A detail of the efforts of genius, in the attempt to overcome the various obstacles, which poverty and seclusion create, has been ever contemplated with interest by the feeling mind, and peculiarly so, when, after the display of early and exquisite talent, death, the usual consequence of unavailing struggles with penury and distress, closes, in the spring of life, the delusive paintings of a warm imagination, the career of honest fame and literary ambition.
The amiable poet, on whose life and compositions we have undertaken to deliver a few remarks, unfortunately presents this very picture; a melancholy instance of a delicate constitution and great mental powers, sinking beneath the pressure of indigence and uncongenial employment. The early portion of his life, the happiest period of his short existence, was spent in his native village of Kinnesswood, in Kinrosshire, under the eye of parents. remarkable for nothing but the innocence and simplicity of their lives. The uncommon facility, however, which their son had shewn in acquiring what literature the neighbouring school of Kinross could afford, induced them, in the year 1762, at which time our poet had attained the age of sixteen, to send him to the University of Edinburgh, with a view toward preparation for the clerical profession, "an object," observes Dr. Anderson, "of common ambition, among persons of interior rank in North Britain" [author's note: Vide Anderson's Poets, Vol. xi. where the minutiae of the poet's life, no object of the present essay, may be found].
It was on the banks of Lochleven, however, that young Bruce first imbibed his love for the Muses, and caught that enthusiasm, that taste for pictoresque scenery, and that pensive cast of mind, which, in so striking a manner, marked his future years. From his friends, likewise, Mr. Arnot and Mr. Pearson, the former of whom cultivated a farm on the borders of the Lake, and the latter resided in a village adjoining to Kinnesswood, he received considerable instruction, and many opportunities for poetical improvement. They were men who, notwithstanding their secluded situation, added, to much rational piety and much sound judgment, no common taste for the beauties of elegant literature, and, through their kindness, the opening powers of the young poet were invigorated, by the repeated perusal of Shakspeare, Milton, Pope and Thomson. That he relished and fully entered into the spirit of these celebrated bards, more particularly of Thomson, is evident from the few pieces he lived to complete, and which, it will be shortly seen, abound in accurate description and pathetic sentiment.
The same discrimination which induced him to solicit, and enabled him to profit by the assistance of these worthy characters, greatly his superiors in age and attainments, taught him to select, from his youthful associates at school, two of similar feelings and pursuits, and with these, a Mr. George Henderson and a Mr. Dryburgh, he contracted and cherished a friendship, which death alone had power to dissolve. Their partiality to his favourite studies still further heightened, through participation, that pleasing and tender enthusiasm, which steals, with such enchantment, on the bosom of sensibility, and which too often, alas! by presenting visions of ideal excellence, unfits its votaries for the scenery of real life.
With a mind thus stored with combinations of sublimity and beauty, and with a heart where piety and simplicity dwelt unalloyed, Bruce left his native vales and mountains for the metropolis of his country. Here, for four successive winters, he studied, with patient assiduity, the languages of the schools, and. acquired a competent, and even critical knowledge, of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew Divinity, and the various branches of philosophy, claimed also his attention, but nothing, though thus vigorously and variously employed had power to separate him from his first affections, and poetry, the Syren poetry, still held her wonted influence, and became his inseparable companion. It was during this period also he formed an intimacy with Logan, a student of the University, an elegant and accomplished scholar, and a very ingenious poet, and who, after the death of his young friend, paid a valuable tribute to his memory by publishing his poems, and prefixing a most pleasing and well-written preface. Here, too, that tender melancholy, so conspicuous a feature of the earliest years of Bruce, whether from a morbid delicacy of constitution, a too strict confinement to study, or a gloomy anxiety as to the means of his future support appears to have greatly increased, and his letters to Mr. Arnot, while they breathe a pious resignation, paint, in strong colours, the mental oppression under which he laboured; "I am in health," he writes in 1764, "excepting a kind of settled melancholy which has seized on my spirits."
