Thomas Campbell - J. Cuthbert Hadden - ebook

Reviewing Beattie’s Life of Campbell in the Quarterly in 1849, Lockhart expressed the hope that no one would ever tell Campbell’s story without making due acknowledgment to ‘the best stay of his declining period.’ He would be a bold man who would think of doing so. As well might one expect to write a life of Johnson without the aid of Boswell as expect to tell Campbell’s story without reference to Dr. Beattie. In addition to my acknowledgments to him, I have to express my indebtedness to Mr. Cyrus Redding’s ‘Reminiscences of Thomas Campbell,’ which, though badly put together, yet contain a mass of valuable information about the poet, especially in his more intimate relations. For the rest I have made considerable use of Campbell’s correspondence, and have, I trust, acquainted myself with all the more important references made to him in contemporary records, and in the writings of those who knew him. To several of my personal friends, particularly to Mr. G. H. Ely, I am obliged for hints and helpful suggestions, which I gratefully acknowledge.

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Thomas Campbell

Famous Scots Series


J. Cuthbert Hadden



Reviewing Beattie’s Life of Campbell in the Quarterly in 1849, Lockhart expressed the hope that no one would ever tell Campbell’s story without making due acknowledgment to ‘the best stay of his declining period.’ He would be a bold man who would think of doing so. As well might one expect to write a life of Johnson without the aid of Boswell as expect to tell Campbell’s story without reference to Dr. Beattie. In addition to my acknowledgments to him, I have to express my indebtedness to Mr. Cyrus Redding’s ‘Reminiscences of Thomas Campbell,’ which, though badly put together, yet contain a mass of valuable information about the poet, especially in his more intimate relations. For the rest I have made considerable use of Campbell’s correspondence, and have, I trust, acquainted myself with all the more important references made to him in contemporary records, and in the writings of those who knew him. To several of my personal friends, particularly to Mr. G. H. Ely, I am obliged for hints and helpful suggestions, which I gratefully acknowledge.

J. C. H.

Edinburgh, October 1899.


The Campbells, as everybody knows, can claim an incredibly long descent. There is a Clan Campbell Society, the chairman of which declared some years ago that he possessed a pedigree carrying the family back to the year 420, and no doubt there are enthusiasts who can trace it to at least the time of the Flood. The poet was not particular about his pedigree, but the biographer of a Campbell would be doing less than justice to his subject if he denied him that ell of genealogy which Lockhart deemed the due of every man who glories in being a Scot.

In the present case, fortunately for the biographer, there is authoritative assistance at hand. The poet’s uncle, Robert Campbell, a political writer under Walpole’s administration, made a special study of the genealogy of the Campbells; and in his ‘Life of the most illustrious Prince John, Duke of Argyll,’ he has traced for us the descent of that particular branch of the Clan to which the poet’s family belonged. The descent may be stated in a few words. Archibald Campbell, lord and knight of Lochawe, was grandson of Sir Neil, Chief of the Clan, and a celebrated contemporary of Robert the Bruce. He died in 1360, leaving three sons, from one of whom, Iver, sprang the Campbells in whom we are now interested. They were known as the Campbells of Kirnan, an estate lying in the pastoral vale of Glassary, in Argyllshire, with which, through many generations, they became identified as lairds and heritors, ‘supporters of the Reformation and elders in the Church.’ In a privately printed work dealing with the Clan Iver, the late Principal Campbell of Aberdeen, who was distantly related to the poet, gives a slightly different account of the origin of the Kirnan Campbells, but the matter need not be dwelt upon here. There is a suggestion, scouted by Principal Campbell, that the poet believed himself to be remotely connected with the great ducal house of Argyll. In some lines written ‘On receiving a Seal with the Campbell Crest,’ he speaks of himself as having been blown, a scattered leaf from the feudal tree, ‘in Fortune’s mutability’; and even Lady Charlotte Campbell, a daughter of the ‘illustrious Prince John,’ hails him as a clansman of her race, exclaiming ‘How proudly do I call thee one of mine!’

These, however, are speculations for the antiquary rather than for the biographer. They are interesting enough in their way, but the writer of a small volume like the present cannot afford to be discursive; and so, leaving the arid regions of genealogy, we may be content to begin with the poet’s grandfather, Archibald Campbell. He was the last to reside on the family estate of Kirnan. Late in life he had taken a second wife, a daughter of Stewart, the laird of Ascog. Before her marriage the lady had lived much in the Lowlands, and now she said she could not live in the Highlands: the solitude preyed upon her health and spirits. Hence it came about that the laird of Kirnan set up house in an old mansion in the Trunkmaker’s Row, off the Canongate of Edinburgh, where the poet’s father, the youngest of three sons, was born in 1710.

