Thomas Campbell

Samuel Smiles, "Campbell's Lives of the Poets" A Publisher and his Friends: Memoir of John Murray (1891) 1:322-36.

THOMAS CAMPBELL appeared like a meteor as early as 1799, when, in his twenty-second year, he published his "Pleasures of Hope." The world was taken by surprise at the vigour of thought and richness of fancy displayed in the poem. Shortly after its publication, Campbell went to Germany, and saw, from the Scottish Monastery of St. James', the battle of Hohenlinden. On his return to Scotland, he published the beautiful lines beginning, "On Linden when the sun was low." In 1801 he composed "The Exile of Erin," and 'Ye Mariners of England." The "Battle of the Baltic," and "Locheil's Warning" followed; and in 1803 he published an edition of his poems. To have composed such noble lyrics was almost unprecedented in so young a man; for he was only twenty-six years of age when his collected edition appeared. He was treated as a lion, and became acquainted with Walter Scott and the leading men in Edinburgh. In December 1805 we find Constable writing to Murray, that Longman and Co. had offered the young poet 700 for a new volume of his poems.

Murray soon became intimate with Campbell, though he was kept waiting for many long years for the "Selections from British Poets," with an introductory memoir of each, which Campbell had agreed to write for him. The first idea of such a work occurred to Campbell in 1805, and he communicated his views to Walter Scott, through whom negotiations with Ballantyne and Cadell were opened; and though they were broken off for a time, Campbell pursued his idea. Soon after his first introduction to Murray he removed to London, taking up his residence at Sydenham.

Mr. T. Campbell to John Murray.

"February 28th, 1806.


I very much regret that an indisposition which, though slight, is not such as will permit me to make a journey to town, must prevent me from what would be no small pleasure, the forming of your more intimate acquaintance by a friendly meeting to-day. I console myself, however, on my absence from your agreeable party with the idea that I was invited to it. I also feel unfeigned pleasure at the prospect of seeing you at any future time without the reserve of unacquainted people. I am not a little flattered at your expression of so much good disposition on my behalf .... I should bid you to see me at Sydenham if it were not winter; but in summer I hope you will not unfrequently see, Sir,

Yours, with great respect,


One of the earliest results of the association of Campbell with Murray was a proposal to start a new magazine, which Murray had long contemplated. This, it will be observed, was some years before the communications took place between Walter Scott and Murray with respect to the starting of the Quarterly. After the meeting Mr. Campbell wrote to Mr. Murray as follows:

Mr. T. Campbell to John Murray.

"March 3rd, 1806.


As I put down in my own memorandum book all the desultory ideas respecting the new publication which we have in contemplation that occur to me, I think it may not be improper to transmit them to you also. You will be so good as to pardon the unsystematic appearance which those ideas must have, but which I trust will alter for the better as our scheme gets riper, and nearer being put in execution.

"I have thought on many respectable names (since I had the pleasure of your society), of persons who, I think, may in all probability be brought to lend us their aid. Although our scheme is not scientific, yet a very pleasant mixture of science may enter it, and I have recollected since we met that Charles Bell, of Edinburgh, has come to London to settle — a man of really superior genius, as his forthcoming publication will show. I think we shall get something from him on his own favourite pursuit, the anatomy of painting.

"Alison, the author of 'Essays on Taste,' is my particular friend. I am pretty sure he will give me important support. John Allen, a most admirably ingenious man, will assist me in a track of study which I mean immediately and eagerly to pursue — Spanish literature, as the little knowledge I possess of it may be easily improved, into what may usefully promote our magazine.

"Professor Playfair, an elegant writer as well as philosopher, will contribute, I know, with my other northern friends, to give some eclat to our work. There are names I forgot to mention to you. Miss Baillie, I hope, will also give us a bit of poetry now and then. I have the honour to be her particular acquaintance.

"Let us by all means keep our scheme to ourselves till great aids are quite secure-till we are ready to step forward before the public without a hem or an apology, but boldly, and as becomes men conscious of deserving notice. I dread of all things the hue and cry getting up before we are ready. I trust, however, implicitly in the great degree of judgment and discretion which I know you to possess.

"Let us also, my dear Sir, while we court great aids, keep ourselves disentangled from little ones. It is an invidious thing to hunt down tolerable though second-rate writers. It is breaking the peace and wounding their feelings by severe sayings or writings in public; but when our fame and fortune are staked on a plan like this, we must have no second-rates — especially in poetry.

