The few melancholy particulars which form the slender history of the life of Bruce, were first given to the world by Logan, the editor of his works; and have since received every possible recommendation and embellishment from the elegant pen of Lord Craig, one of the judges of the Court of Session, in the 36th number of the "Mirror."
A short life past in obscurity, and in the silent acquisition of knowledge, cannot be expected to abound in vicissitudes or occurrences interesting to curiosity; but particular circumstances may exist, to render the life of a young man of genius, depressed by situation, and aspiring to literature and to poetry under the pressure of indigence, peculiarly interesting to benevolence and to learning.
The affecting and well-written paper in the "Mirror," attributed to Lord Craig, has been distinguished by the most respectable literary journalists of our nation, with particular marks of attention; a circumstance to which, besides the attraction between good writing and competent judges, it is natural to suppose, the gratification of a sensibility and a curiosity common to the liberal and inquisitive, arising from the benevolent attempt, to rescue from oblivion the name and writings of an ingenious and amiable young poet, contributed in no inconsiderable degree.
The facts state in the present account, are partly taken from the brief narrative of Logan, and partly from information furnished by his relations, and collected from the perishing remains of his epistolary correspondence, communicated to the present writer, by the kindness of the Rev. Dr. George Baird, Principal of the University of Edinburgh.
The intelligence which he has obtained is general and scanty; but he has this gratification from producing it, that it gives him, at once, an opportunity of reflecting on the liberal and friendly assistance of Dr. Baird, and of recording his esteem and veneration for the talents and virtues of the unfortunate poet, and his humane and benevolent exertions to lessen the wants, and alleviate the afflictions of his aged mother, which deserve a more ample encomium than this brief memorial can bestow.
Michael Bruce was born at Kinnesswood, in the parish of Portmoak, in Kinrosshire, March 27, 1746. He was descended of a family, in no respects illustrious, but in bearing a name that is renowned by the valour and patriotism of King Robert I, and distinguished by the taste and science of the House of Kinross. His father, Alexander Bruce, was by trade a weaver, who inherited nothing from his parents but their piety, industry, and integrity, for which he was distinguished among his neighbours. Hs mother, Anne Bruce, was of a family of the same rank in that neigibourhood, and remarkable for nothing but her exemplary prudence and frugality, and the innocence and simplicity of her manners. They had eight children, of whom the poet was the fifth. Of these eight only two survive; James, a weaver in Kinnesswood, a man of respectable character, and though uneducated, not unacquainted with books, nor without a taste for metrical composition; and Mary, married to one Arnot in that neighbourhood. Both parents were Seceders, of the class called Burghers.
The first years of his life did not pass without distinction. He very early discovered a genius superior to the common, which his parents had the penetration to discern, and the merit to improve, by giving him a polite and liberal education.
The delicacy of his constitution, which was remarkable from his earliest years, and the uncommon proficiency which he made in the learning taught at the school of the village, probably determined them to educate him for the clerical profession; an object of common ambition among persons of inferior rank in North Britain, and for which, it may be supposed, their peculiar impressions of religion gave them a strong predilection.
After passing through the usual course of school education at Portmoak, and the neighbouring town of Kinross, he was sent, in 1762, to the University of Edinburgh, where he applied himself, during the four succeeding years, to the several branches of literature and philosophy, with remarkable assiduity and success. Of the Latin and Greek languages he acquired a masterly knowledge; and he made eminent progress in metaphysics, mathematics, and moral and natural philosophy. But the Belles Lettres was his favourite pursuit, and poetry his darling study. The poets were his perpetual companions. He read their works with avidity, and with a congenial enthusiasm. He caught their spirit as well as their manner, and though he sometimes imitated their style, he was a poet from inspiration. Nature had tuned his ear to harmony, and sown the seeds of poetical enthusiasm in his mind.
Before he left school, he gave evident signs of a propensity to the study of poetry, in which he was greatly encouraged, from an acquaintance which he had contracted, when very young, with Mr. David Arnot of Portmoak, the patron and director of of his youthful studies.
Mr. Arnot cultivated a small farm, on the banks of Lochleven, which he inherited from his parents, and is now possessed by his son. He was a man of excellent sense and piety, and had a cultivated taste, and an acquaintance with classical learning, moral philosophy, poetry and criticism, much superior to his opportunities of improvement, and his rank in life. He gave his young friend the first perception of good poetry, by putting into his hands the "Paradise Lost" of Milton, the "Seasons" of Thomson, the poems of Pope, and the dramas of Shakspeare.
