Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
Critical and Biographical Essay by Mackenzie Bell
Carolina, Lady Nairne (1766–1845)
THE GIFT of writing songs—songs which achieve a high degree of poetical merit, and, at the same time, attain permanent popularity in virtue of their deep human interest—is much rarer than is generally supposed. Even great poets have not always possessed the combination of qualities required before a really great song, exhibiting both the characteristics just named, can be produced. Probably before a poet, however great, can produce a song so universally popular as “The Land o’ the Leal,” he must possess, in addition to his other poetic endowment, that sympathy with ordinary human life, which, in some natures, amounts almost to a passion. The mere knowledge of artistic technique, and the mere atmosphere of the study, are not in themselves favourable to the growth of such sympathy. Perhaps this is largely the reason why children of nature like Burns and Carolina Nairne have possessed the gift of song-writing in so eminent a degree.  1
  Scotland has been remarkable for producing a succession of songstresses whose poems have possessed that rare lyrical charm which appeals to the hearts of high and low alike. Most of them were ladies of position, and this renders their success in reaching the popular sentiment the more remarkable. It must, however, be remembered, that in Scotland there has always been a reminiscence of the feudal relation between the upper classes and the peasantry, which has long since died out south of the Border. Besides Lady Nairne, writers like Lady Grisell Baillie, Jean Adam, Allison Cockburn, Jean Elliot, Lady Anne Barnard, Elizabeth Hamilton, Jean Glover, and Joanna Baillie form a roll of poetesses of which any country might be proud.  2
  Much of Lady Nairne’s poetical activity consisted in writing words to old Scotch airs, or else of changing and improving the words of old Scottish songs. Her verse was sometimes rugged and inartistic in form, but, on many occasions, this arose from the method of composition forced upon a writer who adapts her words to some popular air. Not unfrequently Lady Nairne used assonances for rhymes (as “ran” and “strang,” in “The Rowan Tree”). Assonances in place of rhymes are common, however, in the old North Country ballads, and the influence of these ballads upon Scottish poets must always be taken into account when dealing with their work. Still it can hardly be questioned that Lady Nairne’s ideas of poetry as an art were primitive. Her attempts to improve the words of old Scottish songs, which, from one reason or another, she thought defective, were generally successful. But occasionally she tried to give an ethical bias to a song which was quite unfitted to bear it. At one time she had thoughts of giving editorial assistance in the preparation of a “purified edition of Burns’s songs.” Burns’s “Duncan Gray” had, in her opinion, a “Bacchanalian tendency,” and she wrote a version of her own—a version which, though immeasurably inferior to Burns’s inimitable song, was, nevertheless, full of humorous suggestion.  3
  Even when she did not aspire to amend the ethics of an old song Lady Nairne did not always improve on the originals. This will be seen by comparing her version of “The Lass o’ Gowrie” with the exquisite song by a writer unknown, which was itself an improvement on the original “Kate o’ Gowrie” by William Reid, of Glasgow. Lady Nairne’s song follows the old “Lass o’ Gowrie” down to the end of the first two stanzas, and then, leaving the old version, takes a very much more feeble and prosaic course. In fact, her completion of “The Lass o’ Gowrie” would be a somewhat serious impeachment of her art, did we not recollect how extremely difficult was the task she undertook. The idiomatic verve of an old song wins for it its popular vogue, and to attempt to change this elasticity is always risky. In such attempts Burns himself did not always achieve entire success.  4
  Lady Nairne was a true poet. Her “Laird o’ Cockpen” is full of a humour that is quite peculiar to herself; while her Jacobite songs, “Wha’ll be King but Charlie” and “Charlie is my Darling,” are alive with warlike spirit as sincere and earnest as though they had been written in the heat of the struggle, during the pauses of the very battles. In these poems she evidently feels every word she writes, and this quality of sincerity alone, even apart from their other conspicuous merits, causes them to reach a far higher standard of excellence than all the other Jacobite verse which was written in her time. “Caller Herrin’,” written to a tune representing the chime of the bells of the Tron Kirk at Edinburgh, will always be worthy of study as a fine example of words arranged to musical sounds. Her masterpiece is “The Land o’ the Leal.” This faultless poem is worthy of the pathetic situation it renders so irresistibly. We seem to hear the very accents of the dying woman as she speaks to the fond husband who was the father of her dead child. Yet “The Land o’ the Leal,” flawless as it is, seems as spontaneous as her more crude work. Indeed it may be said of this kind of lyric no less than of the Jacobite ballads, that Lady Nairne never wrote a line that she did not feel; and this fact gives to her poems a strength which nothing else could give.  5