Beyond the interesting fact that he was educated under the care of Robert Wodrow, the celebrated historian and preacher, from whose teaching he drew the strict religious principles which regulated his life, we hear nothing of the earlier years of Alexander Campbell. He went to America, and was in business for some time at Falmouth, in Virginia. There he met with the son of a Glasgow merchant, another Campbell, to whom he was quite unrelated, and together the two returned to Scotland to start in Glasgow as Virginia traders. The new firm at first prospered in a high degree, for Glasgow about the middle of the eighteenth century was just touching the culminating point of her commerce with the American colonies. Even as early as 1735 the Glasgow merchants had fifteen large vessels engaged in the tobacco trade alone. But the outbreak of the American War in 1775 put a speedy end to the city’s success in this direction. ‘Some of the Virginia lords,’ says Dr. Strang, ‘ere long retired from the trade, and others of them were ultimately ruined. Business for a time was in fact paralysed, and a universal cry of distress was heard throughout the town.’

Of course the Campbell firm suffered with the rest. Beattie, who had access to the books, declares that Alexander Campbell’s personal loss could not have been less than twenty thousand pounds. Whatever the sum was, it represented practically the whole of Campbell’s savings. This was a serious blow to a man of sixty-five, with ten surviving children and an eleventh child expected. He set himself to retrieve his fortunes as best he could, but he never recovered his position; and we are told that his family henceforward had to be brought up on an income—partly derived from boarders—that barely sufficed to purchase the common necessaries of life. It was, however, in these days of declining fortunes that the family was destined to receive its most notable member. The eleventh and last child, anticipated perhaps with misgiving, was Thomas Campbell, who was born on the 27th of July 1777, his father being then sixty-seven, and his mother some twenty-five years less.[1]

It will be well to say here all that needs farther to be said about the poet’s parents. Alexander Campbell belonged to a Scottish type now all but extinct—stolid, meditative, somewhat dour, fond of theology and the abstract sciences: leading the family devotions in extempore prayer; regarding the Sunday sermon as essential to salvation, and less concerned about the amount of his income than about his honour and integrity. As his son puts it:

Truth, standing on her solid square, from youth

He worshipped—stern, uncompromising truth.


That he was a man of character and intelligence is clear from the fact that he numbered among his intimates such distinguished men as Adam Smith and Dr. Thomas Reid, the successive occupants of the Moral Philosophy Chair at Glasgow. When Reid published his ‘Inquiry into the Human Mind,’ he gave a copy to Alexander Campbell, who read it and said he was edified by it. ‘I am glad you are pleased with it,’ remarked Reid; ‘there are now at least two men in Glasgow who understand my work—Alexander Campbell and myself.’ He had the saving grace of humour, too, this old Virginia trader, though, from a specimen given, it was apparently not of a very brilliant kind. Some of the boys were discussing the best colours for a new suit of clothes. ‘Lads,’ said the father, whose propensity for punning not even chagrin at the law’s delays could suppress, ‘lads, if you wish to get a lasting suit, get one like mine. I have a suit in the Court of Chancery which has lasted thirty years, and I think it will never wear out.’ The worthy man lived to the patriarchal age of ninety-one, dying in Edinburgh—whither he had retired with his household three years before—in 1801. In his last days ‘my son Thomas’ was the main theme of his conversation.

Alexander Campbell had not married until he reached his forty-sixth year, and then he chose the young sister of his partner, an energetic girl of twenty-one. It must have been from her that the son drew his poetic strain. She is spoken of as ‘an admirable manager and a clever woman,’ and, what is of more interest, ‘a person of much taste and refinement.’ She brought to the home the poetry in counterpoise to her husband’s philosophy. Like Leigh Hunt’s mother, she was ‘fond of music, and a gentle singer in her way’: her poet son, as we shall find, was also fond of music, sang a little, and was, in his earlier years at least, devoted to the flute. To her children she was certainly not over-indulgent; indeed she is said to have been ‘unnecessarily severe or even harsh’; but the mother of so large a family, with ordinary cares enhanced by the necessity for practising petty economies, would have been an angel if she had always been sweet and gracious. Between her and her youngest boy there seems to have been a particular affection, and when he began to make some stir in the world, no one was more elated with pardonable pride than she. There is a story told of her having asked a shopman to address a parcel to ‘Mrs. Campbell, mother of the author of “The Pleasures of Hope.”’ She survived her husband for eleven years, and died in Edinburgh in 1812, at the age of seventy-six.

