WILLIAM MOTHERWELL was born at Glasgow, on the 13th day of October, 1797. He was the third son of William Motherwell, a native of Stirlingslure, who settled in that city about the year 1792, where he followed the business of an ironmonger. His mother's name was Elizabeth Barnet, the daughter of William Barnet, a respectable farmer in the parish of Auchterarder, in Perthshire, who, at her father's death, inherited a little fortune of two thousand pounds. Early in the present century, his father removed with his family to Edinburgh, where his son was placed under the charge of Mr. William Lennie, an eminent teacher of English in that city, and the author of several useful and popular school-books; and it was while attending this school that the boy met "Jeanie Morrison," a mild and bashful girl, whose name he afterwards immortalized, and of whose gentle nature he retained through life the most pleasing recollections. The first draught of his poem is said to have been made at fourteen years of age, and, as he has himself recorded, they never met after leaving school. As the reader cannot fail to he gratified by an account of the poet's juvenile history, I transcribe the following details, which have been obligingly, communicated to the publisher by Mr. Lennie himself:—
"William Motherwell entered my school, then kept at No. 8 Crichton Street, in the neighborhood of George Square on the 24th of April, 1805, and left it for the High School here on the 1st day of October, 1808. He was between seven and eight years old when he joined, an open-faced, firm, and cheerful-looking boy. He began at the alphabet, and though he did not at first display any uncommon ability, his mind soon opened up, and as he advanced in his education he speedily manifested a superior capacity, and ultimately became the best scholar in the school; yet he never showed any of that petulant or supercilious bearing which some children discover who see themselves taken notice of for the quickness of their parts; he was, on the contrary, kind and accommodating, always ready to help those who applied to him for assistance, and a first-rate hand at carrying on sport during the hours of recreation. Besides acquiring a fair knowledge of geography, which was taught in the higher classes, and becoming well acquainted with the principles of English grammar, he, during the last twelve or eighteen months of his attendance at my school, devoted two separate hours daily to arithmetic and writing, in the latter of which especially he excelled. In the course of a single year, he wrote an excellent small, distinct hand; so good, indeed, was it, that few are able to do any thing like it, even after several years' practice. He also filled up skeleton maps so neatly, that at first sight they might have been mistaken for copper-plate engravings. During the last year he was with me, 'Wilson's Sentimental Scenes' were introduced into the upper classes. The reading of these sketches delighted him exceedingly; and he entered so completely into the spirit of the pieces, that he made the characters his own, and appeared to he a Roscius in miniature, a thing I have never found a boy to do but himself.
"Jane (Jeanie) Morrison was the daughter of one of the most respectable brewers and corn-factors then in Alloa. She came to Edinburgh to finish her education, and was in my school with William Motherwell during the last year of his course. She was about the same age with himself; a pretty girl, and of good capacity. Her hair was of a lightish brown, approaching to fair; her eyes were dark, and had a sweet and gentle expression; her temper was mild, and her manners unassuming. Her dress was also neat and tidy. In winter, she wore a pale-blue pelisse, then the fashionable color, and a light-colored beaver with a feather. She made a great impression on young Motherwell, and that it was permanent his beautiful ballad shows. At the end of the season she returned to her parents at Alloa, with whom she resided till the time of her marriage. She is now a widow, with a family of three children, all of whom are grown up, and, I believe, doing well."
It would appear from this, that Motherwell was entered in the High School of Edinburgh as early as the year 1808; but his attendance at that excellent institution could not have exceeded a few months, as I find that he was placed early in 1809 at the Grammar School of Paisley, then superintended by the late Mr. John Peddie. His father had not prospered in Edinburgh, and, in consequence of the embarrassed state of his affairs, his son William was consigned to the care of his brother, Mr. John Motherwell, a respectable iron-founder in Paisley. The curriculum at the Paisley Grammar School extended over five years, and if William Motherwell completed it, he must have enjoyed the full measure of elementary classical instruction, including, in the fifth year, the rudiments of Greek; which it was then customary to give to boys in Scotland. One of his surviving school companions informs me that, in conjunction with the late Mr. William Bain, advocate, and a Mr. Lymburn, also deceased, he was a "dux" boy, and there seems to be no reason to doubt, that he exhibited the same quickness of apprehension and readiness of parts in the Paisley Academy which he had displayed in other schools; but as his tastes were never scholastic, and as his knowledge of the dead tongues was always limited, the presumption is, that he followed the prominent bias of his mind, and devoted to works of imagination the hours that should have been given to school exercises. I am fortified in this belief by the recollections of Mr. Crawford, who says, "What Motherwell was most remarkable for, was his gift of spinning long yarns about castles, and robbers, and strange, out-of-the-way adventures, with which, while Mr. Peddie imagined he was assisting his class-fellows with their lessons, he would entertain them for hours, day after day, like some of the famous story-tellers in the Arabian Nights; and these stories were retailed at second-hand, by his class-fellows, to those who had not the privilege of hearing them from the author himself."
In the year 1811, his mother died at Edinburgh, and after that melancholy event, his father, accompanied by his daughter, Amelia, retired to the village of Kilsyth, in Stirlingshire, where he dwelt till his death, which occurred in February, 1827.
The history of his ancestors possesses considerable interest. In a letter with which I have been favored by my venerable and accomplished friend, Mr. Sheriff Campbell, of Paisley, they are thus spoken of:—
"Of his family I had occasion to learn something, in the course of a judicial inquiry concerning the succession of David Motherwell, his uncle, upwards of thirty years ago. That David Motherwell died possessed of a small estate on the banks of the Carron, in the Barony of Dundaff, in Stirlingshire, which, according to what I found to he the tradition of the neighborhood, supported, to a certain extent, by the title-deeds of the property, which I saw, had been in the possession of thirteen generations of the same family, all bearing the same name of David, with the surname variously spelled; being at one time Moderville, at another Moderell, and latterly Motherwell. His uncle, Alexander, set aside David's deed of settlement, and sold the property to his younger brother John, an extensive iron-monger in Paisley, who left it to trustees for behoof of his daughter."
The estate here spoken of was called Muirmill, and the name at once indicates the calling of the proprietors. They were the hereditary millers of Dundaff, and are so designated in a confirmatory charter granted in favor of the then possessor by James Graham, the celebrated Marquis of Montrose, 1642, as will be seen by the following short extract from that document. It is to be observed that this extract has reference to "an instrument of seisin," dated 29th June, 1629, in favor of "David Moderell, in Spittal, and Isabella Small, his wife, proceeding on a charter granted by James, Earl of Montrose, Lord Graham and Mugdock, of the lands of all and whole, that pendicle of land called Spittal," &c. The deed of 1642, then, confirms the previous grant of 1629 to "William Modrell, miller, at Dundaff, callit the Muir Mill, —, his spouse, and David Modrell, their son, on the other part, (of date at Drumphad, 25th April, 1629 years,) whereby, with consent aforesaid, set in feu farm to the said William Modrell, and his spouse above named, and the langest liver of them twa, in life-rent; and to David Modrell, their son, all and haill, the said mill, mill lands, and multures, &c., and pasturage for eight ky, all lying within the barony of Dundaff, and shire of Stirling."
