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My Schools and Schoolmasters

The following is from My Schools and Schoolmasters by Hugh Miller:

Chapter XX

Publication of poems--Newspaper criticisms--Walsh the lecturer--Enlarged circle of friends--Miss Dunbar of Boath

"This while my notion's ta'en a sklent,
To try my fate in guid black prent;
But still the mair I'm that way bent,
       Something cries, Hoolie!
I red you, honest man, tak tent;
       Ye'll shaw your folly."

Burns

My volume of verse passed but slowly through the press; and as I had begun to look rather ruefully forward to its appearance, there was no anxiety evinced on my part to urge it on. At length, however, all the pieces were thrown into type; and I followed them up by a tail-piece in prose, formed somewhat on the model of the preface of Pope--for I was a great admirer, at the time, of the English written by the "wits of Queen Anne"--in which I gave serious expression to the suspicion that, as a writer of verse, I had mistaken my vocation.

"It is more than possible," I said, "that I have completely failed in poetry. It may appear that, while grasping at originality of description and sentiment, and striving to attain propriety of expression, I have only been depicting common images, and embodying obvious thoughts, and this, too, in inelegant language. Yet even in this case, though disappointed, I shall not be without my sources of comfort. The pleasure which I enjoy in composing verses is quite independent of other men's opinions of them; and I expect to feel as happy as ever in this amusement, even though assured that others could find no pleasure in reading what I had found so much in writing. It is no small solace to reflect, that the fable of the dog and shadow cannot apply to me, since my predilection for poetry has not prevented me from acquiring the skill of at least the common mechanic. I am not more ignorant of masonry and architecture than many professors of these arts who never measured a stanza. There is also some satisfaction in reflecting that, unlike some would-be satirists I have not assailed private character; and that, though men may deride me as an unskilful poet, they cannot justly detest me as a bad or ill-natured man. Nay, I shall possibly have the pleasure of repaying those who may be merry at my expense, in their own coin. An ill-conditioned critic is always a more pitiable sort of person than an unsuccessful versifier; and the desire of showing one's own discernment at the expense of one's neighbour, a greatly worse thing than the simple wish, however divorced from the ability, of affording him harmless pleasure. Further, it would, I think, not be difficult to show that my mistake in supposing myself a poet is not a whit more ridiculous, and infinitely less mischievous, than many of those into which myriads of my fellow-men are falling every day. I have seen the vicious attempting to teach morals, and the weak to unfold mysteries. I have seen men set up for freethinkers who were born not to think at all. To conclude, there will surely be cause for self-gratulation in reflecting that, by becoming an author, I have only lost a few pounds, not gained the reputation of being a mean fellow, who had teased all his acquaintance until they had subscribed for a worthless book; and that the severest remark of the severest critic can only be, 'a certain anonymous rhymer is no poet.'"

As, notwithstanding the blank in the title-page, the authorship of my volume would be known in Cromarty and its neighbourhood, I set myself to see whether I could not, meanwhile, prepare for the press something better suited to make an impression in my favour. In tossing the bar or throwing the stone, the competitor who begins with a rather indifferent cast is never very unfavourably judged if he immediately mend it by giving a better; and I resolved on mending my cast, if I could, by writing for the Inverness Courier--which was now open to me, through the kindness of the editor--a series of carefully prepared letters on some popular subject. In the days of Goldsmith, the herring-fishing employed, as he tells us in one of his essays, "all Grub Street." In the north of Scotland this fishery was a popular theme little more than twenty years ago. The welfare of whole communities depended in no slight degree on its success: it formed the basis of many a calculation, and the subject of many an investment; and it was all the more suitable for my purpose from the circumstance that there was no Grub Street in that part of the world to employ itself about it. It was, in at least all its better aspects, a fresh subject; and I deemed myself more thoroughly acquainted with it than at least most of the men who were skilful enough, as littérateurs, to communicate their knowledge in writing. I knew the peculiarities of fishermen as a class, and the effects of this special branch of their profession on their character: I had seen them pursuing their employments amid the sublime of nature, and had occasionally taken a share in their work; and, further, I was acquainted with not a few antique traditions of the fishermen of other ages, in which, as in the narratives of most seafaring men, there mingled with a certain amount of real incident, curious snatches of the supernatural. In short, the subject was one on which, as I knew a good deal regarding it that was not generally known, I was in some degree qualified to write; and so I occupied my leisure in casting my facts respecting it into a series of letters, of which the first appeared in the Courier a fortnight after my volume of verse was laid on the tables of the north country booksellers.

