William Russell, the eldest son of Alexander Russell and Christian Ballantyne, was born in the year 1741 at Windydoors, a farm-house in the county of Selkirk. At a proper age he was sent to the neighbouring school of Inverleithen, where he acquired a slender knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages; but private study afterwards enabled him to supply many of the deficiencies of his early education.
In 1756 he was removed to Edinburgh, in order to be instructed in writing and arithmetic; and after having attended to these branches for about ten months, he was bound an apprentice to the bookselling and printing business for the term of five years. While engaged in this occupation, he discovered the utmost ardour in literary pursuits; nor was his situation altogether unfavourable to the acquisition of knowledge.
After the completion of his apprenticeship, he published a select collection of modern poems, which was favourably received. The first edition I have never seen: the second bears the following title. The Select Poems of our most celebrated contemporary British Poets: viz. Dr Akenside, Mr Gray, Mr Mason, W. Shenstone, Esq. Mr. W. Collins, Lord Lyttleton, Mess. Wartons, Mr Blacklock, Mr.. Beattie, Mr Ogilvie, etc. Vol. I. second edition, with additions. Edinb. 1764, 12mo. — He afterwards congratulated himself on having contributed to extend the popularity of Gray and Shenstone in the northern part of the island. It may, I think, be mentioned as a proof of his classical taste, that at this early period of his life he entertained the highest admiration for the sublime odes of Gray; which he was accustomed to recite in a wild and enthusiastic manner.
In the year 1763, while employed as a journeyman-printer, he became a member of a literary association denominated the Miscellaneous Society, which was composed of students and other young men engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. This juvenile society included several other individuals who afterwards acquired distinction; and among these were the Right Hon. Sir Robert Liston, and Mr. Andrew Dalzel, the late professor of Greek.
About this period he made an attempt to adapt Crebillon's Rhadamisthe et Zenobie to the English stage. The manuscript was submitted to the inspection of Mr. Liston and Mr Dalzel; who, after a very careful perusal, stated several objections to particular passages. This tragedy was at length rejected by Mr. Garrick, the manager of Drury-lane. Murphy's Zenobia was at that time in rehearsal; and if the merit of Russell's play had been highly conspicuous, it probably would not then have been accepted.
In 1764 he issued proposals for publishing a second volume of his collection of poems, which however never made its appearance. He retired to the country in order to arrange the materials; and about this period he maintained an epistolary correspondence with Lord Elibank, Dr. Ogilvie, and Mr Dalzel; to whose friendship his youthful ingenuity had recommended him. In the course of the ensuing year, Lord Elibank, who was himself a man of literature, invited him to his seat in the county of Haddington, where he spent the greater part of the autumn, and had an opportunity of conversing with many eminent men. To this nobleman he seems to have looked for favour and protection: the hope of obtaining preferment through his influence, had induced him to relinquish the drudgery of his original employment; and in the mean time he continued to prosecute his studies, particularly in the departments of history and polite literature.
Having resided with his father till the month of May 1767, he set out for London, probably with high hopes of future success. But his hopes were soon blasted: after having in vain waited for promotion through the influence of Mr. Hume, Lord Elibank, General Murray, and Governor Johnstone, he was under the necessity of contracting his views, and engaging himself as a corrector to the press of William Strahan, afterwards printer to his majesty. To find himself thus placed in a situation so inadequate to his expectations, and so unworthy of his abilities, must have east a temporary gloom over his mind; but the freshness of youth, added to the natural vivacity of his mind, would have enabled him to support even greater disappointments. In some brief notices found among his papers after his decease, he mentions his expectations of preferment through the interest of these individuals; but he does not aver that his expectations were founded on their promises. The disappointments of human life may very frequently be referred to the unreasonableness of our anticipations.
In the year 1769 he quitted Mr Strahan's, and was employed as overseer of the printing-office of Brown and Adlard. During the same year he published an Ode to Fortitude; which was immediately reprinted at Edinburgh by his former masters, Martin and Wotherspoon.
His Sentimental Tales appeared in 1770; and from this time he wrote many essays in prose and verse for the periodical publications. In 1772 he published a collection of Fables, Moral and Sentimental, and An Essay on the Character, Manners, and Genius of Women; from the French of M. Thomas. In 1774 appeared his Julia, a Poetical Romance. Of this latter work, which is founded on the Nouvelle Heloise of Rousseau, neither the plan nor the execution can be commended.
In the estimate of his literary character, Russell dissented from the public opinion: his historical works, which have met with a very favourable reception, he considered as greatly inferior to his poetical works, which have been totally neglected. But his friends certainly had no reason to regret that the collective edition of his poems, which he long meditated, never made its appearance. In the following sarcastic verses of his ingenious countryman Mickle, his elegy on the death of Hume is not mentioned with much commendation.
Silence, ye noisy wolves and bears.
And hear the song of Russell;
Hark, how upon the muse's hill
This bard kicks up a bustle!
He calls the muses lying jades,
A peck of venal strumpets;
And reason good, for none or them
The death of David trumpets.
But what — shall Shakspeare's muse bedew
This David's leaden urn?
Or at his tomb, O Milton, say,
Shall thy Urania mourn?
Shall gentle Spenser's injured shade
For him attune the lay?
No: none of these o'er his dull grave
Shall strew one leaf of bay.
To him, the modern Midas, these
No grateful chaplets owe;
Yet shall his friends with proper wreaths
Adorn his heavy brow.
For him shall Russell rant and rave
In hobbling rumbling lays;
And Smith in barbarous sleepy prose
Shall grunt and croak his praise.
