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Scottish Poets in America
Moffat, Prof. James C.

—The warrior’s name,
Tho’ pealed and chim’d on all the tongues of fame,
Sounds less harmonious to the grateful mind Than his,
who fashions and improves mankind.

At Glencree, in the South of Scotland, on the thirtieth day of May, 1811, there was born of poor but honest and industrious parents a child, who in course of time grew up, and at an early age began the battle of life as a shepherd’s boy. Tending his flocks day by day among the hills and glens, far from his home and his friends, he was thus led into a closer companionship with nature in all her wonderful beauties than he would otherwise have been, and soon he began to discover that there were

“Books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones,
And good in everything.”

Gradually his mind expanded, and imperceptibly a desire for knowledge and an earnest wish to become something better and nobler than what he was naturally took possession of his heart. Up to his sixteenth year he had received little, or, at all events, a very imperfect education, but at this age he apprenticed himself to a printer, not with a view of learning that trade, but simply as a means of obtaining access to books. His duties here occupied his attention for ten hours each day, yet so willing a scholar was he that during his spare hours in the course of a few years he had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, a little of Persian and several other European languages. Such in brief was the boyhood of James C. Moffat, the now venerable and greatly respected Professor of Church History in the Theological Seminary at Princeton. In 1833 he emigrated to America, and shortly after his arri-val in New York, through the advice and assistance of a few friends, entered the junior class at Princeton College and graduated in 1835. He was then offered and accepted a position as private tutor to two young gentlemen who were about to study at Yale College, and one of whom afterwards ranked among the most eminent Greek scholars in Europe. We now quote from the Princeton Review : “At the end of about two years Mr. Moffat returned to Princeton as Greek tutor, in which capacity he continued till September, 1839, when he accepted the appointment to the Professorship of Greek and Latin in Lafayette College, then under the presidency of Dr. Junkin. In the Spring of 1841 he removed with Dr. Junkin to Miami University, O., where he had been called to the department of Latin, and subsequently Modern History was added to his work.

“In the Spring of 1851 he was licensed to preach the Gospel, and from September of next year he taught Greek and Hebrew in a theological school which had a short existence in Cincinnati. Having been elected to the Professorship of Latin and History at Princeton, he returned to that place in the Spring of 1853. Upon the resignation of Dr. Carnahan and the election of Dr. McLean to the presidency, several changes were made in the faculty and Dr. Moffat was transferred to the Chair of Greek, which he held for a period of seven years, retaining still the lectureship of history until a professor was appointed to that department. In 1861 he was elected by the General Assembly to the Chair of Church History in the Theological Seminary at Princeton.” With Church History he retained Greek Literary History until 1877. Having thus as briefly as possible outlined the career of Professor Moffat, let us now turn our attention to him as a poet. After a careful perusal of his poetical works, we unhesitatingly pronounce his right to take a high rank not only among Scottish-American poets but among the poets of America. The principal features of his poetry are a graceful and melodious versification, a purity of language, the originality and perfect justness of his reflections, and a contemplative seriousness that reminds us of the meditative pathos of Wordsworth. His muse has no eye for frivolity ; to her "Life is real, life is earnest,” and we have not seen even among his earlier and shorter pieces any absence of that stately dignity which is such a characteristic of the work of his mature years. Of his many published volumes the first of a poetical kind published in this country and entitled “A Rhyme of the North Countrie,” (Cincinnati, 1847), the prelude to the principal poem in the work gives us a key at once to the mainspring of his poetic feelings—the love of the fatherland, which he thus apostrophises:

Wild land of poesy, when free
From daily cares to youth and thee
My thoughts return, what visions lie
Like evening clouds before my eye!
The winding stream, the mountain glen
And sunny lawn appear again;
While every spot its legend brings
Of love and past beloved things.

The prelude introduces to us the story of the heir of a Scottish house whose worldly circumstances have been reduced, but who wins the love of a high-born lady, and in a heroic endeavor to win fortune and fame, undertakes the command of an expedition to the Polar regions. Years pass and no news of the hero until a wandering sailor tells the story of the finding of a lost ship and a frozen crew in the northern seas. The descriptive passages in the work are particularly fine, the versification elegant and melodious. Take, for instance, the hero’s last look at the home of his beloved:

The moon is on the eastern height
His silver on the seas,
But fairer to the poet’s sight
The glimmering of that humble light
Among the ancient trees;
For it has shone on one possessed
Of human life’s most envied boon
And prized more dearly to his breast
Than all the rest beneath the moon;
And at this lovely place and hour
When nothing but that ancient tower
Upon the wooded steeps above
Can thought of human life impart,
Its gentle rays come on his heart
Like messengers of love.

The description of the Polar regions, the attitudes of the frozen crew, with the accompan) ing weird natural phenomena, are admirable examples of invention and graphic description to which no brief selection could give an adequate illustration. We pass, however, to notice his happy faculty of writing short poems, chiefly of a moral or didactic kind. They embrace a variety of subjects, but the most striking are those which contain a survey of the beautiful in nature; a subject with which he ever links a broad human sympathy. As an illustration of this let us quote a little poem which he composed during a visit to Europe immediately after the Franco-German war:


We’ve met, old Rhine, among the hills,
And thou wast young and playful then,
Disporting with the wanton rills
And rushing wild from glen to glen.

I’ve met thee in a fuller stream,
Where still the haughty Alps arose,
Flowing in majesty supreme,
And gathering tribute from their snows.

When brooks with loud complaining din,
Harassed and tortured in the race,
Through rocks and gorge, o’er ledge and lin.
Sought refuge in thy strong embrace.