I had first gone out to sea to assist in catching herrings about ten years before; and I now described, in one of my letters, as truthfully as I could, those features of the scene to which I had been introduced on that occasion, which had struck me as novel and peculiar. And what had been strange to me proved equally so, I found, to the readers of the Courier. My letters attracted attention, and were republished in my behalf by the proprietors of the paper, "in consequence," said my friend the editor, in a note which he kindly attached to the pamphlet which they formed, "of the interest they had excited in the northern counties."1 Their modicum of success, lowly as was their subject, compared with that of some of my more ambitious verses, taught me my proper course. Let it be my business, I said, to know what is not generally known;--let me qualify myself to stand as an interpreter between nature and the public: while I strive to narrate as pleasingly and describe as vividly as I can, let truth, not fiction, be my walk; and if I succeed in uniting the novel to the true, in provinces of more general interest than the very humble one in which I have now partially succeeded, I shall succeed also in establishing myself in a position which, if not lofty, will yield me at least more solid footing than that to which I might attain as a mere littérateur who, mayhap, pleased for a little, but added nothing to the general fund. The resolution was, I think, a good one; would that it had been better kept! The following extracts may serve to show that, humble as my new subject may be deemed, it gave considerable scope for description of a kind not often associated with herrings, even when they employed all Grub Street:--

"As the night gradually darkened, the sky assumed a dead and leaden hue: the sea, roughened by the rising breeze, reflected its deeper hues with an intensity approaching to black, and seemed a dark uneven pavement, that absorbed every ray of the remaining light. A calm silvery patch, some fifteen or twenty yards in extent, came moving slowly through the black. It seemed merely a patch of water coated with oil; but, obedient to some other moving power than that of either tide or wind, it sailed aslant our line of buoys, a stone-cast from our bows--lengthened itself along the line to thrice its former extent--paused as if for a moment--and then three of the buoys, after erecting themselves on their narrower base, with a sudden jerk slowly sank. 'One--two--three buoys!' exclaimed one of the fishermen, reckoning them as they disappeared;--'there are ten barrels for us secure.' A few moments were suffered to elapse: and then, unfixing the haulser from the stem, and bringing it aft to the stern, we commenced hauling. The nets approached the gunwale. The first three appeared, from the phosphoric light of the water, as if bursting into flames of a pale green colour. Here and there a herring glittered bright in the meshes, or went darting away through the pitchy darkness, visible for a moment by its own light. The fourth net was brighter than any of the others, and glittered through the waves while it was yet several fathoms away: the pale green seemed as if mingled with broken sheets of snow, that--flickering amid the mass of light--appeared, with every tug given by the fishermen, to shift, dissipate, and again form; and there streamed from it into the surrounding gloom myriads of green rays, an instant seen and then lost--the retreating fish that had avoided the meshes, but had lingered, until disturbed, beside their entangled companions. It contained a considerable body of herrings. As we raised them over the gunwale, they felt warm to the hand, for in the middle of a large shoal even the temperature of the water is raised--a fact well known to every herring fisherman; and in shaking them out of the meshes, the ear became sensible of a shrill, chirping sound, like that of the mouse, but much fainter--a ceaseless cheep, cheep, cheep, occasioned apparently--for no true fish is furnished with organs of sound--by a sudden escape from the air-bladder. The shoal, a small one, had spread over only three of the nets--the three whose buoys had so suddenly disappeared; and most of the others had but their mere sprinkling of fish, some dozen or two in a net; but so thickly had they lain in the fortunate three, that the entire haul consisted of rather more than twelve barrels.

*  *  *  *  *

We started up about midnight, and saw an open sea, as before; but the scene had considerably changed since we had lain down. The breeze had died into a calm; the heavens, no longer dark and grey, were glowing with stars; and the sea, from the smoothness of the surface, appeared a second sky, as bright and starry as the other; with this difference, however, that all its stars seemed to be comets! the slightly tremulous motion of the surface elongated the reflected images, and gave to each its tail. There was no visible line of division at the horizon. Where the hills rose high along the coast, and appeared as if doubled by their undulating strip of shadow, what might be deemed a dense hank of cloud lay sleeping in the heavens, just where the upper and nether firmaments met; but its presence rendered the illusion none the less complete: the outline of the boat lay dark around us, like the fragment of some broken planet suspended in middle space, far from the earth and every star; and all around we saw extended the complete sphere--unhidden above from Orion to the Pole, and visible beneath from the Pole to Orion. Certainly sublime scenery possesses in itself no virtue potent enough to develop the faculties, or the mind of the fisherman would not have so long lain asleep. There is no profession whose recollections should rise into purer poetry than his; but if the mirror bear not its previous amalgam of taste and genius, what does it matter though the scene which sheds upon it its many-coloured light should be rich in grandeur and beauty? There is no corresponding image produced: the susceptibility of reflecting the landscape is never imparted by the landscape itself, whether to the mind or to the glass. There is no class of recollections more illusory than those which associate--as if they existed in the relation of cause and effect--some piece of striking scenery with some sudden development of the intellect or imagination. The eyes open, and there is an external beauty seen; but it is not the external beauty that has opened the eyes.

