1880 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Motherwell

William Minto, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 4:524.



Motherwell's reputation in his own country as a poet was made by the plaintive song of "Jeanie Morrison," a sweet and touching reminiscence of pleasant days spent with a school playfellow and child sweetheart. This and another song in the Scotch dialect, "My heid is like to break," in which a betrayed damsel harrows up the feelings of her seducer with pitiless pathos, may be said to be the only two lyrics of his that have taken any hold of fame. They prove him to have been a man of keen sensibility; he was also a man of vigorous intellect and large culture, more of a student and a scholar than any contemporary Scotch lyrist. He wrote but little in verse — after he reached the prime of manhood his powers were wasted in vehement partisan support of a hopeless cause — but the little that he did write was not in the minor key of the songs in his native dialect. The exploits of the Vikings fascinated his imagination, and as the bard of these sturdy warriors he sang with a vigour that entitles him to be named as a link between Gray and Collins and Mr. William Morris. Motherwell found in the mighty deeds and haughty spirit of the irresistible masters of the sea more congenial themes than the woes and the aspirations of the Jacobites of which the literary world by his time was becoming somewhat weary, and revelled in the fresh field with eager delight. The most touching of his poems in its personal emotion, "I am not sad," shows him resigned to "the sadness of a nameless tomb," but it is hard to believe that the wealth and variety of power evidenced in such poems as "The Madman's Love," and his two songs in the Scotch dialect could have rested unused.