« PreviousContinue »
untruth, although he had himself uttered this emphatic saying, which we now do for him, Veni, vidi, vici.
The errings, waywardness, and misfortunes which seem to be the natural birthright and sad inheritance of men of genius, though in themselves to be reprobated and condemned, yet when viewed in relation to those by whom they were committed, or on whom thay have fallen in the full measure of their manifold evils, do ever awaken the best sympathies of the heart, and with these, a corresponding and entire forgiveness. Let us have ever so determined a predisposition in our colder moments, and in the pride of our moral worth, to censure such derelictions from the paths of propriety and virtue, it is many chances to one but that kindlier and better feelings, and gentler remembrances will rush in upon us unawares, and ere the un. grateful labour is half begun, quite unnerve the sternness of our purpose.
This is peculiarly the case with us at present while about to speak of Robert Tannahill. We are at all times inclined to look with a fearful shuddering on the man who closes the Book of Life on himself, and with his own hand expunges from that book the promises it gives him of eternal happiness; in a philosophic view of the matter, we, too, can find room to despise the dastardliness of soul which impels to selfdestruction to avoid real or imaginary evils, rather than await their on-coming, and then manfully bear up against them with fortitude and abiding courage. In the instance before us, how. ever, these sentiments of moral or religious feeling have but slender influence ; for the recollection of the poet's amiable character, innocence of life, unassuming manners, and kindness of affections, rise up in such impressive and pleading guise before us, that the indignation of the moralist, or the severity of the critic, are alike soothed, modified, and rendered out of place.
The main incidents of his life, few and unvaried as they were, have already been detailed in different biographical sketches with abundant minuteness; to repeat them, therefore, were unnecessary, and while we mention the date of his birth on the 3rd of June, 1774, and that of his death on 17th May, 1810, we perhaps do all that is requisite in the way of registering the epochas of an uneventful and even-tenored existence. Indeed,
with a retired and shrinking character, as he certainly was, it would be inconsistent to expect any marvellous or moving tale.
His heart was wedded to his own home, town, and kindred. Beyond that narrow sphere of humble enjoyment he seldom ventured. But even in regard to Tannahill, since his songs have given him a name in the lyric poetry of his country, it becomes a matter of curiosity to note every minute feature of his mind, and to record every outbreaking of his genius. No person we know of was more capable of doing this well than his intimate and bosom friend, Mr. R. A. Smith, of Paisley. That gentleman frequently revised the best effusions of the poet and suggested emendations. Besides this, he gave them a music, to say the least of which, were they deprived of it, would be as it were withdrawing the sunshine from a landscape that was glorified in it. Possessed, too, of many facts relative to his compositions, and the companion of the poet's Saturday afternoon rambles, Mr. Smith certainly was qualified to furnish the world with more interesting notices respecting him during the latter years of his life, than any that have yet appeared. But if the poet was modest, so was the musician and the poet's friend. Diffidence is often the characteristic of true genius, and never was there a better illustration of this position than at present. Nor the one nor the other have preferred their claims on public attention with even that becoming firmness and consciousness of desert which are to be commended. In an arrogant and presumptive age like the present, a little charlatanship, (however despicable in all cases where circumstances do not imperiously require it,) is absolutely necessary. The man who has assurance enough to say, “I am possessed of genius,” may be believed, and his claim thereto acknowledged ; but he who waits till his neighbour perceive his merits, without bruiting them himself, or having a convenient friend to take that trouble off his shoulders, may wait a while, we fear, ere they shall be known and recognised as such by the popular herd.
We have seen some letters of the gentleman already men. tioned, respecting Tannahill's private habits and literary compositions. Written as they are in the carelessness and confidence of friendship, and without any of the formality of authorship, we yet imagine some extracts from them will be of sufficient novelty to yield interest and afford pleasure. And
though it would have been easy for us to have incorporated and interwoven Mr. Smith's observations in our own sketch, it gives us more satisfaction, and will do him and our readers, we believe, more justice, to present them in their original dress. Of that gentleman we must beg pardon for thus freely laying hold on what accident has placed in our power, and printing without permission, what he wrote with no such view.
Our extracts we give as they occur to our hand.
