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



John Ogilvie, D.D. [note] was the son of the Reverend Mr. Ogilvie, one of the ministers of Aberdeen. He was born about the year 1733, and educated at the Marischal college, Aberdeen. He qualified himself with very little difficulty for the church, and obtained a license to preach long before he was acknowledged by that tuneful fraternity, among whom he seems to have been most ambitious to be enrolled.


About the period, at which Dr. Ogilvie began to write verses, there were in Scotland several of the profession of which he was a member, who were inspired, either by the poetical spirit, or the spirit of reforming the abuses which had crept in upon genius; and amongst those, Ogilvie took his station, destined both to aid, in giving refinement to the morality of the age, and in adding to the treasures of the higher departments of literature.


Dr. Ogilvie officiated as minister of Midmar, in the county of Aberdeen, from the year 1759, up to a late period of his life, having never hazarded his licence to preach by writing for the stage; an act for which other distinguished persons have been punished in consequence of the general persuasion, that the most effectual mode of raising disgust at the grossness of the dramatic exhibitions of earlier days,
is by writing or preaching against them, and not by introducing to the public, in their theatres, the purest images of the passions.


The literary works which he produced during this period, were, however, extremely numerous. The events of his life, indeed, are nothing but a succession of appearances in prose or rhyme. In 1758, he published the Day of Judgement, a Poem; in 1759, another edition of the Day of Judgement corrected, with an Ode to Melancholy, Ode on Sleep, Ode on Time, Lines to the Memory of Mr. H. M. an Elegy, Lines to the Memory of the late pious and ingenious Mr. Harvey, with a paraphrase of the third chapter of Habbakuk; in 1762, Poems on several subjects, to which was prefixed, an Essay on the Lyric Poetry of the Ancients, in two letters, inscribed to the Right Hon. James Lord Deskfoord; in 1763, Providence, an Allegorical Poem, in three books; in 1765, Solitude, or the Elysium of the Poets, a Vision, to which was subjoined an Elegy; in 1769, Paradise, a Poem, and two volumes of Poems on several subjects; in 1777, Rona, a Poem; in 1774, Philosophical and Critical Observations on the nature, characters, and various species of composition; in 1783, an enquiry into the causes of the Infidelity and Scepticism of the Times; in 1793, the Theology of Plato, compared with the principles of the Oriental and Grecian Philosophy; in 1801, Britannia, an Epic Poem, in twenty books, to which was prefixed a Critical Dissertation on Epic Machinery; and in 1802, an Examination of the Evidence from Prophecy, in behalf of the Christian Religion.


Dr. Ogilvie closed a long life, devoted to literary pursuits, and to the faithful discharge of his duties as a Christian minister, in the year 1814, and 81st of his age.


In speaking of the literary character of Dr. Ogilvie, the first thing that must strike every one is the vast disparity between the quantity he has written, and the degree of celebrity which he has acquired. The name is scarcely known in poetry, and in prose still less; notwithstanding the pile of volumes which attests the pains taken to raise it into notice.


It is difficult to imagine, that while a Beattie, a Reid, [note] a Blacklock, [note] and many others of the same æra with Ogilvie, have obtained their due meed of praise, such neglect could have been the portion of genius deserving of a better fate. It is unquestionably true, however, that Ogilvie was a man of very great genius, and that his works shew it. Are the public then to blame, that they have suffered them to fall into such obscurity? This it would be vain to affirm, unless it could be accompanied with some hope of seeing them yet read, of which it must be confessed there is no hope. The truth is, that the public were not to blame. Ogilvie, with powers far above the common order, did not know how to use them with effect. He was an able man, lost. His intellectual wealth and industry were wasted in huge and unhappy speculations. Of all his books, there is not one which, as a whole, can be expected to please the general reader. Noble sentiments, brilliant conceptions, and poetic graces, may be culled in profusion from the mass; but there is no one production in which they so predominate (if we except
some of his minor pieces) as to induce it to be selected for a happier fate than the rest. Had the same talent which Ogilvie threw away on a number of objects been concentrated on one, and that one chosen with judgement and taste, he might have rivalled in popularity the most renowned of his contemporaries.


