ALEXANDER GEDDES was born in the year 1737. He was the son of a small farmer at Arradowl in the parish of Ruthven and county of Banff, and of Janet Mitchell, a native of Nether Dallachy in the parish of Bellay. His parents were of the Roman Catholic religion, and, among the few books which they possessed, the most rare to persons of their denomination, was a copy of the vulgar English bible. As soon as young Geddes had been taught to read, by a village schoolmistress of the name of Sellar, he took great delight in perusing this family bible, and before he had reached his eleventh year, he is said to have known all its history by heart.
The Laird of Arradowl having engaged a student from Aberdeen, of the name of Shearer, to be domestic tutor to his two sons, he looked about among his neighbours for two or three boys of the most promising parts, who might be admitted to a gratuitous participation in the lessons given to his sons — a noble example, well worthy of imitation by men of opulence in every village throughout the kingdom. Geddes was one of three on whom his generous selection fed; and a second was his cousin, John Geddes, afterwards Bishop of Marrocco, or titular Bishop of Dankeld.
At the age of fourteen, Geddes, through the influence of the same worthy individual, was admitted into the academy of Scalan, in the Highlands, a free Roman Catholic seminary, intended for the preparatory instruction of such young men of that persuasion as are afterwards to be qualified for holy orders in some foreign university.
Never was a seminary better fitted, by its natural situation, to be a nursery for young monks, than Scalan. It lay in a lone dell, so overtopped by lofty mountains, as to require almost as perpetual a use of the lamp, as the subterranean cell of Demosthenes. Of the gloom in which it was involved, an idea may be formed from the following reply of Geddes, to one of his fellow students, who had obtained leave to pay a visit to his friends at a distance, and who asked him if he had any commands he could execute? "Pray, be so kind," replied Geddes, "as to make particular enquiries after the health of the SUN: fail not to present my compliments to him, and tell him, I still hope I shall one day be able to renew the honour of a personal acquaintance with him."
In this seminary, he added, to a knowledge of the bible in the vulgar English, a knowledge of it in the vulgar Latin; but beyond this, he appears to have gained little by seven years' long exclusion from the light.
On attaining the age of twenty-one, Geddes was removed to the Scotch College at Paris, of which the worthy Mr. Gordon was then principal. Here he completed his knowledge of the Latin language, and added a competent acquaintance with the Hebrew, Greek, French, Spanish, German, and Low Dutch. School divinity and biblical criticism were, however, the chief objects which occupied his attention. He had now an opportunity, of which he assiduously availed himself, of enriching his knowledge of the bible, by a close acquaintance with the originals; and was soon able to mark where the difference lay, between the Latin of St. Jerome, and the English of King James's translators. "I had both versions," says he, "constantly before me; and I now discovered the cause of the great difference between them. The study of the English translators, I found, had been to give a strictly literal version, at the expense of almost every other consideration; while the author of the Vulgate had endeavoured to render his originals equivalently into such Latin as was current in his age. If ever I translate the bible, said I, then it must be after this manner." The scheme of a new translation of the bible had in fact already taken full possession of his mind. The partiality which he had accidentally acquired under his father's roof, for the study of its sacred pages, had been so nursed and strengthened by every circumstance in his subsequent education, that it was now become the master passion, from which all the rest of his life was fated to take its complexion and character.
After an absence of six years, he returned to Scotland, in 1764. He was immediately ordered by his ecclesiastical superior to fix his residence at Dundee, as an officiating priest to the Catholics of the district of Angus. But he was scarcely settled here, when the Earl of Traquair, a Catholic nobleman, invited him to become an inmate in his family; and to his Lordship's seat, on the pastoral banks of the Tweed, he accordingly removed in May, 1765. "Here," says he, "I had plenty of time and a tolerable library, to enable me to continue lily favourite study. The ancient versions in the Polyglott were now alternately read and occasionally compared; and from this lecture and comparison, I was every day more and more satisfied, that a verbal version of the bible is not the most proper to convey its meaning and display its beauties."
When he had resided upwards of a twelvemonth in the hospitable mansion of Lord Traquair, he was reluctantly compelled to tear himself away from the pleasures which it afforded, by an interesting circumstance, of which Mr. Good gives the following particulars:
"A female relation of the noble Earl was at that time a co-resident in the house, and constituted a part of the family. The merit of Mr. Geddes was prominent; her own charms, and the regard she openly professed for him, were not less so: too soon he felt himself the prey of an impression, which he well knew it was not possible for him to indulge, and Buxtorff was in danger of being supplanted by Ovid. He turned philosopher, but it was in vain; self expostulation was useless; and the well-meditated resolutions of a day were often put to flight in a moment. But one step remained to be taken: he embraced it, and with more hardihood than is often necessary to obtain a victory, sounded a retreat. He had made, perhaps too hastily, his vow of religions celibacy, and its sanctity was not to be trifled with. Of two evils, he had still the consolation to think, that he had chosen the least; and, with much reluctance of heart, but an approving and sustaining conscience, he abruptly broke away from the delightful shades and the more delightful conversations of Tweedale, in less than two years after his arrival there; and, leaving behind him a beautiful but confidential little poem, entitled, THE CONFESSIONAL, addressed to the fair yet innocent author of his misfortunes, he once more took leave of his native country, and tried to forget himself amidst the greater varieties and volatilities of Paris."
