Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Significant Scots
David Macbeth Moir


MOIR, DAVID MACBETH.—This gentle, amiable, and talented poet and physician, whose worth secured for him the esteem which his genius awakened, and whose recent death is still felt and bewailed as a national bereavement, was born at Musselburgh, on the 5th of January, 1798. His father was a respectable citizen of that ancient burgh, and had a family of four children, of whom David was the second. After having learned the usual branches of education at one of the private town seminaries, the young poet attended the grammar-school of Musselburgh for six years, where he studied the Latin, Greek, and French languages, and the elementary departments of algebra and mathematics. But however diligent a pupil he might be, and whatever might be his usual standing in the class, he was not, in after life, particularly distinguished for his attainments either as a geometrician or a linguist. Like many other men of genius, especially those of a sensitive and poetical temperament, he used these departments of learning merely as the means to an end, and not as the end itself. At the early age of thirteen he commenced the study of his future profession, by becoming apprentice to Dr. Stewart, a medical practitioner in Musselburgh, and soon began to evince that devotedness to the duties of the healing art which he continued till the close of his life.

So early as 1812, David Moir wrote poetry. This, however, in a lad of fifteen, is nothing wonderful; and among the well educated, perhaps, it might be found that, in most cases, the earliest attempts at composition have been made, not in prose, but in verse. It is only when the poetical temperament predominates that the boyish rhymer or rhapsodist becomes a veritable poet, while his companions subside into the language of ordinary life. Not long after this, he showed the bent of his ambition for authorship, by sending two short prose essays to a little Haddington periodical, called the "Cheap Magazine," and their appearance in print was enough to confirm the tendency. It is gratifying to learn that, in these youthful preludings, he, like many who have attained a much higher elevation than himself, was fortunate in possessing not only an affectionate but a talented mother, to whom he read his early productions, and by whom his efforts were encouraged and his taste improved. And well was she rewarded for her care; for she lived till 1842, when her son’s reputation was at its height, and strangers regarded her with respect as the mother of Delta.

After a four years’ apprenticeship, and attendance upon the medical classes in Edinburgh, David Moir, at the age of eighteen, obtained the diploma of surgeon. He was as yet young for business, and especially the laborious and anxious business of a country doctor; but in 1817 his mother was a widow, and no labour or sacrifice was too much for his filial affection. He therefore became partner of Dr. Brown of Musselburgh, who had an extensive practice, and toiled so earnestly in his profession, that his mother’s difficulties were removed, and her home made comfortable. Such conduct at the outset of life is the cause, as well as the earnest, of future success. As his love of literature, instead of abating, continued to grow and strengthen, he was wont, when he returned home at nine or ten o’clock at night, after the harassing labours of the day, to light his candle in his bed-room, and continue his studies into the hours of morning. Under these circumstances, he produced many excellent contributions, both in prose and verse, to "Constable’s Edinburgh Magazine." His regular mode of life, and close application to business may, in the meantime, be learned from the fact, that, from the year 1817 to 1828, he had not slept one night out of Musselburgh.

Soon after the establishment of "Blackwood’s Magazine," Moir became one of its most frequent and popular contributors, and was known to its numerous readers under the name of Delta, from the Greek letter, with which he was wont to subscribe his graver productions. From this signature, he was wont to be called the Pyramid or the Triangle, by his mirthful literary companions. But besides the tender lays and ballads with which he enriched the pages of the magazine, drolleries occasionally appeared of which he was the author, but to which he did not append the serious triangular imprimatur; and while the world laughed loudly and heartily at these effusions, they little wotted that their own sentimental Delta had penned them, or that all this was the production of a young surgeon in an obscure country town. Some of these were imitations of the most distinguished living poets; and, to our thinking, they were better caricature resemblances than even the "Rejected Addresses," that obtained such a wide popularity. We would particularly instance Moir’s "Eve of St. Jerry," "Billy Routing," and the "Auncient Waggonere," in which Scott, Wordsworth, and Coleridge were successively imitated, or rather mimicked, with most comic aggravations. We can remember, as if it had been yesterday, the loud explosion of laughter, from the Tweed to Caithness, which the last-mentioned poem produced, when the readers of "Maga," who had been wont to revere the "Ancient Mariner" as the most awe-inspiring of poetical productions, were suddenly shaken from their propriety at finding it, notes and all, travestied with such singular effect. In 1823, he had for his neighbour and acquaintance John Galt, who was then residing near Musselburgh; and so well was the literary reputation of Moir now established, that the distinguished novelist, on being suddenly called off to America before he had finished the "Last of the Lairds," intrusted the winding-up of the tale to Delta, which be accomplished to the author’s satisfaction.

