JAMES MACFARLAN
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"To all those who took the trouble of studying the idiosyncracies of Macfarlan's character he appeared a perfect riddle.  He seemed to possess two separate and distinct individualities: one soaring high in the sunny empyrean of the sacred Nine, the other grovelling in the dingiest purlieus of the populous "City by the Clyde."  Socially, even with his high literary attainments, he always remained at the very foot of the ladder of life.  Physically, he was one of the poorest specimens of our common humanity."

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JAMES MACFARLAN
(1832-1862)

SCOTLAND'S "PEDLAR-POET."

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A

MEMOIR

BY


Colin Rae-Brown

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A quarter of a century has elapsed since the compiler of this Memoir became personally acquainted with Scotland's "Pedlar-Poet," who, at the period referred to, called at the office of the Glasgow Daily Bulletin newspaper, and requested an interview with the managing proprietor.  Introducing himself as "the JAMES MACFARLAN" that had been writing poetry for the Citizen (a weekly Journal published in Glasgow), he solicited employment on the Bulletin staff as an assistant reporter—minus short-hand qualifications—and said he considered himself well fitted to furnish abridged reports of the proceedings in the police courts.  For such duty, on a second interview, he was engaged; and for a considerable time thereafter, his racy paragraphs were supplied with great regularity, and became quite a feature of the paper.  Later on, "excuses" frequently reached the editor instead of "copy."  Ultimately the "excuses" won the race, and the inevitable result followed.  Macfarlan was dismissed from his first and last regular employment on the Newspaper Press.  The formal intimation of dismissal elicited no response, but in the course of a few weeks the subjoined note and autobiography were forwarded to the Bulletin office:—

SATURDAY NIGHT,

DEAR SIR,
                           WHAT shall I say?  What shall I do?  I am hopeless and penniless!  Herewith you will receive the long promised autobiography of the most wretched and miserable of men, by name

JAMES MACFARLAN."

COLIN RAE-BROWN, ESQ.

 

"I WAS born in Glasgow, 9th April, 1832.  My father, who had been bred a weaver, had however, previous to my birth, given up his calling for that of a pedlar, and thus I became a wanderer I may say from my infancy.  Travelling from town to town, it may be guessed, I could receive but little education, yet this wandering life, although injurious to my progress in learning, was in a manner favourable to poetic culture.  By giving me an opportunity of visiting those scenes which have been celebrated in song or story, I had a fund of sweet recollections which, in maturer years, were of great benefit in directing the thoughts to natural beauty.

    My mother, who was a delightful singer, very frequently chanted these old stories of love and chivalry which to my boyish fancy formed all that was desirable on earth, and filled my heart with a sense of melody which was to me strange and inexplicable.  Happening to settle for a short time in Kilmarnock, my parents placed me in a small Academy of that town, where, after remaining for a short time, I acquired a slight English education, which, with a few months' schooling afterwards in Glasgow, forms the whole amount of learning I ever received in a public manner; what little I have since gained, has been the result of perseverance amid difficulties of the severest kind.

    When about twelve years of age I was taken to Glasgow, where my father opened a small shop, which he soon had to give up and recommence his old trade of pedlar.  In this latter occupation I joined him, and an odd volume of Byron's works which I found one day on a retired road led me to a love for reading.

    Books were sought afterwards wherever I could get them.

    By leaving a small deposit, I borrowed books in almost every town where there was a public library, and my father, who could rhyme a little himself, felt proud of my growing taste, and encouraged me all he could.

    Thus did the time pass, and on reaching the age of twenty there was scarcely a standard work in the language which I had not perused.

