The young Stoddart’s two desires were poetry and fishing. He began with poetry. “At the age of ten his whole desire was to produce an immortal tragedy . . . Blood and battle were the powers with which he worked, and with no meaner tool. Every other dramatic form he despised.” It is curious to think of the schoolboy, the born Romanticist, labouring at these things, while Gerard de Nerval, and Victor Hugo, and Theophile Gautier, and Petrus Borel were boys also—boys of the same ambitions, and with much the same romantic tastes. Stoddart had, luckily, another love besides the Muse. “With the spring and the May fly, the dagger dipped in gore paled before the supple rod, and the dainty midge.” Finally, the rod and midge prevailed.
“Wee dour-looking hooks are
Mouse body and laverock wing.”
But before he quite abandoned all poetry save fishing ditties, he wrote and published the volume whose title-page we have printed, “The Death Wake.” The lad who drove home from an angling expedition in a hearse had an odd way of combining his amusements. He lived among poets and critics who were anglers—Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd (who cast but a heavy line, they say, in Yarrow), Aytoun, Christopher North, De Quincey—
But a well-wisher
To the game,”
as Scott has it—these were his companions, older or younger. None of these, certainly not Wilson, nor Hogg, nor Aytoun, were friends of the Romantic school, as illustrated by Keats and Shelley. None of them probably knew much of Gautier, De Nerval, Borel, le lycanthrope, and the other boys in that boyish movement of 1830. It was only Stoddart, unconsciously in sympathy with Paris, and censured by his literary friends, who produced the one British Romantic work of 1830. The title itself shows that he was partly laughing at his own performance; he has the mockery of Les Jeunes France in him, as well as the wormy and obituary joys of La Comedie de la Mort. The little book came out, inspired by “all the poetasters.” Christopher North wrote, four years later, in Blackwood’s Magazine, a tardy review. He styled it “an ingeniously absurd poem, with an ingeniously absurd title, written in a strange, namby-pamby sort of style, between the weakest of Shelley and the strongest of Barry Cornwall.” The book “fell dead from the Press,” far more dead than “Omar Khayyam.” Nay, misfortune pursued it, Miss Stoddart kindly informs me, and it was doomed to the flames. The “remainder,” the bulk of the edition, was returned to the poet in sheets, and by him was deposited in a garret. The family had a cook, one Betty, a descendant, perhaps, of “that unhappy Betty or Elizabeth Barnes, cook of Mr. Warburton, Somerset Herald,” who burned, among other quartos, Shakespeare’s “Henry I.,” “Henry II.,” and “King Stephen.” True to her inherited instincts, Mr. Stoddart’s Betty, slowly, relentlessly, through forty years, used “The Death Wake” for the needs and processes of her art. The whole of the edition, except probably a few “presentation copies,” perished in the kitchen. As for that fell cook, let us hope that