1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Richard Blackmore

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 5:177-89.



This eminent poet and physician was son of Mr. Robert Blackmore, an Attorney at Law. He received his early education at a private country school, from whence, in the 13th year of his age, he was removed to Westminster, and in a short time after to the university of Oxford, where he continued thirteen years.

In the early period of our author's life he was a schoolmaster, as appears by a satirical copy of verses Dr. Drake wrote against him, consisting of upwards of forty lines, of which the following are very pungent.

By nature form'd, by want a pedant made,
Blackmore at first let up the whipping trade
Next quack commenc'd; then fierce with pride he swore,
That tooth-ach, gout, and corns should be no more.
In vain his drugs, as well as birch he tried;
His boys grew blockheads, and his patients died.

Some circumstances concurring, it may be presumed in Sir Richard's favour, he travelled into Italy, and at Padua took his degrees in physic.

He gratified his curiosity in visiting France, Germany, and the Low Countries, and after spending a year and a half in this delightful exercise, he returned to England. As Mr. Blackmore had made physic his chief study, so he repaired to London to enter upon the practice of it, and no long after he was chosen fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, by the charter of King James II. Sir Richard had seen too much of foreign slavery to be fond of domestic chains, and therefore early declared himself in favour of the revolution, and espoused those principles upon which it was effected. This zeal, recommended him to King William, and in the year 1697 he was sworn one of his physicians an ordinary. He was honoured by that Prince with a sold medal and chain, was likewise knighted by him, and upon his majesty's death was one of those who gave their opinion in the opening of the king's body. Upon Queen Anne's accession to the throne, he was appointed one of her physicians, and continued so for some time.

This gentleman is author of more original poems, of a considerable length, besides a variety of other works, than can well be conceived could have been composed by one man, during the longest period of human life. He was a chaste writer; he struggled in the cause of virtue, even in those times, when vice had the countenance of the great, and when an almost universal degeneracy prevailed. He was not afraid to appear the advocate of virtue, in opposition to the highest authority, and no lustre of abilities in his opponents could deter him from stripping vice of those gaudy colours, with which poets of the first eminence had cloathed her.

An elegant writer having occasion to mention the state of wit in the reign of King Charles II. characterizes the poets in the following manner;

The wits of Charles found easier ways to fame;
Nor sought for Johnson's art, nor Shakespear's flame:
Themselves they studied; as they lived, they writ,
Intrigue was plot, obscenity was wit.
Their cause was gen'ral, their supports were strong,
Their slaves were willing, and their reign was long.

Mr. Pope somewhere says,

Unhappy Dryden — in all Charles's days,
Roscommon only boasts unspotted lays.

He might likewise have excepted Blackmore, who was not only chaste in his own writings, but endeavoured to correct those who prostituted the gifts of heaven, to the inglorious purposes of vice and folly, and he was, at least, as good a poet as Roscommon.

Sir Richard had, by the freedom of his censures on the libertine writers of his age, incurred the heavy displeasure of Dryden, who takes all opportunities to ridicule him, and somewhere says, that he wrote to the rumbling of his chariot wheels. And as if to be at enmity with Blackmore had been hereditary to our greatest poets, we find Mr. Pope taking up the quarrel where Dryden left it, and persecuting this worthy man with yet a severer degree of satire. Blackmore had been informed by Curl, that Mr. Pope was the author of a Travestie on the first Psalm, which he takes occasion to reprehend in his Essay on Polite Learning, vol. ii. p. 270. He ever considered it as the disgrace of genius, that it should be employed to burlesque any of the sacred compositions, which as they speak the language of inspiration, tend to awaken the soul to virtue, and inspire it with a sublime devotion. Warmed in this honourable cause, he might, perhaps, suffer his zeal to transport him to a height, which his enemies called enthusiasm; but of the two extremes, no doubt can be made, that Blackmore's was the safest, and even dullness in favour of virtue (which, by the way, was not the case with Sir Richard) is more tolerable than the brightest parts employed in the cause of lewdness and debauchery.

The poem for which Sir Richard had been most celebrated, was, undoubtedly, his Creation, now deservedly become a classic. We cannot convey a more amiable idea of this great production, than in the words of Mr. Addison, in his Spectator, Number 339, who, after having criticised on that book of Milton, which gives an account of the Works of Creation, thus proceeds, "I cannot conclude this book upon the Creation, without mentioning a poem which has lately appeared under that title. The work was undertaken with so good an intention, and executed with so great a mastery, that it deserves to be, looked upon as one of the most useful and noble productions in our English verse. The reader cannot but be pleased to find the depths of philosophy, enlivened with all the charms of poetry, and to fee so great a strength of reason amidst so beautiful a redundancy of the imagination. The author has shewn us that design in all the works of nature, which necessarily leads us to the knowledge of its first cause. In short, he has illustrated, by numberless and incontestable instances, that divine wisdom, which the son of Sirach has so nobly ascribed to the Supreme Being in his formation of the world, when he tells us, that he "created her, and saw her, and numbered her, and poured her out upon all his works."