    My thoughts were all along turned to poetry, and in 1853, having collected my scattered pieces together, I determined on submitting them to the judgment of some person of critical ability, and accordingly I left my MS. at the chambers of a literary gentleman in Glasgow, and his verdict was of the most favourable kind.  Elated with this success, I resolved on publishing a volume by subscription, and after much difficulty having walked all the way to and from London—succeeded in getting a London publisher to issue it.  The volume was well noticed on its appearance in several respectable journals, but, coming out at a time when more experienced writers had engrossed the public attention, my last ambitions effort was soon forgotten, and many of my subscribers falling off; I was plunged into want and despair.  In this state, I was very glad to accept a subordinate situation in the Glasgow Athenæum, where I was engaged from nine in the morning till half-past ten at night.  Tired of this, I again commenced travelling and peddling.

    About a year afterwards I returned to Glasgow, where my "City Songs" were published and well received by the critics in general.  Fortune, however, seemed to have set her face against me. From some cause, which I never could learn, I was discharged from more congenial employment which I had secured, and too sensitive to enquire the reason, I retired without putting any questions.

    The world was now darkening around me.  The consumptive tendencies of my constitution were beginning to develope themselves, and death appeared to be rapidly approaching, clad in that most fearful of all his garments—want.  Rendered thus desperate, I wrote to the noble Earl to whom I had dedicated my last little work, stating my prospects, when his lordship returned me, through his secretary, the princely sum of one pound sterling! !

    Having about two hundred copies of my book on hand, I resolved, as a means of recruiting my health, and gaining a livelihood, to go about selling them.  I got a few circulars printed, stating my circumstances, and the nature of my pursuits.  With these I proceeded to Edinburgh, where I met with but indifferent success.  On an occasion of great embarrassment, I wrote to a publisher, imploring a little aid, and stating at the same time my destitute condition.  For three successive days did I call at that gentleman's office, but on no occasion had an answer been left.  Almost exhausted with grief and suffering, suicide seemed to have become a necessity, and long and severe was the struggle before my better nature triumphed over the dark design of my crushed and trampled spirit.  Returning to my native city, fresh trials awaited me.  I commenced again to sell my little work, and many and galling were the taunts to which I was subjected.  "Do you intend to live upon sawdust and water? if not, burn your books and resign poetry."  Such was the insulting remark of a purse-proud gentleman, who concluded his homily by pushing me out of his office.  Such things had I to contend with till I became almost broken hearted.

    Full of high hopes, I called on the Rev. Mr.——, of Glasgow, himself an author (also the editor of a popular weekly journal), and in whom I hoped to find a patron.  Timidly handing my little circular to the Rev. gentleman, he threw it contemptuously back, and slammed the door in my face.  Tears gathered in my eyes as I departed from his princely residence in the most fashionable part of the city, to my own miserable lodging, in the purlieus of poverty, "where lonely want retires to die."

    Burning with indignation I wrote the following letter, which I was only withheld from sending by a strong effort:—" Rev. Sir—A few nights ago I made bold to call on you in the hope that by making a small purchase of my poems you might throw me the means of providing my supper. I did not call because you were a minister of the gospel, but because you were an author, which I hold to be something even higher.  How you received me I leave your own heart to tell.  I am poor, Rev. Sir, but this day I would not exchange places with you for the crown of a Caesar.  Burn this paper if you will, destroy it, but the words themselves are more deeply cut in the heart of the writer.  They tell us that this is an age of scepticism, and who can wonder at it when those who ought to be its strongest barriers offer the weakest points for the arrow of the unbeliever? and surely, no one could recognise in you, pompous and gold-bedizened, a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus!"

    This brings my life down to the present time, when the waters of affliction are still around me.  God knows what hand will come to snatch me out."

    On the Monday following the receipt of the foregoing sketch, the hapless poet was re-engaged by the proprietors of the Bulletin (but merely as an outsider) to write legendary and other tales for a weekly journal (compiled in part from the Daily paper), and for many successive months, he continued to furnish its columns with some admirable specimens of his talent as a writer of novelettes.  About this time, and steeped in poverty as he was, our poet managed to woo and win the affections of an industrious girl—bred to dressmaking—and took upon himself the additional responsibilities of a married life.  Mrs. Macfarlan took in such work as she could get to do in the poor locality and squalid home where she had cast her lot; but, as may be gathered from the following letter, this employment did not bring an embarras des richesse.