As his poetical productions in "Blackwood" had met with such success, Mr. Moir collected and published the best of them, with a few new additions, at the close of 1824, under the title of "Legend of Genevieve, with other Tales and Poems." But the wide circulation of the magazine had already made them so well known that they had no longer the freshness of novelty, and therefore the reception of the volume, as compared with its merits, was but indifferent. At the same period, he was employed in a prose work, from which, perhaps, he has derived a wider, if not so lasting a popularity as he has done from his poetical productions. This was the "Autobiography of Mansie Wauch," which he supplied in a series of chapters, during three years, to "Blackwood’s Magazine," and afterwards published as a separate work, with several additions and improvements. And what reader of this singular tale can fail to persuade himself that he has met with the veritable Mansie in flesh and blood? He is sure that he has seen the man somehow and somewhere, although whether as a flying tailor or not he cannot distinctly remember. Such is the great charm of the tale: the character and events are thrown off with such truthfulness, that the fun and fiction have all the worth of reality, or something very like it. Like Scott and Galt, midway between whom Delta at once took his place as a novelist, he collected events that had actually happened, and sayings that had been audibly uttered, and, after improving them, grouping them, and throwing over them such a colouring of his own imagination as gave them harmonious uniformity, as well as picturesque effect, he embodied them all in the doings and blunders of a half-silly, half-pawkie, vainglorious, and good warm-hearted creature, who lives, fights on, stumbles through the ups and downs of life, but still manfully does his duty, and finally attains comfort, substance, and worship as the most thriving of village tailors. The work was also admirably suited to the Scottish national character, which abounds in sly, grave humour, rather than in the buoyant and more imaginative attribute of wit. Hence the favour with which "Mansie Wauch" was received, especially in Scotland, where it was best understood, and the permanent place which it has obtained in our northern literature of fiction, as one of the choicest productions of its day; and he who holds an interview with Mansie departs, not a sadder, but a merrier, and, withal, a wiser man than before.

While Mr. Moir was thus so industrious in authorship, and deriving from it the reputation he so justly merited, he did not on that account suffer himself to be allured from the daily toils of his profession. How many young aspirants for literary fame, after reaping but a tithe of Delta’s success, have flung their occupation to the winds, in the fond conceit that they had entered upon the track that would lead them to fame and fortune—and have found, when too late, that they had foregone the substance for a shadow, which at the best was not worth catching. And a strong proof it was of Moir’s well-balanced, well-regulated mind, that instead of devoting all his energies to win his way into the front rank of poetry or novel-writing, he still persevered in his laborious, self-denying vocation, as if he had never compounded aught but a drug, or written anything higher than a prescription. Instead of making literature his crutch, it was his staff, or rather, perhaps, we should say his switch—a light, graceful thing, to flourish in very buoyancy of heart, and switch with it the hedges as he bounded onward in the path of duty. In this way he was better known among the good folks of Musselburgh as a painstaking, skilful physician, than a poet of high mark and standing; and his sphere of occupation kept steadily on the increase. This professional ability suggested to his friends in Edinburgh a change, by which his position in life, as well as the means of gratifying his literary tastes, would have been greatly increased. This was nothing more than to locate himself as a physician in the Scottish capital, where his medical reputation was as well established as his poetical excellence, and where troops of influential friends were ready to insure him an extensive practice. It was a tempting offer, more especially as no risk was involved in it. And yet it was rejected. Moir thought himself already so well circumstanced, that he would not venture to invade his well-established contentment by seeking to make it better; and besides, his affections had so thoroughly entwined themselves with the families of that circle in which he had grown up, and among whom he moved and laboured, that he could not endure the thought of forsaking them, even though it should be for wealthier and more numerous patients. Besides, was he not now the healing as well as tuneful Apollo of Musselburgh; and, like Apollo, might say, though with a very slight variation, "Opiferque per urbem dicor?" Even genuine ambition, had there been no better motive, would have told him, with the authoritative voice of Julius Caesar, that it was better to be the first man in Musselburgh, than the third or even the second in Edinburgh, to which rank he must inevitably be limited there. These were sound dissuasives, and Moir showed his good sense by estimating them at their full value, and acting accordingly. Such a man was worthy, more than most men, of the highest of domestic rewards, and this he obtained on the 8th of June, 1829, at Carham Church, Northumberland, where he received the hand of Miss Catherine E. Bell, of Leith:

Catherine, whose holy constancy was proved
By all that deepest tries, and most endears."

