Of those whose writings have delighted the feelings, or attracted the admiration of mankind, it has generally happened that the lives have afforded but very few materials for biography. The "sequestered vale," as one of themselves has termed it, in which genius nourishes the swelling thought, or study pursues its elaborate research, has scarce any objects for description to embellish, or events to which narrative could give importance. The dispositions of such persons are generally as averse, as their situations are unfavourable, to the pursuits of interest or ambition, to those active pursuits which lead men through conspicuous events, or associate them with conspicuous characters. The lives of literary men are often the mere measure of a certain portion of time in which their works were produced, and have only that subordinate and unnoticed relation to those productions which the canvas of Guido had to his paintings, or the marble of Michael Angelo to his sculpture. Without the materials, the work would not have existed; but the material is of so little value in proportion to the work, that in the contemplation of the latter the former is forgotten.
Yet a shred of that canvas, or a fragment of that marble on which either of those great men wrought, would bear a value in the imagination of a lover of the arts in which they excelled. And in like manner, they who have perused with pleasure the works of an author, are solicitous to know the particulars of his life, to learn the employment of those hours in which he did not write, and to see him, in that ordinary state in which he left the elevation of genius, to concern himself with common things; to trace him back from that period when his fame was at its full, with the same sort of curiosity with which we follow up the track of some mighty stream, to the little rill that is acknowledged for its source.
This propensity, which is always natural, may sometimes lead to more than amusement. Besides the general advantage which results from examining, in whatever direction, the progress and powers of the human mind, particular circumstances may exist to render the situation in which an author was placed, a theme for interesting speculation, or a study of useful example. In the powers, or in the weakness, in the attainments, or the defects, in the enjoyments, or the distresses of men eminent for intellectual endowments, their successors may learn a better direction of their own talents, or a juster value of their own pursuits; to abate the pride by which genius is hurtfully misled, or to overcome the mortification by which it is unnecessarily depressed; may be taught to avoid those fair-seeming paths that lead to disquiet and disappointment, and be fed to sources of content and consolation amidst prospects the most gloomy and unpromising.
The life of Dr. Thomas Blacklock, may, I think, assert a claim to notice beyond that of most authors, to whose story the public attention has been called by the publication of their works. He who reads his poems with that interest which their intrinsic merit deserves, will feel that interest very much increased when he shall be told the various difficulties which their author overcame in their production; the obstacles which nature and fortune had placed in his way to the possession of those ideas which his mind acquired, to the communication of those which his poetry unfolds.
He was born in the year 1721, at Annan, in the county of Dumfries in Scotland. His parents were natives of the bordering English county of Cumberland. His father was by trade a bricklayer; his mother the daughter of a considerable dealer in cattle; both respectable in their characters; and, it would appear, possessed of a considerable degree of knowledge and urbanity; which, in a country where education was cheap, and property then a good deal subdivided, was often the case with persons of their station.
Before he was six months old he lost his eye-sight in the small-pox. This rendered him incapable of any of those mechanical trades to which his father might naturally have been inclined to breed him, and his circumstances prevented his aspiring to the higher professions. The good man therefore kept his son in his house, and, with the assistance of some of his friends, fostered that inclination which the boy early shewed for books, by reading, to amuse him, first, the simple sort of publications which are commonly put into the hands of children, and then several of our best authors, such as Milton, Spencer, Prior, Pope, and Addison. His companions, whom his early gentleness and kindness of disposition, as well as their compassion for his misfortune, strongly attached to him, were very assiduous in their good offices, in reading to instruct and amuse him. By their assistance he acquired some knowledge of the Latin tongue, but he never was at a grammar-school till at a more advanced period of life. Poetry was even then his favourite reading; and he found an enthusiastic delight in the works of the best English poets, and in those of his countryman Allan Ramsay. Even at an age so early as twelve he began to write poems, one of which is preserved in this collection, and is not, perhaps, inferior to any of the premature compositions of boys assisted by the best education, which are only recalled into notice by the future fame of their authors.