The design of this excellent poem is to demonstrate the self-existence of an eternal mind, from the created and dependent existence of the universe, and to confute the hypothesis of the Epicureans and the Fatalists, under whom all the patrons of impiety, ancient and modern, of whatsoever denomination may be ranged. The first of whom affirm, the world was in time caused by chance, and the other, that it existed from eternity without a cause. 'Tis true, both these acknowledge the existence of Gods, but by their absurd and ridiculous description of them, it is plain, they had nothing else in view, but to avoid the obnoxious character of atheistical philosophers. To adorn this poem, no embellishments are borrowed from the exploded and obsolete theology of the ancient idolaters of Greece and Rome; no rapturous invocations are addressed to their idle deities, nor any allusions to their fabulous actions. "I have more than once (says Sir Richard) publicly declared my opinion, that a Christian poet cannot but appear monstrous and ridiculous in a Pagan dress. That though it should be granted, that the Heathen religion might be allowed a place in light and loose songs, mock heroic, and the lower lyric compositions, yet in Christian poems, of the sublime and greater kind, a mixture of the Pagan theology must, by all who are masters of reflexion and god sense, be condemned, if not as impious, at least, as impertinent and absurd. And this is a truth so clear and evident, that I make no doubt it will, by degrees, force its way, and prevail over the contrary practice. Should Britons recover their virtue, and reform their taste, they could no more bear the Heathen religion in verse, than in prose. Christian poets, as well as Christian preachers, the business of both being to instruct the people, though the last only are wholly appropriated to it, should endeavour to confirm, and spread their own religion. If a divine should begin his sermon with a solemn prayer to Bacchus or Apollo, to Mars or Venus, what would the people think of their preacher? and is it no, as really, though not equally absurd, for a poet in a great and serious poem, wherein he celebrates some wonderful and happy event of divine providence, or magnifies the illustrious instrument that was honoured to bring the event about, to address his prayer to false deities, and cry for help to the abominations of the heathen?"

Mr. Gildon, in his Compleat Art of Poetry, after speaking of our author in the most respectful terms, says, "that notwithstanding his merit, this admirable author did not think himself upon the same footing with Homer." But how different is the judgment of Mr. Dennis, who, in this particular, opposes his friend Mr. Gildon.

"Blackmore's action (says he) has neither unity, integrity, morality, nor universality, and consequently he can have no fable, and no heroic poem. His narration is neither probable, delightful, nor wonderful. His characters have none of these necessary qualifications. — The things contained in his narrations, are neither in their own nature delightful nor numerous enough, nor rightly disposed, nor surprizing. nor pathetic;" nay he proceeds so far as to say Sir Richard has no genius; first establishing it as a principle, "That genius is known by a furious joy, and pride of soul, on the conception of an extraordinary hint. Many men (says he) have their hints without these motions of fury and pride of foul because they want fire enough to agitate their spirits; and these we call cold writers. Others who have a great deal of fire, but have not excellent organs, feel the fore-mentioned motions, without the extraordinary hints and these we call fustian writers."

And he declares, that Sir Richard hath neither the hints nor the motions. But Dennis has not contented himself, with charging Blackmore with want of genius; but has likewise the following remarks to prove him a bad Church of England man: these are his words. "All Mr. Blackmore's coelestial machines, as they cannot be defended so much as by common received opinion, so are they directly contrary to the doctrine of the church of England, that miracles had ceased a long time before prince Arthur come into the world. Now if the doctrine of the church of England be true, as we are obliged to believe, then are all the coelestial machines of prince Arthur unsufferable, as wanting not only human but divine probability. But if the machines are sufferable, that is, if they have to much as divine probability, then it follows of necessity, that the doctrine of the church is false; so that I leave it to every impartial clergyman to consider."