*  *  *  *  *

"It was still a dead calm--calm to blackness; when, in about an hour after sunrise, what seemed light fitful airs began to play on the surface, imparting to it, in irregular patches, a tint of grey. First one patch would form, then a second beside it, then a third, and then for miles around, the surface, else so silvery, would seem frosted over with grey: the apparent breeze appeared as if propagating itself from one central point. In a few seconds after, all would be calm as at first; and then from some other centre the patches of grey would again form and widen, till the whole Firth seemed covered by them. A peculiar poppling noise, as if a thunder-shower was beating the surface with its multitudinous drops, rose around our boat; the water seemed sprinkled with an infinity of points of silver, that for an instant glittered to the sun, and then resigned their places to other quick glancing points, that in turn were succeeded by yet others. The herrings by millions, and thousands of millions, were at play around us, leaping a few inches into the air, and then falling and disappearing, to rise and leap again. Shoal rose beyond shoal, till the whole bank of Gulliam seemed beaten into foam, and the low poppling sounds were multiplied into a roar, like that of the wind through some tall wood, that might be heard in the calm for miles. And again, the shoals extending around us seemed to cover, for hundreds of square miles, the vast Moray Firth. But though they played beside our buoys by thousands, not a herring swam so low as the upper baulk of our drift. One of the fishermen took up a stone, and, flinging it right over our second buoy into the middle of the shoal, the fish disappeared from the surface for several fathoms around. 'Ah, there they go,' he exclaimed, 'if they go but low enough. Four years ago I startled thirty barrels of light fish into my drift just by throwing a stone among them.' I know not what effect the stone might have had on this occasion; but on hauling our nets for the third and last time, we found we had captured about eight barrels of fish; and then hoisting sail--for a light breeze from the east had sprung up--we made for the shore with a cargo of twenty barrels."

Meanwhile the newspaper critics of the south were giving expression to all sorts of judgments on my verses. It was intimated in the title of the volume that they had been "written in the leisure hours of a journeyman mason;" and the intimation seemed to furnish most of my reviewers with the proper cue for dealing with them. "The time has gone by," said one, "when a literary mechanic used to be regarded as a phenomenon: were a second Burns to spring up now, he would not be entitled to so much praise as the first." "It is our duty to tell this writer," said another, "that he will make more in a week by his trowel than in half a century by his pen." "We are glad to understand," said a third--very judiciously, however--"that our author has the good sense to rely more on his chisel than on the Muses." The lessons taught were of a sufficiently varied, but, on the whole, rather contradictory character. By one writer I was told that I was a dull, correct fellow, who had written a book in which there was nothing amusing and nothing absurd. Another, however, cheered my forlorn spirits by assuring me that I was a "man of genius, whose poems, with much that was faulty, contained also much that was interesting." A third was sure I had "no chance whatever of being known beyond the limits of my native place," and that my "book exhibited none, or next to none, of those indications which sanction the expectation of better things to come;" while a fourth, of a more sanguine vein, found in my work the evidence of "gifts of Nature, which the stimulus of encouragement, and the tempering lights of experience, might hereafter develop, and direct to the achievement of something truly wonderful." There were two names in particular that my little volume used to suggest to the newspaper reviewers. The Tam o'Shanter and Souter Johnnie of the ingenious Thorn were in course of being exhibited at the time; and it was known that Thorn had wrought as a journeyman mason: and there was a rather slim poet called Sillery, the author of several forgotten volumes of verse, one of which had issued from the press contemporaneously with mine, who, as he had a little money, and was said to treat his literary friends very luxuriously, was praised beyond measure by the newspaper critics, especially by those of the Scottish capital. And Thom as a mason, and Sillery as a poet, were placed repeatedly before me. One critic, who was sure I would never come to anything, magnanimously remarked, however, that as he bore me no ill will, he would be glad to find himself mistaken; nay, that it would give him "unfeigned pleasure to learn I had attained to the well-merited fame of even Mr. Thom himself." And another, after deprecating the undue severity so often shown by the bred writer to the working man, and asserting that the "journeyman mason" was in this instance, notwithstanding his treatment, a man of fair parts, ended by remarking, that it was of course not even every man of merit who could expect to attain to the "high poetic eminence and celebrity of a Charles Doyne Sillery."

All this, however, was criticism at a distance, and disturbed me but little when engaged in toiling in the churchyard, or in enjoying my quiet evening walks. But it became more formidable when, on one occasion, it came to beard me in my den.

