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



Arthur Johnston, [note] one of the most eminent of modern Latin poets, was a descendant of the family of the Johnstons, of Caskieben, in the united parishes of Keith-hall and Kinkell, Aberdeenshire. He was the son of John Johnston, by Christian Forbes, daughter of William, seventh Lord Forbes, and was born in the year 1587, at the house of Caskieben, of which the poet has recorded this curious circumstance,that, though six miles distant from the lofty mountain of Banochie, it is covered by the shadow of that mountain, at the time of the equinox, though on no other occasion.


Arthur, as he himself records, received the early part of his education at the school of Kintore.

Hic ego sum, memini musarum factus alumnus:
Et tiro didici verba Latina loqui.

From school he was sent to the Marischal College, Aberdeen; but after a short time, went abroad, and pursued his studies at the University of Padua, where in 1610 he took the degree of M.D. He afterwards travelled over the greater part of Europe, and at last settled in France. He remained in that country for about twenty years, during which he was twice married, and had a family of thirteen children. In 1632, he returned to his native country, and such was
the reputation which he brought along with him, that he was almost immediately appointed physician to the king.


While in France, Dr. Johnston had acquired considerable eminence as a Latin poet; and it was not long before he became as celebrated in this respect in his own country. In 1632, he published at Aberdeen, his “Parerga” and “Epigrammata,” both of which met with a most favorable reception among the learned, who thought that they saw in many parts of them, the style and spirit of the best of the Roman classics revived.


In the Parerga, Johnston took an opportunity to lash with merited severity, an attempt which had then recently been made by Dr. Eglesham, to depreciate the merit of Buchanan's Translation of the Psalms. Dr. Eglesham not content with writing a stupid criticism, to shew that Buchanan had entirely failed in catching the spirit of the original, was vain enough to submit a version of the hundred and fourth psalm from his own pen, as a specimen of what might be done by a genius qualified for the task. He presented a fit subject for ridicule, and Johnston, who was a warm admirer of Buchanan, did not spare him.


It is curious enough, however, that while Johnston was thus lashing Eglesham, for attempting to rival Buchanan, he caught himself a double portion of the very weakness, if so it may be called, which he condemned in another. He resolved to try whether he could not excel both the writer he defended, and the writer he condemned. In the following year, he printed at London, a specimen of a new translation of the Psalms of David, which he dedicated to
Bishop Laud;
[note] and encouraged by that prelate's approbation, he completed a translation of the whole, which was printed at London in 1637, and at Aberdeen in the same year.


The merit of this translation, as compared with that of Buchanan, became immediately the subject of a celebrated controversy, in which, however, Johnston did not live to take himself any share; for, going to Oxford, in 1691, to visit one of his daughters, who was married to a divine of that place, he was seized with an illness, of which he died in a few days, in the fifty-fourth year of his age.


The controversy just alluded too, was commenced by Lauder, [note] famous or rather infamous for his conspiracy to rob Milton [note] of his laurels. Never in his element, except when stabbing a reputation, he eagerly seized the opportunity of attempting to raise a name for Johnston, on the ruin of Buchanan's; and found a zealous abetter, in a well intentioned, but simple English gentleman, of the name of Benson, [note] an auditor of the imprests, who has got a niche in the Dunciad for his pains.

“On Poets tombs, see Benson's [note] titles writ,”
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On two unequal crutches propt he came,
Milton's [note] on this, on that one Johnston's name.”

No less than three editions of Johnston's Psalms were printed at Benson's expense; one of them in quarto, on the plan of the Delphin classics, and with a fine head of Johnston, by Vertue, [note] was designed for the use of the Prince of Wales. [note] The auditor added a prefatory dis-
course from himself, in which he set no bounds to his commendation of Johnston, and spoke with surprise of the esteem in which the learned had hitherto been accustomed to hold the version of Buchanan. The defence of Buchanan against this joint attack of roguery and simplicity, was undertaken by Mr. Love [note] and Mr. Thomas Ruddiman, [note] who not only covered the assailants with confusion, but, by their able expositions of the beauties of Buchanan, raised his version of the Psalms into even higher repute than it before possessed. Poor Benson lived to have a full sense of the folly into which he had been betrayed; and, in chagrin at the awkward attempt which he had made to gain a name in letters, threw up the pursuit entirely, and would not look at a book for several years before he died.”*

