1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Blacklock

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 3:279-80.



The amiable Dr. Blacklock deserves praise for his character and for his conduct under very peculiar circumstances, much more than for his poetry. He was born at Annan, where his father was a bricklayer, in 1721. When about six months old, he lost his eyesight by small-pox. His father used to read to him, especially poetry, and through the kindness of friends he acquired some knowledge of the Latin tongue. His father having been accidentally killed when Thomas was nineteen, it might have fared hard with him, but Dr. Stevenson, an eminent medical man in Edinburgh, who had seen some verses composed by the blind youth, took him to the capital, sent him to college to study divinity, and encouraged him to write and to publish poetry. His volume, to which was prefixed an account of the author, by Professor Spence of Oxford, attracted much attention. Blacklock was licensed to preach in 1759, and three years afterwards was married to a Miss Johnstone of Dumfries, an exemplary but plain-looking lady, whose beauty her husband was wont to praise so warmly that his friends were thankful that his infirmity was never removed, and thought how justly Cupid had been painted blind. He was even, through the influence of the Earl of Selkirk, appointed to the parish of Kirkcudbright, but the parishioners opposed his induction on the plea of his want of sight, and, in consideration of a small annuity, he withdrew his claims. He finally settled down in Edinburgh, where he supported himself chiefly by keeping young gentlemen as boarders in his house. His chief amusements were poetry and music. His conduct to (1786) and correspondence with Burns are too well known to require to be noticed at length here. He published a paper of no small merit in the Encyclopedia Britannica on Blindness, and is the author of a work entitled Paraclesis; or, Consolations of Religion, — which surely none require more than the blind. He died of a nervous fever on the 7th of July 1791, so far fortunate that he did not live to see the ruin of his immortal protege.

Blacklock was a most amiable, genial, and benevolent being. He was sometimes subject to melancholy — unlike many of the blind, and one especially, whom we name not, but who, still living, bears a striking resemblance to Blacklock in fineness of mind, warmth of heart, and high-toned piety, but who is cheerful as the day. As to his poetry, it is undoubtedly wonderful, considering the circumstances of its production, if not per se. Dr. Johnson says to Boswell, — "As Blacklock had the misfortune to be blind, we may be absolutely sure that the passages in his poems descriptive of visible objects are combinations of what he remembered of the works of other writers who could see. That foolish fellow Spence has laboured to explain philosophically how Blacklock may have done, by his own faculties, what it is impossible he should do. The solution, as I have given it, is plain. Suppose I know a man to be so lame that he is absolutely incapable to move himself, and I find him in a different room from that in which I left him, shall I puzzle myself with idle conjectures that perhaps his nerves have, by some unknown change, all at once become effective? No, sir; it is clear how he got into a different room-he was CARRIED."

Perhaps there is a fallacy in this somewhat dogmatic statement. Perhaps the blind are not so utterly dark but they may have certain dim simulacra of external objects before their eyes and minds. Apart from this, however, Blacklock's poetry endures only from its connexion with the author's misfortune, and from the fact that through the gloom he groped greatly to find and give the burning hand of the peasant poet the squeeze of a kindred spirit, — kindred, we mean, in feeling and heart, although very far removed in strength of intellect and genius.