1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Blacklock

James Wilson, "The Life of Thomas Blacklock" Biography of the Blind (1838) 28-48.



The Life of BLACKLOCK has a claim to notice beyond that of most of the Poets of our nation, with whom he is now associated. He who reads his Poems with that interest which their intrinsic merit deserves, will feel that interest very much increased, when he shall be told the various difficulties which their author overcame in their production, the obstacles which nature and fortune placed in his way to the possession of those ideas which he acquired, to the communication of those which his poetry unfolds.

The facts stated in the present account, are chiefly taken from the learned and ingenious Dr. Anderson's narrative, which is written with such copiousness of intelligence as leaves little to be supplied, and such felicity of performance as precludes the most distant hope of improvement. Among the few additional particulars detailed here, the present compiler has endeavoured to give a complete account of his writings.

Dr. Thomas Blacklock was born at Annan, in the county of Dumfries, November 10, 1721. His parents were natives of the county of Cumberland; his father was by trade a bricklayer, his mother the daughter of a considerable dealer in cattle; both respectable in their characters and, it would appear, possessed of considerable knowledge and urbanity, which, in a country where education was cheap, and property a good deal subdivided, was often the case with persons of their station. Before he was six months old, he was totally deprived of his sight by the small pox, and reduced to that forlorn situation, so feelingly described by himself in his soliloquy. This rendered him incapable of any of those mechanical trades in which his father might naturally have been inclined to place him; and his circumstances prevented his aspiring to the higher professions. The good man, therefore, kept his son in the house; and, with the assistance of some of his friends, fostered that inclination which he early showed for books, by reading to amuse him; first the simple sort of publications which are commonly put into the hands of children, and then several passages out of some of our poets. His companions (whom his early gentleness and kindness of disposition, as well as their compassion for his misfortune, strongly attached to him,) were very assiduous in their good offices, in reading to instruct and amuse him. By their assistance, he acquired some knowledge of the Latin tongue; but he never was at a grammar school till at a more advanced period of life. Poetry was even then his favorite reading, and he found an enthusiastic delight in the works of Milton, Spencer, Prior, Pope, and Addison, and in those of his countryman Ramsay. From loving and admiring them so much, he soon was led to endeavour to imitate them, and when scarcely twelve years of age he began to write verses. Among these early essays of his genius, there was one addressed to a little girl whom he had offended, which is preserved in his works, and is not perhaps inferior to any of the premature compositions of boys assisted by the best education, which are only recalled into notice by the future fame of their authors.

He had attained the age of nineteen, when his father was killed by the accidental fall of a malt-kiln belonging to his son-in-law. This loss, heavy to any one at that early age, would have been, however, to a young man possessing the ordinary advantages of education, comparatively light; but to him, thus suddenly deprived of the support on which his youth had leaned, destitute almost of any resource which industry affords to those who have the blessings of sight, with a body feeble and delicate from nature, and a mind congenially susceptible, it was not surprising that this blow was doubly severe, and threw on his spirits that despondent gloom to which he then gave way, and which sometimes overclouded him in the subsequent period of his life.

Though dependent, however, he was not destitute of friends, and heaven rewarded the pious confidence which he expressed in its care, by providing for him protectors and patrons, by whose assistance he obtained advantages which, had his father lived, might perhaps never have opened to him.

He lived with his mother about a year after his father's death, and began to be distinguished as a young man of uncommon talents and genius. These were at that time unassisted by learning; the circumstances of his family affording him no better education than the smattering of Latin which his companions had taught him, and the perusal and recollection of the few English authors, which they or his father, in the intervals of his daily labour, had read to him.

Poetry, however, though it attains its highest perfection in a cultivated soil, grows perhaps as luxuriantly in a wild one. To poetry be was devoted from his earliest days, and about this time several of his poetical productions began to be banded about, which considerably enlarged the circle of his friends and acquaintances.

Some of his compositions being shown to Dr. Stephenson, an eminent physician in Edinburgh, who was accidentally at Dumfries on a professional visit, he formed the benevolent design of carrying him to the metropolis, and giving to his natural endowments the assistance of classical education.

