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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 William Edmondstoune Aytoun (1813–1865)

AYTOUN the second, balladist, humorist, and Tory, in proportions of about equal importance,—one of the group of wits and devotees of the status quo who made Blackwood’s Magazine so famous in its early days,—was born in Edinburgh, June 21st, 1813. He was the son of Roger Aytoun, “writer to the Signet”; and a descendant of Sir Robert Aytoun (1570–1638), the poet and friend of Ben Jonson, who followed James VI. from Scotland and who is buried in Westminster Abbey. Both Aytoun’s parents were literary. His mother, who knew Sir Walter Scott, and who gave Lockhart many details for his biography, helped the lad in his poems. She seemed to him to know all the ballads ever sung. His earliest verses were praised by Professor John Wilson (“Christopher North”), the first editor of Blackwood’s, whose daughter he married in 1849. At the age of nineteen he published his ‘Poland, Homer, and Other Poems’ (Edinburgh, 1832). After leaving the University of Edinburgh, he studied law in London, visited Germany, and returning to Scotland, was called to the bar in 1840. He disliked the profession, and used to say that though he followed the law he never could overtake it.

While in Germany he translated the first part of ‘Faust’ in blank verse, which was never published. Many of his translations from Uhland and Homer appeared in Blackwood’s from 1836 to 1840, and many of his early writings were signed “Augustus Dunshunner.” In 1844 he joined the editorial staff of Blackwood’s, to which for many years he contributed political articles, verse, translations of Goethe, and humorous sketches. In 1845 he became Professor of Rhetoric and Literature in the University of Edinburgh, a place which he held until 1864. About 1841 he became acquainted with Theodore Martin, and in association with him wrote a series of light papers interspersed with burlesque verses, which, reprinted from Blackwood’s, became popular as the ‘Bon Gaultier Ballads.’ Published in London in 1855, they reached their thirteenth edition in 1877.

  • “Some papers of a humorous kind, which I had published under the nom de plume of Bon Gaultier,” says Theodore Martin in his ‘Memoir of Aytoun,’ “had hit Aytoun’s fancy; and when I proposed to go on with others in a similar vein, he fell readily into the plan, and agreed to assist in it. In this way a kind of a Beaumont-and-Fletcher partnership commenced in a series of humorous papers, which appeared in Tait’s and Fraser’s magazines from 1842 to 1844. In these papers, in which we ran a-tilt, with all the recklessness of youthful spirits, against such of the tastes or follies of the day as presented an opening for ridicule or mirth,—at the same time that we did not altogether lose sight of a purpose higher than mere amusement,—appeared the verses, with a few exceptions, which subsequently became popular, and to a degree we then little contemplated, as the ‘Bon Gaultier Ballads.’ Some of the best of these were exclusively Aytoun’s, such as ‘The Massacre of the McPherson,’ ‘The Rhyme of Sir Launcelot Bogle,’ ‘The Broken Pitcher,’ ‘The Red Friar and Little John,’ ‘The Lay of Mr. Colt,’ and that best of all imitations of the Scottish ballad, ‘The Queen in France.’ Some were wholly mine, and the rest were produced by us jointly. Fortunately for our purpose, there were then living not a few poets whose style and manner of thought were sufficiently marked to make imitation easy, and sufficiently popular for a parody of their characteristics to be readily recognized. Macaulay’s ‘Lays of Rome’ and his two other fine ballads were still in the freshness of their fame. Lockhart’s ‘Spanish Ballads’ were as familiar in the drawing-room as in the study. Tennyson and Mrs. Browning were opening up new veins of poetry. These, with Wordsworth, Moore, Uhland, and others of minor note, lay ready to our hands,—as Scott, Byron, Crabbe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey had done to James and Horace Smith in 1812, when writing the ‘Rejected Addresses.’ Never, probably, were verses thrown off with a keener sense of enjoyment.”
  • With Theodore Martin he published also ‘Poems and Ballads of Goethe’ (London, 1858). Mr. Aytoun’s fame as a poet rests on his ‘Lays of the Cavaliers,’ the themes of which are selected from stirring incidents of Scottish history, ranging from Flodden Field to the Battle of Culloden. The favorites in popular memory are ‘The Execution of Montrose’ and ‘The Burial March of Dundee.’ This book, published in London and Edinburgh in 1849, has gone through twenty-nine editions.

