1779 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Richard Blackmore

Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 2:235-55.



SIR RICHARD BLACKMORE is one of those men whose writings have attracted much notice, but of whose life and manners very little has been communicated, and whose lot it has been to be much oftener mentioned by enemies than by friends.

He was the son of Robert Blackmore of Corsham in Wiltshire, styled by Wood "Gentleman," and supposed to have been an attorney: having been for some time educated in a country-school he was sent at thirteen to Westminster, and in 1668 was entered at Edmund-Hall in Oxford, where he took the degree of M.A. June 3, 1676, and resided thirteen years, a much longer time than it is usual to spend at the university; and which he seems to have passed with very little attention to the business of the place, for in his poems the ancient names of nations or places which he often introduces are pronounced by chance. He afterwards travelled: at Padua he was made doctor of physick; and, after having wandered about a year and a half on the Continent, returned home.

In some part of his life, it is not known when, his indigence compelled him to teach a school; an humiliation with which, though it certainly lasted but a little while, his enemies did not forget to reproach him, when he became conspicuous enough to excite malevolence: and let it be remembered for his honour that to have been once a school-master is the only reproach which all the perspicacity of malice, animated by wit, has ever fixed upon his private life.

When he first engaged in the study of physick he enquired, as he says, of Dr. Sydenham what authors he should read, and was directed by Sydenham to Don Quixote; "which," said he, "is a very good book; I read it still." The perverseness of mankind makes it often mischievous in men of eminence to give way to merriment. The idle and the illiterate will long shelter themselves under this foolish apophthegm.

Whether he rested satisfied with this direction or sought for better, he commenced physician, and obtained high eminence and extensive practice. He became Fellow of the College of Physicians, April 12, 1687, being one of the thirty which, by the new charter of king James, were added to the former Fellows. His residence was in Cheapside, and his friends were chiefly in the city. In the early part of Blackmore's time a citizen was a term of reproach; and his place of abode was another topick to which his adversaries had recourse, in the penury of scandal.

Blackmore, therefore, was made a poet not by necessity but inclination, and wrote not for a livelihood but for fame; or, if he may tell his own motives, for a nobler purpose, to engage "poetry in the cause of virtue."

I believe it is peculiar to him that his first publick work was an heroick poem. He was not known as a maker of verses till he published (in 1695) Prince Arthur, in ten books, written, as he relates, "by such catches and starts, and in such occasional uncertain hours as his profession afforded, and for the greatest part in coffee-houses, or in passing up and down the streets." For the latter part of this apology he was accused of writing "to the rumbling of his chariot-wheels." He had read, he says, "but little poetry throughout his whole life; and for fifteen years before had not written an hundred verses, except one copy of Latin verses in praise of a friend's book."

He thinks, and with some reason, that from such a performance perfection cannot be expected; but he finds another reason for the severity of his censurers, which he expresses in language such as Cheapside easily furnished. "I am not free of the Poet's Company, having never kissed the [their] governor's hands: mine is therefore not so much as a permission-poem, but a downright interloper. Those gentlemen who [. . .] carry on their poetical trade in a joint stock would certainly do what they could to sink and ruin an unlicensed adventurer, notwithstanding I disturbed none of their factories nor imported any goods they had ever dealt in." He had lived in the city till he had learned its note.

That Prince Arthur found many readers is certain, for in two years it had three editions; a very uncommon instance of favourable reception, at a time when literary curiosity was yet confined to particular classes of the nation. Such success naturally raised animosity; and Dennis attacked it by a formal criticism, more tedious and disgusting than the work which he condemns. To this censure may be opposed the approbation of Locke and the admiration of Molineux, which are found in their printed Letters. Molineux is particularly delighted with the song of Mopas, which is therefore subjoined to this narrative.

It is remarked by Pope that what "raises the hero often sinks the man." Of Blackmore it may be said that as the poet sinks, the man rises; the animadversions of Dennis, insolent and contemptuous as they were, raised in him no implacable resentment: he and his critick were afterwards friends; and in one of his latter works he praises Dennis as "equal to Boileau in poetry, and super or to him in critical abilities."