The house in which Campbell and his family resided at the time of the poet’s birth, was a little to the west of High Street near the foot of Balmanno Brae, and in the line of the present George Street. Beattie, writing in 1849, speaks of it as having long since disappeared under the march of civic improvement, and as a matter of fact it was demolished in 1794 when George Street was opened up. The Glasgow of 1777 was of course a very different place from what it is to-day—very different from what it was when Defoe could describe it as ‘one of the cleanest, most beautiful, and best-built cities of Great Britain’; when Smollett, himself a Glasgow youth, saw in it ‘one of the prettiest towns in Europe.’ In 1777 Glasgow was only laying the foundations of her commercial prosperity. She had, it is true, established her tobacco trade with the American plantations, and her sugar trade with the West Indies, but her character as the seat of an ancient Church and University had not been materially altered thereby.

Even in 1773, when Johnson, on his way back from the Hebrides, had a look round her sights, he found learning ‘an object of wide importance, and the habit of application much more general than in the neighbouring University of Edinburgh.’ Trade and letters still joined hands, so that Gibbon could not inappropriately speak of Glasgow as ‘the literary and commercial city,’ and one might still walk her streets without at every corner being ‘nosed,’ to use De Quincey’s phrase, by something which reminded him of ‘that detestable commerce.’ Whether Glasgow was altogether a meet nurse for a poetic child may perhaps be doubted. The time came when Campbell himself thought she was not. The town, said he, has ‘a cold, raw, wretchedly wet climate, the very nursery of sore throats and chest diseases.’ Redding once chaffed him about it. ‘Did you ever see Wapping on a drizzling, wet, spring day?’ he asked in reply. ‘That is just the appearance of Glasgow for three parts of the year.’ But Glasgow was not so bad as yet. She was still surrounded by the cornfields and the hedgerows and the orchards of Lanarkshire, her few streets practically within a stone’s throw of the Cathedral and the College.

The youngest of their family, the son of the father’s old age, Thomas Campbell was naturally thought much of by his parents. He had been baptized by, and indeed named after, Dr. Thomas Reid, and the old Virginia merchant is said to have had a presentiment that he would in some way or other do honour to his name and country. What proud father has not thought the same? That he was regarded as a precocious child goes without saying. We are told that he uttered quaint, old-fashioned remarks which were ‘much too wise for his little curly head’; and he was of so inquisitive a turn—but then all children are inquisitive—that he found amusement and information in everything that fell in his way. A sister, nineteen years his senior, taught him his letters; and in 1785 he was handed over to the care of David Allison, the scholarly master of the Grammar School. Allison was a rigid disciplinarian of the good old type, who seems to have whipped the dead languages into his pupils with all the energy of Gil Blas’ master. Campbell remained under him for four years. He began his studies in such earnest that he made himself ill, and had to be removed to a cottage at Cathcart, where for six weeks he was nursed by an aged ‘webster’ and his wife.

No doubt the little holiday had its influence at the time; it certainly had its influence in later life when, after a visit to the ‘green waving woods on the margin of Cart,’ he wrote his not unpleasing stanzas on this scene of his early youth. In any case he left the country cottage rather reluctantly, and returned to his lessons at the Grammar School. He does not appear to have been a particularly industrious student. He had certainly an ambition to excel, and he was invariably at the top of his class; but he made progress rather by fits and starts than by steady, laborious plodding. In this respect, of course, he was only like a great many more celebrities who have been dunces in the schoolroom. Not that Campbell was in any sense a dunce. He was especially enamoured of the classics; so much so, indeed, that, as Beattie gravely certifies, he ‘could declaim with great fluency at the evening fireside in the language of Greece and Rome’; and some of the translations which he made for Allison were considered good enough to be printed by the enthusiastic biographer. His love for Greek, in particular, was the subject of much remark, both then and afterwards. Redding says he could repeat thirty or forty Greek verses applicable to any subject that might be under discussion. Beattie, again, tells that Greek was his ‘pride and solace’ all through life; and there is good authority for saying that, even after he had made a name as a poet, he wished to be considered a Greek scholar first and a poet afterwards. That he was quite sincere in the matter may be gathered from the circumstance of his having in his last days given his niece a series of daily lessons in the language of Homer, ‘all in the Greek character and written with his own hand.’ Nevertheless, as a Grecian, the classical world can as well do without Thomas Campbell as the Principal at Louvain, in ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ found that he could do without Greek itself.