"He came to Edinburgh in 1741, and was enrolled," says Mr. Mackenzie, "a Student of Divinity in the University there, though at that time without any particular view of entering into the Church." But this account may be reasonably doubted; for in the University of Edinburgh, no student is admitted into the theological class, till he has completed a course of languages and philosophy. Besides, it appears by the following letter from the Rev. Richard Batty of Kirk Andrews, (whose wife was Blacklock's cousin,) to Sir James Johnson, Bart. of Westerhall, dated January 21, 1794, and printed in the Scottish Register, that he continued at the grammar school in Edinburgh, till the beginning of 1745.

"I had a letter some time ago from Mr. Hogan, at Comlongan, signifying that Lady Annandale had spoke to you about a bursary for one Thomas Blacklock, a blind boy, who is now at the grammar school in Edinburgh. He is endowed with the most surprising genius, and has been the author of a great many excellent poems. He has been hitherto supported by the bounty of Dr. Stephenson, a gentleman in Edinburgh. I understand that there will be a bursary vacant against Candlemas; if, therefore, you would please to favour him with your interest, it will be a great charity done to a poor lad, who may do a great deal of good in his generation."

The effect of this application is not known; but lie seems to have continued his studies under the patronage of Dr. Stephenson, till the year 1745.

Of the kindness of Dr. Stephenson, he always spoke with the greatest warmth of gratitude and affection; and addressed to him his "Imitation of the first Ode of Horace."

After he had followed his studies at Edinburgh for four years, on the breaking out of the Rebellion in 1745, he returned to Dumfries, where he resided with Mr. McMurdo, his brother-in-law, in whose house he was treated with kindness and affection; and had an opportunity, from the society which it afforded, of considerably increasing the store of his ideas. In 1746, he published a small collection of his poems, at Glasgow.

After the close of the Rebellion, and the complete restoration of the peace of the country, he returned to Edinburgh, and pursued his studies there for six years longer.

In 1754, he published at Edinburgh a second edition of his poems, very much improved and enlarged, in 8vo, to which was prefixed, "an Account of his Life, in a letter to the publisher," from Mr. Gordon of Dumfries. On the title page he is designated "student of philosophy in the university of Edinburgh;" so that he was not then, as Mr. Mackenzie supposes, "enrolled a student of Divinity."

This publication attracted the attention of Mr. Spence, the patron of Dodsley, Duck, and Richardson, and of other persons of indigent and uncultivated genius, who conceived a great regard for Blacklock, and formed the benevolent design of recommending him to the patronage of persons in affluence or power, by writing a very elaborate and ingenious "Account of his Life, Character, and Poems," which he published in London, in 8vo. 1754.

During his last residence in Edinburgh, among other literary acquaintance, he obtained that of the celebrated David Hume, who, with that humanity and benevolence for which he was distinguished, attached himself warmly to Blacklock's interests. He wrote a letter to Dodsley, March 12, 1754, containing a very favourable representation of the "goodness of his disposition, and the beauty of his genius," which contributed to promote the subscription for an edition of his poems, in 4to, which was published in London in 1756, under the superintendance of Mr. Spence, together with his "Account of the Life, Character, and Poems of Mr. Blacklock," which had been printed separately in 1754. He testified his obligations to Mr. Spence, to whom he was personally unknown, in an epistle written at Dumfries in 1759.

In the course of his education at Edinburgh, he acquired a proficiency in the learned languages, and became more a master of the French tongue than was common there, from the social intercourse to which he had the good fortune to be admitted in the house of Provost Alexander, who had married a native of France.

At the university he obtained a knowledge of the various branches of philosophy and theology, to which his course of study naturally led; and acquired at the same time a considerable fund of learning and information in those departments of science and belles lettres, from which his loss of sight did not absolutely preclude him. In 1756, he published at Edinburgh, "an Essay towards Universal Etymology, or the Analysis of a Sentence," in 8vo.

In this pamphlet, the general principles of grammar, and the definitions of the several parts of speech are given in verse; and illustrations in the form of notes constituting the greatest part of it, are added in prose. The notes and illustrations are concise, but judicious; the verses are not remarkable for learning or poetical embellishment; the subject did not allow it; the concluding lines, however, on the advantages of grammar, are in a style more worthy of Blacklock.