Upon what conditions the lands in question were held before the year 1629, my ignorance of feudal law disables me from saying; but it is plain, both from the tradition mentioned by Mr. Campbell, and the charters at present in my possession, that this family of Motherwells had been settled in that locality, and probably on this very spot, for at least four hundred years, — the land and the occupation descending in regular succession from father to son. The name itself is obviously a local surname; but it belongs to the county of Lanark, in the middle ward of which, and in the parish of Dalziel, there is a considerable village called Motherwell. The statistical accounts speak of a well or spring as still existing there, from which the inhabitants are supplied with water, and which, in the olden time, was called the "Well of our Ladye." It was probably believed to possess medicinal virtues, and was, therefore, placed under the immediate protection of the "Virgin Mother," — whence the name Motherwell. Its antiquity as a surname must be considerable, since it appears in the Ragman Rolls for 1296, and also in the index to a cartulary of the Monastery of Paisley, in 1490; and, from what has been already stated, it will be seen that that branch of the race from which the poet sprang had been planted in Stirlingshire as far back as the beginning of the fifteenth century. The name, however, is an uncommon one.
It having been resolved, I know not why, to devote this wayward and dreamy boy to the legal profession, he was placed, at the age of fifteen, in the office of the Sheriff-Clerk of Paisley, where he remained for many years but, as may be readily conceived, the duties of such a situation were but little congenial to his tastes. Notwithstanding his dislike to the duties of a writer's clerk, he contrived to turn his new position so far to account by bestowing great pains on the deciphering of ancient legal documents; an art in which he latterly excelled. I am indebted to Mr. Sheriff Campbell for the following interesting particulars concerning Motherwell at this time:—
"When I first knew William Motherwell, he was a very little boy in the Sheriff-Clerk's office here. I had observed his talent for sketching figures of men, in armor and otherwise, and, amongst the rest, one of myself, upon a blotter, which I had occasion to use when sitting in the Sheriff-Court, gave him a few ancient documents to copy for me, and, in place of an ordinary transcript, I received from him, with surprise and satisfaction, a fac-simile so perfect, that, except for the color and texture of the paper, it would have been difficult to distinguish it from the original manuscript. Finding him a smart and intelligent boy, I asked him to give me a statement, in writing, of certain occurrences to which he had been a witness, at a period when the peace of the district was threatened. This account was not confined to facts, but was interspersed with observations and reflections of his own, of a nature so unexpected and so curious, that I wished to preserve it; but I am sorry that, in a search made for it some years ago, I was unable to find it. The notions of the boy were then what would now be called extremely liberal. In process of time, however, his views changed, and I used to joke him upon the ground that his conversion had been beaten into him by a party of lads (radicals), with whom he happened to get into conflict. On that occasion he was thrown down and trampled upon in the street, and received injuries so severe, that his life was thought in imminent danger. This, I believe, was in 1818 or 1819, during a time of political excitement. He was appointed to the office of Sheriff-Clerk Depute, of the county of Renfrew, under the late Robert Walkinshaw, of Parkhouse, the principal clerk, in May, 1819, and held that situation with credit till November, 1829.
"His talent for poetry was accompanied by a strong taste for the antique, and I cannot help thinking that the last may have its origin in the copying of the ancient manuscript for me. While in office here, he contributed articles to the Paisley Advertiser, and ultimately became its editor. He had also a chief hand in commencing and conducting a Paisley Monthly Magazine which lived to attain to the size of a goodly volume. It contained many contributions from his pen, besides a number of curious extracts from documents which his researches among the records of the Sheriff-Clerks office brought to light. At a recent sale of the library of a deceased Paisley gentleman, this Magazine, though poorly bound, brought the respectable price of 22s. 6d. His temperament was enthusiastic, kind, and convivial I had a great regard for him."
Upon this outline of Motherwell's history, from the age of fifteen to thirty-two, I would remark, in the first place, that we learn from it, that eighteen of the most valuable years of his life were passed in an occupation which presented the fewest possible attractions for a man of his habits and pursuits; and in the second place, that if he attained to a certain measure of excellency in poetical composition, in circumstances so unfavorable to the growth of a poetical temper, his merit was all the higher on that account. The incident to which Mr. Campbell refers, and which he supposes determined his future political creed, Motherwell always spoke of with the strongest indignation. It occurred during the time of what was called the Radical War in the west country (1818), and when, as Sheriff-Clerk Depute, he was obliged, in obedience to the orders of his superiors, to perform many duties which rendered him unpopular. A deliberate attempt was made to murder him, by throwing him over the bridge into the Cart, and he has often assured me, that he was actually raised to the top of the parapet wall by the infuriated mob before he was rescued. That he should have abandoned liberalism, after such treatment would not be surprising; but the truth is, that his political belief was a part of his nature, and was very slightly modified by external considerations. His ideas of the constitution of civil society were chivalric, not philosophical; and if others undervalued the virtues of the Middle Ages, he certainly overrated them. It was not his custom to analyze his emotions too nicely at any period of his life; and I can perfectly understand how he may have been captivated as a boy with those showy notions, which are more or loss prevalent in all imperfectly instructed societies, and which have so many charms for youthful imaginations. But Motherwell was instinctively a Tory, — all the tendencies of his mind gravitated towards the creed of that old and respectable party, — and I am satisfied that his monarchical principles would have been just as high after he escaped from mere nonage, had he never handled a truncheon in defence of the public peace on the streets of Paisley. His political convictions might be extreme, but they were honest. He firmly believed that his opinions were founded in truth, and that their vindication was essential to the well-being of his country; nor have I ever known a man who had more thoroughly identified himself with the doctrines which be maintained and promulgated.
There is another point noticed by Mr. Campbell, namely, his power of sketching. This was a faculty which he possessed in the highest perfection, so much so, that, had he not been a poet, he might have been an artist. Many of his manuscripts are illustrated at the beginning, after the manner of old black-letter volumes and illuminated missals, and numerous scraps of paper attest his accurate perception of the ludicrous and the horrible, by all sorts of queer and grotesque delineations. A few strokes of his pen were sufficient for this, and it is impossible not to admire the ease which attaches to these figures. His handwriting likewise partook of this peculiarity. It was formal and square, and, particularly in the capital letters, resembled the Chaldee character, constituting, in fact, a variety of painting.
The winter session of 1818-19 he spent at Glasgow College, where he attended the Latin class, under the late Mr. Walker, and the Greek class, under the late Mr. Young; but, as I have already stated, he never attained to ordinary proficiency in either language, and with the modern tongues he was wholly unacquainted. He manifested at this time a strong desire to repair the defects of his early education; and in a letter to his friend, the late Mr. Robert Walkinshaw, in March, 1818, he expresses a hope that, should he succeed to the office of Sheriff-Clerk Depute, then held by Mr. Walkinshaw, he might be able "to save some little money, sufficient to re-launch his frail skiff once more on he dead sea of the languages."
As the office of Sheriff-Clerk Depute brought him a considerable income, he spent the greater part of it in the purchase of books, and long before his removal to Glasgow he had collected a large and miscellaneous library. Like most book-fanciers, he sometimes sacrificed usefulness to the indulgence of a spirit of curiosity; but in that province of literature to which he was chiefly devoted, — poetry and the historical romance, — his library was rich. Its chief wants were in the department of modern history, and moral and philosophical science, in none of which subjects can it be said that he took much pleasure. His knowledge of them was, consequently, defective, and this was both felt and seen when politics became his profession.
