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Significant Scots
John Struthers

STRUTHERS, JOHN.—"It is said that the solitary and meditative generation of cobblers have produced a larger list of murders and other domestic crimes than any other mechanical trade except the butchers; but the sons of Crispin have, to balance their account, a not less disproportionate catalogue of poets; and foremost among these stands the pious author of the ‘Poor Man’s Sabbath,’ one of the very few that have had sense and fortitude to resist the innumerable temptations to which any measure of celebrity exposes persons of their class." This honourable attestation from the pen of the distinguished editor of the "Quarterly Review," in his Life of Sir Walter Scott, when speaking of John Struthers, entitles this lowly bard to not a little consideration. The author of the "Poor Man’s Sabbath" was born at Forefaulds, a cottage built upon the estate of Long Calderwood, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, on July 18, 1776, and was the son of William Struthers, who for more than forty years had been a shoemaker in that parish. The education of John, when a boy, was of the simplest kind: he was taught to read from the Shorter Catechism, the Proverbs of Solomon, and the Bible; and to write, by copying the letters of the alphabet in a rude printing fashion upon the side of an old slate. His mother, however, who was his preceptor, was aided in the task of tuition by Mrs. Baillie, widow of Dr. James Baillie, formerly professor of theology in the university of Glasgow, then residing at Long Calderwood, and by her two daughters, the youngest of whom was the afterwards celebrated Joanna Baillie. These accomplished ladies had the sickly little boy frequently brought to their house, where they conversed with him, read to him, told him amusing stories, and gave him his first glimpses of the bright world of music, by airs upon the spinnet. That mind must have had no imagination whatever which such a training could not waken into poetry, or something resembling it. When the house was shut up, and the family had departed to London, it seemed to John, now only seven years old, as if a beatific vision had been closed for ever; and the consequence was a fever, that confined him to bed for six weeks. No one who afterwards knew the hard-visaged and iron-minded John Struthers, would have suspected him of ever having been the victim of such susceptibility, were we not aware that it is often such seemingly impassive characters who feel most keenly. On going afterwards to school, he made such progress in the common branches of education, that his parents were urged to have him trained for the ministry; but this temptation, so strong among the peasantry of Scotland, they had the good sense to resist, and John was sent, for three years and a half, to the occupation of a cow-herd. During this period he unconsciously trained himself for his future work of an ecclesiastical historian, by devouring the contents of his grandfather’s covenanting library, which was stored with the works of Knox, Calderwood, Wodrow, and other Scottish writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, while he cherished the polemical spirit, so essential to his future task, by keen debates with a neighbouring herd lad upon the religious controversies of the day.

After a rough kind of life, partly as cow-herd, and partly as farm-servant, John Struthers, at the age of fifteen, settled in Glasgow, for the purpose of learning his father’s occupation of shoemaker; and this being fully attained, he returned to the paternal home, and was busily employed in his new calling. During these changes he had also diligently pursued the task of self-education, in which he made himself acquainted with the best poetical and prose writers both of England and Scotland, while his intellectual superiority gave him a high standing among the rustic society by which he was surrounded. At the age of twenty-two he married, after a courtship of more than four years. Having removed once more to Glasgow, which he now made his permanent abode, Struthers adventured on his first attempt in authorship, and, like many tyro authors, he was soon so much ashamed of it, that he burnt the whole impression, and did his best to forget the trespass. What was the nature of the work, or whether it was in poetry or prose, he has not informed us, although from a chance hint that escapes him in his biography, we rather think it was the former.