The place was visited by an itinerant lecturer on elocution--one Walsh, who, as his art was not in great request among the quiet ladies and busy gentlemen of Cromarty, failed to draw houses; till at length there appeared one morning, placarded on post and pillar, an intimation to the effect, that Mr. Walsh would that evening deliver an elaborate criticism on the lately-published volume of "Poems written in the leisure hours of a Journeyman Mason," and select from it a portion of his evening readings. The intimation drew a good house; and, curious to know what was awaiting me, I paid my shilling, with the others, and got into a corner. First in the entertainment there came a wearisome dissertation on harmonic inflections, double emphasis, the echoing words, and the monotones. But, to borrow from Meg Dods, "Oh, what a style of language!" The elocutionist, evidently an untaught and grossly ignorant man, had not an idea of composition. Syntax, grammar, and good sense, were set at nought in every sentence; but then, on the other hand, the inflections were carefully maintained, and went rising and falling over the nonsense beneath, like the wave of some shallow bay over a bottom of mud and comminuted sea-weed. After the dissertation we were gratified by a few recitations. "Lord Ullin's Daughter," the "Razor Seller," and "My Name is Norval," were given in great force. And then came the critique. "Ladies and gentlemen," said the reviewer, "we cannot expect much from a journeyman mason in the poetry line. Right poetry needs teaching. No man can be a proper poet unless he be an elocutionist; for, unless he be an elocutionist, how can he make his verses emphatic in the right places, or manage the harmonic inflexes, or deal with the rhetorical pauses? And now, ladies and gentlemen, I'll show you, from various passages in this book, that the untaught journeyman mason who made it never took lessons in elocution. I'll first read you a passage from a piece of verse called the 'Death of Gardiner'--the person meant being the late Colonel Gardiner, I suppose. The beginning of the piece is about the running away of Johnnie Cope's men:"--

"Yet in that craven, dread-struck host,
  One val'rous heart beat keen and high;
In that dark hour of shameful flight,
        One stayed behind to die!
Deep gash'd by many a felon blow,
  He sleeps where fought the vanquish'd van--
Of silver'd locks and furrow'd brow,
        A venerable man.
E'en when his thousand warriors fled--
  Their low-born valour quail'd and gone--
He--the meek leader of that band--
        Remained, and fought alone.
He stood; fierce foemen throng'd around;
  The hollow death-groans of despair.
The clashing sword, the cleaving axe,
        The murd'rous dirk were there.
Valour more stark, or hands more strong,
  Ne'er urged the brand or launch'd the spear
But what were these to that old man!
        God was his only fear.

He stood where adverse thousands throng'd.
  And long that warrior fought and well;--
Bravely he fought, firmly he stood,
        Till where he stood he fell.
He fell--he breathed one patriot prayer.
  Then to his God his soul resign'd:
Not leaving of earth's many sons
        A better man behind.
His valour, his high scorn of death,
  To fame's proud meed no impulse owed;
His was a pure, unsullied zeal,
        For Britain and for God.
He fell--he died;--the savage foe
  Trod careless o'er the noble clay;
Yet not in vain that champion fought,
        In that disastrous fray.
On bigot creeds and felon swords
  Partial success may fondly smile,
Till bleeds the patriot's honest heart,
        And flames the martyr's pile.
Yet not in vain the patriot bleeds;
  Yet not in vain the martyr dies;
From ashes mute, and voiceless blood,
        What stirring memories rise!
The scoffer owns the bigot's creed,
  Though keen the secret gibe may be;
The sceptic seeks the tyrant's dome.
        And bends the ready knee.
But oh! in dark oppression's day.
  When flares the torch, when flames the sword.
Who are the brave in freedom's cause?
        The men who fear the Lord."2

"Now, ladies and gentlemen," continued the critic, "this is very bad poetry. I defy any elocutionist to read it satisfactorily with the inflexes. And, besides, only see how full it is of tautology. Let us take but one of the verses:--'He fell--he died!' To fall in battle means, as we all know, to die in battle;--to die in battle is exactly the same thing as to fall in battle. To say 'he fell--he died,' is therefore just tantamount to saying that he fell, he fell, or that he died, he died, and is bad poetry, and tautology. And this is one of the effects of ignorance, and a want of right education." Here, however, a low grumbling sound, gradually shaping itself into words, interrupted the lecturer. There was a worthy old captain among the audience, who had not given himself very much to the study of elocution or the belles-lettres; he had been too much occupied in his younger days in dealing at close quarters with the French under Howe and Nelson, to leave him much time for the niceties of recitation or criticism. But the brave old man bore a genial, generous heart; and the strictures of the elocutionist, emitted, as all saw, in the presence of the assailed author, jarred on his feelings. "It was not gentlemanly," he said, "to attack in that way an inoffensive man: it was wrong. The poems were, he was told, very good poems. He knew good judges that thought so; and unprovoked remarks on them, such as those of the lecturer, ought not to be permitted." The lecturer replied, and in glibness and fluency would have been greatly an overmatch for the worthy captain; but a storm of hisses backed the old veteran, and the critic gave way. As his remarks were, he said, not to the taste of the audience--though he was taking only the ordinary critical liberty--he would go on to the readings. And with a few extracts, read without note or comment, the entertainment of the evening concluded. There was nothing very formidable in the critique of Walsh; but, having no great powers of face, I felt it rather unpleasant to be stared at in my quiet corner by every one in the room, and looked, I daresay, very much put out; and the sympathy and condolence of such of my townsfolk as comforted me in the state of supposed annihilation and nothingness to which his criticism had reduced me, were just a little annoying. Poor Walsh, however, had he but known what threatened him, would have been considerably less at ease than his victim.