"In your plan of the ancient classics I feel myself warmly interested. I shall take very great pleasure indeed in every opportunity that you give me of suggesting what some fourteen years' experience in the original and translated authors may make of use to the plan. I have little doubt also, that I could put you on a plan of supplying the "hiatuses" in poetical translation. These thoughts come at random.

From your very respectful and sincerely obliged,


The projected magazine seems, however, to have dropped out of sight, and Campbell then reverted to his proposed "Lives of the British Poets, with Selections from their Writings." Toward the close of the year he addressed the following letter to Mr. Scott:—

Mr. T. Campbell to Mr. Scott,

"November 5th, 1806.


A very excellent and gentlemanlike man — albeit a bookseller — Murray, of Fleet Street, is willing to give for our joint "Lives of the Poets," on the plan we proposed to the trade a twelvemonth ago, a thousand pounds. For my part, I think the engagement very desirable, and have no uneasiness on the subject, except my fear that you may be too much engaged to have to do with it, as five hundred pounds may not be to you the temptation that it appears to a poor devil like myself. Murray is the only gentleman, except Constable, in the trade; — I may also, perhaps, except Hood. I have seldom seen a pleasanter man to deal with. I foresee no chance of our disagreeing about the minuter arrangements, should the affair proceed. I think our choice of the lives for each would not be likely to set you and me by the ears. And, what makes me excessively desirous of the engagement, independent of its being pleasant work and good reward, is that it would probably fix me beside you in Edinburgh.... Our names are what Murray principally wants — yours in particular. The size, the manner, the time, and the whole arrangement of this work will be in our hands.... For my own part, I am not assuming any mock modesty, when I say that, so thankful shall I be to have an engagement to the amount of 500 that I will think no effort too great to show my sense of the good fortune to be associated with you in the undertaking. I have too much respect for you, and for myself, to importune you to join names with me; but I cannot disguise that I am deeply anxious for your answer. I will not wish, even in confidence, to say anything ill of the London booksellers beyond their deserts; but I assure you that, to compare this offer of Murray's with their usual offers, it is magnanimous indeed. Longman and Rees, and a few of the great booksellers, have literally monopolised the trade, and the business of literature is getting a dreadful one indeed. The Row folks have done nothing for me yet; I know not what they intend. The fallen prices of literature — which is getting worse by the horrible complexion of the times — make me often rather gloomy at the life I am likely to lead. You may guess, therefore, my anxiety to close with this proposal; and you may think me charitable indeed to restrain myself from wishing that you were as poor as myself, that you might have motives to lend your aid."

Scott entered into Campbell's agreement with kindness and promptitude, and it was arranged, under certain stipulations, that the plan should have his zealous cooperation; but as the number and importance of his literary engagements increased, he declined to take an active part either in the magazine or the other undertaking. The loss of Scott's name seems to have been fatal to the progress of the periodical, but Campbell continued to hold to his idea of preparing "Selections from the British Poets." Communications took place between Constable and Murray on the subject, Campbell proposing that Constable should be the publisher. Murray replied to Constable's letter (19th December, 1806):—

"I saw Campbell two days ago, and he told me that Mr. Scott had declined, and modestly asked if it would do by himself alone; but this I declined in a way that did not leave us the less friends."

Campbell continued writing about the publication of his work to Constable, who seems to have disregarded his letters. Then he wrote to Mr. Jeffrey, who gave him no answer. At last he wrote to Henry (afterwards Lord) Cockburn, expressing his regret at Constable's and Jeffrey's silence, and requesting his intercession. "If Jeffrey does not take any interest in this affair of the 'Selections,' will you do me the kindness to call upon Mr. Constable and request an answer?" But no answer came; and Campbell was at length driven back upon Mr. Murray. The friendship between them grew closer, and Campbell was a frequent guest at Murray's literary parties. To one of these invitations he replied:—

Mr. Campbell to John Murray.

"April 9th, 1807.


