1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Campbell

Thomas Campbell
Scottish poet

THOMAS CAMPBELL, (1777-1844). This distinguished poet was a cadet of the respectable family of Campbell of Kirnan, in Argyllshire. Owing to the straitened circumstances of his father, who had settled in Glasgow and been unfortunate in business, young Campbell was obliged, while attending college, to have recourse to private teaching as a tutor. Notwithstanding the amount of additional labour thus entailed, he made rapid progress in his studies, and attained considerable distinction at the university over which it was his fortune, in after years, to preside. He very early gave proofs of his aptitude for literary composition, especially in the department of poetry ; and so strong was his addiction to these pursuits, that he could not bring himself seriously to adopt the choice of a profession. From private tuition, which is at best an irksome drudgery, he recoiled after a short trial. Neither law, physic, nor divinity had any attractions for him ; nor is it probable that he ever would have risen to eminence in a regular profession, owing to a constitutional sensitiveness almost morbid, and a want of resolute energy. We are told by his friend and biographer Dr Beattie that " the imagina-tive faculty had been so unremittingly cultivated that circumstances, trifling in themselves, had acquired undue influence over his mind, and been rendered formidable by an exaggeration of which he was at the moment unconscious. Hence various difficulties, which industry might have over-come, assumed to his eye the appearance of insurmountable obstacles. Without resolution to persevere, or philosophy to submit to the force of necessity, he drew from everything around him, with morbid ingenuity, some melancholy presage of the future. He was dissatisfied with himself, chilled by the world's neglect, and greatly hurt by the apathy of friends who had extolled his merits, but left him to pine in obscurity." Campbell was not a man who could have successfully struggled with the world. Fortunately for him, his genius was such as to ensure an early recognition.

We find him at the age of twenty in Edinburgh, attending lectures at the university, soliciting employment from the booksellers, and not unknown to a circle of young men then resident in the Scottish metropolis, whose names have become historical. Among those were Walter Scott, Henry Brougham, Francis Jeffrey, Dr Thomas Brown, John Leyden, and James Grahame, the author of the Sabbath. He also became acquainted with Dr Robert Anderson, editor of a collection of the British poets, a man of extreme enthusiasm and kindliness of disposition, who early appreciated the remarkable powers of Campbell, and encouraged him to proceed in his literary career. In 1799* his poem, The Pleasures of Hope, was published.

Probably there is no parallel instance of literary success so instantaneously achieved by a first effort; nor was that-owing to novelty of design on the part of the author, or the caprice of the public. For considerably more than half a. century the poem has maintained, nay, increased its popularity. During that time the public has adopted and abandoned many favourites—names once famous and in every mouth have gradually become forgotten and unregarded—poetical works of greater pretension, which were once considered as masterpieces of genius and inspira-tion, have fallen into neglect; but this poem by the boy Campbell remains a universal favourite. It is not much to say that it is, without any exception, the finest didactic poem in the English language. Even those who are not admirers of didactic poetry are forced to admit its charm ; and the uttermost objection that criticism can make appears to be a certain vagueness, which, after all, is inseparable from the nature of the subject and the necessary plan of the composition. The delicacy of the thoughts, the beauty of the imagery, the occasional power of pathos, the extra-ordinary felicity of the language, and the wonderful harmony of the versification, distinguish the Pleasures of Hope from any poem which has been written before or since, and entitle it to a very high place as an original work of genius. It is as original and characteristic of its author as is the Deserted Village of Goldsmith, with which it has been frequently, but surely improperly compared. Gold-smith's poem affects us by its simplicity and truth. Campbell's, it must be owned, is much more florid and ornamented; but how exquisite is the taste of the-ornament!
The literary and the private histories of an author are inseparable. In order to comprehend the one we must have recourse to the other. The first success of Campbell brought him fame, but not fortune. He had disposed of the copyright of the Pleasures of Hope, by his original bargain with the publishers, for a sum certainly moderate, which, however, probably exceeded his expectations at the time. He was, moreover, very kindly treated, for he received a considerable unstipulated allowance for each new edition, which circumstance ought to have deterred him from uttering certain diatribes against " the trade," in which he was afterwards rather prone to indulge. The fact is that he did not know how to make use of his success. Instead of availing himself of the reputation which he had so worthily and decisively won, and applying himself to a new effort, he went abroad without any determinate aim ; was perfectly wretched on the Continent, where he had no j friends, and was sorely embarrassed for want of means; j and began to write fugitive poetry for the London journals. On his return to Britain he had ample opportunity of bettering his condition. With a name such as his, a moderate amount of exertion would have secured him not _ only a competence but comparative affluence; but indolence, perhaps the result of timidity, had grown upon him. Campbell never could adapt himself even to the profession j of literature, which, precarious though it be, is not without I its prizes. In that profession, as in all others, the requisites ; for success are steadiness, punctuality, and perseverance; but Campbell possessed none of them. The publishers were ready, and offered to give him lucrative employment, nor was he at all backward in accepting their offers ; but when the period for performance arrived he had literally done nothing. In extraordinary contrast to him stands Scott, who seemed simply to will in order to conceive and execute. Campbell had many bright conceptions, but he could not apply himself to the work. Of course he lost repute with the men who alone cam intervene between an author and the public, and " the fathers of the Row" became chary of offering him engagements. Some idea of the extent of his habitual indolence may be formed from the fact, that the publication of his Specimens of the British Poets did not take place until thirteen years after the work was undertaken!