After remaining in the French metropolis about nine months, during which, he made a variety of valuable extracts on biblical criticism from the public libraries, he returned to his native country in the spring of 1769. He was now appointed to the charge of a catholic congregation at Auchinhalrig, in the county of Banff, not far distant from the place of his birth. It was an uninviting charge; the people poor and bigoted; the chapel in ruins; and the parsonage-house scarcely inhabitable. Mr. Geddes, however, was not of a spirit to be disheartened by the most formidable obstacles. He lost no time in pulling the old chapel down and erecting a new one in its place; he repaired and improved the parsonage-house, so as to render it one of the most pleasant and convenient in the country. He not only superintended these labours, but bore a part in them himself; for Geddes, though most of his time had been spent over books, was as ready a carpenter, and as expert in the use of the saw and plane, as if he had been professedly brought up to the trade. As good a gardener too as he was a carpenter, he added to the house the luxury of an excellent garden; front the abundance of which he contributed liberally to the wants of his flock,
—dapibus mensas oneravit inemptis.
He pil'd their tables with unpurchas'd stores.
"Gardening and carpentering," says Mr. Good, were at all times favourite amusements with him they constituted his chief relaxation from the severity of study to the last moment of his life; and I have frequently rallied him, when at work, upon the multiplicity of his tools, which, in the article of planes of different mouldings, were more numerous than those of many professed artists, and at the dexterity with which he handled them."
In order to soften down that bigotry for which the people of Auchinhalrig were remarkable even as Roman Catholics, Mr. Geddes made it his first study to win their affections. In this he succeeded so effectually, that he seemed at last, to use the expression of one who was intimately acquainted with him at the period, "to live in the hearts of every one of his hearers." His personal kindness to them was inexhaustible; his attention to the duties of his office, punctilious; the people venerated while they loved him. The lessons of a man so regarded could not fail of making a deep and lasting impression. They were lessons of liberality and brotherly love. He exhorted his hearers to think for themselves, and to allow, without hostility, the same privilege to others. He disclaimed the old fashioned, and iniquitous doctrine, that faith ought not to be held with heretics, as altogether foreign to the spirit of genuine catholicity; and earnestly and unceasingly recommended charity unto all men, as one of the first of Christian virtues.
Such precepts, and such conduct, lessened greatly, if it did not entirely remove, that rigid disinclination to associate, which had hitherto operated as a wall of partition between the Catholics of Auchinhalrig and their Protestant neighbours; while they recommended Mr. Geddes to many invaluable friendships among the most distinguished characters of the latter persuasion. Among these, may be enumerated the Earl of Buchan, Lord Findlater, Principal Robertson, Dr. Beattie, Dr. Reid, and, indeed, almost all the professors both of Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
But while Mr. Geddes had thus the pleasure of melting into Christian charity many of the hearts of his own congregation, he had the mortification to find, that his conduct only provoked the resentment of his clerical brethren. Bishop Hay, his diocesan, menaced him with suspension from his ecclesiastical functions, unless he became more circumspect in his life and conversation, and kept himself uncontaminated by heretical intercourse. The chief delinquency with which he was charged, was his occasional appearance in the church of a Protestant friend, Mr. Crawford, the worthy minister of an adjoining parish. After some epistolary correspondence, in which Geddes is said to have hurled defiance at the narrow-minded prelate, the affair was suffered to drop.
Nor was this the only unpleasant circumstance which arose to disturb his tranquility. He had personally contracted debts to a considerable amount, in rebuilding the Chapel and repairing the Parsonage-House, in the confidence of being enabled to discharge them by subsequent contributions from persons of the Catholic persuasion. The creditors, however, became importunate before there was any appearance of the expected succours; and Mr. Geddes was beginning to suffer all the pains of pecuniary embarrassment, when the late Duke of Norfolk stepped forward in a very generous manner to his relief. His Grace, who occasionally resided on a large family estate on the Scottish borders, had heard of the zeal, liberality, and learning of the priest of Auchinhalrig, and expressed a wish for his acquaintance. An interview was brought about through the friendly intervention of the Earl of Traquair; and, upon the first intimation of the obligations which Mr. Geddes had come under in his pastoral capacity, his Grace was pleased to claim the privilege of discharging them, as an earnest of their future friendship.
Although relieved from every pecuniary distress, Mr. Geddes derived too scanty an income from his congregation not to feel many deprivations. In the hope of improving his circumstances, he took a small farm at Enzie in Fochabers, in the immediate vicinity of Auchinhalrig; and being accommodated by a friend with a sufficient loan of money to stock it, he commenced farmer with an ardour of expectation, only to be accounted for on the score of extreme simplicity. So certain did he feel of speedily realizing an independent fortune, through the natural fertility of his fields and the proverbial certainty of the seasons, that he began with what people burdened with affluence generally leave to the last, — building a chapel as an appendage to his farm. He erected, almost entirely on his own credit, a very neat and commodious place of public worship close by his farm, house; and commenced officiating alternately here and at Auchinhalrig.
The end of this second speculation needs scarcely to be told. His fields did not prove so productive, nor the seasons so auspicious, as he was sure they would be; his farm stock and his chapel remained both unpaid for; and in less than three years; he found himself in a state of embarrassment still greater than that from which the Duke of Norfolk had rescued him.
The mode which Mr. Geddes took of getting out of his difficulties on the present occasion, must seem, at first sight, almost as wise as that by which he fell into them. To be brought to the brink of ruin by farming and kirk-building, and to be saved from it by turning poetaster, must be allowed to be rather out of the usual course of events. "Foiled," says Mr. Good, "in the labours of the hand, he was determined to try whether those of the head might not be more productive." The experiment was attended with a degree of success, which perhaps surprised no one more than himself. In 1779, he published, at London, Select Satires of Horace, translated into English verse, and, for the most part, adapted to the present Times and Manners. These satires were not altogether the production of the present moment of exigency; they had occasionally occupied his previous leisure, and been gradually accumulating to the date of their publication. "Early in life," says he, in a short preface by which they were ushered into the world, "some demon whispered me that I had a turn for poetry. I readily, perhaps too readily, believed him. I wrote, was pleased with my productions, and now began to publish them in hopes of pleasing others." The publication succeeded so well, that it produced him a profit of about one hundred pounds. He gladly applied this sum to the liquidation of his debts, and being fortunate enough to receive additional assistance from other quarters, which he directed to the same object, he once more found himself freed from difficulties, in which the ardour and simplicity of his nature had involved him.
