1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Russell

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 26:483-86.



WILLIAM RUSSEL, author of the "History of Modern Europe," and other works, was born in 1746, in the county of Mid-Lothian, Scotland, and received some knowledge of Greek and Latin at the school of Inverleithen. After some further instructions at Edinburgh, he was hound apprentice to the bookselling and printing business for five years during which, at his leisure hours, he read much and acquired a considerable fund of general knowledge. At the end of his apprenticeship, he published a "Collection of Modern Poems," the selection of which was thought judicious. About 1763 he made an attempt to adapt Crebillon's "Rhadamisthe et Zenobie" to the British stage, which was offered to the manager of the Drury-lane theatre; but, as Murphy's Zenobia was at that time in rehearsal, it was deemed imprudent to accept of another play on the same subject.

Next year he issued proposals for publishing a second volume of his "Collection of Modern Poems," and retired to the country in order to arrange the materials. During his absence from Edinburgh, he maintained an epistolary correspondence with lord Elibank, Miss Scott of Benham, Mr. Dalzel, and Dr. Ogilvie, to whose friendship his youthful ingenuity had recommended him; but the projected volume never made its appearance. In 1765, lord Elibank having invited him to his seat in East Lothian, he there 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; and in the hope of obtaining preferment through his influence, he relinquished his original employment, and prosecuted the study of history and polite literature.

Having resided with his father till the month of May 1767, he set out for London, with hopes that were soon disappointed, and after waiting in vain for promotion, he was under the necessity of engaging himself as a corrector of the press of William Strahan, afterwards his majesty's printer, which in 1769 he exchanged for the office of overseer to 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 Witherspoon. His "Sentimental Tales" appeared in 1770. From this time he wrote many essays in prose and verse for the monthly 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; and seems about this period to have commenced an author by profession. His "Julia, a Poetical Romance," made its appearance in the year 1774, but with no great success. He was afterwards engaged in composing the "History of America," which was published in numbers, and completed in 1779; this was favourably received by the public, and has far more of the spirit of original thinking and accurate information than is to be found in works published in that shape. In the course of the same year, he also published the two first volumes of his "History of Modern Europe," and the notice which they attracted exceeded his most sanguine expectations.

About this time he was a frequent contributor to the various Magazines then in circulation. His occasional poems inserted in these publications would form a volume of considerable size, but it seems to be allowed by his friends, would, if so published, diminish rather than increase his reputation. In the estimate of his own literary merits he dissented from the general voice. His historical works, which have met with a very favourable reception, he regarded as greatly inferior to his poetical works, which have been totally neglected.

In 1780 his studies met with a temporary interruption he embarked for Jamaica in order to recover some money due to him as the heir of his brother James, who had died in that island. In 1783 he published "The Tragic Muse," a very just compliment to the transcendant abilities of Mrs. Siddons. In 1784 he completed his "History of Modern Europe," by the addition of three volumes. He remained for some time in London, without any particular engagement of the literary kind, from which, being now in easy circumstances, he appears to have meditated a retreat. In 1787 he went to Scotland, married Miss Scott, a very amiable woman, and settled at a place called Knottyholm, a small distance from the town of Langholm in Scotland. In 1792 he obtained from the university of St. Andrew's, the honorary degree of doctor of laws, with which he wished to adorn the title-page of his "History of Ancient Europe," an undertaking, which he had now begun, and completed two volumes in 1793; but this, neither as to plan or execution, was so highly valued as his former work. He was in truth less fit for the task than he had been, and being engaged in disputes with his booksellers, his mind became hurt and irritated. Some letters we have seen from him at this period shew that it was not quite sound; and that the strong sense of injury which he felt was in a great measure without foundation. While in this state a stroke of palsy terminated his life, Jan. 1, 1794, in the forty-seventh year of his age.

Dr. Russel was a man of indefatigable industry. Before he had perfected one scheme, another always presented itself to his mind. Besides two complete tragedies, entitled "Pyrrhus" and "Zenobia," he left behind him an analysis of Bryant's Mythology, and the following unfinished productions 1. "The Earl of Strafford," 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. "A 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." 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 he was engaged at the time of his death. It was to be comprised in three volumes 8vo; for the copy-right of which Mr. Cadell had stipulated to pay seven hundred and fifty pounds. His "History of Modern Europe" has lately been reprinted, with an additional, volume "to the peace of Amiens," by Dr. Coote, and continues to be a standard book for scholars of the upper classes. His "Ancient History" has never been completed.

Dr. Russel, without exhibiting the graces of polished life, was an agreeable companion, and possessed a considerable fund of general knowledge, and a zeal for literature and genius, which approached to enthusiasm. In all his undertakings, he was strictly honourable, and deserved the confidence reposed in him by his employers.