It may be naturally supposed of the man who at fourteen sketched the outline of Jeanie Morrison, that, if he did not actually lisp in numbers, the art of versification must have been at least an irresistible habit, and that "sponte sua carmen numeros veniebat ad aptos;" but when he first committed himself publicly to the dangers and allurements of rhyme, or where, I have been unable satisfactorily to ascertain. In 1818 he contributed some little things to a small work published at Greenock, called the "Visitor," and for several years afterwards he continued to furnish with pieces of original poetry such of his literary friends in Paisley and Glasgow as applied to him for assistance. In this respect his liberality was exemplary, if not prodigal; but he afterwards collected the best of these fugitive productions, and embodied them in that volume upon which his reputation as a poet must ultimately rest. In 1819, the "Harp of Renfrewshire," of which he was the editor, appeared at Paisley. This work is anonymous; but it is well known to have been brought out under Motherwell's care, who supplied the introductory essay, which was his first attempt at serious criticism. In it he gives a rapid sketch of the poets of Renfrewshire, beginning with Sir Hugh Montgomerie, who died at a very advanced age in 1545, and ending with Robert Tannahill, whom he could not have known personally, but with whose melancholy history he had ample means of becoming acquainted. The notes are likewise by him, and are both numerous and valuable; and this little volume, which is now scarce, may be regarded as a favorable specimen of his zeal and diligence. Its chief merit, however, is, that it was the herald to a work of much larger pretensions, and with which his fame is now closely identified, — "Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern," which was published at Glasgow, in 1827, and which instantly secured for its author an honorable place among the commentators on our national poetry. The "Historical introduction" is elaborate and full, but I must leave it to those who have made such subjects as it discusses a study to decide upon its merits; it is enough to state here, that this work brought him into direct communication with some men of high distinction in the world of letters, and amongst others with Sir Walter Scott. The ancient ballad of "Gil Morrice" seems to have attracted much of Motherwell's attention. It was the foundation of Home's celebrated tragedy of "Douglas," and the scene of the melancholy adventure which it relates was "Carronside," the home of his ancestors. He tells us, moreover, that "the green wood" of the ballad was the ancient forest of Dundaff, in Stirlingshire, and that "Lord Barnard's castle is said to have occupied a precipitous cliff overhanging the water of Carron, on the lands of Halbertshire." Earlsburn, a favorite name with him, is also a small stream in that locality, which falls into the Carron, and derives its appellation, according to him, from the Earl's son, who is the hero of this legendary poem. There is internal evidence in his writings to show, that he had carefully inquired into this matter while residing with his uncle at Muirmill; but it was from an old woman at Paisley, who sang the verses to him, that he obtained that copy of the ballad which he considered the true one, and which led to his correspondence with Sir Walter. His idea was, that GIL should have been written CHILD, and that MORRICE was an obvious corruption of NORYCE, the old English word for foster-child. Willie, the page, is called in one of the versions, (Mr. Jamieson's,) his "foster-brither"; and Motherwell's object would appear to have been, to show that between the "child's" messenger and himself there existed a stronger bond of union than mere feudalism could create. In this way, it is to be presumed, he proposed to account for "Willie's" undertaking, though reluctantly, to deliver the message to Lady Barnard from her son, the ill-fated Gil, of whose relationship to that noble person the lad was ignorant.
He accordingly wrote to Sir Walter Scott upon the subject, as early as April, 1825, two years before the "Minstrelsy" appeared and received from that eminent man the following reply:—
"ABBOTSFORD, 3d May, 1825.
I am honored with your letter covering the curious old version of the ballad of Gil Morrice, which seems, according to your copy, to be a corruption of Child Norrice, or Child Nursling, as we would say. As I presume the ballad to be genuine, and, indeed, see no reason to suspect the contrary, the style being simple and ancient, I think you should print it exactly as you have taken it down, and with a reference to the person by whom it is preserved so special as to enable any one to ascertain its authenticity who may think it worth while. I have asked at different times, the late Mr. John Home, concerning the ballad on which he was supposed to have founded 'Douglas,' but his memory was too imperfect, when I knew him, to admit of his giving me any information. I have heard my mother, who was fond of the ballad, say that when 'Douglas' was in its height of popularity, 'Gil Morrice ' was, to a certain extent, rewritten, which renovated copy, of course, includes all the new stanzas about 'Minerva's loom,' and so forth. Yet there are so many fine old verses in the common set, that I cannot agree to have them mixed up even with your set, though more ancient, but would like to see them kept quite separate, like different sets of the same melody. In fact, I think I did wrong myself, in endeavoring to make the best possible set of an ancient ballad out of several topics obtained from different quarters and that, in many respects, if I improved the poetry, I spoiled the simplicity of the old song. There is no wonder this should be the case, when one considers that the singers or reciters by whom these ballads were preserved and handed down must, in general, have had a facility, from memory at least, if not from genius, (which they might often possess,) of filling up verses which they had forgotten, or altering such as they might think they could improve. Passing through this process in different parts of the country, the ballads, admitting that they, had one common poetical original, (which is not to be inferred merely from the similitude of the story,) became, in progress of time, totally different productions, so far as the tone and spirit of each is concerned. In such cases, perhaps, it is as well to keep them separate; as giving in their original state a more accurate idea of our ancient poetry, which is the point most important in such collections. There is room for a very curious essay on the relation which the popular poetry of the North of Europe bears to that of the South, and even to that of Asia; and the varieties of some of our ballads might be accounted for by showing that one edition had been derived from the French or Norman, another from the Danish, and so on, so that, though the substance of the dish be the same, the cookery is that of foreign and distant cuisiniers. This reasoning certainly does not apply to mere brief alterations and corruptions, which do not, as it were, change the tone and form of the original.
You will observe that I have no information to give respecting 'Gil Morrice,' so I might as well, perhaps, have saved you the trouble of this long letter.
I am, Sir,
Your obliged, humble servt.,
Sir Walter and Motherwell never met, but after the death of that great man he performed a pilgrimage to Abbotsford; and, as I am informed, was wont to say that "nothing in that splendid mansion had affected him so much as Sir Walter's staff, with the bit dibble at the end of it." Of course, in the forthcoming edition of the "Minstrelsy," he followed the advice of the illustrious critic, and kept his own copy of the ballad distinct from the others, and so it stands in the volume.
In 1828 the Paisley Magazine was begun by Motherwell, and carried on by him, with the assistance of his friends, for a year. It is, undoubtedly, what Mr. Campbell represents it, — a respectable provincial work; and in it, for the first time, appeared some of the poet's best pieces, such as The Sword Chant of Thorstein Raudi, — Midnight and Moonshine, — The Water! the Water! — The Wooing Song of Jarl Egill Skallgrim, — and Wearie's Well. His position, however, had now changed, and it will be necessary to explain how this was brought about.
In the year 1826 a newspaper was begun in Paisley, called the Paisley Advertiser. Its politics were conservative and ministerial, and its first editor was a Mr. John Goldie, who had been formerly connected with an Ayr journal. He died suddenly within a year, and was succeeded in his office by Mr. William Kennedy, an Irish gentleman of distinguished poetical abilities, and the author of the pretty poem called The Arrow and the Rose; and also of a little volume of poems entitled Fitful Fancies.