Besides the advantage of so intelligent and sincere an adviser as Mr. Arnot, he had formed an acquaintance with Mr. David Pearson, of Easter Balgeedie, a village adjoining to Kinnesswood, a man of strong parts, of a serious, contemplative, and inquisitive turn, who had improved his mind by a diligent and solitary perusal of such books as came within his reach; and, having a peculiar predilection for that branch of study which soon became the favourite object of his pursuit, contributed not a little to lead him to the love of reading and the study of poetry. This worthy and respectable man is now living at Easter-Balgeedie.
In the company of Arnot and Pearson, he passed much of his time in the country, and to them, from time to time, he imparted the occasional sallies of his genius, receiving from them such advice as tended greatly to ripen his judgment, and improve his natural taste for metrical composition.
Among the companions of his youthful and classical studes, he lived in habits of the most familiar intimacy with Mr. George Henderson and a Mr. Dryburgh; young men of ingenuity and ability, whose kindness supplied him with books, and whose conversation improved his powers, that were now gradually expanding. Mr. Dryburgh went before him in November 1766. Mr. Henderson became afterwards a clergyman, of the Burgher denomination, at Glasgow, and died in 1793.
Soon after his coming to Edinburgh, he contracted an acquaintance with Logan, then a student at the University. A similarity of taste, and of pursuits, soon brought on an intimacy between these two poets, which continued without abatement till the death of Bruce.
While he was prosecuting his favourite studies, and improving his taste, he seems to have felt in common with those who possess a genius, of which imagination and feeling are the strongest characteristics, that pensive melancholy, which is ever attendant upon poetical enthusiasm, and frequently the concomitant of the best disposition and principles, and the certain test of generous and susceptible heart, conscious of rectitude of conduct and unmerited adversity.
His letters from Edinburgh to Mr. Arnot, in 1763, written chiefly as exercises in the composition of Latin, contain several reflections of a solemn and serious cast. In a letter to him, dated Nov. 27, 1764, he thus indulges a train of thought, produced by adverse circumstances, but tempered by a rational piety. "I daily meet with proofs, that money is a necessary evil. When in an auction I often say to myself, how happy should I be if I had money to purchase such a book! How well should my library be furnished, 'nixi obstat res angusta doni!'
My lot forbids — nor circumscribes alone
My growing virtues, but my crimes confines.
"Whether any virtues should have accompanied me in a more elevated station is uncertain; but that a number of vices, of which my sphere is incapable, would have been its attendants, is unquestionable. The Supreme Wisdom has seen this meet, the Supreme Wisdom cannot err." In the same letter he writes him; "I am entered to the Hebrew and Natural Philosophy. The Hebrew seems to be a very dry and dull study, as well as difficult." Of the study of Natural Philosophy, he speaks mote favourably; but complains with the eagerness of youthful curiosity, of the disproportionate length of the preliminary lectures.
In December 12, 1764, he writes him, "I am in health, excepting a kind of melancholy (for which I cannot account), which has seized on my spirits."
During the same session of the College, he writes him, March 27, 'dies natalis,' 1765, "I am in great concern just now for a school. When I was over last, there was a proposal made by some people of these parts to keep one at Gairny-Bridge. What it may turn out to, I cannot tell." The postscript to this letter is remarkable, as it shows his extreme delicacy in avoiding any occasion of offending the religious prejudices of his parents. "I ask your pardon for the trouble I have put you to by these books I have sent. The fear of a discovery made me choose this method. I have sent Shakspeare's Works, 8 vols, Pope's Works, 4 vols, and Fontenelle's "Plurality of Worlds."
In March 1765, he wrote an Elegy on the Death of Mr. M'Ewen, a respectabIe Burgher clergyman, author of a "Treatise on the Scripture Types," and "Essays on Various Subjects," well known in the religious world. At the end of the session, the scheme of provision, that was planned for him, was accomplished; and, during the summer, he taught the school at Gairny-Bridge, near Kinross, kept for the education of the children of some farmers in the neighbourhood, who allowed him his board and a small salary.
At this place he wrote his beautiful Monody to the Memory of William Arnot, son of his friend Mr. Arnot, a boy of an amiable disposition, and of very promising abilities. The original manuscript now lying before the present writer, is prefaced by the following manly letter to Mr. Arnot, dated Gairny-Bridge, May 29, 1765. "Walking lately by the church-yard at your town, which inspires a kind of veneration for our ancestors, I was struck with these beautiful lines of Mr. Gray, in his "Elegy written in a Country Church yard."
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire.
