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POETS OF THE PEOPLE.
BY DR. SMILES.
The name of Robert Nicoll will always take high rank among the Poets of Scotland. He was one of the many illustrious Scotchmen who have risen up to adorn the lot of toil, and reflect honour on the class from which they have sprung-the laborious and hardworking peasantry of their land. Nicoll, like Burns, was a man of
whom those who live in poor men's huts may well be proud. They declare, from day to day, that intellect is of no class, but that even in abodes of the deepest poverty, there are warm hearts and noble minds, wanting but the opportunity and the circumstances to enable them to take their place as honourable and zealous labourers in the great work of human improvement and Christian progress.
"Aince in a day there were happy hames
Nane ken how meikle peace an love
In a straw roof'd cot can bide.
Robert was the second of a family of seven children, six sons and one daughter, the "sister Margaret," of whom the poet afterwards spoke and wrote so affectionately. Out of the bare weekly income of a day-labourer, there was not, as might be inferred, much to spare for schooling. But the mother was an intelligent, active woman and assiduously devoted herself to the culture of her children. She taught them to read, and gave them daily lessons in the Assembly's Catechism, so that, before being sent to school, which they were in course of time, this good and prudent mother had laid in them the foundations of a sound moral and religious education.
The life of Robert Nicoll was not one of much variety of incident. It was alas! brought to an early close, for he died almost ere he had reached manhood. But in his short allotted span, it is not too much to say, that he lived more than most men have done, who have reached their three score years and ten. He was born of hard-working, God-fearing parents, in the year 1814, at the little village of Tullybelton, situated about the foot of the Grampian hills, near Auchtergaven, in Perthshire. At an early period of his life, his father had rented the small farm of Ordie-braes, but having been unsuccessful in his farming, and falling behind with his rent, his home was broken up by the laird; the farmstocking was sold off by public roup; and the poor man When twelve years old, Robert was taken from the was reduced to the rank of a common day-labourer. herding, and went to work in the garden of a neighbourThe memory of Ordie-braes afterwards haunted the ing proprietor. Shortly after this, when about thiryoung poet, and formed the subject of one of his sweet-teen years of age, he becan to scribble his thoughts, and est little pieces-to string rhymes together. About this time also, as one of his intimate friends has told us, he passed through a strange phasis of being. He was in the practice of relating to his companions the most wonderful and incredible stories as facts-stories that matched the wonders of the Arabian Tales,-and evidencing the inordinate as
But these hames are gane, and the hand O Timecendency at that time of his imagination over the other
faculties of his mind. The tales and novel literature,
Nicholl's next change was an important one to him. He left his native hamlet and went into the world of active life. At the age of seventeen he bound himself apprentice to a grocer and wine merchant in Perth. There he came into contact with business, and activity, and opinion. The time was stirring with agitation. The Reform movement had passed over the face of the country like a tornado, raising millions of minds to action. The exciting effects of the agitation on the intellects and sympathies of the youth of
'My mother, says Nicoll in one of his letters, "in her early years, was an ardent book-woman. When she became poor, her time was too precious to admit of its being spent in reading, and I generally read to her while she was working; for she took care that the children should not want education."
Robert's subsequent instructions at school, included the common branches of reading, writing, and accounts; the remainder of his education was his own work. He became a voracious reader, laying half the parish under contribution for books. A circulating library was got up in the parish, which the lad managed
to connect himself with, and his mind became stored apace.
Robert, like the rest of the children, when he became big enough and old enough, was sent out to field-work, to contribute by the aid of his slender gains, towards the common store. At seven years of age, he was sent to the herding of cattle, an occupation by the way, in Burns, James Ferguson, Mungo Park, Dr. Murray (the which many of our most distinguished Scotchmen,In winter, Nicoll attended the school with his "fee." Orientalist), and James Hogg-spent their early years. When occupied in herding, the boy had always a book for his companion; and he read going to his work and returning from it. While engaged in this humble vocariod of his life, he says, "I can yet look back with no tion he read most of the Waverley novels. At a future pe common feelings on the wood in which, while herding,
read Kenilworth." Probably the perusal of that the stately halls of rank and fashion, than it gave to the beautiful fiction never gave a purer pleasure, even in poor herd-boy in the wood at Tulliebelton.
