29 JUNE 1889, Page 20


Tars name will probably carry with it few associations to any of our readers, save those who are Scotch, and those who may have made Robertson's acquaintance during his frequent visits to the Continent and to Cambridge during the later years of his life. But in Scotland the name of Robertson of Irvine is almost as familiar as that of Robertson of Brighton to English and Scotch readers alike. It was borne by a minister of the 'United Presbyterian Church, a most eloquent preacher and a most loveable man of unique and picturesque personality, as may be gathered from the portraits which adorn the memoir which his friend and brother-minister, Dr. James Brown, of Paisley, has just written of him. Dr. Brown won his spurs as an able and sympathetic biographer in his Life of a Scottish Probationer. He is even more at home in his work in this book, which not only unfolds the history of an interesting and noble•minded man, but is brimful of human interest, of pleasant anecdote, and appreciative and delightful description. It is largely made up of Robertson's own letters, deftly woven together, and of extracts from his verses, which show that he had the soul of a poet, the eye of an artist, and that with greater practice he would have acquired considerable skill and tact in versification.

Robertson by birth belonged to the Church of the Seces- sion founded by Ebenezer Erskine and his associates. The character of his father may be guessed from the question asked by the minister of his biographer :—" Do ye no' think, Mr. Brown, that John Robertson is just as grid a man as there's ony use for ?" The same question might have been asked of his mother, whose sister was one of those deliciously quaint old Scotch maiden ladies we like to read of,—ready of wit and quick of repartee. A minister who had never succeeded in getting a church, said to her one day as she sat busy with her =resting needles,—" You and I are just alike, Miss Kirkwood; you never got a husband, and I never got a kirk." "How many calls had you, Sir ?" she quickly asked. " Oh !" he said, " I never received a call at all." " Then don't you be evenin' yourself to me," was her reply. Robertson studied both at Edinburgh and Glasgow, and it is worth noting that he owed his " intellectual quickening not to any learned professor or other accredited agency, but to the accident of his lighting on one or two of the works of Dickens, then being issued as monthly serials," and also to companionship with De Quincey, who happened at this time to be staying in the house of a relative of Robertson's, and from whom, he says, he gained more than from all his teachers. De Quincey had arrived at this house one evening. His hostess discovered that some essential part of his outgoing raiment was wanting, and asked him to stay till next morning. He accepted the invitation, and remained for three years ! We are rather disappointed we have not some record of Robertson's friend- ship with De Quincey. Surely he must have written home to his brothers and friends some description of the evenings they spent together. The only reminiscence we have is of his little sister thinking the visitor a most mysterious personage, because, among other reasons, she saw that the servant handed in his meals, but did not go into his room. When asked the reason of this, the servant replied : " The last body who went in there was put up the lum, and never came out." Once when she was playing in the lobby with his daughter Emily, the door of the dreaded room was opened softly, and the gentle voice was heard. Emily said, " It is you he wishes," whereupon the child ran screaming into the kitchen and hid behind the servant. But Emily followed, and dragging her from her hiding-place to the door, pushed her in. She has in her mind a vivid picture of the aspect of the room, with its awful "lum," up which she expected to be thrust. There was not a spot which was not littered with papers. De Quincey spoke kindly, and said, "I do not wish to frighten you, my dear, but only to ask you whether your name is Robertson, Robison, or Robinson," putting the emphasis on the distinctive syllables.

It was by De Quincey's advice that Robertson went to study in Germany, and laid the foundation of that love for Con- tinental travel which never left him. Perhaps there is more truth of a kind than his biographer admits in Tholnck's opinion of him,—" Ah ! he will never come to anything ; he

• Life of William B. Robertson, D.D., Irvine. With Extracts from his Letters and Poems. By James Brown, D.D. With 2 Portraits. Glasgow: James Haclehose and Sons. 1888.