The cousin Walter introduced to the reader in an early chapter as the companion of one of my Highland journeys, had grown up into a handsome and very powerful young man. One might have guessed his stature at about five feet ten or so, but it in reality somewhat exceeded six feet: he had amazing length and strength of arm; and such was his structure of bone, that, as he tucked up his sleeve to send a bowl along the town links, or to fling the hammer or throw the stone, the knobbed protuberances of the wrist, with the sinews rising sharp over them, reminded one rather of the framework of a horse's leg, than of that of a human arm. And Walter, though a fine, sweet-tempered fellow, had shown, oftener than once or twice, that he could make a very formidable use of his great strength. Some of the later instances had been rather interesting in their kind. There had been a large Dutch transport, laden with troops, forced by stress of weather into the bay shortly before, and a handsome young soldier of the party--a native of Northern Germany, named Wolf--had, I know not how, scraped acquaintance with Walter. Wolf, who, like many of his country-folk, was a great reader, and intimately acquainted, through German translations, with the Waverley Novels, had taken all his ideas of Scotland and its people from the descriptions of Scott; and in Walter, as handsome as he was robust, he found the beau-idéal of a Scottish hero. He was a man cast in exactly the model of the Harry Bertrams, Halbert Glendinnings, and Quentin Durwards of the novelist. For the short time the vessel lay in the harbour, Wolf and Walter were inseparable. Walter knew a little, mainly at second hand, through his cousin, about the heroes of Scott; and Wolf delighted to converse with him in his broken English about Balfour of Burley, Rob Roy, and Vich Ian Vohr: and ever and anon would he urge him to exhibit before him some feat of strength or agility--a call to which Walter was never slow to respond. There was a serjeant among the troops--a Dutchman, regarded as their strongest man, who used to pride himself much on his prowess; and who, on hearing Wolf's description of Walter, expressed a wish to be introduced to him. Wolf soon found the means of gratifying the serjeant. The strong Dutchman stretched out his hand, and, on getting hold of Walter's, grasped it very hard. Walter saw his design, and returned the grasp with such overmastering firmness, that the hand became powerless within his. "Ah!" exclaimed the Dutchman, in his broken English, shaking his fingers, and blowing upon them, "me no try squeeze hand with you again; you very very strong man." Wolf for a minute after stood laughing and clapping his hands, as if the victory were his, not Walter's. When at length the day arrived on which the transport was to sail, the two friends seemed as unwilling to part as if they had been attached for years. Walter presented Wolf with a favourite snuff-box; Wolf gave Walter his fine German pipe.

Before I had risen on the morning of the day succeeding that in which I had been demolished by the elocutionist, Cousin Walter made his way to my bedside, with a storm on his brow dark as midnight. "Is it true, Hugh," he inquired, "that the lecturer Walsh ridiculed you and your poems in the Council House last night?" "Oh, and what of that?" I said; "who cares anything for the ridicule of a blockhead?" "Ay," said Walter, "that's always your way; but I care for it! Had I been there last night, I would have sent the puppy through the window, to criticize among the nettles in the yard. But there's no time lost: I shall wait on him when it grows dark this evening, and give him a lesson in good manners." "Not for your life, Walter!" I exclaimed. "Oh," said Walter, "I shall give Walsh all manner of fair play." "Fair play!" I rejoined; "you cannot give Walsh fair play; you are an overmatch for five Walshes. If you meddle with him at all, you will kill the poor slim man at a blow, and then not only will you be apprehended for manslaughter--mayhap for murder--but it will also be said that I was mean enough to set you on to do what I had not courage enough to do myself. You must give up all thoughts of meddling with Walsh." In short, I at length partially succeeded in convincing Walter that he might do me a great mischief by assaulting my critic; but so little confident was I of his seeing the matter in its proper light, that when the lecturer, unable to get audiences, quitted the place, and Walter had no longer opportunity of avenging my cause, I felt a load of anxiety taken from off my mind.

