1791 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Blacklock

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 61 (July, September 1791) 685, 867-68.



At Edinburgh, Rev. Dr. Tho. Blacklock; the blind Poet, if we mistake not, whom Mr. Spence, with Mr. R. Dodsley, went to Scotland to visit; and of whom we hope for a farther account....

Dr. Blacklock, who is characterised by Mr. Spence as "one of the most extraordinary characters that has appeared in this or any other age," was born at Annan, in Scotland, in 1721. His father (a poor tradesman) and his mother were natives of the county of Cumberland, where his paternal ancestors lived from time immemorial. They generally followed agriculture; and were distinguished for a knowledge and humanity above their sphere. His father had been in good circumstances, but was reduced by a series of misfortunes. His mother was daughter of Mr. Rich. Rae, and extensive dealer in cattle, a considerable business in that county; and was equally esteemed as a man of fortune and importance. Before young B. was six months old, he was totally deprived of his eye-sight by the small pox. His father (who by his son's account of him must have been a particularly good man) had intended to breed him up to his own or some other trade; but as this misfortune rendered him incapable of any, all that this worthy parent could do was to shew the utmost care and attention that he was able toward him in so unfortunate a situation; and this goodness of his left so strong an impression on the mind of his son, that he ever spoke of it with the greatest warmth of gratitude and affection. What was wanting to this poor youth, from the loss of his sight and the narrowness of his fortune, seems to have been repaid him in the goodness of his heart, and the capacities of his mind. He very early shewed a strong inclination to poetry in particular. His father and a few of his other friends used often to divert him by reading; and, among other things, they read several passages out of our poets. These were his chief delight and entertainment. He heard them not only with an uncommon pleasure, but with a sort of congenial enthusiasm; and, from loving and admiring, he soon began to imitate them. Among these early essays of his genius there was one which is inserted in his works. It was composed when he was but twelve years old; and has something very pretty in the turn of it; and very promising, for one of so tender an age. — In 1740, his father, being informed that a kiln belonging to his son-in-law of his was giving way, his solicitude for his interest made him venture in below the ribs, to see where the failure lay, when the principal beam coming down upon him, with eighty bushels of malt, which were upon the kiln at the time, he was in one moment crushed to death. Young B. had at this time attained his nineteenth year; and as this misfortune necessarily occasioned his falling into more hands than he had ever been used to, it was from that time that he began, by degrees, to be somewhat more talked of, and his extraordinary talents more known. About a year after, he was sent for to Edinburgh, by Dr. Stevenson, a man of taste, and one of the physicians in that city; who had the goodness to supply him with every thing necessary for his living and studying in the university there. Dr. B. looked on this gentleman as his Maecenas; and the poem placed at the entrance of his works was a tribute of gratitude addressed to him, in imitation of the first ode of Horace to his great patron. He had got some rudiments of Latin in his youth, but could not easily read a Latin author till he was near twenty, when Dr. Stevenson put him to a grammar-school in Edinburgh. He afterwards studied in that university; where he not only perfected himself in Latin, but also went through all the best Greek authors with a very lively pleasure. He was master of the French language, which he acquired by his intimacy in the family of Mr. Provost Alexander, whose lady was a Parisian. — After he had followed his studies at Edinburgh for four years, he retreated into the country, on the breaking-out of the rebellion, in 1745; and it was during this recess that he was prevailed on by some of his friends to publish a little collection of his poems at Glasgow. When that tempest was blown over, and the calm entirely restored, he returned again to the University of Edinburgh, and pursued his studies there for six years more. The second edition of his poems was published by him there, in the beginning of 1754, very much improved and enlarged; and they might have been much more numerous than they were, had he not shewn a great deal more niceness and delicacy than is usual, and kept several pieces from the press for reasons which seemed much stronger to himself than they did to his friends, some of whom were concerned at his excess of scrupulousness, and much wished not to have had him deprived of so much reputation, nor the world of so many poetical beauties as abounded in them. Dr. B. during his ten years studies at the university, "not only acquired," as Mr. Hume wrote to a friend, "a great knowledge of the Greek, Latin, and French languages, but also made a considerable progress in all the sciences;" and (what is yet more extraordinary) attained a considerable excellence in poetry; though the chief inlets for poetical ideas were barred-up in him, and all the visible beauties of the creation had been long since totally blotted out of his memory. How far he contrived, by the uncommon force of his genius, to compensate for this vast defect; with what elegance and harmony he often wrote; with how much propriety, how much sense, and how much emotion, are things as easy to be perceived in reading his poems, as they would be difficult to be fully accounted for. Considered in either of these points, he will appear to have a great share of merit; but if thoroughly considered in all together, we are very much inclined to say (with his friend Mr. Hume), "he may be regarded as a prodigy." — Of his moral character Mr. Hume observed, "that his modesty was equal to the goodness of his disposition, and the beauty of his genius;" and the author of the account prefixed to his works, speaking of the pieces which Dr. B. would not suffer to be printed, and which, he said, abounded with so many poetical beauties that nothing could do him greater honour, correcting himself, added, "yet I must still except his private character, which, were it generally known, would recommend him more to the public esteem than the united talents of an accomplished writer." — Among his particular virtues, one of the first to be admired was his ease and contendedness of mind under so many circumstances, as one, almost, of which might be thought capable of depressing it. Considering the meanness of his birth, the lowness of his situation, the despicableness (at least as he himself so spoke of it) of his person, the narrowness and difficulties of his fortune, and, above all, his so early loss of his sight, and his incapacity, from thence, of any way of relieving himself under all these burthens, it may be reckoned no small degree of virtue in him, even not to have been generally dispirited and complaining. Each of these humiliating circumstances he spoke of in some part or other of his poems; but what he dwelt upon with the most lasting cast of melancholy was his loss of sight; but this is in a piece written when his spirits were particularly depressed by an incident that very nearly threatened his life, from which he had but just escaped with a great deal of difficulty, and with all the terrors of so great a danger, and the dejection occasioned by them, just fresh upon his mind. See the beginning of his Soliloquy, p. 153; a poem (as he there says) occasioned by his escape from falling into a deep well, where he must have been irrecoverably lost, if a favourite lap dog had not (by the sound of its feet upon the board with which the well was covered) warned him of his danger. In the same melancholy poem he feelingly expressed his dread of falling into extreme want:

