Poems & Songs: Hugh Macdonald.

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Poems and Songs.

By Hugh Macdonald.

Glasgow, Love.


IT is a misery to find a good cause, which requires delicate treatment, placed in the wrong hands.  The writer of Hugh Macdonald's Memoir means well, but has a Brobdingnagian bad way of showing it.  It is apparently written in the early cock-crow of dawning youth, and in the spirit which can see a Burns in every village rhymester of all Scotland.  There was no need to mount upon stilts of this height for a tall talk on such a quiet genial subject.  The discourse and its style are ludicrously disproportionate to the matter which follows. Hugh Macdonald was one of the most modest and amiable fellows in the world, and he would have shrunk back aghast from this attempt to clothe him in the suit of an intellectual giant.  The Introducer looms on us so hugely himself that the poor Poet is dwarfed, instead of being enlarged, by his friend's presence, and almost lost sight of.  Young Glasgow introduces his subject, or rather himself:—"It was 'a raw and gusty day ;' the rain fell in torrents ; and 'the wind blew as 'twad blawn its last,' yet three hundred men of mind and merit, kindred spirits to the beloved dead, did battle in along and straggling row with the boisterous elements and 'bode the pelting of the pitiless storm,' till they saw the mortal part of Caleb committed to the dust.  Three years after that memorable and mournful funeral, we find that the history of the departed bard is still to write.  Shall his literary friends take blame to themselves that the work has been so long delayed? We trow not."  We trow that some of them should take to themselves both blame and shame for having allowed this writer to ascend and hold forth from the top of the pillar of his friend's fame, which he is calculated to turn into a pillory.

    Again Young Glasgow writes :

    "Well can we recall his genial presence in a company of local celebrities, when 'he was the king amang us a',' and evinced the enviable combination of a fellow of infinite jest, whose jokes and humour 'set the table in a roar,' with 'the intellectual giant whose vivid eloquence entranced or electrified the meeting."

 So the writer informs us that he, himself, is a local celebrity. Would he had been content to remain so. But fancy poor Hugh Macdonald's feelings, with his keen sense of irony, could he have been present at this coronation!  We happened to meet Hugh Macdonald some years ago, liked the man, enjoyed his humour, took an interest in the story of his life, and feel enough respect for his memory to wish him rescued from hands more fit to twist a fool's cap than to twine a crown.

    He was, as we have said, of a most modest and genial nature—one of the many men in Scotland who, in the lowliest walks of life, will be cultivating a little plot of soil in which to grow the immortal flower of poetry, and, under the most adverse circumstances, will tend it with a love that would wring out the last drop of life to give colour to the wan, delicate blossom, and lean over it and fold it about with all the strength of their character to shelter and shield it from the nipping winter of poverty.  It may often be a poor thing, but it is their own, and the offspring of a genuine love.  To them it is a delight of the eye, a pride of the heart, and to them it smells sweet, though the rest of the world may pass it by as they would the merest wild flower by the way.  There is frequently the eye of the poet and the heart of the poet, but the tongue is wanting to tell the world what these see and feel.  Nevertheless, we believe this cherished love of poetry helps to make the poor peasant's life sweeter with its nestling purity, and hoards in the heart some little pearl of preciousness for a life beyond.  There was more in Hugh Macdonald than gets adequate expression in his poetry.  The world is more likely to find the man in his prose.

    As we remember him, he was a small man who looked as though there was a keen spirit in the spare body, well knit by the many blows and much knocking about the world which had served to weld it into a greater strength.  The face was somewhat hard, but the smile that came out of it was pleasant.   The writer of this 'Memoir' speaks of the "cast in his eye," which he says made him "more amiable, roguish and interesting."  Certainly a great deal of character may exist in a cast of the eye, from that politic one in Lord Shaftesbury's—

