Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

*    *    *    *    *

Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



Thomas Blacklock [note] was the son of a poor tradesman in the town of Annan, and born there in the year 1721. Like the celebrated Dr. Sanderson, [note] the mathematician, he lost his sight by the smallpox, while an infant; but the misfortune was much alleviated by the increased tenderness with which it induced his father to watch over his infant years, and the greater pains he was at to develope and improve those powers of mind from which alone he foresaw any prospect of the boy's being able to provide for himself in life. Fortunately, the father's daily avocations prevented this tenderness from running into excess; and the boy was not nursed to imbecility by any of that officious humanity, which, in the case of blind children, we often see anticipating and supplying all their wants, preventing all their motions, and doing and procuring every thing for them without their own interposition. Young Blacklock was left a good deal to himself; taught to depend on his own exertions; and allowed to walk, run, and play at large, without any one to guide or superintend him. The only inconvenience attending these free habits arose from the promiscuous character of the company into which they necessarily led him. In after life, he used to complain of what he had suffered when a boy, from the wanton malignity which constantly impels the herd of mankind to impose upon
the blind by all manner of tricks, and to enjoy the painful sensations in which such impositions place them. “In serious and important negociations,” he would feelingly observe, “pride and compassion suspend the efforts of knavery and spleen: and that very infirmity which so frequently renders the blind defenceless to the arts of the insidious, or to the attempts of malice, is a powerful incentive to pity, which is capable of disarming fury itself. Villainy, which frequently piques itself more upon the arts by which it prevails, than upon the advantages which it obtains, may often, with contempt, reject the blind as subjects beneath the dignity of its operation; but the ill-natured buffoon considers the most malicious effects of his merriment as a mere jest, without reflecting on the shame or indignation which they inspire when inflicted on a sensible temper.”


He shewed early a great fondness for reading, or, more properly speaking, to hear others read to him, as well as much quickness in comprehending what he heard; and through the kind attentions of his father and a few other friends, this taste was amply gratified. It was not long before he became, by memory, well versant in the signs and rules of the English language. He afterwards applied to the Latin; but for want of a proper instructor, which his father was too poor to procure for him, he made but little progress in it, till, at a later period, this help was supplied.


The works to which he listened with the greatest pleasure were these of the poets, and from loving and admiring, he soon made attempts to imitate them. Among his collected poems, there is one which he composed when only twelve years old; and for a
blind boy of so tender an age, it is certainly a remarkable production.


In the year 1740, his father died, leaving him in a very friendless condition; but the report of his talents having reached Edinburgh, Dr. Stevenson, one of the physicians of that city, a gentleman of much taste and benevolence, sent for him, and generously agreed to defray the expense of qualifying him for some of the learned professions, by a regular course of study at the university.


Blacklock proved a diligent and successful student, and, before four years had elapsed, had made himself master of the Latin, Greek, and French languages, to which he afterwards added the Italian. Metaphysics and natural philosophy also occupied a share of his attention; but it was to the belles lettres, as assimilating with his taste for poetry, that his preference inclined.


On the breaking out of the rebellion in 1745, and the approach of the rebels to Edinburgh, Blacklock retired into the country, and was prevailed on by some of his friends, to publish a small collection of his poems at Glasgow. Its success is not spoken of; and it is probable, that, at a period of so much public confusion, it had but little.


When tranquillity was restored, he returned to the university, where he continued to pursue his studies six years longer.


In 1754, he published a second edition, or rather a new collection, of his poems, containing only part of these in the first edition, and these much improved, and many new pieces. The talent shewn in this volume induced the Rev. Joseph Spence, [note] so well known
for his critical works, to open a correspondence with the author, which ripened into the warmest friendship. Mr. Spence had already made the fortune of a poet of far less genius, Stephen Duck [note] the thresher, by writing an account of his life and writings, and he now proposed to do the same service for Blacklock. He wrote, accordingly, a pamphlet, entitled, “An Account of the Life, Character, and Poems of Mr. Blacklock, Student of Philosophy at Edinburgh.” Praise from so respected a quarter attracted the attention of many, who might not otherwise have heard of the student or his works, and there was speedily a demand for a new edition of the latter. It appeared in 1756, in quarto, with Mr. Spence's account prefixed. The profits derived from these publications are stated to have been considerable.


