The Life of Robert Blair
The Life of Robert Blair
The paradox of Dr Johnson, in reference to sacred poetry, has long ago fallen into disrepute. It seems singular indeed, how it ever obtained credence, even although supported by one of the most powerful pens that ever wrote in Britain, when we remember that, previous to that author's day, the best poetry in the world had been sacred. The Holy Scriptures then existed, with that poetry which bursts out at their every pore, besides being collected here and there into masses of rich song, "pressed down, shaken together, and running over." Dante, too, had written his great work, which, as if to mark it out for ever from things unclean and common, he had called the Divina Commedia, and which was worthy of the name. Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata had a religious moral, as well as a title suggestive of religious ideas. Spenser's Faery Queen was sacred, if not in all the parts, yet at least in the pervading spirit of its poetry. Cowley's Davideis, Herbert's Temple, Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and Young's Night Thoughts, existed then, were all admitted to be more or less masterpieces, and were all sacred in their subjects and aims. Blair's Grave too, had, ere Johnson's day, appeared, and furnished a good example of a solemn and religious theme, treated with genuine poetic power.
We need not say what a flood of sacred song has arisen since, and drowned the dictum of the lexicographer in the waves. Nay, an opinion is gaining ground, that all lofty poetry tends toward the sacred, and lies under the shadow of the divine. Poetry is like fire, which, even when employed in culinary or destructive purposes, points its column upwards, and seems to transmit the flower and essence of its conquests to heaven. All poetry that does not thus ascend is either morbid in spirit, or secondary in merit.
We come now to the life of one of our best religious poets,—Robert Blair—whose short poem The Grave, is so admirable as to excite keen regret that it is almost the only specimen extant of his gifted and original mind.
The facts of his life are more than usually scanty, and our biography, therefore, must be brief and meagre. Robert Blair was born in Edinburgh, in 1699. It is curious, by the way, how few poets the Modern Athens has produced. It has bred lawyers, statists, critics, savans, in plenty, but reared but few men of transcendant genius, and, so far as we remember, only five good poets,—Scott, Ferguson, Ramsay, Falconer, and Blair,—whom the manufacturing town of Paisley nearly matches with its Tannahill, Motherwell, Alexander and John Wilson. Blair was the eldest son of the Rev. David Blair, who was a minister of the Old Church of Edinburgh, and one of the chaplains to the King. His mother was Euphemia Nisbet, daughter of Alexander Nisbet, Esq., of Carfin. His grandfather, Robert Blair, of Irvine,—descended from the ancient family of Blair of that ilk (i. e., of Blair), in Ayrshire,—distinguished himself, in the troublous times of the Solemn League and Covenant, as a powerful preacher, an able negociator, and a brave, determined man. The celebrated Hugh Blair,—whose writings, once so popular, seem now nearly forgotten,—was our poet's cousin, although younger by nineteen years. Robert lost his father while yet a boy, but enjoyed the anxious care and admirable training of an excellent mother. He studied first at the University of Edinburgh, and afterwards in Holland. Of the particulars of either part of his curriculum nothing is known. On his return from abroad, he seems to have received license to preach, and to have hung about Edinburgh for a few years, an unemployed probationer. This was of less consequence, as he had some hereditary property. It gave him, too, abundant leisure for study, and he employed it well—cultivating natural history and the cognate sciences—publishing a few fugitive verses, which made very little impression on the public—and drawing out the first rude draught of the poem which was destined to make him immortal,—The Grave. In 1731, when he was in his thirty-second year, he was appointed to the living of Athelstaneford, a parish in East Lothian, where he continued to reside all the rest of his life. Dissenter though the author of this biography be, he is free to confess, that there is very much that is enviable in the position of a parish minister, particularly in the country. Possessed of an easy competence, and a manageable field of labour, surrounded by the simplicities of rural manners, and the picturesque features of rural scenery,—lord of his sphere of duty, and master of his time,—his life can be, and often is, one of the most useful and happy, honourable in its toils, and graceful in its relaxations, to be found on earth. Where could we expect elegant studies to be prosecuted with more success, or whence could we expect more works of sanctified learning and genius to issue, than in and from the "manses" of Scotland, always so beautifully situated, now on the brink of the mountain stream, singing its wild way through the woods,—now in the centre of rich orchards and fertile fields,—now on sunny braes, overlooking the whole parish, prostrate in its loveliness at their feet,—and now surrounded and shadowed by broad old oaks and tall black pine-trees? And so, accordingly, it has been, although not perhaps to the extent we might have wished or expected. Philosophy of the deepest order has been studied—inquiries the most profound and extensive into natural science and history have been prosecuted; and painting, music, and poetry, have found enthusiastic and gifted votaries, who, at the same time, have not neglected their higher vocation,—in the quiet manses of our country; and we rejoice to know that this state of things continues, and is not confined to the Established Church, but may be asserted with equal or greater force to exist in others.