So politic, as if one eye,
Upon the other were a spy,
That to trepan the one to think
The other blind, both strove to blink,—

to this of Macdonald, which seemed to give his eyes a glint of more humorous light, as though they rather enjoyed the chance of making a little extra fun on the cross.  Charles Lamb would have recognized the proper twinkle in those eyes.    Macdonald was a well-read man, and knew much more than the usual run of poets belonging to the working-classes.  He was very fond of poking about in out-of-the-way places for quaint specimens of human character.  His mind was rich in legendary lore, and continually tickled into laughter with some choice waif and stray of the national humour.  We remember his delight at the grotesque exclamation of the poor Paisley weaver, when he had climbed the heights of Goatfell, and saw the sublime scenery in all the glory of morning.  "Eh, mon, Jock, are na the works o' God deevilish?"  And how he ignited on rubbing against such an anecdote as the one he used to tell of the old Clyde boatman who had floated down the river for many years before Steam had taken the wind out of his sails.  One day a steamer came racing alongside his boat, and quickly passed him by with jeers from those on board. The old man looked with contempt so long as he could contain himself ; but, when wound up as far as his feelings would bear, he burst out with his "Ay, ay, gang alang wi' your deevil's reek.  I am just gawn as it pleases the breath o' God!"

    Hugh Macdonald was born in Runford Street, Bridgetown, Glasgow, on the 4th of April, 1817.  His parents were very poor, and he was sent forth to work at an early age to increase, by a little, the family earnings.  He learned to read as he best could, and in the absence of other books took to the fields and woods, hills and glens, upon high days and holidays.  He was very early a rambler in all green places or nestling nooks, and knew every hoary ruin of man's work, or secret triumph of Nature's, round Glasgow city for many a mile away.  He would trudge a long journey to see the first snowdrop of the year, the earliest violet, or finest bluebell that revisited some old haunt.  Indeed, we think he was out in the cold on one of his pilgrimages to the snowdrops the day or so before he died.  In his later writings he had become a sort of flower-gatherer for the city-folk ; delighting them from time to time with a whiff of fragrance that lifted the veil of smoke for a moment, as it came fresh from a handful of Nature's nurslings, or breathed from the sweet slip of legend that he had found blooming in the rent of some grim castle-wall, or by the mounds of some old battle-field ; a genuine lover of Nature, who, came home from his courtship with the smell of her field-fragrance clinging to him.

    Macdonald had a hard fight at times for the means of living, but he battled on with a sturdy and cheery spirit.  We are told that he loved twice, married his sweethearts one after the other, and was happy with both of them—the lucky fellow ! One was early "wede awa"; from the other he has been taken at the age of forty-three.  She was left with a family of five children.  Various efforts have been made by Macdonald's Glasgow friends to raise some provision for those dear ones that he loved and left behind.  Nearly a thousand pounds have been collected for them, and this book of poems has now been published with the view of adding to the fund, as we hope it may.

    We prefer Macdonald's prose to his poetry, and quote part of his account of a visit which he made to Prof. Wilson.  He always looked back on that occasion as the top-gallant glory of his career:—

