1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Tobias Smollett

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:201-05.



Those who only see in Smollett the author of some pure and ardent verses in praise of his mistress, and feel but the tender sweetness and native ease with which in "Leven Water" he has shed his affection over the scenes of his youth, do him great injustice. To have a full tasting of his indignant and pathetic spirit, we must know him in his "Tears of Scotland," and seek him in that passage in one of his prose tales, so inexpressibly touching, where his Jacobite exiles stand every morning on the coast of France to contemplate the blue hills of their native land, to which they are never to return. That pathetic lyric entitles him to take his place as the representative of a great number of authors of a peculiar character, whose songs have obtained some notice from the cause in which they were composed, but far more from their strength of humour, vigour of invective, their buoyancy of hope, and the pathos of their despair. To say that in his productions I see the full glory of Jacobite song, and that in lyric beauty he surpasses all his nameless brethren, is to say more than he merits, for in the higher qualities of lyric composition his verses are inferior to some of those to which no author's name can be given. His grief is calm and contemplative; he sympathizes with human misery from principle more than from the heart; and the picture which he paints of the desolation which followed the steps of the Duke of Cumberland would suit the train of any conqueror, whether in Scythia or in Scotland. It is only he who feels wrongs deeply that can deeply sing them; and it is from him who has been hunted from cave to hill, who has seen his house destroyed, and his wife and children perishing, that we are to look for those bursts of nature, passion, and despair, which mark the time, the cause, and the people.

It is true, indeed, that the cause for which they suffered was that of tyranny against independence, of divine right against common sense and natural liberty, of superstition against the religion of the people's heart. But right is one thing and romance another; and a cause may be full of all which gives nerve or pathos to poetry, may have a thousand qualities by which imagination may be captivated and the heart deeply moved, without rational devotion or true liberty lending a single ray to brighten it. The principles of liberty, and the spirit of poesie, are different things: freedom of conscience, and the Bill of Rights, are no more necessary to the interests of lyric romance than prudence and self-control are useful to the dramatic interest of a tragedy. Government, after all, is but a subject of taste; and, to the multitude, it may be a matter of indifference whether they are mastered by many or by one: power will always belong to the strong, and obedience must always come from the weak. For my own part I would rather be oppressed by one than by ten, if I am to be oppressed: the people of England, after many years of civil war, only exchanged the tyranny of Charles Stuart for that of a few military adventurers. Religion, too, is much the same as government, and the minds of men have formed many capricious varieties of faith out of a very clear, and simple, and well-defined system of practice and belief. The mantle of the Christian religion, like the coat of Joseph, is of many colours, and imagination has a large choice: from the plain and simple presbyterian, up the head of the Romish church, there are firm believers, and there have been martyrs: yet belief is not truth; and martyrdom may be a mark of zeal, but cannot surely be accepted as a certain sign that the faith of the sufferer was right.

How many perish for the truth

O' the elephant and monkey's tooth.

But however the Jacobites may have erred against the light of human freedom, both civil and religious, and however much the heart of Scotland may have risen against the cause for which they struggled and bled, the time was soon to come when, from a powerful and, a warlike body, they were to be broken and dispersed, their houses razed, their families left desolate, and their heads stuck up to blacken and corrupt in the public places. It was then, and not till then, that the hearts of the people began to melt. They thought on the ruin of the lineal race of their ancient kings, on the desolation of many a noble house that had warred of old for Scotland's independence; and looking on the visible tokens of vindictive and cruel policy, the ravaged cot and the weeping orphan, the heart carried away the head, and a sympathy, deep and durable, was excited, which only subsided in the measures of mercy and of affection which followed the death of the last of the Stuarts. It is from this feeling that we are to look for the origin of many of our Jacobite songs; and though no doubt some of them are the productions of exiles, and sufferers, and partisans, others are the work of men who loved liberty as fondly, their native land as dearly, their religion as devoutly, and the constitution of the country as deeply, as the wisest that ever offered daily sacrifice to that judicious goddess Prudence. We have been told, indeed, that no lofty feeling belonged to those who shared with Prince Charles Stuart in his short career of victory, and in his long period of suffering and endurance; that they warred to repair the slights of the court, or the injuries of fortune, or from some other motive equally selfish. This may have been so with the few, but was it with the many? Can we forget the pathetic heroism of many of the sufferers, and, above all, can we forget what I am not ashamed to call the patriotic honesty of many thousands of the peasantry, who protected and saved their unhappy prince, while they knew that thirty thousand pounds would be the reward for betraying him? Let not the selfishness or the folly of a few men give a colour to the conduct of others, who fought as few ever fought, and who suffered as few ever suffered, and who lost all that they had to lose of home or of country.

But let the Muse be answerable for her wayward strains, whether of folly or of wisdom. Like all romantic and indiscreet beings, she often lifts her voice in honour of the weak and in scorn of the strong; and had she seen the head of the Stuarts lifted, and their banner floating, as of old, she might, with an amiable inconsistency of principle, but in perfect keeping with poetry, have lent her strength to the weak, and turned her scorn on the prevailing. She will always prefer her art to her principles, and seek the elements of song rather from the heart than from the head. Many of these songs have little of party bitterness. It is wonderful what a tender root the hatred of the cause of the Stuarts struck in the north country; even the keenest of our sectarians, the Cameronians, continue to speak with a gentleness, almost approaching to affection, of the line of princes who persecuted them; and many well authenticated anecdotes might be told to prove how deeply the peasantry felt the hue and cry of blood which pursued so long the partisans of the exiled house. I have already said more than I wished to say: all that I desire to add is, the hope that no brave man will ever fight, and no enthusiastic poet ever sing, in the cause of tyranny, with half the bravery, or with half the beauty, our ancestors have done in the cause of the Stuarts.