At Athelstaneford, Blair seems to have realised this ideal of a country minister. He was attentive to his pastoral duties, and the correspondent of Doddridge and the author of The Grave, could not fail to be an evangelical, a practical, and a powerful preacher. He at the same time diligently prosecuted his favourite studies, which were botany, natural history, and poetry. Possessing a considerable fortune, he lived on a footing of equality and friendship with the gentry of the neighbourhood, and others of similar rank in distant parts of Scotland. Sir Francis Kinloch of Gilmerton and John Gallander of Craigforth are mentioned as two of his intimates. We are tempted to figure the author of The Grave as a morose and melancholy solitaire—musing amid midnight churchyards—stumbling over bones—and returning home to light his lamp, inserted in a gaping skull, and to write out his gloomy cogitations. This is very far from being his real character. He was more frequently seen wandering amidst the flowery nooks of summer, with a microscope in his hand; or, on his way home from his pastoral visitations, stopping to analyse the fungi and the mosses which met him on his path; or musing above the long liquid lapse of some wayside stream, down which were floating the red leaves of autumn; or turning a telescope of his own construction aloft to the gleaming host of heaven. In his mode of spending his time, as well as in some of the stern features of his genius, he resembled Crabbe, who, believing that every weed was a flower, spent much of his time amidst the fields and on the sea-shores; who extracted delight out of the meanest fungus, even as he extracted poetry out of the humblest characters; and whose life, like Blair's, was a harmless dream.
After spending seven years of studious solitude, he, in 1738, married his relation, Isabella Law, daughter of Mr Law of Elvingston, who had been professor of moral philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, and whose death, which had happened ten years before, he had mourned in some rather lame verses, which our readers will find in this edition. Her brother was the sheriff-depute of East Lothian. She is described as a lady of great beauty and amiable manners, and succeeded in making the poet very happy. She bore him five sons and one daughter. Of these, Robert arose, through various gradations of honour at the Scottish bar, to be President of the Court of Session, and died in 1811. He was a man of massive and powerful intellect. It is, we think, in Peter's Letters that Lockhart gives a glowing portraiture of President Blair's remarkable powers. He had not the genius or "hairbrained sentimental trace" of his father, but had inherited that clear, stern understanding, and that profound insight into men and manners, which are met with in every page of The Grave.
Of this poem the author had, we said, drawn a first outline when a youth in Edinburgh. This he completed after his settlement at Athelstaneford; and, about the year 1742, he began to make arrangements for its publication. He had, probably through his neighbour, the celebrated Colonel Gardiner, who fell at the battle of Prestonpans, become acquainted with Isaac Watts, who paid him, he says in one of his letters, "many civilities." To him he forwarded the MS. of his poem. Dr Watts, with characteristic candour and good taste, admired it, and offered it to two different London booksellers, both of whom, however, declined to publish it, expressing a doubt whether any person living three hundred miles from town could write so as to be acceptable to the fashionable and the polite! No poetry at that time went down except imitations of Pope. Blair got back his MS., and, nothing daunted, sent it to Philip Doddridge, who was also an intimate of Colonel Gardiner's, requesting his opinion, which appears to have been as favourable as that of Dr Watts. At length it was published in London in the year 1743, and reprinted at Edinburgh in 1747, a year after its author's death.
Between that event and the appearance of his poem, nothing remarkable occurred. The success of his work must have shed additional sweetness into a cup which was rich before. "His tastes," says one of his biographers, "were elegant and domestic. Books and flowers seem to have been the only rivals in his thoughts. His rambles were from his fireside to his garden; and, although the only record of his genius is of a gloomy character, it is evident that his habits and life contributed to render him cheerful and happy." At last that awful chasm, the terrors, grandeurs, and moral lessons of which he had so powerfully sung, opened its jaws to receive him, and the Grave crowned its laureate with its cold and earthy crown. He was seized with fever, caught probably in the exercise of his pastoral functions, and expired on the 4th of February 1746, at the early age of forty-seven, when his body and mind were both in full vigour, and when, speaking after the manner of men, yet greater works than The Grave were before him. He left his wife, who lived till 1774, and five children behind him. His body reposes in the church-yard of Athelstaneford, without a monument, and with nothing but the initials K.B. to mark the spot.