"And immediately I called to mind your son, whose memory will be ever dear unto me; and with respect to that place, the supposition out of doubt. I wrote the most part of this poem the same day; which I shall be very sorry if you look upon as a piece of flattery. I know you are above flattery; and if I know any thing of my own mind, I am so too. It is the language of the heart. I think a lie in verse and prose the same. The versification is irregular, in imitation of Milton's Lycidas."
About this time he probably wrote his Alexis, a pastoral in which he celebrates, under the name of Eumelia, an amiable young woman, the daughter of the person with whom he resided at Gairney-Bridge, whose modest beauty, and artless simplicity, had made an impression on his susceptible heart. She is likewise celebrated under the name of Peggy, in a Pastoral Song, to the tune of "The Yellow-Hair'd Laddie," and a song, called Lochleven no more, in imitation of "Lochaber no more," printed in the "Edinburgh Magazine." She had been for some time his scholar; and is now living.
In the beginning of the session of the College, 1765-1766, he became a Student of Divinity, as appears by Mr Arnot's letter to him, dated Poatmoak, Nov 21, 1766, in which he "congratulates him on his undertaking a second degree of probation, and wishes him the best success, as you have," he says, "one of the best subjects for exercising your genius, and giving proof of your talents." And adds, "I hope, if opportunity be given, to have an octavo leaf of any remarkables I can collect on it, 'twixt this and your return. You'll undoubtedly know the form of such exercises, and accordingly you'll be doing your best." The success of his theological exercises is not known.
In the Summer 1766, he quitted the school at Gairny-Bridge, for one at a place called Forrest-Mill, near Aloa, in Clackmannashire, in which he appears to have met with less encouragement than he expected.
"What I enjoyed of any thing," he writes Mr. Arnot, July 28, 1766, "was always in the hope of it. I expected to be happy here, but I am not; and my sanguine hopes are the reason of my disappointment. The easiest part of my life is past, and I was never happy — Things are not very well in this world; but they are pretty well; they might have been worse, and as they are, may please us, who have but a few short days to use them. This scene of affairs, though a very perplexed, is a very short one; and in a little all will be cleared up. Let us endeavour to please God, our fellow creatures, and ourselves. In such a course of life, we shall be as happy as we can be in such a world as this. Thus you who cultivate your farm with your own hands, and I, who teach a dozen blockheads for bread, my be happier than he, who, having more than he can use, tortures his brain to invent new methods of killing himself with the superfluity."
At this place he began and finished his poem called Lochleven; of which he gives the following humorous account to Mr. Arnot, in the letter above quoted. "I have wrote a few lines of a descriptive poem, 'cui titulus est,' Lochleven; you may remember you hinted such a thing to me; so I have set about it, and you my expect a dedication. I hope it will soon be finished, as I every week add two lines, blot out six, and alter eight. You shall hear the plan when I know it myself."
Of some part of the scenery of Lochleven he gives the following account in a letter to Mr. Pearson, Dec. 7, 1766. "On the day before St. Luke's fair in Kinross, I made a voyage to the Inch of Lochleven, that being the time, you know, at which they bring the cattle out of it. The middle and highest part of it, is covered with ruins. The foundations are visible enough, and it seems to have been a very large building. The whole is divided into a great many little squares, from which it appears not an unplausible conjecture, that not only a church, as they tell us, but a monastery had stood in it. To the westward of this, and in the lower ground, a deep dyke, in the form of a trench, is cut on the north and east sides of a plain piece of ground, not unlike a bowling-green. I can give no guess at the use of this, though it evidently appears to be the work of art. I sought among the ruins, and on the stone of the little house which stands in it, for some marks or inscriptions, but to no purpose. I could find nothing farther to assist my conjectures. I would have examined [a word is wanting here in the MS.], had not the fishers been in such a hurry to be gone. They who consider it, in no other view, than as capable of feeding a dozen or fourteen cattle, when their work was over, would not stay a minute longer, had it been to discover the great toe of St. Moak, who is buried there. My description of it, in the poem Lochleven (which by the by is now finished), runs thus;
Fronting where Gairny pours his silent stream
Into the lake, a island lifts its head,
Grassy and wild, &c.
The poem is addressed to Mr. Arnot, whose character he has drawn to great advantage, under the name of Agricola.
—The wise, the good,
By nature formed for the calm retreat;
The silent path of life, learn'd, but not fraught
Enamour'd of the shade, but not morose,
Politeness, rais'd in courts by frugal rules,
With him spontaneous grows. Not books alone,
But man his study, and the better part;
To tread the ways of virtue, and to act
The various scenes of life with God's applause.
He is supposed to have commemorated his friend Henderson in the following lines, under the name of Loelius.