He seems to have been more delighted with praise than pained by censure, and, instead of slackening, quickened his career. Having in two years produced ten books of Prince Arthur, in two years more (1697) he sent into the world King Arthur in twelve. The provocation was now doubled, and the resentment of wits and criticks may be supposed to have increased in proportion. He found, however, advantages more than equivalent to all their outrages; he was this year made one of the physicians in ordinary to king William, and advanced by him to the honour of knighthood, with a present of a gold chain and a medal.

The malignity of the wits attributed his knighthood to his new poem; but king William was not very studious of poetry, and Blackmore perhaps had other merit: for he says, in his Dedication to Alfred, that he had a greater part in the succession of the house of Hanover than ever he had boasted.

What Blackmore could contribute to the Succession, or what he imagined himself to have contributed, cannot now be known. That he had been of considerable use I doubt not but he believed, for I hold him to have been very honest; but he might easily make a false estimate of his own importance: those whom their virtue restrains from deceiving others are often disposed by their vanity to deceive themselves. Whether he promoted the Succession or not, he at least approved it, and adhered invariably to his principles and party through his whole life.

His ardour of poetry still continued, and not long after (1700) he published a Paraphrase of the Book of Job, and other parts of the Scripture. This performance Dryden, who pursued him with great malignity, lived long enough to ridicule in a Prologue.

The wits easily confederated against him, as Dryden, whose favour they almost all courted, was his professed adversary. He had besides given them reason for resentment, as, in his Preface to Prince Arthur, he had said of the Dramatick writers almost all that was alleged afterwards by Collier; but Blackmore's censure was cold and general, Collier's was personal and ardent: Blackmore taught his reader to dislike what Collier incited him to abhor.

In his Preface to King Arthur he endeavoured to gain at least one friend, and propitiated Congreve by higher praise of his Mourning Bride than it has obtained from any other critick.

The same year he published a Satire on Wit; a proclamation of defiance which united the poets almost all against him, and which brought upon him lampoons and ridicule from every side. This he doubtless foresaw and evidently despised; nor should his dignity of mind be without its praise had he not paid the homage to greatness which he denied to genius, and degraded himself by conferring that authority over the national taste, which he takes from the poets, upon men of high rank and wide influence, but of less wit and not greater virtue.

Here is again discovered the inhabitant of Cheapside, whose head cannot keep his poetry unmingled with trade. To hinder that intellectual bankruptcy which he affects to fear he will erect a "Bank for Wit."

In this poem he justly censured Dryden's impurities, but praised his powers; though in a subsequent edition he retained the satire and omitted the praise. What was his reason I know not; Dryden was then no longer in his way.

His head still teemed with heroick poetry, and (1705) he published Eliza in ten books. I am afraid that the world was now weary of contending about Blackmore's heroes, for I do not remember that by any author, serious or comical, I have found Eliza either praised or blamed. She "dropped," as it seems, "dead-born from the press." It is never mentioned, and was never seen by me till I borrowed it for the present occasion. Jacob says "it is corrected and revised for another impression"; but the labour of revision was thrown away.

From this time he turned some of his thoughts to the celebration of living characters, and wrote a poem on the Kit-cat Club, and Advice to the Poets how to celebrate the Duke of Marlborough; but on occasion of another year of success, thinking himself qualified to give more instruction, he again wrote a poem of Advice to a Weaver of Tapestry. Steele was then publishing The Tatler, and looking round him for something at which he might laugh unluckily lighted on Sir Richard's work, and treated it with such contempt that, as Fenton observes, he puts an end to the species of writers that gave Advice to Painters.

Not long after (1712) he published Creation, A philosophical Poem, which has been by my recommendation inserted in the late collection. Whoever judges of this by any other of Blackmore's performances will do it injury. The praise given it by Addison (Spectator 339) is too well known to be transcribed; but some notice is due to the testimony of Dennis, who calls it a "philosophical Poem, which has equalled that of Lucretius in the beauty of its versification and infinitely surpassed it in the solidity and strength of its reasoning."