Between Mr. Kennedy and Motherwell there sprang up a strong friendship. They were both addicted to literature and poetry; they thought alike on matters political, and were nearly of an age. It is not surprising, therefore, that Motherwell should have become a contributor and a proprietor, and still less so that, on the retirement of Mr. Kennedy, in 1828, he should have succeeded him as editor of that paper. What success he may have had in his new capacity I know not; but on the retirement of Mr. James M'Queen from the management of the Glasgow Courier, in 1830, Mr. Motherwell was invited by the proprietors of that journal to take his place; and all things being satisfactorily arranged, he left Paisley and took up his abode in Glasgow in the beginning of that year.
The first number of the Courier, which appeared after his accession to the office of editor, has the date of 2d February, 1830; and he continued in connection with that paper till his death in November, 1835.
Whether journalism was exactly the vocation that was best suited to a man of his tastes and peculiar acquirements, I shall not take upon me to determine; but there can he no doubt that he entered upon his new duties at Glasgow at a time of great difficulty and considerable public danger. The political world was at that moment upheaved from its foundations, and the revolution in France, consequent upon the three glorious days of July, followed as that event was by the accession of Lord Grey's administration, and the Reform Bill excitement, presented to a lover of the olden ways a mass of embarrassment, which we may admit to have been unsurmountable. Whatever Motherwell's views may have been in boyhood, they were now fixed. He saw one after another of his most cherished prejudices first derided, and then destroyed. Change followed change with the rapidity of lightning, and, in the midst of this universal whirlwind, the only man in this immense community who was expected to keep himself free from the common contagion, and to observe the most philosophical abstinence in the discussion of passing events, was the Tory editor of the Tory newspaper. More humanity is not equal to so great a trial as this, and Motherwell was not the man to affect to undergo it. He entered into the strife with all his soul; and whatever difference of opinion may have formerly prevailed as to his style of defence, it will not be denied by his bitterest political enemies, (for I would persuade myself that, personally, he had and could have none,) that he conducted his case for many years, against frightful odds, with exemplary zeal, courage, and fidelity. It would be easy, no doubt, to select from his writings at that time passages which might appear objectionable; but the same remark would apply equally to his opponents; and those only who have had some experience of a controversial life, and of the perplexities which beset a writer for the public press in a provincial town, can form an adequate conception of the difficulties with which Motherwell was at that juncture surrounded. The public mind is now comparatively cool; it was then at a boiling heat, and in the fierce contest of parties passions were evoked which overmastered reason, and laid judgment prostrate in the dust. That in such a tumult he, a man of warm and impetuous temperament, should have stood erect and looked down with complacent indifference on the scene below was impossible; nor did he make the attempt. He defended his principles from the assaults daily and hourly made upon them, and it was his duty to do so; but if in the execution of that duty be transgressed the established laws of political warfare, or outraged any of the conventional courtesies of life, then he was blamable. I do not say that this was the case, because I do not think so; not that I would be understood as approving of all that he wrote in these times, but that, considering the circumstances in which he was placed, his abstinence from a certain measure of vehemence would have argued a neutrality of feeling on the great questions of the day, which would have literally disqualified him for the office that he held. Let us be just to the dead, then, and grant that what was well was due to the man, and that what was amiss was chargeable upon the infirmity of our common nature.
In his editorial capacity Motherwell occasionally drew upon his poetical faculty, and in general successfully, as the following jeu d'esprit will show. It appeared early in 1833, when the Reform Bill was supposed to be in danger, and when its friends in Glasgow exhibited an unusual degree of anxiety respecting it. T-m A-k-n is the late Mr. Thomas Aitkinson, bookseller, who was a very keen, liberal politician. M'P-n was his neighbor Mr. M'Phun, likewise a bookseller, and agent for the "Sun" newspaper. Sir D. K. S-f-d is the late Sir D. K. Sandford, the accomplished Professor of Greek in the University of Glasgow, who was at that time an ardent reformer, and whose premature and much-lamented death was probably accelerated by the excitement of that miserable period. With these explanations this clever trifle will be intelligible:—
THE REFORMER'S GARLAND.
AN EXCELLENT NEW SONG.
Tune, — "Young Lochinvar."
T-m A-k-n mounted his berry brown steed,
Through all the West Country unequalled for speed;
And, save an odd threepence to pay for the toll,
He carried no weight but a placard in scroll.
So lightly and jaunty he eastward did hie,
With the Bill in his heart and the Mail in his eye;—
He swore that, for once, he would e-clipse the "'Sun,"
And darken the shine of his neighbor, M'P-n.
Camaichie folk stared, and Tallcross stood abeigh,
So rapid he rode, and the steed was so skeigh;
But Tom did not value his horsemanlike skill;
His thoughts were "Reform," and "naught but the Bill."
Yea even in passing the scene at Carmyle,
The Whig field of honor seemed worthless the while—
For still he expected to e-clipse the Sun,"
And darken the shine of his neighbor, M'P-n.
Then onward he sped, till he came to a turn
Of the road, when the Guard of the Mail cried, "Adjourn!"
And about ship went Tom, and the spur did apply,
And the Stationer, truly, for once seemed to fly.
His Tontine constituents soon did he hail,
For near eighteen minutes he distanced the Mail;
The "Adjourn" was repeated, e-clipsed was the "Sun,"
The shine was o'erclouded of neighbor M'P-n.
Sir D. K. S-f-d next mounted his beast,
With its tail to the west and its head to the east,
And on like a War Knight the brute he did urge,
To nose the effect of the famed "Russell Purge;"
But at Bothwell the Mail Guard roared out, "Lost by eight!"
When about went the prad, as it had taken fright:
Sir Dan he stuck on, and again 'clipsed the "Sun;"
To the utter confounding of neighbor M'P-n.
That Motherwell's prospects were improved by a removal to Glasgow may be admitted, since that city, from its greater size, would necessarily afford a wider field for the display of his abilities; but I have many doubts whether the change was friendly to the development and cultivation of his poetical faculty. The charge of a three-times-a-week paper leaves little leisure for the prosecution of a formal course of study, while the distracting anxieties, which are inseparable from political warfare, are altogether incompatible with that repose of mind which is essential to the achievement of distinction in any walk of literature. It is my impression, therefore, that his Muse was comparatively idle in Glasgow, and that his attention was directed to the improvement of old, rather than to the composition of new poems. This idea is partially confirmed by an inspection of two quarto volumes of manuscript pieces which he left behind him, the one of which is nearly a transcript of the other, and was obviously executed at Glasgow; and it is farther strengthened by the fact, that he published little, after he came to this city, which had not been written long before. It would be idle to talk of the genius loci in such circumstances, for the character of that mysterious lady must be much the same in both places, and is not particularly spiritual in either; but there may be something in the disruption of old and established ties, something in the absence of familiar faces and well-known voices, and something in the destruction of those secret and inexplicable material sympathies, which make one spot of earth more than another the house of a man's soul. Whether any or all of these influences may have affected him, I shall not take upon me positively to affirm; but I think myself so far justified in the conclusion at which I have arrived by the subsequent steps of his history, which indicate a sluggish action, if not an absolute torpor of his creative energies.