Nor shall the muse forget thy friendly heart,
O Loelius! partner of my youthful hours:
How often, rising from the bed of peace,
We would walk forth to meet the summer morn,
Inhaling health, and harmony of mind;
Philosophers and friends—
He alludes very pathetically, to the unfavourable circumstances in which it was written, in the following lines at the conclusion:
Thus sang the youth, amid unfertile wilds,
And nameless deserts, unpoetic ground!
Far from his friends he stray'd, recording thus
The dear remembrance of his native fields,
To cheer the tedious night; while slow disease
Prey'd on his pining vitals, and the blasts
Of dark December shook his humble cot.
In November 1766, he lost his friend Dryburgh. In the conclusion of a letter to Mr. Pearson, Nov 20, accompanied by some lines to Dr. Millar, written for him in testimony of his gratitude, on his recovery from sickness; he expresses his feelings on this mournful event in a strain of exquisite tenderness, and sublime piety; "I have not many friends, 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's 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 hard heart into the bargain! — Farewell, 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 its, and elements interpose in vain. The whole material creation is no her to the winged mind. Farewel through boundless ages, fare thou well. 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 gloomy apartment of the universe of God. But there is a better world in which we may meet to part no more. Adieu."
In a letter to Mr. Pearson, dated December 24, he laments his seclusion from the world, and reflects on the hardships which poverty laid on his delicate frame, and too susceptible mind, in a strain of tender melancholy, which cannot fail to awaken the sympathy of every reader of sensibility. "It is more than probable, the next you receive from me (if ever you receive another), will bear date 1767. I can remember, I could write (or at least scratch) my name with the year 1752. In that year I learnt the elements of Pencraft; and it is now fourteen years since; a goodly term for one to be a scholar all that time. And what have I learned? Much that I need to unlearn; and I have need that one should teach me this — that I know nothing — I lead a melancholy kind of life in this place. I am not fond of company. But it is not good that a man be still alone. And here I can have no company but what is worse than solitude. If I had not a lively imagination, I believe I should fall into a state at stupidity and delirium. I have some evening scholars; the attending on whom, though few, so fatigues me, that the rest of the night I am quite dull and low-spirited. Yet I have some lucid intervals, in the time of which I can study pretty well."
In the autumn 1766, his constitution, which was ill calculated to encounter the austerities of his native climate, the exertions of daily labour, and the rigid frugality of humble life, began visibly to decline. Towards the end of the year, his ill health aggravated by the indigence of his situation, and the want of those comforts and conveniences which might have fostered a delicate frame, to maturity and length of days, terminated in a deep consumption.
During the winter, he quitted his employment at Forrest-Mill, and with it all hopes of life, and returned to his native village, to receive those attentions and consolations which his situation required, from the anxiety of parental affection, and the sympathy of friendship. Convinced of the hopeless nature of his disease, and feeling himself every day declining, he contemplated the approaches of death with calmness and resignation, and continued at intervals to compose verses, and to correspond with his friends.
His last letter to Mr. Pearson (a copy of which is preserved in the hand-writing of Mr. Birrel), concludes with an Allegorical Description of Human life, at once so beautiful and so interesting, that it is impossible to avoid transcribing it. It strongly reminds us of Addison's "Vision of Mirza."
"If morning dreams presage approaching fate,
And morning dreamt, as poets tell are true;
Led by pale ghosts, I enter death's dark gate,
And bid this life, and all the world, adieu!
