1835 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Chalmers

John Bowyer Nichols, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine (February 1835) 207-10.



Dec. 10. In Throgmorton-street, in his 76th year, Alexander Chalmers, Esq. M.A. F.S.A. one of the most eminent Biographers that Great Britain has ever produced.

He was born at Aberdeen, March 29, 1759, the youngest son of James Chalmers, and Susanna Trail, daughter of the Rev. James Trail, minister at Montrose.

His father was a printer at Aberdeen, well skilled in the learned languages; and established the first newspaper known at Aberdeen; which, after his death in Sept. 1764, was carried on by his eldest son, and is now the property of his grandson, Mr. David Chalmers. His grandfather, the Rev. James Chalmers, professor of Divinity in the Marischal college, died much regretted Oct. 8, 1744, aged 58. The family of Trail, from which Mr. Chalmers was descended on the mother's side, is highly respectable and of great antiquity.

Having received a classical and medical education, about the year 1777 he left his native city, and, what is remarkable, he never returned to it. He had obtained the situation of surgeon in the West Indies, and had arrived at Portsmouth to join his ship, when he suddenly altered his mind, and proceeded to the Metropolis. He soon became connected with the periodical press. His literary career commenced about the same time with that of his townsman the late James Perry, esq., the latter as a writer in the General Advertiser, and the former as the editor of the Public Ledger and London Packet. This was during the American war, when party spirit ran very high. At this period Mr. Chalmers acquired considerable fame as a political writer. He also contributed to the other popular journals of the day. In the St. James's Chronicle he wrote numerous essays, many of them under the signature of SENEX. To the Morning Chronicle, the property of his friend Mr. Perry, he was for some years a valuable assistant. His contributions consisted of smart paragraphs, epigrams, and satirical poems. He was also at one time editor of the Morning Herald.

Mr. Chalmers was, early connected in business with Mr. George Robinson, the celebrated publisher, in Paternoster-row. He assisted him in judging of MSS. offered for publication, as well as occasionally fitting the same for the public eye. He was also a contributor to the Critical Review, then published by Mr. Robinson; and to the Analytical Review, published by Mr. Johnson. At this period he lived almost wholly with Mr. Robinson; and on his death Mr. Chalmers recorded his friendship for him by a memoir in the Gentleman's Magazine for June 1801.

Mr. Chalmers was most indefatigable and laborious in his studies and devotion to literature. No man ever edited so many works for the booksellers of London; and his attention to accuracy of collation, his depth of research as to facts, and his discrimination as to the character of the authors under his review, cannot be too highly praised.

In 1793 he published a Continuation of the History of England, in letters, 2 vols.;—2d edition, 1798; 3d edition 1803; 4th edition 1821. In 1797 he compiled a Glossary to Shakspeare; in 1798 a sketch of the Isle of Wight; and published an edition of the Rev. James Barclay's complete and universal English Dictionary.

In 1803 he edited The British Essayists, with prefaces historical and biographical, and a General Index, 45 vols. This series begins with the Tatler, and ends with the Observer. The papers were collated with the original editions; and the Prefaces give accounts of the works, and of the lives of such of the writers as are less generally known. Another edition of this work was called for in 1808; and it has since been reprinted.

In 1803 he prepared an edition of Shakspeare, in 9 vols. 8vo. with an abridgment of the more copious notes of Steevens, and a life of Shakspeare. This edition was accompanied by plates from designs by H. Fuseli, esq. R.A. Mr. Chalmers took particular pains with the text, which is believed to be the most correct of any edition yet published.—Reprinted in 1812.

In 1805 he wrote a Life of Burns, and a Life of Dr. Beattie, prefixed to their respective works. In the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

In 1806 he edited Fielding's works, 10 vols. 8vo; Dr. Johnson's works, 12 vols. 8vo; Warton's Essays; the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, 14 vols. 8vo; and assisted the Rev. W. Lisle Bowles in the publication of Pope's Works, 10 vols. 8vo. 1807.

