"To all those who took the trouble of studying the idiosyncracies of
Macfarlan's character he appeared a perfect riddle. He seemed to
possess two separate and distinct individualities: one soaring high
in the sunny empyrean of the sacred Nine, the other grovelling in
the dingiest purlieus of the populous "City by the Clyde."
Socially, even with his high literary attainments, he always
remained at the very foot of the ladder of life. Physically,
he was one of the poorest specimens of our common humanity."
A quarter of a century has elapsed since the compiler of this Memoir
became personally acquainted with Scotland's "Pedlar-Poet," who, at the
period referred to, called at the office of the Glasgow Daily Bulletin
newspaper, and requested an interview with the managing proprietor.
Introducing himself as "the JAMES MACFARLAN" that had been writing poetry
for the Citizen (a weekly Journal published in Glasgow), he
solicited employment on the Bulletin staff as an assistant
reporter—minus short-hand qualifications—and said he considered himself
well fitted to furnish abridged reports of the proceedings in the police
courts. For such duty, on a second interview, he was engaged; and
for a considerable time thereafter, his racy paragraphs were supplied with
great regularity, and became quite a feature of the paper. Later on,
"excuses" frequently reached the editor instead of "copy."
Ultimately the "excuses" won the race, and the inevitable result followed.
Macfarlan was dismissed from his first and last regular employment on the
Newspaper Press. The formal intimation of dismissal elicited no
response, but in the course of a few weeks the subjoined note and
autobiography were forwarded to the Bulletin office:—
WHAT shall I say? What shall I do?
I am hopeless and penniless! Herewith you will receive the
long promised autobiography of the most wretched and miserable of
men, by name
born in Glasgow, 9th April, 1832. My father, who had been bred
a weaver, had however, previous to my birth, given up his calling
for that of a pedlar, and thus I became a wanderer I may say from my
infancy. Travelling from town to town, it may be guessed, I
could receive but little education, yet this wandering life,
although injurious to my progress in learning, was in a manner
favourable to poetic culture. By giving me an opportunity of
visiting those scenes which have been celebrated in song or story, I
had a fund of sweet recollections which, in maturer years, were of
great benefit in directing the thoughts to natural beauty.
mother, who was a delightful singer, very frequently chanted these
old stories of love and chivalry which to my boyish fancy formed all
that was desirable on earth, and filled my heart with a sense of
melody which was to me strange and inexplicable. Happening to
settle for a short time in Kilmarnock, my parents placed me in a
small Academy of that town, where, after remaining for a short time,
I acquired a slight English education, which, with a few months'
schooling afterwards in Glasgow, forms the whole amount of learning
I ever received in a public manner; what little I have since gained,
has been the result of perseverance amid difficulties of the
When about twelve years of age I was taken to Glasgow, where my
father opened a small shop, which he soon had to give up and
recommence his old trade of pedlar. In this latter occupation
I joined him, and an odd volume of Byron's works which I found one
day on a retired road led me to a love for reading.
Books were sought afterwards wherever I could get them.
By leaving a small deposit, I borrowed books in almost every town
where there was a public library, and my father, who could rhyme a
little himself, felt proud of my growing taste, and encouraged me
all he could.
Thus did the time pass, and on reaching the age of twenty there was
scarcely a standard work in the language which I had not perused.
My thoughts were all along turned to poetry, and in 1853, having
collected my scattered pieces together, I determined on submitting
them to the judgment of some person of critical ability, and
accordingly I left my MS. at the chambers of a literary gentleman in
Glasgow, and his verdict was of the most favourable kind.
Elated with this success, I resolved on publishing a volume by
subscription, and after much difficulty having walked all the way to
and from London—succeeded in getting a London publisher to issue
it. The volume was well noticed on its appearance in several
respectable journals, but, coming out at a time when more
experienced writers had engrossed the public attention, my last
ambitions effort was soon forgotten, and many of my subscribers
falling off; I was plunged into want and despair. In this
state, I was very glad to accept a subordinate situation in the
Glasgow Athenæum, where I was
engaged from nine in the morning till half-past ten at night.