In 1757, he began a course of study, with a view to give lectures on Oratory to young gentlemen intended for the bar or the pulpit. On this occasion, he wrote to Mr. Hume, informed him of his plan, and requested his assistance in the prosecution of it. But Mr. Hume doubting the probability of its success, he abandoned the project; and then adopted the decided intention of going into the church.

After applying closely for a considerable time to the study of theology, he passed the usual trials in the presbytery of Dumfries; and was, by that presbytery, licensed a preacher of the gospel in 1759.

As a preacher, he obtained high reputation, and was fond of composing sermons. In 1760, when the nation was alarmed by a threatened invasion from the French, he published "The Right Improvement of Time," a sermon, 8vo. He seems to have imbibed pretty deeply the apprehensions of his countrymen. The sentiments it contains are just and solid; and the advice is calculated to be useful at all times, particularly in the prospect of national danger or distress.

The same year he contributed several poetical pieces to the first volume of Donaldson's "Collection of Original Poems, by Scotch gentlemen," 12mo.

Mrs. Blacklock ascribes the "Epistle on Taste," printed in this volume as Mr. Gordon's, to Blacklock, excepting the lines relating to himself.

In 1761, he published "Faith, Hope, and Charity compared," a sermon, 8vo. Though this cannot be called a first rate performance, it abounds with just and elegant remarks, and his favourite topic of charity, is agreeably and forcibly illustrated.

In 1762, he married Miss Sarah Johnston, daughter of Mr. Joseph Johnston, surgeon, in Dumfries, a man of eminence in his profession, and of a character highly respected; a connection which formed the great solace and blessing of his future life, and gave him, with all the tenderness of a wife, all the zealous care of a guide and friend. This event took place a few days before his being ordained minister of Kirkcudbright, in consequence of a presentation from the crown, obtained for him by the Earl of Selkirk, a benevolent nobleman, whom Blacklock's situation and genius had interested in his behalf. But the inhabitants of the parish, whether from an aversion to patronage, so prevalent among the lower ranks in North Britain; or from some political disputes which at that time subsisted between them and Lord Selkirk; or from those prejudices which some of them might naturally entertain against a person deprived of sight; or perhaps from all those causes united, were so extremely disinclined to receive him as their minister, that, after a legal dispute of nearly two years, it was thought expedient by his friends, as it had always been wished by himself, to compromise the matter, by resigning his right to the living, and accepting a moderate annuity in its stead.

The following anecdote of Blacklock is mentioned in Dr. Cleghorn's "Thesis de Somno." It happened at the inn in Kirkcudbright, on the day of his ordination, and is authenticated by the testimony of Mrs. Blacklock, who was present with Mr. Gordon and a numerous company of his friends, who dined with him on the occasion. It merits notice, both as a curious fact relative to the state of the mind in sleep, and on account of the just and elegant compliment with which it concludes.

"Dr. Blacklock, one day, harrassed by the censures of the populace, whereby not only his reputation but his very existence was endangered, and fatigued with mental exertion, fell asleep after dinner. Some hours after, he was called upon by a friend, answered his salutation, rose and went with him into the dining room, where some of his companions were met. He joined with two of them in a concert, singing, as usual, with taste and elegance, without missing a note, or forgetting a word; he then went to supper, and drank a glass or two of wine. His friends, however, observed him to be a little absent and inattentive; by-and-by he began to speak to himself, but in so low and confused a manner as to be unintelligible. At last, being pretty forcibly roused, he awoke with a sudden start, unconscious of all that had happened, as till then he had continued fast asleep." Dr. Cleghorn adds with great truth, after relating this fact: "No one will suspect either the judgment or the veracity of Dr. Blacklock. All who knew him bear testimony to his judgment; his fame rests on a better foundation than fictitious narratives; no man more delights in, or more strictly adheres, to the truth on all points."

With a very slender provision, he removed, in 1764, to Edinburgh; and to make up by his industry a more comfortable and decent subsistence, he adopted the plan of receiving a certain number of young gentlemen, as boarders, into his house; whose studies in languages and philosophy he might, if necessary, assist. In this situation he continued till 1787; when he found his time of life and state of health required a degree of repose, which induced him to discontinue the receiving of boarders.