    His dramatic poem, ‘Firmilian: a Spasmodic Tragedy,’ written to ridicule the style of Bailey, Dobell, and Alexander Smith, and published in 1854, had so many excellent qualities that it was received as a serious production instead of a caricature. Aytoun introduced this in Blackwood’s Magazine as a pretended review of an unpublished tragedy (as with the ‘Rolliad,’ and as Lockhart had done in the case of “Peter’s Letters,” so successfully that he had to write the book itself as a “second edition” to answer the demand for it). This review was so cleverly done that “most of the newspaper critics took the part of the poet against the reviewer, never suspecting the identity of both, and maintained the poetry to be fine poetry and the critic a dunce.” The sarcasm of ‘Firmilian’ is so delicate that only those familiar with the school it is intended to satirize can fairly appreciate its qualities. The drama opens showing Firmilian in his study, planning the composition of ‘Cain: a Tragedy’; and being infused with the spirit of the hero, he starts on a career of crime. Among his deeds is the destruction of the cathedral of Badajoz, which first appears in his mental vision thus:—

  • “Methought I saw the solid vaults give way,
  • And the entire cathedral rise in air,
  • As if it leaped from Pandemonium’s jaws.”
  • To effect this he employs—

  • “Some twenty barrels of the dusky grain
  • The secret of whose framing in an hour
  • Of diabolic jollity and mirth
  • Old Roger Bacon wormed from Beelzebub.”
  • When the horror is accomplished, at a moment when the inhabitants of Badajoz are at prayer, Firmilian rather enjoys the scene:—

  • “Pillars and altar, organ loft and screen,
  • With a singed swarm of mortals intermixed,
  • Whirling in anguish to the shuddering stars.”
  • “‘Firmilian,’” to quote from Aytoun’s biographer again, “deserves to keep its place in literature, if only as showing how easy it is for a man of real poetic power to throw off, in sport, pages of sonorous and sparkling verse, simply by ignoring the fetters of nature and common-sense and dashing headlong on Pegasus through the wilderness of fancy.” Its extravagances of rhetoric can be imagined from the following brief extract, somewhat reminiscent of Marlowe:—

  • “And shall I then take Celsus for my guide,
  • Confound my brain with dull Justinian tomes,
  • Or stir the dust that lies o’er Augustine?
  • Not I, in faith! I’ve leaped into the air,
  • And clove my way through ether like a bird
  • That flits beneath the glimpses of the moon,
  • Right eastward, till I lighted at the foot
  • Of holy Helicon, and drank my fill
  • At the clear spout of Aganippe’s stream;
  • I’ve rolled my limbs in ecstasy along
  • The selfsame turf on which old Homer lay
  • That night he dreamed of Helen and of Troy:
  • And I have heard, at midnight, the sweet strains
  • Come quiring from the hilltop, where, enshrined
  • In the rich foldings of a silver cloud,
  • The Muses sang Apollo into sleep.”
  • In 1856 was printed ‘Bothwell,’ a poetic monologue on Mary Stuart’s lover. Of Aytoun’s humorous sketches, the most humorous are ‘My First Spec in the Biggleswades,’ and ‘How We Got Up the Glen Mutchkin Railway’; tales written during the railway mania of 1845, which treat of the folly and dishonesty of its promoters, and show many typical Scottish characters. His ‘Ballads of Scotland’ was issued in 1858; it is an edition of the best ancient minstrelsy, with preface and notes. In 1861 appeared ‘Norman Sinclair,’ a novel published first in Blackwood’s, and giving interesting pictures of society in Scotland and personal experiences.

    After Professor Wilson’s death, Aytoun was considered the leading man of letters in Scotland; a rank which he modestly accepted by writing in 1838 to a friend:—“I am getting a kind of fame as the literary man of Scotland. Thirty years ago, in the North countries, a fellow achieved an immense reputation as ‘The Tollman,’ being the solitary individual entitled by law to levy blackmail at a ferry.” In 1860 he was made Honorary President of the Associated Societies of the University of Edinburgh, his competitor being Thackeray. This was the place held afterward by Lord Lytton, Sir David Brewster, Carlyle, and Gladstone. Aytoun wrote the ‘The Life and Times of Richard the First’ (London, 1840), and in 1863 a ‘Nuptial Ode on the Marriage of the Prince of Wales.’

    Aytoun was a man of great charm and geniality in society; even to Americans, though he detested America with the energy of fear—the fear of all who see its prosperity sapping the foundations of their class society. He died in 1865; and in 1867 his biography was published by Sir Theodore Martin, his collaborator. Martin’s definition of Aytoun’s place in literature is felicitous:—

  • “Fashions in poetry may alter, but so long as the themes with which they deal have an interest for his countrymen, his ‘Lays’ will find, as they do now, a wide circle of admirers. His powers as a humorist were perhaps greater than as a poet. They have certainly been more widely appreciated. His immediate contemporaries owe him much, for he has contributed largely to that kindly mirth without which the strain and struggle of modern life would be intolerable. Much that is excellent in his humorous writings may very possibly cease to retain a place in literature from the circumstance that he deals with characters and peculiarities which are in some measure local, and phases of life and feeling and literature which are more or less ephemeral. But much will certainly continue to be read and enjoyed by the sons and grandsons of those for whom it was originally written; and his name will be coupled with those of Wilson, Lockhart, Sydney Smith, Peacock, Jerrold, Mahony, and Hood, as that of a man gifted with humor as genuine and original as theirs, however opinions may vary as to the order of their relative merits.”
  • ‘The Modern Endymion,’ from which an extract is given, is a parody on Disraeli’s earlier manner.