This very extraordinary poet was born in the year 1721, at Annan in the county of Dumfries, in Scotland. His parents were natives of Cumberland, of the lower order, but industrious and well informed. Before he was six months old he lost his sight by the small-pox, and therefore as to all purposes of memory or imagination, may be said never to have enjoyed that blessing. His father and friends endeavoured to lessen the calamity by reading those books which might convey the instruction suitable to infancy, and as he advanced, they proceeded to others which he appeared to relish and remember, particularly the works of Spenser, Milton, Prior, Pope, and Addison. And such was the kindness which his helpless situation and gentle temper excited, that he was seldom without some companion who carried on this singular course of education, until he had even acquired some knowledge of the Latin tongue. It is probable that he remembered much of all that was read to him, but his mind began very early to make a choice. He first discovered a predilection for English poetry, and then at the age of twelve endeavoured to imitate it in various attempts, one of which is preserved in the present collection, but rather with a view to mark the commencement than the perfection of his talent.
In this manner his life appears to have past for the first nineteen years of his life, at the end of which he had the misfortune to lose his father, who was killed by the accidental fall of a malt-kiln. For about a year after this, he continued to live at home, and began to be noticed as a young man of genius and acquirements such as were not to be expected in one in his situation. His poems, which had increased in number as he grew up, were now handed about in manuscript, with confidence that they were worthy of the attention of the discerning, and some of them having been shown to Dr. Stevenson, an eminent physician of Edinburgh, he formed the benevolent design of removing the author to that city, where his genius might be improved by a regular education. He came accordingly to Edinburgh in the year 1741, and continued his studies in the university, under his kind patron, till the year 1745, and in 1746 a volume of his poems, in octavo, was published, but with what effect we are not told. The rebellion, however, which then raged in Scotland, disturbed arts and learning, and our author returned to Dumfries, where he found an asylum in the house of Mr. M'Murdo, who had married his sister, and who by company and conversation, endeavoured to amuse his solitude, and keep up his stock of learning. At the close of the rebellion, he returned to Edinburgh, and pursued his studies for six years longer.
He now obtained the acquaintance of Hume, the celebrated historian, who interested himself with great zeal in his behalf, and among other services, promoted the publication of the quarto edition of his poems in 1756, but previously to this a second edition of the octavo had been published at Edinburgh in 1754. In this last mentioned year, he became known to the rev. Joseph Spence, poetry professor of Oxford, who introduced him to the English public, by Mr Account of the Life, Character and Poems of Mr. Blacklock, student of Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. In this pamphlet Mr. Spence detailed the extraordinary circumstances of his education and genius with equal taste and humanity, and a subscription was immediately opened at Dodsley's shop for a quarto edition to be published at a guinea the large, and half a guinea the small paper.
Having completed his education at the university, he began a course of study, with a view to give lectures on oratory to young gentlemen intended for the bar or the pulpit, but by Hume's advice he desisted from a project which the latter thought unlikely to succeed, and determined to study divinity, which promised to gratify and enlarge the pious feelings and sentiments that had grown up with him. Accordingly, after the usual probationary course, he was licensed a preacher of the gospel, agreeably to the rules of the church of Scotland, in the year 1759. In this character he attained considerable reputation, and was fond of composing sermons, of which he has left some volumes in manuscript, as also a treatise of morals, both of which his friends once intended for the press. Two occasional sermons are said to have been published in his life-time, but probably never reached this country, as no notice of them occurs in our literary journals.
His occupations and disposition at this period of his life are thus related by the rev. Mr. Jameson, of Newcastle, who knew him intimately.
"His manner of life," says that gentleman, "was so uniform, that the history of it during one day, or one week, is the history of it during the seven years that our personal intercourse lasted. Reading, music, walking, conversing, and disputing on various topics, in theology, ethics, &c. employed almost every hour of our time. It was pleasant to hear him engaged in a dispute, for no man could keep his temper better than he always did on such occasions. I have known him frequently very warmly engaged for hours together, but never could observe one angry word to fall from him. Whatever his antagonist might say, he always kept his temper. "Semper paratus et refellere sine pertinacia, et refelli sine iracundia." He was, however, extremely sensible to what he thought ill usage, and equally so whether it regarded himself or his friends. But his resentment was always confined to a few satirical verses, which were generally burnt soon after."
"The late Mr. Spence (the editor of the quarto edition of his poems) frequently urged him to write a tragedy; and assured him that he had interest enough with Mr. Garrick to get it acted. Various subjects were proposed to him, several of which he approved of, yet he never could be prevailed on to begin any thing of that kind. It may seem remarkable, but as far as I know, it was invariably the case, that he never could think or write on any subject proposed to trim by another.
