1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Julius Mickle

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:226-28.



Were I to say that the lyrical fame of Mickle depended on that very fascinating song, "There's nae luck about the house," I should do him a manifest injustice. That he is chiefly known in the north as the author of that song only is very true, and it was but lately his claim was ascertained as surely as all such dubious things can be: but he is also the author of some dozen and a half of the sweetest ballads in the collection of Mr. Evans. The poet, indeed, had no wish to own these hasty and somewhat unequal productions; and, with a desire to let them win their way as the works of the antique Muse, he encumbered their language with all the idle garnishing of superfluous letters. Now, if one quote, or pretend to quote, from some old manuscript, such embarrassments to the reader may be defended; but all oral or remembered things must come stript of idle letters — their presence betrays the imposture. Throughout the whole number there is a family resemblance, and they are all alike marked as the offspring of a tender heart; their descriptions are simple and graphic, their sentiments natural and affecting. They are all emblazoned, too, with old manners, and old customs, and old deeds, in the spirit with which a true poet will employ his antiquarian knowledge. I am glad of this opportunity of rendering back to departed genius the ornaments of which it too carelessly despoiled itself; and it may be a warning to many who imagine they can estimate their own capacity and decide what works of theirs posterity will honour: for in my opinion his hastiest effusions are his best, and in those heroic and romantic legends he breathed out a far more free and natural strain than in some of his more elaborate productions.

Of his "Nae luck about the house" I am obliged to speak, and I speak unwillingly, for I confess I am not quite satisfied with his claims of authorship. He has written nothing else in the peculiar style of that composition, and we know that the reputation of having written it was long enjoyed by another. Now the claim of Mickle depends on the conclusion which we may choose to draw from the fact of the song, with variations, being found in his handwriting. Many of the songs which Burns transcribed, or dressed up for the Museum, have been mistaken for his own compositions: and in like manner, Mickle may unwittingly have made another person's song his own, which he had only sought to correct or embellish. These, after all, are but doubts; — doubts which every one is free to express who feels them. He has made out a better claim to the merit of writing that delightful song than any other person; and since it is an old favourite now, and as all knowledge of its origin may be fairly reckoned to be departed, I am ready to believe that it owes to him most of those charms by which it cannot fail to captivate attention, so long as the happiest language in which truth and nature can be expressed has any sway over men's hearts.