About this time, Lord Findlater having married the daughter of Count Murray, of Melgum, Mr. Geddes was employed to instruct the fair bride in the English language, with which a foreign education had left her unacquainted. At the mansion of his lordship, he formed an intimate friendship with the Rev. Mr. Buchanan, minister of Cullen, and did not hesitate occasionally to attend the church in which he officiated. The indignation of Bishop Hay was again excited by a knowledge of this circumstance: he sent an angry expostulation to Geddes; and finding that no attention was paid to it, he actually proceeded to suspend him from the exercise of his clerical functions.
Mr. Geddes felt but little regret at this illiberal proceeding; for ever since the success which his satires had experienced, he had formed in his mind the resolution of trying his fortune in London, and had only been prevented from executing his scheme by the warmth of his attachment to his spiritual flock. The tie between them was, however, now broken by a power which neither could controul. Towards the end of 1779, he took an affectionate leave of his two congregations; "and such," says Mr. Good, "was the enthusiastic regard with which his courteousness his kindness, his perpetual attention to the duties of his office, and especially to the instruction of the younger branches of his flock, had inspired them, that at the sale of his household goods, at Enzie, every one pressed forward to testify, by an extravagant bidding, his veneration and love, as well as to obtain possession of some monument of a man whose name and character were so justly dear to them. I am told by a lady who was present upon the occasion, that the most insignificant articles of furniture; even cups and saucers, though imperfect or broken, were caught at with the utmost avidity, and that the people appeared to prize the different lots they were fortunate enough to procure, rather as relics of a patron saint than as memorials of a beloved pastor."
The catholics of Auchinhalrig and Fochabers were not the only individuals who saw, with regret, the departure of Geddes from his native country. To his literary friends of the protestant communion in Aberdeen, he had become equally endeared; and through their influence, the University of that city stepped forwards with a liberality highly to its honour, and conferred on Mr. Geddes the degree of Doctor of Laws.
Dr. Geddes now left Enzie; devoted a few weeks to visits of personal friendship; and, in company with Lord Traquair, arrived at London in the beginning of the year 1780. Through the influence of that excellent nobleman, he was almost immediately appointed to be officiating priest in the Imperial Ambassador's chapel. His own literary fame, and the numerous complimentary letters which he brought with him from his friends in the north, soon introduced him to an acquaintance with many of the first English scholars of the day; and from the unrestrained use of several public and private libraries which he found thrown open to him, he was led to resume, with renewed ardour, his early project of accomplishing a new translation of the Bible. The undertaking might still, however, have languished for want of all the requisite means, had he not had the good fortune to meet with a most munificent patron for it, in the late Lord Petre. The want of a good vernacular version of the Scriptures, for the use of English catholics, was an evil which had been long lamented by Lord Petre; and hearing that Dr. Geddes entertained the project of supplying one, he sought an interview with him. The explanation which ensued proved so satisfactory to his lordship, that, with a public spirit and generosity rarely equalled, he engaged to allow Dr. Geddes a salary of two hundred pounds per annum, while employed upon the translation, and to be at the expense of whatever private library the doctor might think requisite for the purpose, leaving him in this respect totally unlimited.
Dr. Geddes, elated with this munificent provision, entered with extraordinary ardour upon the active prosecution of his favourite design. In a short time, he published a sketch of the plan on which he meant to proceed, under the title of an Idea of a new Version of the Holy Bible, for the use of the English Catholics. "Finding," he said, "sacred criticism in a favourable progress towards perfection; having before me the various readings of texts of Scripture, and the several versions made from them with a biblical apparatus (through the princely munificence of Lord Petre), which few individuals possess; grieved besides, to observe among the English Catholics all almost total want of taste for biblical studies; and wishing to remove a reproach, which, in Protestant literary companies, I had often heard made on that account — a reproach, too well founded to be repelled; I thought I could not better serve the cause of Christianity, in general, nor better consult the particular interest of that body to which I more immediately belonged, than by employing whatever portion of talents had fallen to my share, in attempting a new and faithful translation of the Bible, from corrected texts of the original, unaccompanied with any gloss, commentary, or annotations, but such as were necessary to ascertain the literal meaning of my text; and free of every sort of interpretation calculated to establish or defend, any particular system of religious credence."
At the close of 1780, the Imperial Ambassador's chapel was suppressed by an order from the Emperor Joseph the Second. Dr. Geddes continued, however, to preach occasionally at the chapel in Duke-street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, till the Easter holidays of 1782, when, finding that it interfered with the progress of his translation, he voluntarily withdrew from every stated ministerial function, and seldom officiated in any chapel whatever.
In the summer of 1781, Dr. Geddes paid a visit to Scotland, during which he wrote Linton, a Tweedale Pastoral, in honor of the birth of a son and heir to the noble house of Traquair. According to an ancient prophecy of Thomas of Lermont, when an eagle should be the offspring of a raven and a rook, joyful tidings were to arise for "the bonny men of Tweedale;" and this popular impression Geddes availed himself of very happily on the present occasion. The rook constituted the crest in the armorial bearings of the Traquaires; and his friend and patron the Earl, having married into the family of the Ravenscrofts, in whose arms the raven holds a chief place, the poet hailed in the offspring of this alliance, the eagle predicted by the prophet, on whose arrival at majority, the "bonny men of Tweedale" would be in full possession of the golden days of Saturn; when
—war, and discord, and domestic strife,
And all the other woes of human life,
Death, famine, plague, mortality, shall cease,
And all be health, and harmony, and peace....
No more religion, with fanatic hand,
Shall fan the fire of faction in the land;
But mild and gentle, like her heavenly sire,
No other flames but those of love inspire.
