1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Julius Mickle

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:70-71.



An admirable translation of "The Lusiad" of Camoens, the most distinguished poet of Portugal, was executed by WILLIAM JULIUS MICKLE, himself a poet of taste and fancy, but of no great originality or energy. Mickle was son of the minister of Langholm, in Dumfriesshire, where he was born in 1734. He was engaged in trade in Edinburgh as conductor, and afterwards partner, of a brewery; but he failed in business, and in 1764 went to London, desirous of literary distinction. Lord Lyttelton noticed and encouraged his poetical efforts, and Mickle was buoyed up with dreams of patronage and celebrity. Two years of increasing destitution dispelled this vision, and the poet was glad to accept the situation of corrector of the Clarendon press at Oxford. Here he published "Pollio," an elegy, and "The Concubine," a moral poem in the manner of Spenser, which he afterwards reprinted with the title of "Syr Martyn." Mickle adopted the obsolete phraseology, of Spenser, which was too antiquated even for the age of the "Faery Queen," and which Thomson had almost wholly discarded in his "Castle of Indolence." The first stanza of this poem has been quoted by Sir Walter Scott (divested of its antique spelling) in illustration of a remark made by him that Mickle, "with a vein of great facility, united a power of verbal melody, which might have been envied by bards of much greater renown:"—

Awake, ye west winds, through the lonely dale,
And Fancy to thy fiery bower betake;
Even now, with balmy sweetness, breathes the gale,
Dimpling with downy wing the stilly lake;
Through the pale willows faltering whispers wake,
And Evening comes with locks bedropped with dew;
On Desmond's mouldering turrets slowly shake
The withered rye-grass and the harebell blue,
And ever and anon sweet Mulla's plaints renew.

Sir Walter adds, that Mickle, "being a printer by profession, frequently put his lines into types without taking the trouble previously to put them into writing." This is mentioned by none of the poet's biographers, and is improbable. The office of a corrector of the press is quite separate from the mechanical operations of the printer. Mickle's poem was highly successful (not the less, perhaps, because it was printed anonymously, and was ascribed to different authors), and it went through three editions. In 1771 he published the first canto of his great translation, which was completed in 1775; and being supported by a long list of subscribers, was highly advantageous both to his fame and fortune. In 1779 he went out to Portugal as secretary to Commodore Johnston, and was received with much distinction in Lisbon by the countrymen of Camoens. On the return of the expedition, Mickle was appointed joint agent for the distribution of the prizes. His own share was considerable; and having received some money by his marriage with a lady whom he had known in his obscure sojourn at Oxford, the latter days of the poet were spent in case and leisure. He died at Forest Hill, near Oxford, in 1788.

This most popular of Mickle's original poems is his ballad of "Cumnor Hall," which has attained additional celebrity by its having suggested to Sir Walter Scott the groundwork of his romance of Kenilworth. The plot is interesting, and the versification easy and musical. Mickle assisted in Evans's "Collection of Old Ballads" (in which "Cumnor Hall" and other pieces of his first appeared); and though in this style of composition he did not copy the direct simplicity and unsophisticated ardour of the real old ballads, he had much of their tenderness and pathos. A still stronger proof of this is afforded by a Scottish song, the author of which was long unknown, but which seems clearly to have been written by Mickle. An imperfect, altered, and corrected copy was found among his manuscripts after his death; and his widow being applied to, confirmed the external evidence in his favour, by an express declaration that her husband had said the song was his own, and that he had explained to her the Scottish words. It is the fairest flower in his poetical chaplet. The delineation of humble matrimonial happiness and affection which the song presents, is almost unequalled—

Sae true his words, sae smooth his speech,
His breath like caller air!
His very foot has music in't
As he comes up the stair.

And will I see his face again?
And will I hear him speak?
I'm downright dizzy with the thought,
In troth I'm like to greet.

Then there are the two lines — a happy Epicurean fancy, but elevated by this situation and the faithful love of this speaker — which Burns says "are worthy of the first poet"—

The present moment is our ain,
The neist we never saw.

These brief felicities of natural expression and feeling, so infinitely, superior to this stock images of poetry, show that Mickle could have excelled in the Scottish dialect, and in portraying Scottish life; had be truly known his own strength, and trusted to the impulses of his heart instead of his ambition.