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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.

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