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The ballad form of poetry is singularly well fitted for the recital of deeds of chivalry, but it does not readily suit itself to the varying phases of poetic genius; and this disadvantage is increased when, as here, the same stanza perpetually recurs, instead of being varied, as in the lays of Scott and Macaulay, to suit the changing action of the piece, or the sentiment expressed, or the emotions of the spectator. Rapid and spirited description it freely admits; but if the same hurrying measure be preserved without variety, the most consummate artist will find himself unable to bring out the more delicate shades of character. The nature of the verse does not favour the tranquil and reflective repose which is indispensable to the successful portraiture of the softer traits of the human heart, while the sameness of cadence and rythm, however spirited the description, is apt to fatigue the attention, and displease the taste. To triumph over these formidable disadvantages, requires great genius and great art.
The first piece in the volume is entitled, “ Edinburgh after Flodden." It opens with a picture of the eager and rapid rush of the multitude to the city gates to hear “ tidings from their noble army, greetings from their gallant king.” The blazing beacons that had gleamed all the preceding night on the hills, had announced the commencement of the war, and created a feeling of awful suspense which was deepened by apparitions of evil augury: for
“ All night long the northern streamers
Shot across the trembling sky;
Save when kings and heroes die." The cry passed through the streets, that a messenger had arrived from the army, and the citizens crowd with eagerness and alarm to the gates,
" Warder, warder, open quickly! man, is this a time to wait ?'.
And the heavy gates are opened—then a murmur long and lond,
G— can that be Randolph Murray, captain of the city band."" The moment that the gallant Randolph Murray enters, he is closely hemmed in by a crowd of eager inquirers, but to the alarmed looks and earnest objurations of the citizens, his deep and overwhelming emotion prevents his replying in words : but the silence of despair succeeds to the frantic outcry and prayers of the half-maddened crowd, when he significantly lifts the bloody and riven banner which he carried in his hand, and slowly and sorrowfully wends his way to the council-chamber. His progress up the streets to the city-hall, and his bearing before the authorities, are told with such a sustained power, and picturesque and vivid distinctness, as have rarely been equalled :
“ Right bitter was the agony that wrung that soldier proud,
Thrice did he strive to answer and thrice he groaned alond,
Then he gave the riven banner to the old man's shaking hand,
For the stain ye see upon it was the life-blood of the king.'” The effect of these dreadful tidings upon the people is finely portrayed. At first are heard the sobbings and shriekings of personal and private griefs, for the slaughter of Fludden had fallen upon
the assembled strength and nobility of the kingdom, which Scotland had sent forth with proud and joyful anticipations, and there were few families who had not a near relative to mourn for, when the news of the battle was brought back. Yet there was a public and common grief which gradually absorbed all others. The chivalrous Scottish king, who had made himself by his romantic adventures, daring courage, and generous and lofty temper, the idol of the whole nation, had also fallen; and his fall was feli to be a more deplorable disaster than any private and family bereavement could possibly be. The turbulent outcries of an aflicted people soon changed to the settled and prolonged wail of sorrow for the untimely fall of their monarch, and for the calamities which it portended to the unhappy realm. The sun of chivalry seemed to have set for ever, and darkness, disaster, and conquest, to be imminent over the ancient Scottish nation.
With equal vividness and skill is the character of the old Provost sketched, who had in trust to keep the capital of Scotland inviolate from the desecrating tread of foemen, during the absence of the king, a trust which he received with pride, and discharged with honour. I'he ProPost of that time was possessed of a more heroic spirit than is conmonly looked for now-a-days in provosts : and yet, were our liberties by any foul chance put in jeopardy, we would not despair to see that august functionary again foremost in their defence, although he would not probably handle a Scottish broad sword so expertly as his great predecessor. The chivalrous spirit of the brave old man is made, by the skill of the artist, to shine through, and triumph over the agony with which his soul is wrung by the loss of his last remaining son :
* Thou needst not tell it : he is dead; God help us all this day!
But, speak,-how fought the citizens within the furious fray ?
That no Scottish foot went backward, when the Royal Lion fell." " No one failed him! He is keeping royal state and semblance still,
Knight and noble lie around him, cold on Flodden's fatal hill.
As the wolves in winter circle mund the leaguer on the heath;
It is the marvellous property of true genius to identify itself with the scenes it describes, and the characters it pictures forth, to realize circumstances and action of the drama, and the passions of the various actors—to imagine, and isolate, and define, the whole structure of the plot even to its minutest accessories : and in proportion as the writer is endowed with this godlike and coveted gift, will he succeed to imbue the creations of his fancy with the tone and colouring of verisimilitude, or to revive past scenes and associations with fidelity and truth. The minstrel who chooses his subject from the historical occurrences of the remote past assumes a task of uncommon difficulty; for he must not only be minutely versed in the habits, and customs, and spirit of the times described, but he must farther be able to dissociate himself from the present, and so identify himself with the past, as to be true to nature, and to make all his materials sustain their due proportion, place, and character. It cannot be denied that Professor Ayton possesses this faculty in an eminent degree. The above description of Flodden is given, away from the scene, the day after the battle, to the authorities who were so deeply interested in the object of the expedition, that they had given up to the king's service all who had youth and strength enough to serve him with effect: and surely nothing can be conceived truer to the spirit of the parties and the circumstances in which they were placed, than the description which we have partially cited. The narrator had taken part in the terrible fight, and had left his gallant comrades dead on the bloody field, that he might carry home the torn but consecrated banner which he took in charge. The gaudiu certaminis -the delirious interest of the battle had passed away, and the shadow of an irreversible disaster rested on his spirit as he reported the woful tidings: yet is there a lofty consciousness visible in the speaker that, whatever calamities are destined to result to the country, she is, at least, spared the shame and humiliation of disgrace. He speaks with the deepest sorrow, but at the same time, with a proud and lofty sense of honour. Had the Pret made a spectator describe the battle as it passed before his eyes, the emotions of the narrator would have been much more tumultuous. The proud and gallant bearing of both armies before they met in the shock of death—the furious and deadly charge of the Scots—the indomitab'e strength and valour of the English host-the varying fortune of the field, as the tide of battle swayed to and frothe din, the shouts, the groans behoved to animate the spectator with uncontrollable emotion. How different such a narrative, if true to nature, would be from the one before us; and such a narrative we have from the pen of another mighty minstrel, whose genius has revived the terrific spectacle with a truthfulness, an energy, a martial ardour, and an eloquence so stirring, that it seldom or never has been surpassed :
“ Volumed, and vast, and rolling far,
As down the hill they broke,
At times a stifled hum,
King James did rushing corre.
