Thomas Campbell

James Grant Wilson, in Poetry of Scotland (1876) 2:1-5.

THOMAS CAMPBELL, so justly and poetically called the "Bard of Hope," was born in High Street, Glasgow, July 27, 1777, and was the youngest of a family of eleven children. His father was connected with good families in Argyleshire, and had carried on a prosperous trade as a Virginian merchant, but met with heavy losses at the outbreak of the American war. The poet was particularly fortunate in the intellectual character of his parents, his father being the intimate friend of the celebrated Dr. Thomas Reid, author of the Inquiry into the Human Mind, after whom he received his Christian name, while his mother was distinguished by her love of general literature, combined with sound understanding and a refined taste. Campbell afforded early indications of genius; as a child he was fond of verses exhibiting the delicate appreciation of the graceful flow and music of language for which his poetry was afterwards so highly distinguished. At the age of thirteen he entered the university of his native city, and though noted for his love of fun and boyish mischief, he made great progress, especially in his classical studies. The example of Professor Young, a most enthusiastic and accomplished Greek scholar, was not lost upon the congenial mind of his pupil, whose poetical translations at this period showed not only his mastery over the Greek language, but the power he already possessed over his own. At a later period of life, when travelling in Germany, he availed himself of the instructions of the celebrated Heyne, and attained such proficiency in Greek and the classics generally that he was regarded as one of the best classical scholars of his day. In speaking of his college career, which was extended to five sessions, it is worthy of notice that Professor Young, in awarded to Campbell a prize for the best translation of the Clouds of Aristophanes, pronounced it to be the best exercize which had ever been given in by any student belonging to the university. In original poetry he was also distinguished above all his classmates, so that in 1793 his Poem on Description obtained the prize in the logic class. Amongst his college companions Campbell soon became known as a poet and a wit; and on one occasion, the students having in vain made repeated application for a holiday in commemoration of some public event, he sent in a petition in verse, with which the professor was so pleased that the holiday was granted in compliment to his production. This incident was often referred to in after years by his affectionate mother, as the first-fruits of his poetical genius.

For some years our author pursued his studies with the avowed object of entering the ministry, but circumstances of which we have no authentic account induced him to change his plan. He applied himself for a short time to business, but soon gave it up, to proceed to the Highlands as a private tutor. There he found a happy home, and beautiful and romantic scenery to delight his poetic fancy, and there we can trace the germs of his first great poem. In writing to his friend Hamilton Paul, Campbell had bemoaned his solitary lot in being so far removed from all his family and friends, and begged him to send him some lines calculated to cheer him. Paul sent him a piece consisting of twelve stanzas, entitled the "Pleasures of Solitude," accompanied by a letter, in which he says, "As you have almost brought yourself to the persuasion that you are an anchorite, I send you a few lines adapted to the condition of a recluse. It is the sentiment of Dr. Moore, that the best method of making a man respectable in the eyes of others is to respect himself. Take the lines, such as they are, and be candid, but not too flattering. We have now 'three' pleasures, by first-rate men of genius: the Pleasures of Imagination, the Pleasures of Memory, and the Pleasures of Solitude, let us cherish the Pleasures of Hope that we may soon meet again in old Alma Mater." Trivial as was the hint contained in the foregoing, the circumstances under which it reached Campbell caused it to produce a powerful effect on his future career. Placed among the grandest scenery of Scotland, and without sufficient means of mental occupation, he spent much of his time in visiting the romantic localities of the neighbourhood, while the words "Pleasures of Hope," filled his mind, and at length ripened into the full fruition of his splendid poem.

Campbell had also tried the study of law, but after a brief experience of its drudgery he abounded the idea of the legal profession; and in 1798 we find him in Edinburgh, along with his parents, in the hope of obtaining literary employment, and gaining a livelihood, meanwhile, by private teaching. "And now," he says of himself, "I lived in the Scottish metropolis by instructing pupils in Greek and Latin. In this vocation I made a comfortable livelihood as long as I was industrious. But the 'Pleasures of Hope' came over me. I took long walks about Arthur's Seat, conning over my own (as I thought them) magnificent lines, and as my 'Pleasures of Hope' got on my pupils fell off." At length his poem was completed and sold to a publisher for 60. On its appearance it was received with a universal outburst of admiration, and edition after edition was rapidly sold. The young poet of twenty-one was at once accorded an honourable position in the front rank of the poets of Great Britain.

