1855 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Balfour

Charles Rogers, in Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855-57) 2:101-03.



ALEXANDER BALFOUR, a poet, novelist and miscellaneous writer, was born on the 1st March 1767, at Guildie, a small hamlet in the parish of Monikie, Forfarshire. His parents were in humble circumstances; and being a twin, he was supported in early life by a friend of the family, from whom he received such a religious training as exercised a highly beneficial influence on his future character. He was educated at the parish school, and evidenced precocity by essaying composition in his twelfth year. Apprenticed to a weaver, he soon became disgusted with the loom, and returned home to teach a school in his native parish. During the intervals of leisure, he wrote articles for the provincial miscellanies, the British Chronicle newspaper, and The Bee, published by Dr Anderson. In his 26th year, he became clerk to a sail-cloth manufacturer in Arbroath; and, on the death of his employer, soon afterwards, he entered into partnership with his widow. On her death, in 1800, he assumed another partner. As government-contractors for supplying the navy with canvas, the firm rapidly attained prosperity; and Balfour found abundant leisure for prosecuting his literary studies, and maintaining a correspondence with several men of letters in the capital. He had married in 1794; and deeming a country residence more advantageous for his rising family, he removed, in 1814, to Trottick, within two miles of Dundee, where he assumed the management of the branch of a London house, which for many years had been connected with his own firm. This step was lamentably unfortunate; the house, in which he had embarked his fortune, shared in the general commercial disasters of 1815, and was involved in complete bankruptcy. Reduced to a condition of dependence, Balfour accepted the situation of manager of a manufacturing establishment at Balgonie, in Fife. In 1818, he resigned this appointment; and proceeding to Edinburgh, was employed as a clerk in the establishment of Mr Blackwood, the eminent publisher. The close confinement of the counting-house, and the revolution of his fortunes, which pressed heavily upon his mind, were too powerful for his constitution. Symptoms of paralysis began to appear, shortly after his removal to the capital; and in October 1819, he was so entirely prostrated, as to require the use of a wheeled chair. His future career was that of a man of letters. During the interval which elapsed between his commercial reverses and the period of his physical debility, he prepared a novel, which he had early projected, depicting the trials and sufferings of an unbeneficed preacher. This work appeared in 1819, under the title of Campbell, or the Scottish Probationer, in three volumes; and though published anonymously, soon led to the discovery and reputation of the author. Towards the close of the same year, he edited the poetical works of his late friend, Richard Galt, to which he supplied an elegant biographical preface. His next separate publication was The Farmer's Three Daughters, a novel in three volumes. In 1820, he published Contemplation, with other poems, in one volume octavo; which, favourably received by the press, also added considerably to his fame. A third novel from his pen, entitled, The Smuggler's Cave; or, The Foundling of Glenthorn, appeared in 1823 from the unpropitious Minerva press; it consequently failed to excite much attention. To The Scots Magazine he had long been a contributor; and, on the establishment of Constable's Edinburgh Magazine in its stead, his assistance was secured by Mr Thomas Pringle, the original editor. His articles, contributed to this periodical during the nine years of its existence, contain matter sufficient to fill three octavo volumes: they are on every variety of theme, but especially the manners of Scottish rural life, which he has depicted with singular power. Of his numerous contributions in verse, a series entitled, Characters omitted in Crabbe's Parish Register, was published separately in 1825; and this production has been acknowledged as the most successful effort of his muse. It is scarcely inferior to the more celebrated composition of the English poet.

In 1827, on the application of Mr Hume, M.P., a treasury donation of one hundred pounds was conferred on Mr Balfour by the premier, Mr Canning, in consideration of his genius. His last novel, Highland Mary, in four volumes, was published shortly before his death. To the last, he contributed to the periodical publications. He died, after an illness of about two weeks' duration, on the 12th September 1829, in the sixty-third year of his age.

Though confined to his wheel-chair for a period of ten years, and otherwise debarred many of the comforts to which, in more prosperous circumstances, he had been accustomed, Alexander Balfour retained to the close of life his native placidity and gentleness. His countenance wore a perpetual smile. He joined in the amusements of the young, and took delight in the recital of the merry tale and humorous anecdote. His speech, somewhat affected by his complaint, became pleasant from the heartiness of his observations. He was an affectionate husband, and a devoted parent; his habits were strictly temperate, and he was influenced by a devout reverence for religion. A posthumous volume of his writings, under the title of Weeds and Wild-flowers, was published under the editorial care of Mr. D. M. Moir, who has prefixed an interesting memoir. As a lyrical poet, he is not entitled to a first place; his songs are, however, to be remarked for deep and genuine pathos.