In the meantime Campbell married ; and his prospects were of the darkest, when, in 1805, he received a Govern-ment pension of £200. He was then in great distress, and even that aid, material as it was, failed to extricate him. It was probably fortunate for his fame that such was the «ase, for in 1809 he published his poem of Gertrude of Wyoming, to which were attached the most celebrated of his grand and powerful lyrics.

Among Campbell's lengthier poems Gertrude of Wyoming must hold the second place. He designed it for a poem of action, but he has failed to give it that interest and vivacity which a poem of action requires. There is in it too decided a predominance of the sentimental vein, and an extreme degree of elaboration, which, in poetry as in painting, is hurtful to the general effect. There is great truth in the following criticism, which occurs in a letter from Jeffrey to the author :—" Your timidity or fastidiousness, or some other knavish quality, will not let you give your conceptions glowing, and bold, and powerful, as they present themselves; but you must chasten, and refine, and soften them, forsooth, till half their nature and grandeur is chiselled away from them. Believe me, the world will never know how truly you are a great and original poet till you venture to cast before it some of the rough pearls of your fancy." In spite of these defects, Gertrude was considered at the time as a work in every way worthy of the poet's previous reputation; and it will ever be admired by that numerous class of readers who are more fascinated by the beauties of expression than by high inventive power and vigorous execution.

The soundness of the above criticism, proceeding from an eminent literary authority whose whole leanings were rather towards than against fastidiousness in composition, is demonstrated by the universal admiration accorded to Campbell's lyrical pieces. One or two of these, in particular Lochiel's Warning and Hohenlinden, are to be referred to an earlier period than the composition of Gertrude; but there are others of a later date which show how much power remained in the man when he chose to exert it freely. There are few lyrics in the English language to be placed in comparison with the Mariners of England or The Battle of the Baltic ; and his exquisite poem of O'Connor's Child, which has not unaptly been termed the diamond of his casket of gems, is greatly superior in pathos and passion to "his more elaborate compositions. All these, and others •scarcely inferior to them, seem to have been struck off at a heat, and to have escaped that chiselling process to which Jeffrey so pointedly referred.

Campbell was now settled at Sydenham in England, and his circumstances were materially improved. His home was a happy one ; the society in which he moved was of the most refined and intellectual character; and he enjoyed the personal friendship of many of his distinguished con-temporaries. Ample leisure was afforded him to carry into effect any of the cherished schemes of his literary ambi-tion ; but his indolence and inherent want of resolution again interfered. His most noteworthy exertion for years appears to have been the preparation of a short course of lectures on poetry, which he delivered with great eclat at the Royal Institution in London and elsewhere. It appears that at one time it was proposed by his friends, and especially by Sir Walter Scott, that he should become a candidate for the occupancy of a literary chair in the University of Edinburgh; but he shrank from the idea of undertaking so serious a labour as is involved in tho preparation of a thorough academical course. In 1820 he accepted the editorship of the New Monthly Magazine, and acted in that capacity for a considerable period, until he resigned it to take charge of the Metropolitan. His con-nection with periodical literature may have been advan-tageous in a pecuniary point of view, but did not tend materially to enhance his reputation. His was not the peii of the ready writer; and it must ever be regretted that he was induced to bestow so much attention upon merely ephemeral literature, to the sacrifice of the nobler aims which were expected from his acknowledged genius. In 1824 he published his Theodric, a poem which, in spite of some fine passages, was generally considered as a failure. With Theodric his poetical career may be said to have closed. At times he put forth short poems of various degrees of merit, but none of them were equal to the grand lyrics already treasured in the memory of his countrymen. It seemed as if a large portion of the old virtue had departed from him; and his last published poem, the Pilgrim of Glencoe, showed hardly any marks of his former accomplish-ment and power.

