John Wilson.

Critical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) online

. (page 10 of 34)
Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


In our boyish days, we never felt that the spring
had really come, till the clear-singing lark went career-
ing before our gladdened eyes away up to heaven. Then
all the earth wore a vernal look, and the ringing sky said.

112 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

" wintei" is over and gone." As we roamed, on a holiday,
over the wide pastoral moors, to angle in the lochs and
pools, unless the day were very cloudy, the song of some
lark or other was still warbling aloll, and made a part of
our happiness. The creature could not have been more
joyful in the skies, than we were on the greensward. We,
too, had our wings, and flew through our holiday. Thou
soul of glee ! who still leddest our flight in all our pas-
times ! — bold, bright, and beautiful child of Erin! — for
many and many a long, long year hast thou been mingled
with the dust ! Dead and gone, as if they had never been,
all the captivations of thy voice, eye, laugh, motion, and
hand, open as day to " melting charity !" — He, too, the
grave and thoughtful English boy, whose exquisite scholar-
ship we all so enthusiastically admired, without one single
particle of hopeless envy, — and who accompanied us on
all our wildest expeditions, rather from affection to his
playmates than any love of their sports, — he who, timid
and unadvcnturous as he seemed to be, yet rescued little
Marian of the Brae from a drowning death, when so many
grown up men stood aloof in selfish fear, — gone, too, for
ever art thou, my beloved Edward Harrington ! and, after
a kw brilliant years in the oriental clime,

"on Honglcy's banks afar,

Looks down on tliy lone tomb the evening star."

Methinks we hear the " song o' the Gray Lintie," per-
haps the darling bird of Scotland. None other is more
tenderly sung of in our old ballads. When the simple and
fervent love-poets of our pastoral times first applied to the
maiden the words " my bonnie burdie," they must have
been thinking of the gray lintie — its plumage ungaudy
and soberly pure — its shape elegant, yet unobtrusive —
and its song various without any eflbrt — now rich, gay,
sprightly, but never rude or riotous — now tender, almost
mournful, but never gloomy or desponding. So, too, arc
all its habits endearing and delightful. It is social, yet
not averse to solitude, singing often in groups, and as ofien
by itself in the furze-brake, or on the briary knoll. You
often find the lintie's nest in the most solilnry [)laccs — in


some small self-sown clump of trees by the brink of a
wild hill-stream, or on the tangled edge of a forest ; and
just as often you find it in the hedgerow of the cottage
garden, or in a bower within, or even in an old gooseberry
bush that has grown into a sort of tree.

One wild and beautiful place we well remember — ay,
the very bush in which we first found a gray linnet's
nest — for, in our native parish, from some cause or other, it
was rather a rarish bird. That far-away day is as dis-
tinct as the present now. Imagine, friend, first, a little
well surrounded with wild cresses on the moor, something
like a rivulet flows from it, or rather you see a deep tinge
of verdure, the line of which, you believe, must be pro-
duced by the oozing moisture — you follow it, by and by
there is a descent palpable to your feet — then you find
yourself between low broomy knolls, that, heightening
every step, become ere long banks, and braes, and hills.
You are surprised now to see a stream, and look round for
its source — there seem now to be a hundred small sources
in fissures, and springs on every side — you hear the mur-
murs of its course over beds of sand and gravel — and hark,
a waterfall I A tree or two begins to shake its tresses on
the horizon — a birch or a rowan. You get ready your
angle — and by the lime you have panniered three dozen,
you are at a wooden bridge — you fish the pool above it
with the delicate dexterity of a Boaz, capture the monarch
of the flood, and on lifting your eyes from his starry side
as he gasps his last on the silvery shore, you behold a cot-
tage, at one gable end an ash, at the other a sycamore,
and standing perhaps at the lonely door, a maiden far
more beautiful than any angel.

