1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Blacklock

Alexander Campbell, in Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland (1798) 224-28.



THOMAS BLACKLOCK, D.D. who, blind from his infancy, scarcely recollected that ever his eyes, doom'd to perpetual darkness, beheld the diurnal changes of sun and shade. In vivid language few, however, have equalled, and doubtless none have surpassed this extraordinary man. He portrayed the face of the material, as well as intellectual world, with ease and exactness: and this, by the way, may serve to show in the clearest manner, how essential to knowledge, the instrument of just and appropriate language is, when properly applied to express our ideas and modes of thinking, in whatever train our reasonings are conducted; whence "the inseparable connection between words and knowledge." — I would say, that Dr. Blacklock was a striking instance of the above remark; as evidently appears, from his being blind almost from birth.

His ideas of external nature were unquestionably stored in his mind, by means of appropriate language; by a ready command of which, he could readily combine, associate, arrange, and express his comprehensive ratiocinations with a strictly logical perspicuity and accuracy, that astonished all whoever heard him speak, or have read what he has written.

Early in life he became the admiration of Europe, for he had been noticed by several philosophers, and among the rest the celebrated Diderot, in his letter on the blind, a work of great ingenuity, and depth of thought.

Of the gentlest manners, the most perfect good nature, the kindest and most affectionate demeanour to all around him, he could not fail to be sincerely beloved; and his genius and acquirements rendered him truly respectable, as an accomplished scholar, and excellent poet.

His parents were placed in the humblest sphere of life; and lived in Annan, Dumfries county, where our poet was born, 10th December, 1721. His father (by trade a brick-layer) was killed by the accidental fall of a malt barn, in 1740; this melancholy event was a great mean of forcing him from that retirement so congenial to his feelings, and having attracted the notice of several persons of taste, among the rest, Dr. John Stevenson (to whom he inscribes his first ode) appears to have been his most zealous friend; at his expence, he was maintained and educated for four years. On breaking out of the Rebellion 1745, he retired to Dumfries, and lived a short time in family with a brother-in-law; thence he went to Glasgow and published a collection, in small octavo, of his poems in 1746. When tranquility was completely restored, our author returned to Edinburgh, and pursued his studies for several years, at the university there. He had made a good account of his time, for he not only had acquired a competent knowledge of the dead, but also made himself acquainted with some of the living languages, with the various branches of philosophy, and the belles lettres.

In 1754 he published at Edinburgh a second edition of his poems. His literary circle was enlarged, and he counted among his friends David Hume, the historian.

About this time, he seems to have attracted the notice of our Southern neighbours. Mr. Spence, the friend of Dodsley, was so struck by the beauty and classical elegance of our blind boy's poetry, that he made such enquiry after him to enable him to publish an account of his "life, character, and poems" in London, 1754. It was from this publication that the celebrated Diderot obtained his information respecting Blacklock.

In 1759 he was licenced a preacher of the gospel. In 1762 he married Miss Sarah Johnson of Dumfries, and a few days after, he was appointed, in consequence of a presentation from the Crown, to the parish of Kirkcudbrigh.

But, in this new situation, he experienced all the tortures his extreme sensibility subjected him to, in the unfavourable reception the inhabitants of his parish gave him, when called to officiate as the spiritual instructor. Various reasons have been assigned for their unkindness to so truly pious and benevolent a teacher. Among others, some political disputes between the townsmen and Lord Selkirk, which disposed some of them to show resentment on this occasion. Another reason of dissatisfaction is said to have been that of our poet's blindness. But the true cause, in all probability, was the unconquerable aversion of the people to patronage.

At the end of two years, Blacklock retired on a provision allowed him, by way of annuity, with which he was satisfied, and soon after came to reside in Edinburgh, where he remained till his death, which happened on the 7th July, 1791, in the 70th year of his age.

In recalling to my remembrance the amiable and truly respected subject of this slight notice, the appearance of the man often presents itself. In his person he exceeded not the middle size, but his erect posture gave an air of dignity, mingled with perfect simplicity, and a peculiar involuntary motion, the effect of habit, added not a little to interest the beholder, as it usually accompanied the glow of his feelings in conversation. To his accomplishments he added, that of a taste for music; and he excelled in singing the melodies of his country. I have heard him often bear a part in a chorus with much judgment and precision. His knowledge of the scientific part of music, was by no means inconsiderable.

I shall never forget a meeting I had the pleasure to witness, where a large party were assembled in a friend's house, at tea, one evening, in winter 1787, between our poet and the celebrated itinerant philosopher, Dr. Henry Moyes. They came up to each other — shook hands most cordially — were happy to "see" each other — sat down — chairs pulled quite close — they involuntarily took hold of each other's hands — felt them with seeming pleasure — then, as if not sufficiently satisfied, they mutually extended their enquiring fingers over each other's arms, shoulders, face, breast, &c. — asked each other's welfare — news, &c. &c. By one who delights only in tracing the history of ambition, the humble anecdotes of domestic life may be viewed with indifference. It rarely happens, in one age, and in the same country, that two individuals, blind from their infancy, so celebrated too, have an opportunity of meeting, so that the man of observation and feeling, may contemplate so interesting an interview.

The prose and poetical works of Blacklock are so well known, and have been so ably criticised by Mr. M'Kenzie, Dr. Anderson, and others, as to require but very general notice in this place. His prose works, (among which, his Paracelsis deserves particular notice) are deemed worthy the divine, and the moralist. His poetry, though not of the first class, possesses so great a share of the requisites of art, as to hold a distinguished rank among the works of the minor poets of Great Britain.