He had attained the age of nineteen when his father was killed by the accidental fall of a malt-kiln belonging to his son-in-law. This loss, heavy to any one at that early age, would have been, however, to a young man possessing the ordinary means of support, and the ordinary advantages of education, comparatively light; but to him — thus suddenly deprived of that support on which his youth had leaned — destitute almost of any resource which industry affords to those who have the blessings of sight — with a body feeble and delicate from nature, and a mind congenially susceptible, it was not surprising that this blow was doubly severe, and threw on his spirits that despondent gloom to which he then gave away in the following pathetic lines, and which sometimes overclouded them in the subsequent period of his life:
Dejecting prospect! soon the hapless hour
May come; perhaps this moment it impends,
Which drives me forth to penury and cold,
Naked, and beat by all the storms of heav'n,
Friendless and guideless to explore my way;
Till, on cold earth this poor unshelter'd head
Reclining, vainly from the ruthless blast
Respite I beg, and in the shock expire.
Though dependent, however, he was not destitute of friends; and heaven rewarded the pious confidence, which a few lines after, he expresses in its care, by providing for him protectors and patrons, by whose assistance he obtained advantages, which, had his father lived, might perhaps never have opened to him.
He lived with his mother for about a year after his father's death, and began to be distinguished as a young man of uncommon parts and genius. There were at that time unassisted by learning; the circumstances of his family affording him no better education than the smattering of Latin which his companions had taught him, and the perusal and recollection of the few English authors, which they, or his father in the intervals of his professional labours had read to him. Poetry, however, though it attains its highest perfection in a cultivated soil, grows perhaps as luxuriantly in a wild one. To poetry, as we have before mentioned, he was devoted from his earliest days; and about this time several of his poetical productions began to be handed about, which considerably enlarged the circle of his friends and acquaintance. Some of his compositions being shewn to doctor Stevenson, an eminent physician of Edinburgh who was accidentally at Dumfries on a professional visit, that gentleman formed the benevolent design of carrying him to the Scotch metropolis, and giving to his natural endowments the assistance of a classical education. He came to Edinburgh in the year 1741, and was enrolled a student of divinity in the university there, though at that time without any particular view of entering into the church. In that university he continued his studies under the patronage of doctor Stevenson till the year 1745, and in the following year a volume of his poems in octavo was first published. During the national disturbances, which prevailed during those years, he returned to Dumfries, where he resided with Mr. M'Murdo, a gentleman who had married his sister, in whose house he was not only treated with all the kindness and affection of a brother, but had an opportunity, from the society which it afforded, of considerably increasing the store of his ideas. After the close of the rebellion, an the compleat restoration of the peace of the country, he returned again to the metropolis, and pursued his studies for six years longer. During this last residence in Edinburgh, among other literary acquaintance, he obtained that of the celebrated David Hume, who, with an that humanity and benevolence for which he was distinguished, attached himself warmly to Mr. Blacklock's interests, and was afterwards particularly useful to him in the publication of the 4to edition of his poems, which came out by subscription in London in the year 1756. Previously to this, a second edition in 8vo had been published at Edinburgh in 1754. To the 4to edition Mr. Spence, professor of poetry at Oxford, who had conceived a great regard for the author, prefixed a very elaborate and ingenious account of his life, character, and writings; an account which would have rendered the present imperfect sketch equally unnecessary and assuming, had it not been written at a period so early as to include only the opening events of a life for which it was meant to claim the future notice and favour of the public.
In the course of his education at Edinburgh, he acquired a proficiency in the learned languages, and became more a master of the French tongue than was common there, from the social intercourse to which be had the good fortune to be admitted in the house of provost Alexander, who had married a native of France. At the university he attained a knowledge of the various branches of philosophy and theology, to which his course of study naturally led, and acquired at the same time a considerable fund of learning and information in those various departments of science and belles lettres, from which his want of light did not absolutely preclude him.
In 1757, he began a course of study, with a view to give lectures in oratory to young gentlemen intended for the bar or the pulpit. On this occasion he wrote to Mr. Hume, informed him of his plan, and requested his assistance in the prosecution of it. But Mr. Hume doubting the probability of its success, he abandoned the project; and then, for the first time, adopted the decided intention of going into the church of Scotland. After applying closely for a considerable time to the study of theology, he passed the usual trials in the presbytery of Dumfries, and was by that presbytery licensed a preacher of the gospel in the year 1759. As a preacher he obtained high reputation, and was fond of composing sermons, of which he has left some volumes in manuscript, as also a treatise on morals, both of which it is in contemplation with his friends to publish.
