Poetic Commemorations of Thomas Muir – Prof Gerry Carruthers

Currently, with my co-editor Don Martin, I am preparing for publication a collection of essays on Thomas Muir (1765-99). In the introductory chapter I thought I would try a parallel exercise to something once undertaken by the great Scottish folksinger, Adam McNaughton. Having gone off in search of songs commemorating the ‘Scottish Father of Democracy’, Mr McNaughton could find very little and so wrote his own song, the rousing ‘Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill’, which has been so memorably performed by Dick Gaughan and several others. The world has been spared my attempts at a poem on Muir, since, while not plentiful, poems and – also songs – about the man appear sporadically through the 1790s and into the mid part of the 19th century. Muir is written about in verse most famously by Robert Southey in his ‘To the Exiled Patriots’, a text much admired by S.T. Coleridge. Southey’s text was first published in 1794 in the radical London journal, Politics for the People, and so I thought I would explore that channel. I found that in 1794 also, Politics for the People printed two songs about Muir, ‘The New Vicar of Bray, or Wha Wants Me?’  and ‘A New Song’.  So there were songs early on and published in England. Several decades later, Muir also attracted the attention of Yorkshire Chartist, Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849), who included his ‘Epitaph on Thomas Muir’, in his collection of poetry, Corn Law Rhymes (1831). Disinterred by Michael Shaw of The People’s Voice project is the anonymous text, ‘A Song, Political Martyrdom of Thomas Muir, Esq written 1837’ which is published in The Altar of Liberty (1842). My ongoing hypothesis is that after a first flush of admiration from the Romantics (Coleridge and Southey), it is in the Chartist period, and in England particularly, that Muir seems to capture the imagination in song and poetry. My published chapter will also examine Muir’s appearances in Scottish Literature, more often in fiction and drama rather than in poetry or song. The book of Muir essays will appear before The People’s Voice has run its course, and it will be intriguing to see what other poems and songs about Muir TPV might turn up, as well as from where these are located.

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