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 Heaven;
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.

His good sense and religion enabled him to get the better of these fears, and of all his other calamities, in his calmer hours; and, indeed, in this very poem (which is the most gloomy of any he had written), he seemed to have a gleam of light fall in upon his mind, and recovered himself enough to express his hopes that the care of Providence, which had hitherto always protected him, would again interfere, and dissipate the clouds that were gathering over him. Towards the close of the same piece, he shewed not only that he was satisfied with his own condition, but that he could discover some very great blessings in it; and through the general course of his other poems one may discern such a justness of thinking about the things of this world, and such an easy and contented turn of mind, as was every way becoming a good Christian and a good philosopher. This was the character given of our author by Mr. Spence, who, in the year 1754, took upon himself the patronage of Dr. Blacklock, and successfully introduced him to the notice of the publick. In that year he published a pamphlet, intituled, "An Account of the Life, Character, and Poems of Mr. Blacklock, Student of Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh," 8vo; which, with some improvements, was prefixed to a quarto edition of Dr. Blacklock's Poems, published by subscription. By this publication a considerable sum of money was obtained, and soon after our poet was fixed in an eligible situation in the University of Edinburgh. In his dedication of the second part of "Paracelsis" to Mr. Spence, he says, "it is to your kind patronage that I owe my introduction to the republick of letters; and to your benevolence, in some measure, my present comfortable situation." In 1760 he contributed some poems to a Scotch collection published at Edinburgh in that year; and being there styled "the Rev. Mr. Blacklock," it appears he had then entered into holy orders. About 1766 he obtained the degree of D.D.; and in 1767 published "Paracelsis; or, Consolations deduced from Natural and Revealed Religion, in Two Discourses on the Spirit and Evidences of Christianity," translated from the French of Mr. James Armand, and dedicated to the Rev. Moderator of the General Assembly," 8vo; and in 1774 produced "The Graham; an Heroic Ballad; in Four Cantos," 4to. In 1776 appeared "Remarks on the Nature and Extent of Liberty, as compatible with the Genius of Civil Societies; on the Principles of Government, and the proper Limits of its Powers in Free States; and on the Justice and Policy of the American War; occasioned by perusing the Observations of Dr. Price on these Subjects. Edinburgh," 8vo. This, we have been assured, was written by our author; who at length, at the age of 70, died on the 14th of July last.