The Rev. James Grahame, author of "The Sabbath" and other poems, was born at Glasgow, on the 22nd. of April, 1765. His father, who was a writer in that city, appears to have been a man of considerable literary attainments, of pious habits, and excellent moral character. His mother, who had been brought up in similar principles, was confirmed in her early impressions by the example of her husband, and the united influence of both was well calculated to lay the foundation of those pure sentiments of devotion in the mind of the young poet, which were afterwards to regulate his conduct and awaken his muse.
In early youth, Grahame is said to have been of a sprightly disposition, but his vivacity declined as he grew up, and long before that period when the character is matured by experience, the indications of a reflecting habit were manifest in his deportment and conversation. This sober turn of thought commenced as early as his introduction to the grammar-school of Glasgow, where he received the rudiments of his education. From the grammar-school, he went to the university of Glasgow, where he soon recommended himself, by his knowledge of the ancient classics, and his talent for Latin composition, of which he produced a very favorable specimen at the commencement of his academical career. With the study of literature and philosophy, he ultimately joined that of civil law, and had the good fortune to obtain the intimate friendship of the professor of that department, the ingenious Dr. James Millar. The branch of knowledge, however, for which young Grahame had always manifested the strongest prepossession, was that of divinity. Admiring it as a study, he was desirous to adopt it as a profession; but the natural anxiety of his father to provide for the temporal interests of his son, by a course of life more likely to advance them, induced him, if not to abandon, at least to postpone his own wishes, and to persevere in the study of the law.
In 1784, Mr. Grahame was apprenticed to his cousin, Mr. Laurence Hill, Writer to the Signet, Edinburgh, and, at the conclusion of his apprenticeship, became a member of that respectable body, who, under the title of writers to the Signet, conjoin the various occupations which in England are divided among attorneys, special pleaders, conveyancers, and notaries. In this capacity, he might, from his connections in Glasgow, have soon acquired an extensive and lucrative business; but his constitution was weak, and unequal to the close confinement which it required. His very relaxations, being literary, were therefore sedentary, so that the evil was not to be mitigated, except by an entire change of pursuit. Mr. Grahame accordingly resolved to seek, in the higher labours of the profession, a relief from the more painful drudgery of the writing desk, and was called to the bar on the 10th of March, 1795.
Mr. Grahame, however, carried with him to the profession of a barrister, notions which were but little calculated to introduce him into extensive practice. He had an extreme aversion to undertake the advocacy of any cause which was at variance with his own notions of equity and justice; and when its badness was manifest and indisputable, would return the brief and fee. A habit so singular became, as might be expected, the subject of much observation, not only among lawyers and clients, but among all persons who take an interest in the deviations of speculative men. That such a principle might be carried to an extreme, subversive of the very justice which it intended to favour, is a fact admitting no dispute; but if acted upon with caution, and applied only in cases where the imposture was palpable and gross, it is hard to suppose that any injury could result to society from its adoption, by the few individuals upon whom mere morality is likely to have an influence. If causes sometimes find their way into court, with which it is a disgrace to be concerned, occasions must sometimes occur, in which it would be an honor to decline a fee. At all events, whatever danger may be apprehended from the practice in a general sense, the pecuniary excitement is always at hand to resist the innovation, and preserve that system of activity which is most favourable to the purposes of private interest and professional advancement.
In March, 1802, Mr. Grahame married Miss Grahame, the eldest daughter of Mr. James Grahame, town-clerk of Annan.