I do assure you that none of your present guests (not even excepting the landlord!) will more sincerely regret than I do the absence of that worthy gentleman, myself, from your expected and pleasant party. But the unforeseen event being no less than a summons from his Majesty's deputy-lieutenant to answer respecting my free-will and consent to be draughted by the Training Act to serve (should it please His Majesty — God bless him) in a regiment of the Line, the absence of my company among the deputy-lieutenants might be attended with still more unpleasant consequences than absenting myself from your party. I hear you are to have Scott, whose address I have unfortunately lost. If he should dine with you I shall be much obliged if you will present my respects to him and tell him to remember Sydenham. I wish I could have been among you, but you see what comes of the Training Act. Mrs. Campbell joins me in best respects to Mrs. Murray. Believe me, dear Murray,

Truly yours,


At length, after many communications and much personal intercourse, Murray agreed with Campbell to bring out his work, without the commanding name of Walter Scott, and with the name of Thomas Campbell alone as Editor of the "Selections from the British Poets." The arrangement seems to have been made towards the end of 1808. Campbell's letter describes the nature of the proposed work:—

Mr. Campbell to John Murray.

"January 28th, 1809.

I am inclined to believe that the more popular form of the 'Elegant Extracts' is the best adapted for our work. It is surely a fair competition in which we shall start, with that ill-constructed but as I understand very saleable compilation. With respect to the form of the work, however, I feel myself an incompetent adviser. I am confident enough in my power to make the merit of the book independent of its form. Its title I should call 'The Selected Beauties of British Poetry, with lives of the Poets and Critical Dissertations. By T. C.,' &c. This titlepage, however, may be arranged at our leisure. I begin with Chaucer, and continue through the whole succession of English Poets to the last of our own day. Many lives, and of course criticisms annexed to these lives, will be included which are not found in any preceding collection. Many anonymous Poems must also be inserted, with merely a notice of the name to which they are attributed, upon grounds too uncertain to admit of a Biography.

"Already I have done much in bringing together a number of excellent little poems which have been but partially noticed — known only to amateurs, and transcribed in their commonplace books, but most of them rarely, and some of them never, introduced into collections of Poetry. The bulk of these need not alarm you for the space they will occupy, as it is the common quality of excellence not to be bulky; but though these little stars of poetical excellence may be individually small, I hope they will form a brilliant constellation.

"My Biographies I mean to be short, but I dare say you will remember that shortness is not always incompatible with being satisfactory. By short I don't mean scanty. Where the merit of the Poet is not very interesting, I will endeavour to make his biography more interesting. Extreme accuracy I trust I shall always attain — indeed, with the prospect of such aid as you are so kind as to promise me, I need not fear falling into errors with the industry I propose to exert. At the same time I do not promise you a book of antiquarian dissertation. I mean to exert the main part of my strength on the merits and writings of each Poet as an Author, not on discoveries of little anecdotes, and of his residence and conversation as a man, unless such things are striking, and can be obtained without sacrificing the great object of my efforts, viz. to make a complete body of English Poetical Criticism. The Poets are all to be reviewed in their chronological succession, but both in my preface and in my biographies I mean to class the minor poets in the different orders of their general merit and particular characteristics. To the great Poets, such as Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope and Thomson, I devote a separate and elaborate disquisition, treating them as they deserve, like great writers, having nothing in common but their greatness.

"I mean to devote a year exclusively to this effort. It is not my part to say any more than I have said (I hope it will not appear immodestly) on my own competency to the task. I shall only add that I have written a good deal on the subject matter of it, and read and thought a great deal more. Independent of my duty as a fair dealer, which I trust would always deter me from performing a task in a slovenly manner, where the capital of an employer is risked and employed, I have every motive that can stimulate to industry, and that can make me anxious without being intimidated about the public opinion. With great respect and regard, believe me, dear Murray,

Your sincere friend,


Fortified with these admirable resolutions, Campbell proceeded with his work, but the labour it involved was perhaps greater than he had anticipated. It was his first important prose work; and prose requires continuous labour. It cannot, like a piece of poetry, be thrown off at a heat while the fit is on.

Moreover, Campbell stopped occasionally in the midst of his work to write poems, by which he hoped to subsist. It is true he had already, in his twenty-eighth year, obtained a pension of 200 a year; but this was not enough. In 1809 he published his "Gertrude of Wyoming" and other poems, which confirmed his poetical reputation. Murray sent a copy of the volume to Walter Scott, and requested a review for the Quarterly, which was then in its first year. What Campbell thought of the review will appear from the following letter:

Mr. T. Campbell to John Murray.