Papist and Protestant shall strive to raise,
In different notes, one Great Creator's praise;
Polemic volumes, on their shelves shall rot,
And Hays and Abernethies be forgot.
The Earl and Countess of Traquair having resolved to make a tour to the South of France, Dr. Geddes was invited, and agreed with much pleasure to be their companion on the journey. From France he returned to Scotland, and from Scotland to London, now burning with impatience to resume his theological pursuits, and accomplish the great object of his life, the new translation of tire Bible. About this period, a fortunate accident introduced him to the acquaintance of the celebrated Dr. Kennicott, to whom, he had hardly made known his design, "when," says the doctor, "he anticipated my wishes to have his advice and assistance towards the execution of it, with a degree of unreserved frankness and friendship which I had never before experienced in a stranger. Not contented with applauding and encouraging me himself, he pushed me forwards from my obscurity to the notice of others; he spoke of me to Barrington, he introduced me to Lowth." To Lowth, Bishop of London, "one of the most elegant scholars and first biblical critics of the age." At the suggestion of Dr. Lowth, Geddes revised his "Idea of a new version," or rather wrote an entirely new prospectus, detailing fully and explicitly the plan which he proposed to follow in his translation. When it was completed, he submitted it in manuscript to his lordship's inspection, requesting that he would mark with a black theta, such passages as might appear exceptionable. The Bishop returned the manuscript with an answer highly gratifying to the feelings of the author:
"The Bishop of London presents his compliments to Dr. Geddes, and returns with thanks his prospectus, which he has read with some care and attention, and with the fullest approbation: he finds no room for black thetas; and he doubts not but that it will give general satisfaction. He cannot help wishing that Dr. Geddes, would publish it; it would not only answer the design of introducing his work, but would really be a useful and edifying treatise for young students in Divinity."
The Prospectus did, accordingly, make its appearance in the course of next year, under the following title: Prospectus of a New Translation of the Holy Bible, from corrected Texts of the Originals compared with the ancient Versions, with various Readings, explanatory Notes, and critical Observations. It had a very general and satisfactory circulation. Not only were praises liberally bestowed, but valuable communications were imparted from different quarters of the kingdom, and even from foreign countries. The work was briefly, but elegantly, dedicated to his patron, Lord Petre, "as the first fruits of many years of powerful labour, in the pleasing hope of being able one day to lay before him the whole harvest."
On the first of November, 1785, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland elected Dr. Geddes one of their correspondent members, an honour which he acknowledged in a poetical epistle to that respectable body; written in "geud ald Scottis phrase." "It was" he says, "the hasty production of a very few leisure hours; when, after being exhausted with the incredible labour of collating a Greek manuscript, I sat down, towards the close of the day, to a solitary meal, and amused myself in trying how far I could give to the dialect of my native country an air of novelty and elegance that might not displease even a critical English reader." To have been so composed, the poem shews great powers of versification. It extends to nearly five-hundred lines, and contains not a few passages of genuine poetry. The author is particularly happy in a personification of our "Mither Tongue," as
A gentlewoman bred and born,
—thoch in tatters drest;
And who, though now neglected by the great,
Still has found an open door
Amang the uncorruptit poor....
There aft on ben-maist bink she sits,
And sharps the edge of country wits,
Wi' routh of gabby saws an' says,
An' jokes an' jibes of ither days:
That gie sik gust to rustic sport
And gar the langsome night look short.
At uther times in some warm neuk
She to the cutchok hads a book
And reids in sik a magic tone,
The deeds that our forbeirs hae done,
That ye — . . .
May see the maiden stap her wheel,
The mistress cease to turn the reel;
Lizzie wi' laddle in her hand
Til pot boil over, gapand stand:
Ev'n hungry Gib his spoon depose
And for a moment, spare his brose!
Dr. Geddes afterwards contributed to this society, "A Dissertation on the Scots Saxon dialect," and two other poems, being translations of the first, Eclogue of Virgil and the first Idillion of Theocritus, into Scottish verse. The whole of these productions are to be found in the only volume of transactions which the society has yet published.
Dr. Geddes had now made considerable progress with his translation of the Bible; but, instead of flying precipitately to the press, he determined to avail himself of the general and ardent inclination to assist him which appeared to prevail in the literary world, and with laudable modesty he once more addressed the public, through the medium of "A Letter to the Right Rev. the Bishop of London, containing queries, doubts, and difficulties relative to a vernacular version of the Holy Scriptures." It was a sort of appendix to his prospectus, and met with equal success.
During the year 1787, Dr. Geddes published, A letter to the Rev. Dr. Priestley, in which the author attempts to prove, by one prescriptive argument, that the Divinity of Jesus Christ was a primitive tenet of Christianity. How far the Doctor was right in his doctrine, I have no curiosity to enquire. I am content to find that he did not abandon for the character of a polemic, any of his amiable feelings as a man. The sentiments with which he takes leave of his opponent, present an example for all controversialists. "I cannot," he says, "allow myself to believe that the divinity of Jesus will ever be without defenders, or that its ablest defenders will not be Englishmen; but, let its defenders be mild and moderate; let them imitate the conduct of him, whose cause they undertake to plead; let not their zeal, however fervent, transport them beyond the bounds of decency and decorum; their style will not be the less nervous, because it is void of asperity; nor their arguments the less conclusive because unmixt with injuries. To discover Truth is professedly the aim of us all; let us pursue the path that seems the most likely to lead us to her abode, with ardour but not with animosity; and if we are convinced that we have been happy enough to find it out, let us not insult those who, in our estimation, may have been less successful. "Non contu meliis et probris vexemus alii alios; sed honeste positis que praejudiciis, causam decernimus."