In 1807 he edited Gibbon's History, with a Life of the Author, 12 vols. 8vo.

In 1808, and following years, he prefixed Prefaces to the greater part of the volumes of a Collection, selected by himself, known as "Walker's Classics," from the name of their publisher. They consisted of 45 vols. and met with great encouragement.

In 1809 he edited Bolingbroke's works, 8 vols. 8vo.; and in this and subsequent years, he contributed many of the lives to the magnificent volumes of the British Gallery of Contemporary Portraits, published by Cadell and Davies. These notices, though short, are authentic and valuable.

In 1810 he revised an enlarged edition of The Works of the English Poets from Chaucer to Cowper; including the series edited, with Prefaces, biographical and critical, by Dr. Johnson, and the most approved Translations. The additional lives by Mr. Chalmers." In 21 vols. royal 8vo.

In the same year he published A History of the Colleges, Halls, and Public Buildings attached to the University of Oxford, including the lives of the Founders; a work which he undertook at the request of his old friend Mr. Cooke the bookseller at Oxford, and from which he derived much pleasure. It displays his usual patient diligence and minute inquiry. The work was rendered more attractive by a neat set of engravings by Messrs. Storer and Greig. In the preface, Mr. Chalmers promised to continue the subject by a History of the University; but that was never published.

In 1811 he revised through the press Bishop Hurd's edition of Addison's Works, 6 vols. 8vo; and an edition of Pope's Works in 8 vols. 18mo.

In the same year, he republished, with corrections and alterations, a periodical paper, entitled The Projector, 3 vols. 8vo. These essays were originally printed in the Gentleman's Magazine. They began in Jan. 1802 and were continued monthly to Nov. 1809. He had previously written a periodical paper, called The Trifler, in the Aberdeen Magazine; but those essays were never printed separately.

in 1812, be prefixed a life of Alexander Cruden, to the sixth edition of his Concordance.

But the work on which Mr. Chalmers' fame as an author chiefly rests is The General Biographical Dictionary: containing an historical and critical account of the Lives and Writings of the most eminent Men in every Nation; particularly the British and Irish; from the earliest accounts to the present times. The first four volumes of this work were published monthly, commencing in May 1812, and then a volume every alternate month, to the 32d and last volume in March 1817, a period of 4 years and 10 months of incessant labour and of many personal privations. Fortunately his health and spirits were wonderfully supported, and he was cheered during the progress of the work by the approbation of those whom it is desirable to please. Of the extent of Mr. Chalmers's labours some idea may be collected from the following statement. The preceding edition of this Dictionary, 1798, was in 15 vols.: the present in 32 vols. It was augmented by 3934 additional lives; and of the remaining number 2176 were rewritten, and the whole revised and corrected. The total number of articles exceed 9000. The general fidelity of Mr. Chalmers's labours stands conspicuous and unimpeached. In each article the sources whence it is derived are pointed out; the works of authors are enumerated; and in proportioning the length of an article to the quality and interest of the subject, due consistency is observed. Unwarped by prejudice, he pursued his labours with fearlessness, candour, and impartiality; and whilst the purity of his taste prevented injudicious commendation, the rectitude of his principles forbad the palliation of those qualities, which a high-toned moral feeling will neither pardon nor disguise.

In Nov. 1816 he republished, The Lives of Dr. Edward Pocock, the celebrated, Orientalist, by Dr. Twells; of Dr. Zachary Pearce, Bp. of Rochester, and of Dr. Thomas Newton, Bp. of Bristol, by themselves; and of the Rev. Philip Skelton, by Mr. Burdy, in 2 vols. 8vo. These lives are chiefly valuable as belonging to that species of Biography called the minute. The undertaking first suggested itself to Mr. Chalmers, by a perusal of the interesting life of Dr. Pocock; and the other lives were selected as containing, with respect to more modern times, an equally considerable portion of curious history, ecclesiastical, political, and literary. To the whole work Mr. Chalmers added an index of proper names.

