Imatges de pàgina
PDF
EPUB

than a young man who was taken up with running after ballads, whether Teutonic or National. My profession and I, therefore, came to stand nearly upon the footing which honest Slender consoled himself on having established with Mistress Anne Page; "There was no great love between us at the beginning, and it pleased Heaven to decrease it on farther acquaintance." I became sensible that the time was come when I must either buckle myself resolutely to the "toil by day, the lamp by night,” renouncing all the Delilahs of my imagination, or bid adieu to the profession of the law, and hold another course.

I confess my own inclination revolted from the more severe choice, which might have been deemed by many the wiser alternative. As my transgressions had been numerous, my repentance must have been signalized by unusual sacrifices. I ought to have mentioned, that since my fourteenth or fifteenth year, my health, originally delicate, had become extremely robust. From infancy I had laboured under the infirmity of a severe lameness, but, as I believe is usually the case with men of spirit who suffer under personal inconveniences of this nature, I had, since the improvement of my health, in defiance of this incapacitating circumstance, distinguished myself by the endurance of toil on foot or horseback, having often walked thirty miles a-day, and rode upwards of a hundred, without resting. In this manner I made many pleasant journeys through parts of the country then not very accessible, gaining more amusement and instruction than I have been able to acquire since I have travelled in a more commodious manner. I practised most silvan sports also, with some success, and with great delight. But these pleasures must have been all resigned, or used with great moderation, had I determined to regain my station at the Bar. It was even doubtful whether I could, with perfect character as a jurisconsult, retain a situation in a volunteer corps of cavalry, which I then held. The threats of invasion were at this time instant and menacing; the call by Britain on her children was universal, and was answered by some, who, like myself, consulted rather their desire than their ability to bear arms. My services, however, were found useful in assisting to maintain the discipline of the corps, being the point on which their constitution rendered them most amenable to military criticism. In other respects, the squadron was a fine one, consisting chietly of handsome men, well mounted and armed at their own expense. My attention to the corps took up a good deal of time; and while it occupied many of the happiest hours of my life, it furnished an additional reason for my reluctance again to encounter the severe course of study indispensable to success in the juridical profession.

On the other hand, my father, whose feelings might have been hurt by my quitting the Bar, had been for two or three years dead, so that I had no control to thwart my own inclination; and my income being equal to all the comforts, and some of the elegancies, of life, I was not pressed to an irksome labour by necessity, that most powerful of motives; consequently, I was the more easily seduced to choose the employment which was most agreeable to me. This was yet the easier, that in 1800 I had obtained the preferment of Sheriff of Selkirkshire, about £300 a-year in value, and

which was the more agreeable to me, as in that county I had sev ral friends and relations. But I did not abandon the profession which I had been educated, without certain prudential resolution which, at the risk of some egotism, I will here mention; not wit out the hope that they may be useful to young persons who mi stand in circumstances similar to those in which I then stood.

In the first place, upon considering the lives and fortunes persons who had given themselves up to literature, or to the tas of pleasing the public, it seemed to me, that the circumstanc which chiefly affected their happiness and character, were tho from which Horace has bestowed upon authors the epithet of ti Irritable Race. It requires no depth of philosophic reflection perceive, that the petty warfare of Pope with the Dunces of h period could not have been carried on without his suffering t] most acute torture, such as a man must endure from musquito by whose stings he suffers agony, although he can crush them his grasp by myriads. Nor is it necessary to call to memory tl many humiliating instances in which men of the greatest geni have, to avenge some pitiful quarrel, made themselves ridiculo during their lives, to become the still more degraded objects pity to future times.

Upon the whole, as I had no pretension to the genius of t distinguished persons who had fallen into such errors, I conclud there could be no occasion for imitating them in their mistakes, what I considered as such; and, in adopting literary pursuits the principal occupation of my future life, I resolved, if possib to avoid those weaknesses of temper which seemed to have mo easily beset my more celebrated predecessors.

With this view, it was my first resolution to keep as far was in my power abreast of society, continuing to maintain n place in general company, without yielding to the very natu temptation of narrowing myself to what is called literary societ By doing so, I imagined I should escape the besetting sin listening to language, which, from one motive or other, is apt ascribe a very undue degree of consequence to literary pursuits, if they were, indeed, the business, rather than the amusement, life. The opposite course can only be compared to the injudicio conduct of one who pampers himself with cordial and luscio draughts, until he is unable to endure wholesome bitters. Li Gil Blas, therefore, I resolved to stick by the society of my comn instead of seeking that of a more literary cast, and to maint: my general interest in what was going on around me, reservi the man of letters for the desk and the library.