"A few mornings ago, as I was taking my walk on an eminence, which commands a view of the Forth, with the vessels sailing along, I sat down, and taking out my Latin Bible, opened by accident at a place in the book of Job, ix, 25, 'Now my days are passed away as the swift ships.' Shutting the book, I fell a musing on this affecting comparison. Whether the following happened to me in a dream or waking reverie, I cannot tell — But, I fancied myself on the bank of a river, or sea, the opposite side of which was hid from view, being involved in clouds of mist. On the shore stood a multitude, which no man could number, waiting for passage. I saw a great many ships taking in passengers, and several persons going about in the garb of pilots offering their service. Being ignorant and curious to know what all these things meant, I applied to a grave old titan who stood by, giving instructions to the departing passengers. His name, I remember was the Genius of Human Life. 'My son,' said he, 'you stand on the banks of the stream of time; all these people are bound for eternity, that undiscovered country from whence no traveller ever returns. The country is very large, and divided into two parts; the one is called the Land of Glory, the other the Kingdom of Darkness. The names of these in the garb of pilots, are, Religion. Virtue, Pleasure. They who are so wise as to chose Religion for their guide, have a safe, though frequently a rough passage; they are at last landed in the happy climes, where sighing and sorrow for ever fly away; they have likewise a secondary director, Virtue; but there is a spurious Virtue who pretends to govern by himself, but the wretches who trust to him, as well as those who have Pleasure for their pilot, are either shipwrecked, or cast away on the Kingdom of Darkness. But the vessel in which you must embark, approaches, you must begone; remember what depends upon your conduct.' — No sooner had he left me, than I found myself surrounded by those pilots I mentioned before; immediately I forgot all that the old man said to me; and, seduced by the fair promises of Pleasure, chose him for my director; we weighed, anchor with a fair gale, the sky serene, the sea innumerable little isles lifted their green heads around us, covered with trees in full blossom; dissolved in stupid mirth, we were carried on, regardless of the past, of the future unmindful. On a sudden, the sky was darkened, the winds roared, the seas raged, red rose the sand from the bottom of the troubled deep, the angel of the waters lifted up his voice. At that instant a strong ship passed by, I saw Religion at the helm; 'Come out from among them,' he cried. I and a few others threw ourselves out into his ship. The wretches we left were now tossed on the swelling deep, the waters on every side poured through the riven vessel; they cursed the Lord; — when lo! a fiend rose from the deep, and in a voice like distant thunder, thus spoke, 'I am Abadon, the first-born of Death, ye are my prey, open thou abyss to receive them.' As he thus spoke, they sunk, and the waves closed over their heads. The storm was turned into a calm, and we heard a voice saying, 'Fear not, I am with you; when you pass through the waters, they shall not overflow you.' Our hearts were filled with joy; I was engaged in discourse with one of my new companions, when one from the top of the mast, cried out, 'Courage, my friends, I see the fair haven, the land that is yet afar off.' Looking up, I found it was a certain friend, who had mounted up for the benefit of contemplating the country before him; upon seeing you, I was so affected, I started and awaked. Farewel! my friend, farewel!"
He lingered through the winter; and in the spring, he wrote an Elegy on his own approaching death, in which he inserted the stanza above quoted, with some alterations. This was the last composition he lived to finish. By degrees his weakness increased, till he was worn gradually away; and he expired July 6, 1767, in the 21st year of his age. His life was innocent, and his end pious. His father survived him several years. His mother is now living in the 86th year of her age. Weighed down by accumulated distresses, she still cherishes his memory with tenderness, and derives a kind of mournful consolation from the occasional bounty of some gentlemen, who were warm admirers of his merit.
Soon after his death, his poems were subjected to the revisal and correction of his friend Logan, who gave them to the world in a small duodecimo volume, entitled, Poems on Several Occasions, by Michael Bruce, printed at Edinburgh in 1770, probably by subscription, as it was not advertised for sale, with a preface, containing a short account of his life and character.
It is remarkable, that no account is given in the preface, of the state in which the poems came into the editor's possession, nor of the process which he observed in preparing them for publication.
As the practice of making one writer speak by the sense of another, has a tendency to confound the claims of individual merit, it is to be regretted that Logan withheld from the public an account of the share which he had in the publication.
According to the information of Dr. Baird, the ballad of Sir James the Ross, and the story of Lumond and Levina, in the poem Lochleven, are supposed to have received considerable additions and embellishments from the pen of Logan; and it must not be concealed, that in a MS. copy of Lochleven, in Dr. Baird's possession, this fictitious incident, as it now stands, appears to have received an addition of about 200 lines. If this copy received the last revision of Bruce, the evidence of the supposed interpolation might be admissible; but, as it is not said to be the identical copy given to Logan, and as the additions are so consonant to the style of the poem, it is probable that the supplemental lines might be the result of a subsequent revision. Sir James the Ross was printed in a newspaper in Bruce's life-time; and, according to the information of a friend who saw it some years ago, in the possession of a lady, it is not remarkably different from the ballad at it stands in Logan's edition.
"To make up a miscellany," says the preface, "some poems wrote by different authors are inserted, all of them originals, and none of them destitute of merit. The reader of taste will easily distinguish them from those of Mr. Bruce, without their being particularised by any mark."
The propriety of uniting the poems of Bruce, and the "poems of different authors," in the same publication, may be reasonably doubted; especially as they have no apparent resemblance or poetical relation; but, undoubtedly, the pieces belonging to Bruce ought to have been distinguished by some particular mark; for the internal evidence, as the present writer has experienced in several instances, is a fallacious and uncertain distinction.