There reached Cromarty shortly after, a criticism that differed considerably from that of Walsh, and restored the shaken confidence of some of my acquaintance. The other criticisms which had appeared in newspapers, critical journals, and literary gazettes, had been evidently the work of small men; and, feeble and commonplace in their style and thinking, they carried with them no weight--for who cares anything for the judgment, on one's writings, of men who themselves cannot write? But here, at length, was there a critique eloquently and powerfully written. It was, however, at least as extravagant in its praise as the others in their censure. The friendly critic knew nothing of the author he commended; but he had, I suppose, first seen the deprecatory criticisms, and then glanced his eye over the volume which they condemned; and finding it considerably better than it was said to be, he had rushed into generous praise, and described it as really a great deal better than it was. After an extravagantly high estimate of the powers of its author, he went on to say--"Nor, in making these observations, do we speak relatively, or desire to be understood as merely saying that the poems before us are remarkable productions to emanate from a 'journeyman mason.' That this is indeed the case, no one who reads them can doubt; but in characterizing the poetical talent they display, our observations are meant to be quite absolute; and we aver, without fear of contradiction, that the pieces contained in the humble volume before us bear the stamp and impress of no ordinary genius; that they are bespangled with gems of genuine poetry; and that their unpretending author well deserves--what he will doubtless obtain--the countenance and support of a discerning public. Nature is not an aristocrat To the plough-boy following his team a-field--to the shepherd tending his flocks in the wilderness--or to the rude cutter of stone, cramped over his rough occupation in the wooden shed--she sometimes dispenses her richest and rarest gifts as liberally as to the proud patrician, or the titled representative of a long line of illustrious ancestry. She is no respecter of persons; and all other distinctions yield to the title which her favours confer. The names, be they ever so humble, which she illustrates, need no other decoration to recommend them; and hence, even that of our 'journeyman mason' may yet be destined to take its place with those of men who, like him, first poured their 'wood-notes wild' in the humblest and lowliest sphere of life, but, raised into deathless song, have become familiar as household words to all who love and admire the unsophisticated productions of native genius." The late Dr. James Browne of Edinburgh, author of the "History of the Highlands," and working Editor of the "Encyclopædia Britannica," was, as I afterwards learned, the writer of this over-eulogistic, but certainly, in the circumstances, generous critique.

Ultimately I found my circle of friends very considerably enlarged by the publication of my Verses and Letters. Mr. Isaac Forsyth of Elgin, the brother and biographer of the well-known Joseph Forsyth, whose classical volume on Italy still holds its place as perhaps the best work to which the traveller of taste in that country can commit himself, exerted himself, as the most influential of north-country booksellers, with disinterested kindness in my behalf. The late Sir Thomas Dick Lauder, too, resident at that time at his seat of Relugas in Moray, lent me, unsolicited, his influence; and, distinguished by his fine taste and literary ability, he ventured to pledge both in my favour. I also received much kindness from the late Miss Dunbar of Boath--a literary lady of the high type of the last age, and acquainted in the best literary circles, who, now late in life, admitted amid her select friends one friend more, and cheered me with many a kind letter, and invited my frequent visits to her hospitable mansion. If, in my course as a working man, I never incurred pecuniary obligation, and never spent a shilling for which I had not previously laboured, it was certainly not from want of opportunity afforded me. Miss Dunbar meant what she said, and oftener than once did she press her purse on my acceptance. I received much kindness, too, from the late Principal Baird. The venerable Principal, when on one of his Highland journeys--benevolently undertaken in behalf of an educational scheme of the General Assembly, in the service of which he travelled, after he was turned of seventy, more than eight thousand miles--had perused my Verses and Letters; and, expressing a strong desire to know their author, my friend the editor of the Courier despatched one of his apprentices to Cromarty, to say that he thought the opportunity of meeting with such a man ought not to be neglected. I accordingly went up to Inverness, and had an interview with Dr. Baird. I had known him previously by name as one of the correspondents of Burns, and the editor of the best edition of the poems of Michael Bruce; and, though aware at the time that his estimate of what I had done was by much too high, I yet felt flattered by his notice. He urged me to quit the north for Edinburgh. The capital furnished, he said, the proper field for a literary man in Scotland. What between the employment furnished by the newspapers and the magazines, he was sure I would effect a lodgment, and work my way up; and until I gave the thing a fair trial, I would, of course, come and live with him. I felt sincerely grateful for his kindness, but declined the invitation. I did think it possible, that in some subordinate capacity--as a concocter of paragraphs, or an abridger of Parliamentary debates, or even as a writer of occasional articles--I might find more remunerative employment than as a stone-mason. But though I might acquaint myself in a large town, when occupied in this way, with the world of books, I questioned whether I could enjoy equal opportunities of acquainting myself with the occult and the new in natural science, as when plying my labours in the provinces as a mechanic. And so I determined that, instead of casting myself on an exhausting literary occupation, in which I would have to draw incessantly on the stock of fact and reflection which I had already accumulated, I should continue for at least several years more to purchase independence by my labours as a mason, and employ my leisure hours in adding to my fund, gleaned from original observation, and in walks not previously trodden.