“My first introduction to Tannabill was in consequence of hearing his song, Blythe was the time, sung while it was yet in manuscript. I was so much struck with the beauty and natural simplicity of the language that I found means shortly afterwards of being introduced to its author. The acquaintance thus formed between us gradually ripened into a warm and steady friendship, that was never interrupted in a single instance till his lamented death,
“ It was only from his compositions that a stranger could form any estimate of his talents--his appearance indicated no marks of genius-his manner was rather distant, and it was but in company with a few, with whom he was very intimate, that his conversation became animated ; in a large assembly he appeared to great disadvantage, was quite uneasy, and seldom spoke except to the person nearest him, if he happened to be an acquaintance.
“For several years previous to his death, we commonly spent the Saturday afternoons together by a walk to the country; but, if the badness of the weather prevented us from enjoying this weekly recreation, the afternoon was passed in my room, reading and reviewing what pieces he had composed through the week, or if I had any new music I played or sung it over to him.
“He was particularly averse to enter the company of people above his own station of life; as an instance of this, I shall relate one little anecdote. Miss
was particularly fond of the Scotish melody, Lord Balgownie's favourite, and had expressed a wish to see it united to good poetry. I accordingly applied to my friend, who produced his song, Gloomy winter's now awa', in a few days. As soon as I had arranged the air, with symphonies and accompaniment for the pianoforte,
I waited on the lady, who was much delighted with the verses, and begged of me to invite the author to take a walk with me to the house at any leisure time. I knew that it would be almost impossible to prevail on Robert to allow himself to be introduced by fair means, so, for once, I made use of the only alternative in my power by beguiling him thither during our first Saturday's ramble, under the pretence of being obliged to call with some music I had with me for the ladies. This, however, could not be effected, till I had promised not to make him known, in case any of the family came to the door ; but how great was his astonishment when Miss forward to invite him into the house by name. I shall never forget the awkwardness with which he accompanied us to the music room. He sat as it were quite petrified, till the magic of the music and the great affability of the ladies reconciled him to his situation. In a short time Mr.
came in, was introduced to his visitor in due form, and with that goodness of heart and simplicity of manner, for which he is so deservedly esteemed by all who have the pleasure of knowing him, chatted with his guest till near dinner time, when Robert again became terribly uneasy, as Mr.
insisted on our staying to dine with the family. Many a rueful look was cast to me, and many an excuse was made to get away, but, alas ! there was no escaping with a good grace, and finding that I was little inclined to understand his signals, the kind request was at length reluctantly complied with.
After a cheerful glass or two, the restraint he was under gradually wore away, and he became tolerably communicative. I believe that, when we left the mansion, the poet entertained very different sentiments from those with which he had entered it. He had formed an opinion that nothing, save distant pride and cold formality, was to be met with from people in the higher walks of life, but on experiencing the very reverse of his imaginings, he was quite delighted, and when Mr.
-'s name happened to be mentioned in his hearing afterwards, it generally called forth expressions of respect and admiration. Gloomy winter's now awa became a very popular song, and was the reigning favourite in Edinburgh for a considerable time.
“ It has been noticed by a very able critic, that he seldom tried the pathetic, yet some fine touches of nature are found in his works. I am sadly mistaken if the following lines will not excite a strong sensation of pity in every bosom capable of feeling their force.
* This 'kerchief he gave me, a true lover's token,
Dear, dear to me was the gift for his sake!
Hope died wi' Jamie, and left it to break.
Cruel remembrance, ah ! why wilt thou wreck me,
Brooding o'er joys that for ever are flown !
Flee to some bosom where grief is unknown !'
“ The music published with this song was originally composed for other words, but Tannahill took a fancy to the air, and immediately wrote Despairing Mary for it, which, being the better song, was adopted. The opening of the melody is too like the first part of The flowers of the forest to lay claim to great originality, but after it was composed I never could please myself with any alteration I attempted to make, so it remains as it was first sketched.
Perhaps the most popular of all his songs was Jessie, the flower o Dumblane. Many a bonnie lass whose name chanced to be the same with that in the song has been in her time the supposititious heroine of it, and got the blame of having “cuist the glamor o'er him,” though with little reason, for I do sincerely believe the poet had no particular fair one in his eye at the time, and that Jessie was quite an imaginary personage.
“The third stanza of this song was not written till several months after the others were finished, and, in my opinion, it would have been more to the author's credit had such an addition never been made. The language, I think, falls considerably below that of the two first verses. Surely the Promethean fire must have been burning but lownly, when such com. mon-place ideas could be coolly written, after the song had been