1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Mallet

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:193-97.



The ballad of William and Margaret, and a lyric or two in a less natural spirit, have given more fame to David Mallet than all his elaborated productions. He wrote at a time when a lucky song or a popular ballad established a poet's fame, and furthered his fortune by introducing him to the notice of the noble. Had he lived lately, he would have died, like Chatterton, for want of bread — like Burns, in dread of a gaol — or like poor Tannahill, from the daily feeling of poverty and disappointment. That there is no patron to protect the Muse, was, is, and ever will be, the complaint: poets are too proud to sue, and too independent to beg, and refuse to plead the original sin of verse to entitle them to protection and relief: the rich and the noble, on the other hand, whom a wise Providence has made stewards for the poor, refuse to acknowledge poverty that is not clamorous, or want that displays not its rags and its sores. — With them, Poverty should come as one that runneth, and Want as an armed man.

I have been unable to trace in the other lyrics of Mallet any of that simple mode of expression, or that sweet and antique grace, which have brought so much fame to William and Margaret. The story, suggested by the fragments from which he imagined the song, seems to have possessed him too much to allow him to think of laborious polish or minute embellishment: he has been obliged to relieve his heart from the supernatural spirit of the tale by the charm of natural and inspired verse. I know not where to seek a finer mixture of pathos and terror in the whole range of Gothic romance. We feel, while we read, the presence of something unearthly and undefined; and we hear a voice which, like that heard by the prophet, makes all our bones to shake. From the calm and gentle reproach of the spirit, we imagine the Margaret of flesh and blood to have been a meek and sweet tempered being; and in the request which she makes to have her maiden vow and faith returned, we remark the presence of an old superstition which allowed no repose to the living or to the dead till all ineffectual pledges or tokens were again exchanged.

Into this simple story and native style of composition the feelings of Mallet seem to have glided, as sap ascends the tree, to reanimate and cover it with beauty. Yet the polished and colder and less graphic style of verse must have warred against the remains of this Scottish taste, when he was induced to make some alterations which not only lessen the simplicity, but impair the terror which the story inspires. At first he caught up the starting note of the old fragments, and sang—

When all was wrapt in dark midnight,
And all was fast asleep.

He afterwards thought this "too naked of ornament and simple," and changed it to—

'Twas at the silent solemn hour,
When night and morning meet.

Now this emendation not only contradicts all belief, which invariably surrenders the midnight to injured spirits, but also asserts that the hour when night is growing into day is more solemn and more fit for such visitations than that to which rustic faith assigns all the terrific forms which are contained in his creed. In restoring the original lines, I may, in my own justification, observe, that the ballad will be rendered more true to superstition, and likewise more consistent with itself:

Awake, she cried, thy true love calls,
Come from her midnight grave.

The speed of this ghost was unlike that of all sister spirits, if it rose at midnight, and did not stand at its victim's bedside sooner than the hour when night and morning meet. The real cause of the alteration was, perhaps, the want of correspondence in rhyme between the second and fourth lines: it is rhyme to the ear — I mean, there is an uniformity of sound which gratifies the ear in singing equal to the most established rhymes, but there is no rhyme to the eye — and to oblige the eye, the poet spoiled his ballad. Nor was this so trivial a matter in days when the natural beauty of poetry was under the control of a mechanical arrangement of sounds: Dr. Johnson treated with contempt one of our finest lyrics — "Ah, the poor shepherd's mournful fate!" for a similar inequality of rhyme. In the other songs of Mallet there is more polish and much prettiness, and a fine subdued modesty of language and thought, which make them favourites with all lovers of gentle and unimpassioned verse; but we have no more Williams and Margarets.