1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Bruce

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:94-95.



MICHAEL BRUCE — a young and lamented Scottish poet of rich promise — was born at Kinnesswood, parish of Portmoak, county of Kinross, on the 27th of March 1746. His father was a humble tradesman, a weaver, who was burdened with a family of eight children, of whom the poet was the fifth. The dreariest poverty and obscurity hung over the poet's infancy, but the elder Bruce was a good and pious man, and trained all his children to a knowledge of their letters, and a deep sense of religions duty. In the summer months Michael was put out to herd cattle. His education was retarded by this employment; but his training as a poet was benefited by solitary communion with nature, amidst scenery that overlooked Lochleven and its fine old ruined castle. When he had arrived at his fifteenth year, the poet was judged fit for college, and at this time a relation of his father died, leaving him a legacy of 200 merks Scots, or £11, 2s. 2d. sterling. This sum the old man piously devoted to the education of his favourite son, who proceeded with it to Edinburgh, and was enrolled a student of the university. Michael was soon distinguished for his proficiency, and for his taste for poetry. Having been three sessions at college, supported by his parents and some kind friends and neighbours, Bruce engaged to teach a school at Gairney Bridge, where he received for his labours about £11 per annum! He afterwards removed to Forest Hill, near Alloa, where he taught for some time with no better success. His schoolroom was low-roofed and damp, and the poor youth, confined for five or six hours a-day in this unwholesome atmosphere, depressed by poverty and disappointment, soon lost health and spirits. He wrote his poem of "Lochleven" at Forest Hill, but was at length forced to return to his father's cottage, which he never again left. A pulmonary complaint had settled on him, and he was in the last stage of consumption. With death full in his view, he wrote his "Ode to Spring," the finest of all his productions. He was pious and cheerful to the last, and died on the 5th of July 1767, aged twenty-one years and three months. His Bible was found upon his pillow, marked down at Jer. xxii. 10, "Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him." So blameless a life could not indeed be contemplated without pleasure, but its premature termination must have been a heavy blow to his aged parents, who had struggled in their poverty to nurture his youthful genius.

The Poems of Bruce were first given to the world by his college friend John Logan, in 1770, who warmly eulogised the character and talents of his brother poet. They were reprinted in 1784, and afterwards included in Anderson's edition of the poets. The late venerable and benevolent Principal Baird, in 1807, published an edition by subscription for the benefit of Bruce's mother, then a widow. In 1837, a complete edition of the poems was brought out, with a life of the author from original sources, by the Rev. William Mackelvie, Balgedie, Kinrossshire. In this full and interesting memoir ample reparation is made to the injured shade of Michael Bruce for any neglect or injustice done to his poetical fame by his early friend Logan. Had Bruce lived, it is probable he would have taken a high place among our national poets. He was gifted with the requisite enthusiasm, fancy, and love of nature. There was a moral beauty in his life and character which would naturally have expanded itself in poetical composition. The pieces he has left have all the marks of youth; a style only half-formed and immature, and resemblances to other poets, so close and frequent, that the reader is constantly stumbling on some familiar image or expression. In "Lochloven," a descriptive poem in blank verse, he has taken Thomson as his model. The opening is a paraphrase of the commencement of Thomson's Spring, and epithets taken from the "Seasons" occur throughout the whole poem, with traces of Milton, Ossian &c.