1824 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Mackenzie

Walter Scott, "Henry Mackenzie" 1824; Scott, Miscellaneous Prose Works (1829) 3:209-21.



For the biographical part of the following Memoir, we are chiefly indebted to a short sketch of the life of our distinguished contemporary, compiled from the most authentic sources, and prefixed to a beautiful duodecimo edition of The Man of Feeling, printed at Paris a few years since. We have had the further advantage of correcting and enlarging the statements which it contains, from undoubted authority.

HENRY MACKENZIE, Esq. was born at Edinburgh in August 1745, on the same day on which Prince Charles Stuart landed in Scotland. His father was Dr. Joshua Mackenzie, of that city; and his mother, Margaret, the eldest daughter of Mr. Rose of Kilravock, of a very ancient family in Nairnshire. After being educated at the High-school and University of Edinburgh, Mr. Mackenzie, by the advice of some friends of his father, was articled to Mr. Inglis of Redhall, in order to acquire a knowledge of the business of the Exchequer, a law-department, in which he was likely to have fewer competitors than in any other in Scotland.

To this profession, although not perfectly compatible with that literary taste which he very early displayed, Mr. Mackenzie applied with due diligence; and, in 1765, went to London, to study the modes of English Exchequer practice, which, as well as the constitution of the court, are similar in both countries. While there, his talents induced a friend to solicit his remaining in London, and qualifying himself for the English bar. But the anxious wishes of his family that he should reside with them, and the moderation of an unambitious mind, decided his return to Edinburgh and here he became, first, partner, and afterwards successor, to Mr. Inglis, in the office of the Attorney for the Crown.

His professional labour, however, did not prevent his attachment to literary pursuits. When in London, he sketched some part of his first, and very popular work, The Man of Feeling, which was published in 1771, without his name; and was so much a favourite with the public, as to become, a few years after, the occasion of a remarkable literary fraud. A young clergyman, Mr. Eccles, of Bath, observing that this work was unaccompanied by an author's name, laid claim to it, transcribed the whole in his own hand, with blottings, interlineations, and corrections; and maintained his assumed right with such plausible pertinacity, that Messrs Cadell and Strachan (Mr. Mackenzie's publishers) found it necessary to undeceive the public by a formal contradiction. This impostor was afterwards drowned while bathing in the river Avon.

In a few years after this, Mr. Mackenzie published his Man of the World, which seems to be intended as a second part to The Man of Feeling. It breathes the same tone of exquisite moral delicacy, and of refined sensibility. In his former fiction, he imagined a hero constantly obedient to every emotion of his moral sense; in The Man of the World, he exhibited, on the contrary, a person rushing headlong into guilt and ruin, and spreading misery all around him, by pursuing a selfish and sensual happiness which he expected to obtain in defiance of the moral sense. His next production was Julia de Roubigne, a novel in a series of letters. The fable is deeply interesting, and the letters are written with great elegance and propriety of style.

In 1776, Mr. Mackenzie was married to Miss Penuel Grant, daughter of Sir Ludovick Grant of Grant, Bart., and Lady Margaret Ogilvy, by whom he has a numerous family; the eldest of whom, Mr. Henry Joshua Mackenzie, has been called to the situation of a Judge of the Supreme Court of Session, with the unanimous approbation of his profession and his country

In 1777, or 1778, a society of gentlemen, of Edinburgh, were accustomed at their meetings to read short essays of their composition, in the manner of the Spectator, and Mr. Mackenzie being admitted a member, after hearing several of them read, suggested the advantage of giving greater variety to their compositions, by admitting some of a lighter kind, descriptive of common life and manners; and he exhibited some specimens of the kind in his own writing. From this arose the Mirror, a well-known periodical publication, to which Mr. Mackenzie performed the office of editor, and was also the principal contributor. The success of the Mirror naturally led Mr. Mackenzie and his friends to undertake the Lounger, upon the same plan, which was not less read, admired, and generally circulated.

When the Royal Society of Edinburgh was instituted, Mr. Mackenzie became one of its most active members, and he has occasionally enriched the volumes of its Transactions by his valuable communications; particularly by an elegant tribute to the memory of his friend, Judge Abercromby, and a memoir on German Tragedy. He is one of the original members of the Highland Society; and by him have been published the volumes of their Transactions, to which he has prefixed an account of the Institution and principal proceedings of the Society, and an interesting account of Gaelic poetry.

