Northern Scot – Saturday 12th March 1892
The Late ‘La Teste’
Does the road to Parnassus lead on to the Poorhouse? Sometimes it would almost seem so. La Teste – known in his early and non-rhyming days as William Hay Leith Tester – has closed his career in that dreamy domicile. But for the solicitous care of the Governor, who always treated the poor poet more as an intimate friend than an ordinary inmate, he would have died in destitution. Indeed it is now known that at the approach of his last illness, La Teste remembering his past experience, begged to be admitted once more into ‘Peter’s Palace,’ and his prayer was granted. Thus peacefully, in that peculiar place, he has drawn the dark mantle of death around him, and passed on to the ‘Land o’ the Leal.’
His death occurred at three o’clock on Tuesday morning; and it is pleasant to record of him that although at times, during the past month, suffering intense pain, he bore it with wonderful patience, and only occasionally appeared dowie and peevish. Even to the very end his innate cheerfulness of disposition would reassert itself in the intervals of respite from racking pain.
For at least a twelvemonth there has been noticeable in La Teste a gradual approach of a general decay of the system, which was attributed by himself to the enervating effects of a severe attack of influenza, which in his case had been unusually prolonged. With characteristic quaintness, he wrote songs about the insidious disease – he caricatured and called it curious names – while he himself, knowingly, all the time, was slowly sinking under its baneful power.
And now, his quips and cranks all ended, his strangely-chequered and peripatetic career at last concluded, he lies – all that is left of him – in his coffin in the workhouse ward, awaiting the favour of kind hands to carry him hence. Any kind hands, prompted by sympathetic hearts, will do it. They will perform this final function to-day, and lay the curious and capricious poet – who for so long a period has belonged peculiarly to us – under the shadow of the old Cathedral. It is fitting that he should find his last resting-place there. Often, in his wayward musings, he wandered around its walls; he wrote tenderly of its crumbling ruins; and he loved the whole place as perhaps only a poet can.
La Teste has written much. During a long period of time he has been exceedingly prolific with his pen. He was by no means a man of many talents. Rather, let us candidly admit, was he essentially a man of one. But that solitary talent he did not neglect to put to usury. He used it in season and out of season. To this last phase of his character may be attributed the fact that many of the rhymes which he has written contain no germ of true poetry at all. They are simply verses and nothing more. He used to shrug his shoulders and admit the soft impeachment himself. But, be it remembered, while dealing with this subject, that for many years La Teste contrived, or at anyrate attempted, to earn a living by his poetry, and often, in order to attain this laudable object, he was compelled to resort to strange expedients – in plain parlance, to sell the products of his muse in the readiest market.
That market, unfortunately, was often a degrading and questionable one; and where he failed to dispose of a book, he would snatch up a pen, or fumble in his pockets for a pencil, and forewith scribble down verses, to show his facility or to secure his end, that were far from calculated to add to his fame, and were often the driest of doggerel. These, however, by a strange perverseness of intuition, he afterwards incorporated in his collection. They were his, and why should they not be honoured; the course grain could go with the fine and help to fill the granary.
Then, again, the fact that he subsisted upon the sale of his poetry, compelled him to freshen it up, as it were, at frequent intervals, with items written ‘up to date,’ made popular and fetching. If he chanced to be in a poetic mood – if ‘the muse was on him’ – good and well; but if not, he couldn’t wait – he had got to get the wherewithal somehow – he must have a fresh edition out; and so he must perforce proceed to write the new poem that would act as the advance agent in procuring him fresh orders.
La Teste, it will be readily conceded, was never burdened with the passion of the dainty dish called delicate sensibility. If he was remarkable for anything, it was for this, that nine-tenths of his nature leaned in an opposite direction. And yet, in spite of all this – in spite of all the drawbacks I have been hinting at and alluding to, there were times when he loosed himself from his earthy bonds, when the coarse fibres of his nature relaxed their hold and let him go free, and when his imagination rose up vigorous and untainted into the pure atmosphere where float the delightful dreams of the true poet. And then, – then La Teste wrote poetry.
In that he has shown us he was capable of doing this – I care not if had only done it once, instead of many times – he has shown us he was a genuine poet, and his best poems are worthy our unstinted approbation.
Now that he is dead, we will doubtless accord it.
In this connection I may mention what is tolerably well known – that La Teste himself had an unfaltering belief in his popularity after death. By some, this feeling, this forecast of future fame, will be laid to the credit of his vanity. I don’t think he deserves the imputation. The idea was deeper rooted. He was vain – proud to the last degree of what he had written – (name me the poet who has been meek and lowly) – but his ambition existed in the knowledge that in his best moments, in the happiest periods of his life, he had penetrated beyond the common ken, had enjoyed glimpses into the veiled unknown, and revelled in the dearest dreams of the poet. He preached, in these lucid intervals, what he rarely endeavoured to practice. He was generally content to follow the bent of his wayward will, and when he had reached the deep well of human folly, to ‘lat the tow gang wi the bucket.’
