A SCENE FROM "My Schools and Schoolmaster"

Chalmers as a Poet?

On my return home from this journey, early on the following Monday, I found a letter from Edinburgh awaiting me, requesting me to meet there with the leading Non-Intrusionists. And so, after describing, in the given extract, the scene which I had just witnessed, and completing my second pamphlet, I set out for Edinburgh, and saw for the first time men with whose names I had been familiar dur ing the course of the Voluntary and Non-Intrusion controversies. And entering into their plans, though with no little shrinking of heart, lest I should be found unequal to the demands of a twice-a-week paper, that would have to stand, in Ishmael’s position, against almost the whole newspaper press of the kingdom, I agreed to undertake the editorship of their projected newspaper, the Witness.

Save for the intense interest with which I regarded the struggle, and the stake possessed in it, as I believed, by the Scottish people, no consideration whatever would have induced me to take a step so fraught, as I thought at the time, with peril and discomfort. For full twenty years I had never been engaged in a quarrel on my own account: all my quarrels, either directly or indirectly, were ecclesiastical ones; I had fought for my minister, or for my brother parishioners; and fain now would I have lived at peace with all men; but the editorship of a Non-Intrusion newspaper involved, as a portion of its duties, war with all the world.
I held, besides - not aware how very much the spur of necessity quickens production,- that its twice-a-week demands would fully occupy all my time, and that I would have to resign, in consequence, my favourite pursuit, geology. I had once hoped, too, though of late years the hope had been becoming faint, to leave some little mark behind me in the literature of my country; but the last remains of the expectation had now to be resigned. The newspaper editor writes in sand when the flood is coming in. If he but succeed in influencing opinion for the present, he must be content to be forgotten in the future. But believing the cause to be a good one, I prepared for a life of strife, toil, and comparative obscurity. In counting the cost, I very considerably exaggerated it; but I trust I may say that, in all honesty, and with no sinister aim, or prospect of worldly advantage, I did count it, and fairly undertook to make the full sacrifice which the cause demanded.
It was arranged that our new paper should start with the new twelvemonth (1840); and I meanwhile returned to Cromarty, to fulfil my engagements with the bank till the close of its financial year, which in the Commercial Bank offices takes place at the end of autumn. Shortly after my return, Dr Chalmers visited the place on the last of his Church Extension journeys; and I heard, for the first time, that most impressive of modern orators addfess a public meeting, and had a curious illustration of the power which his "deep mouth" could communicate to passages little suited, one might suppose, to call forth the vehemency of his eloquence. In illustrating one of his points, he quoted from my Memoir of William Forsyth a brief anecdote, set in description of a kind which most men would have read quietly enough, but which, coming from him, seemed instinct with the Homeric vigour and force. The extraordinary impressiveness which he communicated to the passage served to show me, better than aught else, how imperfectly great orators may be represented by their written speeches. Admirable as the published sermons and addresses of Dr Chalmers are, they impart no adequate idea of that wonderful power and impressiveness in which he excelled all other British preachers. *

The following is the passage which was honoured on this occasion by Chalmers, and which told, in his hands, with all the effect of the most powerful acting :

"Saunders Macivor, the mate of the Elizabeth, was a grave and somewhat hard-favoured man, powerful in bone and muscle, even after he had considerably turned his sixtieth year, and much respected for his Inflexible Integrity and the depth of his religious feelings. Both the mate and his devout wife were especial favourites with Mr Porteous of Kilmuir,a minister of the same class as the Pedens, Renwicks, and Cargils of a former age; and on one occasion when the sacrament was dispensed in his parish, and Saunders was absent on one of his Continental voyages, Mrs Macivor was an inmate of the manse. A tremendous storm burst out In the night-time, and the poor woman lay awake, listening in utter terror to the fearful roarings of the wind, as it howled in the chimneys, and shook the casements and the doors. At length, when she could lie still no longer, she arose, and crept along the passage to the door of the minister’s chamber. "0, Mr Porteous," she said, "Mr Porteous, do ye no hear that - and poor Saunders on his way back frae Holland. 0, rise, rise, and ask the strong help o’ your Master!" The minister accordingly rose, and entered his closet. The Elizabeth at this critical moment was driving onwards through spray and darkness, along the northern shores of the Moray Filth. The fearful skerries of Shandwick, where so many gallant vessels have perished, were close at hand; and the increasing roll of the sea showed the gradual shallowing of the water. Macivor and his old townsman, Robert Hossack, stood together at the binnacle. An immense wave came rolling behind, and they had but barely time to clutch to the nearest hold, when it broke over them half-mast high, sweeping spars, bulwarks, cordage, all before It, in its course. It passed, but the vessel rose not. Her deck remained buried In a sheet of foam, and she seemed settling down by the head. There was a frightful pause. First, however, the bowsprit and the butts of the windlass began to emerge,- next the forecastle,- the vessel seemed as if shaking herself from the load; and then the whole deck appeared, as she went tilting over the next wave. "There are still more mercies in store for us," said Macivor, addressing his companion: "she floats still? 0, Saunders, Saunders!" exclaimed Robert, "there was surely some Godly soul at Work for us, or she would never have cowed yon!"