"June 2nd, 1809.


I received the review, for which I thank you, and beg leave through you to express my best acknowledgments to the unknown reviewer. I do not by this mean to say that I think every one of his censures just. On the contrary, if I had an opportunity of personal conference with so candid and sensible a man, I think I could in some degree acquit myself of a part of the faults he has found. But altogether I am pleased with his manner, and very proud of his approbation. He reviews like a gentleman, a Christian, and a scholar."

Although the "Lives of the Poets" had been promised within a year from January 1809, four years had passed, and the work was still far from completion.

In the meantime Campbell undertook to give a course of eleven Lectures on Poetry at the Royal institution, for which he received a hundred guineas. He enriched his Lectures with the Remarks and Selections collected for the "Specimens," for which the publisher had agreed to pay a handsome sum. The result was a momentary hesitation on the part of Mr. Murray to risk the publication of the work. On this, says Campbell's biographer, a correspondence ensued between the poet and the publisher, which ended to the satisfaction of both. Mr. Murray only requested that Mr. Campbell should proceed with greater alacrity in finishing the long projected work. It is only right, however, to give the poet's letter to Mr. Murray in reference to his application for payment on account:—

Mr. T. Campbell to John Murray.

"January 29th, 1814.


I will finish your work, and never more trouble you on the subject of money. What I sought was not as a matter of right, but of pure favour. I am sorry it has annoyed you. You are bound to forgive me, I think, when I say that I regret the application. You have a right to refuse me on the score of a legal claim, but you do me some injustice in stating the grounds of your right of refusal. It is because my work is unfinished that this just denial must be admitted by me, but you should not found it on a circumstance which never existed — that of my having used your library for the purpose of other undertakings. Brewster, whose articles I agreed to write by your express sanction before beginning our work, gave me a full order upon his bookseller, Richardson, for all books necessary for his biographies. They were, from the nature of the articles, very few and of slight importance. Again, out of eleven lectures delivered at the Royal Institution, only two were upon the subjects of our 'Criticisms': the other nine were upon the philosophy of poetry, the Spanish, French, and Greek drama, and even upon our own dramatic writers, respecting whom I had not a single volume to assist me among your books.

"The lengthened delay of the work has been occasioned by the nature of its materials, which lie so diversely scattered, that with all your zeal and liberality, and my own exertions, it has been physically impossible to collect them into one mass at one time. The other things on which I have been engaged have been resorted to as the mere supports of my family at certain intervals when I saw my finances near a close, and found that by the utmost progress I could make in our work, I could not have a just claim on you in time enough for my necessities. I wrote, not to ask from you or to annoy you, but to vindicate myself for past delays. Believe me, they have not been voluntary. Even now I believe I shall be obliged to cast about for some scheme of lecturing to make money wherewith to finish the 'Criticisms,' or at least to stand out the time when I shall be engaged in correcting the proofs, which I should not wish to be put too hastily off. I do not by this mean to insinuate the slightest wish again to trouble you. I feel that your refusal is perfectly just. "I thank you for expressing a wish that we should continue friends. I meet it cordially. I trust that the entire MSS. will convince you that instead of the Lectures starving the 'Criticisms,' they have enriched them much. The tone of our future intercourse will depend on your reception of this letter.

I remain, disposed as ever, To be sincerely, &c., yours,


The following is Mr. Murray's answer:—

"Mr. Davison (the printer) has some Government work, which has engrossed him too much of late. He now promises to put all his force upon the 'Specimens,' and to make up for his recent delays. I take the opportunity of assuring you how much I feel obliged by the labour which you are now bestowing upon the 'Lives,' which have become very interesting, and cannot fail to do you honour. I will send you Hayley's 'Cowper;' it affords material for a very long and a peculiarly interesting life, — in which you can weave innumerable passages of great beauty from his letters, and all the touching part of the life written by himself. I assure you I think, when you have given scope to yourself, that your prose is not to be surpassed. I expect very very great things in your 'Life of Burns.' Don't be afraid of room.

Most truly yours,


On June 19th, 1815, Campbell writes:—

"I condole with you very much on the misfortune of my being absent from your party on Friday; but still more with myself, since instead of having the honour of imbibing your wine, I had the honour of spending the day in profuse perspiration between blankets, and giving out more humidity than I could have possibly taken in if I had been drinking wine with you."

