1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Bruce

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 3:143-46.



We refer our readers to Dr. Mackelvie's well-known and very able Life of poor Bruce, for his full story, and for the evidence on which his claim to The Cuckoo is rested. Apart from external evidence, we think that poem more characteristic of Bruce's genius than of Logan's, and have therefore ranked it under Bruce's name.

Bruce was born on the 27th of March 1746, at Kinnesswood, parish of Portmoak, county of Kinross. His father was a weaver, and Michael was the fifth of a family of eight children. Poor as his parents were, they were intelligent, religious, and most conscientious in the discharge of their duties to their children. In the summer months Michael was sent out to herd cattle; and one loves to imagine the young poet wrapt in his plaid, under a whin-bush, while the storm was blowing, — or gazing at the rainbow from the summit of a fence, — or admiring at Lochleven and its old ruined castle, — or weaving around the form of some little maiden, herding in a neighbouring field — some "Jeanie Morrison" — one of those webs of romantic early love which are beautiful and evanescent as the gossamer, but how exquisitely relished while they last! Say not, with one of his biographers, that his "education was retarded by this employment;" he was receiving in these solitary fields a kind of education which no school and no college could furnish; nay, who knows but, as he saw the cuckoo winging her way from one deep woodland recess to another, or heard her dull, divine monotone coming from the heart of the forest, the germ of that exquisite strain, "least in the kingdom" of the heaven of poetry in size, but immortal in its smallness, was sown in his mind? In winter he went to school, and profited there so much, that at fifteen (not a very early period, after all, for a Scotch student beginning his curriculum — in our day twelve was not an uncommon age) he was judged fit for going to college. And just in time a windfall came across the path of our poet, the mention of which may make many of our readers smile. This was a legacy which was left his father by a relative, amounting to 200 merks, or 11, 2s. 6d. With this munificent sum in his pocket, Bruce was sent to study at Edinburgh College. Here he became distinguished by his attainments, and particularly his taste and poetic powers; and here, too, he became acquainted with John Logan, afterwards his biographer. After spending three sessions at college, supported by his parents and other friends, he returned to the country, and taught a school at Gairney Bridge (a place famous for the first meeting of the first presbytery of the Seceders) for 11 of salary. Thence he removed to Foresthill, near Alloa, where a damp school-room, poverty, and hard labour in teaching, united to injure his health and depress his spirits. At Foresthill he wrote his poem Lochleven, which discovers no small descriptive power. Consumption began now to make its appearance, and he returned to the cottage of his parents, where he wrote his Elegy on Spring, in which he refers with dignified pathos to his approaching dissolution. On the 5th of July 1767, this remarkable youth died, aged twenty-one years and three months. His Bible was found on his pillow, marked at the words, Jer. xxii. 10, "Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him: but weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more, nor see his native country."

Lord Craig wrote some time afterwards an affecting paper in the Mirror, recording the fate, and commending the genius of Bruce. John Logan, in 1770, published his poems. In the year 1807, the kind-hearted Principal Baird published an edition of the poems for the behoof of Bruce's mother, then an aged widow. And in 1837, Dr. William Mackelvie, Balgedie, Kinrossshire, published what may be considered the standard Life of this poet, along with a complete edition of his Works.

It is impossible from so small a segment of a circle as Bruce's life describes, to infer with any certainty the whole. So far as we can judge from the fragments left, his power was rather in the beautiful, than in the sublime or in the strong. The lines on Spring, from the words "Now spring returns" to the close, form a continuous stream of pensive loveliness. How sweetly he sings in the shadow of death! Nor let us too severely blame his allusion to the old Pagan mythology, in the words

I hear the helpless wail, the shriek of woe,
I see the muddy wave, the dreary shore;

remembering that he was still a mere student, and not recovered from that fine intoxication in which classical literature drenches a young imaginative soul, and that at last we find him "resting in the hopes of an eternal day." Lochleven is the spent echo of The Seasons, although, as we said before, its descriptions possess considerable merit. His Last Day is more ambitious than successful. If we grant The Cuckoo to be his, as we are inclined decidedly to do, it is a sure title to fame, being one of the sweetest little poems in any language. Shakspeare would have been proud of the verse—

Sweet bird! thy bower is ever green,
Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year.

Bruce has not, however, it has always appeared to us, caught so well as Wordsworth the differentia of the cuckoo, — its invisible, shadowy, shifting, supernatural character — heard, but seldom seen — its note so limited and almost unearthly:

O Cuckoo, shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering voice?

How fine this conception of a separated voice — "The viewless spirit of a lonely sound," plaining in the woods as if seeking for some incarnation it cannot find, and saddening the spring groves by a note so contradictory to the genius of the season. In reference to the note of the cuckoo we find the following remarks among the fragments from the commonplace-book of Dr. Thomas Brown, printed by Dr. Welsh: — "The name of the cuckoo has generally been considered as a very pure instance of imitative harmony. But in giving that name, we have most unjustly defrauded the poor bird of a portion of its very small variety of sound. The second syllable is not a mere echo of the first; it is the sound reversed, like the reading of a sotadic line; and to preserve the strictness of the imitation we should give it the name of Ook-koo." Thus is the prose of the cuckoo after its poetry.