In his "Youth's Dream," he looked back with delight to that glad period of his life,
"Oh, weel I mind how I would muse,
How happy, happy I would make
The gift, unending happiness-
So pure and holy were my dreams
that day, are still remembered; and few there were, who did not feel more or less influenced by them. The excitable mind of Nicoll was one of the first to be influenced; he burned to distinguish himself as a warrior on the people's side; he had longings infinite after popular enlargement, enfranchisement, and happiness. His thoughts shortly found vent in verse, and he became a poet. He joined a debating society, and made speeches. Every spare moment of his time was devoted to self-improvement; to the study of grammar, to the reading of works on political economy and politics in all their forms. In the course of one summer, he several times read through with attention Smith's Wealth of Nations," not improbably with an eye to some future employment on the newspaper press. He also read Mi Locke, and Bentham-and devoured all other books that he could lay hands on, with avidity. The debating society with which he was connected, proposed to start a periodical; and Nicoll undertook to write a tale for the first number. The periodical did not appear, and the tale was sent to Johnstone's Edinburgh Magazine, where it appeared under the title of "Jessie Ogilvy," to the no small joy of the writer. It decided Nicoll's vocation-it determined him to be an author. He proclaimed his Radicalism-his resolution to "stand by his order," that of "the many." His letters to his relatives, about this time, are full of political allusions. He was working very hard too,-attending in his mistress's shop, from seven in the morning, till nine at night, and afterwards sitting up to read and write; rising early in the morning, and going forth to the North Inch by five o'clock, to write or to read until the hour of shop-opening. At the same time he was living, on the poorest possible diet--literally on bread and cheese, and water that he might devote every possible farthing of his small gains to the purposes of mental improve
was in vain, and he returned home disappointed though not hopeless.
He was about twenty when he went to Dundee, there to start a small circulating library. The project was not very successful; but while he kept it going he worked harder than ever at literary improvement. He now wrote his Lyrics and Poems, which were soon afterwards published, and extremely well received by the press. He also wrote for the liberal newspapers of the town, delivered lectures, made speeches, and extended his knowledge of men and society. In a letter to a "No wonder friend, written in February, 1836, he says, I am busy. I am at this moment writing poetry; I have almost half a volume of a novel written; I have to at tend the meetings of the Kinlock Monument Committee; attend my shop; and write some half dozen articles a week for the Advertizer; and to crown all I have fallen in love." At last, however, finding the library to be a losing concern, he made it entirely over to the partner who had joined him, and quitted Dundee, with the intention of seeking out some literary employment by which he might live.
The Dundee speculation had involved Nicoll, and through him his mother, in debt, though to only a small amount. This debt weighed heavy on his mind, and he thus opened his heart in a highly characteristic letter to his parent about it :-"This money of R.'s (a friend who had lent him a few pounds to commence business with) hangs like a millstone about my neck. If I had it paid I would never borrow again from mortal man. But do not mistake me, mother; I am not one of those men who faint and falter in the great battle of life. God has given me too strong a heart for that. I look upon earth as a place where every man is set to struggle, and to work, that he may be made humble and pure hearted, and fit for that better land for which earth is a preparation-to which earth is the gate. Cowardly is that man Few constitutions can stand such intense labour and who bows before the storm of life-who runs not the privations with impunity; and there is little doubt but needful race manfully, and with a cheerful heart. If men Nicoll was even then undermining his health, and sow-would but consider how little of real evil there is in all ing the seeds of the malady which in so short a time the ills of which they are so much afraid-poverty inafter, was to bring him to his grave. But he was cluded-there would be more virtue and happiness, and eager to distinguish himself in the field of letters, less world and mammon worship on earth than is. I though then but a poor shop-lad; and, more than all, think, mother, that to me has been given talent; and if To he was ambitious to be independent, and have the means of aiding his