After his happiness in the married state had been crowned by the birth of his first-born, a daughter, the life of Moir went on as usual, with the daily task and evening recreation, till 1831, when even those the least disposed to meddle with politics were obliged to take a side, and speak stoutly in its behalf. This was the year of the Reform Bill, and Moir, although a Conservative, was an earnest advocate for its passing, and officiated as secretary to the Reform Committee. It seems, however, to have been mainly in a religious spirit that he saw the need of a political reform, and he thus writes upon the subject to a friend:—"When a House of Commons could pass a detestable Catholic bill, against the constitution of the country, and the petitions of nineteen-twentieths of its inhabitants, it was quite time that an end should be put to such a delusive mockery of representation." Towards the close of the same year, he was presented with the freedom of his native town, and elected a member of its town-council. This year, also, he ventured upon a new field of authorship, by publishing his "Outlines of the Ancient History of Medicine, being a View of the Progress of the Healing Art among the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabians." This work was intended to have been comprised in three parts; but the second and third, in which the history of the medical sciences was to be brought down from the dark ages to the middle of the last century, were never written. The first part of the work, which appeared under the title of the "Ancient History of Medicine," was favourably received, both by the faculty and the critical press. In the following year, another and still more urgent demand was made upon his pen, on a subject connected also with his own profession. Europe will not soon forget that terrible visitation of cholera, which, after quivering like the bolt of heaven in its erratic progress, blasting and destroying wherever it happened to strike, fell at last upon Britain, and shook it to its deepest sea-girt foundations. Never was medical aid more needed, or the medical practitioner more imperilled; and never, perhaps, were the true chivalry and martyr-like devotedness of the healing art more severely tried and tested. On this occasion, while many physicians abandoned their duty in despair, or fled from it in terror, Moir was to be found daily and hourly at the bed sides of the infected, endeavouring to alleviate the sufferings of the sick by the resources of his skill, or to comfort the dying with the consolations of religion. Even this was not enough; and, therefore, after doing and daring the uttermost within his own round of occupation, he set himself to write his experience of the nature and treatment of the disease, and published a pamphlet, called "Practical Observations on Malignant Cholera." At this time, any suggestion by which the terrible pestilence could be retarded, was clutched as with a death-grasp; and no wonder, therefore, if a work on the subject by such a writer, went through two editions in a few days. Soon after he produced his equally interesting "Proofs of the Contagion of Malignant Cholera."

When the disease had abated and the danger passed away, it was full time that Dr. Moir, never at any time a wanderer from home, should enjoy the recreation of travel. He decided upon a trip to London, not so much, however, for the purpose of a pleasure tour, as to visit his talented and beloved friend, Galt, now shattered with paralysis, and hastening to decay, but with a mind shining as fiercely as ever through the crevices of the material ruin, and bearing up as bravely against the coming downfall. Moir also attended the meeting of the British Association, and made a visit to Cheltenham. Among the few intellectual giants with whom he came in contact during his short residence in London, was Coleridge, then living at Highgate; but, like many others who have enjoyed the privilege of an interview with this marvellous poet, philosopher, and theosophist, Moir came away delighted, he could not tell wherefore, and musing upon he knew not what. He had been in a land of dreams, and breathing an atmosphere of poppies, but the fresh air of reality brought him round in a few minutes. Indeed, the Archimagus of Highgate always found our Scotsmen the most stiff-necked of all his worshippers. Soon after his return from England, and in the beginning of 1833, Dr. Moir, from the retirement of his senior partner, became head of the business, a change which, while it increased his occupation, also lessened his opportunities for literary study and authorship. "Our business," he writes to his friend Macnish, "has ramified itself so much in all directions of the compass, save the north, where we are bounded by the sea, that on an average I have sixteen or eighteen miles’ daily riding; nor can this be commenced before three or four hours of pedestrian exercise has been hurried through. I seldom get from horseback till five o’clock, and by half-past six I must be out to the evening rounds, which never terminate till after nine. Add to this the medical casualties occurring between sunset and sunrise, and you will see how much can be reasonably set down to the score of my leisure." The wonder is, that with such a harassing amount of occupation, and almost total want of leisure, Moir should have continued to write so much as he did, or even that he should have written at all.

In February, 1838, affliction visited the happy home of Delta, and bereaved him of two children, the eldest four-and-a-half years old, the other only fifteen months. The first of these, Charles Bell, who named himself in childish frolic, Casa Wappy, is well known to the world, and especially to many a mother’s tender heart, by the touching poetical commemoration of his grieving father, who lamented him in an elegy which he never surpassed, or perhaps even equalled. Who can read unmoved the following stanzas?

"Do what I may, go where I will,
Thou meet’st my sight;
There dost thou glide before me still—
A form of light!
I feel thy breath upon my cheek,
I see thee smile, I hear thee speak,
Till, O! my heart is like to break,
Casa Wappy!

* * * * *

The nursery shows thy pictur’d wall;
Thy bat, thy bow,
Thy cloak and bonnet, club, and ball;
But where art thou?
A corner holds thine empty chair;
Thy playthings idly scattered there,
But speak to us of our despair,
Casa Wappy!"