Mr. Blacklock now resolved to enter into the clerical profession, as the least incompatible with the deprivation under which he laboured; and after the usual period of study at the Divinity Hall, he was licensed as a preacher, by the Presbytery of Dumfries, in 1759. Three years afterwards, the Earl of Selkirk [note] presented him to the living of Kirkcudbright; and Blacklock, having now the prospect of a permanent settlement in life, married the daughter of a Mr. Johnston, surgeon, in Dumfries.


The people of Kirkcudbright, however, could not be persuaded to receive with cordiality a blind person for their pastor. It may be true, as Dr. Blacklock has remarked, in a Treatise on the Blind, which he afterwards wrote for the Encyclopedia Britannica, that, “no liberal and cultivated mind can entertain the least hesitation in concluding, that there is nothing
either in the nature of things, or even in the positive institutions of genuine religion, repugnant to the idea a blind clergyman.” But it was not Dr. Blacklock's good fortune to have his lot cast among “liberal and cultivated” minds. The people of Kirkcudbright were, in point of religious liberality, much the same as nearly a century before, when, by a kirk-settlement riot, they brought ruin upon the once opulent and powerful house of Kirkcudbright.* As Dr.

* “ John, third Lord Kirkcudbright, [note] possessed property of vast extent in this quarter. He was a zealous presbyterian, and a violent opponent of Cromwell [note] and the independents. He took up arms in favour of the crown, and raised, at his own expense, a regiment of foot from among his tenants and vassals, which he carried over into Ireland, from whence few of them returned. He had the misfortune always to be in opposition to the ruling party. After the restoration, he found his Presbyterian principles more obnoxious than formerly. Some women having made a disturbance at the introduction of an episcopal minister into the Kirk of Kirkcudbright, the privy-council granted a commission to the Earls of Linlithgow, Galloway, Annandale, and Drumlanrig, with Sir John Wauchope, [note] to enquire into the matter. These four earls came to Kirkcudbright Castle, and found that Lord Kirkcudbright had countenanced what these women had done; they, therefore, sent him prisoner to Edinburgh, 23d May, 1663, where he shortly after died, and his neighbours by degrees acquired all his estates.”
forsyth. [note]

B. adds, in the same Treatise, with an obvious allusion to his own case, “the novelty of the phenomenon (at a blind clergyman) while it astonishes vulgar and contracted understandings, inflames their zeal to rage and madness.” Even so it was with his Kirkcudbright flock. After two years' bitter contention with their prejudices against him, he found his situation so disagreeable, that he consented to resign his charge on a small annuity.


With this scanty provision he took up his residence at Edinburgh, where he made some little addition to his income by taking into his house a few students at the university, as boarders, and assisting them in their studies.


In 1766, the Marischal College of Aberdeen conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity.


In the year following he published his principal prose work, entitled “Paraclesis, or Consolations deduced from Natural and Revealed Religion,” in one vol. 8vo.


Shortly after, Lord Monboddo [note] published his celebrated “Treatise on the Origin and Progress of Language,” and, by a reference which he made in it, to some opinions expressed in conversation by Dr. Blacklock, involved the Doctor in an unpleasant controversy with an anonymous assailant. It appears to have been a source of pain to himself, and not less so to his friends; who were sorry to discover from it how much misfortunes had soured him against the world. The theatre of controversy was the Edinburgh Weekly Magazine.


Lord Monboddo had introduced Dr. Blacklock as one “bestowing a good deal of thought upon the sub-
ject of the origin of languages, and conjecturing that the first language among men was music.” The author of a series of strictures on the work, who appears to have been of the clerical profession, after paying Dr. Blacklock the compliment of bring “a prodigy of learning,” thus comments on the opinion ascribed to him. “It gives me pain to animadvert upon this gentleman, who has a place not only in my regard but likewise in my admiration, though I am none of his acquaintance, as indeed, I never was once in company with him; but I have heard much of him, particularly that he was formerly a parochial preacher. If so, then he must, among other parts of useful knowledge, be well acquainted with the oracles of Truth, as to which his memory must have given him the slip greatly on this particular. A little recollection would have reminded him, that ‘Jubal was the father of all such as handle the harp and organ; and, that Tubal-Cain was an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron.’ It is hoped, the learned doctor will allow these particulars to have been after the gift, not the invention of language, and that he is none of those who reckon such accounts to be understood allegorically or parabolically.”