Though his reward was rather in celebrity than in pecuniary profit, Campbell was enabled by the publication of The Pleasures of Hope, for each succeeding edition of which he received the sum of 50, to gratify his desire to see foreign lands. His choice settled upon Germany, already become famous in Scotland by its rising literature and the works of Wieland, Klopstock, Schiller, and Goethe. He crossed over to Hamburg and proceeded inland as far as Ratisbon, where he saw the conflict that gave rise to the French possession of that town, and which he describes in a letter to his brother. Amidst the uncertainties produced by the war the poet's rambles were brief and irregular. He returned to Hamburg, where he made the acquaintance of Anthony M'Cann, an Irish refugee who was accused of being a leader in the rebellion of 1798. Of this gentleman he formed a favourable impression, and his expatriotism from his native land suggested one of Campbell's most exquisite poems. Our author finally settled for the winter at Altona, but the appearance of a British fleet off the Sound gave him sudden warning to provide for his safety. He therefore embarked in a small trading vessel for Leith; but, in consequence of being chased by a Danish privateer, the vessel put into Yarmouth for shelter. A trip to London naturally followed, where he was at once welcomed by the best society. Returning to the capital, he writes in his memoranda of 1801: "A lady passenger by the same ship, who has read my poems, but was personally unacquainted with me, told me, to my utter astonishment, that I had been arrested in London for high treason, was confined to the tower, and expected to be executed! I was equally unconscious of having either deserved or incurred such a sentence." He found, however, on reaching Edinburgh, that this ridiculous report was circulating in the streets, and had reached the ears of his mother. It was a wild period of rumour and suspicion, and he found that the fact of his having messed with the French officers at Ratisbon during the armistice, having been introduced to General Moreau, and having sailed as a fellow-passenger with an Irishman, had been amplified into a plot connected between himself, the gallant Moreau, and the Irish at Hamburg, to land a French army in Ireland! He at once called upon the sheriff of Edinburgh, and found to his astonishment that he believed in his guilt, and that a warrant was issued for his apprehension. This was intolerable, and the poet could not help exclaiming, "Do I live to hear a sensible man like you talking about a boy like me conspiring against the British Empire?" He submitted to a strict examination, and a box of letters and papers which he had left at Yarmouth to be forwarded to Edinburgh, but which had been seized at Leith, was at the same time opened and examined. But its contents soon put all suspicion at an end, for it contained nothing more treasonable than "Ye Mariners of England;" and the matter ended with a hearty laugh and a bottle of wine.

In 1803 Campbell espoused his cousin Matilda Sinclair, and the same year settled in London, where his reputation secured him ample literary employment. Besides a magnificent quarto edition of The Pleasures of Hope, by which he made 600, he published in three volumes a work entitled Annals of Great Britain, for which he received 300. In due course Campbell became a father; and we must quote the poet's own account of his feelings, which he describes with such beauty and tenderness. "Our first interview was when he lay in his little crib, in the midst of white muslin and dainty lace, prepared by Matilda's hands long before the stranger's arrival. I verily believe, in spite of my partiality, that lovelier babe was never smiled upon by the light of heaven. He was breathing sweetly in his first sleep. I durst not waken him, but ventured to give him one kiss. He gave a faint murmur, and opened his little azure lights.... Oh, that I could take him on my knee, and feel the strong plumpness of childhood waxing into vigorous youth! My poor boy! Shall I have the ecstasy of teaching him thoughts, and knowledge, and reciprocity of love to me? It is bold to venture into futurity so far. At present his lovely little face is a comfort to me; his lips breathe that fragrance which it is one of the loveliest kindnesses of nature that she has given to infants — a sweetness of smell more delightful than all the treasures of Arabia. What adorable beauties of God and nature's bounty we live in without knowing! How few have ever seemed to think an infant beautiful! But to me there seems to be a beauty in the earliest dawn of infancy, which is not inferior to the attractions of childhood — especially when they sleep. Their looks excite a more tender train of emotions. It is like the tremulous anxiety we feel for a candle new lighted, which we dread going out." Such was an event, which, though an important era in the life of every man, is especially so in that of a poet; and such is the description which none but a poet, and that of the highest order, could have so embodied. The above quotation is worthy of a place by the side of Campbell's best poetical productions.

In 1805 the government granted him a pension of 200 per annum, one-half of which the poet settled on his widowed mother and unmarried sisters. Had Goldsmith met with similar good fortune, how different might have been his fate, and how many more the world-famous poems that would have borne his name! In 1809 "Gertrude of Wyoming," by many considered the best of all Campbell's poems, was published. It met with unbounded applause, and raised its author to the highest pinnacle of his fame. At intervals between 1805 and 1809 The Battle of the Baltic, Hohenlinden, and O'Connor's Child had appeared in the periodicals of the day, and were greatly admired. A portion of his time was devoted to writing for the magazines; but perhaps the most agreeable and profitable of his labours was the delivery of a course of lectures on poetry at the Royal Institution, and which he afterwards re-delivered in some of the large cities throughout the kingdom.

