Every town and village of
Scotland has produced its poet, but not every one can boast, like
Kirkintilloch, of a son who wrote such pure English verse as that of
David Gray, the author of “The Luggie,” a work which has raised his name
among the greatest of minor poets of Britain, and which must be a
never-dying one to those who value genius.
David Gray was born on
29th January, 1838, in a small cottage, situated at Merkland, about a
mile from Kirkintilloch, and was the eldest of a family of eight, five
boys and three girls. His father was a handloom weaver, of honest,
Scottish nature, and it was the wish of his parents’ hearts to see
David, one day, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland.
With this object he was
sent to the parish school of Kirkintilloch, and afterwards to attend
Glasgow University. As time passed, however, he evinced no love for a
ministerial calling, but dreamed of poetry and song, occasionally
contributing small pieces to the columns of the Glasgow Citizen, and
spending his spare moments in wandering about the banks of his native
Luggie, a stream which meanders through many a delightful scene of
His parents viewed all
this with mingled feelings. They were proud of the praise which was
beginning to pour upon the head of their eldest born, but anxious that
he should settle down to some permanent calling. Meantime “The Luggie”
was composed, the result of his love for his home’s surroundings, but
how was he, an unknown youth, just out of his teens, to make his
influence felt in a great world, and obtain even a publisher willing to
bring it forth? In 1859 he wrote to men of influence, asking their
assistance, but some of these must have smiled at the wild enthusiasm of
the author, and he met with little encouragement.
What could they think of
a young man speaking thus? “lama poet, let that be understood
distinctly. I tell you that if I live, my name and fame shall be second
to few of any age, and to none of my own. I speak this, because I feel
power.” At his lowest estimate, he would be a second Wordsworth.
For all this
self-importance, he must not be taken as a conceited youth. He was
diffident and humble in manner, reverent in mind, and conscious of many
failings. All he wanted was a helping hand.
On the 5th May, i860, he
took an imprudent step, which may have been the cause of his after
sufferings and early death. He suddenly left Glasgow for London, bent on
making a name for himself in that great city of light and leading, as
many a wandering literary adventurer had done before him. He had little
money, was bewildered at the hurry and bustle of the huge metropolis,
and, for economy’s sake, wandered about Hyde Park all night.
It was always thought
that this foolish freak brought on that consumption which took hold of
his hitherto healthy frame, and added his name to the long list of those
who have died young, the gods having loved them.
Amongst the few friends
he made in London was Mr. Milnes, afterwards Lord Houghton, who
interested himself in the young poet, treated him with great kindness,
and endeavoured to find a publisher for his verse, but David often
wished he were back in Glasgow, for waiting was weary work.
Robert Buchanan, one of
his dearest friends, lent his aid, but his health continued to fail, and
at last he was sent back to his old home by the Luggie, where his
parents received him with every tenderness. It was declared that if he
were to live it must be in a warmer climate, and Natal, Italy, or
Jamaica was spoken of, but, through want of funds, these projects fell
Sydney Dobell, and
others, had him sent to Richmond, and then to Torquay, but it all ended
in his return to his •mother’s care.
In April, 1861, he knew
he was dying, and yet his poem had not appeared. To die unknown was a
deep grief to him. In asking Mr. Buchanan to help him, he says:—
“Freeland has possession of the MSS., and with what ignoble trembling I
anticipate its appearance! How I shall bless you should you succeed.”
Mr. Dobeirs influence was
untiring, and on 2nd December, 1861, a proof was sent out to the little
cottage. What a moment that was to the poet when he took the paper in
his hands! At last the dream of a lifetime was about to be realised, and
that at the latest hour. On the following day he passed away. “God has
love, and I have faith,” were almost his last words. Truly had he called
himself, “A piece of childhood thrown away.”
He was buried in the Auld
Aisle, where he had often wandered, and which is also the subject of his
song, and, on the 29th July, 1865, a plain obelisk was erected to his
memory, subscribed for by his admirers. The inscription is the work of
Lord Houghton :—
But, like Burns, he left
his own epitaph, and who can say it is not a beautiful one?—
Below lies one whose name
was traced in sand,
He died, not knowing what it was to live ;
Died, while the first sweet consciousness of manhood
And maiden thought electrified his soul,
Faint beatings in the calyx of the rose.
Bewildered reader ! pass without a sigh,
In a proud sorrow ! There is life with God,
In other kingdom of a sweeter air;
In Eden every flower is blown. Amen.
27th September, 1861.
Thus lived and died one
who left a few words only behind him; but these have been described as “
the truest, purest, tenderest lyrical note that has floated to English
ears this half century.”
Space will permit only of
a few remarks upon them.
The “Luggie” opens with
the wish of the writer that his thought and verse may run as smoothly as
his beloved river:—
That impulse which all
beauty gives the soul,
Is languaged as I sing. For fairer stream
Rolled never golden sand into the sea,
Made sweeter music than the Luggie, gloom'd
By glens whose melody mingles with her own.
The uttered name my inmost being thrills,
A word beyond a charm; and if this lay
Could smoothly flow along and wind to the end
In natural manner, as the Luggie winds
Her tortuous waters, then the world would list
In sweet enthralment, swallowed up and lost.
It would be too much to
say that the world has listened to him, but it is no exaggeration to
state that those who have heard have appreciated. He then proceeds to
describe scenery and circumstances pertaining to the
seasons of the year in an
inimitable manner. The winter scene of curling every one who knows the
game will admit is realistic enough :—
Now underneath the ice the
And to the polished smoothness curlers come
Rudely ambitious. Then for happy hours
The clinking stones are slid from wary hands,
And BarUycorti, best wine for surly airs,
Bites i’ the mouth, and ancient jokes are cracked,
And, oh, the journey homeward, when the sun,
Low-sounding to the west, in ruddy glow
Sinks large, and all the amber-skirted clouds,
His flaming retinue, with darkening glow,
Diverge! The broom is brandished as the sign
Of conquest, and impetuously they boast
Of how this shot was played—with what a bend
Peculiar—the perfection of all art—
That stone came rolling grandly to the Tee
With victory crown’d, and flinging wide the rest
In lordly crash, etc.
The attachment of
youthful, boyish friendship is beautifully described :—
We sat together on one
Came home together thro' the lanes, and knew
The dunnock’s nest together in the hedge,
With smooth blue eggs, in cosy brightness warm ;
And as two youngling kine on cold spring nights
Lie close together on the bleak hill side
For mutual heat, so when a trouble came
We crept to one another, growing still
True friends in interchange of heart and soul.
These are but glimpses
into the beauty of the poet’s mind, and at the close he asks you if you
note any failings in his work, to
Forgive youth’s vagaries,
want of skill,
And blind devotional passion for my home.
This tribute to the
memory of David Gray would be incomplete without giving the reader a
copy of a sonnet which is one of a number he wrote, entitled, “In the
shadows.” His description of a wet October day will indicate how keenly
he observed nature:—
October’s gold is dim—the
The weary rain falls ceaseless, while the day
Is wrapped in damp. In mire of village way
The hedge-row leaves are stamp’d, and, all forgot,
The broodless nest sits visible in the thorn.
Autumn, among her drooping marigolds,
Weeps all her garnered sheaves, and empty folds,
And dripping orchards—plundered and forlorn.
The season is a dead one, and I die !
No more, no more for me the spring shall make
A resurrection in the earth and take
The death from out her heart. O God, I die!
The cold throat mist creeps nearer, till I breathe
Corruption. Drop stark night upon my death!