In the year 1792 he was one of those literary men who contributed some little occasional tracts to disabuse the lower orders of the people, led astray at that time by the prevailing frenzy of the French Revolution. In 1793, he wrote the Life of Dr. Blacklock, at the request of his widow, prefixed to a quarto edition of that blind poet's works. His intimacy with Blacklock gave him an opportunity of knowing the habits of his life, the bent of his mind, and the feelings peculiar to the privation of sight, under which that amiable and interesting poet laboured.

The literary society of Edinburgh, in the latter part of last century, whose intimacy he enjoyed, is described in his Life of John Home, which he read to the Royal Society in 1812, and, as a sort of Supplement to that Life, he then added some Critical Essays, chiefly on Dramatic Poetry, which have not been published. He has since contributed to the Society a curious Essay on Dreaming, which was heard with much interest.

In 1808, Mr. Mackenzie published a complete edition of his works, in eight volumes octavo; including a tragedy, The Spanish Father, and a comedy, The White Hypocrite, which last was once performed at the Theatre-Royal Covent-Garden. The tragedy had never been represented, in consequence of Mr. Garrick's opinion, that the catastrophe was of too shocking a kind for the modern stage; though he owned the merit of the poetry, the force of some of the scenes, and the scope for fine action in the character of Alphonso, the leading person of the drama. In this edition also is given a carefully corrected copy of the tragedy of The Prince of Tunis, which had been represented at Edinburgh in 1763 with great success.

Among the prose compositions of Mr. Mackenzie, is a political tract, an Account of the Proceedings of the Parliament of 1784, which he was induced to write at the persuasion of his old and steady friend, Mr. Dundas, afterwards Lord Melville. It introduced him to the countenance and regard of Mr. Pitt, who revised the work with particular care and attention, and made several corrections in it with his own hand. Some years after, Mr. Mackenzie was appointed, on the recommendation of Lord Melville and the Right Hon. George Rose, also his particular friend, to the office of Comptroller of the Taxes for Scotland, an appointment of very considerable labour and responsibility, and in discharging which this fanciful and ingenious author has shown his power of entering into and discussing the most dry and complicated details, when such labour became a matter of duty.

The time, we hope, is yet distant, when, speaking of this author as of those with whom his genius ranks him, a biographer may with delicacy trace his personal character and peculiarities, or record the manner in which he has discharged the duties of a citizen. When that hour shall arrive, we trust few of his own contemporaries will be left to mourn him; but we can anticipate the sorrow of a later generation, when deprived of the wit which enlivened their hours of enjoyment, the benevolence which directed and encouraged their studies, and the wisdom which instructed them in their duties to society. It is enough to say here, that Mr. Mackenzie survives, venerable and venerated, as the last link of the chain which connects the Scottish literature of the present age with the period when there were giants in the land — the days of Robertson, and Hume, and Smith, and Home, and Clerk, and Fergusson; and that the remembrance of an era so interesting could not have been intrusted to a sounder judgment, a more correct taste, or a more tenacious memory. It is much to be wished, that Mr. Mackenzie, taking a wider view of his earlier years than in the Life of Home, would place on a more permanent record some of the anecdotes and recollections with which he delights society. We are about to measure his capacity for the task by a singular standard, but it belongs to Mr. Mackenzie's character. He has, we believe, shot game of every description which Scotland contains (deer, and probably grouse, excepted), on the very grounds at present occupied by the extensive and splendid streets of the New Town of Edinburgh; has sought for hares and wild-ducks, where there are now palaces, churches, and assembly-rooms; and has witnessed moral revolutions as surprising as this extraordinary change of local circumstances. These mutations in manners and in morals have been gradual indeed in their progress, but most important in their results, and they have been introduced into Scotland within the last half century. Every sketch of them, or of the circumstances by which they were produced, from the pen of so intelligent an observer, and whose opportunities of observation have been so extensive, would, however slight and detached, rival in utility and amusement any work of the present time.