In 1814 Campbell visited Paris, when he was introduced to Wellington, Humboldt, and many other magnates assembled there at that time, and met his old friend and correspondent Madame de Stael. On his return from the Continent his friend Sir Walter Scott endeavoured to secure him a chair in the University of Edinburgh, but his efforts were not attended with success. In 1819 he published in London the Specimens of the British Poets, and the year following he accepted the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine, at a salary of 600 per annum. To the columns of this periodical he contributed many short pieces of great merit, among others The Last Man, one of the grandest poems in the English language. A second visit to Germany, which he accomplished immediately after the commencement of his editorial duties, suggested to him the idea of the London University; and this scheme, aided by the practical minds of Brougham and Hume, was, after much difficulty, brought to a successful termination in 1825. In the following year he received the gratifying intelligence that his own alma mater had bestowed on him the highest honour by electing him Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. This honour was the most valued of his life; it was afterwards enhanced by his re-election to the office for a second and third time — a rare occurrence in the history of the college.

Prior to this time an event happened which tended to alleviate the necessity for continual toil, and brighten the prospects of his future life. This was a legacy bequeathed him by a relative amounting to about 5000. But amidst all this distinction and good fortune the mind of the poet had much to grieve and try him. In 1826 his affectionate wife, in whom he had found so congenial a partner, died, and he found himself alone in the world. Of his two sons, the younger one died in childhood, while his first-born, of whom he wrote so touchingly, had for years been in a state of lunacy, and was obliged to be in confinement. He was thus even worse than childless. The New Monthly Magazine, too, that had prospered so greatly under his care, and been a comfortable source of emolument, passed from under his management by one of those unlucky accidents to which periodical literature is especially exposed. A paper was inserted by mistake in its pages without having been subjected to his editorial examination; and as the article in question was offensive in the highest degree, Campbell abandoned the magazine and the salary which he derived from it. Soon after this an event of a public and political character moved him still more than any pecuniary loss could have done. This was the sanguinary capture of Warsaw in 1831, and the national miseries with which Poland was afterwards visited. He had embraced the cause of that most injured nation with a poet's enthusiasm, and its exiles found in him their warmest and most disinterested friend. He spoke, wrote, declaimed upon the miseries of Poland; pictured them in poetry and in prose; appealed against them in companies of every shade of political belief; exerted himself to make all feel that, instead of being a mere party question, it was the common cause of justice, honour, and humanity; and to evince his sincerity, bestowed liberally, not only of his time and labour, but also of his money, in behalf of the Polish sufferers, at a season when money was the commodity which he least could spare. And his labours were not in vain. He awoke a deep sympathy in behalf of Poland wherever his influence extended, and succeeded in establishing a committee in London for relieving the wants of thousands of Polish exiles in England.

In 1833 he finished the life of his friend Mrs. Siddons; the year following he crossed over to France, and soon after surprised his friends at home by embarking for Algiers, finding there abundant store of new and gay subjects for his pen, which he put in the form of Letters from Algiers, wand which were afterwards published in two volumes. The Pilgrim of Glencoe, the last of his considerable poems, published in 1842, was not successful even in his own estimation. For some time previous he had felt his strength drooping, and apprehending that his end was near he sold off his household furniture, and in July, 1843, repaired with a favourite niece to Boulogne, with the avowed purpose of dying there, away from the din and bustle of busy London, where there were so many objects likely to intrude upon his thoughts and time. His faithful friend, physician, and biographer, Dr. Beattie, hastened to him when he was informed that the end was at hand, and arrived with other friends in time to cheer his last hours with their affectionate sympathy. He died June 15, 1844, aged sixty-seven. No posthumous honours were wanting to Thomas Campbell. His body was removed to London, and placed in the Jerusalem Chamber in Westminster Abbey while preparations were made for the funeral. The most illustrious literary men and nobles attended his funeral, and a guard of Polish exiles asked and obtained permission escort his remains to the Poets' Corner. His friend Dean Milman read the service, and a handful of earth from the tomb of Kosciusko the Polish hero, that had been treasured for the purpose, was thrown into the grave of the noble Scotchman who had written so eloquently and laboured so successfully in behalf of Poland. His ashes now rest by the side of Sheridan's, and near the graves of Goldsmith and Addison, and over his tomb there stands a beautiful marble statue, the work of one of England's most eminent sculptors.

"There are but two noble sorts of poetry," wrote Lord Jeffrey, "the pathetic and the sublime: and we think that he (Campbell) has given us very extraordinary proofs of his talents for both." Sir Walter Scott said to Washington Irving, "What a pity it is that Campbell does not writer oftener and give full sweep to his genius! He has wings that would bear him to the skies, and he does, now and then, spread them grandly, but folds them up again and resumes his perch, as if he was afraid to launch them. The fact is, Campbell is in a manner a bugbear to himself: the brightness of his early success is a detriment to all his after efforts. His is afraid of the shadow that his own fame casts before him."