In one of Sir Walter Scott's fresh and charming prefaces, he points to the writings of glorious John Dryden, as illustrating a remark upon the general voluminousness of popular authors. Were we disposed, for contradiction's sake, to advance an observation of diametrically opposite tendency, we should find a strong corroborative example, in the poems of Thomas Campbell, which, being included within the narrow compass of a single volume, still number among them some of the most precious and sterling gems of English song.
Thomas Campbell was born at Glasgow on the 27th of July, 1777; the youngest of ten children. Mr. Alexander Campbell, his father, the youngest son of Campbell of Kernan in Argyleshire, a Highland laird, was a retired merchant, who had traded largely with America in his time. Our poet can be hardly said to have his authorship by inheritance, though the eldest of his paternal uncles, Mr. Robert Campbell, having been induced by embarrassed circumstances to go up to London, in the hope of retrieving his fortunes, had been engaged in the literature of political partizanship (if indeed, it deserve so to be named) under the auspices of Sir Robert Walpole: and among many others of his works, a life of his "far awa cousin," John, Duke of Argyle, may be specified: but the fall of his patron involving him also in ruin, he died in London, it is to be feared, in very narrow circumstances. Mr. Alexander Campbell was himself an intelligent man, an intimate friend of Professor Reid, at whose hands Thomas received his name: and though the latter, as the youngest son, the child of advanced age (being born when Mr. Campbell was 67), was perhaps the favourite of the flock, and as such, received the best education — others of the family were distinguished for their intellectual superiority, and the poet speaks and writes with particular affection and respect of his eldest brother, Mr. Archibald Campbell, who died some years ago at Richmond in Virginia.
Thomas Campbell was sent, when thirteen, to Glasgow College. He remained there for six sessions, going successively through the classes of Latin, Greek, Logic, Natural and Moral Philosophy. He writes thus unaffectedly of his University achievements. "In some of the classes," says he, "I was idle, and bore off no prize at all, and being obliged by my circumstances to give elementary instruction to students still younger than myself, my powers of attention were often exhausted in teaching when I ought to have been learning. Nevertheless, I was not undistinguished at college; when but thirteen I gained a bursary after a hard and fair competition, before the whole Faculty, in construing and writing Latin, where I was pitted against a student twice my age." Nor must it be forgotten, in speaking of his college career, that Professor Young, in awarding to Thomas Campbell a prize for the best translation of the Clouds of Aristophanes, pronounced it to be the first exercise which had been ever given in by any student belonging to the University.
The law lectures of Professor Millar, to whose high merits Mr. Campbell has repeatedly and warmly testified, had the effect of interesting him deeply in the study of jurisprudence; and had well nigh quenched the "divine ardour" within him, or turned it into sterner channels. During a twelvemonths' seclusion in the Highlands, which followed the close of his University career, he buried himself deeply in the abstractions of moral science, earnestly desiring to make law his profession. But this was not to be. Two poems composed during this, his nineteenth year, and still retained in some editions of his works — The Elegy on Miss Broderic, and the Dirge of Wallace — remain to show that Nature will have way, in spite of opposing circumstances. The law project was, of necessity, abandoned, and our poet removed from Argyleshire to Edinburgh — Who is there but knows by heart his hauntingly beautiful "lines on revisiting" that scene of his retirement? In Edinburgh he maintained himself by private tuition; for a time being but little known, but gradually drawing round him some of the then choice spirits of Modern Athens — James Grahame and Francis Jeffrey among their number: and in the year 1799, introducing himself more widely to the world by the publication of "The Pleasures of Hope."
This poem calls for no analysis at our hands. What musician would expend himself in dissecting melodies which have become street-music; — what critic would not feet it superfluous, to descant upon a work which has been said and sung from Johnny Groat's house to the Land's End, which has been taught in schoolbooks, and wrought on samplers, — become one of the cottager's scanty library, as well as taken its place upon more aristocratic shelves, as a British classic; and whose crowning excellence lies in its equal freedom from mannerism or obscurity on the one hand, or familiarity and baldness of diction on the other. The appearance of so admirable a work, led, as was inevitable, to its author's society being eagerly sought by the most distinguished among every class and profession. Though his reward was rather in celebrity than in adequate profit, Campbell was enabled by the publication and success of his poem to "put money in his purse," and to indulge his desire of seeing foreign parts.