The tenor of his occupations, as well as the bent of his mind and disposition, during this period of his life, will appear in the following plain and unstudied account, contained in a letter from a gentleman, who was then his most intimate and constant companion, the rev. Mr. Jameson, formerly minister of the episcopal chapel at Dumfries, afterwards of the English congregation at Dantzic, and who now resides at Newcastle upon Tyne.
"His manner of life (says that gentleman) was so uniform, that the history of it during one day, or one week, is the history out during the seven years that our personal intercourse lasted. Reading, music, waking, 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 he 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 him 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 rhime 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."
This account sufficiently marks that eager sensibility, chastened at the same time with uncommon gentleness of temper, which characterised Dr. Blacklock, and which indeed it was impossible to be at all in his company without perceiving. In the science of mind, this is that division of it which perhaps one would peculiarly appropriate to poetry, at least to all those lighter species which rather depend on quickness of feeling, and the ready conception of pleasing images, than on the happy arrangement of parts, or the skilful construction of a whole, which are essential to the higher departments of the poetical arts. The first kind of talent is like those warm and light soils which produce their annual crops in such abundance; the last, like that deeper and firmer mould on which the roots of eternal forests are fixed. Of the first we have seem many happy instances in that sex which is supposed less capable of study or thought; from the last is drawn that masculine sublimity of genius which could build an Iliad, or a Paradise Lost.
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. This is the appearance which be describes in the ludicrous picture he has drawn of himself. Of this portrait the outlines are true, though the general effect is overcharged. His features were hurt by the disease which deprived him of sight; yet even with those disadvantages, there was a certain placid expression in his physiognomy which marked the benevolence of his mind, and was extremely calculated to procure him attachment and regard.
In 1762 he married Miss Sarah Johnston, daughter of Mr. Joseph Johnston surgeon in Dumfries, a man of eminence in his profession, and of a character highly respected; a connection which formed the great solace and blessing of his future life, and gave him, with all the tenderness of a wife, all the zealous care of a guardian and a friend. This event took place a few days before his being 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, a benevolent nobleman, whom Mr. Blacklock's situation and genius had interested in his behalf. But the inhabitants of the parish, whether from that violent aversion to patronage, which was then so universal in the southern parts of Scotland, from some political disputes which at this time subsisted between them and his noble patron, or from those prejudices which some of them might naturally enough entertain against a pastor deprived of sight, or perhaps from all those causes united, were so extremely disinclined to receive him as their minister, that after a legal dispute of nearly two years, it was thought expedient by his friends, as it had always been wished by himself, to compromise the matter, by resigning his right to the living, and accepting a moderate annuity in its stead. With this slender provision he removed in 1764 to Edinburgh; and to make up by his industry a more comfortable and decent subsistence, he adopted the plan of receiving a certain number of young gentlemen, as boarders, into his house, whose studies in languages and philosophy, he might, if necessary, assist. In this situation he continued till the year 1787, when he found his time of life and state of health required a degree of quiet and repose which induced him to discontinue the receiving of boarders. In 1767 the degree of doctor in divinity was conferred on him by the university and Marischal college of Aberdeen.
In the occupation which he thus exercised for so many years of his life, no teacher was ever more agreeable to his pupils, nor master of a family to its inmates, than Dr. Blacklock. 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, were qualities that could not fail to procure him the love and regard of the young people committed to his charge; while the society, which esteem and respect for his character and his genius often assembled at his house, afforded them an advantage rarely to be found in establishments of a similar kind. The writer of this account has frequently been a witness of the family-scene at Dr. Blacklock's; has seen the good man amidst the circle of his young friends, eager to do him all the little offices of kindness which he seemed to much to merit and to feel. In this society he appeared entirely to forget the privation of sight, and the melancholy which, at other times, it might produce. He entered, with the chearful playfulness of a young man, into all the sprightly narrative, the sportful 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 to them; a natural feeling for a blind man, who thus adds a scene to the drama of his society.
Of the happiness of others, however, we are incompetent judges. Companionship and sympathy bring forth those gay colours of mirth and chearfulness which they put on for awhile, to cover perhaps that sadness which we have no opportunity of witnessing. Of a blind man's condition we are particularly liable to form a mistaken estimate; we give him credit for all those gleams of delight which society affords him, without placing to their full account those dreary moments of darksome solitude to which the suspension of that society condemns him. Dr. Blacklock 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 attentions of his friends, nor the unceasing care of a most affectionate wife, were able entirely to remove. The imagination we are so apt to envy and admire serves but to irritate this disorder of the mind; and that fancy, in whose creation we so much delight, can draw, from sources unknown to common men, subjects of disgust, disquietude, and affliction. Some of his later poems, now first published, express a chagrin, though not of an ungentle sort, at the supposed failure of his imaginative powers, or at the fastidiousness of modern times, which he despaired to please.
