1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Millar

Thomas Campbell, 1796; Beattie, Life and Letters of Thomas Campbell (1849) 1:157-60.



This winter was one in which my mind advanced to a more expansive desire of knowledge than I had ever before experienced. I attended Professor Miller's explanation of Heineccius, and Lectures on Roman Law. To say that Miller gave me "liberal" opinions, would be understating the obligation which I either owed, or imagined I owed, to him. He did more. He made investigations into the principles of justice, and the rights and interests of society, so captivating to me, that I formed opinions for myself, and became an emancipated lover of truth.

I will not take upon me to say that Miller's tuition was profound; for his mind, with all its natural strength, had grown to maturity in an age, when, with the exception of Adam Smith and a few others, there appears to me to have been a dearth of deep-thinking men. Accordingly, I remember something like astonishment at so acute a man as Miller holding forth upon the necessary progress of man, from the savage to the pastoral, and from that to the agricultural state, as well as the sacred usefulness of a hereditary aristocracy. — But John Miller had the magic secret of making you so curious in inquiry, and so much in love with truth, as to be independent of his specific tenets. Every lecture that he gave was a treat from beginning to end. There was so much earnestness, and yet such easy conversation — like familiarity. Never shall I forget our looking out from the window of his class-room to watch his arrival, for which we were all impatient; nor the general pleasure, when it was buzzed about that he was "coming!" When his lecture was done we were all sorry.

It could not be said of any of the Glasgow Professors that they were not gentlemen, or otherwise than very respectable College-like persons; but there was an air of the high-bred gentleman about Miller, that you saw nowhere else. Something that made you imagine such old Scottish patriots as Lord Belhaven, or Fletcher of Saltoun. He was a fine muscular man, somewhat above the middle size, with a square chest and shapely bust, a prominent chin, grey eyes that were unmatched in expression, and a head that would have become a Roman senator. He was said to be a capital fencer; and, to look at his light elastic step, when he was turned of sixty, disposed you to credit the report. But the glory was to see his intellectual gladiatorship, when he would slay or pink into convulsions some offensive political antagonist. He spoke with no mincing affectation of English pronunciation; but his Scoto-English was as different from vulgar Scotch, as that of St. James's from St. Giles's. Lastly, he had a playfulness in his countenance and conversation that was graceful from its never going to excess.

John Young, our Greek professor, was a man of great humour. I never saw any man who had a more exquisite sense of the ludicrous; but he had no very graceful command of his humour. I remember an instance where, in reading Lucian and Aristophanes, he gave, by his example, a holiday to our risibilities. On another occasion, I remember his throwing himself almost into convulsions of laughter, on a report being made to him by the censor of the Class to this effect — that an idle student had been detected in the act of moulding a piece of bread into an ungainly imitation of a man. The censor repeated — "Joannes Mac — something — soluturus" — a certain fine for the crime of "faciens hominem, in pane!" The absurdity, it is true, made but a moderate joke; yet I thought that Young would have died with laughing.

At the end of the session, I returned to Argyllshire in the capacity of domestic tutor to the present Sir William Napier, of Milliken. His father, General Napier, had married the daughter of Robert Campbell, of Downie, in whose house my pupil lived.

The impulse which Miller's lectures had given to my mind, continued to act long after I had heard them. In this Highland tutorship, I had but a few hours a day employed in tuition; and after I had finished a scramble on the rocky mountainous shores, I had no resource for beguiling time but in reading and writing; and having provided myself with ample notes, which I had taken from Miller's Commentaries on Heineccius, as well as with several choice books on jurisprudence and history, I transcribed the former, and devoted myself to study. Poetry itself, in my love of jurisprudence and history, was almost forgotten. In the course of that secluded year, I wrote no verses but those on Miss Broderic, which continue still to hold a place in my published Poems. At that period, had I possessed but a few hundred pounds to have subsisted upon in studying law, I believe I should have bid adieu to the Muses, and gone to the Bar; but I had no choice in the matter.