It was not long after the date of this letter, at the close of the session in the summer of the year 1765, at a time when his health required not only great care, but relaxation from fatigue of any kind, that he fatally for himself embraced the proposal of his friends, to teach a school at Gairny-bridge, near Kinross. To this employment, which, probably, the pecuniary difficulties of his situation compelled him to accept, but which, to a man of his polished taste and refined understanding, must have been peculiarly irksome, we may, without hesitation, attribute the pulmonary complaints, which, so speedily after this unfortunate step, hurried him to the grave. From Gairny, however, in the summer of 1766, having spent the preceding winter at Edinburgh, he removed to Forest Mill, near Alloa, in Clackmannanshire, where, notwithstanding his imperfect state of health, and the resumption of his arduous task of a schoolmaster, he began and finished his beautiful poem called Lochleven.
But the slow and insidious symptoms of a disease, which too generally selects for its prey the most amiable and accomplished of mankind, and whose progress had been accelerated through painful labour, and the privations attendant upon poverty, had, ere the termination of the autumn of this year, so completely undermined the constitution of the poor youth that it became evident to himself and to all around him, that the hour of his departure was fast approaching.
In a situation such as this, deprived of the society of friends, stripped of the many comforts which even common competency affords, and with the prospect of death hourly in contemplation) few, perhaps, have exhibited greater proofs of self command and resignation than Michael Bruce. That his constitutional bias of mind to the solemn and the pathetic should receive a darker hue from the evils and sorrows he had, in his short pilgrimage, experienced was naturally to be expected; his deep sense of religion, however, and his well-grounded confidence in the blessings of a future existence, never suffered this depression to degenerate into despair. The sublime, yet tender melancholy, which at this period overshadowed his mind, softened, though not altogether subdued, by the beams of piety and hope, has been painted, by himself, in colours which can never fade.
"I have not many friends," observes he, in a letter to Mr. Pearson, on the decease of his former school fellow Dryburgh, dated November 20th, 1766, "but I love them well. Scarce one enjoys the smiles of this world in every respect; and in every friend I suffer. Death has been among the few I have. Poor Dryburgh! but he's happy. I expected to have been his companion through life, and that we should have stept into the grave together. But Heaven has seen meet dispose of him otherwise. — What think you of this world? I think it is very little worth. You and I have not a great deal to make us fond of it. And yet I would not change my condition with the most wealthy unfeeling fool in the universe, if I were to have his dull heart into the bargain. Farewell, my rival in immortal hope! my companion, I trust, for eternity. Though far distant, I take thee to my heart. Souls suffer no separation from the obstruction of matter or distance of place. Oceans may roll between us, and climates interpose in vain. The whole material creation is no bar to the winged mind. Farewell, through boundless ages, fare thou well. May'st thou shine when the sun is darkened. May'st thou live and triumph when time expires. It is, at least, possible we may meet no more in this foreign land, this gloomy apartment of the universe of God. But there is a better world, in which we may meet to part no more. — Adieu!"
I know few passages more truly affecting than this, provided the youth the circumstances, and the abilities of the writer be duly considered: if any thing can add to the powerful impression it conveys, it is the following description, addressed to Mr. Pearson, on December 24th, 1766, a description which wrings the very heart with anguish.
"It is more than probable" says he, "the next you receive from me, if ever you receive another, will bear date 1767. I can remember I could write, or, at least, scratch my name, with the year 1752. In that year I learnt the elements of pencraft; and it is now fourteen years since; a goodly term for one to be a scholar all that time. And what have I learned? Much that I need to unlearn. I lead a melancholy kind of life in this place. I am not fond of company. But it is not good that a man be still alone. And here I can have no company, but what is worse than solitude. If I had not a lively imagination, I believe I should fall into a state of stupidity and delirium. I have some evening scholars, the attending on whom, though few, so fatigues rue, that the rest of the night I am quite dull and low spirited. Yet I have some lucid intervals, in the time of which I can study pretty well."