Dr. Blacklock immediately wrote an answer to this attack,* in which he first admitted explicitly the fact, that our “original progenitor was endued with the peace of speaking by his omnipotent and bountiful Creator;” though he held it to be equally clear that

* It begins with a striking propriety. “In revolving the last number of your Magazine.” A. S.
“all his descendants have obtained that talent by repeated trials, faithful imitation, and confirmed habit;” and then proceeded to give the following explanation of the opinion he had expressed to Lord Monboddo. “I had no scruple in affirming, that the only language natural to man, consisted of those expressive and unpremeditated effusions of voice which were instantaneously prompted by any violent sensation, whether of pain or pleasure; but as the circle of our ideas enlarged, as our notions of their relations became more extensive, distinct, and accurate, and as our propensities to communicate were more sensibly felt, the signs by which this reciprocal communication was transacted, must become more definitive in their nature, and more multiplied in their number. Hence it would be found necessary to invent a more precise and diversified expression; but, as the signs inspired by instinct were only distinguished one from another by variety of accent and modulation, it might be natural for our initiates in language to carry this diversity farther in proportion as objects and relations were multiplied. However easy and natural, articulation may appear to us, and with whatever promptitude children, at a very early period, may exert their lips and tongues from imitation or accident; yet, if we consider that uninterrupted sounds are the first and most native expressions of sentiment, we shall inevitably be led to imagine that these original expressions must have been considerably advanced both in number and precision, before they employed the aid of articulation. Thus, according to the present supposition, the primitive conversation of those who had never been originally inspired with language, nor
learned by imitation and intercourse might have been resolved into a kind of musical recitative.”


Dr. B. having thus explained his opinion on the subject, concludes with a paragraph of himself, which, though not to be read without pain, is too characteristic to be omitted.


“Such were the observations to which the author of the above mentioned Enquiry alludes, and whether this hypothesis can ever be put in competition with facts plainly and explicitly related by the spirit of God himself, let the impartial public determine. If your correspondent, whose animadversions occasioned this letter, will do me the justice to take the most cursory review of my ‘ Paraclesis, or Consolations of Human Life, ’ I cannot but hope, that it will inspire him with more charitable ideas of my fidelity. Tossed I have been from wave to wave, through the long and cruel tempest of life, had I not been a Christian, I should have ceased to be a man.”

‘For who would bear the whips and scorns of fortune,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?’

“It is the sincere and permanent conviction of my soul, that the testimony of an approving conscience, the sense of a favouring God, the persuasion of an atoning and interceding Redeemer, the hopes of a blissful eternity, are the only comforts which can
either reconcile us to our present existence or support us in it. I am extremely obliged to the author of the letter for the favourable opinion he entertains of me; yet had I vanity and arrogance enough to think myself the prodigy of learning, which he calls me, I should exhibit the strongest proof, that in fact I was a prodigy of ignorance and stupidity. A man, however, born in obscurity, afflicted with blindness, and depressed by fortune, will find the greatest reason to bless his Creator if he has been preserved from neglecting or perverting the talents with which he is entrusted.”


The author of the ‘ Strictures ’ returned to the charge in a carping reply, in which, half confessing and half doubting the sufficiency of the doctor's avowal of his belief in the scriptural account of the origin of language, he dwelt much on the false spirit of philosophy that was abroad, with the view, apparently, of insinuating that Dr. B. had some tincture of it as well as his friend Lord Monboddo.