Why an author surpasses himself it is natural to enquire. I have heard from Mr. Draper, an eminent bookseller, an account received by him from Ambrose Philips:

"That Blackmore as he proceeded in this poem laid his manuscript from time to time before a club of wits with whom he associated, and that every man contributed as he could either improvement or correction; so that," said Philips, "there are perhaps no where in the book thirty lines together that now stand as they were originally written."

The relation of Philips, I suppose, was true, but when all reasonable, all credible allowance is made for this friendly revision the author will still retain an ample dividend of praise; for to him must always be assigned the plan of the work, the distribution of its parts, the choice of topicks, the train of argument, and, what is yet more, the general predominance of philosophical judgement and poetical spirit. Correction seldom effects more than the suppression of faults: a happy line or a single elegance may perhaps be added; but of a large work the general character must always remain; the original constitution can be very little helped by local remedies; inherent and radical dullness will never be much invigorated by extrinsick animation.

This poem, if he had written nothing else, would have transmitted him to posterity among the first favourites of the English Muse; but to make verses was his transcendent pleasure, and as he was not deterred by censure, he was not satiated with praise.

He deviated, however, sometimes into other tracks of literature, and condescended to entertain his readers with plain prose. When The Spectator stopped he considered the polite world as destitute of entertainment, and in concert with Mr. Hughes, who wrote every third paper, published three times a week The Lay Monastery, founded on the supposition that some literary men, whose characters are described, had retired to a house in the country to enjoy philosophical leisure, and resolved to instruct the public by communicating their disquisitions and amusements. Whether any real persons were concealed under fictitious names is not known. The hero of the club is one Mr. Johnson; such a constellation of excellence that his character shall not be suppressed, though there is no great genius in the design, nor skill in the delineation.

"The first I shall name is Mr. Johnson, a gentleman that owes to Nature excellent faculties and an elevated genius, and to industry and application many acquired accomplishments. His taste is distinguishing, just, and delicate; his judgement clear and his reason strong, accompanied with an imagination full of spirit, of great compass, and stored with refined ideas. He is a critick of the first rank; and, what is his peculiar ornament, he is delivered from the ostentation, malevolence, and supercilious temper that so often blemish men of that character. His remarks result from the nature and reason of things, and are formed by a judgement free, and unbiassed by the authority of those who have lazily followed each other in the same beaten track of thinking, and are arrived only at the reputation of acute grammarians and commentators; men who have been copying one another many hundred years without any improvement, or, if they have ventured farther, have only applied in a mechanical manner the rules of antient criticks to modern writings, and with great labour discovered nothing but their own want of judgement and capacity. As Mr. Johnson penetrates to the bottom of his subject, by which means his observations are solid and natural, as well as delicate, so his design is always to bring to light something useful and ornamental; whence his character is the reverse to theirs, who have eminent abilities in insignificant knowledge, and a great felicity in finding out trifles. He is no less industrious to search out the merit of an author than sagacious in discerning his beauties than exposing the blemishes of a laudable writing: like Horace, in a long work, he can bear some deformities, and justly lay them on the imperfection of human nature, which is incapable of faultless productions. When an excellent Drama appears in publick, and by its intrinsick worth attracts a general applause, he is not stung with envy and spleen; nor does he express a savage nature in fastening upon the celebrated author, dwelling upon his imaginary defects, and passing over his conspicuous excellences. He treats all writers upon the same impartial foot; and is not, like the little criticks, taken up entirely in finding out only the beauties of the ancient, and nothing but the errors of the modern writers. Never did any one express more kindness and good nature to young and unfinished authors: he promotes their interests, protects their reputation, extenuates their faults, and sets off their virtues, and by his candour guards them from the severity of his judgement. He is not like those dry criticks, who are morose because they cannot write themselves, but is himself master of a good vein in poetry; and though he does not often employ it, yet he has sometimes entertained his friends with his unpublished performances."

The rest of the Lay Monks seem to be but feeble mortals in comparison with the gigantick Johnson, who yet, with all his abilities and the help of the fraternity, could drive the publication but to forty papers, which were afterwards collected into a volume, and called in the title A [The] Sequel to the Spectators.

