1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Campbell

Anonymous, "Memoir of Thomas Campbell" 1838; The Poems of the Pleasures (1841) 191-200.



The city of Glasgow has the honour of having given birth to the bard of Hope. Thomas Campbell was born there in the year 1777. He was the son of a second marriage. His father, who was born in the reign of Queen Anne, was sixty-seven years of age at the time of the poet's birth. The early education of young Campbell was intrusted to Dr. David Alison, a gentleman, whose reputation as a teacher of. youth, stood deservedly high in Glasgow, a city eminent then, as it has ever since been, for the excellence of its seminaries and the talents of its teachers.

Campbell, like Pope, "lisped in numbers." There are yet in possession of some of his frieids in Scotland, verses written by him at the age of nine years. They are, no doubt, sufficiently childish; but they show at what an early age he received visits from the muse. At the age of twelve, he was placed at the University of Glasgow, where he soon, with a precocity of ambition as well as talent, became a candidate for the collegiate annuity, conferred on successful competitors for superiority in the classical languages, called a bursary. Campbell carried off the prize from an opponent twice his age. He was indeed extremely industrious; and his ambitious exertions were at once stimulated and rewarded by the obtaining of a variety of prizes in the contests for classical eminence, prescribed to the students at the Glasgow University. In Greek he was an early proficient, and some of the translations from that language, which he made as collegiate exercises, are to be ranked among the best that have yet appeared in our language. It was from Dr. Millar, the eminent lecturer on moral philosophy, in Glasgow, that Campbell acquired his correct habit of analyzation, and the taste for abstract speculation so observable in his best poems.

At about eighteen, Campbell left Glasgow to undertake the duties of a private teacher in a family of distinction in Argyleshire. Amidst the wild scenery which surrounded his new residence, his poetic energies greatly increased, and it was there that he completed some, and planned others, of his most popular productions.

From Argyleshire, Campbell removed to Edinburgh, where at the age of twenty-one, he appeared in full poetical blaze before the world in his first and best production, "The Pleasures of Hope." Several of the booksellers to whom the manuscript of this celebrated poem was offered, with that species of sagacity which so often characterizes the trade, in their estimate of the value of works offered to them by unknown authors, refused to publish it without a guarantee for the expense. The author was too poor for his own guarantee to be taken, and too modest to solicit that of any other person. He happened, however, at this juncture to show his manuscript to a gentleman of true' benevolence, and of well-known taste and discernment in poetical literature. This was Dr. Robert Anderson, the editor of an excellent series of the Lives of the British Poets, with a voluminous edition of their works. This gentleman at once perceived the uncommon excellence of the poetry contained in the rejected manuscript. There were many exuberant passages in it, however, which, at his recommendation, the young poet judiciously expunged; and many others were modified and no doubt improved at the suggestion of the friendly critic. The work, thus carefully revised, Dr. Anderson, to whom the author very gratefully inscribed it, not only caused it to be published, but by glowing eulogiums in several of the Edinburgh journals, so recommended it to the public, that its merits became speedily known, and the fame of the poet was at once established. Campbell, however, in his anxiety to remove every obstacle that stood in the way of the publication, had disposed of the copyright for ten pounds; and this small sum was all the direct remuneration which he at first received, for a work which brought for twenty years to the publishers a profit, of nearly three hundred pounds a year. It is said, indeed, that afterwards a small additional sum and the profit of the fourth edition were awarded him. His pecuniary circumstances were at this time very unpromising, and he was, as may be supposed, in no very good humour with the booksellers. It is related, that on a festive occasion he vented his spleen against them, at the apparent expense of his patriotism. The character and conduct of Napoleon was, at the time, generally disliked in Britain. The poet was called on for a toast. To the astonishment of the company, he gave "Bonaparte." An explanation was required. "Gentlemen," said he, "I give you Bonaparte in his character of executioner of the booksellers." Palm, the German bookseller, had been just executed by command of the first consul.

In the year 1800, Campbell went to the continent. He sailed for Hamburg, and travelled over a great part of Germany. He visited the principal of the universities, with the view of acquiring the German language, and forming an acquaintance with the professors and other literati of those seminaries. He happened to be in the vicinity of Hohenlinden at the time of the severe contest which took place there between the French and Austrian armies. He witnessed the combat from the walls of a convent, and afterwards followed the bloody track of Moreau's army over the field of battle.

In Germany, Campbell became acquainted with many literary and political characters of high note, among whom were the two celebrated Schlegels, and the still more celebrated Klopstock, then far advanced in the vale of life. He spent rather more than a year on the continent, and then for the first time visited London.

While at Hamburg Campbell wrote his beautifully pathetic song, of the "Exile of Erin." It was set to the national air of "Erin go bragh," and is worthy of being associated with that noble production of Irish minstrelsy, which it will accompany to the latest posterity. He was inspired with the touching strains of this song, by witnessing, in the vicinity of his residence, the grief of some Irish exiles, who had been obliged to leave their country on account of the active part they had taken in the rebellion of 1798.

Soon after his arrival in London, he published his three very spirited and popular odes, "Hohenlinden," "The Battle of the Baltic," and "Ye Mariners of England." In 1803, he married a Miss Sinclair, a lady of great beauty and accomplishments, with whom he lived happily until she died, in 1828. He now took a house in the agreeable village of Sydenham, where he continued to reside for upwards of sixteen years, occupied chiefly in literary avocations.