Such were his efforts, such his cold reward,
Whom once thy partial tongue pronounc'd a bard;
Excursive, on the gentle gales of spring,
He rov'd, whilst favour imp'd his timid wing;
Exhausted genius now no more inspires,
But mourns abortive hopes, and faded fires;
The short-liv'd wreath, which once his temples grac'd,
Fades at the sickly breath of squeamish taste;
Whilst darker days his fainting flames immure
In chearless gloom, and winter premature,
These lines are, however, no proof of "exhausted genius," "or faded fires." "Abortive hopes," indeed, must be the lot of all who reach that period of life at which they were written. In early youth the heart of every one is a poet; it creates a scene of imagined happiness and delusive hopes; it clothes the world in the bright colours of its own fancy; it refines what is coarse, it exalts what is mean; it fees nothing but disinterestedness in friendship; it promises eternal fidelity in love. Even on the distresses of its situation it can throw a certain romantic shade of melancholy that leaves a man sad, but does not make him unhappy. But at a more advanced age, "the fairy visions fade," and he suffers most deeply who has indulged them the most.
One distress Dr. Blacklock was at this time first afflicted with, of which everyone will allow the force. He was occasionally subject to deafness, which, though he seldom felt it in any great degree, was sufficient, in his situation, to whom the sense of hearing was almost the only channel of communication with the external world, to cause very lively uneasiness. Amidst these indispositions of body, however, and disquietudes of mind, the gentleness of his temper never forsook him, and he felt all that resignation and confidence in the supreme Being which his earliest and his latest life equally acknowledged. In summer 1791 he was seized with a feverish disorder, which at first seemed of a slight, and never rose to a very violent kind; but a frame so little robust as his, was not able to resist it, and after about a week's illness it carried him off on the 7th day of July 1791. His wife survives him, to feel, amidst the heavy affliction of his loss, that melancholy consolation which is derived from the remembrance of his virtues.
Of the writings of Dr. Blacklock, I think it unnecessary to enter into any particular criticism or account. Prefixed to a volume of poems, the character of that volume will generally be supposed to contain a partial estimate of its merits; and he must be very indolent indeed who will be guided in his reading of the text by the directions of the comment. It may be allowed me, however, to express my opinion in general, that in this collection of poems, the reader will find those qualities of fancy, tenderness, and sometimes sublimity in the thoughts, of elegance, and often force in the language, which characterise the genuine productions of the poetical talent. One other praise, which the good will value, belongs to those poems in a high degree; they breathe the purest spirit of piety, virtue, and benevolence. These indeed are the muses of Blacklock; they inspire his poetry, as they animated his life; and he never approaches the sacred ground on which they dwell, without an expansion of mind, and an elevation of language.
The additional poems, now first published in this volume, will, I think be found to possess equal merit with those which their author formerly gave to the world. There is perhaps a certain degree of languor diffused over some of them, written during the latter period of his life, for which the circumstances I have mentioned above may account; but the delicacy and the feeling remain undiminished: One of those later poems, the "Ode to Aurora, on Melissa's Birthday," (page 200), is a compliment and tribute of affection to the tender assiduity of an excellent wife, which I have not any where seen more happily conceived or more elegantly expressed.
His peculiar situation I do not mean to plead as an apology for defects in his compositions. I am sufficiently aware of a truth which authors or their apologists are apt to forget, that the public expects entertainment, and listens but ill to excuses for the want of it. But the circumstances of the writer's blindness will certainly create an interest in his productions beyond what those of one possessed of fight could have excited, especially in such passages of his works as are descriptive of visible objects. Mr. Spence, in his introduction to the 4to edition of these poems published in 1756, has treated this descriptive power, which the poetry of Mr. Blacklock seemed to evince in its author, as a sort of problem which he has illustrated by a very great number of quotations from the poems themselves, by hypothetical conjectures of his own, drawn from those passages, and from the nature of a blind man's sensations and ideas; and by some accounts of such sensations in himself, which Mr. Blacklock gave to Mr. Spence in discoursing on the subject.