Tired of this, I again commenced travelling and peddling.
About a year afterwards I returned to Glasgow, where my "City Songs"
were published and well received by the critics in general.
Fortune, however, seemed to have set her face against me. From some
cause, which I never could learn, I was discharged from more
congenial employment which I had secured, and too sensitive to
enquire the reason, I retired without putting any questions.
The world was now darkening around me. The consumptive
tendencies of my constitution were beginning to develope themselves,
and death appeared to be rapidly approaching, clad in that most
fearful of all his garments—want. Rendered thus desperate, I wrote
to the noble Earl to whom I had dedicated my last little work,
stating my prospects, when his lordship returned me, through his
secretary, the princely sum of one pound sterling! !
Having about two hundred copies of my book on hand, I resolved, as a
means of recruiting my health, and gaining a livelihood, to go about
selling them. I got a few circulars printed, stating my
circumstances, and the nature of my pursuits. With these I
proceeded to Edinburgh, where I met with but indifferent success.
On an occasion of great embarrassment, I wrote to a publisher,
imploring a little aid, and stating at the same time my destitute
condition. For three successive days did I call at that
gentleman's office, but on no occasion had an answer been left.
Almost exhausted with grief and suffering, suicide seemed to have
become a necessity, and long and severe was the struggle before my
better nature triumphed over the dark design of my crushed and
trampled spirit. Returning to my native city, fresh trials
awaited me. I commenced again to sell my little work, and many
and galling were the taunts to which I was subjected. "Do you
intend to live upon sawdust and water? if not, burn your books and
resign poetry." Such was the insulting remark of a purse-proud
gentleman, who concluded his homily by pushing me out of his office.
Such things had I to contend with till I became almost broken
Full of high hopes, I called on the Rev. Mr.——, of Glasgow, himself
an author (also the editor of a popular weekly journal), and in whom
I hoped to find a patron. Timidly handing my little circular
to the Rev. gentleman, he threw it contemptuously back, and slammed
the door in my face. Tears gathered in my eyes as I departed
from his princely residence in the most fashionable part of the
city, to my own miserable lodging, in the purlieus of poverty,
"where lonely want retires to die."
Burning with indignation I wrote the following letter, which I was
only withheld from sending by a strong effort:—" Rev. Sir—A few
nights ago I made bold to call on you in the hope that by making a
small purchase of my poems you might throw me the means of providing
my supper. I did not call because you were a minister of the gospel,
but because you were an author, which I hold to be something even
higher. How you received me I leave your own heart to tell.
I am poor, Rev. Sir, but this day I would not exchange places with
you for the crown of a Caesar. Burn this paper if you will,
destroy it, but the words themselves are more deeply cut in the
heart of the writer. They tell us that this is an age of
scepticism, and who can wonder at it when those who ought to be its
strongest barriers offer the weakest points for the arrow of the
unbeliever? and surely, no one could recognise in you, pompous and
gold-bedizened, a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus!"
This brings my life down to the present time, when the waters of
affliction are still around me. God knows what hand will come
to snatch me out."
On the Monday
following the receipt of the foregoing sketch, the hapless poet was
re-engaged by the proprietors of the Bulletin (but merely as an
outsider) to write legendary and other tales for a weekly journal
(compiled in part from the Daily paper), and for many successive months,
he continued to furnish its columns with some admirable specimens of his
talent as a writer of novelettes. About this time, and steeped in poverty
as he was, our poet managed to woo and win the affections of an
industrious girl—bred to dressmaking—and took upon himself the
additional responsibilities of a married life. Mrs. Macfarlan took
in such work as she could get to do in the poor locality and squalid home
where she had cast her lot; but, as may be gathered from the following
this employment did not bring an embarras des richesse.
144 KING STREET, CALTON,
GLASGOW, APRIL 6.