My second resolution was a corollary from the first. I det mined that, without shutting my ears to the voice of true criticis I would pay no regard to that which assumes the form of sati I therefore resolved to arm myself with that triple brass of Hora of which those of my profession are seldom held deficient, agai all the roving warfare of satire, parody, and sarcasm; to laugh the jest was a good one, or, if otherwise, to let it hum and bi itself to sleep.

It is to the observance of these rules, (according to my b belief,) that, after a life of thirty years engaged in literary labo of various kinds, I attribute my never having been entangled

any literary quarrel or controversy; and, which is a still more pleasing result, that I have been distinguished by the personal friendship of my most approved contemporaries of all parties.

I adopted, at the same time, another resolution, on which it may doubtless be remarked, that it was well for me that I had it in my power to do so, and that, therefore, it is a line of conduct which, depending upon accident, can be less generally applicable in other cases. Yet I fail not to record this part of my plan, convinced that, though it may not be in every one's power to adop: exactly the same resolution, he may nevertheless, by his own exertions, in some shape or other, attain the object on which it was founded, namely, to secure the means of subsistence, without relying exclusively on literary talents. In this respect, I determined that literature should be my staff, but not my crutch, and that the profits of my literary labour, however convenient otherwise, should not, if I could help it, become necessary to my ordinary expenses. With this purpose I resolved, if the interest of my friends could so far favour me, to retire upon any of the respectable offices of the law, in which persons of that profession are glad to take refuge, when they feel themselves, or are judged by others, incompetent to aspire to its higher honours. Upon such a post an author might hope to retreat, without any perceptible alteration of circumstances, whenever the time should arrive that the public grew weary of his endeavours to please, or he himself should tire of the pen. At this period of my life, I possessed so many friends capable of assisting me in this object of ambition, that I could hardly overrate my own prospects of obtaining the preferment to which I limited my wishes; and, in fact, I obtained in no long period the reversion of a situation which completely met them.

Thus far all was well, and the Author had been guilty, perhaps, of no great imprudence, when he relinquished his forensic practice with the hope of making some figure in the field of literature. But an established character with the public, in my new capacity, still remained to be acquired. I have noticed, that the translations from Burger had been unsuccessful, nor had the original poetry :which appeared under the auspices of Mr. Lewis, in the “Tales of Wonder,” in any great degree raised my reputation. It is true, I had private friends disposed to second me in my efforts to obtain popularity; But I was sportsman enough to know, that if the greyhound does not run well, the halloos of his patrons will obtain

nothing for him. Neither was I ignorant that the practice of ballad-writing was for the present out of fashion, and that any attempt to revive it, or to found a poetical character upon it, would certainly fail of success. The ballad measure itself, which was once listened to as to an enchanting melody, had become hackneyed and sickening, from its being the accompaniment of every grinding hand-organ; and besides, a long work in quatrains, whether those of the common ballad, or such as are termed elegiac, has an effect upon the mind like that of the bed of Procrustes upon the human body; for, as it must be both awkward and difficult to carry on a long sentence from one stanza to another, it follows, that the meaning of each period must be comprehended within four lines, and equally

so that it must be extended so as to fill that space. The alternat dilation and contraction thus rendered necessary is singularl unfavourable to narrative composition; and the “Gondibert" Sir William D'Avenant, though containing many striking passage has never become popular, owing chiefly to its being told in thi species of elegiac verse.

In the dilemma occasioned by this objection, the idea occurre to the Author of using the measured short line, which forms th structure of so much minstrel poetry, that it may properl termed the Romantic stanza, by way of distinction; and whic appears so natural to our language, that the very best of our poet have not been able to protract it into the verse properly calle Heroic, without the use of epithets which are, to say the least unnecessary. But, on the other hand, the extreme facility of th short couplet, which seems congenial to our language, and was doubtless for that reason, so popular with our old minstrels, is, fa the same reason, apt to prove a snare to the composer who uses i in more modern days, by encouraging him in a habit of slovenl composition. The necessity of occasional pauses often forces th young poet to pay more attention to sense, as the boy's kite rise highest when the train is loaded by a due counterpoise. Th Author was therefore intimidated by what Byron calls the “fata facility” of the octo-syllabic verse, which was otherwise bette adapted to his purpose of imitating the more ancient poetry.