Of this poetical miscellany, The Eagle Crow, and Shepherd, a fable; Alexis, a pastoral; Daphnis, a monody; Anacreontic to a Wasp, The Mouseiad; Lochleven, and the Elegy written in Spring — are the only pieces which Dr. Baird assigns to Bruce. The present writer has ventured to give him A Pastoral Song, and Sir James the Ross, upon evidence which Dr. Baird admits, with some exceptions in favour of Logan; and he is unwilling to deprive him of the Danish Odes, which have exceeding merit, and have not been claimed by Logan. The "Ode to a Cuckoo," and the "Chorus of Elysian Bards," were contributed by Logan. The "Vernal Ode" is attributed to the late Sir James Foulis, Bart. of Collington. Of the remaining pieces the authors are unknown.
The attention of the public having been called to this collection, by Lord Craig, in the "Mirror" 1779, it was reprinted in 12mo. 1784. A new edition, including several of his unpublished pieces, which had not been submitted to the inspection of Logan, A Poem on the Immortality of the Soul, Philocles, an Elegy, The Vanity of our Desires of Immortality, A Story in the Eastern Manner, &c. is now printing at Edinburgh, for the benefit of his mother, under the superintendence of Dr. Baird. A subscription has been opened for that purpose; and there seems little doubt, from the zeal with which individuals, prompted at once by benevolence, and the admiration of genius, have come forward, that a sum will be raised equal to the old woman's comfortable maintenance during the latter days of her life.
His poems, reprinted from the edition 1770, together with Lochleven no more, reprinted from the "Edinburgh Magazine," the Elegy on Mr. M'Ewen, and Verses to Dr. Miller, selected by the present writer from his MS. letters, are now, for the first time, received into a collection of classical English poetry. Copies of his unpublished pieces, revised by a friend of Dr. Baird, have been promised by the learned editor, and, it is hoped, will be communicated in due time for the use of this edition. Some anonymous Elegiac Verses on the Death of Michael Bruce are reprinted from the forth volume of the "Asylum for Fugitive Pieces," 1793.
His character may be easily collected from this account of his life. It was truly amiable and respectable. In his manners, he was modest, gentle, and mild; in his disposition, he was friendly, affectionate, and ingenuous. He united an ardent and enlightened sense of religion, with a lively imagination and a feeling heart. Tenderness, in every sense of the word, and piety, equally remote from enthusiasm and superstition, were his peculiar characteristics.
"Michael Bruce lives now no more," says Logan, who knew him well, "but in the remembrance of his friends. No less amiable as a man, than valuable as a writer; endowed with good nature and good sense, humane, friendly, benevolent; he loved his friends, and was beloved by them with a degree of ardour that is only experienced in the era of youth and innocence."
"Nothing, methinks," says Lord Craig, "has more the power of awakening benevolence, than the consideration of genius, thus depressed by situation, suffered to pine in obscurity, and sometimes, as in the case of this unfortunate young man, to perish, it may be, for want of those comforts and conveniences which might have festered a delicacy of frame, or of mind ill calculated to bear the hardships which poverty lays on both. For my own part, I never pass the place (a little hamlet, skirted with a circle of old oak trees, about three miles on this side of Kinross) where Michael Bruce resided; I never look on his dwelling, a small thatched house, distinguished from the cottages of the other inhabitants only by a sashed window at the end, instead of a lattice, fringed with a honeysuckle plant, which the poor youth had trained around it. I never find myself in that spot, but I stop my horse involuntarily; and looking on the window, which the honeysuckle has now almost covered, in the dream of the moment, I picture out a figure for the gentle tenant of the mansion; I wish, and my heart swells while I do so, that he were alive, and that I were a great man, to have the luxury of visiting him there, and bidding him be happy."
As a poet, he is characterized by elegance, simplicity, and tenderness, more than sublimity, invention, or enthusiasm. He has more judgment and feeling, than genius or imagination. He is an elegant and pleasing, though not a very animated or original writer. His compositions are the production of a tender fancy, a cultivated taste, and a benevolent mind; and are distinguished by an amiable delicacy, and simplicity of sentiment and a graceful plainness of expression, free from the affectation of an inflated diction, and a profusion of imagery, so common in juvenile productions. His thoughts are often striking, sometimes new, and always just; and his versification, though not exquisitely polished, is commonly easy and harmonious.