I had been introduced to the Doctor in Edinburgh a few weeks before, but on this occasion I saw rather more of him. He examined with curious interest my collecyion of geological specimens, which already contained not a few valuable specimens that could be seen nowhere else; and I had the pleasure of spending the greater part of a day in visiting in his company, by boat, some of the more strikmg scenes of the Cromarty Sutors. I had long looked up to Chalmers as, on the whole, the man of largest mind which the Church of Scotland had ever produced; not more intense or practical than Knox, but broader of faculty; nor yet fitted by nature or accomplishment to make himself a more enduring name in literature than Robertson, but greatly nobler in sentiment, and of a larger grasp of general intellect. With any of our other Scottish ministers it might be invidious to compare him; seeing that some of the ablest of them are, like Henderson, little more than mere historic portraits drawn by their contemporaries, but whose true intellectual measure cannot, from the lack of the necessary materials on which to form a judgment, be now taken anew; and that many of the others employed fine faculties in work, literary and ministerial, which, though important in its consequences, was scarce less ephemeral in its character than even the labours of the newspaper editor. The mind of Chalmers was emphatically a many- sided One. Few men ever came into friendly contact with him who did not find in it, if they had really anything good in them, moral or intellectual, a side that suited themselves; and I had been long struck by that union which his intellect exhibited of a comprehensive philosophy with a true poetic faculty, very exquisite in quality, though dissociated from what Wordsworth terms the "accomplishment of verse." I had not a little pleasure in contemplating him on this occasion as the poet Chalmers. The day was calm and clear; but there was a considerable swell rolling in from the German Ocean, on which our little vessel rose and fell, and which sent the surf high against the rocks. The sunshine played amid the broken crags a-top, send amid the foliage of an overhanging wood; or caught, half-way down, some projecting tuft of ivy; but the faces of the steeper precipices were brown in the shade; and where the wave roared in deep caves beneath, all was dark and chill. There were several members of the party who attempted engaging the Doctor in conversation; but he was in no conversational mood. It would seem as if the words addressed to him failed at first to catch his attention, and that, with a painful courtesy, he had to gather up their meaning from the remaining echoes, and to reply to them doubtfully and monosyllabically, at the least possible expense of mind. His face wore, meanwhile , an air of dreamy enjoyment. He was busy, evidently, alnong the crags and bosky hollows, and would have enjoyed himself more had he been alone. In the middle of one noble precipice, that reared its tall pine-crested brow more than a hundred yards overhead, there was a bush-covered shelf of considerable size, but wholly inaccessible; for the rock dropped sheer into it from above, and then sank perpendicularly from its outer edge to the beach below; and the insulated shelf, in its green unapproachable solitude, had evidently caught his eye. It was the scene, I said, taking the direction of his eye as the antecedent for the "it", it was the scene, says tradition, of a sad tragedy during the times of the persecution of Charles. A renegade chaplain, rather weak than wicked, threw himself, in a state ef wild despair, over the precipice above ; and his body, interrupted in its fall by that shelf, lay unburied alnoug the bushes for years after, until it had bleached into a dry and whitened skeleton. Even as late as the last age, the shelf continued to retain the name of the "Chaplains Lair."