Without detracting from the ingenuity of Mr. Spence's deductions, I am apt, in the case of Dr. Blacklock, to ascribe much to the effect of a retentive and ready memory of that poetical language in which from his earliest infancy he delighted, and that apt appropriation of it which an habitual acquaintance with the best poets had taught him.
This I am sensible by no means affords a complete solution of the difficulty; for though it may account for the use which he makes of poetical language, it throws no light on his early passion for reading poetry, and poetry of a kind, too, which lies very much within the province of sight; nor does it clearly trace the source of that pleasure which such reading evidently conveyed to his mind.
It is observed, and I think very truly, by Dr. Reid, that there is very little of the knowledge acquired by those who see, that may not be communicated to a man born blind; and he illustrates his remark by the example of the celebrated Sanderson. Another writer seems disposed to extend a similar observation to some of those pleasures of which the sense of sight is commonly understood to be the only channel; and he appeals, in proof of his doctrine, to the poetry of Dr. Blacklock: "Here (says he) is a poet doubtless as much affected by his own descriptions as any that reads them can be; and yet he is affected with this strong enthusiasm, by things of which he neither has, nor can possibly have any idea, further than that of a bare sound." The same author mentions, as a confirmation of his doctrine, the scientific acquirements of Sanderson, which he seems to think explicable on the same principles with Dr. Blacklock's poetry.
But, in truth, there appears to be very little analogy between the two cases; nor does the genius of Sanderson furnish by any means so curious a subject of philosophical disquisition as that of Blacklock. The ideas of extension and figure, about which the speculations of the geometer are employed, may be conveyed to the mind by the sense of touch as well as by that of sight; and (if we except the phaenomena of Colour) the case is the same with all the subjects of our reasoning in natural philosophy. But of the pleasures which poetry excites, so great a proportion arises from allusion to visible objects, and from descriptions of the beauty and sublimity of nature; so much truth is there in the maxim "ut pictura poesis," that the word imagination, which in its primary sense has a direct reference to the eye, is employed to express that power of the mind, which is considered as peculiarly characteristic of poetical genius; and therefore, whatever be the degree of pleasure which a blind poet receives from the exercise of his art, the pleasure must, in general, be perfectly different in kind from that which he imparts to his readers.
Sanderson, we are told, though blind, could lecture on the prismatic spectrum, and on the theory of the rainbow; but to his mind the names of the different colours were merely significant of the relative arrangement of the. spaces which they occupied, and produced as little effect on his imagination as the letters of the alphabet which he employed in his geometrical diagrams. By means of a retentive memory, it might have been possible for him to acquire a knowledge of the common poetical epithets appropriated to the different colours: it is even conceivable, that by long habits of poetical reading, he might have become capable of producing such a description of their order in the spectrum as is contained in the following lines of Thomson:
First the flaming red
Sprung vivid forth; the tawny orange next,
And next delicious yellow; by whose side
Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green:
Then the pure blue, that swells autumnal skies,
Etherial play'd; and then of sadder hue
Emerg'd the deepen'd Indico, as when
The heavy-skirted evening droops with frost;
While the last gleamings of refracted light
Dy'd in the fainting violet away.
But supposing all this possible, how different must have been the effect of the description on his mind from what it produced on that of Thomson? or what idea could he form of the rapture which the poet felt in recalling to his imagination the innumerable appearances in the earth and heavens, of which the philosophic principles he referred to afford the explanation?
Did ever poet image aught so fair,
Dreaming in whisp'ring groves, by the hoarse brook;
Or prophet to whose rapture heav'n descends!
Even now the setting sun and shifting clouds
Seen, Greenwich, from thy lovely heights, declare
How just, how beauteous, the refractive law.
Yet, though it be evidently impossible that a description of this sort, relating entirely to the peculiar perceptions of sight, should convey to a blind man the same kind of pleasure which we receive from it, it may be easily imagined, that the same words which in their ordinary acceptation express visible objects, may, by means of early associations, become to such a person the vehicle of many other agreeable or disagreeable emotions. These associations will probably vary greatly in the case of different individuals, according to the circumstances of their education, and the peculiar bent of their genius. Dr. Blacklock's associations in regard to colours, were (according to his own account) chiefly of the moral kind. — But into this enquiry, which opens a wide field of speculation to the metaphysician, I do not mean to enter. I shall content myself with remarking, that in other arts, as well as those which address themselves to sight, the same distinction is to be found. What may be termed the arithmetic and mathematics of music and of the scale, depend not on a musical ear any more than the theory of vision depends on sight. In both cases, pleasure and feeling are easily distinguishable from knowledge and science; the first require, and cannot exist without an eye for colour, and an ear for sound; the last are independent of either.