Some relief, however, will he afforded to the sympathising reader, when he learns, that shortly after this period, his complaints having so far increased as to leave no hopes of life, and the last stage of a consumption having come on, he left his situation at Forest Mill, and flew to meet those comforts, and that soothing kindness, which the affection of his parents could alone bestow. To their care and attention he had been indebted for early and very strong impressions of piety, and to these we may attribute that dignity and strength of mind, which, under the pressure of circumstances the most afflictive, to the last enabled him, not only to correspond with his friends, but to cultivate, with success, his poetic talents. That within a few weeks of his death his powers were unimpaired, and that he beheld the inevitable hour with the utmost tranquillity and resignation, his Elegy written in Spring is a most striking and pathetic proof; but were this wanting, the following admirable extract from his last letter to Mr. Pearson, would amply exhibit the richness of his imagination, and the consolations he derived from hope and faith; it is an allegory indeed, so exquisitely conducted, so beautifully descriptive of human life, its dangers and temptations, and the necessity of religion for our guide, that, with the exception of one or two pieces, it has, probably, scarce a rival, in this department of our literature.
"A few mornings ago, as I was taking my walk on an eminence, which commands a view of the Forth, with the vessels sailing along, I sat down, and taking out my Latin Bible, opened, by accident, at a place in the book of Job, ix. 25. 'Now my days are passed away as the swift ships.' Shutting the book, I fell a musing on this affecting comparison. Whether the following happened to me in a dream or waking reverie I cannot tell, but I fancied myself on the bank of a river, or sea, the opposite side of which was hid from view, being involved in clouds of mist. On the shore stood a multitude which no man could number, waiting for passage. I saw a great many ships taking in passengers, and several persons going about in the garb of pilots, offering their Service. Being ignorant, and curious to know what all these things meant, I applied to a grave old man who stood by, giving instructions to the departing passengers. His name, I remember, was the Genius of Human Life, 'My son,' said he, you stand on the banks of the stream of Time; all these people are bound for Eternity, that undiscovered country, from whence no traveller ever returns. The country is very large, and divided into two parts; the one is called the Land of Glory, the other the Kingdom of Darkness. The names of these in the garb of pilots, are Religion, Virtue, Pleasure. They who are so wise as to choose Religion for their guide, have a safe, though, frequently, a rough passage; they are, at last, landed in the happy climes, where sighing and sorrow for ever fly away; they have likewise a secondary director, Virtue; but there is a spurious Virtue, who pretends to govern by himself, but the wretches, who trust to him, as well as those who have Pleasure for their pilot, are either shipwrecked or cast away on the Kingdom of Darkness. But the vessel in which you must embark approaches; you must be gone; remember what depends upon your conduct.' No sooner had he left me, than I found myself surrounded by those lots I mentioned before; immediately I forgot all that the old man said to me, and, sedced by the fair promises of Pleasure, chose him for my director; we weighed anchor with a fair gale, the sky serene, the sea calm; innumerable little isles lifted their around us, covered with trees in full blossom; dissolved in stupid mirth, we were carried on, regardless of the past, of the future unmindful. On a sudden, the sky was darkened, the winds roared, the seas raged, red rose the sand from the bottom of the troubled deep, the angel of the waters lifted up his voice. At that instant a strong ship passed by; I saw Religion at the helm; 'Come out from among them,' he cried, I and a few others threw ourselves out into his ship. The wretches we left were now tossed on the swelling deep; the waters, on every side, poured through the riven vessel; they cursed the Lord; when lo! a fiend rose from the deep, and in a voice like distant thunder thus spoke. 'I am Abaddon, the first-born of Death, ye are my prey; open thou abyss to receive them.' As he thus spoke, they sunk, and the waves closed over their heads. The storm was turned into a calm, and we heard a voice, saying, 'Fear not, I am with you; when you pass through the waters, they shall not overflow you.' Our hearts were filled with joy; I was engaged in discourse with one of my new companions, when one from the top of the mast cried out, 'Courage, my friends, I see the fair haven, the land that is yet afar off.' Looking up I found it was a certain friend, who had mounted up for the benefit of contemplating the country before him; upon seeing you I was so affected, I started and awaked. Farewell my friend, farewel!"
The change he had long contemplated, and for which he was so well prepared, was now near at hand; the spring of the year 1767 found him in a state of extreme debility and emaciation, and on the sixth of the July following, in the twenty-first year of his age, he left this world for a better.