Among Ogilvie's larger works, that of “Providence” is, perhaps, entitled to the first place. In his preface to it, he says, “the subject of the present essay falls so naturally under the cognizance of every reflecting mind, that we have no reason to be surprised when we find it treated in the most copious manner by many writers, both ancient and modern. It is, however, certain, in general, that philosophical dissertations, in whatever degree intrinsically valuable, lose their effect on the bulk of mankind, when they are not enlivened with those graces which contribute to amuse the imagination. It is on this account that we find a moral work, in which we find the most important truths are accurately investigated, overlooked as uninteresting; when a series of incidents, which are calculated to impress upon the mind some beneficial rule of conduct, is perused with satisfaction, and seldom fails to establish a favourable prepossession. So much stronger is the impulse which leads us to search for pleasure, than that which prompts us to desire instruction.” Under the deepest impression of the truth of this maxim, Ogilvie commences his poem, and conducts it with such a strict adherence to the form which he condemns, that, in spite of himself, he falls into the ranks of those who fail from that excessive anxiety to instruct, which calculates upon the necessity of
abandoning all idea of causing amusement. But there are, in this poem, several passages of great poetical beauty, which, if they formed parts of a more popular work, would often be quoted as evidences of the first school.—The following lines upon Contemplation are delightful.

“I turn'd my wandering steps aside,
And sought the deepest shade. There close immur'd,
Where scarce a zephyr stirr'd the rustling boughs,
Silent I sat, and gave my thoughts to range
O'er worlds remote, as working fancy led
The stream of meditation; blaming now,
And now absolving Providence. Alone
I sat not long. A mountain's clifted side
(Seen through a visto) shew'd a gloomy care,
Hollow and deep, where scarce the quivering ray
Had sprinkled glimmering twilight. The high roof,
Curv'd like the arch of heaven, hung awful o'er
The solemn vault below; through whose wide bound
The long loud voice in many a lengthening moan
Rolls on the listening ear. Advancing slow
From this dark cell of solitary thought,
I mark'd a venerable sage; his cheek
Furrow'd by Time, and o'er his hoary head
The cold white hand of slowly stealing Age
Had shower'd its lucid silver: sweetly mild
His looks, his mien; and, rais'd to heaven, his eyes
Beam'd like fair Evening's dewy star that shines
With placid radiance: graceful was his form,
And simple his attire; his bending hand
Lean'd on an ivory staff, the prop of age;
Yet firm his step, as one whose youthful blood
Warm'd, not inflam'd, by Reason's temperate cheer,
Had ting'd the florid cheek, nor felt the blast
Of cold consumption. With slow step he scal'd
The cliff, and walking to the shade, on me
Bent a soft look, that pitied while it awed.”

In another part of “Providence,” he describes Fancy in a strain of equally elevated poetry.

“Her keenly-piercing eye
Glanc'd o'er the scene, that lighten'd as she came
With hasty step, and shook her dazzling wings
That sparkled in the sun: a wavy robe
Mantled her bosom, sweeping as she trod
In loose luxuriance, and the zephyr sigh'd
Soft through its swelling folds. Her right hand held
A globe, where nature's towering fabric rose
A living picture! All the scenes that glow
Gay-rob'd and lovely, in some airy dream
Where spring comes tripping o'er the low green
And strews its lap with flowers. These o'er the piece
Profusely shone. Her left a magic rush
Sustain'd; that, waving as she will'd, transform'd
The face of things, as wildly working thought
Call'd up discordant images, or, rul'd
By reason, form'd them gradual, to confirm
Some truth, yet dubious to th' inquiring mind.”