This is the age of confessions ; and why, therefore, may
we not make a confession of first love? I had finished my
sixteenth year, — I was almost as tall as I am now, — almost
as tall ! Yes, yes, — for my figure was then straight as an
arrow, and almost like an arrow in its flight. I had given
over bird-nesting, — but 1 had not ceased to visit the dell
where first 1 found the gray lintie's brood. Tale-writers
are told by critics to remember that the young shepherdesses
of Scotland are not beautiful as the fictions of a poet's
dream. But she was beautiful beyond poetry. She was


SO then, when passion and imagination were young, — and
her image, her nndying, unfading image, is so now, when
passion and imagination are old, and when from eye and
soul have disappeared much of th.e beauty and glory both
of nature and life. I loved her from the first moment that
our eyes met, — and I see their light at this moment, the
same soft, bright, burning light, that set body and sou! on
fire. She was but a poor shepherd\s daughter ; but what
was that to me, when I heard her voice singing one of her
old plaintive ballads among the braes, — when 1 sat down
beside her, — when the same plaid was drawn over our
shoulders in the rain-storm, — when I asked her for a kiss,
and was not refused, — for what had she to fear in her
beauty, and her innocence, and her filial piety, — and was
not I a mere boy, in the bliss of passion, ignorant of deceit
or dishonour, and with a heart open to the eyes of all as to
the gates of heaven 7 What music was in that stream!
Could " Sabean odours from the spicy shores of Araby tlie
Blest" so penetrate my soul with joy, as the balmy breatli
of tlie broom on which we sat, forgetful of all other human
life ! Father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts,
and cousins, and all the tribe of friends that would throw
me off, — if I should be so base and mad as to marry a
low-born, low-bred, ignorant, uneducated, crafty, ay, crafty
and designing beggar, — were all forgotten in my deli-
rium, — if indeed it were delirium, — and not an everlastingly
sacred devotion of the soul to nature and to truth. For in
what was I deluded 1 A voice, — a faint and dewy voice, —
deadened by the earth that fills up her grave, and by the
turf that, at this very hour, is expanding its primroses to
the dew of heaven, — answers, " In nothing !"

"Ha! ha! ha!" exclaims some reader in derision,
" here's an attempt at the pathetic, a miserable attempt
indeed, for who cares about the death of a mean hut-girl I
we are sick of low life." Why, as to that matter, who
cares for the death of any one mortal being ? Who weeps
for the death of the late Emperor of all the Russias ? Who
wept over Napoleon the Great'.' When Chatham or Burke,
Pitt or Fox died — don't pretend to tell lies about a nation's
tears. And if yourself, who, perhaps, arc not in low life,
were to die in half an hour, (don't be alarmed,) all who

I5IRDS. 115

knew you, except two or three of your bosom friends, who,
partly from being somewhat dull, and partly from wishing
to be decent, might blubber — would walk along Prince's
Street at the fashionable hour of three, the very day after
your funeral. Nor would it ever enter their heads to
abstain from a comfortable dinner at the British Hotel,
ordered, perhaps, a month ago, at which time you were in
rude health, merely because you had foolishly allowed a
cold to fasten upon your lungs, and carry you off in the
prime and promise of your professional life. In spite of
all your critical slang, therefore, Mr. Editor or Master
Contributor to some literary journal, she, though a poor
Scottish Herd, was most beautiful ; and when, but a week
after taking farewell of her, I went, according to our tryst,
to fold her in my arms, and was told by her poor father
that she was dead, — ay, dead and buried — that she had no
existence — that neither the daylight nor I should ever
more be gladdened by her presence — that she was in a
cofiln, six feet in earth — that the worms were working their
way towards the body, to crawl into her bosom — that she
was fast becoming one mass of corruption — when I awoke
from the dead-fit of horrid dreams in which I had lain on
the floor of my Agnes's own cottage, and cursed the sight
of the heaven and the earth, and shuddered at the thought

of the dread and dismal God — when 1

We wish that we had lying on the table before us Gra-
hame's pleasant poem, "The Birds of Scotland ;" but we
lent our copy some years ago to a friend — and a friend
never returns a borrowed book. But here is a very agree-
able substitute — " A Treatise on British Song Birds," pub-
lished by John Anderson, jun., Edinburgh, and Simpkin &
Marshall, London. The small musicians are extremely
well engraved by Mr. Scott, of Edinburgh, from very cor-
rect and beautiful drawings, done by an English artist,
and there is a well-written introduction, of forty pages,
from the pen of Mr. Patrick Symo. We presume that the
rest of the letter-press is by the same gentleman — and it
does him very great credit. The volume includes observa-
tions on their natural habits, and manner of incubation ;
with remarks on the treatment of the young, and manage-
ment of the old birds, in a domestic state.