mother in her humble exertions for so, that talent was given to make it useful to man. man it cannot be made a source of happiness unless it a living; never losing sight of the comfort and welfare be cultivated; and cultivated it cannot be unless, I of that first and fastest of his friends. At length, how think, little [here some words are obliterated]; and much ever, his health became seriously impaired, so much and well of purifying ard enlightening the soul. This so, that his Perth apprenticeship was abruptly brought is my philosophy; and its motto isto a close, and he was sent home by his mistress to be nursed by his mother at Ordie Braes,-not, however, before he had contributed another Radical story, entitled "The Zingaro," a poem on Bessy Bell and Mary Gray," and an article on "The Life and times of John Milton," to Johnstone's Edinburgh Magazine. An old friend and schoolfellow, who saw him in the course of this visit to his mother's house, thus speaks of him,"Robert's city life had not spoiled him. His acquaintance with men and books had improved his mind without chilling his heart. At this time he was full of joy and hope. A bright literary life stretched before him. His conversation was gay and sparkling, and rushed forth like a stream that flows through flowery summer vales." His health soon became re-established, and he then paid a visit to Edinburgh, during the period of the Grey Festival,-and there met his kind friend Mrs. Johnstone, William Tait, Robert Chambers, Robert Gilfillan, and others known in the literary world, by all of whom he was treated with much kindness and hospitality. His search for literary employment, however, which was the main cause of his visit to Edinburgh,
Despair, thy name is written on
unhappiness of life springs from looking back to griefs which are past, and forward with fear to the I am determined never future. That is not my way. to bend to the storm that is coming, and never to look dear back on it after it has passed. Fear not for me, mother; for I feel myself daily growing firmer, and more hopeful in spirit. The more I think and reflectand thinking, instead of reading, is now my occupation, I feel that, whether I be growing richer or not, I am growing a wiser man, which is far better. Pain, poverty, and all the other wild beasts of life which so affright others, I am so bold as to think I could look in the face without shrinking, without losing respect for myself, faith in man's high destinies, and trust in God. There is a point which it costs much mental toil and struggling to gain, but which, when once gained, a man can look down from, as a traveller from a lofty mountain, on storms raging below, while he is walking in
sunshine. That I have yet gained this point in life I will not say, but I feel myself daily nearer it."
About the end of the year 1836, Nicoll succeeded, through the kind assistance of Mr. Tait, of Edinburgh, in obtaining an appointment as editor of an English newspaper, the Leeds Times. This was the kind of occupation for which he had longed; and he entered upon the arduous labours of his office with great spirit. He threw himself heart and soul into the work, labouring with the energy and devotion of one who felt that there was social and political existence and freedom in the truths he gave utterance to. During the year and a half of his editorship, his mind seemed to be on fire; and, on the occasion of a parliamentary contest in the town in which the paper was published, he wrote in a style which to some seemed bordering on phrenzy. He neither gave nor took quarter. The man who went not so far as he did in political opinion, was regarded by him as an enemy, and denounced accordingly. He dealt about his blows with almost savage violence. This novel and daring style, however, attracted attention to the paper, and its circulation rapidly increased, sometimes at the rate of two hundred or three hundred a week. One can scarcely believe that the tender-hearted poet and the fierce political partizan were one and the same person, or that he who had so touchingly written
"I dare not scorn the meanest thing
"To grinning scorn a sacrifice
Throughout the whole progress of his disease, up to the time when he left Leeds, did Nicoll produce his usual weekly quota of literary labour. They little know, who have not learnt from bitter experience, what pains and anxieties, what sorrows and cares, lie hid under the columns of a daily or weekly newspaper. No galley-slave at the oar tugs harder for life than the man who writes in newspapers for the indispensible of daily bread. The press is ever at his heels, crying "give, give;" and well or ill, gay or sad, the Editor must supply the usual complement" of leading article." The last articles poor Nicoll wrote for the paper, were prepared whilst sitting up in bed, propped about by pillows.