In 1804, he published his poem, entitled "The Sabbath," the merits of which constitute his chief claim to the remembrance of posterity. The caution with which he endeavoured to provide against discovery, as the author of this beautiful poem, is still a subject of conversation in the literary circles of Scotland. He selected a printer, on whose premise of secrecy he could perfectly rely, and used to meet him at obscure coffee-houses, in order to correct the proofs, but never twice at the same home, for fear of attracting observation. He even contrived to get the work through the press without the knowledge of his wife or any of his friends; and it is remarkable, that the person who had most reason to feel interested in his success, was the last even to suspect how nearly the author was allied to her. The work rapidly made its popularity; it was praised in all companies, and Mr. Grahame had the satisfaction of finding, that his wife was among the number of its warmest admirers. It was the pleasure which he derived from the enthusiasm of her praise upon one of those occasions, that finally prevailed over his determination of concealment. He could hear the public acknowledgement with comparative indifference, but the voice of private affection was too sweet to be disregarded, and its tribute too valuable to be denied a recompense so entirely at his command. He confessed the sin of authorship, and was forgiven. That he should have been desirous to conceal his name, in the first instance, before the fate of his poem could be ascertained, was a delicacy, or perhaps a weakness, not difficult to be accounted for in this age of critical asperity; but that after its merits were admitted, and while its praise was sounding in his ears, he should still have had any desire to remain unknown, is a circumstance which, though perhaps not inexplicable to elevated minds, will doubtless appear extraordinary to the common race of scribblers, who carry personal vanity into all their literary attempts, and shrink from the notion of anonymous industry, as the soul shrinks from that of annihilation.
The "Sabbath" was followed, at different intervals, with "Sabbath Walks," "Biblical Pictures," "Miscellaneous Poems," "British Georgics," "Birds of Scotland," "Rural Calendar," "The Siege of Copenhagen," and "Mary Stuart, a tragedy."
Whatever benefit Mr. Grahame might have experienced from transferring his legal pursuits to the bar, it does not appear that he was yet satisfied with his condition; for on his father dying, in deference to whose desire alone he had ever embarked in the profession of the law, his first propensity triumphed over every interested motive; and though his practice was respectable and reputation advancing daily, he again, and for the last time, altered his course of life, resolving to devote himself thenceforward to the service of religion. The death of his father, whom he had always tenderly loved, was an event which made a strong impression on his feelings; and the nature of that impression probably contributed, in no slight degree, to confirm him in the resolution he had now taken. When death begins his ravages among those who have been dear to us from childhood, and the foundations of human attachment are about to give way under his irresistible pressure, then it is that the instinct of human vanity receives a shock within us, and the cares of this life dwindle into insignificance and contempt. If such is the lesson inculcated by this awful monitor upon minds in any way accessible to reflection, much more must it have operated on one whose ordinary exercises were contemplative, philosophical, and devout.
After spending some time at Annan to recruit his health, which had began to decline most seriously, he proceeded to Chester, and from Chester to London, where he was ordained by the Bishop of Norwich, on the 20th of May, 1809. In the course of the same year, he was appointed to the cucacy of Shepton Mayne, in Gloucestershire. The following extract of a letter which he wrote to one of his friends will serve to shew, from his own discriminating pen, what were his feelings in first entering on the exercise of the holy ministry, and the character of the flock which fell to his charge.
"I am now but beginning to feel at home. At first, the wandering backwards and forwards through the prayer-book puzzled me sadly, but now it comes quite easy to me. I never, except the first minute or two of the first day, felt any embarrassment in the pulpit. This parish is small, so that the duty is rather easy. As to the people, (the labouring classes I mean,) they are rather good, I think; but they are a dull race, and deplorably ignorant. Hardly one in twenty can write, and more than the half cannot read. The poor are wretchedly poor indeed, though the rich are liberal, and the poor rates by no means light. In religion they are far behind us (the Scotch) — they want warmth of devotion. Few of them join in the psalms, and in many churches there is no singing at all. The lukewarmness of the people I ascribe very much to the insufficiency and supineness of the clergy. There are here and there excellent and zealous ministers, but the majority of them are lazy, stupid, and worldly-minded. In the neighbourhood, there are two or three young men, who, in the course of a few years, have done much good. In short, the harvest only wants labourers. With respect to the gentry, they are both good and agreeable. They read a good deal; they have excellent and large collections of books — they are clever and intelligent — but to me there is a want about them, — they want fire and variety. They are, in short, too rational.
"I am here as happy as I can be at a distance from my friends. Our temporalities are not great, but we have many comforts — a tolerable house, two gardens, and a small paddock, besides seven acres for which we pay rent. The church is very ancient and crazy. In the steeple, there are three sweet toned boils and an owl."
