Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

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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



Robert Blair [note] was the son of the Rev. David Blair, one of the ministers of Edinburgh, and grandson of the Rev. Robert Blair, [note] Minister of St. Andrews, Chaplain to Charles I., [note] and one of the most zealous and distinguished clergymen of the period in which he lived. He was born in 1699; educated for the church, at the University of Edinburgh; and afterwards travelled, for his improvement, on the continent. In 1731, he was presented to the living at Athelstaneford, in the county of East Lothian, where he passed the remainder of his life, “bosomed in the shade.”


Being much at ease in his circumstances, he lived in a style of considerable elegance, and was on terms of familiar intimacy with most of the gentlemen of his neighbourhood. Among the most respected of his friends, was the lamented Colonel Gardiner, [note] who was slain at the battle of Prestonpans, in 1745; and who appears to have been the medium of his opening a correspondence with Dr. Watts [note] and Dr. Doddridge. [note] The acquaintance with the latter commenced with a letter from Blair, which contains some interesting information relative to the composition of the poem which has given so much celebrity to his name. It is dated Athelstaneford, February 25, 1741-2, and is in these words:


“You will be justly surprised with a letter from one, whose name is not so much as known to you, nor shall I offer to make any apology. Though I am entirely unacquainted with your person, I am no stranger to your merit as an author; neither am I altogether unacquainted with your personal character, having often heard honourable mention made of you by my much respected and worthy friends, Colonel Gardiner and Lady Frances. About ten months ago, Lady Frances did me the favour to transmit to some manuscript hymns of yours, with which I was wonderfully delighted. I wish I could, on my part, contribute in any measure to your entertainment, as you have sometimes done to mine, in a very high degree. And, that I may show how willing I am to do so, I have desired Dr. Watts to transmit you a manuscript poem of mine, entitled “The Grave,” written, I hope, in a way not unbecoming my profession as a minister of the gospel, though the greatest part of it was composed before I was clothed with so sacred a character. I was urged by some friends here, to whom I shewed it, to make it public, nor did I decline it, provided I had the approbation of Dr. Watts, from whom I have received many civilities, and for whom I had ever entertained the highest regard. Yesterday I had a letter from the doctor, signifying his approbation of the piece in a manner most obliging. A great deal less from him would have done me no small honor. But, at the same time, he mentioned to me, that he had offered it to two booksellers of his acquaintance, who, he tells me, did not care to run the risk of publishing it. They can scarcely think, (considering how critical an age
we live in, with respect to such kind of writings,) that a person, living three hundred miles from London, could write so as to be acceptable to the fashionable and polite. Perhaps it may be so, though, at the same time, I must say, that in order to make it more generally liked, I was obliged, sometimes, to go cross to my own inclinations, well knowing, that whatever poem is written on a serious argument, must, on that very account, be under peculiar disadvantages; and, therefore, proper arts must be used to make such a piece go down with a licentious age, which cares for none of these things. I beg pardon for breaking on moments so precious as yours, and hope you will be so kind as to give me your opinion of the poem.”


This work, which the two wise booksellers “did not care to run the risk of publishing,” proved to be one of the most popular productions of the eighteenth century. The author did not, however, live to enjoy the applause conferred on his muse, being seized with a fever, of which he died, on the 4th of February, 1746, in the forty-seventh year of his age.


Mr. Blair was distinguished, in his pastoral office, by his assiduity and zeal; and, as a preacher, was admired for the fervour of his eloquence. His manners were endearing, and, by his friends, he was warmly beloved. He has, in his poem, made a heartfelt acknowledgment of the pleasures which he derived from this source.

Friendship! mysterious current of the soul!
Sweet'ner of life and solder of society!
I owe thee much. Thou hast deserv'd from me
Far, far, beyond what I can ever pay.

Poetry was not alone the amusement of his leisure hours. He paid considerable attention to botany, and corresponded on the subject with Henry Barker, F.R.S. [note] a naturalist of some celebrity. He is said to have been also conversant in optics.


He left five sons and one daughter; one of these sons was the late President Blair, [note] as able and upright a judge as, perhaps, ever honored the judicial seat. His wife was a Miss Isabella Law, daughter of Mr. Law, of Elvingston, [note] sometime Professor of Moral philosophy, in the University of Edinburgh. With professor Law, Mr. Blair had been long acquainted; and, on his death, he is said to have written and printed a poetical tribute to his memory, which may, perhaps, be still in the possession of the family, though it has never been re-published.


A poem which has so long held so high a place in public opinion as “The Grave,” is, in some measure, exempted from criticism; a fondness for its beauties can alone excuse our dwelling for a moment upon them. The subject of the poem cannot be said to have, of itself, invited attention.

———The Grave! dread thing!
Men shiver when thou'rt nam'd.

As little has the author sought, by splendour of diction, or singularity of idea, to court the popularity he has gained. The charms by which he has fixed himself in the hearts of so many readers, are those of a homely, yet nervous, style, and an exuberance of just reflection, illustrated and enforced by imagery, often strikingly appropriate. Whoever commences reading
“The Grave” must go on to the conclusion; the attention is no sooner engaged than it is absorbed. The author sometimes allows his poetry “to loiter into prose,” and the sentiment to flag with it; as when he asks the dead,

———Do the strict laws
Of your society, forbid your speaking
Upon a point so nice?

but there are few poems of equal length, where the march of thought is, upon the whole, so majestic and yet so unaffected.


The worst exception that can be taken to “the Grave,” is, that the author seems to have had the good taste to enrich his memory with many fine expressions and thoughts from other poets; the appropriation of which he has forgotten to acknowledge.—It ought to be recollected, however, that it was a posthumous publication; had Blair lived to superintend the printing of the work himself, he might possibly have spared the critics the trouble of pointing these appropriations out. Some of his borrowings are from quarters where one would not have suspected there was any thing to lend. To Nat. Lee, [note] for example, Blair is indebted more than once or twice. Every reader must remember the striking picture which is drawn in “the Grave,” of the effects of the summons of death “on him who is at ease in his possessions.”

In that dread moment, how the frantic soul
Raves round the walls of her clay tenement,
Runs to each avenue and shrieks for help.
*     *     *     *
Till forc'd at last to the tremendous verge,
At once she sinks to everlasting rest

Lee, in his Alexander, has exactly the same fancy:

Drives the distracted soul about her house,
Which runs to all the pores, the doors of life;
Till she is forc'd for air to leave her dwelling.
Act IV. Scene 1.

Another passage, of great power, must also be referred to the same source:

The common damn'd shun their society,
And look upon themselves as fiends less foul.

In “Alexander” we have,

While foulest fiends shun thy society,
And thou shalt walk alone, forsaken fury!
Act V. Scene 1.

But, however much Blair may have been indebted to his reading for the materials of his poem, it must still be allowed that he has made a tasteful use of them; nor can any plagiarism-hunter ever deprive him of the honour of having contributed largely from his own stores to our poetical wealth.

P. B.