The present tale in the "Workman" being near a close, I have entered on
the composition of another entitled the "Indian War-Path, or a Legend of
the Wilds," which from its
name, no less than its sustained interest, will I think prove
In addition to the weekly portions of this tale, I intend writing a light,
racy sketch for each impression of the paper, so that I will be fully and
industriously engaged in adding to
the attraction of the "Workman." I think under these circumstances, it
may not be too impertinent to ask another shilling of advance on my
present weekly allowance, as I
feel. pretty tightly pressed at the moment. Of course this rests entirely
with yourself, and whether you consider it requisite to grant it or not, I
will be no less thankful, seeing
that you are the only true friend I have ever had in Glasgow. With many
thanks for past favours, I hope to merit a continuance of your kindly
regards. Perhaps you will let me
know, by leaving word at the Bulletin office, or answering this note by
writing to my house.
I am, Dear Sir,
C. RAE-BROWN, ESQ.
One bright passage at least would have appeared in the poet's
autobiography—had it been brought down to a later date—descriptive of the
hearty welcome and liberal
recompense vouchsafed by Charles Dickens when he accepted, time after
time, Macfarlan's poetical contributions to "Household Words." In this
then popular and now
recuscitated periodical, "Cloudland," "Northern Lights," and other
felicitous poems first saw the light; and the grateful author often
eloquently dwelt, with tears in his eyes,
on the handsome treatment—no less gracious than generous—which he had
received at the hands of one whom he designated the "Prince of Editors." But neither encouragement of this substantial nature, nor his engagement
to supply tales and essays for the Glasgow weekly Journal before referred
to, could eradicate the "pedlar" element, or wean him from the wandering
habits of his early years. For months at a time, he would start on what he
called his "ran-dan:" literally besieging employers and employed in places
of business with solicitations to purchase one or other of his "wee
books;" and many an angry look and sharp word did the poor fellow
encounter in the course of his wayward peregrinations. Despite all its
hardships and privations, this furtive, flickering, "will o' the wisp"
existence continued its erratic course to the very last; the birth and
death of children increasing his responsibilities, but failing to cure him
of his rambling propensities.
Towards the close of 1861, when the present writer was leaving Scotland
with the intention of residing permanently in England, Mr. William Logan
of Glasgow undertook the
somewhat difficult task of "looking after" Macfarlan, then in a very
indifferent state of health; and, as the sequel proved, he not only became
the substantial, though judicious
almoner of the little family, but also soothed the poet's last hours with
vivid representations of "that rest and peace which awaits every contrite
heart beyond the gates of death."
To all those who took the trouble of studying the idiosyncracies of
Macfarlan's character he appeared a perfect riddle. He seemed to possess
two separate and distinct
individualities: one soaring high in the sunny empyrean of the sacred
Nine, the other grovelling in the dingiest purlieus of the populous "City
by the Clyde." Socially, even with
his high literary attainments, he always remained at the very foot of the
ladder of life. Physically, he was one of the poorest specimens of our
Predisposed to consumption, wan and dejected of visage, always meanly
clad, and continually craving "assistance," he generally got a "wide
berth" in the daylight. At night,
however, he was only too warmly welcomed at the public house, and too
frequently regaled with whisky when a solid repast would have proved more
beneficial, and, by his
own account, more truly welcome. "But beggars," he was wont to remark, "canna
be choosers, and when I feel a sinking within, whisky is surely better
The Autumn of 1862 was a very wet and inclement season in the north. Macfarlan's health did not improve in such weather, and with such habits
of life. At this period "an acquaintance (vide Mr. A. G. Murdoch's
memorial sketch in the Peoples' Friend) paid the doctor's fee to have the
poet's condition stated. Verdict pulmonary consumption. Treatment, fresh
air, cheerful spirits, and nourishing diet. It was the last unconscious
joke that society was ever to be permitted to thrust at the desolate and
heart broken poet. So he wandered on a little while longer, attempting to
sell his booklets. One chilly morning in October 1862, when Macfarlan had
reached his 31st year, he set out to attempt to sell some copies of a
prose pamphlet he had just got printed, entitled, "The Attic Study;" and,
feeling weak on his legs, he promised his wife an early return. The poet
had two hours of it, and
returned penniless! On the way up the stairs leading to his miserable
home, a trembling seized on his limbs, and he sank down with a feeble
moan. He was put to bed and
pronounced to be dying. Warm bedclothes were brought to him and
generous cordials administered: but it was all too late."