With all his enthusiasm for the classics, Campbell does not seem to have been anything less of a boy than his fellows at the Grammar School. He loved Greek, but he loved games too. There are tales of stone fights with the Shettleston urchins, such as Scott has described in his story of Green-breeks, and of strawberry raids in suburban gardens which for days afterwards made him restive under the pious literature prescribed by his father. That he was indeed a very boy is shown by at least one amusing anecdote. His mother had a cousin, an old bedridden lady, about whose frail tenure of life she felt much anxiety. Every morning she would send either Tom or his brother Daniel to ask ‘how Mrs. Simpson was to-day.’ One day Tom wanted to go on a blackberry expedition; his mother wanted him to inquire, as usual, about ‘this deil of an auld wife that would neither die nor get better.’ Daniel suggested that there was no need to go: ‘just say that she’s better or worse.’ The boys continued to report in this way for weeks and months, but finding that an unfavourable bulletin only sent them back earlier next morning, they agreed that the old lady should get better. One day Tom announced that Mrs. Simpson had quite recovered—and a few hours later the funeral invitation arrived! Campbell, in telling the story long after, says he was much less pained by the cuffing he received from his mother than by a few words from his father. The old man ‘never raised a hand to us, and I would advise all fathers who would have their children to love their memory to follow his example.’ The wisdom is not Solomonic, but that Campbell set much store by it is quite evident from the frequent reference which he makes in later life to his father’s sparing of the rod.

Meanwhile he was giving indication of his literary bent in the manner usual with youngsters. The ‘magic of nature,’ to quote his own words, had first ‘breathed on his mind’ during his six weeks in the country, and the result was a ‘Poem on the Seasons,’ in which the conventional expression of the obvious runs through some hundred lines or more. A year later, that is to say in 1788, he wrote an elegy ‘On the death of a favourite parrot,’ of which one can only remark that it will at least bear comparison with the reputed tribute of Master Samuel Johnson to his duck. Strange to say among the last things which Campbell wrote were some lines on a parrot, so that any one who is interested enough can make a critical comparison between his elegiac poems in youth and age.

But Campbell was doing better things than calling upon Melpomene, the queen of tears, to attend his ‘dirge of woe’ on account of poor Poll. Mr. Allison was in the habit of prescribing translations from the classics into English, which might be either in prose or in verse, as his pupils thought fit. Campbell chose verse. He made translations from Anacreon, from Virgil, from Horace, and from other Greek and Latin writers, all with a fair measure of success, considering his years. Indeed these verse translations are much superior to his original efforts of the same and even of later date. Beattie, who saw the manuscripts, remarked upon the almost total absence of punctuation in them all. It seems that Campbell regarded the art of pointing as one of the mysteries, to which for many years he paid as little attention as if he had been an eighteenth century lawyer’s clerk. Even as late as ‘Theodoric’ (1824), he had to ask a literary friend to look after the punctuation in the proofs.

There was, however, no printer’s convenience to study in these early days; and the verse translations, punctuated or not, served their purpose, not only in bringing prizes to the young student, but in contributing towards the acquirement of that facility in verse-making which helped to lay the foundation of his future fame. The provoking thing was that his father did not approve of making verses. Like Jack Lofty, he thought poetry ‘a pretty thing enough’ for one’s wives and daughters, but not for men who have to make their living in the world; and he would much rather have seen his son writing in the sober prose of his beloved Doddridge and Sherlock than after the manner of Dryden and Pope. ‘Many a sheet of nonsense have I beside me,’ wrote Campbell in 1794, ‘insomuch that when my father comes into my room, he tells me I would be much better reading Locke than scribbling so.’ But Campbell believed that he had been born a poet, and although he did not entirely ignore his father’s favourites, he kept thumbing his Milton and other models, and informed the parent—actually in verse too!—that while philosophers and sages are not without their influence on the stream of life, it is after all the poet who

Refines its fountain springs,

The nobler passions of the soul.


When Campbell said farewell to the Grammar School prior to entering his name at College, it was observed of him that no boy of his age had ever left more esteemed by his classfellows or with better prospects at the University. His first College session began in October 1791. At that time the University was located in the High Street, the classic Molendinar, as yet uncovered, finding a way to the Clyde through its park and gardens. Johnson thought it was ‘without a sufficient share in the magnificence of the place’; and not unlikely the scarlet gowns worn by the students were in Campbell’s day pretty much what they were when Wesley reported them ‘very dirty, some very ragged, and all of coarse cloth.’ But there must have been something very pleasant about the quaint old world life which was then lived in and around the College Squares. Close upon four hundred students used to gather about the time-honoured courts, the windows of the professors’ houses looking down upon them from the north side; and the memories of many generations must have gone some little way to atone for the lack of ‘magnificence’ so much deplored by the great Cham of literature.

