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THE LIFE OF BLAIR.
Or the perfonal history of BLAIR, few particulars are known; and those few are fuch as give little fcope for amplification and embellishment.
The life of a country clergyman, conftantly engaged in the duties of his profeffion, the practice of the domestic virtues, and the occupations of literature, however respectable such a character may be, can afford but flender materials for biography.
The facts stated in the present account, were communicated to the compiler of this collection, n converfation with his fon, Robert Blair, Efq., Solicitor General to his Majefty for Scotland, and ais coufin, the learned and amiable Dr. Blair, one of the minifters of the High Church, and Proeffor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, in the University of Edinburgh.
These authorities are produced by the prefent writer with much pleasure; as it gives him, at once, an >pportunity of reflecting on the hereditary love of literature and distinguished politenefs of Mr. Soicitor General; and of recording his obligations to the venerable director of his youthful studies; whofe well-established reputation can fuffer no diminution from the teftimony of a grateful pupil, to the merit of his " Academical prelections," which conflitute an æra in the hiftory of Scottish literature; nor eafily receive addition from the highest praise he can bestow on his " productions for the pulpit," which display the powers of a wife, and the acquifitions of a cultivated mind, in recommending the spirit of a pure and enlightened religion to every order of mankind; and exhibit to the literary world, a model of found and elegant inftruction, and of fimple and perfuafive eloquence, unprecedented in the hiftory of that fpecies of compofition in our country.
Robert Blair was the eldeft fon of the Rev. David Blair, one of the minifters of Edinburgh, and Chaplain to the King. His mother was Nifbet, daughter of Nifbet, Efq, of Carfin. His grandfather was the Rev. Robert Blair, one of the most diftinguished Scottish clergyman in the time of the civil wars; a defcendent of the ancient and refpectable family of Blair of Blair in Ayr[hire.
He was born about the beginning of this century; had the most liberal education in the Univerity of Edinburgh, and afterwards was fent abroad by his father for his improvement, and spent ome time on the continent. After undergoing the usual trials appointed by the church, he was ordained minister of Athelftaneford, in the county of East Lothian, Jan. 5, 1731, where he past the remainder of his life.
As his fortune was eafy, he lived very much in the ftyle of a gentleman, and was greatly refpected by Sir Francis Kinloch, Baronet, of Gilmerton, patron of the parish, and by all the gentlemen in that neighbourhood. He was a man both of learning, and of elegant taste and manrers. He was a botanist and florift, which he showed in the cultivation of his garden; and was alfo converfant in optical and microscopical knowledge, on which fubjects he carried on correspondence with fome learned men in England. He was a man of fincere piety, and very affiduous in discharging the duties of his clerical function. As a preacher, he was ferious and warm, and discovered the imagination of a poet.
He married Isabella Law, daughter of Mr. Law of Elvingfton, and fifter to the prefent sheriffdepute of Eaft-Lothian, a lady of uncommon beauty and amiable manners. With her father, who had been profeffor of moral philofophy, in the Univerfity of Edinburgh, who was his relation, and had been left one of his tutors, he had been long and intimately connected; and, upon occafion of
his death, which happened several years before his marriage with his daughter, he wrote and pra a funeral Poem to bis Memory, which is thought worthy of being preferved; and is according ferted in this collection.
By his lady, who furvived him feveral years, he had five fons and one daughter; of thefe i Robert Blair, Efq., of Avington, Solicitor General to his Majesty for Scotland, is the fourth. Ha brother, Mr. Archibald Blair, was also a clergyman, and was fettled in a parish near him in Ext Lothian. One of his fons, nephew to the poet, Robert Blair, M. D., is one of the Commen of the Sick and Wounded in London, and well known for his skill in optics and aftronomy. He died of a fever, on the 4th of February, 1746, in the 47th year of his age; and was fuccced-i in his living at Athelftaneford, by another poet, Mr. John Home, the celebrated author Douglas."