Some family circumstances requiring his return to Edinburgh, he resigned, in April 1810, the curacy of Shepton Mayne. Soon after his arrival in the Scottish capital, a vacancy occurring in the care of an Episcopalian chapel of that city, called Saint George's, Mr. Grahame offered himself as a candidate. He was not however successful, and next went to Durham, where he was engaged to officiate for some time as subcurate of St. Margaret's. Another prospect opened at that place which led to another disappointment. A minor Canonry of small emolument became vacant at the expiration of the term for which he was engaged at St. Margaret's, but the Dean in whose gift it was, either know so little of the talents and virtues of Mr. Grahame, or appreciated them so lightly as claims to his patronage, that he not only refused to appoint him, but kept the canonry vacant to the end of Mr. Grahame's life, though it had been twice rejected in the interval by more favoured individuals. It would be a waste of time and thought to search after the motives of this very reverend personage for such conduct, but it were well for the general interests of religion, and the particular interests of the establishment, that the promotion of real merit was an object of more serious attention with the dignitaries of the Church of England. The same system of favouritism which reflects disgrace on the Politician, cannot surely be creditable to the Divine.
Through the interest of Mr. Barrington, the nephew of the Bishop of Durham, he obtained the curacy of Sedgefield, a country parish in the same neighbourhood, where he commenced his duties on the 1st of May, 1811. It was at this place, and probably through the contrivance of the same gentleman, that he had all opportunity of preaching before the Bishop himself. The Bishop was so favourably impressed by his eloquence, as to declare his satisfaction in the warmest terms, and to accompany his praise with a promise of preferment. The tide of Grahame's fortune seemed to have turned at last, but it was a temporary and deceitful appearance. There was every reason to suppose, from the character of the worthy Bishop, that the promise made without solicitation would have been realized without delay, if the decline of Mr. Grahame's health had not rendered it necessary for him to retire, at the very moment when perseverance was most likely to be rewarded. Confirmed asthma, accompanied with violent headache and other acute pains, assuming altogether that malignant aspect of disease which is known by the term of "a complication," obliged him to decline the duties of his office and to visit Edinburgh for medical advice. His complaints, however, received no alteration; dissolution was not to be stayed from its last ravages on a constitution weak by nature, and farther enfeebled by long protracted illness. Aware of his approaching end, he was anxious to revisit his native city before he died, and accordingly left Edinburgh for Glasgow on the 9th. of September, but it was his fate to see Glasgow no more. He died on the journey at Whitehill, the residence of his eldest brother, in the forty seventh year of his age, manifesting in his last moments the sincerity of those religious impression, by which his life had been regulated. His death took place on the 14th September, 1811, and he was buried in the same grave with his worthy parents. He left two sons and a daughter.
The character of Grahame, whether, drawn from the facts which have been enumerated in his life, or from the tenor of his writings, or from the concurrent testimony of those who had the happiness of his acquaintance, or as is more reasonable from the combination of those separate sources of intelligence, cannot fail of recommending itself to the admirers of virtue. The testimony of acquaintances, though not always free from prejudice, and therefore not always to be depended on without the addition of other evidence, forms necessarily an ingredient in the estimate of every character; for there are a thousand circumstances too minute to strike the distant observer, which are nevertheless too important to be overlooked altogether, when we attempt to exhibit a faithful likeness of the human heart. All who knew Mr. Grahame, agree in representing his life under an aspect the most amiable. His manners in the retirement of home were as mild and conciliating, as his principles in the more enlarged relations of society were liberal and upright. Though not without disappointments which would have been sufficient to sour the tempers of other men; such as, in the first instance, the check imposed upon his favourite inclination by the mistaken policy of his father; subsequently, the want of advancement in the church, after he had entered into its service, an object desirable even in the religious view of extending the sphere of his usefulness; and lastly the experience which, like most authors of his time, he had of the petulance of criticism, aggravating by its dicta the difficulties inherent in the nature of devotional poetry, and consequently obstructing his reputation and trifling with his fame; — though not without the excitement of such provocations, we can neither trace a line of his writings, nor discover a sentence of his conversation, which betray the slightest acrimony of feeling or impatience of temper. His forbearance in this respect will strike us the more seriously when we remember how many even of our finest Poets have been exasperated beyond the bounds of decent irritation, by creatures incapable of inflicting any other injury upon intellects so far above them. This dignity of composure, in the midst of worldly disappointments and literary evils, is chiefly attributable to that religion which formed the basis of his character. Something however is due to the natural constitution of his mind, and perhaps something to that distant hope, which warms the breast of genius under all its adversities, — the hope that at some future day posterity will do it justice. Nothing is more easy than to ridicule the solitary scholar, who, in the retirement of his closet, enjoys as it were the conversation and applause of men whom he shall never see; but if it were not for this brilliant dream of the mind, many of the most glorious monuments of excellence that now adorn the world, had sunk under the discouragements of ignorance and envy. That he must have had his faults as a man it would be folly to deny, yet, as they never obtruded themselves on observation, common candour seems to forbid that we should draw upon our imagination, in the absence of fact, though for the purpose of giving countenance to a rule which it may be readily allowed admits of no exception.
