1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anne Hunter

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:214-15.



The death-song of the Cherokee Indian has done more for the fame of Mrs. Hunter as a poetess than all her other lyric compositions. She is known, indeed, under her maiden name of Home, as an associate in the same task with Miss Elliot and Miss Rutherford; but her version of the Flowers of the Forest is deficient in simplicity, and presents none of those affecting and visible images of desolation which charm me in the others. It is elegant and flowing; but what is elegance or melody compared to natural pathos, and to those tender and moving pictures of domestic sorrow which are acknowledged by every heart that has felt or can dread calamity? Nature will always assert her right to rule over the heart, and will never surrender her influence to the most ingenious or most imposing allegory: when she wishes for tears or for sighs, she will never seek for them by general expressions or elaborate similes, but endeavour to obtain them by a few simple and minute touches:to be pathetic, we must be particular.

But for her failure in the "Flowers of the Forest" we have obtained ample compensation in the death-song of the Indian: a song of a marked and original kind, bold and wild, and inexpressibly mournful, filling the heart with a kind of savage inspiration, which exalts us while we hear it sung, and gives us a species of lyric delight unknown before. We feel at once that Scotland has no claim in inspiring the strain, that it breathes of another and a wilder land, and brings the boundless lakes and interminable forests of America, and her plumed hordes of martial barbarians, before us. The hero of the song has been painted by West, gazing at the light of life leaving the eyes of General Wolfe; and he has been sung by Campbell, as "A stoic of the woods, a man without a tear": but neither the painter nor the poet has presented a more vivid picture of indomitable courage and heroic firmness than has been drawn by this soft and feminine hand. In the wild and enthusiastic ballad of Macpherson's Farewell, we have the dauntless glee, the contempt of death, and the confidence in courage and in strength, which characterize the Scottish highlanders; and we have something not very dissimilar in the song of Hughie Graeme; but they want that strange wildness, that native flavour of the country, that peculiar cast of thought and imagery, by which the latitude of their birth-place may be laid down with all the nicety of geography. After this praise I shall be thought insensible to the merits of her other lyrics when I can only discover in them an agreeable flow of verse, and a discreet propriety of expression. None contain any of those bright and imperishable verses which we are induced to learn and are delighted to remember, and which, like the Cherokee Indian, when we wish our children to have them by heart, we find they have learnt already.