great an attachment to such pleasures; and in this view of the subject, we would deem it an insult to compare the Scottish peasant or mechanic, who regards knowledge as one chief good, and willingly foregoes many comforts to obtain for his children the blessings of education, to the Englishman of the same degree, whose principal pleasure is derived from an anticipation of the qualities of his Sunday's-pudding, and who mispends the day, sacred to devotion and rest, in the unmanly employment of superintending the cookery of his wife."
Mr. Macneill terminated a life of much vicissitude and suffering, at Edinburgh, in July, 1818.
Had the poetical career of this lamented writer closed with his collected works, we should have been able to speak of it with nearly unqualified praise. The purpose of every one of them is unexceptionable; the pictures are from life; the sentiments, though slightly tinged with an aristocratic affection for passive habits in the lower orders, are, upon the whole, sound and wholesome; and the poetry has a thousand charms in its prevailing simplicity and tenderness. In his knowledge of the way to the heart, he appears to have been as learned as Burns himself; and was only inferior to him in the power of exemplifying it. Of the magic effect of few words, quick transitions, and a natural unaffected style, he shews himself to have been fully sensible; and could he have only brought into play the same depth of feeling and burning ardour of fancy which distinguish Burns, he would have contested the laurel with him.
Although, by his later works, Mr. Macneill acquired no accession of fame, there were episodes in them where a reader might trace, with delight, the same hand which painted so well the fate of "Will and Jean." The story of "Myzie Linkit" in "By-gane Times," and of the Upstart Writer in "Late-come Changes," are entitled to rank with the best effusions of his muse.