About this period, (1787-8) the Protestant Dissenters made their celebrated application to Parliament, for a repeal of the Test Act, and their claims were advocated in a very popular pamphlet published anonymously, entitled, The Case of the Protestant Dissenters, with reference to the Test and Corporation Acts. Dr. Geddes published also anonymously a letter upon The Case of the Protestant Dissenters, addressed to a Member of Parliament. The object of it was to shew, in opposition to the author of the Case, that the Protestants were not, as they pretend, included for a temporary and dissimulative purpose, within the operation of the disqualifying acts, but that they had been at all times as truly obnoxious to government as papists, and, that allowing any evil to he apprehended from a general repeal of such statutes, government would have more to dread from the machinations of the former than of the latter.
On the commencement of the Analytical Review in May 1788, Dr. Geddes was induced to take the principal charge of that department, which includes biblical criticism and ecclesiastical history. The first article with which this journal opens, being a critique on the Variae Lectiones of De Rossi, was from the Doctor's pen. He continued connected with it for five years and a half; during which period, he is known to have contributed forty seven articles. He accompanied the Review throughout its best days, and it declined in sale from the moment that he withdrew from it.
In the course of 1783, Dr. Geddes thought his labours sufficiently advanced, to warrant another and a more explicit address to the public, upon the great object of his pursuits. He had already published his Idea of a new version, his Prospectus of a version; his Doubts, queries, &c. relative to a new version and he now added to this formidable array of preparation, Proposals for printing by subscription a new version, &c.
Having stated in his proposals that if any respectable literary character would suggest hints for improvement, or point out sources of information, with respect to the plan and execution of his work, he would receive them with thankfulness, and consider them with due attention, he soon found himself so overwhelmed with packets of correspondence that he thought proper, in July, 1790, to publish, "Dr. Geddes's general answer to the queries, councils, and criticisms, that have been communicated to him since the publication of his proposals for printing a new translation of the Bible."
In the controversy which broke out at this period, respecting the application of the English Catholics to the Legislature, for additional relief in the matter of praemunire. Dr. Geddes sided with the Catholic committee in opposition to the bishops, and wrote An answer to the Bishop of Comana's pastoral letter, by a protesting Catholic: as also An Encyclical letter of the bishops of Rama, Acanthos, and Centuriae, to the faithful clergy and laity of their respective districts, with a continued commentary for the use of the vulgar.
In 1790, Dr. Geddes published an Epistola Macaronica ad Fratrem, esteemed by one or two writers the happiest of all his sportive effusions. The subject of it was a recent dinner of the Protestant Dissenters, at the London Tavern, "de iis quae gesta sunt in nupero Dissentientium Conventu." "The different characters," says Mr. Good," are well caught and delineated with good nature rather than severity, and the quaint intermission of Latin and English, of terms classical and vulgar, commencing with one language and terminating in another, of which the grave speeches of the respective orators are composed, combine a greater quantity of burlesque, and consequently afford an ampler portion of merriment, than can ever be derived from the happiest use of the Ansteyan stanza."
Mr. Good will probably however remain to future ages singular in this opinion. Perhaps the only passage in the poem which is worthy of recollection, is that, where dropping abruptly all idea of Macaronics, and elevated by the dignity of his subject, or his own enthusiastic admiration, the author bursts forth into the following eloquent and classical strain of panegyric on Mr. Fox.
—et post hunc Foxius, ipse;
Foxius, eloquii nostro Demosthenis aevo
Unicus; et nondum venalis! — Plaudite cives:
Plaudite magnanimum concivem; plaudite verum
Humani juris ultorem; et ducite plausus
Ter ternos, donec resonabunt voce columnae, &c.
Within a few weeks after its first appearance, Dr. G. published a second edition of the Epistola Macaronica, accompanied with an English translation by a friend.
During the same year he wrote a Latin Ode on the acceptance of the new Constitution by Louis XVI. of France, entitled Carmen Saeculare pro Gallica Gente Tyrannidi Aristocraticae Erepta; and also an English translation of it from his own pen; neither of them pieces of much worth.
In 1791 the Doctor was seized with a dangerous fever; and, after he had begun to recover, accepted a pressing invitation to pay a visit to Lord Petre's seat, in Norfolk. This produced, in the ensuing year, A Norfolk Tale, or a Journey from London to Norwich, with a Prologue and an Epilogue. It is a poem, not certainly of high poetic merit, but which will always be read with pleasure for its easy versification, and the tone of good humour and generous feeling which runs through it.
The interesting question of the Slave Trade becoming, at this time, a leading topic of discussion, Dr. Geddes was not among the last to contribute his mite to the cause of humanity. Having observed, that every argument which could be seriously advanced against this abominable traffic had been employed in vain, he advanced into the field with an argument of a different description; and pretending to embrace the converse side of the question, published an Apology for Slavery, or Six cogent Arguments against the immediate Abolition of the Slave Trade. It was an appeal "ad verecundiam;" managed with a dexterity, as annoying to the enemies of the abolition, as it must have been gratifying to its friends.