In the occupation which he thus exercised for so many years of his life, no teacher was perhaps, ever more agreeable to his pupils, no master of a family to its inmates, than Blacklock. The gentleness of his manners, the benignity of his disposition, and that warm interest in the happiness of others, which led him so constantly to promote it, were qualities that could not fail to procure him the love and regard of the young gentlemen committed to his charge; while the society, which esteem and respect for his character and genius often assembled at his house, afforded them an advantage rarely to he found in establishments of a similar kind. In the circle of his friends, he appeared entirely to forget the privation of sight, and the melancholy which at other times it might produce.

He entered, with the cheerful playfulness of a young man, into all the sprightly narrative, the sportive fancy, and the humorous jest that rose around him. It was highly gratifying to philanthropy, to see how much a mind endowed with knowledge, kindled by genius, and above all lighted up with innocence and piety like Blacklock's, could overcome the weight of its own calamity, and enjoy the content, the happiness, and the gaiety of others. Several of those inmates of his house were students of physic from England, Ireland, and America, who retained, in future life, all the warmth of that impression which his friendship at this early period had made upon them; and in various quarters of the world he had friends and correspondents, from whom no length of time nor distance of place, had ever estranged him. Among his favourite correspondents may be reckoned Dr. Tucker, Author of "The Bermudian," a poem, and "The Anchoret;" and Dr. Downman, author of "Infancy" a poem, and other ingenious performances.

In 1766, upon the unsolicited recommendation of his friend Dr. Beattie, the degree of Doctor of Divinity was conferred on him by the University of Aberdeen.

In 1767, he published "Paraclesis, or Consolation deduced from Natural and Revealed Religion," in two dissertations. The first, supposed to have been composed by Cicero, now rendered into English; the last originally written by Thomas Blacklock, D.D. in 8vo.

His motive (he tells, in a letter to a friend prefixed to this work,) for translating the first, and writing the last treatise on Consolation was to alleviate the pressure of repeated disappointments, to soothe his anguish for the loss of departed friends, to elude the rage of implacable and unprovoked enemies, and to support his own mind, which for a number of years, besides its literary difficulties, and its natural disadvantages, had maintained an incessant struggle with fortune. Of the Dissertation ascribed to Cicero, he endeavours to prove the authenticity; but his arguments are by no means satisfactory. The generality of critics have questioned its authenticity. Dr. Middleton, in his Life of Cicero, says it is undoubtedly spurious. The translation is well executed; it is both faithful and elegant. The second Dissertation is mostly taken up with a clear and succinct view of the evidence of Christianity, the professed subject of it; the consolation derived from revealed religion is touched upon towards the conclusion, though at no great length.

In 1768, he published, without his name, two Discourses on the Spirit and Evidences of Christianity. The former preached at the Hague, the 8th Sep. 1762; the latter delivered in the French Church at Hanau, on the occasion of the late peace, to a congregation composed of Catholics and Protestants. It was translated from the original French of the Rev. James Armand, Minister of the Walloon Church in Hanau, and dedicated by the translator to the Rev. Moderator of the General Assembly. The Dedication, which is a long one, is chiefly intended for the perusal of the Clergy of the church of Scotland, but deserves the attentive consideration of all who are intended for, or engaged, in the work of the ministry. The observations it contains are judicious and pertinent; the style is sprightly and animated; and the spirit it breathes, though sometimes remote from that charity which on other occasions he so eloquently enforced and so generally practised, is the spirit of benevolence and love to mankind, The discourses themselves are lively and animated, and the style of the translations clear, nervous, and spirited.

In 1773, he published at Edinburgh a poem entitled, "A Panegyric on Great Britain," in 8vo. This poem, which is a kind of satire on the age, exhibits shrewdness of observation, and a sarcastic vein, which might have fitted him for satirical composition, had he chosen to employ his pen more frequently on that branch of poetry.

In music, both as a judge and a performer, his skill was considerable; nor was he unacquainted with its principles as a science. Whether he composed much is uncertain, but there is published in the Edinburgh Magazine and Review, for 1774, "Absence," a Pastoral, set to music by Dr. Blacklock; and those who have heard him sing will, upon perusal of this little piece, have the idea of his manner and taste strikingly recalled to their recollection.