This is all that is known of Blair; an accomplished fcholar, and an elegant poet, whole g and virtue, though celebrated by fome of the most eminent of his poetical contemporaries, have f fered fuch unmerited neglect, that his name is not to be found in any collection of literary biography Had the interefting correspondence of Watts been given to the world by his friend and biograph Dr. Jennings, it would probably have furnished many particulars relating to Blair, which might hav gratified curiofity; though they could hardly have added to the honour which his talents and virtue have received from the esteem of a man, who has left behind him such purity of charaĉer, a fuch monuments of laborious piety.
The friends of Blair were the friends of fcience and of virtue; his love of poetry and p literature, procured him the friendship of Watts, a polite scholar, and devout poet; no less rema able for his genius and learning, than the mildness and fervency of his piety: And his pain ¦ for natural history, obtained him the correfpondence of the famous naturalist, Henry Baker, L Fellow of the Royal Society, an intelligent, upright, and benevolent man, who was partici attentive to all the improvements which were made in natural science, and very folicitos. the profecution of useful discoveries. Befides the papers written by himself in the " Philofoph Transactions," he was the means, by his extensive correspondence, of conveying to the Society. intelligence and obfervations of other inquifitive and philofophical men. Like Blair, he was bet poet and a naturalift; and printed a volume of “ Original Poems, serious and humorous,” 8vo, 122) He was the author likewife of "The Universe, a poem," which has been several times reprinted. his principal publications are, "The Microscope made eafy," 1743; and "Employment for the crofcope," which have gone through many editions, and are generally known. Having led a ufeful and honourable life, he died Nov. 25, 1774, being then above feventy years of age. E wife Sophia, youngest daughter of the celebrated De Foe, he had a son, David Erskine Baker, E^ author of the "Mufe of Offian;" a dramatic poem, of three acts, performed at Edinburgh, 1 and "The Companion to the Play Muse, 2 vols., 12mo, 1764, a work that has fince been c rably improved by Mr. Reed, under the title of the " Biographica Dramatica," 2 vols. 8vo, 1oHis letters to Blair, are in the poffeffion of Mr. Solicitor General.
With Dr. Doddridge, a man whofe learning was refpected by Warburton and Newton, whofe piety was venerated by Lyttleton and Weft, he alfo cultivated a correfpondence; prebi through the kindness of Watts, or the good offices of their common friend, Colonel James Ga diner, who was flain at the battle of Prestonpans, Sept. 21, 1745.; and affectionately commemorati by Dr. Doddridge, in "Some remarkable paffages in his life," published in 1747.
The following letter, dated Athelftaneford, Feb. 25, 1741-2, and inferted in the "Ek Correspondence of Dr. Doddridge," published by the Rev. Mr. Stedman of Shrewsbury, 119 exhibits an advantageous specimen of his temper and difpofition, and contains fome intereng formation relating to the compofition and publication of The Grave.