His Lochleven is the longest and most elaborate of his poetical compositions. It is a descriptive poem, written in blank verse, the structure of which he seems to have particularly studied, as it exhibits a specimen of considerable strength and harmony in that measure. Though the nature of the subject approaches nearly to that of Thomson, of whom he was a great admirer, his style is very different, being wholly free from that unnatural swell and pomp of words, which too often disfigure the beautiful descriptions of Thomson. It represents an extensive and beautiful prospect in an animated and pleasing manner. It has much appropriate description and picturesque imagery; and it is rendered interesting by poetical fictions, historical allusions, and moral reflections. But it is not without defects; there is a redundance of thought in some instances, and a carelessness of language in others. He has, however, availed himself of every circumstance that could with propriety be introduced to decorate his poem. The story of Lomond and Levina is happily introduced, and simply and pleasingly related. It is said to have been enlarged by Logan, and is perhaps too long. The picture of the man of sorrows new risen from the bed of pain is natural and striking. Lochleven Castle, the Inch, the Limestone Quarries, the rivers Po, Queech, Leven, and Gairny, "on whose banks he first tuned the Doric reed," are graphically and poetically described. The compliment to Laelius is a pleasing digression, and the description of the character and dwelling of Agricola, towards the conclusion, has great merit. The poem is local; and though local description is far more adapted to the pencil than the pen, yet it will be perused with delight by poetical lovers of rural imagery; and must be peculiarly pleasing to those who are familiar with the picturesque scenery of Lochleven.
His Daphnis is an elegy on a deceased friend, written in the pastoral form, and, in general, well preserves the rural character. It has however, but little of the bucolic cant, now so fashionable. If any trite rural topics occur, they are heightened and adorned with he graces of sentiment, and the most delicate touches of picturesque beauty. It may be considered as an effusion of mellowed sorrow, which can recapitulate past pleasures, in all their minutiae of circumstance and situation, and select such images as are proper to the kind of composition in which it chooses to convey itself. It is a professed imitation of Miltons "Lycidas," in which there is perhaps more poetry than sorrow; but the poetry is in such an exquisite strain, that he who desires to know, whether he has taste for poetry or not, should consider whether he is highly delighted or not with the perusal of "Lycidas." Whether it should be considered as a model of composition, has been doubted. Some have supposed that the arbitrary disposition of the rhymes produces a wild melody, adapted to the expression of sorrow; and others have thought the couplet and tetrastic, with their stated returns of rhyme, preferable. To decide the point might he difficult; but if the enthusiasm and beauty of the poetry could not reconcile Dr Johnson to the "uncertain rhymes" of "Lycidas," the common readers of poetry will probably incline to favour the regular form. With Milton in view, Bruce is not a servile imitator. He has an original manner of his own. Milton is his model for versification, and he sometimes copies his thoughts and his language. But his poem is not a perpetual tissue of the obsolete phraseology, Gothic combinations, remote allusions, obscure opinions, and mythological personages of "Lycidas." The poem as it now stands, has several lines which are not in the copy sent to Mr. Arnot; the result, probably, of a subsequent emendation.
Of his Alexis, the principal merit consists, in the simplicity of the language. And the harmony of the versification. The images are not new, and the descriptions and sentiments are trite and common.
His Sir James the Ross is probably "the poem in the Journal, which was wrote," he tells Mr. Pearson, "in one afternoon, begun about four, and finished before I went to bed. I never tried any thing which fell in with my inclination so. The Historical Ballad is a species of writing by itself. The common people confound it with the Song, but in truth they are widely different. A Song should never be historical. It is founded generally on some one thought, which must be prosecuted and exhibited in every light, with a quickness and turn of expression peculiar to itself. The Ballad, again, is founded on some passage of history, or (what suits its nature better) of tradition. Here the poet may use his liberty, and cut and carve, as he has a mind. I think it a kind of writing remarkably adapted to the Scottish language." The distinction is just, and beautifully exemplified. The historical ballad demands the nicest execution, and the most artful management. The simplicity that suits it is even unattainable by genius, without that chastised taste which seldom appears in poets the highest class. It admits of magnificence of ideas, and of the sublime; but should be careful not to deviate from nature. The marvellous air, and the supernatural actors, which figure and please in the grandeur of the epic, would here be extravagant and disproportioned. The incidents should be striking, the situations important, and tending to forward the action, the design without perplexity, the parts in proper relation to it, and to each other, the sentiments delicate and noble. To these requisites, Sir James the Ross is, in general, conformable. Whether we consider the beautiful simplicity of the story, the delicacy of its situations, the pathos of its discoveries, the exact delineation of the manners of the times to which it refers the genuine stroke of nature and of passion, of the unremitting animation of the whole, we cannot but highly admire the mixture it exhibits of genius and of art. The story on which it is founded, though romantic, is interesting, and the more so, as them is reason to believe it is in some measure authentic. It is a tale of tenderness and distress; and challenges a place with the "Hardyknute" of his countryman, Sir John Bruce of Kinross, the "Owen of Carron" of Langhorne, and other successful imitations of the ancient historical ballad. This exquisite ballad is said to have received some embellishments from Logan.