Of his five children he could still remember that three were left to him, and he consoled himself with the thought; but only a year after he was bereaved of a third child, David Macbeth Moir, his little namesake. "Three blessed beings," he thus exclaims—

"Three blessed beings! ye are now
Where pangs and partings are unknown,
Where glory girds each sainted brow,
And golden harps surround the throne:
O! to have hail’d that blissful sight,
Unto the angels only given,
When thy two brothers, robed in light,
Embraced thee at the gates of heaven!"

In this manner Delta was wont to express and chronicle the chief feelings of his own private life, and at first they were only circulated among his friends. But the approbation they called forth from Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Montgomery among the poets; from Jeffrey and Lockhart among the critics, and from Dickens, Warren, and Ferrier among our eminent writers of fiction, and their urgent request that these productions should be given to the world, was a call too powerful to be refused, and he published them accordingly in 1843, under the title of "Domestic Verses."

Moir, now at no more than the age of confirmed manhood, when health is strongest, and hope often at the brightest, bade fair, from his firm constitution and temperate habits, to be destined for a long life of usefulness, that to eyes of his friends loomed in bright perspective. But even at this period a series of accidents commenced, by which his term was to be hastily drawn a close. In 1844, from sitting in wet clothes a whole night by the bedside of a patient, he caught a severe internal inflammation, from the effects of which his constitution never fully recovered. Two years after, while visiting Borthwick Castle with a small party of friends in a phaeton, the horse took fright, ran off, and upset the carriage; the whole party, who were thrown out, escaped with little hurt, except Dr. Moir, whose hip-joint was so injured by the fall, that it made him lame for life. As his medical duties still continued, he was obliged on this account to remit his literary avocations, as the evening usually found him fit for nothing but his bed. And, truly, it was no wonder, for on an average he travelled about two hundred and twenty miles per week, independently of his numerous professiona1 visits to short distances on foot. With all this, and diminished bodily powers, he was still able, however, to give attendance to those literary and scientific meetings at which his name was in high request; and his last exertion of this kind, in which he delivered six lectures at the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh in 1851, on the poetical literature of the past half century, will long be affectionately remembered by the lecture-loving inhabitants of our capital. These lectures, too, be it remembered, were composed after the hours of ten and eleven at night, when over-toiled mortals like himself had contentedly retired to rest. At length, on the 22d of June, 1851, while dismounting from his horse, a work of difficulty in his case, on account of his lameness, he sustained so severe a wrench, that pain and debility followed, so that on the 1st of July he set off on a jaunt to Dumfries, in the hope that change of scene and cessation from labour might restore him. It was a vain hope, for at Dumfries he rapidly sank, and expired on the morning of the 6th of July. His last hours were spent in Christian peace and he died in the assurance that his solemn petition was answered, "May the Lord my God not separate between my soul and my body, till he has made a final and eternal separation between my soul and sin."

In consequence of the request of the inhabitants of Musselburgh, the funeral of Dr. Moir, which took place on the 10th of July, was a public one; and it was attended not only by the provost, magistrates, and town council of the burgh, and the kirk session of Inveresk, but the chief professors, clergymen, and literati of Edinburgh and its neighbourhood. A subscription is now in progress for the erection of a public monument to his memory in the churchyard of Inveresk, where his ashes repose. His widow and eight children still survive.


The Late D. M. Moir
By George Gilfillan

Pleasant and joyous was the circle wont to assemble now and then (not every night, as the public then fondly dreamed) in Ambrose's, some twenty-five years ago: not a constellation in all our bright sky, at present, half so brilliant. There sat John Wilson, "lord of the lion-heart and eagle-eye," his hair somewhat thicker, and his eye rather brighter, and his complexion as fresh, and his talk as powerful, as now. There Lockhart appeared, with his sharp face, _adunco naso_, keen poignant talk, and absence of all enthusiasm. There Maginn rollicked and roared, little expecting that he was ever destined to stand a bankrupt and ruined man over Bunyan's dust, and cry, "Sleep on, thou Prince of Dreamers!" There De Quincey bowed and smiled, while interposing his mild but terrible and unanswerable "buts," and winding the subtle way of his talk through all subjects, human, infernal, and divine. There appeared the tall military form of old Syme, alias Timothy Tickler, with his pithy monosyllables, and determined nil admirari bearing. There the Ettrick Shepherd told his interminable stories, and drank his interminable tumblers. There sat sometimes, though seldom, a young man of erect port, mild gray eye, high head, rich quivering lips, and air of simple dignity, often forgetting to fill or empty his glass, but never forgetting to look reverently to the "Professor," curiously and admiringly to De Quincey, and affectionately to all: it was Thomas Aird. There occasionally might be seen Macnish of Glasgow, with his broad fun; Doubleday of Newcastle, then a rising litterateur; Leitch, the ventriloquist, (not professionally so, and yet not much inferior, we believe, to the famous Duncan Macmillan); and even a stray Cockney or two who did not belong to the Cockney school. There, too, the "Director-general of the Fine Arts," old Bridges, (uncle to our talented friend, William Bridges, Esq. of London,) was often a guest, with his keen black eye, finely-formed features, rough, ready talk, and a certain smack audible on his lips when he spoke of a beautiful picture, a "leading article" in "Maga," or of some of the queer adventures (quorum pars fuit) of Christopher North. And there, last, not least, was frequently seen the fine fair-haired head of Delta, the elegant poet, the amiable man, and the author of one of the quaintest and most delightful of our Scottish tales, "Mansie Wauch."