The next attempt of Mr. Struthers in authorship was one that was to bring him into notice, and establish his reputation as a poet of no common order. We allude to his "Poor Man’s Sabbath;" and as the origin of this work is characteristic both of the writer and the period, we give it in his own words, where he speaks of himself in the third person: "Though the removal of our subject from a country to a town life, was upon the whole less grievous than he had anticipated, still it was followed by regrets, which forty-eight long years have not yet laid wholly asleep. Of these, the first and the most painful was his position on the Sabbath day. In the country his Saturday was equally tranquil, rather more so than any other day of the week. He was, on the Saturday night, always early to bed, and on the Sabbath morning up at his usual hour—had his moments of secret meditation and prayer—his family devotions—his breakfast and dressing over by nine o’clock, when his fellow-worshippers of the same congregation, who lived to the westward of him, generally called at his house. Among them was his excellent father, and one or two old men of the highest respectability as private members of the church, with whom he walked to their place of worship, Black’s Well meeting-house, Hamilton, returning with them in the evening, enjoying the soothing influences of the seasons, whether breathing from the fragrant earth, or glowing from the concave of the sky; taking sweet counsel together, and holding delightful fellowship with the God of all grace, and of all consolation, and with each other, in talking over the extent, the order, the grandeur, and the excellent majesty of His kingdom." From this picture of a rural Scottish Sabbath at the beginning of the present century, he turns to those Sabbatical evils of our cities, which, at that period of recent introduction, have ever since been on the increase:—"In town, on the contrary, he found Saturday always to be a day of bustle and confusion. There was always work wanted, which could not be had without extra exertion. He was always earlier up in the morning, and later in going to bed on that day than on any other day of the week. With the extra labour of that day, added to the everyday toils of the week, he was often exhausted, and his hands so cut up, that it was not without difficulty that he managed to shave himself. On the morning of the Sabbath, of course, he was weary, drowsy, and listless, feeling in a very small degree that glowing delight with which he had been accustomed to hail the hallowed day. At the sound of the bell he walked into the meeting-house with the crowd, an unnoticed individual, unknown and unknowing; his nobler desires clogged and slumbering; his activities unexcited; and his whole frame of mind everything but that which he had been accustomed to experience, and which it was, amidst all these evil influences, his heart’s desire it should have been."

These feelings wrought themselves into stanzas, and the stanzas, in course of time, grew into a regular poem. Still warned, however, by his late failure, Struthers was afraid to venture once more into the press, until the success of a war ode, entitled "Anticipation," which he published in 1803, when the dread of a French invasion was at its height, encouraged him to commit the "Poor Man’s Sabbath," in the following year, to the tender mercies of the public. The approbation with which it was welcomed was great, and the sale of it was rapid. A few weeks after this, Graham’s "Sabbath" was published, so that the "Poor Man’s Sabbath," on account of its priority, had established a refutation of the charge of plagiarism, which was attempted to be brought against it. A first and second, and afterwards a third impression of the work was rapidly sold; and although the profits collectively amounted to no great sum, it brought Struthers something better than a few fleeting pounds; "it made his name and character known," says Lockhart, in his Life of Scott, "and thus served him far more essentially; for he wisely continued to cultivate his poetical talents, without neglecting the opportunity, thus afforded him through them, of pursuing his original calling under better advantages." It is not a little to the honour of Struthers, that his production was patronized by Sir Walter Scott, and also by Joanna Baillie, the friend and instructor of his early boyhood, from whom he was so fortunate as to receive a visit at Glasgow in 1808. Such a visit he thus touchingly commemorates in his old days:—"He has not forgotten, and never can forget, how the sharp and clear tones of her sweet voice thrilled through his heart, when at the outer door she, inquiring for him, pronounced his name—far less could he forget the divine glow of benevolent pleasure that lighted up her thin and pale but finely expressive face, when, still holding him by the hand she had been cordially shaking, she looked around his small but clean apartment, gazed upon his fair wife and his then lovely children, and exclaimed, ‘that he was surely the most happy of poets.’"