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144 KING STREET, CALTON,
GLASGOW, APRIL 6.   

DEAR SIR,

        The present tale in the "Workman" being near a close, I have entered on the composition of another entitled the "Indian War-Path, or a Legend of the Wilds," which from its name, no less than its sustained interest, will I think prove comparatively successful.

    In addition to the weekly portions of this tale, I intend writing a light, racy sketch for each impression of the paper, so that I will be fully and industriously engaged in adding to the attraction of the "Workman."  I think under these circumstances, it may not be too impertinent to ask another shilling of advance on my present weekly allowance, as I feel. pretty tightly pressed at the moment.  Of course this rests entirely with yourself, and whether you consider it requisite to grant it or not, I will be no less thankful, seeing that you are the only true friend I have ever had in Glasgow.  With many thanks for past favours, I hope to merit a continuance of your kindly regards.  Perhaps you will let me know, by leaving word at the Bulletin office, or answering this note by writing to my house.
                         I am, Dear Sir,
                                           Faithfully yours,
                                                                   JAMES MACFARLAN.
C. RAE-BROWN, ESQ.

One bright passage at least would have appeared in the poet's autobiography—had it been brought down to a later date—descriptive of the hearty welcome and liberal recompense vouchsafed by Charles Dickens when he accepted, time after time, Macfarlan's poetical contributions to "Household Words."  In this then popular and now recuscitated periodical, "Cloudland," "Northern Lights," and other felicitous poems first saw the light; and the grateful author often eloquently dwelt, with tears in his eyes, on the handsome treatment—no less gracious than generous—which he had received at the hands of one whom he designated the "Prince of Editors."  But neither encouragement of this substantial nature, nor his engagement to supply tales and essays for the Glasgow weekly Journal before referred to, could eradicate the "pedlar" element, or wean him from the wandering habits of his early years.  For months at a time, he would start on what he called his "ran-dan:" literally besieging employers and employed in places of business with solicitations to purchase one or other of his "wee books;" and many an angry look and sharp word did the poor fellow encounter in the course of his wayward peregrinations.  Despite all its hardships and privations, this furtive, flickering, "will o' the wisp" existence continued its erratic course to the very last; the birth and death of children increasing his responsibilities, but failing to cure him of his rambling propensities.

    Towards the close of 1861, when the present writer was leaving Scotland with the intention of residing permanently in England, Mr. William Logan of Glasgow undertook the somewhat difficult task of "looking after" Macfarlan, then in a very indifferent state of health; and, as the sequel proved, he not only became the substantial, though judicious almoner of the little family, but also soothed the poet's last hours with vivid representations of "that rest and peace which awaits every contrite heart beyond the gates of death."

    To all those who took the trouble of studying the idiosyncracies of Macfarlan's character he appeared a perfect riddle.  He seemed to possess two separate and distinct individualities: one soaring high in the sunny empyrean of the sacred Nine, the other grovelling in the dingiest purlieus of the populous "City by the Clyde."  Socially, even with his high literary attainments, he always remained at the very foot of the ladder of life.  Physically, he was one of the poorest specimens of our common humanity.  Predisposed to consumption, wan and dejected of visage, always meanly clad, and continually craving "assistance," he generally got a "wide berth" in the daylight.  At night, however, he was only too warmly welcomed at the public house, and too frequently regaled with whisky when a solid repast would have proved more beneficial, and, by his own account, more truly welcome.  "But beggars," he was wont to remark, "canna be choosers, and when I feel a sinking within, whisky is surely better than naething."

