In 1821-22 this Collection of sixty-four biographies (with a supplement of 190 briefer lives) was published in six parts as Lives of Eminent Scotsmen; the parts were then issued in three 18mo volumes (1822) as Lives of Scottish Poets. The promised biographies of historians and philosophers never appeared. The firm of T. Boys was using the same mode of part-publication for their more successful Percy Anecdotes (1820-23) which eventually extended to twenty installments. Both the Anecdotes and the Lives were published under pseudonyms. “Sholto and Reuben Percy of Mount Bengar,” were in fact Joseph Clinton Robertson and Thomas Byerley; the “Society of Ancient Scots” responsible for Lives of Eminent Scotsmen has never been identified and appears to be equally fictional.
Attempts assign responsibility for the Lives have not been persuasive (see below); multiple writers were certainly involved, though not so many as the fifty sets of initials affixed to the biographies would imply. Pseudonymous publication was a common enough practice at the time the Lives of Eminent Scotsmen appeared—one thinks of Peter's Letters to his Kinfolk (1819) by Lockhart and Wilson—but its use for a work with scholarly pretensions seems egregious and has diminished its value. The biographers, we may infer, were Scots resident in London, most of them knowledgeable men and capable writers.
Whoever they were, the biographers unearthed uncollected poems and letters by Drummond, Arbuthonot, Thomson, Armstrong, Blair, Fergusson, Beattie, and Burns, and one accomplished the notable feat of establishing that Alexander Barclay was a Scot. Still, this is old news; only in the case of minor lives, such as those of Oswald, Salmon, and Moor, is the modern reader likely to find documents and anecdotes not assimilated in more recent works of reference. The value of the collection is now chiefly literary and historical: if there were a Society of Ancient Scots, this is the kind of work it would have produced.
The Lives is a late product of the Scottish Enlightenment that places literary history in the service of defending liberty and progress. While the biographers make some allowance for the times in which poets were writing, their standards are ultimately and unapologetically contemporary; elder poets are valued for their contributions to the march of freedom. Religious reform (about which we hear much) is ever regarded as a good thing, though even the Presbyterian church is faulted for attempting to suppress the theaters. For their part, the biographers themselves appear prudish enough in their nineteenth-century attitudes towards sexuality. The critical outlook of the Lives is congruent with that of the Edinburgh Review.
While there is much Scottish patriotism in the Lives there is very little cultural nationalism: tartans and bagpipes figure as emblems of barbarism. The emphasis on liberal politics is difficult to miss. Several biographical subjects, notably the Scottish kings, were hardly poets at all and the treatment of poetry in other biographies is sometimes perfunctory. The writers are chiefly interested in the poets' moral character as manifested in their use or abuse of liberty. Nor are the biographers shy about passing critical judgments. This pointed delineation of moral character differentiates these biographies from their modern equivalents and gives them an abiding interest.
The extent of coverage in Lives of Scottish Poets exceeds that of its two recent predecessors, Alexander Campbell's An Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland (1798) with its extensive treatment of eighteenth-century poets, and David Irving's magisterial The Lives of the Scottish Poets (2 vols, 1804), more narrowly focussed on the earlier period and on poets writing in Scots—it includes Robert Burns but omits James Thomson. In 1821, with Scottish literature at the zenith of its reputation, the publishers anticipated a demand for a more general and comprehensive biographical collection.
In addition to Campbell and Irving the biographers make frequent use of other compilations that had been shaping the canon of Scottish poetry: James Watson's Choice Collection (1706-11), Allan Ramsay's Ever-Green (1724), Lord Hailes's Ancient Scottish Poems (1770), Pinkerton's Ancient Scottish Poems (1786), John Leyden's introduction to The Complaynt of Scotland (1801), and James Sibbald's Chronicle of Scottish Poetry (1802). Their respect for antiquity is such that they give a complete enumeration of poets mentioned in William Dunbar's Lament for the Death of the Makkares and Arthur Johnston's Delitiae poetarum Scotorum (1637)—whether or not anything was known about these elder writers.
By contrast, treatment of near-contemporary poets is often perfunctory, omitting many writers mentioned by Campbell. As was customary, living writers are excluded. But so are women writers, the exception being the sixteenth-century poet Christian Lindsay who the writers take to be male. The series title, “Eminent Scotsmen,” is construed literally—though the compilers were hardly sticklers about “eminent.”
