1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. David Macbeth Moir

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 36 (August 1851) 208-10.



July 6. At Dumfries, aged 53, David Macbeth Moir, esq. surgeon at Musselburgh, the DELTA of Blackwood's Magazine.

Dr. Moir was born at Musselburgh, in Jan. 1798. From the schools of his native town, he passed to the University of Edinburgh, where he pursued his medical studies with diligence and success. Having received the diploma of a surgeon, be established himself in that capacity at Musselburgh, devoting himself to his profession with a measure of assiduity that was in no long time crowned with ample success. He acquired a very extensive practice, the limits of which continued to enlarge until, the burden becoming too great for him, he latterly found an associate in his son-in-law, Dr. Thomas R. Scott.

It seems to have been about the year 1817 — when he was a youth of nineteen — that Dr. Moir committed his first verses to the press, in the pages of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. We believe that they were without signature, so that it is not easy now to identify them, or such other pieces as he did not afterwards reclaim. The earliest poem — that of Emma, subsequently named Sir Ethelred — which bears the subscription of Delta appeared in the magazine for Jan. 1820; but a notice to correspondents in Nov. 1819 — inviting Delta to favour the editor with "a prose article" — shows that he had already made himself a welcome contributor. From Dr. Moir's neglect to distinguish his youthful compositions by any mark, some of them were assigned to other writers. The late Mrs. Brunton, the author of Self-Control, was so much struck with his stanzas, beginning,

When thou at even-tide art roaming
Along the elm-o'ershadowed walk,
Where fast the eddying stream is foaming,
And falling down — a cataract—

published without note or name in Constable's Edinburgh Magazine towards the end of the year 1817 — that she transcribed them with her own hand, and the transcript being found in her work-box after her death, they were published as her composition in the memoir prefixed to her posthumous tale of Emmeline.

Having once established his place in Blackwood, under the signature of Delta, Mr. Moir continued, during the long period of more than thirty years, to enrich its pages with a series of poems, which would be remarkable were it for nothing but the profusion with which they, were poured forth. But they possessed many and high qualities — a great command of language and numbers, a delicate and graceful fancy, and a sweet, pure vein of tenderness and pathos. These characteristics are displayed, with scarcely one exception, through the whole series of his compositions — the last of which, The Lament of Selim, left his hand little more than a fortnight before his death. It is published in Blackwood's Magazine for this month; and to some readers its melancholy refrain may now sound prophetic—

And thou art not — I look around,
But thou art nowhere to be found!
I listen vainly for thy foot—
I listen, but thy voice is mute!

A selection of Delta's contributions to Blackwood may, probably, yet see the light; altogether they would fill several volumes besides the two which were published during his lifetime — The Legend of Genevieve, with other Tales and Poems, in 1825; and his Domestic Verses, in 1843. The first of these works has been very happily characterised by the distinguished critic who was so long the presiding genius of the miscellany in which many of the poems were first given to the world. "Delta," wrote Professor Wilson, "has produced many original pieces, which will possess a permanent place in the poetry of Scotland. Delicacy and grace characterise his happiest compositions; some of them are beautiful, in a cheerful spirit that has only to look on nature to be happy; and others breathe the simplest and purest pathos. His scenery, whether sea-coast or inland, is always truly Scottish; and, at times, his pen drops touches of light on minute subjects, that till then had slumbered in the shade, but now 'shine well where they stand' or lie, as component and characteristic parts of our lowland landscapes." The Domestic Verses were not at first meant to meet the general eye, but a few copies having been printed for circulation among friends, they called forth so much praise, that the author was prevailed upon to make them public. Among the eminent men of letters whose approbation was bestowed upon the volume in its unpublished form, was the late Lord Jeffrey. "I cannot," he wrote to the author, "resist the impulse of thanking you with all my heart, for the deep gratification you have afforded me, and the soothing and I hope 'bettering' emotions which you have excited. I am sure that what you have written is more genuine pathos than anything almost I have, ever read in verse, and is so tender and true, so sweet and natural, as to make all lower recommendations indifferent." It were easy to accumulate testimonies, not less cordial, from other contemporaries of mark. The fastidious taste of Dr. Butler, the late Bishop of Lichfield, singled out Delta's lines on Mount St. Bernard as worthy of a Latin version — one of the most felicitous things in Mr. Drury's collection of the Arundines Cami.

While the pathos of Delta was subduing the hearts of all the readers of Blackwood, there suddenly appeared in the same pages the first fragment of one of the most laughable embodiments of Scottish humour — The Life of Mansie Wauch. Begun in October, 1824, four or five years elapsed before the autobiography of the Dalkeith tailor was completed in Blackwood, and issued in a volume by itself. It has since run through six or eight editions in this country, besides reprints in America and France, and the circulation of several of its chapters in the guise of chap-books. The first whisper that went abroad that the touching Legend of Genevieve and the facetious history of Mansie Wauch were from one and the same pen, was received with astonishment and incredulity. The public had universally assigned the story to John Galt, then in the heyday of his fame, and undoubtedly it was pitched to a key-note which that writer had been the first to strike. But the execution was discriminated by so many peculiar touches as to make Mansie Wauch an original creation, sufficient to have built up the fame of its author, even if it had stood alone; and, in the circumstances, affording a truly remarkable proof of the diversified gifts of the genius by which it was produced.

In 1831, Dr. Moir published his Outlines of the Ancient History of Medicine, being a View of the Progress of the Healing Art among the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabians — a work of great research and diversified erudition. The catalogue of his writings closes with Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century, in Six Lectures, delivered at the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, which appeared this present year.

Mr. Moir was a zealous member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The Roman antiquities of his native place, Musselburgh, and of Inveresk; one of the most important Roman sites in Scotland apart from the Wall, early excited his liveliest interest. He supplied to the New Statistical Account the notice of Inveresk parish, an able communication, in which he gives full play to his archaeological predilections.

The lineaments of Dr. Moir's character are not unfaithfully reflected in his writings. To know him was to love him. The sweetness of his disposition, the purity and simplicity, the manliness and sincerity of his mind, gained and secured for him universal affection and esteem. Such was the respect in which he was held in Musselburgh, that when the tidings of his death reached the town, a desire was expressed by all classes of the inhabitants that his funeral should be a public one. This general and earnest wish was acceded to, and every circumstance of honour which his neighbours and fellow-citizens could bestow accompanied the remains of Dr. Moir to their resting place in the churchyard of Inveresk, in the grave which holds the dust of three of his children.

Dr. Moir married, in 1829, Miss Charlotte E. Bell of Leith; and by this lady who survives him, he leaves issue eight children. The eldest daughter is the wife of Dr. Thomas R. Scott, who for some time was the partner, and is now the successor of the deceased poet in his extensive practice. In person Delta was somewhat above the middle stature, of fair complexion, with light blue eyes, and pleasant features. His health was robust until about five years ago, when the upsetting of a carriage gave a shock to his constitution from which it would seem never to have wholly recovered. His political opinions may be inferred from those of the miscellany which he chose to be the chief channel of his publications. He was a steadfast Tory, and a zealous supporter of the Church of Scotland; and the devotion with which he adhered to his principles, both in Church and State, was characteristic of the simplicity and integrity of the man. — Edinburgh Courant.