His Danish Odes are compositions of a superior order. They possess, in an uncommon degree, the true fire of poetry, and harmony of versification. They appear to be modelled upon the "Norse Odes" of Gray, and, in their contexture and tone, are much in the wild and wizard strains of his Runic lyre. He probably thought this kind of minstrelsy best adapted to express the magic mysteries and romantic enthusiasm of the Gothic mythology. Assuming the fire and enthusiasm of the old Runic bards, he gives full scope to the wildness of a glowing imagination, and the energy of forcible conception. But his ideas of Scandinavian poetry seem to have risen no higher than the imitations of Gray, which are in all probability such is he alone was capable of making them. They are instinct with fire and poetical enthusiasm. They are in perfection the enthusiastic words — the words that burn — of the muses. In sublimity of conception, grandeur of imagery, and magnificence of phraseology, he is inferior to Gray; but he has more simplicity, perspicuity, and elegance. His first Ode in particular, breathes the high spirit of lyric enthusiasm. It is truly Runic, and truly Grayan.
His Elegy, written in Spring, is characterized by energy, simplicity, pathos, and melody, in the highest degree. From the circumstances in which it was written, the nature of in subject, and the merit of its execution, it has obtained act uncommon share of popularity. The influences and effects of Spring are expressed by a selection of such imagery as are adapted to strike the imagination by lively pictures. The manner in which he describes its effects upon himself, is so pathetically circumstantial, and so universally interesting, that it powerfully awakens all our tenderness.
—but not to me returns
The vernal joy my better years have known;
Dim in my breast a life's dying taper burns,
And all the joys of life, with health are flown.
"A young man of genius," says loud Craig, in a deep consumption, at the age of twenty-one feeling himself every moment going faster to decline, is an object sufficiently interesting; but how much must every feeing on the occasion be heightened, when we know, that this person possessed so much dignity and composure of mind, as not only to contemplate his approaching fate, but even to write a poem on the subject!
"In the French language, there is a much admired poem of the Abbe de Chaulieu, written in expectation of his own death, to the Marquis de la Farre, lamenting his approaching separation from his friend. Michael Bruce, who, it is probable, never heard of the Abbe de Chaulieu, has also written a poem an his own approaching death, which cannot fail of witching the heart of every one who reads it."
Several poets of our nation, in similar circumstances, have left compositions on the same subject; and more than one poet has been ambitious of the fame of poetic composition, a few hours before the perils of an engagement, when the attention of most men would be naturally occupied by more important concerns, than the adjustment of syllables, or the modulation of a period.
Dorset, "the grace of courts, the muse's pride," on the day before the memorable sea-fight in 1665, is said to have composed the celebrated song, "To all you Ladies now at Land," with equal tranquillity of mind, and promptitude of wit.
The tender, the sentimental Abbe de Chaulieu, has left a poem on his approaching death equally remarkable for elegance and feeling. Bruce must have heard of Dorset, and, it may be of the Abbe de Chaulieu as he was no stranger to the language in which he wrote; but he is purely original in his thoughts. Nor can we deny to him the praise of collectedness and strength of mind in a superior degree. He views, without dismay, the insidious approaches of an incurable disease, which generally selects, for its prey the fairest, and most amiable victims; and without pretending to that apathy, surely unnatural to man in such circumstances, he feels and acknowledges the gloominess of his prospects; but turns his eyes in search of comfort to a world beyond the grave.
There let me sleep, forgotten in the clay,
When death shall shut these weary aching eyes,
Rest to the hopes of an eternal day,
Till the long night is gone, and the lost morn arise.
His ludicrous pieces, the Mousiad, and Anacreontic to a Wasp, evince the versatility of his genius. They are not void of humour and pleasantry, but add little to his reputation. His Songs are tender and easy; and well preserve the tunic of the popular ballads which he imitates. His Verses to Dr. Millar, and Elegy on Mr. M'Ewen, have some effusions of sentiment and delineations of character that are not without merit; but they require no distinct examination or particular criticism.
"If images of nature," says Logan, "that are beautiful and new; if sentiments, warm from the heart, interesting and pathetic; if a style, chaste with ornament, and elegant with simplicity; if these, and many other beauties of nature and art, are allowed to constitute true poetic merit, the following poems will stand high in the judgment of men of taste."