1754 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Blacklock

David Hume to Joseph Spence, 15 October 1754; in Spence, Anecdotes, ed. Singer (1820) 448-53.



SIR,

The agreeable productions, with which you have entertained the Public, have long given me a desire of being known to you: But this desire, has been much encreas'd by my finding you engage so warmly in protecting a Man of Merit, so helpless as, Mr. Blacklocke, I hope you will indulge me in the Liberty I have taken of writing to you. I shall very willingly communicate all the particulars I know of him; tho' others, by their longer acquaintance with him, are better qualify'd for this undertaking.

The first time I had ever seen or heard of Mr. Blacklocke was about twelve years ago, when I met him in a visit to two young, Ladies. They informed me of his Case as far as they cou'd in a conversation carried on in his presence. I soon found him to possess a very delicate Taste, along with a passionate Love of Learning. Dr. Stevenson had, at that time taken him under his Protection; and he was perfecting himself in the Latin Tongue. I repeated to him, Mr. Pope's Elegy to the Memory of an unfortunate Lady, which I happen'd to have by heart: And though I be a very bad Reciter, I saw it affected him extremely. His eyes, indeed, the great Index of the Mind, cou'd express no Passion: but his whole Body was thrown into Agitation: That Poem was equally qualified, to touch the Delicacy of his Taste, and the Tenderness of his Feelings. I left the Town a few days after; and being long absent from Scotland, I neither saw nor heard of him for several years. At last an acquaintance of mine told me of him, and said that he would have waited on me, if his excessive Modesty had not prevented him. He soon appeared what I have ever since found him, a very elegant Genius, of a most affectionate grateful disposition, a modest backward temper, accompanied with that delicate Pride, which so naturally attends Virtue in Distress. His great Moderation and Frugality, along with the Generosity of a few persons, particularly Dr. Stevenson and Provost Alexander, had hitherto enabled him to subsist. All his good qualities are diminished, or rather perhaps embellished by a great want of Knowledge of the World. Men of very benevolent or very malignant dispositions are apt to fall into this error; because they think all mankind like themselves: But I am sorry to say that the former are apt to be most egregiously mistaken.

I have asked him whether he retained any Idea of Light or colors. He assur'd me that there remain'd not the least traces of them. I found however, that all the Poets, even the most descriptive ones, such as Milton and Thomson; were read by him with Pleasure. Thomson is one of his favorites. I remembered a story in Locke of a blind man, who said that he knew very well what Scarlet was, it was like the sound of a Trumpet. I therefore ask'd him, whether he had not formed associations of that kind, and whether he did not connect color and sound together? He answered, that as he met so often both in Books and conversation, with the terms expressing colors, he had formed some false associations, which supported him when he read, wrote, or talk'd of colors: but that the associations were of the intellectual kind. The Illumination of the Sun, for Instance, he supposed to resemble the presence of a Friend; the cheerful color of Green, to be like an amiable sympathy, &c. It was not altogether easy for me to understand him: tho' I believe, in much of our own thinking there will be found some species of association. 'Tis certain we always think in some language, viz. in that which is most familiar to us: And 'tis but too frequent to substitute Words in stead of Ideas.

If you was acquainted with any Mystic, I fancy you wou'd think Mr. Blacklocke's Case less paradoxical. The Mystics certainly have associations by which their discourse, which seems Jargon to us, becomes intelligible to themselves. I believe they commonly substitute the Feelings of a common Amour, in the place of their heavenly sympathies: And if they be not belied the Type is very apt to engross their Hearts, and exclude the thing typify'd.

A propos to this Passion, I once said to my friend, Mr. Blacklocke, that I was sure he did not treat Love as he did colors; he did not speak of it without feeling it. There appear'd too much reality in all his expressions to allow that to be suspected. Alas! said he, with a sigh, I could never bring my Heart to a proper Tranquillity on that head. Your Passion reply'd I, will always be better founded than ours, who have sight: We are so foolish as to allow ourselves to be captivated by exterior Beauty: Nothing but the Beauty of the Mind can affect you. Not altogether neither, said he: The sweetness of the Voice, has a mighty effect upon me: The symptoms of Youth too, which the Touch discovers have great Influence. And tho' such familiar approaches would be ill bred in others, the Girls of my acquaintance indulge me on account of my blindness, with the liberty of running over them with my hand. And I can by that means judge entirely of their shape. However, no doubt, Humor, and Temper and Sense and other Beauties of the Mind have an Influence upon me as upon others.