"You will be justly furprised with a letter from one whofe name is not fo much as known i you nor fhall I offer to make an apology. Though I am entirely unacquainted with your pe I am ro ftranger to your merit as an author; neither am I altogether unacquainted with your pr fonal character, having often heard honourable mention made of you by my much refpe&ed advi tby.friends, £olonel Gardiner, and Lady Frances. About ten months ago, Lady Frances did ma
favour to tranfmit to me fome manufcript hymns of yours, with which I was wonderfully delighted. I wish I could, on my part, contribute in any measure to your entertainment, as you have sometimes done to mine in a very high degree. And that I may fhow how willing I am to do fo, I have defired Dr. Watts to tranfmit to you à manufcript poem of mine, intituled The Grave, written, I hope, in a way not unbecoming my profeffion as a minifter of the gospel, though the greatest part of it was compofed feveral years before I was clothed with fo facred a character. I was urged by fome friends here, to whom I fhowed it, to make it public; nor did I decline it, provided I had the approbation of Dr. Watts, from whom I have received many civilities, and for whom I had ever entertained the highest regard. Yesterday I had a letter from the Doctor, fignifying his approbation of the piece in a manner most obliging. A great deal lefs from him would have done me no Imall honour. But at the fame time he mentions to me that he had offered it to two bookfellers of his acquaintance, who, he tells me, did not care to run the risk of publifhing it. They can fcarce think (confidering how critical an age we live in, with refpect to fuch kind of writings) that a perfon living three hundred miles from London, could write fo as to be acceptable to the fashionable and polite. Perhaps it may be fo; though, at the fame time I muft fay, in order to make it more generally liked, I was obliged fometimes to go crofs to my own inclination, well knowing, that whatever poem is written upon a fetious argument, muft, upon that very account, be under peculiar difadvantages; and, therefore, proper arts must be used to make fuch a piece go down with a licentious age, which cares for none of thofe things. I beg pardon for breaking in upon moments precious as yours, and hope you will be fo kind as to give me your opinion of the poem.” The difficulties ftated by Watts in the above letter, probably prevented the publication of The Grave during its author's lifetime. The earliest edition of it, which the prefent writer has feen, is that printed at Edinburgh, in 8vo, 1747. At the end is a tranflation of a pious ode of Volufenus; but of no value. The fubfequent editions are too numerous to be specified. To the edition in 8vo, 1786, is added Gray's "Elegy in a Country Church-yard," with "notes moral, critical and explanatory." The notes are in general trifling and infipid. It is now, with the Poem to the memory of Mr. Lazu, received, for the first time, into a collection of claffical English poetry.
The variations from the common editions, are printed from the original MS., 1741-2, in the poffeffion of Mr. Solicitor General, communicated for the ufe of this edition. The reading in the printed copies has in general fo much the appearance of improvement, and fo confonant to the ftyle of the poem, that it is probable it might be the refult of a revifion, fubfequent to the date of the EMS. Some verbal tranfpofitions, of little importance, are not copied.
If Blair had written nothing else but this fingle poem, it is alone fufficient to entitle him to a claffical diftinction among the poets of our country. But the poem to the memory of Mr. Law, inferted in this collection by the favour of Dr. Blair, is no inconfiderable addition to his fame. It is evidently a juvenile performance, the tribute of affection and efteem to the merits of a friend; and justly charge=able, in fome inftances, with incorrectness of language, and incongruity of imagery: but the ftyle is fimple and beautiful; and the fentiments, though fometimes trite, are expreffed with a tendernefs and energy not unworthy of the author of The Grave. The apostrophe to Mrs. Law, in particular, is pathetic and pleasing; and the abrupt tranfition to the final conflagration of the univerfe, approaches to fublimity.
The Grave, his greatest work, amply establishes his fame. It is a production of real genius, and poffeffes a merit fuperior to many pieces of the very first celebrity. It is compofed of a fucceffion of unconnected defcriptions, and of reflections that feem independent of one another, interwoven with ftriking allufions, and digreflive fallies of imagination. It is a series of pathetic reprefentations, without unity of defign, variegated with imagery and allufion; which exhibit a wide display of original poetry. The poet's eye is awake on the objects of creation, and on the fcenes of human mifery; and he is alive to every feeling of compaflion and benevolence. Through a fhade of melancholy, which peculiar impreflions of religion throw over the scenes he defcribes, we always perceive an amiable and generous principle struggling to overcome the degeneracy which it deplores. Whatever fubject is either difcuffed or aimed at, he always endeavours to melt the heart, and Bierm the confcience, by pathetic defeription and ferious remonftrances; and his fentiments are always
delivered in a novel and energetic manner, that impreffes them strongly on the mind. He i always moral, yet never dull; and though he often expands an image, yet he never weakens in force. If the fame thought occurs, he gives it a new form; and is copious without being tirefome He writes under the ftrong impreffion of Christian and moral truths. Conviction gives force to imagination; and he dips his pen in the stream that religion has opened in his own bosom.