For this strong trait of selfish indulgence he has himself been the greatest sufferer, and has at last been called upon to pay the penalty. But for his wrecked constitution, he would doubtless have shaken off the influenza, and been with us to-day in exuberant vitality, instead of being carried to the grave.
La Teste was born in the parish of Crathie, Aberdeenshie, in 1829, and was thus in his sixty-fourth year. His father was a mason. While quite a youth, La Teste became a page-boy, entering the service of Lady Abergeldie at Westerton House, Pluscarden. In this capacity he travelled abroad for some time, accompanying her ladyship to various foreign places; and being quick of observation and possessing a retentive memory, he made good use of the result of these travels in many of his poems in after years. Indeed it may be said these contain a superabundance of foreign allusions and similes, sometimes rather confusing to the work-a-day, stay-at-home reader.
La Teste’s early life was more varied than that of most men. Always of a roving, restless disposition – he never could be charged of being lazy – ha moved about at this period of his existence from place to place. At one time he acted in the capacity of the butler to the late Mr Hugh MacLean of Westfield, after having been butler to Mr William Hay Leith at Palmercross, a position which he held for a considerable time, and where he must have been esteemed a valuable servant, as special favours were shown him. We next find him acting as valet to the British Consul at Bordeaux, where he lived in the beautiful villa called La Teste, and appropriated the name to himself; then working at London Docks; then in the United Service Club; and afterwards with a captain in the Leicestershire Yeomanry Cavalry.
A smart, adaptable fellow he must have been in those days, and doubtless a willing servant and cheery companion to his many masters.
After his return to Elgin, La Teste leased the New Market Inn, where for a time he dispensed the luxuries of life to all and sundry. Ultimately he gave up this occupation and became under waiter in the Gordon Arms Hotel. Many remember him distinctly at this period as a man of prepossessing appearance, diligent and active. But the late hours were irksome and the temptations great, and so that kind of service also came to an end. In due course he shouldered his hammer in the Elgin Coachworks, and served commercial travellers no more. The poet hammerman must have been an odd combination of character, and one that was not likely to endure for any great length of time. It didn’t.
Henceforth, however, he was destined to be almost exclusively known by his nom-de-plume of ‘La Teste,’ a name by which he has long been known over the greater part of Scotland, and which in the northern counties has become familiar as a household word.
La Teste was twice married. His first wife is remembered by all who knew her as an amiable, gentle, upright woman. She bore the poet’s eccentricities with much forbearance, and she also bore him seven children – four daughters and three sons. The ‘Wee Cripple Wean’ was one of the former. She lies beside her mother in the Cathedral burying-ground. The three sons, two of whom were twins, died in infancy. Of the three remaining daughters, I am glad to record that they have always shown their father the utmost kindness, and on many occasions, whenever it was in their power, they rendered him substantial aid. But for this assistance, his latter years would have been more impoverished than they were. The sympathy of those who knew them in their girlhood will be with them now. Their task has been a trying one. They were most unwilling that their father should end his days in the Poorhouse, and made him an offer of comfortable quarters elsewhere. But the poet was aware of the fact that if lodged under ordinary circumstances he would be left to the freedom of his own will, and this responsibility he declined longer to accept. And so it came about, as already stated, that he breathed his last in ‘Peter’s Palace,’ whence had emanated, in years gone by, much of his finest poetry. To Mr Grant, the genial governor, La Teste had often good reason to be very grateful, and perhaps he intended to show his gratitude in the end by declining any other guardianship.
Having been for some time an enthusiastic Freemason, and poet laureate of the Kilmolymock Lodge, Elgin, he will be buried with full Masonic honours, and doubtless his funeral to-day will be largely attended.
I cannot close this sketch without acknowledging the indebtedness of the Press to the deceased poet. These columns have frequently been enriched by his contributions, and to-day we publish the last effort of his muse – a pleasing conundrum for the young – which he wrote for our columns about three weeks ago.
It is unnecessary, and at the present time would be injudicious, to attempt to criticise La Teste’s poetry. Already in a general way I have indicated its value. Much of it is sterling merit. Perhaps the finest efforts in the three different departments are the following:
‘The Wee Cripple Wean’
‘The Mither’s Lament’
‘The death of the Wee Pauper Wean’
‘The Phantom Hearse’
‘Floater Allan of Spey’
‘The Wean among the Cloods’
‘Eve’s last Look of Eden’
With the exception of ‘The Wee Cripple Wean,’ the annexed poem is probably the finest La Teste ever wrote. Could he have had any premonition of his fate when he wrote it? –
DEATH O’ THE WEE PAUPER WEAN.