Among Dr. Ogilvie's minor poems, there is a very pleasing and interesting one, called “Solitude;” the best work, perhaps, as a whole, which he has produced. The design of it is to give the reader an idea, in as short a compass as possible, of the character, merit, and peculiar excellencies of the most eminent British
poets. The author has contrived, for this purpose, a sort of poetical Elysium for their residence, and endeavoured to vary the scenery of it, according to the manners of the different poets with whom it is peopled. Some of these pictorial descriptions are sketched with great taste and discrimination. We have Chaucer
[note] tuning his pipe amid a rustic scene, where

Rich, yet confus'd, the intermingling sprays
Uncouthly gay their simple flowers display'd;
Nor here had fashion plann'd the wildering maze,
Nor art's soft touch th' entangling shrubs obey'd.
But o'er the whole, majestic nature strode
Her form, disdainful of the mimic hand
The brightening wilderness before her glow'd,
Behind, gay plenty cloth'd the 'broider'd land.
A little hamlet in the midst appear'd,
Where antique figures stood expos'd to view;
Of rough materials was the structure rear'd,
And round its walls the clasping ivy grew.
Not far a laurel's spreading boughs were seen,
Beneath whose umbrage sat a careless swain;
The Dryads tripping o'er the daisied green,
And bleating flocks confess'd his powerful strain.

Shakespeare [note] sits “in regal glory,” on “a cliff which o'erhangs the main,” and there, obsequious to Fancy's

———varying call,
The fairy region, at the magic sound,
Girt with the hanging wood or mouldering wall,
Now bloom'd a villa, or a desert frown'd.
And airy tenants o'er the dimpling stream
Hung loose; or high in aim, in effort bold,
Suck'd hues ethereal from the dazzling beam,
To tinge the violet's velvet coat with gold:
Or spoil'd the citron of its rich perfume,
Or caught the light-drop in the liquid air;
Or from the wren's breast pick'd the little plume,
To braid the tresses of the Naïad's hair.
O'er all bright Ariel shone. His devious wing
Now swept soft fragrance in the spicy gale;
Or, fluttering from the dewy lip of spring,
Brush'd nectar'd balm, and shower'd it o'er the dale.
O'er the dim top a gloomy arbour bow'd,
The boughs dark-shadowing veil'd the vaulted blue;
But opening, fair beneath, the vistoed wood
Gave the gay climes that radiant burst to view.
Here Shakespeare sat.

All these external descriptions, however, are greatly surpassed by those passages in which the author depicts the subjects in which each poet delighted. In the following sketch of Spenser, [note] he has caught the very spirit and sweetness of that divine author:

I mark'd a fairy train
Like clouds gay gleaming 'mid th' aërial blue
In floating radiance o'er th' illumin'd plain,
A glittering tribe, the light assembly flew.
Where art with nature's rich luxuriance strove,
Half prun'd, half rambling, rose the leafy sprays
A shepherd swain amid the gloomy grove
Play'd, wildly-sweet, his simple roundelays.
Of hardy knight he told, of fairy queen,
Of lover wan, by weeping brook reclin'd;
Of wizard old, that spread his nets unseen;
Of damsel fair, to wicked wight resign'd.
Meanwhile, around him hung the shining throng,
So sweetly-various flow'd th' enchanting strain;
The Fay that bore his laurel wreath along
Was rapt, and stretch'd her eager arm in vain.
Not till the swain's melodious plaint was o'er,
Ceas'd the soft, silent, sympathetic tear;
The syren's warbling from the vocal shore,
Thrill'd with such melting notes th' enraptur'd ear.

Of Milton, [note] it is beautifully said—

“Awhile in converse high the angel guest
Held him; then sweeping o'er the sounding strings,
Such strains he pours, as 'mid the climes of rest
Thrill the high audience when Urania sings.”

The grandeur and universality of Shakespeare's genius, are represented by some noble images:

“Graceful he mov'd, and scann'd the waste of air,
As his strong urns th' avenging bolt could wield;
Or catch the tempest by the ragged hair,
Or bid an earthquake whelm the blasted field.”

Ossian, [note] Dr. Ogilvie thinks equal to Shakespeare :

Not distant far another bard was seen,
(The place was varied, but their height the same.)