If no greater objection could be brought against Blackmore's Prince Arthur, than those raised by Mr. Dennis, the Poem would be faultless; for what has the doctrine of the church of England to do with an epic poem? It is not the doctrine of the church of England, to suppose that the apostate spirits put the power of the Almighty to proof, by openly resisting his will, and maintaining an obstinate struggle with the angels commissioned by him, to drive them from the mansions of the bless'd; or that they attempted after their perdition, to recover heaven by violence. these are not the doctrines of the church of England; but they are conceived in a true spirit of poetry, and furnish thofe tremendous descriptions with which Milton has enriched his Paradise Lost.

Whoever has read Mr. Dryden's dedication of his Juvenal, will there perceive, that in that great man's opinion, coelestial machines might with the utmost propriety, be introduced in an Epic Poem, built upon a Christian model; but at the lame time he adds, "The guardian angels of states and kingdoms are not to he managed by a vulgar hand." Perhaps it maybe true, that the guardian angels of states and kingdoms may have been too powerful for the conduct of Sir Richard Blackmore; but he has had at least the merit of paving the way, and has set an example how Epic Poems may be written, upon the principles of christianity; and has enjoyed a comfort of which no bitterness, or raillery can deprive him, namely the virtuous intention of doing good, and as he himself expresses it, "of rescuing the Muses from the hands of ravishers, and restoring them again to their chaste and pure mansions."

Sir Richard Blackmore died on the 9th of October 1729 in an advanced age; and left behind him the character of a worthy man, a great poet, and a friend to religion. Towards the close of his life, his business as a physician declined, but as he was a man of prudent conduct, it is not to be supposed that he was subjected to any want by that accident, for in his earlier years he was considered amongst the first in his profession, and his practice was consequently very extensive.

The decay of his employment might partly be owing to old age and infirmities, which rendered him less active than before, and partly to the diminution his character might suffer by the eternal war, which the wits waged against him, who spared neither bitterness nor calumny; and, perhaps, Sir Richard may be deemed the only poet, who ever suffered for having too much religion and morality.

The following is the most accurate account we could obtain of his writings, which for the sake of distinction we have divided into classes, by which the reader may discern how various and numerous his compositions are. — To have written so much upon so great a variety of subjects, and to have written nothing contemptibly, must indicate a genius much superior to the common standard. — His versification is almost every where beautiful; and tho' he has been ridiculed in the Treatise of the Bathos, published in Pope's works, for being too minute in his descriptions of the objects of nature; yet it rather proceeded from a philosophical exactness, than a penury of genius.

It is really astonishing to find Dean Swift, joining issue with less religious wits, in laughing at Blackmore's works, of which he makes a ludicrous detail, since they were all written in the cause of virtue, which it was the Dean's business more immediately to support, as on this account he enjoy'd his preferment: But the Dean perhaps, was one of those characters, who chose to sacrifice his cause to his joke. This was a treatment Sir Richard could never have expected at the hands of a clergyman [list of works omitted].

It might justly be esteemed an injury to Blackmore, to dismiss his life without a specimen from his beautiful and philosophical Poem on the Creation. In his second Book he demonstrates the existence of a God, from the wisdom and design which appears in the motions of the heavenly orbs; but more particularly in the solar system. First in the situation of the sun, and its due distance from the earth. The fatal consequences of its having been placed otherwise than it is. Secondly, he considers its diurnal motion, whence the change of the day and night proceeds; which we shall here insert as a specimen of the elegant versification, and sublime energy of this Poem.

Next see Lucretian Sages, see the Sun,
His course diurnal, and his annual run.
How in his glorious race he moves along,
Gay as a bridegroom, as a giant strong.
Flow his unweari'd labour he repeats,
Returns at morning, and at eve retreats;
And by the distribution of his light,
Now gives to man the day, and now the night:
Night, when the drowsy Swain, and trav'ler cease
Their daily toil, and sooth their limbs with ease;
When all the weary sons of woe restrain
Their yielding cares with slumber's silken chain,
Solace sad grief, and lull reluctant pain.
And while the sun, ne'er covetous of rest,
Flies with such rapid speed from east to west,
In tracks oblique he thro' the zodiac rolls,
Between the northern and the southern poles
From which revolving progress thro' the skies,
The needful seasons of the year arise:
And as he now advances, now retreats,
Whence winter colds proceed, and summer heats,
He qualifies, and clients the air by turns,
Which winter freezes, and which summer burns:
Thus his kind rays the two extremes reduce,
And keep a temper fit for nature's use.
The frost and drought by this alternate pow'r,
The earth's prolific energy restore.
The lives of man and beast demand the change;
Hence fowls the air, and fish the ocean range.
Of heat and cold, this just successive reign,
Which does the balance of the year maintain,
The gard'ner's hopes, and farmer's patience props,
Gives vernal verdure, and autumnal crops.