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Significant Scots

HENRY, the minstrel, more commonly styled BLIND HARRY, was a wandering poet of the fifteenth century, who wrote a well-known narrative of the life of Sir William Wallace.

The character of a wandering bard or minstrel was in early ages highly valued and honoured, although at a late period it fell into discredit. HENRY THE MINSTREL, or BLIND HARRY, had not the fortune to live during the sunshine of his profession; for in the Scottish laws of his own time, we find bards classed with "vagabonidis, fuilis, and sic like idill peopill;" but the misfortune of his blindness, and the unquestionable excellence of his talents, would in all probability secure to him a degree of respect and attention which was not then generally bestowed on individuals of his class. Indeed, we learn from Major, that the most exalted in the land countenanced the minstrel, and that he recited his poetical narratives before them. Major is the only writer from whom any information regarding Blind Harry is derived, and the meagreness of that information may be judged of, when it is known, that the whole is comprised in the following brief sentence. "Integrum librum Gullielmi Vallacei Henricus, nativitate luminibus captus, meae infantiae tempore cudit; et quae vulgo dicebantur, carmine vulgari, in quo peritus erat, conscripsit; (ego autem talibus scriptis solum in parte fidem impertior;) qui historiarum recitatione coram principibus victum et vestitum quo dignus erat nactus est."[Hist. lib. iv. c. 15.]—" Henry, who was blind from his birth, in the time of my infancy composed the whole book of William Wallace; and committed to writing in vulgar poetry, in which he was well skilled the things that were commonly related of him. For my own part, I give only partial credit to writings of this description. By the recitation of these, however, in the presence of men of the highest rank, he procured, as he indeed deserved, food and raiment."

Brief, however, as this passage is, we gather from it the principal points of Henry’s life—namely, that he was born blind - that he was well skilled in vernacular poetry—that he composed the book of William Wallace - and that by reciting it he procured food and raiment. The passage, also, is the only source from which we can learn the date of the poem or the period when its author flourished. Major was born in the year 1469, and as he says that the book of William Wallace was composed in his infancy, Blind Harry must have lived about that time, and the date of this work may be placed between 1470 and 1480. More than this, regarding the biography of a once popular poet, and one whose name is still familiar in the mouths of his countrymen, cannot be ascertained. Of the book itself, a few observations may be taken.

"That a man," says Mr Ellis, ["Specimens of Early English Poets," vol. I] born blind should excel in any science is extraordinary, though by no means without example: but that he should become an excellent poet is almost miraculous; because the soul of poetry is description. Perhaps, therefore, it may be easily assumed that Henry was not inferior in point of genius either to Barbour or Chaucer, nor indeed to any poet of any age or country." The question of what a man might have been under certain circumstances, is one of assumption altogether, and is too frequently used by individuals regarding themselves as a salve for their indolence and imperfections. Neither can we admit that description is the soul of poetry: we consider it rather as the outward garb or frame-work of the divine art, which unless inspired by an inward spirit of contemplation, has no further charm than a chronicle or gazetteer. Milton was blind when he composed Paradise Lost, and although he had the advantage of Henry in that he once saw, yet we have often heard his calamity adduced, to increase our wonder and admiration of his great work, whereas, had he retained his eyesight, Paradise Lost would probably never have been finished, or, if finished, might not have proved, as it has done, one of the noblest productions which a human being ever laid before his fellow creatures. Although, however, we disapprove of assuming a possible excellence in Henry had he been blessed with vision, it would be unjust not to acknowledge the disadvantages under which his poem has come down to us. He himself could not write it; nor is there any probability that it was regularly taken down from his dictation; the incorrectness and unintelligibility of many of its passages rather prove that much of it must have been written from recollection, while editors have, in too many instances, from gross misapprehensions, succeeded in rendering absurd what was previously only obscure. With all this, the poem is still of extraordinary merit—and, as a poem, is superior to Barbour’s or Winton’s. In an historical light, doubtless, its value can never be put in competition with the works of the above authors; it is rather a romance than a history, and is full of exaggerations and anachronisms; and narrative Henry professes to have derived from a complete history of Wallace (now lost) written, in Latin, partly by John Blair and partly by Thomas Gray; and this circumstance, if true, exculpates the poet from the invention at least of its manifold and manifest absurdities. His information seems to have been, for the period, respectable. In his poem he alludes to the history of Hector, of Alexander the Great, of Julius Caesar, and of Charlemagne; but without profiting from the character which these heroes exhibited in history, of policy combined with prowess and bravery, he has in his book taken the childish or gross conception of a warrior, and held up Sir William Wallace as a mere man of muscular strength and ferocity – capable of hewing down whole squadrons with his single arm, and delighting in the most merciless scenes of blood and slaughter. It is in this point that the Minstrel is so far inferior to Barbour. He is destitute of that fine balancing of character displayed by the latter, and those broad political views which render "The Bruce" as much a philosophical history as a poem. [In his work, entitled "Lives of Scottish Worthies," Mr. P. F. Tytler has expressed his deliberate conviction, founded upon recent investigation, that the minstrel holds too low a rank as a credit-worthy historian. "I am persuaded," says Mr Tytler, "that Wallace is the work of an ignorant man, who was yet in possession of valuable and authentic materials. On what other supposition can we account of the fact, that whilst in one page we meet with errors which show a deplorable perversion of history, in the next we find circumstances unknown to other Scottish historians, yet corroborated by authentic documents, by contemporary English annalists, by national monuments and records only published in modern times, and to which the minstrel cannot be supposed to have had access. The work, therefore, cannot be treated as an entire romance." The ingenious historian then adduces a number of instances in which Henry’s statements are proved by lately discovered documents to have been correct.]

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