You may see from this conversation how difficult it is even for a blind man to be a perfect Platonic. But tho' Mr. Blacklocke never wants his Evanthe, who is the real object of his poetical addresses; I am well assur'd that all his Passions have been perfectly consistent with the purest Virtue and Innocence. His Life indeed has been in all respects perfectly irreproachable.

He had got some rudiments of Latin in his Youth, but could not easily read a Latin Author, till he was near twenty, when Dr. Stevenson put him to a Grammar School in Edinburgh. He got a Boy to lead him, whom he found very docible; and he taught him Latin. This Boy accompany'd him to the Greek Class in the College, and they both learned Greek. Mr. Blacklocke understands that language perfectly, and has read with a very lively pleasure all the Greek Authors of taste. Mr. William Alexander, second son to our late Provost. and present Member, was so good as to teach him French; and he is quite Master of that language. He has a very tenacious Memory and a quick Apprehension. The young Students of the College were very desirous of his company, and he reap'd the advantage of their Eyes, and they of his Instructions. He is a very good Philosopher, and in general possesses all branches of Erudition, except the Mathematical. The Lad, who first attended him having left him; he has got another Boy, whom he is beginning to instruct, and he writes me, that he is extremely pleas'd with his docility. The Boy's Parents, who are people of substance, have put him into Mr. Blacklocke's service, chiefly on account of the virtuous and learned Education, which, they know, he gives his Pupils.

As you are so generous to interest yourself in this poor Man's case, who is so much an object both of admiration and compassion, I must inform you entirely of his situation. He has gained about 100 Guineas by this last Edition of his Poems, and this is the whole stock he has in the World. He has also a Bursary, about six pounds a year. I begun a Subscription for supporting him during five years; and I made out twelve guineas a year among my acquaintance. That is a most terrible undertaking; and some unexpected refusals I met with, damp'd me, tho' they have not quite discouraged me from proceeding. We have the prospect of another Bursary of ten pounds a Year in the gift of the Exchequer; but to the shame of human Nature, we met with difficulties. Noblemen interpose with their Valet de Chamber's or Nurse's Sons, who they think wou'd be burthens on themselves. Cou'd we ensure but thirty pounds a year to this fine Genius, and Man of Virtue, he wou'd be easy and happy. For his wants are none but those which Nature has given him; tho' she has unhappily loaded him with more than other men.

His want of knowledge of the world, and the great delicacy of his Temper, render him unfit for managing Boys or teaching at School: He wou'd retain no authority. Had it not been for this defect, he cou'd have been made Professor of Greek in the University of Aberdeen.

Your Scheme of publishing his Poems by Subscription, I hope will turn to account. I think it impossible he cou'd want, were his case more generally known. I hope it will be so by your means. Sir George Lyttleton, who has so fine a Taste, and so much Benevolence of Temper, wou'd certainly, were the case laid before him in a just light, lend his assistance, or rather indeed quite overcome all difficulties. I know not, whether you have the Happiness of that Gentleman's acquaintance.

As you are a Lover of Letters, I shall inform you of a Piece of News, which will he agreeable to you: We may hope to see good Tragedies in the English Language. A young Man called Hume, a clergyman of this Country, discovers a very fine Genius for that Species of Composition. Some Years ago, he wrote a Tragedy called Agis which some of the best Judges, such as the Duke of Argyle, Sir George Lyttleton, Mr. Pitt, very much approv'd of. I own that I could perceive fine strokes in that Tragedy, I never cou'd in' general bring myself to like it: The Author, I thought, had corrupted his Taste by the Imitation of Shakspeare, whom he ought only to have admired. But the same Author has compos'd a new Tragedy on a Subject of Invention; and here he appears a true Disciple of Sophocles and Racine. I hope in time he will vindicate the English Stage from the reproach of Barbarism.

I shall be very glad if the employing my Name in your Account of Mr. Blacklocke can be of any service.

I am Sir with great Regard

Your very obedient Servant

DAVID HUME.

P.S. Mr. Blacklocke is very docible, and glad to receive corrections. I am only afraid he is too apt to have a deference for other people's Judgement. I did not see the last Edition till it was printed; but I have sent him some objections to passages, for which he was very thankful. I also desired him to retrench some Poems entirely; such as the Ode on Fortitude, and some others, which seemed to me inferior to the rest of the collection. You will very much oblige him, if you use the same freedom. I remark'd to him some Scotticisms; but you are better qualify'd for doing him that service. I have not seen any of his Essays; and am afraid his Prose is inferior to his Poetry. He will soon be in Town, when I shall be enabled to write you further particulars.