Crossing over from Leith to Hamburgh, he proceeded into the interior of Germany. The war between France and Austria was at that time raging; and he made two attempts to cross the district where it was carried on; once in his way toward Vienna being stopped at Landshut, from the walls of which town he witnessed an engagement between the French and Imperial armies; and retiring thence to Ratisbon, which narrowly escaped bombardment, — a second time only relinquishing his design of passing over into Italy, via the Tyrol, on finding it impossible to proceed. In the spring of 1801 he returned to Hamburgh, and was there thrown among some of the banished leaders of the Irish Rebellion, a chance, which, joined with his fearless wanderings in the midst of encountering armies, being laid hold upon, by a spy, subjected him to some momentary suspicion on the part of the government authorities on his return to Scotland. But it was worth while to be suspected, for the sake of an association which had suggested a poem so exquisite as the "Exile of Erin;" and this was written at Hamburgh. Thirty years afterwards the poet was again suspected — this second time not of disaffection, but of reaping where he had not sown: an impudent claim to the authorship of this song, being advanced by the editor of an Irish newspaper on the part of one George Nugent, who had died many years before, and was known as having written poetry. Strange to say, Mr. Campbell found a temporary difficulty in bringing forward that indisputable proof of its paternity — which might, indeed, have been required by law, but by neither equity nor common sense.
It was at Hamburgh, too, that "Ye Mariners of England" was called from the poet (already registered as a disloyal subject in the pages of the book of espionage) by the prospect of a Danish war. How nobly — availing himself of the measure and burden of a popular song, — he poured forth that pride and that confidence which is the fit heritage of those who feel themselves masters of the seas, and which then were stirring every heart to noble deeds as with the voice of a trumpet, no Englishman can have forgotten — God forbid that any Englishman should ever forget! Though the years to come, we trust, will be years of the ploughshare and the reaping-hook, rather than of the sword and the spear, — till we wholly lose our nationality in a citizenship of the world, this lofty lyric will never cease to warm us: and even should such a golden millenium of universal toleration and prosperity ever arrive, — it must still be reverently treasured by our children's children as a piece of old armour or a faded banner — a proud memorial that in the times when were "wars and fightings," we knew how to hold our own "sans peur et sans reproche!"
After a sojourn of some weeks at Hamburgh, Mr. Campbell took his passage for Leith: but the vessel being chased by a Danish privateer, was driven into Yarmouth; and the poet, so near London, could not resist the temptations it held out. After a short stay in the metropolis, he returned to Edinburgh, where he was subjected to the ridiculous examination to which his Hamburgh residence had furnished occasion, and where during his subsequent residence of a twelvemonth he wrote "Lochiell" and some other of his poems. But the attractions of London were so pleasantly remembered that he was again drawn thither in the year 1803, with the intention of making it his home. In the autumn of the same year he married his second cousin, Miss Matilda Sinclair, a lady endowed with every good gift save those of fortune. A series of vicissitudes of circumstance on the part of Mr. Campbell's family, added to the usual responsibilities of a love-marriage, compelled him for some subsequent years to coin his talent as diligently as he could; to become a literary labourer for the market. We are told of a History of England (most probably a continuation to Hume and Smollett's work) executed by him during this period; and of a large variety of anonymous labours for the periodical and daily press. But it is impossible to specify works which their author has no desire to reclaim from oblivion: and it is painful to dwell upon a time of ceaseless anxiety, and compelled task-work, and seriously impaired health. Enough to say, that during this period he was introduced, among other new friends and connexions, to Charles Fox; at whose instance, in recognition of his literary successes, he afterwards was placed on the pension list.