That brilliant circle was dissolved long ere we knew any of its members. We question if it was ever equalled, except thrice: once by the Scriblerus Club, composed of Swift, Pope, Arbuthnot, Gay, and Bolingbroke; again by the "Literary Club," with its Johnson, Burke, Garrick, Beauclerk, Gibbon, and Fox: and more recently by the "Round-table," with its Hazlitt, Hunt, Lamb, and their minor companions. It is now, we need not say, entirely dissolved, although most of its members are yet alive, and although its doings and sayings have been of late imitated in certain symposia, reminding us, in comparison with the past, of the shadowy feasts of the dead beside real human entertainments. The "nights" of the North are diviner than the "days."

From this constellation, we mean, at present, to cut out one "bright, particular star," and to discourse of him. This is Delta, the delightful. We have not the happiness of Dr. Moir's acquaintance, nor did we ever see him, save once. It was at the great Edinburgh Philosophic Feed of 1846, when Macaulay, Whately, and other lions, young and old, roared, on the whole, rather feebly, and in vulgar falsetto, over their liberal provender. Delta, too, was a speaker, and his speech had two merits, at least, modesty and brevity, and contrasted thus well with Whately's egotistical rigmarole, Macaulay's labored paradox, and Maclagan's inane bluster. He was, we understood afterwards, in poor health at the time, and did not do justice to himself. But we have been long familiar with his poems in "Blackwood" and the "Dumfries Herald," to which he occasionally contributed. We remember well when, next to a paper by North, or a poem by Aird, we looked eagerly for one by Delta in each new number of "Ebony;" and we now cheerfully proceed to say a few words about his true and exquisite genius.

We may call Delta the male Mrs. Hemans. Like her, he loved principally the tender, the soft, and the beautiful. Like her, he excelled in fugitive verses, and seldom attempted, and still more seldom succeeded, in the long or the labored poem. Like her, he tried a great variety of styles and measures. Like her, he ever sought to interweave a sweet and strong moral with his strains, and to bend them all in by a graceful curve around the Cross. But, unlike her, his tone was uniformly glad and genial, and he exhibited none of that morbid melancholy which lies often like a dark funeral edge around her most beautiful poems: and this, because he was a _masculine_ shape of the same elegant genus.

