1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hector Macneill

Allan Cunningham, in Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern (1825) 1:241-44.



Of all ladies Fame is the most fascinating and faithless: she will smile on a man to his face, run with her light before him, and blow her trumpet at his approach; but the moment he is gone, and the green sod is above him, she extinguishes her torch, casts her trumpet aside, and forgets his name with as little remorse as the buxom wife of Bath forgot that of her third husband when she meditated her fourth marriage. Yet she is not always so unjust and inconstant. There are others to whom she was frugal of her smiles, and whose names she seldom pronounced while they lived; but over whose graves she scatters her flowers, and sounds her trumpet, and whom she summons men to admire with all the fervour of a virgin who has lost her love, or of a wife bereaved of the husband of her heart. In which of these situations Hector Macniell stands it requires little skill to determine. I remember, when a boy, the numerous editions of his songs and his tales, the applause they received, and the fame which they brought the author. No fame was ever so suddenly achieved; no praise was ever so loudly proclaimed: and yet what reputation has experienced so great a fall? — what poet would think it praise to be told that he sang like the author of "Come under my Plaidie," or "My Boy Tammy?" Yet Scotland welcomed him as she never welcomed man before. To see in "Will and Jean" a spirit worthy of ranking with Burns, or of outrivalling that truly vigorous and Hogarthian production, "Watty and Meg," was a delusion such as never fell on the eyes of man since the spell in the wizard's book, which made a cockle-shell seem a gilded barge.

Of his songs some account must be given, and his songs are the best of his works. They have much softness and truth, an insinuating grace of manner, and a decorum of expression, with no small skill in the dramatic management of the stories — for they are all conceived in the express character of our popular lyrics. They are innocent and strictly moral: his Muse is no leaper and dancer — she never runs half breathless in the twilight round the ricks of hay, nor laughs in the dark, but conducts herself with a propriety worthy of a better inspiration. But who, in the pursuit of natural ease of expression, simple energy of thought and concise purity of language, ever made such marvellous mistakes as the author of My Boy Tammy? He mistakes the chirping of the grasshopper for the voice of the eagle — the gliding of the brook for the heaving of the ocean — and the tongue of a school-boy, expressing a sneaking regard for curds and cream, for the voice of a man uttering the language of love. His simplicity is utter weakness, and neither man nor woman nor child could speak so far below the mark of manhood as some of the swains of Macniell. The very idea of falling in love implies a conscious manliness — a sense that wit and form are grown nigh to man's estate: but what mother, with either a mother's anxious heart or intrepid tongue, would ask a son who had the sense to seek a wife such silly questions as the mother of Tammy? and what son that had any hope of a beard would have replied in the words of that harmless simpleton?

There is perhaps no grace in lyric composition so difficult to attain as simple grace of expression: but simplicity implies the presence of sense and wit, and is accompanied by strength, and gives depth to pathos and force to humour. But to separate the poetry from the prose of life, as honey is gathered from the weed, and to pluck the sweetest flowers of poesie from among the thorns and brambles of humble life, was a flight beyond the power of Macniell. There is a rich and a noble simplicity — but there is also a poor and a mean simplicity; and as vulgarity is often mistaken for rustic elegance, so is meanness of language for elevation and strength. When he imagines he imitates the language of innocence, he becomes tame and ludicrous; and instead of rivalling the homely strength and agreeable naivete of the ancient songs, he produces a lyric unworthy of soothing children. He seems to have mistaken human nature, and seeks among a shrewd and a keen-sighted people to renew the age of gold and the language of helplessness and ignorance. His "Come under my Plaidie" is a story which was found without the cost of invention; it is the common tale of a woman, fond of fine dresses and soft beds, preferring age and riches to youth and poverty: but it is told without humour; and the author neither increases our mirth nor excites our scorn by an adventure, in telling which, no one save himself could have escaped doing both.