Thomas Campbell: Scottish Poet

[Coat of Arms: Clan MacIvor] Coat of Arms: Clan MacIvor

Noted Nova Scotia historian, A. MacLean Sinclair stated: "Thomas Campbell, the famous poet, was not a Campbell at all. He was a MacIvor."

The following biography of Thomas Campbell is found in the Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 8, published in 1888.
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CAMPBELL, THOMAS (1777-1844), poet, was born 27 July 1777, in High Street, Glasgow, in a house long since removed. He was the youngest of a family of eleven, and was born when his father was sixty-seven years of age. Alexander Campbell, the father, was third son of Archibald Campbell, the last of a long line to occupy the family mansion of Kirnan in Argyll.

Alexander Campbell being trained to commerce, and having gained a valuable experience in Virginia, settled in business in Glasgow with a partner named Daniel Campbell, whose sister Margaret he married. Thus the poet's father and mother were both Campbells, and belonged to the same district of Argyll, though their families were not related. The firm of Alexander & Daniel Campbell did a prosperous Virginia trade, till heavy losses, consequent on the American war, brought the business to an end, and well-nigh ruined both families.

The affairs of the firm being honourably settled, it was found that Alexander and Margaret Campbell had a little remaining from their handsome competency, and that this, together with a small annual income from the Merchants' Society and a provident institution, would enable them to make a living.

Thomas Campbell was born after this disaster, and was naturally an object of special care to both parents. His father impressed him by his manly self-dependence and his sterling integrity, while his mother by her songs and legends gave him a taste for literature and a bias towards her beloved west highlands.

Campbell went to Glasgow grammar school in his eighth year, and became both a good classical scholar and a promising poet under the fostering care of his teacher, David Alison, who prophesied distinction for his pupil. On going to the university in October 1791, he studied very hard, and quickly excelled as a classical scholar, debater, and poetical translator from Greek. Genial and witty, he was liked and admired by professors and fellow-students.

He won numerous prizes for his scholarship, as well as for poems (such as the `Origin of Evil') cleverly turned after Pope. A visit to Edinburgh in 1794, when he attended the trial of Muir, Gerald, and others for high treason, deeply impressed him, and helped to form his characteristic decisive views on liberty. At this time, thinking of studying for the church, Campbell read Hebrew and gave some attention to theological subjects, one result of which was his hymn on `The Advent.' His future, however, became clouded when, in his fourth year at college (1794-5), his father lost a lingering chancery suit, and Campbell, forced to earn money, went as a tutor to Sunipol in Mull.

His fellow-student, Hamilton Paul, sent him a playful letter here, enclosing a few lines entitled `Pleasures of Solitude' and, after a jocose reference to Akenside and Rogers, bade Campbell cherish the `Pleasures of Hope' `that they would soon meet in Alma Mater.' This probably was the germ of the poem that was completed within a few years.

Campbell returned to the university for the winter, finally leaving it in the spring of 1796. During this year he attended the class of Professor Miller, whose lectures on Roman law had given him new and lasting impressions of social relations and progress.

He was engaged as tutor at Downie, near Lochgilphead, till the beginning of 1797, when he returned to Glasgow. His twofold experience of the west highlands had given him his first love (consecrated in `Caroline'), and deep sympathies with highland character, scenery and incident. Many of the strong buoyant lines and exquisite touches of descriptive reminiscence in the poems of after years (e.g., stanzas 5 and 6 of `Geretrude of Wyoming') are in large measure due to the comparatively lonely and reflective time he spent in these tutorships. His `Parrot,' `Love and Madness,' `Glenara,' and first sketch of `Lord Ullin's Daughter,' belong to this time.

With the influence of Professor Miller strong upon him, Campbell now resolved to study law; with that intention he settled in Edinburgh and worked for a few weeks as a copying clerk. An introduction to Dr. Anderson, editor of `The British Poets,' was the means of his becoming acquainted with the publishers Mundell & Co., for whom he began to do some miscellaneous literary work. This occupation, together with private teaching, enabled him to live, and helped to raise him above the mental depression Leyden, with an offensiveness that produced a lasting estrangement between Campbell and himself, spoke of as projected suicide.

