1909 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Andrew Macdonald

Florence MacCunn, in Sir Walter Scott's Friends (1909) 50-51.



Of the good things a university can offer — sound learning, great teachers, young companionship — the best is surely discipleship. This, however, [William] Erskine was to obtain neither from friendly professors nor gifted fellow-students, but from the obscure Episcopalian minister with whom, in Scottish fashion, he boarded. Mr. Macdonald was an enthusiastic student of earlier English literature, especially of the Elizabethan drama, and in that unusual school — unusual, at least, at the end of the eighteenth century — Erskine developed and refined his natural taste. Macdonald's own fate was a salutary warning to his disciple's ambition. He had felt the fatal attraction of literature, — of literature, too, in the form in which failure is easiest. The difficulty of at once inventing a simple, powerful, symmetrical story and turning it into a fine drama had been instinctively recognised by the great dramatists, who have met it by adopting current, often well-known, tales. Alas! for the second-rate talents that lack prescience of the impossible. Macdonald's romantic play, Vimonda, — now long forgotten, — failed to take the town even when Kemble good-naturedly gave it a trial. Macdonald's own fate was that of Chatterton. Erskine was at first destined for the English Bar. When he was eating his dinners at Lincoln's Inn he may have come across his unfortunate master in the successive stages of that fight between ambition and despair so painfully described in Crabbe's Tales of the Hall.