On the appearance of Cowper's Translation of the Iliad in 1792, Dr. Geddes shared in the general disappointment which it gave to the public. In a fit of needless exasperation, he declared, that he would translate Homer himself, and shew, that it was possible to make as good versification while he preserved not only all the epithets and phraseologies of the original, but the very order itself. He accordingly, not long after, presented the public with a specimen comprising the whole of the first book, done after this literal fashion. How he succeeded, will be immediately seen by the manner in which he renders the beautiful invocation with which the poem commences:
The wrath sing, Goddess! of the-son-of-Peleus
Achilles, dire; which myriads on the Greeks
Of woes imposed; and many worthy souls
To Hades — prematurely sent, of heroes;
And then a prey prepared to dogs, and all
The ravenous birds; (of Jove thus was fulfilled
The will,) from what time firstly disagreed
Striving, Atrides, King of Men, and the—
Such were the spirited and harmonious sort of lines by which Dr. G. condescended to instruct a Cowper how to write blank verse! And so easily were they executed, that in contradiction to all that Cowper had said of the difficulty of writing blank verse, the Doctor, in a preface to the specimen, tells us, that it is hardly credible how readily the Greek of Homer tumbles into blank verse; insomuch, that be thinks he "can, with ease, cast off a hundred lines in a forenoon." To make the wonder of his surpassing Cowper the greater, the Doctor assures his readers, that he had not, like Cowper, the smallest assistance either from Mr. Fuseli, or "any other profound critic in Homer." "The whole merit or demerit of my version rests solely with myself." In justice to the character of the Doctor both as a poet and critic, it must be allowed, that this assurance was very necessary. Nobody could otherwise have believed, that the author of so much good poetry and good criticism, and the author of this rare version, were one and the same person. The truth is, that the Doctor never made a more unfortunate speculation in all his life; Cowper's failure was nothing to it. The cause of his hallucination on the subject was no secret to his friends. He was less offended with Cowper's translation, than out of temper with him for giving the character of "the best critic in Homer he had ever met with" to Mr. Fuseli, of whom Dr. G. happened to entertain an extremely opposite opinion. And to shew both Cowper and Fuseli how little they knew of the matter, he commenced his new version without waiting a moment to weigh his qualifications for it. The amusement which his specimen gave to the public opened his eyes to the blunder which he had committed; and he proceeded no further in his ridiculous project.
His next poetical effusion was of a redeeming character. It was a short piece, entitled L'Avocat du Diable, the Devil's Advocate, or Satan versus Pictor: tried before the Court of Uncommon Pleas. The subject of it was a notable action for damages brought in the Court of King's Bench by the late Lord Lonsdale against the celebrated Peter Pindar, for having insinuated, in one of his satires, that Mr. Fuseli, after having been long hunting for an appropriate figure, from which to paint a striking Picture of the devil, had, at last, fixed upon that of the noble Earl. Mr. Erskine was counsel for the defence; and the poem is a humorous parody of the speech which he made on that occasion.
Dr. Geddes had, hitherto, contented himself with lodgings in different parts of the town; but as his library had become of considerable magnitude, he new took a house in Allsop's Buildings, New Road, Mary-le-bone, which he fitted up almost entirely with his own hands, in a style of great literary comfort and convenience.
Although his Proposals for publishing his Translation of the Bible had now been a considerable time before the public, the list of subscribers was not yet nearly full. Relying, however, on the generosity of the public, and trusting that the work would, sooner or later, meet with its approbation, he had ventured to put the first volume to the press; and in 1792 it made its public appearance.
The manner in which this volume was translated cannot be said to have given general satisfaction. It certainly gained the Doctor more enemies than friends; it was keenly attacked by Christians of all denominations; and among those who approved it most, there were but few who chose to signalize their dissent from the prevailing opinion, by taking either an active or open part in its defence. By none was the work more abused than by the author's own Catholic brethren, for whose use it had been principally intended. The Vicars Apostolic of the Western, Northern, and London districts issued a pastoral letter, prohibiting its use and reception among the faithful committed to their spiritual jurisdiction; but stating no other ground for this act of power than that the translation had not been "examined and approved of by due ecclesiastical authority."
Dr. Geddes defended himself against this combination of hostility in a very bold and spirited manner. He first published an Address to the Public, vindicating the impartiality of his translation, and appealing to their liberality against the persecution which had commenced against him. He then wrote privately to the Vicars, remonstrating with them against the injustice they had committed in condemning his work in the lump without a hearing; and not receiving any answer to this remonstrance, he published a letter to the Right Rev. John Douglas, the Vicar Apostolic of London, but intended for the whole triumvirate, in which he complained of their conduct as uncharitable, illiberal, and arbitrary. Speaking in this last letter of the injury he had received, "Here," said he, "is a large, important, expensive work, the darling child of its author and the chief prop of his literary reputation, forbidden to all that class of readers for whom it was more specially designed, without any cause assigned but the want of a mere formality which is no where observed, which was never observed, save in those places where an Inquisition of some sort or other had been established. You say not, that you have examined it. — You say not, that it is an unfaithful version. — You point not out a single sentence which you find contrary to faith or morality. And yet you take it upon you to proscribe it in toto. And all this, because it wants, you say, the requisites which the Church requires in publishing works on scripture. You, should have said, my lord, which the discipline of the Council of Trent requires; for the discipline of the Council of Trent is not the Church, any more than the discipline of the Church is the discipline of the Council of Trent."
Although there can be no doubt that the proceedings against Dr. Geddes had taken a form of which he was justly entitled to complain, yet the only point about which posterity can be expected to care, is, whether after all, there was any thing in Dr. Geddes's version of the Scriptures, which made it proper in the Vicars Apostolic to withhold their sanction from its circulation. And in this point of view, it can only be necessary to state a very few of the novel conceptions, on which his translation proceeds to satisfy every impartial mind, that the Vicars, though they chose to be silent, were not without ample reasons to justify their conduct. Dr. Geddes starts with doubting whether Moses was the author of the Pentateuch; but the writer, whoever he may be, is one he tells us, who upon all occasions gives into the marvelous; adorns his narration with fictions of the interference of the Deity, when every thing happened in a natural way; and at other times dresses up fable in the garb of true history. The history of the creation is according to him a fabulous cosmogony; the story of the fall a mythos in which nothing but the mere imagination of the commentators, possessing more fancy than judgement, could have discovered either a seducing devil or the promise of a Saviour. It is a fable, he asserts, intended for the purpose of persuading the vulgar, that knowledge is the root of evil and the desire of it a crime. Moses was, it seems, a man of as great talents as Numa and Lycurgus were; but, like them, he was a false pretender to personal intercourse with the Deity, with whom he had no immediate communication. He had the art to take the advantage of rare but natural occurrences, to persuade the Israelites that the immediate power of God was exerted to accomplish his projects. When a violent wind happened to lay dry the head of the gulph of Suez, he persuaded them that God had made a passage for them through the sea, &c. &c. No person certainly can say, that a translation, corresponding with such notions as these, had the least claim to the sanction, either of Catholic or of Protestant. It might suit the disciples of some new faith, but was in direct hostility with the creed of almost every existing denomination of Christian believers.
