With whose name is associated every regret that can be inspired by the early extinction of genius of a high order, still farther elevated by purity of life, was born at Kinnesswood, in the parish of Portmoak, Kinross-shire, on the 27th of March, 1746. His father, Alexander Bruce, a weaver, and his mother, whose name was also Bruce, were honest and pious Burghers; they had eight children, Michael being the fifth. Manifesting from his earliest years much delicacy of frame and quickness of parts, it was resolved to train him for the church; and after acquiring the elements of education at the school of his native parish and of Kinross, he was sent to the college of Edinburgh in 1762. Here he remained four years, devoting himself during the three first to those branches of learning pursued by what are called students of philosophy, and in the last applying also to the study of divinity.
Before quitting the country, he had given proofs of his predilection for poetry, which was encouraged by his friendship with Mr. Arnot, a farmer on the banks of Lochleven, who, to the piety and good sense common among those of his profession, added classical scholarship and an acquaintance with elegant literature. He directed Bruce to the perusal of Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton, supplied him with the books, and became a judicious adviser in regard to his youthful essays in the poetic art. Mr. David Pearson, a man who read much with advantage, had also the taste to relish what Bruce had the talents to produce, and enjoyed his intimacy. After removing to Edinburgh, he lived in habits of close intercourse with Mr. George Henderson and Mr. William Dryburgh, who opened to him their stores of books and information, as they did their affections, and with Logan, whose congenial turn of mind made him the friend of Bruce in his life time, and his warm eulogist and editor of his works when he was no more. No one deserved better the attachment of those with whom he associated. "No less amiable as a man," says Logan, "than valuable as a writer; endued with good nature and good sense; humane, friendly, benevolent; he loved his friends, and was beloved by them with a degree of ardour that is only experienced in the era of youth and innocence." The prominent place he has given in his poems to those from whose society he had derived delight, shows how sincere was the regard he cherished for them. As if that none of the ties by which life is endeared should be wanting to him, Bruce had fixed his affections on a young woman, modest and beautiful, with whose parents he resided while teaching a school at Gairny Bridge. He has celebrated her under the name of Eumelia, in his pastoral of Alexis, and she was also the heroine of the only two songs he is known to have written.
It appears that the parents of the poet entertained peculiarly rigid notions in regard to religion, and would have been seriously displeased if they had known that any part of their son's attention was occupied by subjects apart from his theological studies. Bruce anxiously avoided giving these prejudices any cause of offence, and, when about to return home from college in 1765, took the precaution of transmitting to his friend Arnot those volumes of which he knew his father would disapprove. "I ask your pardon," says his letter on this occasion, "for the trouble I have put you to by these books I have sent. The fear of a discovery made me choose this method. I have sent Shakspeare's works, 8 vols. Pope's works, 4 vols. and Fontenelle's Plurality of Worlds."
Bruce acknowledges that he felt his poverty deeply when he saw books which he ardently desired to possess exposed to sale, and had not money to layout in the purchase. The same regret has been experienced by many a poor scholar; but few perhaps terminate their complaints in the same train of pious reflection. "How well," he says, "should my library be furnished, 'nisi obstat res angusta
'My lot forbid; nor circumscribes alone
My growing virtues, but my crimes confines.'
Whether any virtues should have accompanied me in a more elevated station is uncertain; but that a number of vices of which my sphere is incapable would have been its attendants is unquestionable. The Supreme Wisdom has seen this meet; and Supreme Wisdom cannot err."
Even when prosecuting his favourite studies, Bruce is said to have been liable to that depression which is frequently the attendant of genius indeed, but in his case was also the precursor of a fatal disease. In December 1764, he wrote to his friend Arnot,- "I am in health, excepting a kind of settled melancholy, for which I cannot account, that has seized on my spirits." Such seems to have been the first imperfect announcement of his consciousness that all was not well with him. It would be a mournful task, if it were possible, to trace the gradations by which his apprehensions strengthened and grew into that certainty which only two years after this produced the Elegy, in which so pathetically, yet so calmly, he anticipates his own death. In these years are understood to have been written the greater part of his poems which has been given to the public. He spent the winters at college, and the summer in earning a small pittance by teaching a school, first at Gairny Bridge and afterwards at Forrest Mill near Alloa. In this latter place he had hoped to be happy, but was not; having, he confesses, been too sanguine in his expectations. He wrote here Lochleven, the longest of his poems, which closes with these affecting lines: -
"Thus sung the youth, amid unfertile wilds
And nameless deserts, unpoetic ground!
Far from his friends he stray'd, recording thus
The dear remembrance of his native fields,
To cheer the tedious night, while slow disease
Prey'd on his pining vitals, and the blasts
Of dark December shook his humble cot."
A letter to Mr. Pearson, written in the same month in which he finished this poem, affords a still closer and more touching view of the struggle which he now maintained against growing disease, the want of comforts, and of friendly consolation. "I lead a melancholy kind of life," he says, "in this place. I am not fond of company; but it is not good that a man be still alone: and here I can have no company but what is worse than solitude. If I had not a lively imagination, I believe I should fall into a state of stupidity and delirium. I have some evening scholars; the attending on whom, though few, so fatigues me that the rest of the night I am quite dull and low-spirited. Yet I have some lucid intervals, in the time of which I can study pretty well."