The same year he published the "Graham," a heroic ballad, in four Cantos, 4to. It was begun, he tells us in the advertisement prefixed to it, and pursued by its author to divert wakeful and melancholy hours, which the recollection of past misfortunes, and the sense of present inconveniences, would otherwise have severely embittered.

The professed intention of his "Graham," is to cherish and encourage a mutual harmony between the inhabitants of South and North Britain. To this end he has exhibited, in strong colours, some parts of those miseries which their ancient animosities had occasioned. His "Graham" is an affecting story, in which love and jealousy have a principal share. The narration is animated and agreeable; the fable is beautifully fancied, and sufficiently perspicuous; the characters are boldly marked; the manners he paints suit the times to which he refers, and the moral is momentous. We perceive, scattered through the whole piece, those secret graces, and those bewitching beauties, which the critic would in vain attempt to describe; but it is perhaps too far spun out, and the stanza in which it is written is not the best chosen nor the most agreeable to the ear.

This was the last publication which he gave to the world with his name: from this time the state of his health, which had always been infirm and delicate, began visibly to decline. He frequently complained of lowness of spirits, and was occasionally subject to deafness, which, though he seldom felt it in any great degree, was sufficient, in his situation, to whom the sense of hearing was almost the only channel of communication with the external world, to cause very lively uneasiness. Amidst indisposition of body, however, and disquietude of mind, the gentleness of his temper never forsook him, and he felt all that resignation and confidence in the Supreme Being, which his earliest and latest life equally acknowledged. In summer, 1791, he was seized with a feverish disorder, which at first seemed of a slight, and never rose to a very violent kind; but a frame so little robust as his was not able to resist; and after about a week's illness it carried him off on the 7th of July, 1791, in the 70th year of his age. He was interred in the burying-ground of the Chapel of Ease, in the parish of St. Cuthbert, where a decent monument was erected to his memory by his widow, who survived him several years. There is something in the character of this great man, which the good will value above every other consideration that was, his deep and affected piety, and his resignation to the Divine will; which was evinced through his long and useful life, and shone conspicuously in the man and in the christian, and added an additional lustre to his other virtues.

The article Blind, in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published at Edinburgh in the year 1783, was written by him. In this little treatise, (which I will venture to recommend, not only on account of its peculiarity, as being the production of a blind man, but of its intrinsic merit,) there are no marks of any extraordinary conception of visible objects, nor any allusion to those mental images which ingenuity might suppose deducible from the descriptive passages with which his poetry abounds. It contains chiefly reflections on the distresses and disadvantages of blindness, and the best means of alleviating them: directions for the education of the blind, and a description of various inventions for enabling them to attain and to practise several arts and sciences, from which their situation might seem to exclude them. The sympathy and active benevolence of Blacklock prompted him to this composition, as well as to a translation of M. Hauy's Account of the charitable Institution for the blind at Paris. "To the blind," (says this article in the Encyclopaedia,) "the visible world is totally annihilated: he is perfectly conscious of no space but that in which he stands, or to which his extremities can reach. All the various modes of delicate proportion, all the beautiful varieties of light and colours, whether exhibited in the works of nature or art, are to the blind irretrievably lost Dependent for every thing, but mere existence, on the good offices of others; from every point obnoxious to injury, which they are neither capacitated to perceive, nor qualified to resist; they are, during the present state of being, rather to he considered as prisoners at large, than citizens of nature." In that part which relates to the education of the blind, one direction is rather singular, though it seems extremely proper.