In the year 1809, however, brighter days began to dawn. Mr. Campbell's health was reestablished, he wrote his "Battle of the Baltic" (perhaps the most spirited of his lyrics), "Lord Ullin's Daughter," and "Gertrude of Wyoming." They were published in the same year, with a success which has rather increased than diminished, many editions having been rapidly called for, to one of which a new interest was given by the addition of "O'Connor's Child." To point out the characteristics in right of which these poems stand alone among the works of the present day, — to parallel the shorter (and stronger) compositions with the odes of Gray, and the longer works, wherein there is room for description and episodical incident and digressions, with the musical and truehearted compositions of Goldsmith, never cold where their author is the calmest, — would lead us too far astray. The "Gertrude," the most popular of the series at the time of its appearing, is, perhaps, the least likely to live: whereas, owing to their happy exemption from conceit and mannerism, to the simplicity and strength of their language, and the perfect finish of their versification, we cannot picture to ourselves any possible state of English literature in which the shorter odes, and songs, and ballads, can be rejected as antique and obsolete, or be forgotten as having contained merely words, which are ephemeral, in lace of thoughts, which are immortal things.
Shortly after the publication of this volume, Mr. Campbell was invited to deliver a course of lectures on poetry at the Royal Institution. So highly were these esteemed, that their author was immediately engaged by Mr. Murray, of Albemarle Street, to undertake his selections from criticisms upon the British Poets. This work involved more research and labour than would seem at first sight requisite, especially in the portions referring to remote periods, when much of that antiquarian knowledge is required for elucidation and illustration, which sits stiffly upon the poetical critic, and which therefore, should be felt rather than seen in his writings. While this work was in preparation, the author took advantage of the treaty of Paris, to visit the French metropolis. He has given us, in his "Life of Mrs. Siddons," the transcript of his impressions on beholding some of the treasures of art in the Louvre, which he chanced to visit in company with that distinguished lady.
Each subsequent year, about this time, was marked for the poet by a further turn of the wheel on its golden side — his fame had spread far and wide, and his fortunes were reinstated by the successful issue of his literary exertions, and a liberal legacy bequeathed to him by a kinsman. We can only mention with a passing word his delivering a course of lectures on poetry at Liverpool, in the winter of the year 1818; and his second visit to Germany, during which he applied himself assiduously and somewhat whimsically to the study of Hebrew, and was inspired, by the rich and picturesque scenery of the Rhine, to write some of his best minor poems, "The brave Roland" among the number. On his return to England, in 1820, he accepted the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine, which he retained for ten years. These were, perhaps, the brightest periods of his life. He enriched the periodical under his care with some of his finest works; he drew around him the first spirits of the day. It was during this time, in the year 1824, that "Theodric" was published, the last long poem Mr. Campbell has given to the world — a work less vivid and attractive than its predecessors, from the choice of its subject, (which is of a domestic nature), and therefore less prized by the public. During this period, too, he occupied himself in projecting the London University; and while busy with this liberal and extensive plan of furnishing additional collegiate education for the youth of England, he received from his own Alma Mater the highest honours she can bestow; being elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow. In this election Mr. Canning had been nominated as the opposing candidate; and it must not be forgotten that so eminently did Mr. Campbell, in his official capacity, engage the respect and goodwill of the students of his native university, that they elected him, at the conclusion of two years, the usual period of office, — for a third and additional year.
In 1830, having previously suffered a severe domestic bereavement in the death of Mrs. Campbell, the poet closed his labours as editor of the New Monthly Magazine. Since then, he has been less stationary than formerly — now, living for a year at St. Leonard's, Hastings, during which time he gave his name and occasional contributions to the Metropolitan Magazine, then just established — now, lending his heart, and hand, and purse, with untiring energy, to the assistance of the refugees, whom the Polish insurrection and its consequences, have thrown upon the sympathy of the English public — now, finishing the "Life of Mrs. Siddons," which he had undertaken at her own express wish — now, rambling across the Continent to Algiers, finding there abundant store of new and gay subjects for his pen, as his lively letters recently published, sufficiently testify. Mr. Campbell, we are told, is at present preparing a splendid
illustrated edition of his poems: is it vain to wish that he would add to their number, in place of polishing and decorating those already written, and already known and beloved, wherever poetry is heard? That these are dark days for English song we know; but rarely has been the example of one, who pours forth noble thoughts in rich and chaste language, unshackled by any theory, undisfigured by any conceit in his mode of delivery, been more urgently required for the imitation and warning of rising aspirants, than at the present moment, when Genius, instead of taking up the lyre and studying its lofty modes, for the expression of her divinely-prompted imaginings, is far too apt to content herself with the fantastic and pleasant, but childish chime of the coral and bells!