Poor Youth! thy days, indeed, were days of sorrow; what, though the landscape at the dawn shone clear, bright laughed the blue stream in the rising sun, and the trees waved their green heads with joy, long ere the noontide hour came the storm with ruin and with darkness on its wings, and swept the gay vision from thy view. Ah! what availed thy learning and thy genius, what thy sensibility and taste! condemned to roam a barren soil, to live unknown and unrewarded, to droop exhausted and alone! Thus, on some opening flower, the beauty of the desart, rush the unsparing winds; it shrinks, it falls; torn are its leaves and faded, and withering in the blast!
To this outline of the life of Michael Bruce I shall add, that travelling in the year 1787 through the western Highlands of Scotland, and returning to Edinburgh by Lochleven and North Ferry, I rode by the house, situated about three miles from Kinross, where he was born. "I never look on his dwelling," observes Lord Craig in the Mirror, "a small thatched house distinguished from the cottages of the other inhabitants only by a sashed window at the end, instead of a lattice, fringed with a honeysuckle plant, which the poor youth had trained around it; — I never find myself in that spot, but I stop my horse involuntarily; and looking on the window, which the honeysuckle has now almost covered, m the dream of the moment, I picture out a figure for the gentle tenant of the mansion; I wish, and my heart swells while I do so, that he were and that I were a great man to have the luxury of visiting him there, and bidding him be happy."
These natural and pleasing ideas possessed my mind at the time I passed his door, which I did not do without checking my horse to indulge the tribute of a sigh. The concluding lines of his beautifully descriptive poem on Lochleven, which was finished under the pressure of mortal disease, and at a distance from his native cottage, instantly occurred to my memory.
Thus sang the youth, amid unfertile fields
And nameless deserts, unpoetic ground!
Far from his friends he strayd, recording thus
The dear remembrance of his native fields
To cheer the tedious night; while slow disease
Prey'd on his pining vitals, and the blasts
Of dark December shook his humble cot.
Lochleven, the subject of Mr. Bruce's Poem, is a beautiful fresh water Lake near twelve miles in circumference, on the side next Kinross bounded by a plain occupied by open groves, on the other side by mountains. About the centre of the lake are two islands; one of which, called St. Serfs' isle, has not less than forty acres of excellent pasturage, and was formerly the seat of the ancient priory of Lochleven, dedicated to St. Servanus. On the other, which contains not above an acre of ground, stand the pictoresque ruins of the castle of the Douglasses.
A spot abounding in so much lovely scenery, and rendered still more attractive by the associations of childhood and early youth, would necessarily impress on the susceptible heart of our young poet the most lively and endearing sensations; and when far distant from his humble shed and tender parents, when suffering under sickness and sorrow, it was a consolation of no vulgar kind to recollect the pleasures of his native vale to paint in glowing colours its delicious landscapes, and, ere the fairy tintings faded from his view, to give them local habitation and a name in strains which should perpetuate his memory and his genius.
On his poem entitled Lochleven, the most extensive production of his talents, I shall now offer a few remarks, and principally with the view of pointing out the beauties of its versification, sentiment and imagery. From the era of Denham to the present day, Local Poetry has been assiduously cultivated; and though difficult to render popular, from the confinement to which the poet is subjected, some pieces have acquired and deservedly maintained no inconsiderable reputation. Among those which have been written in blank verse, the Amwell of Scott and the Lochleven of Bruce, hold, in my opinion, the most distinguished rank. If the former be more digressive and varied, the latter is more pathetic and pictoresque, and occasionally approaches the sublime. Neither of these pleasing productions, likewise, fatigue the attention by extreme length; a circumstance of essential consequence in loco-descriptive poetry, which, even in the hands of a master, is but too apt to offend by reiterated attempts to describe what, without having previously visited the scenery, can seldom impress the ideas of locality, o appear otherwise than vague and general sketches from Nature. The Lochleven of Bruce, however, is singularly happy in its subject, the lake and the landscape around it possessing features decidedly peculiar, and of a most interesting kind; and of these we shall find, together with what fancy and reflection could afford, he has amply availed himself.
In delineating the varied objects of pictoresque beauty, a preference since the days of Thomson, though we want not two or three most admirable specimens of the adoption of the couplet metre in this department, has been usually, and perhaps with propriety, given to blank verse. The versification of Thomson, however, offers by no means a correct model; its construction is, too frequently, harsh and encumbered, and it shews great judgment in Mr. Bruce, and a very chastised ear, that although in the habit of constantly perusing the "Seasons," his diction and blank verse are remarkable for selection, simplicity and harmony. Of the music which, in general, breathes through the pages of the poet, of Lochleven, the following lines, taken from the elegant and appropriate episode of Lomond and Levina, form a most pleasing proof. A considerable disparity as to fortune and rank existing between the two lovers, she thus replies to his solicitations.