is a great idler." In the same way, his boyish sobriquet of " Wandering Willie" was, in a sense, true of him to the end. After his ordination, for which he would have been late had he not caught a train of cattle-trucks, from one of which he cried " Bey!" to his brother in imitation of his fellow-travellers, he settled as minister at the ancient burgh on the Ayrshire coast which was henceforth to be associated with his own name. A " quaint, clean, quiet old town," De Quincey styled it on the only occasion he visited it to call on his young friend, and was not admitted by the landlady on account of his suspicious appearance. There for several years Robertson preached those eloquent sermons one of which his brother characterised thus, " Sermon P it was not a sermon at all ; it was an epic poem," and which gained for him an extraordinary reputation for eloquence. There he lived and laboured as a true minister, caring for all, training his choir and writing hymns for them to sing at service, and gathering his friends around him to listen to his wondrous talk. One evening a few young students fresh from Church history were talking of the quaint old scholastic question,--" How many angels are sup- ported on the point of a needle ? " " Five," said Mr. Robert- son with decision, and justified his answer with the following story. One wild, stormy night he was coming home late through some side-street at Irvine, and saw a light burning in the window of a low room where he knew a poor woman lived whose husband was at sea. He wondered what kept her up so late, and looking in, he saw her busily sewing by her dim lamp, while the five fair rosy children were sound asleep around her. "And there was a needle supporting five angels."

So many were the attempts to get the eloquent young preacher to Glasgow, that an old elder prayed that the Glasgow people might be forgiven for their covetousness. It is not narrated whether this was the same elder thus described: "He's a man who lives in communion with God and makes shoon" {shoes). He was successful in getting what was for Scotland in those days a magnificent new church, built for himself and his ever-increasing congregation, and was among the first to im- prove the bald form of Presbyterian worship by the introduction of the organ and other so-called " innovations." An old lady once remonstrated with him, saying : " I hear you are intro- ducing some dreadful innovations into your church service." " Indeed," he replied ; " what innovations have we introduced ?" " Oh !" she said, " I hear that you read the Commandments at the Communion." " Is that all you have heard ?" was his reply; "we have introduced a far greater innovation than that." " What is it P" said the good old lady, in some alarm. " We try to keep them," was the reply. During the severe illness from which he never really recovered, he used to say that " one of the greatest comforts I have, lying here, is to remember the singing in our church."

When it became evident that he was no longer fit for regular duty, some of his friends, lay leaders in the United Presbyterian Church, members of his own congregation, and others, testified at once to their own generosity and to his extraordinary popularity by presenting him with a " singularly rich testi- monial of love and sympathy," amounting to five thousand guineas. This enabled him so far to retire from the active duties of the ministry, and to winter abroad. It thus comes about that the latter half of Dr. Brown's memoir is full of singularly beautiful and interesting letters from Robertson descriptive of life at the Engadine, in Rome, and particularly in Florence, where, amongst the churches and their services, and the art treasures, he literally revelled; and over which it was one of his greatest joys to conduct the friends he made there or who came to visit him. One of these friends states it is quite hope- less to attempt to reproduce the flow of description with which he brought old Florence before them. So far did he sometimes carry this illusion, that on one occasion in the Chapel of San Lorenzo, after speaking in the person of Michael Angelo's Lorenzo, he was asked how he knew what he was describing. " Oh !" he answered, " of course I know ; I was living there ; I knew Lorenzo well." On one occasion, at Chiusi, he was so carried away by the wail of the Miserere mei, as sung by the white-vestured priests heading a long procession, that he joined the singers, and "laying hold of one side of the book borne by a venerable ecclesiastic, be began to join in the chant, and soon his voice could be discerned rising rich and clear above all the others."

At home in summer, we find his services in great request as a preacher on special occasions in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and generally throughout the country. We also read of his preaching at a Presbyterian service at Cambridge, which he supposed occupied " a middle ground between the Episcopalian exclusive sheep-fold and the Dissenting open common," not wishing to appear, what he was not, " a partisan of Presbytery, or anything else," but not objecting to "preach to thoughtful young men on the ground of our common Christianity, or common humanity even," and the " Presbyterian door " being the only one open to him. Also in Iona, " on the beautiful green knoll, where the angels met and walked with St. Columba, artistically," he adds, and as we can well imagine, himself the chief figure in it, " a most effective picture,—hill and sea and sunset, and an ample theatre of earnest faces and varied costumes." But for some idea of his concluding years, and especially for the touching account of the close of his life, we must refer the reader to Dr. Brown's most readable pages. Robertson might have done much. Had we space, we could show that he had a most vivid descriptive touch, and wrote an excellent prose style ; that he was an able student and an apt illustrator of art; that he wrote some good hymns, and might have excelled as a writer of vers de societe. He has left little or nothing, so far as we know, to show another generation on what grounds his great reputation as an eloquent preacher and a fascinating talker rests. But thanks to this memoir, we have some record of the manner of man he was, the singular beauty and simplicity of his life, and the charm of a character of which all who knew him owned the spell.