As an author, Mr. Mackenzie has shown talents both for poetry and the drama. Indeed we are of opinion, that no man can succeed perfectly in the line of fictitious composition, without most of the properties of a poet, though he may be no writer of verses; but Mr. Mackenzie possesses the powers of melody in addition to those of poetical conception. He has given a beautiful specimen of legendary poetry, in two little Highland ballads, a style of composition which becomes fashionable from time to time, on account of its simplicity and pathos, and then is again laid aside, when worn out by the common-place productions of mere imitators, to whom its approved facility offers its chief recommendation. But it is as a Novelist that we are now called on to consider our author's powers; and the universal and permanent popularity of his writings entitles us to rank him among the most distinguished of his class. His works possess the rare and invaluable property of originality, to which all other qualities are as dust in the balance; and the sources to which he resorts to excite our interest, are rendered accessible by a path peculiarly his own. The reader's attention is not rivetted, as in Fielding's works, by strongly marked character, and the lucid evolution of a well-constructed fable; or as in Smollett's novels, by broad and strong humour, and a decisively superior knowledge of human life in all its varieties; nor, to mention authors whom Mackenzie more nearly resembles, does he attain the pathetic effect which is the object of all three, in the same manner as Richardson, or as Sterne. An accumulation of circumstances, sometimes amounting to tediousness, a combination of minutely traced events, with an ample commentary on each, were thought necessary by Richardson to excite and prepare the mind of the reader for the affecting scenes which he has occasionally touched with such force; and without denying him his due merit, it must be allowed that he has employed preparatory volumes in accomplishing what has cost Mackenzie and Sterne only a few pages, perhaps only a few sentences.

On the other hand, although the two last authors have, in particular passages, a more strong resemblance to each other than those formerly named, yet there remains such essential points of difference betwixt them, as must secure for Mackenzie the praise of originality, which we have claimed for him. It is needless to point out to the reader the difference between the general character of their writings, or how far the chaste, correct, almost studiously decorous manner and style of the works of the author of The Man of Feeling, differ from the wild wit, and intrepid contempt at once of decency, and regularity of composition, which distinguish Tristram Shandy. It is not in the general conduct or style of their works that they in the slightest degree approach; nay, no two authors in the British language can be more distinct. But even in the particular passages where both had in view to excite the reader's pathetic sympathy, the modes resorted to are different. The pathos of Sterne in some degree resembles his humour, and is seldom attained by simple means; a wild, fanciful, beautiful flight of thought and expression is remarkable in the former, as an extravagant, burlesque, and ludicrous strain of conception and language characterizes the latter. The celebrated passage, where the tear of the recording Angel blots the profane oath of Uncle Toby out of the register of heaven, a flight so poetically fanciful as to be stretched to the very verge of extravagance, will illustrate our position. To attain his object — that is, to make us thoroughly sympathize with the excited state of mind which betrays Uncle Toby into the indecorous assertion which forms the ground-work of the whole — the author calls Heaven and Hell into the lists, and represents in a fine poetic frenzy, its effects on the accusing Spirit and registering Angel. Let this be contrasted with the fine tale of La Roche, in which Mackenzie has described, with such unexampled delicacy, and powerful effect, the sublime scene of the sorrows and resignation of the bereaved father. This also is painted reflectively; that is, the reader's sympathy is excited by the effect produced on one of the drama, neither angel nor devil, but a philosopher, whose heart remains sensitive, though his studies have misled his mind into the frozen region of scepticism. To say nothing of the tendency of the two passages, which will scarce, in the mind of the most unthinking, bear any comparison, we would only remark, that Mackenzie has given us a moral truth, Sterne a beautiful trope; and that if the one claims the palm of superior brilliancy of imagination, that due to nature and accuracy of human feeling must abide with the Scottish author.

Yet while marking this broad and distinct difference between these two authors, the most celebrated certainly among those who are termed sentimental, it is but fair to Sterne to add, that although Mackenzie has rejected his license of wit, and flights of imagination, retrenched, in a great measure, his episodical digressions, and altogether banished the indecency and buffoonery to which he had too frequent recourse, still their volumes must be accounted as belonging to the same class; and amongst the thousand imitators who have pursued their path, we cannot recollect one English author who is entitled to the same honour. The foreign authors, Riccoboni and Marivaux, belong to the same department; but of the former we remember little; and the latter, though full of the most delicate touches, often depends for effect on the turn of phrase, and the protracted embarrassments of artificial gallantry, more than upon the truth and simplicity of nature. The Heloise and Emile partake of the insanity of their author, and are exaggerated, though most eloquent, descriptions of overwhelming passion, rather than works of sentiment.

In future compositions, the author dropped even that resemblance which the style of The Man of Feeling bears, in some particulars, to the works of Sterne; and his country may boast, that, in one instance at least, she has produced, in Mackenzie, a writer of pure musical Addisonian prose, which retains the quality of vigour, without forfeiting that of clearness and simplicity.