The list of professors in 1791, when Campbell entered, did not include any name of outstanding note. His father’s old friend, Dr. Reid, now a veteran of eighty-one, had retired, though he was still living in the Professors’ Court, and had been succeeded by Professor Arthur, a scholar of respectable ability and varied acquirements, for whom Campbell expressed a sincere admiration. The Greek class was taught by Professor Young, a character of the Christopher North and John Stuart Blackie type, ‘a strangely beautiful and radiant figure in the then grave and solemn group of Glasgow professors.’ William Richardson filled the Humanity—in other words the Latin—Chair, and filled it with some distinction too, in his curled wig, lace ruffles, knee breeches and silk stockings. Richardson was not of those who combine plain living with high thinking. Dining out was his passion. It is told of him that one evening, when the turtle soup was unusually fine, he exclaimed, after repeated helpings, ‘I know there is gout in every spoonful, but I can’t resist it.’ For all this, he was a good scholar and an expert teacher, enjoying some repute as one of Mackenzie’s coadjutors in The Mirror; a poet, too, and the author of one or two books which were read in their day. The Logic class was in the hands of Professor Jardine, ‘the philosophic Jardine,’ as Campbell calls him—‘a most worthy, honest man, neither proud nor partial.’ Campbell says he could not boast of deriving any great advantage from Jardine’s class, but he ‘found its employment very agreeable’ nevertheless, and he seems to have honestly liked the professor. The Law Chair was occupied by Professor Millar, a violent democrat, who, in the dark days of Toryism, ‘did much in Glasgow to inoculate Jeffrey and the academic Liberals with zealous views of progress.’ Campbell regarded him as the ablest of all the professors; and although he was not a regular student of law, he attended some of the lectures, and was inclined to credit Millar with influencing his views on what he termed the ascendency of freedom.

Such were the men under whose direction the poet completed his education. Of fellow-students with whom he was intimate it is not necessary to say much. Perhaps the best known was Hamilton Paul, a jovial youth with a talent for verse, who afterwards, when minister of Broughton, narrowly escaped censure from the Church courts for an attempt to palliate the shortcomings of Burns by indiscreet allusions to his own clerical brethren. Paul and Campbell were frequently rivals in competing for academical rewards offered for the best compositions in verse, and in one case at least Campbell was beaten. It was Paul who founded the College Debating Club, which usually met in his lodgings and occasionally continued its debates till midnight; and in some published recollections of the Club’s doings he bears testimony to Campbell’s great fluency as a speaker. Another fellow-student was Gregory Watt, a son of the famous engineer. Campbell described him as ‘unparalleled in his early talent for eloquence,’ as literally the most beautiful youth he had ever seen; and he declared afterwards that if Watt had lived he must have made a brilliant figure in the House of Commons. Then there was James Thomson, a kindred genius, known familiarly as the ‘Doctor,’ with whom he formed a life-long friendship, and to whom some of the most intimate of his letters are addressed. It was to the order of this early friend that two marble busts of the poet were executed by Bailey, one of which he presented to Glasgow University; and it was he who also commissioned the well-known portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, which accompanies most editions of Campbell’s works. Unfortunately, Campbell just missed Jeffrey, the ‘great little man,’ who spent two happy years (1788-1790) at the old College, and, like Campbell himself, was subsequently made its Lord Rector.

Campbell’s career at the University, allowing for certain differences of detail, was very much what it had been at the Grammar School. That is to say, he fought shy of drudgery, put on a spurt now and again, distinguished himself in the classics, wrote verse, and indulged freely in the customary frolics of the typical student. He confessed in after life that he was much more inclined to sport than study; and although he admitted having carried away one or two prizes, he admitted also that he was idle in some of the classes. The fact remains notwithstanding, that he constantly outstripped his competitors, who, as Beattie has it, steadily plodded on in the rear, ‘the very personifications of industry.’ In his first year he took one prize for Latin and another for some English verses, besides securing a bursary on Archbishop Leighton’s foundation. Next session he had more academical honours. In the Logic class he received the eighth prize for ‘the best composition on various subjects,’ and was made an examiner of the exercises sent in by the other students of the class—certainly a high compliment to a youth of his years. One of the essays, on the subject of Sympathy, is printed by Beattie with the Professor’s note appended. From this note it appears that the occult art of pointing was not the only matter which required the attention of the student. Professor Jardine might have passed over the amazing statement that ‘God has implanted in our nature an emotion of pleasure on contemplating the sufferings of a fellow-creature’; but it was impossible that he should overlook such spellings as ‘agreable,’ ‘sympathyze,’ and ‘persuits.’ Still, ‘upon the whole,’ said Jardine, ‘the exercise is good, and entitles the author to much commendation.’