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Michael Bruce Biography | Poet

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MICHAEL BRUCE (1746-1767), Scottish poet, was born at Kinnesswood in the parish of Portmoak, Kinross-shire, on the 27th of March 1746. His father, Alexander Bruce, was a weaver, and a man of exceptional ability. Michael was taught to read before he was four years old, and one of his favourite books was a copy of Sir David Lyndsay's works. He was early sent to school, but his attendance was often interrupted. He had frequently to herd cattle on the Lomond Hills in summer, and this early companionship with nature greatly influenced his poetic genius. He was a delicate child, and grew up contemplative, devotional and humorous, the pet of his family and his friends. His parents gave him an education superior to their position; he studied Latin and Greek, and at fifteen, when his school education was completed, a small legacy left to his mother, with some additions from kindly neighbours, provided means to send Michael to Edinburgh University, which he attended during the four winter sessions 1762-1765. In 1765 he taught during the summer months at Gairney Bridge, receiving about £11 a year in fees and free board in one or other of the homes of his pupils. He became a divinity student at Kinross of a Scottish sect known as the Burghers, and in the first summer (1766) of his divinity course accepted the charge of a new school at Forest Hill, near Clackmannan, where he led a melancholy life. Poverty, disease and want of companions depressed his spirits, but there he wrote "Lochleven," a poem inspired by the memories of his childhood. He had before been threatened with consumption, and now became seriously ill. During the winter he returned on foot to his father's house, where he wrote his last and finest poem, "Elegy written in Spring," and died on the 5th of July 1767.

As a poet his reputation has been spread, first, through sympathy for his early death; and secondly, through the alleged theft by John Logan (q.v.) of several of his poems. Logan, who had been a fellow-student of Bruce, obtained Bruce's MSS. from his father, shortly after the poet's death. For the letters, poems, &c., that he allowed to pass out of his hands, Alexander Bruce took no receipt, nor did he keep any list of the titles. Logan edited in 1770 Poems on Several Occasions, by Michael Bruce, in which the "Ode to the Cuckoo" appeared. In the preface he stated that "to make up a miscellany, some poems written by different authors are inserted." In a collection of his own poems in 1781, Logan printed the "Ode to the Cuckoo" as his own; of this the friends of Bruce were aware, but did not challenge its appropriation publicly. In a MS. Pious Memorials of Portmoak, drawn up by Bruce's friend, David Pearson, Bruce's authorship of the "Ode to the Cuckoo" is emphatically asserted. This book was in the possession of the Birrell family, and John Birrell, another friend of the poet, adds a testimony to the same effect. Pearson and Birrell also wrote to Dr Robert Anderson while he was publishing his British Poets, pointing out Bruce's claims. Their [v.04 p.0677]communications were used by Anderson in the "Life" prefixed to Logan's works in the British Poets (vol. ii. p. 1029). The volume of 1770 had struck Bruce's friends as being incomplete, and his father missed his son's "Gospel Sonnets," which are supposed by the partisans of Bruce against Logan to have been the hymns printed in the 1781 edition of Logan's poems. Logan tried to prevent by law the reprinting of Bruce's poems (see James Mackenzie's Life of Michael Bruce, 1905, chap. xii.), but the book was printed in 1782, 1784, 1796 and 1807. Dr William McKelvie revived Bruce's claims in Lochleven and Other Poems, by Michael Bruce, with a Life of the Author from Original Sources (1837). Logan's authorship rests on the publication of the poems under his own name, and his reputation as author during his lifetime. His failure to produce the "poem book" of Bruce entrusted to him, and the fact that no copy of the "Ode to the Cuckoo" in his handwriting was known to exist during Bruce's lifetime, make it difficult to relieve him of the charge of plagiarism. Prof. John Veitch, in The Feeling for Nature in Scottish Poetry (1887, vol. ii. pp. 89-91), points out that the stanza known to be Logan's addition to this ode is out of keeping with the rest of the poem, and is in the manner of Logan's established compositions, in which there is nothing to suggest the direct simplicity of the little poem on the cuckoo.

Bibliography.—Additions to Poems on Several Occasions (1770) were made by Dr McKelvie in his 1837 edition. He gives (p. 97) a list of the poems not printed in Logan's selection, and of those that are lost. See the "Lives" of Bruce and of Logan in Anderson's British Poets (1795); an admirable paper on Bruce in The Mirror (No. 36, 1779), said to be by William Craig, one of the lords of session; The Poetical Works of Michael Bruce, with Life and Writings(1895), by William Stephen, who, like Dr A.B. Grosart in his edition (1865) of The Works of Michael Bruce, adopts McKelvie's view. A restatement of the case for Bruce's authorship, coupled with a rather violent attack on Logan, is to be found in the Life of Michael Bruce, Poet of Loch Leven, with Vindication of his Authorship of the "Ode to the Cuckoo" and other Poems, also Copies of Letters written by John Logan now first published (1905), by James Mackenzie.


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