I found that my communication, chiming in with his train of cogitation at the tune, caught both his ear and mind and his reply, though brief, was expressive of the gratification which its snatch of incident had conveyed. As our skiff sped on a few oar-lengths more, we disturbed a flock of sea-gulls, that had been sporting in the sunshine over a shoal of sillocks; and a few of them winged their way to a jutting crag that rose immediately beside the shelf. I saw Chalmers' eye gleam as it followed them. "Would you not like Sir," he said, addressing himself to my minister, who sat beside him,"Would you not like to be a sea-gull? I think I would. Sea-gulls are free of the three elements, earth, air, and water. Those birds were sailing but half a minute since without boat, at once angling and dining, but now they are already rusticating in the Chaplain’s Lair. I think I could enjoy being a sea-gull." I saw the Doctor once afterwards in a similar mood. When on a visit to him in Burntisland, in the following year, I remarked, on approaching the shore by boat, a solitary figure stationed on the sward-crested trap-rock which juts into the sea immediately below the town ; and after this time spent in landing and walking round to the spot, there was the solitary figure still, standing motionless as when first seen. It was Chalmers, —. the same expression of dreamy enjoyment impressed on his features as I had witnessed in the little skiff, and with his eyes turned on the sea and the opposite land. It was a lovely morning. A faint breezs had just begun to wrinkle in detached belts and patches the mirror-like blackness of the previous calm, in which the broad Frith had lain sleeping since day-break; and the sunlight danced on the new-raised wavelets ; while a thin long wreath of blue mist, which seemed coiling its tail like a snake round the distant Inchkeith, was slowly raising the folds of its dragon-like neck and head from off the Scottish capital, dim in the distance, and unveiling fortalice, and tower, and spire, and the nobie curtain of the hills behind. And there was Chalmers, evidently enjoying the exquisiteness of the scene as only by the true poet scenery can be enjoyed. Those striking metaphors which so abound in his writings, and which so often, without apparent effort, lay the material world before this reader, show how thoroughly he must have drunk in the beauties of nature: the images retained in his mind became, like words to the ordinary man, the signs by which he thought, and, as such, formed an important element in the power of his thinking. I have seen his Astronomical Discourses disparagingiy dealt with by a slim and meagre critic, as if they had been but the chapters of a mere treatise on astronomy,—a thing which, of course, any ordinary man could write, mayhap even the critic himself. The Astonomical Discourses, on the other hand no one could have written save Chalmers. Nominally a series of sermons they in reality represent, and in the present century form perhaps the only worthy representatives of, that school of philosophic poetry to which, in ancient literature, the work of Lucretius belonged, and of which, in the literature of our own country, the Seasons” of Thomson, and Akenside’s “Pleasures of the Imagination,” furnish adequate examples. He would, I suspect, be no discriminating critic who would deal with the “Seasons” as if they formed merely the journal of a naturalist, or by the poem of Akenside as if it were siinnply a metaphysical treatise.

The autumn of this year brought me an unexpected but very welcome visitor, in my old Marcus’ Cave friend Finlay; and when I visited all my former haunts, to take leave of them ere I quitted the place for the scene of my future labours, I had him to accompany me. Though for many years a planter in Jamaica, his affections were still warm, and his literary tastes unchanged. He was a writer, as of old, of sweet simple verses, and as sedulous a reader as ever; and, had time perndtted, we found we could have kindled fires together in the caves, as we had done more than twenty years before, and have ranged the shores for shell-fish and crabs, he had had, how in passing through life, his full share of its cares and sorrows. A young lady to whom he had been engaged in early youth had perished at sea, and he had remained single for her sake. He had to struggle, too, in his business relations, with the embarrassments incident to a sinking colony; and though a West Indian climate was beginning to tell on his constitution, his circumstances,though tolerably easy, were not such as to permit his permanent residence in Scotland. He returned in the following year to Jamaica; and I saw, some time after, in a Kingston paper, an intimation of his election to the Colonial House of Representatives, and the outline of a well-toned sensible address to isis constituents, in which he urged that the sole hope of the colony lay in the education and mental elevation of its negro population to the standard of the people at home. I have been informed that the latter part of his life was, like that of many of the Jamaica planters in their altered circumstances, pretty much a struggle: and his health at length breaking down, in a climate little favourable to Europeans, he died about three years ago,— with the exception of my friend of the Doocot Cave, now Free Church minister of Nigg, the last of my Marcus’ Cave companions. Their remains lie scattered over half the globe.

Home | Biography | Literature | Letters | Interests | Links | Quotes | Photo-Wallet