This opinion he defends in a note, which does credit to his ingenuousness, whatever may be thought
of its critical acumen. “The author is sufficiently aware, that by placing Ossian in so exalted a situation, he will give offence to some very critical and even to some good-natured readers, which last class he would please by any concession in his power.—The former will accuse him of presumption, and want of all poetical taste, for placing any British poet on a level with Shakespeare, who has so long and so justly maintained an undisputed pre-eminence: the latter, of partiality to a poet, who (in conformity to the absurd distinction which has prevailed among Britons for some time) must, in a peculiar sense, be deemed his countryman. To the first of these he would observe, that his intention in placing near to each other the two greatest natural geniuses of which any age or country can boast, is not so much to represent them as equally excellent, as, by exhibiting them in one view, to give the reader as just an idea as possible of their separate characters. This remark will in a great measure obviate the objection of partiality, by which, in the present case, he should be sorry that any reader supposed him to be actuated. He gives his own opinion of the merit of Ossian, and is incapable of this illiberal prepossession.”


The manner in which the son of Fingal [note] is introduced is strikingly picturesque.

The power of musing to his thoughtful mind
Had lent her eagle pinions. O'er the main
He hung:—The spirit of the hollow wind
Wak'd on his harp the long-lamenting strain.
Loose fell his hoary locks; the fanning air
Sigh'd through the venerable hairs; his head
A crown adorn'd; his swelling chest was bare;
His limbs the warrior's rougher vesture clad.
No film o'ershadowing dimm'd his piercing sight,
Nor felt his vigorous form the waste of time;
But tall and ardent as the sons of light,
On the rude beech, he look'd, he trod sublime.

The author, at the close of the poem, subjoins an interesting note, in which he mourns the neglect which most of the poets, whom he celebrates, experienced from their countrymen. “Let us not, however,” he adds with great candour and good sense, “be so partial as to ascribe this series of unhappy events altogether to ingratitude, or even to the bad taste of a rude and undistinguishing people. Calm reflection will suggest other, and perhaps juster causes, from which these effects may be traced. The talents which form an accomplished writer, and those which qualify a man for rising in life, are in themselves essentially different, and are very seldom united in any one person. Indeed, it is scarcely possible, that this union can take place unless in some uncommon and particular instances. The man of letters is formed in solitude; the man of the world in society. It is evident, that before these can be properly blended, an affluent fortune must concur with native genius, and with a disposition suited to make a moderate use both of solitude and society. Where these advantages do not meet together, the man of letters becomes proud, sullen, reserved, from
the inward consciousness of superior merit, joined with little experience of life or manners; and thus the disagreeable companion effaceth the impression which is made by the writer. Diffidence and modesty, which are likewise the attendants of genius, however amiable in themselves, are yet, by no means, calculated to render their possessor opulent. They are shades, indeed, which heighten the graces of merit to the discerning; but they are shades likewise, which conceal it from the giddy and superficial. If we add to these causes, the envy which eminence, in any profession, naturally excites, we shall account, at least in a great measure, for the narrow and contracted circumstances in which men of genius are permitted to live.”


The quotations which have been made from Dr. Ogilvie's works, have, it is hoped, sufficed to shew that he was indeed a man of great, though unhappily directed, talents. Had he been fortunate enough to have hit on some subject of striking interest, it would not now have been necessary to select passages from the immense body of his works, in testimony of his claims upon the applause of the world.


Dr. Ogilvie was one of the few Scotsmen of whom Dr. Johnson [note] entertained a favorable opinion. The sanctity of the character of Ogilvie, the religious tendency of his writings, in some measure abated the fierce antipathy with which the great English critic regarded the nation whose literary efforts have raised them to so high a rank in the intellectual history of mankind. It was to Dr. Ogilvie that the unreasonable Johnson uttered the sarcasm relative to Scotch prospects. When in London, Ogilvie one day, in
Johnson's company, observed, in speaking of grand scenery, that Scotland had a great many wild prospects. “Yes, sir,” said Johnson, “I believe you have a great many. Norway, too, has noble wild prospects, and Lapland is remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects. But, sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotsman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to London.” “I admit,” rejoined Ogilvie, “that the last prospect is a very noble one; but I deny that it is as wild as any of those we have enumerated.”

W. B.