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Eighteenth Century, Chap. IX.; William Sharp's introduction to the Centenary edition of Ossian. (Edinburgh, 1896.)
This is one of the minor poems, but it is selected because it is short enough to insert in almost complete form, and because it illustrates very well the merits as well as the faults of the Ossian poems as a whole. Ossian, the bard to whom Macpherson ascribed the work, was the son of Fingal, king of Morven, in the western Highlands. Fingal is the hero of the cycle of poems, though not the immediate hero of each poem. The story of Carthon, as supplemented by Macpherson's explanation, is as follows:
Clessámmor, the brother-in-law of Comhal (Fingal's father), when a young man, was driven by a storm up the mouth of the Clutha [Clyde] to the British town Balclutha. Reuthámir, the head man of the place, received him hospitably, and soon gave him his only child, Moina, in marriage. But a rival, Reuda, appeared at Reuthámir's house and took means to affront Clessámmor. In the quarrel that followed, Clessámmor killed Reuda, and then, being hard beset by Reuda's friends, escaped to his ship and sailed away. He was prevented from returning for Moina; she died not very long after, leaving a son, Carthon, of whose existence Clessámmor did not learn. When Carthon was three years old, Comhal, king of Morven, came down on an expedition against the Britons, and took and burned Balclutha. Carthon was saved and carried away by his nurse. These events are all antecedent to the narrative of the poem. In the poem, Carthon comes back to revenge himself upon Fingal, as the son of Comhal, that king being now dead. The figure that appears in the mist (ll. 133-136) is a warning of coming war. Fingal, understanding the sign, goes out at the head of his host; he meets Carthon. Carthon defeats two heroes sent against him. Then Fingal sends Clessámmor, who kills Carthon, not knowing him to be his own son.
The poem is addressed, as several of the others are, to Malvina, the bride of Ossian's dead son, Oscar.
The text with the exception of certain quotation-marks, added to make the reading easier, is that of the Centenary edition. (Edinburgh, 1896.)
The popularity and momentary power of Churchill's work is one of the signs of decadence of taste and appreciation in the third quarter of the century. The transitory return of the personal satire is at once a part and an effect of the revival of the intellectual type in verse, in the time of Johnson and Goldsmith. Churchill's work has now fallen into obscurity, but between the years 1761 and 1764 it was a power in current politics. Aside from these three years, the rest of his unfortunate and misdirected life is somewhat obscure. He was a poor clergyman who at the age of thirty discovered his own satirical ability, and came before the world with his Rosciad (1761), directed at the actors of the time. This proving instantly successful, he followed it up with other pieces in the same tone. In the next year he made the acquaintance of Wilkes, already entered upon his career of notoriety, and became his " 'poet-laureate." Wilkes was just establishing his organ of protest, the North Briton, and Churchill contributed much material to it. He showed such aptness in using the popular prejudices, and such power of personal invective, that he became indispensable to Wilkes. The next three years were productive ones, though the work produced was nearly all in the same vein. Churchill showed little variety in talent or purpose. He had one gift, and he used it to the utmost. His satires dealt almost entirely with current matters, and these he handled at close range. So it is impossible for his verse to be interesting to another period. His personal attacks were virulent and unscrupulous, but often witty and pointed. The selections given here are scarcely a fair representation of his work; but his most characteristic attacks usually have an object now so obscure that it is easy for the reader of the present time to miss the purport of the satire.
The text used is that of the Aldine edition, based on Tooke's edition. (London, 1892.)
THE PROPHECY OF FAMINE
The Prophecy of Famine, A Scots Pastoral, was published in 1763. Its great popularity was due, not merely to the wit of the satire, but to the sympathy that it found in the minds of a large number of Eng
lish readers. The Scotch were in extremely bad favour in England at the moment, the immediate and chief cause of the prejudice being the feeling against Lord Bute, to whose influence over George III. was ascribed the king's absolute policy and his insistence on royal prerogative. Bute was Scotch, and the current feeling against the Scotch was high. 179. thee. Wilkes is addressed. The paragraph preceding this is a tribute to him. Churchill's admiration for Wilkes and his devotion to him seem to have been very sincere. His death occurred at Boulogne, while he was on a visit to Wilkes, then an outlaw abroad. 186. North Briton. Wilkes's periodical, which he made the means of attack upon the government, the Scotch, and his personal enemies. Churchill wrote regularly for it in 1762-1763. The notorious Number 45 of it contained an attack on the government which the house of the Commons declared a "seditious libel," and for publishing which, — in conjunction with other offences, Wilkes was expelled from Parliament. 222. Churchill's mother is said to have been Scotch. 232. George Lyttelton, first Baron Lyttelton (1709-1773), and his friend Gilbert West (1703-1756). Lyttelton had been somewhat sceptical in his earlier years, but was later converted to orthodox beliefs and did some writing on subjects connected with Christianity.
