1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Blacklock

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 626-27.



THOMAS BLACKLOCK was born at Annan, in Dumfriesshire, where his father was a bricklayer. Before he was six months old he was totally deprived of his sight by the small-pox. From an early age he discovered a fondness for listening to books, especially to those in poetry; and by the kindness of his friends and relations, he acquired a slight acquaintance with the Latin tongue, and with some of the popular English classics. He began also, when very young, to compose verses; and some of these having been shown to Dr. Stevenson, an eminent physician of the Scottish capital, the doctor benevolently took him to Edinburgh, where Blacklock improved his knowledge of Latin, and completed his studies at the university. The publication of his poems excited a general interest in his favour, and Professor Spence, of Oxford, having prefixed to them an account of his life and character, a second edition of them was liberally encouraged in London. In 1759, he was licensed as a preacher of the Scottish church. He soon afterward married a Miss Johnston, a very worthy, but homely woman; whose beauty, however, he was accustomed to extol with an ecstasy that made his friends regard his blindness, as, in one instance, no misfortune. By the patronage of the Earl of Selkirk, he was presented to the living of Kirkcudbright; but in consequence of the violent objections that were made by the parishioners to having a blind man for the clergyman, he resigned the living, and accepted of a small annuity in its stead. With this slender provision he returned to Edinburgh, and subsisted, for the rest of his life, by taking young gentlemen as boarders in his house, whom he occasionally assisted in their studies.

He published an interesting article on Blindness in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a work entitled Paraclesis, or Consolations of Religion, in two dissertations, the one original, the other translated from a work which has been sometimes ascribed to Cicero, but which is more generally believed to have been written by Vigonius of Padua. He died of a nervous fever, at the age of seventy.

Blacklock was a gentle and social being, but prone to melancholy; probably more from constitution than from the circumstance of his blindness, which he so often and so deeply deplores. From this despondent disposition, he sought refuge in conversation and music. He was a tolerable performer on the flute, and used to carry a flageolet in his pocket, on which he was not displeased to be solicited for a tune.

His verses are extraordinary for a man blind from his infancy; but Mr. Henry Mackenzie, in his elegant biographical account of him, has certainly over-rated his genius; and when Mr. Spence, of Oxford, submitted Blacklock's descriptive powers as a problem for metaphysicians to resolve, he attributed to his writings a degree of descriptive strength which they do not possess. Denina carried exaggeration to the utmost when he declared that Blacklock would seem a fable to posterity, as he had been a prodigy to his contemporaries. It is no doubt curious that his memory should have retained so many forms of expression for things which he had never seen; but those who have conversed with intelligent persons who have been blind from their infancy, must have often remarked in them a familiarity of language which, though not easy to be accounted for, will be found sufficiently common to make the rhymes of Blacklock appear far short of marvelous. Blacklock, on more than one occasion, betrays something like marks of blindness.