"I have frequently admired with what readiness and rapidity he could sometimes make verses. I have known him dictate from thirty to forty verses, and by no means bad ones, as fast as I could write them; but the moment he was at a loss for a rhyme or a verse to his liking, he stopt altogether, and could very seldom be induced to finish what he had begun with so much ardour."
To this his elegant biographer adds, "All those who ever acted as his amanuenses, agree in this rapidity and ardour of composition which Mr. Jameson ascribes to him in the account I have copied above. He never could dictate till he stood up; and as his blindness made walking about without assistance inconvenient or dangerous to him, he fell insensibly into a vibratory sort of motion of his body, which increased as he warmed with his subject, and was pleased with the conceptions of his mind. This motion at last became habitual to him, and though he could sometimes restrain it when on ceremony, or in any public appearance, such as preaching, he felt a certain uneasiness from the effort, and always returned to it when he could indulge it without impropriety."
In 1762, he married Miss Sarah Johnston, daughter of Mr. Joseph Johnston, surgeon in Dumfries, a connexion which formed the great solace of his future life. About the same time he was ordained minister of the town and parish of Kircudbright, in consequence of a presentation from the crown, obtained for him by the earl of Selkirk; but the parishioners having objected to the appointment, after a legal dispute of nearly two years, his friends advised him to resign his right, and accept of a moderate annuity in its stead. If their principal objection was to his want of sight, it was certainly not unreasonable. He would probably in the course of a few years have found it very inconvenient, if not painful, to execute all the duties of the pastoral office.
With the slender provision allowed by this parish he returned to Edinburgh in 1764, and adopted the plan of receiving a limited number of young gentlemen into his house, not only as boarders, but as pupils whose studies he might occasionally assist. And this plan succeeded so well that he continued it till the year 1787, when age and infirmity obliged him to retire from active life.
In 1767, the degree of doctor of divinity was conferred upon him by the University and Marischal College of Aberdeen, doubtless at the suggestion of his friend and correspondent Dr. Beattie, to whom he had in the preceding year sent a present of his works, accompanied by some verses. Dr. Beattie returned a poetical epistle, which is now prefixed to Blacklock's poems, and ever after maintained a correspondence with him, and consulted him upon all his subsequent works, particularly his celebrated Essay on Truth.
In the same year he published, Paraclesis: or Consolations deduced from Natural and Revealed Religion: in two Dissertations; the first supposed to have been composed by Cicero: now rendered into English: the last originally written by Dr. Blacklock. The plan of the original dissertation is to prove the superiority of the consolations to be derived from the Christian revelation, but it is painful to find by his preface that his motive for writing it, was "to alleviate the pressure of repeated disappointments, to soothe his anguish for the loss of departed friends, to elude the rage of implacable and unprovoked enemies, in a word, to support his own mind, which, for a number of years, besides its literary difficulties, and its natural disadvantages, had maintained an incessant conflict with fortune." Of what nature his disappointments were, or who could be implacable enemies to such a man, we are not told. His biographer, indeed, informs us, that he "had from nature a constitution delicate and nervous, and his mind, as is almost always the case, was in a great degree subject to the indisposition of his body. He frequently complained of a lowness and depression of spirits, which neither the attention of his friends, nor the unceasing care of a most affectionate wife, were able entirely to remove." Let us hope, therefore, for the honour of mankind, that his complaints were those, not of a man who had enemies, but of one who was sensible that, with strong powers of mind, and well-founded consolations, he was yet excluded from many of the rational delights of which he heard others speak, and of which, if he formed any idea, it was probably disproportioned and distressing.
In 1768, he published a translation, from the French of the rev. James Armand, minister of the Walloon church in Hanau, of two discourses on the spirit and evidence of Christianity, with a long dedication from his own pen, calculated for the perusal of the clergy of the church of Scotland. In this, as in all his prose writings, his style is elegant, nervous, and animated, and his sentiments such as indicate the purest zeal for the interests of religion. His last publication, in 1774, was the Graham, all Heroic Ballad; in four Cantos: intended to promote harmony between the inhabitants of Scotland and England. As a poem however, it added little to his reputation, and has been excluded from the collection formed by Mr. Mackenzie, which is here adopted.
In 1791, he was seized with a feverish disorder, which at first seemed of a slight, and never rose to a very violent kind; but his weak frame was unable to support it, and he died after about a week's illness, July 7, 1791, in the seventieth year of his age. A monument was afterwards erected to his memory, with all elegant Latin inscription from the pen of Dr. Beattie.
Such are the few events of Dr. Blacklock's life. His character, and the character of his writings, are more interesting, and will probably ever continue to be the subject of contemplation with all who study the human mind, or revere the dispensations of Providence. His perseverance in acquiring so extensive a fund of learning, amidst those privations which seem to bar all access to improvement, is an extraordinary feature in his character, and notwithstanding the kind zeal of the friends who endeavoured to make up for his want of sight by reading to him, many of his attainments must ever remain inexplicable.