The author strongly recommends to their parents and relations to accustom them to an early exertion of their own active powers, though at a risk of their personal safety. "Parents and relations ought never to he too ready in offering their assistance to the blind in any office which they can perform, or in any acquisition which they can procure for themselves, whether they are prompted by amusement or necessity. Let a blind boy be permitted to walk through the neighbourhood without a guide, not only though he should run some hazard, but even though he should suffer some pain. If he has a mechanical turn, let him not be denied the use of edged tools; for it is better that he should lose a little blood, or even break a bone, than be perpetually confined to the same place, debilitated in his frame, and depressed in his mind. Such a being can have no enjoyment but to feel his own weakness, and become his own tormentor; or to transfer to others all the malignity and peevishness arising from the natural, adventitious, or imaginary evils which he feels. Scars, fractures, and dislocations in his body, are trivial misfortunes compared with imbecility, timidity, or fretfulness of mind. Besides the sensible and dreadful effects which inactivity must have in relaxing the nerves, and consequently in depressing the spirits, nothing can be more productive of jealousy, envy, peevishness and every passion that corrodes the soul to agony, than a painful impression of dependence on others, and of our insufficiency to our own happiness. This impression, which even in his most improved state, will be too deeply felt by every blind man, is redoubled by that utter incapacity of action, which must result from the officious humanity of those who would anticipate or supply all his wants, who would prevent all his motions, who would do or procure every thing for him without his own interposition."

This direction was probably suggested from the author's own feeling of the want of that boldness and independence, which the means it recommends are calculated to produce.

"If you talk to a blind boy of invisible beings, let benevolence be an inseparable ingredient in their character. You may, if you please, tell him of departed spirits, anxious for the welfare of their surviving friends; of ministering angels, who descend with pleasure from Heaven to execute the purposes of their Maker's benignity; you may even regale his imagination with the sportive gambols and innocent frolics of fairies; but let him hear as seldom as possible, even in stories which he knows to be fabulous, of vindictive ghosts, vindictive fiends, or avenging furies. They seize and pre-occupy every avenue of terror which is open in the soul, nor are they easily dispossessed. Sooner should we hope to exorcise a ghost, or appease a fury, than to obliterate their images in a warm and susceptible imagination, where they have been habitually impressed, and where those feelings cannot be dissipated by external phenomena. If horrors of this kind should agitate the heart of a blind boy, (which may happen, notwithstanding the most strenuous endeavours to prevent it,) the stories which he has heard will be most effectually discredited by ridicule. This, however, must be cautiously applied, by gentle and delicate gradations."

The following descriptive strokes, most of which, with a great many others, Mr. Spence has collected, are as finely drawn, and as justly coloured as sight could have made them.

"Mild gleams the purple evening o'er the plain."
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.

Let long-lived pansies here their scents bestow,
The violets 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.

On rising ground, the prospect to command,
Untinged with smoke, where vernal breezes blow,
In rural neatness let thy cottage stand;
Here wave a wood, and there a river flow.

Oft on the glassy stream, with raptured eyes,
Surveys her form in mimic sweetness rise;
Oft as the waters pleased reflect her face,
Adjusts her locks, and heightens every grace.

—Oft while the Sun
Darts boundless glory through the expanse of Heaven,
A gloom of congregated vapours rise;
Than night more dreadful in his blackest shroud,
And o'er the face of things incumbent hang,
Portending tempest; till the source of day
Again asserts the empire of the sky,
And o'er the blotted scene of nature throws
A keener splendour.

In producing such passages as the above, the genius of the author must be acknowledged. Whatever idea or impression those objects of sight produced in his mind, how imperfect soever that idea, or how different soever from the true, still the impression would be felt by a mind susceptible and warm like Blacklock's, that could not have been so felt by one of a coarser and more sluggish mould. Even the memory that could treasure up the poetical attributes and expressions of such objects, must have been assisted and prompted by poetical feeling; and the very catalogue of words which was thus ready at command, was an indication of that ardour of soul, which, from his infancy, led him,—

—Where the Muses haunt—
Smit with the love of sacred sung.

As the unmeaning syllables which compose a name give to the lover or the friend emotions, which in others it were impossible they should excite, it was not on the whole surprising, that a learned foreigner, on considering Blacklock's Poems relatively to his situation, should have broken out into the following panegyric, with which I shall not be much accused of partiality if I close this account.

"Blacklock will appear to posterity a fable, as to us he is a prodigy. It will be thought a fiction, a paradox, that a man blind from his infancy, besides having made himself so much a master of various foreign languages, should be a great Poet in his own; and without having hardly ever seen the light, should he so remarkably happy in description."

AUTHORITIES. ANDERSON'S Lives of the Poets — MACKENZIE'S Life of BLACKLOCK — SPENCE'S Life of BLACKLOCK.