Robert Alves was born at Elgin on the 11th of December 1745. His father, with a mediocrity of fortune, encouraged by the promising genius of his son, put him to the grammar school of that burgh, where he made such a happy proficiency in classical literature, that, upon repairing to Aberdeen, he gained the highest bursary, or premium, at the annual competition for bursaries in the Marischal College and University of that city. Here he continued the usual period of four years, and in the year 1766, as he tells us himself, took his degrees in philosophy.
During the second year of his attendance at the University his Elegy on Time made its first appearance; which, as it procured him the friendship of Dr. Beattie, and other gentleman of literature seems to have fixed him in the train of the muses. This elegy afterwards, considerably enlarged and improved, was printed in a collection of poems which he published at Edinburgh in 1782.
After leaving the College he was successively schoolmaster at Deskford, in Banffshire and private tutor to the children of Mr. Morison of Bognie, in Aberdeenshire; both which characters he sustained with reputation.
During the period above mentioned he attended the Divinity Hall at Aberdeen, and seemed at that time, to have had an eye to the ministry. But he soon changed his intention; for a church falling vacant, which was in the gift of Mr. Morison, Mr. Alves had the first offer, and rejected it; conscious, perhaps of his want of that popular species of eloquence which attracts the attention of a country congregation.
Not long afterwards the grammar school of Banff becoming vacant, he applied for it, and succeeded. Here indeed was a singular instance of disinterestedness; for the emoluments of the school, at that time, did not exceed fifty pounds; and those of the clerical charge were, at least, thrice as much.
Our author came to Banff in the year 1773, and taught the grammar school with considerable reputation, till he happened to fall in love with a young lady of some beauty and fortune, to whom he paid his addresses, and to whom, under the name of Delia, he addressed some love elegies, which were published in the above-mentioned collection. Elated with the prospect of success, which he unfortunately indulged for some years, he was so much affected with his disappointment at last, that, finding no more pleasure in those places where he had been amusing himself so long with the airy dreams of approaching felicity, he resigned his charge to the magistrates, and left the town.
He, whose dependence lies in the resources of his genius and learning, naturally repairs to the metropolis, where their product is generally disposed of to the most advantage. Mr. Alves, therefore, upon leaving the school of Banff in the year 1779, came directly to Edinburgh; where he commenced private teacher of Greek, Latin, French, and Italian, in all which he was eminently skilled; and afterwards added to these the Spanish and Portugueze, in which he had made no small proficiency.
From this time he continued to reside in Edinburgh, teaching the above languages, and, occasionally, translating and compiling for booksellers, particularly some articles in the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, the Magazines, and the new edition of Salmon's Geographical Grammar; except that he retired for about nine months, and taught a gentleman's children in Clackmanshire.
The work which is now offered to the public, having been begun in the year 1784, consisted, at first, of detached pieces, which were, by degrees, combined into the present form by the advice of the late Lord Gardenstoun, who did Mr. Alves the honour to revise them, and to add several pertinent remarks, which are incorporated into the body of the Work, and marked with the letter G.
Both the History of Literature, and the Essays having been completed and corrected by the Author, the History was put to the press in the month of October last, and the whole of it was already printed, together with the first Essay, under the Author's inspection, when death put a sudden period to his life on the first day of January 1794.
With respect to his poetical productions, we refer the reader to the Author's own account, and to the approbation of the poem called the Weeping Bard, given by the authors of the English Review, and in pages 177, 178, and 179 following. With regard to the present Work, upon which he bestowed much labour, and piqued himself most, it is our opinion that it will be found to be what it professes to be, and useful Directory for guiding the judgment and forming the taste in reading the best authors.
Mr. Alves was, in stature, rather above the middle size; his complexion was dark, his visage long, his features were somewhat coarse but not disagreeable; and his countenance was serious, expressive, and manly.