116 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

" The delightful music of song-birds is, perhaps, the
chief reason why these charming little creatures are, in all
countries, so highly prized. Music is an universal lan-
guage ; — it is understood and cherished in every country —
the savage, the barbarian, and the civilized individual, are
all passionately fond of music, particularly of melody.
But, delightful as music is, perhaps there is another reason
that may have led man to deprive the warblers of the
woods and fields of liberty, particularly in civilized states,
where the intellect is more refined, and, consequently, the
feelings more adapted to receive tender impressions ; — we
mean the associations of ideas. Their sweet melody
brings him more particularly in contact with groves and
meadows — with romantic banks, or beautiful sequestered
glades — the cherished scenes, perhaps, of his early youth.
But, independent of this, the warble of a sweet song-bird
is, in itself, very delightful ; — and, to men of sedentary
habits, confined to cities by professional duties, and to
their desks most part of the day, we do not know a more
innocent or more agreeable recreation than the rearing and
training of these little feathered musicians."

Now, we hear many of our readers crying out against
the barbarity of confining the free denizens of the air in
wire or wicker cages. Gentle readers, do, we pray, keep
your compassion for other objects. Or, if you are disposed
to be argumentative with us, let us just walk down stairs
to the larder, and tell the public truly what we there be-
hold — three brace of partridges, two ditto of moor-fowl, a
cock-pheasant, poor fellow, — a man and liis wife of the
aquatic, or duck kind, and a woodcock, vainly presenting
his long Christmas bill —

" .Some slopping kill'd —
All niurdor'd." —

Why, you are indeed a most logical reasoncr, and a most
considerate Christian, wlien you launch out into an invec-
tive against the cruelty exhibited in our cages. Let us
leave this den of murder, and have a glass of our wife's
home-made frontiniac in her own boudoir. (Jome, come,
sir, — look on this newly married couple of canaries. The

BIRDS. 117

architecture of their nest is certainly not of the florid order,
but my Lady Ycllovvlces sits on it a well satisfied bride.
Come back in a day or two, and you will see her nursing
triplets. Meanwhile, hear the earpiercing fife of the bride-
groom ! — Where will you find a set of happier people,
unless, perhaps, it be in our parlour, or our library, or our
nursery ? For, to tell you the truth, there is a cage or
two in almost every room of the house. Where is the
cruelty — here, or in your blood-stained larder? But you
must eat, you reply. We answer — not necessarily birds.
The question is about birds — cruelty to birds ; and were
that sagacious old wild-goose, whom one single moment of
heedlessness brought last Wednesday to your hospitable
board, at this moment alive, to bear a part in our convei'-
sation, can you dream that, with all your JefFreyan inge-
nuity and eloquence, you could persuade him — the now
defunct and dejected — that you were under the painful
necessity of eating him with stuffing and apple-sauce?

The intelligent author of the treatise on British birds
does not condescend to justify the right we claim to encage
them ; but he shows his genuine humanity in instructing
us how to render happy and healthful their imprisonment.
He says very prettily, " What are town-gardens and shrub-
beries in squares, but an attempt to ruralize the city ? So
strong is the desire in man to participate in country plea-
sures, that he tries to bring some of them even to his room.
Plants and birds are sought after with avidity, and che-
rished with delight. With flowers he endeavours to make
his apartments resemble a garden ; and thinks of groves
and fields, as he listens to the wild sweet melody of his
little captives. Those who keep and take an interest in
song-birds, are often at a loss how to treat their little war-
blers during illness, or to prepare the proper food best
suited to their various constitutions ; but that knowledge is
absolutely necessary to preserve these little creatures in
health : for want of it, young amateurs and bird-fnnciers
have often seen, with regret, many of their favourite birds

Now, here we confess is a good physician. In Edin-
burgli we understand there are about five hundred medical
practitioners on the human race, — and we have dog-doc-

118 Wilson's misc-klla>'eous writings.

tors, and horse-doctors, who come out in numbers — but
we have had no bird-doctors. Yet often, too often, when
the whole house rinys from jrarret to cellar with the cries
of children teething, or in the hooping-cough, the little lin-
net sits silent on his perch, a moping bunch of feathers,
and then falls down dead, when his lilting life might have
been saved by the simplest medicinal food skilfully admi-
nistered. Surely if we have physicians to attend our tread-
mills, and regulate tjie diet and day's work of merciless
ruffians, we should not sutler our innocent and useful pri-
soners thus to die unattended. Why do not the ladies of
Edinburgh form themselves into a society for this purpose ?