"In the autumn of 1766," says Dr. Anderson, "his constitution - which was ill calculated to encounter the austerities of his native climate, the exertions of daily labour, and the rigid frugality of humble life - began visibly to decline. Towards the end of the year, his ill health, aggravated by the indigence of his situation, and the want of those comforts and conveniences which might have fostered a delicate frame to maturity and length of days, terminated in a deep consumption. During the winter he quitted his employment at Forrest Mill, and with it all hopes of life, and returned to his native village to receive those attentions and consolations which his situation required, from the anxiety of parental affection and the sympathy of friendship. Convinced of the hopeless nature of his disease, and feeling himself every day declining, he contemplated the approaches of death with calmness and resignation, and continued at intervals to compose verses and to correspond with his friends."
His last letter to Mr. Pearson contains an allegorical description of human life, which discloses something of his state of mind under these impressive circumstances. It is so beautiful as a composition, and at the same time so touchingly connected with the author's own situation, as to mingle in the reader pity and admiration to a degree which we are not aware that there is any thing else in the whole range of literature, excepting his own elegy to Spring, fitted to inspire. "A few mornings ago," he says, "as I was taking my walk on an eminence which commands a view of the Forth, with the vessels sailing along, I sat down, and taking out my Latin Bible, opened by accident at a place in the book of Job, ix. 25, - 'Now my days are passed away as the swift ships.' Shutting the book, I fell a musing on this affecting comparison. Whether the following happened to me in a dream or waking reverie, I cannot tell; - but I fancied myself on the bank of a river or sea, the opposite side of which was hid from view, being involved in clouds of mist. On the shore stood a multitude which no man could number, waiting for passage. I saw a great many ships taking in passengers, and several persons going about in the garb of pilots offering their service. Being ignorant, and curious to know what all these things meant, I applied to a grave old man who stood by, giving instructions to the departing passengers. His name I remember was the Genius of Human Life. 'My son,' said he, 'you stand on the banks of the stream of Time; all these people are bound for Eternity - that undiscovered country from whence no traveller ever returns. The country is very large, and divided into two parts: the one is called the Land of Glory, the other the Kingdom of Darkness. The names of these in the garb of pilots are Re1igion, Virtue, Pleasure. They who are so wise as to choose Religion for their guide have a safe, though frequently a rough passage; they are at last landed in the happy climes where sighing and sorrow for ever fly away. They have likewise a secondary director, Virtue. But there is a spurious Virtue who pretends to govern by himself; but the wretches who trust to him, as well as those who have Pleasure for their pilot are either shipwrecked or cast away on the Kingdom of Darkness. - But the vessel in which you must embark approaches - you must be gone. Remember what depends upon your conduct.' No sooner had he left me than I found myself surrounded by those pilots I mentioned before. Immediately I forgot all that the old man said to me, and, seduced by the fair promises of Pleasure, chose him for my director. We weighed anchor with a fair gale, the sky serene, the sea calm: innumerable little isles lifted their green heads around us, covered with trees in full blossom; dissolved in stupid mirth, we were carried on, regardless of the past, of the future unmindful. On the sudden the sky was darkened, the winds roared, the seas raged, red rose the sand from the bottom of the troubled deep; the angel of the waters lifted up his voice. At that instant a strong ship passed by. I saw Religion at the helm: 'Come out from among them!' he cried. I and a few others threw ourselves into his ship. The wretches we left were now tossed on the swelling deep; the waters on every side poured through the riven vessel; they cursed the Lord: when lo! a fiend rose from the deep, and, in a voice like distant thunder, thus spoke: 'I am Abaddon, the first-born of Death; ye are my prey: open, thou abyss, to receive them!' As he thus spoke they sunk, and the waves closed over their heads. The storm was turned into a calm, and we heard a voice saying, 'Fear not - I am with you: when you pass through the waters, they shall not overflow you.' Our hearts were filled with joy. I was engaged in discourse with one of my new companions, when one from the top of the mast cried out, 'Courage, my friends! I see the fair haven, - the land that is yet afar off.' Looking up I found it was a certain friend who had mounted up for the benefit of contemplating the country before him; upon seeing you, I was so affected, I started and waked. - Farewell, my friend, farewell!"
Bruce lingered through the winter, and in spring wrote that Elegy, "the latter part of which," says Logan, "is wrought up into the most passionate strains of the true pathetic, and is not perhaps inferior to any poetry in any language. "How truly this is said there are few that do not know; but they who have read it often will not be fatigued by reading again.
" Now Spring returns; but not to me returns
The vernal joy my better years have known;
Dim in my breast life's dying taper burns,
And all the joys of life with health are flown.
Starting and shivering in th' inconstant wind,
Meagre and pale, the ghost of what I was,
Beneath some blasted tree I lie reclined,
And count the silent moments as they pass:
The winged moments, whose unstaying speed
No art can stop or in their course arrest
Whose flight shall shortly count me with the dead,
And lay me down in peace with them that rest.
