1801 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Hugh Blair

Candidus, "Remarks on Dr Blair's Life" Scots Magazine 63 (March 1801) 162-63.



SIR,

I read the account of the life of the late Dr. Blair, given in your number for January last, with a good deal of pleasure and interest. You there attribute the Doctor's success and fame, to have been the rewards of his own perseverance and industry. I shall not go at present into the question, how far every man has it in his power to arrive at excellence by his own exertions, and whether all men are formed by nature with the same capacities; what I wish to state is, that in illustrating the progress of Dr. Blair's literary acquirements, and justly merited reputation, you have in my humble opinion, not dwelt sufficiently upon the state of this country, and of the literature of it, at the time he came into notice. It has been often remarked, Sir, that literary men seldom appear single; there generally rise a number of men of genius who are rivals, contemporaries, and friends at one time. If we attend to circumstances, we shall find that Dr. Blair flourished in the Augustan age of Scottish literature. From the accession of James VII, to the throne of England, till after the restoration of Charles II, few or none in this country distinguished themselves by any great proficiency in learning by science. Soon after this Bishop Burnet appeared, whose compositions are still held in considerable estimation. The intercourse of the Scots with the English and the Dutch was greatly increased after the revolution; and they began to aspire at proficiency in learning and science. Scotland as yet however was poor, and the encouragers of science and the fine arts, few in number. Except for the bar, the pulpit, and the professors chairs in the different universities, no objects of literary pursuit presented themselves at the close of the 17th century. In the universities little was taught, but what was to fit the student for one or other of these professions. The union facilitated the progress, though as yet it was but slow. Little intercourse and many prejudices were for a considerable time barriers to general improvement. By degrees, associating more and more with the English, the Scots began still more and more to relish English literature; and literary pursuits in general. The diffusion of knowledge over Europe, dispelled, as much in Scotland as any where, the partialities and peculiar causes, which had hitherto retarded the progress of science. It was at this period that Dr. Blair appeared on the stage. He found the blaze kindling, numbers of his contemporaries coming forward into notice. A taste for moral science and polite literature was prevailing, and pulpit eloquence attracting notice. This had the proper effect on Dr. Blair, it excited in him that desire at excellence in those literary and scientific pursuits, which were never extinguished to the last moment of his life. To establish this observation, I need only recall to your remembrance, the names of some of the most remarkable literary characters then flourishing. In the college of Glasgow, Hucheson filled the moral philosophy chair with much reputation. At Aberdeen, Thomas Blackwell was the praise of the university; after him Duncan, Reid, Gerard, and Beattie distinguished themselves. But it was Edinburgh chiefly where the scene of Blair's activity lay, and where the blaze of literature chiefly shone. Most of them were Dr. Blair's literary intimates, Principal Robertson, Lord Kaimes, David Hume, the historian, Dr. Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and Home the author of Douglas, were the most distinguished. In the College of Edinburgh were Drs. Munro, Black, Cullen, and others. In the society of such men, collision must produce sparks. To rival, if not excel, became naturally the object of Dr. Blair's ingenuous literary ambition. Perhaps it was the endeavour of all those, whose names I have mentioned, to draw fame upon themselves, and reflect honour on their country by their literary efforts. And they have done so, by exciting not the admiration of Britain only, but of all Europe.

I am, Sir,

CANDIDUS.