Some years afterwards (1716 and 1717) he published two volumes of essays in prose which can be commended only as they are written for the highest and noblest purpose, the promotion of religion. Blackmore's prose is not the prose of a poet; for it is languid, sluggish, and lifeless: his diction is neither daring nor exact, his flow neither rapid nor easy, and his periods neither smooth nor strong. His account of Wit will shew with how little clearness he is content to think, and how little his thoughts are recommended by his language.

"As to its efficient cause, Wit owes its production to an extraordinary and peculiar temperament in the constitution of the possessor [possessors] of it, in which is found a concurrence of regular and exalted ferments and an affluence of animal spirits, refined and rectified to a great degree of purity, whence, being endowed with vivacity, brightness, and celerity as well in their reflexions as direct motions, they become proper instruments for the spritely operations of the mind; by which means the imagination can with great facility range the wide field of Nature, contemplate and infinite variety of objects, and by observing the similitude and disagreement of their several qualities, single out and abstract, and then suit and unite those ideas which will best serve its purpose. Hence beautiful allusions, surprising metaphors, and admirable sentiments are always ready at hand; and while the fancy if full of images collected from innumerable objects and their different qualities, relations, and habitudes, it can at pleasure dress a common notion in a strange but becoming garb, by which, as before observed, the same thought will appear a new one, to the great delight and wonder of the hearer. What we call 'genius' results from this particular happy complexion in the first formation of the person that enjoys it, and is Nature's gift, but diversified by various specifick characters and limitations, as its active fire is blended and allayed by different proportions of phlegm, or reduced and regulated by the contrast of opposite ferments. Therefore, as there happens in the composition of a facetious genius a greater or less, though still an inferior, degree of judgement and prudence [and different kinds of instincts, and passions], one man of wit will be varied and distinguished from another."

In these essays he took little care to propitiate the wits, for he scorns to avert their malice at the expence of virtue or of truth.

"Several in their books have many sarcastical and spiteful strokes at religion in general, while others make themselves pleasant with the principles of the Christian. Of the last kind this age has seen a most audacious example in the book intituled A Tale of a Tub. Had this writing been published in a pagan or popish nation, who are justly impatient of all indignity offered to the established religion of their country, no doubt but the author would have received the punishment he deserved. But the fate of this impious buffoon is very different; for in a protestant kingdom, zealous of their civil and religious immunities, he has not only escaped affronts and the effects of publick resentment, but has been caressed and patronized by persons of great figure, and of all denominations. Violent party-men, who differed in all things besides, agreed in their turn to shew particular respect and friendship to this insolent derider of the worship of his country, till at last the reputed writer is not only gone off with impunity, but triumphs in his dignity and preferment. I do not know that any inquiry or search was ever made after this writing, or that any reward was ever offered for the discovery of the author, or that the infamous book was ever condemned to be burnt in publick: whether this proceeds from the excessive esteem and love that men in power during the late reign had for wit, or their defect of zeal and concern for the Christian Religion, will be determined best by those who are best acquainted with their character."

In another place he speaks with becoming abhorrence of a "godless author" who has burlesqued a Psalm. This author was supposed to be Pope, who published a reward for any one that would produce the coiner of the accusation, but never denied it, and was afterwards the perpetual and incessant enemy of Blackmore.

One of his essays is upon the spleen, which is treated by him so much to his own satisfaction that he has published the same thoughts in the same words, first in The Lay Monastery, then in the Essay, and then in the Preface to a Medical Treatise on the Spleen. One passage, which I have found already twice, I will here exhibit, because l think it better imagined and better expressed than could be expected from the common tenour of his prose:

"As the several combinations of splenetic madness and folly [madness and spleen and folly] produce an infinite variety of irregular understanding [understandings], so the amicable accommodation and alliance between several virtues and vices produce an equal diversity in the dispositions and manners of mankind; whence it comes to pass that as many monstrous and absurd productions are found in the moral as in the intellectual world. How surprising is it to observe among the least culpable men some whose minds are attracted by heaven and earth with a seeming equal force; some who are proud of [in] humility; others who are censorious and uncharitable, yet self-denying and devout; some who join contempt of the world with sordid avarice; and others who preserve a great degree of piety with ill-nature and ungoverned passions: nor are instances of this inconsistent mixture less frequent among bad men, where we often with admiration see persons at once generous and unjust, impious lovers of their country and flagitious heroes, good-natured sharpers, immoral men of honour, and libertines who will sooner die than change their religion; and though it is true that repugnant coalitions of so high a degree are found but in a part of mankind, yet none of the whole mass, either good or bad, are entirely exempted from some absurd mixture [mixtures]."

