1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Richard Blackmore

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:242-44.



RICHARD BLACKMORE, the son of an attorney, was born at Corsham, in Wiltshire, about the year 1650. He received the rudiments of education at a country school, whence he removed to Westminster; and, in 1668, he was entered at Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he graduated M.A. on the 3rd of June, 1676. He remained at the university for thirteen years, and appears to have afterwards kept a school; but soon relinquishing this business, he made a tour on the continent, with a view, it is probable, of acquiring or improving his knowledge in medicine, in which faculty he took his doctor's degree at Padua. On his return, he commenced the practice of his profession in London, in which he obtained high eminence and extensive practice; and in April, 1687, he became a fellow of the College of Physicians. His medical skill, unimpeachable moral character, and, if his own declaration be true, some share which he had in the succession of the house of Hanover, recommended him to the favour of King William; who, in 1697, conferred upon him the honour of knighthood, and appointed him one of his physicians in ordinary, a situation he afterwards held under Queen Anne.

It was about this time that he attracted much attention as an author, by the publication of his Prince Arthur, an epic poem 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." The success of this poem, at a time, says Johnson, when literary curiosity was yet confined to particular classes of the nation, raised the animosity of Dryden, Pope, and, in fact, almost all the eminent literati of the age, who exerted their utmost talents to decry it. The book was, however, praised by Locke and Molineux, though not very deservedly, if Dr. Johnson were sincere in his observation that "Dennis attacked it by a formal criticism, more tedious and disgusting than the work itself."

In 1700, Sir Richard published a Paraphrase on the Book of Job, and 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. No less than twenty different pieces were written by men of eminence against this one poem, which prove it to have been not quite so contemptible as his adversaries pretended to consider it. Undeterred by the censures of his rivals, whose most vindictive personalities failed either in arousing the fire of his anger, or depressing that of his genius, he, in 1705, put forth another epic poem in ten books, entitled Eliza; which excited neither praise nor blame, but dropped dead-born from the press. This was followed, in 1712, by his Creation, a philosophical poem, in which he at length succeeded in gaining the approbation of both friends and foes. It was pronounced by Dennis to equal that of Lucretius in the beauty of its versification, and infinitely to surpass it in the solidity and strength of its reasoning: Addison called it one of the most useful and noble productions in English verse: and Johnson says, if he had written nothing else, this poem would have transmitted him to posterity among the first favourites of the English muse.

On the cessation of The Spectator, he, in conjunction with Mr. Hughes, brought out a paper, called The Lay Monastery, which was dropped after forty numbers, and collected in a volume, entitled A Sequel to the Spectators. In 1716, in which year he became, successively, an elect, and a censor of the College of Physicians, he published two volumes of Essays upon various Subjects; which are to be commended only as they are written for the promotion of religion. In 1721, he produced A New Version of the Psalms which was recommended by the archbishop and several bishops to be used in the churches and chapels, but it does not seem ever to have obtained admission into public worship. This was succeeded by his third epic, under the title of Alfred, in twelve books, which is said to have taken its place by Eliza, in silence and darkness; benevolence being ashamed to favour, and malice having grown weary of insulting. The continued attempts, however, which had been previously made to sully his literary reputation, had, in time, the effect of injuring his professional renown, when he employed his unwelcome leisure in writing various books on physic. He died with great resignation, on the 8th of October, 1729.

The literary abilities of Sir Richard Blackmore have not been properly appreciated, either by the critics of his own, or of the present age, who seem to have overlooked the venom of the shafts directed against him, whilst admiring the fashion of the arrow, and the skilfulness of the archer. "This writer," says Mr. Duncombe, speaking of Sir Richard, "though the butt of the wits, especially of Dryden and Pope, was treated with more contempt than he deserved." And he adds, "the resentment of these wits was excited by Sir Richard's zeal for religion and virtue; by censuring the libertinism of Dryden, and the profaneness that had been attributed to Pope."

It is not to be denied that there was something absurd in Blackmore's starting epic after epic in quick succession; but, although he wrote too much, too quickly, and was deficient in point of taste, he was certainly a man of considerable learning and abilities. But whatever might have been the defects of his composition, he as far exceeded his contemporaries in purity of conduct, and rectitude of intention, as they may have surpassed him in malevolence and genius: and let it be remembered, for his honour, says Johnson, that to have been once a schoolmaster, is the only reproach, which all the perspicacity of malice, animated by wit, has ever fixed upon his private life. As a physician, Sir Richard is not highly spoken of by medical authorities, nor are his medical works, in one of which he strongly opposes inoculation for the small-pox, deserving of much consideration. The principal are A Discourse on the Plague, Treatises on the Small-Pox and the Spleen, and a Dissertation on the Gout. His other works, in addition to those before-mentioned, are The Redeemer, a poem, in six books; Modern Arians Unmasked; Just Prejudices against the Arian Hypothesis; History of the Conspiracy against William the Third; Natural Theology; and The Accomplished Preacher, which was published after his death in 1731.