In making selections the compilers seem to have been chiefly guided by the amount of available information, which was not necessarily proportionate to a poet's status. Where extensive materials were at hand, even a minor writer is given an extensive biography, as in the case of the juvenile poet James Graeme. Perhaps some recently-deceased poets were omitted because the biographers were reluctant to plagiarize readily-available accounts. I suspect that in other cases authors were reluctant to write about personal acquaintances for fear of betraying their own identities.
The scope and ambition of the enterprize may be gleaned from the first of several flattering reviews appearing in The Literary Chronicle, which seems to have had some personal or financial interest in the project:
Numerous as are the biographical collections that at present exist, and valuable as we admit some of them to be, yet, from the time of Bayle to the present day, they have been but copies or abridgments of each other; it is true, new lives have been added to continue the work chronologically, but in former lives there has seldom been any attention either to obtain new facts or even to examine into the truth of those already stated. Not so, however, are the ‘Lives of Eminent Scotsmen;’ for, although the first part contains biographies only of persons who are so well known, that it might be supposed every thing respecting them had already been published, yet we here meet with many new facts, some new productions of the authors, and an original estimate of the talents and character of each individual. We are not led into the track of former biographers, but each is an original memoir, as much so in style and diction as if no other had ever existed. (30 June 1821, p. 403).
Allowing for overstatement—there are not so many new facts or titles as this implies—the biographies are indeed original essays that unlike those in Chalmers's General Biographical Dictionary strive to be more than cut-and-paste condensations of standard sources. In many cases the authors are familiar with their subject's writings, which was not the norm for compilers of books of reference. When the biographers are reduced to cutting and pasting information from earlier sources they at least strive to add new critical observations.
While there is considerable variation, most of the biographies adopt the formal template popularized by Johnson's Lives: narrative, character of the writer, and critical assessment. As had been the case with Johnson, the proportion given to the three parts is variable; as with Johnson, the quality of the essays varies from perfunctory to penetrating.
The disposition of the essays was probably determined by the decision to publish in parts. The obvious choices were chronological (as in Johnson) or alphabetical (as in the Supplement). Instead, the publisher elected to arrange matters so that principal writers are distributed across the six parts, with Ramsay, Beattie, and Burns included in the first to attract attention. The individual parts generally open with an imposing figure and conclude with a biography calculated to arouse pity or sentimental affection.
One expects a work of the Scottish Enlightenment to be organized in accordance with ideas about progress, and sentiments expressed by the biographers are fairly unanimous on that subject: after passing through a primitive stage in the works of Barbour and Blind Henry, Scottish poetry achieved its golden age in the sixteenth century; it then suffered a fall in the seventeenth when the court moved to London and Scottish poets, in emulation of Buchanan, abandoned Scots for Latin. Scottish poetry revived with Allan Ramsay and the return to Scots—the “native tongue”—rising to a new culmination in Robert Burns.
The arrangement of the biographies is not so arbitrary as it first appears: by dividing the lives into six parts organized (more or less) historically, the editor could repeat the implied progress-narrative six times—while incorporating late-arriving essays without violating chronology.
PUBLICATION AND RECEPTION
A copy of the cover printed with the part-publication of the Lives of Eminent Scotsmen survives pasted into the bound copy of the volumes at the Bodleian LIbrary at Oxford. It consists of a letter signed “Arthur Sempil,” the supposed secretary of the supposed Society of Ancient Scots responsible for the biographies. The Society originated, we are told, during the reign of James the VI and I, and had been revived by a group of patriotic London Scots in 1770. Candidates for membership in the Society would read a paper on a distinguished Scot: “The Society is now in possession of a body of Scottish Biography, which far exceeds all the published collections with which they are acquainted, in authenticity, in interest, and in variety.” To mark its fiftieth anniversary, the Society has elected to publish a selection.
These are to be published in monthly parts, extending, the secretary expects, to an eventual collection of thirty or forty, printed “with a view to the union of cheapness and convenience.” The series is to begin with poets and continue with lives of historians and philosophers. Four volumes of poets are anticipated, each part consisting of 180 pages, “embellished with a plate, containing five portraits, executed in a new and beautiful style of engraving.” The letter is not dated, but the first 18mo volume appeared in June of 1821 with a frontispiece dated May 1, 1821 engraved by Charles Heath (1785-1848).