His imagination, excurfive and vigorous, fometimes exceeds the bounds that criticism prefcribes. Poffeffing strong powers of ridicule as well as fancy, he passes too fuddenly from grave and ferisss description, to irony and fatire. Inflances of this improper affociation too frequently occur, the grave and ludicrous destroy one another.
But the defects of The Grave bear a very small proportion to its beauties; and its beauties are i no common account. They are happily conceived and forcibly expressed. His language is the natural and unforced refult of his conceptions. Anxious only to give each image its due prome nence and relief, he has wafted no unneceffary attention on grace or embellishment; the diffikr, therefore, though seldom fplendid, is always vigorous and animated, and carries the thought ham? to the heart with inexpreffible energy. His verfification is almost as fingular as the materials upot which it is employed; fometimes careless and profaic, and fometimes ftrikingly elegant and bar monious; refembling fometimes the best manner of Shakspeare and Rowe, and fometimes that a Milton and Young; but without any marks of fervile imitation. Amidst such a profufion of ben tiful and ftriking paffages that are to be found in this fingular poem, it is difficult to confirm the general remarks by particular quotations.
After a folemn introduction, the following striking paffage appears.
The wind is up: hark! how it howls! Methinks
Till now I never heard a found so dreary :
Doors creak, and windows clap, and night's foul bird,
Black plafter'd, and hung round with fhreds of 'fcutcheons
Laden with heavier airs, from the low vaults,
The manfions of the dead.-Rous'd from their flumbers,
Grin horrible, and obftinately fullen,
Pafs and repafs, hufh'd as the foot of night.
Again the fcreech-owl fhrieks: ungracious found!
I'll hear no more; it makes one's blood run chill.
The following picture is very fine and natural :
Oft, in the lone church-yard at night I've seen,
Of horrid apparition, tall and ghaftly,
That walks at dead of night, or takes his stand
O'er fome new open'd grave; and (strange to tell!)
Evanishes at crowing of the cock.
This pleafing picture is finely contrafted by the affecting one, which immediately follows it:
The new-made widow
Sad fight! flow moving o'er the prostrate dead,
Liftlefs, fhe crawls along in doleful black,
While bursts of forrow gufh from either eye,
Faft falling down her now untafted cheek.
The past endearments of their softer hours,
In the above description there are many minute strokes, ber now untafted cheek-bufy meddling memas ry, &c., which mark the superior poet.
From the apostrophe to Friendship, which immediately follows, the heart catches sympathetic feelings; and the amiable poet leaves on it the impreffion of all that is tender, generous, and endeara ing. There is beautiful description, and much poetical enthusiasm in the following lines.
Oh! when my friend and I
In fome thick wood have wander'd heedlefs on,
In grateful errors through the under-wood,
Sweet murmuring; methought the shrill-tongu'd thrus
Of drefs.-Oh! then, the longest fummer's day
Had not imparted half: 'twas happiness
Too exquifite to last.
The following paffage strongly reminds us of Shakspeare, and is equal to any of the most admired moral parts of that wonderful dramatist.
Dull grave! thou fpoil'ft the dance of youthful blood,
And ev'ry fmirking feature from the face;
Branding our laughter with the name of madness.
Before the was aware? Ah! fullen now,
And dumb as the green turf that covers them.
The defcription of a funeral, beginning, But fee the well-plum'd berfe, &c. has the beauties and defects of the fame admirable writer. The apostrophe to Beauty is a masterly paffage; as are thofe on the death of the Strong Man, the Philofopher, and the Physician. This expreflion in the last reminds us of Milton.
-From ftubborn fhrubs
Thou wringft their fhy retiring virtues out,
And vex'd them in the fire
The Sexton will be readily recognised as a relation of the grave-digger in Hamlet.
Of hard unmeaning face, down which ne'er ftole