In proceeding to examine Mr. Grahame's pretensions as a poet, it is difficult to divest ones-self entirely of the prejudice which his virtues are calculated to excite in favour of his muse. But, making every allowance on this ground, no ordinary share of praise must still be his due. The most important exception probably which can be taken to his works is, that they are almost all too exclusively religious to attract the attention of the general reader. Perhaps it would be no misrepresentation of the spirit of any age with which we are acquainted, if we except only the canting age of Cromwell, to say, that such topics rather repel than invite the curiosity which so much befriend a writer. A like devotional character distinguished one of Grahame's oldest precursors in descriptive writing — Hume, of Logie — to whom, indeed, he bears a very striking resemblance. Both of them belonged originally to the profession of the law; and both abandoned it for the church; both cultivated poetry with a view to religious edification; and both have studiously refrained from all reference to that tenderest, though most selfish, of human passions, Love; and lastly, both have fixed on subjects at nearly alike as possible — the one, celebrating the beauties of a Summer's Day; and the other, of the Sabbath, "the hallowed day." In the scale of merit, however, there is a great distance between them. Although Grahame, like Hume, excludes love from his theme, he does not, like him, omit to call up other strong emotions of the heart in its stead; although he looks on woman with no impassioned feeling, he does not banish her from his view entirely. We have, in the Sabbath Day, no such meetings of lovers as are, with the utmost truth of painting, described in the ballad of Logan Water.
Nae mair at Logan Kirk, will lie
Atween the preachings, meet wi' me;
Meet wi' me, or when its mirk,
Convoy me hame frae Logan Kirk.
But we have, "at the close of evening prayer," the affecting spectacle of youth and loveliness consigned to the grave:
Again that knell! The slow procession stops,
The pall withdrawn, Death's altar, thick emboss'd
With melancholy ornaments (the name,
The record of her blossoming age), appears
Unveil'd; and on it, dust to dust is thrown—
The final rite. Oh! hark, that sullen sound!
Upon the lower'd bier the shovell'd clay
Falls fast and fills the void.—
Nor, though averse to introduce scenes of love into the day consecrated to Heaven, does Grahame appear to have wanted any thing of a lover's feeling. Take, for example, his description in the Georgics, of two lovers, on an excessively cold thirty-first of December night:
To meeting lovers now no hill is steep,
No river fordless, and no forest dark;
And when they meet, unheeded sweeps the blast
Unfelt the snow, as erst from summer's thorn,
Around them fell a shower of fading flowers,
Shook by the sighing of the evening breeze.
Hume is simply pleasing; Grahame is impressive, often pathetic. The one dwells on external objects alone; the other penetrates into the inmost recesses of our heart. Still, considering either of them merely as writers anxious to arrive at popularity by the shortest road, it must be acknowledged, that, on account of the peculiarly religious character of their writings, they equally mistook their way.
The next point to be noticed is, the manner in which Grahame has executed the design which he had conceived, and this will be better illustrated by a few quotations taken at random, than by a thousand remarks. If the following passages are not capable of affording some of the highest pleasures in the perusal, no pomp of commentary can raise them to that distinction; if, on the other hand, they are capable of delighting without such interference, it is, after all, the undertaking of more ingenious than useful labour, to pry into the components of that enthusiasm, which by one sweep of its wing has done the business already.