And such ell was there,
And fiends in upper air.
We need not, however, quote more of a passage so familiar; but it will be observed how admirably the tone of both narratives is in keeping with the circumstances under which it is understood to be recited, and how truly genius can create and realize the scene it describes; and enter into, and animate as with a new soul the actors whom it summons to its service.
Professor Ayton draws the materials of song from the history of his native land, content to celebrate the brave men, or the heroic deeds, or the lofty patriotism, or the cruel wrongs of innocent sufferers, examples of all which Scottish history so largely supplies. Indeed, it is universally allowed that no other country offers so many, and so valuable materials for romantic narrative as “the land of brown heath and shaggy wood," and that a “poetic child,” could find no where under the sun a meeter nurse. The striking and picturesque scenery of Scotland with its rugged and bold mountains, its lonely corries and glens, its lochs and waterfalls, its scenes of rich beauty and magnificent grandeur, has supplied the mind with an unexhausted variety of images; while the many-sided character of the people has furnished a higher and more difficult study for the genius of the poet. High-spirited and imaginative; meditative and reserved ; far-sighted, pawky, and full of dry satirical humour ; jealous of independence, proud of their history, and fondly alive to the stirring memories of the past ; deliberative and slow to move, yet constant, earnest, and persevering in action. Such a character must needs furnish the very richest materials for poetry; and if such a character was brought out, by circumstances, in all its highest modes, as it was during centuries of trial, the deeds in which it was bodied forth, must needs be as suitable to poetry as any that the history of the world can supply. Bravery in the field of danger, fortitude in suffering, and invincible determination, are to be found in our coun: try’s annals, in the highest quality of these virtuos : while the eventful times and critical emergencies through which she passed, gave birth to innumerable incidents of the most romantic nature which the poet
might use for the illustration of the private virtues of home as well as the peculiarities of national character. When, at the Reformation, religion became the predominant element in the national mind, the character was not substantially changed, but simply modified and corrected. Loyalty to a chief, and to the monarch of the realm, thenceforward became a secondary and subordinate principle. It was not in reality essentially weaker, but a more commanding principle of action had supervened, to which every other element was compelled to give way. The religion of Knox and the other Scottish Reformers is not to be viewed as a hurtful alterative agent, by which the national character lost its distinctive and more honourable properties; but a divine corrective by which the baser qualities were purged away, and the higher refined and exalted.
In the “ Execution of Montrose,” the narrator of the story has a fling or two at “ the black-robed covenanting carles,” who are represented as flocking to the execution of the Marquis, as to a “goodly sport,” and as “ ravens flock around the dying deer;” but as the words are put in the mouth of a rude Highland Clansman, we might have passed them over without comment, ascribing them to the prejudices of a rough old warrior, more familiar with the scream of the bagpipe than the voice of the “grim Geneva ministers," did we not find in an explanatory note, appended for the benefit of the reader, that Professor Ayton indorses the censure. “ The Presbyterian ministers," it seems,
“ beset Montrose, both in prison and on the scaffold,” and greatly disturbed the peace of mind of the “ Great Marquis,” by urging him “ to be reconciled to the Lord and the true Kirk.” And further to prove the enormity of their offences, our Professor quotes from Traill's Diary, the following sentence :
“ The Commissioners did appoint Mr. Mungo Law and me to attend on the morrow on the scaffold, at the time of his execution, that, in case he should desire to be relaxed from his excommunication, we should be allowed to give it to him, in the name of the Kirk, and to pray with him, and for him, that what is loosed on earth may be loosed in heaven.”
“ But this pious intention,” adds the sarcastic annotator, “ which may appear somewhat strange to the modern Calvinist, when the prevailing theories of the Kirk, regarding the efficacy of absolution are considered, was not destined to be fulfilled.” What the prevailing theories of the Kirk upon this point are, the Professor does not condescend to inform us, and for ourselves we will not venture to say: but we do not think there is much to startle the “ modern Calvinist,” in the doctrine that it is proper for the Kirk, and profitable for the offending member, to “ deal with him," in order to bring him to repentance, and upon
the proof of repentance, to restore him to the privileges from which he was cut off. Possibly our Professor inferred from Traill's language, and especially from the clause in Italics, that the claim set up by the General Assembly, was the same in spirit as that acted upon by the Pope; forgetting that all the churches of the Reformation, while protesting against the Popish claim of arbitrary and unconditional absolution, have held, that Christ did in reality confer upon his Church the power of