1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Hugh Blair

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 1:323-25.



HUGH BLAIR, D.D., an eminent divine and sermon writer, a great grandson of Robert Blair, minister of St. Andrews, and a descendant of the Blairs of Blair, was. born at Edinburgh, April 7, 1718. His father, John Blair, cousin to the author of The Grave, was at one time a respectable merchant in that city, but afterwards, from impaired fortune, he held an office in the Excise. Hugh, the object of this article, was educated for the church at the university of Edinburgh, which he entered in October 1730, and spent eleven years in his studies. In his sixteenth year, while attending the logic class, an Essay on the Beautiful, written by him in the usual course of academical exercises, attracted the particular notice of Professor Stevenson, who appointed it to be read in public at the conclusion of the session, a mark of distinction which determined the bent of his genius to polite literature. About this time, for the more accurate acquirement of knowledge, he commenced making regular abstracts of the most important books which he read, particularly in history; and, assisted by some of his fellow-students, he constructed a very comprehensive scheme of chronological tables, which, devised by him for his own private use, was afterwards improved, filled up, and given to the public by his learned relative, Dr. John Blair, prebendary of Westminster, (a notice of whom is given subsequently) in his valuable work, The Chronology and History of the World. In 1739 Dr. Blair took his degree of M.A., and in October 1741 was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Edinburgh. Soon after the earl of Leven presented him to the parish of Collessie in Fifeshire, to which he was ordained September 23, 1742. In less than ten months thereafter he was elected second minister of the Canongate Church, Edinburgh, to which he was inducted July 14, 1743. Here he continued eleven years. Notwithstanding an inveterate burr, which somewhat impeded his pronunciation, he soon became the most popular preacher of his day, from the care and attention to style which he bestowed on his discourses. In 1745, on the breaking out of the rebellion, he preached a sermon, strongly inculcating the principles of loyalty to the reigning family, which was afterwards printed. In October 1754 he was translated by the town council to Lady Yester's, one of the parish churches of Edinburgh. In June 1757 he received the degree of D.L. from the university of St. Andrews. In June 1758 he was promoted to the High Church of Edinburgh, at the request of the lords of session and other distinguished persons who officially sat in that church.

Hitherto Dr. Blair had published nothing but two occasional sermons, some translations in verse of passages in Scripture for the psalmody of the church, and contributed one or two papers, among which was a review of Dr. Hutcheson's System of Moral Philosophy, to the first Edinburgh Review, begun in 1755, two numbers only of which were published. In 1759, having obtained the sanction of the university, he commenced a course of lectures on literary composition in the college, which was so much approved of, that the town council, the patrons of the university, agreed in the following summer to institute a rhetoric class, as a permanent part of their academical course; and April 7, 1762, the king was graciously pleased, on their recommendation, to erect and endow a professorship of rhetoric and belles lettres in the university of Edinburgh, and to appoint Dr. Blair regius professor thereof, with a salary of seventy pounds. In 1788, when increasing years obliged him to retire from the duties of his chair, he published the lectures he had delivered; and they were universally acknowledged to contain a most judicious and comprehensive system of rules for the formation and improvement of style in composition.

His first publication of importance was, A Critical Dissertation on the poems of Ossian, defending their authenticity, which, published in 1763, was prodigiously overrated on its first appearance, being declared "one of the finest pieces of critical composition in the English language." Dr. Blair took great credit to himself for his exertions in rescuing Ossian's Poems from oblivion. In a letter to Burns, the poet, dated May 4, 1787, he says: "I was the first person who brought out to the notice of the world the Poems of Ossian, first, by the Fragments of Ancient Poetry which I published, and afterwards by my setting on foot the undertaking for collecting and publishing The Works of Ossian; and I have always considered this as a meritorious action of my life." We are informed by his biographer, that it was at his solicitation and that of Home, the author of Douglas, that Mr. M'Pherson was induced to publish the Fragments of Ancient Poetry, and that their patronage was of essential service in procuring the subscription, which enabled him to make his tour through the Highlands to collect the traditionary poetry which bears the name of Ossian's Poems.

The first volume of his famous sermons was published in the year 1777. "It was not till that year," says his colleague and biographer, Dr. Finlayson, "that he could be induced to favour the world with a volume of the sermons which had so long furnished instruction and delight to his own congregation. But his volume being well received, the public approbation encouraged him to proceed; three other volumes followed at different intervals; and all of them experienced a degree of success of which few publications can boast. They circulated rapidly and widely wherever the English tongue extends; and were soon translated into almost all the languages of Europe." Soon after its first publication, the first volume attracted the notice of George the Third and his consort; a portion of the sermons, it is said, having been first read to their majesties in the royal closet, by the eloquent earl of Mansfield; and the king was so highly pleased that by a royal mandate to the exchequer in Scotland, dated July 25, 1780, he conferred a pension of two hundred pounds a year on the author, which continued till his death. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, states that Dr. Blair transmitted the manuscript of his first volume of Sermons to Mr. Strahan, the king's printer in London, who, after keeping it for some time, wrote a letter to him discouraging the publication. Mr. Strahan, however, had sent one of the sermons to Dr. Johnson for his opinion, and after his letter to Dr. Blair had been sent off, he received from Johnson, on Christmas eve, 1776, a note in which was the following paragraph: "I have read over Dr. Blair's first sermon with more than approbation: to say it is good is to say too little." After a conversation with Dr. Johnson concerning these sermons, Mr. Strahan candidly wrote again to Dr. Blair, enclosing Johnson's note, and agreeing to purchase the volume, for which he and Mr. Cadell gave one hundred pounds. The sale was so rapid and extensive, that the publishers made Dr. Blair a present of fifty pounds, and afterwards of the same sum; thus voluntarily doubling the stipulated price. For the second volume they gave him at once three hundred pounds; and we believe for the others he received six hundred pounds each. A fifth volume was prepared by him for the press, and published after his death, in 1801, with A Short Account of his Life, by James Finlayson, D.D. A larger life, by Dr. Hill, appeared in 1807. Dr. Blair died at Edinburgh, December 27, 1800. He was heard at times to say that "he was left the last of his contemporaries."

His celebrated sermons are little more than moral discourses, and they never could have attained their popularity, a popularity unprecedented in the history of theological literature, without that high polish of style so peculiar to the author. They are now comparatively neglected. Nor can we wonder at this. In his desire for elegant diction and correctness of language, he was too apt to lose sight of the illustration of scriptural doctrines; and in many instances the truths of revelation were made to give place to cold and unsatisfying moral disquisitions. In church politics, Dr. Blair was attached to the moderate party, but he did not take a prominent part in ecclesiastical discussions. From natural diffidence he never could be prevailed upon to become moderator of the General Assembly. He was very fond of reading novels, and was scrupulously particular as to his dress and appearance. He was likewise rather vain, and not unsusceptible of flattery. One of the most effective sermons he ever delivered he composed and preached in 1799, when past his eightieth year, in behalf of the fund for the benefit of the sons of the clergy. He had married, in April 1748, his cousin Catherine, daughter of the Rev. James Bannatine, one of the ministers of Edinburgh. Mrs. Blair died in 1795; by her he had a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter, who lived to her twenty-first year.