should have held up his political opponents, in the words A friend entered just as he had finished them, and found of some other poet,
him in a state of high excitement; the veins on his forehead were turgid, his eyes were bloodshot, his whole frame quivered, and the perspiration streamed from him. He had produced a pile of blotted and blurred manuscript, written in his usual energetic manner. It was But such inconsistencies are, we believe, reconcile- immediately after sent to press. These were the last able in the mental histories of ardent and impetuous leaders he ever wrote. They were shortly after followmen. Doubtless, had Nicoll lived, we should have founded by a short address to the readers of the paper, in his sympathies becoming more enlarged, and embracing which he took a short but affectionate farewell of them; other classes besides those of only one form of political and stating that he went to try the effect of his native creed. One of his friends once asked him why, like air, as a last chance for life." Elliot, he did not write political poetry. His reply was, Almost at the moment of his departure from Leeds, that he could not: when writing politics he could be an incident occurred which must have been exceedingly as wild as he chose he felt a vehement desire, a feel affecting to Nicoll, as it was to those who witnessed it. ing amounting almost to a wish, for vengeance upon the Ebenezer Elliott, the "Corn Law Rhymer," who enteroppressor: but when he turned to poetry, a softening tained an enthusiastic admiration for the young poet, influence came over him, and he could be bitter no lon-had gone over from Sheffield to deliver a short course of ger." lectures to the Leeds Literary Institution, and promised himself the pleasure of a kindly interview with Robert Nicoll. On inquiring about him, after the delivery of his first lecture, he was distressed to learn the sad state to which he was reduced. "No words, (says Elliott in a letter to the writer of this memoir) can express the pain I felt when informed on my return to my inn, that he was dying, and that if I would see him I must reach his dwelling before eight o'clock next morning, at which hour he would depart by railway for Edinburgh, in the hope that his native air might restore him. I was five minutes too late to see him at his house, but I followed nim to the station, where about a minute before the train started he was pointed out to me in one of the carriages, seated, I believe, between his wife and his mother. I stood on the step of the carriage and told him my name. He gasped they all three wept; but I heard not his voice."
The invalid reached Newhaven, near Leith, sick, exhausted, distressed, and dying. He was received under the hospitable roof of Mrs. Johnstone, his early friend, who tended him as if he had been her own child. Other friends gathered around him, and contributed to smooth his dying couch. It was not the least of Nicoll's distresses, that towards his latter end he was tortured by the hor
His literary labours, while in Leeds, were enormous. He was not satisfied with writing from four to five columns weekly for the paper; but he was engaged at the same time in writing a long poem, a novel, and in furnishing leading articles for a new Sheffield newspaper. In the midst of this tremendous labour, he found time to go down to Dundee to get married to a young woman, since dead, for whom he had for some time entertained an ardent affection. The comfort of his home was thus increased, though his labours continued as before. They soon told upon his health. The clear and ruddy complexion of the young man grew pallid; the erect and manly gait became stooping; the firm step faltered; the lustrous eye was dimmed; and the joyous health and spirits of youth were fast sinking into rest. The worm of disease was already at his heart and gnawing away his vitals. His cough, which had never entirely left him since his illness, brought on by self-imposed privation and study while at Perth, again appeared in an aggravated form; his breath grew short and thick; his cheeks became shrunken; and the hectic, which never deceives, soon made its appearance. He appeared as if suddenly to grow old; his shoulders became contracted; he appeared to wither up, and the sap of life to shrink from his veins.
Need we detail the melancholy progress of a disease which is, in this country, the annual fate of thousands.
It almost seemed as if, while the body of the poet decayed, the mind grew more active and excitable, and that as the physical powers became more weakened, his sense of sympathy became more keen. When he engaged in conversation upon a subject which he loved-upon human progress, the amelioration of the lot of the poor, the emancipation of mind, the growing strength of the party of the movement-he seemed as one inspired. Usually quiet and reserved, he would on such occasions work himself into a state of the greatest excitement. His breast heaved, his whole frame was agitated, and while he spoke, his large lustrous eyes beamed with an unwonted fire. His wife feared such outbursts. They were followed by sleepless nights, and generally by an aggravation of his complaint.
rors of destitution; not so much for himself as for those who were dependent on him for their daily bread. A generous gift of £50 was forwarded by Sir William Molesworth, through the kind instrumentality of Mr. Teit, of Edinburgh, but Nicoll did not live to enjoy the bounty; in a few days after he breathed his last in the arms of his wife.
The remains of Robert Nicoll rest in a narrow spot in Newhaven Churchyard. No stone marks his restingplace only a small green mound that has been watered by the tears of the loved he has left behind him. On that spot the eye of God dwells; and around the precincts of the poet's grave, the memories of friends still hover with a fond and melancholy regret.