In 1832 a publication was started in Glasgow, under the direction of Mr. John Strang, the author of two interesting volumes of Travels in Germany, called "The Day," to which Motherwell contributed largely. In that periodical there appeared for the first time the following poetical pieces from his pen: — The Serenade, — The Solemn Song of a Righteous Hearte, — Elfinland Wud, — The Covenanters' Battle-Chant, — Caveat to the Wind, — What is Glory? What is Fame? — A Solemn Conceit, — The Parting, — The Ettin Lang o' Sillerwood, — and, Spirits of Light! Spirits of Shade! — all of which, with the exception of the last two, he afterwards embodied in his volume. He also communicated to that work a series of humorous papers in prose, entitled, "Memoirs of a Paisley Bailie," which afforded considerable amusement at the time; and towards the end of this year he collected his scattered poetical fragments, and formed them into a small volume, with the title of "Poems, Narrative and Lyrical," which he dedicated to his friend Kennedy. Most of these pieces, if not the whole of them, were reprints. I am not quite sure about the Battle-Flag of Sigord, but I rather think it appeared originally in the pages of the Paisley Advertiser.
This volume was, upon the whole, well received. There could be no doubt about the high quality of the poetry which an unknown author had ventured thus to submit to the world, but its character was peculiar, and for the most part not fitted for extensive popularity; and the season which was chosen for its introduction was eminently unfavorable to its chances of immediate success. No adventitious murmurs of applause had announced its approach, and at a time when little was heard but the noise of political contention, it was perhaps too much to expect that a comparatively obscure bard should draw towards himself a large share of the public notice, let his abilities be what they might. This work, however, gave Motherwell, what it had been the object of his life to attain, a place among the poets of Britain; and it carried his name into quarters which it never would have otherwise reached. A commendatory criticism in Blackwood's Magazine for April, 1833, proclaimed his pretensions wherever the English language is read; and, though his nature was too modest and too manly for the display of any open exultation at the triumph which he had so honorably won, he never ceased to feel the deepest gratitude to the distinguished reviewer, whom he knew to be a consummate judge of poetical merit, and for whose genius and character he always felt and expressed the warmest admiration.
The last work in which Motherwell engaged, and which he did not live to complete, was a joint edition of Burns's works by him and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. His share in this production consisted merely of occasional notes, critical and explanatory, which are marked with the letter M., and in which he exhibits much knowledge of the contemporary history of Burns's period, and his usual discrimination as a commentator. The fifth and last volume contains the Life of the Ayrshire Poet, by Hogg; but before it appeared, his comparatively youthful coadjutor was no more.
In August, 1835, Motherwell was summoned to London, to appear before a committee of the House of Commons, which had been appointed to take evidence as to the constitution and practices of the Orange Society, with a view to its suppression. He had unluckily allowed himself to be enrolled as a member of that association, and was one of the district secretaries for the West of Scotland. There is no incident in his history which it more perplexes me to account for than this. He had no connection with Ireland, direct or indirect, nor had he ever been in that island in his life, and few men, in my opinion, were less qualified by previous habits of study to appreciate the value of the mixed questions of civil and ecclesiastical polity which that body professed to discuss; yet be entered with characteristic warmth into its schemes, and became one of the agents employed in the extension of its principles. To his mind, Orangeism would seem to have presented itself under the guise of a wholesome influence of general applicability, which it was desirable to perpetuate, instead of being, what it really was, a particular form of one of those numerous factions into which Irish society is divided. It would not appear to have occurred to him, that whatever the merits, real or imaginary, of the Orange confederacy might be, its introduction into Scotland could be attended with no benefits whatever; and that if it was destined over to achieve advantages of a permanent kind, it was only on the soil which had generated and nourished it that this could happen. As an antagonist to Popery and Jacobitism, it was certainly not wanted in Presbyterian Scotland; and a little reflection might have satisfied him, that the civil and religious rights of the people of thus country were not to be upheld through the instrumentality of an Hibernian political fraternity, which had outlived the necessity that gave it birth, and which was now respectable only from the historical associations connected with its origin, and the recollection of the services which it had formerly rendered to the cause of constitutional government in Ireland. His adhesion to this body was, therefore, a decided error in judgment, while it was attended with this additional inconvenience, that it gave rise to the suspicion that the party, whose public representative he was, had become favorable to a system of political propagandism, and was not unwilling to patronize, in an underhand way, that which its general creed repudiated. Legitimate and open combination, it did not, because it could not, reject; but it professed to hold secret societies in abhorrence; and though the Orange body might not, in strictness of speech, deserve to be so called, it had too many of the characteristics of a sectarian club to be agreeable to sober-minded Scotchmen. This act, however, was purely personal, and was confined to Motherwell and one or two of his more intimate friends; and I distinctly remember, that there was no subject upon which he was more reserved, and none upon which he bore a little raillery with less equanimity, than upon his alliance with Irish Orangeism. By this time, however, the evil spirit of political acerbity had displaced the gentler impulses of his nature, and William Motherwell had exchanged the catholicity of poetry for the fanaticism of social exclusiveness!
Motherwell remained in London for about a week, and there can be no doubt that he exhibited great mental infirmity before the committee, — in common speech, he "broke down." That this did not result from any want of courage on his part, will be at once admitted by those who knew the man; but it is proper to observe, that in such circumstances he was constitutionally "unready" and slow of utterance. He not only required time to arrange his ideas and to consolidate his thoughts, on the most ordinary occasions, but he was habitually slow, and even confused, in the expression of them. No ordeal could, therefore, be more embarrassing to him than a formal examination before a body of sharp-witted men, whose pleasure it not infrequently is to lay snares for an inexperienced witness: but besides this, I am convinced that on this particular point Motherwell was at fault as to knowledge, — that he had never seriously inquired of himself what Orangeism was, or what object was to be gained by its propagation, — and that, consequently, he must have failed when rigorously interrogated by an intelligent and authoritative tribunal about these matters. Let me farther add, in explanation of this melancholy occurrence, that it has been long my fixed impression that he was laboring under the effects of the approaches of that insidious disease (softening of the brain), which destroyed him a few mouths afterwards; and those who remember the circumstances attendant upon his visit to the Metropolis, and the strange fancies which haunted him while there, will probably have little hesitation in accepting this apology for what we may now call an involuntary weakness. The indications of this mental debility did not escape the observation of the gentlemen composing the committee; and Mr. Wallace, of Kelly, at that time member for Greenock, with a kindness which was the more honorable to him that Motherwell had frequently spoken of him in his editorial capacity with considerable severity, paid him marked attention; and, perceiving how matters really stood, lost no time in getting his bewildered countryman shipped off to Scotland.
On his return he resumed his old habits of life, and was, to all outward appearance, in perfect health. On Saturday, the 31st day of October, 1835, he dined and spent the evening at the house of a gentleman in the suburbs of Glasgow. There was dancing, and it was observed that he bled freely at the nose, which was attributed to the heated state of the apartments. On going into the open air for a short time, the bleeding stopped, and at half-past ten he left his friend's house in the company of the late Mr. Robert M'Nish, (better known as the Modern Pythagorean,) and the late Mr. Philip Ramsay, and from these gentlemen he parted about eleven o'clock. At four o'clock on the morning of the 1st of November he was suddenly struck while in bed with a violent shock of apoplexy, which almost instantly deprived him of consciousness. He had simply time to exclaim, "My head! My head!" when he fell back on the pillow, and never spoke more. I saw him in my professional capacity about half-past six, having been sent for by the medical man who was first called in, but the case was then hopeless, and had been obviously so from the first; knowing, however, that a deep interest was felt in his fate, and anxious that he should have the benefit of the advice of a senior practitioner, I sent for my late friend, Dr. William Young, but before he arrived he was dead. He expired quietly, and without suffering, at eight o'clock, thus closing a life of incessant labor, and of some anxiety, not unmixed with enjoyment, at the early age of thirty-seven.