The fact that he died comparatively so young, sufficiently accounts for the paucity of his poems. He had found a vein of rich and virgin gold; he had thrown out one mass of ore, and was, as it were, resting on his pickaxe ere recommencing his labour, when he was smitten down by a workman who never rests nor slumbers. Still let us thankfully accept what he has produced; the more as it is so distinctively original, so free from any serious alloy, and so impressively religious in its spirit and tone.
This masterpiece of Blair's genius is not a great poem so much as it is a magnificent portion, fragment, or book of a great poem. The most, alike of its merits and its faults, spring from the fact, that it keeps close to its subject—it daguerreotypes its dreadful theme. Many have objected to its conclusion as lame and impotent, and would have wished a loftier swell of hopeful anticipation of the Resurrection at the close; but this, in fact, would have started the subject of another poem. Blair was writing of the power and triumphs of the tomb. He left it to others, or possibly to another poem by himself, to celebrate the victory over it, to be gained at the resurrection. Enough for his purpose to allude to it at the close, in such a way as to intimate his own belief in its reality. Surely he expects too much who requires the painter of Night to introduce Morning into the same picture.
The shortness of the poem has been objected to it. But this, we think, shows the poet's good sense. The subject is too uniform and too gloomy for a long poem. The Grave, in twelve books would have been totally unreadable. It was far better to give, as Blair has given, a strong, stern, rapid, and concentrated sketch of the grisly gulf. The grave, in one respect, has no unity, and no story. It stands by itself, hollow, solitary, with its momentary ghastly yawnings, its general repose, and the dark mysteries which, whether open or shut, it conceals in its silent bosom. Reverence, as well as good taste, requires the poet who would venture on such a theme, to approach it trembling, and to withdraw from it in haste.
Yet Blair has been accused of a want of reverence in his treatment of this awful subject, nor is this objection altogether unfounded; the poet does treat the Grave in a somewhat abrupt and cavalier fashion, and does not seem sufficiently afraid of it. He was young when he wrote the greater part of the poem, and of young poets we may ask as Wordsworth asks about little children, "What can they know of death?" It had never knocked at his door or glared in at his window. He was, besides, of a bold and daring genius. He consulted rather strong effect than minute finish. The tone and style of his poem, consequently, are somewhat hirsute and unpolished. Campbell says of him, judiciously, "Blair may be a homely and even a gloomy poet in the eye of fastidious criticism; but there is a masculine and pronounced character even in his gloom and homeliness that keeps it most distinctly apart from either dulness or vulgarity. His style pleases us like the powerful expression of a countenance without regular beauty." He excels most in describing the darkest and most terrible ideas suggested by the subject, and seems almost to exult, while depicting the triumphs of the grave over the rich, the strong, the lofty, and the powerful. Death himself he assails in language approaching virulence, as when he says
O great maneater,
Unheard-of epicure, without a fellow,
Thou must render up thy dead,
And with high interest too.
This exulting spirit, however, springs in him, less from ferocious feeling than from conscious rejoicing power. He is not a savage, brandishing his bloody tomahawk, so much as a Michael Angelo, hewing, with heat and haste, at one of his terrible pieces of statuary. He characterizes the miser severely; he lashes the proud wicked man whom he sees pompously hearsed into Hell; with stern irony he pursues the beauty from her looking-glass to the clods where
"The high-fed worm, in lazy volumes roll'd,
Feeds on her damask cheek;"
he derides the baffled son of Æsculapius, who is deserted and deceived by his own drugs; and he exerts all the fearful force of his genius to show us the suicide in that "Other Place," where
"The common damn'd shun his society,
And look upon themselves as fiends less foul."