A good deal of Campbell's leisure time during his early days in Edinburgh was spent with Mr. Stirling of Courdale, and it was Miss Stirling's singing that prompted him to write the `Wounded Hussar.' Other minor poems of this time were the `Dirge of Wallace,' `Epistle to Three Ladies,' and `Lines on revisiting the River Cart.'

Meanwhile, Campbell had been busy completing the `Pleasures of Hope,' which, published by Mundell & Co., 27 April 1799, was instantly popular, owing both to its matter and style. Its brilliant detached passages surprised readers into overlooking its structural defects. The poem was charged with direct and emphatic interest for thinking men; the attractive touches of description came straight from the writer's own experience, and preserved the resonant metrical neatness expected in the heroic couplet. The striking passage on Poland marks the beginning of an enthusiasm that remained through life, gaining for him many friends among suffering patriots. His `Harper' and `Gilderoy' close this first great literary period of his life.

Campbell meditated following his success with a national poem to be called `The Queen of the North,' but though he long had the subject in his mind, he never produced more than unimportant fragments. Meanwhile he went (June 1800) to the continent, settling first at Hamburg. After making the acquaintance of Klopstock here, he went to Ratisbon, where he stayed, in a time of military stress and danger, under the protection of Arbuthnot, president of the Benedictine College, to whom he pays a tribute in his impressive ballad, the `Ritter Bann.'

A skirmish witnessed from this retreat was Campbell's only experience of active warfare. His letters to his Edinburgh friends at this time are striking pictures of his own state of mind and the political situation. During a short truce he got as far as Munich, returning thence by the Valley of the Iser to Ratisbon, and thereafter, late in the autumn, to Leipzig, Hamburg, and Altona, where he was staying when the battle of Hobenlinden was fought (December 1800).

Wintering here he studied hard, and produced a number of his best-known minor poems, several of which he sent for publication to Perry of the `Morning Chronicle.' Among Irish refugees at Hamburg he had met and deeply sympathized with Anthony MacCann, whose troubles suggested `The Exile of Erin.' During this sojourn also were produced `Ye Mariners of England,' written to the tune of `Ye Gentlemen of England,' a song which he was fond of singing, and `The Soldier's Dream,' besides several less known but meritorious poems, such as `Judith,' `Lines on Visiting a Scene in Argyllshire' (in reference to Kirnan), `The Beech Tree's Petition,' and `The Name Unknown,' in imitation of Klopstock. A desire to go down the Danube may have suggested (as Dr. Beattie pleasantly fancies) the ballad of `The Turkish Lady.'

The sudden appearance of the English fleet off the Sound (March 1801), indicating the intention of punishing Denmark for her French bias, caused Campbell and other English residents to make an abrupt departure from Altona. The view he had of the Danish batteries as he sailed past in the Royal George suggested to him his strenuous war-song, `The Battle of the Baltic.'

Landing at Yarmouth, 7 April 1801, Campbell proceeded to London, where through Perry he came to know Lord Holland, and to so speedily began to mingle in the best literary society of the metropolis. The death of his father soon took him to Edinburgh, and we find him (after satisfying the sheriff of Edinburgh that he was not a revolutionary spy) alternating between England and Scotland for about a year. After his mother and sisters were comfortably settled, he undertook work for the booksellers in their interests. He spent a good deal of time in the town and country residences of Lord Minto, to whom Dugald Stewart had introduced him, and through the Lord Minto his circle of London acquaintances were widened, the Kembles in particular proving very attractive to Campbell.

It was during this unsettled time that he undertook a continuation of Hume and Smollett's `England' (which is of no importance in an estimate of his work). and published together, with a dedication to the Rev. Archibald Alison, his `Locheil' and `Hobenlinden.' The latter (rejected, it is said, by the `Greenock Advertiser' as `not up to the editor's standard') he himself was inclined to deprecate, as a mere `drum and trumpet thing,' but it appealed to Scott's sense of martial dignity, and he was fond of repeating it. Scott says (Life, vi. 326) that when he declaimed it to Leyden, he received this criticism:- `Dash it, man, tell the fellow that I hate him, but, dash him, he has written the finest verses that have been published these fifty years.' Campbell's reply, when Scott reported this, was: `Tell Leyden that I detest him; but I know the value of his critical approbation.'