He was buried in the Necropolis, a new cemetery, situated over against the Cathedral, on Thursday, the 5th of November; and his remains were followed to the grave by a large assemblage of friends, of all shades of political opinion; nor were the compositors and pressmen of the Courier office, headed by their foreman, the late Mr. Andrew Tough, the least interesting part of that procession. The body was borne to the ground on men's shoulders, and the pallbearers were, — head, Mr. C. A. Motherwell, his nephew; foot, Mr. — now Sir James — Campbell; sides, Mr. Whyte, Mr. M'Laren, Mr. M'Arthur, Mr. Philip Ramsay, Captain Andrew Hamilton, Sheriff Campbell.
Motherwell's death was deeply regretted by the citizens of Glasgow, generally, and with unaffected sorrow by his more immediate relatives, friends, and associates. Its suddenness invested it with a melancholy interest; and in the presence of that dread messenger whose approach no eye can detect, and whose stern impartiality makes no distinction of age, sex, or condition, it was felt that the tempest of political warfare should be stilled, and that those hollow differences, which so often separate kindred spirits in life, should be buried in that grave which now contained the mortal remains of a man of genius and of worth. The records of his demise, which appeared in the different new papers, were creditable to their conductors, and indicated an anxious desire to do honor to his merits; and I have sincere pleasure in reproducing, after the lapse of eleven years, the handsome testimony which was at that time borne to his character by his public opponent, but private friend, Mr. William Weir, then editor of the Glasgow Argus:—
"This accomplished gentleman died suddenly on Sunday morning. Mr. Motherwell's antiquarian knowledge was extensive; and, as the bent of his mind towards the past tinged his poetry, so his imagination lent grace and vitality to his knowledge. A small volume of lyrical poems, published some years back by Mr. Motherwell, is full of tender and unobtrusive beauty. There are few pieces more touching, in the whole range of Scottish poetry, than his 'Jeanie Morrison.' A series of papers published in The Day, entitled 'Memoirs of a Paisley Bailie,' are full of grave, quiet, exquisite humor. In addition to these, we have had occasion to see fragments of a prose work of some extent, which Mr. Motherwell had, we believe, almost completed for the press. It is an embodiment of the old wild legends of the Norsemen, (always a favorite theme with the author,) and contains passages of surpassing splendor, animated by a wayward spirit, half merriment, half pathos. Mr. Motherwell was also engaged in making collections for a life of Tannahill, — a work much wanted, and which, since we have lost him, we know of no other man alive able to supply. Mr. Motherwell is a loss in his own peculiar circle of literature. He will be missed by his antiquarian and poetical associates. But he will be more deeply and lastingly missed in the circle of his personal friends, and of the already too much narrowed circle of his family. This hurried and inadequate tribute is paid to him by one who, decidedly opposed to him on public grounds, and placed in immediate collision with him, was yet proud to call him his friend, and laments his loss."
In personal appearance, Motherwell was undersized, not exceeding, I should think, five feet five, or thereby, in height; but he was vigorously and well formed, and possessed great muscular strength. His bust was that of a large, manly figure, the deficiency in his stature being, as generally happens in such cases, in his limbs, which, though gracefully turned, were short. His head was large, and his brow ample. His eyes, which were small and deeply set, were surmounted by bushy eyebrows. His face was square, with prominent cheekbones, and his nose wanting in symmetry. His mouth was, perhaps, the most unexceptionable feature of his countenance, and indicated great firmness, as well as benevolence of character. His hair was of a dark brown color, and, besides being abundant in quantity, inclined to curl. In his dress, he was neat and plain, and scrupulously clean. The vignette affixed to this volume is an excellent likeness, and is fitted to convey a faithful impression of his general appearance.
In his manners he was modest and unpretending, and in general society, he spoke but little. His conversational powers, in fact, were not high; but in the company of his more intimate friends he was free and unreserved, and entered with a keen relish into the amusements of the hour. When excited, as he was apt occasionally to be when the conversation turned upon any subject in which he took an interest, he displayed much enthusiasm, and threw into his action considerable energy; but this seldom happened, and only in moments of total relaxation from all restraint. He was decidedly social in his tastes, and had nothing of the anchorite about him; and at one period of his life he was addicted to practical joking. Some of his exploits in this way were amusing enough; but the habit was ultimately abandoned, as it threatened to lead to disagreeable consequences, and was improper in itself. He was fond of manly exercises, such as boxing, in which he took lessons from a Negro pugilist, and sword-playing, in the niceties of which he was instructed by that eminent master of fence, M. Foucart. He was also a passionate admirer of the military art; and there can be no doubt that, had circumstances admitted of his exhibiting his military virtues, he would have made a good soldier. In 1820 he served in the Paisley Rifle Corps, as sergeant, and latterly, as a trooper, in the regiment of Renfrewshire Yeomanry Cavalry, which was commanded by the late Sir Michael Shaw Stewart. He was fond of this kind of life, and was punctual in his attendance upon the Yeomanry balls which were given in the county. It would seem, likewise, that lie was a good rower, but I do not think that the ocean had many attractions for him.
In his relations as brother and friend his conduct was irreproachable. I have known few equally disinterested men, and none more upright or honorable in their dealings with others. He could not but be aware that he possessed great and peculiar powers; but he never betrayed any consciousness of this, and was utterly free from literary vanity of jealousy, that abiding reproach to men of letters, he had not one particle; nor do I remember ever to have heard him utter a harsh sentence respecting any human being. His political antipathies were strong, but his personal animosities were weak; not that he had not his likings and dislikings, like other men, but that his nature was too generous to adopt, and still more to cherish, unkindly feelings towards any one. No better proof of this quality could be given than this, that many of his most intimate and best loved friends were his political antagonists, and that his premature death was regretted by none more sincerely than by those gentlemen, who knew him well and esteemed him highly. Of this fine trait of character, the following letter affords a pleasing illustration. Mr. Carrick, in whose behalf it was written, was a meritorious but unsuccessful literary man, who was an applicant for the office of editor to a Kilmarnock journal; and it will be seen from it that Motherwell, though decidedly opposed to him in politics, exerted himself strenuously in his favor.
"COURIER OFFICE, GLASGOW,
November 28, 1833.
To MR. DAVID ROBERTSON:—
MY DEAR SIR, — Understanding that a newspaper is about to be established in Kilmarnock, and that my friend, Mr. J. D. Carrick, (present editor of the Perth Advertiser,) has offered himself as a candidate for its editorship, I wish you would interest yourself on his behalf among those who may have the appointment in their hands.
Unfortunately, I neither know the proprietors of the projected journal, nor any person of influence in Kilmarnock, having a likelihood of being connected with it, otherwise I should have preferred addressing them personally on this subject, in place of through you. Be this as it may, I would fain trust that my disinterested and unsolicited opinion of the talents and literary attainments of Mr. Carrick, in whatever shape, laid before the proprietors, may be of some use to a most deserving individual in his canvass.