Early in the bleak November of 1862 the richly endowed but most
unfortunate subject of this memoir quietly and resignedly breathed his
last. A few evenings previous he had
handed corrected copies of his printed poems and several manuscripts to
Mr. Logan. Some extensive excisions had been made in the matter of his
first little volume, and
when desiring Mr. Logan to do what "he thought best" with his literary
remains, the poet informed him that he had recently destroyed several
manuscripts. Towards the close
of 1874, Mr. Logan placed the materials for the present volume in the
hands of the editor, requesting him to make such arrangements as he
thought proper for their
publication, and suggesting the preparation of a brief memoir of the
author. A variety of circumstances hindered immediate compliance with this
request, and, in the interim,
Mr. Logan himself has followed his gifted but ill-starred protëgë to
the Great Shadow Land. Macfarlan's first volume—referred to in the
autobiography as having been issued
in London—bears the date of 1854: the publisher being Mr. Wm. Hardwicke
of Piccadilly. It is simply entitled "Poems:" "City Songs and other
Poetical Pieces "—a still smaller
volume—was published in 1855 by Messrs Thomas Murray & Sons, Glasgow; and
Mr. David Bogue of Fleet Street, London, appears to have published the brochure entitled,
"Lyrics of Life," in 1856. Subsequently, the poem entitled, "The Wanderer
of the West," made its appearance in "tract" form; as did also a series of
short prose reflections
designated, "The Attic Study: brief notes on Nature, Men, and Books;" and
with some hundreds of these in his wallet the poet performed many weary
and foot-sore journeys
through the business quarters of Glasgow.
However purposeless his aims or erratic his movements, Macfarlan could not
be charged with the sin of laziness. "Here, there and everywhere" to
quote his own words, he
sent off "screeds of prose-things to the country papers," content enough
if one or two out of a dozen hit the mark, and brought him a few shillings
from the treasuries of the
provincial press. A number of his lyrics were disposed of in a similar
cheap-jack manner to some of his quondam admirers and public-house
"cronies." The rapidity of his
composition frequently created the greatest astonishment in the minds of
those individuals. He has been known to ensconce himself for half-an-hour
in a dimly lighted
corner—within hearing of songs and jokes flying fast and furious—and to
emerge at the end of that time with some exquisite verses scrawled on the
soiled leaves of the penny
memorandum book which invariably formed part of his stock in trade.
Before concluding this memorial sketch, it may not be out of place to put
the following anecdote on record. Shortly after his return from Glasgow
(where he had taken part in
the celebration of the Burns Centenary) in 1859, Samuel Lover visited the Garrick Club, and there, in the hearing of Thackeray, repeated Macfarlan's
vigorous lyric, entitled, "The Lords of Labour." Scarcely had the last word been uttered, when the
great novelist sprang to his feet, excitedly exclaiming: "By Jove! I
don't think Burns himself could have taken the wind out of this man's
James Macfarlan's remains were interred in the burying-ground situated in
Cheapside Street (Anderston), Glasgow. A number of artists and literary
men followed the plainly
mounted hearse, and just at the moment of actual interment, a grand salute
came from the overhanging clouds, forming a fitting requiem for the
ill-fated but highly gifted Pedlar-Poet.
Yet another, and perhaps a greater honour is about to be showered on this
hapless Son of Song by the issue of his collected poems from the same
printing establishment which sent forth the first edition of the works of