1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Blacklock

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:102-03.



A blind descriptive poet seems such an anomaly in nature, that the case of Dr. Blacklock has engaged the attention of the learned and curious in no ordinary degree. We read all concerning him with strong interest, except his poetry, for this is generally tame, languid, and commonplace. He was an amiable and excellent man, of warm and generous sensibilities, eager for knowledge, and proud to communicate it. THOMAS BLACKLOCK was the son of a Cumberland bricklayer, who had settled in the town of Annan, Dumfriesshire. When about six months old, the child was totally deprived of sight by the small-pox; but his worthy father, assisted by his neighbours, amused his solitary boyhood by reading to him; and before he had reached the age of twenty, he was familiar with Spenser, Milton, Pope, and Addison. He was enthusiastically fond of poetry, particularly of the works of Thomson and Allan Ramsay. From these he must, in a great degree, have derived his images and impressions of nature and natural objects; but in after-life the classic poets were added to his store of intellectual enjoyment. His father was accidentally killed when the poet was about the age of nineteen; but some of his attempts at verse having been seen by Dr. Stevenson, Edinburgh, this benevolent gentleman took their blind author to the Scottish metropolis, where he was enrolled as a student of divinity. In 1746 he published a volume of his poems, which was reprinted with additions in 1754 and 1756. He was licensed a preacher of the gospel in 1759, and three years afterwards, married the daughter of Mr. Johnston, a surgeon in Dumfries. At the same time, through the patronage of the Earl of Selkirk, Blacklock was appointed minister of Kirkcudbright. The parishioners, however, were opposed both to church patronage in the abstract, and to this exercise of it in favour of a blind man, and the poet relinquished the appointment on receiving in lieu of it a moderate annuity. He now resided in Edinburgh, and took boarders into his house. His family was a scene of peace and happiness. To his literary pursuits Blacklock added a taste for music, and played on the flute and flageolet. Latterly, he suffered from depression of spirits, and supposed that his imaginative powers were failing him; yet the generous ardour he evinced in 1786, in the case of Burns, shows no diminution of sensibility or taste in the appreciation of genius. In one of his later poems, the blind bard thus pathetically alludes to the supposed decay of his faculties:—

Excursive on the gentle gales of spring,
He roved, whilst favour hoped his timid wing.
Exhausted genius now no more inspires,
But mourns abortive hopes and faded fires;
The short-lived wreath, which once his temples graced,
Fades at the sickly breath of squeamish taste;
Whilst darker days his fainting flames immure
In cheerless gloom and winter premature.

He died on the 7th of July 1791, at the age of seventy. Besides his poems, Blacklock wrote some sermons and theological treatises, an article on Blindness for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (which is ingenious and elegant), and two dissertations entitled "Paraclesis; or Consolations Deduced from Natural and Revealed Religion," one of them original, and the other translated from a work ascribed to Cicero.

Apart from the circumstances under which they were produced, the poems of Blacklock offer little room or temptation to criticism. He has no new imagery, no commanding power of sentiment, reflection, or imagination. Still he was a fluent and correct versifier, and his familiarity with the visible objects of nature — with trees, streams, the rocks, and sky, and even with different orders of flowers and plants — is a wonderful phenomenon in one blind from infancy. He could distinguish colours by touch; but this could only apply to objects at hand, not to the features of a landscape, or to the appearances of storm or sunshine, sunrise or sunset, or the variation in the seasons, all of which he has described. Images of this kind he had at will. Thus, he exclaims—

Ye vales, which to the raptured eye
Disclosed the flowery pride of May;
Ye circling hills, whose summits high
Blushed with the morning's earliest ray.

Or he paints flowers with artist-like precision—

Let long-lived pansies here their scents bestow,
The violet 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 tinged with beauty's fairest dyes.

In a man to whom all external phenomena were, and had ever been, one "universal blank," this union of taste and memory was certainly remarkable. Poetical feeling he must have inherited from nature, which led him to take pleasure even from his infancy in descriptive poetry; and the language, expressions, and pictures thus imprinted on his mind by habitual acquaintance with the best authors, and in literary conversation, seem to have risen spontaneously in the moment of composition.