* Dr. Warton [note] has endeavoured to rescue Benson [note] from the contempt, with which he is too commonly spoken of. “He translated,” he says, “faithfully, if not very poetically, the second book of the Georgics, with useful notes; he printed elegant editions of Johnston's Psalms; he wrote a discourse on versification; he rescued his country from the disgrace of having no monument erected to the memory of Milton, [note] in Westminster Abbey; he encouraged and urged Pitt [note] to translate the æeneid, and he gave Dobson [note] £1000 for his Latin translation of Paradise Lost. Notes on the Dunciad. —Another instance of his liberality is recorded, which merits notice. In 1735, a book was published, entitled, “The Cure of Deism.” The author, Mr. Elisha Smith, [note] was at that time confined in the Fleet prison, for a debt of £200. Benson, pleased

Ruddiman, [note] while he maintained the superiority of Buchanan's translation, was not sparing of due praise to that of Johnston. He was pleased to say, that for elegance and purity of diction, sweetness and smoothness of verse, in short all the ingredients that are required to the composition of a great and masterly poet, Johnston was inferior to none, and superior to most of the age in which he lived. “Nay,” adds he, “I will allow farther, that in my judgement he deserves the preference to the far greater part of those that have lived since or before him.”


A more recent critic, Lord Woodhouselee, [note] in his Life of Kaimes, is of opinion, that although Johnston's version “as a whole is certainly inferior, yet there are a few of his psalms, which in comparison will perhaps be found to excel the corresponding paraphrase of his rival.” He instances particularly the 24th, 30th, 42nd, 74th, 81st, 82nd, 102nd, and, above all, the 137th. The same ingenious critic, in his Essay on the Principles of Translation, commends Johnston for the scrupulous care with which he has uniformly avoided the application to the Almighty, of epithets suited only to the Pagan mythology, an error into which Buchanan has more than once fallen; as, for example, when he transfers the first line of the speech of Venus to Jupiter, in the 10th æneid, to the address to the Deity, which begins the 4th Psalm.

O pater, O hominum divûmque æterna potestas!

with the work, inquired after the author, and being informed of his unfortunate state, he sent him a handsome letter, enclosing the means for discharging the whole debt, fees, &c. A. S.

Dr. Beattie, who does not think much of any of the attempts which have been made to transfer the Psalms into a modern poetic dress, condemns Buchanan for a want of emphatic conciseness and unadorned simplicity. “Johnston,” he adds, “is not so verbose, and has, of course, more vigour: but his choice of a couplet which keeps the reader always in mind of the puerile epistles of Ovid, [note] was singularly injudicious.”


Buchanan, whose genius was as remarkable for its versatility as its compass, has employed no fewer than twenty-nine varieties of metre in his version; but Johnston has confined himself entirely to the elegiac stanza, except in one psalm, the 119th, in which each verse presents a new measure.


The merit of Johnston's version dwindles, after all, into very narrow limits. What Buchanan had done well before, Johnston has not, on the whole, done so well; and out of a mass of therefore abortive labour, there are only about half a dozen psalms which are worth preserving, as better than those of his rival. Had Johnston been less envious of the fame of Buchanan, he would have benefited his own. The same genius and toil which he wasted on this fruitless competition, might, if employed on some different and original subject, have conducted him to an undisputed immortality.


Beside the works which have been incidentally mentioned, Johnston wrote a translation of the Song of Solomon into Latin Elegiac Verse; and “Musæ Aulicæ,” or commendatory verses on a number of his most distinguished contemporaries. He also
edited the “Deliciæ Poetarum Scoticorum;”
[note] a work to which he was a large and valuable contributor, and of which Dr. Johnson [note] has been pleased to say, that “it would do honour to any country.”

H. B.