Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Adam, Jean

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

ADAM, JEAN (1710–1765), a Scottish poetess, daughter of a shipmaster, was born in 1710 at Crawfordsdyke, parish of Greenock, Renfrewshire. Early an orphan, she entered the service of a minister, Mr. Turner, of Greenock, as nursery governess and housemaid. Having the use of the manse library, she gave herself a fair education, and wrote many poems, which were collected and published for her in 1734 by Mrs. Drummond, of Greenock, in a work entitled ‘Miscellany Poems, by Mrs. Jane Adams (her changed name), in Crawfordsdyke,’ Glasgow, 1734. Mr. Archibald Crawford wrote the preface, and the authoress dedicated her poems to ‘Thomas Crawford, of Crawfordburn,’ under the varied signature of Jean Adams, giving a list of ministers, merchants, and gentry, to the number of 154 subscribers. The volume, which is complete with index, is said in the preface to be in two parts, one ‘all in meeter,’ the other in ‘blank verse in imitation of Milton;’ but there is no blank verse in the book. The poems, all religious, are written in the Brady and Tate style, and are poor specimens indeed of what she called ‘the style of the best English poets that have written within seventy years. Soon after the issue of this volume the poetess set up a girls' school at the quay head of Crawford-bridge, and here she varied the simple routine by giving Shakespearean readings to her pupils. According to tradition she swooned with excitement while reciting scenes from ‘Othello.’ The idol of her studies, however, was the ‘Clarissa’ of Richardson, and the story goes that she once closed her school for six weeks and travelled on foot the whole distance to London to visit the author.

Troubles came thick upon her; her book was of little pecuniary advantage; the unsold copies were shipped to Boston and never heard of again; and Jean Adam, being compelled to give up her school, became a wanderer. Disappointed and soured, the poor woman got a precarious living as a hawker for years, and the last record of her life's story finds her toiling home again to Greenock. An order of the bailies of that town admitted her to the Glasgow poorhouse as ‘a poor woman in distress; a stranger who has been wandering about.’ The next day (3 April 1765) she died, and was ‘buried at the house expense.’

Her published poems were only fitted to win a little local popularity, and her only passport to fame is the claim so persistently asserted for her of the authorship of the ‘Song of the Mariner's Wife,’ or ‘There's nae Luck aboot the House!’ a simple, humorous, and touching lyric, one of the sweetest in any language. This may have been an old and favourite song that she used to recite to her pupils; but it is unlikely that such a strain of home and married love could have been written by this wayward and unwedded woman. Her verses, although correct in phrase and sentiment, are inflated and childish. This song was first heard in the streets, and hawked for sale about 1772, and at length found a place in Herd's collection 1776, and in the ‘Nightingale’ in 1778. After a time, becoming a great favourite, it was claimed for Jane Adams by some of her former pupils, who professed to have heard her recite it—if so it must have been forty years before. The tradition is that it was written of Colin and Jean Campbell of Crawfordsdyke. A copy of it was found, in his own handwriting, among the papers of Julius Mickle (the translator of Camoens's ‘Lusiad’), who died in 1788. As this poet had a fertile imagination and power of rich and varied versification, and wrote very good songs and ballads, a counterclaim has been set up for him, although, if correct, it is singular that he never included the song among his poems published during his lifetime. Of the seven verses now always comprised in this poem, the last two are known to have been added by Dr. Blair.

[Cromek's Select Scotish Songs, i. 189; Robert Chambers's Songs of Scotland prior to Burns; Cunningham's Songs of Scotland, i. 226; Good Words, March 1869; Stenhouse's Illustrations of the Lyric Poetry and Music of Scotland; Notes and Queries, 3rd series, x. 313; 4th, iii. 282, 370; Chalmers's English Poets, xvii.]

J. W.-G.