1866 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Susanna Blamire

Sidney Gilpin, in Songs and ballads of Cumberland and the Lake Country (1866; 1874) 139-43.



Miss Blamire's poetical works were first collected by Dr. Lonsdale, and Mr. Patrick Maxwell; and issued in 1842, with notes and a somewhat lumbering and egotistic memoir by Mr. Maxwell. Every Cumbrian, however, who values the literature of his county, must feel himself under great obligations to those gentleman for what was then so carefully gathered together. Previously Miss Blamire's name had only been known in connexion with her Traveller's Return, What ails this heart o' mine, and some half dozen others; and further delay in collecting her writings must have proved fatal to her fame. Certain it is that the authorship of one of the finest songs in our language, And ye shall walk in silk attire — hanging as it then did upon a single thread — could never afterwards have been satisfactorily traced.

Her songs may be found in all Scottish collections of any extent or merit; sometimes with her name attached, but oftener without. Many of her productions were distributed in MS. among her friends and relatives; but not a single one, printed during her life-time, was acknowledged by her signature. Her poems, in general, contain a fine poetic vein; they are true and sweet, but limited in their range as an inland river. Their most noticeable defect lies in a certain want of robustness and finish. Maxwell says: "Her poetry is characterized by ease, a happy gaiety, great earnestness, and often displays considerable imagination, vigour, and exuberance of thought. She was unquestionably the best female writer of the age." Nothing more need be added to this summary. It conveys in a few brief words, a fair estimate of her poems. And now, what of her lyrical powers? "Many of her songs," he continues, "would have made the reputation of any writer of lyric poetry in her day: that however is a species of composition which has been much and successfully cultivated since her time." Now Mr. Patrick Maxwell, are you not caught tripping here? After almost every line of these songs had rooted themselves in your very being, and were treasured up in your thoughts as pearls of beauty, was this all the commendation you could mete out? Why, verily, only think for one moment of a reputation being gained in her day! If ever there has been a golden age of song-writing, this was the one. There were giants in those days. The age of Burns — for its lyrical literature — stands out in as bold relief; and rises as much above all others, as the Shaksperian age does in that of dramatic literature.

Song-writing was pre-eminently Miss Blamire's forte; nor is it too much to say that she takes her place but a few links in the chain below the best lyrical writers our sea-girt isle has produced. The genius of Scotland has been essentially of the lyrical order. The most gifted of her sons have put forth their greatest strength in that class of composition. The Scottish people undoubtedly possess a nobler collection of songs than any other country — songs which body forth the deepest feelings and emotions of all classes and conditions of men; yet we question if they can lay claim to a score of finer songs of the pathetic order than some three or four left us by Miss Blamire. It may be urged that her powers of invention were not great or varied; that the rush and energy which characterize the writings of Burns are almost entirely absent; that she had little sarcasm and no tragic power. Let this be freely admitted. Yet we love to read and enjoy her lyrics without a thought or care about comparison or contrast; and are thus made to feel that she possessed an exquisite play of fancy, a depth of pathos which has seldom been equalled, and a womanly tenderness of feeling, teaching us reverence for the universal sympathies and affections of the human heart. Her writings are pervaded by a spirit of purity, and breathe forth an intense love for what is true, and real, and earnest. The flashes of genius which ever and anon light up her songs, and the truthfulness of coloring thrown into all her pictures, prove that she knew how to reject base metal, and give forth only fine gold.

Her mind was indeed imbued with the spirit of the great masters of melody, who have left us heirlooms above all price — "old songs, the precious music of the heart" — and her soul was quickened and enlarged by the communion. Their very tones filled her ears, and became keynotes to her finest productions. Yet it must not be said that she became an imitator, or in any sense a copyist, of these bird-like warblings of the olden times. Rather let us say, that she followed with a child-like simplicity, and was led by them through peaceful bowers to the same well-spring of truth and beauty.

When the sacred finger of sorrow has pressed heavily upon our struggling and depressed spirits — when we have passed through the fire of affliction — we are gainers in the truest and deepest sense of the word, and not losers, as our self-encrusted natures would lead its to suppose. By affliction are we made perfect: by its blessed influence are we raised above that which is of the world, the flesh and the devil — that which is of the earth, earthy. Sorrow is our greatest teacher. Who can tell "how rich a dowry, how firm a faith it gives the soul?" Miss Blamire learned much in the school of affliction. Her spirit was bowed down by its chastening rod: she drank deeply of its cup of bitterness. At one time of her life, too, she had felt-with all the intensity of a sensitive nature — the bitter pangs of disappointed love.

She held it true whate'er befel,
She felt it when she sorrowed most;
'Twas better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Hence many of her songs are marked by a plaintive feeling of grief, and have been part and parcel of her own existence before they were reproduced and thrown off to relieve the beatings of a lonely heart.