Dr. Blacklock, thus again assailed, was forced to resume his pen. In a rejoinder, he confesses that though the game of quart and tierce is much less dangerous when played with the pen than the sword, he had no relish for it even in its most innocent form. He declares his submission to the authority of Scripture as above all human philosophy; but justly observes, “it is not submission to the authority of Scripture alone which we often find required from philosophy, but submission, implicit submission, to the tenets which every individual pretends to deduce from Scripture. Thus philosophy, though inspired and authorised by the same God who promulgated the
Evangelical dispensation, instead of being the handmaid of Christianity, might become the wretched dupe, the contemptible auxiliary, of every heresiarch and every sectary.” Thus far the Doctor fenced well; but out of compassion, as it would seem, for the treatment which false philosophy had received at the hands of his antagonist, he was tempted to volunteer a thrust in return at a certain false Christianity which was nearly equally in vogue, and in doing this (to follow out the Doctor's figure) he got the sun in his face. “But besides,” says the doctor, “the malignant influence of false wisdom, there are (with regret I speak it) other causes of infidelity deducible from the profession and conduct of Christians themselves.—The glaring inconsistency between our principles and practice which daily observation discovers, must prove an effectual stumbling block to superficial and fluctuating minds; the illiberal sentiments, the bigotry, intolerance, and fanaticism of some who arrogate the Christian name, are unspeakingly injurious to the interests of their faith; because, from them, the young and thoughtless mind forms the idea of a gloomy institution, characterized by injunctions of penance and maceration, and invested with the terrors of hell. ” After a few words more in the same strain, he concludes with the following additional remarks on his own personal character and fortunes: “I am not, however,” he says, “so passive with respect to my antagonist's high notions of my learning. I would ardently wish to undeceive him and every one else who entertains the same charitable opinion. Heaven grant, that none of my friends may ever regard me in any other light than as a common individual of the human species,
who earnestly desires, within his little sphere, to glorify his God, and to assist his neighbour according to the powers and opportunities indulged him. Wonders and raree shows are generally contemplated with dispositions which I should never choose to inspire. To me, indeed, it seems equally eligible to be esteemed a portent as a prodigy; and, thanks to my panegyrists, both these compliments have in so many words been paid me. I have now, as may be hoped, served more than two-thirds of my quarantine in this world, without strenuously endeavouring either to provoke its censure or conciliate its applause; yet enough, in all conscience, enough, have I experienced of both, to feel the injustice of the former and the insignificance of the latter. It has already been said, that my relish even for the effusion of ink in such literary skirmishes is not high; if therefore, Philanthropos [the assumed name of his opponent] chuses to renew the war, I promise from henceforth to leave him absolutely master of the field; and am,” &c.


After this proclamation by the doctor of a cessation to the contest, it became, of course, a point of dignity with his antagonist, not to renew it in his own person; but the ground was no sooner ostensibly deserted by the principals, than it was occupied by two pretended knights errant in their behalf, so like to them in size, agility, and ardour, as to make it suspected that they were no other than the original combatants themselves, with their vizors down. It might now be said fervet opus; but not redolentque thyma fragrantia mella. Dr. Blacklock, as we have seen, had, in his animadversions on false Christianity, said some equivocal things about “the terrors” with which the Christian
institution is invested. It is the orthodoxy of these expressions which forms the business of this additional set to the controversy; but which, it is no longer fraught either with instruction or pleasure to trace. It may suffice to observe, that Dr. Blacklock, again driven to a more explicit declaration of his faith, referred to his work “on Christian Consolation” as one, among many, proofs of his maintaining “future punishments to be both exquisite in their degree, and eternal in their continuance.”


In all this controversy there is, perhaps, nothing more deserving of animadversion than a sentiment dropped by Dr. Blacklock, which was allowed to pass without any. He tells us, that “had he not been a Christian he would have ceased to be a man;” and he quotes Shakespeare to shew the way in which he might have

——— his quietus made
With a bore bodkin.

He goes on to state, more explicitly, the “sincere and permanent conviction of his soul,” that without the consolations supplied by time Christian religion, nothing could “reconcile us to our present state of existence, or support us in it.” It is very far from being intended to dispute the influence which the Christian religion, when properly comprehended, has in fortifying us against the weaknesses of our mortal condition; but, is there nothing false in a doctrine which goes to affirm, that, without the Christian religion, the natural tendency of human nature is to self-murder? Is there nothing calumnious of all the other religions in the world, in the implied assertion, that where Christianity
most abounds, suicides the least prevail? Is there nothing dangerous in contending, that unless a man believes in the Christian dispensation, he may, without any sense of guilt, “cease to be a man?”