Robert Nicoll was no ordinary man: Ebenezer Elliott has said of him, "Burns at his age had done nothing like him." His poetry is the very soul of pathos, tenderness, and sublimity. We might almost style him the Scottish Keats; though much more real and life-like, and more definite in his aims and purposes than Keats There is a truth and soul in the poetry of Nicoll, which come home to the universal heart. Especially does he give utterance to that deep poetry which lives in the heart, and murmurs in the lot of the poor man. He knew and felt it all, and found for it a voice in his exquisite lyrics. These have truth written on their very front-as Nicoll said truly to a friend, "I have written my heart in my poems; and rude, unfinished, and hasty as they are, it can be read there."
Need we cite examples?" We are lowly," "The Ha' Bible," "The Hero," "The bursting of the Chain,' "I dare not scorn," and numerous other pieces which might be named, are, for strength, sublimity, and the noble poetic truths contained in them, equal to anything in the English language. "The Ha' Bible" is perhaps not unworthy to take equal rank with "The Cottar's Saturday Night" of Robert Burns.
To this interesting memoir by our friend Dr. Smiles, we will add a few sentences.
William Tait, in a note to us, observes, that "Robert Nicoll's manners were uncommonly gentle, yet he was spirited in conversation. I recollect when he and Mr. M'Laren, of the Scotsman, dined with me and a few friends more, Mr. M'Laren remarked the strange brilliance of Nicoll's eyes, in which there appeared what might be supposed to be the true poetic fire, or-mayhap, one of the well-known signs of consumption."
It was in Edinburgh that we ourselves saw Robert Nicoll, just before he went to Leeds to edit the Times; and we thought that we had never seen any one who so completely realized the idea of the young poet. Somewhat above the middle size, of a free and buoyant carriage, and with a countenance which was beautiful in the expression of intellect and noble sentiment. His eyes, struck us as most poetical,-large, blue, and full of enthusiasm. There was an ingenuousness about him that was peculiarly charming, and the spirit of freedom and of progress that animated him, seemed to point him out for a brilliant, ardent career in the cause of
He accompanied us to breakfast at the house of an old Friend, a leading member of the Society there, and the order, the quietness, and seriousness of the family, made a most lively impression upon him. After breakfast the old gentleman brought the Bible and read a chapter, after which we sate some time in silence, and when the conversation was rene ed, it was not of the ordinary matters of the day, but of the progress of the Peace Society, the Anti-Slavery Society, and similar topies, all embracing human improvement and welfare. As we retired, Nicoll said it was a peep into an entirely new life to him, and brought strongly to his imagination the life of Covenanters and Patriarchs. We
taken from the Courier de l'Europe, rests not only upon THE proof of the truth of the following statement, the known veracity of the narrator, but upon the fact that the whole occurrence is registered in the judicial records of the criminal trials of the Province of Langue
doc. We give it as we heard it from the lips of the dreamer, as nearly as possible in his own words.
As the junior partner in a commercial house at Lyons, I had been travelling for some time on the business of the firm, when one evening, in the month of June, 1761, I arrived at a town in Languedoc, where I had never before been. I put up at a quiet inn in the suburbs, and being very much fatigued, ordered dinner at once, and went to bed almost immediately after, determining to begin very early in the morning my visits to the different merchants.
I would have cried out; but my tongue clove to the roof of my mouth. At this moment I awoke with my hair on end, trembling in every limb, and cold drops of perspiration bedewing my forehead,-awoke to find myself comfortably in bed, my trunk standing beside me; birds warbling cheerfully around the window; whilst a young clear voice was singing a provincial air in the next room, and the morning sun was shining brightly through the curtains.
that science either denies or is unable to explain, but I must confess that I now felt myself spell-bound as by some enchantment—and with Pascal's words on my lips -A continued dream would be equal to reality,' I hurried forward, no longer doubting that the next moment would bring me to the cottage, and this really was the case. In all its outward circumstances it corresponded to what I had seen it in my dream. Who then could wonder that I determined to ascertain whether the coincidence would hold good in every other point! I enItered the garden and went direct to the spot on which I had seen the well; but here the resemblance failedwell there was none. I looked in every direction, examined the whole garden, went round the cottage, which appeared to be inhabited, although no person was visible, but nowhere could I find any vestige of a well.
I made no attempt to enter the cottage, but hastened back to the hotel in a state of agitation difficult to describe; I could not make up my mind to pass unnoticed such extraordinary coincidences-but how was any clue to be obtained to the terrible mystery?