With respect to his personal character, his biographer, and indeed all who knew him, have expatiated on the gentleness of his manners, the benignity of his disposition and that warm interest in the happiness of others which led him so constantly to promote it in the young people who were committed to his charge. In their society he appeared entirely to forget the loss of sight, and the melancholy which, at other times, it might produce. "He entered," says his biographer, "with the cheerful playfulness of a young man, into all the sprightly narrative, the sportive fancy, the humorous jest that rose around him. It was a sight highly gratifying to philanthropy, to see how much a mind endowed with knowledge, kindled by genius, and above all lighted up with innocence and piety, like Blacklock's, could overcome the weight of its own calamity, and enjoy the content, the happiness, and the gaiety of others. Several of those inmates of Dr. Blacklock's house retained, in future life, all the warmth of that impression which his friendship at this early period had made upon them; and in various quarters of the world, he had friends and correspondents from whom no length of time or distance of place had ever estranged him.
"Music, which to the feeling and the pensive, in whatever situation, is a source of extreme delight, but which to the blind must be creative, as it were, of idea and of sentiment, he enjoyed highly, and was himself a tolerable performer on several instruments, particularly on the flute. He generally carried in his pocket a small flageolet, on which he played his favourite tunes; and was not displeased when asked in company to play or to sing them; a natural feeling, for a blind man, who thus adds a scene to the drama of his society."
With regard to his poetry, there seems no occasion to involve ourselves in the perplexities which Mr. Spence first created, and then injudiciously as well as ineffectually endeavoured to explain. The character of his poetry is that of sentiment and reason: his versification is in general elegant and harmonious, and his thoughts sometimes flow with an ardent rapidity that betokens real genius. But it is impossible to ascribe powers of description to one who had seen nothing to describe; nor of invention to one who had no materials upon which he could operate. Where we find any passages that approach to the description of visible objects, we must surely attribute them to memory. As he had the best English poets frequently read to him, he attained a free command of the language of poetry, both in simple and compound words, and we know that all poets consider these as common property. It is not therefore wonderful that he speaks so often of mountains, vallies, rivers, nor that he appropriates to visible objects their peculiar characteristics, all which he must have heard repeated until they became fixed in his memory: but as no man pursues long what affords little more than the exercise of conjecture, we are still perplexed to discover what pleasure Mr. Blacklock could take, first in a species of reading which could give him no ideas, and then in a species of writing in which he could copy only the expressions of others. There are few of his poems in which some passage does not occur which tempts us to ask, what idea could he affix to this? When he speaks of "insect crowds that 'scape the nicest eye," how could he judge of crowds or insects that had no eyes? "Starry skies" he might have borrowed, but what train of thought led him to say of night,
Clouds peep on clouds, and, as they rise,
Condense to solid gloom the skies.
"Pale fear," "pale terrour," "white robed innocence," "iron sway," "livid phantoms," "rosy bowl," "angel form," and many others, he had often heard, but the following images, if borrowed in parts, are certainly combined with the hand of a master.
As swift descending show'rs of rain,
Deform with mud the clearest streams;
As rising mists Heav'n's azure stain,
Ting'd with Aurora's blush in vain;
As fades the flow'rs in mid-day beams,
On life thus tender sorrows prey,
And wrap in gloom its promis'd day.—
Thro' tears behold a sister's eyes
Emit a faded ray.—
Say, could no song of melting woe,
Revoke the keen determin'd blow,
That clos'd his sparkling eye?
Thus roses oft, by early doom,
Robb'd of their blush and sweet perfume.
Grow pale, recline, and die.
What idea our author had of these appearances, and what kind or degree of pleasure they afforded him, it is impossible to discover. He has himself written a very long article on Blindness in the Encyclopedia Britannica, but it affords no light to the present subject, containing chiefly reflections on the disadvantages of blindness, and the best means of alleviating them. His poems, however, especially where attempts are made at description, indicate powers which seem to have wanted the aid of sight only to bring them into the highest rank. We know that poetical genius is almost wholly independent of learning, and seems often planted in a soil where nothing else will flourish, but Blacklock's is altogether an extraordinary case: we have not even terms by which we can intelligibly discuss his merits, and we may conclude with Denina in his Disorso della Literatura, that "Blacklock will appear to posterity a fable, as to us he is a prodigy. It will be thought a fiction, a paradox, that a man blind from his infancy, besides having made himself to much a master of various foreign languages, should be a great poet in his own; and without having hardly ever seen the light, should be so remarkably happy in description."