The venerable Principal set me upon a piece of literary taskwork, which, save for his advice, I would never have thought of producing, and of which these autobiographic chapters are the late but legitimate offspring. "Literary men," he said, "are sometimes spoken of as consisting of two classes--the educated and the uneducated; but they must all alike have an education before they can become literary men; and the less ordinary the mode in which the education has been acquired, the more interesting always is the story of it. I wish you to write for me an account of yours." I accordingly wrote an autobiographic sketch for the Principal, which brought up my story till my return, in 1825, from the south country to my home in the north, and which, though greatly overladen with reflection and remark, has preserved for me both the thoughts and incidents of an early time more freshly than if they had been suffered to exist till now as mere recollections in the memory. I next set myself to record, in a somewhat elaborate form, the traditions of my native place and the surrounding district; and, taking the work very leisurely, not as labour, but as amusement--for my labours, as at an earlier period, continued to be those of the stone-cutter--a bulky volume grew up under my hands. I had laid down for myself two rules. There is no more fatal error into which a working man of a literary turn can fall, than the mistake of deeming himself too good for his humble employments; and yet it is a mistake as common as it is fatal. I had already seen several poor wretched mechanics, who, believing themselves to be poets, and regarding the manual occupation by which they could alone live in independence as beneath them, had become in consequence little better than mendicants--too good to work for their bread, but not too good virtually to beg it; and, looking upon them as beacons of warning, I determined that, with God's help, I should give their error a wide offing, and never associate the ideas of meanness with an honest calling, or deem myself too good to be independent. And, in the second place, as I saw that the notice, and more especially the hospitalities, of persons in the upper walks, seemed to exercise a deteriorating effect on even strong-minded men in circumstances such as mine, I resolved rather to avoid than court the attentions from this class which were now beginning to come my way. Johnson describes his "Ortogrul of Basra" as a thoughtful and meditative man; and yet he tells us, that after he had seen the palace of the Vizier, and "admired the walls hung with golden tapestry, and the floors covered with silken carpets, he despised the simple neatness of his own little habitation." And the lesson of the fiction is, I fear, too obviously exemplified in the real history of one of the strongest-minded men of the last age--Robert Burns. The poet seems to have left much of his early complacency in his humble home behind him, in the splendid mansions of the men who, while they failed worthily to patronize him, injured him by their hospitalities. I found it more difficult, however, to hold by this second resolution than by the first. As I was not large enough to be made a lion of, the invitations which came my way were usually those of real kindness; and the advances of kindness I found it impossible always to repel; and so it happened that I did at times find myself in company in which the working man might be deemed misplaced and in danger. On two several occasions, for instance, after declining previous invitations not a few, I had to spend a week at a time, as the guest of my respected friend Miss Dunbar of Boath; and my native place was visited by few superior men that I had not to meet at some hospitable board. But I trust I may say, that the temptation failed to injure me; and that on such occasions I returned to my obscure employments and lowly home, grateful for the kindness I had received, but in no degree discontented with my lot.

Miss Dunbar belonged, as I have said, to a type of literary lady now well-nigh passed away, but of which we find frequent trace in the epistolary literature of the last century. The class comes before us in elegant and tasteful letters, indicative of minds imbued with literature, though mayhap not ambitious of authorship, and that show what ornaments their writers must have proved of the society to which they belonged, and what delight they must have given to the circles in which they more immediately moved. The Lady Russel, the Lady Luxborough, the Countess of Pomfret, Mrs. Elizabeth Montague, &c. &c.,--names well fixed in the epistolary literature of England, though unknown in the walks of ordinary authorship--may be regarded as specimens of the class. Even in the cases in which its members did become authoresses, and produced songs and ballads instinct with genius, they seem to have had but little of the author's ambition in them; and their songs, cast carelessly upon the waters, have been found, after many days, preserved rather by accident than design. The Lady Wardlaw, who produced the noble ballad of "Hardyknute"--the Lady Ann Lindsay, who wrote "Auld Robin Gray"--the Miss Blamire, whose "Nabob" is so charming a composition, notwithstanding its unfortunately prosaic name--and the late Lady Nairne, authoress of the "Land o' the Leal," "John Tod," and the "Laird o' Cockpen"--are specimens of the class that fixed their names among the poets with apparently as little effort or design as singing birds pour forth their melodies.

