If I hear any more of his cunning tricks, I will tell you of them.
R. F. Murray: His Poems with a Memoir by Andrew Lang
Much is written about success and failure in the career of literature, about the reasons which enable one man to reach the front, and another to earn his livelihood, while a third, in appearance as likely as either of them, fails and, perhaps, faints by the way. Mr. R. F. Murray, the author of The Scarlet Gown, was among those who do not attain success, in spite of qualities which seem destined to ensure it, and who fall out of the ranks. To him, indeed, success and the rewards of this world, money, and praise, did by no means seem things to be snatched at. To him success meant earning by his pen the very modest sum which sufficed for his wants, and the leisure necessary for serious essays in poetry. Fate denied him even this, in spite of his charming natural endowment of humour, of tenderness, of delight in good letters, and in nature. He died young; he was one of those whose talent matures slowly, and he died before he came into the full possession of his intellectual kingdom. He had the ambition to excel, [Greek text], as the Homeric motto of his University runs, and he was on the way to excellence when his health broke down. He lingered for two years and passed away.
It is a familiar story, the story of lettered youth; of an ambition, or rather of an ideal; of poverty; of struggles in the `dusty and stony ways'; of intellectual task-work; of a true love consoling the last months of weakness and pain. The tale is not repeated here because it is novel, nor even because in its hero we have to regret an `inheritor of unfulfilled renown.' It is not the genius so much as the character of this St. Andrews student which has won the sympathy of his biographer, and may win, he hopes, the sympathy of others. In Mr. Murray I feel that I have lost that rare thing, a friend; a friend whom the chances of life threw in my way, and withdrew again ere we had time and opportunity for perfect recognition. Those who read his Letters and Remains may also feel this emotion of sympathy and regret.
He was young in years, and younger in heart, a lover of youth; and youth, if it could learn and could be warned, might win a lesson from his life. Many of us have trod in his path, and, by some kindness of fate, have found from it a sunnier exit into longer days and more fortunate conditions. Others have followed this well- beaten road to the same early and quiet end as his.
The life and the letters of Murray remind one strongly of Thomas Davidson's, as published in that admirable and touching biography, A Scottish Probationer. It was my own chance to be almost in touch with both these gentle, tuneful, and kindly humorists. Davidson was a Borderer, born on the skirts of `stormy Ruberslaw,' in the country of James Thomson, of Leyden, of the old Ballad minstrels. The son of a Scottish peasant line of the old sort, honourable, refined, devout, he was educated in Edinburgh for the ministry of the United Presbyterian Church. Some beautiful verses of his appeared in the St. Andrews University Magazine about 1863, at the time when I first `saw myself in print' in the same periodical. Davidson's poem delighted me: another of his, `Ariadne in Naxos,' appeared in the Cornhill Magazine about the same time. Mr. Thackeray, who was then editor, no doubt remembered Pen's prize poem on the same subject. I did not succeed in learning anything about the author, did not know that he lived within a drive of my own home. When next I heard of him, it was in his biography. As a `Probationer,' or unplaced minister, he, somehow, was not successful. A humorist, a poet, a delightful companion, he never became `a placed minister.' It was the old story of an imprudence, a journey made in damp clothes, of consumption, of the end of his earthly life and love. His letters to his betrothed, his poems, his career, constantly remind one of Murray's, who must often have joined in singing Davidson's song, so popular with St. Andrews students, The Banks of the Yang-tse-kiang. Love of the Border, love of Murray's `dear St. Andrews Bay,' love of letters, make one akin to both of these friends who were lost before their friendship was won. Why did not Murray succeed to the measure of his most modest desire? If we examine the records of literary success, we find it won, in the highest fields, by what, for want of a better word, we call genius; in the lower paths, by an energy which can take pleasure in all and every exercise of pen and ink, and can communicate its pleasure to others. Now for Murray one does not venture, in face of his still not wholly developed talent, and of his checked career, to claim genius. He was not a Keats, a Burns, a Shelley: he was not, if one may choose modern examples, a Kipling or a Stevenson. On the other hand, his was a high ideal; he believed, with Andre Chenier, that he had `something there,' something worthy of reverence and of careful training within him. Consequently, as we shall see, the drudgery of the pressman was excessively repulsive to him. He could take no delight in making the best of it. We learn that Mr. Kipling's early tales were written as part of hard daily journalistic work in India; written in torrid newspaper offices, to fill columns. Yet they were written with the delight of the artist, and are masterpieces in their genre. Murray could not make the best of ordinary pen-work in this manner. Again, he was incapable of `transactions,' of compromises; most honourably incapable of earning his bread by agreeing, or seeming to agree with opinions which were not his. He could not endure (here I think he was wrong) to have his pieces of light and mirthful verse touched in any way by an editor. Even where no opinions were concerned, even where an editor has (to my mind) a perfect right to alter anonymous contributions, Murray declined to be edited. I ventured to remonstrate with him, to say non est tanti, but I spoke too late, or spoke in vain. He carried independence too far, or carried it into the wrong field, for a piece of humorous verse, say in Punch, is not an original masterpiece and immaculate work of art, but more or less of a joint-stock product between the editor, the author, and the public. Macaulay, and Carlyle, and Sir Walter Scott suffered editors gladly or with indifference, and who are we that we should complain? This extreme sensitiveness would always have stood in Murray's way.