O! had you been a shepherd of the dale,
To feed your flock beside me, and to rest
With me at noon in these delightful shades,
I might have listen'd to the voice of love,
Nothing reluctant; might with you have walk'd
Whole summer suns away. At even-tide,
When heaven and earth in all their glory shine
With the last smiles of the departing sun;
When the sweet breath of summer feasts the sense,
And secret pleasure thrills the heart of man;
We might have walk'd alone, in converse sweet,
Along the quiet vale, and woo'd the moon
To hear the music of true lovers' vows.
On an incident of a kind contrasted with the above, where all is deep and tragic, the versification, though still preserving a due degree of melody, is bold, abrupt and nervous.
—Behold the tears
Yon wretched widow o'er the mangled corpse
Of her dead husband pours, who, hapless man
Cheerful and strong went forth at rising morn
To usual toil; but, era the evening hour,
His sad companions bore him lifeless home.
Urged from the hill's high top, with progress swift,
A weighty stone, resistless, rapid came,
Seen by the fated wretch, who stood unmoved,
Nor turn'd to fly, till flight had been in vain;
When now arriv'd the instrument of death,
And fell'd him to the ground. The thirsty land
Drank up his blood: such was the will of Heaven!
To impart that individuality to local description which, to a person who has not visited the spot, shall immediately and exclusively characterize the scene, is, as we have already observed, one of the most arduous provinces of poetry, and certainly more adapted to the pencil than the pen; yet, when the difficulty is once surmounted, the reader feels powerfully interested by the fidelity and originality of the outline, and pursues the associated imagery with redoubled pleasure. With a few strokes of his pen Mr. Bruce has traced, and with graphical minuteness too, the more striking features of the scenery he had to sketch, and the Lake, the Mountain, the Valley, the Rivers, the Island and the Castle, are so drawn as to render the view at once peculiar and distinct. With these he has connected some slight but faithful draughts of natural history, several historical allusions, and many of those sweet and pictoresque tintings which add an interest even to the most common occurrences of rural life and landscape. As specimens of these decorative minutiae, I shall adduce two sketches from the stores of animal life, and two miniature views rendered attractive by exquisite colouring and happy allusion.
In sportive traces, through the forest flew
With feet of wind; and vent'ring from the rock,
The snow-white coney sought his evening meal.
—Around the fields
No noise was heard, save where the whisp'ring reeds
Wav'd to the breeze, or in the dusky air
The slow-wing'd crane mov'd heavily o'er the lea,
And shrilly clamour'd as he sought his nest.
—I see the goodly scene!
Enclosures green, that promise to the swain
The future harvest; many-colour'd meads;
Irriguous vales, where cattle low, and sheep
That whiten half the hills; sweet rural farm
Oft intrspers'd, the seats of past'ral love
And innocence, with many a spiry dome
Sacred to Heav'n, around whose hallow'd walls
Our fathers slumber in the narrow house.
—O how sweet! amid the fragrant shrubs
At evening cool to sit; while, on their boughs,
The nested songsters twitter o'er their young,
And the hoarse low of folded cattle breaks
The silence, wafted o'er the sleeping lake
Whose waters glow beneath the purple tinge
Of western cloud.
The vein of pathetic sentiment which pervades the whole of this poem is so interwoven with the general scenery, that the attempt to separate them, if it were possible, would be injudicious. The tale of Lomond and Levina, which forms the only episode in the piece, abounds with many touches of true pathos, and is brought forward and conducted with much felicity of invention. The death of the latter introduces a pleasing tribute to his Eumelia, a young woman who resided at Gairny-Bridge, to whom Bruce was tenderly attached, and whose attraction he has frequently celebrated in his smaller productions. After relating the dreadful event which terminated the life of the unfortunate Levina, he thus proceeds in a strain equally feeling and impressive.