The north had, in the last age, its interesting group of ladies of this type, of whom the central figure might be regarded as the late Mrs. Elizabeth Rose of Kilravock, the correspondent of Burns, and the cousin and associate of Henry Mackenzie, the "Man of Feeling." Mrs. Rose seems to have been a lady of a singularly fine mind--though a little touched, mayhap, by the prevailing sentimentalism of the age. The Mistress of Harley, Miss Walton, might have kept exactly such journals as hers; but the talent which they exhibited was certainly of a high order; and the feeling, though cast in a somewhat artificial mould, was, I doubt not, sincere. Portions of these journals I had an opportunity of perusing when on my visit to my friend Miss Dunbar; and there is a copy of one of them now in my possession. Another member of this group was the late Mrs. Grant of Laggan--at the time when it existed unbroken, the mistress of a remote Highland manse, and known but to her personal friends by those earlier letters which form the first half of her "Letters from the Mountains," and which, in ease and freshness, greatly surpass aught which she produced after she began her career of authorship. Not a few of her letters, and several of her poems, were addressed to my friend Miss Dunbar. Some of the other members of the group were greatly younger than Mrs. Grant and the Lady of Kilravock. And of these, one of the most accomplished was the late Lady Gordon Cumming of Altyre, known to scientific men by her geologic labours among the ichthyolitic formations of Moray, and mother of the famous lion-hunter, Mr. Gordon Cumming. My friend Miss Dunbar was at this time considerably advanced in life, and her health far from good. She possessed, however, a singular buoyancy of spirits, which years and frequent illness had failed to depress; and her interest and enjoyment in nature and in books remained as high as when, long before, her friend Mrs. Grant had addressed her as

"Helen, by every sympathy allied,
  By love of virtue and by love of song,
Compassionate in youth and beauty's pride."

Her mind was imbued with literature, and stored with literary anecdote: she conversed with elegance, giving interest to whatever she touched; and, though she seemed never to have thought of authorship in her own behalf, she wrote pleasingly and with great facility, in both prose and verse. Her verses, usually of a humorous cast, ran trippingly off the tongue, as if the words had dropped by some happy accident--for the arrangement bore no mark of effort--into exactly the places where they at once best brought out the writer's meaning, and addressed themselves most pleasingly to the ear. The opening stanzas of a light jeu d'esprit on a young naval officer engaged in a lady-killing expedition in Cromarty, dwell in my memory; and--first premising, by way of explanation, that Miss Dunbar's brother, the late Baronet of Boath, was a captain in the navy, and that the lady-killer was his first lieutenant--I shall take the liberty of giving all I remember of the piece, as a specimen of her easy style:--

    "In Cromarty Bay,
     As the 'Driver' snug lay,
The Lieutenant would venture ashore
     And, a figure to cut,
     From the head to the foot
He was fashion and finery all o'er.

     A hat richly laced,
     To the left side was placed,
Which made him look martial and bold;
     His coat of true blue
     Was spick and span new.
And the buttons were burnished with gold.

     His neckcloth well puffed.
     Which six handkerchiefs stuffed,
And in colour with snow might have vied,
     Was put on with great care,
     As a bait for the fair,
And the ends in a love-knot were tied," &c. &c.

I greatly enjoyed my visits to this genial-hearted and accomplished lady. No chilling condescensions on her part measured out to me my distance: Miss Dunbar took at once the common ground of literary tastes and pursuits; and if I did not feel my inferiority there, she took care that I should feel it nowhere else. There was but one point on which we differed. While hospitably extending to me every facility for visiting the objects of scientific interest in her neighbourhood--such as those sand-wastes of Culbin in which an ancient barony finds burial, and the geologic sections presented by the banks of the Findhorn--she was yet desirous to fix me down to literature as my proper walk; and I, on the other hand, was equally desirous of escaping into science.

1 I am reminded by the editor of the Courier, in a very kind critique on the present volume, of a passage in the history of my little work which had escaped my memory. "It had come," he states, "to the knowledge of Sir Walter Scott, who endeavoured to procure a copy after the limited impression was exhausted."

2 The following are the opening stanzas of the piece--quite as obnoxious to criticism, I fear, as those selected by Walsh:--

"Have ye not seen, on winter's eve,
  When snow-rack dimm'd the welkin's face.
Borne wave-like, by the fitful breeze.
        The snow-wreath shifting place?
Silent and slow as drifting wreath.
  Ere day, the clans from Preston Hill
Moved downward to the vale beneath:--
        Dark was the scene and still!
In stormy autumn day, when sad
  The boding peasant frets forlorn,
Have ye not seen the mountain stream
        Bear down the standing corn?
At dawn, when Preston bog was cross'd,
  Like mountain stream that bursts its banks.
Charged wild those Celtic hearts of fire.
        On Cope's devoted ranks.
Have ye not seen, from lonesome waste,
  The smoke-tower rising tall and slow,
O'erlooking, like a stately tree,
        The russet plain below?
And have ye mark'd that pillar'd wreath,
  When sudden struck by northern blast,
Amid the low and stunted heath,
        In broken volumes cast?
At sunrise, as by northern blast
  The pillar'd smoke is roll'd away.
Fled all that cloud of Saxon war.
        In headlong disarray."

Chapter XXI--Arenaceous formations--Antiquity of the earth--Tremendous hurricane--Loligo Vulgare--Researches amid the Lias--Interesting discoveries


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