It is indeed the boast of genius to do much on scanty materials, to create and "body forth the forms of things," to give character to what it has not known, and picture to what it has not seen. The genius of Shakespeare has entered into the cabinets of statesmen, and the palaces of kings, and made them speak like statesmen and like kings. It has given manners as well as language to imaginary beings, which, though we cannot criticise like the other, every one intuitively owns to be true. It has kindled the wizard's fire, and trimm'd "the fairy's glow-worm lamp;" has moulded a Caliban's savage form, and spun the light down of an Ariel's wing. But this imaginative power, how extensive and wonderful soever its range, had still some elements from which it could raise this world of fancy, some analogies from which its ideas could be drawn. To the blind no degree of genius can supply the want of these with regard to visible objects, nor teach them that entirely distinct species of perception which belongs to sight. "Objects of sight and touch (says Berkely very justly) constitute two worlds, which, though nearly connected, bear no resemblance to one another."
In the case of Dr. Blacklock, we happen to be possessed of a piece of evidence more direct than any thing which a third person, however well acquainted with him individually, or however conversant with the subject in general, can produce with regard to his ideas on visible objects: I allude to the article BLIND in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published at Edinburgh in the year 1783, which was written by him. In this little treatise, (which I will venture to. recommend, not only on account of its peculiarity, as being the production of a blind man, but of its intrinsic merit), there are no marks of any extraordinary conception of visible objects, nor any allusion to those mental images which ingenuity might suppose deducible from the descriptive passages with which his poetry abounds. It contains chiefly reflections on the distresses and disadvantages of blindness, and the best means of alleviating them; directions for the education of the blind, and a description of various inventions for enabling them to attain and to practise several arts and sciences from which their situation might seem to exclude them. The sympathy and active benevolence of Dr. Blacklock prompted him to this composition, as well as to a translation of M. Haiiy's account of the charitable institution for the blind at Paris, which is annexed to the present edition of his poems. "To the blind (says this article in the Encyclopaedia), the visible world is totally annihilated; he is perfectly conscious of no space but that in which he stands, or to which his extremities can reach" — "All the various modes of delicate proportion, all the beautiful varieties of light and colours, whether exhibited in the works of nature or art, are to the blind irretrievably lost. Dependent for every thing but mere subsistence on the good offices of others; obnoxious to injury from every point, which they are neither capacited to perceive, nor qualified to resist; they are, during the present state of being, rather to be considered as prisoners at large than citizens of nature."
In that part which relates to the education of the blind, one direction is rather singular, though it seems extremely proper. The author strongly recommends to their parents and relations to accustom them to an early exertion of their own active powers, though at the risk of their personal safety.
"Parents and relations ought never to be too ready in offering their assistance to the blind in any office which they can perform, or in any acquisition which they can procure for themselves, whether they are prompted by amusement or necessity. Let a blind boy be permitted to walk through the neighbourhood without a guide, not only though he should run some hazard, but even though he should suffer some pain.
"If he has a mechanical turn, let him not be denied the use of edge-tools; for it is better that he should lose a little blood, or even break a bone, than be perpetually confined to the same place, debilitated in his frame, and depressed in his mind. — Such a being can have no employment but to feel his own weakness, and become his own tormentor; or to transfer to others all the malignity and peevishness arising from the natural, adventitious, or imaginary evils which he feels. — Scars, fractures, and dislocations in his body, are trivial misfortunes compared with imbecility, timidity, or fretfulness of mind. Besides the sensible and dreadful effects which inactivity must have in relaxing the nerves, and consequently in depressing the spirits, nothing can be more productive of jealousy, envy, peevishness, and every passion that corrodes the soul to agony, than a painful impression of dependance on others, and of our insufficiency to our own happiness. This impression, which, even in his most improved state, will be too deeply felt by every blind man, is redoubled by that utter incapacity of action which must result from the officious humanity of those who would anticipate or supply all his wants, who would prevent all his motions, who would do or procure every thing for him without his own interposition."