Oft morning dreams presage approaching fate;
And morning dreams, as poets tell, are true:
Led by pale ghosts, I enter death's dark gate,
And bid the realms of light and life adieu.
I hear the helpless wail, the shriek of woe;
I see the muddy wave, the dreary shore,
The sluggish streams that slowly creep below,
Which mortals visit, and return no more.
Farewell, ye blooming fields! ye cheerful plains!
Enough for me the churchyard's lonely mound,
Where melancholy with still silence reigns,
And the rank grass waves o'er the cheerless ground
There let me wander at the close of eve,
When sleep sits dewy on the labourer's eyes,
The world and its busy follies leave,
And talk with wisdom where my Daphnis lies.
There let me sleep forgotten in the clay,
When death shall shut these weary aching eyes,
Rest in the hope of an eternal day,
Till the long night is gone, and the last morn arise."
These were the last verses finished by the author. His strength was wasted gradually away, and he died on the 6th of July, 1767, in the 21st year of his age. What he might have accomplished had longer years been assigned to him, it were needless to conjecture; but of all the sons of genius cut off by an early death, there is none whose fate excites so tender a regret. His claims to admiration are great without any counteracting circumstance. "Nothing," says Lord Craig, after a brief allusion to the leading facts of Bruce's life, - "Nothing, methinks, has more the power of awakening benevolence than the consideration of genius thus depressed by situation, suffered to pine in obscurity, and sometimes, as in the case of this unfortunate young man, to perish, it may be, for want of those comforts and conveniences which might have fostered a delicacy of frame or of mind ill calculated to bear the hardships which poverty lays on both. For my own part, I never pass the place (a little hamlet skirted with old ash-trees, about two miles on this side of Kinross) where Michael Bruce resided - I never look on his dwelling (a small thatched house distinguished from the cottages of the other inhabitants only by a sashed window at the end, instead of a lattice, fringed with a honeysuckle plant which the poor youth had trained around it) - I never find myself in that spot but I stop my horse involuntarily, and looking on the window, which the honeysuckle has now almost covered, in the dream of the moment, I picture out a figure for the gentle tenant of the mansion. I wish, - and my heart swells while I do so - that he were alive, and that I were a great man to have the luxury of visiting him there, and of bidding him be happy."
Three years after Bruce's death, his poems were given to the world by Logan, who unfortunately mingled with them some of his own, and never gave any explanation by which these might be distinguished. This led to a controversy between their respective friends in regard to the authorship of a few pieces, into which it would be unprofitable to enter here, as the fame of Bruce is no way affected whichever way the dispute be decided. The attention of the public having been called to the volume by Lord Craig, in the 36th number of the Mirror, in 1779, a second edition was published in 1784; Dr. Anderson gave Bruce's works a place in his Collection of British Poets, and prefixed to them a memoir from which are derived the materials of the present sketch; and, finally, the unwearied benevolence of Principal Baird brought forward an edition, in 1807, by subscription, for the benefit of the poet's mother. He could not restore her son to be the support of her old age, but made all that remained of him contribute to that end - one of the numberless deeds which now reflect honour upon his memory.
Perhaps Bruce's fame as a poet has been injured by the sympathy which his premature death excited, and by the benevolent purpose which recommended the latest edition of his works to public patronage. Pity and benevolence are strong emotions; and the mind is commonly content with one strong emotion at a time; he who purchased a book, that he might promote the comfort of the author's mother, procured for himself, in the mere payment of the price, a pleasure more substantial than could be derived from the contemplation of agreeable ideas; and he would either be satisfied with it and go no farther, or carry it with him into the perusal of the book, the beauties of which would fail to produce the same effect as if they had found his mind unoccupied. But these poems, nevertheless, display talents of the first order. Logan says of them that, "if images of nature that are beautiful and new; if sentiments warm from the heart, interesting and pathetic; if a style chaste with ornament, and elegant with simplicity; if these, and many other beauties of nature and of art, are allowed to constitute true poetic merit, they will stand high in the judgment of men of taste." There is no part of this eulogy overstrained; but perhaps the most remarkable points in the compositions of Bruce, considering his extreme youth, are the grace of his expression and melody of his verses. Flashes of brilliant thought we may look for in opening genius, but we rarely meet with a sustained polish. The reader who glances but casually into these poems will be surprised to find how many of those familiar phrases recommended to universal use by their beauty of thought and felicitous diction - which everyone quotes, while no one knows whence they are taken - we owe to Michael Bruce. As to his larger merits, the reader may judge from the union of majesty with tenderness which characterises the Elegy already quoted. The poem of Lochleven affords many passages worthy of higher names; we know not in the compass of English poetry a more beautiful image than is presented in the following lines:
"Behold the village rise
In rural pride, 'mong intermingled trees!
Above whose aged tops the joyful swains,
At eventide descending from the hill,
With eye enamour'd mark the many wreaths
Of pillar'd smoke, high curling to the clouds."