It is remarkable, that this idea of suicide seems to have long haunted the mind of Blacklock; and it ought to induce us to reverence the enthusiasm with which he seems to have hugged the terrors by which, in his case, it was counteracted. In a “Treatise on the Blind,” which, ten years after, he wrote for the Encyclopædia Britannica, he observes, “The blind are peculiarly subjected to that disorder which may be called tædium vitæ, or low spirits. This indisposition may be said to comprehend in it all the other diseases and evils of human life; because, by its immediate influence on the mind, it aggravates the weight and bitterness of every calamity to which we are obnoxious. In a private letter, we have heard it described as a formidable precipice in the regions of misery, between the gulphs of suicide, on the one hand, and frenzy on the other; into either of which a gentle breeze, according to the force of its impulse, and the line of its direction, may irrecoverably plunge the unhappy victim; yet from both of which he may providentially escape.”


In this, as well as in many other passages in the article in the Encyclopædia, it is observable, that Dr. Blacklock has rather generalized his own experience than stated what is common to blind persons. That the tædium vitæ, and a consequent tendency to suicide or frenzy, are characteristic accompaniments of blindness, is certainly not consistent with general observation; nothing, in fact, is of rarer occurrence than
to meet with a blind maniac, or to read of a verdict of felo de se against a blind person. Dr. Blacklock would probably have had the same tendency, and in as strong a degree, had he never lost his sight; for fatal experience tells those who do enjoy the blessing, that to see the outward showings of “the proud man's contumely,” or the frown that causes “the pang of despis'd love,” is by no means calculated to lessen their maddening influence on susceptible minds. The Doctor's Treatise is pregnant with useful hints and curious speculation; but the prevalence of this habit of converting his own particular into general experience, and of referring to his blindness, peculiarities which might with equal or greater reason have been ascribed to other causes, forms a serious deduction from its value.


In 1774, Dr. Blacklock published “the Graham,” an heroic ballad, in four cantos; but it added nothing to his poetical reputation.


At the breaking out of the American war, the Doctor was tempted to take a part in the political controversy which then agitated the public mind, on the right of taxing the colonies. He wrote “Remarks on the Nature and Extent of Liberty, as compatible with the genius of civil Societies; on the principles of Government, and the proper limits of its powers in free States; and, on the Justice and Policy of the American war, occasioned by perusing the observations of Dr. Price, on the same subjects.” This work attracted little notice, and has been long heaped with the many forgotten pamphlets on the same subject.


Some years after, Dr. Blacklock did a far more important service to his country, by the share which
he had in preserving
Burns to his native country, when he had resolved on emigrating to America. “I had composed,” says Burns, “the last song I should ever measure in Caledonia, ‘The gloomy night is gathering fast,’ when a letter from Dr. Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes, by opening new prospects to my poetic ambition.” The letter was addressed to the Rev. G. Lowrie, [note] and contained the following early tribute to the genius of the immortal bard.


“Many instances have I seen of Nature's force and beneficence exerted under numerous and formidable disadvantages; but none equal to that with which you have been kind enough to present me. There is a pathos and delicacy in his serious poems, a vein of wit and humour in those of a more festive turn, which cannot be too much admired or too warmly approved; and I think I shall never open the book without feeling my astonishment renewed and increased. It was my wish to have expressed my approbation in verse; but whether from declining life, or a temporary depression of spirits, it is at present out of my power to accomplish that agreeable attention.”


When the Dr. became afterwards acquainted with Burns, his muse started from her lethargy; and, catching new life from the kindred grasp, thus poured forth her friendly greetings.

Edinburgh, 24 th August, 1789.
“Dear Burns, thou brother of my heart,
Both for thy virtues and thy art;
If art it may be called in thee,
Which Nature's bounty, large and free,
With pleasure on thy breast diffuses,
And warms thy soul with all the Muses.
Whether to laugh with easy grace,
Thy numbers move the sage's face;
Or bid the softer passions rise,
And ruthless souls with grief surprise;
'Tis Nature's voice distinctly felt,
Through thee, her organ, thus to melt.
Most anxiously I wish to know,
With thee, of late, how matters go?
How keeps thy much-lov'd Jean her health?
What promises thy farm, of wealth?
Whether the Muse persist to smile
And all thy anxious cares beguile?
Whether bright fancy keeps alive?
And how thy darling infants thrive?
For me, with grief and sickness spent;
Since I my journey homeward bent,
Spirits depress'd, no more I mourn,
But vigour, life, and health, return.
No more to gloomy thoughts a prey,
I sleep all night and live all day;
By turns my book and friend enjoy,
And thus my circling hours employ.
Happy, while yet these hours remain,
If Burns could join the cheerful train;
With wonted zeal, sincere and fervent,
Salutes once more his humble servant,
Thomas Blacklock.”