The progress of the series may be followed in the reviews published in the less-than-disinterested Literary Chronicle. The number for 13 October 1821 reviews the second and third parts, complaining that “Six parts are now due, but three only have appeared; a fourth is, however, promised for the first of next month.” The monthly schedule could not be maintained; the sixth and final part appeared with a frontispiece dated 1 April 1822 and was reviewed in the Literary Chronicle for 13 April.
Apparently some changes in the program had been made following the publication of the fourth volume in November: the series would extend to six parts rather than the four originally proposed. Nothing is said about the matter when, in reviewing the fifth volume on 16 February, the Chronicle reports that “We have suffered the fifth number of this elegant and valuable collection to lay longer on our table unnoticed than its merits demanded.” We can infer that the series was selling reasonably well since as late as the sixth part the entry for Smollett refers readers to a continuation in a “future series of Lives of Scottish Novelists.”
No further parts appeared however. Instead, the six original parts were offered for sale as three bound volumes with a preface, and index, and an additional title page reading, “Lives of Scottish Poets. Three Volumes.” This is the form in which the biographies are encountered today. It is not clear whether the reason for discontinuing the series was a lack of sales or a lack of will to continue the project. The “Secretary” may have been growing weary; certain it is that he was not doing an adequate job of overseeing the press, as the Monthly Review remarked in complaining about compositor's errors.
Indeed, transcription errors abound. The firm of T. Boys was not a literary concern and had difficulties with the medieval Scots as well as the Latin. The list of errata published at the back of the index concluding the third volume does not catch many transparent errors of names and dates. While I have not seen the original parts, it can be inferred from this errata notice that type was not reset when the parts were bound and sold as volumes.
Reviews seem to have been few but were largely favorable. By 1821-22 journals were becoming more selective in what they chose to review and not review, and the “Secretary” seems to have been diligent in seeing that the Lives was brought to general notice. Those in the New Monthly Magazine (Thomas Campbell's magazine, as the Chronicle was quick to point out) must have been particularly welcome. The only overtly hostile reviews, in the Monthly, were transparently Scotophobic.
Still, the Lives of Scottish Poets was not reviewed in several prominent places. It was ignored by the Literary Gazette, despite the fact that the editor, William Jerdan, was a Scot (and occasional poet). This may be accounted for by the accolades bestowed by its upstart rival the Chronicle. Politics may also have played a role, since Tories like Jerdan would not have appreciated the strident Whiggery of many of the biographies. The quarterlies may have disdained to review an inexpensive work published in parts, or they may have held off in expectation of the volumes devoted philosophers and historians. I have found no Scottish reviews at all, an indication that the biographers were indeed London-based.
The Lives was consulted throughout the nineteenth century and its materials incorporated into later biographies, sometimes without acknowledgement. As the work became superceded by later biographical reference books it gradually slipped out of sight. In the nineteenth century two calls for information about the Lives of Scottish Poets were made in the pages of Notes and Queries but drew no replies. In the twentieth century references to the work become scarce; the inability to attach names to the initials left it with no seeming authority. Poems by Fergusson and Burns thought to be first printed here continue to be incorporated into modern editions of those poets.
No trace of the “Society of Ancient Scots” has ever been found and there is every reason to believe it was a fiction. There is little in the text to support it. The author of the life of James I addresses his audience as "you" (plural?) as does the author of the life of Wyntoun; the author of the life of Alexander Montgomery refers to his author as “my trial-theme,” p. 89. In the life of Thomson the editor quotes a remark that “Some member of the society has made” on a passage in the text. These passages occur in the first two parts; after that references to the “club” disappear. The pretense seems to have been given up early on; in its first review of 30 June 1821 the Literary Chronicle says, “We will not inquire whether the Society of Ancient Scots exists or not, but shall look at the work without the slightest reference to who may be its author or authors.”