It was indeed deeply mortifying, to see the labour and promise of a whole life-time in danger of being frustrated: and there is no one on whom the amiable qualities of Dr. Geddes have made that impression which they ought, but must feel for his disappointment. But, in our sympathy for the reverses of a man of genius, we must not forget the scruples of others; nor blame the guardians of an established faith, that they preferred its preservation to the interests of a merely private individual.
Notwithstanding the energy which Dr. Geddes, displayed in repelling the various attacks upon him, he sunk at last beneath their accumulated severity. He became gloomy and despondent; and it was not without some difficulty, that the assiduous attention and animating efforts of many valued friends, saved him from falling into a state of confirmed melancholy, Among these his noble patron Lord, Petre, still held the chief place. His consoling sympathies, and generous expostulations, formed at all times a source of his most pleasing recollections.
It was not, however, till after a considerable interval that Dr. Geddes was able to resume his biblical studies. The works which he produced in the meantime, were of a light and fugitive nature.
In 1793, he composed two wore Secular Odes on the French Revolution, and printed them with a second edition, under the title of Carmena Secularia Tria pro tribus Celeberrimis Libertatis Gallicae Epochis. But such was the violence of party feeling at this time, that, though printed, he was induced by his friends to suppress their publication, till the short peace of 1801-2.
In the same year he offered to the public, a translation, in Iambic rhyme, of Gresset's elegant and entertaining poem, entitled, Ver Vert, or the Parrot of Nevers. He appears not to have been aware, that this poem had already been translated by John Gilbert Cooper, and in a manner which left little to be desired. The translation of Dr. Geddes is easy and spirited, but not upon the whole superior to that of his predecessor.
In 1795, he published an Ode to the Hon. Thomas Pelham, occasioned by his speech in the Irish House of Commons on the Catholic Bill; and in 1796, a burlesque paraphrase, in verse, of a political sermon, preached by Dr. Coulthurst, on the anniversary of his Majesty's accession, before the University of Cambridge.
In 1797, the celebrated electioneering affair at Bangor, in which Dr. Warren, Bishop of the diocese, made so conspicuous a figure, furnished Dr. Geddes with a new theme for his muse. He published, on the subject, a comic-heroic poem, in nine cantos, entitled, The Battle of Bangor, or the Church's Triumph. This is undoubtedly the best of all his productions. It is skilful in its arrangement, rich in fancy and humour, and, with some exceptions, elegant in its versification. It appears to have been modelled on the plan of the Rape of the Lock, or rather the Lutrin of Despreaux.
During the same year, he published a second volume of his translation of the Bible; and in 1800, Critical Remarks on the Hebrew Scriptures, corresponding with a new translation; vol. 1, containing Remarks on the Pentateuch.
The demand for his biblical labours had, however, long ceased to keep pace either with his expectations, or with the expense of their publication; and he now became involved in a series of pecuniary difficulties, from which he saw no probability of extricating himself. In this extremity, however, his usual good fortune in money matters, did not desert him. As soon as his embarrassments became known, "it is to the credit," says Mr. Good, "of the age in which we live, "that, without any further application on his part, persons of every rank and religious persuasion, Protestants and Catholics, clergy and laity, nobility and gentry, several of whom had never known him but by name, and many of whom had openly professed a dislike of his favourite tenets, united in one charitable effort to rescue him from anxiety and distress; nor should it be forgotten, that some part, at least, of the amount subscribed, proceeded from the Right Reverend Bench itself. The sum collected and expended upon his account, from the commencement of the year 1788, to the middle of the year 1800, amounted to about nine hundred pounds."
Dr. Geddes, lightened in heart by this generous interference, now began to prepare for publication, an elaborate work, which he had originally drawn up in 1782, during the riots of Scotland and England, upon the subject of Sir George Savile's bill, in favour of persons professing the Roman Catholic religion; but had suppressed in consequence of the intemperance of the times. It was printed in 1800, under the title of A Modest Apology for the Roman Catholics of Great Britain, addressed to all moderate Protestants, particularly to the Members of both Houses of Parliament. It was published anonymously, but Geddes soon became known as the author. It excited great curiosity both at home and abroad, and was translated both into the French and German languages.
In 1801, Dr. Geddes was called upon to sustain a loss, in comparison of which every loss and disappointment he had before encountered was light and diminutive, and from the effects of which he never fully recovered — he lost his patron, Lord Petre, who died suddenly of an attack of the gout, July 2nd, 1801, aged sixty, equally lamented by the lower ranks of life, which he benefited, and the higher, which he adorned.
By his last will, his Lordship bequeathed to Dr. Geddes an annuity for life, of one hundred pounds; and his son and heir shortly after intimated, in a very polite and friendly letter, that to this sum he proposed to add a salary of the same amount.