I was not less at a loss for a subject which might admit being treated with the simplicity and wildness of the ancien ballad. But accident dictated both a theme and measure, whic decided the subject, as well as the structure of the poem.

The lovely young Countess of Dalkeith, afterwards Harrie Duchess of Buccleuch, had come to the land of her husband wit the desire of making herself acquainted with its traditions an customs, as well as its manners and history. All who remembe this lady will agree, that the intellectual character of her extrem beauty, the amenity and courtesy of her manners, the soundnes of her understanding, and her unbounded benevolence, gave moi the idea of an angelic visitant, than of a being belonging to thi nether world; and such a thought was but too consistent with th short space she was permitted to tarry among us. Of cours where all made it a pride and pleasure to gratify her wishes, sh soon heard enough of Border lore; among others, an aged gentle man of property, a near Langholm, communicated to her ladyshi the story of Gilpin Horner, a tradition in which the narrator, an many more of that country, were firm believers. The youn

a This was Mr. Beattie of Mickledale, a man then considerably upware of eighty, of a shrewd and sarcastic temper, which he did not at all tim suppress, as the following anecdote will show :-A worthy clergyman, no deceased, with better good-will than tact, was endeavouring to push th senior forward in his recollection of Border baliads and legends, by, er pressing reiterated surprise at his wonderful memory: “No, sir," said ol Mickledale; "my memory is good for little, for it cannot retain whi ought to be preserved. I can remember all these stories about the aul riding days, which are of no earthly importance; but were you, reveren sir, to repeat your best sermon in this drawing-room, I could not tell yo half an hour afterwards what you had been speaking about."

Countess, much delighted with the legend, and the gravity and full confidence with which it was told, enjoined on me as a task to compose a ballad on the subject. Of course, to hear was to obey; and thus the goblin story, objected to by several critics as an excrescence upon the poem, was, in fact, the occasion of its being written.

A chancs similar to that which dictated the subject, gave me also the hint of a new mode of treating it. We had at that time the lease of a pleasant cottage, near Lasswade, on the romantic banks of the Esk, to which we escaped when the vacations of the Court permitted me so much leisure. Here I had the pleasure to receive a visit from Mr. Stoddart, (now Sir John Stoddart, JudgeAdvocate at Malta,) who was at that time collecting the particulars which he afterwards embodied in his Remarks on Local Scenery in Scotland. I was of some use to him in procuring the information which he desired, and guiding him to the scenes which he wished to see. In return, he made me better acquainted than I had hitherto been with the poetic effusions which have since made the lakes of Westmoreland, and the authors by whom they have been sung, so famous wherever the English tongue is spoken.

I was already acquainted with the “Joan of Arc," the & Thalaba,” and the "Metrical Ballads” of Mr. Southey, which had found their way to Scotland, and were generally admired. But Mr. Stoddart, who had the advantage of personal friendship with the authors, and who possessed a strong memory, with an excellent taste, was able to repeat to me many long specimens of their poetry, which had not yet appeared in print. Amongst others, was the striking fragment called Christabel, by Mr. Coleridge, which, from the singularly irregular structure of the stanzas, and the liberty which it allowed the author to adapt the sound to the sense, seemed to be exactly suited to such an extravaganza as I meditated on the subject of Gilpin Horner. As applied to comic and humorous poetry, this mescolanza of measures had been already used by Anthony Hall, Anstey, Dr. Wolcott, and others; but it was in Christabel that I first found it used in serious poetry, and it is to Mr. Coleridge that I am bound to make the acknowledgment due from the pupil to his master. I observe that Lord Byron, in noticing my obligations to Mr. Coleridge, which I have been always most ready to acknowledge, expressed, or was understood to express, á hope that I did not write an unfriendly review on Mr. Coleridge's productions. On this subject I have only to say, that I do not even know the review which is alluded to; and were I ever to take the unbecoming freedom of censuring a man of Mr. Coleridge's extraordinary talents, it would be on account of the caprice and indolence with which he has thrown from him, as if in mere wantonness, those unfinished scraps of poetry, which, like the Torso of antiquity, defy the skill of his poetical brethren to complete them. The charming fragments which the author abandons to their fate, are surely too valuable to be treated like the proofs of careless engravers, the sweepings of whose studios often make the fortune of some painstaking collector.

I did not immediately proceed upon my projected labour, though I was now furnished with a subject, and with a structure

« AnteriorContinua »