Blair, Robert (1699-1746) (DNB00)

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BLAIR, ROBERT (1699–1746), author of the 'Grave,' was born in Edinburgh in 1699, the eldest son of the Rev. David Blair, a minister of the old church of Edinburgh, and one of the chaplains to the king. His mother's maiden name was Euphemia Nisbet, daughter of Alexander Nisbet of Carfin. Hugh Blair, the writer on oratory, was his first cousin. David Blair died in his son's infancy, on 10 June 1710. Robert was educated at the university of Edinburgh, and took a degree in Holland. Nothing has been discovered with regard to the details of either curriculum. From about 1718 to 1730 he seems to have lived in Edinburgh as an unemployed probationer, having received license to preach, 15 Aug. 1729. In the second part of a miscellany, entitled 'Lugubres Cantus,' published at Edinburgh in 1719, there occurs an 'Epistle to Robert Blair,' which adds nothing to our particular information. He is believed to have belonged to the Athenian Society, a small literary club in Edinburgh, which published in 1720 the 'Edinburgh Miscellany.' The pieces in this volume are anonymous, but family tradition has attributed to Robert Blair two brief paraphrases of scripture which it contains, and Calender, its editor, is known to have been his intimate friend. In 1728 he published, in a quarto pamphlet, a ‘Poem dedicated to the Memory of William Law,’ professor of philosophy in Edinburgh. This contained 140 lines of elegiac verse. In 1731 Blair was appointed to the living of Athelstaneford in East Lothian, to which he was ordained by the presbytery of Haddington on 5 Jan. of that year. In 1738 he married Isabella, the daug ter of his deceased friend, Professor Law; she bore him five sons and one daughter, and survived him until 1774. He possessed a private fortune, and he gave up so much of his leisure as his duties would grant him to the study of botany and of the old English poets. Before he left Edinburgh he had begun to sketch a poem on the subject of the ‘Grave.' At Athelstaneford he leisurely composed this poem, and about 1742 began to make arrangements for its publication. He had formed the acquaintance of Dr. Isaac Watts, who had paid him, he says, ‘many civilities.’ He sent the manuscript of the ‘Grave’ to Dr. Watts, who 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.' In the same year, however, 1742, Blair wrote to Dr. Doddridge, and interested him in the poem, which was eventually published, in quarto, in 1743. It enjoyed an instant and signal success, but Blair was neither tempted out of his solitude nor persuaded to repeat the experiment which had been so happy. His biographer says : ‘His tastes 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.’ He died of a fever on 4 Feb. 1746, and was buried under a plain stone, which bears the initials R. B., in the church ard of Athelstaneford. Although he had published so little, no posthumous poems were found in his possession, and hisentire works do not amount to one thousand lines. His third son, Robert [q. v.], was afterwards judge.

The ‘Grave ’ was the first and best of a whole series of mortuary poems. In spite of the epigrams of conflicting partisans, ‘Night Thoughts ’ must be considered as contemporaneous with it, and neither preceding nor following it. There can be no doubt, however, that the success of Blair encouraged Young to persevere in his far longer and more laborious undertaking. Blair’s verse is less rhetorical, more exquisite, than Young's, and, indeed, his relation to that writer, though too striking to be overlooked, is superficial. He forms a connecting link between Otway and Crabbe, who are his nearest poetical kinsmen. His one em, the ‘Grave,’ contains seven hundred and sixty-seven lines of blank verse. It is very unequal in merit, but supports the examination of modern criticism far better than most productions of the second quarter of the eighteenth century. As philosophical literature it is quite without value; and it adds nothing to theology; it rests solely upon its merit as romantic poetry. The poet introduces his theme with an appeal to the grave as the monarch whose arm sustains the keys of hell and death (1-10) ; he describes, in verse that singularly reminds us of the seventeenth century, the physical horror of the tomb (ll-27), and the ghastly solitude of a lonely church at night (28-44). He proceeds to describe the churchyard 45-84), bringing in the schoolboy ‘whistling aloud to keep his courage up,’ and the widow. This leads him toa reduction on friendship, and how sorrow’s crown of sorrow is put on in bereavement (85-110). The poetry up to this point has been of a very fine order; here it declines. A consideration of the social changes produced by death (111-122), and the passage of persons of distinction (123-155), leads on to a homily upon the vain pomp and show of funerals (156-182). Commonplaces about the devouring tooth of time (183-206) lead to the consideration that in the grave rank and precedency (207-236), beauty (237-256), strength (257-285), science (286-29(5), and eloquence (297-318) become a mockery and a jest; and the idle pretensions of doctors (Sli)-336) and of misers (337-368) are ridiculed. At this point the poem recovers its dignity and music. The terror of death is very nobly described (382-430), and the madness of suicides is scourged in verse which is almost Shakespearian (382-430). Our ignorance of the alter world (431-446), and the universality of death,with man's unconscious-ness of his position (447-500), lead the poet to a line description of the medley of death (501-5-10) and the brevity of life (5-11-599). The horror of the grave is next attributed to sin (600-633), and the poem closes somewhat feebly and ineffectually with certain timid and perfunctory speculations about the mode in which the grave will respond to the Resurrection trumpet.

[The ‘Grave’ was constantly reprinted after Blair`s death, but with no authoritative details about the author. Dr. William Anderson, in 1796, exactly half a century after Blair's death, collected from surviving members of his family such particulars as could still be recovered, and prefixed them to an edition ofthe ‘ Grave’ published that year in a prefatory biography which contains all of it biographical nature which has been preserved about Robert Blair. Various brief accounts of his life which had appeared previous to that date had been entirely apocryphal.]

E. G.