Dr. Geddes did not long survive his benefactor. He died of a lingering and excruciating disorder, on the 26th February, 1802, in the sixty-fifth year of his age. The day before his decease, he was visited, as usual, by his friend M. St. Martin, a professor of theology, and a doctor of the Sorbonne, who had officially attended him as his priest, during the whole of his illness. On entering the room, M. St. Martin found the doctor extremely lethargic, and believed him to be in the utmost danger; he endeavoured to rouse him from his torpor, and proposed to him to receive absolution. Dr. Geddes observed that in such case it was necessary he should first make his confession. M. St. Martin was sensible that he had neither strength nor wakefulness enough for such an exertion, and replied, that in extremis, this was not necessary; that he had only to examine the state of his own mind, and to make a sign when he was prepared. M. St. Martin was a gentleman of much liberality of sentiment, but strenuously attached to what are denominated the orthodox tenets of the Catholic church; he had long beheld, with great grief of heart, what he conceived the great aberrations of his ancient friend; and had flattered himself that, in the case of this last illness, he should be the happy instrument of recalling him to a full belief of every doctrine he had rejected; and with this view, he was actually prepared, upon the present occasion, with a written list of questions, in the hope of obtaining from the Doctor an accurate and satisfactory reply. He found however, from the lethargic state of Dr. Geddes, that this regular process was impracticable. He could not avoid, nevertheless examining the state of his mind as to several of the more important points upon which they differed. "You fully," said he, "believe in the Scriptures?" He roused himself from his sleep, and said, "Certainly." — "In the doctrine of the Trinity?" — "Certainly, but not in the manner you mean." — "In the mediation of Jesus Christ?" — "No, no, no, — not as you mean: in Jesus Christ as our Saviour, — but not in the atonement." Mr. Good enquired of M. St. Martin if, whether, in the course of what had occurred, he had any reason to suppose that Dr. Geddes's religious creed either now, or in any other period of his illness, had sustained any shade of difference from what he had formerly professed. He replied that he could not possibly flatter himself with believing it had: that the most comfortable words he heard him utter, were, immediately, after a short pause, and before the administration of absolution, "I consent to all," but that to these he could affix no definite meaning. "It would have given me great pleasure," said M. St. Martin, "to have heard him recant; but I cannot with certainty say, that I perceived the least disposition in him to do so, and even the expression, "I consent to all," was either, perhaps, uttered from a wish to oblige me as his friend, or a desire to shorten the conversation, than from any change in his opinions. After having thus examined himself, however, for some minutes, he gave a sign of being ready, and received absolution as I had proposed to him. I then left him; he shook my hand heartily upon quitting him, and said that he was happy he had seen me."
Agreeably to his own desire, his remains were interred in the church-yard of Paddington, and in a spot which he had himself pointed out, for a reason which presents a striking picture of the whole character of his mind, and ought for ever to silence all doubts as to the general sincerity of his Christian belief, however much he my have erred on particular points. "I choose this spot," said he, "that when summoned from my grave, to meet my God on high, the first thing which may strike my sight on looking up, may be that noble inscription in front of the Church, "Glory to God in Heaven, and peace and good-will to men on earth."
A plain marble monument has been erected to his memory by the present Lord Petre, at the outside of the southwest entrance into the church; and to those who may wish to view the sod beneath which he reposes, a solitary yew tree, planted by his worthy friend, Dr. Calder (now also deceased) will mark out the spot. It is close by the side of the public road.
In his corporeal make Dr. Geddes was slender, but the features of his countenance were large, and protruded. "A play of cheerfulness," says Mr. Good, "beamed uniformly from his cheeks, and his animated eyes darted rather than looked benevolence. Yet, such was the irritability of his nerves, that a slight degree of opposition to his opinions, and especially when advanced by persons whose mental powers did not warrant such opposition, put to flight, in a moment, the natural character of his countenance, and cheerfulness and benevolence were exchanged for exacerbation and tumult." The portrait of Dr. Geddes, which is prefixed to Mr. Good's Memoirs of his Life and Writings, agrees with this description; but it is an exaggerated likeness. It was taken when the Doctor was in his last illness, and wasted with anguish both of mind and body. A friend happening to call on him the day after he had sat to the painter; "Do you know," said the Doctor, "I have been getting my likeness taken?" "Ah! Doctor," observed his friend, "I am afraid it must have been a likeness taken in agony." "Oh, no," rejoined the Doctor with his usual sprightliness, "I sung Latin songs all the time!" — A very fine portrait of him when in the hey-day, of health and spirits is in the possession of Mr. Corner, a gentleman of the Catholic persuasion.
Dr. Geddes was fond of society, and, except when under the influence of high wrought irritability, no man possessed more companionable qualities. His anecdote was always ready; his wit always brilliant; there was an originality of thought, a shrewdness of remark, an epigrammatic turn of expression in almost every thing which escaped him, that was sure to captivate his companions, and to induce those who had once met him, notwithstanding his habitual infirmity, to wish earnestly to meet him again.
His kindness of heart was constantly displaying itself in acts of benevolence and friendship. The moment he beheld the probability, of doing good by his own exertions, the good was, instantly done.
As a man of genius and learning, Dr. Geddes held deservedly a high rank. That his literary labours took an unfortunate direction, and that his reputation is exposed to a rapid decay from the controversial and offensive character of great part of his writings, must, at the same time, be allowed. His effusions in poetry shew, that had he devoted the strength of his faculties to the service of the Muses, instead of wasting them in an obnoxious contention with creeds of faith, his fame might have been as elevated as his happiness would have been pure and unalloyed. Such as they are, they are rather to be considered as the relaxations of a severe student than as the compositions of an author ambitious of distinction. "They discover," as Dr. Irving remarks, "what might have been effected, but are not sufficiently elaborate to be classed amongst finished compositions."
Beside the more important publications which have been mentioned in the course of this narrative, Dr. Geddes wrote several pamphlets of an ephemeral nature, and many fugitive pieces in prose and verse, in the magazines and newspapers.
He left behind him, nearly ready for publication, A new Translation of the Psalms, which was afterwards edited by Dr. Disney, and Mr. Butler. It was completed as far as the 11th verse of the 118th Psalm; and at the time of his death, printed off to the end of the 104th. A translation of the 150th Psalm was also found among his papers. The editors of the work have supplied the intermediate Psalms, from Bishop Wilson's edition.