    The Autumn of 1862 was a very wet and inclement season in the north.  Macfarlan's health did not improve in such weather, and with such habits of life.  At this period "an acquaintance (vide Mr. A. G. Murdoch's memorial sketch in the Peoples' Friend) paid the doctor's fee to have the poet's condition stated.  Verdict pulmonary consumption.  Treatment, fresh air, cheerful spirits, and nourishing diet.  It was the last unconscious joke that society was ever to be permitted to thrust at the desolate and heart broken poet.  So he wandered on a little while longer, attempting to sell his booklets.  One chilly morning in October 1862, when Macfarlan had reached his 31st year, he set out to attempt to sell some copies of a little prose pamphlet he had just got printed, entitled, "The Attic Study;" and, feeling weak on his legs, he promised his wife an early return.  The poet had two hours of it, and returned penniless!  On the way up the stairs leading to his miserable home, a trembling seized on his limbs, and he sank down with a feeble moan.  He was put to bed and pronounced to be dying.  Warm bedclothes were brought to him and generous cordials administered: but it was all too late."

    Early in the bleak November of 1862 the richly endowed but most unfortunate subject of this memoir quietly and resignedly breathed his last.  A few evenings previous he had handed corrected copies of his printed poems and several manuscripts to Mr. Logan.  Some extensive excisions had been made in the matter of his first little volume, and when desiring Mr. Logan to do what "he thought best" with his literary remains, the poet informed him that he had recently destroyed several manuscripts.  Towards the close of 1874, Mr. Logan placed the materials for the present volume in the hands of the editor, requesting him to make such arrangements as he thought proper for their publication, and suggesting the preparation of a brief memoir of the author.  A variety of circumstances hindered immediate compliance with this request, and, in the interim, Mr. Logan himself has followed his gifted but ill-starred protëgë to the Great Shadow Land.  Macfarlan's first volume—referred to in the autobiography as having been issued in London—bears the date of 1854: the publisher being Mr. Wm. Hardwicke of Piccadilly.  It is simply entitled "Poems:" "City Songs and other Poetical Pieces "—a still smaller volume—was published in 1855 by Messrs Thomas Murray & Sons, Glasgow; and Mr. David Bogue of Fleet Street, London, appears to have published the brochure entitled, "Lyrics of Life," in 1856.  Subsequently, the poem entitled, "The Wanderer of the West," made its appearance in "tract" form; as did also a series of short prose reflections designated, "The Attic Study: brief notes on Nature, Men, and Books;" and with some hundreds of these in his wallet the poet performed many weary and foot-sore journeys through the business quarters of Glasgow.

    However purposeless his aims or erratic his movements, Macfarlan could not be charged with the sin of laziness.  "Here, there and everywhere" to quote his own words, he sent off "screeds of prose-things to the country papers," content enough if one or two out of a dozen hit the mark, and brought him a few shillings from the treasuries of the provincial press.  A number of his lyrics were disposed of in a similar cheap-jack manner to some of his quondam admirers and public-house "cronies."  The rapidity of his composition frequently created the greatest astonishment in the minds of those individuals.  He has been known to ensconce himself for half-an-hour in a dimly lighted corner—within hearing of songs and jokes flying fast and furious—and to emerge at the end of that time with some exquisite verses scrawled on the soiled leaves of the penny memorandum book which invariably formed part of his stock in trade.

    Before concluding this memorial sketch, it may not be out of place to put the following anecdote on record.  Shortly after his return from Glasgow (where he had taken part in the celebration of the Burns Centenary) in 1859, Samuel Lover visited the Garrick Club, and there, in the hearing of Thackeray, repeated Macfarlan's vigorous lyric, entitled, "The Lords of Labour."  Scarcely had the last word been uttered, when the great novelist sprang to his feet, excitedly exclaiming: "By Jove!  I don't think Burns himself could have taken the wind out of this man's sails."

    James Macfarlan's remains were interred in the burying-ground situated in Cheapside Street (Anderston), Glasgow.  A number of artists and literary men followed the plainly mounted hearse, and just at the moment of actual interment, a grand salute came from the overhanging clouds, forming a fitting requiem for the ill-fated but highly gifted Pedlar-Poet.

    Yet another, and perhaps a greater honour is about to be showered on this hapless Son of Song by the issue of his collected poems from the same printing establishment which sent forth the first edition of the works of Robert Burns.

 



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