—Each tender maid
For her shall heave the sympathetic sigh,
And haply my Eumelia, (for her soul
Is pity's self) as, void of household cares,
Her evening walk she bends beside the lake,
Which yet retains her name, shall sadly drop
A tear, in mem'ry of the hapless maid,
And mourn with me the sorrows of the youth,
Whom from his mistress death did not divide.
Robb'd of the cairn possession of his mind,
All night he wander'd by the sounding shore,
Long looking o'er the lake, and saw at times,
The dear, the dreary ghost of her he lov'd;
Till love and grief subdu'd his manly prime,
And brought his youth with sorrow to the grave.
The passage immediately succeeding this, and which concludes the episode, exhibits a masterly proof of the skill with which our poet could embellish and illustrate his subject The aged peasant, his family circle, and his tale of the times of old, are given. With a faithful adherence to nature, and the last three lines shew, that the bard could imitate, without servilely copying one of the most finished pictures in Virgil. Scilicet et tempus veniet, &c. &c.
I knew an aged Swain, whose hoary head
Was bent with years, the village chronicle,
Who much had seen, and from the former times
Much had receiv'd. He, hanging o'er the hearth
In winter ev'nings, to the gaping swains
And children circling round the fire, would tell
Stories of old, and tales of other times.
Of Lomond and Levina he would talk;
And how of old, in Britain's evil days,
When brothers against brothers drew the sword
Of civil rage, the hostile hand of war
Ravag'd the land, gave cities to the sword,
And all the country to devouring fire.
Then these fair forests and Elysian scenes,
In one great conflagration, and to heav'n.
Barren and black, by swift degrees arose
A muirish fen; and hence the lab'ring hind,
Digging for fuel, meets the mouldering trunks
Of oaks, and branchy antlers of the deer.
Though the poem on Lochleven contain little more than six hundred lines, it is astonishing with what a variety of landscapes it is decorated; these are for the most part touched with a spirited pencil, and not seldom discover considerable originality, both in conception and execution; they are not mere copies of still life, but abound in the expression of human Passions and feelings, and excite the most permanent and pleasurable emotions. I think it no exaggeration to affirm, that English poetry has not two more lovely descriptions of rural happiness and plenty to produce, than what I am now about to place before the reader.
—Behold the village rise
In rural pride, 'mong intermingled trees!
Above whose aged tops, the joyful swains
At even-tide, descending from the hill,
With eye enamour'd, mark the many wreaths
Of pillar'd smoke, high-curling to the clouds.
The street resounds with labour's various voice,
Who whistles at his work. Gay on the green,
Young blooming boys, and girls with golden hair,
Trip nimble footed, wanton in their play,
The village hope. All in a rev'rend row,
Their gray-hair'd grandsires, sitting in the sun,
Before the gate, and leaning on the staff,
The well-remember'd stories of their youth
Recount, and shake their aged locks with joy.
It were vain to comment on a picture such as this; it speaks for itself, and appeals to the heart of every individual; nor will the closing lines of the subsequent quotation, notwithstanding their immediate comparison with the above, present a less pleasing delineation, or be less entitled to applause.
—Gentle Leven! green on either hand
Thy meadows spread, unbroken of the plough
With beauty all their own. Thy fields rejoice
With all the riches of the golden year.
Fat on the plain, and mountains sunny side,
Large droves of oxen, and the fleecy flocks
Feed undisturb'd, and fill the echoing air
With music, grateful to the master's ears
The traveller stops, and gazes round and round
O'er all the scenes, that animate his heart
With mirth and music. Even the mendicant,
Bow bent with age, that on the old gray stone,
Sole sitting, suns him in the public way,
Feels his heart leap, and to himself he sings.
Sensations the most solemn and sublime are usually created by the view of the remains of distant ages; the survey of ruins ecclesiastical or civil is, in reflecting minds, associated with the recollection of the customs and manners of those who so many centuries ago inhabited the majestic pile. The transient nature of our existence, and the instability of all human grandeur, are immediately suggested, and awaken those pensive but highly grateful emotions which lift the soul above all sublunary concerns, and fix its hopes and meditations on another world. That Mr. Bruce, with pious awe and anxious curiosity, wandered among the ruins which are scattered over the two islands of Lochleven, we know from his epistolary correspondence; and the wildly-mournful strains to which their contemplation gave birth, form one of the noblest passages he ever composed. He seems indeed, in this instance, to have imbibed much of the dark colouring and imagery of that Bard of ancient days, the melancholy Ossian; the adoption of whose sombre tints and style evince the solidity of his judgment.