We are hence led to observe, that the principal object of Mackenzie, in all his novels, has been to reach and sustain a tone of moral pathos, by representing the effect of incidents, whether important or trifling, upon the human mind, and especially on those which were not only just, honourable, and intelligent, but so framed as to be responsive to those finer feelings to which ordinary hearts are callous. This is the direct and professed object of Mackenzie's first work, which is in fact no narrative, but a series of successive incidents, each rendered interesting by the mode in which they operate on the feelings of Harley. The attempt had been perilous in a meaner hand; for, sketched by a pencil less nicely discriminating, Harley, instead of a being whom we love, respect, sympathize with, and admire, had become the mere Quixote of sentiment, an object of pity perhaps, but of ridicule at the same time. Against this the author has guarded with great skill; and while duped and swindled in London, Harley neither loses our consideration as a man of sense and spirit, nor is subjected to that degree of contempt with which readers in general regard the misadventures of a novice upon, town, whilst they hug themselves in their own superior knowledge of the world. Harley's spirited conduct towards an impertinent passenger in the stagecoach, and his start of animated indignation on listening to Edwards's story, are skilfully thrown in, to satisfy the reader that his softness and gentleness of temper were not allied to effeminacy; and that he dared, on suitable occasions, to do all that might become a man. We have heard that some of Harley's feelings were taken from those of the author himself, when, at his first entrance on the dry and barbarous study of the municipal law, he was looking back, like Blackstone, on the land of the Muses, which he was condemned to leave behind him. It has also been said, that the fine sketch of Miss Walton was taken from the heiress of a family of distinction, who ranked at that time high in the Scottish fashionable world. But such surmises are little worth the tracing; for we believe no original character was ever composed by any author, without the idea having been previously suggested by something which he had observed in nature.

The other novels of Mr. Mackenzie, although assuming a more regular and narrative form, are, like The Man of Feeling, rather the history of effects produced on the human mind by a series of events, than the narrative of those events themselves. The villainy of Sindall is the tale of a heart hardened to selfishness, by incessant and unlimited gratification of the external senses; a contrast to that of Harley, whose mental feelings have acquired such an ascendency as to render him unfit for the ordinary business of life. The picture of the former is so horrid, that we would be disposed to deny its truth, did we not unhappily know, that sensual indulgence, in the words of Burns,

—hardens a' within,
And petrifies the feeling;

and that there never did, and never will exist, anything permanently noble and excellent in character, which was a stranger to the exercise of resolute self-denial. The account of the victims of Sindall's arts and crimes, particularly the early history of the Annesleys, is exquisitely well drawn; and, perhaps, the scene between the brother and sister by the pond, equals any part of the author's writings. Should the reader doubt this, he may easily make the experiment, by putting it into the hands of any young person of feeling and intelligence, and of an age so early as not to have forgotten the sports and passions of childhood.

