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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By George Cupples (1822–1891)

ALTHOUGH the Scotch Lowlands were settled by men of pure Anglican blood, the neighboring Highlands and the original Celtic inhabitants of the locality have contributed a strain from another of the primitive Aryan stocks, to the great enrichment in fervor and emotional expressiveness of the people. The Scotchman retains the energy, perseverance, and executive masterfulness of his brothers in Yorkshire and Northumberland, but has in addition a vein of romantic imagination and a touch of Celtic excitability. He may be “dour and canny,” and yet not destitute of an instinct for music and color. His name may contain the Celtic “Mac” or “Col,” or the English “ton” or “son,” but even when his name comes from one source his genius may derive from the other. Stevenson’s name is English; but his literary work has the Celtic vividness, brilliancy, pathos, and sense of congruous form. Carlyle’s name is Celtic; but in him lies the grim hardness of the Norse seafarers, and the deification of duty, and the impulse to subordinate form to substance, characteristic of the Saxon.

The Scotchman is born to a rich inheritance of tradition,—English wars, border forays, centuries of turbulent life embalmed in legend and ballad. He lives on the scene of action of historical personages, who become as real to him as Holyrood or Arthur’s Seat. Scotch national consciousness lies deep in the soul of Scotchmen, though the kingdom be merged into Great Britain, and gives them an individuality and pride of lineage which colors their literature. They are loyal to the Bruce even when they sing ‘God Save the Queen.’ Blackwood’s of the middle of the century, though reckoning the Englishmen Bulwer-Lytton and De Quincey among its honored contributors, was an intensely Scottish magazine; and its Scottish staff was marked by a distinctive literary tone,—a compound of boyish high spirits and old-fashioned conservatism such as we sometimes notice in the cadets of a noble house, to whom their family traditions are sacred, but the necessity of a decorous bearing before the world not at all apparent. The wit of the ‘Noctes’ is not very subtle, but it is hearty and clean, though it needs high spirits to make it seem amusing. The scholarship is not very profound, but it reaches back to traditions of gentlemanly culture and thoroughly distrusts modern preciosity. Nothing is literature in the estimation of these writers unless it is classic or Scotch. All of them are marked by a hearty love for outdoor sports, and a patriotism enthusiastic indeed, but rather circumscribed, though perhaps on that very account all the more intense. Professor Wilson is the most typical individual of these writers, and George Cupples of the next generation one of the most interesting, and on the whole the one whose literary gift was the most decided and original.

George Cupples was born at Legerwood, August 2d, 1822, and died October 7th, 1891. His father was a minister of the Free Kirk, and his paternal ancestors had been Calvinistic ministers for at least three generations. It was natural that the young man should be intended for the same profession, but he did not feel drawn to it, and when about seventeen went to sea for two years. Although of a firm physical constitution, the life of the seaman wearied him, and he resumed his education at the University of Edinburgh. He fell naturally into a literary career, and though much of his work was journalistic, he was reckoned in his day a critic of true insight. His novels are his best title to reputation, and show a vein of genuine creative power. Cupples combined some of the sterling and attractive traits of the cultured Scotchman of the period into a genuine, manly, and winning personality. Though slightly whimsical, his peculiarities were of the kind that endear a man to his friends; and Cupples numbered among his, Dr. John Brown, Dr. Stirling, Blackwood, and many others of the cultivated Scotchmen of the period.

