A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen/Barclay, John, poet
BARCLAY, John, son of William Barclay, was born at Pontamousson in France, January 28, 1582, and was educated under the care of Jesuits. When only nineteen years old, he published notes on the Thebais of Statius. He was, as above stated, the innocent cause of a quarrel between his father and the Jesuits, in consequence of which the family removed to England, in 1603. At the beginning of 1604, young Barclay presented a poetical panegyric to the king, under the title of Kalendæ Januariæ. To this monarch he soon after dedicated the first part of his celebrated Latin satire entitled, Euphormion. John Barclay, like many young men of genius, was anxious for distinction, quocunque modo, and, having an abundant conceit of his own abilities, and looking upon all other men as only fit to furnish him with matter of ridicule, he launched at the very first into the dangerous field of general satire. He confesses in the apology which he afterwards published for his Euphormion, that, "as soon as he left school, a juvenile desire of fame incited him to attack the whole world, rather with a view of promoting his own reputation, than of dishonouring individuals." We must confess that this grievous early fault of Barclay was only the transgression of a very spirited character. He says, in his dedication of Euphormion to King James, written when he was two-and-twenty, that he was ready, in the service of his Majesty, to convert his pen into a sword, or his sword into a pen. His prospects at this court were unfortunately blighted, like those of his father, by the religious contests of the time; and in 1604 the family returned to France. John, however, appears to have spent the next year chiefly in England, probably upon some renewal of his prospects at the court of King James. In 1606, after the death of his father, he returned to France, and at Paris married Louisa Debonnaire, with whom he soon after settled at London. Here he published the second part of his Euphormion, dedicating it to the Earl of Salisbury, a minister in whom he could find no fault but his excess of virtue. Lord Hailes remarks, as a surprising circumstance, that the writer who could discover no faults in Salisbury, aimed the shafts of ridicule at Sully; but nothing can be less surprising in such a person as Barclay. A man who satirized only for the sake of personal eclat, would as easily flatter in gratitude for the least notice. It should also be recollected, that many minds do not, till the approach of middle life, acquire the power of judging accurately regarding virtue and vice, or merit and demerit: all principles, in such minds, are jumbled like the elements of the earth in chaos, and are only at length reduced to order by the overmastering influence of the understanding. In the disposition which seems to have characterised Barclay, for flattering those who patronised him, he endeavoured to please King James, in the second part of the Euphormion, by satirizing tobacco and the puritans. In this year he also published an account of the gun-powder plot, a work remarked to be singularly impartial, considering the religion of the writer. During the course of three years' residence in England, Barclay received no token of the royal liberality. Sunk in indigence, with an increasing family calling for support, he only wished to be indemnified for his English journeys, and to have his charges defrayed into France. At length he was relieved from his distresses by his patron Salisbury. Of these circumstances, so familiar and so discouraging to men of letters, we are informed by some allegorical and obscure verses written by Barclay at that sad season. Having removed to France in 1609, he next year published his Apology for the Euphormion. This denotes that he came to see the folly of a general contempt for mankind at the age of twenty-eight. How he supported himself at this time, does not appear; but he is found, in 1614, publishing his Icon Animarum, which is declared by a competent critic to be the best, though not the most celebrated of his works. It is a delineation of the genius and manners of the European nations, with remarks, moral and philosophical, on the various tempers of men. It is pleasant to observe that in this work he does justice to the Scottish people. In 1615, Barclay is said to have been invited by Pope Paul V. to Rome. He had previously lashed the holy court in no measured terms; but so marked a homage from this quarter to his distinction in letters, as usual, softened his feelings, and he now accordingly shifted his family thither, and lived the rest of his life under the protection of the pontiff. In 1617, he published at Rome his "Parænesis ad Sectarios, Libri Duo;" a work in which he seems to have aimed at atoning for his former sarcasms at the Pope, by attacking those whom his holiness called heretics. Barclay seems to have been honoured with many marks of kindness, not only from the Pope, but also from Cardinal Barberini; yet it does not appear that he obtained much emolument. Incumbered with a wife and family, and having a spirit above his fortune, he was left at full leisure to pursue his studies. It was at that time that he composed his Latin romance called Argenis. He employed his vacant hours in cultivating a flower garden; and Rossi relates, in his turgid Italian style, that Barclay cared not for those bulbous roots which produce flowers of a sweet scent, but cultivated such as produced flowers void of smell, but having variety of colours. Hence we may conclude that he was among the first of those who were infected with that strange disease, a passion for tulips, which soon after overspread Europe, and is commemorated under the name of the Tulipo-mania. Barclay might truly have said with Virgil, "Tantus amor flotum!" He had two mastiffs placed as sentinels to protect his garden; and rather than abandon his favourite flowers, chose to continue his residence in an ill-aired and unwholesome situation.
This extraordinary genius, who seems to have combined the perfervidum ingenium of his father's country, with the mercurial vivacity of his mother's, died at Rome on the 12th of August, 1621, in the thirty-ninth year of his age. He left a wife, who had tormented him much with jealousy, (through the ardour of her affection, as he explained it), besides three children, of whom two were boys. He also left, in the hands of the printer, his celebrated Argenis, and also an unpublished history of the conquest of Jerusalem, and some fragments of a general history of Europe. He was buried in the church of St Onuphrius, and his widow erected a monument to him, with his bust in marble, at the church of St Lawrence on the road to Tivoli. A strange circumstance caused the destruction of this trophy. Cardinal Barberini chanced to erect a monument, exactly similar, at the same place, to his preceptor, Bernardus Gulienus a monte Sancti Sabini. When the widow of Barclay heard of this, she said, "My husband was a man of birth, and famous in the literary world; I will not suffer him to remain on a level with a base and obscure pedagogue." She therefore caused the bust to be removed, and the inscription to be obliterated. The account given of the Argenis, by Lord Hailes, who wrote a life of John Barclay as a specimen of a Biographia Scotica, is as follows: "Argenis is generally supposed to be a history under feigned names, and not a romance. Barclay himself contributed to establish this opinion, by introducing some real characters into the work. But that was merely to compliment certain dignitaries of the church, whose good offices he courted, or whose power he dreaded. The key prefixed to Argenis has perpetuated the error. There are, no doubt, many incidents in it that allude to the state of France during the civil wars in the seventeenth century; but it requires a strong imagination indeed to discover Queen Elizabeth in Hyanisbe, or Henry III. of France in Meleander." On the whole, Argenis appears to be a poetical fable, replete with moral and political reflections. Of this work three English translations have appeared, the last in 1772; but it now only enjoys the reflective reputation of a work that was once in high repute. We may quote, however, the opinion which Cowper was pleased to express regarding this singular production. "It is," says the poet of Olney, "the most amusing romance that ever was written. It is the only one, indeed, of an old date, that I had ever the patience to go through with. It is interesting in a high degree, richer in incident than can be imagined, full of surprises, which the reader never forestalls, and yet free from entanglement and confusion. The style too, appears to me to be such as would not dishonour Tacitus himself."
- Printed in 4to, in 1782, and the ground-work of the present sketch.