1902 Encyclopedia > John Campbell Shairp

John Campbell Shairp
Scottish critic and man of letters

SHAIRP, JOHN CAMPBELL (1819-1885), principal of the United College, St Andrews, and professor of poetry at Oxford, was born at Houstoun House, Linlithgowshire, on July 30, 1819. He was the third son of Major Norman Shairp of Houstoun and E. Binning, daughter of J. Campbell of Kildaloig, Argyllshire. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy and Glasgow University, where he gained the Snell exhibition, and entered at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1840. While a student at Glasgow and an undergraduate at Oxford it was his privilege to make many warm friends and to bo very widely loved. At Glasgow began his lifelong friendship with Dr Norman INPLeod, while among those with whom he was most intimate at Oxford were the names of Bradley, Coleridge, Temple, Clough, Walrond, Riddell, Prichard, and Edwin Palmer. In 1842 he gained the Newdigate prize for a poem on Charles XII., and in 1844 took his degree with second class honours. During these years the " Oxford movement" was at its height. Shairp's earnest nature was greatly stirred by Newman's sermons, while Keble's poetry spoke home to his heart ; but, though full of warm sympathy for many High Church views, he remained faithful to his Presbyterian upbringing. After leaving Oxford he took a mastership at Rugby under Dr Tait ; here he sought loyally to develop Dr Arnold's system by appealing to the better feelings of his pupils and by giving them wide views of culture and education. And in this he was successful, making among his pupils warm and lasting friends. In 1857 he became assistant to the professor of humanity in the university of St Andrews, and in 1861 he was appointed professor of that chair. In 1853 he married Eliza, daughter of Henry Alexander Douglas, Kilhead, Dumfriesshire, and had one surviving son, John Campbell, who became an advocate at the Scottish bar. Shairp was highly respected by the more earnest students, and much loved by some whose spiritual as well as mental nature he helped to quicken. In 1864 he published Kilmahoe, a Highland Pastoral ; in this his devotion to the scenery and the people of the Scottish Highlands, where he always spent his vacations, found vent. In this poem there was a directness, simplicity, and moral earnestness which showed the true poet. In 1868 he republished some articles under the name of Studies in Poetry and Philosophy ; this book showed him to be one of the foremost critics of his day ; the chief subjects it discussed were Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keble. He insisted strongly on the high spiritual teaching and the deep poetical power of the great lake bard.

While not blind to his many faults of style, his occasional puerility, and his prosiness, he urged his claims as a unique interpreter of Nature and a spiritual philosopher. Coleridge interested him as a poet, but much more as a religious teacher ; the Aids to Reflection was a favourite present to his young friends, and often gave a text for his deeper conversations. Tho most popular essay was that on Keble, in which he gave a vivid sketch of Newman's influence in Oxford, while he spoke of the author of The Christian Year with enthusiasm as a Christian teacher, and with discerning criticism as a poet. In 1868 he was presented to the principalship of the United College, vacant by the death of J. D. Forbes ; he discharged the duties of this office with conscientious zeal and interest, and also continued to lecture from time to time on literary and ethical subjects. A course of the lectures, published in 1870, Culture and Religion, is one of his most popular works. In 1873 he helped to edit the life of Principal Forbes, and in 1874 he edited Dorothy Wordsworth's charming Recollections of a Tour in Scotland in 1803. In 1877 he was elected professor of poetry at Oxford in succession to Sir F. H. Doyle. Of his lectures from this chair the best were published in 1880 as Aspects of Poetry. In 1877 he had published The Poetic Interpretation of Nature, in which he enters fully into the " old quarrel," as Plato calls it, between science and poetry, and traces with great clear ness and literary acumen the ideas of nature in all the chief Hebrew, classical, and English poets. In 1879 he published a short life of Robert Burns. Such were Shairp's chief literary works, though many uncollected magazine articles and a few poems show the versatility of his mind ; attention may be specially called to his article KEBLE in this Encyclopaedia as an example of his critical power. In 1882 he was re-elected to the poetry chair and discharged his duties there and at St Andrews till the end of 1884 ; but his health had been frail for some time, and in March 1885 he sought a change of air in the Riviera. He returned in June somewhat benefited, but he caught a chill in the autumn, and, after a short illness, died at Ormsary, Argyllshire, on September 18, 1885.

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