Delta's principal powers were cultured sensibility, fine fancy, good taste, and an easy, graceful style and versification. He sympathized with all the "outward forms of sky and earth, with all that was lovely, and pure, and of a good report" in the heart and the history of humanity, and particularly with Scottish scenery, and Scottish character and manners. His poetry was less a distinct power or vein, than the general result and radiance of all his faculties. These exhaled out of them a fine genial enthusiasm, which expressed itself in song. We do not think, with Carlyle, that it is the same with all high poets. _He_ says--"Poetry, except in such cases as that of Keats, where the whole consists in a weak-eyed maudlin sensibility, and a certain vague tunefulness of nature, is no separate faculty, no organ which can be superadded to the rest, or disjoined from them, but rather the result of their general harmony and completion." Now, 1st, Carlyle is here grossly unjust to Keats. Had the author of Hyperion nothing but maudlin sensibility? If ever man was devoured, body and soul, by that passion for, and perception of, the beauty and glory of the universe, which is the essence of poetry, it was poor Keats. He was poetry incarnate--the wine of the gods poured into a frail earthy vessel, which split around it. Nor has Burns, of whom Carlyle is here writing, left any thing to be compared, in ideal qualities, in depth, and massiveness, and almost Miltonic agnificence, with the descriptions of Saturn, and the Palace of the Sun, and the Senate of the Gods in "Hyperion." Burns was the finest lyrist of his or any age; but Keats, had he lived, would have been one of the first of _epic_ poets. 2dly, We do not very well comprehend what Carlyle means by the words "no organ, which can be superadded to, or disjoined from the rest." If he means that no culture can add, or want of it take away, poetic faculty, he is clearly right. But, if he means that nature never confers a poetic vein distinct from, and superior to, the surrounding faculties of the man, we must remind him of certain stubborn facts. Gay and Fontaine were "fable-trees," Goldsmith was an "inspired idiot." Godwin's powerful philosophic and descriptive genius seemed scarcely connected with the man; he had to write himself _into_ it, and his friends could hardly believe him the author of his own works! Even Byron was but a common man, except at his desk, or "on his stool" as he himself called it. He had to "call" his evil spirit from the vasty deep, and to lash himself very often into inspiration by a whip of "Gin twist." And James Hogg was little else than a haverer, till he sat down to write poetry, when the "faery queen" herself seemed to be speaking from within him. Nay, 3dly, we are convinced that many men, of extraordinary powers otherwise, have in them a vein of poetry as distinct from the rest as the bag of honey in the bee is from his sting, his antennae, and his wings, and which requires some special circumstance or excitement to develop it. Thus it was, we think, with Burke, Burns, and Carlyle himself. All these had poetry in them, and have expressed it; but any of them might have avoided, in a great measure, its expression, and might have solely shone in other spheres. For example, Burke has written several works full, indeed, of talent, but without a single gleam of that real imagination which other of his writings display. What a contrast between his "Thoughts on the Present Discontents," or his "Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful," (an essay containing not one sublime, and not two beautiful sentences in it all,) and the "rare and regal" rhetorical and poetic glories of his "Essay on the French Revolution," or his "Letters on a Regicide Peace!" Burns might have been a philosopher of the Dugald Stewart school, as acute and artificially eloquent as any of them, had he gone to Edinburgh College instead of going to Irvine School. Carlyle might have been a prime-minister of a somewhat original and salvage sort, had it been so ordered. None of the three were so essentially poetical, that all their thoughts were "twin-born with poetry," and rushed into the reflection of metaphor, as the morning beams into the embrace and reflection of the lake. All were stung into poetry: Burke by political zeal and personal disappointment, Burns by love, and Carlyle by that white central heat of dissatisfaction with the world and the things of the world, which his temperament has compelled him to express, but which his Scottish common sense has taught him the wisdom of expressing in earnest masquerade and systematic metaphor. But, 4thly, there is a class of poets who have possessed more than the full complement of human faculties, who have added to these extensive accomplishments and acquirements, and yet who have been so constituted, that imaginative utterance has been as essential to their thoughts as language itself. Such were Dante, Milton, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, &c., and such are Wilson, Bailey, Aird, and Yendys. These are "nothing, if not poetical." All their powers and acquisitions turn instinctively toward poetic expression, whether in verse or prose. And near them, although on a somewhat lower plane, stood Delta.

Poetry, with Delta, was rather the natural outflow of his whole soul and culture combined, than an art or science. His poetry was founded on feelings, not on principles. Indeed, we fancy that little true poetry, in any age, has been systematic. It is generally the work of sudden enthusiasm, wild and rapid ecstasy acting upon a nature prefitted for receiving the afflatus, whether by gift or by accomplishment, or by both united. Even the most thoroughly furnished have been as dependent on moods and happy hours as the least. The wind of inspiration bloweth where it listeth. Witness Milton and Coleridge, both of whom were masters of the theory of their art, nay, who had studied it scientifically, and with a profound knowledge of cognate sciences, and yet both of whom could only build up the lofty rhyme at certain seasons, and in certain circumstances, and who frequently perpetrated sheer dulness and drivel. The poetry of Homer, of Eschylus, of Lucretius, of Byron, of Shelley, of Festus--in short, the most of powerful poetry--has owed a vast deal more to excitement and enthusiasm than to study or elaborate culture. The rhapsodists were the first, have been the best, and shall be the last of the poets. And with what principles of poetic art were the bards of Israel conversant? And what systems of psychology or aesthetics had Shakspeare studied? And in what college were trained the framers of the ballad-poetry of the world--the lovers who soothed with song their burning hearts--the shepherds who sang amid their green wildernesses--the ploughmen who modulated to verse the motion of their steers--the kings of the early time who shouted war-poetry from their chariots--the Berserkars whose long hair curled and shook as though life were in it, to the music of their wild melodies--and the "men of sturt and strife," the rough Macpherson-like heroes, whose spirits sprang away from the midst of flood and flame, from the gallows or the scaffold, on whirlwinds of extempore music and poetry? Poetry, with them, was the irresistible expression of passion and of imagination, and hence its power; and to nothing still, but the same rod, can its living waters flow amain. Certain fantastic fribbles of the present day may talk of "principles of art," and "principles of versification," and the necessity of studying poetry as a science, and may exhaust the resources of midnight darkness in expressing their bedrivelled notions; but our principle is this--"Give us a gifted intellect, and warm true heart, and stir these with the fiery rod of passion and enthusiasm, and the result will be genuine, and high, and lasting poetry, as certainly as that light follows the sun."