And here, in thy maturer age,
In tranquil force and grandeur spread,
Conferring traffic’s heritage
Upon the lands thy floods have made,

Diffusing far on every hand,
Thy gifts and energies benign,
I bow before thy wide command,
And hail thee monarch, mighty Rhine.

So may the people, through whose coasts
Thy far-assembled waters wind,
Their strong but long-divided hosts.
Of honest worth and fertile mind,

Endowed with learning’s richest dower,
Harmoniously at length combine
Into one vast benignant power,
As thou art here, imperial Rhine.

Many of the professor’s short poems are of a religious kind, and as such display an abiding faith in God’s goodness to men. “A Cry in Battle” may be taken as a specimen of this:


There is a war which I must wage,
A victory I must win;
A fiend has cast the mortal gage,
And dares me from within.

His hate is vigilant and keen,
His forces manifold ;
His strategy is broad, unseen,
His charge sustained and bold.

Insidious craft have I to meet,
Whose arts deceive the eye;
To fight is to provoke defeat,
Yet I must win or die.

Great Son of God, whose piercing glance
Through all designs can see,
My hope for victory in defence
I rest alone on thee.

Again, many of his short poems take a lyrical form, and of these his “Tamers of the Ground” is probably the most widely known.


There is conquest of force in taming the horse
Till he brooks to be driven and bound,
But prouder by far the victories are
Of the men who tame the ground—
Who tame the ground and its wilful powers,
And determine the work it must do,
Till it leaves its own, and executes ours,
With obedience docile and true.

For they are true workers together with God,
In maturing the earth to his plan,
And in teaching her dull and unmeaning sod
To glow with the thinking of man—
Who compel her rude life to surrender the wold,
The marsh and the jungle to yield
To him who can out of her deserts unfold
The wealth of the fruit-bearing field.

Delights there may be on the restless sea,
Though treacherous, barren and bare;
But the grateful land ever blesses the hand
That tends it with wisdom and care.
Then health to the heroes, who tame the ground,
And hold it in bountiful thrall,
For they lap the earth with their conquests around
Enriching, benignant to all.

The greatest, however, of the learned professor’s poems is “Alwyn: A Romance of Study,” published by Messrs. Anson D. F. Randolph & Co., of this city, in 1875. It is a lengthy work of seven cantos, written in the Spenserian stanza, and deals chiefly in an analysis of the mind of a student passing through the various studies of the acquired knowledge of the ages. This subject, simple as it may appear, opens a wonderful panorama of facts and fancies, which pass transfigured before the intellectual eye, and illustrate not only the vast scholarship of the author but his intimate knowledge of natural phenomena. The endless array of pictures that pass before us are drawn from every conceivable source, from the lovely grandeur of far-spreading seas, from the wild sublimity of mountains, from the shrouded stillness of the white North, from the dazzling brilliancy of tropical forests, from the heart of man and from all animate nature. The effect of each new experience of observation is finely pointed out in the growing intellectual power of the hero of the poem, and the incentive to study and a true conception of the power of knowledge with the highest reverence and faith in revealed religion, may be gathered as the general effect of the whole work. Indeed the religious sentiment is ever held, and justly so, as the highest attribute of man. The effect of forests in this sentiment is grandly expressed in the first canto:

And much he sought the forest dense and old,
A strange unhuman charm resided there ;
And in the sombre twilight, damp and cold,
Which bade the venturous foot of man forbear,
He found attractions such as dangers wear.
An awful thought that the Almighty God,
Such as he reigned ere man was made, and ere
Christ was revealed, still had his dread abode,
In these old shades, to him was like a wizard’s rod.

Majestic trees, earth’s ancient garniture,
Primeval forests, which so fondly cling
To the wild places, which your life secure
From the destroying enemy, ye bring
Conceptious of creation’s early spring,
Ere man’s vicegerency had yet begun,
And when in herb and stream and living thing,
In heat and cold and cloud and golden sun
God solitary reigned and all his will was done.

Not only does this intimacy with nature form one of the chiefest beauties of the work, but through this quality we are led to a higher appreciation of such men of eminence, whose works are touched upon in this masterly poem. Even when we cannot follow the learned professor into his perfect knowledge of the work of the Greek and Roman poets and philosophers we feel a closer intimacy with them after seeing the kaleidoscopic reflex of their works such as is here presented on every hand. Take Cicero for instance:

“Most fertile genius of the Roman name,
Whose glowing tones of eloquence bestow
But half thy green inheritance of fame ;
Pure statesman hero, toiling to reclaim
A sinking country and a vicious age,
Who lived a life scarce faction dared to blame,
And nobly died to stem the tyrant’s rage—
Hail freedom’s martyr, hail benign eclectic sage!”

If space permitted, we would be pleased to analyze this poem to its close, but we can only add that as a whole it is one of most remarkable ever published in America. In finish of versification it certainly has no superior. It gives added sanction and stability to the power of knowledge and to the faith and practice of true religion as constituting the highest law of the moral universe.

Besides his poetical works, Prof. Moffat is the author of a Life of Dr. Chalmers, published in Cincinnati, 1853; Introduction to the Study of Aesthetics, 1856; Comparative History of Religions, 2 vols , 1871-3; Song and Scenery, or a Summer Ramble in Scotland, 1874; Church History in Brief, 1885; and he has contributed about seventy historical articles to the Princeton Review and other periodicals. In conclusion, we cannot close our brief comments on the poet-professor without alluding to the exalted estimate in which he is held as a man. His pure and noble life carries with it the royal reward of a heart still sweet and young. The shepherd’s boy with the keen eye and the bright smile is still there; the journeymen printer, with the quick hand and the kind word for a fellow workman, is still there. Add to this the talented scholarly professor, the profound theologian; and through this combination of manly and noble qualities, the light of poesy shines as sunshine among the forest leaves, blessing and beautifying the whole.

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