1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Kirke Paulding

John Wilson Croker, Review of Paulding, Lay of the Scottish Fiddle; Quarterly Review 10 (January 1814) 463-67.



It was to be expected that in the process of time an American wag should make his appearance. In a nation derived from so many fathers it has justly been matter of wonder that there should hitherto have existed so tame a uniformity, and that he composition of such various elements should produce the merest monotony of character that the world has yet seen. It is not our business to inquire into the cause of this phenomenon, or to trace why the thoughtless, dissolute, and turbulent of all nations should, in commingling, so neutralize one another that the result should be a people without wit or fancy. We will only observe that when the vulgar and illiterate lose the force of their animal spirits they become mere clods; and that the founders of American society brought to the composition of their nation few seeds of good taste, and no rudiments of liberal science.

As population thickens however, and intercourse spreads, the arts and manners of polished society must arise, and it may be safely prognosticated that America will in time produce poets, painters, and musicians. — But we must attend to the work before us.

An intelligent observer of our theory will have anticipated that the first effort of American wit would necessarily be a parody. Childhood is every where a parodist. America is all a parody, a mimicry of her parents; it is, however, the mimicry of a child "tetchy and wayward in its infancy," abandoned to bad nurses and educated in low habits.

The Lay of the Scottish Fiddle resembles the "Lay of the Last Minstrel," as small beer does champaign: — nor are the poetical powers of the parodist shamed by the soundness of his judgment. More than half the volume consists of notes, (under the name of Walter Scott,) giving, in a kind of tiresome drawl, rendered yet more oppressive by an affectation of smartness, a miserable detail of petty squabbles in huts and hamlets, of which neither the name nor the knowledge ever crossed the Atlantic. The story we can scarcely discover; the tendency is sufficiently clear — to calumniate the naval officers of Old England, and to libel its own countrymen of New England. The cause of hatred to Great Britain is obvious enough; the grounds of enmity to the New Englanders is the complimentary and, we believe, the just accusation of having approached more nearly than the other states to the feelings and manners of European society.

How the author contrives to combine his satires upon British naval officers and New-York innkeepers, we cannot (though we have read the poem with great diligence) presume to guess. The writer is, we perceive, very angry and very scurrilous; but we are not sufficiently versed in the scandal of American faction to be able to ascertain the objects of his individual attack. We only know that every Englishman is a "Sir," or a "Childe," and every American innkeeper a "Lord;" but what the humour of this liberality of titles is we have not discovered. When we do understand any of our author's lucky hits) "we hold it very stuff o' the conscience" to set them forth. Our readers therefore have the satisfaction of learning, that Sir John Warren (whom, for his sake, we are glad to find an object of American dislike) is pleasantly denominated Sir Bolus. "Marry why," aye, that indeed is worth inquiring. The worthy admiral was, it seems, not only christened John, but "Borlase; "and by dropping "r," and changing "ase" into "us," we have the ingenious "logogriphic" title of "Sir Bolus"!

Admiral Cockburn's name likewise affords the author some elegant allusions, though he has not been able to fashion it into so humorous an appellative; but he intimates that a "cock" is a bird of spirit, and that there can be no "burn" without fire. "Childe Cockburn," therefore, must have the fire of a hero and the spirit of a cock. This is admirable; but the author has yet a higher stroke of wit in store; a cock has a red comb, and fire which burns is red, and therefore Admiral Cockburn's prime personal ornament must be a "huge fiery-red nose." This is a theme of unbounded pleasantry throughout the poem, and as it is really the best joke of all, it would be unjust not to say that we ourselves have seen Admiral Cockbun, and are enabled to assever that the "huge fiery nose" is an invention, of which the whole credit belongs to our American genius. His own modesty, indeed, leads him to intimate that he borrowed the idea from Sir J. Falstaffe , who calls Bardolph "Admiral" because "he carries the lanthorn in the poop;" but we cannot permit him so to undervalue his talents.