With Mr. Carrick and with his writings, both as a literary character, and as the conductor of a very intelligent weekly paper, I have been long familiar; and to the taste, tact, judgment, knowledge, and research displayed in these writings, I can bear the most unqualified testimony. Mr. Carrick and I, as you well know, have the misfortune to be opposed to each other in political sentiments; but that circumstance detracts nothing from his merits in my eyes. Perhaps, in the present case, it may even advance his interest; for I am given to understand, that the Kilmarnock paper is to be conducted on what are called Liberal or Reform principles, and to these, in their popular acceptation, I have never, either in my public or private capacity, concealed my most rooted hostility. If I am well informed, then, as to the political views entertained by the proprietors of the contemplated journal, my decided conviction is, that they never could light upon a more energetic and uncompromising, and, at the same time, prudent, sagacious, and enlightened advocate of their principles, than they will find in the person of Mr. Carrick.
In the management of a paper he has had large experience; his taste in selection is excellent; and in getting up some of those witty and good-humored paragraphs, which conduce so much to the interest of the columns of a provincial paper, and, in consequence, extend its circulation, I scarcely know his equal. My friend, Macdiarmid, of the Dumfries Courier, has, in his own peculiar walk, a formidable rival in Mr. Carrick. As to his eminent qualifications in a higher point of view, his historical works and political essays afford the best of all evidence; but as these, in all probability, will be submitted to the committee intrusted with the nomination of editor, I need not further enlarge on them, for sure I am, that the committee will think with me, that they every way support Mr. Carrick's claims to extensive literary and political acquirements, and furnish the best of all guaranties for the creditable discharge of his duties as an editor.
My dear Sir, in conclusion, I have only again to beg, that you will use your best influence to back the feeble and inadequate testimony I have borne to the abilities of a common friend, — of one who, in every relation of life, has always shown himself a most estimable character.
It would be easy to multiply instances of this kind, were I not afraid of trespassing upon the indulgence of the reader, for his correspondence abounds in them; but I cannot pass over in silence his intimacy with it. A. Smith, a man to whom he was sincerely attached, and with whom, till death, he cultivated a friendship which was unbroken by even a passing cloud.
Smith was born at Reading, in Berkshire, in 1779. His father was a native of West Calder, in Lanarkshire, and his mother an Englishwoman of respectable connections. In the year 1773, his father emigrated to England, in consequence of the dulness of the silk-weaving trade, but returned to Paisley in 1800, after an absence of seventeen years, bringing with him his son, whom he intended to educate to the loom. This, however, was found to be impossible. Nature had furnished the lad with the most delicate musical sensibilities, and, after an ineffectual struggle with the ruling passion, music became the business of his life. He attained to considerable provincial distinction, and composed original music for the following songs of the poet Tannahill, whose intimate friend he was: — Jessie, the Flower o' Dumblane, — The Lass of Arranteenie, — The Harper of Mull, — Langsyne beside the Woodland Burn, — Our Bonnie Scots Lads, — Despairing Mary, — Wi' waefu' heart and sorrowin' ee, — The Maniac's Song, — Poor Tom's Farewell, — The Soldier's Widow, — and, We'll meet beside the Dusky Glen.
In 1823 he removed to Edinburgh, at the solicitation of the late Rev. Dr. Andrew Thomson, where he led the choir of St. George's Church, of which Dr. Thomson was the incumbent, and where he died, in January, 1829. Between him and Motherwell there existed a warm friendship, arising, no doubt, from a congeniality of tastes on many points; but, on the part of the latter, strengthened by a sincere respect for the virtues as well as the genius of the man. Smith had to contend through life, not only with narrow means and domestic discomfort, but against the pressure of a constitutional melancholy, which occasionally impaired the vigor of his fine faculties. His real griefs — of which he had a full share — were, therefore, increased by some that were imaginary; and he was obviously accustomed, not only to lean upon the stronger mind of his friend, in his moments of depression, but to seek for sympathy in his distress, which, it is needless to add, was never refused. In November, 1826, Smith thus writes to him:—
"I would have written you long ere this, but have been prevented by an amount of domestic distress sufficient to drive all romance out of my mind; and you must be aware that without a considerable portion of that delightful commodity no good music can be engendered. To be serious, my dear friend, two of my family, my eldest daughter and youngest son, are at this moment lying dangerously ill of the typhus fever. I hope that I may escape the contagion, but I have sometimes rather melancholy forebodings; and in the midst of all this I am obliged to sing professionally every day, and mask my face with smiles, to cover the throbbings of a seared and lonely heart."
To this sad effusion Motherwell returned the following characteristic reply:—
"Your domestic afflictions deeply grieve me. I trust by this time, however, that your children have mended, and that you are no sufferer by their malady. Kennedy and I have been shedding tears over your calamities, and praying to Heaven that you may have strength of spirits to bear up under such severe dispensations. We both, albeit we have no family afflictions to mourn over, have yet much to irritate and vex us, — much, much indeed, to sour the temper and sadden the countenance; but these things must be borne with patiently. It is folly of the worst description, to let thought kill us before our time.... I hope to hear from you soon, and to learn that you are in better spirits, and that the causes which have depressed them are happily removed. Kennedy joins me in warm and sincere prayers that this may speedily be the case."
Motherwell was decidedly superstitious; that is, he had an absolute and unqualified belief in the reality of those spectral illusions, which, under whatever name designated, have played so important a part in the history of human credulity from the dawn of time downwards. Upon this point he was tenacious, and, as he fortified himself by what he supposed to be facts, he was wont to wax warm in defence of his Rosicrucian theory, when it chanced to be assailed. It is no reproach to his memory to say that his logic upon such a subject was necessarily defective, and it would be altogether unjust to condemn as a weakness his participation in an infirmity which has so often attached itself to the highest created intelligences.
His habits of poetical composition were, I suspect, slow and even laborious, and there is ample evidence in his manuscripts to show that the divine "aestrum" was not always at command when most needed. That he prepared his productions with great care before he committed them to the press, or even inserted them in any of his commonplace-books, is certain; and the history of many of his freest compositions, could it be obtained, would demonstrate that he never forgot the Horatian precept, but wisely remembered that "nescit vox missa reverti." Of Jeanie Morrison, for example, there exist at least two rough draughts, if not more, in which this process of elaboration is very distinct, and out of which the poem as it now stands was wrought. There are, of course, different versions of particular stanzas, but the leading ideas and images are the same in all; and as he was thirtyfour years of age when he published the ballad in its present form, we thus see that this single production was, in a certain sense, the work of a life.
In his habits of study he was necessarily desultory. No one who is engaged in the active business of the world can he otherwise; but except in that particular and somewhat narrow department of literature for which he had contracted so strong a partiality in early life, it cannot be said of Motherwell that he was a "well-read" man. With physical science he was but slightly acquainted, and he had neglected general history, including even that of his own country, to an extraordinary degree. From some peculiarity of temperament which is not easily explained, he preferred such writers as Holinshed and Stowe to Hume and Hallam; and the only modern historical work of any note that I ever recollect to have heard him speak of, was Sharon Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons. He had likewise a strong distaste to what is commonly called metaphysics, and particularly for the writers of the Scotch school, of whom he sometimes spoke in terms of greater confidence than his acquaintance with their works entitled him to do; but he professed a deep reverence for Coleridge, whose Friend he considered a masterpiece of philosophy. I do not recollect of ever having heard him even allude to Burke, and for Sir James Mackintosh he had conceived an unreasonable dislike. These carelessnesses and prejudices are to be regretted, since they tended to abridge his knowledge and to impair his usefulness; but they are probably to be referred to the circumstances in which he was placed, rather than to any defect in his mental constitution. A more liberal intercourse with mankind would have disabused him of many of those prepossessions, which he had hastily adopted, and had little temptation to abandon, and his better nature would have done the rest.