The beautiful and tragic tale of Julia de Roubigne, is of a very different tenor from The Man of the World; and we have good authority for thinking, that it was written in some degree as a counter-part to the latter work. A friend of the author, the celebrated Lord Kames, we believe, had represented to Mr. Mackenzie, in how many poems, plays, and novels, the distress of the piece is made to turn upon the designing villainy of some one of the dramatis personae. On considering his observations, the author undertook, as a task fit for his genius, the composition of a story, in which the characters should be all naturally virtuous, and where the calamities of the catastrophe should arise, as frequently happens in actual life, not out of schemes of premeditated villainy, but from the excess and overindulgence of passions and feelings, in themselves blameless, nay, praiseworthy, but which, encouraged to a morbid excess, and coming into fatal though fortuitous concourse with each other, lead to the most disastrous consequences. Mr. Mackenzie executed his purpose; and as the plan fell in most happily with the views of a writer, whose object was less to describe external objects, than to read a lesson on the human passions, he has produced one of the most heart-wringing histories that has ever been written. The very circumstances which palliate the errors of the sufferers, in whose distress we interest ourselves, point out to the reader that there is neither roam for hope, remedy, nor revenge. When a Lovelace or a Sindall comes forth like an Evil Principle, the agent of all the misery of the scene, we see a chance of their artifices being detected, at least the victims have the consciousness of innocence, the reader the stern hope of vengeance. But when, as in Julia de Roubigne, the revival of mutual affection on the part of two pure and amiable beings, imprudently and incautiously indulged, awakens, and not unjustly, the jealous honour of a high-spirited husband, — when we see Julia precipitated into misery by her preference of filial duty to early love, — Savillon, by his faithful and tender attachment to a deserving object, — and Montauban, by a jealous regard to his spotless fame, — we are made aware, at the same time, that there is no hope of aught but the most unhappy catastrophe. The side of each sufferer is pierced by the very staff on which he leant, and the natural and virtuous feelings which they at first most legitimately indulged, precipitate them into error, crimes, remorse, and misery. The cruelty to which Montauban is hurried, may, perhaps, be supposed to exempt him from our sympathy, especially in an age when such crimes as that of which Julia is suspected, are usually borne by the injured parties with more equanimity than her husband displays. But the irritable habits of the time, and of his Spanish descent, must plead the apology of Montauban, as they are admitted to form that of Othello. Perhaps, on the whole, Julia de Roubigne gives the reader too much actual pain to be so generally popular as The Man of Feeling, since we have found its superiority to that beautiful essay n human sensibility, often disputed by those whose taste we are in general inclined to defer to. The very acute feelings which the work usually excites among the readers whose sympathies are liable to be. awakened by scenes of fictitious distress, we are disposed to ascribe to the extreme accuracy and truth of the sentiments, as well as the beautiful manner in which they are expressed. There are few who have not, at one period of life, broken ties of love and friendship, secret disappointments of the heart, to mourn over; and we know no book which recalls the recollection of such more severely than Julia de Roubigne.

We return to consider the key-note, as we may term it, on which Mackenzie has formed his tales of fictitious woe, and which we have repeatedly described to be the illustration of the nicer and liner sensibilities of the human breast. To attain this point, and to place it in the strongest and most unbroken light, the author seems to have kept the other faculties with which we know him to be gifted, in careful subordination. The Northern Addison, who revived the art of periodical writing, and sketched, though with a light pencil, the follies and the lesser vices of his time, has showed himself a master of playful satire. The historian of the Homespun family may place his narrative, without fear of shame, by the side of The Vicar of Wakefield. Colonel Caustic and Umfraville are masterly conceptions of the "laudotor temporis acti;" and many personages in those papers which Mr. Mackenzie contributed to the Mirror and Lounger, attest with what truth spirit, and ease, he could describe, assume, and sustain, a variety of characters. The beautiful landscape-painting which he has exhibited in many passages, (take, for example, that where the country-seat of the old Scottish lady and its accompaniments are so exquisitely delineated,) assures us of the accuracy and delicacy of his touch in delineating the beauties of nature.

But all these powerful talents, any single one of which might have sufficed to bring men of more bounded powers into notice, have been by Mackenzie carefully subjected to the principal object which he proposed to himself — the delineation of the human heart. Variety of character he has introduced sparingly, and has seldom recourse to any peculiarity of incident, availing himself generally of those which may be considered as common property to all writers of romance. His sense of the beauties of nature, and power of describing them, are carefully kept down, to use the expression of the artists; and like the single straggling bough, which shades the face of his sleeping veteran, just introduced to relieve his principal object, but not to eclipse it. It cannot be termed an exception to this rule, though certainly a peculiarity of this author, that on all occasions where sylvan sports can be introduced, he displays an intimate familiarity with them, and, from personal habits, to which we have elsewhere alluded, shows a delight to dwell for an instant upon a favourite topic.

Lastly, The wit which sparkles in his periodical Essays, and in his private conversation, shows itself but little in his Novels; and although his peculiar vein of humour may be much more frequently traced, yet it is so softened down, and divested of the broad ludicrous, that it harmonizes with the most grave and affecting parts of the tale, and becomes, like the satire of Jaques, only a more humorous shade of melancholy. In short, Mackenzie aimed at being the historian of feeling, and has succeeded in the object of his ambition. But as mankind are never contented, and as critics are certainly no exception to a rule so general, we could wish that, without losing or altering a line our author has written, he had condescended to give us, in addition to his stores of sentiment, — a romance on life and manners, by which, we are convinced, he would have twisted another branch of laurel into his garland. However, as Sebastian expresses it,

What has been, is unknown; what is, appears.

We must be proudly satisfied with what we have received, and happy that, in this line of composition, we can boast a living author, of excellence like that of Henry Mackenzie.