But the fine imagery and the rapid touch serve alike to show that though he is angry, it is with the wrath of a man—not with the malignity of a demon. We have sometimes been induced to fancy that Pollok, in the Course of Time, loves to linger amid the ruins of fallen and lost natures; and finds a savage luxury in the contemplation of the agonies of those whom he represents as damned. He tells us that he loved no scenery so well as that of solitary wastes, where nature was utterly barren and seemed willing to decay—where the dark wings of monotonous gloom and eternal silence met and sullenly embraced over the dreary region; and he seems to have had the same passion for moral as for physical desolations. Blair, on the other hand, never tarries long in such scenes; he does not dwell amidst, and brood over them like an owl, but crosses them with the swift brushing wing of a bird returning to her evening nest. He never goes out of his way to search for them—he sees and shows them merely because they meet him on his path. There is nothing morbid nor much that is melancholy in this poem. He takes the hard fact as it is, and paints it with all his force, but he does not seek to exaggerate or discolour it. He shows "the Grave" in various lights, at morning, night, and noon—not under the uniform weight of a leaden midnight sky, or only by the ghastly illumination of a waning moon. Southey, in his Life of Cowper, has fallen into the mistake of supposing Blair one of the imitators of Young. Now, in fact, Blair's poem was written before the Last Day of Young, or the Night Thoughts had appeared. Its originality is indeed one of its greatest merits and charms. The author has copied no style, imitated no manner, and scorned to permit any living man or poet to stand between him and the cold stern reality of death, which he was to reflect in song. He is worthy, thus, of the name so often misapplied, of Poet—i. e. Maker. You see an original genius both in the beauties and the faults of the work. Its language, so simply strong and daring in its homeliness, its free and energetic motion, its fresh fearless touch, its fidelity to nature and to life, the quick succession and sharp brief poignancy of its pictures, its absence of elaboration, and carelessness about minute lights and shades—all combine to prove that the author has an eye, an imagination, and a purpose quite peculiar to himself. He treats the Grave with as much originality as if he had been contemporary with the earliest sepulchre—as if he had plucked grass from Abel's tomb; and yet, while it has not lost to his eye its first fearful gloss and glory, it has gathered around it the dear or dismal associations of six thousand years; and Adam and the "new-made widow" seem to be leaning side by side over its dust. We could have conceived of him treating the subject more reconditely, imaginatively, and metaphysically, but not of handling it with more direct and masculine power.
That he has done so, is, undoubtedly, one great cause of the poem's popularity. Had he woven any gossamer of reverie or philosophic conjecture over the Grave, or even shown much personal interest in it, he might have gained a more peculiar set of admirers, but would not have won his way to the world's heart. As it is, the popularity of The Grave has been unbounded. Partly from the subject, partly from the shortness, partly from the signal truth and force of the poem, it rose rapidly to fame. It became everybody's Grave. The poem was copied into all school collections. It lay along with Robinson Crusoe and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, in the windows of cottages, and on the tables of wayside inns—achieving thus what Coleridge predicated over that well-thumbed copy of Thomson's Seasons, in the Welsh ale-house—"true fame!" It pervaded America. It was translated into other languages, and in its own it now transmigrated into a tract, now filled the page of a periodical, and now became a small separate book, telling its solemn tale to those who, though at first reluctant, as was the wedding guest to hear the Anciente Marinere, were at last compelled to listen, if not to learn. Light ballads and other amusing and clever trifles, had before and have since thus "put a girdle round about the globe in forty minutes;" but here was the phenomenon of a sad and serious strain, with little merit or charm but Christian truth and rugged poetry, passing, as if on telegraphic wires, through the whole world in a moment of time. Perhaps we should add a reason, although a very subordinate one, for the popularity of the poem. It was its author's first and last. He wrote himself at once and easily up—he never tried and succeeded in writing himself laboriously down.
The only books which should gain permanent reputation are those which supply materials for thought, and are studded with moveable gems of expression. We think we may divide the poems of the past and present into two classes, which we may discriminate into buildings and quarries. Many works to which you can hardly deny the character of works of genius may be likened to elegant and splendid edifices, the structure of which you cannot but admire, although the secret of their architecture you do not understand, and although from them you neither do nor can extract a single stone. They stand up before the view, dazzling and confounding,—
"Distinct but distant, clear, but ah! how cold."
Other books, less magnificent in aspect and rougher in style, are yet so full of suggestive and germinating thought, that we must liken them to quarries, surrounded it may be by thorns and briars, and precipices, but containing the richest of matter, and communicating with the very depths of the earth. Not to enter on the vexed questions connected with more celebrated poets, we may name Darwin and Dr Thomas Brown as two specimens of the building, and Robert Blair as an admirable example of the quarry. In household words and sententious truths, he yields (taking his space into consideration), not even to Young, or Pope, or Cowper, but to Shakspeare alone. His poem is a tissue of texts; many of his expressions might pass and have passed for bits of Hamlet. Take a few:—
"Friendship, mysterious cement of the soul,
Sweetener of life, and solder of society."
"Son of the morning, whither art thou gone?
Where hast thou hid thy many-spangled head,
And the majestic menace of thine eyes
Felt from afar?"
"Sorry pre-eminence of high descent!
Above the vulgar, born to rot in state."
Hence, by the way, Byron's famous lines,—
"It seem'd the mockery of hell to fold
The rottenness of eighty years in gold."