‘The Green Hand,’ which came out in Blackwood from 1848 to 1851, is one of the best sea stories ever written. If we put Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ first for balance of description and narration, and sureness in the character touches, ‘The Green Hand’ and ‘Tom Cringle’s Log’ are close seconds. Cupples’s book is perhaps slightly overloaded with description, and deficient in technical construction as a narrative; but it is nevertheless a story which we read without skipping, for the descriptive pages are highly charged with the poetic element, and bear the unmistakable marks of being based on actual observation. Life in a sailing vessel has closer contact with the elemental moods of nature than in a steamer, where the motive power is a mechanical contrivance with the tiresome quality of regularity. To be in alliance or warfare with the wind, and dependent on its fitful moods, brought an element of variety and interest into the seaman’s life which steam navigation, with its steadily revolving screw and patent valves, must always lack. Of this Cupples avails himself to the fullest extent; and it would be difficult to find a better presentation of the mysterious life and vastness of the ocean, and of the subtle impression it makes on those brought in daily contact with it, not excepting Victor Hugo’s ‘Toilers of the Sea.’ This is due to the fact that he spent two years before the mast when a young man. Especially noticeable too is his admirable use of adjectives denoting color, which are descriptive because they image truly the observations of a man of genius, and are not, as in so much modern writing, purple patches sewed on without any real feeling for the rich and subtle scheme of nature. In calling up to the imagination the sounds of the sea,—the creaking of the blocks, the wind in the rigging, the wash of the water on the sides, the ripple on the bow, and the infinite variety of the voice of the waves,—Cupples shows true poetic power. It is not too much to say that ‘The Green Hand’ does not suffer from the fact that one of the parts stands in the magazine in juxtaposition to De Quincey’s ‘Vision of Sudden Death.’

‘Kyloe Jock and the Weird of Wanton-Walls’ is a transcript from the boy life of the author. It appeared in Macmillan’s Magazine, in the autumn numbers of 1860. It is but a short sketch of a group of simple people in a secluded border parish, but the quality of the writer is shown as well in small things as in great ones. In it the wintry scenes especially are given with broad and sure touches, for the author is a genuine lover of nature; but the characters of Kirstie the nurse, and of Kyloe Jock, the half-savage herd-boy who knows so well the wild creatures of the woods and fields that he has even given names to the foxes, show the feeling for human nature and the ability to embody it which marks the artist. Kyloe Jock’s Scotch is said to be an absolutely perfect reproduction of the vernacular; and it might be said that this book, like some of our modern Scotch stories, would be better if the dialect were not quite so good.

The peculiar qualities of the author are not seen to such good advantage in another book of his, ‘Scotch Deerhounds and Their Masters.’ He was a breeder and unquestioned authority on the “Grand Dog,” and accumulated a store of curious information on its origin and history; but his enthusiasm for this noble breed, or “race” as he loves to call it,—and it certainly is the finest and most striking of all the varieties of the “friend of man,”—led him into some strange vagaries. One would almost suspect him of holding the theory that dogs domesticated man, so high does he rank them as agents of early civilization. His etymology and his ethnology are alike erratic. He holds that every ancient people in whose name can be found the combinations “gal,” “alb,” or “iber,” or any other syllable of a Celtic word, was of the Celtic family, and that the Scotch deerhound and the Irish greyhound are descendants of the primeval Celtic dog. In this way he proves that the Carthaginians and the shepherd kings of Egypt were undoubtedly Celts, for their sculpture shows that they hunted with large swift dogs that sprang at the throat of their prey. On the other hand, every tribe that owned large clumsy dogs that barked is probably non-Celtic. Mr. Cupples’s contempt for such dogs is too intense for definite statement, and he evidently thinks that the tribe that owns them cannot hope to rise very high in the scale of civilization. This is certainly Philo-Celticism run mad, and is the more remarkable because Mr. Cupples could discover no Celtic strain in his own ancestry. He gave his dogs, however, Celtic names, as Luath, Shulach, Maida, Morna, Malvina, Oscar, etc. It would have been quite impossible for him to disgrace one of his “tall, swift, venatic hounds” with so Saxon a name as Rover or Barkis. But his enthusiasm is so genuine, and there is such a wealth of curious information in his pages, that his book has a charm and a substantial value of its own.

The other work of Mr. Cupples was, like that of most of the journalistic men of letters of the period, largely anonymous. His essay on Emerson, contributed to the Douglas Jerrold’s Magazine, is very highly spoken of. Personally, Mr. Cupples must have been a man of great simplicity and charm, a happy combination of the genuine and most agreeable traits of that hearty and outspoken variety of man, the literary Scotchman.