Burns, in a longer rhyming answer, expressed his satisfaction at the happy improvement which had taken place in the Doctor's temperament, in propor-
tion as he approached the verge of life; but it worthy of remark, that it is singularly free from any thing which can be construed into a reciprocal admiration of the Doctor's muse.


In the autumn, before his death, (Sept. 1790), Dr. B. wrote another poetical epistle to Burns, soliciting his assistance to Dr. Anderson's [note] “Bee,” the proposals for which were then in circulation; and, in the concluding lines, thus resignedly speaks of his approaching dissolution:

“You then, more at leisure,* and free from controul,
May indulge the strong passion that reigns in your soul,
But I, feeble I, must to nature give way;
Devoted, cold death's and longevity's prey.”

Dr. B. died at Edinburgh in the month of July, 1791, in the seventieth year of his age.


Besides the works which have been incidentally mentioned, he wrote “a Discourse on the right improvement of Time,” 1760; some pieces in Donaldson's [note] Collection of Original Poems; Two Discourses on the Spirit and Evidences of Christianity, translated from the French of Armand, 1768; and a Panegyric (satirical) on Great Britain, 1773.


The merits of Dr. Blacklock have been treated with abundance of partiality by nearly all who have ever written of him. Mr. Hume, [note] who was intimately acquainted with him, assures us, that “his modesty was equal to the goodness of his disposition,

* Alluding to an erroneous report of Burns's promotion to be a Supervisor.
and the beauty of his genius;” and, that “every thing considered, he might be regarded as a prodigy.” His biographer, in the
Annual Register, says, that “he displayed a wonderful degree of contentment, under the distressing circumstances which attended his early progress in life;” that “his poetry is easy, elegant, and harmonious;” that “he composed with great readiness, and throughout the general course of his poems, shews such a justness of thinking, in regard to the things of this world, and such an easy and contented form of mind, as were worthy of a good Christian and a sound philosopher.” Such are the opinions of Blacklock's own countrymen; but they are even surpassed by the encomiums heaped upon him from abroad. Carlo Denina, [note] in his Discorso de in Literatura, says, “ Blacklock will appear to posterity a fabulous character; even now he is a prodigy. It will be thought a fiction and a paradox, that a man quite blind since he was three years old,* besides having made himself so good a master of various languages, of Greek, Latin, Italian, and French, should also be a great poet in his own; and without, hardly, having ever seen the light, should be so remarkably happy in description.”


While noticing what others have said of Blacklock, it may not be foreign to the purpose to advert to what he has said of himself. With an obvious allusion to his own case, for, with the exception of Henry the Minstrel, he is the only poet we read of, who was blind from his infancy, he says, in his ‘ Treatise

* A mistake; Blacklock was blind from the age of five months.
on the Blind,’ “however unaccountable it may appear to the abstract philosopher; yet nothing is more certain, in fact, than that a blind man, by the inspiration of the muses, or to strip the figure of its mythological dress, may, by the efforts of a cultivated genius, exhibit in poetry, the most natural images and animate description even of visible objects, without either incurring or deserving the imputation of plagiarism. ” And in another part of the same essay, he observes: “ Homer,
[note] Milton, [note] and Ossian, [note] had been long acquainted with the visible world before they were surrounded with clouds and ever-during darkness;—they might, therefore, still retain the warm and pleasing impressions of what they had seen. Their descriptions might be animated with the rapture and enthusiasm which originally fired their bosoms when the grand or dreadful objects which they delineated, were immediately beheld. Nay, that enthusiasm might still be heightened by a bitter sense of their loss, and by that regret which a situation so dismal might naturally inspire. But how shall we account for the same energy, the same transport of description, exhibited by those on whose minds visible objects were never impressed, or have been entirely obliterated? Yet, however unaccountable this fact may appear, it is no less certain than extraordinary. But delicacy and other particular circumstances forbid us to enter into this disquisition with that minuteness and precision which it requires,” &c.