Here Superstition for her cloister'd sons
A dwelling rear'd, with many an arched vault;
Where her pale vot'ries at the midnight hour,
In many a mournful strain of melancholy,
Chaunted their orisons to the cold moon.
it now resounds with the wild shrieking gull,
The crested lapwing, and the clam'rous mew,
The patient heron, and the bittern dull,
Deep-sounding in the base, with all the tribe
That by the water seek th' appointed meal.
From hence the shepherd in the fenced fold
'Tis said, has heard strange sounds, and music wild;
Such as in Selma, by the burning oak
Of hero fallen, or of battle lost,
Warn'd Fingal's mighty son, from trembling chords
Of untouch'd harp, self-sounding in the night.
Perhaps th' afflicted Genius of the Lake
That leaves the wat'ry grot, each night to mourn
The waste of time, his desolated isles
And temples in the dust: his plaintive voice
Is heard resounding through the dreary courts
Of high Lochleven castle, famous once,
Th' abode of heroes of the Bruce's line;
Gothic the pile, and high the solid walls,
With warlike ramparts, and the strong defence.
Of jutting battlements, an age's toil!
No more its arches echo to the noise
Of joy and festive mirth. No more the glance
Of blazing taper thro' its windows beams,
And quivers on the undulating wave:
But naked stand the melancholy walls,
Lash'd by the wint'ry tempests, cold and bleak,
That whistle mournful thro' the empty halls,
And piece-meal crumble down the towers to dust.
Perhaps in some lone, dreary, desert tower,
That time has spar'd, forth from the window looks,
Half hid in grass, the solitary Fox;
While from above the owl, musician dire!
Screams hideous, harsh, and grating to the ear.
Equal in age, and sharers of its fate,
A row of moss-grown trees around it stand.
Scarce here and there, upon their blasted tops,
A shrivell'd leaf distinguishes the year;
Emblem of hoary age, the eve of life,
When man draws nigh his everlasting home,
Within a step of the devouring grave;
When all his views and towering hopes are gone,
And every appetite before him dead.
The extracts and observations now given, will, I hope, prove, that in loco-descriptive poetry, this production of Mr. Bruce holds a most distinguished rank; were I, indeed, to place it at the head of its class, I know not, its pathos and pictoresque merits well considered, whether I should err. That it has defects, however, cannot be denied; the diction is sometimes not duly elaborated, nor the epithets sufficiently varied, but, upon the whole, its beauties so greatly preponderate, and are so evidently drawn from the sources of a mind, employed in the study and faithful delineation of nature, that he must be a very fastidious critic, indeed, who should suffer these minutiae to divert his attention, attention, or deteriorate his pleasure.
On the smaller poems of our author, it will not be expected, after the extensive survey already taken of his principal production, that I should enter into any particular criticism; the Elegy written in Spring, however, the Danish Odes, and the Ballad of Sir James he Ross, cannot be dismissed in silence. The circumstances under which the first of these pieces was composed, render it more than ordinarily impressive. "A young man of genius," observes Lord Craig, "in a deep consumption, at the age of twenty-one, feeling himself every moment going faster to decline, is an object sufficiently interesting; but how much must every feeling on the occasion be heightened, when we know that this person possessed so much dignity and composure of mind, as not only to contemplate hi .approaching fate, but even to write a poem on the subject." It should be remembered, also, that this production, as an elegy, merits great praise for the elegance and simplicity of its language, for the adoption and arrangement of its imagery, for the piety and pathos of its sentiment.
The Danish Odes, which form a fine contrast with the plaintive melody of the Muse of Sorrow, breathe much of the martial ardor and festivity of the heroes of Scandinavia. They are evidently built on the model of Gray's celebrated Norse Lyrics, and, like them, glow with enthusiasm, and display some striking features of the wild mythology of the North. The fourth and fifth stanzas of the first ode, are particularly entitled to commendation.