The name “Arthur Sempil” has never been associated with the Lives of Scottish Poets because it appears only in the original advertisement, apparently unknown to bibliographers. In the book itself the notes are merely signed “A. S.” The Preface dated 25 March, 1822, is signed the “Editor,” who is still referring to “the biographical stores of the ‘Society of Ancient Scots.’” In the life of Beattie, p. 140n, A. S. reports that he owed his education at a Scottish university to an exhibition or bursary. That is all we know of the person variously referred to as Arthur Sempil, A. S., the Secretary, and the Editor.
Library catalogues and scholarly works usually attribute Lives of Scottish Poets to a “Joseph Robertson.” The source for this appears to be Halkett and Laing's Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudonymous Literature of Great Britain (1882), which gives as its source the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh. A search of their online catalogue does not locate the book, which is certainly not encouraging. Since no dates for Robertson are given in Halkett and Laing, we are left with the problem of identifying who this person might be.
One candidate that can quickly be ruled out is the Scottish antiquary Joseph Robertson (1810-1866); he was born too late and in any event was a Tory journalist. A better possibility is Joseph Clinton Robertson (1788-1852), the “Sholto Percy” of the Percy Anecdotes. But he was an Englishman and did not attend a Scottish university. The only other candidate I have been able to identify is the Rev. Joseph Robertson of Edinburgh who published a Life of George Buchanan in 1812. But nothing appears to be known of him. “Joseph Robertson” appears to be a dead end.
A more promising lead appears in James Gibson's The Bibliography of Robert Burns (1881) where to the article on Lives of Scottish Poets is appended the following: “The late David Laing, LL.D., was of opinion, that it was written chiefly, if not wholly, by a literary man, settled in London, of the name of Mudie, and the variety of initials to the different lives were a mere blind to mislead.” If anyone was in a position to know, it was Laing (1793-1878), antiquary, bookseller, and secretary to the Bannatyne Club.
The Scottish weaver Robert Mudie (1777-1842) was a legendary Grub-Street figure who published scores of volumes on a wide variety of subjects. But the dates do not work since the Lives of Scottish Poets began publishing before Mudie arrived in London in the autumn of 1821. Moreover Mudie was an autodidact and political radical who seems an unlikely match for the straight-laced Presbyterian antiquary, Arthur Sempil.
Laing also seems to be wrong in attributing most of the work to one writer. If the fifty-plus sets of initials are a ruse, internal evidence suggests that several persons were involved. While much of the writing lacks distinctive style, the lives of James I, James II, and Drummond of Hawthornden have a romantic cast that makes them seem like the work of one writer; similarly with the digressions on natural history in the lives of Armstrong and Wilkie, and on the legal profession in the lives of Fergusson and Grahame. A. S. is given to citing Fordyce's Beauties of Scotland in his notes, so that we may suspect that he also wrote the lives where that work is cited in the text.
The editor is occasionally found dissenting from his author, as Barbour, p. 44n; Ramsay, 71n; Barclay, 75n, Thomson, 143n, Wilson, 172n. In the life of Burns he reports suppressing some intemperate remarks about George Thomson. The account of James the Fifth's wooing in France is unnecessarily repeated in the life of Sir David Lyndsay, where it is given a different interpretation. Just how many writers were involved it would be difficult to say, but I suspect that there were at least four or five. The notes become sparse in later parts, possibly because A. S. was doing more of the writing himself.
He may have been working with some inherited MSS, as the Advertisement implies. Only two biographies are explicitly dated. A footnote to the life of Hector Macneill says, “This memoir was written shortly after the death of Mr. Macneill, in 1818, and is now published with little alteration.” Of John Logan's poems we are told, “They have (1808) reached a fifth edition, and are still in request.” Since Logan's poems were reprinted several times between 1808 and 1822 this seems like a solid date. Yet the same biography speaks of “the late Lord Woodhouselee” and Tytler died in 1813. The life of James I of Scotland was composed before Walter Scott was made baronet in 1820. One of the Monthly reviewers points out other examples where the Editor seems to be meddling with his documents, a practice that would make dating them very difficult.
The biographer of Ramsay reports a personal conversation with the poet and Catholic radical Alexander Geddes, p. 85. Since Geddes (d. 1802) spent his later years in London, this may get us a little closer to the circle that produced the biographies. The only name that can be firmly attached to the Lives is that of John Mayne (1759-1836), who first turns up as a contributor of verses reprinted in a note to the life of Ramsay, and subsequently as the source of anecdotes about and a poem by Robert Fergusson written during a visit to the printer-poet Charles Salmon at Dumfries.