The exquisite description of beauty in the grave has been already quoted. That of the strong man dying is quite Shakspearian, and equally so is the picture commencing, "Death's shafts fly quick," particularly the passage about the sexton. How much he has compressed in the few words of the celebrated description!—
"The wind is up; hark! how it howls! methinks
Till now I never heard a sound so dreary;
Doors creak, and windows clap, and night's foul bird,
Rook'd in the spire, screams loud."
Who Blair's favourite authors were, we are not informed, but internal evidence proves him to have frequently and profitably read Shakspeare; and in terseness of description, comprehensiveness of vision, careless grandeur of execution, and short felicitous strokes of genius, he bears to him a considerable resemblance.
Blair's originality is proved by the fact, that many poets since have been either indebted to or inspired by his manly, noble verse. A great original, although he seldom steals himself, is the innocent cause of much theft in others, and his writings tempt, like the unbolted gate of a bank, to plunder. Young, although a truly gifted man, has kindled his night-lamp again and again at the phosphoric flame of The Grave. The author of the Night Thoughts has written more sustained and sounding passages than Blair; his style is more antithetic, and his general mode of thought more ingenious; his book is a much larger one; he exhibits at times gleams of deeper insight; has occasional bursts of more impassioned earnestness; and his work has a personal interest, like an interrupted story or imperfect plot running through it: but The Grave is superior in ease, in nature, in healthy tone, and in those happy touches which light upon even genius only in rare and favoured hours. In some of these points, as well as in a certain power of rough moral anatomy, and vivid hurrying sarcasm (like one in haste lifting, handling, and striking with a red-hot falchion), Blair reminds us rather of Cowper; but the poet of The Task teaches a sterner morality, wears around him a mantle of austerer gloom, abounds more in Scriptural reference and in purely theological matter, and exhibits a more thoroughly bardic and prophetic spirit. James Grahame, the author of The Sabbath, resembles Blair somewhat in happy pictorial flashes, and in the frequent rudeness of his versification; but is, on the whole, a milder, a more refined, a tenderer, and a weaker writer. It is clear that Pollok found the germ of his noble poem, The Course of Time, in The Grave. They resemble each other in their want of a plot, a hinge, a "back-bone," both being collections of loosely-strung moral sketches, with no unity but that of spirit, as also in the homely force and boldness of the writing; and if Pollok in aught differ from Blair, it is partly in the length of his poem and its elaboration, and partly in that feverish, hectic heat, and that morbid intensity and fury of temperament, which are the sources of much of Pollok's strength, and of more of his weakness. No poem on any similar subject, in our time, can be named with Blair's, except perhaps Bryant's Thanatopsis. The moral tendency, however, and religious tone of the two poems are entirely different. Thanatopsis looks at the Grave solely in its physical and poetical aspects. It never mentions either the Resurrection or the Future State. An Indian would have coloured his poem on the sepulchre with finer and fierier lines, like the stamp of autumn on the fallen leaf. The main idea in it (an idea probably suggested by a line in The Grave—
"What is this world?
What but a spacious burial-place unwall'd?"
is that of the earth as a great sepulchre; and its lesson is to inculcate on the death-devoted dust, which we call man, the duty of dropping into its kindred dust as quietly and gracefully as possible. It is, as a poem, chiefly remarkable for its solemn music, which reminds you of a burial-march, but is far inferior to the Scottish poem in lofty moral, in theological truth, and in illustrative power. Blair, and not Bryant, remains the laureate of the Grave.
It is much to have one's name and fame connected with one of the great centrical truths of the universe, especially when that truth is related to a fact. Suppose a writer to have produced a great poem on Light and the Sun—or on Absolute Being and God—or on Immortal Life and Heaven—how sublime and how enviable were his reputation! It were for ever bound up, in the bundle of life, with these great Ideas and Facts. Now, Blair has sung, in notes as yet unequalled, one of the cardinal, although one of the gloomiest thoughts and actualities in existence, and his name ought to stand proportionally high. He has, in a solemn yet happy hour, turned aside from the highways, and the byeways too, of the world, and gone a-musing and meditating, like Isaac in the evening fields, and found among these a field of the dead, a place of skulls; and, returning home, has recorded that one brief meditation in verse, and made it and himself immortal. Such, precisely, is this Poem, and such the experience of this Poet. As long as "the mourners go about the streets," or assemble in their crowds, blackening the silent braes on their way to the country churchyard—as long as the grass of the grave murmurs out its moral in the western wind, and the sunshine seems to sadden as it shines upon the memorials and monuments of the dead—so long shall men read the The Grave, and turn with pensive joy and tearful gratitude to the memory of its poet.