Where our sympathy for the misfortunes of an individual disposes us so strongly, as in the present case, to lend a willing ear to all that can be said in his favour, it is painful to he obliged, even by a sense of truth, to quarrel with the meed of renown which
others are inclined to bestow upon him. But after the narrative which has been given of Dr. Blacklock's life, and the several distinct manifestations of his character which have been gathered from his own lips, it would be laying aside all candour to pretend to re-echo such praises as those which have just been quoted. That Dr. Blacklock was, from the effect of moral discipline, amiable and engaging in his personal intercourse with society, is proved by many concurring accounts; but to speak of his contentment “under misfortunes,” as being “wonderful,” is in fact, to pronounce the severest satire on his real character. We have seen, that when, in the solitude of his closet, he could give free utterance to his actual sentiments, that he was much the reverse of being contented with the degree of notice he had received from the world; that he felt, what he conceived to be the injustice of its neglect, with bitterness, and resented it with acrimony; that he was almost habitually afflicted with low spirits, and sometimes suffered them to carry him even to the verge of despair. Nor is it to be concealed, that his melancholy is to be traced as much to offended vanity, as to a genuine sense of neglected merit. For, however he may have, in one case, disclaimed all pretensions to the character of “a prodigy,” it is clear enough, from what he says elsewhere of the fact, “no less certain than extraordinary,” of a man on whose mind visible objects were never impressed, rivalling Homer, Milton and Ossian, in “energy and transport of description,” that he fully thought himself one. Now, with due deference to his panegyrists, there is
nothing in the productions of Dr. Blacklock which can at all entitle him to be looked upon in this light. His poetry is by no means of the first order; neither does it partake so much of the enthusiasm inspired by visual perceptions, as the partiality of his friends had led him to believe. Curiosity, to see what a blind man could do, attracted attention to his poems when published; but if we except the beautiful song of the
Braes of Ballenden, none of them have kept their hold of popular recollection. His prose productions have done still less for his fame. His “Paraclesis” is a pious and sensible production; but more cannot justly be said of it. We may be told, that even such poetry and such prose are extraordinary productions for a blind man, and so they probably are; although from the want of parallel cases, with which to institute a comparison, it is impossible to assert as much in positive terms. The question is not, however, whether, as a blind man, Blacklock was an extraordinary writer? but, whether as a writer, his merit was so extraordinary as to make it a reproach to the world, that more was not done for him? Now, looking at his works in this view, and reflecting on what public and individual sympathy actually did for Dr. Blacklock, it is really difficult to discover any just ground for the strong discontent which he seems to have felt with the share of good fortune which fell to his lot. To the generous interposition of one stranger he was indebted for that completion of his education, without which he must, in all probability, have dragged out his life in obscurity, ignorance, and misery; by the active philanthropy of another stranger, and of a different country, no sooner had he
made his appearance as an author, than the public attention was drawn in the most favourable manner to his works, and he gained, not only reputation, but money: and at length, solely through the esteem his genius excited, he was placed in a situation of independence and ease. At this point, indeed, fortune became adverse to him; through the prejudices of the vulgar, he lost that preferment which an enlightened sympathy had bestowed upon him; and the rest of his days may be said to have been passed in gloom and neglect. Yet, unfortunate as the close of his life was, when we reflect how much worse it might, and would most probably, have been, but for the share of friendship he experienced from the world, nothing could be less uncalled for than the manner with which we have seen Dr. Blacklock affecting to contemn the world's “applause” and “censure,” as alike indifferent to him.


“In his person,” says Mr. Alexander Campbell, [note] Dr. Blacklock “exceeded not the middle size, but his erect posture gave an air of dignity mingled with perfect simplicity; and a peculiar involuntary motion, the effect of habit, added not a little to interest the beholder, as it usually accompanied the glow of his feelings in conversation.”


“To his accomplishments,” continues the same writer, “he added that of a taste for music, and he excelled in singing the melodies of his country. I have heard him often bear a part in a chorus with much judgement and precision. His knowledge in the scientific part of music was by no means inconsiderable.”

J. R.