1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Robert Anderson

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 1:133-35.



ROBERT ANDERSON, M.D., editor and biographer of the British Poets, born at Carnwath in Lanarkshire on 7th January 1750, was the fourth son of William Anderson, feuar there, and Margaret Melrose, his wife. After receiving the rudiments of his education at his native village, he was sent to the grammar school at Lanark, the master of which was Robert Thomson, who had married a sister of the poet Thomson. Two of his schoolfellows at this school were Pinkerton the historian, and James Graeme, who died young, and whose poems were afterwards included in his edition of the British poets. When only ten years old his father died in his fortieth year, leaving his widow with four sons very slenderly provided for. Robert, the youngest, showed very early a taste for reading and study, and being destined for the church, he was sent, in the year 1767, to the university of Edinburgh, where he became a student of divinity. Subsequently changing his views, he entered upon the study of medicine; and after finishing his medical studies he went to England, and was for a short time employed as surgeon to the Dispensary at Bamborough castle, Northumberland. On the 25th September 1777 he married Anne, daughter of John Grey, Esq. of Alnwick, a relative of the noble family of that name. He took his degree of doctor of medicine at Edinburgh, in May 1778. He afterwards practiced as a physician at Alnwick, but his wife's health failing, and having by his marriage secured a moderate independence, he finally returned to Edinburgh in 1784, where, in December 1785, his wife died of consumption, leaving him with three daughters, the youngest of whom soon followed her mother to the grave. In 1793 he married Margaret, daughter of Mr. David Dale, master of Yester school, Haddingtonshire. He now devoted himself to literary pursuits, and produced various works, chiefly in the department of criticism and biography. The principal of these is "The Works of the British Poets, with prefaces Biographical and Critical," in fourteen large octavo volumes, the earliest of which was published in 1792-3; the thirteenth in 1795, and the fourteenth in 1807. His correspondence with literary men of eminence was extensive. He was the friend and patron of all who evinced any literary talent. In particular he was the friend of Thomas Campbell the poet, who through his influence procured literary employment on his first coming to Edinburgh; and to Dr. Anderson Mr. Campbell dedicated his Pleasures of Hope, as it was chiefly owing to him that that most beautiful poem was first brought before the world. It was in the year 1797, when Campbell was only nineteen years of age, that his acquaintance with Dr. Anderson commenced, which forms such an important epoch in the history of both. The following account of it by Dr. Irving is extracted from Beattie's Life of Campbell: "Campbell's introduction to Dr. Anderson, which had no small influence on his brilliant career, was in a great measure accidental. He had come to Edinburgh in search of employment, when he met Mr. Hugh Park, then a teacher in Glasgow, and afterwards second master of Stirling school. Park, who was a frank and warmhearted man, was deeply interested in the fortunes of the youthful poet, which were then at their lowest ebb. His own character was held in much esteem by the doctor; and he was one day coming to pay him a visit, when the young ladies (Dr. Anderson's daughters) observed from the window that he was accompanied by a handsome lad, with whom he was engaged in earnest conversation, and who seemed reluctant to take leave. Their curiosity was naturally excited, and Campbell's story was soon told — being merely the short and simple annals of a poor scholar, not unconscious of his own powers, but placed in the most unfavourable circumstances for the development of poetical genius. Park knew that he had obtained distinction in the university of Glasgow; and he fortunately had in his pocket a poem [an Elegy written in Mull the previous year] which his young friend had written in one of the Hebrides. Dr. Anderson was struck with the turn and spirit of the verses; nor did he hesitate to declare his opinion that they exhibited a fair promise of poetical excellence. The talents, the character, and the prospects of so interesting a youth formed the chief subject of conversation during the afternoon. He expressed a cordial wish to see the author without delay, and Park's kindness was too active to neglect a commission so agreeable to himself. Campbell was accordingly introduced, and his first appearance produced a most favourable impression" [Author's note: Beattie's Life of Campbell, vol. i. p. 194]. As Campbell was anxious to obtain some literary employment, Dr. Anderson, with his characteristic zeal and sympathy in the cause of friendless merit, did not rest until the object had been attained. He warmly recommended the young poet to Mr. Mundell, the publisher, who made Campbell an offer of twenty pounds for an abridged edition of Bryan Edwards's West Indies, which Campbell accepted, and which was his first undertaking for the public press. He afterwards consulted Dr. Anderson as to the publication of his Pleasures of Hope, as his experience as an author gave peculiar weight to his opinions on this point. The manuscript, we are told, was then shown to Mr. Mundell, and after some discussion between Dr. Anderson and the publisher, the copyright was sold to him on the terms mentioned in the life of Campbell. "In the literary society," says Dr. Beattie, "which Dr. Anderson drew around him, the poem was a familiar topic in conversation, and he had soon the pleasure of finding that the opinion of other judicious critics, respecting its merits, was in harmony with his own." At that period, says Dr. Irving, "the editor of the British Poets had a very extensive acquaintance; and it was through him that Campbell formed his earliest connexions with men of letters. His house at Heriot's Green was frequented by individuals who had then risen, or who afterwards rose to great eminence. As he had relinquished all professional pursuits, his time was very much at the disposal of his friends, whatever might be their denomination. He was visited by men of learning and men of genius, and perhaps in the course of the same day by some rustic rhymer, who was anxious to consult him about publishing his works by superscription. I remember finding him in consultation with a little deformed student of physic, from the north of Ireland; who, in detailing his literary history, took occasion to mention that at some particular crisis he had no intention of persecuting the study of poetry" [Ibid vol. i. p. 241]. Before committing it to press, the manuscript of the Pleasures of Hope, by the advice of Dr. Anderson, underwent a careful revisal, and at his suggestion the opening of the poem was entirely rewritten.

In 1796 Dr. Anderson published The miscellaneous works of Tobias Smollett, M.D., with memoirs of his life and writings, six volumes octavo; which passed through six editions. His life of Smollett was also published separately, the eighth edition of which appeared in 1818, under the title of The Life of Tobias Smollett, M.D., with critical observations on his Works. He also published an elaborate Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., with critical observations on his Works, the third edition of which appeared in 1815. In 1820 he published an edition of Dr. Moore's Works, with memoirs of his life and writings. Among his other publications may be mentioned The Poetical Works of Robert Blair, with a Life, 1794. His latest production was a new edition of Blair's Grave and other poems, with his life and critical observations, Edinburgh, 1826. He was for several years editor of the Edinburgh Magazine, afterwards incorporated with the Scots Magazine, and a contributor to various periodicals. Dr. Anderson died of dropsy in the chest on the 20th February 1830, in the 81st year of his age, and was buried, by his own desire, in Carnwath churchyard. In the year 1810 his eldest daughter was married to David Irving, LL.D., author of the Life of George Buchanan, the Lives of Scottish Writers, and other works. Mrs. Irving died suddenly in 1812, leaving a son. Dr. Anderson's habits were so regular, and his disposition so cheerful and animated, that old age stole on him imperceptibly. As an instance of the strong interest which he ever took in the cause of civil and religious liberty, it may be mentioned, that, on the evening before his death, he asked for a map of Greece, that he might, to use his own words, form some notion of the general elements of this new state, which had then worked out its independence. As a literary critic he was distinguished by a warm sensibility to the beauties of poetry and by extreme candour. His personal character was marked by the most urbane manners, the most honourable probity, and by unshaken constancy in friendship.