In fact it appeared that the rich mine of poetry had been worked out. Without actually adopting that conclusion, we may observe that Campbell had latterly occupied him-self most zealously with matters which were apart from his earlier pursuits. In the first place, he took an active share in the Institution of the London University, and it was mainly through his exertions that it was saved from becoming a mere sectarian college. Shortly afterwards, in 1826, he was elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, an event which he considered as the crowning honour of his life, and which certainly was a mark of dis-tinction of which any man might have been proud. He did not accept the office as a mere sinecure, but applied himself to discharge the actual duties (which, through the negligence of former rectors, had been allowed to fall into abeyance) with a zeal and energy which made entire con-quest of the hearts of his youthful constituents. In 1831, the year in which the gallant struggle of the Poles for their independence was terminated by entire defeat, Campbell, who in his earliest poem had referred in such beautiful language to the shameful partition of Poland, more than revived his youthful enthusiasm for her cause. He had watched w-ith an anxiety almost bordering on fanaticism the progress of the patriotic movement; and the news of the capture of Warsaw by the Russians affected him as if it had been the deepest of personal calamities. " His heart," says his biographer, " was in the subject of Poland ; he could neither write nor speak upon any other with common patience; and if a word was dropt in company that did not harmonize with his feelings, he was very apt to con-sider it as a personal offence." In one of his own letters he says, " I know that my zeal for Poland has put me half mad." And again, " It is still all that I can do to support a tolerable cheerfulness before these kind hospit-able people, for Poland preys on my heart night and day. It is sometimes a relief to me to weep in secret, and I do weep long and bitterly." Nor did he show his sympathy by words alone, but by resolute and continued action. He was the founder of the association in London of the Friends of Poland, which not only served to maintain the strong interest felt by the British people for the Polish cause, but was the means of providing assistance and giving employment to large numbers of the unfortunate exiles who were driven to seek refuge in this country. Never, till his dying day, did he relax his exertions in their behalf ; and many an unhappy wanderer, who, but for un-expected aid, might have perished in the streets of a foreign city, had reason to bless the name of Thomas Campbell.

The remainder of his life presents few features of interest. Domestic calamity had overtaken him. His wife, whom he loved affectionately, had been taken from him—of his two sons, one died in infancy, and the other was afflicted by an incurable malady. His own health became impaired. He gradually withdrew from public life, and died at Boulogne on 15th June 1844, at the age of sixty-seven. His last hours were soothed by the affec-tionate care of his relatives and friends ; nor did his countrymen forget the poet in his death, for his remains were solemnly interred in Westminster Abbey, with the honours of a public funeral.

Few poets of reputation, whose span has been extended nearly to the threescore and ten allotted years, have written so little as Campbell: at the same time it must be con-fessed that there are fewer still whose works are likely to be prized by posterity in the like proportion with his. If we throw out of consideration altogether Theodric,—though some might demur to such an excision,—if we overlook the Pilgrim of Glencoe, and weed from his lyrical garden such plants as have little charm either from their colour or their fragrance, there will still remain a mass of poetry familiar to the ear and the heart, such as hardly any other writer of this century has been able to produce. We may regret that Campbell was not more diligent in the cultiva-tion of his poetical genius, that he did not apply himself more sedulously in his earlier years to some serious effort, and that he allowed other pursuits and designs to interfere with his peculiar calling. But who can venture to say what success might have attended his efforts had he acted otherwise than he did 1 We blame the poet for apparent indolence, not reflecting that inspiration is not to be com-manded at will. It is not only possible but easy for the man who is practised in versification to write a certain given number of lines within a certain specified time ; but genuine poetry never was and never will be the product of Egyptian taskwork. It cannot be produced to order—it must be spontaneous; and its quality must depend entirely upon the mood of mind under which it is com posed. The greater part of the poetry or rather the verse of Southey, a considerable portion of that of Scott, and a vast deal of that of Wordsworth, was not conceived or written under the poetic impulse. On such occasions these celebrated men were writing verse, as they might have written prose, without enthusiasm or anything like the feeling of passion; and although their ordinary thoughts were far higher, bolder, and more subtle than those of the million, they still were not attempting to rise beyond their ordinary intellectual level. One can see at a glance when they were inspired, and when they were merely versifying. Of the poets who adorned the first half of the present century, Coleridge and Campbell were conspicuous for their abstinence in writing except under the influence of real emotion. Of the former it may be said that he has hardly penned a line of mere mechanical verse; the latter did not do so until his inspiration seemed to have abandoned him. Undoubtedly, however,—to have recourse to a hackneyed, though by no means an unmeaning phrase,—it is the duty of the poet to woo the muse, not to wait for her courtship. He must seek for the waters of Castaly, not tarry till they are conveyed to him ; and it is in this respect probably that Campbell principally erred. He did not sufficiently endeavour to awake his genius ; he was too much a dreamer, and may at times have lost his opportunity from the sheer weight of indolence. And yet, considering the value of the legacy he has left, we have no reason to complain. Critics may dispute regarding the comparative merits of his longer works; and, as they incline towards didactic or narrative poetry, may prefer the one composition to the other. Both are entitled to high praise and honour, but it is on his lyrics that the future reputation of Campbell must principally rest. They have taken their place, never to be disturbed, in the popular heart; and, until the language in which they are written perishes, they are certain to endure. (w. E. A.)

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