Russell is the author of the verses on the death of Dr. Armstrong, signed W. R. and dated from Gray's Inn, Sept. 10, 1779, which are commonly printed with the poems of that classical writer.
Before this period he had apparently, relinquished his connexion with the printing-office, and had entirely devoted himself to the pursuits of literature. His History of America was published in numbers, and completed in the course of the same year. This publication was not unfavourably received; but the splendid merit of Dr Robertson's work precluded all competition.
During the same year, 1779, he likewise published, in octavo, the first two volumes of The History of Modern Europe; and their reception was so favourable as to exceed his most sanguine expectations.
His studies experienced a temporary interruption in 1780, when he embarked for Jamaica in order to recover some money, due to him as the heir of his brother James, who, after a residence of several years, had died in that island. He afterwards resumed his historical labours, which were occasionally interrupted by his love of poetry. In the year 1783 he published The Tragic Muse, a poem addressed to Mrs. Siddons. To address verses to a player has been considered as beneath the dignity of the literary character. It would be a crime, said a periodical writer, to sacrifice genius on such an uninteresting occasion: we have more dignified subjects for the poetic muse than an individual whose excellence is only a dazzling meteor, and must be forgotten in a few years at most. — Players have sometimes been extravagantly extolled, particularly by grateful or aspiring poets who have written for the stage, and it will undoubtedly be granted that a poet may easily find a more dignified theme: but supreme excellence in any ingenious art seems to be no improper subject of panegyric; and so rare and difficult are the fleeting attainments of a great actor, that it may be considered as a generous exertion of the poetic talent to rescue them from oblivion "Pity it is," exclaims a celebrated comedian, "that the momentary beauties flowing from an harmonious elocution, cannot, like those of poetry, be their own reward! that the animated graces of the player can live no longer than the instant breath and motion that presents them or at best can but faintly glimmer through the memory, or imperfect recollection of a few surviving spectators!"
The three volumes which complete the History of Modern Europe made their appearance in 1784. From the manuscript notices to which I have already referred, it appears that in the composition of each of these five volumes Russell spent about twelve months. This work, which is the chief foundation of his reputation, possesses great merit as a popular view of a very extensive period of history. The author displays no inconsiderable judgment in the selection of his leading incidents, and in the general arrangement of his materials; and he seems to have studied the philosophy of history with assiduity and success. His narrative is always free from languor; and his liberal reflections are conveyed in a lively and elegant style. It may however be regretted that he should have adopted the expedient of producing his work as a series of letters from a nobleman to his son: every reader is sufficiently aware that Dr Russell did not belong to the order of nobility; and the frequent recurrence of "my dear Philip" is too apt to remind us of the heartless frivolity of Lord Chesterfield.
This work has often been reprinted, and still continues to maintain its original popularity. Russell closes his history with the peace of Paris in 1763; and an able continuation, extending to two volumes, has recently been added by Charles Coote, LL.D. a learned civilian of Doctors Commons.
In the year 1787 he married Miss Scott, a lady to whom he had long been attached, and in whom he found a pleasant and intelligent companion. He now entered upon the occupation of a comfortable farm at Knottyholm, distant about five miles from the town of Langholm in Dumfriesshire; and fixed his residence in an elegant cottage, delightfully situated on the banks of the Esk. Here he spent the remainder of his days. In this neighbourhood there were several intelligent individuals, with whom he lived inhabits of intimacy; and one of the most conspicuous of these was the late John Maxwell, Esq. of Broomholm, who was particularly distinguished for his knowledge of the theory of music.
In 1792 the university of St Andrews conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws. The flattering reception of his last publication had induced him to retrace his steps; and during the following year he published at London, in two volumes octavo, The History of Ancient Europe; with a View of the Revolutions in Asia and Africa. In a Series of Letters to a Young Nobleman. In the composition of this work, he professes to have been peculiarly studious to found his facts on original authorities, and to clear the narrative of unimportant events. He seems however to have allotted too many pages to the poetical details of the Trojan war.
This production partakes of the peculiar merits of his modern history; but as the author did not live to complete his design, it has never arrived at any considerable degree of popularity. The greater proportion of these two volumes relates to the history of Greece; which of late has been ably treated by Dr. Gillies and Mr. Mitford.
Dr. Russell did not long survive the publication of this work: before the close of the same year, a stroke of palsy suddenly terminated his life. He was interred in Westerkirk churchyard; where his grave is distinguished by a plain stone, bearing the subsequent inscription: "Sacred to the Memory of William Russell, LL.D. who died at Knottyholm in the parish of Cannobie, December the 25, 1793, aged 52 years."
This ingenious man left a widow and a daughter, who still reside at Knottyholm. I am indebted to Mrs. Russell for the free use of his papers, as well as for some of the statements contained in this sketch of his life. Besides two complete tragedies, entitled Zenobia and Pyrrhus, he left in manuscript an Analysis of Bryant's Mythology, and the following unfinished productions.
1. The Earl of Stratford, a tragedy.
2. Modern Life, a comedy.
3. The Love Marriage, an opera.
4. Human Happiness, a poem intended to have been comprised in four books.
5. An Historical and Philosophical View of the Progress of Mankind in the Knowledge of the Terraqueous Globe.
6. The History of Modern Europe, Part III. from the peace of Paris in 1763, to the general pacification in 1783, including an Account of the American War, and of the European Transactions in the East Indies. In a Series of Letters from a Nobleman to his Son.
7. The History of England from the beginning of the reign of George III. to the conclusion of the American War.
In the composition of the last of these works Dr Russell was engaged at the time of his death. It was to be comprised in three volumes octavo; for the copy-right of which Mr. Cadell had stipulated to pay him seven hundred and fifty pounds.