1902 Encyclopedia > John Leyden

John Leyden
British poet and Orientalist
(1775-1811)




JOHN LEYDEN (1775-1811), was born on the 8th of September 1775, at Denholm on the Teviot, not far from Hawick. Like most Scottish villages, Denholm is com-monplace and uninteresting, but Leyden's upbringing was in a wilder part of the country, at the foot of Ruberslaw, whither his father had gone as shepherd to the family. Though he did not attend school till he was nine years old, long before that he had learnt at home to read, and had devoured all the books he could lay his hands on in the border farm houses and cottages. Naturally his parents thought that a boy so fond of letters was meant for something else than shepherding; and, as the only scholarly office clearly within their horizon was that of a parish minister, they concluded that his gifts pointed in that direction, and with much stinting of their own little comforts sent him to Edinburgh university in 1790. There the uncouth lad, dressed in rough home-spun, with a voice that smacked strongly of the Jed and the Teviot, played his part manfully enough in the class-work, but still better in the " societies " where Brougham, Jeffrey, Sydney Smith, Horner, and other clever young fellows were then chopping logic and cracking jokes. Leyden was a diligent but somewhat miscellaneous student, reading everything apparently, except theology, for which he seems to have had no taste. Accordingly, though he completed his divinity course, and took licence from the presbytery of St Andrews, and preached occasionally, it soon became clear that the pulpit was not his vocation, and that the border shepherds were not to find a second Thomas Boston in John Leyden.

In 1794 Leyden had formed the acquaintance of Dr Robert Anderson, editor of The British Poets, and of The Literary Magazine, a cultivated but not otherwise re-markable individual, who, however, filled a rather im-portant niche in the Edinburgh of that time. Contri-butions to his magazine were probably what brought them first together, but more important results followed from their intimacy than either the verses on " Ruberslaw," or " The Descent of Odin," translated from the Norse. For it was Anderson who introduced him to Dr Alexander Murray, and Murray, probably, who led him to the study of Eastern languages, to which that great scholar was so pas-sionately devoted. Soon they became warm friends and generous rivals, though Leyden excelled, perhaps, in the rapid acquisition of newtongues, and acquaintance with their literature, while Murray was the more scientific philologist. Through Anderson also he came to know Richard Heber, by whom he was brought under the notice of Walter Scott, when he was collecting materials for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Leyden was admirably fitted for helping in this kind of work. A borderer himself, an enthusiastic lover of old ballads and folk-lore, he spared no pains to enrich the work that promised to bring fame to his beloved hills and glens. Scott tells us how, on one occasion, Leyden walked 40 miles to get the last two verses of a ballad, and returned at midnight, singing it all the way with his loud, harsh voice, to the wonder and consternation of the poet and his household. Neither Scott nor Leyden, however, studied this folk-lore for proper scientific pur-poses. They cared only for the picturesque and the poetic in it, and were not very successful in their efforts to restore it to life. Of course, the rough old ballads them-selves were a welcome addition to our literature, but Leyden's attempt to make Lord Soulis interesting in a modern ballad was something of a failure, and, though he might have made a Scotch Lorelei out of the mermaid of Corrievreckan, his poem wants the delicate touch of the German, and he does not know where to stop. Scott, however, got valuable assistance from him in his task, and learned to esteem highly the blunt integrity of the man, his literary enthusiasm, and his large attainments.





Leyden was evidently drifting away from the church into the life of a scholar, but as yet he had not found his line there, was indeed only wasting himself on miscellaneous learning. He had compiled a work of four hundred pages on the Discoveries and Settlements of Europeans in Northern and Western Africa, suggested by Mungo Park's travels. He had edited for Constable The Complaint of Scotland, giving a glossary, and a long preliminary dissertation. He had printed various poems, and nearly finished his Scenes of Infancy, a poem in four books, based, no doubt, on border scenes and traditions, but meandering " at its own sweet will" over all the world, and a good way beyond it. There are, here and there, some effective enough lines in this poem, but, in the main, it is of the thin, artificial, big-sounding order, and has no unity of design, so that there is no particular reason why it should not go on for ever. He had also made some translations from Eastern poetry, Persian and Arabic, but they have not somehow the aroma of the East. Clearly, here was a man of great and varied powers which, however, were like to run to waste unless he found a definite field to work in. So, at last, friends got him an appointment in India, at first on the medical staff, for which he qualified by a year of intense hard work; but it was hoped something more fitting would turn up by and by. In 1803, therefore, he sailed for Madras, and took his place in the general hospital there. From that he was soon promoted to be naturalist to the commis-sioners going to survey Mysore. Ere long, however, his knowledge of the languages and dialects of India procured him an appointment as professor of Hindustani, which he soon after resigned for a judgeship, and that again to be a commissioner in the court of requests, which required a familiarity with several Eastern tongues. Friends who had come from the same border country—Lord Minto, Sir John Malcolm, and others—had done what they could to make his path smooth for him, and his linguistic attain-ments had been recognized by Colebrooke, the greatest Oriental scholar of the day. But in 1811, having joined Lord Minto in the expedition to Java, on landing there he made his way into a library which was said to contain many Eastern MSS., without having the place aired, and was seized with shivering and sickness, first symptoms of the Batavian fever. The climate of India had never agreed with him, and his constitution had already been shaken by several serious illnesses. He was ill fitted, therefore, to endure the assault of this deadly complaint, and after three days of struggle he died on the 28th of August, in the thirty-sixth year of his age. Cut off thus prematurely, he has left comparatively little fruit of all the bright promise of his youth. As a poet he cannot take high rank, but in his knowledge of Eastern languages he would probably have been no mean rival of Henry Colebrooke, had he been spared a little longer to methodize and perfect his attainments. A genuine and generous nature, with a fine enthusiasm for learning, there were few of Britain's sons in India from whom friends at home looked for better work, and few therefore who were more deeply regretted. (W. C. S.*)






The above article was written by Rev. Walter C. Smith, LL.D., D.D, author of Olrig Grange.


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