1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Motherwell

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1856) 246-47.



In 1832 appeared the collected poems of William Motherwell. He had previously made himself known by his Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern, a collection of Scottish ballads industriously collected and ably edited; and there can be little doubt that the setting about such a task gave an increased impetus to his own genius in the path of lyric poetry. He was about equally successful in two departments — the martial and the plaintive; yet stirring as are his Sword Chant of Thorstein Raudi, and his Battle Flag of Sigurd, I doubt much whether they are entitled to the same praise, or have gained the same deserved acceptance, as his Jeanie Morrison, or his striking stanzas, commencing "My head is like to rend." Apart from the inimitable genuine antique, it would be difficult to point out many ballad pictures of early love more purely and simply pathetic than the former of these. Overflowing with nature and pathos, it touches a string to which every heart must vibrate, and would alone entitle Motherwell to a place not unenviable among our poets. He wrote frequently, however, when he ought to have been silent, when his muse was not in the vein; and, consequently, on such occasions we have clever art, not natural feeling; the form of verse without the animating spirit. His besetting faults were a straining after sentiment, and an assumption of morbid pensiveness in his descriptions of nature; but in his happier efforts, where fancy and feeling went hand in hand, he captivates our sympathies, and carries them along with him. The posthumous additions made to the poems of Motherwell, by the kindly zeal of his friends Mr. M'Conechy and Mr. Kennedy, have, I am afraid, like those of Mr. Monckton Milnes, in the similar case of Keats, added to their bulk rather than their value; and yet, somehow, we should not like to have wanted them.