Bruce appears to have been well qualified to excel in Legendary Poetry, and to have formed a very accurate idea of its principles and peculiarities. His ballad of Sir James the Ross, is well told, the incidents are artfully managed, and the whole strongly interests the heart. That it was formed on a just conception of this style of poetry, and composed, to use an Italian phrase, "con amore," are evident from his own account; "it was written," he observes to Mr. Pearson, "in one afternoon, began about four, and finished before I went to bed. I never tried any thing which fell in with my inclination so. The Historical Ballad is a species of writing by itself. The common people confound it with the Song, but, in truth, they are widely different. A Song should never be historical. It is founded, generally, on some one thought, which must be prosecuted and exhibited in every light, with a quickness and turn of expression peculiar to itself. The Ballad, again, is founded on some passage of history, or, what suits its nature better, of tradition. Here the poet may use his liberty, and cut and carve as he has a mind. I think it kind of writing, remarkably adapted to the Scottish language."
This opinion of our poet, relative to the adaptation of the Scottish dialect to Legendary poetry, is certainly well founded, and has been since confirmed by several very learned and adequate judges. In fact, the two finest Ballads that British poetry has to produce are of Scottish growth, namely, Hardyknute and Tam O'Shanter, the former uniformly grand, sublime, and awful; the latter uniting the wild and terrific imagery of Shakspeare, with the humour, simplicity, and naivete of Fontaine.
On the pastoral poetry of Bruce I can bestow little commendation; it has the too frequent insipidity of productions of this kind. The Daphnis, as an imitation of Milton, is infinitely inferior to its prototype, and for the Alexis, if we except harmony of versification, I know not that any thing can be said. A few words will likewise suffice as to his efforts in ludicrous composition, for which, perhaps, he had no great talent, when of his Mousiad and his Anacreontic it has been asserted, that they may amuse, and are not altogether deficient in pleasantry and humour, all that he can claim has probably been granted.
Concerning the authenticity of the pieces which have been added to the last edition of our author's poems, much dispute has arisen. Logan, very injudiciously, on first publishing the works of his friend, intermingled poems of his own and of others, to which no discriminating mark or signature was annexed. Of these he has acknowledged only one, the Ode to a Cuckoo, which he reprinted in a collection of his poems in 1781. Neglecting, however, the discordant testimony which has been adduced, and judging merely by internal evidence, I should have little hesitation in assigning the Ode to a Fountain, and the Imitation of Ossian to Bruce; they have great merit, especially the Ode, which exhibits much of the plaintive tenderness and style peculiar to the poet of Lochleven.
It may be thought necessary, perhaps, ere I conclude my observations, to notice a poem of considerable length, which has been communicated by a Mr. Birrel, of Kinnesswood, as an undoubted composition of Bruce. The subject, which is The Last Day, I cannot but consider as an unfortunate one, as one to which the powers of poetry are not adequate, and on which, not even the efforts of a Milton or a Klopstock could confer an interest, or cloath with a sublimity, that should meet even the expectations and already awakened imagination of the common reader. Of two specimens by poets possessed of strong creative powers neither has, in my opinions, succeeded; the Last Day of Young has certainly merit, and the production of Ogilvie, on the same topic, still greater; but both have failed to excite ideas, either of terror or sublimity, equal to what the mere outline of Scripture affords; nor can the effort of our amiable bard, the last, I believe, which has been published, establish any claim to superior success; in making this attempt, he had not duly weighed his genius and his talents.
These, we have seen, were admirably calculated to excel in the walks of tenderness, simplicity and pathos; to describe in chaste, yet animated language, the beauties of Nature, and to impart a value imperishable to his pictures from the stores of sentiment and feeling. Lochleven and the Elegy written in Spring, display a most happy combination of these qualities, and, as long as taste and sensibility shall exist, will, we may venture to assert, never be forgotten.
As to the personal character of the Author, if religion, if virtue, if filial piety, if fortitude, if meekness and resignation, still touch the heart and claim our warm applause, the transient life of Michael Bruce hath not been passed in vain. — O Reader! bless the memory of the gentle Bard, and, whilst the tear of pity trembles on thy cheek, may'st thou feel the glow of emulative hope, and learn to live like him.