This direction was probably suggested from the author's own feeling of the want of that boldness and independence which the means it recommends are calculated to produce; as the following description of "low sprits" might perhaps be more strongly painted from that languor to which his sensibility of mind and delicate frame of body sometimes exposed him.
"We have more than once hinted, during the course of this article, that the blind, as liable to all the inconveniences of sedentary life, are peculiarly subjected to that disorder which may be called 'taedium vitae,' or low spirits. This indisposition may be said to comprehend in it all the other diseases and evils of human life; because, by its immediate influence on the mind, it aggravates the weight and bitterness of every calamity to which we are obnoxious. In a private letter, we have heard it described as a formidable precipice in the regions of misery, between the awful gulphs of suicide on the one hand and phrensy on the other, into either of which a gentle breeze, according to the force of its impulse, and the line of its direction, may irrecoverably plunge the unhappy victim; yet from both of which he may providentially escape. Though the shades of the metaphor may perhaps be unnaturally deepened, yet those who have felt the force of the malady will not fail to represent it by the most dreadful images which its own feelings can suggest. Parents and tutors, therefore, if they have the least pretence to conscience or humanity, cannot be too careful in observing and obviating the first symptoms of this impending plague.
"If the limbs of your blind child or pupil be tremulous; if he is apt to start, and easily susceptible of surprise; if he finds it difficult to sleep; if his slumbers, when commenced, are frequently interrupted, and attended with perturbation; if his ordinary exercises appear to him more terrible and more insuperable than usual; if his appetite become languid and his digestion slow; if agreeable occurrences give him less pleasure, and adverse events more pain than they ought to inspire; — this is the crisis of vigorous interposition"
The imagination which the muse of terror indulges, while she sometimes suffers pain from the indulgence, may be traced in the cautions which he gives against allowing the minds of the blind to be impressed with frightful tales.
"Those philosophers who have attempted to break the alliance between darkness and spectres, were certainly inspired by laudable motives. But they must give us leave to assert, that there is a natural and essential connection betwixt night and orcus.
"Were we endued with senses to advertise us of every noxious object before its contiguity could render it formidable, our panics would probably be less frequent and sensible than we really feel them. Darkness and silence, therefore, have something dreadful in them, because they supersede the vigilance of those senses which give us the earliest notices of things.
"If you talk to a blind boy of invisible beings, let benevolence be an inseparable ingredient in their character. You may, if you please, tell him of departed spirits, anxious for the welfare of their surviving friends; of ministering angels, who descend with pleasure from heaven to execute the purposes of their Maker's benignity; you may even regale his imagination with the sportive gambols and innocent frolics of fairies; but let him hear as seldom as possible even in stories which he knows to be fabulous, of vindictive ghosts, vindictive fiends, or avenging furies. They seize and pre-occupy every avenue of terror which is open in the soul; nor are they easily dispossessed. Sooner should we hope to exorcise a ghost, or appease a fury, than to obliterate their images in a warm and susceptible imagination, where they have been habitually impressed, and where those feelings cannot be dissipated by external phaenomena. If horrors of this kind should agitate the heart of a blind boy (which may happen notwithstanding the most strenuous endeavours to prevent it), the stories which he has heard will be most effectually discredited by ridicule. This, however, must be cautiously applied, by gentle and delicate gradations.
"If he is inspired with terror by effects upon his senses, the causes of which he cannot investigate; indefatigable pains must be taken to explain their phaenomena, and to confirm that explication, whenever it can be done, by the testimony of his own senses and his own experience. The exertion of his locomotive and mechanical powers (the rights of which we have formerly endeavoured to assert), will sensibly contribute to dispel these terrors."
If we do not assign to Dr. Blacklock any extraordinary, or what might be termed preternatural conception of visible objects, yet we may fairly claim for him a singular felicity of combination in his use of the expressions by which those objects are distinguished. The following descriptive strokes, most of which, with, a great many others, Mr. Spence has collected, are as finely drawn, and as justly coloured, as fight could have made them.
Mild gleams the purple evening o'er the plain.
(page 77. verse 14.)
Ye vales, which to the raptur'd eye
Disclos'd the flow'ry pride of May;
Ye circling hills, whose summits high
Blush'd with the morning's earliest ray.
(p. 6. v. 5.)