Once more, Murray's interest in letters was much more energetic than his zeal in the ordinary industry of a student. As a general rule, men of original literary bent are not exemplary students at college. `The common curricoolum,' as the Scottish laird called academic studies generally, rather repels them. Macaulay took no honours at Cambridge; mathematics defied him. Scott was `the Greek dunce,' at Edinburgh. Thackeray, Shelley, Gibbon, did not cover themselves with college laurels; they read what pleased them, they did not read `for the schools.' In short, this behaviour at college is the rule among men who are to be distinguished in literature, not the exception. The honours attained at Oxford by Mr. Swinburne, whose Greek verses are no less poetical than his English poetry, were inconspicuous. At St. Andrews, Murray read only `for human pleasure,' like Scott, Thackeray, Shelley, and the rest, at Edinburgh, Oxford, and Cambridge. In this matter, I think, he made an error, and one which affected his whole career. He was not a man of private fortune, like some of those whom we have mentioned. He had not a business ready for him to step into. He had to force his own way in life, had to make himself `self-supporting.' This was all the more essential to a man of his honourable independence of character, a man who not only would not ask a favour, but who actually shrunk back from such chances as were offered to him, if these chances seemed to be connected with the least discernible shadow of an obligation. At St. Andrews, had he chosen to work hard in certain branches of study, he might probably have gained an exhibition, gone to Oxford or elsewhere, and, by winning a fellowship, secured the leisure which was necessary for the development of his powers. I confess to believing in strenuous work at the classics, as offering, apart from all material reward, the best and most solid basis, especially where there is no exuberant original genius, for the career of a man of letters. The mental discipline is invaluable, the training in accuracy is invaluable, and invaluable is the life led in the society of the greatest minds, the noblest poets, the most faultless artists of the world. To descend to ordinary truths, scholarship is, at lowest, an honourable gagne-pain. But Murray, like the majority of students endowed with literary originality, did not share these rather old-fashioned ideas. The clever Scottish student is apt to work only too hard, and, perhaps, is frequently in danger of exhausting his powers before they are mature, and of injuring his health before it is confirmed. His ambitions, to lookers-on, may seem narrow and school-boyish, as if he were merely emulous, and eager for a high place in his `class,' as lectures are called in Scotland. This was Murray's own view, and he certainly avoided the dangers of academic over-work. He read abundantly, but, as Fitzgerald says, he read `for human pleasure.' He never was a Greek scholar, he disliked Philosophy, as presented to him in class-work; the gods had made him poetical, not metaphysical.
There was one other cause of his lack of even such slender commercial success in letters as was really necessary to a man who liked `plain living and high thinking.' He fell early in love with a city, with a place--he lost his heart to St. Andrews. Here, at all events, his critic can sympathise with him. His `dear St. Andrews Bay,' beautiful alike in winter mists and in the crystal days of still winter sunshine; the quiet brown streets brightened by the scarlet gowns; the long limitless sands; the dark blue distant hills, and far-off snowy peaks of the Grampians; the majestic melancholy towers, monuments of old religion overthrown; the deep dusky porch of the college chapel, with Kennedy's arms in wrought iron on the oaken door; the solid houses with their crow steps and gables, all the forlorn memories of civil and religious feud, of inhabitants saintly, royal, heroic, endeared St. Andrews to Murray. He could not say, like our other poet to Oxford, `Farewell, dear city of youth and dream!' His whole nature needed the air, `like wine.' He found, as he remarks, `health and happiness in the German Ocean,' swimming out beyond the `lake' where the witches were dipped; walking to the grey little coast-towns, with their wealth of historic documents, their ancient kirks and graves; dreaming in the vernal woods of Mount Melville or Strathtyrum; rambling (without a fishing-rod) in the charmed `dens' of the Kenley burn, a place like Tempe in miniature: these things were Murray's usual enjoyments, and they became his indispensable needs. His peculiarly shy and, as it were, silvan nature, made it physically impossible for him to live in crowded streets and push his way through throngs of indifferent men. He could not live even in Edinburgh; he made the effort, and his health, at no time strong, seems never to have recovered from the effects of a few months spent under a roof in a large town. He hurried back to St. Andrews: her fascination was too powerful. Hence it is that, dying with his work scarcely begun, he will always be best remembered as the poet of The Scarlet Gown, the Calverley or J. K. S. of Kilrymont; endowed with their humour, their skill in parody, their love of youth, but (if I am not prejudiced) with more than the tenderness and natural magic of these regretted writers. Not to be able to endure crowds and towns, (a matter of physical health and constitution, as well as of temperament) was, of course, fatal to an ordinary success in journalism. On the other hand, Murray's name is inseparably connected with the life of youth in the little old college, in the University of the Admirable Crichton and Claverhouse, of the great Montrose and of Ferguson,--the harmless Villon of Scotland,--the University of almost all the famous Covenanters, and of all the valiant poet-Cavaliers. Murray has sung of the life and pleasures of its students, of examinations and Gaudeamuses--supper parties--he has sung of the sands, the links, the sea, the towers, and his name and fame are for ever blended with the air of his city of youth and dream. It is not a wide name or a great fame, but it is what he would have desired, and we trust that it may be long-lived and enduring. We are not to wax elegiac, and adopt a tearful tone over one so gallant and so uncomplaining. He failed, but he was undefeated.