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Significant Scots
John Lowe


LOWE, JOHN, a poet of considerable celebrity, though the author of only one small lyrical piece which has acquired popularity, was born at Kenmore in the stewartry of Kircudbright, in the year 1750. His father was gardener to Mr Gordon of Kenmore, son of the unfortunate viscount Kenmore; and young Lowe was reared to the business of a country weaver. Having, however, a strong desire of rising above his native lot, he fitted himself by his own exertions for entering an academical career at the university of Edinburgh, where his expenses were chiefly defrayed, it is said, by friends whom he had secured by his agreeable character and evident talents. While pursuing the study of divinity, he was engaged as family tutor by a country gentleman of his native district, Mr M’Ghie of Airds. The residence of this gentleman, as partly implied by its Celtic appellation, was situate on a piece of lofty and picturesque ground, at the confluence of the Dee with the long narrow lake, in which the Ken meets with that river. Lowe, already addicted to versification, rejoiced with a poet’s ardour in the beautiful scenery of the Airds, amidst which he constructed an arbour still called "Lowe’s Seat." He here composed a considerable number of poems, fragments of which are still recollected in the district; and here also he became attached to one of the beautiful daughters of his employer, who, it is to be supposed, must have materially added to the inspiring powers of the scenery. His happy lyric, entitled "Mary’s Dream," but for which, in all probability, he never would have been heard of beyond his native district, was written at the Airds, in reference to the death of a gentleman named Miller, a surgeon at sea, who was attached to the sister of his own mistress, and perished in the manner described in the poem.

It is not certain that Lowe, though he seems to have completed his theological studies, ever became a licentiate of the Scottish church. In 1773, he was induced to proceed to America, in order to become family tutor to a brother of the illustrious Washington. He subsequently set up a boarding academy at Fredericksburg in Virginia, which succeeded for a time, but afterwards failed. Before leaving Scotland, he had interchanged pledges of mutual love with Miss M’Ghie, and it was understood that their marriage should take place as soon as he should be properly settled in life. The lapse of years—distance— hopelessness, perhaps, of ever reaching the necessary degree of fortune, and not impossibly the intervention of seven years of war between the two countries, conspired to annul this engagement; and the parties eventually married different individuals in their respective countries. Lowe is charged by his biographers with glaring infidelity to his promise; but the case is too obscurely related, to enable us to join in the censure which he has thus incurred. The fondest lovers, when divided by time and space from each other, will hardly be able to maintain their flame: as love is often at first the result of exclusive intercourse, so is it apt to expire when the parties cease for a length of time to enjoy that intercourse, or become exposed to a wider range of society. We are far from implying that a broach of youthful vows is justifiable on any principle; but yet when we see a young female bind herself up to a person who has no immediate prospect of being able to make her his wife, and who, perhaps, before that event, has to spend a long time in a distant land, where his very character is exposed to a radical change, we cannot help perceiving that such a woman perils her happiness upon a point in human nature, and a series of contingencies, where the chances are greatly against her, and therefore is not entitled to throw the whole blame of her misfortune, should it arrive, upon one who is simply, perhaps, the partner of her early imprudence. Lowe eventually paid his addresses to a Virginian lady, who rejected them, but whose sister had conceived for him a violent affection, and whom he afterwards married, from a sentiment, as he expresses it, of gratitude. At what time this took place has not been stated by his biographer; but it is impossible, from the account given by that individual, to resist the impression that it was almost half a lifetime after his engagement at the Airds. His wife proved totally unworthy of his affections, and, by driving him for relief to the bottle, caused his death under the most miserable circumstances about the year 1798. This succession of events appears from Mr Gillespie’s narrative, to have been rapid: hence it is allowable to conjecture, that at least twenty years must have elapsed between his parting with Miss M’Ghie, and his unhappy union to another. If such was the case, we can hardly see how the most ardent impressions of youth could have been maintained at such a distance, and under the continued depression of circumstances on the part of the gentleman, which is acknowledged by the biographer, and which must have tended so much to make sick the hearts of both parties.

A letter from Virginia from an early friend of the poet, gave the following particulars respecting his death:—"That perceiving his end drawing near, and wishing to die in peace, away from his own wretched walls, he mounted a sorry palfrey, and rode some distance to the house of a friend. So much was he debilitated that scarcely could he alight in the court and walk into the house. Afterwards, however, he revived a little, and enjoyed some hours of that vivacity which was peculiar to him. But this was but the last faint gleams of a setting sun; for on the third day after his arrival at the house of his friend, he breathed his last. He now lies buried near Fredericksburg, under the shade of two palm trees; but not a stone is there on which to write, ‘Mary, weep no more for me.’"

The wretched woman to whom he had been united made no inquiries after her husband for more than a month afterwards, when she sent for his horse, which had been previously sold to defray the expenses of the funeral.

Lowe is said to have been a very handsome man, of quick and lively apprehension, and very agreeable as a companion. His reputation as a poet has the strange peculiarity of resting on one small ballad. That, however, has melody, pathos, and imagery of no common character, and will probably be always reckoned among the happiest small pieces in the English language. Some fragments of his other compositions are given in Cromec’s Remains; but they do not rise one step above the cold second-rate pastoral epics of the period.

Mary's Dream

The moon had climb'd the highest hill
Which rises o'er the source of Dee,
And from the eastern summit shed
Her silver light on tow'r and tree;
When Mary laid her down to sleep,
Her thoughts on Sandy far at sea;
When soft and low, a voice was heard,
Say, Mary weep, no more for me!

She from her pillow gently raised
Her head, to ask who there might be,
And saw young Sandy shivering stand,
With visage pale, and hollow e'e.
O Mary dear, cold is my clay;
It lies beneath a stormy sea.
Far, far from thee, I sleep in death,
So, Mary, weep no more for me!

Three stormy nights and stormy days,
We toss'd upon the raging main;
And long we strove our bark to save,
But all our striving was in vain.
Even then, when horror chill'd my blood,
The storm is past, and I at rest;
So, Mary, weep no more for me!

O, maiden dear, thyself prepare;
We soon shall meet upon that shore
Where love is free from doubt and care,
And thou and I shall part no more!
Loud crow'd the cock, the shadow fled;
No more of Sandy could she see:
But soft the passing spirit said:
Sweet Mary, weep no more for me!


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