"And now I must say I felt rather afraid to venture into the presence of the redoubted Kit North, my heart beat rather thickish when I thought of my hardihood; however, there was no drawing back now, I must go on. * *  In going up the stair to the great man's study, his sanctum sanctorum, the palpitating symptoms threatened to return on me; but the moment I was shown in, and saw his noble intellectual countenance brighten with a smile of welcome, as he shook me warmly by the hand and led me to a seat, saying at the same time that he was very glad I had called, I felt myself quite at home.  He was in his workshop among his books, which were scattered about in all directions in glorious confusion, none of your gay glittering binding ranged for show, but mostly 'scuft,' and bearing the marks of having 'seen service.'  He sat in his easy chair, with a good stout cudgel in his hand.  Fillan's bust is very correct; I would have known him by it, although I had never been told who I was speaking to.  His long yellow hair, now silvered and thinned by time, hanging carelessly over his neck—his fine manly features, and broad high dome-like head, would have pointed him out at once as the mighty Christopher.  He is becoming rather fat and corpulent; and when he threw himself back, during our conversation, in his chair, with the one leg resting on the other, he brought Shakespere's worthy Sir John, who was not only witty himself, but the cause of wit in others, forcibly to my mind.  Indeed, I felt above myself, as if he had not only genius himself, but that for the time he had inspired me with a portion of his glorious spirit.  He said that from my letter and poetry he had looked for an older man ; that I was still a very young man, &c.  Enquired very kindly after my circumstances; was very sorry to hear that I had lost a wife. Said that a great many young men sent him verses, in general the greatest trash—that they either would not or could not think for themselves.  Said that he had been pleased with both my letter and verses. * *  Said that he had made up his mind at once, on reading them, to see me ; and again said he was proud I had called.  He then read over 'the birds,' verse by verse, making remarks on each.  'The lark that sings the stars asleep:'  Did I mean to say that the lark sung after the stars begun to shine?  I said no ; but that this bird rising in the early morn before the stars begun to fade, and continuing to sing while they were one after the other disappearing, might in a poetic sense be supposed to sing them asleep.  Said it was beautiful, but did not strike one at first.  'The merle that wakes their beam :'  He had often admired the song of the merle while he was wandering in the saft simmer gloamin'.  'The wagtail by the forest-spring or lonely waterfall:' Said that he had been once taken to see a painting of a waterfall, by a very clever artist, one Harvey, that he had noticed a bird sitting on a stone at the bottom of it; he had turned to a friend and said this must be a wagtail.  His friend, who was a naturalist, said, No; it is a waterpyet or ousel; and that this bird was more frequently found in these situations than the wagtail.  I would not agree to this; said that what I had written was from actual observation.  That the ousel was a comparatively rare bird, but that it was always to be seen walking about the margin of the lonely linns ; and that I saw several last time I was in Killoch Glen.  Said he knew that sweet little glen, and he was glad I had stuck to my point, as his observations and mine were in accordance with each other.  'The red-breast wailing sad alone:'  He did not think the robin's song a sad one. When he lived last in the country, one came morning and evening, and sung sitting on the top of his pig-house, and he always thought it a very lightsome and blithe song; he used to be quite charmed with it, but singing, as it did alone, at the fa' o' the leaf, there was no doubt but it excited melancholy feelings—this was wholly owing to the associations however.  I said it was probably so, but it appeared sad to me, and I wrote as I felt.  I said I had been to see poor Ferguson's grave that morning; and while musing there, a red-breast had burst into song on a poplar tree in the churchyard, and that it had struck me as a very sad song indeed.  He assented.  'Familiar as a mother's voice:'  He was not quite sure of this—there was familiarity in a mother's voice, but there was a great deal more; it might pass however.  'Matchless mottled breast:'  Thought it would be better without 'matchless.'  'Wells of glee' was a strong phrase, but beautiful, applying both to throstle and merle, and he thought there was strength enough without 'matchless.' * *    These are the principal remarks he made on the piece—it was well worth the pains of polishing, and all short poems should be attended to in this respect.  When he had read it, he folded it carefully up, placed it in a small rosewood box lying on the table, saying at the same time, 'I must take care of this.'  He asked what part of Paisley I worked in, and said he was sorry to go to that place now—the old familiar faces were nearly all gone, even the houses, he scarcely knew them now.  There were only two families that he knew—the Louses in the Sneddon, and some old ladies named Orr, somewhere in Causeyside.  He minded the Louses, they came from England when boys; and he remembered very well, that he envied their roast beef and plum-pudding dinner, when he only got his parritch and milk.  When he was last in Paisley, he went to see the garden outside the town, where he used to go for gooseberries, and to look for birds' nests when a boy.  He had gone into some old haunt of his childhood (a garden), when an old woman came out and looked after him, as much as to say 'I'm no very sure about you'; he said he was glad to walk off.   He had known very little of Tannahill until very recently.  He said he had left Paisley when a boy, before Tannahill's time, and was in England for a lengthened period; and somehow, even when he came on visits to his native place, his friends had never spoken to him of the weaver bard.  Talking of Wordsworth, he said that he had met him when a young man in England; Wordsworth's poetry was then very much ridiculed, even his most beautiful productions.  I said that Wordsworth was much indebted to him for the high degree of popularity he now enjoyed; that it was, for instance, almost altogether through his writings an Wordsworth's poetry that I knew anything of it.  He considered this great poet had been unfairly treated, and he had done what he could to place his writings before the public in their proper light.  He did not think that Wordsworth would ever be very popular, it was only the few who could devote a considerable portion of thought to his works, who could perceive the peculiar beauties of his poetry. * *  So we shook hands, and I came away with a heart rinin' ower wi' gratitude, pride, and love to the greatest mind I have ever met, or in all likelihood ever may meet in this world."

We trust that our opening remarks on the want of taste with which this book has been sent into the world may not militate against its success.  That is not our meaning.  In fact, it needs all the more support in consequence.

 



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