13. Lament for a broken viol!

“Curs’d be the wretch, from whence soe’er he come;
Accurs’d his eyes, but more accurs’d his bum”!

Here’s a very amusing poem written by a Scotsman, included in a 1760 collection of poems by “Rev. Mr Blacklock, and other Scotch Gentlemen”. The author of the poem is unidentified, though is most likely Blacklock.

But, lo, there is a second version to be found in “The Works of the Late John Maclaurin” doubtless Lord John Maclaurin Dreghorn, published in 1798, 28 years after Blacklock’s original.

Notes at the foot of the poem (though not a poetic foot).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now a second version, by John Mclaurin:

 

NOTES by Rob MacKillop

Rev. Thomas Blacklock (1721-91) is doubtless the Minister for Kirkcudbright, friend of Robert Burns, and whose portrait by Wm. Bonnar has survived. Blacklock was blind, which led to his sacking by his oh-so-Christian parishioners. He dissuaded Robert Burns from traveling to the West Indies to be a “slave driver”, inadvertently saving the great poet’s life – the ship sank. He was sponsored by David Hume, the great philosopher of the Enlightenment, eventually becoming a Doctor of Divinity.

 

John Maclaurin (1734-94) (an Edinburgh judge), author of the later version, was also drawn, this by the artist James Mitchell:

Lyroclastes – seems to be an invented name, a portmanteau of sorts, bringing together the lyra viol and the destructive violence of iconoclasm.

William (1st verse) – possibly William Wallace? “Of glorious and immortal memory“. Surely not the William of the Orange variety?

Cato – presumably “the younger”, Marcus Porcius Uticensis, Stoic philosopher, Roman politician and orator. His “severe morals” forbad bribes: “With wanton notes your voice ne’er bribes the ear”.

Bumming – an oft-used Scots word referring to bagpipe drones or humming. One is reminded that one of the lyra-viol tunings is referred to as “bag-pipe”. “Did the fates snatch thee bumming in the prime?”

forty-five – the 1745 Jacobite rising, led by “Bonnie Prince Charlie”. “Nor arm’d rebellious in the forty-five”. 

Melpomene – Greek goddess and muse of Tragedy, though initially of Song. “Tell, O Melpomene! in mournful strain, By what would means my luckless bass was slain.” Her song takes up the whole of the following verse.

Pope quotation – from “An Essay on Man”, Epistle I, Line 83.

Now, which came first, Blacklock or Maclaurin? 

Blacklock’s was published in 1760, Maclaurin’s posthumously in 1798, yet claiming to have been written before Blacklock, in 1755. Both men were contemporaries, and both resided for some time in Enlightenment Edinburgh. An anonymous version – which I had yet to see – was published in the Scots Magazine also in 1755.

Blacklock’s version is written in a relaxed Scots-English, with humour and wit, the words flow easily from the Scottish tongue in a style reminiscent of Allan Ramsay. Maclaurin’s version however is in stilted English, seems self-conscious, and lacks authenticity – to my mind at least.

I would not put it past the legal-minded Maclaurin to deliberately include the claim, “Written in 1755” at the head of the text. Perhaps I’m being unkind? Perhaps the two men were friends, who possibly witnessed together the sad event, and co-composed the verses in jest, with Blacklock making a Scots translation? But the seemingly natural and authentic voice of Blacklock dissuades me from that line of reasoning. That said, it is possible Maclaurin never expected it to be published – it does after all appear in a posthumous publication. Perhaps it is best to leave the question open…

Who broke the viol?

Of course, being blind, Blacklock could not have directly seen the incident, though could have been fully aware of what was taking place – and it raises the question of whether he himself sat upon the hapless viol??!! The perpetrator is described as “a short-sighted gentleman”. Is he describing himself in the verse (Melpomene’s song) that begins, “A plain, good, simple, honest man there was”? Possibly not – he mentions those who are completely blind, those who can see, and those who are short-sighted, purblind.

There’s enough here for a proper academic essay, discussing the use of the Scots language in 18th-century Ayrshire and Enlightenment Edinburgh, the relationship between the two poets, private sharing of poems between colleagues, and more. Another thought worth considering is the lateness of a poem about the viol in Scotland…but that’s for another time. I have little time for that now, however, so finish this blog post with a number of open questions.

Those interested in Thomas Blacklock might appreciate these two essays:

Blacklock

and

odnb-blacklock

Rob MacKillop
Edinburgh
17 July 2019

 

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