In his personal tastes and feelings he was essentially and ardently Scottish. The language and literature of his native country he had studied with care and success, and to her legendary poetry and metrical traditions he attached a high value. The land was also beautiful in his eyes, and no wandering minstrel of ancient times could have been impressed with a loftier sense of the valor of the men or the virtue of the women who dwelt within its limits. That he was a devout admirer of external nature his poems amply testify. The vast solitude of the universe and the sublime depths of space filled his soul with a holy awe; and whether he looked upon the heavens above with their countless myriads of stars, or upon the earth beneath with its garment of green, and its hills and valleys and running streams, his mind was equally impressed with the majesty and power of that great Being who made and sustains all things.
O God! this is an holy hour:—
Thy breath is o'er the laud:
I feel it in each little flower
Around me where I stand;—
In all the moonshine scattered fair,
Above, below me, everywhere,—
In every dew-bead glistening sheen,
In every leaf and blade of green,—
And in this silence, grand and deep,
Wherein thy blessed creatures sleep.
MIDNIGHT AND MOONSHINE.
An elaborate analysis of Motherwell's character as a poet would not be compatible with the objects and limits of this slight sketch; but it is fortunately rendered unnecessary by the criticism of Professor Wilson, which appeared in Blackwood's Magazine for April, 1833.
"All his perceptions are clear, for all his senses are sound. He has fine and strong sensibilities, and a powerful intellect. He has been led by the natural bent of his genius to the old haunts of inspiration, — the woods and glens of his native country, — and his ears delight to drink the music of her old songs. Many a beautiful ballad has blended its pensive and plaintive pathos with his daydreams, and while reading some of his happiest effusions, we feel
The he ancient spirit is not dead,—
Old times, we say, are breathing there.
His style is simple, but in his tenderest movements masculine; he strikes a few bold knocks at the door of the heart, which is instantly opened by the master or mistress of the house, or by son or daughter, and the welcome visitor at once becomes one of the family."
This is generous praise, but not more generous than just, and it places the whole case before us by a few vivid strokes. It may be remarked, how ever, that the field which he chose for the exercise of the higher efforts of his genius was unappropriated by any name of marked celebrity, and that there was both originality and boldness in the thought, that he could win his way to fame through apparently so unpromising a channel as the Scandinavian mythology, and by the adaptation to modern verse of the stern thoughts and sanguinary aspirations of the Northern Scalds. It is obvious that, in so daring an enterprise, anything short of entire success would have been fatal to the reputation of its author, and that, upon a theme at once so novel and so vast, mediocrity would no have been tolerated; and it has always appeared to me, that to have triumphed so completely over the latent prejudices of society, and to have extorted the reluctant praise of the critical world was, in Motherwell's circumstances, the strongest proof he could give of the vigor and elasticity of his powers. Such men as Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge could afford some abatement from that full harvest of renown which they had accumulated; but to a person in Motherwell's position the case was widely different, and the punishment of failure would have been proportioned in it severity to the alleged presumption of the attempt. He did not fail, however, nor — as the result showed — was his confidence in himself overrated; and his metrical imitations of the Sagas are not only distinguished by an exact fidelity of tone and sentiment, but are considered by competent judges to be fine heroic ballads, which display energetic powers of description, united to a high dramatic faculty. Had Gray followed out his original intention, and given to the world that "History of Poetry," of which he had at one time meditated the composition, his successor would have had to encounter a much more formidable competition than that which actually awaited him; but he, as is well known, abandoned the design, and except The Fatal Sisters and The Descent of Odin, I cannot call to mind any other purely English poems constructed upon a Northern basis. It may argue an undue partiality, but I prefer The Battle-Flag of Sigurd to either of Gray's odes.
That the manners of the Valhalla and the exploits of the Vikings had made a lasting impression upon Motherwell's imagination, we have abundant proof in the first three poems of this volume; and my own impression is, that in future times his fame will rest, in a great measure, on these splendid specimens of warlike invocation. As he comes nearer to ordinary life, his poetical individuality insensibly disappears, and the "uncouth lyre" of the "Runic bard" is exchanged for the softer harp of the modern minstrel. The old Scottish ballad might be as successfully imitated, perhaps, by men of far inferior capacity, and, exquisite as some of his lyrical compositions are, they might likewise be approached, if not excelled; but for the conception and execution of The Battle-Flag of Sigurd, The Wooing Song of Jarl Egill Skallagrim, and The Sword Chant of Thorstein Raudi, a special inspiration and peculiar powers were required; and I will venture to predict that they will survive the changes of time and the caprices of fashion.
One of his most prominent defects as a lyrical poet is, in my opinion, the assumption — for it was no more — of a morbid tone of feeling respecting the world and its ways. Doubtless,
pictoribus atque poetis
Quidlibet audendi semper fuit aequa potestas;
but there is a natural limit to even this proverbial license, and a perpetual dirge about broken vows, slighted love, and human selfishness is apt to engender the idea, that the man who thus indulges an habitual lamentation over his own misfortunes must have been less discriminating in his friendships, or less deserving of regard, than we could wish him to have been. But this was not the case with William Motherwell. Few men have enjoyed, and few men have more entirely merited, the strong and steady attachment of those with whom they associated; and if life brought to him its share of sorrow and anxiety, it likewise afforded many and solid compensations for his sufferings, of which I have not a doubt, he was fully sensible, and for which, I have as little doubt, he was truly thankful. I would not have noticed this peculiarity, had it not communicated to some of his effusions an air of harsh exaggeration, which was really foreign to his modest and uncomplaining nature, and did it not tend to create the belief, that my late friend, with all his gifts, was deficient in that humility of mind which should characterize a wise and a good man. This was not so; and when passages — I regret to say that they are too numerous — do occur which might encourage this notion, let me hope that they will not be construed to his prejudice, but that they may be looked upon as mere poetical embellishments.
For the occasional defects which may be discovered in the mechanical structure of his verse, no very satisfactory explanation can he offered. He had made poetry and its laws the business of his life; yet imperfect lines and prosaic expressions do occur more frequently than could be desired, to mar the harmony of some of his best pieces, and, in certain cases, even to impair their sense. The only account that I can give of this infirmity is, that his ear wanted rhythmical accuracy, and that, from some peculiarity of his physical organization, he was unable to appreciate the more delicate modulations of sound. He was eminently unmusical; not that he disliked music, far from it; but that his love of melody did not counterbalance his unacquaintance with the rules of harmony, of breaches of which he was often, though unintentionally, guilty.
Upon the whole, his place as a minor poet is a distinguished one. He has undoubtedly enriched the language with many noble specimens of manly song; and when it is remembered that he prosecuted his poetical studies in silence and retirement, animated alone by the love of his art, and sustained through many long years of trial and of toil by the distant gleam of posthumous fame, it will not be disputed that his motives to action were exalted, and his exertions in the cause of human improvement disinterested.
Ossa quieta, precor, tuta requiescite in urna;
Et sit humus cineri non onerosa tuo.
GLASGOW, December 23, 1846.