Mayne was born in Dumfries and would have been about fourteen years old when Fergusson visited Salmon, then working for Robert Jackson. Mayne himself got his start at Jackson's Dumfries Journal, and would have known Salmon before the poet enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders and shipped off to India. After working for the Foulis firm in Glasgow, Mayne became printer of the Star evening newspaper in London, from whence the uncollected poems by Robert Burns and John Oswald made their way into Lives of the Scottish Poets. There is little doubt that Mayne was the source of information included in the biographies of Salmon, Oswald, and Burns, and since his help is not acknowledged there, as it is in the lives of Ramsay and Fergusson, it seems possible that he was the author of these biographies. He is the likely source for the additions to a life of Andrew Macdonald adapted from Campbell: Macdonald, too, wrote for the Star.
In addition to printing the Star, Mayne contributed poetry to it and at some point became its proprietor and joint editor, a position in which he was eventually joined by Thomas Byerley (1789-1826), the “Reuben Percy” of the Percy Anecdotes. Byerley also edited the Literary Chronicle and is the likely author of the fulsome reviews of Lives of the Scottish Poets. Given these connections, it seems not unlikely that Mayne and Byerley both had a financial stake in the Lives.
The poet-editor Mayne and the antiquary-editor Byerley have yet to attract biographers; if we knew more about them and Joseph Clinton Robertson we might be in a position to identify “Arthur Sempil” and his biographers. Presumably Thomas Campbell knew one or more of them since he was willing to puff the Lives in the New Monthly Magazine. A. S. had a connection at Glasgow University, from whence he obtained the MS. poems printed in life of James Moor, professor of Greek (1712-1779). John Mayne had worked at Glasgow from 1782-87 and Campbell had studied at there from 1791-95. Sempil may have been a Glasgow man himself.
Mayne can be connected with but a small number of the biographies, and those not the most characteristic. As a journalist he would have had a much better gauge of the potential readership than some of the biographers display. These assume a knowledge of Scottish sacred, dynastic, and political history seldom found among common readers. Passing references are made to a raft of literary authorities that only a university-educated antiquary or rare-books collector would be likely to recognize. The fiction of the “Society of Ancient Scots” was doubtless crafted with this in mind. The Lives of the Scottish Poets appears less the work of a grub-street hack than of an association of amateur scholars—lawyers, clergy, and professional men—who would have had little desire to expose themselves to the hebdomadal or monthly reviewers.
The text is a simple transcription, with three exceptions: I have created mates for unclosed quotation marks; I added a stanza number where one was inadvertently omitted, and I changed an asterisk to a dagger where it was needed to correspond to its footnote. I have retained hyphenated words only at page-breaks.
Formatting the project using XML and CSS proved to be a challenge because the typography of the original is irregular. Compositors either made their own decisions about how to format names and titles or adopted the irregular usage of their source text. Since capturing all the variations would involve creating almost as many rules as instances, I have adopted compromises, trying to create a digital image that suggests the appearance of the book without pretending to make a facsimile.
I have followed the original in its inconsistent uses of italics and small-caps while adjusting font sizes and spacing to work conveniently with a browser window. It was my original hope to add page images, and I may yet; for the time being, the original can be consulted via Google Books.
The notes identify persons and titles mentioned in the text by using regular forms of their names and supplying the dates necessary to look them up in a reference work. They are not written into the transcribed text but are imported at run-time from a separate document using keys in the TEI "name" tags. As a result, the same "note" will appear under different articles. While some names have eluded me, there are notes for over 900 persons, most of whom can be readily found in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or other standard references.
The original index is thoroughly inadequate, amounting to little more than an alphabetized table of contents. I have used the TEI name tags to generate person and title indexes, without, however, indexing multiple appearances of a name on the same page; the index records names only once when they are the subject of a biography. The original index and tables of contents can be useful when looking for alternative forms of a name.
I dedicate this first effort at a TEI project to the memory of my father, Frank Nelson Radcliffe Jr. (1923-2007) who witnessed the beginning of the project but not the end. From him I learned that we are never too old to learn.