It was shortly after his retirement to the shades of Sydenham, that Campbell wrote his "Gertrude of Wyoming," which some critics have pronounced, we think very erroneously, his best work. It is a prettily told tale, in the Spenserian stanza, very tender in some of its sentiments, and picturesque in its descriptions. But it is frequently languid in its tone, and monotonously pensive. Its scenes are laid amidst the woods and mountains of Pennsylvania; yet, although picturesque in the abstract, they contain nothing specially characteristic of American scenery. On the contrary, elf-haunted flower-plats, shepherds playing on timbrels to dancing maidens, pastoral savannas, and flowery valleys where young ladies recline at noon under the shade of palm trees, reading Shakspeare, are certainly what no one ever witnessed, or need expect ever to witness, in the Wyoming Valley, until the climate of Pennsylvania ceases to produce venomous reptiles and stinging insects in the summer months, and the fierce freezing blasts of the northwestern winds in those of winter. Instead also of the Valley of Wyoming having been the scene of profound tranquillity and happiness previous to the revolutionary war, which Campbell has imagined, it was by far the most distracted and unhappy portion of Pennsylvania, in consequence of the perpetual and often bloody contests for the sovereignty of the district, carried on between the Connecticut settlers and the government of the province. If it be said that a poet is not obliged to swear to the truth of his song, it may be replied, that neither is a reader obliged to yield belief to known falsehood, although it be uttered in verse. The poet who should sing in strains equal to Homer himself, that Bonaparte vanquished Wellington at Waterloo, would gain few admirers among men of sense. When fiction is employed in poetry, it will always be judicious to place its scenes where neither history nor topography can dissipate the illusion it creates, otherwise the well-informed reader will be more apt to be offended at the large demands made on his credulity, than pleased with the beauty of the fictions presented to his contemplation. But it is not our province in this place to criticise this poetical tale. Our design is only to rebuke those who, without any support from reason, or sanction from the public voice, characterize it as a superior production to "The Pleasures of Hope." It is a simple tale, languidly told, full of puling sentiment, false scenery, and improbable incidents; but presenting an attractive picture of innocence, virtue, and female loveliness in the heroine, and of wild energy and fidelity in the untutored, though somewhat too philosophical Oneida savage. But where does it exhibit the energy, the terseness, the variety, the sententiousness, and the spirit-stirring appeals to the heart, which abound in "The Pleasures of Hope?"

About the time of the appearance of "Gertrude of Wyoming," Campbell received the appointment of professor of poetry in the Royal Institution, where he delivered a course of valuable lecture, which have since been published. He also undertook the editing of a number of volumes of selections from the British poets, with critical remarks, which indicate much acumen in the discovery and analysis of the beauties and defects of our most popular poets. The style of these criticisms, however, has been censured for displaying an undue fastidiousness in respect to phraseology, which has occasioned him in many places to sacrifice strong and clear sense to the attainment of polished and agreeable expression.

In 1819, Campbell again visited the continent, and spent some time in Vienna, where he was enabled to observe the manners and policy of a despotic government, and to contrast their effects on the condition and habits of the people, with those which result from the free institutions of his own country. The high value which such study taught such an ardent friend to liberty to place on the latter, may well be imagined. He left one of his sons at the University of Bonn, and in 1820 returned to England, where he undertook the management of the New Monthly Magazine. To this work his name was of more value than his contributions. Of every thing which he wrote for it, he took care that the public should be apprized by the announcement of his name.

In 1824, Campbell published his "Theodric, a Domestic Tale;" the insipidity and flatness of which disgusted the pubic and astonished the critics. Considered as the production of the author of "The Pleasures of Hope," it furnishes, perhaps, the most remarkable instance of the loss of high poetical powers, to be found in the history of literature.

Campbell has the high honour to be regarded, we believe justly, as the projector of that noble and useful institution, the University of London. Having conceived the idea, he applied himself with an energy and zeal which he had not for many years been accustomed to apply to any pursuit, in recommending it to the public, until at length he aroused the leading men of the city, headed by the indefatigable Brougham, to set about accomplishing the undertaking. In such a city as London, when once the citizens became convinced of the utility of the design, funds for its execution could not be long wanting. When Campbell, however, saw the business taken hold of by more active and persevering men than himself, he relapsed into his former quiescent habits; and contenting himself with occasionally attending committees, left the management to others whose skill and activity in business details exceeded his own. He had the satisfaction, however, to see the work go forward with unexampled rapidity, for in less than three years after he had made his project known to the public, the university was in full operation.

The reader of this sketch has thus far seen nothing but prosperity attending the career of the poet of Hope. This prosperity seemed to have been crowned by an event which must have been extremely grateful to his feelings; that of having been elected by the students of his Alma Mater, the university of his native city, the lord rector of that ancient seat of learning, for three successive years, although-the influence of the professors was exerted against him, and the candidates opposed to him were individuals of no less merit and renown than the minister Canning and Sir Walter Scott.

But the life of Mr. Campbell has not passed without its share of tribulation. He has experienced domestic afflictions of peculiar severity. Of his two sons, one died when he was approaching his twentieth year, and the fate of the other was still more calamitous. He had been left at the University of Bonn, as has been already stated. He there in a short time exhibited symptoms of insanity, so decided as to oblige his father to have him brought to England, where the disease, although it assumed a milder form, became confirmed and incurable. He was for some years placed in a lunatic asylum, where, the derangement gradually abating, the unhappy young man became altogether harmless, and his father took him home. This calamity may well be supposed to have been the source of the keenest sufferings to the mind of a father constituted like that of Campbell.

Campbell is of small stature, and slender, but well made. His countenance indicates great sensibility, and something of distrust or rather fastidiousness in regard to the exercise of his own powers in any undertaking. His expression is generally grave; his eyes are large, of a blue colour, and remarkably striking. His nose is aquiline, and his hair dark, and he has long worn a peruke of the same colour. In the disposition of his mind, he has all the irritable characteristics of the poet. He is quick in his impulses; but charitable and kind. It is said that he indulges in few amusements; the company of a friend and social conversation being the recreations in which he most delights.