Let long-liv'd pansies here their scents bestow,
The violets languish, and the roses glow;
In yellow glory let the crocus shine,
Narcissus here his love-sick head recline;
Here hyacinths in purple sweetness rise,
And tulips ting'd with beauty's fairest dyes.
(p. 115. v. 107.)
On rising ground, the prospect to command,
Unting'd with smoke, where vernal breezes blow,
In rural neatness let my cottage stand;
Here wave a wood, and there a river flow.
(p. 107. v. 1.)
Oft on the glassy stream, with raptur'd eyes,
Surveys her form in mimic sweetness rise;
Oft, as the waters pleas'd reflect her face,
Adjusts her locks, and heightens every grace.
(p. 89. v. 121.)
Oft, while the sun
Darts boundless glory thro' th' expanse of heav'n,
A gloom of congregated vapours rise
Than night more dreadful in her blackest shroud,
And o'er the face of things incumbent hang
Portending tempest; till the source of day
Again asserts the empire of the sky,
And o'er the blotted scene of nature throws
A keener splendour.
(p. 133. v. 185.)
O'er the burning lake
Of blue sulphureous gleam.
(p. 123. v. 119.)
All her snakes
Shall rear their speckled crests aloft in air,
With ceaseless horrid hiss; shall brandish quick
Their forky tongues, or roll their kindling eyes
With sanguine fiery glare.
(p. 122. v. 101.)
There is equal force and justness in his description of the terror of a guilty conscience.
Curst with unnumber'd groundless fears,
How pale you shiv'ring wretch appears?
For him the day-light shines in vain,
For him the fields no joys contain;
Nature's whole charms to him are loft,
No more the woods their music boast;
No more the meads their vernal bloom,
No, more the gales their rich perfume;
Impending mists deform the sky,
And beauty withers in his eye.
In hopes his terror to elude,
By day he mingles with the crowd;
Yet finds his soul to fears a prey,
In busy crowds, and open day.
If night his lonely walk surprise,
What horrid visions round him rise!
That blasted oak, which meets his way,
Shown by the meteor's sudden ray,
The midnight murd'rer's known retreat,
Felt heav'n's avengeful bolt of late;
The clashing chain, the groan profound,
Loud from yon ruin'd tow'r resound;
And now the spot he seems to tread,
Where some self-slaughter'd corse was laid;
He feels fixt earth beneath him bend,
Deep murmurs from her caves ascend,
Till all his soul, by fancy sway'd,
Sees livid phantoms crowd the shade;
While shrowded manes palely stare
And beck'ning wish to breathe their care;
Thus real woes from false he bears,
And feels the death, the hell, he fears.
Nor are the following stanzas in the "Ode to a Young Gentleman bound for Guinea," less remarkable for accuracy of epithet than for tenderness of thought.
The smiling plain, the solemn shade,
With all the various charms display'd,
That summer's face adorn;
Summer, with all that's gay or sweet,
With transport longs thy sense to meet,
And courts thy dear return.
The gentle sun, the fanning gale,
The vocal wood, the fragrant vale,
Thy presence all implore:
Can then a waste of sea and sky,
That knows no limits, charm thine eye,
Thine ear the tempest's roar?
But why such weak attractions name,
While ev'ry warmer social claim
Demands the mournful lay?
Ah! hear a brother's moving sighs,
Thro' tears, behold a sister's eyes
Emit a faded ray.
In producing such passages as the above the genius of the author must be acknowledged. Whatever idea or impression those objects of light produced in his mind, how imperfect soever that idea, or how different soever from the true, still the impression would be felt by a mind susceptible and warm like Blacklock's, that could not have been so felt by one of a coarser and more sluggish mold. Even the memory that could treasure up the poetical attributes and expressions of such objects must have been assisted and prompted by poetical feeling; and the very catalogue of words which was thus ready at command, was an indication of that ardour of soul, which, from his infancy, led him.
Where the muses haunt
Smit with the love of sacred song;
as the unmeaning syllables which compose a name give to the lover or the friend emotions which in others it were impossible they should excite.
It was not, on the whole, surprising, that a learned foreigner [author's note: Carlo Denina Discorso della Literatura, cap. XI], on considering Dr. Blacklock's poems relatively to his situation, should have broke out into the following panegyric, with which we shall not be much accused of partiality if we close this account
"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 so 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."