The dawn of the Sabbath — its difference from the dawn of every other morn — is thus strikingly introduced.
How still the morning of the hallow'd day!
Mute is the voice of rural labour; hush'd
The ploughboy's whistle, and the milkmaid's song.
The scythe lies glittering in time dewy wreath
Of tedded grass mingled with fading flowers,
That yester-morn bloom'd waving in the breeze,
Sounds the most faint attract the ear, — the hum
Of early bee, the trickling of the dew,
The distant bleeting midway up the hill.
Calmness sits thron'd on yon unmoving cloud.
To him who wanders o'er the upland leas
The blackbird's note comes mellower from the dale;
And sweeter from the sky the gladsome lark
Warbles his heaven-tun'd song; the lulling brook
Murmurs more gently down the deep worn glen;
While from yon lowly roof, whose curling smoke
O'ermounts the mist, is heard at intervals
The voice of Psalms, the simple song of Praise.
The burial of beauty has been already incidentally noticed, and the conclusion quoted; the preceding part of this episode is still more remarkable for the spirit and pathos of genuine poetry.
But wood and wild, the mountain and the dale,
The house of prayer itself, — no place inspires
Emotions more accordant with the day,
Than does the field of graves, the land of rest:—
Oft at the close of evening prayer, the toll,
The solemn funeral-toll, pausing, proclaims
The service of the tomb; the homeward crowds
Divide on either hand; the pomp draws near,
The choir to meet the dead go forth, and sing
I am the Resurrection and the Life.
Ah me! these youthful bearers robed in white,
They tell a mournful tale; some blooming friend
Is gone; dead in her prime of years: — 'twas she,—
The poor man's friend, who, when she could not give,
With angel tongue, pleaded to those who could
With angel tongue, and mild beseeching eye,
That ne'er besought in vain, save when she pray'd
For longer life, with heart resign'd to die.—
Rejoic'd to die, for happy visions bless'd
Her voyage's last days, and hovering round,
Alighted on her soul, giving presage,
That Heaven was nigh. O! what a burst
Of rapture from her eyes! what tears of joy
Her Heavenward eyes suffus'd! — Those eyes are clos'd,
But all her loveliness is not yet flown.
She smil'd in death, and still her cold pale face
Retains that smile, as when a waveless lake,
In which the win'try stars all bright appear,
Is sheeted, by a nightly frost, with ice,
Still it reflects the face of Heaven, unchang'd,
Unruffled by the breeze, or sweeping blast.
The simile, with which these lines close, is as happily descriptive as it is original.
But not to confine ourselves to "the Sabbath," let us open "the Georgics," the least happy, as the other is the most fortunate, effort of his Muse. Has the Battle of Bannockburn, the "Sabbath" of Scottish freedom, ever received a more grateful or more Scotch inspiring tribute, than in the words of Grahame?
To thee, who on a lovely morn in June,
At break of day, knelt on the dewy sward,
While full in view, Inchaffray's abbot rear'd
The sacred host! To them! who 'ore the sheet
Of blood besprinkled flowers, fell in the cause
Of freedom and their country! To the men,
Who that day's fight survived, and saw, once more,
Their homes, their children; and, when silvery hairs
Their temples thin bespread, liv'd to recount
On winter nights, the achievements of that day
To thee, be ever raised the Muse's voice
In grateful song triumphant;—
The extracts which have been made, are sufficient to give a general idea of the character of Grahame's genius and expression. His thoughts, though seldom sublime, are never mean, and his language, though mostly simple and unaffected, is not always free from the charge of redundance. Grahame's great power is in tenderness, and his chief failing is want of energy; yet, sometimes he hits off a warmth and compression of phrase which well deserves the name of energy the most poetic. On the whole, the author of "the Sabbath" may be regarded as a poet of considerable genius, whose reputation is likely to advance with the moral improvements of mankind; and who, if he does not class among the first of the great fraternity to which he belongs, stands too preeminent to be disregarded.