It may, perhaps, be objected, besides, that Delta has left no large or great poem. Now, here we trace the presence of another prevalent fallacy. Largeness is frequently confounded with greatness. But, because Milton's Paradise Lost is both large and great, it does not follow that every great poem must be large, any more than that every large poem must be great. Pollok's Course of Time is a large and a clever, but scarcely a great poem. Hamlet and Faust may be read each in an hour, and yet both are great poems. Heraud's Judgment of the Flood is a vast folio in size, but a very second-rate poem in substance. Thomas Aird's Devil's Dream covers only four pages, yet who ever read it without the impression "this is a great effort of genius." Lalla Rookh was originally a quarto, but, although brilliant in the extreme, it can hardly be called a poem at all. Burns's Vision of Liberty contains, in the space of thirty-two lines, we hesitate not to say, all the elements of a great poem. Although Delta's poems be not large, it is not a necessary corollary that they are inferior productions. And if none of them, perhaps, fill up the whole measure of the term "great," many of them are beautiful, all are genuine, and some, such as Casa Wappy, are exquisite.

Health is one eminent quality in this pleasing writer. Free originally from morbid tendencies, he has nursed and cherished this happy tone of mind by perusing chiefly healthy authors. He has acted on the principle that the whole should be kept from the sick. He has dipped but sparingly into the pages of Byron and Shelley, whereas Wordsworth, Wilson, Southey, and Scott, are the gods of his idolatry. Scott is transcendently clear. Indeed, we think that he gives to him, as a poet, a place beyond his just deserts. His ease, simplicity, romantic interest, and Border fire, have blinded him to his faults, his fatal facility of verse, his looseness of construction, and his sad want of deep thought and original sentiment. To name him beside or above Wordsworth, the great consecrated bard of his period, is certainly a heresy of no small order. One or two of Wordsworth's little poems, or of his sonnets, are, we venture to say, in genuine poetical depth and beauty, superior to Scott's _five_ larger poems put together. _They_ are long, lively, rambling, shallow, and blue, glittering streams. Wordsworth's ballads are deep and clear as those mountain pools over which bends the rowan, and on which smiles the autumn sky, as on the fittest reflector of its own bright profundity and solemn clearness.

Well did Christopher North characterize Delta as the poet of the spring. He was the darling of that darling season. In all his poetry there leaped and frolicked "vernal delight and joy." He had in some of his verses admirably, and on purpose, expressed the many feelings or images which then throng around the heart, like a cluster of bees settling at once upon flower--the sense of absolute newness, blended with a faint, rich thrill of recollection--the fresh bubbling out of the blood from the heart-springs--the return of the reveries of childhood or youth--the intolerance of the fireside--the thirst after nature renewed within the soul--the strange glory shed upon the earth, all red and bare though it yet be--the attention excited by every thing, "even by the noise of the fly upon the sunny wall, or the slightest murmur of creeping waters"--the springing up of the sun from his winter declinature--the softer and warmer lustre of the stars--and the new emphasis with which men pronounce the words "hope" and "love." To crown a spring evening, there sometimes appears in the west the planet Venus, bright yellow-green, shivering as with ecstasy in the orange or purple sky, and rounding off the whole scene into the perfection of beauty. The Scottish poet of spring did not forget this element of its glory, but sung a hymn to that fair star of morn and eve worthy of its serene, yet tremulous splendor.

Delta was eminently a national writer. He did not gad abroad in search of the sublime or strange, but cultivated the art of staying at home. The scenery of his own neighborhood, the traditions or the histories of his own country, the skies and stars of Scotland, the wild or beautiful legends which glimmer through the mist of its past--these were "the haunt and the main region of his song," and hence, in part, the sweetness and the strength of his strains. Indeed, it is remarkable that nearly all our Scottish poets have been national and descriptive. Scotland has produced no real epic, few powerful tragedies, few meditative poems of a high rank, but what a mass of poetry describing its own scenery and manners, and recording its own traditions. King James the Sixth, Gawin Douglas, Davie Lyndsay, Ramsay, Fergusson, Ross of the "Faithful Shepherdess," Burns, Beattie, Sir Walter Scott, Wilson, Aird, Delta, and twenty more, have been all more or less national in their subject, or language, or both. We attribute this, in a great measure, to the extreme peculiarity of Scottish manners, as they were, and to the extreme and romantic beauty of Scottish scenery. The poetic minds, in a tame country like England, are thrown out upon foreign topics, or thrown in upon themselves; whereas, in Scotland, they are arrested and detained within the circle of their own manners and mountains. "Paint us first," the hills seem to cry aloud. A reason, too, why we have had few good tragedies or meditative poems, may be found in our national narrowness of creed, and in our strong prejudice against dramatic entertainments. As it is, we have only Douglas, and three or four good plays of Miss Baillie's, to balance Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, and all that galaxy--not to speak of the multitudes who have followed--and only the "Grave," the "Minstrel," and the "Course of Time," to compare with the works of George Herbert, Giles Fletcher, Quarles, Milton, Young, Cowper, and Wordsworth.

