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Two of the ballads of William Motherwell amongst the most beautiful in the Scottish dialect, so full of lyrical beauty; and yet the one which is the most touching is scarcely known, except to a few lovers of poetry. "Jeanie Morrison," indeed, has an extensive popularity in Scotland, and yet even that charming song is comparatively little known in this country.
Burns is the only poet with whom, for tenderness and pathos, Motherwell can be compared. The elder bard has written much more largely, is more various, more fiery, more abundant; but I doubt if there be in the whole of his collection anything so exquisitely finished, so free from a line too many, or a word out of place, as the two great ballads of Motherwell. And let young writers observe that this finish was the result, not of a curious felicity, but of the nicest elaboration. By touching and retouching, during many years, did "Jeanie Morrison" attain her perfection, and yet how campletely has art concealed art! How entirely does that charming song appear like an irrepressible gush of feeling that would find
vent. In "My heid is like to rend, Willie," the appearance of spontaneity is still more striking, as the passion is more intense-intense, indeed, almost to painfulness.
Like Burns, Motherwell died before he attained his fortieth year, and like him, too, although a partisan of far different opinions, he was ardently engaged in political discussion as the Editor of a Tory newspaper, in Glasgow. He was even the Secretary of an Institution that sounds strangely in English ears a Scotch Orange Lodge. I notice these facts only to observe, that they are already almost forgotten. The elements of bitterness and hatred, in which the politician revels, live through their little day, then pass away for ever: while the deep and pure feelings of a true poet are imperishable.
As with "Percy's Reliques," my own copy of Motherwell has to me an interest besides that of its high literary merits. If I would explain the source of that interest, I must even tell the story, luckily a very short one.
Three years ago, a friend to whom I owe a thousand obligations of all sorts and kinds, posted London over to procure this volume. Now my friend is a man of book-shops and book-stalls, but only one copy could he meet with, and that was neither Scotch, nor English, but American, from the great Boston publishers, Ticknor and Company. The book became immediately a favourite, and was laid on the tablea phrase which in my little drawing-room has a very different sense from that which it bears in the House of Commons.
One fine summer afternoon, shortly after I had made this acquisition, two young Americans made their appearance, with letters of introduction from some honoured friends. There was no mention of profession or calling, but I soon found that they were not only men of intelligence and education, but of literary taste and knowledge; one especially had the look, the air, the conversation of a poet. We talked on many subjects, and got at last to the delicate question of American reprints of English authors; on which, much to their delight and a little to their surprise, there was no disagreement; I for my poor part pleading guilty to the taking pleasure in such a diffusion of my humble works. Besides," continued I," you send us better things-things otherwise unattainable. I could only procure the fine poems of Motherwell in this Boston edition." My two visitors smiled at each other. "This is a most singular coincidence," cried the one whom I knew by instinct to be a poet. "I am a younger partner in this Boston house, and at my pressing instance this book was reprinted. I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see it here!"
Mr. Field's visit was necessarily brief; but that short interview has laid the foundation of a friendship which will, I think, last as long as my frail life, and of which the benefit is all on my side. He sends me charming letters, verses which are fast ripening into true poetry, excellent books; and this autumn he brought back himself, and came to pay me a second visit; and he must come again, for of all the kindnesses with which he loads me, I like his company best.
My heid is like to rend, Willie,
It's vain to comfort me, Willie,
Sair grief maun ha'e its will,-
Let me shed by your hair,
I'm sittin' on your knee, Willie,
Ay, press your hand upon my heart,
Oh wae's me for the hour, Willie,
Where we were wont to gae,-
That gart me luve thee sae!
Oh! dinna mind my words, Willie,
Het tears are hailin' o'er your cheek
I'm weary o' this warld, Willie,
I canna live as I hae lived,
But fauld unto your heart, Willie,
A stoun' gaes through my heid, Willie,
How fast my heart-strings break!-
The laverock in the lift, Willie,
Wi' dew-draps shimmerin' sheen,
But oh! remember me, Willie,
And oh! think on the leal, leal heart,
And oh! think on the cauld, cauld mools,
That file my yellow hair,—
That kiss the cheek, and kiss the chin