The Ghost was published in 1762-1763; the writing of it was begun earlier and laid aside. At the time when Churchill returned to the composition of the poem, the Cock-Lane Ghost fraud was receiving public attention, and Churchill made use of the story of its detection. The full account of the matter is too long to insert here. Johnson was concerned in the exposing of the fraud, and thus occasion is found for bringing him into the poem. See Boswell's Life of Johnson, Vol. I. pp. 406-408. (G. B. Hill's edition.) Johnson remarked upon the attack, "I called the fellow a blockhead at first, and I will call him a blockhead still." The poem is in four books, and contains 4500 lines. It is not Churchill's best work, and some parts of it are very dull.
Beattie was a professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic in Marischal College, Aberdeen, from 1760 until very near the end of his life. He
was granted a pension of £200 by George III., in 1773. His prose works, on ethics and theology, were remarkably successful in their own time and are entirely neglected now. A large part of his verse is mediocre and imitative. Even his Minstrel has been called merely a reflection of his study of Gray and Collins. This may be true, in a way, and yet there is a gentle individuality about the poem, too. It is evidently a genuine expression of original feeling on the part of the poet. The poem is conventional, to be sure, in a very un-Scotch way. It is characteristic of Beattie that he refused to consider the Scotch dialect as worthy to convey poetic thought.
The text used here is that of the Aldine edition. (London, 1866.)
The Minstrel was published in 1771-1774. It is in two books, including in all over twelve hundred lines. Beattie had projected another book, but never produced it. The thread of narrative in the poem is, however, so slight and confused that the incompleteness is not noticed. This poem is one of those minor works that, although they contribute little to the development of the romantic movement, indicate its establishment. The Minstrel is full of description of nature, and shows poetic feeling for natural scenes. It has also something of the gloom and half-melancholy characterizing much of the poetry that was feeling its way toward romanticism.
Beattie says, in a letter written while The Minstrel was in process of composition: "The subject was suggested by a discourse on the old minstrels which is prefixed to a collection of Ballads lately published by Dodsley, in three volumes [evidently Percy's Reliques]. I propose to give an account of the birth, education, and adventures of one of those bards; in which I shall have full scope for description, sentiment, satire, and even a certain species of humour and pathos." He gives, however, some distinctly modern elements to his bard.
The disconnected selections used here give no indication of the continuity of thought in the poem. But they are chosen as illustrations of the tone and style of Beattie's best work.
Beattie says this was written for a Scotch tune, "Pentland Hills." He owns, however, that the verses are unsuitable for a song.
SCOTCH SONGS AND BALLADS
The eighteenth century was in Scotland a period of revival of national literature. After the accession of James I. (VI.), and the removal to England of the seat of government, all writing had languished in Scotland. But now there was a marked renascence of interest in literature. Various causes have been assigned for this revival, found in the influence of contemporary English literature, or in the general prosperity of the times. Perhaps the most potent reason, however, may be discovered in the Union with England, consummated in 1707. The discussions and the general feeling with which this arrangement was attended, and the regret with which the Scotch gave up certain institutions of their own, and were merged into a larger nation, gave rise to an access of national feeling, in which is probably to be found an impetus to poetic expression. The distinctly national quality of the inspiration to write is shown in the fact that the vernacular was so generally chosen as the language used. This was not a matter of chance; the leading writers made their choice with definite intention, usually. In the first years of the century, literary English had been used in verse by an Edinburgh group who imitated the current type of English poetry. Allan Ramsay (q. v.), however, chose the Scots for his means of literary expression, and established himself its champion. His own work, popular as it was, was not more influential than his collections (1724–1727), The Tea-Table Miscellany and The Evergreen. These gave general opportunity for acquaintance with old and new songs in dialect, and were undoubtedly a great stimulus to the production of Scots lyrics. Before Ramsay's collections were issued, Watson's Collection of Choice Scots Songs, Ancient and Modern, had appeared, 1706–1711. This had had a strong influence on Ramsay. From his time on, a great part the better part of the poetry, was written in Scots. Burns found the use of the vernacular well established when he came. Of course dialect is not suited for the most serious literary work. Tragedy, the epic, even didactic verse, are impossible in Scots. But it is suited for certain lyric effects, for the pathetic, the humorous, and for presentation of elements of homely life. And of course it expressed national life and feeling far better than English would have done.
This Scotch poetry reënforced other influences that were tending to advance naturalism in English poetry. There were several reasons