The book was still long in coming out. The patience of author and publisher were alike exhausted. More letters passed between them. Many books were required, and sent to Sydenham. After the lapse of two years, the following letter was sent by Campbell to Murray:—

Mr. T. Campbell to John Murray.

"April 28th, 1818.

I am divided in my opinion as to the quantity of extracts I should give from Goldsmith. Upon the whole, I think the 'Deserted Village' and 'Traveller' are so beautiful that they should not be broken up; but I don't like to direct their being printed without its meeting your ideas of the work. You are in reality likely to judge much more accurately than I can do of the problem I have stated. If you can spare but a snatched moment to say Yes or No as to the whole or a part, I shall be obliged to you. I confess I should lean strongly to giving them entire.

Yours very faithfully,


The books were sent. The work was now approaching completion, and at length, about the beginning of 1819, fourteen years after the project had been mentioned to Walter Scott, and about ten years after the book should have appeared, according to Campbell's original promise, the "Essays and Selections of English Poetry" were published by Mr. Murray. The work was well received. The poet was duly paid for it, and Dr. Beattie, Campbell's biographer, says he "found himself in the novel position of a man who has money to lay out at interest." It will be evident, however, from the following letter, that this statement must be received with considerable deduction. His final letter is:—

Mr. T. Campbell to John Murray.

"March 28th, 1819.


After having been so kindly accommodated by you, I am afraid you will think me very troublesome in the present application, but on settling my account with Messrs. Longman & Co., I find to my dismay that I have drawn so much from them as to leave me nothing for the payment of many debts which yet remain against me. Before the last two hundred pounds, I had received, according to my memorandum, four hundred on account of the 'Specimens.' I have then in all had six. Of the four remaining hundred which you have been so liberal as to destine for me, I am not anxious for the one half sooner than it may be perfectly convenient; but if it were not troublesome to you, I should esteem it a very great favour to be allowed to draw upon you in small sums which I owe in London to the amount of two hundred. You would possibly also indulge me so far as to let my creditors present their cheques, which I should give them (in the event of receiving your permission for this arrangement) at your house. If this, however, should be in the least disagreeable, I hope you will frankly tell me so.

"I have already thanked you in person, but feel it due to repeat my acknowledgments for your very handsome and liberal allowance for the 'Specimens' beyond our formal contract. It would be the most avaricious and unreasonable spirit in me not to be perfectly satisfied with the honourable and gentlemanlike spirit which you have shown in estimating my remuneration. What I have to say in apology for thus applying to you sooner than I meant to have done, cannot possibly be misunderstood as at variance in the slightest degree with my sense of absolute obligation to you; but as an apology for this application I feel it no excuse to state that the time which I devoted to the 'Specimens' has involved me very much in debt. I discovered in truth too late that it was a work which none but an author who possessed an independent fortune, or a collection of books such as Mr. Heber's, should have undertaken; and that it was impossible in the nature of things that it could remunerate either you or myself at the first edition. I saw through my difficulties, however, so far as to anticipate that, having conquered the first edition, it would ultimately be capable of yielding advantage to both in subsequent editions. It is a great thing to have made myself master of the subject and acquainted with the books that relate to all its most important parts. On the scheme which you suggested regarding the 'Dramatic Poets;' I shall have the pleasure of talking with you fully when we meet.

"The length of this letter need not frighten you, as it will require but a very short answer. Whatever answer that should be (and I have not the slightest objection to be treated with a frank refusal if my request should be inconvenient), may I only beg that you will have the goodness to send it soon.

With sincerity, I remain, your obliged friend,


Mr. Murray complied with Mr. Campbell's request, and paid the money for the cheques presented, as he had desired. It appears that besides the 1000, which was double the sum originally proposed to be paid to Campbell for the 'Selections,' Mr. Murray, in October 1819, paid him 200 "for books," doubtless for those he had purchased for the 'Collections,' and which he desired to retain.

We cannot conclude this account of Campbell's dealing with Murray without referring to an often-quoted story which has for many years sailed under false colours. It was Thomas Campbell who wrote "Now Barabbas was a publisher," whether in a Bible or otherwise is not authentically recorded, and forwarded it to a friend; but Mr. Murray was not the publisher to whom it referred, nor was Lord Byron, as has been so frequently stated, the author of the joke.