He about this time (Aug. 22, 1716) became one of the Elects of the College of Physicians, and was soon after (Oct. l) chosen Censor. He seems to have arrived late, whatever was the reason, at his medical honours.

Having succeeded so well in his book on Creation, by which he established the great principle of all religion, he thought his undertaking imperfect unless he likewise enforced the truth of revelation; and for that purpose added another poem on Redemption. He had likewise written, before his Creation, three books on The Nature of Man.

The lovers of musical devotion have always wished for a more happy metrical version than they have yet obtained of the book of Psalms; this wish the piety of Blackmore led him to gratify, and he produced (1721) A new Version of the Psalms of David, fitted to the Tunes used in Churches, which, being recommended by the archbishops and many bishops, obtained a license for its admission into publick worship; but no admission has it yet obtained, nor has it any right to come where Brady and Tate have got possession. Blackmore's name must be added to those of many others who, by the same attempt, have obtained only the praise of meaning well.

He was not yet deterred from heroick poetry; there was another monarch of this island (for he did not fetch his heroes from foreign countries) whom he considered as worthy of the epick muse, and he dignified Alfred (1723) with twelve books. But the opinion of the nation was now settled; a hero introduced by Blackmore was not likely to find either respect or kindness. Alfred took his place by Eliza in silence and darkness: benevolence was ashamed to favour, and malice was weary of insulting. Of his four epick poems the first had such reputation and popularity as enraged the criticks; the second was at least known enough to be ridiculed; the two last had neither friends nor enemies.

Contempt is a kind of gangrene, which if it seizes one part of a character corrupts all the rest by degrees. Blackmore, being despised as a poet, was in time neglected as a physician: his practice, which was once invidiously great, forsook him in the latter part of his life; but being by nature or by principle averse from idleness he employed his unwelcome leisure in writing books on physick, and teaching others to cure those whom he could himself cure no longer. I know not whether I can enumerate all the treatises by which he has endeavoured to diffuse the art of healing; for there is scarcely any distemper of dreadful name which he has not taught his reader how to oppose. He has written on the small-pox, with a vehement invective against inoculation; on consumptions, the spleen, the gout, the rheumatism, the king's-evil, the dropsy, the jaundice, the stone, the diabetes, and the plague.

Of those books, if I had read them, it could not be expected that I should be able to give a critical account. I have been told that there is something in them of vexation and discontent, discovered by a perpetual attempt to degrade physick from its sublimity, and to represent it as attainable without much previous or concomitant learning. By the transient glances which I have thrown upon them I have observed an affected contempt of the Ancients, and a supercilious derision of transmitted knowledge. Of this indecent arrogance the following quotation from his Preface to the Treatise on the Small-pox will afford a specimen; in which when the reader finds, what I fear is true, that when he was censuring Hippocrates he did not know the difference between "aphorism" and "apophthegm," he will not pay much regard to his determinations concerning ancient learning.

"As for this book of Aphorisms it is like my lord Bacon's of the same title, a book of jests or a grave collection of trite and trifling observations, of which though many are true and certain, yet they signify nothing, and may afford diversion, but no instruction: most of them being much inferior to the sayings of the wise men of Greece, which yet are so low and mean that we are entertained every day with more valuable sentiments at the table-conversation of ingenious and learned men."

I am unwilling, however, to leave him in total disgrace, and will therefore quote from another Preface a passage less reprehensible.