  Carolina Oliphant was born at Gask, Perthshire, on July the 16th, 1766. Her Jacobitism was inherited. On her father’s side she sprang from the Oliphants (originally Olifards) of Gask, and on her mother’s from the Robertsons of Strowan. Both families were Jacobites of the purest and most uncompromising order. And it was during the time that the Oliphants and the Robertsons were living in compulsory exile at the soi-disant Court of St. Germain that her father and mother married. Named after “the king over the water,” there was no feature of Carolina’s surroundings that was not Jacobite. And when it is remembered that she was fully eighteen years of age before her maternal grandfather and grandmother ceased to be outlaws for the “cause,” and were permitted to return to Scotland, it is easy to understand her intense Jacobitism, and to see why her Jacobite songs are no mere literary exercises.  6
  At the age of eight she lost her mother, but her training was carefully attended to, and she became highly educated according to the measure of those days. When she was about twenty-six, her brother Lawrence, who had succeeded to the family property, gave a dinner to his tenantry. He sang to them on the occasion a new version of “The Ploughman,” written by his sister. It was received with favour, and, though the authorship was not divulged, copies were multiplied, and the song became popular. Henceforward Carolina wrote songs, though preserving the strictest secrecy respecting their authorship. Probably she felt that the production of literature was hardly a fitting occupation for one who had the blue blood. Carolina was beautiful, and might have made an advantageous marriage. Influenced, however, by her Jacobite predilections, she consented to marry her cousin, Captain Nairne. As staunch a Jacobite as herself, he was half a score years her senior, and was entirely dependent on his soldier’s pay. Hence the marriage had to be postponed, and did not take place until June 1806. After her marriage she resided near Edinburgh, but did not mix much in the literary society of that city: even with Sir Walter Scott, with whom she had much in common, she was never intimate. Yet she was noted for “graceful manners, and elegant accomplishments.” She continued her song-writing under the pseudonym of “Mrs. Bogan, of Bogan,” and not only wrote out her poems in a feigned hand, but actually, on meeting her publisher, Purdie, got herself up as a middle-class country gentlewoman of advanced years, in order to mystify him the more thoroughly. It is difficult for us in these days of feminine ambition to understand an idiosyncrasy like this. Carolina Nairne’s freedom from aspirations of a literary kind, owing to its contrast to modern ideas, lends an added interest to her name, though, of course, such shrinking from publicity was a characteristic of other Scottish poetesses, and particularly of Lady Anne Barnard, who did not divulge her authorship of “Auld Robin Gray” for fifty years.  7
  When George IV., after his famous visit to Scotland, agreed to reverse the attainders of several Jacobite families, Major Nairne was reinstated in the Baron’s rank which his ancestors had lost. The estate of Nairne, in Perthshire, however, was gone for ever, but no doubt Carolina prized the barren honour almost as much without the lands as with them. The loss of her husband in 1830 was a heavy blow to her, and this was followed by the long illness, and then the death in 1837 of her only son, whom she idolised. From this time she lived much in France, and devoted most of her energies to works of charity. Deeply and unostentatiously religious, her latter years were spent in the strictest retirement. Though writing but little verse, she did not lose her poetic faculty, for the beautiful song “Would you be Young Again” was written in her seventy-sixth year. She died at Gask on October the 26th, 1845. Not until after her death was a collected edition of her poems issued with her name as the author prefixed to them.  8

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