There is, however, one of Sir John's commentaries on the nose of his friend of which he might have made use. "'Sblood," says Bardolph, when he could no longer bear the knight's sarcasms — "I wish my nose were in your belly." — "God 'a mercy!" replies Sir John, "so should I be sure to be heart-burn'd." — We quote this for the sake of observing, that there occurred a practical joke "germain to this matter;" for this fiery-nosed Cockburn, we are assured, got into "the very bowels of the land;" in consequence of which, the town of Havre-de-Grace and some others were destroyed, not by a metaphorical, but a real and bona fide conflagration. On this subject our parodist is very indignant; and totally forgetting who first invaded their neighbour's territory, he puts into the mouth of an old woman the following tirade against the outrageous determination of Great Britain to go to war with America, who had already — gone to war with her.

As tottering near the smoking heap
The houseless matron bends to weep,
Methinks I hear her sighing say,
As turning in despair away:
"Are these the gallant tars, so long
The burthen of their country's song?
These they, whose far resounding name
Fills the obstreperous trump of Fame?
Who lord it o'er the subject wave,
And France and all her prowess brave?
These, the great 'bulwark' to oppose
Peace and Religion's deadly foes?
These, who are destin'd to restore
Repose to Europe's harass'd shore?
God help the while! if such they be,
What glorious tunes we soon shall see!

"If such they be — God help the while!
Where send the peaceful sons of toil,
Who take no part in that fell strife
Which in ambition's laud is rife,
But harmless trade industrious ply,
Nor trouble aught beneath the sky—
To what lone scene must they retire
To 'scape the Briton's wrathful fire?
Where shall the matron refuge seek
The infant that can hardly speak?
Where the bed-ridden and the old
Retire from reach of Briton bold?
Who comes in pious Christian ire
To purify the earth by fire;
Who labours for the world's repose
By heaping up a world of woes;
Who points our hopes to realms of bliss,
By making us heart-sick of this;
And thus, as farmer Caleb saith,
ACTS AS THE 'BULWARK OF OUR FAITH.'" — p. 118, &c.

This passage affords a fair specimen of the author's powers: it is the peroration of his poem, written with peculiar care, and for poetry, pleasantry, satire, good sense, and good logic, equals, if it does not surpass, any other that we could select. The old lady, however, might, we think, have been more fairly made to complain, that it was Mr. Madison's invasion of Canada which doomed to destruction her distant cottage, and that a spark from the fire which the Americans lighted on the shores of Ontario, spread the conflagration to the banks of the Chesapeake.

Bad reasoning we can equally forgive in an American old woman and an American poet; but when that poet turns statesman in his notes, we think we have a right to expect some distant respect for common sense. To this couplet

And universal patriots grown,
Feast for all victories but their own.

he subjoins the following note.

Mr. S— is supposed here to allude to the following resolution, which was put by Mr. Quincy, in the Senate, of Massachusetts, and agreed to.

"Resolved, as the sense of the senate of Massachusetts, that in a war like the present, waged without justifiable cause, and prosecuted in a manner that indicates that conquest and ambition are its real motives, it is not becoming a moral and religious people to express their approbation of military or naval exploits, which are not immediately connected with the defence of our sea-coast and soil."

It is somewhat remarkable, that the very same individuals, who thus thought it unbecoming "a moral and religious people" to rejoice in the victories of their country, feasted most lustily for the Russian victories. — p. 218.

By this admirable piece of ratiocination the author thinks he proves that those who deemed it unbecoming a moral and religious people to wage unjustifiable war, or to express approbation of exploits prompted by a spirit of conquest and ambition, must therefore think it unbecoming to rejoice for the ill success of unjustifiable war, and for the successful defence of native and national independence.

Our readers are tired of this stuff, and so are we. We have waded through the text with weariness, and through the notes with contempt for the author's powers, and indignation at his principles: he is the libeller of every thing in America that is not mean and wicked; and we regret that we cannot ascertain distinctly the objects of his abuse, as we should be satisfied by this evidence, that they were worthy men and good citizens.