"Some gentlemen have been disingenuous and unjust to me by wresting and forcing my meaning in the Preface to another book, as if I condemned and exposed all learning, though they knew I declared that I greatly honoured and esteemed all men of superior literature and erudition; and that I only undervalued false or superficial learning, that signifies nothing for the service of mankind and that, as to physick I expressly affirmed that learning must be joined with native genius to make a physician of the first rank; but if those talents are separated I asserted, and do still insist, that a man of native sagacity and diligence will prove a more able and useful practiser than a heavy notional scholar, encumbered with a heap of confused ideas."

He was not only a poet and a physician, but produced likewise a work of a different kind, A true and impartial History of the Conspiracy against King William, of glorious Memory, in in the Year 1695. This I have never seen, but suppose it at least compiled with integrity. He engaged likewise in theological controversy, and wrote two books against the Arians: Just Prejudices against the Arian Hypothesis, and Modern Arians unmasked. Another of his works is Natural Theology, or Moral Duties considered apart from Positive; with Observations on the Desirableness and Necessity of a supernatural Revelation. This was the last book that he published. He left behind him The accomplished Preacher, or an Essay upon Divine Eloquence, which was printed after his death by Mr. White of Nayland in Essex, the minister who attended his death-bed, and testified the fervent piety of his last hours. He died on the eighth of October, 1729.

Blackmore by the unremitted enmity of the wits, whom he provoked more by his virtue than his dulness, has been exposed to worse treatment than he deserved; his name was so long used to point every epigram upon dull writers that it became at last a bye-word of contempt: but it deserves observation that malignity takes hold only of his writings, and that his life passed without reproach, even when his boldness of reprehension naturally turned upon him many eyes desirous to espy faults, which many tongues would have made haste to publish. But those who could not blame could at least forbear to praise, and therefore of his private life and domestick character there are no memorials.

As an author he may justly claim the honours of magnanimity. The incessant attacks of his enemies, whether serious or merry, are never discovered to have disturbed his quiet, or to have lessened his confidence in himself; they neither awed him to silence nor to caution; they neither provoked him to petulance nor depressed him to complaint. While the distributors of literary fame were endeavouring to depreciate and degrade him he either despised or defied them, wrote on as he had written before, and never turned aside to quiet them by civility or repress them by confutation.

He depended with great security on his own powers, and perhaps was for that reason less diligent in perusing books. His literature was, I think, but small. What he knew of antiquity I suspect him to have gathered from modern compilers; but though he could not boast of much critical knowledge his mind was stored with general principles, and he left minute researches to those whom he considered as little minds.

With this disposition he wrote most of his poems. Having formed a magnificent design he was careless of particular and subordinate elegances; he studied no niceties of versification; he waited for no felicities of fancy; but caught his first thoughts in the first words in which they were presented: nor does it appear that he saw beyond his own performances, or had ever elevated his views to that ideal perfection which every genius born to excel is condemned always to pursue, and never overtake. In the first suggestions of his imagination he acquiesced; he thought them good, and did not seek for better. His works may be read a long time without the occurrence of a single line that stands prominent from the rest.

The poem on Creation has, however, the appearance of more circumspection; it wants neither harmony of numbers, accuracy of thought, nor elegance of diction: it has either been written with great care, or, what cannot be imagined of so long a work, with such felicity as made care less necessary.

Its two constituent parts are ratiocinations and description. To reason in verse is allowed to be difficult; but Blackmore not only reasons in verse, but very often reasons poetically; and finds the art of uniting ornament with strength, and ease with closeness. This is a skill which Pope might have condescended to learn from him, when he needed it so much in his Moral Essays.

In his descriptions both of life and nature the poet and the philosopher happily co-operate; truth is recommended by elegance, and elegance sustained by truth.

In the structure and order of the poem not only the greater parts are properly consecutive, but the didactick and illustrative paragraphs are so happily mingled that labour is relieved by pleasure, and the attention is led on through a long succession of varied excellence to the original position, the fundamental principle of wisdom and of virtue.

As the heroick poems of Blackmore are now little read it is thought proper to insert as a specimen from Prince Arthur the song of Mopas mentioned by Molineux [omitted].