Not one of all the philosophers in the world has been
able to tell us what is happiness. Sterne's Starling is
weakly supposed to have been miserable. Probably he
was one of the most contented birds in the universe. Does
confinement, — the closest, most uncompanioned confine-
ment — make one of ourselves unhappy? Is the shoe-
maker, sitting with his head on his knees in a hole in the
wall from morning to night, in any respect to be pitied ?
Is the solitary orphan, that sits all day sewing in a garret,
while the old woman for whom she works is out washing,
an object of compassion ? or the widow of fourscore, hurk-
ling over the embers, with a stump of a pipe in her tooth-
less mouth? Is it so sad a thing indeed to be alone? or
to have one's motions circumscribed within the narrowest
imaginable limits? — Nonsense all. Nine-tenths of man-
kind, in manufacturing and commercial countries, are crib-
bed and confined into little room, — generally, indeed, to-
gether, but often solitary.

Then, gentle reader, were you ever in a highland shiel-
ing? It is built of turf, and is literally alive; for the
beautiful heather is blooming, and wild-flowers too — and
walls and roof are one sound of bees. The industrious
little creatures must have come several long miles for their
balmy spoil. There is but one human creature in that
shieling, but he is not at all solitary. He no more wearies
of that lonesome plnce, than do the sunbeams or the sha-
dows. To himself alone, he chants his old Gaelic songs,
or frames wild ditties of his own to the raven or red deer.
Months thus pass on ; and he descends again to the lower

BIRDS. 119

country. Perhaps he goes to the wars — fights — bleeds —
and returns to Badenoch or Lochaber ; and once more,
blending in his imagination the battles of his own regiment,
in Egypt, or Spain, or at Waterloo, with the deeds done of
yore by Ossian sung, lies contented by the door of the
same shieling, restored and beautified, in which he had
dreamt away the summers of his youth.

To return to birds in cages ; — they are, when well, uni-
formly as happy as the day is long. What else could
oblige them, whether they will or no, to burst out into
song, — to hop about so pleased and pert, — to play such
fantastic tricks like so many whirligigs, — to sleep so sound-
ly, and to awake into a small, shrill, compressed twitter of
joy at the dawn of light ? So utterly mistaken was Sterne,
and all the other sentimentalists, that his starling, who he
absurdly opined was wishing to get out, would not have
stirred a peg had the door of his cage been flung wide open,
but would have pecked like a very gamecock at the hand
inserted to give him his liberty. Depend upon it, that
starling had not the slightest idea of what he was saying;
and had he been up to the meaning of his words, would
have been shocked at his ungrateful folly. Look at cana-
ries, and chaffinches, and bullfinches, and "the rest," how
they amuse themselves for a while flitting about the room,
and then finding how dull a thing it is to be citizens of the
world, bounce up to their cages, and shut the door from
the inside, glad to be once more at home. Begin to -whistle
or sing yourself, and forthwith you have a duet, or a trio.
We can imagine no more perfectly tranquil and cheerful
life than that of a goldfinch in a cage, in spring, with his
wife and his children. All his social affections are culti-
vated to the utmost. He possesses many accomplishments
unknown to his brethren among the trees; — he has never
known what it is to want a meal in times of the greatest
scarcity; and he admires the beautiful frostwork on the
windows when thousands of his feathered friends are buried
in the snow, or what is almost as bad, baked up into pies,
and devoured by a large supper party of both sexes, who
fortify their flummery and flirtation by such viands, and,
remorseless, swallow dozens upon dozens of the warblers
of the woods.

120 avilson's miscellaneous writings.

Ay, ay, Mr. Goldy ! you are wondering what I am now
doing, and speculating upon me with arcli eyes and elevated
crest, as if you would know the subject .of my lucubrations.
What the wiser or better wouldst thou be of human know-
ledge? Sometimes that little heart of thine goes pit-a-pat,
when a great, ugly, staring contributor thrusts his inqui-
sitive nose within the wires — or when a strange cat glides
round and round the room, fascinating thee with the glare
of his fierce fixed eyes ; — but what is all that to the woes
of an editor? — Yes, sweet simpleton ! do you not know
that 1 am the editor of Blackwood's Magazine — Christo-
pher North ! Yes, indeed, we are that very man, — that
self-same much-calumniated man-monster and Ogre. —
There, there ! — perch on my shoulder, and let us laugh
together at the whole world.


(Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, 1829.)

Have you any intention, dear reader, of building a
house in the country 1 If you have, pray, for your own
sake and ours, let it not be a cottage. We presume that
you are obliged to live, one half of the year at least,
in a town. Then why change altogether the character
of your domicile and your establishment? You are an
inhabitant of Edinburgh, and have a house in the Circus,
or Heriot-Row, or Abercromby Place, or Queen Street.
The said house has five or six stories, and is such a
palace as one might expect in the City of Palaces. Your
drawing-rooms can, at a pinch, hold some ten score of
modern Athenians — your dining-room might feast one
half of the contributors to this Magazine — your " placens
uxor" has her boudoir — your eldest daughter, now verging
on womanhood, her music-room — your boys their own
studio — the governess her retreat — and the tutor his den
— the housekeeper sits like an overgrown spider in her
own sanctum — the butler bargains for his dim apartment
— and the four maids must have their front-area-window.
In short, from cellarage to garret, all is complete, and
number forty-two is really a splendid mansion.

Now, dear reader, far be it from us to question the pro-
priety or prudence of such an establishment. Your house
was not built for nothing — it was no easy thing to get the
painters out — the furnishing thereof was no trifle — the
feu-duty is really unreasonable, and taxes are taxes still,
notwithstanding the principles of free trade, and the uni-
versal prosperity of the country. Servants are wasteful,
and their wages absurd — and the whole style of living,

VOL. I. 11

122 Wilson's miscellaneous writings.

with long-necked bottles, most extravagant. But still we
do not object to your establishment, — far from it, we
admire it much — nor is there a single house in town
where we make ourselves more agreeable to a late hour,
or that we leave with a greater quantity of wine of a good
quality under our girdle. Few things would give us more
temporary uneasiness, than to hear of any einbarrassment
in your money concerns. Wc are not people to forget
good fare, we assure you ; and long and far may all
shapes of sorrow keep aloof from the hospitable board,
whether illuminated by gas, oil-lamp, or candle.

But what we were going to say was this — that the head
of such a house ought not to live, when ruralizing, in a
cotta"e. He ought to be consistent. Nothing so beautiful
as consistency. What then is so absurd as to cram your-
self, your wife, your numerous progeny, and your scarcely
less numerous menials, into a concern called a cottage?
The ordinary heat of a baker's oven is very few degrees
above that of a brown study, during the month of July, in
a substantial, low-roofed cottage. Then the smell of the
kitchen ! How it aggravates the sultry closeness ! A
strange, compounded, inexplicable smell of animal, vege-
table, and niineral matter ! It is at the worst during the
latter part of the forenoon, when every thing has been
got into preparation for cookery. There is then nothing
savoury about the smell, — it is dull, dead, — almost cata-
combish. A small back kitchen has it in its power to
destroy the sweetness of any cottage. Add a scullery,
and the three are omnipotent. Of the eternal clashing of
pots, pans, plates, trenchers, and general crockery, we
now say nothing; indeed, the sound somewhat relieves the
smell, and the car comes occasionally in to the aid of the
nose. Such noises arc Godsends; but not so the scolding
of the cook and butler, — at first low and tetchy, with
pauses, — then sharp, but still interrupted, — by and by
loud and ready in reply, — finally a discordant gabble of
vulgar fury, like maniacs quarrelling in bedlam. Hear it
you must, — you and all the strangers. To explain it
away is impossible; and your fear is, that Alecfo, Tisi-
phone, or Megcera, will come flying into the parlour with a
bloody cleaver, dripping with the butler's brains. During


the time of the quarrel, the spit has been standing still,
and a jigot of the five-year-old black-face burnt on one
side to a cinder. — " To dinner with what appetite you

It would be quite unpardonable to forget one especial
smell which irretrievably ruined our happiness during a
whole summer, — the smell of a dead rat. The accursed
vermin died somewhere in the cottage; but whether be-
neath a floor, within lath and plaster, or in roof, baflled
the conjectures of the most sagacious. The whole family
used to walk about the cottage for hours every day,
snuffing on a travel of discovery ; and we distinctly
remember the face of one elderly maiden lady at the mo-
ment she thought she had traced the source of the fumee

Online LibraryJohn WilsonCritical and miscellaneous essays (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 34)