Rev. Thomas Blacklock

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 1:312-14.

THOMAS BLACKLOCK, D.D., an ingenious poet and divine, the son of poor but industrious parents, natives of Cumberland, was born at Annan, in Dumfries-shire, November 10, 1721. Before he was six months old, he was deprived of sight by the small-pox. As he grew up, his father educated him at home to the best of his ability, and read to him instructive and entertaining books, particularly the works of Spenser, Milton, Prior, Pope, and Addison. He was also partial to those of Thomson and Allan Ramsay. By the aid of some of his companions who attended the grammar school, and pitied his misfortune, and were won by the gentleness of his disposition, he acquired an imperfect knowledge of the Latin tongue. He began to compose poetry when he was only about twelve years of age; and one of his early pieces is preserved in the collection published after his death. When he was little more than nineteen, his father, a bricklayer, was killed by the falling of a malt kiln. Some of his pieces having, about a year thereafter, come into the hands of Dr. John Stevenson, an eminent physician in Edinburgh, that gentleman struck with his talents, took upon himself the charge of his education, and invited him to that city, where he arrived in 1741. After attending a grammar school for a short time, he was enrolled as a student at the university, where he continued till the year 1745; when, in consequence of the Rebellion, and the disturbed state of the metropolis, he retired to Dumfries, to the house of Mr. M'Muldo, who had married his sister. At the close of the civil commotions he returned to Edinburgh, and pursued his studies at college for six years longer. He not only made considerable progress in the sciences, but obtained a thorough knowledge of the Greek, Latin, and French languages; the latter of which he acquired by conversation with the lady of Provost Alexander; who was a native of France. Although the chief inlets to poetical ideas were closed to him, the beauties of creation and all external objects being hid from his view, he wrote poetry, not only with facility, but with success. In 1746 he published at Glasgow an 8vo. volume of his poems, and in 1754 he brought out at Edinburgh another edition, which was very favourably received, and attracted the notice of the Rev. Joseph Spence, professor of poetry at Oxford, who wrote an account of his life and writings, with the design of introducing his name and character to the English public. In 1756 a quarto edition of his poems was published in London by subscription, which yielded him a considerable sum.

After the completion of his university course, he began to prepare himself for giving lectures on oratory to young men intended for the bar or the pulpit: but by the advice of Hume the historian, who interested himself warmly in his behalf, he abandoned the project, and turned his attention towards the church. Having devoted the usual time to the study of divinity, he was, in 1759, duly licensed for the ministry by the presbytery of Dumfries. On the alarm of a French invasion, in 1761, he published a discourse On the light improvement of Time, and in the same year he contributed some poems to the first volume of Donaldson's collection of original poems, published in Edinburgh. In 1762 he married Sarah, the daughter of Mr. Joseph Johnston, surgeon in Dumfries. The earl of Selkirk obtained for him from the Crown a presentation to the church of Kirkudbright, an his ordination took place a few days after his marriage; but his appointment was opposed by the parishioners, and after nearly two years' legal contention, he resigned his living, by the advice of his friends, for a moderate annuity. He returned to Edinburgh in 1764, and added to his income by receiving, as boarders into his house, a number of young gentlemen, whom he assisted in their studies. This system he continued till 1787, when age and increasing infirmities obliged him to give it up. In 1766 he obtained the degree of D.D. from the Marischal college, Aberdeen. In 1767 he published Paraclesis, or Consolations deduced from Natural and Revealed Religion, in two dissertations; and in 1768 Two Discourses on the Spirit and Evidences of Christianity, translated from the French of M. Armand, minister of the Walloon church in Hanan. In 1774 appeared his last publication, The Graham, a heroic ballad, in four cantos, intended to promote a good feeling betwixt the inhabitants of England and Scotland; but this poem, being considered of inferior merit, has been excluded from Mackenzie's collection of his works.

Dr. Blacklock was one of the first to appreciate the genius of Burns the poet; and it was owing to a letter from him to the Rev. Dr. Laurie, minister of Loudon, Ayrshire, that Burns, in November 1786, relinquished his design of quitting his native land for Jamaica, and trying his fortune in Edinburgh. On his arrival in the metropolis, the doctor treated him with great kindness, and introduced him to many of his literary friends. "There was, perhaps, never one among all mankind," says Heron, in a Life of Burns, in the Edinburgh Magazine, "whom you might more truly have called an angel upon earth than Dr. Blacklock. He was guileless and innocent as a child, yet endowed with many sagacity and penetration. His heart was a perpetual spring of overflowing benignity; his feelings were all tremblingly alive to the sense of the sublime, the beautiful, the tender, the pious, and the virtuous. Poetry was to him the dear solace of perpetual blindness; cheerfulness, even to gaiety, was, notwithstanding that irremediable misfortune, long the predominant colour of his mind. In his latter years, when the gloom might otherwise have thickened around him, hope, faith, devotion, tho most fervent and sublime, exalted his mind to heaven, and made him maintain his wonted cheerfulness in the expectation of a speedy dissolution."

Dr. Blacklock died at Edinburgh, July 7, 1791, and was buried in the ground of St. Cuthbert's chapel of ease. A monument was erected to his memory, with an elegant Latin inscription, from the pen of his friend and frequent correspondent, Dr. Beattie. Next to conversation, music was his chief recreation. He was a performer on several instruments, particularly the flute. He generally carried in his pocket a small flageolet, on which he played his favourite tunes. He composed with taste; and one of his pieces in this department was inserted in the Edinburgh Magazine and Review for 1774, under the title of Absence, a Pastoral, set to music by Dr. Blacklock. He left a great many sermons in manuscript, together with a treatise on morals; which were never published. The article "Blind," in the Encyclopedia Britannica, was contributed by him in 1783. He published in 1756 An Essay towards a Universal Etymology, besides one or two sermons. In 1793 appeared a quarto edition of his poems, with his life by Henry Mackenzie. His attainments in science and in general knowledge, considering his blindness, were truly wonderful; and in all respects he must be considered one of the most singular literary phenomena that has ever appeared in this or any other country.