Encouraged by the success that had crowned his last effort, Struthers persevered amidst the many difficulties of his humble position to cultivate the muse, and the result was the "Peasant’s Death," intended as a sequel to the "Poor Man’s Sabbath," and which was as favourably received by the public as its predecessor. Then succeeded the "Winter Day," a poem in irregular measure, which he published in 1811. This was followed, in 1814, by a small volume, bearing the title of "Poems, Moral and Religious." In 1818 he published his poem of "The Plough," written in the Spenserian stanza. About the same time he also edited, from the original MS., a collection of poems by Mr. William Muir, to which he appended a biographical preface. A still more important editorial work, which he was induced to undertake, was a collection of songs, published in three volumes, under the title of "The Harp of Caledonia." But after all this labour, the author was as poor as ever, and still dependent upon the work of his hands for his daily bread. The cause of this is to be found not only in his general indifference to lucre, but his sturdy independence, that would not stoop to the higgling of the literary market, and the high estimate he had formed of the dignity of literary exertion. Hear his own estimate of the matter:—"The mercenary spirit of literary men he considers to be the disgrace and bane of human nature—an intellectual harlotry, more disgraceful and more destructive to the immortal spirit, than that prostitution of the body, which subjects all who submit to it to self-loathing and the contempt of all men—a vice which converts one of the noblest acquisitions of human nature, and that which should be one of the principal sources of distinction in the world--THE KNOWLEDGE OF LETTERS—into a curse the most wide-spreading and morally ruinous to which our frail nature can be subjected; and he confesses candidly, that up to this day he has serious doubts whether general or miscellaneous literature, as the sole means of supporting existence, be, after all, a lawful profession."

It was not, however, merely to poetry that Struthers confined his intellectual exertions. Looking sharply at men and things, he knew much of the prose of life; while his course of reading, which he had never intermitted from boyhood, and which extended over an ample range of Scottish theology, history, and general literature, fitted him for writing upon the most important subjects of the day. He felt it also the more necessary to be a prose writer and public instructor, in consequence of the innovations that were taking place in society, under which all old time-honoured institutions were decried as the mere ignorance of childhood, compared with that great millennium of improvement, of which the French revolution was the commencement. On this account he had sturdily opposed the strikes of his fellow-workmen, and the levelling democratic principles of the class of society to which he belonged, although he stood alone in the contest. While these were at the wildest, he published, in 1816, an "Essay on the State of the Labouring Poor, with some hints for its improvement." The plan he recommended was that of the ten-acre-farm, which has so often been reiterated since that period; and such were the merits of the production, which was published anonymously, that more than one writer of eminence had the credit of the authorship. Another pamphlet, which he afterwards published, with the title of "Tekel," was written during the heat of the Voluntary controversy, and intended to represent what he conceived to be the ruinous effects of the Voluntary principle upon religion in general. He was now to become more closely connected with authorship as a profession than ever, in consequence of being employed as a literary reader and corrector of the press, first at the printing-office of Khull, Blackie, and Co., Glasgow, and afterwards in that of Mr. Fullarton. During this period, which lasted thirteen years, besides the task of correcting proofs and making or mending paragraphs, he furnished notes for a new edition of Wodrow’s "history, of the Church of Scotland." He also wrote a history of Scotland from the Union (1707) to 1827, the year in which it was published, in two volumes, and was afterwards employed in preparing a third, continuing the narrative until after the Disruption, so that it might be a complete history of the Scottish Church; when, just as it was all but completed, death put a period to his labours. He was also, for sixteen or eighteen months, occupied with Scottish biography, and most of the lives which he wrote on this occasion, were ultimately transferred to Chambers’ "Lives of Eminent Scotsmen."

In 1833, an important change occurred in the tranquil career of Mr. Struthers, by his being appointed to the charge of that valuable collection, well known in Glasgow as the Stirling Library Here his salary as librarian was only fifty pounds a-year; but his wants were few and simple, and the opportunities of the situation for study were such as would have outweighed with him more lucrative offers. In this office he remained nearly fifteen years, and returning in his old days to his first love, he resumed his poem entitled "Dychmont," commenced in early life, which he completed and published in 1836. These literary exertions were combined with biographical sketches, which appeared in the "Christian Instructor," several tracts on the ecclesiastical politics of the period, and essays on general subjects, of which only a few were printed. In 1850, a collection of his poetical works was published in two volumes, by Mr. Fullarton, to which the author added a highly interesting autobiography.

In this manner passed the useful life of John Struthers to its close, while every year added to the esteem of his fellow-citizens, who regarded him not only as an excellent poet, but an able historian and general writer—an estimation in which society at large has fully coincided. He died in Glasgow, on the 30th July, 1853, in the seventy-eighth year of his age.

History of Scotland
Volume 1  |  Volume 2

Poor Man’s Sabbath

Poetical Works of John Struthers
With Autobiography in 2 volumes (1850)
Volume 1  |  Volume 2

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