Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dodds, James (1813-1874)

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DODDS, JAMES (1813–1874), lecturer and poet, was born in 1813 at Softlaw, near Kelso, and, having lost his father in childhood, was brought up under his grandfather, a devout seceder, of the same type of character as James Carlyle. From his earliest years he showed great abilities, a very impulsive nature, and a daring spirit, which sometimes prompted wild and foolish freaks. He was enabled by the kindness of friends to attend the university of Edinburgh, where he became well known among his companions for his remarkable powers of speech. Determined, in a moment of offended vanity, to earn his own living, he attached himself to a company of strolling players, but being rescued by his friends from this mode of life, he settled down to quieter pursuits. He was in succession schoolmaster at Sandyknowe; apprentice for five years to a Melrose lawyer, who seems to have tried the experiment how to extract from a clerk the largest amount of work for the smallest amount of pay; then in the employment of a high-class Edinburgh firm; and finally in successful business in London as a solicitor, chiefly in connection with railway bills and cases of appeal. The freakishness of his early youth was well subdued by hard toil and many sufferings both of mind and body. In early manhood, after much tossing on the sea of doubt, he settled down to the calm, steady faith of his grandfather; and in his maturer years he was eminent for the sobriety of his judgment and the steadfastness of his whole character.

Throughout life Dodds was intensely devoted to literature, and for many years was in relations of intimacy with many of our foremost literary men. In Edinburgh he served in the office of a firm of which the late Mr. John Hunter, W.S., a connection of Lord Jeffrey, and well known in the literary circles of Edinburgh, was a member. Mr. Hunter treated him as a friend, and introduced him to many literary men. About the beginning of his clerkship in Edinburgh he communicated his literary ambition to Thomas Carlyle, and asked advice as to his chances in London. Carlyle entered most cordially into his case, but advised him not to sacrifice an assured salary for the uncertain gains of a littérateur. The friendship with Carlyle continued for many years, and on removing to London Dodds was often at Cheyne Row. With Leigh Hunt his relations were very intimate. Hunt being constantly in pecuniary and other difficulties found in Dodds a most valuable friend. ‘More than once he took the management of his affairs, giving him legal advice, conferring with his creditors, and arranging about the payment or partial payment of his debts.’ ‘Hunt,’ wrote Dodds, ‘is a glorious creation. … As he speaks to you, what he says is all so momentarily inspired, so pure and simply flowing, but all so ethereal, so wise of the world, yet not mere worldly wise, and so heavenly tinctured, that one sometimes feels as if he were about to unveil his radiant wings, and, with a farewell look of enchanting sweetness, fly to the orb which is his home.’

From an early period he was fascinated by the struggle of the Scottish covenanters. His first contributions to literature were ‘Lays of the Covenanters,’ which appeared first in the ‘Free Church Magazine’ and other journals, and after his death were gathered into a volume, edited by his cousin, the late Rev. James Dodds of Dunbar. They have much of the form of the lays of Macaulay and Aytoun, fine flowing rhythm, and fearless military ring; what is peculiar to them is their intense sympathy with the pious loyalty of the covenanters.

The covenanters were the subject, too, of his first prose volume. It was his habit to deliver lectures here and there on subjects that greatly interested him. Usually these were given in Scottish towns, but occasionally to metropolitan audiences; one of his lectures, in which he combined prose and poetry, lays and lecture, being delivered to an enthusiastic London assemblage of three thousand persons. The covenanters were his favourite topic, and the lectures bearing on them were composed with scrupulous care. When they came to be published, under the characteristic title, ‘The Fifty Years' Struggle of the Covenanters, 1638–1688,’ renewed pains were taken to make sure of accuracy. The book has been very popular, and has passed through several editions. It was his intention to give lectures of the same kind on the Scottish reformation, but of these only two were written. The graphic power and great natural eloquence of Dodds, and his way of throwing his soul into the delivery, gave him great popularity and power as a lecturer. A lecture on Dr. Chalmers, for whom he had an intense admiration, developed into a volume of great interest and power—‘Thomas Chalmers, a Biographical Study.’ Dodds died very suddenly at Dundee on 12 Sept. 1874.

[Memoir of James Dodds (140 pp.), prefixed to his Lays of the Covenanters, by the Rev. James Dodds, Dunbar; Scotsman, September 1874.]

W. G. B.