Satisfied with the success of a reissue of `The Pleasures of Hope and Other Poems,' Campbell married (10 Oct. 1803, misdated September by Dr. Beattie and Campbell himself) Miss Matilda Sinclair, daughter of his mother's cousin, Robert Sinclair, then resident in London, and formerly a wealthy and influential man in Greenock. Declining the offer a chair at Wilna, Campbell gave himself up to literary work in London, where he remained for the rest of his days. His first child, whom he named Thomas Telford, after his friend the famous engineer, was born in July 1804, and shortly afterwards the family settled at Sydenham, the poet working steadily for his own household as well as for his mother and sisters.

His critical and translated work soon marked him out as no ordinary judge of poets and poetry, and when it occurred to him that `Specimens of the British Poets' was a likely title for a successful book, Sir Walter Scott and others to whom he mentioned it were charmed with the idea. It took some time, however, before the publication of such a work could be arranged for, and then the author's laborious method delayed its appearance after it was expected.

Meanwhile Campbell began to rise above adverse circumstances. In 1806 his second son, Alison, was born, and in the same year, with Fox and Lords Holland and Minto as prime movers, he received a crown pension of 200L. The same year was marked by a very profitable subscription edition of his poems, suggested by Frances Horner.

In 1809 `Gertrude of Wyoming' appeared, and, despite manifest shortcomings, its gentle pathos and its general elegance and finish of style obtained for it a warm welcome. It was in a conversation with Washington Irving that Scott (Life, iv. 93), speaking of the beauties of `Gertrude.' gave his famous explanation of Campbell's limited poetical achievement in proportion to his undoubted powers and promise. `He is afraid,' said he, `of the shadow that his own fame casts before him.' A new edition of the poem was speedily called for, and appeared, together with the sweet and touching `O'Connor's Child,' which is probably the most artistic of Campbell's works. In 1810 his son Alison died of scarlet fever, and the poet's correspondence for some time gives evidence of overwhelming grief.

After he had rallied, he prepared a course of lectures for the Royal Institution. These lectures on poetry, not withstanding their technical and archaic character, were a decided success. The scheme was a splendid and comprehensive one, but too vast for one man to complete. It was not surprising, therefore, that a whimsical genius like Campbell should have suddenly broken away from the subject, after having done little more than make a vigorous beginning. Still, detached portions of what he says on Hebrew and Greek verse (in the lectures as rewritten for the `New Monthly Magazine') have special value, and will always attract students of the art of poetry.

On the fall of Napoleon, in 1814, Campbell spent two months in Paris, where he was much affected by what he saw, and made new friends in the elder Schlegel, Baron Cuvier, and others. In 1815 a legacy of over 4,000L. fell to him, on the death of Mr. MacArthur Stewart of Ascog, and the legal business connected with the bequest took him to Edinburgh and Glasgow, where he spent a pleasant holiday among old friends.

The next two years found him busy with his `Specimens of the British Poets,' at length in a fair way to be published by Murray. The work in seven volumes, actually appeared in 1819, when Campbell, by the invitation of Roscoe, was delivering his revised Royal Institution lectures at Liverpool and Birmingham. The essay on poetry which precedes the `Specimens' is a notable contribution to criticism, and the lives are succinct, pithy, and fairly accurate, though such a writer is inevitably weak in minor details. He is specially hard on Euphuism, and it is curious that one of his most severe thrusts is made at Vaughan, to whom he probably owes the charming vision of `the world's grey fathers' in his own `Rainbow.'

The most valuable portions of the essay are those on Milton and Pope, which, together with such concise and lucid writing as the critical sections of the lives of Goldsmith and Cowper, show that Campbell was master of controversial and expository prose. Despite Miss Misfold's merry-making, in one of her letters, over the length of time spent in preparing the `Specimens,' students cannot but be grateful for them as they stand. The illustrative extracts are not always fortunate, but this is due to the editor's desire for freshness rather than to any lack of taste or judgment.

To be continued

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