I was no sooner in bed than I fell into a deep sleep, and had a dream that made the strongest impression upon me.
I went to the landlord, and after chatting with him for some time on different subjects, I came to the point and asked him directly to whom the cottage belonged that was on a bye-road which I described to him.
I thought that I had arrived at the same town, but in the middle of the day instead of the evening, as was really the case-that I had stopped at the very ame inn, and gone out immediately as an unoccupied stranger would do, to see whatever was worthy of observation in the place. I walked down the main street into another street, crossing it at right angles, and apparently leading into the country. I had not gone very far when I came to a church, the Gothic portal of which I stopped to examine. When I had satisfied my curiosity, I advanced to a bye path which branched off from the main street. Obeying an impulse 'I wonder, Sir,' said he' what made you take such which I conld neither account for nor controul, I struck particular notice of such a wretched little hovel. It is into this path, though it was winding, rugged, and un-inhabited by an old man with his wife, who have the frequented, and presently reached a miserable cottage, character of being very morose and unsociable. They in front of which was a garden covered with weeds. I rarely leave the house, see nobody, and nobody goes to had no difficulty in getting into the garden, for the hedge see them; but they are quiet enough, and I never heard had several gaps in it wide enough to admit four carts anything against them beyond this. Of late, their very abreast. I approached an old well which stood, solitary existence seems to have been forgotten; and, I believe, and gloomy, in a distant corner, and looking down into Sir, that you are the first who, for years, has turned it I beheld distinctly, without any possibility of mistake, your steps to the deserted spot.' a corpse which had been stabbed in several places. I counted the deep wounds and the wide gashes whence the blood was flowing.
These details, far from satisfying my curiosity, did but provoke it the more. Breakfast was served, but I could not touch it, and I felt that if I presented myself to the merchants in such a state of excitement, they would think me mad; and, indeed, I felt very much excited. I paced up and down the room, looked out at the window, trying to fix my attention on some external object; but in vain. I endeavoured to interest myself in a quarrel between two men in the street-but the garden and the cottage pre-occupied my mind; and at last, snatching my hat, I cried-'I will go, come what may.'
I sprang from my bed, dressed myself, and as it was yet very early I thought I would seek an appetite for my breakfast by a morning walk. I went accordingly into the street and strolled along. The farther I went the stronger became the confused recollection of the objects that presented themselves to my view. 'It is very strange,' I thought, I have never been here before, and I could swear that I have seen this house, and the next, and that other on the left.' On I went till I came to the corner of a street crossing the one down which I had come. For the first time I remembered my dream, but put away the thought as too absurd, still at every step I took, some fresh point of resemblance I suffered but a very few moments to elapse before I struck me. Am I still dreaming,' I exclaimed, not was on my way, accompanied by the two officers, and without a momentary thrill through my whole frame. we soon reached the cottage. We knocked, and after Is the agreement to be perfect to the very end?' Be- waiting some time an old man opened the door. He refore long I reached the church with the same architec-ceived us somewhat uncivilly, but shewed no mark of tural features that had attracted my notice in the dream, suspicion, nor, indeed, of any other emotion when we and then the high road, along which I pursued my way, told him we wished to search the house. coming at length to the same bye path that had presented itself to my imagination a few hours before-like,' there was no possibility of doubt or mistake. Every tree, every turn, was familiar to me. I was not at all of a superstitions turn; and was wholly engrossed in the practical details of commercial business. My mind had never dwelt upon the hallucinations, the presentiments
I repaired to the nearest magistrate, told him the object of my visit, and related the whole circumstance briefly and clearly. I saw directly that he was much impressed by my statement.
It is, indeed, very strange,' said he, and after what has happened, I do not think I am at liberty to leave the matter without further inquiry. Important business will prevent my accompanying you in a search, but I will place two of the police at your command. Go once more to the hovel, see its inhabitants, and search every part of it. You may perhaps make some important discovery.'
'Very well, gentlemen, as fast and as soon as you was his reply.
'Have you a well here?' I enquired.
'No, Sir; we are obliged to go for water to a spring at a considerable distance.'
We searched the house, which I did, I confess, with a kind of feverish excitement, expecting every moment