In 1819 Mr. Chalmers published, County Biography, 4 numbers; and a Life of Dr. Paley, prefixed to his Works.

In 1820, he published A Dictionary of the English Language, abridged from the Rev. H. J. Todd's enlarged edition of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary. 1 vol. 8vo. In Mr. Chalmers's Abridgement every word in Mr. Todd's edition is given, Mr. Todd having enriched the original work of Dr. Johnson with several thousand words. Of this work a second edition was printed in 1824.

In 1822, he edited the ninth edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson; in 1823, a new edition of Shakspeare; and another edition of Dr. Johnson's works.

For many years Mr. Chalmers had been employed by the booksellers in revising and enlarging his Biographical Dictionary. But of late his ill state of health precluded the possibility of his close attention to so arduous a task. We regret, therefore, to say that only about a third of the work, as far as the end of the letter D, is ready for the press.

Mr. Chalmers was a valuable contributor to the Gentleman's Magazine, to which he was very partial, finding it of the greatest use in the compilation of his biographical works. Some of his earliest communications are enumerated below.

With the late Mr. John Nichols he was in the strictest bonds of friendship, rendered doubly pleasing by the similarity of their literary pursuits. For many years scarcely a week elapsed without an interchange of friendly literary communications relative to the works on which they were engaged, and that the public were benefited by their intercourse was frequently acknowledged by both writers in the prefaces to their respective works. This friendship continued unabated till the death of Mr. Nichols, when Mr. Chalmers wrote a biography of him, which is one of the fullest and most pleasing memoirs which ever appeared of a long and laborious literary life.

With most of the other principal printers and booksellers of London during the last 50 years, Mr. Chalmers lived on terms of intimacy; and has frequently recorded his esteem for them in the Obituary of our Magazine.

Alexander Chalmers was in the strictest sense of the terms, an honest, honourable man, and a true Christian. His piety was rational, and operative on his life and conduct. His was a happy religion, productive of a serenity of mind and benevolence of feeling towards all mankind. On settling in the Metropolis, he became a sincere member of the Church of England, and attended chiefly on the ministry of his friends, the Rev. Watts Wilkinson and the Rev. Josiah Pratt. He was charitable almost to a fault; and even munificent when be conceived himself called upon to set a good example.

Mr. Chalmers was a warm and affectionate friend, and a delightful companion, being very convivial, and his conversation replete both with wit and information. He belonged to various literary clubs of the old school, of which he was nearly the last surviving member.

In 1783 Mr. Chalmers married Elizabeth, the widow of Mr. John Gillett. She died in June 1816.

Mr. Chalmers suffered much from illness during the last few years of his life. His death was occasioned by the effects of inflammation of bronchia, having been previously much worn down by long confinement to his house, rendered necessary in consequence of frequent suffering from local irritation attended by homaturia, as well as from anasarca.

He was buried Dec. 19, in the same vault with his wife in the church of St. Bartholomew by the Royal Exchange. The service was performed by his friend the rector of that parish, the Rev. Dr. Shepherd; and his remains were accompanied to the grave by his two nephews, Mr. David Chalmers of Aberdeen, and Dr. Chalmers of Croydon; by the Rev. Josiah Pratt; and by several other of his old friends, among whom was the writer of this article, who highly esteemed him living, and deeply regrets his loss.

Mr. Chalmers has left a very valuable library principally relative to Biography and Literary History, enriched with many interesting notes and anecdotes, which will be sold by auction by Messrs. Sotheby.

There is no engraving of Mr. Chalmers; but three likenesses of him are existing: one, in crayons, by Mr. Wainewright, in possession of his executor H. Foss, esq. of Pall Mall; another, a small-sized portrait, the entire figure, by W. Dyce, the property of Mrs. Brown, his niece; and a third, a splendid miniature by Robertson, in possession of his nephew Mr. D. Chalmers, and one of the happiest efforts of that distinguished artist.