1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Balfour

James Grant Wilson, in Poetry of Scotland (1876) 1:434-35.



ALEXANDER BALFOUR, the author of four volumes of poetry and sixteen of prose, besides contributions to periodicals which would fill an equal number, was born in the parish of Monikie, Forfarshire, March 1, 1767. From his native place, where he learned weaving, and latterly taught a school, he removed in 1793 to Arbroath. He was first employed as a clerk, and afterwards carried on business as a merchant and manufacturer. In the year 1814 he removed to the vicinity of Dundee, to superintend a branch of a London house, with which he had long transacted business on a large scale; but in the disastrous summer of 1815 it was suddenly involved in bankruptcy, Balfour sharing, from the unfortunate extent of his connection with the house, the same fate. From a position of affluence he was plunged into a state of extreme poverty. In the autumn of the same year he obtained the situation of overseer of Balgonie Spinning Mills in Fifeshire, from whence he removed with his family to Edinburgh in October 1818, to enter upon the uncertain career of a man of letters.

From his earliest youth Balfour displayed a talent for composition, by occasionally contributing to the papers and periodicals of the day. Several of his poems were transmitted to James Sibbald, and by him published in the Edinburgh Magazine, of which he was the editor and proprietor. His first attempts were made at the age of twelve, the period of life when Pope and Cowley began to indite verses, and when almost all men of genius seem to show sparklings of what they are afterwards to be. From the date of his arrival in the Scottish capital until his death, September 12, 1829, his time was wholly devoted to literary pursuits. "During that period," says his biographer, "when palsy had deprived him of his locomotive powers, crippled him of speech, he composed four volumes of poetry, and sixteen volumes of prose, besides pieces in a variety of periodicals which would fill an equal number." Two of his periodical volumes, entitled Contemplation and other Poems, and Characters Omitted in Crabbe's Parish Register, were respectively published in 1820 and 1825. A few months after his death a selection appeared of his fugitive pieces in prose and verse, under the title of Weeds and Wild Flowers. The volume was enriched by a tastefully written memoir from the pen of Dr. Moir, the Delta of Blackwood's Magazine, which concludes with the following just and beautiful tribute to his laborious literary life: "To his grave Mr. Balfour carried the admiration of many, — the respect of all who knew him; and, of his writings, it may be affirmed, with equal truth as of those of Thomson, that he left "no line, which dying he could wish to blot."

In conclusion, it is pleasant to record that, in consequence of an earnest application made in Balfour's behalf by Joseph Hume, M.P., Canning conferred on the poet a treasury donation of one hundred pounds, in consideration of his genius, industry, and misfortunes.