We find in Delta little meditative power or tendency. His muse had no "speculation" in her eye. Whether from caution, or from want of the peculiar faculty, he never approached those awful abysses of thought which are now attracting so many poets--attracting them, partly from a desire to look down into their darkness, and partly from a passion for those strange and shivering flowers which grow around their sides. Leigh Hunt, in his late autobiography, when speaking of Blanco White, seems to blame all religious speculation, as alike hopeless and useless. But, in the present day, unless there be religious speculation, there can, with men of mind, be little religion--no creed--nor even an approximation toward one. Would Mr. Hunt destroy that link, which in every age has bound us to the infinite and eternal? Would he bring us back to mere brute worship, and brute belief? Because we cannot at present form an infallible creed, should we beware of seeking to form a creed at all? Because we cannot see all the stars, must we never raise our eyes, or our telescopes, to the midnight heavens? Because HE has been able to reach no consistent and influential faith, ought all men to abandon the task? So far from agreeing with this dogmatic denunciation, we hold that it argues on the part of its author--revered and beloved though he be--a certain shallowness and levity of spirit--that its tendency is to crush a principle of aspiration in the human mind, which may be likened to an outspringing angel pinion, and that it indirectly questions the use and the truth of all revelation. We honor, we must say, Blanco White, in his noble struggles, and in his divine despair, more than Leigh Hunt, in his denial that such struggles are wiser than a maniac's trying to leap to the sun, and in the ignoble conceptions of man's position and destiny which his words imply. And, notwithstanding his chilling criticism, so unlike his wont, we believe still, with Coleridge, that not Wordsworth, nor Milton, have written a sonnet, embodying a thought so new and magnificent, in language so sweet and musical, and perfectly fitted to the thought, like the silvery new moon sheathed in a transparent fleecy cloud, as that of Blanco White's beginning with "Mysterious Night."

Delta, we have already said, gained reputation, in prose, as well as in verse. His Mansie Wauch, Tailor in Dalkeith, is one of the most delightful books in the language. It is partly, it is true, imitated from Galt; but, while not inferior to him in humor, it has infused a far deeper vein of poetry into the conception of common Scottish life. Honor to thee, honest Mansie! Thou art worth twenty Alton Lockes, the metaphysical tailor (certainly one of the absurdest creations, and surrounded by the most asinine story of the age, although redeemed by some glorious scenes, and one character, Sandy Mackay, who is just Thomas Carlyle humanized). But better than thee still, is thy 'prentice, Mungo Glen, with decline in his lungs, poetry in his heart, and on his lips one of the sweetest laments in the language! Many years have elapsed since we read thy life, but our laughter at thy adventures, and our tears at the death of thy poor 'prentice, seem as fresh as those of yesterday!

Why did Delta only open, and never dig out, this new and rich vein? He alone seemed adequate to follow, however far off, in the steps of the Great Wizard. Aird seemed to have exhausted his tale-writing faculty, exquisite as it was. Wilson's tales, with all their power, lack repose; they are too troubled, tearful, monotonous, and tempestuous. Galt, Miss Ferrier, the authoress of the Odd Volume, Macnish, &c., are dead....

We had not the pleasure of hearing Delta's recent lectures. They were, chatty, conversational, lively, full of information, although neither very eloquent, nor very profound. He knew too well the position in which he stood, and the provender which his audience required! Nor, we confess, did we expect to meet in them with a comprehensive or final vidimus of the poetry of the last fifty years. His Edinburgh eye has been too much dazzled and overpowered by the near orbs of Walter Scott and Wilson, to do justice to remoter luminaries. Nor was criticism exactly Delta's forte. He had not enough of subtility--perhaps not enough of profound native instinct--and, perhaps, some will think, not enough of bad blood. But his criticism must, we doubt not, be always sincere in feeling, candid in spirit, and manly in language. Still, we repeat, that his power and mission were in the description of the woods and streams, the feelings and customs, the beauties and peculiarities, of 'dear Auld Scotland.'

It may, perhaps, be necessary to add, that the name Delta was applied to Dr. Moir, from his signature in "Blackwood," which was always [Symbol: Delta]; that he was a physician in Musselburgh, and the author of some excellent treaties on subjects connected with his own profession; and that while an accomplished litterateur and beautiful poet, he never neglected his peculiar duties, but stood as high in the medical as in the literary world.

The poetical works of David Macbeth Moir
 Volume 1
  |  Volume 2

Life of Mansie Wauch, Tailor in Dalkeith

Outlines of the ancient history of medicine
Being a view of the progress of the healing art among the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Arabians by D. M. Moir (1831)


Return to our Significant Scots page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast