Charles Mackay

Portrait of Charles Mackay circa 1856

Charles Mackay was born in Perth, Scotland in 1814 and had a long and distinguished literary career. He maintained a lengthy association with newspapers, at one time holding the post of editor of the Glasgow Argus, and was employed by The Morning Chronicle for a number of years as sub-editor.

In his later Forty Years’ Recollections he dedicates several interesting chapters to his work at The Morning Chronicle, including his “Labour and the Poor” assignments investigating the cities of Birmingham and Liverpool. He was a good friend of Angus B. Reach who also worked on the series and assisted Angus when he first moved to London to further his literary career.

He enjoyed considerable success with his book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” but it was for his verse, particularly when put to music, that he became famous. He became known as “The People’s Poet” and his songs were sung across the entire English-speaking world. Referring to his popular song “There’s a good time coming, boys”, the Daily News wrote in Charles Mackay’s obituary in December 1889:⁠—

The verses were set to music by Henry Russell and sung everywhere. In the music halls, at concerts, at great public meetings, in private gatherings, and about the streets, the public were never tired of hearing and of singing of the good time coming. The original title of the song, as it was printed in our columns, was “Wait a little longer,” and this was the refrain of every verse. From this country it spread to the United States and the colonies, and made its author’s fame as widespread as the English tongue. Many of his other songs were set to music by the same composer, and enjoyed almost equal popularity. “Cheer boys, cheer” is still the song of the emigrant, and “Tubal Cain,” which was perhaps the finest, was another of the most popular of his productions. These are the three pieces by which he will be chiefly remembered, though many other of his songs took the public fancy. From the publication of “There’s a good time coming,” down to the period of the American Civil War, Dr. Mackay was justly regarded as the most eminent popular song writer of his time.

Shortly after his death, his friend Colin Rae Brown wrote the following article in The Scots’ Magazine:⁠—

The Scots’ Magazine, Saturday, March 1, 1890.



No one who conversed for any length of time with the late Dr. Mackay could remain long in ignorance of the poet’s nationality. Not that it was observable in his accent, but because he never failed to introduce some reference to his fatherland into a conversation. Robert Browning said, that “Italy would be found graven on his heart:” in like manner, a similar remark might have been made regarding the subject of our sketch and “Scotland.” Removed from Perth, his place of birth (in 1814), while yet an infant, and domiciled thereafter—till he entered on his thirtieth year—in England and Belgium, he did not again reside in Scotland till 1844; and then only for 3 years, during his editorship of the Glasgow Argus newspaper. While his education was being completed in Brussels, and even during the exciting period of the revolution in that country, the embryo-poet had begun to woo the Muse, who frequently led his young imagination over the moors, up the lone glens, and across the silvery lochs (only known to him through pen and pencil) of the ever-cherished mountain-land of his birth. Frequently he remarked to the writer, “the sight of a bit of wild continental heath would put my heart into a joyous, bounding flutter.”

After terminating an engagement with an extensive commercial house in Brussels, during the continuance of which he had been more than a mere witness of the revolutionary struggles in Belgium, he came to London, and soon developed his latent literary instincts.

His first volume of verse, published in 1832, led to an engagement on the Morning Chronicle. While occupied in the sub-editorial department of that journal, he issued another poetical brochure, entitled “The Hope of the World.” In 1844 he became (as before stated) editor of the Glasgow Argus, and was present at the Festival in honour of the “Sons of Burns” which took place during that year at the “Brig o’ Doon.” On this occasion he made the acquaintance of Professor Wilson and other eminent Scotsmen; but “Christopher North” seems to have overshadowed all the others, mentally as well as physically. He at once set the genial Professor down as “the noblest-looking and most Scottish of all the Scotsmen he had yet met!”—realising to the fullest extent two of the finest lines good old Andrew Park ever wrote. They were penned in reference to Fillan’s marble bust of Wilson (which was produced for and placed in the Paisley Reading Room) and read as follows:⁠—

How like a Lion in quiescent might

The noble-souled old Christopher appears!”

The “leaders” in the Argus soon gave ample evidence of the writer’s strong grasp of current politics. In them he developed a strong sympathy with the proposed Repeal of the Corn Laws, and advocated the endowment and the “broadening” of our Educational institutions. In conjunction with the tale of Mr. James McClelland, then a well-known public man of great energy, the new editor of the Argus held very advanced views in favour of the “Secular System.” And though neither of them was destined to see their “views” carried out to the full extent of their fervid aspirations, their efforts greatly accelerated the early steps of the National Education Movement.

Leaving Glasgow in 1847, Mr. Mackay again repaired to London, and became connected with the Illustrated News. Ultimately, he took sole charge of the literary department of this important journal, and, while so engaged, his trenchant and incisive “leaders” on social and political topics arrested the attention of John Bright, Charles Gilpin, and other prominent Liberals. Through the connection thus formed, he eventually became a member of the Reform Club; and, till within a few years of his death, he was one of the most constant and familiar habitués of its precincts. He soon made his mark there—John Bright becoming not only his “fast friend,” but also his colleague in several important movements. This alliance remained unbroken up to the breaking out of the great Civil War in the United States, when the subject of our sketch, after a lengthened consultation with the management of the Times, sailed for New York to become the representative of that Journal during the continuance of hostilities. Events moved very rapidly towards the close of this negotiation; so much so, that he had barely time to make the necessary domestic arrangements for a seemingly prolonged absence, and had to leave England without being able to pay farewell visits of any kind. Thus, while the “Man of letters” sailed for his distant post, there to espouse the cause of the South (if at all likely to prove the “winning horse”), the “Man of speech and action” remained at home to advocate (and that with no uncertain sound) the claim of the North for instant Abolition and an unbroken Union of all the States. And so their lives became divided ever after: they never exchanged words of speech again. This was Dr. Mackay’s second trip across the Atlantic. During a part of 1857 and 1858, he had visited the United States and Canada in a two-fold capacity. First, as Mr. Sala and Sir Edwin Arnold have more recently done, to assist his paper with a series of bright, impressionable letters bearing on the aspects of the country and the people; and, in the second place, to deliver courses of lectures on “Poetry and Song.” With the results of that visit he had been immensely pleased, and looked forward to the renewing of many pleasant friendships on the other side of the “herring-pond.”

After the close of the American War, and a second tour through Canada, Dr. Mackay again returned to Great Britain—proceeding almost directly to the Scottish Highlands, with the view of some “recuperation” to his system, on which there had been a severe strain during the lengthened continuation of the fratricidal conflict in the States. Ultimately, he fixed on Oban for a stay of a few months. He and the members of his family were soon deeply enamoured of the “Key of the Highlands” and its surroundings. David Hutcheson, the never-to-be-forgotten pioneer of the Royal Route, became one of his most intimate associates, and they often “crooned” ancient and modern verse together, over a glass of steaming “toddy.” (By the way, the enterprising owner of the famed “Iona” and “Columba” left some really excellent manuscript poetry behind him—What has come of it?)

One afternoon, while Dr. and Mrs. Mackay were taking a leisurely stroll to the west of the village, they observed a portly pedestrian approaching them. Without waiting for his coming up, and with no word of explanation to his companion, “the Doctor,” as Mrs. Mackay afterwards remarked, “flew off like a rocket towards the stout gentleman.” Being more than familiar with the tout ensemble and gait of his whilom friend, the poet had at once recognised, and hurried off to cordially greet—John Bright. But, alas! he met with a bitter and somewhat humiliating disappointment. To his cheery “Hallo! Bright! who’d have thought of meeting you in the heart of the Highlands?” the sturdy “pedestrian” not only turned a deaf ear, but also wheeled himself suddenly round, and so contemptuously ignored and rejected the proferred hand of his former friend. No feelings of “auld acquaintance” were allowed to step in before that which the stern “Tribune” deemed “principle.” Dr. Mackay was cut to the quick. For many days he could not recover his equanimity or feel at ease. He wrote to a friend at the Reform in search of an explanation, and when the reply came his “wonderment” was soon at an end. Mr. Bright had not only denounced the Times openly enough during the continuance of the War, but had still more bitterly denounced what he termed the “hireling apostacy” of their “chief correspondent.” The estrangement became permanent: they never exchanged words from that day forth; and when they afterwards met in the celebrated Pall Mall Liberal haunt, it was always as “strangers.”

Last year, when both had become confirmed invalids and developed strong Unionist principles, Dr. Mackay wrote to One Ash, pointing out that now at last, and on the brink of the grave, they had one bond in common regarding which there was no misunderstanding—“Could not they again shake hands, if only by letter?” The reply came by an early post. It was brief, emphatic, and wholly satisfactory. For both the sun of life was surely and swiftly setting—and it did not go down in wrath. The outcome of this correspondence proved a great consolation to Dr. Mackay, and up to the time of his death he frequently alluded to it in touching language.

The “misunderstanding” alluded to in Dr. Mackay’s letter had reference to his own decided views on the Slavery question. He had always been an advocate of gradual Abolition. But neither in regard to this, or to Home politics, could he make up his mind to agree with radical or violent changes in the existing order of things.

Mr. Bright had been but one of a great many other friends of Dr. Mackay who gave him the credit of shaping the Times “policy” at the outset and throughout the course of the disastrous Civil War in America; but the following letter from the then manager of the Times, found amongst Dr. Mackay’s papers, affords conclusive evidence of the strong position taken up at Printing House Square in favour of the South: more especially so in the concluding paragraph, which we have caused to be put in italics:⁠—

Times Office,

“September 22, 1862.

“My Dear Sir,—The only effect your slight illness seems to have had is to make your pen flow, if possible, more freely than ever; and a recumbent position appears to be favourable to vigorous writing. You are rightly informed that Mr. Lawley corresponds with us direct. There has been no stoppage of this letter hitherto, nor do I anticipate any; but he will not interfere with you, nor will the interest of his letters ever exceed that of yours. You must fall very far below your present mark before you cease to occupy the first place among our correspondents. Everyone expects to hear ere long that Baltimore is in the hands of the Confederates. The land communication thus cut off between New York and Washington, will the Government remain in the capital or seek refuge in New York? Our military men say that the Confederates will not attempt Washington, the policy being to keep a large force of the Federals idle around it. All the little sympathy that once existed for the North has disappeared.⁠—

Very truly yours,

Mowbray Morris.

“Charles Mackay, Esq., New York.”

Returning once more to England, after a most enjoyable stay (if we except the “Bright episode”) at Oban, to which he and his family bade adieu with great regret, Dr. Mackay took a lease of what he termed his “Poet’s ‘Pleasaunce’” at the foot of Boxhill, close to the village of Dorking in Surrey. George Meredith, the novelist, was his near neighbour, on the slope of the hill; and the celebrated hostelrie on the roadside to which Nelson and Lady Hamilton repaired on the eve of the hero’s departure for his “last fight,” was within a few minutes’ walk of the poet’s charmingly situated home.

But with all its beauteous surroundings, the “Pleasaunce” had to give way to the heart-cherished land of his infancy; and, year after year, up till about 1883, Dr. Mackay and his wife and daughter spent the greater part of summer and autumn at Oban. Here it was that he met and became intimately acquainted with Professor Blackie; and through lengthened conversations with him anent the “Gaelic,” Dr. Mackay resolved to study and acquire a thorough knowledge of that intricate language. That he did so successfully is sufficiently well established by his “Gaelic Etymology of the English Language,” a portly volume of over 600 double-column pages, published in 1877, and now equally scarce and valuable in the book-market. It is the versatile author’s magnum opus in prose.

It is not our intention to enter into a detailed description of Dr. Mackay’s prose works,—they are all equally able and recondite. His massive head was well stored with useful knowledge of every kind. Douglas Jerrold used to call it his “Lexicon.” “Whenever,” he said, “I am at a loss for the meaning or spelling of a word, or in search of a date, reference, or information regarding things terrestrial or celestial, I apply—if it be near me—to Mackay’s ‘Lexicon.’”

However, it is chiefly as a Poet, the designation he most coveted, and that which he has so nobly won, both on this and on the other side of the Atlantic, and in France and Germany (many of his poems having been translated in both countries and freely sold), that we now mean to briefly treat of Charles Mackay. He always laid it down as gospel, that a poet, to be truly such, should aim at more than merely “delighting” his readers. “The true poet,” he affirmed, “must likewise be a Preacher of Natural Religion, and his utterances should have no uncertain sound.”

The writer has frequently heard Thomas de Quincey speak highly of several of Dr. Mackay’s poems—more especially of his social lyrics. He considered his “English” as amongst the “purest, most apt and direct” which was to be met with in modern poetry. And John Bright in one of his speeches (delivered at Bradford during Dr. Mackay’s editorship of the Illustrated London News) described a certain “leader” as “a literary pearl beyond price.” No other men of the time were better able to speak with authority on such a matter. The one as an essayist, and the other as an orator, occupied, and still occupy, the first rank as masters of pure, trenchant, and epigrammatic English. The joint verdict of these distinguished judges was but an act of simple justice. The force and directness of Charles Mackay’s versified compositions are models of style and strength combined. In perusing his works—prose or verse, the latter more especially—the reader never comes in contact with weak or superfluous words. None are wasted; there is no “padding,” no “filling out,” but always the right word (with the weightiest meaning) in the right place. And yet this caused no restraint of the author’s ever vivid and fruitful imagination.

The following extract from “The Dance of the Trees,” furnishes us with an exquisite specimen of what the author termed “picturesque idealization”:⁠—

And thou, dear Hawthorn, sweetest sweet,

The beautiful, the tender,

Bright with the fondling of the sun,

And prankt in bridal splendour;

Come with thy sisters, full of bloom,

And all thy bridesmaids merry⁠—

Acacia, Chestnut, Lilac fair,

The Apple, and the Cherry.

Strike up the music! Lo! it sounds!

The expectant woodlands listen:

They move their branches to the sky,

And all their dew-drops glisten.

They move, they start, they thrill, they dance,

They shake their boughs with pleasure;

And flutter all their gay green leaves

Obedient to the measure.

They choose their partners—Oak and Beech

Pair off, a stately couple,

And Larch to Willow makes his bough,

Th’ unbending to the supple.”

Some twenty joyous life and joy-giving verses such as these comprise the grand picturesque Rhapsody, making the old young, and the young younger.

There is no space at our command wherein to chronicle, however briefly, a thousandth part of the “gems” which go to make up the more than 600 closely-printed pages comprised in Messrs. Warne & Co’s. latest cheap edition of Dr. Mackay’s poetical works. But we cannot refrain from reminding the reader of the grand resonance and “ringing” power which, characteristically enough, are exhibited in his world-famed “Tubal Cain”:⁠—

Old Tubal Cain was a man of might

In the days when earth was young,

By the fierce red light of his furnace bright

The strokes of his hammer rung.

And he lifted high his brawny hand

On the Iron glowing clear,

Till the sparks rushed out in scarlet showers

As he fashioned the Sword and Spear.

And he sang:—‘Hurrah for my handiwork!

Hurrah for the Spear and Sword!

Hurrah for the hand that shall wield them well,

For he shall be King and Lord!’”

How the blood glows and tingles as we inwardly revel amongst the glorious “numbers” of this peerless lyric!

Who has not read, or heard sung, the soul-melting song of European celebrity entitled, “Oh! Ye Tears”? Yet thousands of those who are familiar with both words and music do not know that the author of the heart-thrilling verses was the aged poet we laid to rest at Kensal Green a few weeks ago. As a matter of fact, the composers of the music are better known (in the musical world especially) than the writer of the poetry. We give a stanza or two of this celebrated song, arranged by Sir Henry Bishop and Franz Abt:⁠—

O! Ye tears! O! Ye tears! I am thankful that ye run,

Though ye trickle in the darkness, ye shall glitter in the sun:

The rainbow cannot shine if the rain refuse to fall,

And the eyes that cannot weep are the saddest eyes of all.

O! Ye tears! O! Ye tears! till I felt you on my cheek,

I was selfish in my sorrow—I was stubborn, I was weak:

Ye have given me strength to conquer! and I stand erect and free,

And know that I am human by the light of Sympathy.”

Few social lyrics have ever commanded so much public interest and attention as our author’s “Souls of the Children.” It was put forth as “a plea for Free and Universal Education,” and Prince Albert, at his own expense, ordered it to be sown “broadcast” over the Kingdom. If space permitted, never could space be better occupied than by its insertion as a whole. Failing that we give an example by quoting the 1st, 3rd, and 4th stanzas. It consists of 12 such:⁠—

Who bids for the little children⁠—

Body and soul and brain?

Who bids for the little children⁠—

Young, and without a stain?

Will no one bid, said England,

For their souls so pure and white,

And fit for all good or evil

The World on their page may write?”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

I bid, said Beggary, howling,

I bid for them, one and all!

I’ll teach them a thousand lessons⁠—

To lie, to skulk, to crawl!

They shall sleep in my lair, like maggots,

They shall rot in the fair sunshine,

And if they serve my purpose

I hope they’ll answer thine?

(This last line is an allusion to a previous “bid” by “Pest and Famine.”)

And I’ll bid higher and higher,

Said Crime with fiendish grin,

For I love to lead the Children

Through the pleasant paths of Sin!

They shall swarm on the streets to pilfer,

They shall plague the broad highway⁠—

Till they grow too old for Pity,

And ripe for the Law to slay!”

Fletcher of Saltoun’s doctrine, that the making of a Nation’s songs was of more importance than the framing of its laws, found ready acceptance at the hands of Charles Mackay. “A Man’s a Man for a’ that,” he remarked, not once, but a hundred times, “would of itself have entitled Burns to a place on the very pinnacle of Parnassus. I would rather be the author of that than of fifty learned volumes of mythical and transcendental verse—or worse.” And he well endorsed this declaration by his still (and long-to-be) popular “Cheer Boys, Cheer!” and still more emphatically by his world-esteemed and world-sung “Psalm” (as he termed it), “There’s a good Time Coming, Boys.” These are the “silver songs” that go “down the ringing grooves of change” continually—and why? Because they find an echoing response in the big heart of our Common Humanity.

This estimate of the author’s powers is more than endorsed by Charles Kingsley’s opinion in “Alton Locke”:—“Which,” he says, “of Charles Mackay’s lyrics can compare for a moment with the Æschylean grandeur, the terrible rhythmic lilt of his ‘Cholera Chant’?”

Dense on the stream the vapours lay,

Thick as wool on the cold highway;

Spungy and dim each lonely lamp

Shone o’er the streets so dull and damp;

The moonbeams could not pierce the cloud

That swathed the city like a shroud;

There stood three shapes on the bridge alone,

Three figures by the coping-stone;

Gaunt and tall and undefined,

Spectres built of mist and wind.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

I see his footmarks east and west⁠—

I hear his tread in the silence fall⁠—

He shall not sleep, he shall not rest⁠—

He comes to aid us one and all.

Were men as wise as men might be,

They would not work for you, for me,

For him that cometh over the sea;

But they will not hear the warning voice:

The Cholera comes,—Rejoice! rejoice!

He shall be lord of the swarming town!

And mow them down, and mow them down!”

One more extract and we have done with such. It first appeared in the author’s “Interludes and Undertones” (1884), and exhibits a certain vein of atrabilarious humour which he credited Douglas Jerrold with fostering. It is entitled “The Old Poet’s last Resource”:⁠—

Stand in the corner, thou sturdy old broomstick,

Perhaps I shall need thee some cold winter day:

Perhaps my support thou wilt be and my doom-stick

When maimed and defeated in Life’s cruel fray.

My songs and my books may not yield me a penny,

But while thou are mine, I’ve a prop and a trust:

My humblest of friends, the survivor of many,

I look to thee yet to procure me a crust!

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

This quaint effusion ends as follows:⁠—

Sweeping pays better than wisdom or letters,

So up with the Broomstick and down with the Song!”

Our author’s poem, “At the Grave of Burns” has been so often read at Burns’ Anniversary Gatherings at home and abroad, and so often quoted, that we need but to allude thereto en passant, and merely to introduce mention of his recently composed and as yet unpublished fancy, “At the Cradle of Burns.” The writer had it read over to him by its author only a few weeks ago, and still retains much of the matter and measure in his memory. An angel at either side of the poet’s “rocking-house,” predicts, in turn, the ups and downs of the man-to-be, and the tempting subject is as exquisitely treated as it is sure to be highly appreciated.

The very last product of Dr. Mackay’s brain and pen was a lyric after the manner of Burns’ “My wife’s a winsome wee thing,” but is in no way indebted to that well-known ditty for its mode of treatment or subject. It was written on the evening of Sunday, the 22d December last, after his family had retired to rest. This touching Poem (printed in Blackwood’s Magazine for February) was found on Monday morning (when he lay unconscious) between the leaves of a recently purchased copy of the works of Burns which Professor Wilson edited for Blackie & Son (1859), the concluding couplet reading as follows:⁠—

And lead my happy soul to heav’n

Rejoicing in her love.”

Ere the shadows of Christmas Eve had fallen the Poet of the People had gone behind the Veil.

A portrait in oil by Sir Daniel Macnee, a marble bust by Patric Part, and a medallion in marble by Alexander Munro (all life-size) are amongst the few but choice “Art treasures” which the poet has bequeathed to his talented daughter, Miss Minnie Mackay, better known in the literary world as “Marie Corelli,” and the authoress of “A Romance of Two Worlds,” “Vendetta,” &c. The venerable author also left behind him a considerable amount of valuable matter in prose and verse, which will in due time be given to the world.

As a Poet, he wrote mainly for the “crowd” and the “people,” and in the hearts of the many—at home and abroad—the works and the name of Charles Mackay will long be heritages of which his countrymen (and “all men”) may well be proud.

The Scots’ Magazine, Saturday, March 1, 1890.

Portrait of Charles Mackay taken from The Modern Scottish Minstrel, Vol. VI., By Charles Rogers, Published 1857. Image courtesy of The Internet Archive.